Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Betrayal of Soul to Flash & Pomp

The tragic death of Amy Winehouse at age 27 recently reminded me of a documentary I reviewed for radio called 27, about the music and message of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison – all of whom died within one year of each other, also at age 27. Watching footage of their concerts really got me thinking about how the lives and performances of musical icons tend to reflect, and help shape, the culture in which we live. While substance abuse still persists among high-profile musicians, artists and celebrities alike, it seems to me that in the 1960s at least, the motivation behind drug use was different than it is today.

I am no historian. I cannot claim to have studied the subject or anything close. Nor was I a young adult partaking in the 1960s, so my observations here are merely peripheral. I bring this up only because I am often disturbed by how few of today’s young stars show any real expression of soul on stage. We rarely see the likes of Janis Joplin anymore, who put so much passion into her performances that, as one observer noted, you would be surprised to see her still alive at the end of it. Jim Morrison, notorious for his destructive streak and perpetually stoned, was still widely regarded as being more of a true artist than a performer, deeply committed to living on the edge. Who today can match the psychedelic effects of a Doors or Grateful Dead concert?

What I see instead now is image-making. Pop stars in this day and age are focused on choreography, personal branding, reputation building by association with their peers and staged performance – with emphasis on the staged. While some of them are extraordinarily gifted – Beyonce being one clear example – for the most part I still find watching an awards show like the Grammys unbearably boring. Musical performances from modern-day youth are riddled with flash, pomp and narcissism. It’s less about the music than it is about the cool factor. It’s less about soul than it is about persona.

What I don’t see enough of is self expression that embraces living on the margins. Lady Gaga is one of the few counter culture darlings in existence, but she is of a starkly different breed than the legends of half a century ago. I recently interviewed nationally-known forensic psychologist Jeffrey Smalldon, an expert on the mind of psychopaths and serial killers who has studied everything from cult leaders and the mentally ill to genius and celebrity. Fascinated by the abnormal, he tells me about a book called Freaks: Myths & Images of the Secret Self, and its analysis of the complicated and nuanced relationship between so-called freaks and the people who comprised their audience. He talks about how freaks challenged our understanding of identity and how, in the late 1960s, the term “freak” was associated with free expression and hippies. I am surprised to learn that hippies generally considered this a badge of honor.

The evolution of “freak” from the hippie era to the current day Lady Gaga phenomenon could make for an engrossing read. Personally though, I am deeply compelled by the anomalous expression of soul, as evidenced in the young talent and rich character of Casey Abrams on American Idol. An artistic genius too large for the pop culture stage, he earned high praise for his creativity, fearlessness and lunacy. For me, his body language, vocal stylings and facial expressions were delightfully freakish, but it was his soulful performances that stirred the embers of my innards. In him I see the seeds of an icon; the marriage of soul and heresy at its best, even if largely undeveloped.

I hope he does something with it. I hope, by age 50, he has begun to sort out his artistic legacy. By then, surely, he will have glimpsed what he is capable of. By then, hopefully, we all have.

But I digress.

I want to see the soul brought back into music. Enough of the strobe lights and elaborate posturing. I don’t want to be dazzled. I want to be transported.

I want to feel something real.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Disappointment, Longing & Age

This is for all the folks out there who have had a disappointing date night experience. It is written in “journal writing” prose – literary sticklers be warned! For acquired tastes only.

I have a date tonight. I met him on a dating site and after a brief correspondence, he seems really into me. He’s digging my ideas & saying I intrigue him. I like his questions. He wants to know what my thoughts are about kissing, and I have a lot to say about it. He is in town from America and wants to treat me to dinner. I am excited. Men don't take you to dinner much anymore on the first date. They usually just want to do coffee & get a look at you. Does anyone date anymore? This feels more like a date. I want to look nice.

We meet. He has massive sunglasses on and my heart sinks because he doesn't take them off to greet me so I do not have the pleasure of seeing his first reaction to the site of me. I love it when a man looks at me and I see desire in his eyes. But he has sunglasses on so I can't tell.

I suggest we go for a drink first. It is too early for dinner. He tells me it doesn't make sense to go for a drink one place and then food in another, we should do it in the same place. I am not sure why it has to be that way; in my mind we are just here to enjoy each other's company. I tell him I don't need a drink so I'm okay either way. He thinks about it some more & then decides to go for the drink. Then he complains about the drink he says he doesn’t really want. I ask for water.

He orders a strawberry daiquiri grudgingly. Or so it seems. I salivate at the sight of it. I tell him how good it looks, hoping to relieve him of some of the burden of drinking it. He sits there like a bump on a log and stares into the distance. I'm thinking he’s not into this at all. In fact most of the night he appears terribly bored. Some times he just sits there and doesn't say anything. The beautiful smile on his dating site profile has taken a leave of absence. I think he is simply tolerating my presence. I watch him drink his daiquiri and fight off some of my own boredom, while my inner optimist gives me a pep talk. Maybe he's shy, I tell myself, but just in case, I will offer him a way out before we go to dinner.

After some more conversation I tell him I am hungry. I want to see his reaction but also, I am hungry. He tells me he is not. I feel awkward and dumpy. He said he wanted to treat me to dinner so I didn’t eat all day. I wanted to save myself for the big event. So much for that plan. I tell him we can skip dinner, hoping to bail. I don’t like to eat alone on someone else’s bill. He tells me it is okay and he promised but it doesn’t seem right. I ask if he will get hungry soon and he says he doubts it. I sit there trying to think of a way out so I can go home and eat.

We start to talk about travel. It turns out he flies to Toronto from the States every two months to see family here and to Africa twice a year to see his father. I ask him what he does with his father when they visit. “Nothing,” he says, dismissing the question.

At one point he comments that he “has no money”. I remember wondering why he brought up money because I don't think I did. My first reaction, a little confusing to me, is to chuckle. I am not sure why I chuckle but I do. Maybe because it seems ridiculous to me that someone who can afford to fly to Africa twice a year and to Canada from the States 6 times a year still sees themselves as someone with “no money”. He asks what I am laughing about. I try to explain myself, regretting my gaffe, blathering on about how different people have different perceptions about what having “no money” means. Picking up steam, I tell him that if he had “no money” the way I define having “no money”, I wouldn't be comfortable with him paying for dinner. He then launches into a very long rant about the economy. I think his point had something to do with people making lots of money still having no money. Or something like that. I get what he is saying but I want to talk about something else. I want us to have fun tonight. I wanted to flirt and be flirted with.

The waitress brings his bill over. He shows it to me and tells me how expensive drinks are and how it is worse in New York. Then he starts talking about the high cost of living. I am tired of listening to all this because we are supposed to be on a first date and exploring each other. I am wearing my best dress that shows off my hour glass figure and full booty. It has slits up the side so that when I walk the wind caresses the fabric and exposes my tanned legs, which look pretty damned good on a 49 year old woman. I am happy with how my face looks today. I think I look pretty. He doesn't seem to notice and if he does, he isn't showing me. He just looks bored.

I tell him I need to eat soon. I am watching him drink these nice drinks and smelling all this fantastic food and I am getting really hungry. I am hoping he will just say something to make it easy for me to leave so I can go home and eat. I don't want to eat alone in front of him. He says he will look at the menu to see if there is an appetizer or something that will make him hungry. He is not enthusiastic. I want to go home. I decide to stick it out because he came a long way to meet me.

We walk to the restaurant and he starts complaining about the Obama administration. My heart feels heavy. I tell him I am a huge Obama supporter, even though he is not perfect I still support the man. I don't want to have this debate. Usually I like a good debate but he just seems to see the down side of everything. He carries on about empty promises and I say that change takes time and Obama is cleaning up the mess left by Bush. He says, “I know, but I still think it's not happening fast enough.” I clam up and try to think of something else to talk about.

We enter the restaurant. I remind him we don't have to stay if he doesn't see something on the menu he likes. He says we are staying. I recommend a few appetizers and say the food is really good. He orders a full chicken dinner. When the food comes he spends most of his time eating with his head down. He looks miserable and depressed. Afterwards he complains he feels bloated. He says he ate too much but he had to eat it because that is how he was raised. I don't bother asking him why he didn't just order an appetizer.

When we are saying goodnight on the street corner I hug him with a big smile to thank him for dinner. Even though I am feeling sad about how it went he was still a gentleman in his own way and I want him to know I appreciate it. He smiles back, and asks me if I want to meet again tomorrow. I am shocked. I am shocked he is interested at all. I don't know how to reply. I tell him I will call him later to talk about it.

I go home and think about what to do. It comes to me that maybe he just sees a date as an opportunity to behave the way you would in a relationship. Maybe he just felt comfortable with me or was just letting it all hang out by talking about the things that bothered him. I'll never really know. All I know is there was no chemistry between us. In the end I tell him I didn't see it working out for that reason. I guess I am a hopeless romantic.

I want passion in my life. I want to be wooed. I am old fashioned that way. And I need to feel that someone wants to be with me, otherwise, what's the point? I don't want to be with someone just so we can both avoid being alone. I want butterflies. I want fire. I want to get caught up in the moment and laugh away my troubles or lose track of time and forget for a while. Or maybe remember. Wherever the moment takes us. I think communication happens on more than one level and at its best is sort of a rhythmic dance. Most of it is nonverbal and if you're not paying attention you can miss stuff. I want to surf that wave. I want to be brave enough to put myself out there. I am a slave to my senses. The pursuit of sensual pleasure is my holy grail, and I am prepared to embrace its dark undercurrents.

I grew into these longings with age. I treasure the richness of a desire that my youth was sorely lacking in. I would rather ache for something that matters than betray it to indifference.

As I enter my second coming-of-age, I am slowly becoming more flexible, more adaptable; better able to grow from life’s disappointments. I am learning to live from my heart, even when it hurts. I’m getting there. I’m still only 49.