Saturday, May 26, 2007

American Idiot Meets American Idol

OK, I'll admit it: I watched American Idol. I've not watched it before, thinking myself above that sort of thing, but this year I got sucked in. I was irritated that Melinda Doolittle didn't win but satisfied that Jordin Sparks did. And I'll admit it: I think Simon Cowell always tells the truth, and I respect him for it.

But that's not why I'm writing this post. I'm writing this post because I am still trying to figure out why the Beatles were on such prominent display on the American Idol finale. Songs from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band showcased winners from previous seasons and showed why, for example, Carrie Underwood ("She's Leaving Home") has outpaced Taylor Hicks ("A Day in the Life," in which Hicks, in shiny silk shirt, stuck his finger to his temple and "pulled a trigger" to emphasize the line "He blew his mind out in a car") in the hearts and minds of the American Idolatrous public.

But that's not why I'm writing this post. I'm writing this post because I am still trying to figure out why Greenday chose American Idol to showcase their version of John Lennon's "Working Class Hero." It seems like a clash of competing idolatries: Idol is to Disneyworld what Greenday is to Lollapalooza. Idol doesn't swear. Greenday swears a lot; John Lennon, in "Working Class Hero," swears a lot.

I went along with it when Celine Dion sang alongside Elvis Presley earlier in the season, when Idol gave back. The whole thing made sense in American Idol World; it was acceptably surreal. But this mashup of power punk meets anti-establishment icon meets quintessential American mystique was supremely surreal and just left me confused.

I've had a hard time respecting Greenday; in the early 1990s they were just another punk band singing ephemeral lyrics about generic punk themes--leave me alone, I know I'm a loser, that sort of thing. They were immature even at their most mature; the surprisingly poignant "Good Riddance" was an acoustic farewell song with melancholy, sentimental lyrics, but it was sung too fast and with too much edge, like a high schooler auditioning for the Homecoming entertainment committee who had a semester left to learn nuance.

Greenday lost prominence for a while but then resurfaced in the last couple of years with American Idiot. Punk had lost its prominence as well, so now Greenday are the godfathers of the genre. And they've grown up; they're writing angry songs in place of their earlier self-indulgent songs. They've effectively taken on the Bush administration and won a great deal of critical acclaim. They're now important. And apparently they've discovered John Lennon.

But that's not why I'm writing this post. I'm writing this post because Greenday chose "Working Class Hero" as a fitting tribute to John Lennon (which it is) but also as an appropriate offering to the "Save Darfur" project (which it isn't), and they chose to draw attention to it on national television on American Idol--which makes no sense.

American Idol is a twenty-first century manifestation of the Horatio Alger vision for America: here even the poorest, the most downtrodden, can with pluck and fortitude become something great. Even an obscure, working-class neopeasant with a good singing voice can become an American Idol.

Of course, Jordin is the daughter of a former professional football player; Blake Lewis (this season's runner-up) has performed with Sir Mix-a-Lot; Melinda toured with the Winans; and even the song-contest winner, Scott Krippayne, has a long resume within the Christian music industry. These are not singers minding their own business who stumbled into greatness. They're not working-class heroes; they're industry insiders who became American idols.

So, in a sense, the joke's on us. And I find myself wondering whether Greenday was trying to make that point. People unfamiliar with the song "Working-Class Hero" will probably remember the line "A working-class hero is something to be," but they need to remember that the prophetic message of the song is more insidious: "You're still f---ing peasants, as far as I can see."

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Monday, May 21, 2007

Jenn hit me a while back with this meme:

* Post the rules of the game.
* Tell us about eight random facts/habits about you.
* At the end of the post, choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.
* People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things.
* Leave them a comment telling them they're tagged, and to read your blog.

So, here goes:

1. I met Naughty by Nature and Little Richard on the same day. Little Richard rode the same elevator as me, promised to bring David Bowie to hear my jazz combo that night (they didn't show up), and generally gave me the willies. Naughty by Nature ("You down with OPP? Yeah you know me!") hired my bass-player friend to lay down a bass riff which they may or may not have ultimately used. They told us Little Richard was a weird dude.

2. I bite my nails. A lot. Drives people crazy.

3. My first editorial feedback was that I don't share enough of myself in my writing, and I've been overcompensating ever since.

4. I'm the middle child in my family--the second son of a second son. As a consequence, I have what I like to call "sidekick syndrome." I frequently situate myself in relationships in which I function as the sidekick; eventually I grow to resent the disparity and try to break out on my own. This is, incidentally, the life's journey of the first superhero I actively emulated, Robin, the Boy Wonder sidekick to Batman who eventually became Nightwing. You can see me dressed as Robin in a Halloween photograph from my childhood in the back of my book Comic Book Character.

5. I'm more of a music geek than I am a comic book geek--as unlikely as that may seem.

6. I'm cheap. Case in point: for the past month my PDA has been broken, so that I can't read anything onscreen. For the first month I was waiting till I could get a deal on a phone with PDA functioning through my cell phone service; now I'm waiting till my anniversary at work (next month) in the hopes that they'll buy a PDA phone for me.

7. I prefer reading books by authors who are dead over books by authors who are living. (No offense, living authors!) Not sure what that says about me.

8. This was hard.

OK, eight people to tag: How about Lilies Have Dreams, Please Pass the Cheese, Carolyn, Margaretta Musings, Owen, and three to be named later.

Friday, May 18, 2007

I Wish I Were a Speechwriter

I just heard President Bush say of the new immigration reform bill: "Unregistered immigrants will not be treated with amnesty, but also not with animosity." I chuckled out loud; nice word play, President Bush!

When I was a kid and heard that the president uses speechwriters, I was a little bit dismayed and a whole lot intrigued. I think I'd like that job: putting words to the seminal moments in political history, giving voice to the nation's inarticulate pain in the wake of tragedy, filling page after page in historical anthologies. That'd be a good gig--like back-seat driving the president.

I remember Chris Matthews's ("Welcome to Hardball!") reaction to Al Gore's concession speech after the disputed presidential election in 2000. Matthews--a former speechwriter for President Carter, I believe--was nearly in tears as he talked about the brilliance of the speech, the place it will take in the historical record, the punctuation it added to the political process. I think he was a little jealous of Gore--and, I suppose, of whoever Gore used to write the speech.

I learned a bit from 24 about how the speechwriting process works. The president actually is an active participant; for the speechwriter it's partly taking dictation, partly practicing intuition, partly writing creatively. It's probably a little bit (only a little bit, I assure you) like the process of the writing of Holy Scripture.

That'd be a good gig too, actually. To be Luke or Habakkuk or Moses or 2 Peter--to enter into some literary matrix of divine dictation, inspiration and imagination. If I had my choice, I think I would have written Isaiah or 1 Samuel--but I would have called that one the "Book of David" for sure. Which portions of the Bible do you wish had your name on it?

Don't freak out. Just play along.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Quote of the Day

I think it's true that, of all the bloggers I know personally, I'm the only one who hasn't been awarded the "Thinking Blogger Award." That may be because I post things like the following quotation from Martin Luther's "Never Debate with Satan When Alone," made known to me by the great Drew Blankman:

Almost every night when I wake up, the devil is there and wants to dispute with me. I have come to this conclusion: when the argument that the Christian is without the law and above the law doesn’t help, I instantly chase him away with a fart.

Feel free to post your favorite quirky quotations from Christian history. I've got a bunch from the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture floating around my office.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Cost of Ownership

As I work on my draft manuscript for Deliver Us from Me-Ville I find myself turning a lot to Thomas Merton, an American Trappist monk from the mid-twentieth century. I'm reminded again how volatile the times were before I was born, and how comparatively we've not had to deal with much in our day. Sure, we've seen the evolution of the i-Phone and on-demand television programming, but Merton and his contemporaries sat through a great depression, a world war, a cold war, two American wars in Asia and the civil rights movement. Still, I suspect he wrote the following (in his Secular Journals)not so much for his generation as for ours:

I am scared to take a proprietary interest in anything, for fear that my love of what I own may be killing somebody somewhere.

Merton and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are proving to be my main teachers as I write this book. Merton is the spiritual director; Bonhoeffer the theologian. His Cost of Discipleship, written in the same era as Merton's Secular Journals, looks at what Christ calls us to lay down in our pursuit of a life with him. Meanwhile, Merton hints at this idea that what a consumerist, materialist culture calls us to take on makes us complicit in what that culture does to the world we inhabit. That's the hidden cost of ownership: we don't only own what we buy, we own the just and unjust business practices that secured the production of what we buy, we own the environmental degradation that such production causes, we own the hoarding of intellectual property that makes luxury items out of life-saving medication. We own all sorts of things alongside the things we invest in or buy.

Read my friend Chris Heuertz's article "Breaking Her Back to Clothe Mine" for a good up-close look at the cost of ownership and some ways of mitigating it.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

A Prayer About Time (part three), Again

My final reposting of Robert Banks's "A Prayer About Time," from his book The Tyranny of Time, is appropriately preceded by the thoughts that were in my head when I originally posted it a couple of years ago. I invite you to comment on the prayer, the navel-gazing, or your own thoughts/experiences of time as sacred experience:
As I think about the purpose of Loud Time, I'm realizing that it demands a lot more self-discipline than I can muster up on my own. I'm purportedly writing about "all things loud and timely," which should give me plenty of ground to cover, but then I fall into navel-gazing and trolling for compliments. . . . Then again, loud time as a sacred practice--which is where I hope to get--is the negotiation of several I's following one big Thou. Or something like that. That's one reason I like comments--it's accountability and virtual mutual affirmation all in one. I am not the center of the universe in Loud Time, but I certainly am one occupant.

Enjoy this third and final section of the prayer about time. It's hopeful and circumspect at the same time, which is a good way for all of us to be. A blessing on your head.

Guard us against attempting too much
because of a false sense of our indispensability,
a false sense of ambition,
a false sense of rivalry,
a false sense of guilt,
or a false sense of inferiority:
yet do not let us mistake our responsibilities,
underestimate ourselves,
fail to be stimulated by others,
overlook our weaknesses,
or know our proper limits.
Enable us also to realise that
important though this life is,
it is not all,
that we should view what we do
in the light of eternity,
not just our limited horizons,
that we ourselves have eternal life now.
God our Father, you are not
so much timeless as timeful,
you do not live above time so much as
hold "all times . . . in your hand",
you have prepared for us a time
when we will have leisure
to enjoy each other and you to the full,
and we thank you, appreciate you
and applaud you for it.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

A Prayer About Time, Again (Part Two)

Here's part two of Robert Banks's prayer about time, from his book The Tyranny of Time. (Read part one here.) This one's weighing on my not because of the oppression I often feel under time's ticking clock but because of my tendency to neglect the realities of finitude as I embrace all sorts of ways of occupying my time. This is a confession of sorts: in my ambitions, in my eagerness to experience life to the full, in my attempts to make people not only happy but dependent on me, I fail myself and my people and my God. Time in this sense is not a tyrant but a parent, teaching me in sometimes difficult ways that I have limits. God, of course, is more parent than tyrant as well, so in these difficult lessons I can take some comfort in knowing I am never alone.

Too often we forget . . . and fail to appreciate your generosity:
we take time for granted and fail to thank you for it,
we view it as a commodity and ruthlessly exploit it,
we cram it too full or waste it,
learn too little from the past or mortgage it off in advance,
we refuse to give priority to those people and things
which should have chief claim upon our time.
Help us to view time more as you view it,
and to use it more as you intend:
to distinguish between what is central and what is peripheral,
between what is merely pressing and what is really important,
between what is our responsibility and what can be left to others,
between what is appropriate now and what will be more relevant later.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

A Prayer About Time, Again

Recently I noticed that the clock in my car was forty minutes behind. That happens occasionally, I guess; some short in the clock fuse or something. So I corrected it with a mild grumble and drove myself home from the office. I got home and noticed that my atomic clock--you know, the clock that is regularly updated by satellites, the clock by which all other clocks are judged--was an hour and a half ahead. So I corrected it with a much more pronounced grumble and went on with my life. But it reminded me how significant time as a concept has been to me in my life--it's the subject of countless posts both here and at my other blog, Strangely Dim--and I was reminded of what follows: my first ever post to Loud Time, a prayer that theologian/sociologist Robert Banks recorded in his book The Tyranny of Time. This first part acknowledges God as Creator of time, which has implications for how we look at our own experience of time. I reproduce it here for your edification.

God our Father
you are the Maker of everything that exists,
the Author of the world of nature
and of all living things,
the Creator of both space
and time.
Without you there would be no past,
present or
no summer or winter,
spring or autumn,
seedtime or harvest;
no morning or evening,
months or years.
Because you give us the gift of time we have the opportunity
to think and to act,
to plan and to pray,
to give and to receive,
to create and to relate,
to work and to rest,
to strive and to play,
to love and to worship.

The apostle Paul sums up this prayer nicely for us: "In him we live and move and have our being." Hope you enjoy it. Parts two and three to come.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Signing with the Enemy, Part Deux

So in a previous post I talked about the awkwardness of signing a contract for my now-forthcoming book, tentatively titled Deliver Us from Me-Ville, with a new publisher who is not only not my previous publisher but is not my employer, as is my previous publisher. Does that make sense? It's confusing, I know . . .

But in my previous post I promised a rationale, and not only a rationale, but a rationale that justifies the lamest, most hurtful cliche of the English language: "It's not you, it's me." You'll have to let me know if I succeed. Here goes nothing.


I signed with Cook rather than with IVP for a number of reasons, most of them psychological, most of them in acknowledgment of my inner weaknesses.

1. I've had this particular idea for a book for a long time, but I've been too timid to actually put it out there for someone to scrutinize and (say it ain't so!) reject. I finally worked up the moxie to draft a formal proposal and was planning to submit it to IVP when I started to think, Omigosh, my friends are going to see this proposal. They're going to decide whether it lives or dies. And when I thought of that, I had two visceral reactions:
  • (VR1) If they reject it, I will take their rejection very personally, and I will be filled with shame and embarrassment, and I will have a hard time making eye contact with my friends and coworkers, and a psychic barrier will be erected, and psychic distance will build between me and my friends and coworkers, and my effectiveness at my job will suffer, and my friendships will suffer, and I don't want that.
  • (VR2) If they agree to publish it, I will wonder from start to finish whether they thought it was a good book worth contracting or whether they thought It's a good enough book to make our coworker and friend happy, seeing as how he really wants to write more and lately he's seemed so anxious and timid and trepidatious, and then I'll be distracted as I write and as I work, and I will have a hard time looking my friends and coworkers in the eye, and my writing and my working will suffer, and I don't want that.
So I went to Cook, for one thing, to build as much stark objectivity into the review process for my proposal as possible, to spare my friends and my coworkers and myself the anguish that I found myself imagining. I wanted to guarantee as much as possible that this idea, that I've wanted to explore in print for a long long time, was really a legitimate, viable publishing project.

Of course, I already noted in my previous post that I did in fact know some folks at Cook, so my experiment in stark objectivity is compromised a bit from the outset, but I'm comfortable with my margin of error--due in no small part to the fact that I got what I wanted, which was a book contract.

2. I get paid for full-time work as an editor, but upon the release of my first book, Comic Book Character, I found myself frequently tempted to devote some of my work time to monitoring the business, marketing and sales concerns of my book. I didn't cave to said temptations too much, but it was a temptation I didn't enjoy, so I wasn't looking forward to the prospects of fretting over the details again, just because I happened to have read-access to the data.

3. I actually have several positive reasons for going with Cook. One is my friend the publisher, whose brain I like. I like IVP's publisher's brain too, but I digress. Another is the delightful editor, who has in our few encounters shown herself to be quite savvy about the industry and the craft of editing. Of course, my friends and coworkers are savvy too, but again, I digress. Cook has been the publisher of record for some great writers, among them Leonard Sweet, Brennan Manning and Matthew Paul Turner--not to mention they recently published a book about my hero of heroes, Jack Bauer. That's got to count for something. Of course, IVP has its share of significant writings under its hat, but darn it all if I'm not digressing again. Another reason for going to Cook with my proposal is the momentum I see happening there: with a lot of new folks with a high capacity for creative thinking about the industry and craft of publishing, I anticipate seeing them do some really interesting work on my book. It's an exciting time to be publishing with them, I think. Not that IVP doesn't have momentum and isn't exciting, but . . . what is with all this digression?!?

All this to say, I'm excited to be working with Don, and Andrea, and Cook. They're cool people doing cool stuff. And I'm excited to have a reason to really crack open the ideas behind Me-Ville. And I still think, for those of you who I've suggested publish with my employer, that IVP is a great publisher to work with and for. You can tell both IVP and Cook that I said that.

Both Inspiration and Cautionary Tale: Excerpts from Middling

What follows is an excerpt from the Winter 2021 edition of Middling, my quarterly newsletter on music, books, work, and getting older. I'...