Saturday, March 25, 2006

Chapter MIX: In Which I Validate My Parents' Expenditures

So I'm a part of a barbershop quartet. The group is composed of myself (tenor), Dissertation Man (lead), Captain Americanist (baritone), and our bass-in-need-of-a-nickname (the aforementioned Tennessee Stretch, who objects and yet will not provide an alternative. Maybe Pseudobass). At the moment we are working on one song, "Sweet Adeline," in order to be able to perform it at department follies this year. Will we get there? Uncertain at this point, as it depends on how much work the others are willing to put in. But we still have quite a ways to go.

Now, our situation is complicated by the fact that most of the others can't read music and have no real experience singing beyond Karaoke Revolution. Our bass can't always hit the low notes, and our lead claims he forgets the melody the more he practices. As I have been singing since grade school (thanks to my ham of a grandfather and my early love of movie-musicals), naturally it falls to me to musically direct our little endeavor. This in spite of the fact that I cannot actually play the keyboard I own (I can plink out notes and recognize them, but not play anything beyond a simple scale), and that I have a freakishly high voice that doesn't always allow me to sing the same notes as those I am trying to teach. We're like the Bad News Bears of the barbershop world, in other words.

Now this has several benefits, which I shall enumerate at length:

1. I get to sing again. I did choir four years in high school, a plethora of musicals in both high school and college, and I was in an a cappella group for two years in college. Getting to sing again now, after so much time, is something I've really missed. So that makes it awesome in and of itself.

2. I actually use the knowledge my parents paid a large sum of money to obtain. I took three years of voice lessons in high school and four in college, knowing full well that I wanted to be an English major and would never practically use these skills beyond my undergrad dalliances. The fact that I actually get to teach these things back to my compatriots makes me feel like I wasn't just wasting my time and my parents' money. So mom and dad, this one's for you!

3. I get to annoy my upstairs neighbor. I hold one-on-one rehearsals at my place, as I have the keyboard. I imagine hearing "Sweet Adeline" over and over can be irritating to outsiders. However, given that my neighbor is either a spousal abuser or a horrible pet owner (judging by the several times I've heard very loud yelling, all one-sided, from his apartment), I don't feel too bad about this. If he can't take an hour of disturbance on a Saturday afternoon, he can move out. I've been here longer, I have that right.

I imagine there are other benefits I haven't thought of yet, and I will add them if they occur to me. And I'll keep posting on our progress, including our hope to eventually move on to "Baby On Board," written by Homer J. Simpson and arranged by my friend Sergio.

As for now, having survived the hellish week, I plan to go spend money. Gift certificate + 25% educator discount = Borders fun. Time to go feed the addiction.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Magic's in the Music and the Music's in Me

This weekend we had our prospective grad students up for a visit. We wined them, dined them, tried to cull out the weak. Highlights include watching TheoryPirate hold court at a tableful of prospectives while doing his best to sell the school (heck, made me want to reapply), finding out that composition teachers have the same problems the world over, and being the pre-eminent 20th century Americanist at the welcome reception (all my colleagues in the field were absent, excepting Tennessee Stretch, but he studies poetry, which doesn't really count). Made me feel like a big man as people kept bringing new prospectives up to me so they could talk to an Americanist. Lowlights include my inability to drink all the free alcohol floating around, and the fact that one prospective is dating one of my former students (which leads to awkwardness, as we didn't really get along that well). But fun was had, and it gave me an excuse to further put off my work.

And now, my long-promised monograph on the theory behind Karaoke Revolution. To those non-Madisonian readers, this may be somewhat less amusing, so I apologize.

A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Performance: Reading the Screen in Karaoke Revolution

The Xbox system has recently revolutionized the drunken activities of Madison Graduate Students. Where once they would go to a bar and sit there, blithely drinking until it was time to stumble home, I have noticed an increasing trend to consume more alcohol more quickly, with the promise of immediate relocation to the karaoke machine. The locality of drinking and night's conclusion has been shifted, out of the bar and into the living room, in what may very well constitute the domesticity of drunkeness. Of course, the conceptulization of alcoholism invading the domestic sphere and the concurrent withdrawl of immediate and prolonged capital from the bars of Madison is a rich and fruitful topic itself, worthy of future research. Yet that is not my intent in this brief writing. Rather, I wish to examine the practices of performance itself, revealing both the development of a specific kind of critical understanding and perhaps indicating a new potentiality for the karaoke machine. By examining the practices of the past, we may hope to find a degree of intertextuality between the academy and the karaoke machine, with the promise of a new, more engaged relationship between singer and observers. In brief, I contend that we must break the television in order to save it.

Prolonged and repeated observation and participation in the recent phenomenon of Karaoke Revolution marks it as a rapidly rising form of entertainment within the department. From its drunken roots at the New Year's opening, the game has meteorically risen in status and entertainment, meriting comments on numerous blogs, transnational discussions of song preferences, and even critical attention from highly respected professionals (I cannot provide their names here, but Madisonians may recognize a certain faculty member known only by his three initials who was recently heard invoking the karaoke machine itself to his colleagues). Clearly, the attention gained by this apparatus marks it as a great gain to our late-night entertainment.

Yet the game itself is marked not only by its participatory nature, but by its undercurrent of containment, perhaps too obviously hidden in its status as a game. Unlike the larger cultural concept of karaoke, which holds no rewards other than singing in front of a bar full of people, Karaoke Revolution revolves around the key duality of performance for audience and performance as goal. While singing for friends, you are also singing for points, singing for the reward of the game itself recognizing your ability to control pitch, tone, and rhythm. "Proper" performance leads to gold and platnum records, miniature statues, and the unlocking of new characters and even new songs. Of course, by its status as game, we as participants seek victory, striving to better our performances and become more what the game recognizes as proper singers.

I would contend, however, that this degree of competition takes on new meaning due to the fact that we are performing music, rather than simply obliterating aliens, racing cars, playing golf, or the myriad of other video game concepts at hand. By seeking to match our songs to the songs of their original recorders, we become engrossed in the song itself, conferring upon it a status of perfection that we seek to emulate. Observe the singer in action: he stands, facing the tv, intently reading the lyrics, closely watching the pitch register as it fluctuates and indicates his adherence to the ur-melody of the song itself. His worth as singer is only measured by his recognition of the superior, inflexible worth of the song itself.

Like the literature we study and the writing we teach, karaoke has an inherent duality. On the one hand, it is indeed a contained piece of writing, complete in itself, with clear intent and worth due to its status as finished product. However, it is also about performivity, where worth is not merely inherent but rather created through the interaction of text and audience. A song may have its own meaning, but it takes on a new, different, and often more profound meaning through the response of its audience. (See, for example, repeated performances of the various works of Britney Spears, songs of dubious inherent worth that take on far greater cultural capital through their audience recognition.) In the act of karaoke, more often than not the performance itself allows for nuances of meaning unseen in the text of the song itself.

But we do not see this in our performances; or, if the audience sees it, the performer does not. We have become fixated upon the composer's performance, as if all the answers and all the meanings are apparent in the stylings of Huey Lewis, A-Ha, and their fellows. We feel that if we keep returning to the songs, practicing harder, we may come to a greater ability as a singer. In the literary field, there once existed a group of people who followed a similar philosophy. Dubbed the "New Critics," they were the scholars of the postwar period, arising on the tail end of the Modernist revolution, forced into their apolitical, text-based criticism by a government obsessed with containment of insurgency and rebellion, even in the academy. For the large part, these men are now considered passe, outdated, seeking to perpetuate a flawed, hegemonic, static reading practice. They have been rightly debunked by modern theorists, and while their contribution to the academy was and is substantial, we have since moved on to newer, more fruitful and open-ended methods of reading.

I would contend that we as performers are the "New Critics" of the karaoke discipline, for the reasons I have already mentioned. Much of this practice, of course, has been forced upon us by an unfamiliarity with the music and a desire to master these texts. But recent endeavors and repeated practice indicate that we have reached a plateau, that we have learned the texts, and that we are reaching the limits of understanding contained within a purely textual rendering. In order to move to the next level of entertainment and understanding, we must look no longer to the text, but to what is beyond the text, the audience. We must break the grip of the lyrics, the pitch meter, the scores themselves. We must realize that BTO and Bette Midler do not contain all the answers, that fun may be had through the rejection of dominance. By doing so, we would be participating in a grand musical tradition, hearkening back to the scat singing of Louis Armstrong and his contemporaries, which found new modes of expression through the breaking of lyrics as much as the lyrics themselves. This is the path we must walk, lest we stagnate as scholars of the karaoke field.

How might this be accomplished? We must, as I have said, break the tv. Ignore it's hold. We know the lyrics, we know the pitches, and if we do not entirely, we should not feel beholden to them. I offer the possibility of singing to the audience itself, of facing away from the screen and ignoring any attempt to score a decent score. We must seek connection with our listeners and duet singers, monitoring their reactions and altering our own performances to encourage new types of response. Recent experiments with Avril Lavigne's "Complicated" have revealed a potential depth worthy of further exploration along these lines, and such trailblazing scholarship of performivity must be continued and encouraged in order to further our understanding of the medium and lead us to greater depths of enjoyment. I call upon all future performers, therefore, to look through the tv rather than at it, to look into the eyes of the audience rather than casting a detached ear to their laughter. The future is ours to seize, and we must learn from the lessons of our academic past in order to elevate our drunken future.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Those Clever Bastards

I never understood people who bought things simply because they were on sale, or if they had a coupon. (Pardon the unclear pronoun there. By "they" I mean the people, not the things. Though that does raise the question of whether you own the coupon or the coupon owns you. But I digress.) Mostly I've noticed this to be women. Not that I'm trying to be sexist; I imagine men do it too, but we don't often talk about our shopping trips. For my mother, it was always groceries. She'd come home with food we had never heard of and would never consider trying, except that she had a coupon. For many of the women of my college or grad school years, it is more clothing than food. I consider myself to be a practical man. If I need something, I buy it. As I am cheap, I will look for a sale if possible. But I rarely if ever buy anything specifically because it is on sale. If I don't need it, I don't buy it. To me, this was a mark of honor, a way to resist the lure of capitalist exploitation of my already diminished wallet, not to mention more money for booze.

No more.

As of last week, I signed up for a Borders Rewards card. This costs no money, and there are no strings attached. You use it every time you buy something at Borders, and eventually you earn enough points to get gift certificates (I think). As I shop at Borders more often than any other store, and as I already have a Borders Visa card which serves a similar purpose, this seemed like a grand idea. I would double my points and get free stuff, with no cost to myself. Fool, fool that I was.

For you see, dear readers, there is a catch. There is only one catch, and that is Catch-22. And by Catch-22, I mean not Catch-22, but the Coupon Catch. Every time you buy something, they give you a coupon. 25% off one purchase. 30% off one purchase. Everything 10% off for one day. Sounds great, right? Yeah. Great like heroin. Because these coupons expire in a period of three days, and they don't take effect for a week after you get them. So basically, a week after you buy something, you've got this coupon that's only good for the weekend, but it's a good deal. So you feel an urge to go back to Borders. And since most of the books you buy aren't that expensive individually, you can't really justify using a 30% off coupon. Why save $2 when you could save $5, or even $10? Why not buy the book for regular price, then buy something else, say a DVD, that's more expensive, using the coupon there? And why not do this every time you visit the store? Let the savings pile up! It's your duty as a consumer!

Consequently, I now own copies of Ghostbusters I & II and Citizen Kane, and I've got my eye on Maverick, Shaun of the Dead, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Not to mention Batman Begins, should the price drop a bit more. Do I need any of these movies? No. Did I particularly want a copy of Ghostbusters before I saw the box set going for $15? No. I have many friends who each own the movie, and from whom I could borrow it at any time. But intoxicated with my coupon prowess, I felt I had to buy these DVDs. I'd be robbing myself if I didn't.

So to anyone I've ever mocked for buying unnecessary things because of sales or coupons...well, I don't apologize. It was funny, and I stand by it. But I'm now fair game as well. But before you mock, remember that I'm a man with a problem, no different than a crack addict or Britney Spears fanatic. Have pity on a consumer. Or send money.

Friday, March 10, 2006

They Made One for Me...

...One for Steven Spielberg, and then they shot the guy who made them!

The above quote is from a brilliant Simpsons parody of Alec Baldwin in Glengary Glen Ross. Other brilliant lines include: "You see this watch? It's so encrusted with jewels that the hands can't move!" and "Life is hard, right? Wrong! Life is easy, you suck!" The reference has bearing on what follows, so keep it in mind.

I just discovered that, in the comments on one of my earliest ramblings, someone has anonymously posted a link to a self-help website. Apparently my blog has such a critical mass of readership that I am now worthy of spam advertisement. Inspired by this nameless wretch, I offer my own self-help program. Step 1: Write me a check. Step 2: I cash the check and spend it. Step 3: You feel better about yourself for helping the poor and less fortunate.

The brilliance is in the simplicity. And the free money.

Monday, March 06, 2006


This is an addition to the last post, so please read it first if you have not already.

Upon further consideration, I have succeeded in dandifying my partygoing experience through a somewhat obvious yet compelling literary allusion. Fitzgerald writes of Daisy Buchanan that her voice conveyed "a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour." Well, that's me at a party without a drink. I imagine that there are spectacular, Cecil B. Demille-esque proceedings in the next room over, and I'm always too early or too late for them. Whether this makes me a Carraway or a Gatsby is yet to be determined, and while this insight offers little new exegesis of The Great Gatsby, it allows me to remain not just a drunkard, but a gentleman drunkard (as most common boors don't go around referencing canonical works of literature to describe their detox).

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Parties are Lame When I'm Sober

So, as I do every few years to assuage the qualms of my liver and its uppity concern for my continued existence, I have given up alcohol for Lent. The first true test of will came last night, as I attended a friend's birthday party at her house, a Wudan-like locale that lends itself perfectly to getting plastered. And I have discovered that the act of partying is fundamentally different for a sober person than it is a drunk person. The conversations are much more subdued, generally on topics that you would never consider discussing at a party (lest we reveal just what nerds we really are), and you can sustain them for longer periods of time. In fact, I found that I was one of those people who sits in the same spot, talking with the same people, without roving, wandering, or mingling (hearkening back to my sober days in high school at cast parties). All in all, if one were to seek an adjective to describe my party experience, it would be "lame."

Now don't get me wrong, I had fun, I enjoyed talking with my friends (and some acquaintances that I hadn't seen in a long time), and the party itself seemed to be enjoyed by all. I'm not saying the party itself was lame. It seemed to be a great success. Just that, to the eyes of a sober drunkard, there was a quality of lameness about my being there that was somewhat unsettling. I don't know if it was an internal lameness that I have been suppressing through my love of beer and whiskey, or just a confluence of events that sparked these feelings and behaviors within me.

Whatever the case, I have about 35 more days to continue this trend, including Spring Break and St. Patrick's Day. I hope to find some resolution to these issues I am discovering, and then promptly forget them when I get snookered on Easter (to celebrate the risen Lord). Keep a sober man in your thoughts throughout these coming weeks, for I am embarking upon a great journey...

And now, in light of my unquenchable hatred for my fellow man, a new segment of my Notes.

Things I Hate:
1. Drivers who don't believe in the passing lane.
2. Drivers who slow down to make me miss yellow lights.
3. Lutherans.*
4. People who don't turn their cell phones off for Mass.
5. People who don't turn their cell phones off after they have rung during Mass.
6. People who don't turn their cell phones off after they have rung three times during Mass, including during the silent distribution of ashes.
7. People who insist on riding the elevator from the fourth floor to the first.
8. People who insist on riding the elevator from the first floor to the fourth.
9. People who put off obligations to partake in philanthropic acts.
10. Undergraduates.
11. Bands who think that because they have a long, fun refrain, they can repeat it nine times with only two verses and no bridge. Yes Lifehouse, I'm looking at you.

Look for periodic updates to this list, as I am full of rage.

*I don't hate all Lutherans per se, just the ones that were blocking traffic because they can't properly turn in to a parking lot to attend Mass, thus preventing me from making it to my Mass on time. Splitters.