Monday, June 30, 2008

TOWN OF PLENTY


Last night I was feeling bored and restless, so a little before midnight, I decided to get off my couch-potato butt and go for a walk. There are few simple pleasures greater than strolling aimlessly through the streets of Buenos Aires between midnight and sunrise--as long as I avoid stepping into dog doo and ignore the glazed-eyed looks and unsober comments made by the occasional loitering porteño. (Now I know how women feel when they walk past construction sites!) As I hit the streets, memories from our long history--mine and BA's--came flooding back. I first fell for BA during my first visit here more than three years ago while I was going home from a nightclub at the crack of dawn. I was drunk on love--and whiscolas. Little did I know that this romance would last longer than any of my real relationships.

None of my past loves can compare to Buenos Aires in the looks department (sorry, guys!). The city's tarnished beauty truly unfolds at night. Street lamps spotlight buildings and trees at various angles creating a breathtaking chiaroscuro effect. Not having to manuever through throngs crowding the sidewalks, you're free to admire the architecture, a retro mix of functional and ornate, as the buildings sprout from the ground and reach for the sky. From a slight distance, they create the illusion of tilted perspective, as if they are about to converge from both sides of the avenue.

In look as well as in spirit, Buenos Aires is a city whose identity is defined by the past. Music from the '80s blares from car stereos and out of the transistor radios of street vendors (during my walk, I paused to enjoy a few bars of "Under Pressure" by Queen and David Bowie) and obsesses kids who were not yet born in that decade. The tall somewhat decaying buildings seem to come straight out of some '70s urban cop drama. Even tango, Argentina's great musical and dance tradition, lives in the past, as it unabashedly and sentimentally reflects on having loved and lost. (On a very loosely related note, I've pretty much convinced myself that I must have lived in BA in some past life, possibly as King of Tango Carlos Gardel.) Walking down Avenida Santa Fe last night, I was visited several times by that recurring sense of deja vu that has become a regular part of my life in BA. Looking into a store or a cafe, standing on a particular street corner, I got the strange feeling that I had been there before in some other city, in some other lifetime or in some long-forgotten dream.

Lately, I've been dreaming a lot--in and out of bed. Buenos Aires encourages introspection, retrospection and expectation. It's the only city I've been to other than New York where I wake up in the morning with a feeling of hope and anticipation, like anything can happen today, and it probably will. I feel lucky to be spending my late 30s here. It's a turning point in one's life, a period characterized by looking back and looking forward. At 39, I'm old enough to have a wealth of memories and experiences to draw from but still young enough to have great hopes for the future. Three hours after embarking on my walk, I finally arrived back home, head cleared and past the point of exhaustion. As my noggin hit the pillow and I closed my eyes, I was looking forward to the unexpected that tomorrow would no doubt bring.

6 SONGS ABOUT WALKING, NIGHT, CITIES AND--IN THE CASE OF EBTG--ALL OF THE ABOVE (If you like them, buy the the full albums)
  1. The Cure: "At Night" (from Seventeen Seconds)
  2. Electribe 101: " You're Walking (Peeping Tom Mix)" (from Electribal Memories)
  3. Everything But the Girl: "Low Tide of the Night" (from Temperamental)
  4. Johnny Cash: "I Walk the Line" (from The Essential Johnny Cash)
  5. Lee Ann Womack: "A Little Past Little Rock (from Some Things I Know)
  6. The Smiths: "London" (from Louder Than Bombs)

Saturday, June 28, 2008

DECONSTRUCTING BETTY


Watch out, Golden Girls! You've met your match! Five years from now, I might finally give my Golden DVDs a rest. I'll probably be wearing out my Ugly Betty discs, staring in shock and horror at the polyester nightmares that Betty Suarez calls office attire instead of dying of laughter for the zillionth time as Sophia Petrillo wisecracks to her daughter Dorothy Zbornak, "Jealousy is a very ugly thing, Dorothy. And so are you in anything backless."

Yesterday I watched the season finale of Betty's first season (yes, we are a full year behind down here in Argentina), and I found myself tearing up and staring in awe at the TV. It was my soapiest cliffhanger experience since the '80s heyday of Dallas and Dynasty and their shoot-'em-up season finales. It wasn't that I found myself wondering whether Daniel and Alexis Meade would survive that car crash (in this day of Internet spoilers--especially considering that the Betty episodes on South America's Sony Channel are a full year behind the original U.S. airings--there are no secrets) or if Santos would survive the armed convenience-store robbery (I'd read Wikipedia's synopsis of the second season going in, so I knew he would take a bullet and bite it too). It was the way everything played out on the screen that made it such a spectacular hour of television.

To intercut David Archuleta, I mean Justin Suarez performing West Side Story with each individual cliffhanger was a stroke of genius that gave the action as much dramatic momentum as an episode of American Idol. Sure I knew what was coming way before Santos jumped that gun-wielding robber, but that didn't detract from the Oscar clip-caliber reaction of Ana Ortiz' Hilda Suarez (above, with Mark Indelicato's Justin) and her breakdown in Betty's arms, which left me a blubbering mess in my living room. And Betty's discovery of possible deceit by Henry's ex-girlfriend Charlie, who is supposedly pregnant by him, and the way Betty was prevented from getting to the airport to warn Henry was pure Days of Our Lives, circa 1975. It's hard to root for Henry when his good-guy complex always ends up leaving Betty out in the cold, but by now, it's all about Betty vs. Charlie anyways. A good old-fashioned showdown between a soap protagonist and a soap bitch never gets old. Especially when the bitch had previously been shown to have the backbone of a jellyfish.

Like Desperate Housewives (whose finale I found nearly as riveting until it jumped the shark by inexplicably jumping forward five years), Betty is plot-driven drama masquerading as character-driven comedy. The difference is that while Housewives' Gabrielle Solis is that show's only truly entertaining character, Betty is a circus populated by clowns and sideshow freaks. In a way, that made the finale's dramatic turns even more effective and impressive. Any show with a villainess as cartoonish as Vanessa Williams' Wilhelmina "I thought I smelled jewelry" Slater that can cause me to shed a genuine tear is not only a worthy heir to my Golden Girls obsession but also worth its weight in Emmy gold.

Friday, June 27, 2008

WINE, WOMEN & A SONG


Okay, it's confession time: I couldn't care less about wine. I know that I prefer white to red, but that's as far as my knowledge goes. I can't really tell the difference between Merlot and Pinot, and I wouldn't recognize a Malbec if I woke up in bed with one. Basically, I just drink what's in the glass. Despite my general apathy when it comes to wine, I rarely pass up the opportunity to go wine tasting. And as I discovered in January when I spent three days at a wine lodge/resort in Mendoza, I've got a pretty good nose for wine scents.

But truth be told, I could live without sniffing the mysterious liquid contents of those little flavored vials. For me, wine tasting is all about the company. As more bottles are opened and the group gets tipsier, it's almost like being at an intimate house party. Last night I attended a private wine tasting at the invitation of my Time Out Buenos Aires editor (she's the one to my right in the photo above), and I had such a great time that I ended up staying about two hours longer than I'd intended to. Who knew there were so many cool native English speakers in Buenos Aires? I spent at least the first year of my 21 months here avoiding them like the plague because I thought they detracted from the real BA experience. Silly me.

As for the learning part, my most interesting discovery at the tasting involved not wine but the horse I had seen earlier that afternoon carrying a cart of plywood through the streets of my Palermo Hollywood neighborhood. Apparently, it wasn't as unusual as I had thought at the time. (I'm still wondering where all these horses are stored, so if anyone has any information, please pass it on.) I would have posted a picture, but when I stumbled upon the scene I was returning from my Pilates class and didn't have my camera with me. Of course, now that I know it's a relatively common sight in BA, I'll probably be seeing horse laborers everywhere. Stay tuned.

DOWNLOAD The Cardigans: "I Need Some Fine Wine And You, You Need to Be Nicer"

EYE ON THE SPARRO


There's been much ado in the U.K. about Sam Sparro, the 25-year-old R&B singer-songwriter whose debut single, "Black and Gold," leapfrogged over Madonna and Justin's "4 Minutes" to the No. 2 spot on the U.K. singles chart in April. Ultimately, Madonna had the last laugh as she sailed past Sparro to the top and stayed there for four weeks, while "Black and Gold" had to settle for three weeks as the bridesmaid.

Although I get Sparro's appeal, and his talent is undeniable, I find his singing somewhat mannered and his music overmanicured. It's like the aural equivalent of that immaculately coiffed patron saint of metrosexuals David Beckham, who looks like he spends every minute off the soccor field in front of a mirror. That said, Sparro has his moments, like the song "Miss Rexi," included on his 2007 Black and Gold EP but not on his debut CD, Sam Sparro, which was released in the U.S. on Tuesday. Musically, it's the kind of solid blue-eyed soul that doesn't sound all that much like the music black artists actually produce anymore. Listen closely, though, and you'll discover a deliciously subversive point of view. Sparro serenades stick-thin starlet wannabe Anna Rexi, pleading with her to eat something: "Girl I want to fatten you up. Get you back into a C cup." How's that for a unique--and responsible--message in this age of lollipop-figured female stars? Tell it, brother!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

A PENNY FOR YOUR THOUGHT


Everyone's a philosopher these days! I was never big on instant messaging until I moved to Argentina, where, for many people of a certain age, it seems to be the only way they know how to communicate. Lately, I've noticed a lot of my under-30 MSN "friends" have been adding phrases and sayings (here in BA, they call them "nicknames") after their screen names. Normally, I don't pay too much attention to these other than to notice that they're pretty sappy and cliché. So I'm not sure why a particular one the other day caught my attention for more than a few seconds. It said, "Las cosas más hermosas del mundo, no pueden ser vistas, ni tocadas. Simplemente se sienten en el corazón." Translation: The most beautiful things in the world can't be seen nor touched. They are simply felt in the heart.

(Let's pause for a moment while the violin plays and I dab a tear from my eye.)

True enough, but...duh. When did IM switch from being a forum for scintillating (insert sarcastic face here) "What's up?"..."Not much" conversation and become a channel for sharing fortune-cookie sentiments? Lately, everyone has taken to posting commentary on heaven, heartache and the power of love. Alas, the depth of expression ends there. When it comes to the IM'ing part--you know, the real communication--it's business as usual.

"What's up?"

"Not much. Now excuse me while I press 'uninstall.'"

VIDEO Morrissey: "Our Frank"


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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

TREASURE "QUEST"


The other night, the Sony Channel here in Argentina finally aired the two-hour fourth season finale of Grey's Anatomy. I've got to say, as much as I enjoy the show, sometimes while watching, I long for the good old days when hospital dramas like Marcus Welby, M.D. left the cutting and bleeding to the imagination of viewers. In general, I find Grey's couplings and recouplings to be mostly uninspired, but hey, I'm such a sucker for a great soap-opera moment. And kudos to Justin Chambers for providing the best one near the two-hour mark when his Dr. Alex Karev (in my opinion, the best and most complex character on the show) broke down in the arms--not to mention, on the lips--of Katherine Heigl's Dr. Izzie Stevens.


My favorite moment of the episode, though, had nothing to do with plot. It came during the scene where the Chief went home to his wife, Adele, and basically demanded that she take him back. I had been slightly perplexed during the opening scene with McDreamy and Meredith in which Coldplay's "Death and All His Friends" (nearly as solid a song as the other title track from their new CD) was playing in the background because the band has spoken out in the past against cheapening their music by lending it to Madison Avenue. Yet, here they were, these iTunes pitchmen, making yet another no doubt financially lucrative loan to one of the biggest shows on TV. But I digress. Back to the Chief. While he stood there making his case, a song was playing in the background that I initially mistook for a new Amy Winehouse joint. Close, but no cigar. It was Bryn Christopher, an early twentysomething singer-songwriter from the U.K., who actually has toured with Winehouse as well as Mary J. Blige. His song, "The Quest," which bears a passing resemblance to "You Know I'm No Good," Winehouse's best musical moment to date, was released online on June 9 and surprisingly, has not set the U.K. singles chart afire. His album, My World, is set to drop in August. Remember, you heard it here first (or not): Despite his single's lack of chart progress so far, Bryn is going to be big.

CYNDI ON THE "BRINK"


Listen up, dancing queens: Get off your rocking chairs! You're sleeping on the new Cyndi Lauper CD! For those of you not in the know, Bring Ya to the Brink is her first full-length U.S. release of original material in 11 years (hmm...that must be the magic number these days, as the Verve will make their comeback in August a decade plus one year after releasing their last studio album, Urban Hymns), and in a sense, it's Lauper's Confessions on a Dance Floor. This is the kind of record Madonna shoulda woulda coulda made as her Confessions follow up if she were as smart as she seems to think she is. Brink was created with strobelights in mind, but it's equally enjoyable by candlelight, moonlight or even if you're just dancing in the dark.

Apparently, the public wasn't exactly dying for a Lauper club-queen reinvention, as the set peaked at a lowly No. 41 on the Billboard 200 album chart after its May 27 release. In comparison, one week earlier, Donna Summer's return 17 years after her last studio album hit No. 17. But don't believe the lack of hype. Brink is the best of Lauper. Her sly, almost whispered vocals on the jittery, percussive album opener "High and Mighty" hints at Bjork, who, come to think of it, probably learned a thing or two from Lauper, while the Bassment Jaxx-produced "Rocking Chair" has an electro-Calypso swing.

But Brink's real money song is "Lay It Down," co-written and co-produced by Lauper and Andreas Kleerup, the guy who worked with Robyn on her 2007 U.K. No. 1, "With Every Heartbeat." Like the Robyn-Kleerup collaboration, "Lay It Down" is more mood music than full-on dance party, wearing shades of misty blue as Lauper's hypnotic, melancholy vocals float over an electro groove that sounds like the soundtrack to a science-fiction romance. So far Epic has released the more traditionally club-ready "Into the Nightlife" and "Same Old Story" as singles. Both, particularly "Nightlife," with it's anthemic rush of a chorus, are excellent, but if the label's powers that be are smart, they'd put "Lay It Down" on their release schedule pronto. U.S. radio is probably too stuck in R&B la la land to appreciate its merits, but it would no doubt take Lauper straight to the Top in the U.K.

Hello! Is anyone listening?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

COUNTRY GRAMMAR


Poor South America, so misunderstood. In the minds of many of my fellow North Americans, there's Rio, there's Buenos Aires, and then there's the rest of the continent. They pretty much lump it all together without realizing that there are vast differences among South America's off-the-A-list countries. When I visited Lima, Peru, in January, I was surprised to discover that the people were so sophisticated and cosmopolitan--much more so than the sheltered, provincial porteños who populate my adopted hometown of Buenos Aires, some of whom had never had any real exposure to black people before encountering me. The reason why Peruvians in the capital city are so tourist savvy? Cusco and the drop-dead-gorgeous Incan ruins of Machu Picchu are nearby, so the people of Lima have been fielding visitors for years, while in Buenos Aires, tourism is still a relatively new phenomenon.

Two weeks ago, I returned from 10 days in Santiago de Chile, where I'd experienced a similar tinge of culture shock. The people there weren't as savvy as they had been in Lima, but neither did they stare so obviously at the strange black man in their midst as do their Argentine neighbors. And although Chilean Spanish is notoriously difficult for non-native speakers to understand (Chilenos string their words together and drop consonants), for me, it was easier to communicate with them, and I started to catch on to their dialect after a few days. Part of this is because Chilenos are less aggressive with the language than Argentines, who, like the French and--to be totally honest--people in the U.S., can be incredibly arrogant with a fierce national pride that extends to their unique brand of Spanish and their resistance to foreign tongues and accents. Ask an Argentine (in Spanish) to slow down or speak clearly, and they seem to instinctively talk even more rapidly. Accent the wrong syllable of the street El Salvador when talking to a cab driver (it's El Sal-va-DOR, not El SAL-va-dor), and he'll look at you like you have three heads. Chilenos are more likely to break out the broken English when they see you struggling. With some of the pressure off, communicating in Spanish actually becomes less daunting.

Interestingly, whenever I mention my trip to any of my Argentine acquaintances, they have the same seemingly pre-programmed response: "Me caen mal los Chilenos." (Meaning: They hate people from Chile. With a passion.) It's that national pride again. A friend explained to me that the hard feelings stem from Chile's support of the U.K. during the '80s standoff between Argentina and Britain over the Falkland Islands. Tellingly, the hard feelings appear to be one-sided, as the Chilenos I met didn't appear to harbor any significant anti-Argentine sentiment.

Don't get me wrong. As much as I enjoyed my time in Santiago and as easygoing as I found its inhabitants to be, ultimately, it was a meaningless fling. Passive to the point of inertness, the people there couldn't hold my attention for long. I actually started to miss the Argentines and their bold assertiveness. On my second night in town, my dinner date insisted on meeting me in the lobby of the building where I was renting an apartment (see the view from my 17th-floor digs below) because he was uncomfortable walking into a restaurant alone. I didn't know whether to laugh or cancel! My love affair with Buenos Aires and its beautiful, maddening citizens is far from over. The two cities, Santiago and Buenos Aires, are like apples and oranges or Boston and New York. Boston, like Santiago, may be cleaner, and the people may be more polite, but nothing compares to New Yorkers and Buenos Aires porteños in all their brash, overbearing glory crowding their mean, dirty streets. It's good to be home.

AND JUSTICE FOR...COLDPLAY

Seems everybody's getting what they deserve. Over in musicland, the British band Coldplay hit number one this week for the first time ever on the U.S. and U.K. singles charts with the damn near perfect "Viva la Vida" (translation: Live the Life or, simply, Live Life), the title track of their fourth album, Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends. By now everyone has heard it, so I won't go on and on about its musical merits and how it sounds unlike anything else on the radio now or, well, ever. Its ascent to the top at last breaks the longtime stranglehold that cookie-cutter R&B and hip hop have had on the summit of Billboard's Hot 100.

I recently read someone's interpretation of the lyrics of "Viva la Vida" as a fantasy kingdom as a metaphor for love. I see it more as a contemplation on the ephemeral nature of life and how everything can change in the blink of an eye, which is what makes life at once so beautiful and so terrifying. But enough navel gazing. I'm just happy there's a No. 1 single that I actually want to listen to all the way through.

My Top 8 Coldplay or Coldplay-associated songs in alphabetical order:

  1. "All Good Things (Come To And End)" (Coldplay frontman Chris Martin cowrote it with Nelly Furtado, Timbaland and Danja. This version from Furtado's Loose CD features less Chris than the original recording.)
  2. "Can't Get You Out of My Head" (Hopefully, their collaboration with Kylie Minogue that didn't make Viva la Vida's final cut will someday surface. For now, their 2005 Glastonbury homage to Kylie's greatest hit will have to do.)
  3. "Daylight"
  4. "Lost!" (If there's any more justice in the world, this Viva la Vida album cut will be band's second No. 1 hit.)
  5. "Politik"
  6. "Speed of Sound"
  7. "Talk" (Thin White Duke Remix) (A hint at how incredible an album-length collaboration with Madonna's Confessions on a Dancefloor producer would be.)
  8. "Viva la Vida"

Monday, June 23, 2008

I'M NOT DEAD!

Since I fled New York City for Buenos Aires 21 months ago, the thing I miss the most--aside from the usual suspects: my friends, my Union Square apartment, corner delis and English--is my daily fix of daytime drama. Yes, I was addicted to love in the afternoon. (Oh, get your mind out of the gutter!) Ah, those sleepless nights spent tossing and turning and wondering if General Hospital's Sonny and Carly would ever get it together and work out their problems or worrying about Days of Our Lives Sami and whether Kate would catch her in her latest harebrained lie. And don't get me started on the Daytime Emmy Awards! On Friday, June 20, I missed them for the third straight year, but don't cry for me in Argentina. Thanks to YouTube, I got to see The Young and the Restless' Jeanne Cooper, an eight-time loser, finally collect the Best Actress prize.

Although Y&R isn't a favorite of mine (I'm down with the ABC soaps), it was one of the very first shows I remember watching as a kid in the '70s, before my mother jumped ship from the dark and dreary world of CBS to the greener--and better-lit--pastures of the alphabet network. Cooper's Mrs. Chancellor was my first exposure to true divadom. I couldn't take my eyes off her as she schemed, bellowed (usually at arch rival Jill Foster) and got totally wasted. Now pushing octogenarian status (she turns 80 on Oct. 25), Cooper looks better, if not younger, than she did in 1973, when she joined the Y&R cast! Forget Daniel Day-Lewis and his politically correct displays of humility during his myriad Oscar season acceptance speeches. Cooper's turn at the podium was the real deal. I especially loved her opening quip: "I bet you thought I had died." Watch it here, courtesy of YouTube.

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