Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Glenn Close in 'Albert Nobbs' and Male Gender Roles: What Does It Take to Be a Man?

What makes a man a man?

A certain swagger? Or stiff, stilted repression?

Expression vs. repression.

Albert Nobbs, the upcoming film (December 21) in which Glenn Close stars as a woman posing as a man in 19th-century Dublin in order to thrive in the work force, presents both sides. Close -- all fear and self-loathing, clenched jaw and contained emotion -- represents stiff, stilted repression as the title character, a hotel butler at Morrison Hotel. Though it's as impressive a portrait of male repression as Anthony Hopkins' in The Remains of the Day, if the Oscar-less actress finally earns an Academy Award for her work in Albert Nobbs (and I'm praying to God, or Goddess dressed as God, or whomever, that she does), it will be as much for lifetime achievement as for this isolated performance

Janet McTeer, whom I loved in Tumbleweeds so many years ago and haven't seen nearly frequently enough since, is the flip side as Mr. Page, also a woman posing as a man. She's all macho swagger with gigantic strapped-down boobs.

There's a nice lesson here about the emotional and mental peril of living in closets of one's own creation (to thine own self be true), if you can get past the fact that neither actress makes a particularly convincing man in the physical sense, though Mr. Page, who unlike Nobbs, actually seems to identify with maleness, at least allows herself to emote and speak above a whisper. Close, looking like Close wearing short hair and men's suits, nails repression, but it's an asexual sort. McTeer, thanks to her towering size, cuts a slightly more mannish figure, but her mannerisms sometimes venture dangerously close into stereotypical lesbian territory.

Though McTeer's Mr. Page isn't being true to her biological gender, she's open and vibrant, and she's rewarded, for a time, with a loving wife and a stable home life. (She'll likely also be rewarded come Oscar time with a Best Supporting Actress nomination.) Meanwhile, Close, all sharp angles and controlled movements, lives alone and mostly in silence.

Even when she falls for Helen, a maid played by Mia Wasikowska who might actually love her back, her inability to fully express herself physically and to a lesser degree verbally, prevents her from reaping the rewards of love. I wish more attention had been given to this relationship, which is too skimpily drawn. Perhaps that's why Albert makes marriage sound more like a business transaction -- which in so many ways it is -- than a union of passionate souls. But that's no way to win over a young romantic like Helen.

And isn't that just like a man?

Although Close's character doesn't quite look like a man, she covers every inch of the emotional terrain of being one in denial of his beating heart. I'm looking forward to seeing the clip on Oscar night of the scene in which Albert recounts the life-changing experience that led to her becoming a he. Interestingly, the only scene in which she seems truly happy is the one in which she's running down the beach dressed as a woman. McTeer, though also limited by her natural womanliness, is like a force of nature. When she's onscreen, it's difficult to take your eyes off of her. She's too generous an actress to steal scenes and too skilled to chew scenery, but the film is most interesting when she's in it.

I was thrilled to see a supporting cast rounded out by underused previous Oscar nominees and winners Pauline Collins (Shirley Valentine), Brenda Fricker (My Left Foot) and McTeer, rising stars Mia Wasikowska and Aaron Johnson (reinforcing both the idea that girls love bad boys and good guys finish last, but I find the alpha male as tiresome onscreen as he is off), and vets Brendan Gleeson and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who both must surely have bigger offers than the small roles they play here. Their involvement says a lot about their belief in the material.

While watching, I kept wondering why it's so much easier for guys to impersonate women than the other way around. I think it's because being a woman is viewed as being more open with your emotions and movements. Masculinity, to such a large degree, is about holding back, what you don't do, so it's harder to negotiate physically. Curvy bodies only make matters worse.

But moving past the nitpicking about whether the dudes look too much like ladies, there's a valuable message here. In one scene, Mr. Page advises Nobbs to be who she wants to be. "You don't have to be anyone but who you are," she says. Go forth and find love. But first, breathe -- and live. In other words, let go of all of this repression.

She's the Lady Gaga, or Madonna, of 19th-century Ireland. "Express yourself, don't repress yourself," Madonna sang on "Human Nature" in 1994. Those were words to live by in the 1800s and the mid '90s, and they still are in 2011. Repression might be one of the key ingredients of being a man, but it can also be the one that's most hazardous to one's mental health.

Monday, November 28, 2011

How to Lose a Guy (and Get Over Him) in 10 Days

The truth: You can't.

That's not something I learned from watching romantic comedies starring Jennifer Aniston or Sex and the City. It's a cold hard fact of life. It's not just about how long you were together ("Time makes lovers feel like they've got something real," Boy George once sang, but that's just romantic naivete), it's intensity of feeling, too. The more you care about someone, the harder it is not to.

That goes double for the ones who break your heart by cheating or stealing, or the ones who break up with you before you can dump them.

A friend of mine recently broke up with his boyfriend of two years after discovering that the BF had spent the majority of their time together getting it on with boys on the side while promising that my friend was the one and only. (However you feel about monogamy and whether humans are monogamous by nature, if you and your partner promise sexual fidelity to each other, then to each other you should be true.)

As my friend told me all about his ex's sexcapades (which I'd warned him about months earlier -- I've been around long enough to know a cheater when I hear about one), I kept thinking how great he looked. He was actually kind of glowing. If I didn't know better, or that he'd just finished a month-long detox, I might have thought he was pregnant. There was no evidence of crying. He obviously hadn't been skimping on the workouts. If looking good is the best revenge, then my friend certainly had gotten his.

But as I listened to him -- really listened -- I could see through both the glowing skin, the lack of tears, and the "I will survive" monologues. My friend was hurting. I loved that he was bravely carrying on, going out with friends, planning his future and not lying down and taking the mental beating that his ex had doled out.

At the same time, I was worried for him. I told him that it's great that he's doing okay, and he shouldn't let what his ex did to him run him into the ground and completely define his life, but it's just as important not to rush the process of grieving. Another friend of mine split up with her husband more than two years ago. Although she's since moved on romantically with a really great guy, she still has moments when she stumbles down into the depths over her failed marriage.

"You must be so sick of hearing me go on and on about this, she says." (Honestly, I'm not.) "I don't know why I still let it get to me so much." (Honestly, I do.) "There's no statute of limitations on crying over the end of a relationship or marriage," I once told her, urging her not to fight her feelings, or give in to them by curling up in a ball and going completely under, but rather to just learn to accept them and live with them. It's her party, she should cry if she wants to. (Personally, I prefer to go for a run, but to each his or her own.)

My two friends represent two sides of getting over love. One seems to be rushing through the stages of grief, skipping a few of them entirely. The other one keeps slipping back into them. Getting over a guy is like coming out of the closet. We all have to do it on our own schedule. I think it's probably more dangerous mentally to rush grief than it is to wallow in it because not properly dealing with your emotions practically guarantees that they will manifest later on in some inappropriate time, place and fashion.

I'm still working through my own feelings about the recent end of an affair. Some days I feel like I'm getting over it. Some days it's harder to see the silver lining. (And if last night's dreams are any indication, it's not over until it's over.) But every day, I get out of bed, I write, I work out, I take care of myself. I'd be lying if I said that it didn't take a bit more effort than usual, but it must be paying off. I hear I'm looking great, which I don't think of as being the best revenge (thankfully, in my case, there's nothing to avenge), but I hope those compliments keep coming.

As I think of my friend with the cheating ex, I kind of wish he'd allowed himself to be more vulnerable with me, to express sadness as well as anger over what happened. But I'm glad he wasn't letting himself go. Just because we feel like crap doesn't mean we have to look like it, too. It might not help you get over a guy in 10 days, but in my experience, the better you look, the better you feel. And even if it's not the best revenge, you'll be more likely to find someone who can help you temporarily -- and perhaps, eventually, permanently -- ease the pain.

No revenge necessary -- and isn't that the best revenge?

Five great songs about life after love (and no, "I Will Survive," which I've always despised, isn't one of them):

Patty Loveless "A Thousand Times a Day" Denial never sounded so lovely.

Shania Twain "Nah!" I've always wanted to sing this to a guy.

Phyllis Hyman "When You Get Right Down to It" I always love it when I get to sing this to myself.

Lauryn Hill and Mary J. Blige "I Used to Love Him" Two divas in tip-top musical and emotional shape.

"Believe" Cher Because it's all about life after love -- when still in love and when falling out of it.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Has the Secret Life of the American Teenager (on TV and Off) Really Come to This?

Being a teenager certainly isn't what it used to be.

Neither in real life nor in reel life.

That's the conclusion I reached after watching my first two episodes of The Secret Life of the American Teenager, an ABC Family drama series that airs on the Universal Channel in Bangkok. I've seen tons of teen TV dramas over the years, from the early seasons of Beverly Hills 90210 to My So-Called Life to 7th Heaven to The O.C. to Gossip Girl to the new 90210 to Glee (I'm proud to admit, I've never seen a single episode of The Hills or Laguna Beach, which is reel life parading around as real life), so I wasn't surprised that the high schoolers are more uniformly attractive than they ever are in real life.

But in what universe are the parents just as good-looking as the kids? Well, I guess the adults have been climbing the looks ladder since the days of The O.C., and I could be simply showing my age here, but on American Teenager, some of the actors playing the parents are even more f**kable than the twentysomethings playing the teens. Molly Ringwald and Josie Bissett both look like hardly no time has passed since the late '80s and the '90s, respectively. 40 is more like the new 25!

That would make me just about the right age to wanna be starting somethin' with Daren Kagasoff, the 24-year-old actor who plays Ricky, the resident bad boy who is preppy-looking enough to be in the National Honor Society. From what I've seen so far, he seems like a pretty decent guy, but we know he's the Dylan or Ryan or Puck or Chuck Bass of these proceedings because he's super-hunky, he has a dysfunctional family, and he sleeps around.

Which is how he ended up being baby daddy to Amy, played by Shailene Woodley (with Ringwald, above), who, from what I've heard, is on the verge of getting an Oscar nomination for playing George Clooney's daughter in The Descendants. (Poor My So-Called Life's Claire Danes, who, after a so-so big-screen run, is back on series TV and, for now, must make do with her 2010 Emmy for Temple Grandin.)

But wait, they're not the only baby daddy and the girl he knocked up! There's also Ben and Adrian, who were still expectant in the season three episodes I saw (the show is now in its fourth season -- everything is behind in Bangkok, with cancelled shows like The Defenders and Hawthorne still premiering "brand new" episodes), but thanks to Wikipedia's season summaries, I know that things won't end as well for them as they did for Ricky and Amy.

While the soapy action has drawn me in, as soapy action usually does, I kept getting distracted by how high school has gotten so, well, soapy, though there's less unrealistic intrigue on American Teenager than on Gossip Girl, which seems to exist in a galaxy far far away where teenagers act like Joan Collins and J.R. Ewing. Maybe there was far juicier stuff going on behind the scenes back in my day than I was aware of, but if I were a student on TV today, I wouldn't want to miss a single day of school.

If there had been so much high drama unfolding in the hallway between classes, I probably would have spent more time in detention for chronic tardiness. Every high school drama worth its weight in teen angst has a pregnancy storyline, but in American Teenager, we get not one but two. Yes, there were teen pregnancies in my high school but not involving two couples who would have been guaranteed a spot on Homecoming Court in any given year.

And I'm pretty sure that even back then horndogs were perfecting their craft in high school, but when Adrian devised a plan to humiliate Amy by gathering all of the girls Ricky has slept with in one spot, I was shocked by how many hot girls in love he'd managed to lure between his sheets and how many of them were willing to publicly admit it. In my high school era, no girl would have done that. Apparently, he freely and casually drops the L word, too. What a bad boy.

Maybe Ricky's actually a good guy who just happens to like sex and falls in love easily. I haven't seen enough episodes to know for sure, and I'm a little off my game, so it's harder for me to spot a cad in reel and real life. Though some might characterize me as something of a cad myself, I was a late bloomer, so I know I can't use my actions back then to gauge the average behavior of my peers.

In high school, I was more concerned with graduating with honors (and a scholarship) than getting laid, and I never uttered those three magical words until I was 23 years old, which is one year older than my last boyfriend! But as unfathomable (and possibly misunderstood) as Ricky is, I'm having a tougher time buying a storyline in which a teen mom can be victimized by the common knowledge that her boyfriend and the father of her kid has had sex with a lot of girls and told them all that he loves them. At least he's in touch with his feelings. That should count for something, right? And surely a teen mom has more pressing concerns, even if her hot dad is helping her bring up baby.

As appealing as the younger actors are (and Shailene Woodley makes me even more determined to track down a bootleg DVD copy of The Descendents on Silom Road one of these nights since God only knows when and if it will open in Bangkok), as is almost always the case with high school TV dramas, even back when the parents weren't so hot, I wanted to see more of the grown folks. Why? Because, well, in reel life as in real life, 40 year olds are generally more interesting than people half their age. (If only more of them would ask me out! The average age of the guys who pursue me seems to drop one year with every year I gain.)

You can cast as many beautiful twentysomething guys to play bad boy teens as you want, but I'll always prefer to see more Josie Bissett and Molly Ringwald!

A Final Word on Katy Perry and the 2010s

I was just thinking....

When I look back at the 2010s in 2020, the Perry song for which I will remember both the era and Perry herself isn't even on Teenage Dream. "If We Ever Meet Again," a 2010 single by Timbaland featuring Perry from Timbaland's Shock Value II album, was a major hit in pretty much every country in which it was released except the U.S., where it peaked at No. 37. (As I've mentioned before, I've seen and heard it rock dance floors in Buenos Aires, Melbourne and Bangkok.) No doubt it would have fared 36 notches better had it been a Teenage Dream single one year later. In pop, timing is everything!

Why Are We STILL Listening to Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream"?

There's defying low expectations, and then there's trouncing them. By now, Katy Perry has mastered the art of both.

She had every right to be a one-hit wonder. Singers of songs as corny and novelty-esque as "I Kissed a Girl" deserve what they get, and usually it's a career that's over in 15 minutes flat. But that Katy Perry. She defies expectations. Her follow-up singles were better, and a few of them were even hits. By the time her second mainstream album, Teenage Dream, rolled around in August of 2010, we had every reason to expect it to be a respectable hit -- one million copies sold, a number one single, maybe two, another Top 10, and then on to the next one.

When I woke up in Melbourne in October of 2010 with Brendan singing "Teenage Dream," the album's second single, in my ear, never in my wildest middle-aged dreams did I imagine that more than a year later, Perry would be entering the Top 10 with "The One That Got Away," her sixth single from the album. (I wonder if Brendan woke up this morning singing that song and thinking about me.)

But what was that I said about Perry and the trouncing of expectations? Despite receiving pretty crummy reviews upon its release, Teenage Dream ended up bagging Perry several Bad when "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" became its fifth No. 1 hit. My best friend Lori recently said that years from now when we look back at 2010, Teenage Dream, an album that was released under a dark cloud of critical contempt, will be regarded as the defining music of its time, and you know what? I don't disagree. But it will be more because the music was that inescapable than because it was that good.
key 2011 Grammy nominations, including Album of the Year. She continued to score No. 1 singles from it and eventually tied the record set by Michael Jackson's

Unlike artists who defined the music of other times with one or two key albums (Alanis Morissette in the mid-'90s, Nirvana in the early '90s, Michael Jackson in the '80s, Fleetwood Mac in the late '70s, Carole King in the early '70s), Perry has no solid musical identity or creative vision. Teenage Dream is all over the place -- moving from techno-lite pop to pure pop to soft-rock-inflected pop but never settling into one particular groove. How could she with so many different producers and songwriting collaborators, many of whom have their fingerprints on so many hits of the moment? She's a singer of great singles but not necessarily great songs.

So why can't we seem to get enough of them? Great videos help, and Perry's recall the golden era of '80s videos when the clips in heavy rotation on MTV had actual storylines and weren't just an assemblage of quick-cut shots and a billion back-up dancers. In Perry's case, they have to be great, because more than with any of her peers, they sell her music. It's hard to separate "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" the video from "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" the song. Without the mini-movie clip, I doubt she would have matched Michael Jackson's record. And had a song as average as "The One That Got Away" been sung by Rihanna or Britney Spears or even Lady Gaga, it wouldn't have gone anywhere near the Top 10. But listening to it while watching Perry's video, it's not only tolerable but almost likable.

Then there's Perry's image, which is something she got right from day one. She's just like one of us -- or she's skilled at making us believe she is. Rihanna might be the fantasy of every straight guy -- and, as the Rated R track "Te Amo" suggests, every lesbian as well -- but she's too out of their league. Lady Gaga is too weird -- or she tries too hard to be. Beyonce is too glamorous, Ke$ha's too skanky, and Britney Spears has too much baggage.

Perry, though, is the perfectly relatable pop star. She plays in the big city and smalltown U.S.A., on the coasts and in Middle America, at home and abroad. She can hang out with Snoop Dogg, Kanye West and Rebecca Black and never seem out of her element. She's the ultimate egalitarian A-lister, with a name that's as suburban and down-to-earth as her music and image. She's gorgeous, but not intimidatingly so. One could easily imagine her working the phones in a doctor's office or behind a cash register at the local mall. She could be the best friend who listens while you share intimate details about your love life, offering sympathetic nods and the kind of uplift that only a BFF could give. Her biggest fans probably thought she was singing "Firework" especially for them!

She's also not afraid to downplay her beauty. Hollywood actresses get ugly to win the attention of Oscar. Perry does it with less lofty goals (an MTV Video Music Award?), whether it's dressing up as a sister from another planet in "E.T." or doing her best nerd imitation in "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)." I can't think of another pop goddess who would put on old-lady makeup and age herself 50 years, as Perry does in the video for "The One That Got Away." But that's precisely why most of them have released several albums during Teenage Dream's chart run -- and Perry didn't even have to stoop to the expanded-edition ploy to keep the big hits coming (though she did have to add Kanye West to "E.T." to give it edge and a better shot on Billboard's Hot 100).

I wouldn't be surprised if next November when Rihanna is already releasing her next album, Katy Perry is still squeezing hits out of this one.

Friday, November 25, 2011

In Praise of Robin Gibb

His was one of the great, underrated voices of the 20th century, and now that tremulous tenor, which often made him sound like he was holding back tears while delivering one of his devastatingly beautiful and haunting vocals, is in danger of being silenced forever.

This, however, is not a premature obituary for the great Robin Gibb, who has been diagnosed with liver cancer. Though he was recently hospitalized, has had to cancel a number of live performances, and has suffered several health setbacks over the last two years, he says that he's now feeling much better.

Barry Gibb was always the most popular of the England-born, Australian-bred and, later, Miami-based Bee Gees. He was good-looking, sexy, and his falsetto carried the trio through its most commercially successful period, the '70s disco years. During most of that era, Robin and his twin brother Maurice, who died in 2003 from a heart attack suffered during surgery for a twisted intestine (Robin underwent the same medical procedure last year), were on the sidelines providing sturdy harmonies and co-writing support.

I hope the Gibb family won't have to endure more loss anytime soon (the youngest Gibb brother Andy died in 1988 of myocarditis, just five days after turning 30), and that Barry and Robin continue to make music for years to come. While we wait for the resolution of this chapter of the Bee Gees story, here are five great Robin-sung Bee Gees tracks that cement his musical legacy.

"I've Got to Get a Message to You" and "I Started a Joke" Though Barry was indisputably the star of group throughout the '70s, it was Robin who provided lead vocals on the Bee Gees' first two U.S. Top 10 hits in 1968.

"Massachusetts" It just missed the Top 10 in 1967, peaking at No. 11, which, at the time, was the highest position attained by the Bee Gees in the U.S. The band's fourth Top 20 U.S. hit that year, it was also the first Bee Gees single to reach No. 1 in the UK. Way to go, Robin!

"Holiday" When Robin swoops in after Barry's opening couplet, he immediately elevates this mournful tune -- and the Bee Gees' third Top 20 single of 1967 -- into an instant classic.

"I Still Love You" By 1981, disco had faded and in the eyes of pop fans, Bee Gees were little more than a washed-up joke. Too bad. This album track from 1981's unfortunately and undeservedly overlooked Living Eyes is one of the very best Bee Gees ballads.

Happy Thanksgiving Day!

Besides the days-off aspect, I've never been much of a holiday person. I'm not saying, "Bah humbug," but I always resented the fact that on a day I didn't have to work, I couldn't just spend it all in bed. On holidays, you have to force yourself to have a good time because no one wants to hear your sob story when they ask, "How was your holiday?"

Thanksgiving, though, was always the one for which I had a soft spot. I'm no fan of turkey, so that was never much of a draw, and pumpkin pie is never my first choice when I'm craving dessert. I loved the idea of the entire family gathered around the dinner table passing dishes and sharing stories, and afterwards, watching The Sound of Music, or whatever classic was on TV that evening. Most of all, though, I loved Thanksgiving because it's the one holiday that always came with two days off instead of just one. Yes, Turkey Day might be the single thing I miss most about living in the United States.

Today my brother reminded me of my earliest experiment in poetry and public speaking when I was in fifth grade. It happened to coincide with Thanksgiving season. My class was assigned to write a poem celebrating Thanksgiving, and the teacher liked mine so much that he made me recite it in front of the entire class. I could have sworn a few of my fellow students were fighting back laughter!

Reading it after all these years, I have to ask myself, "What was he thinking?" But I suppose beautiful prose is in the eye of the person reading it, or in the ear of whoever is hearing it. And I was only 10 years old at the time and a few months away from deciding that I wanted to be a journalist when I grew up. I had a long way to go!

Judge for yourself.

Thanksgiving is a time of love
To God up above

It's a time of thanks
Because the Mayflower could have sank

To the bottom of the sea
So as far as I can see

It's the best time of the year
To have a fair

With lots of turkey
But don't be a monkey

And eat more cake
Than you can take

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Today's Themes: Epic Romance (with Ralph Fiennes Above the Title), Coldplay and Dreams of Paradise

Today I have no pearls of wisdom, no meaningful musings, no lists to share. I have a few decadent stories, but I should probably keep those to myself since they all involve whiskey and nudity. So I will slightly alter the title of this blog and turn my attention to themes for great cities, particularly the song that's been playing in my head and on my computer since last night.

A wise man once told me that every day deserves a perfect soundtrack. Wait, it was my best friend's hairdresser, with whom she was trying to set me up. Anyway, if that is so, then today my soundtrack would be "Paradise," the latest single from Coldplay, who recently revealed that every teardrop is a waterfall, which couldn't be more true, especially today.

I not only learned that Robin Gibb of my beloved Bee Gees has liver cancer (coming soon: a proper Bee Gees post to honor the best of the trio's non-disco years, which, incidentally, included its own "Paradise," from 1981's Living Eyes LP), but I had to watch Matthew Buchanan die on One Life to Live, and I learned that Prospect Park has abandoned its plans to continue the series online after its ABC run ends in January. As the Brothers Gibb once sang (on the appropriately titled "Tears"), "I will not sleep tonight. There will be tears."

But maybe I'll put it off until tomorrow, when the Bee Gees will no doubt provide the soundtrack. Today is all about "Paradise" found. I'd never paid much attention to the Mylo Xyloto track until last night when it started playing on the radio in the taxi I was taking to Silom Soi 2 just as I noticed that the driver had taken a wrong turn.

As I tried to get him back on track, suddenly, it hit me: What a brilliant song! It manages to merge classic Coldplay with the electro sound currently dominating pop without straining to be a hit. But more than anything else, it's a grand, romantic musical gesture, the kind I used to snicker at in private. I've spent most of my life refusing to assign the "romantic" tag to myself, preferring the stamp of cool, collected cynic, and finally, I'm learning to embrace it. I'm a hopeless romantic, after all (not only regarding matters of the heart but regarding life in general), and today, "Paradise" is my song.

Romance has been creeping up on me since yesterday's song, "Snowed In at Wheeler Street." I imagine the epic musical love story that begins a little bit like Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" and is sung over the course of centuries by Kate Bush and Elton John on Bush's new album, 50 Words for Snow, as a three-and-a-half-hour movie starring Julianne Moore and Ralph Fiennes, who, in a case of egregious Hollywood injustice, has spent the last 15 years without an Academy Award nomination or even serious Oscar buzz while having to suffer the ignominy of watching his costars get nominated and occasionally winning them.

But boy do I digress. If Moore and Fiennes are not available, I'd settle for Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz (one of those Oscar-winning Fiennes costars), since they already played lovers across centuries in The Fountain. "Paradise" would accompany the closing credits.

In a month where I've had both sleepless nights and ones filled with strange, vivid dreams, tonight when I shoot out the lights and close my eyes, I hope to fall asleep quickly and dream of para-para-paradise.

Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh-Oh-Oh-Oh.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why I Don't Think Adele Is the Best Thing Ever

Put down those sticks and stones. I'm about to say something that may result in tons of criticism, if not outright broken bones.

I am not in love with Adele.

There, I said it.

Don't let me be misunderstood: Man cannot live on Katy Perry, Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Britney Spears alone, and for that, I will be eternally grateful to Adele for making the Top 10 classy again. When the dust of the 2010s settles sometime around the summer of 2020, "Rolling in the Deep" will go down as one of the most electrifying singles of the decade. It proved that you don't have to look and sound cookie-cutter to hit number one (twice! in one year!) on Billboard's Hot 100.

That said, Adele's massive second album, 21, the biggest seller of 2011, is not the savior of pop that everyone seems intent on making it out to be. My best friend recently compared it to George Michael's Listen Without Prejudice Vol. I, a daring work of auteurism -- Michael wrote, arranged, produced and performed it almost in its entirety -- that 21 can't come close to matching in terms of sheer pop iconoclasm.

Few albums begin as promisingly as "Rolling in the Deep" and "Rumour Has It," but 21 ebbs and flows creatively over the course of the remaining nine songs. No, it's not Katy Perry's Teenage Dream, but that doesn't make it groundbreaking. For every display of musical cojones (the aforementioned tracks 1 and 2), there are several of utter, middle-of-the-road safeness elevated only by the sheer power of Adele's voice. If you're going to cover a Cure song (and why more artists haven't done so is beyond me), why not go for something a bit more surprising and challenging than "Lovesong," the band's biggest hit?

Take a closer look -- or rather listen very closely to -- "Someone Like You," the second No. 1 single from 21. Yes, Adele's vocals are, as always, utter perfection, but beyond that, what you've got is a fairly routine piano ballad about love lost. Melissa Manchester used to crank this stuff out in her sleep in the '70s.

Yes, it classes up the Top 10 a bit, but I've never been a sucker for a power ballad, especially one masquerading as a defining moment in musical art.

Yes, a girl bringing on the heartbreak by singing while accompanying herself on the piano is a beautiful thing indeed (see Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, Fiona Apple and Lady Gaga, among others), but really, it's been done to death over the years, frequently better than Adele on "Someone Like You" (see Aretha Franklin, below).

Give me a beat!

From day one, "Someone Like You" was never a 21 favorite of mine. Though I respect it as an example of sturdy songcraft, frankly, it kind of bores me. I first noticed the chinks in its drowsy production when I arrived in Bangkok in July and started hearing it on dance floors all over town, only with a heavy backbeat replacing those tremulous piano notes. Finally, I was able to listen to it without nodding off. (Bruno Mars' "Grenade," so similar in love-martyr tone, was improved in a comparable fashion.) I'd always felt the title "Someone Like You" was more worthy of the disco-diva than tortured-songbird treatment -- or maybe those were just my suppressed memories of the late great Sylvester's fabulous 1986 single of the same name.

My disregard for "Someone Like You" in its original album form was cemented when I watched the mash-up of "Rumor Has It" and "Someone Like You" on the November 15 episode of Glee. I might be in the minority when I say that I like Glee more for its uniquely dramedic take on life as a high school outsider than for its music, but perhaps for the first time ever, I preferred the Glee version of a song featured on the show. Why hadn't Adele and "Someone Like You" co-producer Dan Wilson (formerly of Semisonic, whose "Closing Time" is one of my fondest memories of late-'90s pop-rock) thought of adding that nasty beat?

The truth is, Adele impresses me most when she's being slightly quirky (which is why, as a whole, I prefer 19, her Grammy-winning 2008 debut, to 21), or when she's riding a solid groove. That's what made "Rolling in the Deep" such a triumph, and why "He Won't Go" and "Rumour Has It" are right behind it as my favorite tracks on 21, which is as destined for an Album of the Year Grammy as any grand opus in the history of pop, though not because it's nearly as great as Carole King's Tapestry, Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life, Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, U2's The Joshua Tree, George Michael's Faith, or The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, to name a few truly deserving and game-changing previous winners.

Alas, instead of "Rumour Has It" as the third U.S. single from 21, Adele's label, Columbia Records, is going with "Set Fire to the Rain," which I suppose is better than "Turning Tables," which has already gotten the Glee treatment, courtesy of Gwyneth Paltrow. The powers that be at Columbia Records say that it researched slightly better than "Rumour Has It" (translation: Radio programmers are more likely to play it) and therefore is a potentially bigger hit. Which means that, sadly, they are already forcing Adele to embrace convention and the easy hit. Surely market tests didn't indicate how huge "Rolling in the Deep" would be. What's next? A weight-loss plan and a sexy-slutty makeover?

Ok, maybe I'm pushing it there. "Set Fire to the Rain" is a perfectly fine song, and thankfully, a bit more forceful than "Someone Like You." But if you don't mind, I think I'll sit this one out until "Rumour Has It" (hopefully) comes around next to get me off my ass and excited about Adele again.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Trouble with Icons: Why Is It So Hard for Them to Continue Producing Essential Music?

Today while I was listening to Mary J. Blige's new album, My Life II... The Journey Continues (Act 1), my mind began to wander -- which is never supposed to happen when l'm hearing a new Mary joint for the first time.

As my brain wandered, I wondered, "What's with that unwieldy title?" Is it meant to make what is a fairly average collection of songs (and most notable for being a sequel to My Life, Blige's 1994 second album and an enduring hip-hop soul classic) sound more important than it actually is? Am I supposed to read anything into the switch from Roman to Arabic numerals within the title, or ellipses instead of a colon after "My Life II"? What exactly makes this a sequel to My Life and not just another Blige album? Will there be an Act 2?

Then my brain landed on a far more serious matter: Is it impossible to age in pop, rock, hip hop or soul while continuing to put out fresh vital music? Consider Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, David Bowie, Jackson Browne and Elton John (among too many others to list) as well as great '80s staples like the Cure, Morrissey, R.E.M. and, to a less dramatic degree, Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys and Erasure (whose so-so, recently released Tomorrow's World makes Vince Clarke's just-announced reunion with his former DM bandmate Martin Gore for a new band called VCMG sound like one of the best ideas of the year).

For all, their best work was mostly behind them halfway into their careers. Maybe that's why Billy Joel, Sting and Robert Plant had the good sense to retreat from pop and rock in favor of more supposedly age-appropriate genres, a move Linda Ronstadt had made in the '80s, reaping astonishing commercial, creative and critical rewards.

An interesting comparison can be made here to Hollywood, where Meryl Streep, Glenn Close and Helen Mirren can continue to wow into their 60s, while Christopher Plummer can score his first Oscar nomination and Betty White can achieve peak popularity in their 80s. Great film directors are more likely to follow the creative trajectory of musical greats, soaring early, floundering later, and, if they're lucky (like Woody Allen, whose Midnight in Paris is the biggest hit of his career and a major 2012 Oscar contender), experience a late-in-life rebirth.

Of course, there are exceptions. After a throwaway decade (the '80s), Joni Mitchell returned revitalized and on fire with 1994's Turbulent Indigo, as did Neil Young with 1992's Harvest Moon. (Some would date Young's return to form three years earlier, with Freedom.) More recently, at 53, Kate Bush released 50 Words for Snow (which, like My Life II, came out this week), and it ranks among her greatest works to date. (Interestingly, its free-form, jazz-inflected sound recalls Mitchell's late-70s work, while Elton John sounds more amazing than he has in ages on "Snowed In at Wheeler Street," my favorite track at the moment.)

And last year, Sade, then 51, released the stellar Soldier of Love with her eponymous band. But here's the interesting twist with Bush and Sade: Soldier of Love was Sade's first album of all-new material in a decade, while Bush's new set comes six years after her last one, which came 12 years after the one before that.

So if you want to age gracefully in pop with excellent music to match, perhaps the best thing you can do is take extremely extended vacations, which would bode well for Bowie's return to record-making, if it ever transpires. Not that I don't appreciate her hard work, but perhaps Blige could use a long holiday. Since her debut in 1992 with What's the 411?, she has never gone more than two years without releasing a new studio album, a remix album, a live album or a hits compilation. Practice makes perfect, so at 40, her voice has never sounded better than it does on My Life II.

But musically, she's treading water -- again. Not that My Life II is a bad album (on the contrary, it's better than most of what passes for R&B these days), it's just that it doesn't feel quite essential. In fact, despite a few great singles and scattered album tracks here and there, Blige hasn't released a truly essential album since Mary in 1999. Her My Life II cover of Rufus and Chaka Khan's 1983 hit "Ain't Nobody" underscores the problem, and not just because it lacks the supreme musicianship of Rufus, which elevated the original as much as Chaka's vocals did. Blige doesn't bring anything special to the proceedings. She's coasting, which, frankly, Chaka herself has been doing more often than not since 1984's "I Feel for You."

The first time Blige covered Chaka ("Sweet Thing" on What's the 411?), she stole the song right out from under its co-author. "Ain't Nobody" 2011 just makes me want to skip to the next track -- or better yet, turn off the album completely and go digging for Rufus and Chaka Khan's original. (Producer Rodney Jerkins still rocks, but his electronic soundscape just can't touch the '80s synthesizers weaving around the live instrumentation of 2012 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees Rufus.)

I'm not trying to get rid of Blige -- she will continue to be one of my all-time favorite R&B singers even if she continues releasing one slightly above-average album every couple of years for the rest of my life -- but at this point, new Mary J. Blige albums just don't fill me with the joy and anticipation that they did in years gone by.

I'm suffering from a similar loss of faith in Madonna, whose creatively fertile period lasted longer than that of most superstars, up to 2005's Confessions on a Dance Floor, which following the uneven Music (2000) and the atrocious American Life (2003), was like one of those late-in-the-game resurgences, only Madonna was still in her 40s. She's been less prolific than Blige over the last 20 years but only because she's too busy directing films, launching a clothing line, dating boy toys and being the ultimate celebrity to make music 25/8, to quote a song on Blige's new album that doesn't live up to its clever title.

The last time around, Madonna had to fall back on Justin Timberlake to score a hit, and the album, Hard Candy, sounded more like the work of her collaborators than the woman whose name was above the title. For the first single from her 2012 album, she's latched onto M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj, two artists I adore, but two artists who don't belong anywhere near the same song -- or near Madonna, for that matter.

The title of the song: "Give Me All Your Love." When the title of a new Madonna single makes me stifle a yawn, Houston (to invoke the surname of another singer whose recent work doesn't hold up, though for an entirely different reason -- drugs claim lives and beautiful voices), we most definitely have a problem.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Notes from Down Under: Another Reason to Love Australia (As If I Needed One!)

YesYou: helping to put Aussie indie-pop all over the musical map
Olivia Newton-John. Bee Gees. Air Supply. Helen Reddy.

That's right. Helen Reddy. The woman who made "I Am Woman," "Delta Dawn" and "Angie Baby" No. 1 hits in the 1970s but whom no one ever seems to talk about today.

My love affair with Australian singers goes way back to the '70s and early '80s heyday of acts that, for most people, now would be considered hopelessly uncool. By the mid '80s, I was walking slightly further over on the wild side, regularly popping cassettes by INXS, Midnight Oil and the Church into my boom box, the gigantic one with the bright flashing lights. (Though I've recently become aware of the musical genius that is "Down Under," I was never a particularly big fan of Men At Work back when they were making hits.)

In between albums by my favorites, Eurogliders, Divinyls and Big Pig, held my attention for at least one single apiece. Over on the pop diva side, I'd rather spend a sunny afternoon listening to Kylie Minogue than Madonna, and I probably love her sister Dannii more than I ought to. On a slightly more critically sound note, if I had ruled the world, Tina Arena would have been as big as Celine Dion in the '90s.

Though I lost track of Australian pop and rock for the majority of this century, it crept back onto my radar last year during my first trip down under. (Thank you, Marcus, for introducing me to triple j radio.) Now I'm entering an obsessive phase with indie pop, and no country does the genre better at the moment than Australia. In the last couple of years, I've fallen hard for the Temper Trap, Boy & Bear, Angus & Julia Stone, and now, YesYou, an Aussie indie-pop act from Brisbane that I didn't discover watching an episode of 90210 or listening to triple j. (If only someone would help these great Down Under bands come up with better names!)

I found out about YesYou when a link to their debut video, "Half of It," was included in an email newsletter from Pedestrian.TV, an Australian website that wraps up pop culture and media news. First, it sent me to a website where I could stream Kate Bush's fantastic new album, 50 Words for Snow, an entire weekend before its release, and now this.

I won't waste time comparing YesYou to anything that came before it. Anyone who's into the more danceable side of indie pop, will probably dig "Half of It," one of those rare tracks that's equally suitable for grooving and daydreaming. If you're on a break from Foster the People, and you're looking for more cutting-edge pop to offset Katy Perry/Rihanna/Adele overload, this one's for you.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

5-Star Bathroom Sex: Grindr and the Meat-Market Workplace

Sex and sin city doesn't get more decadent than this.

Well, sure it does, but if you don't feel like putting on your dancing shoes, you can indulge in Bangkok's debauchery without leaving the comfort of your 5-star hotel room -- or with a quick elevator trip down to those spotless bathrooms in the lobby. Just leave your inhibitions in the taxi that drops you off at the front door, and let the fun and games begin!

Oh, and if you happen to be gay, you'll need your iPhone and a profile on Grindr, that boy-meets-boy application that's revolutionized -- though some might say ruined -- the international gay dating scene and is putting even more bang and cock in Bangkok. If you're looking for fastlove, it's the next best thing to just walking around with your junk hanging out.

Last night I learned a little more about the power of Grindr and the insatiable male sex drive when I went out for drinks with one of the guys who works at the front desk of the 5-star hotel I've called my home in Bangkok for the last six weeks. He told me some of the funniest, most horrifying stories I've ever heard. The term "guest relations" will never again have quite the same meaning for me.

So what's all in a day's work for this front-desk employee? Checking in guests, checking out guests, luring guests into the bathroom for clandestine on-the-clock trysts. Think Hotel and Fantasy Island crossed with Queer As Folk. I was going to include The Love Boat, but really, what's love got to do with it?

Thanks to Grindr, there's rarely a dull day at work. My friend is almost always logged on, even as he was telling me his stories, and when he's checking in guests, it's with his attention divided between the job at hand and on a hand job, which he will likely score on his next break, courtesy of the iPhone perched conveniently by the keyboard. As he's checking out incoming guests, he's checking out Grindr to see who's online.

Some of the guys check in solo, some with friends, some with lovers and others with their girlfriends, deepening their voices and putting on their best hetero act. So many of them, it seems, have profiles on Grindr. Minutes after sending another new guest off to his room, he glances down at Grindr to see who's around. Hot guy alert! "7 metres away." He starts typing.

"Hi. How's it going?"

"Pretty good. Didn't you just check me in?"

"Yes, that was me."

"I had no idea you were gay."

"Neither did I -- that you were gay."

"Meet me in the bathroom in 15?"

"Sure thing!"

Though I suppose he's only honoring the ultimate goal of his job, which is to make guests happy, I still couldn't believe what I was hearing. Sometimes he has this exchange several times a day, the record being, he told me, five in one shift. Apparently, he's not the only worker who's fooling around on the job. Everyone does it at all of the hotels in Bangkok, he said, and not just the gay men with Grindr accounts. The female employees, who are all so beautiful and elegant, often go out to dinner with hotel guests before getting more intimate behind closed doors -- though most likely not the one on a bathroom stall. It might be more Carrie Bradshaw than Samantha Jones, but the endgame is the same.

In Bangkok, it seems, its always about sex (and food, but I'll get to that in another post). The two are impossible to separate. I'm reminded every time I step into a bar, gay or straight, or pass by a massage parlor where employees are too eager to do more than loosen up tight muscles. In DJ Station, I see people kissing with their eyes open, darting around the room to see who else might be available or interested. Quantity over quality. People kiss first and ask questions later. There's so much partner swapping in the space of one song, sometimes it feels like watching a public orgy. It's a wonder anyone ends up leaving together!

As my friend was showing me his Grindr scores, he told me a story of lust and Grindr on Soi 4 in Silom. He was sitting on the terrace of Telephone Bar watching boys go by in real life and ogling them on Grindr, too. Hot guy "2 metres away." Their eyes met. Incoming message: "Meet me in the bathroom now." It's hardly true romance, but this is Bangkok, not Paris.

Though the idea of negotiating two meat markets at once, one live and the other virtual, kind of makes my head spin, I can't claim total innocence when it comes to toying with beautiful strangers. My friends in Buenos Aires have spent many a Saturday night laughing in disbelief as I worked the dance floor at Ambar la Fox, tossing one partner aside for another, rinsing and repeating. I once went out with a guy who couldn't believe he was on a date with me after having watched me sandwich him between two other conquests months earlier. No, I'm no angel.

My friend Dave used to say that anyone in my path after a few drinks in a New York City watering hole became a human prop. Yes, I can be the king of the short attention span. My misbehavior has brought me some good times, but it can be equally entertaining to watch -- or listen to -- the action unfold from the sidelines as a paying spectator. Another Jack and coke, please!

I thought I'd seen, and possibly done, just about everything. But I've yet to disrobe on the job or enter a workplace bathroom for any purpose other than its intended use. I doubt I ever will, but then, the possibility of getting caught has never given me much of a thrill. It seems I might be in the minority around here, though. Little did I know what goes on in the middle of the day some 10 stories down from where I go to sleep at night. Apparently, the bathroom next to the business center on the second floor can see as much action at 2pm on a Monday afternoon as DJ Station on a Saturday night. And there's no cover charge!

I'm not on Grindr, so I won't be meeting up with any of my fellow residents unless it's purely by accident -- and aside from a hottie sighting or two in the gym, I haven't spotted anyone worth making a special trip to the loo for. Still, perhaps I shouldn't have been so quick to send away that cute hotel employee who delivered the bottled water to my room a couple of weeks ago. But who am I kidding? I'm much too shy to ever go there. I'll be picking up my next stranger with a Jack and coke in one hand and a lame Rihanna remix pounding in my ear.

And if I end up doing the walk of shame through the lobby the next morning, I'll have to remember to hold my head higher. Everyone watching me has probably walked in my scuffed John Varvatos boots -- sometimes more than once a shift!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Soul of the '80s, Part 1: In Praise of Jeffrey Osborne

Sartorially speaking, I've come a long way since the '80s.

But then, haven't we all?

While my older brother Jeff was rocking a blend of Ready for the World and Purple Rain, Jheri curl and all (he and his friends entered a high-school "air band" contest as Prince and the Revolution performing "Let's Go Crazy" but lost to a bunch of toga-wearing future frat boys mouthing the Isley Brothers' "Shout"), I was going for something a little more uptown elegant. My personal fashion icon: soul singer Jeffrey Osborne, whose International Male look I spent the middle part of the decade trying to emulate.

I probably should have stuck to just his music, which remains in regular rotation on my iPod.

Although he enjoyed some crossover success in the '80s -- eight Top 40 pop singles, including the divine "The Borderlines" and the diviner "You Should Be Mine (The Woo Woo Song)" -- I always felt like Osborne was one of the underrated black male singers of the era. He'd actually risen to prominence during the previous decade as the lead vocalist of L.T.D. The band's 1977 No. 4 hit "(Every Time I Turn Around) Back in Love Again" was a high point of late-'70s R&B that still sounded fresh blaring from my iPod earphones on repeat as I jogged around Buenos Aires in early 2011.

But for all his talent and gold and platinum albums (five in total), Osborne was never a regular in the pop Top 10 like Billy Ocean. He wasn't iconic like Luther Vandross. And he didn't get to collaborate with as many A-list pop stars as James Ingram. No offense to Ingram, but what I wouldn't have given to have heard Osborne coming between Kenny Rogers and Kim Carnes on "What About Me?" or serenading Linda Ronstadt on "Somewhere Out There"! At least we'll always have "Love Power," his 1987 duet with Dionne Warkwick, which went all the way to No. 12 on Billboard's Hot 100. (I think I still have the Cassingle somewhere.)

I didn't really get into Osborne until two albums into his solo career, but from 2:02 of the video for "Stay with Me Tonight," his 1983 single and fourth Top 40 solo hit, he had me for good. Eighties singing -- and posing -- at its finest!

Night Movies: What Do My Strange Dreams Mean?

I've always had strange, vivid dreams.

Unlike my mom in hers, I never have the ability to fly, nor do I possess any other superhero qualities. More often than not, my nocturnal reveries are populated by people who were more significant in the past than in my present, and the house in which I grew up is frequently the setting. Occasionally, I'm naked in public, being chased or falling (I always wake up before I'm caught or before I hit the ground), but usually, the big threat is one of the things I fear most: cockroaches.


Sometimes when I'm running, I can't go faster than slow motion, and if I fall, I can't get back on my feet. Then there are the ones in which I'm fighting, and I can barely throw a punch to defend myself. The most worrisome ones are the ones in which central figures in my life die, and tears won't come.

But those are all recurring dreams. The ones I've been having this past week are like all-new original episodes. The most vivid one came two nights ago. I ran into my two closest female friends from college, Maureen and Nicholle, in some city where none of us lived (the identity of the city was never revealed), and as I was talking to them, Maureen kept turning into Nicholle and vice versa.

Another strange element was when I first ran into my morphing friends, they appeared as Maureen, and she introduced me to a group of five preppy and quite snobbish people, the kind of folks I'd never imagine her being friends with in real life. Suddenly, the stutter that's afflicted me my entire life, coming and going, was back so strong that I couldn't even get out a "How do you do?"

When I posted my dreams on my Facebook wall, I got some interesting responses.

From Maureen: "Do I represent parenthood/safety/comfort? Hmmmm..."

From Pebble: "You are struggling with your inner self. You are searching for things that make you feel safe - are you lonely or feeling nostalgic? Is there a big change lurking on your horizon? Have you been made an offer that you are considering but fear change might make you feel less secure? The constant change in the females represents confusion, but the repetition represents the "bond" and your feelings of safety with these two people from your past - when you felt safe. Dreams, though sometimes unclear - absolutely mean something. You need to analyze the events of the dream and search its meaning based on your current life events. Make sense?"

From Alexi, via the book Dream Moods: "To dream that you or someone is morphing into another person suggests that you need to incorporate aspects of this other person into your own character. You are in need of a major change in your life. Alternatively, you need to learn to see things from someone else's perspective and expand your awareness." 

Without delving too much further into the internal struggles that are already well enough documented in this blog, I'll say that all three interpretations are spot on. I'm on a very specific journey, one that I've been on for more than half a decade now, and I feel like I'm approaching a major crossroad where the thought of going left, right, onward or backward fills me with both excitement and terror, two qualities that my brother says can easily be confused. 

I remember three other dreams from the same night that I didn't talk about on my Facebook wall. One involved cockroaches, of course. In another, someone very important to me died. But the strange twist is that this person died at a younger age than he/she currently is. I was devastated. I railed against the universe for daring to take this person away from me. But as usual, I couldn't bring myself to cry.

In the other dream, a guy from my past re-entered my life. We once had been very close, though always platonic, but I hadn't seen him or thought about him in years. As we met again, it was clear that there was a romantic spark, and we would possibly -- probably -- continue on as a couple. The strange twist: When I woke up, I had no idea who this person from my past was. I can still see his face as clearly as if I had woken up next to him, and I don't recognize him at all!

Last night, the weirdo dreams kept coming, but this time, there at least was some comic relief. It was Oscar night 2012, and I was somewhere in Asia (or maybe it was Europe, or possibly back in Australia). As expected, Meryl Streep was nominated for yet another impersonation, this one of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, and Glenn Close was up for the first time in more than 20 years for her cross-dressing performance in Albert Nobbs. I believe the ceremony was being held not in the Kodak Theater but outside under a tent!

The even bigger twist (and this was the juiciest one of all): I couldn't care less because I was too busy hanging out with Angelina Jolie on the set of Hamlet, her latest directorial project, giving her tips on how to improve Rosario Dawson/Christina Ricci/Jordin Spark's performance as Ophelia. (The actress was like an amalgamation of all three. Oh, and interesting aside: Glenn Close starred as Gertrude in the 1990 film of Hamlet, which I saw with Maureen.)

I have no idea what any of that could possibly mean, but it's one dream that I hope comes true!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

10 Songs That Shaped Me

This isn't a list of my favorite tunes, though some most certainly are. I don't listen to these songs every day, and in fact, if my iPod were to land on a few of them, I might actually press skip. But at one point, they were all songs to learn and sing for the simple fact that they spoke to me for some particular reason. So while they might not add up to the soundtrack of my current life, they're a partial document of my past, which is just as pivotal as my present and my future to who I am and to who I will become.

Too deep? Well, I'll skip the philosophizing then and just get to the music.

Gene Watson "Love in the Hot Afternoon" Someday when I do a post on great underrated country singers, Watson, my all-time favorite of the genre's male singers, will probably top my list. If I were stranded on a desert island and could only have one of his songs on an mp3 player with severely limited space, it would be this one. When I was young, my parents preferred for us to listen to country music because they thought it was more wholesome than rock & roll. This is one of the earliest examples of how wrong they were!

The Eagles "New Kid in Town" One of the key songs that launched my transition from being strictly a country music fan to embracing pop and rock, which is fitting since the Eagles were the biggest of the '70s acts that straddled all of those genres. Whenever I hear it, it takes me back to the late '70s in Kissimmee, Florida, riding in the back seat of the family's brown 1978 Ford Thunderbird with my mom and dad up front. It's laughably cliche, but life really was a lot simpler back then.

The Cure "Killing an Arab" The song that kicked off my love of both alternative rock and my third favorite band of all time, though not until several years after its 1978 release.

ABBA "I Have a Dream" Yes, it's all kinds of corny, but I didn't always feel that way. When I was in the seventh grade, I wrote the hook -- "I believe in angels... I have a dream, I have a dream" -- on the back of a test paper, and Mr. Duncan, the teacher, who obviously had never heard the song, made me stay after class to figure out whether I was crazy, a genius, a dreamer or just someone who liked to doodle. (I convinced him the latter was true.)

Randy Crawford "One Day I'll Fly Away" I'll never forget the first time I ever heard it. I was riding in a taxi from a club to my hotel during a trip to London in the autumn of 1995, and it was playing on the radio. I've been in love with Crawford ever since the driver told me who was singing. That I would hear songs like this (which hit No. 2 in the UK in 1980) and Barbra Streisand's "The Love Inside" on Top 40 radio stations in London all the time was one of the earliest clues that I was living in the wrong country.

Duran Duran "Hungry Like the Wolf" I was such a good boy at the time, and buying the 45 of a song that was strictly about carnal desire made me feel "bad" for the very first time. By the time I added Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" to my collection of vinyl singles later that year, I was tainted, and there was no going back.

The Smiths "London" A song about goodbyes that speaks to me, which is strange considering how much I hate saying goodbye. I've sneaked out of parties (some of them my own), countries and bedrooms countless times just to avoid it.

Morrissey "The Ordinary Boys" For anyone who grew up feeling different knowing that life would always be that way.

Bjork "Venus As a Boy" I'd always fantasized about a more rugged type myself until I heard Bjork singing the praises of her Venusian stud.

Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach "This House Is Empty Now" Painted from Memory, Costello's 1998 collaboration with Burt Bacharach, is probably one of my 10 favorite albums, and for me, this track is the most devastating of the emotionally exhausting bunch (even more so than "God Give Me Strength," because its pain is quieter and therefore more powerful). At the time, I'd yet to have my heart broken and shattered into hundreds of tiny pieces, but after hearing this song for the first time, I knew exactly how it would sound.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Tattoo You 2!

This time, it didn't hurt at all.

Yes, I did feel the drilling of the black ink into my arm, but the psychological effect of that buzzing sound is more unsettling than the physical sensation. In fact, having gone through the tattoo process twice now, I secretly enjoy how it feels, which took me by surprise because this time I didn't have two friends to hold my hands. (My pal Devarni, who is visiting from Melbourne, split the scene to spend some quality time poolside, leaving me to fend for myself.)

Getting tattooed the second time around was certainly less uncomfortable than having your body waxed. During the 30-minute inking process, I started to get how people become addicted to it. In September, I met a guy in his late 50s in Pattaya whose body is covered with tattoos. He said he didn't get his first one until about 10 years ago, and now only his face is tattoo-free. (His boyfriend, who apparently caught the tattoo bug, had permanent eyeliner installed while they were in Pattaya!) Despite my newfound understanding of tattoo addicts, that will never be me.

I intend to refrain from regularly vandalizing my body, but I'm already thinking about tattoo No. 3, which will definitely be the final one. (According to Argentine superstition, according to friends of mine back in Buenos Aires, it's bad luck to have an even number of tattoos, so if you get two, you have to get three.)

I can't believe it took me two and a half years to follow up my first one, a bull on my right bicep representing my astrological sign. I didn't come up with the idea of getting my name in Thai on my left forearm until a few weeks ago when I noticed how cool Hugh Jackman's name looked in Thai on the movie poster for Real Steel.

I just need to come up with something else that's just as personal as my name and my star sign. I don't want any generic designs or someone else's name printed on my body for eternity. The guy who did my body art at Jimmy Wong Tattoo Bangkok on the 7th floor of the MBK shopping center asked if it was my girlfriend's name. I looked at him as if to say, "Girlfriend?!" Then I told him that I'd never get anyone else's name etched into my body. Have we learned nothing from Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie? At least Melanie Griffith is still married to Antonio Banderas.

Shortly after I left Jimmy Wong, I went to pick up a DVD from a store in MBK, and the guy behind the counter asked to see my tattoo, which was covered by plastic. "Jeremy," he said when I revealed it to him. I was relieved. As my friend Erin pointed out later, you don't want someone playing a terrible joke and tattooing "hamburger" onto your arm!

I'm now officially accepting ideas for tattoo No. 3. What should I get and where should I put it?