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Category Archive for 'Pop Culture'

Today, I would like to discuss a dilemma created by cyber-communication (and, yes, it is ironic that I am writing about this topic in a blog). Like many people, I text, post on Facebook, and use other cyber-tools because they are easy, fun, and help me stay connected. But I’ve been thinking about what is lost in the process.

Our campus provides an amazing opportunity—which most students will not come across again—to live among a completely diverse group of people in a safe environment and to get to know them on the most personal level. This unique experience is at the heart of a Middlebury education.

But, as I walk about campus, I see something that worries me. Many students are so profoundly connected online that I fear they are disconnected from life right here.

I often see students glued to their cell phones, disregarding people in the same room. I see students with laptop lives, perpetually Facebooking, tweeting, scanning YouTube, weblogs, podcasts, and wikis. The face-to-face conversation, the hand-written note, and the reassuring touch have given way to the casual, distant interaction that sometimes comes with living life virtually.

If you are living your day more online than in person, you are missing one of the greatest aspects of your Middlebury experience. We want our students to relate face to face, to learn how to resolve differences, to debate and argue with one another in constructive and challenging ways. We want you to ask your friends and acquaintances, “How are you?” and really listen to them—really see them, learn from them.

Computer-based media, by their design, convince us that we are “plugged in,” when actually we may be “checked out.” As we have seen in national examples and tragedies, some people will confess the most intimate details about their lives online, but they do not know how to open up to their friends, and they risk difficult experiences being overlooked. And people witnessing these online confessions often give them only a passing glance—the words become lost in the beehive-like noise, the fast and furious casualness of it all. No one’s paying attention.

I worry that this may be the first generation without sufficient experience in making human connections, that we are encouraging the development of individuals who will not know how to talk directly to each other and resolve conflict across human lines. We may run the risk of simply becoming observers, passive non-participants in our own lives. I worry that technology, to some extent, is pacifying and paralyzing us.

Although I benefit from the advances of technology and use it quite a bit, I still love a hand-written note, a visit, or a phone call. And I hope that we can all strive to make personal interaction the norm in our lives, not the exception.

I am urging students to take regular breaks from their virtual worlds, to seek out directly the people on campus. I don’t want you to have a transactional experience with your education here. Be a part of the process, not observers of it. And perhaps you will end up listening to someone who really needs you to pay attention. Most importantly, I know that this type of real connection will enhance your Middlebury education.

If we lost electricity for a week and our campus were disconnected from technology, I wonder what it would be like. What would your interactions look like? How would you push yourself to communicate? How would you get your work done?

But why wait for a power outage before you disconnect? Try it. Tell me how it went.

Ok, this is pretty cool, so I have to break my vow of blogger’s silence to mention that Doc Martens, the British shoe company that has been in step (couldn’t resist) with so many pop music trends in the UK, and sometimes the States, is celebrating its fiftieth birthday by commissioning contemporary bands to record “their version of a cult classic track which represents the spirit of the people who’ve worn DM’s over the past 50 years.”

The New York Times is running a piece on this initiative here.

And the company Dr. Martens celebrates its history on this website, which includes links to the songs—videos and downloads.

Not bad.

I am known as one of the more technologically engaged/addicted faculty members at Middlebury. Luckily, it ties directly into what I teach: media studies, focused on contemporary popular culture, television, and digital media. So the hours I spend on my MacBook Pro are mostly part of my broader “field research,” whether it’s Facebook social networking, writing on my blog, or reading articles from dozens of sources I regularly monitor.

Everyone has different technological preferences and tendencies—while I’m always on my laptop, I never carry a cell phone except for travelling out of town, and I have no interest in having a Blackberry or other mobile device (except as a way to play audio and video on the fly). So when Tim asked me to offer some tips for his readers for some essential technology tools, it should be noted that these are potentially more appropriate for laptop or desktop computers than for mobile browsing.

My two core tools are the Firefox browser and Google suite of applications. Firefox is my browser of choice both because of its open-source core and its suite of extensions. My personal favorite Firefox add-ons are AdBlockPlus to eliminate flashing banners and annoying pop-ups, Download Helper to save YouTubevideos to my computer, Interclue to preview links, and Tab Mix Plus to manage tabs (and I usually have at least 6 tabs open in my browser).

I’m a convert to the Google platform of tools—I use Gmail as an interface for all my email, have iGoogle as my homepage, plan my days through Google Calendar, and obviously search via Google. One tool I’ve found a lot of Google users don’t know about is Google Reader, an RSS reader. In brief, RSS is a way to subscribe to websites that frequently update, such as blogs and periodicals; an RSS reader allows you to manage feeds from as many sites as you want, sort them by date, tag, topic, etc. Google Reader is the slickest RSS reader I’ve found, with the excellent feature to share items with friends, and even publish your shared items to your own blog or your Facebook profile. (My own shared feed is here.)

Another key tool I use is delicious, a “social bookmarking” site. When I find a website that I want to bookmark, I save it to my delicious profile (via a Firefox extension, of course), where I can tag it with relevant categories and notes. I can also share my bookmarks with friends, follow other people’s bookmarks, browse similar links via tags, and publish my links to my blog or Facebook profile. Essentially, delicious turns the private act of collecting links into a public shared resource of collective web-surfing wisdom—not to mention helps avoid the trauma of a crashed hard drive erasing your bookmarks!

Sometimes a bookmark isn’t enough—if I find a site that I want to use for my research, whether it’s an article from an online newspaper, a PDF of a scholarly journal, or a particularly interesting blog entry, Zotero helps me catalog it. Zotero is an open source bibliographic tool that runs as a Firefox add-on. When you find a site you want to cite, Zotero saves the content and stores the bibliographic information; you can then use Zotero to output bibliographies or citations directly into a word processor. It’s essentially a browser-based version of EndNote or RefWorks, but free and more useful for online research.

When it comes time to write with all that “research,” I’m still searching for the right application. I’ve used MS Office for years, but have grown frustrated with it, as it really is ill-suited for Macs. I’ve tried GoogleDocs, which is great for collaborative writing and sharing, but lacks the formatting flexibility I need (such as footnotes and handling longer documents). I love Keynote, Apple’s far superior-to-PowerPoint slideshow application that’s part of iWork, but was disappointed with some of the limitations of Pages and Numbers. I’m currently using OpenOffice, which is powerful but I’m still getting used to its quirks and bugs. I will use Scrivener to help organize my next book, but it’s not the right tool for everyday writing. If anyone has anyone has tips for the best Mac-friendly alternative to MS Office, I’d love to hear it!

Digital Heaven

I was in the midst of transferring my blog from its old home on WordPress to this new space on the Middlebury website when I start messing around with this post, which highlights a gadget I recently purchased (more on that in a moment) but also speaks more generally to the pleasures of digital convergence.  For me, these pleasures are mostly about music, namely the ability to move music from the internet and CDs to computers to iPods and back again.  I grew up in the age of vinyl, and began buying record albums with money I earned from a paper route I had in junior high.  The excitement I felt in purchasing new records—at $3.99 a pop if I was lucky, and less when I turned my attention to used records—was later matched by the thrills of surfing for music on the internet and ripping and burning CDs.

Soon after getting my first iPod, I was so infatuated that I tried to describe its power:

Pop music provides us an emotional autobiography, an enduring record of what we felt at key moments in our lives, especially times of romance.  Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (1996) and the movie based on that novel beautifully dramatize this chronicling power.  But the mp3 player, of which the iPod is the exemplar, tells a different kind of story.  Whereas Hornby’s hero obsessively rearranges his album collection to suit his mood and prepares mixed tapes to express himself to friends and mark special occasions, he remains stuck in the analogue age.  Not the iPod user.  Connected by USB cable and synchronization to his computer and a music library that can be expanded at will by “ripping” cds or by downloading individual songs and albums from the internethe begins where many record collectors wanted to end up: with a “jukebox” (an old-fashioned name for a computer directory) that is designed to sort, organize, and create personalized “playlists.”  And he can carry it all away in a package slightly bigger than a cassette tapevirtually, life in the palm of a hand.

When I wrote that that, I felt like I was tapping into something new.  Now that iPod is old and I have some distance on that first love, I have moved to a new crush: the Squeezebox.

Made by Logitech, the Squeezebox is a small device, about the size of an envelope, that plugs into the back of my receiver/amplifier and wirelessly streams music from my computer to the stereo.  The effect is like like playing an iPod through a stereo system, except that the Squeezebox has access to all the music files on your computer, which for most people means more capacity. The Squeezebox also allows you to stream internet radio stations, as well as subscription services like satellite radio and Rhapsody.  The promise is a wholly digital music system, and the Squeezebox delivers, without much sacrifice in sound.

At the risk of turning this post into a full-blown infomercial, I will also say that the Squeezebox is reasonably priced.

Sounds of 2008

Last year around this time, we posted a list of favorite albums of 2007.  I say “we” because the post included input from my friend, Matt Jennings (editor of Middlebury Magazine), with whom I host a radio show on WRMC (Friday afternoons from 3:30 to 5:00 p.m.).

We thought it would be fun to do it again this year, and to make a special request to readers to share their own “best of” lists in the comments section, so we all can benefit.

One caveat: you don’t have to put together the kind of “ten best albums of the year” lists that journalists publish this time of year.  A couple or three suggestions is just fine.  That’s what Matt and I decided to do.  No pressure.  Just fun.

Here is Matt’s list:

  • Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend: Ok, on an undulating curve, the debut album from the kids from Columbia has passed from buzz to saturation point to backlash to buzz. But in all fairness, the album came out in January of 2008, and when it hit the airwaves it was energetic, fun, creative, and impossible to ignore. Some tracks trend a little too poppy for my taste, but others (A-Punk, for instance) have that perfect mix of alterna-ska reminiscent of Outlandous d’Amour-era Police.
  • TV on the Radio, Dear Science: Ok, this is a trendy pick. But it’s gotta be mentioned. It seems like everyone is jumping on the TV on the Radio bandwagon these days, but for good reason. These guys are good. Indie rock infused with more than a dash of soul.
  • Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, Once: Ok, this is kind of cheating, twice-over, as most, if not all, of these songs appeared on previous Hansard-Irglova collaborations (or on releases by Hansard’s band, The Frames) and the movie from which it comes was released in ’07. BUT, the soundtrack wasn’t released until last spring, so I’m including it here. This Oscar-winning soundtrack will put both a catch in your throat and a smile on your face. And during these dark winter days, who wouldn’t want that?

My list:

  • David Bryne and Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today: Like Matt, I am enjoying TV on the Radio’s Dear Science (it really does swing, and I listen to it a lot while working out), but in this pick I want to nod to early trend-makers and say they still make great music.  David Byrne and Eno began their collaboration in the 1970s, as the Talking Heads were coming to prominence, and this latest effort is every bit as good and very accessible.  Great pop music.
  • Elbow, The Seldom Seen Kid: This British band has made several excellent albums, and this is one of them.  Lush, lyrical, (musically) progressive, and politically engaged, Elbow evokes comparisons to Radiohead and even Coldplay (consider a melding of the two, and you get the idea), which are much better known groups.  But these guys merit just as much attention.
  • James Hunter, The Hard Way: R & B music is at the heart of rock and pop, and James Hunter, who often sounds a lot like Sam Cooke, makes music that is consistent with the golden oldies and sounds new.  This album features some punchy guitar work and growly, falsetto vocals.   Dance songs and love songs, and plenty of regret.  What could be better?

Finally, an honorable mention goes to my friend Cole Odell, who sent me a couple of discs over the holidays featuring some B-sides and live cuts from the New Pornographers.  Since I can’t call either of these discs “albums,” they don’t make my list.  But Cole, where did you get these?  The NPs sound almost like a supergroup . . . .

Since Isaac Hayes’ death on August 11, I have been searching the Internet in vain for news stories that mention his visit to Vermont in November of 2005. It’s a weird and irresistible aspect of cyber-culture that you can google your way to history, but even the world’s greatest search engine has limits.

We brought Hayes to Middlebury College as part of a lecture series on the arts and political activism, which also included photographer Bill Bamberger and playwright Larry Kramer. For me, Hayes’ visit was particularly special since his music has been part of the American landscape since he helped define the Memphis Sound and co-wrote “Wrap it Up” and “Soul Man,” both of which were recorded and made famous by Sam and Dave.

While at Middlebury, Hayes had lunch with faculty, staff, and students, did an interview at WRMC—and a radio spot that still gets played from time to time—and spoke in Mead Chapel. His informal, if somewhat rambling talk got mixed reviews, and some were taken aback by his praise for Scientology. But Hayes had a presence, warmth, and sense of humor that were hard to resist. And when he sang a slow R & B tune in Mead after his talk—accompanying himself on the piano—he got a standing ovation. You knew then why Hayes was one of the major forces in pop music during the 60s and 70s.

Hayes’ best-known song, “Shaft,” came out in 1971 when I was in seventh grade, and established Hayes as an icon of black power. When he performed or made a public appearance—resplendent in fur robes, or wearing his trademark gold chain vest—he meant business. Check out the DVD that comes with “The Ultimate Isaac Hayes: Can You Dig It?” (a great compilation, by the way), and you can see Hayes command the stage before a packed house at Los Angeles Coliseum, introduced by a young Jesse Jackson.

Given Hayes’ image, I always assumed he was a very big man, so when I picked him up at the Burlington airport and saw he was definitely under six feet, I expressed my surprise. He laughed and said that during the Shaft days, he had been doing a lot of weight lifting and was really buff. He also told me he had sold his gold chain shirts on eBay.

People talk about about being “touched by history,” and I felt that way after spending time with Isaac Hayes. He will be missed, but I am grateful I can still listen to his music and be connected to the legacy he left behind.

As I mentioned in an earlier post,  I am lucky to have a radio show on WRMC.  It’s a lot of fun, and this year I am co-hosting the show with Matt Jennings, editor of the Middlebury Magazine.  Our musical tastes are similar, which makes for some great overlap (though we prepare our set lists independently).  Anyway, we thought it would be a good use of blog space to write up a list of some of our favorite albums from the past year.  We certainly don’t intend this list to be definitive—we know our limits—but we hope it will inspire others to share their recommendations.

  • Andrew Bird     Armchair Apocrypha
  • Iron & Wine     The Shepherd’s Dog
  • Bryan Ferry     Dylanesque
  • Nick Lowe     At My Age
  • The Mary Onettes     The Mary Onettes
  • The National     Boxer
  • The New Pornographers     Challengers
  • Okkervil River     The Stage Names
  • Radiohead     In Rainbows
  • Spoon     Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga

Matt’s favorite discovery: Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova from the soundtrack to Once.

Tim’s favorite discovery: k. d. Lang’s cover of Neil Young’s “Helpless” on the soundtrack to Away From Her.

Even without doing the research, I feel pretty safe in saying that the history of Martin Luther King day tells us a lot about how Americans have engaged the issue of diversity during the last twenty years or so. As a federal holiday, MLK day has been around since the mid 1980s; as a state holiday, it progressed more slowly, as—most (in)famously in the case of Arizona—people questioned whether King’s accomplishments merited a day of commemoration. Given the symbolic nature of these debates, the life of King sometimes seems besides the point. On the other hand, if King had not been so effective as a civil rights leader and cultural critic, his legacy would not bear the weight of Americans’ hopes and dreams. And yet it does.

I am interested in how Middlebury students regard the King legacy. At the federal level, MLK day is older than virtually all college students, which means that most Middlebury students have for years been exposed to Dr. King’s larger-than-life contributions. And today’s King, I think, differs significantly from earlier versions. That was made clear at last night’s program at Mead Chapel, an evening of “remembrance and reflection” sponsored by the Office of Institutional Diversity that included music, readings, and a keynote address by Calcutta-born Vijay Prashad, a professor of history and director of the international studies program at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. While in previous years, a MLK speaker would likely have stressed the domestic picture—highlighting race relations (especially the status of African Americans) and perhaps noting King’s emerging criticism of American capitalism—Prashad sketched a global context for today’s social inequalities and racist attitudes. He talked about globalization and “polyculturalism,” a concept that emphasizes the dynamic and fluid way that culture forms and reforms across all seemingly fixed boundaries. This notion is captured in the title of Prashad’s 2001 book, Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity, a study named for Carl Douglas’ 1974 hit song. Performed by an African American, written by an Indian living in London, and heard on radios across the United States, “Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting” makes a good theme song for MLK’s evolving legacy.

Prashad’s take on this legacy is well suited to the global mix that increasingly characterizes Middlebury’s student body—and its curriculum. These days, campus activism is often a hybrid affair, with students from a variety of backgrounds coming together over concerns about “eco-equity,” a movement that targets the relationship between the environment and poverty. Similarly, the faculty group that Dean Shirley Ramirez has convened to work on a program for the study of race and ethnicity (to be housed in Carr Hall) brings together colleagues from American Studies, International Studies, Sociology, and so on. Although the director of the center will have an appointment in American Studies, the program will be polycultural or transnational in scope.

Skeptics might well wonder whether this transnational turn will detract attention from the pressing domestic problems—namely, racism and poverty—that have long been a part of American culture. On the other hand, it is equally legitimate to ask whether these problems can be sufficiently addressed without taking into account the global context. In other words, if Martin Luther King were alive today, he would definitely be kung fu dancing.

Okay computers

This week, I’ve been following two stories in the popular music scene. The first concerns Bruce Springsteen’s just-released album “Magic.” I’ve listened pretty faithfully to Springsteen’s music since 1973 — when, as a sophomore in high school I saw him perform at the Allen Theater in Cleveland — so every time he makes new music, I feel my past rise up before me.

The second story, which is more deserving of comment here, concerns Radiohead’s decision to release its new album online, without the support of a record label or a (now traditional) digital vendor like iTunes. Also, the band has priced “In Rainbows” on a sliding scale, asking fans only to “pay what you want.” Plenty of bands have given away music on the Internet, but the fact that Radiohead — perhaps the best band in the world — is walking away from traditional profit margins is something of a surprise (though fans will also have the option of buying a pricey disc set) . Needless to say, this is not good news for the music industry.

On college campuses, Radiohead’s decision has a particular resonance. For several years now, the RIAA and Motion Picture Industry have diligently waged a battle against scofflaw students who’ve used college networks to download music and films. College officials have followed the law and joined industry watchdogs to dissuade student from illegal downloading. Here at Middlebury, we’ve issued stern warnings, confiscated computers (a rare occurrence), and contracted with Napster (to give students a legal outlet for music).

Yet all the while we’ve watched the world grow flatter by the moment. The Radiohead release, while not a revolution in itself, shows how an artistic and economic decision made in Oxford, England can have an immediate impact in Los Angeles and New York. The release may persuade reformed downloaders to think they’ve been right all along, and the band’s online offering may be a tipping point in the evolution of the music industry. More generally, though, the release underscores the creative power that the digital age now makes possible in a variety of fields.

With YouTube and Facebook one bookmark away, this kind of innovation may seem like just another sign that we left the twentieth century a long time ago. Still, I think it merits extended reflection. On the Middlebury campus (and beyond) we know from the logo protest how students can mobilize strongly held feelings, beliefs and ideas — via Facebook — to make change. Viva la resistance, yes, but let’s rotate this equation somewhat and ask what might be created (or, to use an old-fashioned term, “produced”) through and across the digital spectrum. Middlebury has a stake in this issue as it now seeks to build on a network of institutions — language schools, Bread Loaf, schools abroad, and Monterey — to become the world’s premier global liberal arts college. How will our virtual resources figure in the union of “Liberal Arts. Global Action”?

Meanwhile, “In Rainbows” is available for download on October 10.

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