Sunday, February 22, 2009

Only in Boston

Boston Globe story

There could be few moments that are more distinctly Bostonian than this one. By that, I don't mean that it couldn't happen anywhere else--it probably has already. Someone not from here might see a simple sweet sentimental moment. But there all kinds of undertones that make it distinct and local.

The combination of:
Harvard teaching hospital as one of the major industries in town+
building yet another medical building named after the former owner of the Red Sox (much memorialized, though also remembered as the last of the major league owners to start hiring black ballplayers) +
the medical building being built by members of Ironworkers Local 7 (the link gives you a list of names of union officers that tells you plenty about Boston construction union history, down to the South Boston location for the local) +
located across from another Harvard hospital trying to fend off a unionization campaign +
a nurse from the cancer clinic, married to one of those ironworkers...

in not only the gesture itself, but in its details, associations, and meanings, in its beauty and its underlying tensions, this is a nearly pure Boston moment.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Pop culture round-up: kissing girls, black president, our goals in life

Pop music reflects social change and also rides it like a surfer on a wave, not in it, only on top of it, reflecting its contours, but using the wave for its own purposes.

The summer, with Barack Obama locking up the nomination, was full of hope and excitement. And two songs were on the charts that are worth looking back at now. They're going to define this last year in a funny kind of way, even though they're dumb songs--maybe because they're dumb songs.

Katy Perry will perform at the Grammy Awards this weekend, performing her song "I Kissed A Girl", which is simultaneously:
* one of the stupidest songs I've ever heard;
* one of the catchiest pop songs of last year, with a great guitar hook along with a great synthesizer bass throb underneath it;
* and, in its totally stupid way, maybe some small part of the decades-long process of queer liberation, in a "gateway drug" kind of way. For better or for worse there are cheerleaders in Texas singing along to this song, and you can make what you will of that.

The sentiment of the song--a straight girl tries on kissing girls because, hey, it's kinda cute and cool and why not?--was sort of dumb even fifteen years ago. Or, more precisely, in 1995, it was Jill Sobule's song "I Kissed a Girl". That song was folkier, a little more alterna, with smarter and more emotionally honest lyrics (the protagonist just had a marriage proposal from a guy and doesn't want to say yes, then goes and makes out with a friend of hers) and a pretty catchy melody of its own.

Still, it was a small little song in its lyrical ambitions and its musical sound. And ultimately, it was just as dumb as Katy Perry's song in its relationship to what it means to be a lesbian or an enduringly bisexual woman, someone who has to actually live queer instead of flirting with it.

More importantly, it had nowhere near as much pure pop power as 2008's "I Kissed a Girl". Sobule's variation on the theme was an alternative radio novelty song for coffeehouses and college girls; Katy Perry sings for all of America, though perhaps first and foremost for strippers. And presumably, for the coffeehouse college girls who work as strippers.

But the song is definitely for all of America's pop music fans; from the moment the first guitar attacks of the chorus start up (at 33 seconds into it, in true pop music factory production-line formula style), you know it's a big pop hit. It's perfectly designed. The lyrics could have been about a Toyota Corolla and that beat still would have rocked some dance floors.

The only reason I think this is oddly subversive--as opposed to just being a #1 hit song destined to be played in strip clubs for the next twenty years--is that CBS has now sponsored a contest for ordinary people to record their videos, you're supposed to vote on them, and the winner gets to perform with Katy Perry.

In other words, this song is about same-sex kissing and it is officially totally banal.

Here's the kind of contender you'd expect:

And then you realize, it's inevitable that this song would need to be lip-synched by a gay man.

(If you want this guy to be rocking with Katy Perry in her Grammy performance, as I do, vote here)

Just to give Jill Sobule her due, here she is with her song:

Speaking of pop culture, after the big Obama love-in, and a bit of an Obama let-down as his health policy point man turns out to be (surprise!) a huge ho, I'm trying to reclaim the Obama love by going through iTunes and looking at all the songs that reference this new moment.

This summer, somehow I wasn't listening to pop radio enough. Because I missed June 08's "My President", in which Young Jeezy, bless his soul, gets excited about the coming of a black president, with the following lyrics:

"My president is black
My Lambo's blue
I'll be god-damned if my rims ain't too"

The video involves Young Jeezy and some of his associates dancing around Mr. Jeezy's blue Lamborghini (which--god damn!--has blue rims) along with swelling inspirational movie-soundtrack strings and pictures of people marching, mobilizing, bringing a new day in politics. Also--hells yeah!--a blue Lamborghini with blue rims. And, John Lewis! Jumping up in the air! (As one music website puts it, "If all that's okay with John Lewis, it's okay with us.")

I think this song will turn out to be one of the smartest songs about the Obama age. is rocking it with "It's a New Day" in which he namechecks Harriet Tubman along with Lincoln, Kennedy and King: "The dreams that I've been dreaming have finally come true," he sings. (I hope the New York Times refers to him as Mr. am; I know I will, from now on). This is a very sincere song, and the sort of thing you can sing at the inauguration, which Mr. am did.

But Young Jeezy kind of had it nailed. The song is a combination of sentiments: I'm really excited about this amazing thing happening, and also, I'm the same knucklehead I always was, and really, what I've managed to accomplish is get a bunch of thugs to love me and give me enough money to buy myself a Lamborghini; but then, on the other hand, all things considered, it's a pretty great car.

Of course, hip-hop makes things bigger, blows up the parody until it's not even parody any more, and you're not sure when it's a joke and when it's just stupid. At the end of the song, Young Jeezy makes clear he knows it's a joke, kind of, when he starts listing black heroes, then tries to go back and give himself a role in black history, for being the first guy to drive a Lamborghini through his neighborhood. He's laughing and delivering the lines in a way that makes it clear he understands the comparatively smaller scale of this accomplishment, even though he himself is pretty proud of it.

In a remix, Jay-Z added on some more pointed lyrics, while also just adding in some comments about the color of his Porsche.

But though having a more direct political element changes the song, maybe Young Jeezy's June '08 song anticipates a more core American impulse that will doubtlessly persist. All the nobility of hope and change and a young black president inspires us. And at the same time, most of us are all just trying to live our own stupid lives, with our own self-centered goals, hoping the president manages to get the economy back to the point where we can start imagining not just getting by, but living large. In a hybrid, maybe, but--if he is truly a great president--it'll be a fast shiny blue turbo hybrid with 22-inch blue rims.

Here's Jay-Z and Young Jeezy at an inaugural party. On January 19th, the enthusiasm was sweeping over Young Jeezy, and he wasn't joking anymore--just really really psyched.

I don't want to forget the sincerity of this moment. And I don't want to shortchange the sincerity of the Texas cheerleader who's dancing around her room singing along with that Katy Perry song, thinking something different about what it means to kiss a girl than her predecessors might have. Like all of the best pop songs, these two songs are both dumb songs, but also get their momentum from reflecting a new moment, a new way of thinking, a new time in which these songs are allowed to exist as dumb songs, climbing the pop charts.

Hey! We've got a black president! I can kiss who I want to! It's a new day!

Pop music's insidious but undeniable power comes from being banal, stupid and meaningless, while at the same time, meaningful and sincere and in some way perceptive about who we are when we are young. Even if social change brings black presidents and queer love, those new elements are just the picture frame for more stable and eternal elements of American pop culture, dominating the pop charts since at least the middle of the last century. In this case, those elements are:
1. awesome cars; and
2. hot girls, as in:
being one
making out with one
genius! great bass line! love the guitar hook! sexy video!