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By Samuel Stoddard

May 2000

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Wednesday, May 24, 2000

I was wrong about "Weird Al" Yankovic, as some of you pointed out. I retract the comments I made that downplay his work in comic music.

And with that, the last words on the music discussion that has occupied this journal for the past several entries, I will move on to another artistic medium: specifically, animation.

It is no secret that animation is not given due respect in the western world. We tend to think of animation as "cartoons" -- something for kids to enjoy as kids and eventually outgrow. Ok, think about this. Is drawing for kids? Pencil sketching or painting? Leonardo da Vinci for kids? Van Gogh for kids? Right, so why is the medium of animation -- drawings and paintings displayed in sequence so as to produce the illusion of movement -- inherently for kids? It isn't, of course. But since a preponderance of commercial animation in the western world is directed at kids, many shortsighted adults immediately assume all commercial animation is directed at kids and, worse still, that it cannot be anything more.

This narrow-minded assumption leads to at least three unfortunate consequences. The worst consequence continues the circle: if adults assume animation is for kids, studios are less apt to produce animation for anyone but kids, thus reinforcing the misconception. Another unfortunate consequence: animation that is directed at adults, including some genuinely great films, is overlooked. A curious consequence: animation containing mature subject matter is subjected to the stricter side of a double standard and deemed evil and immoral, while the equivalent in live-action fare could very likely be considered tame.

It wasn't always thus. From the 1920s to the 1940s, before Saturday morning cartoons came along and gradually lowered the standards of animation and conditioned children to accept less and less from their entertainment, animation was seen primarily in shorts that preceded a live action feature film. So everybody saw these animated shorts, and consequently they were made with all audiences in mind. They were (mostly) family-friendly, though, and thus the early cartoons of, say, Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, are erroneously assumed to have been meant for children, because for some reason the target audience of today's entertainment is defined primarily by degrees of sex and violence. But nearly every movie made before 1960 or so was "family-friendly," and they certainly weren't all directed at kids. Nor were the animated shorts. Looney Tunes were packed with snappy gags and one-liners that only adults could appreciate. The early Disney shorts were mostly creative, tight situational comedies based on solid characters. Betty Boop cartoons were pretty risque and most certainly not made with kids in mind.

Since the advent of Saturday morning cartoons, decent animation wasn't particularly seen in the western world for a long time outside of the periodic Disney animated feature films, and even they waned in quality and frequency in the 1970s and 1980s, until 1989's The Little Mermaid re-invigorated the market with its heightened production value, strength of story, and appeal to a larger audience. (Even Disney got distracted for a while and started targeting their animation at kids instead of a larger audience that included them.)

Then, suddenly, Akira, a work of anime from Japan, started getting exposure in cult circles. Akira was unlike anything that has been produced in the western world by that time, so small wonder many who saw it became enamored of it. It isn't even particularly great by anime standards, but it was a hard-edged futuristic story with action, horror, and violence, presented in a way that's actually effective (as opposed to the crop of garbage Saturday morning cartoons that attempt these things, yet still dumb them down to stupid extremes) and with an outstanding level of sophistication. It was too much for too many, though, and Akira never found its way into the mainstream. Mainstream American audiences, in their narrow-minded manner, are foolishly discriminating against foreign language films anyway, and such hard-edged animation, all of a sudden, didn't have much of a chance. But the movie did start up a cult anime following here, and gradually cheapie dubs of more works of Japanese anime started making their way onto video store shelves.

And then came the Cartoon Network. And Pokemon. And Sailor Moon. And a number of other anime serials. We're even starting to produce our own animated series using anime drawing styles. Anime is now firmly in the American mainstream, at least with the under 18 crowd and particularly with young kids. The fad came from out of nowhere. I don't know how it happened. I don't know why kids suddenly became obsessed with Japanese culture and started using Japanese words and phrases in every day conversation. All I know is that my hopes for anime being "discovered" by American audiences weren't quite met in the way I was hoping. First and foremost, it's still only kids and teenagers that are embracing it. Worse, the particular works of anime they are embracing aren't the ones that are going to open the eyes of adults to the wondrous potential of the medium. Pokemon is as inscrutable and insufferable to most adults as the worst of our Saturday morning cartoons.

Meanwhile, Princess Mononoke, one of the great anime films of all time and possibly the last film by a legend of an animator, received almost no attention at all when it was given a limited release in the United States last Fall, in spite of the fact that it was lovingly dubbed into English by an expensive all-star English and American cast. Thanks, Buena Vista, for squelching its chances by only releasing it in a handful of theaters. (When it hits video, it will be accessible to more, but there is no scheduled date for a video release yet.)

I wish I knew what would happen next. My guess is that the insightful, thought-provoking works of anime will remain on video store shelves for a while. On the upside, DreamWorks, with Antz, The Prince of Egypt, and The Road To El Dorado under its belt, has emerged as a significant competitor to Disney and is slowly but actively forging into new territory with regard to the genre and target audience of traditional American feature animation. And hopefully Warner Brothers won't be too discouraged by the unfortunately poor box office return on The Iron Giant and try again.

Even so, we're not even close to realizing the potential of animation. Don't get me wrong. I love what we're doing with feature animation these days. The last two years have seen some of the best feature film animation this country has ever produced. I don't want that to stop. But the medium has so much potential in areas we haven't even explored yet. Japanese anime has and is exploring some of that territory.

So if you don't want to wait for a cultural revolution to see what great potential animation has that the western world has yet to explore, stop by the anime shelf at your local video store and see what treasures there may be. As with any genre, there's going to be some junk in with the gems, but the gems are worth finding. Most of it tends to linger in the science fiction/cyberpunk genre -- greats include The Ghost In the Shell, a complex story with subtleties and themes it takes multiple viewings to appreciate fully, and the aforementioned Akira, although I wouldn't particularly recommend starting with that one. But anime is much broader than the genre it tends to get associated with. Another mistake audiences make about anime is labeling it as a single genre. It isn't. One of the greatest works of anime ever made is The Grave of the Fireflies, a thought-provoking, tearjerking story about two homeless children in the final days of World War II. Roger Ebert reviewed this film back in March in his "Great Movies" column. You can read his online review here. His review touches upon some of the same points about the perception of animation as I do in this journal entry. I applaud his continuing efforts to do what I would like to and break the constricting myths that Americans cling to about animation. For really good anime directed at kids, try My Neighbor Totoro or Kiki's Delivery Service, by animator Hayao Miyazaki, whose works also include Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind and the aforementioned Princess Mononoke, both also worth checking out and neither of which are directed at kids at all.

Tuesday, May 16, 2000

The last few days, I've been trying to formulate my thoughts about Christian and country music into words that I could present here, as I promised I would in the previous journal entry. Naturally, the time was ripe for a reader to take the words out of my mouth:

It's interesting that "funny songs" were brought up. We seem to have lost some of our collective sense of humor in the last generation or two. "Weird Al" Yankovic seems to be this generation's Spike Jones, but even he only changes the lyrics around to be funny. Spike Jones and his band used to go all out, playing hilarious yet perfectly intelligible music with pistols, breaking glass, and stringed toilet seats. Ray Stevens certainly doesn't get the attention he used to. (And, if I may meander from music just slightly, look at today's Saturday morning cartoons -- they're all superhero action fests instead of Looney Tunes, Mickey Mouse, Tom and Jerry, and the like.) Singers that aren't specifically "comic" singers very rarely if ever toss a comic song into their albums. Except in country music.

Country music is too often dismissed as being outmoded hick music, but it isn't. It regularly deals with themes untouched by other genres, and it's not particularly directed at hicks, either. Actually country music has started to move more into the mainstream spotlight in recent years, what with Garth Brooks selling record numbers of albums and new artists like Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks scoring one hit after another. I'm actually not so sure I'm happy about this, because the line between country and pop is blurring. Twain, in particular, is difficult to pin. She calls herself country, but half the songs on her albums aren't. Then again, this is perhaps not so bad after all, because "real" country doesn't appear to be going anywhere. If anything, it's just getting more exposure.

Jennifer K.'s observation that Christian music is the only genre defined by its lyrics was something I hadn't consciously noticed before. It's an interesting phenomenon. Music can be Christian pop, Christian hymn, Christian country, Christian folk, Christian rap, but it's Christian first and whatever other genre second. It's odd that Christian music be what's singled out for lyrical isolation, but I'm not complaining. It makes it easy to find, and it comes in whatever musical style you're in the mood for. What's most surprising about Christian music is the breadth of themes handled by Christian music; one would think that a genre defined by its lyrics would necessarily have a narrow scope of subject matter, but it doesn't. Pop music has far stricter self-imposed boundaries.

What do you think? Agree or disagree? Send me email.

Wednesday, May 10, 2000

It's a reader day today. Of the many responses I've gotten for the journal entries of the past few days, here are four. The first two are in reply to 5/7's entry:

The following is an excerpt from an email exchange on this topic:

Good for you, Elana! The fourth letter addresses something from the tail end of my 5/9 rant:

I can and will, in a journal entry to follow, but the above should do it for this one. In the meantime, if there's anyone out there who still has something to say about any of this, please drop me a note.

Tuesday, May 9, 2000

RinkWorks has been embroiled in controversy over the past few days, and in typical RinkWorks fashion, these controversies are odd things to get controversial about.

The first I'll address for the final time. It's the Great Cheese Controversy, started by the intentional omission of "cheese" from the list of answers to the recent Reader Poll question, what's the most important cheeseburger topping? The omission was deliberate because cheese is not a cheeseburger topping; others don't see it that way, and there have been numerous debates about that on the Message Forum, through email, and in person amongst various readers.

My final word on the matter is that there is no room for controversy. There is no room for legitimate yet divergent opinions. Argue as you will about how restaurants treat cheese (the usual manner is in the support of the facts anyway), about assumptions people generally make, mistaken or not, etc. None of it is relevant. Least relevant of all is that "cheese rules," which seems to be the crux of the arguments of many who believe that cheese is, in fact, a cheeseburger topping.

What does matter is that the word "topping" means "something on top of something else." This is the definition of the word. It is a simple definition, clearly, concisely, and logically defined. The word most relevant to this debate is the word "else." For something to be a topping, it must be something other than what it tops. Cheese is not a cheeseburger topping because cheese is part of the cheeseburger. It is no more logical to call it a cheeseburger topping than it is to call the ground beef a cheeseburger topping. You take away the cheese, and you don't even HAVE a cheeseburger. And so, as the cheese is NOT topping a cheeseburger, it is not a cheeseburger topping.

On the other hand, cheese is a hamburger topping. Cheese is not part of a hamburger. Cheese is other than a hamburger, which it may top. It goes on top of a hamburger. Take the cheese off, and you have a hamburger. Cheese is a hamburger topping.

Ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, relish, pickles, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, bacon -- these may all be hamburger toppings, and they may also be cheeseburger toppings. My poll question was talking about cheeseburger toppings, which is why these things (except for bacon, an oversight on my part), appear as answers to the question, while cheese does not.

I have not yet heard an argument contrary to this statement of fact that did not hinge on unsound logic, a twisting or outright denial of simple word definitions, a desire to be contrary, and/or an unwillingness to admit error.

So that's all I have to say about that.

The second controversy of note is with regard to the two previous journal entries, given below. A lot of you hate the Backstreet Boys and N-Sync. I received numerous emails instructing me that it was my duty as a man of good taste to hate them. Neither group, they said, had any respect for the artistry of music but instead were more interested in milking the cash cow by mindlessly and passionlessly churning out substanceless songs.

I still fight this fight with movies, but with music, an area of the arts that I'm much less familiar and for which my tastes are much less sophisticated, I'm simply tired of fighting it. I'm tired of hating. As a teenager, I hated the New Kids. It's exhausting. It's inwardly hurtful and doesn't change anything anyway. Is it any more noble a goal to hate those with unwarranted success than it is to cash in on it? Could I say with certainly that if a skillion teenaged girls gave me millions of dollars for my own singing -- far worse than either group in question -- that I wouldn't belt out whatever cracked tune they wanted to hear? No way. In fact I know with absolute certainty that I would cash in, because it would be stupid not to. Hating others who do the same is, therefore, no more than a jealous gut reaction. Hating their music is another matter, but hating the group blurs and crosses the line.

Genuinely great, inspired music is not going away. It's not like the Backstreet Boys or N-Sync are putting the Three Tenors out of work and that they could be resented for doing that. And it's not like these are the first groups to be constructed for the purpose of making money, either. When they fall out of fashion, more will rise in their place. The problem is not whatever group of the moment is in the spotlight but the cultural sophistication, or lack thereof, that allows them to prosper. The fact of the matter is that it's not the producers of bad music that deserve condemnation but the audiences that soak it up. And even then, it's not so much a fault that can be hated as a social tide that can only be lamented -- or, heck, fought with an alternative. I certainly do that with movies. I push Albert Brooks, the Coen Brothers, and Steven Soderbergh, for example, when I can. It's not too hard to get me talking about movies that were created with a passion and a true artistic vision. (Although I'm also as inclined to argue against the other extreme, too, pooh-poohing pompous art house releases for getting so snooty about art as to forget to engage their audiences or tell an actual story.)

Thinking about movies leads me to a refutation of another reason I'm told I should hate the Backstreet Boys and N-Sync. They don't write their own music, and therefore they are uninspired artists, probably not even artists at all. Er, no. The best singers don't always make the best writers anymore than the best actors made the best writers or directors. Humphrey Bogart didn't write Casablanca. He was handed a script and told what to say in every scene. Is Humphrey Bogart an uninspired artist? No, he's one of the most brilliant performers ever to appear on the silver screen. If a singer writes his or her own songs, and does well with both tasks, that's great. But you don't have to be a great writer to be a great singer. The Backstreet Boys and N-Sync -- and any other artist in any field -- should be judged based on how well they do what they do, not on how much they don't do. And if that judgment still turns up badly, hatred is not a constructive consequence.

Of course, I rant about this knowing full well that the word "hate" is dropped casually, as sort of a reverse euphemism, quite frequently, right up there with "If you were to do this, I'd kill you." I use the word "hate" myself to describe the work of numerous would-be artists in various fields. So my rant is possibly partly irrelevant in addressing some of the email I receved (including some that I replied to with a summarized version of the rant above), and it's also partly self-directed.

At any rate, how do I actually feel about the music of the Backstreet Boys and N-Sync? Although the nasal "ehhh-ehhhhhh" sound bugs the heck out of me, I don't think they have horrific voices. I don't, however, particularly care for their music. A couple of songs by both groups are ones that I marginally like and don't mind if I don't hear them very often, but I can't see myself ever seeking it out or playing it of my own accord. I much prefer Christian music and country music anyway, genres in which the lyrics are more diverse and the arrangements less heavy-handed than in other mainstream genres. And I adore showtunes, but I prefer to hear them in performances of their respective shows rather than on soundtrack albums.

Sunday, May 7, 2000

The following is a continuation of yesterday's journal entry. If you haven't read that yet, it is recommended that you read it first -- just scroll down past this entry.

Yesterday's journal entry was all leading up to a point beyond the ones I made. I will speak now of the particular aspect of popular culture that is music. In our generation, there was the New Kids On the Block. I didn't listen to them, but I wasn't female, either; teenage and younger girls comprised the bulk of their audience. The group came into popularity rather suddenly and fell from it just as quickly. They were a fad. Their audience grew up.

I wonder if the teenagers of today understand what the Backstreet Boys and N-Sync owe to the New Kids. Maybe, but maybe not; I don't think many from my generation knew what the New Kids owed their predecessors. It's interesting this time around, though. The two groups are in direct competition with each other, and both seem to have been assembled for the express purpose of recreating the success that the New Kids found. Usually such knock-offs don't achieve the same level of success as what they're copying, and maybe they haven't. Nonetheless, the Backstreet Boys and N-Sync both have hordes of screaming teenage girls for fans.

In an explicable and uncharacteristic move for us, my wife and I decided that we needed to feel old. So we bought a Backstreet Boys CD ("Millenium") and an N-Sync CD (whichever the puppet one is), and cruised around town in our Dodge Ram with it blasting. I was amazed at how doing that made me feel. I knew I wasn't a teenager anymore, but what a shock to realize that teenagerhood was so far removed that I felt displaced to indulge in teenage culture. Of course, with me, it wasn't just a difference in age but also a difference in gender; my wife slipped much more easily into it, but, then again, she had known a couple of the songs already.

At any rate, I am now an authority on these groups, on the basis of having listened to not one, not even two, but several of the songs on these two CDs. I will now impart that wisdom and experience to you all with a thoughtful analysis.

My thoughtful analysis includes several observations, the first of which is that all these songs sound alike. Five guys sing, and electronic beat-keeping noises are made in the background. Sometimes the singers sing into electronic voice changing machines, and they sound like robots. Believe it or not, though, I actually can tell the difference between the Backstreet Boys and N-Sync. In Backstreet Boys songs, sometimes there are actual instruments being played by somebody -- or at least what sounds like non-electric sound making equipment. The other difference is that N-Sync is the one that has the guy with the fire-engine red dyed hair.

My second point of analysis is a very specific one. There is a particular style of singing employed by both groups -- and groups before them, for that matter -- that strikes me as foreign. It's when one of the tenors sings an alien sound that is transliterated something like, "Ehhh-ehhhhhhhh," with more voice trilling than is strictly necessary to convey the idea. It sounds not so much like something terrestrial as the product of a scientifically crafted motive that, once spoken, triggers every teenage female within earshot to scream and cry and assemble thick scrapbooks. The best example is right in the very beginning of N-Sync's "Bye Bye Bye," a song that actually isn't all that bad once you get past that first two seconds.

And that brings me to my third point, which is not so much about teen groups but music in general. Why is it that every musical group in the world must, at some point, write a song that involves repetitions of "bye"? I can probably answer my own question. Somehow, this deceptively shallow formula makes a hit. "Bye Bye Bye" is the most popular song on that particular album, and even I could discern that it was somewhat different (and superior) to the other indistinguishable songs on the CD. Sample lyrics from the song: "Baby, bye-bye-bye, bye-bye." Jo Dee Messina has a recent country hit called "Bye Bye." Sample lyrics: "Bye-bye, bye-bye, my baby, bye-bye." Going back a few years, how about Firehouse? Their song "All She Wrote" was a hit. The first line of the chorus was, "Bye-bye, baby, bye-bye." And even though it doesn't have "bye" in it, we might as well throw in Amy Grant's "Baby Baby," because that song was also inspired by the 'B' fetish that has possessed pop music since at least the days of Bebop.

Swinging the topic of conversation back long enough to wrap up with a hasty conclusion, I think twenty-something is very close to the perfect age. I'm still young, yet I'm settled in an active and challenging yet mostly stress-free lifestyle. I'm free from the peer pressure of adhering to fickle and changing fads (I never did, but now there's little pressure against me for it). And I don't feel that I have to hate the Backstreet Boys just on principle, either. What a burden to free myself from.

Saturday, May 6, 2000

When I became a teenager, I knew what I was getting myself into. At twelve, I was well aware of the changes in mindset and attitude that tend to accompany adolescence: rebelliousness, for example; the tendency to think one's parents are idiots; and so on. So when I became a teenager, the experience was not much of a surprise. (And knowing about some of the traps helped keep me from falling too deeply into them, I think, but this has nothing to do with the point I'll soon be making.) I am not a parent yet. I expect I will be at some point, but that isn't happening soon. I do, however, have an idea of what it's like. I'm not saying I know all about it; I'd be the last person to presume I know all about parenthood without having had the experience to teach me. But when that part in my life comes and I find out what it's like, I don't expect it to be overly surprising.

However, there is a phase of life right in between that I didn't foresee happening at all, or at least not quite so soon. My wife and I are in that joyous mid-twenties period in our lives. We're adults, newly married, out of college, and only have a dog to take care of. We're renting, so we don't have either the satisfaction or the frustration that comes from owning a home. (See! There's another phase in life that I doubt will surprise me.) The part I didn't quite expect was looking at popular culture, realizing I don't recognize it, and feeling old.

I thought that only happened to people with teenaged kids. You have teenaged kids, they do things you don't understand and never would have been caught dead doing when you were that age, and suddenly you realize you're no longer of the generation that defines pop culture. Not so. Maybe you never stop being amazed by it, but it starts a couple of years under my age.

My wife and I marvel with fond amusement, now and then, when we are suddenly exposed to some new universal fad or fashion that somehow escaped our notice. I knew bell-bottoms were inexplicably back in, for example, but I wasn't aware they had to extend two inches past the bottom of your shoe. Our first major experience with this sort of thing was when we watched the 1996 film Clueless. We knew about the valley girl stereotype, of course, but not the new revised valley girl type. We cracked up at that movie.

And now I'm to the point where I can talk about what I've been leading up to this whole time. And I'm out of space. Tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion!

Wednesday, May 3, 2000

Some of you have noticed that the frequency of updates to RinkWorks has thinned out a bit, particularly right here in the Site Journal but elsewhere as well. Although RinkWorks is still quite active, I did want to talk about why it doesn't have the same momentum it did a month or so ago.

I'll start with the assurance that the slow down is purely temporary, although I'm not sure for how long. There is a combination of several factors, but the two biggest by far: one, real life has been intruding more than usual lately, and there is less time or energy to work on RinkWorks. Two, I am working on a relatively large-scale project, known only as "Project X," that will open as a RinkWorks feature later in the year. Because of the expansive size and scope of the project, I have less time to keep current with updates to the existing features.

So fears may be allayed. RinkWorks has MUCH more in store for you in the weeks and months to come, and I'm very excited about the new features and updates that are on their way.

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