Friday, February 27, 2009

Cat on a Hot Tin Pan Alley Roof

Everywhere you look there's more hurt for the music industry. Rather, more hurt for large recording labels. A recent article from Encore refers to a lawsuit by Eminem's publishing company, FBT Productions, against Universal Music Group in regards to unpaid royalties from digital downloads. The $1.6 million sum is rather unimpressive as far as industry lawsuits go. What matters it the resounding effects of the lawsuit's outcome. The debate is whether digital downloading falls under licensing or distribution royalties. Being that (legal) digital downloading is relatively new there has yet to be any clear definition on the subject, but one of the things you will notice about the above article is how Steve Jobs pops into the picture. Jobs' presence in music lawsuits is ominous yet comforting, much like witnessing a vision of the virgin mother in your taco platter from Burrito Boy. Jobs has been using Apple's sway to control the flow of royalties in the music business for a few years now. Jobs hotly contested a motion to increase iTunes royalties paid to publishing companies by $.06 per song, a number Apple contests would render iTunes a liability rather than an asset. Another important influence he's had is the controlled rate of download at $.99 per song. This is a number that the RIAA has been contesting for years and yet is still a number that Jobs fails to budge upon.

What does this mean? When the hottest artist in the businss, Justin Timberlake, disappoints with first week sales of 700,000 instead of immediate platinum status, it convinces people just how prevalent digital downloading has become. When the RIAA announces that it can no longer support litigation costs against downloaders and has thus decided to drop all such lawsuits it means that circumstances have spun out of the RIAA's control, and that the public has loudly resounded popular music is not worth paying for (a sentiment hotly contested with the mixed results of Radiohead's In Rainbows release). Consider that the recording industry has no control over how much to charge over this new consumption idiom and we see how the traditional music industry model is spiraling out of control. Sadly, the recession-proof entertainment industry is feeling the hurt like the rest of us. After years of legislation and contract models favoring the big business practices of record companies we are now coming to a point where it will become less and less profitable to maintain a major record label. With tools like MySpace, Garage Band, iTunes, ReverbNation, and a host of other digital DIY services you too can become a successful performing artist, and without giving the majority of your earnings to big business. I hope this ushers in a new era of the working artist, where musicians can support themselves by doing what musicians have done best all along: performing to the masses. Look for new and innovative ways musicians choose to market themselves, as it will likely be the means with which new popularity is established.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Medical School is Just OK

“How’s medical school going?” That’s a common question, and I don’t think I have the most cheerful answer. Maybe my bitter honest sentiments were strengthened by living in Ukraine- where one never responds to an inquiry with “Great!” or “Good.” I can’t bring myself to respond that medical school is “cool” or “amazing.” The best word that comes to mind lately is “ok.”

Yes, just ok. Why just ok? Well, has anyone ever told you that medical school was the best time of their life? I doubt it. That’s because it’s really pretty hard. Medical school hard- that’s no surprise, right? It seems that many medical students must be a special breed of people that thrive on academic torture as much as helping others. Indeed, there has to be a high level of willingness to sacrifice, delay gratification, and self-discipline for students in this odd regime, and it’s no cheerful matter.

The US medical education system is undoubtedly an “odd” thing to take part in. First of all, there are the prerequisites and admissions—basic science classes, the dreaded $250+ MCAT, the expense of submitting an AMCAS online application, and the drawn out selection process which can last from June of one year until August of the following year. It’s a self-selecting process that fills all applicants with self-doubt, and often a competitive mindset. Is this what it takes to become a recognized, practicing healer in our country? Being a basic science wiz, having a lot of money, and knowing how to get ahead of others? What about kindness or compassion?

I recently read an article, “Most Likely to Succeed“ in the December 2008 New Yorker magazine in which Michael Gladwell explores how difficult and unpredictable the NFL quarterback selection process has been. He writes, “There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired.” He goes on to make a connection to medical admissions saying, “We now realize that being a good doctor requires the ability to communicate, listen, and empathize—and so there is increasing pressure on medical schools to pay attention to interpersonal skills as well as to test scores. We can have better physicians if we’re just smarter about how we choose medical-school students.”

It’s true—there is a new movement in medical education to select people who have done community service, and who show dedication to humanitarianism in their essay and interviews. In fact, I think this is probably the reason that I was accepted to medical school. Yet, most schools continue to value the test scores and basic sciences just as highly as humanistic skills.

The result is that I am surrounded by amazing people- who I deeply admire—but who also happen to have trouble breaking out of the competitive and over-achieving mindset. I occasionally am drowned by this sentiment myself. For example, after a recent exam, I found myself unable to hold back tears. Meanwhile, I made myself feel worse because logically I knew how stupid it was for me to be crying over my grades. I know that as life challenges go—this one is not so bad.

For most people I study with, it seems being in medical school is the most important part of their lives. What’s the problem with that? Well, maybe nothing if you think that Dr. House is the best doctor ever. Personally, I’d prefer a well-balanced doctor who cared about me—even if it meant delaying the right diagnosis. But I think many Americans might choose the cynical, distant, and brilliant physician, if they had a choice.

This past month of rigorous anatomy, physiology, development, physical diagnosis, and pathology—has not given me much time to ponder about my solutions to choosing good future physicians. I briefly considered using “shoe-selection” as a qualification (those wearing practical, but professional shoes during their interview would receive high marks in this category). However, ultimately changing future physicians would require a change in curriculum as well as admissions.

I would change the amount of basic science material covered to include less of these sciences, and more classes about public health, social work, and practical skills. I would also have less multiple-choice testing, and more options to extend medical school to 5-6 years, instead of just 4. I would try to admit some regular achievers along with the high achievers, out of which more people might be satisfied with general medicine rather than the highest specialty possible (although some argue that students choose specialties for the salary, maybe it has to do with personalities). Medical students currently are not the type to be satisfied with anything less than the best, most, and highest they can be- which is causing a huge shortage in primary care and family doctors.

My medical school is even supposedly non-competitive, and encourages the importance of listening and personal connection more than other schools. I am especially honored to be surrounded by many great physician role-models who act differently from most medical norms. My recent family practice mentor challenged my notions of American doctors by being extremely personal—making jokes and always hugging people when appropriate. She was so gifted, and developed a deep bond with patients—one that I dream of having someday too.

Yet, my days as a first year are normally so far removed from this type of experience. This semester has been more fulfilling than last one with anatomy and physical diagnosis being more hands-on and interactive than my previous courses. However, I am still bogged down by the exams, especially tonight. And I must remind myself constantly—like a mantra—that two years of classroom time is nothing compared to a career full of clinical joy, and the opportunity to get deeply involved in people’s health—something that’s special and sacred work. And maybe… just maybe… I will hold on to some sense of happiness, balance, and idealism, even if medical school is just ok.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"How To Avoid Evolution in 2,408 Years; Chapter 1"

"'... Good Sir, you are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation and honours as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul?' Then, if one of you disputes this and says he does care, I shall not let him go at once or leave him, but I shall question him, examine him and test him, and if I do not think he has attained the goodness that he says he has, I shall reproach him because he attaches little importance to the most important things and greater importance to inferior things. I shall treat in this way anyone I happen to meet, young and old, citizen and stranger, and more so the citizens because you are more kindred to me. Be sure that this is what the god orders me to do, and I think there is no greater blessing for the city than my service to the god. For I go around doing nothing but persuading both young and old among you not to care for your body or your wealth in preference to or as strongly as for the best possible state of your soul, as I say to you: 'Wealth does not bring about excellence, but excellence makes wealth and everything else good for men, both individually and collectively.'"

- excerpt from 29d through 30b of "Apology" from The Trial and Death of Socrates by Plato. Translated by G.M.A. Grube.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The State of Things (a.ka pop culture today)

There was a running joke a few years back poking fun at the sudden flood of band names such as The Hives, The Editors, The Subways etc. – the joke went that if the band had a name that started with ”The” and a plural ”Somethings”, it was a pretty safe bet that you were in for a ride of late 1970’s/early 1980’s new waveish rock á la Joy Division.

In the Indie Rock scene, that name trend may have subsided, but the New Wave ”disco rock” sound is stronger than ever with bands like Interpol and We Are Scientists. Ironically the indie scene should be a trendsetter and show a way forward, yet it’s busy aping the past like there’s no yesterday (no pun intended).

And if that’s the case in the supposedly spearheading indie scene, surely things must be all kinds of wrong in the stuff that dominates the charts?

And if you ask me, they are. Personally, I can’t remember a time when ”mainstream” pop/rock music was this bland, uninspired, calculated and formulaic.

What was the point in time when mainstream music stopped being, you know, good? Personal tastes aside, there was a time when Duke Ellington was mainstream. James Brown. Stevie Wonder, The Beatles, The Stones… When the so called ”pop music” used to be on the level of, say, Michael Jackson’s ”Off The Wall” or ”Thriller”, instead of mindless fluff like let’s say, Hilary Duff. Hey, that rhymes.

What was the point in time when the music being put out started being dictated by the tastes of Disney tweens (and/or their parents), and clueless people who always listen to the music that’s ”popular”? Case in point: adults literally camping out to buy Hannah Montana tickets for themselves, not for their kids.

In 1973, Madison Square Garden was sold out by a little band called Led Zeppelin. In 2008, it was the Jonas Brothers.

In an MTV comedy show the writers wanted to make a reference to Bob Dylan. The producers were against it, because according to them the MTV audience wouldn’t have a clue who Bob Dylan is. The fact that most of MTV’s daily lineup consists of various ”reality” type TV shows might have something to do with it.

In general as well, you have to be actively seeking ”good music” (whatever that is), because it sure doesn’t dominate the charts anymore. Sometimes I feel people’s behavior these days resembles that of a group of lemmings, who will watch ”Sneezing Panda” on Youtube for 24 million times (literally, and growing) because there’s a common mindset that it’s funny and something that keeps us entertained for the few seconds it lasts. Or maybe it’s just another form of being lazy. Instead of spending the energy to actively seek something for yourself, enjoying the joy of discovery in the process, it’s easier when Seth MacFarlane offers it to you on a silver platter in a Family Guy episode.

It’s easy not to think anymore. Thinking is overrated, the way to operate in today’s world is coming up with a right combination of words to google with. You don’t even have to bother spelling, Google corrects you if you were just in the ballpark.

YouTube has gained an unexpected role of an educator in matters of all pop culture. Without it, teens might never know that the catchy horn riff Kanye West used a few years back is actually from a Curtis Mayfield song, or that the main hook of that Gym Class Heroes track is actually straight from a Supertramp song. This sometimes results in hilarious confrontations in the Comments section of the site, when advocates of the sampling artist come marching in somehow claiming that the new version – which wouldn’t exist, hadn’t it been for the original song - somehow outweighs the song it borrows from. The site is also filled with a worryingly large number of kids’ cover versions of such classics as the ”Angry Video Game Nerd” theme.

One outfit in particular has been busy showcasing almost a complete lack of any creativity whatsoever, the already mentioned Gym Class Heroes. Sampling is hardly anything new, but when your only creative thing to do is changing the lyrics from ”we don’t have to take our clothes off” (a 80’s single by Jermaine Stewart) to ”we just have to take our clothes off” – with chart success - there’s something seriously wrong.

Hollywood’s hardly any better. The movie industry is busy putting out movies that are either re-living the past (currently the 1960’s and 1980’s it seems), the mistakes of the very present (countless movies chronicling the build-up to the still ongoing war in Iraq, like “In The Loop”, or quite a few about American soldiers’ actions in Baghdad); and perhaps the most obvious example: the numerous remakes (latest offenders: The Day The Earth Stood Still starring Keanu; the forthcoming Karate Kid starring Will Smith’s son; The Graduate remake possibly with Demi Moore and Justin Timberlake).

The point of all this? I think I’m just mad at myself for spending another five minutes watching “laughing baby” or “Chocolate Rain” on YouTube once again, and not doing anything creative.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Brazilian Girls Review

Originally published on Fábrika, 02/03/09.

Pop music has always been an international creature. Easy as it is for America to lionize its role in what has become a global phenomenon, every corner of the world has added something unique to popular music as it’s gone through its violent evolution. Pop the world over owes (African-)American music a huge debt of gratitude. But pop builds on itself; it adapts to new climates and cultures. Led Zeppelin in England wouldn’t have been who they were without Robert Johnson’s wailing conversations with the Devil in the American South; the Germans and the Japanese made an enormous contribution to today’s electronic pop world, although at the time Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra were perceived by many to be bizarre novelty acts from brainy countries. In other words, the roots of global pop are American, but pop music has a well-stamped passport—it has been to many places.

The same can be said of NY-based Brazilian Girls’ third record, the appropriately titled “New York City.” In many ways, this collection - like the band (who for the record doesn’t have any Brazilians and only one girl) - is simply a musical travelogue. It is self-consciously obsessed with place, and indeed this is the Brazilian Girls’ greatest charm. In their hands, languages and styles commingle in a brilliantly colored kaleidoscope of international locations. Vocalist Sabina Sciubba regularly sings in six different languages. The band itself seems a tribute to the concept of the “genius loci,” what ancient Romans called the spirit of a place.

Take the opening cut, “St. Petersburg.” In this groovy, bossa nova-infused, dreamy tune, Sciubba narrates a trip though the Baltic metropolis. On an album called “New York City,” by a band called the “Brazilian Girls,” we enter into a musical vignette on a Russian city. On the darkly plodding dance track “Internacional” later in the album, the theme of place takes its most fevered and obsessive form: the lyrics to this one are simply a list of international cities spoken in a seductive, smoky, and foreign-accented tongue. The sexiness of this cut carries a potent message: “Internacional” is a celebratory fetishization of cosmopolitanism.

The record is a wooly tangle of different sounds and approaches. Highlights include “Good Time,” a hummable, instantly loveable dance tune with surreal lyrics (“Some people want to do crazy things in green amphibians…”); “Berlin,” a brass filled, schmaltzy waltz that would be at home in Kurt Weill’s Weimar Germany; and “L’Interprete,” a surprisingly intimate, vulnerable, and stunningly beautiful French ballad.

All this veering between different languages and countries can leave one feeling jet-lagged and dislocated. A critic of the band might argue that all this travel negates itself: in the end, you’re nowhere. But there’s a playful lightness to the record that buoys the spirit despite their occasional forays into hipster cosmopolitan chic. After all, you can always take a Red Bull in the airport en route to another adventure.