Sunday, June 29, 2014

9 Reasons Why Tanzania and Kenya Couldn't Be Coming at a Better Time

One week from now, when the clock strikes 6 next Saturday morning, I will depart Cape Town en route to Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, where I will begin a 10-day, 9-night overland tour from Dar all the way to Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. As much as I'm looking forward to finally spending time in Zanzibar and the Serengeti and perhaps catching a glimpse of Mount Kilimanjaro, I'm terrified, too.

I'm heading way out of my comfort zone, exposing myself to yellow fever (got my vaccination!), malaria (pills: check!) and deadly animals with sharp teeth. But I'm not just talking about the three days I'll spend camping in the middle of the Serengeti. Can a loner like me who actually prefers to travel solo, handle 10 days and 9 nights on the road (mostly unpaved, I imagine) with up to 17 strangers? It'll either change my life or make me want to end it.

Yes, I have my hopes and fears, but being a glass-half-full type, I'm choosing to accentuate the positive -- and there are a lot of reasons for me to look forward to what the first half of July holds. Here are 9 of them, one for each night I'll lay me down to sleep on the road. (I'll bookend the overland tour with one night in Dar and one in Nairobi.)

1. Every time I dreamed of Africa before actually coming here, visions of a safari, not Cape Town's spectacular natural/man-made cityscape, were dancing in my head. It's pretty much what put Africa on my to-do list, even before I was old enough to care about Cape Town. Many years ago when I interviewed Suzanne Vega, she talked about the exciting life she wanted to lead: "I'm not necessarily talking about going on an African safari…." Are you kidding? I thought to myself. I'd kill to go on an African safari! Some 20 years later, I'm about to fulfill one of my key requirements for leading an exciting life -- and nobody had to be killed.

2. I know little things mean a lot and all that jazz, but it can't be good that the highlight of yesterday was finding that fabulous wine-bottle opener at Pic n Pay. My days and nights are begging for upheaval, even if I'll be spending most of the former admiring breathtaking scenery while an 18-seater truck takes us through Tanzania, from the Indian Ocean coast up through the north east of the country.

3. After two weeks without a drop of alcohol, one glass of Lagare gave me a buzz and sent me to bed at 8.30pm last night. I could probably stand to be forcibly separated from that wine-bottle opener and the Lagare stash I picked up several weeks ago at Beyerskloof in Stellenbosch. Why does it have to go down so yummy and easy?

4. One can only take so many breathtaking shots of Signal Hill, Lion's Head, Table Mountain and Devil's Peak before even my digital camera starts begging for a change of scenery. Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam, and the deer and the antelope play… I'm expecting a far more extensive menagerie of animal sightings in the Serengeti.

5. A change of season is in order, too. The Capetonian winter is nowhere near as bad as I'd been told it would be, but really, a lot more sunshine wouldn't kill me, and rainy season in Tanzania ended in May.

6. I could really use a break from emails, status updates, stupid Grindr messages, #hashtags and, yes, blogging, too, but since the temptation to plug in is too great as long as I have WiFi access (shoddy as it often is in Cape Town), having to do without it in the middle of the wilderness might be just what my sanity needs.

7. Speaking of blogging, I need some fresh inspiration for when I get back to Cape Town civilization. I'm sort of over gay and race issues for now. After more than six months of Black and White (racial politics are so exhausting), I'm looking forward to a Technicolor National Geographic experience.

8. As much as I appreciate the benefits of functional training at 360 every Tuesday morning at 7, my aching muscles could use a break, and my mind could use a couple of Monday nights not being consumed by fear of the grueling hour-long workout one bad night's sleep ahead. (On the minus side, for the past month, after James and Daniel had their way with my body, the 30-minute walk of pride home -- the view: left -- was one of the highlights of my week. I'll miss it.)

9. Speaking of bad night's sleep, may Tanzania bring some relief from my chronic insomnia. It's been a lifelong malady, but the past few weeks, it's gotten progressively worse than ever. I never seem to have trouble actually falling asleep, but like clockwork, when it strikes 2 (one hour earlier than when my internal alarm previously went off), I'm up, only to fall back asleep for 30-minute intervals until I give up and get up at 5. A former roommate once told me that when she visited Africa for the first time, it changed the way she sleeps. I need new sleeping patterns badly. I hope they finally kick in while I'm trekking through Tanzania.

Friday, June 27, 2014

What Does Jeremy Meeks' Viral Mugshot Say About Our Obsession With Bad Boys?

From my HuffPost Gay Voices blog...

South African TV has interesting timing. Just days before Jeremy Meeks' police mugshot seduced the Internet, DStv's Comedy Central in Cape Town aired an episode of Anger Management in which Jordan (Laura Bell Bundy) breaks the cardinal rule for therapists by making out with a patient, a prison inmate with dreamy blue eyes and irresistible facial hair who looks amazing in orange.

Honestly, I get it. Scott Elrod (the actor who plays the smooth criminal) is that attractive. So is Meeks, a 30-year-old possible prison-inmate-to-be (again, sigh) from Stockton, California, whose mugshot following his June 18 arrest for felony weapons possession has sent millions of hearts -- femaleand male -- fluttering. The most popular of the many Facebook pages dedicated to him has nearly 200,000 likes!

I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a thing for bad boys myself. The first time I admitted it out loud was the day Christina Aguilera beat me to it. I was interviewing her for a 2000 Teen People cover story when she revealed her strongest weakness: a beautiful bad boy. Thug love, once mostly limited to gangsta circles, had officially gone mainstream. In a couple of years, the formerly squeaky-clean Mousketeer would be stripping for her Stripped album and collaborating with Redman in the "Dirrty" video.

I suspect that the mainstreaming of bad boys is part of why so many guys -- gay and straight -- are now running around sporting scruffy beards and body art. Sometimes it looks bad, but more importantly it makes them look badder, especially tattoos, which have become nearly as de rigueur as bulging biceps in many big-city gyms. Tattoos are to the 2010s what piercings were to the '90s, but a tattoo requires a bigger commitment and thus offers more street cred. It screams, "Bad boy for life!" And nobody questions the sexuality of a guy with a tattoo (unless it's a dolphin), which can't be said about a guy with a pierced ear. Tattoos are almost like the ultimate emblems of masculinity, proof that you're man enough to stand the pain.

Could you possibly be more "straight-acting," that unfortunate, misguided aspiration (to have and to be) so prevalent among gay men ages thirtysomething and below, now that you've been branded permanently? You can look like a guy's guy and land one too, because who doesn't fantasize about a bad boy -- or a boy who's good at playing the part -- with tattoos?

Would Adam Levine be the sexiest man alive (according to People, at least) without his? He'd be hot either way, but nothing offsets singing like a girl quite like a six pack and an upper torso covered with ink.

Perhaps Meeks was watching The Voice and taking notes. He's an undeniably attractive man, but I see many equally handsome biracial men every day on the streets of Cape Town. Meeks' appeal has two sides that are working in tandem. On one, his good looks might make him seem less threatening to some ("He's too pretty to be a criminal!"). All the "Free Jeremy!" campaigning doesn't focus on his actual case, only on how he looks. Meanwhile, had the same photo been circulated online without any back story, it would have inspired swooning, but certainly not the near-hysteria that has ensued.

Had Meeks been launched into public consciousness as a model, would anyone have noticed him more than we notice other mannequins with flawless skin and impossible cheekbones? Clean up his face and photoshop it onto the neck of a Calvin Klein model wearing a suit (as the creator of one photo on the aforementioned Facebook page did), and his face, though still beautiful, doesn't have quite the same smoldering effect. It never would have gone viral. The tattoos gave him a boost. The mugshot setting sold him. Crime didn't pay, but it made him a star.

But what good is a star when he's locked up behind bars with bail set at $900,000? (Meeks is already a prison veteran, having previously served nine years for grand theft.) He could have been a contender, true model material, say some who are bemoaning the wasted potential of another young man. I'm not so sure about that. Since his arrest, a stream of Meeks photos have surfaced, some of them unflattering, some displaying genetic blessings and some showing a not-unattractive guy who lucked out and took one really fantastic photo.

A model scout might have passed right by him on the street without turning back. Notoriety made Meeks sexier. The lighting at the Stockton police station sealed his viral appeal; so did his sordid circumstances -- because you don't become a meme just by being hot. Not only does it suggest he's bad to bones that some of his fans want to jump, if only in their fantasies (because I don't believe that most people actually would want to hook up with a felon). It's also an extension of another angle of bad-boy obsession that's more grounded in reality: the challenge. A bad boy is a fixer-upper, the guy we might be able to change or save. One commentator talked about wanting to wipe that tear tattoo from his cheek and help him turn his life around. I'm sure she's not alone.

I hope Meeks saves himself. Maybe he'll beat these latest charges and use his newfound platform to change his world. Hopefully he'll set a better example, at least for his young son, and not inadvertently do the opposite. The last thing we need are other good-looking young men getting teardrop tattoos and guns, breaking the law just to be noticed.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Throwback Thursday: 10 Top 40 Singles That Time (and Listeners?) Forgot

"Hearts on Fire" Randy Meisner (1981) Original Eagle Meisner, the man who sang lead on "Take It to the Limit," charted all three of his solo Top 40 singles -- each of which deserves to be revisited (click here and here for the other two) -- before former fellow bandmates Glenn Frey and Don Henley charted any of theirs. The week Eddie Rabbitt's crossover-country classic "I Love a Rainy Night" was No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 for the second week, Meisner climbed from No. 23 to No. 21 with "Fire," his biggest hit. Incidentally, Rabbitt had scored a 1978 No. 2 hit with a different song, same title.

"Making Love" Roberta Flack (1982) When you're buried at the very end of a Top 40 solo career that includes such ageless evergreens as "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," "Killing Me Softly with His Song" and "Feel Like Makin' Love," it's hard not to decompose into a footnote. Had it been Oscar-nominated for Best Original Song, or had it not been the title song for a movie about the then-taboo subject of a married man (Michael Ontkean, wed to Charlie's Angel Kate Jackson) who has an affair with another man (Harry Hamlin, pre-L.A. Law), perhaps "Making Love" would have enjoyed a profile commensurate with its No. 13 Hot 100 peak. Perhaps Lauryn Hill would have covered it, too. Not that Burt Bacharach, who co-wrote it with his then-wife Carole Bayer Sager and Bruce Roberts, needed the royalties.

"You Should Hear How She Talks About You" Melissa Manchester (1982) Mention the name Melissa Manchester, and anyone who knows her at all will likely remember a ballad: "Midnight Blue," "Through the Eyes of Love (Theme from Ice Castles)," "Don't Cry Out Loud." But her biggest (and final) Top 40 single (No. 5) was actually a new-wave song that's nothing like the adult-contemporary fare for which she became a mid-level pop star, and it won Manchester her only Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, against 100 percent uptempo competition (including Laura Branigan's "Gloria"!). For a song that couldn't possibly sound more '80s, it has aged pretty well.

"Can't Shake Loose" Agnetha Faltskog (1983) Frida wasn't the only ABBA lady to go Top 40 in the U.S. in 1983 (with "I Know There's Something Going On," No. 14). Agnetha would make it No. 29 on her own later that year, but modest success (compared to Frida's worldwide smash) wouldn't lead to longevity for the song. Interestingly, both Frida and Agnetha enjoyed their lone solo Top 40 entries with songs written by Russ Ballard that veered closer to the dominant new-wave pop-rock sound of the time than to ABBA's brand of soft Europop.

"Souls" Rick Springfield (1983) I thought I knew every Rick Springfield Top 40 hit from 1981's "Jessie's Girl" to 1988's "Rock of Life" almost by heart until a few months ago when I came across an old Billboard Top 40 list from 1983. I wondered, What's this song "Souls"? Then I YouTubed it and listened. It sounded vaguely familiar, but I still couldn't place it, as in attach it to a single memory from 1983. Where was I when the third hit from Living in Oz was climbing to No. 23? What kind of fool am I? Oops, wrong Springfield song that just missed the Top 20!

"Don't Answer Me" The Alan Parsons Project (1984) Before there was a-ha and the Norwegian trio's iconic 1985 video for "Take on Me," The Alan Parsons Project was revolutionizing MTV with its own animated clip, the one for a No. 15 single that's now a sadly forgotten highlight from my favorite year in '80s music. (It doesn't even get its own Wikipedia entry!)

"Don't Shed a Tear" Paul Carrack (1987) When you think of Paul Carrack (if you think of Paul Carrack), which song never pops into your head?

A) "How Long," Ace's 1975 No. 3 hit, on which Carrack sang lead. B) "Tempted," Squeeze's 1981 No. 49 cult classic, on which Carrack sang lead. C) "Silent Running" and "The Living Years," Mike + The Mechanics' 1985 No. 6 and 1989 No. 1 (respectively), on which Carrack sang lead. D) "Don't Shed a Tear," Carrack's 1987 No. 9 solo hit.

If you picked D, join the club. Attention, members! Carrack's only solo Top 10 sounds better than you don't remember, especially that I don't need… bit at the coda.

"Boys Night Out" Timothy B. Schmit (1987) He may forever be best known as the guy who sang lead on Eagles' final Top 10 hit (1980's "I Can't Tell You Why"), but Schmit's facial expressions in the video for his only solo Top 40 (No. 25 peak) makes me wish he'd done/had more. (Fun fact: When Schmit went Top 40 with "Boys Night Out," bringing the number of solo Top 40 Eagles to five, Eagles surpassed both The Beatles and Duran Duran, each of which spawned four Top 40 spin-offs, among bands who bore fruit and multiplied. That would make Eagles the U.S. Spice Girls, 10 years earlier.)

"Call It Love" Poco (1989) Here's the confusing thing: Randy Meisner, who only appeared on Poco's 1969 debut album (and was fired before its release), and not Timothy B. Schmit, who replaced him in both Poco and Eagles, was the one who reunited with Poco for its 1989 comeback. Schmit must have been still enjoying his boys night out.

"The Doctor" The Doobie Brothers (1989) Here's a Top 10 trip (No. 9) that's all the more impressive because the band didn't need Michael McDonald to take it, which might actually be precisely why you'd probably have to be a diehard fan to remember it.

Monday, June 23, 2014

8 Twitter Dos and Don'ts: What I've Learned from Communicating in 140 Characters or Less

I prefer Facebook for allowing us to communicate in paragraphs, and Instagram, where a photo is worth, if not always a thousand words, so much more than 140 characters. But I suppose that Twitter has its place. Though I haven't quite figured out the true purpose of it (aside from allowing us all to achieve the goal of being closer to celebrity, figuratively and literally, either by having billions of "followers" or talking directly to famous people), what it lacks in practical value, it makes up for in entertainment value, especially when celebrities start attacking each other in front of an audience of millions.

It can be a learning experience, too. I haven't discovered anything as enlightening as some of those articles that my Facebook friends are always sharing, but in my time on Twitter, I've learned some lessons, most of them about Twitter, not life. Here are 8 of them.

1. Do be careful! Big brother (and sister) is watching. In other words, don't tweet it if you don't want the entire world to read it. Unlike private Facebook posts, tweets, like Instagram pics, aren't only visible to your followers. I've had several people tell me they don't use Twitter because nobody cares what they have to say, and they couldn't be more wrong. I'm not sure how some random tweeter on the other side of the world happens across my tweet about how I'm en route to the loo -- BRB! -- and why that would inspire them to "follow" me, but s**t like that happens (pun intended!).

I'm sure there are privacy settings you can use to block non-followers from reading your tweets, but using them would be missing the entire point of Twitter. It's not so much about communicating ideas or even filling people in on what's new in your life as it is about accumulating as many followers as possible.

2. Don't be afraid to approach icons on Twitter. Just because Justin Bieber probably won't tweet you back doesn't mean someone much better won't. I once sent Alison Moyet a link to a blog post I wrote celebrating the 30th anniversary of the release of Yazoo's Upstairs at Eric's album. Within minutes, she'd tweeted me back, thanking me for the kind words. Stephanie Mills once sent me a thank-you tweet, too, and I hadn't even solicited it by sending her a link to the blog post for which she was so grateful!

3. Do use hashtags, preferably in the middle of your tweets instead of at the end. I'm still not 100 percent sure what those numeral signs (#) in front of words are supposed to do, and they eat up large chunks of your allotted 140 characters. Social media-savvy friends have explained that hashtagged words make it easier to find your posts in search engines. Fair enough (I guess). I haven't yet determined their efficacy, but if you incorporate them into the body of your tweets instead of hashtagging at the end, not only will it save space, it also will break up all of that black text with a lovely shade of babyish blue.

4. Don't even attempt to have an intelligent debate on Twitter. It's bad enough that you have to condense your argument to 140 characters or less, but it'll only be further undermined when you have to drop a period at the end or use "2" 4 "to" or "too" 2 make it fit. Likewise, it'll be tougher to take seriously dissenting opinions addressed to "U" instead of "you." So keep it light and simple.

5. Do keep calm and say, "Thank you." The other day an Adam Lambert fan called me an "idiot" and wished me a "pathetic life" in response to one of my Huffington Post essays in which I made some comments about Lambert that he/she interpreted as being disparaging. (Of all the fans I've encountered in my six years of blogging, Lambert's are the ones most likely to take something you say about someone else personally.) I tried to think of a suitably snarky response, but in the end, I decided to go with a simple "Thank you." He didn't respond "YW" (that's "You're welcome," in Twitter speak, as I learned from another Lambert fan after blowing her off with gratitude), but within minutes he'd deleted the original tweet.

6. Don't ignore all unsolicited tweets from strangers that look like spam. In between those mysterious ones from friends hawking some item that neither you nor they would ever use, there might be the occasional valuable offer. I haven't gotten one yet, but I now have hope. The other day I was bemoaning the lack of razor-cartridge options in Cape Town supermarkets, and hours after my fruitless search, I received an email from Dollar Shave Club, a U.S. company that delivers razor cartridges directly to your home (sadly, not if said dwelling is on the other side of the world, in South Africa) and apparently tweets its offers, too. What if it had been a tweet offering a service that I can actually use and I had automatically tossed it out with the rest of the spam? If there's a company in South Africa that makes can openers that last longer than a few months, please feel free to tweet me.

7. Do post "#mickeymouse #tattoo" images. I'm not sure if he was only joking, but a friend of mine said on Facebook that this is the best way to "get every fucktard from Shangzen to Portland" to follow you on Instagram. I'm assuming it works on Twitter, too!

8. Don't sweat if you have nothing to say. Just tweet an uplifting self-help quote or a well-known name or place. Twitterers are suckers for positive-thinking aphorisms, and there are apparently actual people who monitor Twitter for every mention of certain names and places. Just the mention of "Hamlet" in one of my recent tweets, got "William Shakespeare" to follow me! Oscar Wilde and William Shakespeare? Twitter followers don't get much more impressive than that, and all it took was name-dropping one great Dane.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The 11 "Be"s: A Self-Help Mix

No to be confused with "The Three Bs": Bach, Beethoven and Brahms...

1. Be aggressive.

2. Be careful.

3. Be good to yourself.

4. Be happy.

5. Be honest.

6. Be humble.

7. Be kind and generous.

8. Be proud (be loud, be heard).

9. Be thankful.

10. Be there.

11. Be yourself.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Reacting to Asians Saying the Stuff (Too Many) White People Say

How do I love this YouTube video? Let me count the ways: 1) It proves that a YouTube clip doesn't have to feature silly memes, cutesy cats or sexed-up pop tarts to rack up viral viewership in the millions. 2) It tackles a serious topic with humor, not preachy pontificating. 3) It presents so many important truths, not just in the video itself but also in the reactions to it, both the positive and the negative ones. (Righteous indignation to any kind of commentary can be just as telling as what inspired it.)

One of my favorite comments came from "SuperMommav":
"The point was that non whites are judged as a group and whites have the luxury of being judged as individuals."
If I could go back and run that sentence at the beginning of every article and blog post I've ever written about race...

As a writer who keeps returning to the subject of racism (and I devote two chapters in my forthcoming book, Is It True What They Say About Black Men?, to the anti-Asian racism I witnessed in Australia and, of all places, in Bangkok), I've read so many of the sort of complaints leveled at the video over and over, to the point of nausea: But I'm not like that... Not all white people are like that... How stereotypical!... Why are you still whining? 

Add the indignant critics who drop the R words (reverse racism), and there's still no valid reason to dismiss a reality that too many people (typically ones who are unaffected by it) are simply too uncomfortable to face and others have no choice but to face. Just because you are not a criminal doesn't mean crime doesn't exist. Just because you are a man who doesn't cheat doesn't mean that many bordering on most men don't do it. Just because you don't make disparaging comments about/to black people, or Asian people, or [insert minority/ethnic group here] doesn't mean there aren't enough people doing it to make a video like this necessary.

A friend once had the audacity to call my articles on race too "black and white" because he doesn't think/act like the white people I write about, as if that somehow made my observations faulty, as if a better way to begin every article would be a disclaimer along the lines of "Please disregard this if it doesn't apply to you."

Attention: Not everything is about you.

Yes, the title "If Asians Said The Stuff White People Say" does mirror the sort of stereotyping that it's criticizing -- and I suppose you can say the same thing about every article that calls white people out on their racism because not all white people are like that -- but why devote so much time to worrying about semantics when there are far more pressing issues at hand? Having to uncomfortably watch one video that slams "white" behavior is nothing compared to living every day being judged as a group and not as an individual.

That there are exceptions is always implied. That the video isn't titled "If Asians Said the Stuff SOME White People Say" doesn't automatically invalidate it or make it just as racist as the racists it's ridiculing. (And I suspect it's the lampooning aspect that's caused so many hurt feelings: Who wants to be turned into the butt of their own unintentional joke?) As for the dreaded R words, reacting to a crime with another crime doesn't absolve the first criminal from guilt. Both criminals will be tried -- in separate courts. If you have issues with reverse racism (and I must dissent with the poster who says it doesn't exist), put them in your own article, or in your own YouTube video.

Don't use it as an excuse to dismiss this one. Whining and putting your hands over your ears because you know better doesn't make it a non-issue. Firing back with comments like "Well, some [insert minority/ethnic group here] are racist," or "Black people use the N word, too," doesn't absolve the original sin. Yes, racism is a difficult topic, but it's one that many of us can't avoid by simply turning off the computer and choosing to ignore it.

For many of us, it won't be ignored (like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction -- and we all know how scary and threatening she was). If it's so uncomfortable to talk about or read about or look at for one minute and 45 seconds, imagine what it must feel like for those of us who must live with it every day of our lives.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Casey Kasem's American Top 40, April 26, 1980

This week, in honor of the recent passing of Casey Kasem, who died June 15 at age 82, I'm also honoring another institution from my youth: American Top 40, the weekly radio countdown show that Kasem hosted from 1970 to 1988 and 1998 to 2003. In this post, instead of counting down the biggest singles in the country from 40 to 1 according to Billboard magazine, I'm counting them down in ascending order from my least favorite to my favorite. Now, on with the countdown...

Let's go back to the chart for the week ending April 26, 1980, one day before Kasem's 48th birthday and 11 before my 11th. I downloaded this flashback episode two months ago at the AT40 Chart Store, which offers more than 500 others just like it, and spent several hours of Hump Day listening to it for the first time and a few more on Throwback Thursday listening to it again. Memories flooded back, from the songs themselves, from AT40 staples like the long-distance dedications, Q&As and assorted trivia, and, of course, from Casey's voice.

As for the episode itself, well, it would be nearly three months after it aired before I listened to my first American Top 40 countdown, the one for the week ending July 19, 1980, when Billy Joel's chart-topping "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" succeeded Paul McCartney's "Coming Up," which had debuted at No. 73 on the April 26 Hot 100. Back then each countdown began with a recap of the previous week's Top 3, a practice that must have ended by the time I got around to listening to AT 40, for I don't recall ever hearing three songs twice in the same show.

Not that I would ever complain about having to listen to Christopher Cross's "Ride Like the Wind" more than once! Now, really, on with the countdown!

Song Title/ Artist/ This week/ Last week/ Peak

40. "Fire in the Morning" Melissa Manchester 32/ 33/ 32
This "Fire" just can't beat the heat of "Don't Cry Out Loud" and "Midnight Blue," and Manchester doesn't sound like she's even trying. "You Should Hear How She Talks About You" couldn't have come quickly enough!

39. "The Seduction (Love Theme)" (from American Gigolo) The James Last Band 40/ --/ 28
Unless it was a TV theme (Dallas!) or a massive hit ("Chariots of Fire"), Top 40-charting instrumentals (thankfully rare) have always tended to go in one of my ears and out the other. With all due respect to Giorgio Moroder (who wrote it), I forgot this one, which I heard for the first time ever on Wednesday, before it was even over.

38. "Set Me Free" Utopia 36/ 27/ 27
How is it possible that this and not 1977's "Love Is the Answer" was the Todd Rundgren-led band's only Top 40 single?

37. "Pilot of the Airwaves" Charlie Dore 15/ 17/ 13
I'd never heard of Charlie (who's a woman, by the way) or her single, although it got as high as No. 13. Apparently, she was a pretty big deal, mostly because she co-wrote Sheena Easton's "Strut," a No. 7 hit four years later.

36. "Hold On to My Love" Jimmy Ruffin 14/ 12/ 10
Another high-charting single I'd never heard (of) until now. I'd never heard of Jimmy Ruffin either, though I had heard at least one of his three previous U.S. Top 40 hits ("What Becomes of the Brokenhearted," No. 7, 1966); of his little brother, the late former Temptation David Ruffin; and Robin Gibb, the Bee Gee who co-wrote and co-produced this Top 10 single. Unlike other Bee Gee-affiliated hits of the late '70s/early '80s (including Andy Gibb and Olivia Newton-John's "I Can't Help It," coming up), it actually sounds nothing like the Brothers Gibb, which isn't necessarily a plus. I'm not one to begrudge anyone a comeback hit, but "Help Me!" -- Gibb's duet with future Shakespears Sister Marcy Levy (aka Marcella Detroit), a follow-up Gibb/Blue Weaver co-composition/production that hit No. 50 several months later -- was far more deserving of Top 10 status.

35. "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" Queen 27/ 15/ 1
I get what the veteran band was trying to do, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

34. "I Pledge My Love" Peaches and Herb 19/ 20/ 19
Unfortunately, the retro-'50s Happy Days/Sha Na Na effect of the '70s was still rippling through pop music in 1980 (see Queen above).

33. "Do Right" Paul Davis 31/ 35/ 23
If you thought the guy who sang "I Go Crazy" was a one-hit wonder, you were so wrong, but there were far better and bigger Top 40 follow-ups ("Cool Night" and "'65 Love Affair") to come.

32. "Call Me (from American Gigolo)" Blondie 1/ 1/ 1
Confession time: "Heart of Glass" aside, I probably love Blondie a lot less than I should overall, and I still can't believe this was the band's biggest hit and Billboard's No. 1 song of 1980. There's nothing specifically wrong with the song. My indifference to it is just a gut reaction -- make that non-reaction.

31. "Only a Lonely Heart Sees" Felix Cavaliere 37/ 36/ 36
This song is new to me, although the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee (as a founding member of The Young Rascals) who sings it isn't. Had I been aware of it then, when it was in its third Top 40 week, its nostalgia value might have taken it up at least five notches on this countdown.

30. "Sexy Eyes" Doctor Hook 10/ 13/ 5
Dr. Hook always created the illusion (to me) of being a part-time act, though they had a solid run of hit singles, of which this was the biggest one. Maybe it was that Dr. Hook was totally a singles band (not one Dr. Hook studio LP ever made it to the Top 40 of Billboard's Top 200 album chart) or that the band just seemed to vanish after the early '80s. I never really understood the doctor-pirate connection, or the one guy who wore the eye patch but nothing else pirate-related, or why the group's turn-of-the-decade hits sounded kind of country. Even now when I think of Dr. Hook's No. 25 1982 single "Baby Makes Her Blue Jeans Talk," I hear Mel McDaniel's 1985 country No. 1 "Baby's Got Her Blue Jeans On."

29. "Special Lady" Ray, Goodman and Brown" 5/ 5/ 5
R&B hits didn't go Top 10 pop with any regularity back then, so I'm not sure what was so special about "Lady" to make it a rare exception to the general rule. Formerly The Moments (of "Love on a Two-Way Street" fame), the trio proved that you can switch names mid-game, well past halftime, and still score a touchdown.

28. "The Rose" (from The Rose) Bette Midler 39/ --/ 3
Preferable to "Wind Beneath My Wings," but Bette wouldn't really grab me with one of her hits until "From a Distance" a decade later.

27. "Hurt So Bad" Linda Ronstadt 18/ 23/ 8
Decent enough, but it's mostly about Ronstadt's impossible vocal acrobatics.

26. "Another Brick in the Wall" Pink Floyd 3/ 2/ 1
Maybe it was the goody two-shoes in me (I was even more hopelessly nerdy then than I am now), but at 10, I just couldn't fully get behind a song with the refrain "We don't need no education." Not only was it heretical but ungrammatical, too!

25. "Anyway You Want It" Journey 23/ 26/ 23
Escape was still one year away, and so was my interest in the band.

24. "Off the Wall" Michael Jackson 16/ 10/ 10
Better than I remember it being. Or maybe the recent posthumous Xscape has heightened my appreciation of his "real" work.

23. "You May Be Right" Billy Joel 12/ 9/ 7
I've always loved him in rock & roll mode. This was the first Billy Joel song that I actually knew as a Billy Joel song, though I may have heard it first on the TV commercials for The Chipmunk's Chipmunk Punk that same year. His previous Top 10s, "Just the Way You Are" and "My Life," were just songs by some singer that I heard everywhere, in cars, in malls and as the theme music to Bosom Buddies.

22. "And the Beat Goes On" The Whispers 28/ 19/ 19
I love The Whispers now, but at the time, it was really all about The Brothers Johnson for me.

21. "Breakdown Dead Ahead" Boz Scaggs 26/ 30/ 15
I love Boz, but like the good Dr. (Hook), he always seemed to be merely moonlighting as a singer, possibly because after three more Top 20 hits in 1980, he wouldn't release another single until 1988's "Heart of Mine."

20. "Funkytown" Lipps Inc 29/ 37/ 1
Of all the songs that hit No. 1 in 1980, I might have considered this to be the one least likely to be covered mid-decade by an Australian band (Pseudo Echo) and sent back into the Top 10.

19. "Him" Rupert Holmes 34/ 21/ 6
As rebound follow-ups credited to an artist you probably thought was a one-hit wonder -- via 1979's chart-topping "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)" -- go, one can do so much worse than "Him."

18. "Train in Vain" The Clash 38/ --/ 23
I never realized until this very moment that whenever I think of this song, I don't think of the Clash's original, the first of the seminal British punk band's two U.S. Top 40 hits, but of Annie Lennox's churchified remake from her 1995 covers album, Medusa. Take us to the river (to quote the Al Green classic that later became Talking Heads' first U.S. Top 40 single and another Medusa cover), indeed!

17. "Brass in Pocket" The Pretenders 25/ 29/ 14
It's hard to believe that despite releasing such fantastic singles as "Stop Your Sobbing," "Kid" and "Talk of the Town," The Pretenders only managed this one trip to the U.S. Top 40 until "Back on the Chain Gang" in 1982.

16. "Stomp!" The Brothers Johnson 24/ 28/ 7
I'm a sucker for an exclamation point in a song title -- a point (!!!) that Shania Twain would drive home again and again years later!!!

15. "Lost in Love" Air Supply 6/ 6/ 3
My first-ever favorite band (before I discovered Duran Duran, my second group love), though "Making Love Out of Nothing At All" and the spacey intro to "Sweet Dreams" aside, I don't love Air Supply's singles today as much as I did circa 1980 to 1983. I don't think I ever noticed how country this one sounds, which might be why I was so lost in love with it myself at the time.

14. "Too Hot" Kool and the Gang 14/ 11/ 5
A highlight of one of my first K-tel compilations, it oozed sex (even to my virgin 10-year-old ears), but was still so elegant and classy.

13. "I Can't Tell You Why" The Eagles 8/ 8/ 8
I remember hearing this on the radio all the time at the time and thinking it was the most eerie-beautiful thing ever. And I've always been a sucker for a gorgeous, moody outro.

12. "Biggest Part of Me" Ambrosia 17/ 24/ 3
Along with Dr. Hook's "Sexy Eyes," the final stand of the Sound of the Seventies. This has soft rock circa 1978 (my favorite year in music!) written all over it. It's no "How Much I Feel" (Ambrosia's actual 1978 hit), but then what is?

11. "With You I'm Born Again" Billy Preston and Syreeta 4/ 4/ 4
It's sort of cloying, almost psychedelic, and as soon as Syreeta opens her mouth, total magic.

10. "The Second Time Around" Shalamar 35/ 31/ 8
I can't listen to this song, or think about it, without imagining the trio dancing to it on Soul Train or American Bandstand. I'd venture out on a limb and say that Shalamar may have been the first act whose moves were as integral as the music, paving the way for Michael Jackson to moonwalk his way to iconhood. That's some legacy.

9. "Heart Hotels" Dan Fogelberg 33/ 40/ 21
A career highlight by an early '80s pleasure that was hardly guilty, one who, from this follow-up to his biggest hit ("Longer," dreadful) to 1983's "Make Love Stay" (heartbreaking, especially that key change near the end) made nary a questionable peep in Billboard's Top 40.

8. "How Do I Make You" Linda Ronstadt 30/ 18/ 10
I've loved this song for nearly three and a half decades and always knew it peaked at No. 10, but thanks to Casey, I now know that it spent three weeks there (joining Paul McCartney's "Take It Away" and Diana Ross's "Muscles" in the future club of songs that peaked at No. 10 and spent multiple weeks, as in more than two, there). I live to collect that kind of useless trivia.

7. "I Can't Help It" Andy Gibb and Olivia Newton-John 21/ 32/ 11
I was so jealous of the youngest brother Gibb because he got to sing with my beloved No. 1 pop crush, which goes to show how different things were then.

6. "Fire Lake" Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band 7/ 7/ 6
Words to live by. And I still do.

5. "Ride Like the Wind" Christopher Cross 2/ 3/ 2
This was Cross's debut single? I must have completely slept on it during its chart run. I'm pretty sure that "Sailing," the Grammy-winning (Record and Song of the Year) No. 1 follow-up, was the first thing I ever heard from him. According to Cross's Wikipedia entry, he wrote "Wind" while he was tripping on acid, which makes me love it a little more. I imagine that at the time, the song, which did exactly what its title described, must have given people the impression that Cross would be a totally different kind of artist, but Casey called it a "driving ballad," so maybe everyone knew exactly what they were in for.

4. "Don't Fall in Love with a Dreamer" Kenny Rogers and Kim Carnes 13/ 16/ 4
I absolutely hated this song in 1980 (I can recall the week it was No. 3 for the third time -- once again behind Ronnie Milsap's "My Heart" and Don Williams' "Good Ole Boys Like Me" -- like it was last week), so I'm not sure whether it's nostalgia or my changing taste in middle age that makes it one of my all-time favorite duets today. I remember thinking at the time, Who is that nobody singing with Kenny? She'd show me about a year later. ("More Love," her interim solo Top 10 hit between this and the monster that became "Bette David Eyes," was still a few months away.)

3. "Think About Me" Fleetwood Mac 20/ 22/ 20
It wasn't the giant radio hit that its Tusk predecessor, "Sara," was, and since I still mostly listened to country at the time, I completely missed it until half a decade later when I bought a used vinyl copy of Tusk. "Think About Me" remains my second or third favorite Fleetwood Mac single, after "Tusk" and perhaps "Big Love" (the latter depending on my mood), and the main reason why I thought the band was never the same without Christine McVie. (Welcome back, girl!)

2. "Cars" Gary Numan 22/ 25/ 9
This week in 1980 I was still just branching out from listening to mostly country music, and my taste in pop was still fairly middle of the road. I thought I was the coolest 10 year old on the planet for loving "the song with the robot feel" (according to Casey, who also dubbed Numan "the mechanical man"), which still sounds like nothing that came before it, with it, or in the years since.

1. "Working My Way Back to You/Forgive Me Girl (Medley)" The Spinners 11/ 9/ 2
As bridges between '70s disco and early '80s roller-rink soul go, it doesn't get better than The Spinners biggest hit that wasn't a 1974 No. 1 collaboration with Dionne Warwick called "Then Came You." You know you're dealing with a killer medley when you wouldn't dare try to play favorites with the parts of the sum. I've long considered The Spinners' decade-long run as a crossover hit-making act (seven Top 5 singles) to be one of the greatest triumphs of excellent taste on Billboard's Hot 100 circa 1970 to 1980, and this was the pinnacle of a chart career full of creative and commercial high points.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Sam Smith's Pop Rise: How a U.K. Soul Man Came Out and Still Became America's Next Top Idol

This tribute to Sam Smith on the day of his debut album's U.S. release is from my HuffPost Gay Voices blog.

"It's the singer, not the song," the band Survivor declared on its 1984 album Vital Signs. But as anyone who's ever perused a Billboard chart knows by now, good singers and good songs often finish last. And if any of those singers of any of those songs happens to be a gay man, more power -- and good luck -- to him. He'll need both.

Although the importance of being straight if you want to be a male pop star has been waning in recent years, music remains the one area where women have it better -- if they're gay. It's hard to imagine that the rainbow flag-waving up-with-gay-marriage sentiment of "Same Love," the 2012 rap single that featured a lesbian, Mary Lambert, singing the hook, would have resulted in a Grammy-nominated No. 11 hit if its headliners, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, weren't two straight guys. We haven't come that far. Not yet.

Adam Lambert hung on to his burgeoning fan base but only had modest success as a recording artist after coming out as a gay man in 2009, three weeks after coming in second on American Idol. Although his second album, 2012's Trespassing, made him the first openly gay singer to score a No. 1 album on Billboard's Top 200 chart, it didn't even go gold. Frank Ocean earned critical acclaim and Grammy attention after revealing that he'd once fallen in love with a man before the release of his 2012 debut album, channel ORANGE, but that didn't translate to blockbuster status for the merely gold-selling ORANGE or Jason DeRulo-sized hit singles.

George Michael and Elton John have enjoyed both critical acclaim and commercial hits, as has, to a lesser extent, Judas Priest's Rob Halford, but their heydays were well before they came out, as were the shorter pop-idol cycles of Ricky Martin, Clay Aiken, 'N Sync's Lance Bass and Kajagoogoo's Limahl. Freddie Mercury may hardly have been closeted at the height of Queen-mania, but he never publicly acknowledged being gay, not even as he lay dying of AIDS, and while the U.K. has been generally more accepting of its openly gay pop artists (see Boy George, Marc Almond, Jimmy Sommerville, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure's Andy Bell and Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Holly Johnson), most of those acts had spotty or fleeting chart runs in the U.S. America hasn't had a platinum-level male superstar who was openly gay during his commercial peak since Culture Club's in the early '80s.

That seems likely to change any week now, courtesy of Sam Smith, whose unrequited love for a man inspired his entire debut album, In the Lonely Hour. Like Boy George, he's a British blue-eyed soul singer who is anything but the norm, not because of his sexuality (which he has yet to officially define by hanging a label on it), or his physical appearance, but because his rise seems to have been imported from another era when stars were born, not manufactured.

In the Lonely Hour, out in the U.S. on June 17, is on track to make one of the splashiest debuts of the year. Outselling J. Lo, whose A.K.A. comes out the same day, is an almost foregone conclusion, thanks to an enviable ongoing run of hit singles. Last week, Smith appeared on three that were simultaneously in the Top 40 ofBillboard's Hot 100: "La La La," his 2014 collaboration with Naughty Boy that already peaked at No. 19 and is now at No. 41; "Latch," the 2013 Disclosure single on which he is the featured vocalist, which just rose five more notches to a new No. 17 high; and "Stay with Me," his gospel-soaked solo breakthrough that this week leapfrogs 19 to 10, becoming his first U.S. Top 10.

Look out, Iggy Azalea. Smith is coming for you, too. Like Azalea, the white Australian female rapper who has held down the top two spots on the Hot 100 for three weeks now, Smith is a foreigner riding a black American music form to the top. Also like Azalea, this "overnight sensation" has actually been years in the making.

Although Smith, at 22, is a part of the post-Idol generation, his early breaks came not through reality TV or social media, but rather, the old fashioned way, far from the maddening TV cameras, in front of fans who often came to see someone else. One fateful night, that would have been Adele. Smith met one of his managers in 2008 when he was opening for a then-emergent Adele in London. His subsequent rise has come in three stages.

1) Building underground buzz that slowly crossed over into the mainstream. Smith did it via "Latch" and "La La La," the latter of which hit No. 1 in the U.K. last year and was the sixth fastest-selling U.K. single of 2013. He maintained a crucial aura of mystique by not appearing in either video, remaining free to focus on perfecting his craft and not his public persona.

2) Getting on Saturday Night Live. It worked for Adele in October of 2008, when an SNL performance paved the road to smash status for her debut album, 19, which had spent months logging modest but not remarkable success. Smith landed his own plum performing spot on the March 29 SNL more than two months before the U.S. release of his album.

3) Coming out. Frankly, when Smith revealed last month in Fader magazine that In the Lonely Hour was inspired by his unrequited love for a man, things could have gone either way, even in a celebrity climate where Michael Sam and Tom Daley have recently made it safer to be young, gifted and gay. His revelation was met with a collective shrug while raising his profile and his singles to greater heights.

But still, why Smith and not Adam Lambert, who at one point seemed to be as poised on the verge as Smith is now? Timing, for one thing. Acceptance of gays has evolved in the five years since Lambert was the American Idol runner-up, with gay marriage no longer an out-of-reach dream but a reality in more than half the U.S. states, and television brimming with gay representation.

Also, unlike Lambert, Smith undersells himself. There's no flash, no attention-grabbing antics, no controversy. (Lambert infamously kissed a male member of his band and shoved the face of another into his crotch while performing at the American Music Awards in 2009.) It's hard to imagine baby-faced Smith making anyone squirm.

In the Lonely Hour , already a No. 1 hit in the U.K., is just a singer and his songs, and the street cred is pouring in. Years ago, Mary J. Blige's then-label, MCA Records, blocked the release of her duet with George Michael on a cover of Stevie Wonder's "As" from release in the U.S. allegedly because of concerns over how his sexuality would affect her image. Now when she appears on the Darkchild remix of "Stay with Me," it makes her look cooler.

It also helps that Smith, unlike Michael at his closeted '80s peak, isn't pushing a sexual agenda with his image or with his music. "I'm not a centerfold," Frank Ocean told Rolling Stone shortly after his own coming out. "I'm not trying to sell you sex." That could easily apply to Smith, too. He's like a British Bruno Mars, sexless in a sensible suit, the perfect non-threatening blue-eyed soulful package.

Had Smith come out of the starting gate with a boyfriend in tow, flaunting Jason DeRulo's taut exposed six-pack and oozing sex appeal, would his transatlantic crossing have been as smooth? I'm not sure that mainstream pop fans are ready for a gay male superstar who wears his sexuality on his shirtless torso, or in his videos the way Robin Thicke and Justin Timberlake recently have. Adam Lambert sold sex as flamboyance (no wonder the surviving members of Queen love him -- Freddie Mercury excelled at this), making it perhaps more palatable for straights (his AMAs stunt aside) who were okay with gay people but not necessarily gay sexuality, and the follow-ups to his first few singles still tanked.

By embracing understatement in both his music ("Stay with Me" might be the stateliest, most polite song on the charts) and his image (even his generic alliterative name practically screams "DON'T STARE!"), Smith is poised to go where no British man or woman has managed to go since Adele. And he's doing it in much the same way, without glitter and noise. So many other promising careers have been crushed for emphasizing talent over image, but in a nice pop twist, that might be the secret to Smith's success, the very thing that's made his sexuality a footnote and his pop domination all but imminent.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Songs About Rain

I'll always have a soft spot for Martín, perhaps the most significantly recurring name during my nearly six-year love-to-love/hate affair with Buenos Aires, though I don't believe I ever actually dated one. Coincidentally, as I write this blog post, there's a Sunday-afternoon Martin marathon on South African TV -- '90s black entertainment is everything here -- but neither Martin nor Martíns are the main point of this post. Bear with me, though.

I met my favorite Martín one Sunday night by the upstairs bar in Amerika in early 2006, at the end of my third holiday in BA. He'd go on to become my second Argentine friend (the first: another Martín, naturally, one whom I met halfway through my first BA trip). Martín No. 2 was sweet, cute, an excellent kisser, a fellow May baby, and unlike Martín No. 1, he spoke English. Though he moved to Madrid probably around the halfway point of my four and a half years in BA, he's someone with whom I still connect at least twice a year, on my birthday and 12 days later, on his.

He once told me about the time he went to an outdoor Madonna concert and somehow got separated from his friends. As panic set in, the sky swelled with rain and it began to pour down. Cue "Rain." It was a literal watershed moment. From then on, "Rain" was his favorite Madonna song.

I now let his slip in good taste slide because although I've never cared for that Madonna song, Martín was the one who got me to appreciate another one, "Isaac" on Confessions on the Dance Floor. I didn't care for it until he called it his personal highlight on Confessions, encouraging me to reconsider its merit. It's still not my favorite on Confessions (which is still my favorite Madonna album), but since "Like It Or Not" is the closing track, I no longer have to skip over anything on it. Martín didn't sell me on "Rain," but I knew it could be so much worse. His favorite Madonna song could have been "I Want You," her Ambien-strength 1995 collaboration with Massive Attack, a lowlight of her late-'90s hyper-serious monochromatic phase.

But getting back to rain (the meteorological event, not the song, and the real point of this post), though God's green earth can't live without it, I certainly can. It may provide the perfect excuse to spend a lazy day inside eating comfort food and watching bad TV, but it gets old fast. I have no idea what it was about rainy nights that drove the late Eddie Rabbitt to write a 1981 No. 1 country and pop hit about them. I love a rainy night only when I sleep through it, and the sun comes up in the morning.

I've been told to get used to rainy nights (and days) in Cape Town, though, at least for the next two and a half months, for winter is rainy season. It's not like I haven't lived through rainy seasons recently, but in Southeast Asia, where it's more or less summer all year long, running in the rain, which I've done exactly once, can be an enjoyable experience.

In drafty wintry Cape Town, it would simply be an unpleasant thing to do because you'd have to bundle up even more than usual. Sure I chuckle to myself when Capetonians complain about the cold and overdress the part -- Cape Town's average winter highs and lows would almost qualify as beach-friendly in New York -- but I think they might be reacting not to the wind chill but to the frequent rain, which probably seems more frequent than it actually is because of its timing.

If it weren't for rain's environmental benefits (which became so apparent to me while driving through the Namibian desert last month) and its cleansing properties (both literal and figurative), I might have no use for it at all. It's not like I really need an excuse to spend the day indoors. Oh, but without rain, what great music we all would have missed out on: "Cloudbusting" by Kate Bush, "Let the Rain Come Down" by Toni Childs, "Summer Rain" by Belinda Carlisle, "A Day Without Rain" by Enya, and the following 10 rainy-day classics.

"Songs About Rain" Gary Allan

"Rainy Night in Georgia" Brooke Benton

"Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" Willie Nelson

"The Rains Came" Freddy Fender

"Crying in the Rain" Tammy Wynette (and The Everly Brothers and a-ha)

"It's Raining Again" Supertramp

"I Can't Stand the Rain" Tina Turner

"Rain in the Summertime" The Alarm

"In the Rain" Keith Sweat

"Prayers for Rain" The Cure