Tuesday, August 26, 2014

25 Random Things I Said in 2009 That I'd Still (Mostly) Say Today

So the 25-year-old me is quite different from the 45-year-old me. But as I found out the other day when I stumbled upon an old Facebook "Note" from February 4, 2009 titled "25 Random Things About Me," despite the myriad changes in my life over the last five and a half years (including relocating to three different continents), not so much has changed since I was on the cusp of turning 40 (a milestone I reached on the day the above photo was taken). I hope I make fewer typos now!

1. I have never tasted coffee in my life. It used to be because I hated the smell. Now it's just a thing I refuse to do for no real reason at all. 

And now it's just a thing. Period. If I've gone so long without tasting it, why try it now?

2 I hate the beach. If I never again see another grain of sand, my life will go on. Give me the mountains any day.

The spectacular beaches in Thailand, which was more than two years away, helped me to better understand how the other half (those beach bums) holidays and why they do it, but I continue to be partial to a view from above.

3. Every so often I get terrible panic attacks that make me feel like I'm in death's grip. In fact, several days before I moved to Argentina, I went to the ER two time in less than 12 hours (once at 3am!) with scary-ass panic attacks!

When I wrote this, I was flirting with a dangerous Klonopin dependency. I now haven't taken it in two years and nearly five months. The panic attacks continue and so does the temptation to fight fright by popping a Klonopin (an urge I probably would have succumbed to a lot time ago had I not irrevocably misplaced my Klonopin stash in Bangkok in April of 2012), but I've learned to sweat it out.

4. I love being alone so much that sometimes I think I might be a little bit crazy. (I'm sure I'm not the only one!)

My penchant for solitude solitaire has only intensified. Although that parenthetical aside was referring to the second part of the sentence that preceded it, I now think I'm a little bit crazy for an entirely new set of reasons (least of which is No. 5!).

5. I'm so ridiculously anal and neat that I often dream about cleaning my toilet or scrubbing the floor or accomplishing some other mundane household task with which most normal people couldn't be bothered.

Clearly insomnia wasn't as much of a problem then as it is now, though I'd gladly clean for sleep.  

6. People usually can't believe that I'm almost 40 or that I'm chronically single, but I am. When all is said and done, and I'm about 41 or 42, I have a feeling I'll probably pull a Demi Moore and end up with someone 1/2 my age.

As a matter of fact, one year and nine months later, during my first trip to Melbourne, I did. He and I met six nights before my departure, and we ended up spending four of my last five nights in Melbourne together. I was already planning on ditching Buenos Aires for Melbourne, but I couldn't have asked for better incentive to make me actually go through with the relocation. Read all about how our first meeting went down and what happened between us after I moved to Melbourne in my forthcoming book, Is It True What They Say About Black Men?

7. I'm terrified of thunder -- not lightning, thunder. Oh, and heights scare the crap out of me. The one time in my life that I went skiing, I wouldn't even dare to use the ski lift. I kept climbing up that mountain again and again on my own two feet.

Going up up up still freaks me out, though I try to make it to the top of whichever city I'm in at least once.

As for the sound of thunder, well, it doesn't freak me out quite so much anymore, but it's still my favorite Duran Duran song.

8. I love air conditioning. Sometimes I turn it on in the winter just because I love the sound it makes. I also used to love to sleep to the sound of a vacuum going. Call me crazy. You know you want to.

Boy, was I on a call-me-crazy-shtick kick back then! I still love AC, but having to live without it for one month in Berlin last year and for my first two months in Cape Town cured me needing it. I rarely use it in my current apartment, but it's nice to know it's there if I ever get the urge to crank it.

9. I brush my teeth and floss fanatically. In college, everyone used to make fun of me because I'd spend 30 minutes in one sitting with a toothbrush in my mouth. I have a major phobia of bad breath.

Bad oral hygiene remains my No. 1 deal breaker.  

10. My greatest accomplishment of the last two years and nearly five months (since moving to Buenos Aires) has been learning to communicate in Spanish. My favorite word: entonces (then). Regular use of it makes one sound so erudite.

What was I thinking? Until I just reread this, I don't believe entonces had even crossed my mind since I left Buenos Aires in 2011. But then (entonces!), used alone in Spanish, it's sort of like "Anyway" in English, and I still say that all of the time.

11. I don't do unrequited love. I could never fall for someone who didn't love me back.

To borrow from the article I recently shared on Facebook, "Fuck, yes!" or "No way."

12. I love bad boys. But doesn't everyone?

Not as much as I used to, and I'm now wise enough to look and not touch... a lot.  

13. I was a total nerd until college (some of the people reading this will attest to that). Let's face it, cool is NOT reciting all 39 (at the time) presidents in front of every class in the second grade!

Is it considered nerdy when you spend New Year's Eve watching history documentaries that you've downloaded from YouTube?    

14. I don't do drugs, but I've tried pretty much everything (except heroin) at least once. (Should I be putting that here?) And yes, I inhaled.

On the plus side, these days I'm a lot more honest with myself when I'm writing about myself.  

15. I hate my middle name, which I will not divulge. I also hate Paris, Rio, Miami and Caribbean islands, although I was born on one of the latter, and I know I'm supposed to love them all.

"Hate" is such a strong word. I hate less these days. My middle name still sucks, but I'm more "indifferent" now to the places I used to "hate." I did have a pretty decent time when I returned to Rio for Carnival in 2010, though.

16. I've interviewed pretty much every music star I want to (except Madonna and Elton John). My favorite: David Bowie.

In the last five years and eight months, not a single new talent has emerged that I'm dying to interrogate.  

17. I have pretty high-brow taste in movies and literature and left-of-center music taste, but I love trashy TV. One of the worst things about living outside of the US is having to watch my soap operas on YouTube. But at least I have Two and a Half Men (which, by the way, I discovered here).

One Life to Live and All My Children are now gone (twice) and I've added The Young and the Restless to my must-watch list. As for Two and a Half Men, Ashton Kutcher is a lot prettier, but I still prefer Charlie Sheen.

18. I get hideous migraines several times a month, but I can function with them. I'm still convinced that a brain tumor will ultimately get me. Either that or I'll be run over by a speeding car.

I'm still on the same page regarding migraines and the brain tumor, but if the latter doesn't happen while I'm in Cape Town (the most unkind-to-pedestrians city I've walked through yet -- and I've been to Amman!), then I'm probably home free.

19. I can't swim, and I have no interest in learning -- or in swimming pools, for that matter.

The ex-boyfriend who was half my age swore he was going to teach me, but thankfully, he never got around to it. He said I was missing out on one of the greatest joys in life, which made me wonder how worthwhile his was.

20. My favorite book is Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I know it's cliche to say, but it changed my life -- it turned me into the slightly mean and selfish person I am today!

Selfishness is still a virtue.  

21. Italian or Italian-descended men (which would describe many Argentines) are my strongest weakness.

Clearly I hadn't been to Australia yet!

22. I never thought much about high school as an adult until I joined Facebook and started reconnecting with many of my old friends.

I can't say I think about high school much now, but I'm happy to be in contact with so many people from way back then.  

23. I hate small talk, and I don't like to be touched by strangers.

So much so that there's an entire section in my book titled "Don't Touch Me There!"  

24. I am extremely jealous, but I'm good at hiding it. None of my exes probably have a clue.

Maybe I'm getting over it. Jealousy was one of the few emotions that I never felt with the ex who was half my age.  

25. I'm ridiculously shy, although most people wouldn't guess that either. Although I never drink in private, it's probably the reason why I sometimes overdo the whiskey and Coke a bit in social situations.

Now it's tequila with a beer back. And if I can ever find another bottle of Beyerskloof Lagare red wine (yes, red red wine, which I used to hate), I'll start drinking at home again. In fact, the other night, instead of dreaming about cleaning my bathroom, I dreamed that I was running around Cape Town trying to find a suitable Lagare substitute. I didn't, but hopefully, that dream won't come true.

Friday, August 22, 2014

10 Things I Said At 25 That I Laugh About Today

Some of the outfits I wore were pretty terrible, and my two-toned hair was even worse (though I suppose not by 1994 standards on both counts). But the most ridiculous things about the 25-year-old me probably came out of my mouth.

1. "I don't want to live past 40." After all, I figured, my life would technically be over then anyway. Right? Yeah, I know. What did I know? Now that I'm 45, 40 seems so young. And it's getting younger. Last week, my friend Dave sent me a comforting message: "60 is the new 40." Really? Does that mean I'm only 25 then? No, Dave admitted, but it means we haven't come anywhere near our self-imposed expiration dates. In fact, by Dave's math, I'm as far away from it now as I was at 25!

2. "Why doesn't he dress his age?" At 25, I had one steadfast dating rule: I would never go out with a guy if he was wearing tennis shoes when we met, and if he wore them on our first date, there wouldn't be a second one. Tattoos and piercings were a plus, but if you looked like you might run away, I preferred that you did. The way I saw it at the time, nice shoes equaled class, ambition and maturity. I remember a discussion I once had with my first boyfriend, Derek, about what I thought should be the late-twentysomething dress code. I was 23, and he was 28. I was way too pressed and starched for my age (for any age), and I thought he and his contemporaries should be phasing out casual wear in favor of more button-down shirts and dress pants. Oh, and for God's sake, I insisted in my head, lose the back pack. It's so college, and you're almost 30!

Flash forward 22 years, and I rarely leave home without my back pack, usually dressed in a t-shirt and track pants. (The ex who dumped me when I was 34 because he wanted a "t-shirt-and-jeans guy" would love me now.) Slipping into something more comfortable and staying in it is a perk of living in warm countries and not having to work in an office. I intend to enjoy it as long as I can, pushing 50 be damned!

3. "I'm going to stop going out after I hit 30." This blog post was inspired by an article I read today called "Gay Men Over 30 Should Stay Out Of The Clubs." I chuckled when I read it and didn't get offended by anything the author wrote. He'll live and learn. I know I did. (Read how here.)

4. "He's not my type."  At 25, my "type" looked a lot like Billy Crudup in Jesus's Son (a movie that came out five years later), but few of the guys I actually went out with looked anything like that. The more men I dated, the more different the men I dated seemed to be. Somewhere along the way (probably around the time I made it through most of the countries in Europe and was working on South America and had dabbled in pretty much every race and multiple ethnicities), I realized that I don't actually have a type at all. I like what I like, which, at this point, could be pretty much anyone, as long as he's legal, out of the closet and breathing.

5. "No one will ever love me that way again." When I broke up with Derek, I cried on the phone to my mother, complaining that no one would ever again love me like that. Her words: "You're right. No one will. But you'll meet someone else who'll love you differently. It won't be the same. But it'll be just as good, if not better." She was right. So now, even in my darkest days of chronic singledom, when I've made peace with possibly flying solo from here on out, I haven't given up hope. Chances are I'll love and be loved again.

6. "I'll/I'd never..."  and "I won't/wouldn't..." Absolutes are pointless. And it took me breaking pretty much every one of my own rules to realize that they were pointless, too. As I grow older and find myself in situations that I never thought were likely, I'm learning to throw out the rules and just let life happen.

7. "I'll always keep up with the sound of the times." Who knew then that the prevalent sound of 2014 would be so borderline unlistenable? Full disclosure time: I probably haven't heard most of the singles on Billboard's Hot 100, or even in the Top 40 this week! Is it my age, or is a lot of today's music that bad? I'd call it a mix (old age, awful songs). I'm still occasionally turned on by new music. Indeed, I secretly like "Story of My Life" by One Direction, and one of my favorite albums of the last year is Pure Heroine (the extended edition) by 17-year-old singer-songwriter Lorde. At the end of the day, though, I'd usually rather listen to a flashback '70s episode of Casey Kasem's "American Top 40" than suffer through most of what passes for contemporary pop music.

8. "I want to be retired by 50." It took me leaving cushy well-paying gigs in my comfort zone (New York City), moving into the great wide unknown (first Buenos Aires, then Melbourne, then Bangkok, then Cape Town) and writing practically for free for me to realize how much I love what I do. Someday I'll return to the 9-to-5 office grind (and hopefully decent paychecks), and I'll still continue to write for free. When I'm on my deathbed, they'll probably have to pry my laptop -- or whatever people are using to write circa 2029 (if I do end up sticking to No. 1 using Dave's math) -- out of my cold, clammy, wrinkly hands. And my famous last words will no doubt be in a blog post.

9. "I never will marry." That's what Linda Ronstadt sang on one of her 1978 singles, and she wasn't kidding. She never did marry. While being someone's husband has never felt like my path either, I'm old enough and wise enough now to see it as improbable rather than impossible. Not only because I never say "never" anymore but also because evolving marriage laws around the world have made me free to be a husband if I ever choose to be one (in certain countries and U.S. states).

10. "The more, the merrier."  Less isn't just more; it's easier. Baggage weighs you down, figuratively and literally. In my case, I had to spend decades accumulating to finally realize that most of the stuff I'd acquired was junk. Today the most important inanimate things in my life are my thoughts, my ideas and my words, and they don't weigh a thing.

Gay Shame Revisited: How Traveling to East Africa Sent Me Back Into the Closet

Here is my first piece for Nerve.com. Subject: the biggest surprise on my recent trip to Tanzania.

I was anticipating the unexpected. I was fully prepared for some twists in the roads and bumps in the nights ahead (preferably unrelated to nocturnal lions!). You have to be psyched for anything when you're spending 10 days truck-trekking from Dar es Salaam on Tanzania's Indian Ocean coast up north through Lushoto and Arusha to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro region, then further onward and upward to Nairobi, Kenya's capital city. It's a long, rocky road, though not one less traveled, and in case you momentarily lose your open mind or misplace it wherever you stuffed your malaria pills, any good tour company will keep reminding you until you're expecting the unexpected in your sleep. (Click here to read the rest of the story.)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

In Defense of Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" Video

I'm officially over the whole "cultural appropriation" thing, especially now that it's giving a superstar like Taylor Swift free publicity that she doesn't really need. In just two days of circulation, her new "Shake It Off" video, with its tongue-in-cheek references to twerking and hip hop, inspired enough controversy to catapult 1989, Swift's upcoming fifth album and her first full-on foray into mainstream pop, into the public's consciousness more than two months before its October 27 release.

The charges of racism in the video's fleeting depictions of black culture somehow have overshadowed the song itself as well as Swift's new musical direction. Few critics seem to be troubling themselves with the more pressing shortcomings of "Shake It Off": It's banal pop hackdom from the Max Martin assembly line that probably would have been deemed too blah for Britney Spears' last flop album. Meanwhile, its originality is sorely lacking. "Critics be damned" has been done to death, and Mariah Carey already used that title on her No. 2 2005 single.

The video's theme: All she (Swift) wants to do is dance. And in showing the world that she can't, Swift's bad moves aren't all that's getting slammed. It's one thing for her to turn private drama with her exes into hit singles. That could be considered payback and good marketing. But, according to her latest detractors, how dare she send up, among other non-color-specific things, hip-hop (and by extension, black) culture -- and to make matters worse, include black people while making the joke?!

When I look at Swift's "Shake It Off" video, I don't think, Racist! I think, Taylor, Shania Twain you are not! So she includes black people in the twerking sequences. Would it have been better if she had made the video 100 percent white? Would that have been less racist? Or should she just have left twerking out of it completely because that's a black thing. How could she possibly understand? (Full disclosure: I'm a black man, and I'm still not completely sure what twerking even is.)

It's not as if Swift has never embraced hip-hop culture before. In interviews she has spoken at length about her love for rap music, and a few years ago when Nicki Minaj's "Super Bass" was scaling Billboard's Hot 100, Swift was one of its biggest champions. I even recall watching a video in which Swift rapped along to Minaj's hit. She shouldn't give up her day job, that's for sure, but it was good to see her branching out.

Of course, artistic evolution/revolution is always bound to ruffle some feathers. Coloring outside of your own established lines, especially when it comes to color, is as good as wearing a target on your forehead. A rapper I've never heard of named Earl Sweatshirt quickly took aim at Swift on Twitter to complain about the "Shake It Off" video in a series of tweets.

haven't watched the taylor swift video and I don't need to watch it to tell you that it's inherently offensive and ultimately harmful

perpetuating black stereotypes to the same demographic of white girls who hide their prejudice by proclaiming their love of the culture

for instance, those of you who are afraid of black people but love that in 2014 it's ok for you to be trill or twerk or say nigga

While Earl makes an interesting point about "white girls who hide their prejudice by proclaiming their love of the culture" (I think that argument also would apply to white boys like Justin Bieber), I'm not sure this is the place to make it. There's no evidence that Taylor Swift is afraid of black people, or even harbors any racially charged negative feelings. She may have seemed a little startled when Kanye West interrupted her Best Female Video acceptance speech for "You Belong with Me" at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards to declare that Beyoncé should have received the prize for "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," but who wouldn't have been? She held her own. She hardly appeared to be afraid of him.

By admitting that he hasn't even bothered to watch the video, Earl undermined his argument before he began it. Does a white artist have to show the entire spectrum of black existence every time he or she depicts one element of supposed black culture? Does Swift really have to cram all of that into a four-minute video? Is it not enough that she includes black people doing things other than twerking, or that not all of the black people in the video are good dancers? The clip is appropriately multi-cultural in its casting scope, ballerina sequences aside. (And it's not like the masses were complaining about the lack of black people surrounding Natalie Portman in the Oscar-winning 2010 film Black Swan.) Of course, Earl would know that if he watched the video.

I won't get into the whole cultural appropriation argument because I've stated my case before (here). But this hyper-sensitivity, this "Hands off my culture!" routine, is becoming increasingly boring and troubling. I will never be OK with white people using the N word in any of its forms. But we've got to draw the line somewhere and ease up on white people. (Frankly, I'm more concerned when I read articles written by white people who automatically describe singers like Chris Brown and Trey Songz as "rappers," as if that's all any black male recording artist who has a rap sheet or one they've never heard of could possibly do.)

White people are not all out to get us. In the '90s, they were banned from saying "black people," thus giving birth (unfortunately) to "African-American." Now we're saying they can't twerk in public? What's next? Will they be prohibited from covering songs like "Strange Fruit" and "A Change Is Gonna Come" or singing soulfully because that should be the sole province of black people?

Swift's new album is named after the year of her birth, and she says the music on it was inspired by the music of that era. I wonder if that includes late-'80s/early '90s R&B. Although Swift probably will never have to worry about being accused of appropriating soulfulness, perhaps she should have used this opportunity to make a Britney-esque statement (circa 2004) and covered the second No. 1 single of 1989: Bobby Brown's "My Prerogative," new jack beats and all. Going there should be her prerogative, too. Of course, being white might now mean that's no longer true.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Athlete Vs. The Artist: A Musical Creation Theory

I'll never forget the first time someone called me an artist. It was my brother Alexi, and considering that he was the first artist I ever knew -- to this day, I'm in awe of the representations of reality (and sometimes fantasy) that he used to create when we were kids, using only paper and a pencil -- I took it as the ultimate compliment. But I thought he was kind of out of his mind. I can barely draw a straight line!

Eventually, I learned to expand my definition of "artist." By the time my friend Hernan in Buenos Aires called me an artist simply on the evidence of my reaction to watching Lisa Stansfield's "So Natural" video -- His implication: It takes an artist to respond to artistry so passionately and singularly -- I was willing to reluctantly accept the tag, though I don't believe he ever read a word I wrote that wasn't in the form of a text message. (Emails, texts, IMs and Spanish homework aside, I took about 15 months off from writing after I moved to BA.)

I'm still not sure that I am willing to include myself among the hallowed group of people I respect possibly more than anyone who's ever roamed God's green earth (true artists like Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush, Van Gogh, Picasso, Oscar Wilde, James Baldwin), but by the definition that I assign to "artist" -- someone who creates something tangible from the intangible -- I suppose that I might qualify. When I presented this idea to my friend Gavin, a singer, songwriter and musician who lives in Toronto, he agreed before taking us on one of our usual conversation detours. It led to our revisiting an old debate about interpretive singers, this time focusing on whether producing something "new" out of something pre-existing is true artistry.

My initial inclination is always to side with interpretive singers, especially since I've always considered the gift of interpretive singing to be an undervalued one, especially in this day and age when powerful A-list singers angle for credibility -- and increased royalties -- by insisting on songwriting credits for other people's work. Many jazz greats and performers of the Great American Songbook never wrote a word they sang, but they are as vital to the history of recorded music as the George and Ira Gershwins, the Irving Berlins and the Cole Porters; the Tin Pan Alley, Motown and Philly Soul song maestros; and the poets and great confessional singer-songwriters of the '60s and '70s onward.

There certainly can be artistry in interpretation, in taking someone else's song and transforming it into something completely new and different. What Aretha Franklin did with some of her greatest hits, songs like "Respect," "I Say a Little Prayer," "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "Spanish Harlem," songs that were written by fellow songwriters, is nothing short of miraculous artistry. But then, all interpretive singers are not created equal. Where, for instance, does Celine Dion, singer of 1996's Album of the Year Grammy-winning Falling Into You, fall?

Gavin had a perfect response, one that I'm jealous I didn't come up with first.

"Though I respect Celine Dion for her drive and work ethic, I don't think of her so much as an artist as an athlete. To me, her abilities are primarily physical. She sings the hell out of other people's songs. I realize there's a certain artistry to interpreting and personifying songs. I just think of it as a different thing, and the word 'artist' doesn't come to mind. 'Actor' or 'athlete' does."

Words, or one of Dion's ballads, couldn't express how hard I fell for Gavin's athlete analogy. It was impossible for me to argue with it, so I decided to add to it. In accordance with my obsession with listing and organizing, I decided to categorize female singers who are thought of as being primarily interpreters of song. Who are the "artists" and who are the "athletes"? In the "athlete" column, I dropped the following names: Dion, Shirley Bassey, Barbra Streisand, Linda Ronstadt, Reba McEntire, Whitney Houston and early Mariah Carey, singers whose primary emphasis is/was on technique and presentation.

In the video above, Shirley Bassey looks and sounds great, but pay attention to her expressions and to her gestures. They're all so stagey, just like her trademark gusto and enunciation. Does she appear to be feeling what she's singing? It's all an act, her act. No wonder the word "actor" comes to Gavin's mind when he listens to/watches this expensive brand of singer. It's all very measured and rehearsed.

In her heyday, Linda Ronstadt was considerably less hammy than the Basseys and the Streisands. She was and still is one of the most incredible singers ever to grace Billboard's Hot 100. Though she was, by most accounts that I've heard (and from the evidence I gathered in my one interview with her), opinionated and strong-willed, her primary contribution was her voice. Most of her hit singles had previously been singles for other singers, and Ronstadt was never known for taking the classics to unexpected places. What she did was sing them well -- extremely well -- but did anyone actually ever think of her as that forlorn lovesick girl on blue bayou? We were just blown away by her voice. Yes, that voice again.

Consider "You're No Good," her only No. 1 single. Its instrumental coda is possibly the best moment in any of her recorded work, yet it had absolutely nothing to do with her. In fact, I recently listened to an interview with the late Andrew Gold, a singer-songwriter and musician who worked extensively with Ronstadt in the '70s, in which he revealed that she initially hated the instrumentation of "You're No Good." (In Gold's words: "She heard it and said, 'What the hell is all this Beatles stuff all over this track?'... She was like, 'Wow, this is too much,' and she didn't like it at first.") But what an Olympian vocal performance. What a musical athlete!

The interpretive-singer branch of the "artist" category ended up being far more eclectic, filled with stranger talents: Franklin, Tammy Wynette, Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, Roberta Flack, Anita Baker, Emmylou Harris... I immediately noticed some similarities among them. With the exception of Dionne and Dusty, all of the female "artists" are/were gifted songwriters as well as singers. Flack even enjoyed success as a producer of her own albums in the '70s. Perhaps they bring/brought some elements of their approach to songwriting to their singing and therefore offer/offered a unique perspective with their un-originals that typically cast them in a revelatory light.

Maybe it's the emphasis not on reinventing outside compositions but on belting and showcasing one's voice that conjures an image of a singing athlete. That's why Streisand, who did co-write several of her key hits and even won a Best Original Song Oscar for "Evergreen (Love Theme from A Star Is Born)," is more "athlete" than "artist," while Dionne and Dusty, never big belters or technicians, but more masters of unique phrasing, exude(d) the aura of artistry despite not being songwriters.

I felt as if I needed to add a third category here, a category that includes performers who may write (or more accurately, "co-write," and often more in the aforementioned behind-the-scenes political sense -- yeah, that would be you, Beyoncé) but aren't quite "artists," nor are they exactly "athletes" (though if the pop charts were the Olympics, Beyoncé would be swimming in gold medals). These would be the "performers," a category that includes the traditional pop stars with the singing prowess of mere mortals, people like Diana Ross, Madonna, Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, Rihanna, Katy Perry and later Mariah Carey. (I almost added Lady Gaga, but I think she'd qualify as being part "athlete," part "artist," part "performer," part alien.)

For the most part, with the "performers," their producers deserve equal billing and in some cases, top billing. They're the queens of the video age. In concert, they rely on spectacle and costume changes because, well, that's entertainment, and for them, music appears to be less about expressing and moving (artistry) or impressing and excelling (athleticism) than entertaining. I could spend all day assigning singers to categories, but I'll stop myself here. Now that I've spent quality time listing and organizing, it's time to just enjoy the music.

Friday, August 15, 2014

You've Got to Read This Book!: My First-Ever Press Release


Is It True What They Say About Black Men?: Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World

New Memoir, Travelogue and Exploration of Race and Culture, Set for Release November 4, 2014

NEW YORK (August 15, 2014) - Veteran magazine editor and writer Jeremy Helligar will release his first book, Is It True What They Say About Black Men?: Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World, a labor of love that he spent three years writing and eight years living, on November 4 via Amazon and other eBook retailers.

Is It True What They Say About Black Men? is a travelogue and memoir told from the point of view of a gay, black and well-traveled American, in self-imposed exile from New York City. His physical and emotional journey takes him from one continent to four (South America, Australia, Asia and Africa), all of which he calls home over the course of eight years.

Despite his demographic status as a gay black man (and the book's title, inspired by the one question he hears in every country and every language), Jeremy Helligar's life abroad and his search for adventure, love and a place to belong are defined by so much more than skin color, sexuality, or even gender. Most of all, his experiences - what happens to him and how he reacts to it - are shaped by a more universal trait: being human. In turn, his book is a universal documentation of love, lust and heartbreak, self-discovery and discovery of the world in which we live, adventure and awkward encounters as a stranger in strange lands. Think James Baldwin (whose Notes on a Native Son inspired Jeremy as much as music and The Golden Girls) and David Sedaris mixed with Eat Gay Love.

The prelude to Jeremy's story unfolded in New York City, where he spent the first 15 years of his journalism career on the editorial teams at People, Teen People, Us Weekly and Entertainment Weekly, covering music, television, movies and celebrities, while interviewing many of the biggest stars on the planet, including Dolly Parton, Sting, Mary J. Blige and David Bowie, and standing up at least one former Beatle. (Ringo, of course!) In 2008, he launched his blog, Theme for Great Cities, a blend of travelogue, anecdotes, essays, pop culture and Sex and the City that has amassed a sizable international readership. He's written about travel for numerous print and online publications, including The Bangkok Post and Matador, and since February 2014, he's maintained a blog for The Huffington Post's Gay Voices.

Jeremy is currently based in Cape Town, where he spends most of his waking hours blogging, writing, running, thinking about his next book and wondering if he'll ever make it to Antarctica.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Songs from Casey Kasem's "American Top 40," May 6, 1972

Why do I do it? Why do I insist on organizing everything to death? Not just my living space, but my thoughts and, as it turns out, charts and lists, particularly the ones the late Casey Kasem used to count down weekly on "American Top 40." When I began downloading and listening to them several months ago, Casey's hit lists were pretty manageable mentally. Even if the ones between 1973 and 1984 hadn't already been organized in ascending order by sales and airplay, I probably could have listened to the charting songs from any given week and easily arranged them by pinpointing the timely musical movements around which most of them revolved.

And then I arrived at "American Top 40" for the week ending May 6, 1972. At first, my hopes weren't so high: I wasn't expecting to be fully entertained by a chart for a week that ended the day before I turned 3. Unlike the Billboard Top 40s I'd previously listened to, there would be fewer songs to bring back vivid memories from my youth since I don't recall a thing that I heard before 1973.

In the end, even if I didn't know all of the hits, I was familiar enough with most of the artists who recorded them that from Nos. 40 to 11, once or twice every 10 songs or so, there'd be a moment of true discovery about an act I thought I'd known: Oh, so Buffy Sainte-Marie actually had a hit single then? But whoa! What's this? Sonny & Cher going country at the big top? Color me entertained in full!

Sonny & Cher's "A Cowboy's Work Is Never Done" wasn't the only head-scratcher, though. Of all the retro AT 40 countdowns I've now listened to, I haven't sat through one with as much perplexing diversity as this. (In the early '80s, which is when I started listening to Casey's countdowns live during their initial run, it wasn't unusual to have up to a half dozen acts with two simultaneously charting songs.) Listening up while Casey counted down, I could hear the ascendance of post-Motown soul and the emergence of classic rock, but for all the rhymes, there was very little reason.

Take the Top 10 from a week in a year in which the music industry was still adjusting to Civil Rights. It was one of the most colorful ones in the history of Top 10s! Seven of the 10 biggest songs of the week were sung by black acts -- and that's without a disco or a rap hit in the bunch! Meanwhile, the lack of demographic diversity didn't stop it from being just as varied musically as any other week.

Would a 70 percent black Top 10 be the same today? (Lil Wayne probably would be the guest rapper on 50 percent of the hits, and the other half would be produced and co-written by Dr. Luke.) How far we haven't come since 1972. Those were the days.

39. "Ev'ry Day of My Life" Bobby Vinton An anachronistic No. 24 hit in the age of Philly and Southern soul and at the dawn of classic and progressive rock (see Yes, at No. 32, up 2 with "Roundabout"). It's like 1955's Best Picture Oscar nominee Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing sneaking into the 1972 Best Picture competition against The Godfather, Deliverance and Cabaret. I guess Sammy Davis Jr.'s "The Candy Man" (up four to No. 24, heading to No. 1) would be the slightly anachronistic 1972 Best Picture nominee Sounder.

37. "Sylvia's Mother" Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show Before becoming Dr. Hook, a purveyor of late-'70s middle-of-the-road pop singles that got stuck halfway up the Top 10 (like 1978's "Sharing the Night Together," No. 6, 1979's "When You're in Love with a Beautiful Woman," No. 6, and 1980's "Sexy Eyes," No. 5), Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show was a purveyor of early to mid-'70s quirky folk-rock that got stuck halfway up the Top 10 (1972's "The Cover of Rolling Stone," No. 6, 1976's "Only Sixteen," No. 6 and credited to "Dr. Hook," and this future No. 6 that was the third of the week's five debuts).

36. Walkin' in the Rain with the One I Love" Love Unlimited If only all '70s female vocal groups had been as unique as Barry White's protégé trio (featuring his future wife, Glodean James), male vocal groups probably would have dominated the charts even more than they did in the early '70s. This week, Love Unlimited was the only female vocal group in the Top 40, well below their male counterparts, who outnumbered them 4 to 1: The Jackson 5 with "Little Bitty Pretty One" at No. 26, The Dramatics with "In the Rain" at No. 15, The Chi-Lites with "Oh Girl" at No. 11 and The Stylistics with "Betcha By Golly, Wow" at No. 3. "Walkin' in the Rain" may have been Love Unlimited's biggest hit, but 1974's "Under the Influence of Love" was the one that was so ahead of its time, it could have been a hit decades later for Kylie Minogue, who had the good taste to cover it on her 2000 album, Light Years. Fun fact: Between Love Unlimited's and The Dramatics' then-latest hits, two songs in the Top 40 featured stormy sound effects.

31. "I Saw the Light" Todd Rundgren Though I can vividly recall Rundgren's two biggest hits -- this future No. 16, debuting, and the No. 5-to-be "Hello, It's Me" -- being radio staples in the '70s, I can't remember his ever really getting his due, especially considering that behind the scenes, he was one of the decade's MVPs. He produced Badfinger's 1971 Straight Up album (featuring "Baby Blue," which reached its No. 14 peak this week), two No. 1 hits for Grand Funk Railroad (1973's "We're an American Band" and 1974's "The Loco-motion"), and Meat Loaf's landmark 1977 Bat Out of Hell album.

30. "Jump Into the Fire" Nilsson How do you go from "Without You" (his signature song and a 1971 No. 1, written and originally recorded by the aforementioned Badfinger) to "Coconut" (a soon-to-be No. 8) to this (dropping 3 from its peak) on one album (1971's Nilsson Schmilsson)? It sounds like the dog-eared blueprint for the bridge that artists like Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe would build between punk and new wave at the end of the decade. Fun fact: Though he was a well-respected songwriter, Nilsson's two biggest hits, "Without You" and 1969's "Everybody's Talkin'" (No. 6), both were written by someone else.

29. "Taxi" Harry Chapin Is this single so haunting because its singer-songwriter would die nine years later in an automobile accident? Casey sounds so reverent talking about it, even quoting some of its closing lyrics, it's obvious he's a huge fan. (I'd be surprised if The Stylistics weren't his favorite group at the time.)

28. "(Last Night) I Didn't Get to Sleep at All" The 5th Dimension I never realized that future Solid Gold host Marilyn McCoo's old group had a chart presence in the '70s, but this would make it all the way to No. 8, becoming the vocal group's penultimate Top 10 trip. Also, surprisingly, not totally flopping in the early '70s: Sonny & Cher, at No. 16, down 8 from their zenith, with the carnival-esque, not rodeo-esque, "A Cowboy's Work Is Never Done." That reminds me: Why don't we have more unisex Top 40 acts now? In the '70s, they were everywhere: ABBA, Blondie, Boney M, Captain & Tennille, The Carpenters, Chic, Dawn, Fleetwood Mac, Jefferson Starship, Peaches & Herb, Rose Royce, Rufus, Starland Vocal Band, The Sylvers, Talking Heads... On this chart, in addition to the aforementioned two, we also had Gladys Knight and the Pips ("Help Me Make It Through the Night," No. 33) and The Staple Singers ("I'll Take You There," No. 7).

27. "Run Run Run" Jo Jo Gunne I guess you can say Jay Ferguson was to the '60s and '70s what John Waite was to the '70s and '80s, a guy who scored with two different bands and on his own. And like John Waite with The Babys, solo and with Bad English, I love Jay Ferguson whether he was going to No. 25 with Spirit (via 1968's "I Got a Line on You"), to No. 27 with Jo Jo Gunne, or to No. 9 seven years later, solo, with "Thunder Island," one of my favorite songs from 1978.

23. "Tumbling Dice" The Rolling Stones The highest debut of the week (en route to No. 7), as the band would again be the week ending May 8, 1976, when "Fool to Cry" entered at No. 20, en route to No. 10. I rarely think of this song when I think of the Stones, but it sounds a lot better than I remembered.

22. "Heart of Gold" Neil Young Ditto Young's only No. 1 (the oldest song in the Top 40, at 13 weeks), which I finally learned to appreciate 20 years later when the Harvest sequel, Harvest Moon, quietly became one of my favorite albums of 1992.

21. "Puppy Love" Donny Osmond Here's another difference between Osmond and his fellow early '70s teen idol Michael Jackson: When Jackson tackled a golden oldie ("Little Bitty Itty One," with The Jackson 5, at No. 25, or "Rockin' Robin," solo, at No. 4, down 2 from its runner-up peak), the result sounded completely of its time, like the song could have been written right before it was recorded. Today, though, Osmond's No. 3 take on Paul Anka's "Puppy Love" sounds haunted and hollow, like a relic from another place and time before Osmond was even born (in 1957).

20. "Slippin' Into Darkness" War Paving the way for The Commodores, Earth, Wind & Fire, Kool & The Gang and Rufus later in the decade. War had just as many hits, but why doesn't anybody really talk about War today? A theory: Those early groups had a focal point (EWF, two), while War was a true ensemble with no breakout star after The Animal's Eric Burdon left the band. I guess that would make them the early to mid '70s psychedelic funk version of Foreigner.

12. "The Family of Man" Three Dog Night Chicago aside, my favorite group from the early '70s. I was going to say that if its members had written the band's hits, Three Dog Night would be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but then, Chicago, whose hits were self-penned, has yet to make it in either.

10. "Back Off Bugaloo" Ringo Starr The least respected ex-Beatle may have been the second most successful one in the half decade following the group's split (this, his second Top 10, was inching to No. 9), but 1973 No. 1s "Photograph" and "You're Sixteen" (which was a cover of Johnny Burnette's '60s hit) aside, has anyone racked up more huge forgotten hits?

9. "Look What You Done For Me" Al Green Sprinting toward No. 4 in its fifth week (though up only one), this song has the distinction of being the Green hit that came between his biggest (1971 No. 1 "Let's Stay Together") and his best ("I'm Still in Love with You," a 1972 No. 3).

8. "Doctor My Eyes" Jackson Browne One of the many interesting things I recently learned from watching a documentary on The Eagles: Glenn Frey learned how to write songs in the early '70s by listening to his then-roommate Browne compose his debut hit. Fun fact: The Jackson 5 (no relation) went to No. 9 in the UK in 1972 with a cover of "Doctor My Eyes" from Lookin' Through the Windows, the album that contained the aforementioned (twice) "Little Bitty Pretty One."

7. "I'll Take You There" The Staple Singers I've never noticed it before, but the first of the father-daughters quartet's two No. 1s (Up 11 in its third chart week) sounds less like a song than an improvised vocal jam, like the last few minutes of the Sunday morning song service at a black church.

6. "A Horse with No Name" America Speaking of Michael Jackson and covers, his remake of America's three-weeks-at-No.-1 debut was reworked as "A Place with No Name," a track on his 2014 posthumous album Xscape.

5. "Day Dreaming" Aretha Franklin The Queen of Soul is generally thought of as a stellar voice, but here's more proof (along with "Call Me," "Spirit in the Dark" and "Rock Steady," among her early '70s hits) that she could be as formidable a songwriter as many of her peers who were better known for doing more than just singing.

4. "Rockin' Robin" Michael Jackson And this, Donny Osmond, is how you tackle a golden oldie.

3. "Betcha By Golly, Wow" The Stylistics So romantic, so unsexy, so so good.

2. "I Gotcha" Joe Tex Despite his long string of chart hits and his reputation as being second only to James Brown among funk/soul masters in the early '70s, Tex might be the least remembered of all of this week's Top 10 artists. And were it not for Quentin Tarantino resurrecting it for the 1992 Reservoir Dogs soundtrack, "I Gotcha" might be a more forgotten song today than "Back Off Boogaloo," which is criminal because it may have been the most amazing thing in the entire Top 40 that week.

1. "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" Roberta Flack A Top 10 as strong as this one deserves to be capped by one of the most haunting and enduring love songs ever.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Racism in “Preference”: Afterthoughts on Using “Preference” to Justify Racism (And Yes, It’s Still Racism!)

Hindsight is 20/20 vision, which is too bad for bloggers who have grand epiphanies after pressing "Publish."

Once I read some of the responses to my latest HuffPost Gay Voices essay ("'I Don't Do Asians': The Dangers of Racial Discrimination in Dating"), I had a few new realizations too late to include them in the article, which was actually an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Is It True What They Say About Black Men?: Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World.

Despite my having devoted much of the article --  and "You Can Get With This, Or You Can Get With That," the Black Sheep-inspired book chapter it excerpts --  to laying out an argument challenging those who blindly use "preference" as an excuse to exclude entire races and ethnicities from their dating pool, some dissenters to my HuffPost excerpt still used that same excuse without adding anything new or insightful to what is beginning to sound like a lazy automated response made by people who are just looking to avoid the "racist" tag while not having to think of the social consequences of what they say and do (or in this case, don't/won't do). Can we put the preferring-a-certain-race-is-like-preferring-brunettes-over-blondes argument to rest now? Please?

It's like when defenders of racist and homophobic speech and devil's advocates cite the First Amendment, which apparently gives everyone carte blanch to say and think whatever they want to, minorities, persecuted racial and ethnic groups, and gay people (who really should know better than to cherry pick using race and ethnicity while demanding full acceptance for themselves) be damned.

Yes, with some exceptions, we're all pretty much free to think something then say it out loud, even if it's at the expense of black people, Asians, or gays and lesbians. (Three of those exceptions: 1) If you're going to threaten the life of the U.S. President, or, really, anyone, you'd better do it at home rather than in public, with witnesses present. 2) Slander and libel, though difficult to prove in a court of law, also indicate that you really aren't free to say and write everything. 3) In Argentina, it's a crime to use a racial slur in public, though from personal experience, that rule isn't always enforced.) But does being legal make something right? Cheating on your spouse is not a crime. Is it not wrong, then? Is it exempt from being criticized or challenged?

As for preferences, yes, we are all entitled to them. (And as I stated in my essay and, by extension, in my book, preferring one thing over another is not the same as dismissing the latter outright.) But does that mean our preferences, especially when they involve race and ethnicity, can't be explored? Can we not dig deeper and try to determine why we prefer the way we do, or why a preference, when it involves race and ethnicity, might range from flirting with racism to taking it to bed?

Consider my recent Theme for Great Cities blog post , "The Most Egregious Example of Racism I've Yet to Encounter in South Africa." Can we be outraged by what "Wild fun" had the nerve to say to his black suitor without thinking about the thinking that led him to say it? For all we know, he could have plenty of black friends in real life. He could be like Justin Bieber, totally influenced by black culture, but still be perfectly capable of slurring black people in the right company (in Bieber's case, when surrounded by white people only, in the case of "Wild fun," when virtually surrounded by horny gay guys on Grindr).

I'm almost positive that "Wild fun" would excuse saying, "Fuck off Darkie," by saying, "I'm just not into black guys." Do we attack the symptom ("Fuck off Darkie") or the source ("I'm just not into black guys")? It's the source that leads to the symptom, whether or not we decide to scratch in public, as "Wild fun" did. One creates a mental environment that makes the other possible.

If a person were to say, "I'm not friends with white people because I prefer to be friends with black people," would that qualify as racist speech (despite being perfectly legal, thanks to the First Amendment)? And what about "I'm not friends with gay people because I prefer to be friends with straight people"? I think most people would agree that they would qualify as racist and homophobic statements, respectively. So why wouldn't this logic apply to the same kind of statement regarding sexual attraction?

It's one thing to say, "I prefer Latinos to whites because I find them more sexually attractive" and leave it at that. It's the voicing of what I consider to be a true preference. It might not be the most politically correct  --  or generous --  thing to say, but it's doesn't necessarily lead to excluding anyone the way statements that begin "I'm not attracted to…" and "I'm not into…" do. When you say, "I'm not attracted to white people," which is less a statement of preference than one of exclusion, you've made a blanket statement regarding race without possessing all of the facts about that race (unless you've met every white person on the planet), which is the cornerstone of prejudice. And racial prejudice, folks, is so closely related to racism that the terms are often used interchangeably.

"Preference is not a blockade."  --  Sarah Farma, It's a Curls World

Why is it so difficult for some people to grasp this? Why don't people realize that this sort of exclusionary thinking doesn't just affect sexual relationships. It also contributes to the dearth of opportunities for minorities in Hollywood, in advertising, in any field where a high premium is placed on physical beauty. The powers that be are merely catering to "preferences," giving the people what they think the people want. It's appalling how some of us can run around clamoring for more media representation of "real" people (fuller figured, flatter, hairier, less than even almost perfect) while declaring a personal lack of attraction to entire ethnic groups.

Advertising and Hollywood are about desire, fantasy, aspiration, so, of course, the images presented would cater to that. Does anyone dream of being less attractive, less rich, more average? Why would TPTB include as a representation of fantasy something that they don't think people fantasize about, which would include black people, Asians and myriad other under-represented groups?

Rather than rushing to their own defense against charges of racism and dropping the P word (yes, preference!), I wish more people in privileged majorities (and South Africa's privileged minority) would think harder - about underprivileged minorities (and in South Africa, the majority), about the underdogs, about the disenfranchised, about what they've been through, about how they feel when they hear "I'm not attracted to you" directed at their entire ethnic community. Yes, when it comes to preference, you're free to say, "It is what it is" (First Amendment rights strike again!), though it's actually more than that. Sometimes "It is what it is" is just avoidance masquerading as wisdom.

It's our prerogative to be attracted to whatever and whomever we are attracted to, but that doesn't make it beyond our control. Just because we don't have to dig deeper and face the ugly truth about our so-called "preferences" doesn't make them right. As a wise woman  --  actually women, actually SWV  --  once sang, "Use your heart and not your eyes." Think and feel, don't just see. When it comes to race, seeing without thinking and feeling (and without considering how other races think and feel) isn't just a gateway to racism. It's blindness.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Throwback Thursday: U.S.A. (and Other Countries) for Africa in Songs

I guess I had to be here.

That's what it took for me to fully appreciate pop music's rich history of songs dedicated to my current continental home. And sadly, when I was there (the Serengeti in Tanzania, that is), I didn't have "Africa," Toto 1982 single and the band's only No. 1 hit, on my soundtrack. Not only does the magical, mysterious musical mood perfectly capture the feeling of being out in the African wild (especially when the night comes, to quote then title of the 1989 No. 11 single by Joe Cocker, who, to my knowledge, never released a song about the "Dark Continent"), but so does its best lyric: "As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus from the Serengeti."

Sadly, I didn't get a clear view of Mount Kilimanjaro when we drove past it on the way from Arusha to Nairobi, but revisiting the golden Toto oldie was the next best thing to seeing Africa's highest peak un-obscured by haze. Ah, the power of great writing - and music.

"Zimbabwe" Bob Marley

"A Night in Tunisia" Chaka Khan

"Africa" Toto

"Under African Skies" Paul Simon

"Liberian Girl" Michael Jackson

"Gimme Hope Jo'anna" Eddy Grant

"Zimbabwae" Toni Childs

"Storms of Africa" Enya

"Durban Deep" Elton John

"Diamonds from Sierra Leone" Kanye West