Sunday, October 30, 2011

Losing My Religion and Gaining Another One

"But if one carefully considers all the facts, one must be convinced that at the basis of all suffering lies the principle of craving desire. If avarice can be removed, human suffering will come to an end." -- The Teaching of Buddha

"In Japan, it's a religion to be Japanese."

That's what the Japanese man told me at a cocktail party the other night. We spent about an hour discussing U.S. politics and religion, and of all the things he said, his comments on Japan and religion were the ones that stuck with me. While acknowledging that the dominant religion in his country is Buddhism, he made the interesting point that Japan's true religion is embracing elements of all religions. That, he said, is what it means to be Japanese.

And that, I thought to myself (or maybe I actually said it out loud -- I did, after all, have three glasses of white wine), is unorganized religion that I can get behind.

I grew up in a household where organized religion played a huge role in everyday life. My family attended church services every Sunday morning and sometimes on Sunday evenings and occasionally at night during the week as well. I would have preferred to spend that time pursuing other interests (like reading about U.S. history and Norse and Greek mythology, whose gods I found far more interesting than the star of those church services), but the only thing that frightened me more than the wrath of God was the wrath of my mother. She's the loveliest woman I've ever known, but she can also be the most intimidating. I did as I was told.

It wasn't all torture. I always enjoyed the musical part of the church service most and wished that would have been the end of it. It wasn't so much what the preacher said during his sermons that didn't sit well with me but the fire-and-brimstone delivery. I found it difficult to buy into the Church of God religion to which my family adhered when it seemed to be largely based on fear and blind faith. I was already a cowardly kid who didn't need to be constantly threatened with the burning flames of hell, and I was always too headstrong for blind faith.

I think the moment I truly lost my religion was when I was 23 years old, and I was reading The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky nailed my sentiments exactly in the chapter in which Ivan had his nightmare tete-a-tete with the devil and wondered why God would bother giving us free will if His endgame was to get us to follow Him blindly.

Ah ha! If He was the one who bestowed upon us the gift of rational thinking which might lead us to reject Him, could he really blame us if we did? Why stop at creating man in His own image? Why not also fill man (and woman) with the unwavering desire to follow Him? Wouldn't that have made everything so much easier?

I, for one, have never been able to bring myself to totally reject Him or believe in Him. So what does that make me? I'm not sure. Atheism has always seemed too cold and austere. Agnosticism falls more within the borders of my philosophical scope, but it's still a bit too vague for someone like me who likes to define things.

I feel that there has to be something, or someone, bigger than us. When I look at the world, and I see all of the beauty and organized chaos in nature, I feel that it's not merely a product of science. Yes, science had its place, but maybe someone set science into motion. The Big Bang theory and creationism are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but that's a topic for another post. Or not.

Despite my tendency toward theistic evolution, what I haven't been able to fully embrace in organized religion (besides all of the judgement and intolerance) is the traditional Western concept of God. I have a difficult time believing that there is someone watching over me, a God pulling the strings whom I can thank for all of the good I have in my life, and one who only demands that I worship Him in return.

Besides the obvious arrogance of a character who would create an entire race to worship Him or else, there is the "Why me?"/"Why them?" factor: Why do some people get to be rich and famous, or beautiful, or finders of true love? Is God really responsible when someone wins a Grammy? Why do some people have to live with the burden of blindness or deafness or limited mobility? They say 1 out of 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Is He pulling the strings to determine who will be the lucky/unlucky ones? Why them?

These questions have never been answered to my satisfaction and as long as they aren't, I will continue to doubt Him. I respect those who don't feel as I do. If devoutness gets you through the night, then by all means, hang on to it. And if it's just too fantastical for you to accept it, then don't. God knows (if He exists), that if I had been raised on Greek mythology, and not just reading books about it, I wouldn't be so quick to bow to Zeus, who was basically a gigolo in a toga.

Aside from The Brothers Karamazov, the thing that influenced me most when it comes to my religious views was a class on Eastern religion that I took in college. The ones we studied seemed to be based more on psychological concepts than the Western ones with which I was most familiar.

I found a book called The Teaching of Buddha in the drawer by the bed in my hotel suite in Bangkok. I guess I should have known better than to expect The Holy Bible in Thailand, a country where Buddhism is the primary religion. I opened the book, and the first words I read spoke to me more powerfully than anything I'd read in years.

"Where is the source of human grief, lamentation, pain and agony? Is it not to be found in the fact that people are generally desirous.

They cling obstinately to lives of wealth and honor, comfort and pleasure, excitement and self indulgence ignorant of the fact that the desire for these very things is the source of human suffering."

It's easier for me to embrace a philosophically sound idea that I can apply to my everyday life than it is for me to accept being told that heaven awaits only if I follow some arbitrary life plan. Religion is supposed to make us better people, yet historically, it's spawned so much physical and psychological turmoil. Major wars (including the ongoing one on terrorism) have been fought in its name, and too many people use it to justify their intolerance (the Bible often being cited as a reason by many, including Sherri Shepherd on The View, to deny gays the right to marry). I'm too skeptical and suspicious to buy into all of that.

I like the idea of picking and choosing bits from different religions and applying them to your life in a way that works for you. And while you are selecting what to use and what not to use, remember to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It's called the golden rule for a reason. Follow it, and so much that is good will fall right into place.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Do Straight People Have Better Taste in Music?

Music is power, as Richard Ashcroft once sang.

It has power, too -- to rock me, to roll me, to make me love or loathe any bar or club. So why don't I loathe DJ Station in Bangkok, or pretty much every gay bar or club anywhere in the world, then? In the last eight months -- the period of time since I left Buenos Aires, home of my beloved Ambar la Fox -- I haven't stepped into a single one with a musical menu offering much besides tacky dance remixes and fluffy modern pop. (I'd say, "Hang the DJ," if the ones at Ambar, the Peel in Melbourne, and DJ Station hadn't occasionally thrown me a very tasty bone in the form of Timbaland and Katy Perry's epic "If We Ever Meet Again.")

Here are some cliches that are based largely on cold hard fact: Gay men dress, work out, interior design and moisturize with a flair that puts their non-metrosexual straight counterparts to shame. They generally have the best taste in everything, so what's the deal with their terrible taste in tunes? Is the music that the DJs in gay bars and clubs constantly play a reflection of what gay men want, or do those playlists influence what gay men want? Morrissey was right: It says nothing to me about my life.

Maybe they dance to it simply because it's there. That would be wishful thinking on my part. I have gay friends with the same taste in music as me, guys who appreciate hip hop and rock & roll as much as the tops of the pops. But I believe we're in the gay minority, and the majority rules. Judging from what I've been told by DJs when I've requested a little bit of rock & roll in the mix, the masses dictate that they play it safe and kind of corny.

So if the DJs in gay bars and clubs are going to cling to the current pop hits only, what does "Give Me Everything" have that "Super Bass" doesn't? (The hot bartender at Balcony on Silom Soi 4 made me go limp the other night when he declared his love for Pitbull's recent No. 1 hit. Yuck!) Nicki Minaj should be a gay icon, but those dancing queens don't seem to know that she's alive.

They're too busy worshipping and dancing at the altar of Gaga. Of course, it's usually to the wrong song. "Judas," Gaga's best single since "Poker Face," was the smallest of her Top 10 hits, and "The Edge of Glory" -- Gaga at her most middle of the road -- gets all the love on gay dance floors. Rihanna is generally a guaranteed dance-floor filler, yet I can only recall one time that I've heard "Umbrella," the biggest and best of her No. 1 hits, in a gay club. (It was at Glam in BA just before closing time.)

The low gay profile of "Umbrella" must have something to do with the presence of Jay-Z. Rap -- and hip hop, in general -- need not apply for inclusion on the DJ play list of any gay club. That's where pop divas rule. (Note the absence of Lil Wayne in the dance remix of Jennifer Lopez's "Im Into You," still in heavy rotation at every gay joint in Bangkok.)

That can be good and bad. I get the gay obsession with Madonna and Kylie Minogue, and although I don't dig Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland as much as gay men of a certain age do, their stunning talent is/was undeniable. Thankfully, those are two gay icons whom you don't generally hear outside of piano bars, unless it's in the form of Duck Sauce's dreadful 2010 hit "Barbra Streisand." And if they must give Cher a spin, it's usually to throw some irony and camp into the proceedings.

That works for me, but must I hear the same old songs by Katy Perry, Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez every time I go out? And why can't I get an Adele hit in its original form? "Rolling in the Deep" and "Someone Like You" are ruined when they are remixed into house stompers. I love them just the way they are, as Bruno Mars might sing. And speaking of Mars, his "Grenade" may have benefited greatly from a dance beat, which made it seem somehow darker and sexier, but Adele doesn't need any help being dark and sexy. "Someone Like You" is moving without the beat, and "Rolling in the Deep" has built in dance potential. I still don't know what it means to be "rolling in the deep," but every time I hear the song in its original form, I can't stop dancing.

I miss the good old days at Wonder Bar in New York City's East Village when hip hop dominated the music menu. At Ambar la Fox, the DJ sprinkled just enough rock & roll into his mix to keep me coming back for more. (Elastica's "Connection" sounded even better in 2010 than it did in the '90s.) But since I left BA and Ambar la Fox behind, my ears bleed every time I go out. I've even occasionally gone out with my iPod so that I wouldn't have to depend on a DJ to save my life.

But last night I realized that I've been looking for love and good music in all the wrong places. While the drag queens at DJ Station were doing the same cheesy routines to the same old campy, crappy pop songs (I loved it in the beginning, but all those silly love songs and the umpteenth rendition of Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman" drag it down -- pun intended), Unicorn, the all-female house band over at Titanium Club & Ice Bar, a straight vodka bar on Sukhumvit Soi 22 which I went to last night with my visiting Melbourne friend Devarni and her expatriate mate Dave, had me at "Use Somebody."

The girls played well, sang well, and the other choices throughout their two sets demonstrated excellent taste in music: The Pretenders' "Brass in Pocket," Coldplay's "Viva la Viva," The Cure's "Boys Don't Cry," Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love," the Cranberries' "Zombie," Katy Perry's "Not N Cold" (still her best solo single, and the one you're least likely to hear in a gay bar anywhere), Franz Ferdinand's "Take Me Out" and 4 Non Blondes' "What's Up."

The set list included so much good stuff that they held my attention for far longer than live bar bands usually do. The only misstep was a cover of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" that was too peppy to capture the dark dread and foreboding that Ian Curtis build the song on. But I gave them a free pass. When you sing music in a language that's not your own, you miss some of those lyrical details.

Still, it was so much better than anything being played over at DJ Station, where, later on, I saw a few people who had been at Titanium grooving to the dance remix of Selena Gomez's "Love You Like a Love Song" that was booming from the sound system. Then along came Gaga, Katy, Rihanna, J. Lo and Adele with a beat.

Ugh! Where's Jay-Z and Alicia Keys' when you need them? Oh right, playing on full blast over at Titanium. Taxi!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Why I'm Still in Bangkok

There's a storm front rolling in.

Not the kind that brings thunder, lightning and torrential downpours. In fact, at the moment, the skies over Bangkok are only partly cloudy and have been mostly clear for the majority of the week (unlike as in the photo above, which I took from my balcony on October 16). The storm front that I'm talking about will bring water from down below, moving in the opposite direction, upward. By some reports, the deluge will rise up to 1.5 meters or more in central Bangkok.

Thailand's Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is saying there's a 50/50 chance, but as I've previously reported, you can't believe everything you hear or read around here these days. (Channel NewsAsia just reported that it's now more like a 100 percent chance.) The threat of inner-city flooding has been with us for the last two weeks, but it's been presented with a bit more breathless urgency over the last few days. I'm beginning to feel like one of the workers in the World Trade Center on 9/11 who ignored that initial impulse to get the hell out of a burning building.

Of course, this is no 9/11. Although it's the worst flooding to hit Thailand in 50 years, and more than 350 lives have been claimed (with further casualties almost certain, due to post-flood illnesses such as cholera and dysentery), the situation here is not nearly the same as it was in New York City on September 11, 2001. Then, as now, I was sitting on the outskirts of a disaster area, preparing for the worst, if not quite expecting it.

So what's a smart guy like me still doing in a place like this? I'm not entirely sure. If I didn't love the city, my accommodations and my 14th-floor view, I probably would have been out of here days ago. Another part of me, the journalist, feels that it would be improper to leave the scene of potential impending disaster. If I can't do anything to help out, at the very least, I can help report the story with my digital camera and laptop.

The fact is I've never been in the middle of a natural disaster of any kind. I grew up in Florida, where, every hurricane season, I was possibly in the path of a raging storm. I've seen fire, I've seen rain, I've seen a few trees go down. I even saw all of the schools in Kissimmee closed down in 1979 due to Hurricane David. But I never saw the eye of the storm hit close to home.

Amazingly, I've never experienced a tornado either, although I spent my childhood terrified of them. Every time storm clouds rolled in, I would look up in the sky, expecting to see that funnel cloud that would whisk me up and away on my own Dorothy experience. Green may have been one of my favorite colors, but Emerald City was no place I wanted to visit. (That Wizard was one scary-looking guy!)

While I was watching storms go by as a kid, I read the news reports of the furious weather conditions in Southeast Asia that always seemed to claim hundreds of lives each year. When I was planning my trip here, it was with a little bit of trepidation that I'd run right into one. I nearly did: I missed the typhoon in Manila, Philippines, last month that claimed more than a dozen lives by just a couple of weeks.

There was nothing on that scale this past rainy season in Thailand. The current situation is the direct result of three months of steady downpours that brought more rain than usual. That part, I've experienced. In Pattaya, where, during my visit in September, I saw people walking through flooded streets in water up to their knees and cars (including the van bringing me into town) half submerged in water. In the rainforest in Koh Chang, I was stranded with my tour group on the wrong side of our vehicle by a waterfall that had been created by an unexpectedly heavy downpour.

It took several hours and a precarious balancing act, but we eventually made it over to the other side. Bangkok will make it over to the other side, too. Though tomorrow morning I might come to my senses and head to my gay getaway in Pattaya, for now I intend to stick around to see what happens next.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Unbelievable Things People Have Actually Said to Me

I apologize in advance. I'm about to get a little bit bitchy.

Yesterday I was talking to an acquaintance in Melbourne via MSN. I owe him the last four months of my life because he was the one who convinced me to book my trip to Bangkok one Saturday night in Melbourne last June. He'd recently returned from two weeks in Singapore, and he had a two-month trek to Bangkok in the works. By the time you finish reading this post, you'll understand why I saw him only once while he was here.

He'd been back in Melbourne for three days, and he said he was just about to get his certification to teach English.

"Where will you teach?" I asked.

"I don't know yet. Maybe Tiewen," he wrote.

Seriously. If you are considering living and teaching there, maybe you should learn how to spell it, I thought to myself. But I put my bitchy impulse to correct him aside and changed the subject to places I've never been but really want to visit. Taiwan isn't one of them. At the top of my list: Seoul.

"Where's Seoul?"


Thankfully, he's teaching English, not geography. Though I'd give him a C-minus if I were grading his grasp of his native tongue, and I'm pretty sure that he doesn't realize "your" is not the same as "you're," so, well, those poor students. I know I shouldn't speak ill of the dead or the ignorant, but really. How can you be planning on moving to Asia to teach English and not even know where Seoul is?

I'm pretty sure Karsten knows where Seoul is, but he's got more pressing issues to deal with. He's German, and he's been living in Bangkok for 10 years. He teaches, though neither English nor German. He works at a university here in Bangkok, and he did once tell me what he teaches, but it was a subject I'd never heard of, so it pretty much went in one ear and out the other.

One night, a few weeks after we met, I saw him at DJ Station, and he totally ignored me. I wasn't sure why, but I was having such a good time that it didn't even register until the next day when he sent me an email.

"Sorry I couldn't talk to you last night. I was with my boyfriend, and he gets very jealous. My last boyfriend was black, and I recently went to visit him in the U.S. If my current boyfriend saw me talking to a black guy, we'd probably get into a big fight."

I really don't want to play the racism card here, but it reminds me of the time I was harassed by a guy in Buenos Aires because he had once been mistreated by a black ex-boyfriend. I wasn't sure who was more ridiculous: Karsten or his boyfriend? Probably the boyfriend -- who, by the way, is Thai -- for flirting so dangerously close to racism, but Karsten is the bigger idiot for letting him get away with it. I hope the sex is good because the relationship sounds like it's not. Just hearing Karsten detail their jealousy and ownership issues made me glad I'm single.

Of course, being single means having to receive messages like the one that popped up in my MSN window from Steve in Adelaide last week. (I have to remember to stayed logged out.) The last time we talked, he told me about a "naughty dream" he'd had with me as his costar, but he didn't share all the graphic details. This time, he threw caution -- and good taste -- to the wind. I won't share here what he shared in this message, but let's just say it involved genitalia, body fluids and no condom.

I've said it before (in this post), and I'll say it again: Some things are better left unsaid.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Next 14 Artists Who Should Be Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

I just wrote an article for my Ourstage "Sound And Vision" column on "Why the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Is on the Verge of Becoming a Joke," and it got me thinking about the most egregious omissions overall. For the next few years, they should skip the nominating process and focus on righting ongoing wrongs by automatically inducting the most glaringly overlooked acts.

Once they're in, then the Hall of Fame should focus on other ways of fixing the induction process. First, they need to decrease the number of annual inductees (three performers and one non-performer only in years when there's a worthy candidate) to slow down the diminishing quality of honorees. I attended the ceremony in 1992, the year Johnny Cash was inducted, and all seven performing inductees (including Cash, the Isley Brothers, the Yardbirds and the Jimi Hendrix Experience) were true monsters of rock & roll. I also met Cash, who was as gracious as you might expect him to have been, and asked Alan Jackson to remove his cowboy hat so that I could see if he was hiding any baldness underneath, a la Dwight Yoakam. His wife gladly did it for him, revealing hat head and a hairline in the early stages of retreat.

Next, they should remove the "early influences" and "sidemen" categories and let those performers get in the same way everyone else does, broaden the definition of "rock and roll" to make the Barbra Streisands, the Frank Sinatras and the Connie Francises of music's past and present worthy of serious consideration, and allow induction only by current members with ties -- whether they be professional or influential -- to the inductees. (How dare they let Justin Timberlake induct Madonna in 2008 when her direct precursor in pop blonde ambition, Deborah Harry, was around to do it?)

But first, let's get these 14 artists into the Hall of Fame, where they belong.

If not for providing a decade's worth of hits that are still in heavy rotation around the world (including the all-ABBA music channel on the TV in my Bangkok pad), at least for spawning both an internationally successful stage musical and a 2008 movie in which Meryl Streep floundered trying to pull off ABBA's great Swedish songbook, proving that it wasn't quite as easy as the quartet made it look.

Donna Summer
Yes, I've heard: Disco is a dirty word, and Summer is perhaps the artist most devalued by it. But that's a disservice to the breadth of her work, which covered nearly every genre, and at its best ("I Feel Love," "Our Love"), still sounds as current as recent hits by Lady Gaga and Rihanna, two artists who might not even exist if Summer hadn't helped bust down the wall separating pop from electronic dance music in the '70s.

Depeche Mode
DM may not have been the most influential new-wave band (I'd tentatively bestow that honor on Human League), but it's the only iconic '80s act who actually had it biggest hits in the '90s, and whose continued relevance and activity does not revolve purely around nostalgia. I'll even forgive main songwriter/member Martin Gore for providing Susan Boyle with material ("Enjoy the Silence") for her upcoming third album, "Someone to Watch Over Me." By the way, Boyle's version is even worse that you would imagine!

Dolly Parton
Not only did she write the bulk of her hits (including "I Will Always Love You," a No. 1 pop single for Whitney Houston and a country No. 1 for its author, twice), but she's country music's only gay icon, a singer-songwriter whose fame transcends music. I can't imagine another country singer (aside from perhaps a resurrected Johnny Cash) who could make major news by announcing live dates continents away from Nashville, in Australia, where Parton will tour next month. What becomes a 65-year-old legend most? Eternal youth appeal. I have a 20-year-old friend who is dying to see Parton when she lands in Brisbane from November 25 to 27.

Loretta Lynn 
If Wanda Jackson could get in (in 2009), surely there's a spot in there for the woman whose life story won Sissy Spacek an Oscar and who could make a song with a title like "Out of My Head and Back in My Bed" sound like the furthest thing from a joke.

Willie Nelson
Like Parton, an iconic country performer who, for his contribution to the Great American Country Songbook, probably deserves the honor more than George Jones, who despite being country's greatest living singer never quite transcended the genre.

Roxy Music 
The band may have been a bit too avant-garde for the Hall of Fame's restricted tastes, but by honoring Roxy Music, they'd also be giving due props to Brian Eno. After leaving Roxy, he went on to become one of the most influential music producers in the history or rock, continuing to demonstrate viability with his work on the new Coldplay album, Mylo Xyloto, which comes out on Monday (October 24).

Electric Light Orchestra 
Of the Beatles-esque bands that emerged in the wake of the Fab Four's split, nobody honored the source material more impressively than ELO. The group did it so well that George Harrison invited leader Jeff Lynne to produce Cloud Nine, his 1987 comeback album, which spawned "Got My Mind Set on You," the final No. 1 solo hit by a former Beatle. On what musical planet is Steely Dan, inducted in 2001, more worthy?

Unless you're an icon (Madonna, Dusty, Aretha) or riding in on the arm of a guy or three (Tina Turner with Ike or Stevie Nicks with Fleetwood Mac), women get no respect from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Nominated for the first time this year, Heart might be road-blocked by its middle-of-the-road '80s balladry, but the band would deserve a spot based solely on its '70s work and for originating the concept of women who rock. And if it's between Heart and fellow nominees Joan Jett and the Blackhearts to represent girls with guitars at the 2012 induction ceremony, the Wilson sisters can't lose.

Linda Ronstadt
Maybe she's never been nominated because in the '70s she broke the heart of someone on the nominating committee. Or maybe her genre hopping in the '80s was too confusing. If anything, that's exactly why she deserves in perhaps more than any still-un-nominated performer.

Like Heart, an MOR hit-making phase two in the '80s spoiled its legacy, but among '70s acts who spent the majority of the decade cranking out huge albums and singles with equal ease, Chicago was right up there with Bee Gees and Elton John. "Make Me Smile," "25 Or 6 to 4," "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is," "Beginnings," "Colour My World," "Saturday in the Park," "Feelin' Stronger Every Day," "Just You N Me," "(I've Been) Searching So Long," "Call on Me," "Old Days," "If You Leave Me Now" and "Baby, What a Big Surprise," were all Top 10 hits featuring the original '70s line-up. Perhaps having multiple lead singers played a role, but aside from Three Dog Night (also featuring multiple vocalists), I can't think of a group of the time with more variety in its hit list, yet somehow Chicago always seems to be excluded from discussions of the pivotal acts of the '70s.

Dionne Warwick/Burt Bacharach and Hal David
Though it's easy to think of Warwick and her two primary songwriters in the '60s as a packaged deal, some of their greatest triumphs were accomplished separately ("Deja Vu" and "Heartbreaker" for Warwick, Bacharach/David's classic compositions for Carpenters and B.J. Thomas, and Painted From Memory, Bacharach's stunning 1998 collaboration with Hall of Famer Elvis Costello). But that the creative team responsible for some of the most enduring pop classics of the 1960s has yet to be considered is proof that the men behind the Hall of Fame are not only out of touch but of of their minds, too.

10 Other worthy inductees

Deep Purple
Cheap Trick
The Miracles
Barry White
Gram Parsons
Kate Bush
Luther Vandross

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Mad About Her: In Praise of Belinda Carlisle

She was one of the last women to really turn me on.

I'm not completely sure what got me thinking about Belinda Carlisle. It may have been something by Terence Trent D'Arby (speaking of great singers who never got their commercial due, which is what I intend to do in a future post) that my iPod shuffle selected while I was in the gym yesterday. I don't know why, but for some reason, D'Arby's "Wishing Well" always reminds me of Belinda.

I remember watching the Grammy Awards in 1989 -- he was hot with Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D'Arby; she was on fire with "Heaven Is a Place on Earth" and its string of follow-up hits -- and she was raving about him on the red carpet. For some reason, the image stuck. I love a good pop catfight, but sometimes it's nice to hear artists say genuinely nice things about each other, too.

Most of her fans probably would hate me for saying this, but I was never much into the Go-Go's. Some 30 years later, "Our Lips Are Sealed" sounds as fresh as it did the first time I heard it on Casey Kasem's Top 40 countdown, but aside from that debut hit, the best of the Go-Go's never really did it for me. I like my pop a little darker and with an edge, and songs like "We Got the Beat" and "Vacation" are a bit too sunshine and light for my taste.

Yes, I know that despite its upbeat title and peppy beat, "Vacation" is a break-up song, which I suppose is kind of subversive for early '80s pop, but not enough so. Imagine a song called "Vacation" with lyrics and music that contradicted the title. (Dido started to go there, but she ended up calling her 2004 single "Sand in My Shoes.") Now that would be a song I could sink my ears into!

Belinda got a rise out of me for the first time since "Our Lips Are Sealed" with her 1986 debut solo single, "Mad About You," in which she emerged from the Go-Go's slimmer and sleeker, a grown-up beauty. (Guitar solo by Duran Duran's Andy Taylor aside, it sounds surprisingly undated today.) On a casual listen, the song would appear to have a lot in common with her Go-Go's hits, but dig deeper. The opening riff is kind of dark and sinister. That's the sound of love sneaking up on you.

And as anyone who has ever allowed himself or herself to fall into it well knows, love isn't all sunshine and light. Remember what the Queen said: "Grief is the price we pay for love." Whether or not it's worth it, is up to you, but when love walks in, it always seems to arrive wearing cryptic and desire bordering on desperation as accessories. It's there in that opening riff (cryptic), and in the way Belinda's husband Morgan Mason looks at her at 1:42 in the music video (desire bordering on desperation). "Mad about you, lost in your eyes," she sings, urgently and convincingly. But I always thought her desire bordering on desperation sounded a little sad, a woman on the verge of losing control with no power to stop the madness.

A college friend once complained that Belinda sings like a billy goat, and although I could hear where he was coming from, I didn't care. Apart from "Heaven Is a Place on Earth" (her biggest solo hit, which, tellingly, was the only one that was 100 percent sunshine and light), I loved her entire string of Top 40 singles, from "Mad About You" to "Summer Rain," her crowning musical achievement, and even some of her later work, like the 1991 UK hit/U.S. flop "Live Your Life Be Free," which was remixed to mid-'90s perfection several years later by Van da Mar.

I first heard the track -- credited to Belinda Carlisle Vs. Van da Mar -- in a basement bar in London, and I was so taken by what I hoped might be her U.S. comeback, doing for her what DNA's reworking of "Tom's Diner" had done for Suzanne Vega a few years earlier and what AutoTune would do for Cher, via "Believe," several years later, that I spent the entire next day trying to track down a 12-inch vinyl copy. Though the bid for renewed interest in the U.S. failed, my search didn't.

I spent the '90s disappointed that Belinda's solo fame in the U.S. lasted only two and a half albums. (She would remain an international star, though, particularly in the UK and Australia, for most of the decade.) By the early '00s, I'd gotten over it. The turning point was when I spotted her in the lobby of the Sunset Marquis in Los Angeles in 2002. She was still stunning. All those years off the U.S. charts had been kind to her, and she had the Playboy pictorial to prove it.

I'm thrilled that she's still active with the Go-Go's, but I'm ready for a full-blown Belinda revival that has nothing to do with '80s nostalgia. That disastrous stint on Dancing with the Stars in 2009 was so beneath her. As much as I love Paula Abdul's kookiness, I often wonder why her and not Belinda? Here's an idea: Get Nicole Scherzinger off of the U.S. X Factor (apart from Pussycat Dolls, she just never quite worked in America) and give her judge's seat to Belinda. Are you listening, Simon Cowell (who already worked with her on Celebrity Duets in 2006)? Maybe then I'd feel more compelled to actually tune in.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

CC-Uh Oh: Does Sex Sell Casualwear?

Answer: Yes, when you cast sexy models to actually wear the clothes.

So I'm not sure what sales pitch CC-OO (as in CC DOUBLE O) in Siam Center in Bangkok is trying to make with its in-store ad campaign (see above and below). That you will have an amazing body when you take off its clothes? That two hot, topless guys are better than one (especially when one of them appears to be bottomless, too)? That homoeroticism is an excellent marketing tool?

I suppose that when you have Gisele selling Esprit across the walkway, one needs to be bold to be noticed. She's no visual slouch, even when she's dressed neck to hips in multiple layers of fabrics that are likely to cause death by heatstroke in Bangkok's boiling autumn weather? CC-OO had to bring out the big guns.


CC-OO's heavy artillery certainly got my attention and kept it long enough to take these photos of its illuminated in-store ads.

But I still have no idea what the clothes look like.

Waiting for the Flood, or Misadventures in Electronics

My life has been pretty uneventful since my near-sexual assault at the massage parlor on Thursday. I've been keeping one bespectacled eye on the news, looking for updates on the flood that may or may not engulf inner Bangkok this weekend and keeping the other one on the window for any sign of water rushing in.

So far so good -- though, unfortunately, not for the hundreds who have lost their lives and the thousands more their homes and livelihoods to what last night I heard called the worst flooding to hit Thailand in a century. Previously, they had been using 50 years as the time frame, but hyperbole sells newspapers/guarantees online hits/keeps viewers riveted and interested.

The big news for me (actually, small, in the general scheme of things, but these times that try men's souls require some levity) has been my purchase of a new Hewlett Packard Mini notebook yesterday. For the next couple of months, it will be a stand in for my beloved companion of three and a half years, one that had stuck by me across five continents and through countless airport security checkpoints: an HP laptop that decided to croak on Thursday, the night before I needed it to once again come through for me during a second Skype job interview.

The funny thing is that just a few days earlier, I had been browsing the HP Minis at Central World mall and daydreaming of spending the 7,550 baht (or about $250) that I'd have to shell out to take one home. I thought about my laptop, which had not been particularly well-behaved in recent weeks. I suspected that it might not outlive my time in Bangkok. Thank God, I'd just copied its file contents onto my external hardrive!

I did, however, expect it to survive at least until after my interview. But one minute it was working -- shortly after I published my previous post -- the next it went blank. (Not to worry, though: I'm convinced that my computer-genius friend Marcus will be able to revive it once I'm back in Melbourne.) I'll admit that I panicked, and I lost a bit of sleep, but where there's a will, there's a way, and there was certainly a will, and by extension, a way -- but I'm starting to repeat\confuse myself.

Though I missed my appointed interview time -- 10am (2pm in Sydney, which is where the job would be) -- I found an Internet cafe where I was able to do it an hour and a half later while waiting for the guy who'd sold me the new HP Mini to set it up. In the end, I'm kind of glad that things worked out this way. I was able to show my dedication to a potential employer -- who knew that I had gone above and beyond in order to make the Skype interview happen -- and I have a brand new toy. (I really wanted blue, but they were out of stock, and beggars/bargain hunters can't be too choosy.)

I don't think I'll ever completely figure out the Thai keyboard, but I've been down this road before. I'd barely fully learned to maneuver the Argentine one on my HP laptop. Umlauts were the biggest challenge -- and I don't think I can even make them now. (As you can see from the photos in this post, I'm no pro with a digital camera either.) I also might need my glasses to actually see the Mini, but I'm sure that my eyes will eventually adjust, and I'll be able to go back to being the blind vain fool that I've been for years.

The laptop/notebook incident reminds me of a conversation I had with my friend Dave a week after I was attacked and robbed in my Buenos Aires apartment in 2007. As I was going down the list of things the burglars had taken -- my flat-screen TV, my DVD player, my laptop... -- Dave stopped me.

"Your laptop? That old thing? You should have just given it to them willingly. 'Here, take it. I really need to get a new one anyway.' They kind of did you a favor!" Only Dave could have gotten away with being so irreverent.

It hurt my bruised ribs to laugh as hysterically as I did, but it felt kind of good, too. I was still scared and scarred by what had happened, but that I could see anything positive -- and funny -- about what had been such an emotionally and physically brutal experience told me that I would get through it, sanity and sense of humor intact.

That's how survivors roll.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Don't Touch Me There! (Part II): The Thai Massage That Went Too Far

I just had what must qualify as one of my most awkward WTF experiences ever. It was a true Jack Tripper moment, a misunderstanding of epic Three's Company-style proportions. If only Janet had been there to talk some sense into my fool head.

It began with a sign -- a billboard of a women in repose, lying on her stomach and looking as relaxed as I wanted to be. It was in front of the entrance to a massage spa called Oasis. I had an idea. After two near-sleepless nights, this could be the answer -- a soothing solution to my insomnia that might possibly get me blinking again. Instead, I'm likely in for another week of sleeplessness, or certainly nightmares if I'm lucky/unlucky enough to doze off.

I'm always a bit suspicious of Thai massage spas where the workers try to lure passersby inside. Although my warning antennae went up, I was desperate. I went inside and requested the 90-minute head/shoulders/back massage for 500 baht ($17). A man led me upstairs and handed me my massage attire.

"Man or woman?" he asked.

I was confused. None of the massage spas I'd gone to in Thailand, Cambodia or Malaysia had ever given me the choice before. I wasn't in the mood for pain, so I declined the strong arms of a man. I wanted a softer healing touch.

"Woman." Those warning antennae went up again. As he ran downstairs, I got this feeling of foreboding, like I'd just made the wrong choice.

Soon after, the female therapist arrived and got down to business. She asked all of the boring questions -- Where are you from? Are you here on holiday? -- and I answered as succinctly as possible to discourage further conversation. Otherwise, the first 15 minutes or so were uneventful, which wasn't such a good thing. I didn't want to be holding back tears because of the pain, but she really needed to put a bit more oomph into it. It felt like she was caressing me more than massaging me.

Those warning antennae went up again.

After about 20 minutes, I began to feel uncomfortable lying on my stomach with my head to one side. I worried that after 90 minutes of this, I'd need neck therapy, so I began to shuffle my body around in search of a comfortable position. She suggested I lie on my back.

Those warning antennae went up again.

But I did as I was told. It started off innocently enough, but soon her hands were working their way up and down my thigh, inching closer and closer to my crotch. The signals from those warning antennae were out of control. Should I say something now or wait for the inevitable to happen? Just as I was about to issue a hands-off-the-merchandise policy, she was cupping my crotch with her hand. Then she put her index finger on it. I opened my eyes and glared at her.


"What the hell are you doing?

She was pressing it with her finger. "Massage?"

"No! I came here for a normal massage, not to be touched there."

"Oh, you asked for woman, so I thought..."

"Yes, I asked for a woman because I wanted someone who would give me a softer massage, not sex."

I wasn't sure if she was getting what I was saying, so I jumped off the bed and ran downstairs to try to reverse my misfortune. There were other customers, some dressed in business suits, getting foot massages. I wondered if they were in for the full-body treatment.

The man who'd led me upstairs explained that since I'd requested a woman, he'd assumed that I wanted "full" service. He offered to finish the job -- hand job not included. Once he got to work, I wished I had heeded my warning antennae and stuck with him in the first place. I could have lived without more personal questions (massages should be done in complete silence), but he worked the knots out of my back with real expertise.

He used a body oil with eucalyptus-like qualities. It soothed my back and made it feel like it was breathing freely for the first time in years. Though I didn't quite get my money's worth, in the end, I was relieved of my physical, if not psychological, tension (here come nightmares!), and I had a funny story to tell my friends.

A sort-of happy ending without a "happy ending."

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Love and Other Drugs (Not the Jake Gyllenhaal/Anne Hathaway Movie -- No Naked A-Listers Below!)

The Lost Weekend.

Days of Wine and Roses.

Requiem for a Dream.

The Country GirlLady Sings the BluesLeaving Las Vegas.

One of my strongest weaknesses -- a sort of cinematic addiction --  are movies in which couples are about to implode due the dependence of one or both on drugs and/or alcohol. God knows I've been there, in love with someone who loved vodka and drugs more than he loved me. I'm no good at coming in second. After he was arrested for trying to score pot from an undercover cop in New York City's Washington Square Park, I knew he had to go.

From what I heard afterwards, things got a lot worse before they got better. The last time I saw him, he had been clean for a number of years. We may not have gotten a happy ending together, but his being alive was far more important, and if I hadn't let him go, he might not have hit rock bottom so hard that the only way was up and off to rehab.

Which brings me to... more thoughts on Rihanna's new video.

I wonder if the guy she walks out on at the end of "We Found Love" will be so lucky. Like her recent "Man Down" clip, in which she exacted vigilante revenge on a man who sexually assaulted her, "We Found Love" is dark, foreboding and as hopeless as that word that keeps popping up in the song's chorus.

"We found love in a hopeless place," Rihanna sings over Calvin Harris's propulsive beat. I've seen kids throwing down to it in clubs from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok, and until I watched the video, I had every reason to believe that it was a happy song. It very well might be. But after watching the video, that "hopeless" hangs in the air every time I listen to it.

The musical euphoria makes sense. Under the influence of all-consuming love, everything shines more brightly. That glow of love is almost blinding, especially when it's brand new. The sky is bluer. Music sounds better. Food has more flavor. All is so right with the world that you want more -- more love, more sex, more everything. Love under the influence intensifies that illuminating effect (brighter brighter brighter, more more more), an idea that's underscored in the video by an Irish voice over before the beat kicks in.

If it all sounds a little unhealthy -- physically and emotionally -- that's because it is. I prefer my love more measured and sane (without narcotic enhancement). The drugs that are so carelessly consumed by the two main characters in the clip seem to be a stand-in for the romantic obsession and co-dependency that's detailed in the song's lyrics. It's more than just a shock tactic to guarantee more hits on YouTube. Every time I watch it, I can't get Amy Winehouse out of my head.

I wonder if it's just a coincidence that Rihanna's love interest in "We Found Love" bears a passing resemblance to Chris Brown after he dyed his hair blond. There's even a scene of an argument in a car that echoes the infamous roadside showdown that resulted in Brown beating up Rihanna. After the frothy pop of the Loud hits, "We Found Love" -- the video, if not the song -- is a return to the real-life references of Rated R, which echoed Rihanna vs. Brown everywhere. I love how she's not afraid to go back there.

I also love that Rihanna, a singer who started off as pretty much just another pretty face with a few good songs up her producers' sleeves, has turned into such a daring artist. She's still not the greatest singer, but she doesn't need 187 back-up dancers to make her visual point. She can be edgy without trying as hard as Lady Gaga does. Rated R, particularly its premiere single, "Russian Roulette," was the first glimpse of the edgier, darker Rihanna. Then came "I Love the Way You Lie," her 2010 duet with Eminem, then "Man Down," now this.

Though I wish there was less editing -- I miss the '80s, when videos would linger on a scene, allowing you to take it in for more than three seconds -- and that it played more like a mini-movie than a series of rapidly rotating images. I know it's catering to a Twitter generation that's been raised on sound bites and complex ideas in 140 characters or less, but a good story deserves to be told slowly and carefully. (See Winehouse's "You Know I'm No Good" to watch it done right.)

Despite the slightly choppy, disjointed feel, it's still one of the more essential videos to be released by a pop diva this year. "Born This Way" and "You & I" from Gaga, whose videos are never as important as she thinks they are or wants them to be, feel garish and noisy in comparison. I still love "Judas," though. Along with Kelly Rowland's "Motivation" and Jennifer Lopez's "I'm Into You," it brought sexy back to YouTube, thanks, in large part, to Gaga's leading guy. who could be the dark-eyed brother of Rihanna's blue-eyed stud. I love strong arms and six-pack abs, but cheekbones are everything!

That "We Found Love" the video is open to so many levels of interpretation and gives the song an entirely new dimension, making it a confession on the dance floor as bold as any that Madonna has made, is the mark of a great video. And Rihanna navigates the emotional terrain as well as she did in "Man Down." She's a natural actress. It's a shame that she's making her film debut in the upcoming Battleship, which is practically destined to be unwatchable. "We Found Love" is proof that she's capable of so much more.

Rihanna's 'We Found Love' Video: Another Reason Why She's Pop's Fiercest Ruling Diva

The proof is in this link.

Once I've collected my thoughts on the first video from Rihanna's upcoming Talk That Talk (due November 21), I'll be back to share them.

In the meantime, listen to yet another reason why Rihanna is pop's best young diva. It's "Princess of China," a track on Coldplay's Mylo Xyloto that features Rihanna. I can't believe it's less than one week until the album's October 25 release. Nothing I've heard so far --  including the second single, "Paradise," which is not as good as the Sade song by the same name -- can touch "Viva La Vida" or "Lost!" from Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends, but it's still good to have Coldplay back.

Is it too late to do something about that dreadful album title, though?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Stone Roses Return: Better Never Than So Late?

Which two and a half men were totally shaggable?
I guess I should be filled with a little more gratitude.

If I'm never going to get the ABBA or the Smiths reunions for which I've been praying for decades now, one of the next best things might be a Stones Roses redux. Although the quartet was never huge in the U.S., the band became Britpop legends in the early '90s after only two studio albums. Next year, the four key members -- Ian Brown, John Squire, Mani and Reni -- will reunite for a world tour and a third album, 18 years after the second one.

I remember the first time I saw the band, circa 1990. MTV VJ Dave Kendall played "I Wanna Be Adored" on 120 Minutes, and my Madchester phase immediately entered full swing. I went on to love fellow Madchester bands Happy Mondays and the Charlatans (who actually weren't from England's Manchester, the city that spawned both the musical movement and its name), but in the end, it was always about the Stone Roses. So what if Second Coming, the 1994 follow-up to the band's 1989 self-titled debut, didn't quite live up to the first arrival? (Read my People magazine review here.) I was looking forward to many years of ups and downs and in-betweens.

But by 1996, the Stone Roses had wilted. The guys didn't even say goodbye with one final album.

At least ABBA gave us a full decade of great songs -- many of which are so immortal that an entire music channel on the TV in my Bangkok suite is devoted to them -- and in the end, they thanked us for the music. The Smiths only had a three-year recording life span, but it produced three classic studio albums -- The Smiths (1984), Meat Is Murder (1985) and The Queen Is Dead (1986) -- as well as assorted essential compilations of non-studio-album material.

As much as I've been dreaming of the unlikely reunions of both bands for years, I secretly kind of hope they never happen. I want to remember ABBA the way they were in the '70s, with blonde, beautiful Agnetha and fiery red-head Frida trading leads, and the Smiths as they were back when Morrissey was rock's hottest frontman -- the brainy, borderline-nerdy flipside to INXS's Michael Hutchence.

My slight fear of ABBA Part II revolves around the fact that I'm not sure if I want to see four sixtysomethings trying to recreate the perfect pop magic of "Dancing Queen" and "Take a Chance on Me." It didn't work for Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia!, and I really don't want to go through that again. The Smiths haven't quite reached the AARP years yet, but a large part of the band's appeal when I was in college was the way Morrissey's anthems for doomed youth spoke to people like me who didn't really fit the normal youth mold.

"London" resonates with me today as clearly as it did in the '80s. But what would be the net visual effect of seeing a fiftysomething man flailing about the stage singing lines like "Hang the DJ, hang the DJ, hang the DJ, hang the DJ"? That said, a song like "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" works at any age, maybe more when you're past 50.

Therein lies the problem with the Stone Roses, a band whose music was the quintessential sound of British youth in the early '90s but didn't really get around to wallowing in the world-weariness of middle age. The Stone Roses was what it felt to be young at the time. For me, the classic line up's youth and beauty was a large part of the group's appeal. I not only wanted to rock out to them. I wanted to be them. I wanted to sleep with them, too (at least two and a half of them).

When I was 20, hearing "I Wanna Be Adored" coming from a band whose members weren't that much older than I was made so much sense. I wanted the very same thing. But times change, and people do, too. We get older, and not all of us are equally successful at holding back the years. "I Wanna Be Adored" sounds just as good now as it did in 1990, but the song doesn't speak to me in the same way it did back then, nor will hearing it coming from a bunch of guys who are pushing 50 have the same powerful effect. As with ABBA, part of me wants to remember the Stone Roses the way they were, back when I wanted to sleep with two and a half of them.

Here's the tricky thing with rock reunions, especially of bands that were so representative of a particular youth movement: It's easier to swallow an aging vintage band putting on the hits from its early days when we've gotten to see and hear them grow older and wiser together. If Kurt Cobain were to come back from the dead as a 44 year old and hit the road with Nirvana, how creepy would it be to hear "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on the set list? But George Michael could do comeback tours and probably get away with wiggling his hips and singing "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" in concert until he's 70 because we've seen him grow from Wham! to "I Want Your Sex" to "Praying for Time" to "John and Elvis Are Dead." Of course, daring to sing "I Want Your Sex" as a septuagenarian would be so Tom Jones!

In the end, I'm glad to have the Stone Roses back in the rock & roll fold, and I'm cautiously optimistic that there will still be some magic left, maybe even in the recording studio. (Reunion tours are one thing, but do reunion albums ever work?) I'll be front and center when the Stone Roses come to whatever city I'm living in at the time, singing along to "I Wanna Be Adored," "She's a Waterfall" and (my personal favorite) "Fools Gold," wishing the band had some newer hits so they could look their age and, occasionally, sound it, too.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Good, the Bad & the Sometimes Catty: What Stars Told Me About Themselves and Each Other!

"I won't lie: I love 'You Lie' more than I do our duet of 'A Moment Like This.'"
Every good journalist lives for the story -- or at the very least, a great sound bite, or an unexpected revelation. For me, during my years interviewing music stars, some of my favorite moments were when they made off-the-cuff comments that wouldn't necessarily make it into my story but somehow revealed something juicy about themselves. Even better: when they revealed something juicy about someone else, especially a fellow star.

When I met Kelly Clarkson at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2002, shortly after her American Idol win, we bonded over our shared love of her future tour mate, Reba McEntire, whom I've never met but with whom I once shared a friendly wave from across a crowded Staples Center at the American Music Awards. Of all the things I could have asked Clarkson -- "What's Simon like? What's Justin Guarini like? What's it like being the first American Idol?" -- I went with this: "What's your favorite Reba song?"

Her response told me more about her than the answer to any of those other questions would have. "You Lie," she answered without a pause. She was officially my favorite singer ever (for the rest of the night), not for her good music -- she'd yet to release anything but the dreadful "A Moment Like This" Idol winner's single -- but for her excellent taste in it.

Dusty Springfield had impeccable taste, too. Like so many others (including Clarkson, who performed at least three Queen of Soul songs during her Idol run), she was in awe of Aretha Franklin. "I just about fell out," she said of their one and only diva summit, when, during the chart ride of "Son of a Preacher Man," Franklin, who had been offered the song before Springfield and turned it down, joined Dusty on an elevator, put her hand on her shoulder and said, simply, "Girl" -- nothing else. Had Springfield lived to receive the Order of the British Empire from that other Queen (she died on the day she was due to receive her award of officer), I doubt it would have been as much of an honor.

Mary bows to Sir Elton, not Queen Aretha.
Mary J. Blige, however, didn't seem to be quite as enthralled by the Queen (of Soul -- we never discussed Elizabeth II). When I asked her who, of all of her collaborators, she enjoyed working with the most, she took me by surprise. "Most people would expect me to say Aretha, but no," she said, almost defiantly. "My favorite was Elton John. He was always so sweet to me." She also revealed that her 1997 Share My World CD, her first to debut atop the Billboard 200 album chart, was her least favorite of her albums.

Boy George, who would probably beg to differ on Elton John, told me how shocked he was when Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant sat down at the piano and began to play it when the two were collaborating on his 1992 comeback hit "The Crying Game." (Pet Shop Boys, who had been responsible for Springfield's later-in-life resurgence, produced it.) He also said he didn't think Madonna was a bad actor. She just needed to let go of her vanity and do something like "what Farrah Fawcett did in The Burning Bed."

Basia was star struck and shocked when she met Sting at an industry event, and he actually knew who she was. "I wonder if that tantric yoga sex thing is true," she wondered days later, during our interview. Sting never collaborated with Basia musically -- he was surprised when I told him that Basia didn't think he'd know who she was -- but he probably would have if she'd made the request. When I asked Sting why he has no self-restraint when it comes to collaborators -- P. Diddy? Toby Keith? -- he replied, "I have a hard time saying no."

k.d. lang and Joan Armatrading would have been worthier collaborators (sorry, Toby fans, though I do admire his support of gay marriage, which surprises me as much as Tim McGraw did when he told me that he is a registered Democrat). I would have expected them both to have more traditional taste in singers, so they caught me off guard when, in separate interviews, they told me how much they love Björk, who I assumed must have some kind of lesbian appeal. I believe Armatrading actually called her "adorable." Björk, if you're reading this, it's not too late for a Björk/lang/Armatrading trio album.

Speaking of trio albums, Linda Ronstadt, a singer who recorded one with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, spent most of the '80s away from mainstream pop because she found most of it deplorable. The song that reeled her back into the world of pop? Annie Lennox's "Walking on Broken Glass." She also said that the reason Trio 2, the follow up to Trio, her multi-platinum Grammy-nominated 1987 collaboration with Harris and Parton, had been aborted was because "Dolly just didn't make it a priority." Eventually, it was cobbled together and released in 1999, but the magic, the thrill and the platinum were gone.

A more successful '90s meeting of dueling divas was "The Boy Is Mine," the 1998 No. 1 single by Brandy and Monica, who were rumored to have been bitter enemies. Years later, while revealing to me and several of my colleagues at Teen People that her former rival had called her to congratulate her on the birth of her first child in 2005, Monica couldn't resist a little dig. "Having a baby was the only thing she ever did before me."

Gwen Stefani and Pink weren't feuding when I interviewed a pink-haired Stefani around the 2000 release of No Doubt's Return of Saturn, but she worried about the prudence of a new singer using her hair color as her stage name. I didn't say anything, but I wasn't worried about the long-term potential of Pink, who had impressed the rest of the TP staff and me during an impromptu a cappella office performance months before she released her debut album. When Rihanna visited the TP offices in 2006, she revealed that her soon-to-be-No.1 smash "S.O.S." was intended to be a duet with Christina Milian, who thought the song was too pop and stood up Rihanna in the studio. "How rude (and professionally dumb)," we all agreed, but Rihanna's triumphant she-who-laughs-last-laughs-hardest smile made it obvious that she was thrilled not to have to share the spotlight on a surefire hit.

Aguilera: Dressed down!
I love subtle bitchiness (not-so-subtle bitchiness, too, but when it's subtle, it's so much more elegant), and I hate it when singers try too hard to be diplomatic. (Though during one drunken night at B Bar in New York City, it was refreshing to hear Parker Posey, whom I didn't even recognize until she introduced herself about 30 minutes into our conversation, tell me how much she loved working with Tori Spelling in the 1997 film The House of Yes.) Christina Aguilera wasn't thrilled when I arrived at our interview with the new hot-off-the-press 2000 Best & Worst Dressed issue of People magazine, and looking to stir up some trouble, I showed her that Britney Spears had made the best-dressed list -- and guess who was on the worst! After fuming for a minute or two, complaining that People -- and people -- only appreciate the safe and predictable, she actually insisted that she and Spears were friends. At least during my interview with Spears, she was polite without going there.

And Mariah Carey, post-meltdown and right before the release of Charmbracelet in 2002, denied that she had ever dallied with Eminem, and that the Charmbracelet song "Clown" (with the lines "Who's gonna care when the novelty's over/When the star of the show isn't you anymore") wasn't about him. He's so vain, I wanted to warn her, he probably thinks that song is about him.

Now if I could only lure Carly Simon into the hot seat, and get to the bottom of "You're So Vain, her 1972-73 only No. 1 hit, once and for all. Warren or Mick? My money is on the one who moves like Jagger.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


"I don't find Asian men attractive."

I didn't say it. He did. EJ, the guy from Amsterdam who designs IKEA stores (or something equally cool and IKEA-related) and has been living in Bangkok for 10 years. For some reason, he wanted to know if I am attracted to Asian men (and for the record, I am), and although some things are better left unsaid, he felt the need to tell me that he is not.

My first instinct was to ask him why he would live in a country where he doesn't find the people attractive, but I'd already met his longtime partner, so I figured that hooking up with the locals wasn't a priority.

My second instinct was to ask him what exactly he finds attractive then. If I had lined up every guy in the room and arranged them from the ones I found most attractive down, starting at the bar, his boyfriend might have ended up somewhere near the bathroom. I know that's not a very nice thing to say, but that's just my taste.

Which was exactly EJ's response when I suggested that his attitude has more than a hint of racism in it. Like most men with the no-Asians dating and f**king policy, EJ hid behind the old "That's just my preference" excuse. He actually compared his not having a "preference" for Asians to his preferring men over women. I let that one slide because it was too ridiculous to argue with. I think I prefer when they say it's like digging brunettes over blondes, but both arguments are irrelevant. Hair color and sexuality have nothing to do with racism. There's already a term in use for guys who prefer men over women (and for many, being labeled that word makes you as worthy of contempt as being racist), and if there were one for blond chasers, I'd use it.

But I did consider his words carefully. He hadn't said, "I would never date or sleep with an Asian guy" (though I'm sure he would have had I probed). He'd simply made a blanket statement regarding sexual preference, which is in the same neighborhood but on a different street. EJ seemed like a smart, decent guy, and I gave him extra credit for getting the reference when I mentioned EJ DiMera on Days of Our Lives. I certainly didn't mean to offend him when I called his attitude racist any more than he meant to offend me when he expressed said attitude, but the battle lines were drawn.

He wasn't entirely unsuccessful in his attempt to defend himself. He did make me think that perhaps I should cut him and all of the guys who have made similar comments over the last few months a little bit of slack. God knows I've taken them to task enough in various blog posts. Maybe it's not so important whether what they say is racist. Most of us harbor some form of casual racism or prejudice without even realizing it, but because the term conjures images of lynching and angry men in white robes burning crosses, no one wants to be associated with it.

More importantly, EJ's comment was misguided. It's basically saying that all Asian men are created physically equal with little variation. One undesirable physical quality fits all. I'll put them in a box and remove them from my dating pool. The highly evolved modern man thinks outside of boxes and beyond ethnicities and doesn't limit himself to only what he prefers. "Sorry, I just don't find them attractive," with no interest in self-reflection to determine why, is such a cop out. No matter how people might want to spin it, being rejected because you're of a certain race stings so much more than being overlooked because of your hair or eye color, or even your gender.

One might imagine that someone who has been living in Asia for a decade would realize that the contents of the Asian box are as varied as those of the white, black or Latino ones. But guys like EJ are too busy using their "preferences" as an excuse to exclude an entire continent of people from the list of guys they would sleep with.

I'd become accustomed to that attitude in Australia. In fact, I'd come to expect it. In Asia, I'd anticipated more enlightenment, but it's actually worse here. I told EJ that I find comments like his particularly offensive because I'd spent most of my life hearing the same sentiment in the United States, only they were usually aimed at black men.

Being black in Argentina, in Australia and in Asia works more in my favor than it does in the U.S., black President and black leading Republican Presidential candidate or not. Everybody wants you. Not always because of you; sometimes because of the color of your skin (what an ironic expatriate twist). Or because they're dying to know if it's true what they say about black men. You're everyone's fantasia -- as they say in Argentina, unfortunately.

"You know, I've never been with a black guy, and I never even really thought about it until I met you." 

Last week, a guy (American, of course) actually said that to me as if he expected me to jump for joy right into his open arms. I pretended I hadn't heard him, but I'm very sad to say that it wasn't the first time someone had said something like that to me.

On the plus side, it's nice to not be invisible. When I go out outside of the United States, guys actually see me. If only I didn't have to hear what most of them are saying.