"Went to see Saturday Night Fever this evening. It's a computer picture, expertly made, beautifully shot, and with a blazing star performance from a new young man - John Travolta. I think the computer was asked, 'If you wanted to remake in the late seventies an Astaire/Rogers film, with all its appeal, and particularly its appeal to the young, what would you do?' This movie is the answer. A feeling of manipulation pervades the whole affair - and of course it works on the audience. I think what depresses me is that up to quite recently I have always believed popular art in all its manifestations in history was popular because it had merit - in some sense it was good. The public's own vitality saw to that. But now this isn't so any more. Market research provides the right product, the public is manipulated: 1984 has come."

- Peter Hall, diary 06.17.78

I've always found it peculiar when someone chooses adjectives like "expertly" and "beautifully" and "blazing" to describe something they profess to hate. Pauline Kael (see below) had a lot to say about people like Hall, who could conceive of such a powerful resentment toward popular entertainment that does its job well.

Would Hall think himself guilty of crass "manipulation" if a play he directed made its audience feel the requisite historical dread, or intellectual unease that he obviously feels is a far more desirable state of mind?

Poor Hall, twenty-five years ago, was already succumbing to Paranoid Fogeyism, a sort of intellectual's malady that manifests itself in handwringing over the public's loss of "vitality", and frequent evocations of literary dystopias, stealthily encroaching on us as we speak.

I used to find it compelling in the way that a kid likes to be scared. Nowadays it just sounds like so much disguised snobbery, a sure sign that someone is buying a myth of themselves as a superior, discerning creature, part of the natural aristocracy that thrives in the arts bureaucracy.



scam: a novel


I finally bought a new computer. I finally bought something that I could really use - a monster IBM, tricked out with as much memory as I could afford, a CD burner, a DVD drive, and a flat panel screen. I can't tell you what a shock it was after almost six years with a P90 laptop with 16 megs of RAM.

It's easy to disparage the "upgrade cycle" as a consumer ploy, a conspiracy of planned obsolescence meant to recycle customers for electronic goods and consumables, but it's hard to be resentful when the new version of the old technology is so vastly superior, to obviously an improvement, and work so much more pleasure. Add the high speed line, and I finally have some sense of just what computers were supposed to be, back when the "digital revolution" was being hawked by geek hucksters like Nicholas Negroponte.

THE BABY'S DUE DATE PASSED two days ago, but the midwife keeps telling us not to panic. Actually, I think she's telling K. not to panic; I'm quite okay, to be honest. More okay than I thought I'd be, actually, but then I'm not the one about to painfully expel what might be ten pounds of squirming mini-human through a tender and undersized orifice.

After the ultrasound the other day, we went for a walk that took us past Old Navy and Baby Gap, where we joked about father-and-son matching hawaiian shirts. No joke, really - I'll buy them if we have a boy. It's about as creative as you can be dressing a lad; K., of course, sighed mightily at the pink silk party dresses and the little hippie chick embroidered blouses. It's probably a but unhealthy, all of this, but while junior is still an abstraction - albeit one that sends my wife to the bathroom every half hour or so - it's all we can do to give our offspring a virtual place in our lives. We'll doubtless have no time for any of this once the squawling, expectorating, feculent reality arrives.

The bump, in situ.

In the absence of name or gender, future offspring has been dubbed "bump", for obvious reasons. It's Grandad Greg's invention - since elaborated into Baby McBump - but we've adopted it eagerly, so eagerly that it'll be months before we've broken ourselves of the habit, I'm sure. K.'s been calling him or her Bumpy; I've taken to rubbing her belly and referring to the bumpasaurus. This will all be quite cute one day, twenty or so years from now, when we re-tell the story to those future humans, perhaps still unborn, who'll be the bump's beloved or intended, dear friends and confreres, the kind of people with whom Bump won't feel awkward or embarassed, and who'll gracefully indulge the ramblings of his or her besotted parents. But hopefully we'll have broken ourselves of the habit by the time Bump has entered the social gauntlet that is grade five.

I'VE FOUND MYSELF GETTING QUITE AGITATED about children's music; more to the point, I've once again had my attention drawn to how crap most all of it is, but I've finally taken it personally. I seem to invite rueful headshaking whenever I declare our home a Barney-free zone; the implication is that I'm flouting some indomitable law of nature that presumes Barney as inevitable to childhood as skinned knees and dope-fiend slumbers after sugar-laced birthday parties at Chuckie Cheese.

But is it too much to ask that, with all of the other sacrifices you make as a parent, you might hope to be spared the musical equivalent of an all-Jello diet - brightly-coloured and textureless; spice and nutrition-free? No parent willingly submits to children's music with anything like enthusiasm; the best they can say is that it's a palliative, the musical equivalent of Paxil or Ritalin. They hate the stuff, but invite it into their home, seek emotional support for other parents who've had to endure it, and make a solemn pact never to mention it again when their offspring move on to tween pop, teen pop, top forty and the franchised musical products of marketed rebellion. They might think Evanesence is bloated twaddle, and Avril Lavigne a crass, risible bit of ersatz punk aspertame, but hey - anything's better than the years they sang along with Barney. Agreed? Now let us never speak of it again.

I'm sure there are rare folks out there who actually like the stuff on the jam-caked CDs in the busted jewel cases they bought at the Tower Records in the mall, purchased perhaps without any guilty prompting from their parental conscience as they buy the latest Dave Matthews record and a Motown compilation for a backyard barbeque party. (Okay - I'd rather listen to Barney than Dave Matthews. You've got me there.) It may be possible that the adults who actually like children's music aren't either the same people who make children's music, or the guy with the food on his sweater who spends every afternoon gathering up the abandoned shopping carts in the Piggly Wiggly parking lot until the staff chase him away.

More than that, there's probably some vital school of developmental psychology, allied with some tenure-tracked gang of sociologists, who think it excellent that children have their own music, that it furnishes and enhances a sort of viable "kids' culture", a place where toddlers and preschoolers can "define their own mythos, participate in their own material dialectic." Sure - sounds great, but have you ever had to listen to the fucking Wiggles, genius?

I'm just not sure if children have their own culture, in the same sense that there's such a thing as "Western Culture", or rural culture, or the vanishing culture of Trobriand Islanders. It's fine to acknowledge, say, that a two-year old isn't ready for Schönberg's "Verklärte Nacht", Walker Percy novels and the cinema of the Italian neorealists, but is it really fair to assume there's something like a holistic culture in some gaudy, strident, much-resented and quickly-abandoned stew of franchised cartoon characters, CDs full of clanging, cloying music "inspired by the TV show", and unquestioningly venerated packages of "educational" books, music and videos that presume the act of "educating" to be one imbued with bright-eyed condescension?

And when, precisely, did this candyiped, jet-moulded junkyard culture come into being? My wife, just five years or so younger than me, grew up in its protean, 70s grip, a land where the only law was that we were all "Free to be You and Me". There were songs and books and an unmistakable message meant to bolster self-esteem and UN-approved liberal pieties, which somehow mutated over thirty years or so into the nightmare landscape of purple dinosaurs, gibbering asexual plush trolls, threateningly maternal women who talk like geriatric care nurses and dwarfish bearded men warbling "Guantanamera" and "Puff the Magic Dragon" like Jose Marti and Jimmie Rodgers lived in some gumdrop valley where bunnies frolick on manicured hillocks and periscopes occasionally thrust out of the carpet of emerald turf to spray happy dust on doe-eyed passersby.

IT SEEMS TO ME - suddenly no longer a disinterested party - that children's culture is just adult culture with training wheels. The first piece of music I recall liking was "Nights in White Satin"; the first book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I wonder if there's anyone else out there whose childhood was scored with a Mellotron? I clearly remember the first time I saw Nosferatu and Throne of Blood, and I can't have been older than six or seven when I saw the Kurosawa on PBS one weekend night.

It's not like I grew up in some Upper West Side floor-through flat with smoked fish from Zabar's and Saul Steinberg on the wall. My parents were working class, lace-curtain Irish Catholics; there were few books in the house, and no records that didn't belong to my sister, but the radio was always tuned to Top 40 AM as long as my sister and brother lived in the house - which would explain the Moody Blues, and the fact that the whole Beatles catalogue is permanently hardwired into my brain. PBS from Buffalo came clear and strong over the lake, and while I didn't have much time for "Sesame Street", "The Electric Company" or "Zoom", they did show lots of old movies in the middle of the day, not just late at night, and curiosities like expressionistic German fairy tale films, shot in the 30s, clearly inspired - at least in my schooled memory - by Balinese shadow puppetry. I would love for my child to see these things, so vividly did they etch themselves in my own imagination.

Which is the point, I think, of kids' culture. It's the best and most wonder-filled things from our own culture, collected and ready to be brought out to be savoured at the right time. It's not some stupefying visual wallpaper, or annoyingly prescriptive songs, full of rhymes and absent of poetry, or blaring, cheap animation created only to be accessorized. It's not that everything created for the modern kid to enjoy is crap, but that most of it is, and it's part of our job description to make the judgement call, based on a judicious exercise of taste.

WHILE K. WAS AT THE ULTRASOUND CLINIC last week - where I was unable to enter thanks to SARS restrictions - I made a quick run through the downtown HMV, and picked up a Dwight Yoakam record and an amazingly cheap three-disc set of Sun rockabilly. Wandered over to the children's section, where I was once again met with the same awful wall of Disney products (Mickey Goes Latin - you know what I'm talking about), the Raffi and the Fred Penner and the Sharon, Lois and Bram. It's so depressing - I can get a box set full of Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich and Malcolm Yelvington for twenty bucks, but I can't lay my hands on a single disc of kid's music that won't make me crazy.

When K. found out she was pregnant, the boxes of clothes from friends who'd already had kids started arriving - maternity gear first, then baby stuff. Tucked in every box was a small stack of books, apparently discarded with the same eagerness as the maternity clothes - What to Expect When You're Expecting, Pregnancy and Childbirth, The Girlfriends' Guide to Pregnancy - and Ariel Gore's ominously-titled The Hip Mama Survival Guide, the cover of which lists topics like "Cool Names", "Clueless Doctors", "Right-Wing Losers" and "The Evil Patriarchy".

Somewhere in the midst of a chapter that begins with an Ann Lamott quote and ends with a profile of a "Rebel Dad", there was a list of "Music to Nurse Your Baby By", which leads off with two Joan Armatrading records, the Boys on the Side soundtrack, and Tracy Chapman's New Beginning (in case you can never have enough Joan Armatrading), before hitting all the high points - Indigo Girls, Joni Mitchell, Michelle Shocked, Sinead O'Connor, Sweet Honey in the Rock, plenty of reggae - and ending with a resounding wet thud: the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack.

Never mind the irony of a book with a whole chapter devoted to "Beauty and the Gender Beast" that presumes that a child - or any well-adjusted child who will grow up to be a blessing to the planet - has the same musical taste as a 50-year old lesbian social worker. (Not that I have anything against Boomer lesbian social workers - I just have a hard time imagining that they're born, not made.) I'm frankly amazed that someone took the time to make a list of music calculated to make me a plunge a knitting needle into my own membrana tympani.

I ended up walking out with a Smithsonian Folkways record - Leadbelly Sings for Children. It was the only thing I saw that I knew I could stand to hear, every day, maybe three times a day, for a couple of years. The songs are great - "Boll Weevil", "Rock Island Line", "John Henry", "Midnight Special", "Take This Hammer" - and I somehow felt that I'd have a lot more to say when I'm asked just what "Boll Weevil" or "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" or "We're in the Same Boat, Brother" means, Daddy?

Thanks to the miracle of KaZaA, and my own collection of old jazz and blues, I'm burning discs on my own for imminent offspring. Right now I'm working on a Lullabies record, which starts with Gene Austin's "My Blue Heaven" and The Chordettes "Mr. Sandman", and runs through a bunch of old Doo-Wop: "I Only Have Eyes For You", "In the Still of the Night", "Goodnight Sweetheart". I don't know which Nat King Cole song to end with, though - "Stardust" or "There Will Never Be Another You". And I haven't even begun the disc of Raymond Scott and Carl Stalling Looney Tunes for playtime.

There will be time later to wince at my child's musical taste - whatever the 2015 version of Evanesence and Avril Lavigne will be (probably robots, or holograms, which will at least take care of the royalties and intellectual property problem) - but for now, I see no reason why time spent with my child should feel like drowning in the bottomless "ball room" at the Ikea, or the mosh pit at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival.

©2003 Rick McGinnis - all rights reserved


The blessed event, as you might already know, has happened, but I was halfway through this when it transpired, so please enjoy this little screed on kids' music, written by a man who might one day rue his words.


john scalzi
james lileks
alan zweig
justin johnson
jeff jarvis
little green footballs
tim blair
uss clueless
relapsed catholic
damian penny
lone dissenter
accordion guy
jim treacher
arts & letters
talking points memo
peter maass
cliff yablonski

I Lost it at the Movies - click to buy it

Pauline Kael
I Lost it at the Movies

Movie critics who worship the late Pauline Kael are a dime a dozen, and I've officially joined their ranks. I always liked Kael's reviews in her late years at the New Yorker, and I was always suitably reverent towards her "golden period" in the 70s, when she helped define, often more harshly than people remember, the renaissance of American directors like Coppola, Malick, Scorsese and De Palma.

But I'd never read her criticism from the 50s and 60s, so as long as the 70s work remains out of print, I thought I'd pick up collections like this one, which turns out to be even better than I remember the 70s work. Kael had a wonderfully nonconformist mind, and while she pays some tribute to liberal homilies, she's at her best when she takes on the solemn righteousness of liberal critics and audiences, and the uncritical worship of foreign and "art" films, then reaching its zenith in the U.S.:

"The art-house audience accepts lack of clarity as complexity, accepts clumsiness and confusion as 'ambiguity' and as tyle. Perhaps even without the support of critics, they would accept incoherence just as the larger audience does: they may feel that movies as incomprehensible as Viridiana are more relevant to their experience, more true to their own feelings about life, and more satisfying and complex that works they can understand."

Kael defined the border between "smart" and "intellectual", and loved to point out when people who prided themselves on their taste and learning spent altogether too much time defending films and books that they thought proved their genius in direct proportion to their inability to make a coherent point. Looking askance at Bergman and dismissing Antonioni were, at the time, pretty brave stances to take, and I was amazed to read, in a piece published the year I was born, this stunning dissection of the political agenda presumed by the aesthetic stance of the art-film crowd:

"They have composed a rather strange amalgam in which reason = lack of feeling and imagination = hostility to art = science = the enemy = Nazis and police = the Bomb. Somewhere along the line, criticism is also turned into an enemy of art... In Los Angeles, among the independent film makers at their midnight screenings I was told that I belonged to the older generation, that Agee-alcohol generation they called it, who could not respond to the new films because I didn't take pot or LSD and so couldn't learn just to accept everything."

It's amazing to me how this kind of thinking has persisted, how it became a venerable counterculture tenet, and has lodged in practically every political and artistic discussion - even scientific and technological ones; it's one thing to see it inspire the recent anti-war protests, it's another to read it in Wired magazine. The anachronism is astounding, and Kael, to her everlasting credit, spotted it early.