Monday, February 19, 2007

#105 - Strainz from the Stereo

Strainz from the Stereo

2/18/07 (#105)

For those of you who don't watch children's television, you likely live in what must be a blissful paradise of ignorance, unaware that music---that broad and beautiful art form that offers both uncanny solace to the soul and impromptu defibrillation to the adrenal glands---has been contorted into an improbably disdainful affront called "Kidz Bop". This heinous "product" ("music" seems an overstatement) was apparently shoplifted from the CD player in Hell's waiting room, repackaged in colors so garish they would make a box of laundry soap blush, and distributed as part of a fiendish plot to make drunken karaoke seem like high art. I dream of the time when I knew nothing of this chalkboard scratching, the way a man allergic to carbon monoxide must dream of life before Henry Ford.

Kidz Bop is an ingenious idea, if you consider making armloads of money by producing cheap, inane crap to be an exhibition of genius. The premise behind this series ("Kidz Bop 11" comes out this month) is to herd a dozen or so kids into the studio and have them sing along, simultaneously and in almost-unison, with the previous year's radio hits and misses. While it's difficult to sift through the drench of pubescence to determine the sonic particulars, it seems they simply record a synthesized version of the original song and have the "talent" sing along with that---literally a recorded karaoke session. Kidz Bop is the bastard offspring of that annoying children's chorus from An Affair to Remember* and Casey Kasem's American Top 20, a Chuck E. Cheese birthday party burned directly to compact disc. Do you own a minivan but just can't find eight or nine little brats to populate the seats and sing with slippery tonal accuracy those insipid pop songs that, even when sung by the original artists, climb uninvited into your ears and spend the rest of the day devouring your sanity? Now you can have all of the sonic annoyance without the spilled juice boxes.

The Z in "Kidz" should already have signaled the dubiousness of this item. Divide the world into two subcategories---things that have benefited humanity, and things that have contributed to the downfall of the species---and you will find any item that mutates the grammatically correct S to the faux-hip Z in the latter category, along with "nu" in place of "new" and "Kool" in place of "cool." The Z says to the consumer, "My son the Phys. Ed. major is the head of Marketing"; the Z says, "Next year I will be the most populous item at your local landfill."

While I have not actually listened to a CD (for the same reason I have not stared at the sun), the television ads flaunt the major attributes of the discs with enough accuracy to make it clear what is being offered: 15 or so songs vocalized by Oz's Lollipop Kids along with which a child can gleefully caterwaul while their parents try to recall why child rearing seemed a better alternative than seminary school. (The answer will most certainly not come to them while the "play" button is depressed.) I once sat at a cacophonous Cecil Taylor concert and my friend leaned over and said, "This is the music they would use to torture my mother"; Kidz Bop would be employed in the event that Cecil wasn't able to do the job.

Kidz Bop would not fail.

As a parent, I live in mortal fear of this type of product. People joke about hell being populated by lawyers, but I'm certain the marketers of children's toys get the seats closest to the fire. I've acquiesced to Barbie, and Walt Disney has been granted more access to my daughter's imagination than a child psychologist would condone, but I've got to pick my battles: When the store aisles and internet links feature a dog that both eats and shits (and it's the same little brown plastic pellet involved with each activity---isn't that charming?), the Bratz dolls (note the Z) that seem to be small children with caked-on eye shadow, bare midrifts and conspicuous "bling", and discs of multiple soprano-and-higher kids caroling like Alvin and the Chipmunks sans sense of humor, Barbie can park her convertible anywhere she likes.

I've known of Kidz Bop for several years, but have avoided acknowledging its existence in hopes that it would not acknowledge mine. Because we don't listen to schlock radio, my daughter doesn't recognize the songs, so it's been easy enough to change the channel to anything when that helium-sucking choir comes on the screen. ("Look Sage, that man is filling out a 1040 form...can you say, 'itemized deduction'?") But the pitch for Kidz Bop 11 demonstrated that even the most cringe-worthy concept can be made more loathsome: the disc includes the kids singing "Irreplaceable", a song originally performed by Beyonce Knowles.

Let me be clear, I have no issues with Beyonce Knowles. I don't seek out her music (too much package, not enough content), but I like that she's fine with her body image (which doesn't match the waifish American media image, though considering she has only one accentuated proportion to her otherwise enviable body, that doesn't seem like a hard pill to swallow) and she seems charming in interviews. But Beyonce sings songs about being an adult, in adult situations, and "Irreplaceable" is hardly a template for how the average 8-year old should run her life. Take this example from the song:

So go ahead and get gone, and call up on that chick and see if she is home
Oops, I bet ya thought that I didn't know, what did you think I was putting you out for?
Cause you was untrue, rolling her around in the car that I bought you
Awwww, isn't that a sweet sentiment for your elementary school daughter to mimic? And what junior-high boy can't relate to having his girlfriend provide him with a new car? I acknowledge that kids are growing up fast these days, but with my own daughter, I was hoping to broach the subject of infidelity and materialistic leeches a little later in her life, perhaps after long division. And in case your impressionable child doesn't catch those references, they can't miss the saccharine soaked melody that professes (half a dozen times):
I could have another you in a minute, matter fact he'll be here in a minute
Gee, it almost sounds empowering, except the lyrics indicate that the narrator has been exploring her options with only slightly less ardor than her tramping beau. (No wonder, she had less opportunity---it's clear from the verse that the boyfriend always had the car.)

Razor & Tie, the label making the money on Kidz Bop, informs us that the series is "the best-selling children's audio series in the country with over 8 million CDs sold in the past 5 years....Kidz Bop 9 entered the Billboard Top 200 Album Chart at the incredible #2 position, the highest charting non-soundtrack children's release in Billboard history. Billboard named the Kidz Bop KIDZTM the #1 Children's Music Artist for the fourth year in a row. ...Kidz Bop is now a certifiable phenomenon, with a number of brand extensions in the works."** I think about those disheartening figures, and the mercenary taunt implicit in the phrase "a number of brand extensions," and a horrible thought runs through my mind, a once-unimaginable contemplation that, every time I startle the pets with my urgent lunge for the television remote, inches closer to the tip of my tongue:

Barney, come back. All is forgiven.

* I love the verbal repartee in that movie, but I twitch in my chair when those tone-deaf little cherubs come on the screen, knowing that their contract apparently requires them to sing in every scene. I haven't done the math, but I think their repertoire is strictly limited to 9-minute songs, and they perform six or eight of them during the movie. We're supposed to believe that Deborah Kerr is charmed by the cloying "sweetness" of these kids, but every time I watch the movie, I ache for Deborah to scream, "Stop! Stop! Fercrissakes, why couldn't it have been you punks in front of that cab?!"


©2007 wpreagan

Sunday, February 11, 2007

#104 - Ruining the Polish Joke

How many Polacks does it take
to ruin the Polish joke?

2/11/07 (#104)

Adolph Hitler had the worst looking mustache in history. Just a 1-inch-wide vertical stripe of hair on his upper lip, it could easily be mistaken as over-ambitious nostril hair, yet the man managed to make it his signature look. (A fact that must make Charlie Chaplin roll in his grave.) Not surprisingly, that so-called mustache died along with him---it is so distinctly a "Hitler mustache" that outside of adult Halloween costumes and an occasional TV sight gag, it has never been seen again. (I doubt anyone wants to repeatedly explain to every chatty sales clerk, "No, I am actually not sympathetic to the mastermind of the world's most infamous genocide---I just think it looks sharp.")

As facial hair goes, there are limits to a man's available fashion statements. Beard, mustache, goatee, side burns---excepting a few varieties of each of those styles, there's nothing more that can be done with the bristly thatch that grows on our faces. Folks like Salvador Dali and Fu Manchu may push the tonsorial envelope to the limits of its tensile strength, but even those fashion deviants fit under the primary categories with the simple addition of an extra adjective: Dali's is not technically a "handlebar mustache", but it's close enough to call it a "zany handlebar mustache"; Fu Manchu managed to get a minor beard-and-mustache modification named in his honor, but it's little more than a "pimped-out goatee." Yet as small as the list of options is, Hitler single-handedly managed to make it shorter, scratching one off for perpetuity.

This is no small feat for a single person---to permanently close one avenue of the cultural road map. I'm not recommending Hitler get a round of applause for his inadvertent efforts, but the elimination of that miscarriage of facial fashion is a noteworthy feat. Yet such is the life of extremely notable individuals, becoming two-dimensional caricatures of their most newsworthy achievements while their lesser items of note are left out of the picture---in Hitler's case, it's no wonder that his heinous facial grooming habits got less attention than his more-heinous national grooming campaign. A similar thing happens when a person's positive accomplishments dwarf their minor victories---Lech Walesa's resume, cluttered with bullet points about leading a shipyard strike that precipitated the demise of Poland's communist government, becoming Time Magazine's "Man of the Year", and eventually winning the Polish Presidency, has little room for noting his essential role in the near-elimination of the Polish joke.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, the Poles were the consistent brunt of jokes involving stupidity:

"How do you get a one-armed Polack out of a tree? Wave to him."
"How many Polacks does it take to screw in a light bulb? Four---one to hold the bulb and three to turn the ladder."
In fact, most of these jokes are hardly "Polish" at all---they are generic jokes into which the user installs their victim of choice, versatile put-downs that allow any demographic to be ridiculed. Regional biases personalized these all-purpose put-downs for whatever ethnic group was amassing a sizable regional population---I recall visiting cousins in Fall River and hearing Portuguese jokes; in Massachusetts I heard more Irish zingers; and in Maine the victim of choice was anyone who wasn't from Maine. (The natives used to half-joke that there are two types of people: Mainers, and people "from away"; doesn't matter if it's London, England or New London, Connecticut, you're just from away.*) Yet somehow, there was a consensus that the Polish were the punch-line champions for such humor, the most fitting fools for a one-liner like, "Did you hear they had to close the Polish National Library? Someone stole the book."

Because these jokes is so universally malleable, there are some who argue that it's "just a joke", that someone needs to be the brunt and it's not a commentary on a particular people or culture to star in such chestnuts. But if that's true, why the dearth of Brazilian jokes? And why have the Dutch been historically spared from such barbs? (Ironic that the Poles may have become the de facto brunt of the "dumb" one-liner because Americans weren't smart enough to learn geography.) Imagine a joke that begins, "An American, a Russian, and an Icelander walk into a bar"---it's up in the air as to what could happen, the punch line a mystery until the listener gets more information.** But change the preface to, "An American, a Russian, and a Pole walk into a bar" and you know right away who is going to play the fool. (The Russian might be mimed with a cartoon Kremlin accent, but he'll be free and clear when the wisecrack detonates.)

Whatever the cause of the Poles rise to punch line prominence, Lech Walesa, with help from Polish-bonn Pope John Paul II (elected to head the Roman Catholic church in 1978,) put an end to that. Walesa won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, having proved himself as a courageous David to the Communist Goliath, a tireless champion of the underdog who more than spoke of freedom---he risked all to earn it. Walesa provided the world with a positive, powerful icon of the Polish people----hardly the image that come to mind when you think, "Have you heard about the Polish cocktail? It's Perrier and water." After Walesa, if you cracked a knee-slapper about Polish schools, in place of guffaws you'd get an indignant comment like, "Well you try learning when the Soviet Block is breathing down your neck." Lech did more to protect the Polish people from ridicule than anyone in history ever has. It's time he got the credit he deserves. (Consider that no matter how talented and influential, no blond in history has ever been able to stifle the ever-popular blond joke.)

The shift in the international humor balance that Walesa initiated begs the question, "Who has stepped up to fill the ethnic joke vacuum?" The French make semi-regular appearances in the American one-liner vernacular, but it's a starring role usually cast as retribution for their refusal to capitulate to America's political will, making such flare-ups wreak of pettiness, not jocularity. Frankly, political correctness of the 1990's and globalization of the 2000's has been very bad for the ethnic joke---such so-called humor is simply a hard sell in the 21st century. And while the dearth of ethnic jokes is certainly a positive step in the progress of humanity, it has been nothing but bad news for politicians, those perennial bloomers on the American humor landscape that garnered no protection from either political correctness or globalization. In fact, about the only solace many politicians can find is that at least they're not blond.

* "From away" is a phrase with far-reaching comprehensiveness---even if you were born in Maine, if your folks were from away, then you are still from away. As the an old Maine adage goes, "If a cat has kittens in the oven, you don't call 'em biscuits."

** I admit, in jokes such as these, we all know that the third character will be the fool, just as we know that if Captain Kirk, Doctor McCoy and a red-shirted ensign named "Smith" beam down from the Enterprise, Smith's career path in Starfleet Command is about to come to a gruesome halt.

Thanks to my friend Bruce Morritt, who spoke the wry observation that inspired this column.

©2007 wpreagan