Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What's New?

I suspect most people have a branch of their family tree they consider “poor relations” and my immediate family is no different. We have an Aunt and Uncle that, due to unfortunate circumstances, are basically uneducated and largely uncultured. Good people, just not entirely socially acceptable. I confess there was a time when I dreaded their visits to our home, especially entering my teenage years, that awkward age when peer pressure is colossal and avoiding embarrassment paramount (and few things are more embarrassing than your family). My fear of guilt by association was so strong I recall being mortified with shame when I returned from school one afternoon to find my Uncle mowing the yard shirtless with the tattoos from his Navy years on display, wearing baggy pants that left a generous portion of his boxer shorts exposed for the entire neighborhood to see. My Aunt sat on the porch wearing bleach-blonde hair with noticeably dark roots and a tank top with her bra straps showing. In hindsight (thanks to Hip Hop and Madonna) I now see that my relatives were actually fashion trend setters extraordinary far ahead of their time.

I mention this story because this afternoon I had a similar experience of self-discovery; while visiting my sister I came across a photograph of myself at the age mentioned above. I was stunned to see the outfit I was wearing (straight-legged jeans, neon shirt, oversized Ray Bans, and Chuck-T sneakers) is almost identical to the clothes featured in the current issue of Vogue on my sister’s coffee table. My look had recycled. If I had kept those clothes (and could still fit into them) I would be quite the fashionista today. The magazine pictorial touted many new fashion trends for this season that I had seen before, from high-waisted skirts and shorts, to giant purses and oversized hoop earrings. My jaw dropped when they mentioned the comeback—of all things—“Hammer pants,” something I vow to never wear again no matter how popular they become!

This led me to ponder an age old question: What’s new?

I love working on the college circuit because I receive the bonus of being exposed to the latest fads and trends that originate on campus before filtering into the mainstream. However, when spending time at a school I am always surprised to hear students listening to music that sounds similar (often identical) to the music I listened to when I was in college, or in some cases, the music my parents were listening to when they were that age. For example, the musical stylings of Amy Winehouse, Duffy, Joss Stone, and Sharon Jones are almost interchangeable with the sounds of Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, and Etta James.

This train of thought came to a sad revelation: for the past two decades college students have not had a new style of music they can call their own. They lack an original musical battle cry to identify with and rally around, losing a time-tested weapon to irritate the authority figures in their lives. I feel sorry for their loss.

I am disheartened that for the first time in a century or more the river of original musical genres has run dry. Sure, there are still new bands and new ways to record and produce them, just not totally new music for them to play (or us to listen to).

Although I’m no expert on music history, I can offer a simplistic review of the styles that had an impact on past generations. At the turn of the twentieth century young people were tapping their toes to Ragtime, followed by the truly American art forms of Jazz and Country & Western. In the 30s a new generation embraced Swing. By the 40s Rhythm and Blues took hold. The 50s introduced a style of music that resulted in a cultural revolution: Rock and Roll. In the 60s Soul music emerged and Rock expanded into Surf, Acid Rock, Psychedelic Pop, and Heavy Metal. That expansion continued in the first half of the 70s with Glam Rock, Country Rock, Jazz/Rock Fusion, and then by mid-decade another musical style spearheaded cultural change: Disco. In the 80s Punk, Rap and Hip Hop blossomed, creating cultures of their own.

But by the 90s, originality began to wane and music became derivative. House and Dance are the evolution of Disco. Grunge is a combination of Indie Rock, Heavy Metal, and Punk (which is actually old Garage Rock). Techno and Trance have their origins in earlier works by musicians like Kraftwerk and Philip Glass. Even Emo was definable before this millennium in the works of Fugasi and Rites of Spring. Not to say that there was nothing new in music in the 90s; while no radically new musical styles developed, a new form of musical entertainment did become commonplace: Tribute Bands.

Music didn’t just quit moving in new directions…it did a u-turn.

Not only have people stopped creating new styles of music they have also stopped inventing new musical instruments, at least not instruments that have any impact on popular music (granted, the “vuvuzela” is a new instrument, but despite being popular, it is hardly musical). The last instrument to have any noticeable effect on the music we listen to was the synthesizer, and it was originally invented—are you ready for a shock—in 1876, by Elisha Gray, the man best known for developing the telephone prototype. In 1964, Robert Moog made the synthesizer commercially available for the select few that could afford one; in the 70s miniaturized components made it portable, and by the 80s it was finally produced at modest prices for the public. Today your laptop (or even phone) can be a synthesizer.

This brings me to the correlation of the decline in music originality with the boom of household computers. I am not the only one to notice this connection; Jaron Lenier (the man that coined the phrase “virtual reality”) was quoted in the New York Times: “It’s as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can do now is mine the past like salvagers picking over a garbage dump.”

My theory: the computer killed new music, or at the very least, replaced the motivation for creating it. In the past when a creative 16-year-old felt alienated or dissatisfied with the status quo he would reach for a guitar or spit a rhyme. Now they change culture by creating an original website or writing new code, and the benefits are similar: fortune, and for some, fame and the blessings celebrity status bestows. (If a nerdy looking kid like Mark Zuckerberg receives benefits from groupies that formally only Rock Stars knew, then who the hell wants to spend time with guitar lessons?) The internet was first misunderstood, even feared by the status quo, but eventually embraced. The same holds true for Rock and Roll. And the pioneers of both eventually got a very satisfying and financially rewarding last laugh. I grew up wanting to be the next John Lennon or Jimi Hendrix; now kids want to be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, and that is a tragedy to music.

It is my sincere wish that my theory is incorrect, and new music is not dead, but merely in hibernation. I hope someone reading this column sees it as a call to action and creates something original to blast from my headphones, because I miss seeing older folks roll their eyes and ask “Can you believe what kids today call music?” instead of “That tune sounds familiar.”

“The Laff Guru” has taken his message of LAUGHTER=NIRVANA to all 50 states and 23 countries. His awards include: “Comic of the Year,” “Campus Performer of the Year,” and a “Cable Ace Award.” His credits include over fifty TV appearances, including: Showtime and The Late Show. He is represented by GP Entertainment. To find out more about his award-winning comedy act please visit: laffguru.com

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Game Of The Name

RIDDLE: What do Anchormen, Ambassadors, Engineers, Diplomats, Governors, Judges, Medics, Pilots, Poets, and Senators have in common?

As I steered my car into Columbia, South Carolina, a billboard on the outskirts of town made me do a double-take; I was stunned to find in the buckle of the Bible-belt, a warning written in large letters: “You Can’t Beat Our Cocks!  The “Cocks” it was referring to was the local team from the University of South Carolina.  This was not the first time I’ve been amused by a college team’s moniker.  I frequently perform at the University of Akron, whose team is called the Zips.  When I was in the Middle East I learned that “zip” is the Arabic slang for penis.  Wait, it gets better, the Zips play in The Rubber Bowl.

As I travel around the country to perform at Colleges and Universities, one of the first questions I always ask the students is about the name of their team, because often it is a valuable source of comedic material.  For example, my favorite college cheer is performed by the cheerleaders for the Rhode Island School of Design, which call their team the Nads; how can you not chuckle when you hear thousands chanting “Go Nads!”

Team names are a source of amusement and bemusement; some seem redundant, such as Fighting Irish, while others do not – Hustlin’ Quakers, and some are an oxymoron, such as Little Giants.  Does it seem odd that you find Cornell’s Big Red in a Blue State (New York) and Bluefield’s Big Blues in a Red State (West Virginia)?  I can understand the Blue Wave being found in Boca Raton, Florida, and the Green Wave in New Orleans, Louisiana, or just the Waves in Malibu, California, but how did the Crimson Waves get to Whiting, Indiana, a totally land-locked state? (Or for that matter, the Crimson Tide to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which is over 200 miles from the ocean?)

The weather forecast for college sports is very scary.  There are Storms, of Crimson, Red, and Purple, as well as Cyclones, Tornadoes, Hurricanes, Nor’Easters, and of course, Thunder and Lightning.  But if nature does not kill us, we still have to worry about being attacked by Cadets, Captains, Colonels, Majors, Generals, even Presidents, armed with Sabers, Silverswords, Bullets, Bombers, and Rockets.

A citizen of the United Kingdom would feel right at home watching the Britons, Celts, Celtics, Irish, Scots, Scotties, Highlanders, or Wasps.  For a country without royalty we certainly have a lot of Lords, Barons, Dukes, Knights, Monarchs, and Kings.

If I was a student athlete, I think I might choose the school I attend based on the name of the team I would be playing for.  If my name was Jim, I’d want to play for The Jimmies, or John for The Johnnies, or Tom for The Tommies, and if I was really fat I would play for The Jumbos.  If I was gay I might be a Flying Queen, one of the Flames, perhaps a Gobbler, or a member of the only team that shares its name with a gay porno magazine, The Blue Boys.  But if I was bi-sexual, I’d be torn between The Pointers and The Setters, or if I was just bi-curious – The Wonder Boys.

What if I was a female athlete, would it bother me that my team was named after something that didn’t exist, such as a Lumberjill?  Although I’ve never seen a Minutewoman, I confess that I once got so lonely I called one at $4.99 per.  Often it is difficult for the women’s team name to correspond with the men’s, for example the women’s team for the University of Texas is called the Lady Longhorns, because as my friend, Vic Henley, pointed out, “It would be rude to call them the Cows.” 

Christians might want to join the Angels, Evangels, Preachers, Prophets, Missionaries, Bishops, Friars, Monks, Saints, or Praying Colonels.  Atheists don’t care if they are considered Demons, Devils, or part of the Inferno, and agnostics are not sure if they would rather be a Deacon or a Demon Deacon.

Students with a criminal record may want to be a Claim Jumper, Vandal, or maybe a Don (they make you an offer you can’t refuse).  And if you plan to party throughout your college years maybe you should join the Hardrockers, Brewers, Shockers, Vixens, or Wahoos, (and everyone knows the Stags have wild parties).  But be warned that if you party too much the next morning you may feel like a Ramblin’ Wreck.  (With the GPA I got from partying, I should have joined the Ephs.)

Most schools choose a mascot with a ferocious image in hopes it strikes fear in the minds of their opponents.  But I can’t imagine quaking in my boots at the thought of squaring off with the Sugar Bears, Violets, Cotton Blossoms, or Hatters (boy, are they mad).  I’m pretty sure I could outrun a Boll Weevil or a Banana Slug, and I’m certain I could dunk on a Troll.  And isn’t it an insult to call someone a Squirrel or Hokie?

Although I’m not a professional sports bookie, my fashion sense tells me the Blue Hose would not match up well with the Moccasins.  A Spaniard would think it wise to buy a ticket to see the Bulls take on the Matadors, and I’m sure he would enjoy the Oles and Toros, but everyone knows that it would be silly for the Arrows to face the Archers.  Wrestling fans and Trekies both would enjoy seeing the Vulcans take on The Rock. An entomologist would want to observe the Wasps compete against the Black Flies, while a zoologist would be riveted as the Armadillos battle the Anteaters, but a sociologist would prefer to see what happens when the Ladies encounter the Gentlemen.  And Heloise would write about the Dust Devils versus the Dirtbags.

The more I learn about team names the more questions I have.  Would the Big Green be large enough to defeat the Mean Green or the Mean Green surly enough to beat the Big Green?  Would PMS turn a Beaver into a Battlin’ Beaver? Would the Magicians be able to pull one out with the Jackrabbits?  If Army plays Navy, and Cowboys play Indians, shouldn’t the Student Princes play the Valiants?  Do you really need to go to college to learn how to build a mound, or ride a mule, or husk corn?  If not, you probably don’t need to be a Moundbuilder, Mulerider, or Cornhusker.

And how many people knew that it would be possible to see 26 games of the Eagles versus the Eagles and never see the same team twice, or that over one hundred schools have Lions, Tigers, and Bears? Oh my.  And am I the only one who didn’t know that putting the Zias, AMCats, Billikens, Blugolds, Duhawks, Geoducks, Golden Gusties, Gorloks, Maccabees, Pomeroys, or Stormy Petrals in the same sentence will make a computer’s spell-check explode?

RIDDLE: What do Anchormen, Ambassadors, Engineers, Diplomats, Governors, Judges, Medics, Pilots, Poets, and Senators have in common?
ANSWER: Jockstraps.

“The Laff Guru” has taken his message of LAUGHTER=NIRVANA to all 50 states and 23 countries. His awards include: “Comic of the Year,” “Campus Performer of the Year,” and a “Cable Ace Award.” His credits include over fifty TV appearances, including: Showtime and The Late Show. He is represented by GP Entertainment. To find out more about his award-winning comedy act please visit: laffguru.com