All this warm weather and sunshine is bound to put a person in a good mood – so it’s important to balance things out with a few grumpy rants.
So, three things that I find annoying:
1. Urban Dictionary. This is essentially the internet equivalent of bathroom graffiti – except the wit and effervescent verbal interplay on display in bathrooms is generally of a higher caliber. As far as I can tell, the site exists solely to provide a forum for people with the sort of adolescent mindset for which sex is a spooky arena full of scary, alien body fluids, fodder for gross-out contests among their similarly repressed and fearful pals. Thus the number of highly fictitious sexual absurdities, all given stupid nicknames, most of which make a pointed conflation of bedroom and bathroom.
And what, in the name of Samuel H. Invisible, is “urban” about any of this? Oh sure: the popularity of hip-hop-derived terms means that a lot that lingo gets “defined” at the site, and certainly hip-hop is urban in its origins…but I’d be willing to bet most contributors to Urban Dictionary are actually suburban. “Urban” is evoked as a synonym for cool, for black, in the classic sort of half-envious, half-distancing attitude made infamous by Norman Mailer in his influential essay “The White Negro.”
2. The blues. Okay, okay: I’ll admit that, first, a lot of music I do like would be impossible without the blues. And I’ll also acknowledge that I do like a fair amount of blues…but almost all of it’s at least fifty years old. The real problem is that blues refused to evolve – or more accurately, it continued to evolve, but what got called “the blues” remained stuck. Sorry, folks, but what you can do with the same three chords, the same 12-bar phrasing, the same stock melodic phrases, and the same small set of instrumental variations – even the same small set of lyrical concerns (write a blues about a non-traditional blues subject, and half your audience will take it as parody) – is pretty well played out by now. Transcribe any ten blues songs within the same genre (electric, Chicago-style’s the worst offender here), mix them up, put them in the same key, and I challenge anyone to tell me which part came from which song. There’s a reason Lou Reed is said to have levied a fine upon anyone in the Velvet Underground who played a blues lick (and yes, he would have had to have fined himself a couple-three times).
Perhaps far worse than the blues themselves are amateur blues musicians on the one hand, and blues fans on the other. Thing is, it’s really easy to play the blues incredibly badly, and it seems that the attraction of doing so is nearly as compelling as the need for beginning guitarists to fumble out the opening chords to “Stairway to Heaven” or play the riff for “Smoke on the Water.” (Note: there is a particularly painful place in my own personal version of hell for amateur harmonica players – particularly the kind who stroll around college campuses playing their abysmal wheezing impersonations of outmoded locomotives they’ve never seen.) And blues fans? A bunch of fifty-year-olds in gray ponytails who manage the neat trick of simultaneously imagining they’re more sophisticated than you plebeian indie-rock fans (substitute nearly any other genre of music) and that they’re earthier, more in touch with reality, by being blues fans. Insufferable.
3. The Olympics. Where to begin? An orgy of jingoistic glitz, a parade of hypocrisies, while behind the scenes huge towers of money bully everything in sight while cloaked in the luminous raiment of “amateurism.” The TV coverage makes this so much worse: all-US, all the time, with only the barest gesture at the notion that a contest not involving the US (or in which the US is just not very good) might be interesting. Cities beg and plead for the opportunity to host the Olympics…and if they get it, they steamroller existing parts of town, while rents and property values blast out of reach – leaving a bunch of facilities of only limited use once the Olympics have moved on. I knew someone who lived in Atlanta before the 1996 Olympics, and his description of the way the city prepared for the event was not at all pretty. And despite the blather about peaceful competition, the set-up instead encourages nationalism of the worst sort: somehow our nation is better than their nation because we can cough up a better bunch of hockey players? Instead of competing nation against nation, all the blather about international fellowship would be better served if (for team sports, at least), teams were drawn up with members randomly chosen from various nations.
But what about the power and beauty of the athleticism on display? Can’t you set aside all the politics and maneuvering and just glory in the athletes’ incredible skills? Well, maybe…except that for a lot of sports, the need for training is so intensive that entire childhoods are sacrificed to the need to create a gold-medal winning gymnast (say). Sports like gymnastics, whose athletes seem to peak in their teens, are particularly egregious in this regard. Describing a character who’d ruthlessly trained his daughter to compete at the Olympic level, Kurt Vonnegut had another character comment, “What kind of man would turn his daughter into an outboard motor?” (I think this was in Breakfast of Champions – yellojkt will probably know.) Oh sure, these young athletes will say they want to compete…but I will note that, in other arenas, characterizing what is legitimately “consent” recognizes that adults can create in children a compulsion that makes true consent impossible. The same is true concerning whether a ten-year-old really wants to do gymnastics half the waking hours of her day. It’s borderline child abuse is what it is.
Sigh… I’ll be back to my usual charming self next time, I’m sure.