Sunday, March 31, 2013

Oh Brothers, Where Art Thou?: Siblings in Hollywood

The other day, my friend Nancy made an interesting request: "I'd like to get your take on cinematic sibling relationships -- who's convincing and who's not." What followed was several days of emails in which we explored Hollywood's representation of brothers and sisters, past and present.

Over the course of our siblings revelry, I made a few surprising discoveries. The first one was personal: When Nancy introduced the topic of celluloid brothers and sisters, the one that immediately came to mind was You Can Count on Me. Really? Is the 2000 drama that made Laura Linney Oscar bait and launched countless Mark Ruffalo fantasies (many of them mine) actually the quintessential film for me about sibling relationships? I suppose that it is. When I think of people with the same parents being depicted onscreen, it's always the first movie that comes to mind.

It's a curious realization because the brother-sister dynamic is not one in which I'm naturally emotionally invested nor one that I'm particularly drawn to in story (unless there's a hint or more of incestuousness a la The Cement Garden and The Dreamers). In my own life, my relationships with my two older brothers growing up shaped me as a person more than the one I had with my big sister. I saw my brothers somewhat as alternate versions of myself (and to some degree, still do), what I could or couldn't be, while my sister, whom I didn't love any less, was a completely separate entity in my eyes. I couldn't relate to her in the same way.

Based on what I've seen and experienced in real life -- including observing several boyfriends who had particularly powerful bonds with their sisters -- brother/sister relationships just don't have the inherent drama and complexity of brother/brother and sister/sister ones. There may be a sweet, touching protective element to them (think Richie Cunningham rushing to Joanie's rescue -- with Fonzie in tow, natch! -- on the Happy Days episode in which her date was being bullied by a tough-talking thug), but there's rarely the same competitive spirit that often drives relationships between siblings of the same gender.

When it comes to the sister-sister bond/divide, Hollywood has tackled the topic with gusto over the years and done a pretty good job in the process. Great films like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Interiors, Hannah and Her Sisters, Georgia, Hilary and Jackie, Rachel Getting Married and Melancholia all approach biological sisterhood from different angles, as do okay ones like Little Women and Marvin's Room, not-so-good ones like Hanging Up and In Her Shoes, and ones I've yet to watch, like Margot at the Wedding, The Other Boleyn Girl and My Sister's Keeper. They're enemies and best friends, confidants and competition, essential to each other's well being and hazardous to each other's mental health.

Indeed, one of Hollywood's all-time great sibling rivalries is the decades-long one between Oscar-winning sisters Olivia DeHavilland and Joan Fontaine. It's a far more compelling story than anything I've read on the Baldwin brothers, or the Bridges, or the Fiennes, or the Coens, Farrellys and Wachowskis. (Bring on those movies about the Marx Brothers, or Cain and Abel, ironically, possibly the most famous sibling pair of all!)

The second thing that surprised me during my email discussion with Nancy was how many more movies I was able to think of that feature sisters as the central characters than ones with brothers in the middle, and how much more quickly they came to mind. Since introducing The Godfather's Corleones, perhaps the ultimate Hollywood representation of brotherhood, rather than offering more of the same (brothers in arms, armed), cinema has placed its dramatic familial emphasis on sisters.

Hollywood continues to thrive on buddy movies, as Nancy mentioned, to the point that an alien studying film to learn about human gender dynamics might assume (perhaps correctly) that the strongest connection between men come from comedy and adventure. Indeed, when I did a Google search for brothers in film, I came across several Top 10 lists that were dominated by comedic siblings like the ones in Twins, Trading Places, Strange Brew, Step Brothers and The Blues Brothers.

When I started thinking about cinematic brothers, the first ones that came to mind -- those in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Sabrina, East of Eden, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Legends of the Fall, Dan in Real Life, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, and, of course, Brothers (the 2009 remake of the 2004 Danish film Brødre, starring Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and a pre-Oscar Natalie Portman) -- often seemed to have a woman/women at the center, or threatening to come between them. It's like filmmakers think brothers are most interesting when one of them is obsessing over a woman or coveting thy brother's wife.

Nancy, who is working on a creative project about brothers not based on personal experience (her lone sibling is a sister), made the excellent point that TV has always gotten the brother relationship better than film, citing Ray and Robert Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond, Frasier and Niles Crane on Frasier, and the brothers played by Nick Nolte and Peter Strauss in the '70s miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man. I'd add the Waters on the '80s Showtime series Brothers, the Harpers on Two and a Half Men (sorry, I was a fan of its Charlie Sheen years, and the sitcom feels pointless without Charlie and Alan at its center), and the Buchanans on One Life to Live to that list.

"There are so many other things to fight over, like money or ethics," Nancy wrote. "This is why I think television shows got it better. J.R. and Bobby [on Dallas] fought over power, and winning daddy's respect. Even the Hardy boys didn't fight over women. It was about protecting and supporting each other." True. Just last night I was watching the most recent episode of Nashville, thinking that Gunnar and his ex-con brother had all the ingredients of an intriguing sibling duo, with elements of jealousy, guilt, regret, resentment and a little bit of hero worship, without the brother ever once making a pass at Scarlett. It's a shame he was killed off before things had a chance to fully develop, though we did get one telling explosive argument.

Personally, I find brothers far more interesting when they're fighting, which might be why I wasn't so crazy about The Fighter. Micky and Dicky (played, respectively, by Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale) fought more with others than with each other. There was the obligatory conflict between them (Micky's gratitude and guilt, Dicky's sense of entitlement), but it felt half-cooked in the movie. There should have been more fiery intensity between them. Confrontation is the foundation for iconic screen siblings. But I remember Bale's and Melissa Leo's Oscar-winning performances more than anything that happened between Micky and Dicky. On the plus side, at least they weren't fighting over Amy Adams!

Perhaps this is stereotypical thinking on my part from too many years spent watching daytime soaps, but aren't women more likely to fight over a man than men are to go to war over a woman, no matter what the Greek myth about Helen of Troy and the Trojan War tells us? Speaking of Troy, there's another film (2004's Troy) featuring actors above the title playing brothers (Eric Bana as Hector and Orlando Bloom as Paris), with a woman (Diane Kruger as Helen) in the mix, though not coming between them. But anyone well versed in Greek mythology who has read the Illiad, the Homer classic on which Troy is based, knows that the homoerotic bromance between Achilles and Patroclus is far more interesting than the brotherly bond between Hector and Paris.

Just when I was about to give up on finding a great recent dramatic presentation of screen brothers unburdened by a female interloper, I remembered a movie that was one of my favorite films of 2011: Warrior, whose brother-brother relationship contained echoes of the one in The Fighter, only far messier. Warrior was as much about the brotherly love/hate between Tom Hardy's and Joel Edgerton's characters (younger brother Tommy and big brother Brendan, respectively) as it was about Tommy's relationship with their dad, played by a deservedly Oscar-nominated Nick Nolte.

As touching as the father-son story arc was, the classic older brother vs. younger brother rivalry was the truly moving one. It resisted all of those perfect-brother/fuck-up brother cliches and presented two flawed guys who each had to battle their own personal demons. When I watched Warrior, it was hard for me to take sides because both brothers were right and wrong (I did find myself rooting for Brendan during their climactic bout, but mostly because he needed the money more), which is so often how familial conflict plays out in real life.

And best of all, when they got into the ring, figuratively and literally, it was never about a girl. If Tommy and Brendan aren't going to inspire Hollywood to do brothers better, I hope it inspires Nancy to write a great story.

Friday, March 29, 2013

9 Random Thoughts I Had The Day After My First 7 Days of Listening to David Bowie's "The Next Day"

1. Considering how long I waited for the gift of new music from David Bowie (10 years, like everybody else), I'm not completely sure why it took me two weeks to finally unwrap the musical contents of The Next Day, which was officially released on March 8 in Australia (and four days later in the U.S.). Perhaps I was wary of being disappointed by an opus so long awaited that I had built up unreasonable expectations, and I wanted to let some of the hoopla surrounding it die down, so I waited until it sold 85,000 copies in its first week of release in the U.S., immediately becoming Bowie's highest-charting album ever there (at No. 2, behind Bon Jovi's What About Now, an album I didn't even know had been released on the same day until the band performed on American Idol on March 14). Since debuting in the runner-up spot one week ago, The Next Day has dominated my personal playlist, and I don't expect it to make room for much else at least until the Easter Bunny hops out of our lives once more.

2. I concur with the rapturous reviews that have greeted The Next Day. It's tight and concise (two things that put it in stark contrast to Justin Timberlake's The 20/20 Experience, 2013's other major release so far), an incredibly easy and engrossing listen. "Where Are We Now?," the album's elegiac first single, had me expecting a far more somber and difficult record, which makes the accessibility of The Next Day such a pleasant surprise. I wonder how we all would have reacted to it had it come out in 2005, two years after Bowie's previous album, Reality. Would we have regarded it as just another impressive release in a third-act album cycle (in my mind, 1999's Hours..., 2002's Heathen and 2003's Reality sometimes blend into one) instead of a stand-alone near-masterpiece and musical double whammy, a career renaissance and capper in one?

3. Context is everything with The Next Day. You can't listen to it and not think about Bowie's brush with mortality in 2004 (a post-concert heart attack followed by surgery to clear an acutely blocked artery), that he's been on sabbatical from recording for such a long time, or that most of us thought we'd never again hear new music from him. Bowie's voice has taken on an age-appropriate weary knowingness, which lends The Next Day a certain stately quality. The title track kicks off the album on a swinging upbeat note -- and for the most part, The Next Day stays in that aural realm -- but there's a distinct melancholy there as well as a sense of urgency, perhaps because given Bowie's age (66), his decade-ago health crisis, and the fact that it took us so long to get here, we're more aware than ever that for Bowie, and for all of us indeed, The Next Day could very well be the last one.

4. The fact that Bowie has been pretty much off the radar during The Next Day's entire promotional campaign (no big interviews, no Idol gig, no sit downs with Oprah or Ellen) keeps the album fresher longer. Not having had to read article after article in which he dissected the songs or his state of mind while he was writing and recording them gives the project a darker, mysterious edge, enhancing the tension and the spark of the jittery "Love Is Lost," shading a fairly straightforward rocker like "Valentine's Day" with layers of ambiguity, and compounding the abstract mystique of "Where Are We Now?" and the funereal album-closing "Heat."

5. Of all Bowie's previous albums, The Next Day might be closer in spirit to 1993's Black Tie White Noise, which, interestingly, was his last album to hit No. 1 in the UK before The Next Day debuted there. Like Black Tie White Noise, The Next Day belongs to no specific Bowie period. It's like a lone island off to the side, facing a cluster of archipelagos. There are hints of '70s Bowie classicism without that era's grand groundbreaking, the sturdy pop songcraft of '80s Bowie, a dash of the adventurous spirit that was re-ignited on mid-'90s albums like Outside and Earthling without any of that period's overt experimentation. "Where Are We Now?" recalls his late '80s work with Tin Machine -- which Bowie once told me was the first album on which he returned to making music for the love of the game after nearly a decade of doing it for the money -- but between 1967 (the year he released his eponymous debut) and 2003, he couldn't have delivered lines like "Here I am, not quite dying/My body left to rot in a hollow tree" (on "The Next Day") and "When the sun goes down and the die is cast" (on "Dirty Boys") and packed them so full of subtext by merely singing them.

6. The considerable contribution of producer Tony Visconti to the Bowie oeuvre should never be overlooked or underplayed, though it often has been. He produced many of Bowie's greatest works -- including his late-'70s Berlin trilogy but not his '80s commercial triumphs, nor his mid-'90s forays into electronica and drum 'n' bass -- and The Next Day is the sound of two old cohorts with nothing left to prove, giving them the confidence and creative license to make an almost defiantly commercial and unpretentious David Bowie album. When I'm done obsessing over The Next Day, I'm going to revisit T. Rex's Electric Warrior and Morrissey's Ringleader of the Tormentors, both Visconti-produced and brilliant because of it.

7. "The Stars Are Out Tonight," the album's second single which comes complete with a "hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo" vocal refrain (later, he "ya ya ya ya's" on "How Does the Grass Grow?"!), touches on the symbiotic relationship between celebrity and fandom while name-dropping Brigitte (Bardot?), Jack (Nicholson?), Kate (Middleton?) and Brad (Pitt?). Bowie sings it with the urgency and awe of the truly starstruck while twinkling as brightly as anything in that celebrity galaxy he's describing. He's one of them and one of us.

8. Three mid-album songs, in particular, reassert Bowie's musical force of nature and establishes his contemporary cachet. "If You Can See Me" with its assault of guitars, foreboding bass line and percussion that sounds like it's tripping over itself (an echo of the drum 'n' bass experimentation that was Earthling), revisits 1997 without abandoning 2013. Bowie, all frantic hysteria, can still rock. On the horn-tinged "Boss of Me," the most conventionally pop song on The Next Day, he proves that approaching 70, he can still be sexy as hell, and on "Dancing Out in Space" he's still got the moves, too, even if those red shoes were retired ages ago. I'd love to see what a contemporary remixer (paging Calvin Harris -- or better yet, Stuart Price, aka "Thin White Duke," too!) would do with that one.

9. Tony Visconti has said that 29 tracks were recorded for The Next Day, and some of them may end up on a follow-up album. If the Deluxe-edition bonus tracks "So She" and "Plan" -- moodier and more esoteric than the proper album and both under three minutes long -- are any indication of what might be to come, the day after The Next Day should be a very good one indeed.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Should I Punch You for Calling Me "Faggot"?

"I like to fight."

I know a guy who actually said that to me once after regaling me with tales (hopefully, all tall) of his various vicious brawls in and out of barrooms. I cringed on the inside while resolving to try to stay on his good side.

I wouldn't go so far as to say, "I'm a lover not a fighter" (quoting Michael Jackson, may he rest in peace, is probably evidence that you're neither), but I'm all for real-life people settling their differences without resorting to catfighting. Brain over brawn. Isn't that what any brilliant person would say?

What I'm not saying is that I've never slipped up and let my fists -- or feet -- do the talking for me. Several years ago, one swift kick was all it took for me to be "detained" for five hours by the Buenos Aires police. Generally speaking, though, unless I'm physically provoked or threatened, I'm inclined to turn the other cheek. That's figuratively speaking, of course. Hit me in the face, and you're getting it right back, with interest.

Given my basic disposition to non-violence, it should come as no surprise that I've never reacted physically to name calling. I've been called a "faggot" and a "nigger" countless times over the course of my lifetime but not once has a punch ever been thrown because of it. It's not so much that sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. It's this: I can't be bothered to expend precious energy on anyone with such a poor vocabulary. I leave them with their hate.

All that said, I couldn't help but cheer on Days of Our Lives character of Sonny Kiriakis last week when he punched jailbird homophobe Nick Fallon for calling him "faggot." Fallon has racked up so many offenses over the last few months that he's had it coming. I'm pretty amazed that it actually took him this long to finally utter the F word.

Part of me wishes someone other than Sonny (like his boyfriend Will Horton, who happens to be Nick's cousin) would have delivered the punch, though. It's the second time during his Days stint that Sonny has slugged someone for introducing homophobic content into the conversation, and I don't want him to become known as the hot-headed gay guy who reacts with his fists. Or the one whose life revolves around justice for gay people. There should be more to him than his sexuality. I don't like the message that those fast and furious fisticuffs send out. (On the plus side, at least Sonny didn't slap Nick.)

I'm not quite sure, though, what message Days wants to send out. There's been so much God talk on the show recently (initially Nick justified his stance against gays by citing His holy word), and Jennifer Rose Horton Devereaux (played by Melissa Reeves, the controversial Chick-fil-A loyalist) remains heavily featured in story. Then at the end of Sonny vs. Nick, the latter's Jesus Christ pose -- arms held out like he'd been carrying a load -- seemed like a very telling directorial (or acting) choice.

Was it a bit of irony -- usually we think of the gay person as the persecuted party -- or are we supposed to think of Nick, the guy who doesn't want to his "gay boy" cousin to be a father to his own daughter because Nick thinks gay people shouldn't be parents, as the poor, put-upon heterosexual? It must be so tough being married to the girl who is pregnant by your gay cousin. All he wants to do is keep his stepdaughter-to-be safe from the evil gay world.

I'm not buying that, and I hope viewers aren't either. In fact, despite my non-violent inclination, I'm hoping that Nick gets it on the other cheek soon, though preferably from someone other than Sonny. Kudos to Blake Berris, who plays Nick, for creating a realistic hateful character, who despite his despicable deeds, is not 100 percent monster. When he starts justifying his actions, he actually doesn't sound completely unreasonable, which makes the character all the more maddening. There's nothing worse than a lunatic who doesn't sound crazy.

I remain staunchly anti-violence in my reaction to homophobes, but if Nick ever sees me walking down the street, he'd better run in the opposite direction.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Will My Love for Buenos Aires Bloom Again Now That I'm Going Back?

I'll never forget the day I fell for Buenos Aires. Although we already had been getting along splendidly, it hadn't been exactly love at first sight upon my arrival there. What we were having before that crucial epiphanic moment was the perfect one-holiday stand that didn't necessarily need to go any further than what it was. I was in like for sure, but what I felt was well short of that all-consuming love that sometimes leads to packing up and relocating.

Then on that Sunday afternoon in May of 2005, one week after my first arrival in BA and the day before my first departure, everything changed. I was walking aimlessly through the Sunday market on la calle Defensa in San Telmo with Brad, a 25-year-old tourist from San Francisco whom I'd met the previous Wednesday at a bar called Sitges. Suddenly, I was overcome by a holy trinity: Brad's excellent company, the afterglow of our perfect Saturday hanging out together in BA (sightseeing, a tango-show dinner, dancing at Glam -- another holy trinity, all 100 percent platonic), and the gorgeous French-style architecture on Defensa. I felt like a pipe had burst inside of me, and I was overflowing with love -- for the city and for everything/everyone in it.

By the time I boarded my direct flight back to New York City the following evening, I was thoroughly obsessed. I'd be back, and it couldn't be soon enough. It was the beginning of an obsession unlike any other I'd felt for any other city, even London, since New York City circa 1991 to 1995. Nearly eight years later, it's still hard to explain, but I was certain I had lingered in BA in another lifetime, and I belonged there in this one. From then on, for the next few years, I resented anything that took me away from Buenos Aires. (Damn, my career in New York City!)

Two visits later, I bought an apartment in BA, and by the next visit, my fourth, I was there to stay -- for six months. I ended up sticking around four years longer, which may have been two years too long.

By the time I left Buenos Aires at the beginning of March 2011, I'd come to regard it the way I often look back on high school and college -- with a certain wistfulness for the good times (yes, there were definitely a lot of those) but also with a considerable amount of anxiety (PTSD?). I've been out of classrooms for 22 years, yet I still regularly dream that I'm taking an exam I haven't studied for, only to wake up relieved that those school days are long gone. Sometimes during my first year out of BA, I'd wake up in my sixth-floor apartment in Palermo Hollywood, terrified and confused. How did I end up back there? Then I'd wake up for real, in Melbourne or in Bangkok, thankful that BA, like those end-of-semester finals, was behind me.

Only it wasn't. I own an apartment in BA that's left me tied to the city. It's actually a large part of what went wrong with BA and me, and not just because it was robbed twice -- once when I was living in it and a second time 14 months after I left. If only BA and I had kept it light (no strings, no property ownership), then perhaps we might have made a cleaner break, to use a dreaded dating cliche. They say never mix love and money, don't go into business with someone you love. That warning would certainly apply to BA.

Expats beware: Buenos Aires is made for porteños (Argentine locals) and short-term visitors. Anyone from another South American country (say, Bolivia or Peru) who spends a significant amount of time in BA would understand why the former holds true. As for the latter, tourists can enjoy the beautiful, eccentric Argentines without getting too involved. They don't even have to worry about learning the language, which opens a Pandora's box of local defects (many of which I've documented right here in posts on this blog). Even Argentines from outside of BA have misgivings about the city's native populace. Last year in Bangkok I dated a guy from Salta who reprimanded me every time I said "Argentines" when I should have been saying "porteños." "There's a big difference, you know," he always reminded me.

When you move to Buenos Aires and you start dating porteños and understanding them when they're speaking Spanish, you begin to discover the cracks in their beautiful armor. We all want what we can't have until we have it, but porteños have turned the thrill of the chase (and the loss of interest at the end of it) into an art form. There's even a word -- histérico -- that's used to describe those who have mastered it. This may have been only my experience and nobody else's, but I thought of porteños as highly as I now regard Thais and Australians (positively, overall, though not with blinders on that prevent me from seeing their warts and all), until I started living among them full-time.

Love has never been a bloodier battlefield for me than it was in Buenos Aires, and I truly pity the fool who must engage in those particular wars of the heart while battling the Argentine bureaucracy. It's a sluggish, unwieldy beast, and you can't appreciate its true horrors until you own an apartment there and are forced to tangle with it.

I'm not saying that owning in New York City was such a breeze. Co-op boards and astronomical maintenance fees presented their own special set of challenges, but thank God for the American emphasis on expedience, efficiency and, perhaps most importantly, punctuality. In BA, the simple act of buying a drink in a bar was a drawn-out process, a peek into the bureaucratic mindset. First you had to wait in a line to buy a drink ticket from a cashier, then you had to wait in line to order from a bartender, and once you ordered, you had to wait while three or more bartenders mixed drinks, seemingly in slow motion. Nothing was ever straightforward and concise.

I still have unsettling BA flashbacks of jumping through hoops to secure a telephone land line with Telecom and the weeks I had to wait for furniture I'd bought at Buenos Aires Design to be delivered or for a malfunctioning air-conditioning unit to be fixed. Nothing in BA ever seemed to happen quickly, and everyone was always late, if they bothered to show up at all.

Being stood up by a date is frustrating, yes, but it's nothing compared to an AC repairman who blows you off while you're sweating bullets on a sticky leather couch. Having my apartment broken into six months after moving to BA and having to deal with the police process only compounded the bureaucratic horror that I wouldn't wish on my worst BA boyfriend. I'll never forget or forgive being attacked and robbed by three burglars only to be basically told "Get over it. It happens to everyone who lives here." I could go on for hours telling stories about the three B's in BA (bureaucracy, burglaries and bad boys), but you'll have to buy my book to read them.

Ironically, it's the sale of my apartment -- the one that made my time in Buenos Aires fiscally feasible while occasionally rendering it nearly unbearable -- that will bring me back to BA in exactly three weeks and is making me hopeful about BA and me again while I'm starting to look forward to the non-living things I'm most excited about revisiting: my siestas, my Pilates classes and my ensalada de fruta. But first we need to work out some kinks. The selling process is already underscoring the unimproved BA bureaucracy in blood-red ink. Selling my NYC apartment three years ago didn't require nearly as much pomp and circumstance, and the BA sale has been underway for less than a week.

Sometimes I wonder if government workers in BA just enjoy pushing paper, or if they're punishing those lucky/unlucky enough to own property there. I also wonder if the clowns I dated in BA and the ones who ripped me off would have been easier to stomach had I been more detached from my living situation, not having to worry about tardy or no-show repairmen and bungled police investigations of home invasions in which corrupt cops were possibly involved.

Once the sale is settled, I'm hopeful that this trip will put BA and me back on good terms. For the first time in three birthdays, I'll get to spend my next one on May 7 surrounded by close friends. Meanwhile, being there as a visitor, living in someone else's space, will eliminate the need to involve myself with any bureaucratic process outside of the sale of my apartment, which, hopefully, will be well enough underway by the time I arrive not to cause too many migraines.

Despite how much I hear BA has changed due to out-of-control inflation and the threat of another major economic crisis, maybe it will be almost like old times again, back when I enjoyed the city as a traveler passing through and not as an expat trying to make sense of it and find my place there.

I'm even looking forward to those beautiful Argentine men, the ones who regularly tested my willpower, my patience, and my faith in the inherent goodness of mankind. And the best part is that since I'll be there for one month only, I won't have time to fall in love with anything but the city.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

What Justin Timberlake Could Learn from Abe Lincoln

Five years ago, Justin Timberlake and Madonna were declaring, "We only got four minutes to save the world" on their Top 5 duet "4 Minutes." The single, excellent though it may have been, hardly rescued planet pop. It was, however, 4:04 of concise simple pleasure.

Those were the days. A half decade later, time is apparently on Timberlake's side, but not in an altogether good way. Despite having the presumably jam-packed daily itinerary of a newlywed (to Jessica Biel) movie/pop star, Timberlake hardly sounds rushed on The 20/20 Experience, his just-released third solo album. He's like the charming dinner-party guest whose stories go on too long, well after everyone at the table has stopped paying undivided attention to what he's saying and have moved on to admiring his impossibly high cheekbones.

Timberlake has thrown out succinctness in favor of grand overstatement. None of the album's 10 tracks clock in at under four minutes, and only three are less than seven. It may have seemed like a risky commercial move (when it comes to pop songs, brevity sells), but whoever said pop music fans have short attention spans will have to rethink that theory. Timberlake's first studio album since 2006's FutureSex/LoveSounds, 20/20 is on track to sell upwards of 900,000 copies in the United States in the first week after its March 19 release. That's a considerable improvement on the 684,000 that its predecessor moved in its first seven days in circulation.

There's no rule that says pop songs have to be four minutes or under, but in general, they're better that way. Sometimes less really is more. In the Abraham Lincoln documentary that I recently watched, the section devoted to the Gettysburg Address praised it for its brevity, which hardly dulled its impact. On the day that Lincoln delivered it, he was preceded by Edward Everett, who gave a two-hour-long discourse on the Gettysburg battle. Lincoln followed with a 10-sentence speech that took him two minutes to complete.

"I wish I had come as close to the central meaning of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes," Everett told Lincoln afterwards. A century and a half later, along with Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech, the Gettysburg Address is perhaps the most-loved oratorical moment in American history.

Timberlake and his collaborators (most notably, Timbaland, back in the producer's chair) could learn something about economy from Lincoln. The problem with a 70-minute album full of eight-minute songs is that it never leaves you wanting more. Timberlake sounds fantastic, and Timbaland's beats are hot and sexy, but most of the songs seem to be long just for the hell of it. "Tunnel Vision," for instance, is an excellent state-of-the-art/heart groove, the closest thing on 20/20 to "Cry Me a River," but it goes on for so long that it risks losing your attention. It would make a stunning four-minute single, but at 6:46, it eventually starts wandering too aimlessly without ever arriving anywhere.

Some of the greatest songs in the rock & roll cannon -- Led Zeppelin's eight-minute "Stairway to Heaven" and Queen's six-minute "Bohemian Rhapsody," to name two -- are marathon listens. But the thing with those classics is that every second feels necessary. The songs continue to develop and evolve over the course of their extended running time. There are some great songs on 20/20 ("Strawberry Bubblegum," "Tunnel Vision," "Let the Groove Get In"), but they're buried in overlong suites that are padded with repeated lyrics and musical motiffs. Most of them feel less like journeys than going round and round in circles. Unsurprisingly, the album's shortest track, the 4:47 "That Girl," is also one of its best.

With much of the rest of 20/20, though, Timberlake seems to be confusing length with artistry. "Strawberry Bubblegum" sounds as good as it must taste, but does any ode to a candy girl, no matter how sweet, really deserve 7:59? A line like "If you'll be my strawberry bubblegum/Then I'll be your blueberry lollipop" only sounds more ridiculous a dozen times later.

There may be joy in repetition, as Prince (the icon to whom 20/20 often feels like a musical homage) once sang, but in the context of one song after another, it becomes a kind of onanistic pleasure. There's a time and place for everything, but even that gets old when you spend all day doing it. An eight-minute pop song stands out when it's surrounded by shorter ones. But too much of a good thing is just the same old song several minutes after it should have ended.

Timberlake has said there may be a second 20/20 volume coming in November. I'll believe that when I hear it. I'm still waiting for George Michael's Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 2. But I wish Timberlake had taken the best of both volumes and released it as a single album of one killer four minutes after another.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The End Is the Beginning: Thoughts on the Second Season Finale of "Girls"

Right back to where we started from It's interesting -- or on second thought, maybe the exact opposite -- that at the end of season two, all four Girls girls are pretty much where they were at the beginning of the series: Hannah is back with Adam; Marnie is together again with Charlie; Shoshanna is single; and Jessa is God knows where (which is from whence she had just returned when the show began).

But while revisiting the past need not mean complete regression, only two of our girls have moved forward in any significant way since then: Shoshanna, my overall favorite character after Charlie (the one person on the show who reminds me of actual people I've known in real life, ones with whom I'd go out of my way to spend quality time, thanks, in part, to the attractive package that is portrayer Christopher Abbott), and Jessa, my least favorite, have both evolved over the course of the first two seasons. They aren't exactly who they were when we met them.

Shoshanna is no longer a virgin. She's now had a boyfriend and an ex-boyfriend, and she's learned how to hook up just for the fun of it. Jessa is a soon-to-be divorcee who had a breakthrough moment with her father (a second season highlight), though she's still as self-involved as she was when we met her. There's a lot of that, self-involvement, going on on Girls, but I was recently told -- by a 20-year-old guy no less -- that it's just the way of twentysomethings.

Meanwhile, Marnie is safely re-ensconced in romantic convention with Charlie (apparently, with better sex, but why would she think she'd have brown babies with him?), which she will no doubt sabotage next season when she starts to overthink it again, and she decides that she wants more -- again. And Hannah? Poor Hannah. She's having some kind of breakdown which led her back to the arms -- literally -- of the guy whom she accused of being partly responsible for putting her in this mess she's in.

Nice torso, Adam, but you're not so Big! After the debacle of his sex scene with Natalia in the penultimate season-two episode, Adam redeemed himself a little with his loyalty to Hannah and his shirtless mad dash through New York City to get to her. But if writer/star Lena Dunham is trying to position him as Big to her Hannah's Carrie Bradshaw, she's way off. Big could be callous and insensitive (he was, after all, a guy), but he was never mean. I suspect he was better in bed, too. Even without the dog shit, in his finale round with Natalia, Adam's sexual proclivities still troubled me: Why do so many guys think fast and furious is preferable to nice and slow?

I'm not sure why Natalia stuck around for more after the dog shit, but at least she returned to being clear about what she wanted. Adam, though, was obviously bored with her and had already checked out of their short relationship around the time he told her to get on all fours, probably sabotaging it because he doesn't think he's good enough for a normal woman (woman, not girl). I felt a little sorry for Natalia when he reunited with Hannah in the end (she deserves to do the dumping), but she's so much better off without him -- cliched consoling words that probably never boosted the spirits of any dumpee.

Am I Jessa? Yesterday, in defense of still-MIA Jessa, my best friend told me that I'm kind of like her -- "the way you leave parties, the way you left this country..." -- and she has a point. But I would never dream of inviting her on a trip with me to see my father, abandon her there without warning, and then let the radio silence continue for weeks, without even sending a forwarding address. I'd at least update my Facebook status to let her know where I am. But then Jessa is so the type to think Facebook is beneath her. The one upside to her being such a terrible friend? The last few episodes have been so much more enjoyable without her being in them to infuriate me.

I don't mind Hannah as much as everyone else does. I believe the general consensus is that Hannah, not Jessa, is the most maddening character on Girls, but I don't find her as unlikable as everyone else seems to. Maybe it's the writer in me that can relate to some of her dilemma and her tendencies: how difficult it is to be motivated to write sometimes, how one can manipulate life for material, how it's so easy to get trapped in your own mind, turning other people into mere characters in your latest chapter.

What I don't understand is where this obsessive-compulsive disorder and mental illness came from. It seems to have arrived completely out of nowhere. My best friend suggested that it's basically Dunham angling for an Emmy later this year. I think it's a lot of that, and an easy way to get Adam back into her orbit. Those two probably belong together -- sort of like Carrie and Big on Sex and the City -- so I'm willing to go along with it. I'm actually more interested in seeing where they end up in season three than I was in seeing how Hannah got home from Coney Island at the end of last season, which was never explained, by the way.

Is that really how e-book publishing works? Is it as easy for an untested -- and as far as I know, still unpublished --- writer to "ink" a deal to produce an e-book and get a generous advance for agreeing to do it? Hannah made it seem like a cinch. James Cameron Mitchell is playing the hell out of her editor, though. I've written for people who act just like that, which makes me glad to not be doing it at the moment.

I'll take Michael Penn wherever I can get him! I don't do TV soundtracks -- no, not even any of the Glee ones that used to be released on a seemingly weekly basis -- but I might actually download the Girls soundtrack, which was released in January and features the new song by Michael Penn that appeared in the finale. The tunes that pop up in each episode are high points of the shows. If the finale felt a little anti-climactic overall, the inclusion of "Elephant" by Tame Impala was the one thing that left me wanting more. Alas, more Tame Impala, not necessarily more Girls.

The suspense isn't killing me. As much as I appreciate the ability of each Girls episode to evoke a strong reaction and encourage conversation, I just can't get into the core four the way I did/do the central quartets on Sex and the City, The Golden Girls, Desperate Housewives, Hot in Cleveland, Girlfriends, Living Single, or in Waiting to Exhale. Maybe it's because I'm too far removed from my mid-20s to relate to their growing pains (when the Charlotte York/Rose Nylund stand-in is my favorite, we've got a problem), or maybe it's because they now spend so little time together that it's easy to forget they're even friends, or maybe it's because I've got too many other TV shows to occupy my time.

Whatever the reason, I'm not exactly dying to find out what happens next, which has been my biggest problem with Girls all along. Lena Dunham can write interesting characters, realistic dialogue and the occasional brilliant scene. I just wish they were wowing me in the context of more compelling stories. Maybe that's where both she (and Hannah) can really learn something from Carrie Bradshaw (though, preferably, not a penchant for beginning sentences with "I couldn't help but wonder" and "And just like that...").

It's so not a shame about Ray. What am I hoping for next season? More Charlie, Jessa in even smaller doses, and no Ray, who has always been too ill-defined and seems to exist solely to be denigrated, which might be why he's so annoyingly snarky. (Since when does running a coffee shop indicate that one is devoid of ambition?) But even if Ray were more appealing, I would understand Shoshanna's wariness of being with someone who is only about her. If ever there was a guy who needs to disappear after the break-up, never to be heard from again, it would be Ray. But exes always come back, don't they? I just hope an unwanted pregnancy doesn't leave Shoshanna -- and us -- stuck with this one.

Monday, March 18, 2013

"Shake," "Shuffle" and Roll: Harlem's Greatest Hits

Although I seriously doubt that I'll ever be 100 percent down with the idea of Internet memes launching hit singles, and I can't begin to understand the appeal of the ones behind Baauer's "Harlem Shake," I have less against the song than a cynical pop fan like me probably should.

I wonder, though, if now that Billboard is factoring YouTube views into its chart-compiling criteria (a move made just in time for "Harlem Shake" to debut at No. 1), can crazy fans with a lot of excess time on their hands and a decent Internet connection now send their favorite songs to No. 1 -- where "Harlem Shake" has been for all four of its chart weeks -- by playing them over and over and over? I say we leave YouTube out of it since it makes the Hot 100 and Billboard's other singles charts even easier to manipulate than they already are.

Regardless of how long it ends up staying at No. 1 due to the chart power of YouTube views, "Harlem Shake" will likely never take up space on my iPod. Still, it's easier on these ears than "Gangnam Style" or either of LMFAO's 2011 novelty No. 1 hits, not to mention far less annoying than The Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta a Feeling" -- though possibly partly because I've heard it about a billion fewer times.

What I don't understand, however, is this: Why haven't there been more big hits written about or inspired by the place that gave art and literature the Harlem Renaissance, bestowed the Harlem Globetrotters upon basketball, and blessed cinema with Harlem Nights (okay, well, maybe that 1989 Eddie Murphy film wasn't such blessing)? It certainly deserves something with a bit more content and gravitas than "Harlem Shake" to finally represent it atop Billboard's Hot 100 -- like any of these far superior Harlem-inspired songs that preceded it.

"Spanish Harlem" Aretha Franklin/Ben E. King Lady Soul's 1971 No. 2 single is not only her biggest solo pop hit after "Respect," but it's one of her five best classic-era performances (right up there with "Call Me," "Daydreaming," "Dr. Feelgood" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water"), and it ranks with her 1971 No. 6 remake of Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge" as the best cover of a near-perfect song (in the case of "Spanish Harlem," Ben E. King's 1960 original version of the Phil Spector/Jerry Leiber composition, which hit No. 10). When I think of Harlem, I think of "black and Spanish" Harlem first.

"Across 110th Street" Bobby Womack A non-hit (No. 53, in 1973) from the 1972 film of the same name, co-written and performed by the undersung soul legend, now 69, who recently revealed that he's suffering from Alzheimer's Disease. At least his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has been a done deal since 2009.

"Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" Elton John "Now I know, 'Spanish Harlem' are not just pretty words to say..." A fitting beginning to one of the best musical tributes to the great city that Harlem calls home.

"Harlem Shuffle" Bob & Earl/The Rolling Stones Along with "Undercover of the Night," my favorite Rolling Stones single of the '80s (No. 5, in 1986, and featuring backing vocalist Bobby Womack, who co-wrote "It's All Over Now," a previous Rolling Stones cover that became the band's first UK No. 1 single in 1964). Did you know that a teenage Barry White arranged the original 1963 version of the soul standard, which was written and recorded by Bob & Earl and taken to No. 44 by them that year and into the UK Top 10 six years later? (White once told me that he, too, was a big fan of the Stones' rendition.)

"Angel of Harlem" U2 No one ever really accused U2 of being a blue-eyed soul band, despite the fact that the group's first U.S. Top 40 hit -- 1984's "Pride (In the Name of Love)" -- was about Martin Luther King Jr., and Bono could be as convincingly soulful as he was effortlessly rock & roll. U2 was always stuck with that limiting college-rock tag, when, in reality, the band's music was so much more. (Don't forget, these guys were mixing rock and electronica several years before Radiohead made it the cool thing to do.) I'm often astounded by how four white boys from Dublin were able to offer such excellent approximations of black American rhythm and blues (in addition to "Angel," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and "Desire" from the band's late-'80s canon) without ever seeming to be trying to sound black, while Hothouse Flowers and The Commitments hogged all the Irish blue-eyed soul cred. Had she lived to hear U2, I bet Billie Holiday, the subject of "Angel," would have had something to say about that.

"Harlem Blues" Cynda Williams Am I the only one who loved Spike Lee's 1990 film Mo' Better Blues and expected its female lead to go on to be a much bigger star? At least she can claim responsibility for one of Harlem's rare forays into the R&B Top 10 (not to be confused with the Nat King Cole song by the same name).

"Harlem in Havana" Joni Mitchell Yet another Latin twist on the old neighborhood that, musically, doesn't sound particularly like Harlem or Havana, and yet another reminder (from the 1998 album Taming the Tiger) that Mitchell's best work wasn't confined to the '60s and '70s.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

10 Great Green Things: Happy St. Patrick's Day!

No, it wasn't St. Patrick's Day; it was my 27th birthday!
Considering how much I love Ireland, the Irish, Lucky Charms, shamrocks, four-leaf clovers and a good stiff drink, it's a wonder that I'm not into St. Patrick's Day more than I am. Maybe it's all those years of living in New York City, where too many Irish-Americans used it as an excuse to get out-of-control wasted every March 17.

I even recall one year in which the drunken revelry led to an altercation at the St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York City that left one young guy with his entire life ahead of him dead. A Google search revealed that it wasn't the only brutal St. Patrick's Day fatality on record. That's just not my kind of holiday. Give me a dysfunctional but civilized Thanksgiving Day family dinner over St. Patrick's Day debauchery any year!

This St. Patrick's Day, though, I'm feeling particularly keen on green. Maybe it's the story I told a friend the other night about my best date ever (yes, it was with a guy from Ireland), or the fact that after years of wearing lime-colored shirts (and sometimes trousers!), green remains my favorite color. So what better reason is there to honor it now?

Jack Greene (1930-2013) A few weeks ago, I came across a YouTube video of Jack Greene performing his 1969 No. 1 country hit "Statue of a Fool" several years back, and when Bill Anderson introduced him and said he sounds even better now than he did back in the day, I was impressed that it wasn't just hyperbole. He could still sing the hell out of that song. I was even more impressed when, after consulting Wikipedia, I discovered that Greene was still with us. Sadly, he is no longer. He died on March 15 at age 83 of complications from Alzheimer's Disease. His memory may have failed him in the end, but he left behind five No. 1 country hits -- including the 1965 Nashville standard "There Goes My Everything" -- to ensure that he's never forgotten.

"Green Green Grass of Home" There's very little green green grass outside of Central Park in New York City, but it's hard to listen to this song -- which I first heard via Elvis Presley's 1975 version but is perhaps best known as Tom Jones' 1966 No. 11 hit -- and not think of my beloved one-time home which one day certainly will be home once again.

Green Eggs and Ham YouTube is amazing! Without it, I never would have known there was an animated short to go with Dr. Suess's classic children's book. The singing animals at the end are genius, but what's that hoofed thing on the left with two horns?

Kermit the Frog No matter how hard Miss Piggy tried to upstage him, whenever I think of The Muppets, he's the one who always comes to mind. Well, after Fozzie Bear!

"(It's Ain't Easy Being) Green" by Shannon McNally The greatest green song you've probably never heard. (Read more about it here.) Runner-up: Abra Moore's "Four Leaf Clover," which somehow, miraculously, managed to chart on Billboard's Hot 100 in 1997.

"Green Grass Vapors" by Angie Stone Was she really singing about what I always thought she was singing about?

Al Green What can I say now that hasn't already been said -- by me, right here?

Lee Greenwood It's such a shame that one of my favorite country music singers from the '80s is best-known for that dreadful "God Bless the U.S.A."

"Green" by Edie Brickell I'm still waiting in vain for a revival of one-hit wonder Edie Brickell (with or without New Bohemians) or at least a way-belated appreciation of her 1994 debut solo album Picture Perfect Morning, from whence this great green song came. (Going from my People magazine review, it's clear that I didn't appreciate it either the first time around.) I once asked her what her first impression of her husband Paul Simon was when she met him during a Saturday Night Live performance in 1988. "The first thing I noticed was how handsome he was," she replied, leaving me as speechless as her best songs (the ones on her 2003 album Volcano) still do.

Guys named Patrick Okay, they're not technically green (though some of them do have the most stunning green eyes), but I don't believe I've ever known of a guy named Patrick, fictional or not, who wasn't totally McDreamy. They're right up there with Noahs, Nathans, Ryans and Joshes!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

No, My Feelings About Iranians Aren't Based on Anything I Saw in "Argo"!

"Do you like people from Iran?"

Before going out last night, if I had bothered to compile a list of the Top 5 things I least expected to be asked, that might have been near the top of it, especially considering that the person who wanted to know, a handsome tourist from Tehran, was by far the best-looking guy in the bar.

"Have you seen Shohreh Aghdashloo [an Iranian-American Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for The House of Sand and Fog], or Nadia Bjorlin [the half-Persian actress who plays Chloe on Days of Our Lives]?" Of course, I like people from Iran!

Then it dawned on me. He probably gets the opposite a lot, especially in a gay world where so many guys think it's perfectly acceptable to put "No Asians" in their Grindr profiles!

Some things in life defy categorization. Unfortunately, people aren't one of them. I've spent most of my life being categorized by people based on my gender or the color of my skin or my sexuality or my nationality. I know I shouldn't take it personally when people assume certain things about be because I'm a man (so I'm sloppy and sports loving)/black (so I've got to be listening to hip hop on my iPod)/gay (so, on second thought, I'm probably listening to Madonna, I hate sports, and I'm ridiculously neat)/American (so I must be up with God and guns). And I shouldn't let it bother me when they completely disregard me out of hand because I'm any/all of the above. Though some of their assumptions are accurate (sports and sloppiness -- yuck!), they're just lazy thinkers. That's their problem, not mine.

Lest you think I'm too sensitive about stereotypes and labels, I wasn't particularly offended by the semi-controversial scene last week on The Young and the Restless in which Victor and Nikki were "married" by a God-fearing judge (portrayed by The Talk's Sheryl Underwood) with her honor's cousin, a tambourine-playing, "Amazing Grace"-humming, "When the Saints Go Marching In"-singing nurse, in attendance. (Since when are those wedding songs?) Yes, it's kind of tiresome how blacks on TV are so often presented as being church obsessed, and no, we don't all suddenly break into gospel songs in everyday life the way the Glee kids break into pop songs, but the scene was all good fun.

I pick my battles, and I'm ready to fight one every time someone says something like "I'm not into [insert racial/ethnic demographic here]" followed by "I'm not racist" because taking the entire populace of a continent (say, Asia, which, incidentally, includes Iran and the rest of the Middle East, India and most of Turkey, as well as the countries we generally think of when we think of "Asian"), assigning them generic physical characteristics, and putting them in a box labeled "Do not have sex with," "Do not date," "Do not marry" is just about preference.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, "preference" is "a greater liking for one alternative over another or others." That does not imply a complete dismissal of either alternative. To say, "I prefer white wine to red wine" (which I do) is not the same as saying, "I do not like red wine." So by extension, to say, "I'm attracted to this over that," is not the same as saying "I'm not attracted to this at all." One is a statement of preference, the other is an outright dismissal, which, in reference to human beings, is at the root of discrimination, which is at the core of racism.

Ken Jorgensen (Richard Egan) probably recognized the distinction when he firmly rebuked his wife Helen (Constance Ford) for her casual bigotry in the 1959 film A Summer Place. I'd hate to hear what she thought of Iranians! Sadly, 54 years of globalization has done too little to broaden too few too-narrow minds.

Friday, March 15, 2013

10 Random Thoughts I Had While Watching/Listening to the Top 20 on This Week's Billboard Hot 100

1. I'm glad something sort of new (Baauer's "Harlem Shake," at No. 1) and better has replaced PSY's "Gangnam Style" as the novelty smash of the day. But what does having had two of them in such rapid succession say about the taste of the world's pop music fans? Have we finally plummeted to the nadir where viral Internet memes and non-choreographed dance routines are now being confused with good music? As for the YouTube clips that launched both sensations, maybe I'm just showing my age, but when I'm in the mood to watch (people dancing poorly) for free, I'd rather stick to those vintage YT videos of Soul Train, American Bandstand and the Solid Gold dancers.

2. In the early days of MTV, when the network was launching '80s stars like Duran Duran, Culture Club, Cyndi Lauper and Madonna and one-, two- and three-hit-wonders like A Flock of Seagulls and A-ha, their songs were often sturdy and durable, holding up independently of the visuals, which is why we're still listening to so many of them today. But where would former No. 1 (now No. 2) "Thrift Shop" by Mackelmore & Ryan Lewis featuring Wanz and The Heist be without its video, currently at 165.5 million YouTube views and rising? More importantly, will anyone still love the song tomorrow? I have to admit, though, I'm not immune to the charms of a compelling clip: I won't remember the track by this time next year, but in the here and now, I'm still a sucker for a guy pimping the hell out of a crazy-ass vintage jacket.

3. Bruno Mars (at No. 3 with "When I Was Your Man" and at No. 10 with "Locked Out of Heaven," a former No. 1) is ridiculously talented and nice to look at, but he has yet to offer a single song that I just had to listen to more than once.

4. The opposite holds true for Rihanna, who is nowhere near as ridiculously talented as Mars but even nicer to look at. I prefer "Stay" (No. 5) and "Pour It Up" (No. 20) to "Diamonds," her recent No. 1 from Unapologetic, but I can't understand why her team insists on releasing the album's lesser songs as singles when "Phresh Out the Runway," "Jump" and "Get It Over With" are the real money tracks.

5. I'm thrilled to have Justin Timberlake the pop star back, but two singles into The 20/20 Experience (due next week), I'm still waiting to be wowed. After listening to "Suit & Tie" (No. 5) and "Mirrors," I'm starting to wonder if I have been remembering him as being a more adventurous musician than he actually is. The songs are well-constructed and well-performed, but I can't help but think he's just treading water, that he'd rather be on a movie set somewhere with Jessica Biel than onstage or in the studio singing about her (presumably).

6. Nearly three albums into his rap career, I still haven't figured out whether my appreciation for Drake stems more from the way his music sounds or from the way he looks. "Started from the Bottom" (No. 7), the first single from the upcoming Nothing Was the Same, lacks the musical and lyrical depth of the singles from 2011's Take Care, but it passes the litmus test for decent songs/videos. After hearing/watching it once, I wanted to repeat the experience. But why must Drake hits always come in groups of three or more? (He's a featured artist on Lil Wayne's "Love Me," at No. 9, and on ASAP Rocky's "F**kin' Problems," at No. 15.)

7. "Don't You Worry Child" by Swedish House Mafia featuring John Martin (No. 11) makes me want to spend the spring and summer of 2013 in Europe dancing all night long in house-music clubs. I hope the DJs in Berlin, Rome and Istanbul are playing better music than this, though.

8. Poor Christina Aguilera. The only way she can score a hit these days is by tagging along on someone else's song. Following her long-delayed 2011 return trip to No. 1 with "Moves Like Jagger," which did more for lead act Maroon 5's subsequent album, Overexposed, than it did for Aguilera's Lotus, she's back in the Top 20 (No. 13) alongside Pitbull on "Feel This Moment," which, incidentally is one notch below "Daylight," Maroon 5's third Top 10 from Overexposed. Aguilera is always welcome around here, but she deserves better than a chintzy (as usual) Pitbull track that rips off the aforementioned A-ha's "Take on Me."

9. Speaking of derivative dance music (Nos. 7 and 8 above), when did every club hit start to sound like something else we've all heard before? "Sweet Nothing" by Calvin Harris featuring Florence Welch (No. 16), though, has two things working in its favor. The first Top 10 U.S. single for both British DJ Harris as a lead artist and for Florence + the Machine's Welch, with or without her band, has an excellent video clip (Remember the good old days when they told mini-stories and didn't just flash images at us?) and a great singer who hearkens back to the '90s golden age of the dance diva. You better work, girl!

10. The presence of The Lumineers (at No. 14 with "Ho Hey"), Imagine Dragons (at No. 17 with "Radioactive") and Mumford & Sons (at No. 20 with "I Will Wait") among the now-standard issue pop, hip-hop and dance music, makes this week's Top 20 more varied than usual, but it's still hard for me to get overly excited about any of it ("Ho Hey" aside). Maybe I'm just showing my age again. Bring on the Solid Gold dancers, please!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

How Do You Make Today and Every Day the Best Day Possible?

Dylan: "So where did you call home before you came here?

Chelsea: "Everywhere and nowhere."

-- Dylan and Chelsea's pre-foreplay getting-to-know-you bar banter on The Young and the Restless

"Yesterday is but a dream. Tomorrow is only a vision. But today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope." -- from the Bhagavad Gita, as quoted by Yogi Hari during Victor and Nikki's faux wedding on The Young and the Restless

More words to live by -- and relate to -- on daytime soaps, this time on the March 14 episode of The Young and the Restless, the one in which Jack also promised Phyllis a weekend trip to Istanbul, the subject of a freelance travel essay I turned in last week and a place I've been dreaming of returning to since I began working on the piece. I was in Istanbul exactly three years before today, and I've been living in that other place -- everywhere and nowhere -- since I left Buenos Aires two years and two weeks ago. Hopefully, wherever I end up next, I'll get to use that line on a guy as hot as Steve Burton (Y&R's Dylan) before ripping his shirt off. That would be a day well lived.

Which brings me back to the wedding quote, which resonated even more powerfully with me than anything Dylan and Chelsea or Jack and Phyllis said. That's partly because I spent an entire semester in college studying the Bhagavad Gita and partly because I've been trying ever since then -- most earnestly over the course of the last six and a half years or so, since leaving New York City -- to reach that higher state of consciousness.

I'm not completely sure what constitutes a day well lived, but a day in which one doesn't have to go to a job one hates, a day in which one doesn't have to talk to people one doesn't find the least bit interesting, and a day in which one doesn't have to indulge in a string of activities to fill up time -- that would be an excellent start.

But in a Western world in which our lives are defined by our full-time jobs as are we, it's impossible for many to grasp how a person can be perfectly content without one. I rarely have a conversation with anyone I haven't seen in ages where I'm not questioned about the quality of my life without a regular 9-to-5 gig: How do you do it? Why do you do it?

I rarely have an answer to either of those questions -- in general, I just do it -- nor do they for the ones I sometimes fire back at them: If you didn't have a job, what would you do with your time? If you didn't have to work, would you still get up early every weekday morning to go to an office? It's incredible to me that most of the people I know either have jobs they hate or jobs they never look forward to going back to on Monday morning, yet they cling to them for reasons that have nothing to do with financial survival. Their jobs are who they are. Their jobs define their lives.

I can't say I'm above that way of thinking, even without the 9-to-5 gig. People see me as a man, or as a black man, or as a gay black man. I see myself, first and foremost, as a journalist and a writer. It's what I do. It's who I am. The big difference: It may define me (if I'm the one doing the defining), but it doesn't define my life, which I suppose is one benefit of not having to do it in an organized setting. (The other would be that I'm probably better at it now than I was when I was compelled to do it in a specific time and place. I certainly spend more hours doing it now -- these blog posts don't write themselves, you know -- almost all of them happily!)

For those without the luxury of not having to go to an office five days a week or more, what if every day were like Sunday? Well, maybe Sunday -- described by Morrissey in his college-rock classic "Every Day Is Like Sunday" as "tired and grey" -- isn't the best example. After all, so many people in the 9-to-5 Monday-through-Friday work force spend Sunday dreading Monday.

What if every day were like Saturday? What would they do then? I suspect few would be able to answer. So many clockwatchers spend all week looking forward to Saturday, yet they probably can't imagine a world where every day is like Saturday.

Is it because they all take the cliche "no pain, no gain" too seriously? Is gaining a Saturday only truly enjoyable if you've endured the pain of a Monday-Friday work week? It can sort of understand why, for some, that might be so. When one is free to be wherever one wants to be, do whatever one wants to do, do it with whomever one wants to do it with, every day of the week, it's easy for one to begin to take that freedom for granted. It's like the person who has too much money who eventually becomes conditioned not to see the value in anything.

Having interests and passions that don't necessarily involve another person helps, but there's also so much value in stillness. Unfortunately, we're conditioned to believe that life is better when it's constantly filled with activities. I see so many Facebook status updates where people are thankful for a rainy day because it gives them a good excuse to stay in and do nothing. Why do they need an excuse? Probably because that's how they were raised, that's how they were taught to be. "Idle hands are the devil's workshop" goes the old saying that we hear over and over in our youth and then recite as adults. Boredom is bad and busy is good, as if busy is never boring, and not being busy has to mean being bored. As Pet Shop Boys might say, being bored is just being boring.

Once in third grade, I was sent to time out by my teacher, Mrs. Pepper, because I had finished all of my work early and was sitting quietly at my desk. My crime (in her words): "sitting in my desk doing nothing." She underlined the last part for extra emphasis. No wonder so many of us grow up thinking that a day well lived has to be filled with verbs. Thank God, I've outgrown that.

I can't say I'm not above taking my own options-filled life for granted, though. I'm only human. I'm pretty sure that one day when I re-enter the full-time 9-to-5 work force, I will look back on my current situation and ask myself, "Why wasn't I more grateful when life was sweet?" I probably won't even recall all of those banal questions I fielded from friends and strangers back then -- "What do you do with your day?" Don't you ever get bored?" "Are you here because of a guy?" (because once you've finished uni and are out in the real world, the only reasons outside of family and friends to be based anywhere are a job or a man) -- with such eye-rolling disdain.

I'll probably sit at my desk, look out the window and long for the days when I had nothing to do (other than write, read, run, eat delicious meals, burn them off at the gym, listen to music, watch movies and TV, travel, enjoy the silence and the solitude, see the people I wanted to see when I wanted to see them, and engage in charity work, which, shamefully, is still on my to-do list) and all day to do it in. I'll no doubt miss the good old days when I wasn't always a slave to deadlines, when I could spend 30 minutes or more analyzing a single sentence, sometimes agonizing over it, and the time would fly by. That might sound boring as hell to some (to most), but it never is to me.

Perhaps that awareness, not in hindsight but beforehand, is the key to a day well lived -- a day we enjoy to the fullest by doing nothing, doing everything that we actually want to do, or finding moments of joy in doing things we don't want to do. A day well lived is, above all things, one we recognize as being well lived while we're living it.