rolling-stone-climate-killers1

I Hope I Die Before I Get Old, or, What Happened to Rolling Stone?
Is it possible to age without getting old??? . . .  And what happens to a magazine that was founded
to cover a specific style of music after that style and the times that birthed it have passed??

The man, white and middle-aged, stood in the shade of the artist tent at Bonnaroo 2008 looking dazed, as if the wife let him out for the weekend and he didn’t quite know what to do, like the dog that finally catches the car.  The whole scene was a long, long, long way from the mud and bad acid and free love and filthy feet and bare breasts and change-the-world-with-music spirit of Woodstock.  He probably wouldn’t have liked that anyway.  He was, in the parlance of a bygone era, parlor pink (a phrase used to denote those who pretended to be communist in parlors but didn’t have the guts to do it in public).  In more modern terms, he was a weekend hippie.  A day tripper.  He was also one of the main editors ofRolling Stone.

As he spoke, tears threatening his eyelids, he described everything that has gone wrong with America’s greatest music magazine in better terms than he could have possibly known.

“My favorite set here,” he said, “was Jack Johnson.  Especially because my wife called me right as he was going on, the sun setting, and told me that she just felt our baby kick for the first time.

“It was a beautiful moment,” he said, reliving it again behind his eyes.

Surely, it must have been.  It was also the furthest possible thing from rock & roll.  There’s nothing particularly wrong with that—the rock & roll lifestyle, for all its glamour, isn’t exactly a thing to build a real life on.  And, the man will probably make a good father for a good family, which is still important despite all the bullshit anarchistic propaganda of the punk movement.

But still, the point is this:  When you are in charge of a magazine that is supposed to have its finger on the pulse of music, and you are at a festival that includes Broken Social Scene, Louis C.K., Kanye West, Chris Rock, The Raconteurs, Talib Kweli, Cat Power, Solomon Burke, Reggie Watts, Vampire Weekend and a pre-The Hangover Zach Galifianakis, and your favorite act is Jack Johnson, something is seriously wrong.

It has been at least a decade, maybe two (or maybe more) since Rolling Stone was hip.  Sure, it has always been relevant, if for no other reason than its sheer size and cultural pull.  But, the days of Hunter S. Thompson and screaming walls of amplified psychedelic electric guitar feedback have long passed.  Fear and Loathing has turned into Sensible Shoes and Music Played At A Decent Level.  In other words, Rolling Stone got old, and the culture they helped create does not look kindly on old.

Of course, sane people understand that aging is inevitable.  But there is a distinction that must be made here—is it possible to age without getting old?

The main problem for Rolling Stone, and every other magazine that was made to cover a particular style in a particular time, is that styles and times pass quickly, and making an entire media empire adapt to each new style becomes increasingly difficult.  For instance, Rolling Stone has never been good at covering hip-hop.  Unfortunately for them, hip-hop happens to be the most important musical development of the last thirty years.  To their credit, they try admirably, but their efforts are always a bit heavy-handed and seem out of the loop.  It’s like Oprah doing a show on the sexual practices of teenagers or Marge Simpson saying, “If loving my children is lame, I guess I’m just a big lame.”

And, let’s face it, a bunch of fifty-year-old men aren’t supposed to understand hip-hop, just like they weren’t supposed to understand rock & roll in the 1960s.  Yet still, the question remains:  Is it possible to age without getting old?  Is it possible to be relevant and vital forever, no matter what events, fads, styles, inventions come in between?  Could that editor in the artist tent have honestly gone on about how dope Talib Kweli’s rhymes are without looking like, sounding like and probably being a fool and a liar?

Perhaps the same thing will happen to, say, The Source once hip-hop’s relevance fades.  Perhaps it isn’t possible to age without getting old.  Perhaps one’s priorities change as years pass, and being hip increasingly seems like a meaningless goal, which it most likely is.

Or, maybe there is a balance that Rolling Stone hasn’t quite figured out how to strike.  Maybe getting old has less to do with not “understanding” what is currently popular, and more to do with losing interest in discovering new things.  After all, a journalist is supposed to be a perpetual novice, which means all he needs is an interest in the subject, any subject.  And, in that case, aging is actually an advantage because it brings knowledge and wisdom to that boundless interest.

So, while Rolling Stone had to age, maybe it didn’t have to get old.  Yes, maybe that old anthem of the rock & roll era needs to be revised:

“I hope I die before I get old . . . but not before I have lived a long time.”

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Osama bin Laden is Dead

Osama bin Laden is dead.  There has been enough chest-thumping to go around, and perhaps rightly so.  After all, the man who is more responsible than anybody for the state of America right now—the symbol of and the brains behind the worst attacks on American soil in our country’s history—was finally made to pay for the lives he took.

But, amidst all the chanting of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” few are asking the hard questions.  Ten years after the attack, are we safer?  Have we rid the world of terrorism?  After billions of dollars and thousands upon thousands of lives lost—including bin Laden’s—have we accomplished anything?

Is air travel safer?  There are more pat downs, X-rays and plainclothes police, but people on the “no-fly” list still get on planes.  Is the country more prepared for an attack?  There is the NSA and a greater cooperation between the intelligence-gathering groups, but our borders are wide open.  Are Al Qaeda and the Taliban gone, or at least weakened?  Every time we drive them from a place, they seem to simply wait until we leave to come right back, strong as ever.

The problem that some people are having with America’s reaction to the news of bin Laden’s death is that we seem to have learned nothing.  Sure, it is a monumental event.  But, we lost the message.  We never asked why the attacks happened. We didn’t look at the underlying conditions that make terrorist propaganda so effective – things like crushing poverty, lack of education and dearth of prospects.  We didn’t look at how our foreign policy might play into the hands of terrorists.  We went to war before we learned anything. To paraphrase Wayne Coyne, we tried to use a crane to crush a fly.  The problem is, the crane, although a million times more powerful, will never be as quick as the fly.

In so doing, we did exactly what bin Laden and his cronies wanted.  He often said that his goal was to draw America into a war it could not win that would drain it of lives and money.  He must have been supremely satisfied when he realized that he had drawn us into not one, but two wars that have done just that.

Ultimately, the problem is that terrorism cannot be fought by fighting.  Fighting only fuels it.  Until we address the roots of the problem, we will never be safe.  The war on terror will continue to be conducted like a gardener pulling off the top of the weeds but leaving the roots.

I was a sophomore in college on September 11, 2001.  I woke up that day and walked to my early-morning literature class.  My girlfriend at the time was sitting outside with a few other classmates, and when I reached them, they told me that a plane had run into the World Trade Center.  The second plane hadn’t hit yet, and we assumed that a pilot had fallen asleep, or something had gone wrong with the plane.  By the time I left the class and got back to my dorm room, it was clear that something was wrong.  People were everywhere, crying, trembling, everyone on phones.  My roommate had the TV on, and I watched with horror as they replayed the buildings falling down.  It is impossible to describe that moment.  Reality split in half.  It was soul shattering.  I called my parents.  It was almost a reflex—everyone in the entire dormitory was on the phone with someone in his or her family.  We needed each other at that moment.  I remember pacing the hall outside of my room, telling my father that I hoped our first reaction wouldn’t be to attack.  Imagine how powerful it would be, I said, if we reacted with peace.  Not peace for the terrorists—we would obviously have to track down the people responsible.  But, imagine if our reaction was to say to the world that we would not become a part of this violence, that we would not legitimize the killing by creating more of it.  The girl who lived across the hall came out of her room and called me a douche bag.

I’m still not sure I wasn’t right.

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Why the 1990s Didn’t Actually Suck

zubaz

Children of the 1980s were born at a disadvantage.  Their parents filled their heads with golden tales of free love, Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, psychedelic drugs, Civil Rights, Vietnam, the space race, burning draft cards, burning bras, Motown, Stax and on and on.  Their grandparents added tight-lipped  stories of the horrors of the Great Depression, romantic tales of shooting Nazis in WWII and wooing their sweethearts with the Golden Age of jazz, swing, big band.

Unfortunately, those poor ’80s babies came of age in the 1990s, by some measures a lost decade in American culture.  Instead of bell bottoms and Beatles, there were Zubaz and New Kids on the Block.  The fraternal hope of Martin Luther King had turned into the fatalistic despair of the Rodney King beating.  Instead of an unparalleled era of creativity in popular music, the decade limped through its first half with Vanilla Ice, Color Me Badd and P.M. Dawn before ending on one of the lowest points in American history with Limp Bizkit, Disturbed, Stained and all the other whiny beef-head rock.

But, while looking back on those saved-by-the-bellish years can sometimes seem like staring into a black hole, a closer inspection of the 1990s shows that it was, musically, one of the great decades of the 20th century.  Sure, the fashion was deeply, deeply embarrassing.  Sure, the popular music was occasionally too terrible for words.  But, when you really look at it, there were some truly great things happening.

The most important part of those great things was hip-hop.  At the start of the decade, the genre was coming out of its early days of sparse beats and stripped-down production and entering a peak time of sampling and rhyming fueled in large part by DJ Premiere and a 1990 masterpiece from Gang Starr (Step in the Arena – check it out in “Get Hip”), as well as Public Enemy’s second masterpiece, Fear of a Black Planet, and A Tribe Called Quest’s seminal People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm.  Tribe would quickly release two more excellent albums – The Low End Theory in ’91 and Midnight Marauders in ’93.

Also in ’93, Dr. Dre released the unavoidable The Chronic, and the Wu-Tang Clan released Enter the Wu-Tang:  36 Chambers, which has since been near the top of every list of hip-hop’s greatest albums.  In ’94, Notorious B.I.G. put out Ready to Die and Nas made Illmatic, both also regarded as among the greatest hip-hop albums of all time.  In ’96, the Fugees put out The Score and Lauryn Hill would go solo two years later on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, both excellent albums.  Also around the middle of the decade, Outkast hit with brilliant albums like ’96’s ATliens and ’98’s Aquemini.

Not only were these albums excellent and popular, they were pushing boundaries and creating new templates for hip-hop.  And, while hip-hop was having its Golden Age, rock & roll was having something of a resurgence.

Apart from grunge – which actually did produce quite a few good albums – there were bands like Pavement making “indie” a household term and defining a new sound on albums like ’92’s Slanted and Enchanted, ’94’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and ’95’s Wowee Zowee.  The Flaming Lips were starting to become brilliant with ’93’s Transmissions From the Satellite Heart and ’95’s Clouds Taste Metallic, and they would soon produce two of the greatest albums ever recorded – ’97’s four-disc masterpiece, Zaireeka, and ’99’s epic, The Soft Bulletin.  Beck was doing his best work during the ’90s with ’96’s Odelay and ’99’s Midnite Vultures.  Weezer put out two incredible albums – The Blue Album in ’94 and Pinkerton in ’96.  Even Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney had late-career resurgences with Time Out of Mind and Flaming Pie, respectively, both in ’97.  And, there was a little band called Radiohead that blew just about everyone out of the water with OK Computer in ’97 (not to mention The Bends in ’95).

There are literally hundreds more that could – and probably should – be mentioned, but the point is made.  History will forget the Zubaz.  It won’t forget the music.

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Why Hasn’t Anyone Made a Decent Christmas Album in Forty Years?

It’s a damn shame, Charlie Brown.  There hasn’t been a decent Christmas album since 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas and it is hard to say just why. Christmas albums are, after all, like that old adage about opinions – everyone has one.  Or so it seems.  From the hallowed (Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Elvis) to the callow (the Jackson 5, Alvin and the Chipmunks); from the unfortunate (Bob Dylan, Mariah Carey, Tiny Tim) to the unforgivable (the Wilson sisters, Jessica Simpson, whatever that “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” song is), the Christmas album is a form that few artists can avoid and fewer can get right.

In fact, as far as Thriller can tell, there are only six essential Christmas albums, and they belong to Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Nat King Cole and the Vince Guaraldi Trio.  The rest we can take or leave.  Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t other essential Christmas songs – the Temptations’ “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the Jackson 5’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” or Gene Autry’s “Here Comes Santa Claus,” for instance.  But, those songs come mostly from forgettable albums.

Perhaps it is the nature of the task.  It might, in fact, be the hardest thing to do in all of music.  How do you take songs that have been sung and recorded thousands, if not millions, of times and make them your own?  It confounded some of the most unassailable musical geniuses in history.  Louis Armstrong couldn’t do it.  Neither could Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Ray Charles, James Brown or hundreds of others.

Still, the real problem with Christmas albums in the last forty-odd years is in the artists’ approach.  What makes the Big Six such classic, essential albums isn’t so much the arrangements as it is the feel.  And, this could really go off into a tangent on the whole process of recording and how digital technology sucked the warmth out of it, but we’ll save that for another day.  For now, suffice to say that no one seems to grasp the importance of feel anymore.  No one remembers or cares to remember how to get that classic warmth and timeless mixture of bitter and sweet that make up the greatest Christmas albums. Even when the performers are technically adept, they don’t capture the spirit of the songs or the season.  All of this might sound like an old man haranguing his grandkids after Christmas dinner about “the old days,” but frankly, as far as Christmas albums are concerned, the old days really were better.  Find anyone with good ears and play them Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song and Josh Groban’s Noel back to back and see which one feels better.

Perhaps someday someone will get it right again.  Until then, get yourself a turntable and a vinyl copy of The Christmas Song and settle in for the season the way it was meant to sound

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What is Art?

words by:  Eric Atria

Perhaps no other contemporary artist alive requires his audiences to repeatedly ask, “What is art?” more than Jeff Koons.  On a brisk summer afternoon in 2008, I found myself a block away from The Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Chicago.  They were offering free admission on that particular day, so my traveling companions and I went for a gander.  The exhibit consisted of a “carefully selected survey focusing on his most iconic sculptural works” according to the museum’s website.  What I witnessed, however, was mostly a crap-fest extraordinaire.

I will select a few of the items from the exhibit and answer the question “Is this art?” with an explanation for each.

koons1

Is this art? Yes*.

Why? Because it’s really damn cool.  He somehow managed to create a room sized balloon animal.  Why the asterisk?  Well, he didn’t actually make it.  He just came up with the idea and paid people to make it for him.  I think this piece forces the observer to ask “What is an artist?”  Is an “artist” such a bad-ass that he can just imagine up ideas and pay other people to make them a reality?  I guess if you could write an amazing song, but couldn’t play it that well, you’d still be a great composer.  But you wouldn’t necessarily be a great musician.  Perhaps we need another word for someone who creates art ideas, but doesn’t actually implement them.

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koons2

Is this art? No

Why? Because it’s stupid.

He made this sculpture, along with two other very similar ones as part of his “Banality” series.  Yeah, he knew exactly what he was making, and maybe it was a statement of sorts, but it’s stupid. A critic even called it the world’s largest knick-knack.  Obviously, Koons made this as a tongue in cheek piece, but it’s still a waste of porcelain.

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koons3

Is this art? No

Why? Because it’s basketballs in a glass box.

Created as part of his “Equilibrium” series as a commentary on consumerism, this work was originally made for an exhibition on the themes of achievement, survival and death.  All items in this series “serve as metaphors for social aspiration.”  Koons “questions how perfection and success are created, marketed, and maintained.”  According to Koons, “The suspended basketballs suggest death, the ultimate state of being.” According to me, they’re basketballs in a glass box, a.k.a. “not art.”  By utilizing three basketballs in this piece, Koons deprived approximately fourteen inner-city youths from a few games of 21.

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koons4

Is this art? No.

Why? Because I also saw this outside of a Home Depot.

To his credit, the “pool toy” was actually cast out of aluminum, and is not rubber or plastic.  It does maintain an impressively lifelike plastic appearance, but is still the reasons terrorists hate America.  This series boasts “unexpected combinations of childhood innocence and adult sexuality.”  I think this sentiment rings true for any children out there who watched their uncle fuck a ladder with their beloved pool toy.

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koons5

Is this art? No; it’s porn

Why? Because it’s called “Ilona’s Asshole”

When we entered the exhibit, it warned us that graphic nudity was involved.  I saw a few boobs here and there, but didn’t realize what lay behind the back wall of the gallery until it was too late.  Indeed, hidden to the immediate gaze were three erotic, large-scale photographs of himself engaged in various forms of sex with his pornstar/Italian parliament member wife.  One featured him performing cunnilingus on her, another is pictured above, and the third showed him actively penetrating her (all three were near a beautiful waterfall).  So, is this art?  I think I must quote Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who famously stated in the landmark pornography case Jacobellis v. Ohio, that “hard-core pornography” was hard to define, but that “I know it when I see it.”  To somehow segue from the Supreme Court to Ali G, I further cite the following: when you have “dongs going in,” it’s porn.  I’m sorry Koons, but it’s glorified porn.  Is a purpose of art to push the boundaries and shock people’s perceptions?  Of course!  But to just put up garage door sized photos of you bonking your wife isn’t taking art to any new horizon.  It’s just bringing it into the realm of smut (don’t get me wrong, I love smut).

So, what is art?  I saw this exhibit and am still ranting about it more than two years later.  One might say that Koons achieved his goal by making his work stick with me to this day.  Others might say that it sticks with me out of abject hatred and disdain.  Obviously the dude has done some cool stuff (just google him), but what was shown at this exhibit was largely a waste of time.  Furthermore, to learn that he doesn’t actually make most of the exhibits himself, but contracts them out, really deflated my expectations of what an artist should be.  Anyone can say, “Hey, let’s make a 10 story tall Connect Four game out of solid brass, with red and black game pieces made out of recycled cars, have confederate money plastered all over it, and call it a commentary on racial relations and consumerism in America over the past 150 years.”  Just because a guy somehow has money to pay people to make it happen, does it make him an artist?  I submit that it makes him a madman.

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If the Nightingale Could Sing Like You:  Comedy and Music Through the Years

Before there was such a thing as a standup comedian, there were simply comedians. They’d tell jokes, sure, but mostly they entertained.  And quite often, that entertaining involved music, sometimes as a foil to the comedy, sometimes as the joke in itself.  Not every great comedian has used music, but take a close look at any list of comedic legends, and most of them will assuredly have been musicians.

Vaudeville through 1930s
While there are many greats from this era, two stand out:  the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin.  Both came from vaudeville, and both are considered among the greatest comedic entertainers ever.  The Marx Brothers – Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and sometimes Zepppo and Gummo – became famous for instantly creating pandemonium in every scene.  And, in their stage shows as well as movies, they always made room for music.  In fact, both Harpo and Chico would become highly-sought-after club performers, doing solo shows that mixed comedic routines with musical numbers.  Watch any classic Marx Brothers movie – from Duck Soup to A Night at the Opera – and you will see something like this:

And this:

Chaplin, on top of being quite possibly the most gifted physical comedian of all time, also played violin, and often included music in his films.  Occasionally, the joke would involve playing music, as in this scene from one of his last movies, Limelight (that’s another vaudeville legend, Buster Keaton at the piano):

Other times, music was the foundation on which he built a physical comedy routine, as in this scene from The Great Dictator (the idea for it came from one of his early silent shorts):

1940s through 1960s
As Thriller’s interview with Reggie Watts shows, one of the most influential and successful musical comedians of this era was Victor Borge.  Borge began his career on radio in the ’40s.  He even hosted his own show on NBC beginning in 1946.  Through the ’50s and ’60s, Borge moved to television and developed a stage show that kept him in high demand until his death in 2000.  He studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, escaped Denmark after the Nazis invaded and eventually made his way to America where he left his former life as a concert pianist behind and began doing comedy:

1970s through 1980s
As the ’50s and ’60s progressed, comedians became less interested in the all-around entertaining of earlier years.  Some, however, never lost their vaudeville nostalgia.  Steve Martin famously used his banjo-playing abilities in his comedic routine (and now fronts a dead-serious bluegrass group):

And, no discussion of comedy and music in the 1980s would be complete without mentioning “Weird” Al Yankovic.  Yankovic is the only parody songwriter on the list, and although his songs are often silly, one can’t help but respect a man who has changed with the times, accepted new technology and stayed relevant for thirty years the way Yankovic has.

1990s through Present
During the ’90s, things got a little weirder with music and comedy.  Case in point, Tenacious D:

In the mid -’90s, Zach Galifianakis began his odd, anti-humor standup routine.  He used, and still uses, the piano as a sober, dramatic backdrop, over which he can say inane non sequiturs like this:

There are many others – from Demetri Martin, who owes most of his act to Galifianakis, to Flight of the Conchords, who owe most of their act to Tenacious D.  And there will be many more to come.  So, we leave you with this:

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An Evening With the Magnetic Fields

words by:  Ashley Belanger

A jerk. A downer. An unpleasant person. A cantankerous performer. The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt has been called a lot of names over the years, and most of them, unfortunately, have to do more with his personality than his music. In the same breath, though, most of his critics must also use another adjective, no matter how reluctantly, and that’s genius.

Merritt is like the potion master of pop songs. He experimented with so many lyrical and musical styles within his greatest triumph 69 Love Songs that fans are still bitching more than ten years later when he doesn’t perform more of those songs live. Maybe people can’t get over his departure from synth-pop on his following three albums, or they just got grumpy that the band joined Warner Bros. on Nonesuch, but what I don’t understand is how the thought Merritt puts into his albums can be so underappreciated just because his performance style isn’t exactly the most congenial.

I saw The Magnetic Fields for the first time in 2008 when the group toured on Distortion, and I can say that despite the many dramatic cautionary tales I heard about how “awful” they are live; that show was awesome. It’s true that Claudia Gonson’s personality carried the between-song banter, but I don’t entirely understand why it is that we demand so much from the ailing frontman anyway?

For anyone who’s unaware, Stephin Merritt suffers from hyperacusis, a hearing condition where he experiences over-sensitivity to certain sound frequencies. To put it plainly, it literally hurts him when you clap your hands. Because of his condition, most sets the band plays feature little or no percussion and are frequently acoustic. He’s been known to react negatively to overly loud crowds, which certainly is alienating to the show-going population who are usually wired to appreciate loud volumes. Earplugs are for sissies, a sign of old age. But Merritt never plays without his, and you can often spy him covering up his ear while performing.

I saw The Magnetic Fields perform at Town Hall in Seattle. The church-turned-performance hall was, for me, the perfect venue for the band. We sat in semi-circular pews, which meant there wasn’t a bad seat in the house from which to view the synth-pop sermon. What little light was left from sundown streamed in through the stained glass windows and even later in the set, the streetlights provided this same special glow that only intensified the seeming spirituality of the atmosphere.

Merritt was set apart from the rest of the band, but my group of friends happened to choose the second pew back on the side he chose to perform from. As people funneled in, the pre-show buzz was already low and hushed, probably because visually, it felt like we were about to attend a latenight mass. When the show was ready to start, they dimmed the lights, and the crowd got even quieter, sleepy even. Ahead of me, more than a few heads tilted sideways in search of a friend’s shoulder.

Gonson opened the show with this dry sarcasm that she continued throughout the act, oftentimes attempting to engage Merritt, but usually more concerned with amusing herself than anyone else. Under her narrative influence, I kind of felt like I was witnessing a show taking place in their living room. I looked at Gonson as my clever classmate who never failed to pave an awkward moment with a witty observation. Merritt kept his irritable outbursts to a minimum, only once lashing out at photographers and their flashing lights.

“Let’s just say no more photography. Thanks.”

Between songs, he clutched his ears privately, and had I not been made aware of his affliction, I probably wouldn’t have paid it much heed. Because of my knowledge, I barely applauded (and neither did anyone else), which only added to the feeling that this was indeed a group of my friends giving a living room performance. I settled sleepily into the pew and noticed everyone around me doing the same. By the time Merritt leaned forward to perform a solo rendition of “Book of Love,” I was in an elevated mental state, open to his guidance but maintaining my own pensive independence.

The Magnetic Fields released Realism earlier this year, which is supposed to be the opposing counterpart to Distortion. They’re touring now with a few dates in the privileged cities of New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis and Bloomington, so if you have the opportunity, my opinion is that since you won’t need your earplugs during the show, you should wear them every day beforehand to block out the exaggerated criticism of how disappointing The Magnetic Fields are live.

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On Health Care . . .

Let’s face it.  No one understands everything the recently-passed health care reform bill is going to do.  And, you can be sure that it isn’t perfect.  But, after all of the misinformation that went around (and, yes, that whole death panel thing was embarrassing at best and odious at worst), there are a few things that the bill, as written, will actually do.  Again, we’re not saying you have to agree with the health care bill, but it’s at least important to know what all of those shouting masses are against.  Here are a few things that happened the minute the bill was signed (there are a lot of good places to read more about these things, including this one):

1.Small business can start applying for tax credits to buy insurance for employees.

2. Seniors can apply for help paying for prescriptions.

3. Coverage will be available for pre-existing conditions.

As of September 23, 2010:

1. Insurance companies can no longer deny children because of a pre-existing condition.

2. Insurance companies can’t drop you if you get sick.

3. No more lifetime limits.

4. Children can stay on parents’ insurance until 26.

As of 2011:

1.  Insurance companies must spend 80-85% of what they take in premiums on actual medical care, if they don’t, they will owe you the difference in a rebate.

2. Medicare patients will get free preventive care.

And, in 2014: Insurance companies cannot legally deny anyone for a pre-existing condition.

So, while there is certainly room to improve the bill, and while no change that is this major can happen without problems and false starts, we think it’s important to understand that those trying to repeal it are also trying to repeal all of these things.

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On Guilty Pleasures . . .

guilty pleasures

Recently, we were having a conversation with a close friend, and she mentioned a “guilty pleasure” of hers.  It got us to thinking – when, why and how did this whole concept of “guilty pleasures” originate?  When did enjoying a piece of music become something one had to feel guilty about?  Why would you ever feel guilty about enjoying something that gives you pleasure (unless you went to Catholic school)?  And how did this become engrained in our psyche?

Thriller doesn’t know the answers to these questions, but we do have a theory, and here it is.  Back when our parents were growing up, if there was a catchy song on the radio, they liked it.  They didn’t feel bad about liking it.  In fact, that never even entered their minds.  They simply liked it.  Of course, one could argue that much of this is attributable to the fact that when they turned on the radio, they heard the Beatles, and when we turn on the radio, we hear Nickelback.  However, even that argument gets at a very important point about the purpose of art, which we will shortly make.

But first, back to our parents.  We’re not saying that cynicism is new, or that art snobbery was invented recently.  Art snobs are as old as art.  You can be sure that tens of millions of years ago, one caveman said to another, “Grok’s cave paintings are brilliant, but Blork’s are just contrived bullshit.”  And, surely there were art snobs in the ’50s and ‘60s and ‘70s.  The important point, though, is that these art snobs didn’t have the same kind of mind control that they do now.  Their influence was among other art snobs.  They owned little stake in the mind of the common consumer of popular culture.

So, what changed?  Well, for one thing, punk music.  We think you can draw a straight line from punk music to today’s music snobs.  This is not meant to discredit punk music – it was an incredibly important movement, necessary and right for its time.  But, more than any musical revolution before it, punk music put The Invisible Critic in the public consciousness.  The Invisible Critic is the voice in your head that says, “You shouldn’t like this.”  It is the voice that makes you feel guilty when you kind of like that Jonas Brothers song.  And, while it is celebrated in some circles, it is a menace to society.

Today, The Invisible Critic is owned by Pitchfork.  More than any other force in American culture throughout the last 20 years, Pitchfork has planted The Invisible Critic so firmly in the minds of music lovers that it towers over them.  It is a force of evil, one that demands that we only like the “right” things.  We must check with The Invisible Critic before we enjoy something.  And, if we enjoy something we’re not supposed to, then we must explain it away as a “guilty pleasure.”

How terrible.  How depressing.  How wrong.  Which brings us to that very important point about the purpose of art.  This is an issue that has been debated endlessly, a question that can never really be answered.  But, we propose an answer.  The purpose of art is to convey emotion.  Whether happiness, sadness, joy, love, hatred, death, life – all art is an expression of emotion.  So, if you feel as much emotion in the latest Nickelback song as we do in Curtis Mayfield’s “Sweet Exorcist,” then who’s to say which is better?  Both achieved their purpose.

Now, to be perfectly clear, we are not suggesting that Nickelback and Curtis Mayfield are equals, artistically.  But, we are saying that you should not be ashamed to like either one of them.  And to look down your nose at someone who does, to judge them or to believe that anything you don’t like is “bad,” is immature, arrogant and, quite frankly, stupid.

The ultimate point is this:  What you like has no inherent value.  Liking the “right” things, the “cool” or “good” music, movies, books, whatever doesn’t make you a good person.  To pursue this intellectual idea of credibility as an end in itself – as something that delineates “us” from “them” – leads nowhere.

So, we would like to say something to The Invisible Critic:  Fuck you.  You are useless.  You don’t control us.  And those Jonas Brothers are wonderfully talented.

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dcon1Dragon Con

Words by:  Lindsay Gordon

Every Labor Day weekend, a crowd descends upon Atlanta for the sensory festival known as Dragon*Con.  To the outsider, Dragon* Con can be described as Comic Con’s scrappier, less corporate little brother.  The Con-Goer, however, finds Dragon*Con more amazing than chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream and Purple Rain and the perfect pair of black leather riding boots.  This was the best weekend ever, and I want to share it with you.  Thus, I present to you, in the only way I know how, a series of memories from my first time at Dragon*Con.

1:43 p.m., Thursday September 3rd:

Jon, the boyfriend, and I make the six hour drive from Chapel Hill, North Carolina to Atlanta in my little red Honda Civic.  The car is packed with many bags, including two devoted entirely to our Steampunk costumes and a small protective case for Jon’s flamethrower (a fancy arm brace cobbled together over an intensive work week from PVC pipe and random brass objects culled from antique stores).  In order to enliven the drive, I am playing my favorite songs.  Specifically, the twelve-minute version of “I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That).”  I love this song.  I love this video.  Did you know that Michael Bay directed it?  Isn’t that ridiculous?  Anyhow, this is going to be the best weekend ever.

6:45 p.m., Thursday September 3rd:

Dragon*Con is situated in four hotels in downtown Atlanta: The Hyatt, the Marriott, the Hilton, and the Sheraton.  One frantic day in May, I secured one room for five people at the Hilton.  Not at Con rates, unfortunately, but staying in a Con hotel is a major plus, especially because the Con hotels have an entire channel devoted to Dragon*Con.  Win!  Con-goers are already roaming the streets in various costumes from basic angsty high school Goth to Pimp Santa.

7:00 pm, Thursday September 3rd:

Jon and I had planned to get to Atlanta early to secure our Con registration and badges.  This was a massive fail, as the registration line stretches around the block outside the Sheraton and the wait is about three hours.  We get in line, make small talk with the girl wearing cat ears in front of us for about an hour, and then suffer rage and fury when Con volunteers tell us that the computer system is down and registration is closed for the night.

1:00 a.m Friday September 4th:

Jon’s roommate Marc, Marc’s girlfriend Erin, and friend Kyle arrive in the second Chapel Hill wave, thus negating any possibility for sleep and a restful night.  Commence much talking, and the inflating of a blow up mattress.

DSC063625:30 a.m. Friday September 4th:

Three and a half hours of sleep later, Jon and I are sitting in the freezing lobby of the Sheraton waiting for registration to open.  Our plan has met with success, as only twenty people are in front of us.  As the morning progresses the line moves outside and around the building.  A girl in a mini skirt with platform hooker heels and a hairdo I will only characterize as “skunk” stands a few people behind us.  I am impressed by her early morning sartorial commitment.

8:00 a.m. Friday September 4th:

Registration opens! Hundreds of groggy, goosebumped nerds file into a conference room that is set up like a line at Disney World – a giant winding maze.  Someone sets up a high-five line, resulting in much back and forth hand slappage.  I decline participation as part of my goal of avoiding the Con Crud.[1] I firmly believe that not getting sick is a matter of sheer willpower, but foregoing unnecessary human contact never hurts.  The badge stations are set up by last names; I file into the G line and secure my badge, program, and schedule.  The badge bestows life: I am a legitimate Dragon*Con attendee.[2]

8:45 a.m. Friday September 4th:

Jon and I hike the five blocks uphill to the Hyatt.  A panel with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, the greatest buddy team of all time, is scheduled for 10:00 a.m. today.  The Shatner-Nimoy line is already out the door and is moving, meaning that they are letting people into the conference room.  This is unusual, but we go with it, and quietly congratulate ourselves on our excellent planning.  We funnel into the giant hall and secure seats about two thirds toward the back of the room. On my left is a woman with a dragon puppet perched on her shoulder.  His head moves via a little pully she hides in her shirt sleeve.

9:17 a.m. Friday September 4th:

The ballroom is packed.  The captive crowd is being entertained by Dragon*Con TV. This primarily consists of low-budget skits and faux-commercials featuring ads for colognes inspired by Vulcan mating rituals and a Klingon version of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The skits are interspersed with Adult-Swim style Q&As.  White text on black background answers questions such as “What if I have the insatiable urge to lick Patrick Stewart’s shiny bald head?” and “Who would kick more ass, Buffy or Echo?”  Dragon*Con TV is played on a loop, so after the third time through I busy myself with planning the itinerary for the weekend.  I have different colored pens for Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C, because sometimes that Farscape makeup panel is going to be filled and you’ll have to settle for the Pern Track’s Dragon Sex panel.

10:05 a.m. Friday September 4th:

The Trek Track director, Eric Watts (and his incredibly long beard that makes him look like an extra from Witness), introduces William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.  Thunderous applause ensues.

DSC0644110:35 a.m. Friday September 4th:

Shatner-Nimoy funny hour.  Clearly, Nimoy exists to reign in Shatner.  I sort of want to be Nimoy’s granddaughter.[3] Shatner talks about Esperanto, and his feud with George Takkei.  Nimoy basically talks about how Shatner is still angry at not being in the new Star Trek movie. Shatner, pleasantly, fulfills his reputation of being a charming megalomaniac.

10:55 a.m. Friday September 4th:

Eric Watts and his beard do an impromptu song and dance across the stage, bearing a sign that reads “Five Minutes Left” to inform the audience about the end of the panel.  The crowd is immensely amused, Shatner is immensely not.  When the panel ends, Nimoy waves to the audience, and forms the iconic “live long and prosper” gesture.[4] I feel blessed.

2:30 p.m. Friday September 4th:

Food and attempted nap, and now Jon and I are up and donning our Steampunk finery.  Jon has a fancy shirt, pants, and vest that he ordered from the Interwebs.  His apparati are a fancy scientist’s monocle and his arm bracer.  My costume is less gadgety: a silk and brocade skirt made by a friend, a lacy vest from Marciano, and a button up white shirt.  My ornate Steampunk headband made from feathers, glue, and a few stolen gears, some heeled boots with buttons on the side, and a bunch of random, brassy looking jewelry complete the outfit.  Also, gothy eye makeup, as I need no excuse to cover my eyes in obscene amounts of black eyeliner.

3:30 p.m. Friday September 4th:

Dragon*ConTV plays while we finish getting dressed.  The channel live broadcasts some of the larger panels, and we are currently enjoying Malcolm McDowell recounting the story of how he and Stanley Kubrick discovered the perfect costume for Alex in A Clockwork Orange.  Kubrick asked McDowell to bring his rugby uniform to rehearsals.  McDowell complied, only to be surprised when Kubrick had him put on only the uniform’s undergarments.  That’s your costume, Kubrick told him.  And thus a visual icon was born.  I am even more pleased by Dragon*ConTV and Malcolm McDowell when, while thinking of how to answer an audience member’s question, McDowell stalls by chanting “Welly welly welly welly well.”

5:37 p.m. Friday September 4th:

I spend much of Dragon*Con wandering around in a haze, staring at the amazing costumes, taking pictures of people in amazing costumes, conversing with people in amazing costumes.  Jon and I talk to a woman in full Elf gear: body paint, red cat’s eye contacts, even finger attachments.  Every few feet an impromptu photo session is taking place.  In the corner, a guy dressed as Max from Where the Wild Things Are is taking a picture with a couple dressed as Mr. Incredible and Elastagirl, and Anthony Daniels aka C3PO from Star Wars is signing autographs behind them.

5:45 p.m. Friday September 4th :

Also at Dragon*Con: the numerous Alabama Crimson Tide and Virginia Tech Hokie fans in town for the weekend’s ACC/SEC NCAA football season opener.  While most of these fans seem curious and amused by the presence of all these costumes in their hotels, a few altercations do occur.  Mostly on the street, involving eggs and impolite language.

DSC06443

7:18 p.m. Friday September 4th:

Steampunk happy hour in the Hyatt Bar.  I stupidly wore my boots with heels, so I perch on a stool while Jon talks costuming basics with our new friends from California.  We meet a girl who wears an arm accoutrement that is a functional morse code transmitter.  I chat with three women from Jacksonville, all of whom are wearing complicated hats and veils.  Costume.  Envy.  I decide to drink more, as it makes my feet hurt less.

9:15 p.m. Friday September 4th:

Returning to the Hilton to freshen up, we pass a group of fifty or so muscled men dressed as the Spartans from 300.  They must be actors.  Or a sports team.  They have six packs.  A random passerby hollers: “SPARTANS! WHAT IS YOUR PROFESSION?!”  In unison the Spartans stamp their spears and grunt: “HUH! HUH! HUH!” Squee.[5]

11:27 p.m. Friday September 4th:

Time Traveler’s Dance Party!  Since I am in a hotel conference room I feel like I am at a Bat Mitzvah party, but with better clothes.  We missed the fashion show, but several of the models are still hanging around the party.  In particular, two women dressed as crazy Steampunk aliens.  One of them is pierced every which way; I bet her face hurts.  A man walks around on stilts, and two women, one dressed in a gorgeous emerald green gown and the other in a beautiful white gown studded with peacock feathers, pose for photographs with resident Steampunk theorist G.D. Falksen. Dragon*Con is all about the drinking and dancing, and I am hopping about to the random techno being played by an unseen DJ.  A really convincing Severus Snape is whirling around beside me; I keep getting hit by his robe.

2:45 a.m. Saturday September 5th :

I would love to be asleep, but Kyle keeps banging on his air mattress in rhythm with the heavy metal music blaring from his iPod headphones.

10:00 a.m. Saturday September 5th :

Dragon*Con boasts an extremely popular parade that winds its way through downtown Atlanta.  Unfortunately, we have slept through most of it.  I wake up and quickly steal the bathroom to re-don my Steampunk costume.  Kyle wakes up and discovers that he has put a hole in his air mattress.

1:45 p.m. Saturday September 5th:

We stumble upon the photo shoot for the superhero crowd: grown men and women in copious amounts of spandex.  I furiously text my father, who introduced me to all this glory in the first place, “Green Lanterns!  Tons of them!”

Pimp Vader and Boba Phat walk by the photoshoot, with cups and chains and fuzzy hats.  Best. Weekend. Ever.

2:00 p.m. Saturday September 5th :

I buy a Steampunk resin set necklace with clock gears in the vendor’s hall.  Jon buys an expansion for Munchkin, a game mocking Dungeons and Dragons. At the Brute Force booth, a middle-aged woman with cropped bleach blonde hair and ice blue contacts comes to have her corset adjusted.  She is a divorce attorney.  Her job pays for her addiction to expensive leather-worked outfits.

2:15 p.m. Saturday September 5th :

DSC06465Impulse buy of the Con: a tiny, hand-knit, green Cthulhu which I am sure is much cuter than H.P. Lovecraft ever intended.  The dark lord wants me to put him on my bureau and coo.

2:30 p.m. Saturday September 5th :

OH MY GOD THAT WOMAN’S COSTUME IS A GIANT JAYNE HAT.[6]

2:40 p.m. Saturday September 5th :

Jon and I decide to walk into an already-in-progress panel, just out of curiosity.  I have to swallow a squee, because Kate Mulgrew is onstage in front of me, and this woman is a brilliant actress who has played many a Kate in her time: Katherine Hepburn and Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Starship Voyager to name a few.  Female nerds particularly love Kate, as Janeway is the only female Star Fleet Captain with her own series.

3:30 p.m. Saturday September 5th :

We randomly decide to attend the Working With Joss Whedon panel featuring James Marsters (Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel), Charisma Carpenter (Cordelia from Buffy and Angel), Julie Benz (Darla from Buffy and Angel and currently Rita on Dexter) and Kristy Swanson (the original Buffy from the fun but forgettable movie).  I always forget that James Marsters isn’t actually British.  Cordelia Carpenter is gorgeous.  Julie Benz keeps insisting that she doesn’t put much thought into the feminist theory of women playing kick-ass vampires on television.  No one cares about poor Kristy Swanson.  I feel awkward for her.

5:45 p.m. Saturday September 5th :

Once back at the Hilton, Jon and I decide to check out the Walk of Fame before it closes at 6:00.  The Hilton doesn’t have too many Dragon*Con activities, but it is host to a large room filled with many celebrities who sit around and chat with fans and take pictures.  Though many of the tables are empty, most of the cast members from my favorite shows are still present.  All of the Battlestar Galactica people are there, including Mary McDonnell who is luminous and whose President Laura Roslin made “airlock” a word of terror, and Alessandro Giuliani, who turned the potentially forgettable character of Felix Gaeta into a study of tragic idealism. So many amazing performers, so much effort not to squee.

6:50 p.m. Saturday September 5th:

Jon and I are in a packed elevator at the Hilton with a busty pirate wench, a man in a motorized wheelchair, and the tallest man I have ever seen.  He is probably in his 60s, with a tan and lined face, watery eyes, and scraggly, long hair.  The knuckles on his hands are twisted, and his long fingers grasp a cane with a pewter skull head.  The man in the wheelchair asks the giant where he got his cane and the pirate wench answers: “A fan gave it to him.” I look at the tall man’s name badge.  Peter Mayhew.  Peter frakking[7] Mayhew.  OhmyGod.  Jon and I get off our floor.

“JON WE WERE JUST IN AN ELEVATOR WITH CHEWBACCA.”

“Huh?”

“THAT SUPER TALL MAN WAS CHEWBACCA.”

“Oh my God.”

“OH MY GOD.”

Double squee.

11:33 p.m. Saturday September 5th :

DSC06439Jon and I are lined up for the Cruxshadows concert at the Hyatt.  Jon’s really into the Cruxshadows.  I’m unfamiliar with them but they are super gothy and super techno-y and evidently they are huge in Europe and I have a gothy sixteen year old girl who lives inside me and emerges at opportune moments. We chat with a man with a red brocaded coat and a Green Lantern ring.  “My girlfriend gave this to me,” he says, showing us his ring, “so I married her.”

11:55 p.m. Saturday September 5th :

The crowd in the Hyatt lobby is being roped to the side to allow the Cruxshadows line to file into the ballroom. As I look at the people milling about the lobby, I spot a man in wizard robes and a woman in a skimpy white slave costume making out. Like, a lot making out.  Like, please get a room making out.  And then, the man’s hand starts doing things to the woman that should not be done outside of the privacy of one’s home.  Photography is prohibited in certain Con areas after 10:00pm, and now I understand why.  The outside world should be spared images of this nerd on nerd action.  I fear this particular scene will haunt me many months later.[8]

12:05 a.m. Sunday September 6th :

Waiting for the Cruxshadows to take the stage.  We are in the back, and the Jedi contingent seems to be at the front of the fan base, as all I can see are lightsabers, waving in the air.  A young guy in a t-shirt that says “Go Geek Not Greek” approaches me.

“The dark lord would like to motorboat you.”

“Huh?”

He produces a beanie baby version of Cthulhu. “The dark lord wants to motorboat you, and I will take his picture, and document his conquests on Twitter.”

“Uh. Okay!”

I take the dark lord into my hands, and let him motorboat me.  And let the guy take the picture.  It probably isn’t that exciting, considering I am in conservative Victorian garb with a white shirt buttoned up to my neck.  Still, if the dark lord commands, I must obey, or risk great punishment from the Lovecraftian Old Ones.

1:40 a.m. Sunday September 6th :

Jon and I are back outside with Kyle, Erin, and Marc, waiting in line for the 2:30 Rocky Horror Picture Show Screening.  Some asshole throws an egg at the line and yells “Freaks!”  The egg hits Kyle, much to Jon’s and my relief.  Kyle isn’t wearing a costume, but we are, and we really didn’t want to pay those dry cleaning bills.

3:05 a.m. Sunday September 6th :

DSC06484Barry Bostwick, who played Brad in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, introduces the film and gives the performers playing Brad and Janet keychains that say “asshole” and “slut,” respectively.

10:00 a.m. Sunday September 6th :

Four hours of sleep, a shower, and a packed car later and we are at the Marriott, attempting to start a line for the 1:00 pm Patrick Stewart panel.  I love Patrick Stewart.  I love him as Jean-Luc Picard.  I love his commitment to Shakespeare.  I love his shiny bald head.  And I want to be front and center for his panel.  We are near the front of the makeshift line, and we continue to harass the Dragon*Con volunteers regarding the legitimacy of this line.  I start a sheet that says “End of the Patrick Stewart Line” and pass it to the people behind me.  I am pleased to see the sign’s existence an hour later.

1:00 p.m. Sunday September 6th :

Captain Jean-Luc Picard. We are fourth row center, and get to witness Picard in all his glory.  Patrick Stewart is a natural raconteur: charming and funny and slightly self -deprecating.  He talks about his recent projects: “Waiting for Godot” with his friend Ian McKellan.  ”Hamlet” with David Tennant, the latest Dr. Who.  The Scottish Play in Brooklyn.  Patrick Stewart is the real deal, and I want to hug him and thank him for portraying all his roles with integrity and honesty and to tell him that I love theatre too, and that he is one of the greatest actors of our time.

1:35 p.m. Sunday September 6th :

The panel is in full audience question and answer mode.  A twelve-year old in a red Star Trek command uniform steps to the microphone, claiming to have a riddle for Patrick Stewart:

“I am in every episode of “The Next Generation,” but I am only in one.  Who am I?”

I am terrible at riddles, but I rack my brain nonetheless.  Suddenly I gasp (literally, I gasp and grab the girl sitting next to me.  I do not know her). I know the answer to this kid’s question. Patrick Stewart doesn’t.  He beseeches the audience for help.

My hand shoots up, Hermione Granger style.

Patrick Stewart calls on me.  I try not to hyperventilate:

“He is you, I mean, Picard.  From an episode where you, and Ensign Ro, and Guinan, and someone else, I forget…”

“KEIKO!”  shouts the audience

“Right, Keiko.”  I continue, being handed a microphone by a volunteer.  “Anyhow, the four of you are in a transporter accident, and it shrinks you down to your adolescent selves.  So he is you.  Just, a mini you.”

Patrick Stewart looks at me.  “I have no recollection of that episode.”

I laugh.  So does the audience.  “Well, you weren’t in it very much.  It is very charming, the actor who plays you does an excellent Picard.”

“…I’ll have to find it in my DVDs when I return home.”

Patrick Stewart goes on to explain that the Star Trek writers would construct Picard-light episodes around the holidays, in order to allow him to perform “A Christmas Carol” in Washington.  The twelve-year old verifies my answer, and Patrick Stewart thanks me for solving the riddle.

“Of course!”  I say, but what I really want to say is: Patrick Stewart you are a great actor and why haven’t you been knighted yet? (Evidently, Queen Elizabeth was thinking the same thing) and ohmyGod thankyou for calling on me mental squee!

DSC065482:05 p.m.  Sunday September 6th:

Patrick Stewart talked to me.  I had a conversation with Patrick Stewart.  Best.  Weekend.  Ever.

3:00 p.m. Sunday September 6th :

As we prepare to leave, I realize how little of Con I actually experienced.  In another hotel groups of gamers playing cards and live action roleplaying games hide unseen.  I didn’t attend any of the literary tracks, the comic book panels, or the vampire groups.  I only briefly sampled the Star Wars activity.  Dragon*Con is like the universe: I would love to visit all of the planets, but the power in my warp core is limited.

3:30 p.m. Sunday September 6th :

Jon and I are back in my little red Civic.  We are leaving Atlanta.  I am so sad.  I want to go back to Dragon*Con right now.  We stop at a Wendy’s about an hour outside of Atlanta to grab some food.  I am struck by the lack of people in costume.  I feel like someone has taken away my lollypop; the best weekend ever has ended.

Epilogue 8:00 a.m. Wednesday October 1st :

I am attempting to reserve a Marriott room for Dragon*Con 2010 at reduced Con rates.  Con rooms become available at 8:00a.m., and they are sold out by 8:15.  I curse, and call some Marriott numbers, and worry about being late to work.  At 9:25 I decide to reserve a room at the Sheraton—my second choice for a Con hotel.  I am successful.  Dragon*Con 2010 is a reality.

Thus ends my recounting of Dragon*Con 2009.  If you are feeling adventurous, try a Con of your own—perhaps I’ll see you at Dragon*Con 2010?  I’m already planning my multiple costumes.  Cthulhu watches over my work with approval.  I hope the finished products make the dark lord squee.

[1] Con Crud is any sickness acquired at Con. Sleepless nights, crowded rooms, and a lack of access to nutritional food facilitate the spread of disease. Savvy Con-goers take all precautions against contracting the Crud.

[2] At Con, you do need your stinkin’ badges. Your badge is access to all areas of the Con, and losing the badge is a disaster as replacement fees are terrifying.

[3] Also, Nimoy is a fairly promiment collector of contemporary art. How cool is that?!

[4] Nimoy and Shatner are good Jewish boys, and the Vulcan gesture is actually the gesture made by ancient Jewish priests and modern Jewish rabbis while blessing individuals or the congregation. Represent!

[5] A squee, or “to squee,” is when a fangirl (or boy) emits a loud, high-pitched squeal of excitement, particularly when seeing someone cosplaying as their favorite character from an anime/television show/movie/speculative literary source/comic book etc.  This can be either grating or charming, depending on the identity of the squeer, the time of day, and the number of times the squeer has squeed in a given weekend.
[6] A Jayne hat is a visual trope from the short-lived Joss Whedon space western Firefly. Jayne, played by Adam Baldwin, is the mercenary muscle of the cast. In one episode, his mother sends him a hideous red, yellow, and orange handmade knit cap, complete with a top pom-pom and dangly ear flaps. Many Firefly fans at Con wear recreations of the Jayne hat. One clever and crafty Con-goer, however, went as the Jayne Hat. Genius.
[7] “Frak” is the expletive of choice in the Battlestar Galactica universe.
[8] It does.
Check out Lindsay’s blog here!
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steampunk2

Words:  Lindsay Gordon

If you pilot a steam-powered airship, own a pair of aviator goggles and wear jewelry with gear motifs, then you don’t need to read this article.  You understand Steampunk well enough to have your botanist-explorer/runaway aristocrat/airship navigator character fully drafted, costumed, and ready to unveil at next year’s Steam Con.  Go reread “The Call of Cthulu.”

If you have no idea what I am talking about, read on: your world is about to be expanded.

steampunk watchSteampunk is a literary and aesthetic genre of alternative history that assumes a science that never existed.  G.D. Falksen, a leading writer of Steampunk theory (yes, it exists) and a history masters student in New York City, writes that the most concise definition of Steampunk is Victorian science fiction.  Here, “Victorian” references the period of industrialization in the nineteenth century, rather than the British culture, though many costumers use the fashions of Victorian England simply as a starting point.   In the Steampunk world, science and technology have not progressed beyond Newtonian physics: no internet, no lasers, no spaceships.  The atom has not been split, and Nikola Tesla holds more credence than Thomas Edison. Steampunk, however, is not without technology; it embraces steam-powered flying machines, guns whose mechanisms can be explained, and almost any object with visible gears.

I first learned about Steampunk while reading a 2008 article in the New York Times Style Section (Steampunk bands!  Steampunk meet-ups and photo shoots in Central Park!  An early photo of G.D. Falksen before I actually knew who he was!).  However, I had my true introduction this past summer at Dragon Con, an annual convention held in Atlanta.  Dragon Con 2009 was the first Dragon Con with a track devoted entirely to Steampunk, and attendees dressed in neo-Victorian garb, myself included, lined up to attend panels on costume making  and resin casting, packed the performance of the well-known Steampunk band Abney Park, and waited more than an hour to get into the overcrowded Steampunk fashion show and Time Traveler’s Ball.

Steampunk is an aesthetic that can be applied to most any source.  I saw Steampunk western costumes, a Steampunk samurai costume, several Steampunk Star Wars groups, and an amazing Steampunk X-Men group complete with a Professor X in a tricked out Steampunk wheelchair.   I also observed gothic Steampunk, in blacks and reds, and sepia-toned Steampunk in photographic browns (color palettes are an intense debate within the Steampunk costume community, one of many arguments including the importance of goggles and the prevalence of gears; the Steampunk community is a passionate bunch).  I met a woman who had created a Steampunk arm brace which was a functional morse code transmitter.  I saw people with Steampunk cell phone and iPod cases in leather and brass.  I bought a resin-cast, gear-filled necklace from a Steampunk jeweler and photographer in the vendor hall.

steampunk-photo-shoot-dc-sept-091

High-end Steampunk creations have garnered so much attention that recently the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford University opened the first Steampunk exhibition.  The exhibition is mounted beside actual scientific artifacts as relics of a science that never was.  Featured are major Steampunk artists such as the team behind Brute Force, who created a mechanical jointed spider, and the artist Datamancer, who is renowned for creating a functional Steampunk laptop, complete with brass wind-up key.datamancer-steampunk-laptop-open Many makers of high end Steampunk objects have training in costume making and set design, though some have minimal artistic background.   I spoke with Thomas Willeford, one half of the Brute Force team, at Dragon Con; his interest in Steampunk objects stems from his background in physics.  He attempts to create objects that make functional sense in terms of how they are manufactured: the pistons in his mechnical jointed spider are meant to work, and you could easily imagine a massive-sized version of the small model wreaking havoc on the human population.

You’ve probably unknowingly encountered Steampunk.  You may have read some proto-Steampunk in Jules Verne’s  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.  Maybe you’ve noticed the rise of Victorian style charms and little watch parts at craft stores such as Michaels, or noticed jewelry bearing these characteristics on Etsy.  The Way Station, a Steampunk bar, recently opened in Prospect Heights.   New York Times head restaurant critic Sam Sifton referenced Steampunk in his recent review of the Brooklyn restaurant Prime Meats (you know Steampunk is mainstreaming when the Times restaurant critic name-drops it).  The day after that review was released, the Times style section published an article about the resurgence of 1890s styles in men’s fashion. To know Steampunk is to love it.

Below is a list of Steampunk Web sites, writers, and photo albums.  Have a look, I guarantee you will share my amazement.  Now, off to work on my bustle.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steampunk : A fairly well written explanation of Steampunk and its various branches.

http://boingboing.net/steampunk/:  You bet BoingBoing is all over Steampunk!

http://community.livejournal.com/steamfashion:  The Steampunk fashion livejournal community, offering numerous tips and pictures on where to acquire the best steamy styles and how to create your own.

http://www.bruteforceleather.com/store/Scripts/default.asp:  Brute Force, high-end Steampunk clothing, accessories, and furnishings.

http://www.mhs.ox.ac.uk/steampunk/:  The website for the Steampunk exhibit at the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford.

http://www.tor.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=blog&id=58009:  G.D. Falksen’s excellent Steampunk 101 post on Tor.com.

http://community.livejournal.com/anachrodragon/: The livejournal community for Dragon Con’s Alternate History Track

http://www.flickr.com/groups/dragoncon_steampunk_2009/:  Flickr album for Steampunk costumes seen at Dragon Con.

http://waystationbk.blogspot.com/:  The website for The Way Station, Brooklyn’s first Steampunk bar.

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/08/fashion/08PUNK.html?scp=1&sq=steampunk&st=cse:  2008 NYTimes article on Steampunk.

http://www.riesetheseries.com/Riese, the extremely new Steampunk web series!  I told you it was mainstreaming…

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Krampus the Christmas Demon

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by:  Collin Whitlock

He sees when you are sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good and I highly recommend you be good for your own sake, because Santa’s not the only Christmas spirit coming around this year. The boys and girls who make Santa’s naughty list in America have little more to fear than a lump of coal in their stocking or a lump of fruitcake in their belly. However, those unfortunate enough to make the naughty cut in the Danubian regions of Europe must prepare themselves for something far more menacing.

Who’s got hooves and a suit of red?

Who’s got horns coming out of his head?

Who’s got a blotchy whiskey nose?

Who slightly resembles an ornery Ross Perot?

Must be Krampus, the Christmas demon.

krampus 5Okay, maybe demon is harsh. I suppose I could blame my negative bias toward horned goat creatures with fangs and talons on our Christian-based society’s commercialism of the devil, and perhaps Krampus’ habit of draining uncounted quarts of liquor while chiding children for their yearly insubordinations reminds me a bit too much of my verbally abusive Aunt Estelle (not to mention the long mane of black fur running down his back). However I don’t think I’m out of line in assuming that anyone, hoofed or not, going door to door during the holidays with a birch rod in one hand and a length of rusty chains in the other is probably not there to regale the family with carols and Christmas cheer.

After Christianity conquered Austria and lower Germany in the 1500s, jolly old St. Nicholas was created as an attempt to dilute the heathen Norse religious figure, Thor, a god with a long white beard who patrolled the skies in a flying chariot. Krampus (which is derived from the German word for ‘claw’) was developed from Thor’s nemesis, Loki, the Norse god of mischief. But don’t be confused, Krampus is not St. Nick’s nemesis. In fact, Santa and Krampus are more a dynamic duo than anything else.

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When it comes time to make the “Nice and Naughty” list, Santa and Krampus work together in Yuletide harmony to divide and conquer. And who’s to say which job is more enviable? Sure, Santa gets to bring joy to all the kindhearted gentile boys and girls of the world, filling their stockings with sweets and treats, their hearts with warmth and holiday cheer. But not all boys and girls behave themselves throughout the year, do they? What happens to little Johnny “I-Promise-I-Brushed-My-Teeth-And-Didn’t-Just-Run-My-Toothbrush-Under-The-Water” Smith? What happens to Sally “You’re-Not-My-Real-Father” Johnson?

I’ll tell you what happens. Krampus comes to town, beats the hell out of Johnny and throws Sally in a burlap sack on his back and kidnaps her (or dumps her in the river).

In the tradition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Der Struwwelpeter, this long-tongued companion to St. Nick is yet another example of the German practice of providing children with examples of the disastrous consequences of misbehavior. Every child knows that any mischief will not only guarantee empty shoes on Christmas morning (if you’re good, you’ll find candy and treats inside), but it will also guarantee a visit from the menacing and abusive Krampus and his trusty birch rod.krampus 4

Let’s face it, this whole coal-in-the-stocking business is a weak attempt on the grown-ups’ part to keep kids in line. Where’s the justice, where’s the retribution? I get coal in my stocking, at least I have something tangible to complain about. Hell, if I’m bad enough for long enough, I’ve got myself a stockpile of energy-producing material. But if I get caned by Krampus, I’ll have nothing but red-nosed reindeer welts to show for it. All I’ll want for Christmas (besides my two front teeth) will be some sort of blow-up doughnut pillow for my sore end and all my parents will say in response is, “Maybe if you’re good we’ll get you one next year.”

Now that is Yuletide justice if I’ve ever seen it. Thanks Krampus.

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