Back In Black: Brown Skin, White Music

When I think of today’s pop culture, it’s often with disgust. Now that I’m older and wiser, I can’t pretend I don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction. There was a time when I embraced the current culture. But even then, it wasn’t always my culture that I embraced.

My high school years were turbulent, but I reckon that’s true for most people. Being from a broken home is bad. Living in one as it’s breaking is worse. When that home is miles away from nowhere, any form of culture is like a distant town. It’s sure nice to visit, but you usually scamper home before dark. But like most military brats with older siblings I was exposed to a variety of cultures at home. From the Bible Belt to Black Power and Hee Haw to Hawaii 5-0. I steeped in it. In grade school before my voice began changing I would sing Earth, Wind & Fire’s Reasons in my living room as it spun on 45. I got a guitar for Christmas when I was 13, and played a George Benson tune, Erotic Moods, at my 8th grade talent show. In many ways I was a normal black kid growing up in the south. In other ways, not so much.

I never quite fit the media-blessed image of black culture. I still don’t. At the time, my grades were good enough to get me noticed by teachers and labeled by other kids. “White boy” is a moniker I carried throughout high school. If being academically gifted wasn’t enough of a giveaway, the fact that most of my friends were white was further proof that I was an interloper. An Oreo. But the deciding factor was the music I listened to.

Almost every kind of music flowed in my household. But during the long nights of my childhood insomnia, my brothers’ soul and jazz station would fade to a rock station popular with the local military crowd. Complementing my daily diet of Isley Brothers, Herbie Hancock, and Ramsey Louis was a late night snack of Heart, Foreigner, and Peter Frampton. I was usually the sole audience member to appreciate the sound of Fenders and Gibsons wailing through Marshall stacks. The experience stuck and soon influenced the direction my guitar playing took.

It also influenced my circle of friends at school. Since I played guitar I soon hooked up with a group of metal and rock fans and players. Jimmy Castor and Gil Scott Heron took a backseat to Iron Maiden and Ozzy Osbourne. My guitar-playing chops improved and I became an authentic “head”. Mornings, lunches, and breaks were spent smoking Raleighs and discussing muscle cars with the other heads.

None of this behavior improved my standing with the black community (such as it was). But no one should suffer through high school alone. And it wasn’t that I was a typical teenage conformist. I enjoyed scholastics, especially English and History. I didn’t smoke pot. My drinking was limited to outings with my closest siblings. But for a few years, my musical tastes favored loud, crunchy, and obnoxious.

My guitar sustained me through many more rough patches. After my parents’ (first) inevitable separation halfway through high school, my playing improved even more. I still reach for the instrument when I’m down or just need to carve out a safe space. I’m not the metalhead I was in school. I don’t want to be. I don’t need to be. But for a few hot summers, years before Living Color broke AOR radio’s color barrier, I was able to bring a different meaning to “Back in Black”.

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What Gadget Culture Is Not

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CC Licensed Photo

Off with her head!

Unlike Alice’s evil queen, I rarely make impulsive decisions. Even then they are often prefaced by several inciting incidents. A few days ago I made such a decision.

Gizmodo is a familiar name for some of my technically inclined readers. It’s generally considered a “technology blog”, and several staff members and commenters offer their own descriptions of the website in its “About” video. One describes it as a “blog about gadget culture”. Another offers that “if you are into gadgets, you’re into a lot of other stuff, and we try to write about all of it”.

Earlier this week, Gizmodo made good on their word when they profiled a story about the first suicide from the world’s tallest building. They were decent enough to warn readers about the explicit photos. I viewed neither the article or photos. Maybe Gizmodo’s gadget people are into that sort of thing. Since I’m not, I unliked them. Poof! Out of my Facebook feed. Several other commenters agreed with me.

Perhaps we’re seeing the triumph of reality culture. If so, I vote for the return of that whacky sport that pits Christians against lions. At least there’s a chance of a miracle and a choice of contestants to pull for in that game. Man vs. 2717 feet of air is just boring… and rigged to say the least.

The worst part is that much of Gizmodo’s blogging is good stuff. But this sort of pop crap has been showing up more often, too often. The overused mantra “know your audience” bears repeating. But as writer/reader dustups go, this is minor. I’ve moved on to Engadget and sincerely hope its readers aren’t into the same stuff that Gizmodo’s writers assume their audience is.

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Blogging 3.0: Are We There Yet?

Remember when blogging started? Not the actual date so much as the feelings reading a typical blog invoked. Blogging 1.0 was all about the personal made public. It was a way to share what you were doing or thinking before Twitter and Facebook… before sharing that information was accepted or expected. Suddenly, you understood you weren’t the only one to know the heartbreak of psoriasis. Yours wasn’t the only dysfunctional family. Someone else loved the same quirky movies. The world became a lot smaller.

Fast forward a few years. You couldn’t eat at a restaurant without overhearing someone at the next table talking about something she’d read on a blog. The personal had become perfunctory. As with all media the focus narrowed and topics moved from general to specific. Audiences grew large enough to attract advertising attention, and some bloggers, like Heather B. Armstrong of Dooce.com, found they could make a living through their writing.

If Mormon mommies like Heather could do it, then businesses could do it too. Welcome to Blogging 2.0: the corporatization and monetization of blogging. Even though late to the game, the business world refused to let miscreants and navel-gazers outblog them without a fight. Technet.com lists 240 official Microsoft Team Blogs. In 2005, a PR manager at IBM reported there were 2800 internal weblogs! That may not be a surprising amount when compared to the total number of IBM employees, but it makes one wonder what is so compelling about a free publishing medium that is alternately vilified and revered.

Today, blogging balances on a finely honed edge of technology that divides it from its comparatively younger sibling, social media. But the lines between the two media are blurring. That brings us to Blogging 3.0: Rise of the Tweets.

Instantly gratifying, easily tagged and searchable, social media (sometimes known as “micro-blogs”) like Twitter and Facebook have impacted traditional blogging. For some this means a decrease in the frequency of their blogging. Others use the new media to promote their lengthier and more in-depth blog posts. And the recent phenomenon of paid celebrity tweets deserves its own article.

The pace of technology and its innovative uses in blogs is dizzying. If you’re a true meta junkie or trying to monetize your blog, consider Technorati’s State of the Blogosphere required reading. The annual study collects data across the blogging spectrum and forecasts future trends. Last year’s survey affirms that Blogging 3.0 encompasses rather than supersedes Blogging 1.0. A majority of those surveyed blogged for fun and were not paid for their efforts. In fact, 51% said “they blog to express their personal musings”. Kristin’s blog, The opinions of the lonely housewife, is a perfect example. It’s also the site that got me thinking about the past, the future, and prompted me to write this post.

Like well used treasures found at a yard sale, Kristin’s site lays the joys and challenges of being a stay at home wife and mom out for our perusal. Her writing is honest, brave, unpretentious, and decidedly personal. Without entry dates one could easily mistake her work for a blog abandoned 10 years ago. And timelessness is never a bad quality in writing. It may even transcend the zeitgeist of Blogging 3.0.

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Thank You

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Who Owns What You Create?

This is the final essay I wrote for Media Law and Ethics.

The World Intellectual Property Organization refers to intellectual property as “creations of the mind: inventions, literary and artistic works… and designs used in commerce” (WIPO). Throughout the course we have been reminded that IP law exists to stimulate creativity and inventiveness. Yet, today much innovation is stifled by career patent companies that use their rights and the law to prohibit further expansion of their ideas. In the absence of an empirical definition of creativity, a handful of music, movie, and software companies have defined the word in dollars. If it makes millions it’s creative, and it belongs to us.

Current interpretation and enforcement of IP law does not acknowledge that nothing is created in a vacuum. If tomorrow’s technology is built on yesterday’s knowledge, then it is interpretive as well as transformative. And the collaboration produced does not deserve protection above and beyond that of the original sources.

Years ago I helped videotape an event occasioned by the retirement of an international chemical company’s patent attorney. He gave a long speech that detailed the history of some of the company’s most successful products. I still remember how he noted several products that the company did not invent, but merely patented. He in fact claimed that getting a patent was easy once you met the requirements (novelty, usefulness, nonobviousness). As a young creative that information left a bitter taste in my mouth.

Today, I have mixed feelings about the extension of copyrights. But changing current laws will only become more difficult with an increasingly bipolar government and constituency. I understand wanting to hold on to something you created. However, if balancing creativity against the right to monopolize profits from one’s inventions is the goal, then future interpretations of IP law must change drastically. We need to celebrate transformative, non-competing uses of material as copyright success stories, not demonize the courts and government for failing to protect information owners. Juries, judges, and legislators must work harder to “split the baby in half”. One portion of law I feel definitely needs to be repealed is a technical amendment added to a bill that allows sound recordings to be considered “works for hire” (Love). This automatic conveyance of ownership rights to record companies mocks the idea of copyright stimulating creativity.

Going forward, the ethical responsibility to respect other people’s work remains intact. Choosing to totally disregard current laws would have the same stifling effect on creativity the current “user as criminal” culture has engendered. But at the same time, the next generation of artists needs to work harder at changing the political landscape. Choosing to patronize open source and Creative Commons licensed artists, as well as using these less restrictive models for some of our own work is a beginning. Without a new example of how copyright and patent laws can benefit creators and society at large, corporations will continue to confiscate the work of others and hoard their own creations with no intentions of ever releasing the knowledge to the public.

Works Cited

Creative Commons. “Creative Commons.” Creativecommons.org. Creative Commons. Web. 18 Dec. 2010.<http://creativecommons.org/>.

Love, Courtney. “Courtney Love Does the Math – Courtney Love – Salon.com.” Salon.com. 14 June 2000. Web. 18 Dec. 2010. <http://www.salon.com/technology/feature/2000/06/14/love>.

“Mission | Open Source Initiative.” Opensource.org. Web. 18 Dec. 2010. <http://www.opensource.org/>.

WIPO. “What Is Intellectual Property?” Wipo.int. World Intellectual Property Organization. Web. 18 Dec. 2010.
<http://www.wipo.int/about-ip/en/>.

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It’s Your Community; You Decide

Ask 10 people to define “community” and you’ll probably get 10 different answers, or none at all. We may all agree on a broad definition–a group of people who share a commonality, for instance, location, a disease, religious or political beliefs. But try to nail the fine details and even broad definitions disintegrate.

Perhaps that’s why out of 50,000 people only 25 showed up to discuss my city’s nascent Unified Development Ordinance. (At least five were city employees.) Once developed (pardon the play on words), the ordinance will simplify the maze of rules that developers must navigate to build in the city. It will be the framework that allows citizens and entrepreneurs to develop a liveable, walkable, and bike-friendly city that embraces the many varied definitions of community. Ever visited a town with a diverse yet successful mixture of businesses, ethnicities, and economies? Thank their Unified Development Ordinance and the citizens who were willing to confront past prejudice, current reality, and future uncertainty in deciding how to define community.

Now, I understand other people actually have lives. Unless you’re a city planner, discussing parking space to square footage ratios may not pay the bills. Setbacks and city codes are not very sexy. But get this plan wrong, and lack of sex appeal will be the least of a city’s concerns.

This is neither a chastisement, nor expression of disapproval over the collective public apathy surrounding local government. Being overworked and underpaid doesn’t leave much energy to contribute ideas that may take decades to fulfill. Or at worst may not happen at all. But people have a right to decide what their community should look like. And invitations to discuss comprehensive plans and development ordinances are a good place to start the conversation. After a 12 hour shift some of the discussions may induce a sleep worthy of Rip Van Winkle. But who knows, if that happens maybe when you awake 20 years you won’t have to struggle to define community; you’ll be surrounded by one.

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9/11: Let Us Move On; Let The Dead Sleep

clouds

To the living, the dead are asleep. The Bible makes that clear. There is but one voice they will hear; it is not ours. They don’t know we still weep. Their nerves don’t grate at the shrill bagpipes played in their honor. The tolling bell does not disturb their slumber. They do not stir when their names are read one after another in an hours long sorrowful, orgiastic trance.

They are no longer witness to the perpetuating hatred against Muslims.

Every token of remembrance is strictly for the living. And we have every right to remember, to celebrate, to memorialize. But with that right comes the responsibility to move on. Grief should be part of healing, yet somehow I don’t think the macabre proceedings in New York every year on this day are accomplishing that healing. Once healed, a scar sometimes remains. Or perhaps a slight limp, or a painful twinge that predicts the coming rain. It’s only fitting that Ground Zero remains a pus oozing open sore that won’t heal; it reflects our national psyche in that respect. But a public spectacle magnitudes larger than any individual funeral for those who perished only serves to reopen the wound.

It takes a lot of strength to move on. At 13 I lost a brother to an act of violence every bit as sudden and senseless as the hijacking of four planes. When a loved one or friend is taken away suddenly, a rift large enough to engulf you opens. The beckoning darkness (like sleep) seems comforting. But time and tide slowly close that rift, never totally, but enough for you to jump across. Maybe nine years isn’t enough time. But I see that rift growing, and that means the medicine is not working.

It’s time for a new prescription. If I were doctor I would start by downsizing the 9/11 ceremony. That sounds like treason to some reading this. But it’s a start. Maybe I’d feel differently if I had lost someone in the attacks. Probably not. But watching the pomp and circumstance, I sense a feeling of obligation from the participants. We don’t have to forget; we’ll never forget, but we’re only obliged to move on with our lives. I think if they weren’t busy sleeping, nearly 3000 people would agree.

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Life’s Falls

Yesterday had that look. It was the first hint that I had seen all summer. Well past the Summer Solstice, the sun’s golden rays had taken on the slant that says fall is coming. It’s definitely not here yet, although the past few days have been a welcome relief from the weeks of broiling temperatures we’re accustomed to. But the light had a new angle to it as if to say; wait for it. Wait for the renewal, the end of old, stale things, and the fulfillment of nearly forgotten dreams.

I’m not good at this waiting. It’s like standing around in mud. The clammy abrasiveness cakes upon your skin, clogging your pores. It sets, a dusky concrete stretching on for miles and engulfing your life. It takes more than a pretty golden light to fix that. But the light is a harbinger. It’s a sign of the coming season that reshapes life with its cold vice grip.

That’s what I thought about this morning as I sippped the pre-fall season’s first French Press (a nice, locally roasted Sumatra): how the seasons shift and change and every time it happens, it feels so new. But it’s a cycle. Life shifts and changes too; it’s a cycle as well. Mom used to say, “Life’s a constant repeat”. It was always a desolate thought, but has never been truer.

Nature may abhor a vacuum, but autumn does a nice job sucking up the past. The cooler air points me in a new direction and whispers, Hey buddy, life’s that way! Out there! Once beckoned, it’s hard to turn back. Like a shark I keep moving, as if that is the only answer. And as fall slides into winter, summer’s memories freeze and shatter like crystal beneath my trodding feet. Once I’ve found the temerity to stop and look back I think about the last line in The Day After Tomorrow:

“Have you ever seen the air so clear?”.

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