Thursday, October 30, 2014

No, Facebook Is Not the Devil, If You Know How -- and When -- to Use It

"How are you doing over in Cape Town?"

What a strange question? I thought while reading an email from one of my very best friends a few days ago. Doesn't she know where I am? I figured everybody who knows me knows. Although I've told only a few people personally, pretty much everything I've posted on Facebook for the past month or so has had something to do with my forthcoming book or my big move from Cape Town to Sydney for a new job. Where had she been?

"Where have you been? Haven't you been on Facebook?" I asked in response, expecting her to tell me about how work has made it impossible to keep up with everybody's status updates. As it turns out, she hadn't been keeping up with anybody's status updates because she "deactivated" her Facebook account two months ago, weeks before Sydney came into play. And by the way, the irony of my not realizing she'd been off Facebook for that long was not lost on me. It reminds me of the irony of my having had to see a Facebook friend in person last weekend to find out that she split up with her husband a year ago. She had a similar response to my cluelessness about the dramatic details of her life.

But getting back to my other friend, she was tired of all the pointlessness of Facebook, knowing all the minutiae of the lives of people she cared nothing about and reading the back-and-forth bickering on topics that didn't interest her. She'd had enough, so she opted out.

I shouldn't have been surprised. My friend has always been one of the most no-bullshit people I know, and I adore her for it. She suffers no one -- fools or otherwise -- gladly. She's the friend who finally convinced me to dump a boyfriend by making an unrelated offhand comment about straining to keep up your end of non-conversations. "Suddenly, you realize, why am I knocking myself out like an idiot for someone with absolutely nothing say?" she said. I knew right then and there that my then-boyfriend and I were through.

Furthermore, for as long as she and I were Facebook friends, we never used it as a means of communication. We've kept in touch since I left New York City eight years ago mostly by regular email and dinners when I've been back in NYC. The question she asked at the beginning of this post was part of her response to a "Happy birthday" message I had sent to her via personal email because I'd never sent her anything via Facebook.

I had no idea she had deactivated because it never occurred to me to do the 2014 thing and post Happy birthday! Hope you're having a great day! on her "Timeline" the way I assumed pretty much everyone who knows her -- or don't -- would be. I owed her something more one-on-one to make up for the few months that our currently busy lives had kept us out of each other's loops.

Her not being on Facebook may have kept her in the dark about my current employment status and living situation, but it won't change our relationship at all. She asked for my new mailing address because that's the kind of person she is. In 2014, she continues to write letters and send cards to people she cares about. I love her for that, too.

But still, I wondered, was she and people who up and leave Facebook for similar reasons -- including a family member who recently departed after being stung by a another family member's status update that she interpreted as being directed at her (because it's always all about her) -- cutting off their noses to spite their faces? To me, it's like someone who spends too much time pulling and tugging and fussing with their clothes. Just let them be and go on with your day!

The truth is that Facebook is what you want it to be. There are no membership requirements that say you have to log on and regularly check up on what is going on in people's lives, nothing that says you have to participate in heated debates or even keep track of everyone's point of view. We encounter annoying people every day in offline life and choose whether or not to pay attention. Even if we're feeling a little misanthropic and would rather not be around most people, we don't cut off contact with everyone to avoid the unfortunate many.

There are Facebook controls in place to block those people you don't want to hear from, and ways to determine what notifications you receive. If you're a casual Facebook user who rarely logs on, there's no reason to be annoyed. So if you are, perhaps you're protesting too much because you're logging on too much.

Yesterday, I had drinks with someone who made a similar revelation. He had to ditch Facebook because the constant notifications were just too much for him to handle. He's really into photography, so Instagram is more his speed anyway. He gets his social-media fix there. Fair enough.

I thought about telling him that he could stop receiving those notifications entirely, but what was the use? He seemed to be pretty set in his ways regarding Facebook. Although the anti-Facebook folks always have excellent reasons for their stance, in the end, it's never really just about that. It's usually more of a principle thing, a gut reaction to something that's gotten too big for its britches: Facebook is dumb because it's dumb (and because everyone seems to think it's the meaning of life -- so why should I?).

Personally, I couldn't disagree more. Yes, I have my issues with Facebook and social media in general, particularly for the way they've taken the "personal" out of relationships and made us all even more gluttonous for attention and validation ("like" me, "like" me, "like" me!!!). Also, I can do without knowing all the details of everyone's health and being apprised of every death in every family. When tragedy strikes me, Facebook is generally the last thing on my mind, but I understand that for some, there's solace and strength in numbers.

Think about it, though: Back when people still read newspapers, did you throw them out because you didn't need to read every story? If you didn't want to sit through everyone's opinion, didn't you just skip the Op-ed page? I don't believe I've ever read a thing USA Today had to say that wasn't in the "Life" section. I take a similar approach to Facebook.

Beyond its content, Facebook works for me for two very crucial reasons: 1) It's an excellent way for me to promote my work. 2) As someone who has lived all over the world and made friends and acquaintances everywhere, it helps me to stay in touch with peripheral people with whom I might not otherwise take the time to form long-distance bonds but whom I might want to see again if I ever return to their corner of the world. Who knows? We might even end up unexpectedly becoming friends. It's happened before, and I have Facebook to thank for it.

If I weren't a journalist and world traveler, I'd probably rarely log on to Facebook, but I'd certainly still have my account, for there's another big benefit of Facebook that is probably the reason why I've stuck around this long and will continue to do so. I've never come across a better way to reconnect with people from my past with whom I thought I'd fallen out of touch forever.

When you take out the people I don't know or don't remember, they make up the bulk of my Facebook friends, and even if we rarely, if ever, actually say anything to each other, it's nice to know they're still out there. They may never be active participants in my day-to-day life, but at the very least, they'll always know in which city to find me.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Lost in Sydney: Is This Really My New Home?

Not lost "lost," so don't bother trying to offer me directions. It's not like I don't know my way around here (or can't figure it out on my own, for inner Sydney is fairly user-with-a-map friendly). Yesterday's landing at Sydney International was my eighth one in the city, which couldn't have looked more gorgeous from eight miles high (or wherever we were when we were no longer flying above the clouds). But I think it started before I went up, up and away in Qantas flight 64 from Johannesburg to Sydney.

My final hours on the ground in South Africa (two in Cape Town, two in Johannesburg) were imperfect caps to my last year abroad, so fraught with inconveniences that they seemed to be screaming "Get out while you can!" (..."and don't come back!" -- which is a twist for a future blog post once I make more sense of it) while confirming what has become my No. 1 travel truth: The worst parts of any long-distance voyage are the parts spent in airports.

The waiting isn't the hardest part of that part, though. It's dealing with airport speed bumps post-9/11: rigorously enforced weight restrictions (If I book a two-leg flight on, and Qantas uses a partner airline for the first leg, shouldn't Qantas arrange for me to have the same weight limit on both flights?), baggage checks (I'm still not sure what airport security has against liquids), and customs (a necessary evil that's still a pain in the ass). The latter was never actually a problem for me until I left South Africa this time, six days after my visa expired, which, again, is a story for another blog post.

Thankfully, my arrival/welcome in Sydney was smoother than my departure from South Africa. Although Australia's border patrol has a reputation for being extra-vigilant and strict (and it has its own TV series to document/show for it), in the dozen or so times I've entered the country, I've only once had an Immigration problem (the first time, as I didn't enter my middle name on my ETA visa application, making the ETA me, in essence, a different person than the me named in my passport), and I've never had my baggage inspected. That's probably not the reason why I click with the country and the people in it, but it's never a bad start.

So why have I felt so out of sorts since my latest arrival? Was it because of the gloomy overcast skies and the autumn-like spring chill that greeted me? I overheard a woman on the shuttle bus into the city complaining about how she didn't have to leave London to get such grim weather. Another compared it to Melbourne's notoriously capricious climate, citing the "four seasons in a day" cliché. For a moment, I found myself wishing I could be somewhere else: in London, in Melbourne, in a taxi. But I've been so looking forward to Sydney for weeks. I should barely be able to contain my glee.

Perhaps the reason for my continuing malaise is that I left South Africa, my home for the past 11 and a half months, under less-than-stellar conditions, but I feel like I'm already moving past that. God knows it's not my living arrangements in Sydney. My accommodation for the next three months is certainly welcoming enough, even without some of the necessities (towels, bed linings, toilet paper) that I might have expected to find in a furnished one-bedroom executive rental which is costing me more than twice what I paid per month for my apartment in Cape Town. (Aside from views of Devil's Peak, Table Mountain, Lion's Head and Signal Hill, it's the one thing I'll miss most about Cape Town).

On my way to a store to buy a towel to dry off with after washing myself clean of the grime my body had accumulated over 14 hours of air travel and several more of airport drama, I discovered that I live only a few blocks away from my new job at ninemsn, which will make the work commute my easiest ever and my temporary CBD address convenient, if not ideal on a social level. And I was immediately reminded of the unpredictable but excellent Aussie taste in music. The first two songs I heard in public after landing: "Best Friend" by Foster the People, which was playing over the loudspeaker en route to the customs and baggage claim area at the airport, and "To Know Him Is to Love Him," the 1987 No. 1 country hit by Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt that was blaring from the radio at the 24-hour convenience store near my new home.

I think there may be a couple of key contributing factors to this peaceful but slightly uneasy feeling that's been washing over me since I woke up mid-flight from Johannesburg to Sydney somewhat panicked. For one, I'm about to start a new job (which, in itself, is generally a cause for some trepidation), one that will mark the first time I've been tied to a 9-to-5 gig in more than eight years. I'd better make it work. I'm a perfectionist that way, and the terms of my 48-month 457 visa demand it. The pressure is on.

For two, there's my social standing in Sydney, or rather, lack thereof. The last time I arrived in Australia thinking long-term (in March of 2011), it was under considerably different circumstances. I was arriving in Melbourne, my first Australian love, and my second Australian love (my boyfriend-to-be) was waiting for me. I've never been one to move to a new country or city for love and can't imagine myself ever being motivated to do so, but I now fully understand how having a human connection awaiting you on the other side of a relocation can make all the difference. The job may, for the first time, give me a legitimate reason to be in Australia, but reclusive as I am, I've always been driven mostly by human connections.

Thankfully, I'm now in a place where it should be a lot easier to make them. I spent most of the last year mostly on my own, partly by choice, but partly because South Africa's social fabric, particularly in Cape Town, is so difficult to penetrate. The local gay scene is even tougher. Before I left, I hadn't been on a date in at least three months, which may have had something to do with my rare excursions into the nightlife and my temporary departure from the Grindr dating pool. One's skin color can be the hot topic for only so long before one begins to feel even more self-conscious than usual about it. Who needs that?

As valuable as the lessons learned in Cape Town were (and I got an entire second book out of them), I'm looking forward to living in world where the racial politics don't really apply to me. (As a black American, I've never felt more accepted than I have in Australia.) I know that eventually my diffidence will pass. Like jetlag -- killer, as usual -- it always does, leading to bright new (and hopefully, sunnier) days.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Did 2015 Oscar Host Neil Patrick Harris Just Become the Most Powerful Gay Man in Hollywood?

Honestly, I'm not a huge Neil Patrick Harris fan. But it's hard not to really admire the guy.

I'll never forget the night I saw Neil Patrick Harris blush. It was 2000, and I was an editor at Teen People magazine. Sebastian Bach's publicist had invited a couple of my colleagues and me to see the Skid Row frontman in the Broadway musical Jekyll and Hyde, and we'd jumped at the offer. Who knew we'd get two retro-celeb sightings in one night?! (Click here to read the rest of the story.)

Saturday, October 11, 2014

We Don't Have to Take Our Clothes Off!

No matter how many crunches you do, a six-pack will never be a substitute for a great smile and an even better personality.

After several years of overexposure (mostly courtesy of topless Grindr profile photos), my body's going undercover: From now on, unless I'm in the shower or just getting out of it, I'm keeping my shirt on. I'm officially hiding my upper torso away. This should be a lot easier to do since I've deleted Grindr from my phone. Now I can go back to presenting myself to the world (and being appreciated) the way God intended, fully clothed. (Click here to read the rest of the story.)

I Write the Songs… Sometimes: 10 Singer-Songwriters Whose Biggest Hits Were Covers

Oleta Adams and yours truly on the night I heard her sing "New York State of Mind" in New York City
I would like to take this opportunity to set the record straight -- the cover record, that is. I recently spent an entire blog post railing against the creative evil that is the covers album. Well, that might be overstating my objection to them. I didn't say they're evil, just lazy. And in making my case, I may have given the impression that I have a problem with remakes in general.

I won't remake my initial case, but let me restate this one: In general, I don't have a problem with remakes. On the contrary, I have great deal of respect for interpretative singing, an art that doesn't get the respect it deserves. Where would the history of music be without it? Some of the greatest performers in various genres over the years have been primarily interpretative singers. Most of the '50s -- including the king of rock & roll himself, Elvis Presley -- wouldn't have happened without them. Nor would have The Great American Songbook, Motown, Brill Building pop, Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, Leiber and Stoller, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Philly soul, disco and country music, a genre whose very foundation was laid by singers of other people's songs.

And were it not for interpretative singing, a number of excellent singer-songwriters wouldn't have scored their greatest hits, like these 10…

Joan Osborne Those who are familiar with this '90s one-hit wonder only through her lone smash (1995's No. 4 Billboard Hot 100 hit "One of Us," written by Eric Bazilian of The Hooters) and her covers of vintage R&B (most notably in the 2002 Funk Brothers documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown), might not even be aware that she's so much more than a killer voice. Over the years, I've enjoyed Osborne best rocking out on her own material, particularly "Right Hand Man," a follow-up single to "One of Us," and her 2000 album Righteous Love.

Nilsson As is the case with Osborne, those who know Harry Nilsson through his best-known work, know him all wrong. His two biggest hits as a performer -- 1969's "Everybody's Talkin'" and 1971's "Without You" -- sound like they were sung by a completely different guy than the performer of "Coconut" and "Jump Into the Fire," his own compositions from Nilsson Schmilsson, the 1971 album that contained "Without You," and the writer of "One," Three Dog Night's 1969 No. 5 hit.

Bobby Goldsboro I wonder how it makes as gifted a songwriter as Goldsboro feel that his biggest million-sellers -- 1971's "Watching Scotty Grow," and "Honey," the No. 1 Hot 100 single of 1968 -- weren't written by him. Oh, well. He saved the best, 1974's Top 20 "Summer (The First Time)," for himself, and he'll forever be the guy responsible for putting Brenda Lee on my map, via "The Cowgirl and the Dandy," a song he wrote and recorded in 1977 (as "The Cowboy and the Lady") that was the first thing I ever heard Lee sing way back in 1980 when it was climbing the country singles chart en route to becoming a Top 10 hit there.

Jim Kerr "You write the beautiful songs," his then-wife Chrissie Hynde wrote and sang in deference to him on The Pretenders' 1987 single "My Baby." Those beautiful songs didn't include Simple Minds' signature hit, "Don't You Forget About Me," but there was so much more greatness where that didn't come from. (Like, for instance, "Mandela Day, the song that was playing on a continuous loop the Friday afternoon last year when I visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg and was one-third of Simple Minds' only UK No. 1 single, via the Ballad of the Streets EP, which also featured "Belfast Child," a musical remake of an Irish folk song for which Simple Minds composed new lyrics, and a cover of Peter Gabriel's "Biko.")

Oleta Adams Like Osborne, a '90s one-hit wonder (if you don't count her appearance on Tears for Fears' 1989 Top 40 single "Woman in Chains") best known for singing someone else's song (in her case, Brenda Russell's "Get Here"), and possibly one of the finest interpretative singers by whom I've ever had the pleasure of being floored. She's also the only performer who has ever made Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind" tolerable to me. Hell, she made me love it on par with how much I used to love my former adopted hometown. If you haven't heard her version of "Evolution" (an Ivan Lins co-write) or Little Feat's "Long Distance Love," you're missing out. But if you aren't familiar with her originals (which make up roughly half of her three pop-charting albums from the '90s), you're missing out more.

Kim Carnes Like Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan (I know, random comparison), Carnes is a singing-songwriting non-one-hit wonder that most people probably don't recognize as a gifted songwriter (though, also like Franklin and Khan, she wrote a number of her own hits) because their greatest commercial successes as solo artists came with other people's songs. In Carnes' case, they were Smokey Robinson's "More Love" and Jackie DeShannon's "Bette Davis Eyes," her only solo Top 10 pop hits and, for me, the definitive versions of both songs.

Luther Vandross A gifted singer-songwriter and arranger who was known for always assuming ownership of at least pop or soul classic on every album, Vandross still enjoyed a string of self-penned R&B and pop hits during the '80s and '90s. However, despite his creative prowess, the man who was responsible for arranging the backing vocals on David Bowie's "Young Americans" and co-writing and co-producing "Jump To It," Aretha Franklin's first '80s classic, has other songwriters to thank for his biggest Hot 100 chart mark (via "Endless Love," his 1994 No. 2 duet with Mariah Carey) and one half-of his second-biggest one (the "Love Power" portion of 1991's Top 5 "Power of Love/Love Power").

Robert Plant Little-known (or remembered) fact: The former Led Zeppelin vocalist who had a hand in writing some of the most enduring hard-rock classics of the 1970s and one of the few frontmen-turned-solo acts whose work on his own actually holds up, had his biggest Hot 100 success with The Honeydrippers, whose cover of Phil Phillips's "Sea of Love" went to No. 3 in 1985. In fact, The Honeydrippers, whose other Top 40 hit, a remake of Roy Brown's "Rockin' at Midnight," was basically a pop-revivalist supergroup featuring Plant, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Nile Rodgers.

Bryan Ferry Yes, the man whose band, Roxy Music, is often credited, alongside David Bowie, as being the greatest inspiration for '80s new-wave music (frequently by the new-wave artists themselves), the guy who wrote (or co-wrote) "Virginia Plain," "Love Is the Drug," "More Than This" and "Avalon," has this in common with Plant: His biggest chart hit arrived via someone else's song. In Ferry's case, it was a Roxy Music cover of John Lennon's "Jealous Guy," a 1981 UK and Australian No. 1. (Fun fact: Ferry's 1973 solo debut These Foolish Things may have launched the modern covers album and was released two weeks before Bowie's own covers album, Pin Ups.)

Dolly Parton Last but definitely not least. The most interesting case of a singer-songwriter scoring with a cover -- covers -- Parton has been on both sides of the creative exchange, a beneficiary as solely the singer and solely the writer of a classic record. Though she's written the bulk of her own material over the years, both her first and her biggest crossover pop successes -- "Here You Come Again" and "Islands in the Stream," respectively -- were composed by others, and one song she wrote for herself and actually took to No. 1 on Billboard's country singles chart twice, "I Will Always Love You," is best known as the song that Whitney Houston turned into one of the biggest singles of the '90s. Once when I interviewed Parton, I happened to mention a few of my favorite '80s singles by her: "Starting Over Again," "But You Know I Love You," "Old Flames Can't Hold a Candle to You"... "Oh," she said with a laugh. "All songs I didn't write!" (Fun facts: "Starting Over Again" was co-written by none other than the queen of disco herself, Donna Summer, while the co-author of "Old Flames" was one Patricia Rose Sebert, aka Kesha's mom!)

Thursday, October 9, 2014

My 10 Most Memorable Moments in "Is It True What They Say About Black Men?"

They've been the best and worst of times, and they're almost over. We're less than one month away from the official November 4 release of my travelogue/memoir Is It True What They Say About Black Men?: Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World (currently on pre-sale at Amazon) and the end of an eight-year journey. Now that my work is done and the book is being sent out into the world, I can finally reflect, from a comfortable distance, on how I got here.

The most difficult part of the three years I spent writing the book was reliving some of the experiences in it over and over and over until I got the wording just right. Sometimes it felt like picking at a scab until it multiplied into a series of fresh wounds that would heal overnight only to be reopened the next day. Other times it was nice to recall details I'd completely forgotten, some of which were funnier than they were when the stories happened. It wasn't all pain, no gain -- not by a long shot. I'm a gallows humor kind of guy. I live to laugh through tears.

Here are 10 high/low lights from the near-decade covered in Is It True What They Say About Black Men? To partially quote Morrissey (in "Break Up the Family," from Viva Hate), they will forever stay emblazoned on my mind.

1. The morning I came home and found a threesome in my Buenos Aires apartment. Alas, they were burglars, fully clothed and brandishing a deadly screwdriver!

2. The night my boyfriend sprung a life-changing and life-threatening secret on me.

3. The five hours I spent in a Buenos Aires jail.

4. The day after I lost 24 hours following a drugging in Rio.

5. The morning a one-night stand was removed from my apartment in handcuffs by the BAPD after threatening to kill me.

6. A word in Spanish. Actually, several of them, and one in English (the N-word) after a suitor went from wanting me to wanting me on a cotton plantation in the space of one rejection.

7. The night I met the future love of my life when he was out with his girlfriend.

8. The night I was touched inappropriately by a masseuse in Bangkok.

9. The 10-hour Bangkok-to-Melbourne Jetstar flight I spent seated next to a man who I didn't know was blind until after we landed in Australia.

10. The afternoon at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg when by the House of Bondage exhibit I sat down and wept. It was almost like a Tracey Thorn song...

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

It's All About Me: 15 Songs By Artists Who Namecheck Themselves

You're nobody until your name has made it into a song -- even if it's one of your own! After all, if you're going to name-drop anyone, it might as well be you. Rappers (and super-producer Rodney Jerkins) refer to themselves all the time, but apparently, people who sing are a more modest bunch, less likely to call their own name. That didn't stop me from finding 15 who did it anyway.

"My Home's in Alabama" Alabama (1980)
Self-referential lyric: "My home's in Alabama, southern born and southern bred"

"In a Big Country" Big Country (1983)
Self-referential lyric: "In a big country, dreams stay with you, like a lover's voice fires the mountainside"

"We Are the Jonzun Crew" The Jonzun Crew (1983)
Self-referential lyric: "Who are we? The Jonzun Crew!"

"Freak-A-zoid" Midnight Star (1983)
Self-referential lyric: "We are Midnight Star. We're gonna show you how to do it, yes, we are"

"Bruce" Rick Springfield (1984)
Self-referential lyric: "My name is Rick, I'm gonna stick it to you, babe"

"Everybody Have Fun Tonight" Wang Chung (1986)
Self-referential lyric: Everybody wang chung tonight"

"Nasty" Janet Jackson (1986)
Self-referential lyric: "No, my first name ain't baby. It's Janet. Miss Jackson, if you're nasty"

"Love Overboard" Gladys Knight and the Pips (1987)
Self-referential lyric: They tell me, Gladys, you know you love too hard"

"Living in a Box" Living in a Box (1987)
Self-referential lyric: "Am I living in a box? Am I living in a cardboard box?"

"Joyride" Roxette (1991)
Self-referential lyric: "Roxette!"

"My Name Is Prince" Prince (1992)
Self-referential lyric: "My name is Prince, and I am funky"

"Come When You Call" Oleta Adams (1993)
Self-referential lyric: "Say 'Oleta, baby. Well, I need you, baby'"

"Robyn Is Here" Robyn (1997)
Self-referential lyric: "Robyn is here. Gotta let you know"

"Fergalicious" Fergie (2006)
Self-referential lyric: "I'm the F to the E, R, G, the I, the E"

"S.A.M.S.P.A.R.R.O." Sam Sparro (2008)
Self-referential lyric: "My name is S.A.M.S.P.A. double R.O. jazam"

Monday, October 6, 2014

Is It Healthy to Keep Dipping Into the Same Dating Pool: In Defense of Rayna + Luke on "Nashville"

Some girls have all the luck, even if they're unlikely to count their blessings as blessings. Rayna James, for one, probably didn't consider her love life to be particularly charmed at the end of Nashville's second season. Who needs the drama of getting a pair of unexpected marriage proposals -- both in one night? Oh, the turmoil of being torn between two handsome, talented suitors!

She wasn't torn for long. During Nashville's September 24 season-three premiere, the country superstar made a move that was a lot smarter than launching her own record label in this era of diminishing album sales. She let go of the stone that had been weighing her down: her past -- namely, an ex named Deacon Claybourne, would-be fiancé No. 2. That's something people on daytime soaps rarely do for good (see "Villy" on The Young and the Restless, "EJami" on Days of Our Lives, "CarSon" on General Hospital, etc.). But while I'm not convinced that Deacon is completely out of Rayna's picture, I applaud her for at least trying to put away their broken frame.

I have to admit, I wasn't previously a big fan of Luke Wheeler -- Rayna's choice…for now -- and I'm still not. He's uncomplicated, and he's got sexy swagger, but he's a little too smooth, a textbook cowboy. I'm also wary of hot tempers (one of the reasons why I'm not loving Abigail with Ben on Days, although he's her sanctimonious equal), even when the exploding guy is otherwise charming and easygoing.

Luke scored with me, however, when, unlike Deacon, he gave Rayna time and space and didn't pressure her into choosing his marriage proposal over Deacon's. Good move, one that clearly wasn't lost on Rayna. When she let Deacon down gently by citing the "clean slate" she has with Luke, she made a lot of sense. For those crying "They're soul mates!" and "He's changed!" in defense of Rayna + Deacon, let us not forget that his alcoholic relapse as recently as the end of the first season nearly caused Rayna her career and her life.

The threat of relapse will forever be a dark cloud hovering over them, and I'd much rather live under mostly sunny skies. There's nothing like shared romantic history and a teenage daughter to keep you in an ex's orbit, but sometimes love is better -- and safer -- the first time around, when it's still baggage free. (I wouldn't have minded seeing first-time sparks fly between Deacon and Rayna's exiting sister Tandy because it would have made for some juicy sibling rivalry and given the shamefully underused Judith Hoag something better to do.)

Deacon's niece Scarlett O'Connor seems to have inherited his knack for romantic repetition. Loving Avery Barkley was easier the second time around last season, but it didn't last long, due to lack of spark. We all know that's as good as the kiss of death in serial dramas. Turbulence makes the world turn. Stability is as boring as a good guy. Take Daniel Grayson over on Nashville's fellow ABC nighttime soap Revenge. Neither he nor his scenes with Emily Thorne (nee Amanda Clarke) were ever more interesting than they were after he shot her in the stomach on their wedding night. Of course, that was after their dreaded second courtship.

I'd like to say it's over for good between them -- How do you come back from firing the bullet that renders your now-ex-wife unable to bear children? -- but we know how soaps work. Sami once shot EJ in the head on Days, and they still have a shot at happily ever after.

But getting back to Scarlett's fever (a love hangover that I wish was caused by record producer Liam McGuinnis, who brought to Nashville what it needs most: a sexy bad boy with a heart of slightly tarnished gold), I don't think things have cooled completely between her and Avery, judging from how he still looks at her. It's the same way her other ex, Gunnar Scott, gazes at her, all awe and admiration, despite his now-semi-long-distance relationship with Zoe Dalton. He even got hard-headed Scarlett to stick around Nashville.

Despite all the chemistry in that quad, the "Will they or won't they -- again?" angle has gotten mouldy. Rayna and Juliette Barnes make a far more interesting pair than any configuration of Avery/Scarlett/Gunnar/Zoe, and Nashville did begin as a rivalry between the country queen and the rising princess. That, sadly, has been backburnered. Now they're more occasional frenemies, a sometime Sami and Kate on Days, with less scheming.

Their relationship has as many fascinating layers as any of their romantic entanglements, and it's a shame that they have yet to share a single scene this season. In the absence of Rayna, I'd rather watch Juliette's inner life unfold than her love life. I've convinced myself that her slow unspooling as she cried all over "Crazy" while auditioning to play Patsy Cline was about more than Avery. Redemptive you-make-me-want-to-be-a-better-person romance -- like the one she shared with Avery, her ex and possible baby daddy -- is a snoozefest. True love means accepting someone as is, a dynamic that's sometimes easier to find with someone new.

I don't want Juliette back with Avery any more than I wish him on Scarlett, who is probably the Nashville character I care about most. That's as much for her moral compass as for that steely magnolia thing Bowen brings to the character. I once read an interview with Brokeback Mountain director Ang Lee in which he described one of his stars, Michelle Williams, as having a sympathetic quality that makes you want to see her be OK. That's how I feel about Scarlett. For me, she is to Nashville what Sharon Newman is to Y&R, what Elizabeth Webber is to GH, what the writers want Abigail Deveraux to be to Days. Thus far, Abigail is the only one who is trying out the Rayna road to happiness, while the days of the others' lives continue to revolve around their exes.

Unlike prime-time and daytime heroines, I've never been able to share much of a storyline with any of mine, though I've tried at least twice. (Luke Spencer was right: People don't change; they just get older.) I'm not saying that reunions can't click, but try and try again becomes less likely to succeed with each failed attempt, as GH's Lucky Spencer eventually learned. How do you think he ended up as Avery on Nashville?

Sunday, October 5, 2014

10 Reasons Why 1983 May Have Been the Best Year in '80s Music

1. Musically speaking, 1984 hasn't aged so well. I used to think the '80s were all about 1984. Hell, both Eurythmics and Tina Turner recorded songs about it -- "Sexcrime (Nineteen Eighty-Four)" and the David Bowie-penned "1984," respectively -- and Van Halen named its multi-platinum No. 2 album for the year that also provided the title of George Orwell's classic 1949 novel. But after listening to two old Casey Kasem American Top 40 countdowns from 1984 (for the weeks ending April 28 and October 6) and one from 1983 (for the week ending May 7, aka my 14th birthday), I'm singing totally different tunes. So many of the top ones from 1984 (from Lionel Richie's "Hello" to Ray Parker Jr.'s "Ghostbusters" to Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You" to Wham!'s "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go"), despite at least two of them (the first and third) being songs I used to love to sing and listen to over and over, now sound almost like parodies of bad '80s music. And don't even get me started on Rick Springfield's "Bop 'Til You Drop"!

2. Most of the Footloose soundtrack hasn't held up either. As music from movies about dancing that spawned a pair of No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 singles go, I'd so much rather listen to Shandi's "He's a Dream," Donna Summer's "Romeo" and Joe Esposito's "Lady, Lady, Lady" while not skipping over Irene Cara's "Flashdance…What a Feeling" and Michael Sembello's "Maniac" on 1983's Flashdance soundtrack. Meanwhile, does anyone really ever again want to hear Kenny Loggins' "Footloose" or Deniece Williams' "Let's Hear It for the Boy"?

3. It was one of the best years for best new artists since 1964! And I'm not talking about the Best New Artist Grammy nominees, which, truth be told, Eurythmics and the winning Culture Club aside, were hardly staples of the decade. But despite Grammy's lack of foresight in also nominating Big Country, Men Without Hats and Musical Youth for the honor, many other definitive and not-so-definitive acts of '80s music -- Cyndi Lauper! Def Leppard! Duran Duran! The Fixx! INXS! Madonna! Naked Eyes! Night Ranger! R.E.M.! Tears for Fears! Thompson Twins! -- scored their first key Hot 100 hits in 1983, arguably the pivotal year of the second British invasion. So did Bryan Adams and Spandau Ballet, though both were three albums into their runs. And let's not forget that a still-newish Yazoo also released the best of its two albums -- You and Me Both -- in 1983!

4. It was a Thriller year. Although "The Girl Is Mine," the first single from the biggest album of all-time, arrived near the end of 1982, "Billie Jean," "Beat It," "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," "Human Nature" and "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)" all made their chart marks in 1983.

5. Prince became a pop star. And he did it with his first Top 10 Billboard Hot 100 hit, "Little Red Corvette," from an album whose title was set 16 years in the future. Although Purple Rain would send Prince into the stratosphere the next year, making him, for a while, second only to Michael Jackson in terms of chart success, songs for song, 1999, which was actually released at the end of 1982 but didn't make it big until 1983, might be the more ambitious, and -- Dare I say it? -- better album.

6. David Bowie put on his red shoes and danced the blues. If he hadn't shown us his pop-soul moves in 1983, Bowie might still be best known in the U.S. as that weirdo who had a couple of cool hits in the '70s. Let's Dance and its singles finally made the UK superstar an American idol, too.

7. Tina Turner's comeback of the century commenced. Although it was one of 1984's main events, it actually started in November of the previous year with "Let's Stay Together," a remake of an Al Green classic that I never cared about until Tina had her way with it. I adore Al Green and his entire string of early '70s hits, except for the only one to top the pop singles chart. But Tina's "Let's Stay Together" producers, Heaven 17's Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, bathed her remake in such a soft, warm, gauzy glow that it made me a true believer in the power of her love. While it may have stalled at No. 26 on the Hot 100, "Let's Stay Together" restored commercial faith in Ike Turner's previously forgotten former better half. Private Dancer (the first full-length album I ever bought) might not have happened the following year without it.

8. Even the one-hit wonders' hits kicked ass. I'd take Dexys Midnight Runners' "Come On Eileen," Thomas Dolby's "She Blinded Me with Science," Taco's "Puttin' on the Ritz," After The Fire's "Der Kommissar," Kajagoogoo's "Too Shy" and Frank Stallone's "Far from Over" over Rockwell's "Somebody's Watching Me" and Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" any day of any decade.

9. It gave us one final ABBA chart fix. Two years after the group's final studio album, it came courtesy of the only solo Top 40 hits from the ladies who put the As in ABBA: Agnetha Faltskog's "Can't Shake Loose" and Anni-Frid's "I Know There's Something Going On" (credited to Frida). And how's this for a neat coincidence? Both were written by Russ Ballard, former Argent vocalist (that's him singing the band's 1972 Top 5 single "Hold Your Head Up") and author of such '70s hits as Three Dog Night's "Liar" (first recorded by Argent) and Hot Chocolate's "So You Win Again." Honorable mention for another great 1983 solo single that sounded nothing like a performer's work with his former band: then-ex-Doobie Brother Patrick "Black Water" Simmons' "So Wrong," a No. 30 Hot 100 hit in May on which he almost could have passed for Michael McDonald.

10. Pop would soon lose its twang, but first, '80s crossover country made its final Top 40 stand. Before The Judds and Randy Travis, among others, ushered in Nashville's mid-to-late-'80s neo-traditional movement, crossover country scored one last time with Kenny Rogers and Sheena Easton's "We've Got Tonight," Ronnie Milsap's "Stranger in My House," Alabama's "The Closer You Get" and Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton's pop-and-country-chart-topping "Islands in the Stream." Ah-ha indeed.

9 Previously Unmentioned Acts That Achieved Their Hot 100 Chart Highs with 1983 Hits That Still Sound Great Today
Bonnie Tyler "Total Eclipse of the Heart"
Champaign "Try Again"
Eddie Grant "Electric Avenue"
Golden Earring "Twilight Zone"
The Greg Kihn Band "Jeopardy"
The Kinks "Come Dancing"
Madness "Our House"
Pat Benatar "Love Is a Battlefield"
The Tubes "She's a Beauty"

6 Things Westerners Get Wrong About Africa

Teach your children well. It's so much more than "the place with all the animals."

Misconception No. 1: The ties that bind the countries in Africa are more than geographic.

This is not "America." Africa is as much a collection of very separate and distinct individual countries that happen to share a continuous expanse of land as Europe is  --  more so, since you need a passport, a visa, and a currency exchange to travel from one country to the next. There's no cultural or even ethnic norm. When we use the demonym "African," we're being as vague as when we describe someone or something as "Asian." (Read the rest of the story on Medium.)

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Deal Breaker No. 1: Why I'll Never Again Date a Guy Who's in the Closet

I wouldn't have missed it for the world, but I'll certainly never do that again.

I'll never forget the year when "discreet" became a dirty word. It started when I fell in love with a boy who had to sneak out of his house to see me. I say "boy" not because we were teenagers breaking curfew. Shane* and I were grown men, consenting adults who had been seeing each other for several months. We had everything: chemistry, passion, heat. But only when we got behind closed doors. (Click here to read the rest of the story.)