Category Archives: Consuming Media

An Object Lesson in Pop Sensibilities

Item the first: “Such Great Heights”, by The Postal Service.

Item the second: “Fireflies”, by Owl City.

The Postal Service was Ben Gibbard’s and Jimmy Tamborello’s side project. It mixed Gibbard’s deft melodies with Tamborello’s glitch-electronica beats. Owl City is Adam Young plus his laptop and a backing band. Critics have compared Owl City to The Postal Service, due in large part to how Adam Young sounds like he replaced Ben Gibbard’s fish tail with human legs in return for Gibbard’s voice.

While that comparison is a fair one, it misses how much more of a pop sensibility Owl City has versus The Postal Service. “Such Great Heights” has several features that make it unusual. Its structure is verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, but the bridge is a simple guitar solo over Tamborello’s loops and beats. In the verses, each phrase of Gibbard’s vocals crowd up against the next, barely ending before the next begins. Rhymes appear in odd places, and much of the chorus is sung on weak beats. Most notably, there’s no strong hook in the song, due in part to how Tamborello layers sonic elements that appear to be ignoring all of the others.

Compare that to “Fireflies”. It has an extremely traditional structure: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, and chorus with repeat. The song leads with its hook, a four-bar synth line that runs throughout the verses. As in “Such Great Heights” the sonic layers build as the song goes, but each layer ties to previous ones, piling on orchestral strings, drums, bells, and more. Each phrase has room to breathe, and sticks firmly to the strong beats. All the song lacks is a truck driver’s gear change at the end.

This is not, by itself, a value judgment. I was struck by how two artists with very similar characteristics on the surface could illustrate the pop divide so cleanly.

Hey, You

Pink Floyd’s concept album The Wall turned 30 today. It’s an odd, ragged, emotional album. It doesn’t have the lasting musical impact of Dark Side of the Moon or the more self-contained minimalism of The Final Cut, but it’s still one of my favorite of the band’s albums.

It helps that I didn’t experience it the way so many people did. I wasn’t a particularly alienated kid, and I didn’t even hear the album until I was in college, so my reaction wasn’t one of “Yeah, man, this album totally speaks to me and my disaffected teenage life!” Instead I appreciated the album’s construction and its sprawling, self-indulgent mess of a story. Plus it has moments of gleaming beauty that I still love to listen to, most especially David Gilmour’s guitar solos in the song “Comfortably Numb”.

Thirty years on, this album’s sales numbers are still ridiculously high, so I expect I’m not the only one enjoying the album today.

FlashForward Eschatology

FlashForward is a new ABC show about what happens when everyone on Earth passes out for about two minutes and sees a vision of what they’ll be doing in six months. The show is most concerned with What It All Means — why did everyone get a glimpse of their future? and is that future fixed? — but I was struck by the aftershocks of the event. Since people lose consciousness, there are all kinds of terrible accidents, from drivers having wrecks to pilots augering in their 757s during landing. Days later, buildings still smolder where they were struck by news helicopters. Children re-enact the event, asking each other, “What did you see this time? What did you see?” An FBI Assistant Director eulogizes the agents who died. One character on a nearly-empty aircraft sits next to an airline exec who is there to reassure the public that flying is safe again, the punchline being that the exec is scared shitless.

While these are only minor events in the storyline, they help make the show seem more real. Watching them, I found myself thinking, this is what Left Behind should have looked like.

Left Behind tells the story of what happens when God raptures — that is, kills off and snatches away — all of the “real” Christians and also all babies and young children. It was a runaway best-seller. It was also a terrible book, both in theology and in construction. Over at Slacktivist, Fred Clark’s exegesis of the series has been running since October 2003, and it’s taking him so long to catalog all of the series’ sins that, six years later, he’s only 100 pages into book two.

FlashForward shows how shoddy the worldbuilding in Left Behind is. In FlashForward, everyone wants to know what happened. In Left Behind, they’re so incurious that they don’t even think to search the clothes of the raptured to see if, I don’t know, they’ve been turned into red dust or shrunk down or something. The book mentions wrecked planes and choked cab lines, but a day later everything seems back to normal and the planes are flying on time.

Let’s do a couple of back-of-the-envelope calculations. The Fifth National Survey of Religion and Politics pegs the U.S.’s traditional evangelical protestant population at 10%. Assume a third of that 10% agreed with LaHaye and Jenkins’s outlook and thus were raptured. The U.S. population is about 300,000,000 people, which means 10 million people in the U.S. vanished at once. The equivalent of the entire Chicago metro area is gone. Never mind the cabs, think of the chaos on streets and interstates across the country. If one in ten of those True Christians is in a car at the time, you’ve got the potential for 100,000 simultaneous wrecks. That’s nearly two months worth of U.S. auto wrecks compressed into one minute. How long would it take to clear them away?

And what about hospitals? You’ve got expectant mothers whose babies vanished as they were giving birth. What’s that going to do to the doctors and nurses who weren’t also raptured? What kind of post-traumatic stress will labor and delivery staff have? Oh, and were any of the True Christian doctors operating at the time, leaving a patient to die?

Meanwhile, all over the world, parents called out for their kids and got no response. Kindergarten teachers were suddenly facing empty classrooms. Nannies on the Upper East Side, hearing the panic spreading through New York City, looked into the strollers they were pushing and began freaking out about losing their charges.

What happens the day after everyone is raptured? When there’s no need for daycares any more? When pediatricians have no reason to go to work? When firefighters and policeman may have a literally decimated force at a time when every single one of them is needed? Left Behind has answers for none of these. In fact, it doesn’t even ask the questions.

FlashForward has a leg up on Left Behind. It’s based on a science fiction book by Robert Sawyer, and while Sawyer may not be that good at creating believable characters, he’s got that old-school SF love of delving into the consequences of unexpected events. LaHaye, meanwhile, is a minister; Jenkins, the writer of the two, churns out formulaic children’s books, mysteries, and comic strips. Neither of them seem interested in anything beyond beating their polemical views into readers’ heads. Their science fiction begins and ends with their Biblical prophesies, which they assembled from disparate scraps of the Bible like a ransom note from newspapers.

When you think about it, the Rapture as described in Left Behind would be a terrible, bone-chilling event. The ramifications are huge. Yet Left Behind doesn’t pause to acknowledge it. When your novel can’t even match the tiny amounts of worldbuilding that can be squeezed into a 42-minute TV show, you’re doing it wrong.

Birthday Week was a WIN! Do I have to wait a year for another?

There are not enough words to describe the awesomeness of my trip to Atlanta to see U2 and visit with friends. The show was full of awesome. A friend of a friend said that Bono was the best worship leader that she’d ever had and I’ll have to second that. I think the show was specially tailored to show off their “We’re all about that love and peace business.” side. Here’s the set list:
Breathe
Put on Your Boots
Mysterious Ways
Beautiful Day
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
Stand By Me
Stuck in the Moment (acoustic)
No Line on the Horizon
Magnificent
Elevation
End of the World
The Unforgettable Fire
City of Blinding Lights
Vertigo
I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight (very wacky remix)
Sunday Bloody Sunday
MLK
Walk On
One
Amazing Grace
Where the Streets Have No Name
Ultaviolet
With or Without You
Moment of Surrender

I loved every minute of the show but I was/am a bit taken aback that my favorite song of the show was “Ultraviolet.” It’s never been a particular favorite of mine but the song combined with the light show and the smoke was really eerie, interesting and moving. My other highlights of the show was Danielle nearly pinching my arm off during the remix of “Crazy Tonight” and her leaning over to tell me that the name of the song “MLK” was “MLK” and then my reply that I knew that because I’ve been singing it to my children at bedtime for the past five years and then the lady behind me giving me a funny look because of it. And the dancing and the screaming of the “Woo!” There was much “Woo!” screaming. I had a blast.

Danielle and Kat and I also visit Ikea on Tuesday where I proceeded to buy the place out. I love me some Ikea. If my house ever burns down and I have to start over from scratch, I’m doing everything in Ikea because it’s so cool.

While Mom was here this past weekend, we redid Liza’s room with some of Ikea purchases. She’s now in the big girl bed and doing really well with it.
DORA! (and Liza!)
More pictures to come once we get the new light fixture hung.

I also got a ton of books as birthday gifts:
Crafty Book Stash
All of them are awesome! Thanks to everyone who bought me a new book! It’s gonna take me a while to get through them all but I’m so excited about each and every one. The bonus awesome goes to Fahmida for the book she made of our trip to Japan. It’s made me so homesick to go back.

And lastly, if you’ve made it this far you deserve a cute kid photo:
Hiding in the shower
They thought they were hiding in the shower. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that if they are shrieking at the top of their lungs, they are pretty easy to find.

Running Man

I’m working on a post comparing the TV show FlashForward to the Left Behind series, but it’s taking a while. To keep you entertained in the meantime, I give you Canabalt. It’s a minimalist game created for the Experimental Gameplay Project, whose theme in August was “Bare Minimum”. You play a man running to escape a city being destroyed by giant robots. There’s only one button: jump. There’s only six colors.

I can’t stop playing it.

In the last few weeks Eli and I have been playing a lot of Flash-based games in the evening. I’ll have to see what he thinks of this one.

Regencies and Revenants

For a Dragon*ConTV bumper this year, I made up names of books that might follow “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”. I had “Beowerewolf”, “Grave Expectations”, “Vampire Fair”, “Jude the Undead”, and “Northanger Abbey But This Time Catherine Starts Fires With Her Mind”, among others. I’d thought I’d covered the waterfront.

Then I saw the announcement from Publishers Lunch.

Sarah Gray’s WUTHERING BITES, a retelling of Wuthering Heights in which Heathcliff is a vampire, to John Scognamiglio at Kensington, in a very nice deal, for publication in September 2010, by Evan Marshall at Evan Marshall Agency (World).

Real life is so often funnier than I can ever hope to be.