Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Obsessing about nothing.

Disclaimer: another rant on the way!

This post is inspired by a recent news story (be it true or false), that one Kim Kardashian is reportedly enjoying a paycheck of a staggering $10,000 per tweet. There apparently is an ad agency called Ad.Ly (but of course there is) specializing in paying hefty sums to celebrities, who in exchange mention brand names and products such as Nestlé in their tweets. According to the story, people such as VH1’s Dr Drew, star DJ Samantha Ronson and The Hills’ Lauren Conrad are some of the recipients.

That has got to be the most outrageous way to throw away money I’ve ever heard – the absolute pinnacle of idiocy. If this isn’t one sign that this world is soon meeting its demise in an apocalypse of biblical proportions, I don’t know what is.

Let’s just recap: Kim Kardashian is a young woman, whose only claim to fame comes from exactly two things: a kinky sex tape with the rapper Ray J, and her buxom backside. She’s already a brand in itself, like Paris Hilton (the pioneer), without having any particular talent. She’s someone, who has literally made a career (and a substantial living along the way) out of promoting this brand by just appearing in every event and gala imaginable. These days, she is such an attention magnet, that she is reportedly earning a cool $50,000 for just appearing at a party in Vegas.

As a phenomenon, is this obsessing-about-nothing or famous-for-being-famous culture unique to this time, or has it existed before? There have been fame seekers, people vying for that elusive 15 minutes of fame in all modern times, but surely not to this extent? In my native Finland there’s even an annual poll of ”the most worthless celebrities of the year”.

Whether it’s the Kardashians or the spoiled brats of The Hills (who by the way earn around $100,000 per a single episode, for ”living their lives”, when even all the childish drama is written by MTV screenwriters) – it’s not hard to understand their motivation, especially taking into consideration the amount of money that’s at their grasp. What I don’t understand is the media’s and the regular people’s relentless desire to keep on obsessing about these starlets, keep on buying their merchandise and so on.

Is it an unevitable fact that if these people’s ”lives” (As we all know, as a term, heavily scripted reality TV is a paradox in itself) are forced down your throat long enough, [these celeb wannabes] eventually will be crowned as worthy of all that adulation? And that this in turn opens them career opportunities such as becoming a singer or a ”fashion designer” (as in the case of Lauren Conrad), without any qualifications other than their celebrity status?

I think what’s unique to the whole reality TV culture, is that now, entire careers are built out of that 15 minutes, often based on quite dubious merits in the first place. For children and teens growing up in these times, ”a celebrity” – and especially in the sense of being famous for no particular talent whatsoever – has become a profession, a reachable goal, something to pursue no matter what it takes. In fact, forget celebrity – ”reality star” is apparently an apt profession in itself, as witnessed hilariously on such starlets who appear on Celeb Rehab With Dr Drew. I think ”American Idol finalist” would be pushing the term ”celebrity” a bit anyway.

In the early days of Twitter mania – which seems like ages ago, even though it reached its mass popularity just this past year, didn’t it – the media was keen to follow which account would be the first to have a million followers. That particular rivalry was fought between…Aston Kutcher and CNN. That’s right, that kid from Punk’d and the world’s biggest news provider. Eventually, and not that surprisingly really, CNN famously lost the race. In essence, people care more about a celebrity’s carefree life and the meaningless drivel that are common Twitter updates, than the news. These days, it isn’t uncommon for public figures such as that great philosopher, Shaquille O'Neal, to have millions upon millions of followers.

Maybe I’m just cynical. I can hear someone saying, it’s just entertainment. Fluff, to take your mind off the burden that is modern living.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Personal Finance Guide: A Review

Recently, my wife and I began to put together our first real budget.  We have paid all of our debt and we would like to begin saving a substantial amount of money so that we can one day put down a large down payment on a house.

Since we have been focused on finances recently, we have both been doing research.  My wife is reading a book written by "America's Cheapest Family," in order to get ideas on how to reduce our grocery bills and to write a great yearly budget.  I on the other hand continue to listen to one of my favorite radio shows on NPR, Market Place Money(if you haven't listened to this show you have to podcast it! [ ]), but I've also started looking into other sources of great information on the web.  One the recent finds that I really like is a blog titled, Personal Finance Guide:  Professional Guide to Your Personal Finance, and you can find it here:

 The site is very easy to navigate and if you are having any financial problems or questions, it has very direct answers that are easily understandable to the average layman.  The blog covers a wide variety of topics.  Things like loans, bankruptcy, real estate, dealing with college financially, investing, and how to save money.  One of the things that I really liked was that it broke down different types investment strategies into simple terms.  For instance, I was reading about the basics of stock trading (a dirty business if you ask me and one I equate to white collar gambling, but my wife says I can use the money we have in our Scott Trade account and play with it) and also the basics of bonds.  I knew very little about bonds before reading the explanation there, but I feel a little more comfortable with the concept now.

If you are interested in financial matters,  The Personal Finance Guide is an excellent place to find answers. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Thoughts About Universal Health Care

There are a few important health topics that I did not expect to learn about during my first two years of medical school. One such issue is the multitude of cases when a patient’s symptoms don’t follow the statistically predicted “textbook” course. Another example is the legal dilemmas doctors face while contemplating their practices. However, one matter that is particularly overlooked is a knowledge about the US healthcare system.

This month, a discussion about healthcare emerged as the topic of my ethics small group. Sixty minutes and three articles later, I am not sure how much I gained. One thing that I know for sure- my thirst for knowledge and conversation on this topic is currently much bigger than that for osteology of the skull.

Intellectually and morally, I do not simply want to acknowledge the fact that our health care system needs repair. I want to come up with my own plausible idea that could actually function to make it better. This is a task that no state or country government has been able to perfectly address, so it requires a lot of assessment.

In fact, I’ve been thinking about it for years- even before I decided to go to medical school. The first time I heard of the idea of universal health care, I was a college sophomore attending an event about local NGO organizations looking for volunteers. One such group was advocating “health care for all!” As a young middle-class person who had been covered by my father’s employer for my whole life, it seemed like a strange idea. I never perceived a problem with getting access to care, even despite some complicated medical problems during my youth.

When I later spoke with my father by phone (my main sounding-board for verifying new intellectual ideas), he said, “Oh sure! Of course we should have a national health plan. Don’t you know that every industrialized country except the US provides health care?” His comments rattled me. I felt like I had when I realized that the USA was one of the only countries in the world that allowed the death penalty. Suddenly, the visions of my dad opening letters from the insurance companies with total frustration and dismay poured into my mind. Because I had never personally had a problem with health care, I assumed it wasn’t a big issue.

Furthermore, when I graduated from college a few years later, I thought it would be alright to go three months uninsured as I transitioned from my parents plan to an employer’s plan that I would be eligible for after 90 days. I realized I was wrong about that too when my mother passionately exclaimed that in one moment a car could swipe me off a street corner and cause damage of millions and millions of dollars. Whew! Ok, I conceded.

That fall I had a bicycling accident that took me to the emergency room for x-rays and pain medication. I fractured my olecranon (that means “elbow” in anatomy language), and according to my little brother, had a swollen face that made me look like a monkey, Needless to say, I was humbled as I realized that my life could have been a total disaster had a not been insured.

Fast forward to now, and I am completely convinced the USA needs some type of national plan. I’m not convinced that the health care situation is the worst in the world. After all, we have a good education system, lots of research and experimental treatments, access to anything available if you have resources, and knowledgable doctors who don’t take bribes (as a side not, if you want to read something about the bribe-driven medical system in Eastern Europe to make you feel the USA isn’t so bad after all, see this NYT article).

Actually, the US already has a national plan, but it is disorganized and unrecognized. Medicaid and Medicare provide payment for over 50% of the medical costs in our nation, a number, a number that's about 15.2% of our GNP,as well as the capital which insurance companies pay. All prisoners, soldiers, Peace Corps Volunteers and veterans legally have access to free medical care.

I visited a veterans hospital in Nebraska this winter, and was surprised by the advanced computer-systems- which provide information about any veteran to a variety of hospitals in the region. My own doctor’s office won’t even share within the building. Whether Medicaid or health care systems for prisoners work as well as the veterans system is debatable. However, my own grandparents are receiving plenty of medical treatment (even more than my grandmother can rationalize) covered under their Medicare plan.

The problem is that health care costs are sky-rocketing— the graph shows a sharp line upward, even with all other factors, such as income and inflation, adjusted. I’ve heard that Medicare won’t be left to cover my generation. Additionally, the costs have risen so much that a growing number of insured people are unable to access care and pay their medical bills. This has raised the awareness about creating a national plan—or reorganizing the current plans as the case may be—and I firmly believe that in the next few years we will see some major changes.

According to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 25, healthcare IS a right. But whether or not it is a right, we can all agree that morally a government should provide some care for those who can’t afford it. For example, we provide food stamps to those who qualify (maybe it’s not the best nutrition, but the US government gives people food). Our taxes pay for a fire service, regardless of who has fires. They also pay for public schools, even if we don’t have children or send our kids to private schools. So, why not also expand the idea to provide some type of basic care, which would exist as a free option to those who need it? Nobody would be forced to go there. Doctors wouldn’t be forced to work there. And nobody would take away the private care or insurance companies that already exist. It would be an option (and actually I think I’d be honored to work there helping people who really need the care).

However, I’m afraid that the only steps the US will take first is via subsidized insurance coverage—often with private insurers, rather than creating state-owned hospitals. It’s less change, requires less capital and work up-front, and perhaps people can accept it more easily because it seems less-nationalized? Yet, mandating insurance coverage really isn’t the same as providing basic care via a state-run, state-owned operation.

Massachusetts is considered to be “ahead” of the nation with their health care laws that require all people to have insurance. Additionally, laws were passed that guideline basic coverage to protect consumers. For example, in MA no person can be denied coverage for a pre-existing condition, and insurance companies must pay for fertility treatments regardless of age. All people of low-income status qualify for subsidized insurance plans- except students (who currently aren’t covered by any subsidized plans, but that’s another long story). Currently the state can’t afford its own legislation because it also has the most expensive care of any state in the country.

I believe this demonstrates that legislature needs to address several areas- not only the coverage of insurance providers, but also the cost for care that is set by private hospitals and clinics. It is ridiculous that most people have no idea how much their treatments will cost before they get them- and furthermore cannot even get a straight answer when they ask. The reason of course is that cost fluctuates depending on whether one has insurance, which insurance, no insurance, which doctor, what complications, how many blankets you asked for (just ask my friend Eva who was billed individually $20 for each blanket she used), etc.

Many Americans are afraid of more government involvement, but frankly, I am afraid of what will happen in our government doesn’t get more involved. Of course the truth of the matter is that most countries with state-run hospitals and completely free care have higher taxes (the current tax rate is about 30% in the USA, and about 60% in European countries –as a rough estimate), and they pay their doctors less (should be noted that they also have free medical tuition).

I think America can devise something new- perhaps even by reorganizing the current budget without raising taxes. One proposal was that people could have a deductible based on their pre-tax salary. Although honestly, I would definitely be willing to pay 5-10% more taxes if I never had to worry about insurance again. Somewhere the line will have to be drawn to decide what care will be free (or partially covered) in order to maintain a sustainable system for all. Obviously, cosmetic and dental care may be out of the question, but this is the part I really haven’t figure out yet—where do we draw a line? The decision should probably be made by a group of doctors and policy-makers appointed by elected officials, and not lowly medical students like myself. Yet, I continue to ponder about this issue, and I wonder what others think.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Animal Collective Review

This review originally posted here.

Besides the moniker, there is little uniting the disparate and diverse groups that have come to reside under the umbrella label of “indie rock.” Once a term charged with a DIY ethos and armed with record deals from plucky independently-owned companies, indie rock has become a catch-all for all vaguely-rocking, non-major-label music produced by white twenty-somethings living in Brooklyn. Sound wise, only a few common elements put these indie groups together in the same category; indeed, the dissimilarities from group to group seem to define the genre more than the similarities. When we think big band swing, a sound-concept and its representative samples pop to mind: Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington. When indie rock is the style in question, a fragmented kaleidoscope of music appears: what exactly do The Decembrists, Of Montreal, Death Cab, Cansei de Ser Sexy, and Franz Ferdinand have in common again?

Listening to the recent album by Animal Collective, “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” I was struck by an indie rock universal: its sonic range. No indie fan would miss a beat hearing squealing guitars, acoustic quietude, analog synths, accordions and horn sections, kitschy and ironic gestures, and earnest beauty all on the same record. Another signature sound of this new movement is of a more concrete nature – much of indie rock today celebrates in the primacy of technology. Groups distribute their music online and have become masters of MySpace and Facebook; they also use technological tools extensively in the creation of their music. It seems that everyone today sings the body electric.

However, most groups do not use technology in the way Animal Collective does. Electronic touches in most groups (see the Brazilian Girls review) harken back to the 1980s with club beats, synthesizer leads, and rumbling basses. Animal Collective’s electronic forebears can be found more in German sound wizard Karlheinz Stockhausen and French sonic subversives Pierre Henri and Pierre Schaeffer than in 80s pop. Witness the atmospheric introduction, “In the Flowers,” a noisy and chimerical production that uses as much odd sampling as it does guitars and vocals. When the main groove and chorus hits us almost three minutes in, a rhythmic dissonance between bass drum pulse and synthesized arpeggios demonstrates that, even in their most accessible moments, Animal Collective maintains the cool detachment of authentic avant-gardeists. And “Merriweather Post..” is widely considered to be their most accessible album.

Of course, behind the group’s experimentation lies another, opposite sensibility. If Stockhausen is one major inspiration, then the radiant pop of the Beach Boys must be another. The intricate vocal harmonies and ringing melodies of “Guys Eyes” and “Taste,” for instance, could be B-sides from the Pet Sounds sessions. The ultimate synthesis of these two tendencies can be found in one track from the beginning (“My Girls”) and one from the end (“Lion in a Coma”). After a minimalistic wash of major chords, “My Girls” settles into an irresistible groove that culminates in a single line of lyrics repeated again and again until it turns incantatory. The other piece, in the odd time signature of 9/8, features a drone of mouth harp and fuzz bass that is overlaid with a melody that seems too elegant to work over such a scuttling accompaniment. The fact that it does work is testament to Animal Collective’s sui generis approach.

The sonic range of today’s indie rock, as exemplified by Animal Collective’s new album, is essentially an audacious risk. Groups perform delicate tight-rope acts to bring unlike elements into harmony with each other. When they fall, they fall; but when it works, the results of such high risk music-making can be luminous.

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.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Kassin+2 Review

In 1928, the Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade penned an influential statement of purpose for the modernist movement in his country, a work that appeared under the unusual title “Manifesto Antropófago” (Cannibal Manifesto). His thesis was both radical and banal: Brazil’s greatest cultural aptitude lay in “cannibalization,” tearing juicy ideas from the still-warm flesh of other cultures and digesting them into the Brazilian body. It was this artistic concept that informed the Tropicalia movement forty years later – vanguard musicians like Caetano Veloso, Os Mutantes, Tom Zé, Gilberto Gil, and Gal Costa drew from bossa nova, psychedelic rock, American R&B, avant-garde composition, the blues, and every other living, organic musical style to create a totally new, distinctively Brazilian sound. The theory of artistic cannibalism, then, has always been at the heart of modern Brazilian popular music.

The recent collaborative album by the Rio-based “+ 2” trio – a project consisting of Moreno Veloso, Domenico Lancelotti, and Alexandre Kassin – is the perfect embodiment of the “cannibalismo” ethos. In a unique format, each trio member has taken turns headlining their albums: we’ve already been treated to “Moreno + 2” and “Dominico + 2,” and this Kassin volume, entitled “Futurismo,” completes the triptych. (The album title is an homage to both cannibalismo and to tropicalismo, and it is clear from the first track that Kassin’s beautiful songwriting owes a debt to these earlier movements.)

There is much of this album that is identifiably Brazilian: Kassin and his collaborators freely mix gentle yet complex melodies, breezy bossa guitars, and much of the other musical sweetnesses that conjure beaches, swaying palms, and other stereotypes from the vast South American country. Yet this is not your mother’s idea of Brazilian music. Embedding into the recognizably cool and effortless milieu are cutting-edge programming and electronics, frantic indie rock grooves, and a whole panoply of cannibalized sounds. Paradoxically, perhaps it is this quality of synthesis that makes “Futurismo” such a quintessentially Brazilian album.

Take the song “Samba Machine,” for instance. Here, we have a punchy guitar groove and a plodding samba bass line accompanied by a retro drum machine and vocal harmonies sung through a vocoder. Half way through the song is a distorted blues guitar solo. It is a mish-mash of competing musical signs, from the traditional (samba and blues) to the contemporary (electronic flourishes). In “Namorados,” your ear is initially greeted with a Björk-like electronic soundscape, with synthesizer sweeps and blips and bleeps; but then a bossa nova guitar line enters along with Kassin’s relaxed, wet voice. On “Pra Lembrar,” an orchestral introduction reminiscent of The Beatles and Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys gives way to a lilting, highly chromatic melody with Rhodes piano punctuations and a sunny, tropical disposition. Every song on the record plays out in a similar fashion: stylistic surprises abound.

Behind all the experimentation and deliciously cannibalistic gestures, however, is a set of gemlike songs, all masterfully crafted. Ultimately, analytical categories aside, this is where Kassin’s “Futurismo” truly shines.