Saturday, April 29, 2006

Cover me

I am a fan of music. By this, I don't mean that I am a "serious" music fan. I don't spend hours a day deciding if I want to sort my CD collection alphabetically by lead singer's first pet, or from west to east by band's city of origin. I'm happy for people who are fortunate enough to have found their particular talent in life in this manner, but if that's mine, I'll just keep looking.

No, when I say that I like music, it simply means that, most of the time, I'd rather have the radio on than off. My CD player is the first thing I turn on when I walk into the kitchen, and I'd rather drive across the country without A/C than without FM. Like ribs (for her), it just makes things more pleasurable.

I realize that the very act of listening to the radio rather than some obscure garage band diminishes me in the eyes of the "serious" music aficionado. I have heard some independently-produced albums that sound great (yeah Dogfight, woohoo!) and some that don't. Ditto for the radio. I know that the songs sung by Avril and Snoop and Eminem and pretty much anyone else I've ever heard of are in some way influenced by the record companies that pay them millions of dollars a year. Frankly, I don't see what the big whoop is. If you prefer what they sing to nothing, leave the station on; if you don't, put in your college roommate's demo tape. Live and let live, I say.

But even though I say that, there are still a few basic conventions that need to be made clear. We may argue back and forth all day about classic subjects like indecency vs. art, free speech vs. obscenity, to-MAY-to vs. any vegetable that doesn't taste like puke. But there is one area which must be addressed, and must be addressed soon:

Cover songs.

Yes, taking someone else's material and foisting it on mankind as your own is as old as Prometheus. Sometimes it's no big deal, sometimes it really is an improvement, and sometimes it's Celine Dion singing "I Drove All Night."

But why was it OK when Roy Orbison covered Cyndi Lauper's song, and not when Celine Dion did? I'm glad you asked! May I present:

Three Simple Rules for Cover Songs

1) Your version must add something.

In the example above, Roy pretty much added the Y chromosome to Cyndi's original. Can't argue that *that's* not something. Celine added a bad French accent. I'm not saying that there was necessarily anything wrong with her version, but...did it really add anything to the music world that a Montreal karaoke bar couldn't?

In fact, maybe that should be the rule: "Your version must add something that a Montreal karaoke bar couldn't."

I'm not saying the new version has to be earth-shattering; Hall & Oates added a jazzed--up guitar part and an extra "don't" to the Everly Brother's "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling", and that was enough to make it different. But if an artist can't even do that, then he's just trying to siphon off record sales from confused youngsters who think that Michael Bolton was the first person to sing "Dock of the Bay". And yes, I have reached the age where I'm trying to look out for America's youth. Don't sass me, you whippersnapper.

2) You cannot cover an artist's defining song.

I know, I know...who decides what a "defining song" is? Well, as the saying goes, if you have to ask if it is, it probably is. Anyone who thinks they can deliver more "Satisfaction" than the Rolling Stones deserves to be beaten soundly with Mick Jagger's lower lip. C'mon, that would be like me trying to take a piece about exploding toilets away from Dave Barry. That's just arrogance.

To take a subject that's closer to recent history, Michael Jackson had scads of hits, and we could debate for days on whether or not "Thriller" was a more defining song for him than "Beat It." (In light of his recent legal troubles, it probably won't be "The Girl Is Mine.") At any rate, I think we can agree that, for a number of reasons, it's definitely not "Smooth Criminal," and since Alien Ant Farm kicked things up several notches in their version, that passes muster.

In a similar vein, but different enough to deserve its own rule, is:

3) You cannot cover a one-hit wonder.

I heard a cover of "Jessie's Girl" on the radio a while back. Leaving aside the fact that the band (Frickin'A) broke Rule #1...c'mon, guys. This is the only reason Rick Springfield ever shows up on a Google search. How can you try to take that away from him? You wanna kick his dog while you're at it?

There you go. Aspiring musicians of the world, please take note of these three simple rules, and we can all live in harmony (nyuk!) with one another. At least until some record label hears me singing "Tiny Dancer" in my kitchen and signs me to a deal.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Quote of the day

From someone who was clearly and gratuitously trying to be the quote of the day, but what the heck, it wasn't bad.

"The president has to be like Moe Howard: At some point in every 'Three Stooges' short, Moe slaps both Curly and Larry and says, 'Get to work,' " -- Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, referring to the Republican party's need for unity in the face of record disapproval ratings.

From today's Seattle Times.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Now that's good writing!

Saw this bit in last Sunday's Washington Post, and it's one of the funniest non-Dave-Barry things I've read in a newspaper.

First, the backstory: the White House has hosted an Easter Monday Egg Roll since the days of Andrew Johnson (Campaign motto: "One way or another, I'll be a historical footnote!"). Each year, this event promises more family-friendly fun than the Hawley-Smoot Tariff, and so families line up for well in advance to get tickets. The particularly hardcore pitch tents and wait overnight (or even nights) for their chance, joining Duke basketball fans and people in Darth Maul impersonators as people who will one day look back on their lives and wish that they had grown up in the '60's, where they could at least blame the drugs.

At any rate, this year's line included a greater-than-usual (that is to say, nonzero) number of openly same-sex couples with their kids. Some were there to make a statement; some were there simply because their kids wanted to go, and no doubt shocked and awed their parents with a combination of creative whining, sniffling, and Bambi eyes until Mom and Mom caved. Many were there as part of a concerted effort to encourage same-sex parents to come out of the closet, as it were, and simply enjoy the weekend of family togetherness (or at least as much as one can enjoy a camping trip in the middle of a major metropolitan area after all the bushes in the area have been picked clean of broad, soft leaves).

Many of the couples wore rainbow-colored leis or bracelets as a show of support for each other--a sort of visible secret handshake, now that all the good ribbon colors have been appropriated by bumper stickers. The author of the article spoke to some of the other people waiting in line to see what they thought of the whole affair:

"As long as that's all they do, the leis, that's okay," said Lisa Padres, 34, who lives near Chantilly. "I just wish they would just go dressed like everyone else and not stick out. That would be better."

Padres waited in line with two friends all night, the trio wearing fuzzy bunny ears.

Sometimes it only takes one side to show both sides of the issue. That's good reporting!

The full article, by Petula Dvorak, is available at the Washington Post's website. (Subscription required, unfortunately, but at least it's free.)

Thursday, April 06, 2006



I really like vanity plates. I think it's the hidden writer in me. Vanity plates are a form of creative expression as strictly structured as any haiku or sonnet. You have a few simple rules:
  1. You may only use capital letters, numbers, dashes, and spaces;
  2. You must keep your creation under seven letters (plus one space or dash)
  3. No dirty words...usually.

That last one's open to some debate. Here in Virginia, at least, there's a nifty little online tool that lets you input your potential plate and see if it's both allowed and available. The tool knows enough to reject obvious curse words ("ASS" is smacked down, for instance--sorry, Seinfeld fans), but not enough to stop the substitution of numbers for similar-looking letters ("A55" pa55e5 with f1ying c010r5). Maybe the DMV needs to hire more from the ranks of the leet (warning: sound) to get hip to the modern lingo.

Now, those are the impositions of the DMV. Good sense dictates that the potential plate poet exercise a bit of restraint, too. You need something that's funny more than once, since you're going to have it for a while. You don't want a plate that takes too long to understand, because if there's anything less funny than a joke that you have to explain, it's getting rear-ended by the person behind you too busy trying to figure out what "TI 3VOM" meant to notice the red light you'd stopped at. (Hint: that plate works better on the front of the car.)

With all these restrictions, though, there are still hundreds of good combinations out there, bounded only by the imagination of the vehicle owner. And let me tell you, the vehicle owners in Virginia have some pretty good imaginations. Some of the good ones I've seen:

  • JS4LAFS - cute, simple, to the point. People probably let this driver cut in a lot. I did. And to her credit, I got not one but two thank-you waves in return.
  • KELTYC - simple phonetics tribute to Ireland.
  • PL8 NMBR - can't argue with that. Ditto for "CAR" and "TRUCK".
  • AG EQUUS - on, naturally, a silver Mustang. I admire this one; it's not often you can list everything you remember from two high-school subjects in seven letters.
  • AU EAGLE - while you'd think this would be on a gold Talon, it was in fact on a black Honda, which made no sense at all until I saw the Auburn U sticker.
  • VGEPUNK - "I eat my tofu...raw."

...and some of the not so good:

  • I DZRV IT - on a red Mazda with a license plate frame that said "Call me! 1-800-YOU-WISH". Hmm, little red coupe screaming "my driver is a dink" you think this might be the most-pulled-over car in the state?
  • ISMLBCN - I guess not. But what chutzpah! Why not just put "SPEEDER" or "CR THIEF" on there? (Both are available, by the way. So is "8ALLZY".)
  • FCASTRO - Fidel supporter? Or is he saying "F--- Castro!" Or maybe the guy's name is just Frank Castro. Too many options.
  • WHT RBT - on a black Mustang. Maybe just a Monty Python fan?
  • ULYSTK - huh?
  • LADZ MAN - funny, but mostly because I didn't initially prounce the "D" correctly, leading to a run of Brokeback Mountain jokes.
  • BROKBAK - just kidding. That one's still available, actually.

So what about me? I've just got the boring ol' standard-issue plates, for now, in spite of spending more than a few idle hours whiling away various combinations at the Virginia DMV site. Much to my dismay (if not surprise), "OVRLORD" is long gone. So is 'NOGOL4U". "BIG PNIS" is still available, but let's face it, I don't want to have to back that up. Also, unlike the aforementioned BCN-SMLer, I'm perfectly content with the number of moving violations I have currently.

No, I'll just stick with what the state gives me, for now. As you may have noticed by now, conveying a pure, concise message in as few letters as possible runs pretty much exactly contrary to everything about my creative style. But if I'm whiling away some time on the internet some afternoon, and I discover that OVRLORD is suddenly available...I may not be able to HLP MSLF.