Saturday, May 26, 2012

False Idols

Since I am in the habit of burning all my idols, the TV talent show American Idol, which just concluded its 11th season, has never attracted much attention from me. Old enough to remember watching the “Ted Mack Amateur Hour” in the ‘60s, I regard such competitions as a very faulty way to discover that most dubious of gifts: talent.

So I couldn’t have been less pleased when my Filipino friends persuaded me to watch the show because a 16-year-old half-Filipino girl from Chula Vista, California had made it all the way to the show’s final round. I had to sit through the 2-hour last episode in which the winner was announced, live via satellite, at 8 in the morning. The last two contestants couldn’t have been less alike: wan and diminutive Jessica Sanchez (the half-Filipino) and the WGWG (“white guy with guitar”), Phillip Phillips. It was the first - and last – time I heard either of them perform, and I was underwhelmed by them both.

But the girl is an example of a quite pervasive cultural tradition among Filipino singers – even the few who manage to become known outside the Philippines. As I pointed out in another post of a few years ago (Bring On the Empty Orchestras), karaoke may have been invented by a Japanese man, but the karaoke (now videoke) machine was patented by a Filipino. The karaoke craze, which swept across Asia in the 1980s, remains a very popular pastime for Filipinos everywhere. I like to call it “socialized screaming”, since it doesn’t have much to do with cultivating good singers. Every day on Filipino TV, children can be seen, microphones in hand, singing note-perfect renditions of songs popularized by Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, or Mariah Carey. Just thinking of the number of times they must have listened to the songs makes me nauseous. Mimicking every intonation, every vocal mannerism is one of the most important measures of this sort of singing, far more important than finding and developing one’s own original and distinctive voice.

It’s difficult for even the best Filipino singers to record original songs. I have written before about Regine Velasquez, known here as “Asia’s Songbird” (see Pussy). Her albums consist mostly of covers, beautifully interpreted songs made popular by other singers.

Filipinos it seems are always looking for ways to prove to the world, as artists and athletes, that they are “world class” and as good as everyone else. It turned out that Jessica Sanchez failed to win American Idol, and Filipinos were perplexed that she could have lost to a white guy who could play a guitar but who could barely carry a tune. But it seems to me that he won precisely because, unlike Jessica Sanchez, he didn’t sound like anyone else. Singers who can mimic Celine Dion may be highly prized by Filipinos, but they’re a peso a dozen everywhere else. Finding one’s own voice is much harder work, even if one doesn’t sound as poised and polished as every other “Diva” out there.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The American Credo?

In 1921 a unique little book was published by Knopf called The American Credo by George Jean Nathan and H.L. Mencken. The book's subtitle is A Contribution Toward the Interpretation of the National Mind. It is a somewhat dated, sometimes insightful, and often hilarious collection of the 488 "fundamental beliefs" cherished by Americans, many of which are timely, like #36:

"That when an ocean vessel collides with another vessel or hits an iceberg and starts to sink, the ship's band promptly rushes up to the top deck and begins playing 'Nearer My God to Thee."

Or #338:

"That all Mormons, despite the laws against it, still practice polygamy, and that they have agents all over the world recruiting cuties for their harems."

The interests of Nathan and Mencken in writing the book were, they assert, scholarly. At the end of their lengthy preface, which takes up half of the book, they write:

"No doubt we should apologize for writing, even so, so long a preface to so succinct a book. The one excuse we can think of is that, having read it, one need not read the book. That book, as we have said, may strike the superficial as jocular, but in actual fact it is a very serious and even profound composition, not addressed to the casual reader, but to the scholar. . . Well, here is an attempt to assemble in convenient form, without comment or interpretation, some of the fundamental beliefs of the largest body of human beings now under one flag in Christendom. It is but a beginning. The field is barely platted. It must be explored to the last furlong and all its fantastic and fascinating treasures unearthed and examined before ever there can be any accurate understanding of the mind of the American people."

That preface, in seven parts, is the best part of the book. It covers several aspects of the American Scene and is often topical, but occasionally penetrating. For example, it explodes the popular belief that Americans have an unslakable thirst for liberty, and that Americans are all money-mongering boobs.

In Part III of the preface, the authors come close to defining the primary motive of the American way of life, and it is as timely as it was 92 years ago.

But what, then, is the character that actually marks the American - that is, in chief? If he is not the exalted monopolist of liberty that he thinks he is nor the noble altruist and idealist he slaps upon the chest when he is full of rhetoric, nor the degraded dollar-chaser of European legend, then what is he? We offer an answer in all humility, for the problem is complex and there is but little illumination of it in the literature; nevertheless, we offer it in the firm conviction, born of twenty years' incessant meditation, that it is substantially correct. It is, in brief, this: that the thing which sets off the American from all other men, and gives a peculiar colour not only to the pattern of his daily life but also to the play of his inner ideas, is what, for want of a more exact term, may be called social aspiration. That is to say, his dominant passion is a passion to lift himself by at least a step or two in the society that he is a part of - a passion to improve his position, to break down some shadowy barrier of caste, to achieve the countenance of what, for all his talk of equality, he recognizes and accepts as his betters. The American is a pusher. His eyes are ever fixed upon some round of the ladder that is just beyond his reach, and all his secret ambitions, all his extraordinary energies, group themselves about the yearning to grasp it.

This trait among Americans, their upward (and downward) mobility, has come to be regarded as the essential ingredient of the American Dream. Every American desires to make a life for their children that is better (i.e., more materially comfortable) than their own. It's a quite recent addition to the always expanding set of expectations that Americans seem to create to convince themselves that their lives are a success. It is the Constitution, after all, that has guaranteed them "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

But it has just as likely guaranteed dissatisfaction and unhappiness. Like the minimum 3% annual growth rate that every economy requires to be considered "healthy", it simply isn't :sustainable" in the long run. As George Orwell put it, "Men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness."(1)

Perhaps it's time for Americans to realize that the American Dream is just that - a dream?

(1) George Orwell, "Arthur Koestler", September 1944.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Voice

When I heard that mourners of Whitney Houston (I was not one of them) were calling her The Voice, I had to laugh. The only "The Voice" I've ever heard of in my lifetime was Frank Sinatra, who had genuine claim to the title. Whitney was a part of the popular music movement that destroyed the tradition of great singers mastering the Standards - the great songs by writers like Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmicheal, and Sammy Cahn (to name only a few). Tony Bennett carries on that great tradition, and carries the history of that tradition with him everywhere he is asked to sing.

Yesterday I learned of the death of another great singer deserving of the title "The Voice" - the man who was one of the greatest baritones who ever lived, and who did more perhaps than any other singer of his generation to prolong the life of the art song, and of German Lieder. I mean, of course, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who was almost 87. Like many other people, I first heard him in the immortal Deutsche Grammophon recording of The Marriage of Figaro (see photo), conducted by Karl Böhm. I must confess that I purchased the recording to hear the soprano Gundula Janowitz as the Contessa. But Fischer-Dieskau's reputation had already preceded him. In the 1970s, the classical music station KVOD (1) in Denver was one of the glories of my radio listening experience. In conjunction with a record store called "Music for All", my education in classical music was expanded exponentially by the station's announcers.

In the late '70s and well into the '80s, I bought dozens of recordings with Fischer-Dieskau, particularly his great lieder recordings of Schubert and Mahler. When the day came, in late 2005, that I had to abandon all of those magnificent vinyl recordings, because I simply couldn't afford to ship them to my sister, I was especially saddened to lose all those splendid Deutsche Grammophon records. His voice was a commanding one, one that I find in few other singers (I think of the jazz singer Johnny Hartman) who so dominated the bass/baritone repertoire, even if there really was never much competition in the lower register voices. He single-handedly made the baritone role a dominant one. His performance in Britten's War Requiem helped make that composition so unforgettable. And Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle became one of my favorite pieces precisely because of Fischer-Dieskau's performance.

In an age when classical music sales are either dwindling or falling prey to the ridiculous "crossover" phenomenon, listening to Fischer-Dieskau's recordings are required listening to anyone who cares about culture. Some people can appropriate terms like "The Voice" all they want. You have to have ears to distinguish a real one. It's for singers like Fischer-Dieskau that listening is worthwhile.

(1) As so often happens in the commercial radio market, the frequency, at 99.5 FM, switched abruptly and heart-breakingly to a "classic rock" program. KVOD moved to 92.5FM Insult was added to injury when the station was bought out and moved, unbelievably, to 1280AM. Colorado Public Radio acquired its enormous library of classical recordings, and it was restored to stereo in 2001 at 90.1FM.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Ghost of a Birthday Present

"All ages are the same. It's only love that makes any of them bearable."
- Malcolm Macdowell, as H.G. Wells, in the movie Time After Time

Today's my birthday. While my total recall is working - and before the dimentia kicks in - I may as well record a birthday memory that stands out more for the pain it continues to cause than for the pleasure.

It was my 7th birthday, in 1965. My father was in what turned out to be the last year of his career in the Army, when we were living in Albany, Georgia - which I found out later is the home town of Ray Charles. We lived on Waddell Avenue in a nice neighborhood, my brother, younger sister, and I. It so happens we three are all that's left of my family, though we live thousands of miles apart.

I had an older sister whom we called "Dea", for reasons no one can remember. Her name was Virginia Anne, and my father and mother called her "Ginny". Since she had run away from home to have a baby some years before, I only saw her on holidays. So she was kind of like an aunt to me, but a beloved aunt.

Her visits were special because they managed to persuade my mother to be on her best behavior, which was no mean feat in those days. She arrived the day before the 16th, along with her husband Richard, and she put the birthday present that she'd bought for me in the living room closet. Since I hate surprises, I snuck inside the closet to peek into the wrappings of the little gift. What little I could see through the negligible tear in the wrappings led me to believe that the gift was a toy airplane, which delighted me. So when the time finally came for me to unwrap the present, I was genuinely surprised to discover that it wasn't a model airplane at all but a tube of shampoo with plastic attachments to make it look like a toy airplane for playing in the bath tub.

I immediately hated it. But, alas, instead of wearing a false smile and telling my dear sister how much I loved it, I told her I didn't like it at all and that I didn't want it. I hadn't learned how to be gracious and to lie to spare a person's feelings, and I hadn't heard the saying - even if I didn't understand it for years - to "never look a gift horse in the mouth." I looked in its mouth that day and determined that the horse was a great deal older than I'd been told it was. And I rejected it.

Dea told me in s strained voice, that I can still hear, that it was all she could afford to buy me, the best she could do for a birthday present. This didn't make up for the fact that I hated it and didn't want it. And it was all my fault because I snuck a peek under the wrappings and mistook the shampoo for a toy airplane. Because of my disappointment, I stupidly hurt my sister's feelings in front of my whole family and ruined my own birthday. But that wasn't the end of it. When Dea and her husband left later in the day, my mother came directly over to me, took me into my bedroom and bet the shit out of me.

I deserved it. If I could go back to 1965 right now, I would be helping my mother beat the shit out of me. Somehow I don't remember, I made it up to my sister. Remembering my 7th birthday today, on my 54th birthday, I feel obliged to mention my 31st birthday, the very day my sister Dea died of cancer in 1989.

All these numbers, ages, and calendar dates are only so many arbitrary conceits. Or so I keep telling myself every time my birthday rolls around. I agree with Oscar Wilde, who died at the comparatively tender age of 46, but who had the foresight to discover that "the tragedy of old age is not that one is old but that one is young."

Sunday, May 13, 2012

I Am Not a Litterbug

Littering on my island is unavoidable, since waste oollection is nonexistent away from town. Every once in awhile, a garbage truck passes by on the highway, but it doesn't stop. So everyone burns their trash, which means that the perfectly clean ocean air I breathe gets smoky in the mornings when dead leaves and trash are swept into a pile and set ablaze.

I sometimes walk down the highway (as I just did from my house to this cybercafé) and buy candies - gob-stoppers for when I'm on the computer - from a sari-sari store. When I unwrap them I put the wrappers in my pocket and dispose of them when I return home. I do this even though the ground I walk on is often littered with candy wrappers. One more wrapper down there on the ground wouldn't even be noticed. But I never drop them because of a memory of my mother that won't let me do it.

I was maybe ten years old, sitting in the back seat of my family car. My mother was driving. We were on Fort Jackson, driving the slow speed limit. I had just finished eating the contents of a small bag of potato chips, and without thinking I tossed it out of the rolled-down window. My mother saw what I had done and put on the brakes. (Luckily there were no other cars behind us.) My mother told me to get out of the car and walk back to where I had thrown the empty bag, pick it up, and bring it with me back to the car. I was quite ashamed, getting out of the car, walking back to the empty bag on the ground, and walking all the way back.

My mother didn't say another word and we drove away. But nearly forty-four years later, I remember it like it was yesterday. Aside from remembering her every now and then, I often dream of her. She wasn't perfect, but she did some things perfectly, like that day when I was ten.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Brotherhood of One

The importance of Oscar Wilde as a writer has been somewhat obscured by some well-meaning admirers who have enlisted him in the cause of gay rights. His famous trials, which effectively destroyed him, were comparable to Socrates': instead of making him drink hemlock they put him to hard labor in Reading Gaol. His last years in exile merely showed that it was, in fact, a death sentence. Homosexuality remained a crime in England until the 1960s. Aside from his wit, which was so often lavished on Victorian trivialities, he proved, in his essay "The Soul of Man Under Socialism", that he was as fearless with ideas as he would later be with barristers.

A great deal of Wilde's wit came across in paradoxes. One of my favorites is, "All women become like their mothers: that is their tragedy. No man does: that is his." He once wrote:

"The way of the paradox is the way of truth. To test reality we must see it on the tight-rope. When the verities become acrobats we can judge them."

Without being a professed Socialist himself, Wilde was intrigued by its potential, even if he had a quite personal vision of its ultimate effects on society as a whole. If a Socialist were asked to give the most important justification for the establishment of his system, he would probably say that it was ultimately for the betterment of man - not materially of course but morally. Men and women, being freed from their subjection to and exploitation of one another (which is a direct result of capitalism) will finally be able to create a good society in which free and equal human beings cooperate with one another.

But the way Wilde saw it, the achievement of Socialism is not desirable so that altruism can be made the centerpiece of society, so that everyone can bask in a common goodwill and human brotherhood can become a reality instead of a dimly conceived dream. Not at all. For Wilde,

"The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody. In fact, scarcely anyone at all escapes."

Wilde realized that:

"The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism – are forced, indeed, so to spoil them. They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence; and, as I pointed out some time ago in an article on the function of criticism, it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease."

Everyone of my generation has seen the "hideous" news reports about famines that threaten, and succeed in killing, thousands of people every few years. They have succeeded in creating in us a compunction that our parents didn't possess, of feeling responsible for the suffering of people who aren't as lucky as we are on the other side of the earth. So we contribute money to charities, which of course provide no solutions to the problem.

Nearly two years ago, in a post I called Charity, I made the point that "The fact is there would be no need for charity if we had an economy that made such rapacious, insane acquisitiveness as Buffett & Co. have practiced all their lives impossible."

Wilde says much the same thing (but more eloquently):

"The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim. Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good; and at last we have had the spectacle of men who have really studied the problem and know the life – educated men who live in the East End – coming forward and imploring the community to restrain its altruistic impulses of charity, benevolence, and the like. They do so on the ground that such charity degrades and demoralises. They are perfectly right. Charity creates a multitude of sins."

But Wilde's vision of Socialism is unorthodox and often unrealistic. At times, when he discusses work and the freedom from work that he believes Socialism promises, he sounds like Eric Hoffer's remark about the modern "worldwide revulsion for work. To the new generation, la dolce vita is not a life of plenty but a life of as little effort as possible.

Wilde believed that some time in the future all menial work will be performed by machines, and men and women would be completely free from toil, suffering, and pain. He seems to think that work itself, and not just the motive behind it, will be eradicated under Socialism. I don't think that any socialism thinks this way. Work, which is mostly mindless toil, even for the middle class, will attain its true purpose once the motive behind it (personal gain) is changed. Work, I think, is essential to living when it places the individual in the position of realizing that he is not simply an individual, but a part of a huge organism that is more than the sum of its parts. Soldiers find this out, whether they serve in combat or not. And its why they are willing to lay down their lives. They recognize probably more directly than anyone else the meaning of human brotherhood.

Wilde concludes his essay in quite uncharted territory.

"It will, of course, be said that such a scheme as is set forth here is quite unpractical, and goes against human nature. This is perfectly true. It is unpractical, and it goes against human nature. This is why it is worth carrying out, and that is why one proposes it. For what is a practical scheme? A practical scheme is either a scheme that is already in existence, or a scheme that could be carried out under existing conditions. But it is exactly the existing conditions that one objects to; and any scheme that could accept these conditions is wrong and foolish. The conditions will be done away with, and human nature will change. The only thing that one really knows about human nature is that it changes. Change is the one quality we can predicate of it. The systems that fail are those that rely on the permanency of human nature, and not on its growth and development."

Wilde even defends his "scheme" against the charge of Utopianism:

"A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias."

Certainly Wilde believed in progress. But it took more than a hundred years after his death for an sitting American president to express the opinion that gay people should have equal rights in marriage. Wilde, who was destroyed because his was the "love that dare not speak its name", would've been heartened today.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Fire Breathing Dragons

I was watching Martin Scorsese's spellbound Hugo the other evening, and there is a scene that re-creates a lost moment in movie history, when Georges Méliès, now known as the father of special effects, made one of his (now lost) magical films featuring a fire-breathing dragon.

The way that Scorsese re-created the scene was very nearly as magical as Méliès. The difference, of course, is simply that Méliès was a pioneer, doing things no one had done before. Scorsese knows this, and all his technical advantages are put at the service of Méliès.

The very next day, as luck would have it, I watched moments from a film called Reign of Fire (2002) again, and it spoke volumes to me, quite inadvertently, about film's enormous technical advances. Reign of Fire concerns a group of people who, in some dimly conceived future world, are routinely being incinerated by fire-breathing dragons.

When Méliès tried to give fantasies substance, the potential of the new motion picture medium, for him, totally outweighed its early technical shortcomings. Nearly all of those shortcomings have been eliminated by now. Scorsese had to create another illusion - reinventing the shortcomings that Méliès had to contend with. Alas, Scorsese had to rely too much on a quite unprepossessing child actor (Asa Butterfield). Scorsese certainly isn't alone. This has happened to many otherwise fine movie directors.

But what the otherwise moribund movie Reign of Fire emphasized is how the special effects industry is now geared towards the creation of the most purposefully improbably realities. Every day, on Reign of Fire, conscientious men and women went to work to commit themselves to the painstaking chore of creating a substantively real world in which people are routinely terrorized by fire-breathing dragons. Georges Méliès, who never pretended he was doing anything other than creating wonderful illusions, would've wept.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

What Little Girls Are Made Of

"Sugar and spice
and everything nice
That's what little girls
are made of."

What would you do if you were in a foreign country, one where English is rarely spoken (though it is taught in schools), when a little girl you don't know, maybe ten years old, runs up to you on the street and says "You're very fat and you have a bad odor"?

This is exactly what happened to me last week. I was preoccupied by a conversation with a companion and wasn't paying attention to the little girl. But then she repeated the same sentence as I walked past her. I was perplexed enough by her words to ponder them for the rest of the day.

There is a scene in the movie musical Gigi (1958), which was based on an otherwise charming story by Colette, in which Maurice Chevalier strolls around a typical fin de siecle Paris street, and sings the song "Thank heaven for little girls". Chevalier, whom my mother adored, was 70 when he appeared in the film, near the end of a long and sometimes controversial career. It was a rather self-consciously charming song, in 1958, whose lascivious message contributed to its charm. I heard the song again recently in a HSBC commercial, with another singer imitating Chevalier's near-parodic intonations, singing "Thank heaven for little girls. They grow up i the most delightful way."

All these years later, that song strikes me as sinister, even somewhat scabrous. The old Frenchman is telling us to look around at all those little girls and think about what a man might do to them when they develop into women. It also asks us to accept the notion that little girls have no value in themselves as children except the potential of their growing up into sexually available women.

The little girl I encountered in the street last week wasn't making a spontaneous observation. As it happens, I am not very fat and I don't have a bad odor. She had simply prepared a little speech in English that she planned to use on the first foreigner she encountered. All foreigners are called Canos here and are all presumed to speak English. She might have found it in a Filipino textbook among the foreign phrases that you find in most English instructional books. The phrases are often absurd and perfectly useless in everyday speech. The little girl probably memorized the phrase, without perhaps understanding its meaning or its insulting intent. She might never have another chance to use it on unsuspecting foreigners, but if she does, another Cano might just take offense and give her a surprising slap in the head.

I am not, as it turns out, at all thankful for little girls. Like little boys, we are always having to make allowances for their ignorance, when we aren't taking advantage of it. Like most people, I look at children and I irresistibly remember my own childhood, which was not at all like I would like to remember it. I think Freud was right when he wrote:

"When the grown-up recalls his childhood it appears to him as a happy time in which one is happy for the moment and looks to the future without any wishes. It is for this reason that he envies children. But if children themselves could inform us about it they would probably give different reports. It seems that childhood is not that blissful idyl into which we later distort it, that on the contrary children are lashed through the years of childhood by the wish to become big, and to imitate the grown-ups. This wish instigates all their playing."(1)

I think it's safe to give that little girl who greeted me that day the benefit of the doubt. In her ignorance of the meaning of those words in English, she was probably showing off her mistaken knowledge of my language to get me to notice her and smile. I probably should've taken the time to stop and correct her, just as a Latino janitor did to me once when, years ago, I needed him to unlock the door to the public restroom and mispronounced the Spanish word emergencia with the accent on the next to last syllable instead of on the third one. Pitilessly, he took the time to correct me. But that little girl would probably have been as little receptive to the correction as I was all those years ago.

(1) Sigmund Freud, "Leonardo da Vinci".