Monday, April 30, 2007

Critical Mass - Pedal Powered Justice

The climax of the ride occurred just outside Golden Gate Park in the setting sun as the entire operation stopped at the intersection of Kezar and Stanyan where cyclists hoisted bicycles over their heads and pumped their bike-filled fists in the air and let out a jubilant roar. A denouement along Haight Street brought me and my bicycle back home and took many other riders back down town where the ride eventually ended in the city's cycling mecca - the Mission.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Covering Irony, the New Irreverent Mashup

Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols. It is an epistemological study concerned with the connection betwee sign and referent. The principles of semiotics gave birth to one of the most powerful film movements and tools - montage editing. A bit of a redundancy, montage editing makes editing the defining tool and aesthetic of film. While classical Hollywood editing strives to be invisible, to hide the artifice, montage editing does just the opposite. Montage works to show work. Jarring edits juxtapose two disparate images to create new meaning only understood by the comparison of two images.

The modern musical mashup seems like the obvious aural corollary. An artist takes two songs and in mashing them together juxtaposes their vocals, rhythms, and harmonies and creates something entirely new. But mashups are yesterday's musical zeitgeist. It was years ago that Danger Mouse was making New York Times headlines with his then groundbreaking Grey Album. And even The New Yorker jumped on and picked their favorite mashup hits.

But today, in the age of YouTube, it seems that the ironic and satirical cover is the way to make a musical statement. YouTube, designed for video dialog, has ushered in a new era of collaborative satire, criticism, and expression (potentially covered under "fair use" depending on your reading of the DMCA).

While YouTube is littered with teeny-boppers lip-syncing to the latest pop chart toppers there are some gems that take this medium to the level of art (and maybe Art). Black Eyed Peas' "My Humps" is a prime example for both camps. The popular podcast sitcom The 'Burg did a great cover of Will.I.Am's booty bumper. The juxtaposition of the hipster's utter disdain for pop culture and the enthusiasm with which they mouth Fergie's words is hilarious but it isn't until Jed's entrance that things really get started. Apparently Fergie didn't find it funny, and it has been pulled from YouTube but it can still be found on The 'Burg's site.

More recently there was Alanis Morissette's cover and spoof of the original "My Humps" video. Without listening to the lyrics one might think that this was actually an Alanis song. But it is that discrepancy that reveals how ridiculous the lyrics really are. Still, she manages to make you smile as opposed to cringe as she moans "my hump my hump my hump my humps, they got yoooooouuu..." over a melodic piano.

This sort of ironic cover has been Ben Folds' bread and butter for some time. Applying his massive musical talent, Folds is able to reduce any musical composition down to it most basic elements. And when you strip away the produced beats and predictable cadence of an early Dr. Dre song what do you have left? A tale of misogyny, racism, and chauvinism! Ben Folds' cover of Dre's "Bitches A'int Shit" revels in the hateful language and casual violence, all the way down to the single's album art (which is available on iTunes). The YouTube version is complete with an entire bleacher section of strumming acoustic guitars as Ben Folds sweetly whispers into his mic "Tight than a mutharfucka with the gangsta beats, And we was ballin' on the muthafuckin' Compton streets." And to get meta, make sure you check out UC Berkley's DeCadence's cover of Folds' cover.

The ironic cover is a powerful musical tool. Moving songs across genres reveals a lot about the original song's composition and meaning that otherwise would not have been explored. Add links to your favorite ironic covers in the comments, but I think we've all heard the blue grass cover of "Gin and Juice."

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Tentacled Memories

Few things are more alien yet more comprehensible than tentacles. They are simple, fluid, and mysterious. All of the scariest sea and space monsters are covered in them and wield them with terrifying and strategic force. The tentacle possesses an eerie autonomy, each limb operating independently to protect the entire self. Tentacles wrap, rip, and rend. Some of the oldest creatures on the planet possess them and have evolved some of the world's most complex nervous systems to control a dozen deft and delicate appendages.

I have not had good experiences with tentacles. Growing up with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea I have always been wary of tentacled creatures that lurk in the deep. However, all the apprehensions and lessons Captain Nemo taught me were suddenly lost one afternoon in the brilliant and iridescent turquoise shimmer of a Portuguese Man o' War.

I was five years old and visiting my grandmother on Marco Island, Florida. As a natural born collector, I loved scouring the Gulf Coast beach, a veritable treasure trove of knick-knacks, detritus, and baubles for a five year old. I often meandered down the beach, away from my parents' rainbow umbrella, and would gathered shells, stones, and sea glass in a green plastic pail, dropping each trinket in with a satisfying clack.

And so, it was with pail in hand, and hundreds of yards between me and my parents, that I came across the Man 'o War, Physalia phsalis, a siphonophore, technically not a jellyfish but a symbiotic colony of polyps. The creature, with its helmet shaped air bladder and silly-string tentacles, bobbed in the shallows, slowly being pushed to its own death by the lapping waves on the sandy shore. With pail still clutched in one hand, I splashed over to my most recent nautical discovery. In the bright Floridian sun I bent down and moved to scoop up the coruscating creature with my free hand and just as I made contact another wave came lapping up on shore and pushed the gelatinous polyp colony up against the entire right side of my body.

The pain was instant and excruciating. I recoiled, shrieking in agony, but it was too late. The Man o' War's tentacles and body had slapped up against my body, sinking poison into my leg, chest, and arm. As I writhed and wailed in the sand, my pail of treasures left in the ocean, a group of concerned septuagenarian Marco Islanders gathered around me, baffled and worried about the convulsing youth before them. At some point soon thereafter I remember my father's arms scooping me up and conveying me to the nearest lifeguard hut. All I recall from the lifeguards was that their floor was far less soothing to writhe on that the hot sand of the beach. Nearly blacking out from pain, I next returned to consciousness in the emergency room. While it is generally known that vinegar (and, in a pinch, urine) denatures many aquatic venoms, the sure fire way to remove the stingers of many seafaring creatures is a razor. And so, at the tender age of five, I found my vinegar doused and hairless body being shaved to pull out the poison-filled nematocysts still injecting toxins into my system.

The rest of the story becomes hazy as the pain wore off and the Benadryl kicked in. I remember "napping" when we got home for many hours. When I awoke I was rewarded for my "bravery" that day with a dinner at the local Chinese restaurant, as Chinese food was, and still is, my favorite type of cuisine. And so, one Man o' War and several dumplings later, I considered the day a net gain.

To this day tentacles terrify and fascinate me. My curiosity has moved up the evolutionary ladder to starfish, octopuses, and the ever elusive squid. These alien creatures of the deep with their uniquely powerful and foreign appendages, have existed for millennia virtually unchanged. I'd love to go to the depths and visit them, hopefully with less catastrophic consequences than my Man o' War encounter.

(photo courtesy of Rory Gawler, taken of me at the Georgia Aquarium, 4.1.07)