Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Java Jeremiad

Coffee shops have long represented a certain culture, a Bohemian, B-Type liberalism associated, more or less, with screenplays that never get finished and scrawled notes that never get formalized. The bean brewery is home to the diurnal diuretic and estival beret—shelter to a fueled, fledgling artisanship.

Starbucks is not the traditional coffee shop. Starbucks sells John Mellencamp records. Starbucks sells first-person narratives driven by canine protagonists. Starbucks attracts more corporate shills than it does dowdy writers. Starbucks charges Benjamins and does not give free refills.

Like a dance club, Starbucks charges for a tony aesthetic. The acerbic, inky coffee is a high-priced hand stamp, a token of inclusion in an odd, pretentious party. The in-speak and latte lingo are the native patois, the jargon of dispossessed coffee drinkers with more insecurities than taste receptors. It is with an ingratiating smile that the counter clerk takes your order, and it is with a dismissive wave that your drink is served. Tired minions huff through Starbucks every day, wanting to tread in the shallow fraternity of Mint Mocha Chips and Caffé Americanos.

The question, “Would you like a little foam on your macchiato?” is supposed to be pathetic. It’s supposed to be asked of a faux installation artist by a faux barista, both—male or female—with unclipped body hair and idealism that slightly exceeds their respective intellects. It is a question that should, by cafĂ© noir standards, evoke a round of mordant anti-Frenchism. It should not be asked in a central business district and should not be posed against an exclusively licensed John Coltrane recording. Thanks to Starbucks, macchiato foam flipped from freak to chic, its hilarity dissipated like so much steamed milk…err, soy milk.

What does Starbucks want? Not your money—they got that long ago. Not your loyalty—they snared that, too. What they’re really after is approval, a collective affirmation of the way the chain has hijacked coffee culture. Starbucks abruptly maimed the organic coffee shop experience, a fact that has become a mammoth elephant in the room. Instead of resolving the elephant, Starbucks has marketed it past innocuousness and into fashion, and desperately needs its customer base to help prolong the fiction.

Instead of addressing high prices and low roast, Starbucks is prospering by having us all participate in a farce. The knock-off paintings on its walls reek of wannabe, but we ignore that. The music it plays is teenybopper swill, but we listen anyway. Its heinous lighting and assembly line embrace violate everything quirky and sacred about coffee houses, but we forgive. We relent, yield, and sip.

Stay Scandalizing, Starbucks
DJ De Leche

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Phelps Phenomenon

If you Google Michael Phelps—at least as of 1:20am EST on Tuesday, August 19th—you’ll turn up 9,080,000 results. Just two days after the flagellar phenom took home his record 8th Olympic Gold Medal in Beijing, Phelps has a bigger online presence than Stonehenge (8,630,000), the Queen of England (7,790,000), and LeBron James (7,150,000). He carries about eight times more virtual weight than Mark Spitz (1,190,000), the swimmer whose gold medal mark Phelps bested. Granted, Phelps is no Kobayashi (11,500,000), but is in a different stratosphere than Joey Chestnut (636,000), the vacuum who out-ate the Japanese hotdogger.

Sportswriters the world over are hailing Phelps as the greatest athlete of all time. In a feature called “Phelps’ eight gold medals makes us rethink greatness,”’s Jemele Hill says, “Forget your previous notions. Forget other things you've seen from the other world's best athletes. What Phelps has done is as remarkably different as God giving us the sun one day and the seas the next…Phelps has changed the way we think about sport. Phelps has redefined athletics, and athleticism.”

Want to claim home-country bias? Understandable. But then there’s the Canberra Times, an Australian newspaper that published a piece by columnist Daniel MacDonald entitled, “Forget Tiger, Jordan, Federer…Phelps is now the greatest ever.” When the lauding comes from a rival country—as MacDonald notes, “It was hard not to be disappointed with some of Australia's narrow misses. World record-holders Leisel Jones, Libby Trickett, Eamon Sullivan and Grant Hackett all failed to shine in their pet events”—and a country that won less gold collectively than Phelps did personally, it is time to stop and smell the chlorine: Michael Phelps is the bomb diggity.

The Olympics are one of our last romantic bastions. Modern facts like Wi-Fi and space travel are immaterial, and, more to the point, each event has a definable result. Someone wins, someone finishes second, and then another third. Swimming is especially platonic, since it is so simple—like wrestling, it involves no high-tech equipment, and like running, it is a race in the truest sense. Just a bunch of dudes/dudettes swimming through a bunch of water, each hoping for a glory that rests in hundredths of seconds. What makes Michael Phelps so accessible, so easily celebrated, is that one can sum up his achievement in a single sentence.

He swam faster than everybody else.

Michael Jordan had teammates; Phelps swam alone. Tiger Woods uses a club to hit a ball into a hole; Phelps used only his body. Lance Armstrong had teammates and rode the best bicycle money could buy; Phelps did not benefit from superior engineering, as he shared a pool with his competition. Muhammad Ali competed once every few months; Phelps swam every day, sometimes twice a day. And obliterated world-class competition each time.

It is very tempting to label Phelps the best ever, especially in the immediate afterglow of his achievements. It is even more tempting since Spitz, whose mark of 7 gold medals stood since 1972, already called Phelps “the best Olympian of all time.” But is Phelps better than Ruth, Thorpe, Federer, Woods, Ali, Gretzky, and Rice?

It’s nearly impossible to say. But one thing is clear: Phelps has to swim a lot faster to catch Justin Timberlake (39,000,000).

Stay Searchable, Michael
MC Medal

Monday, August 18, 2008

Lolla, Part 3: Alarms and Surprises

[Editor’s Note: This is the third and final installment of The Verbal Calorie’s Lollapalooza diary. Like its two predecessors—“Lolla, Part 1 and Lolla, Part 2”—the finale is mostly an exposition of hazy memories, and at points boasts almost no connection to reality.]

[Editor’s Note 2: In regards to the comments in “Lolla, Part 1” about Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Olympics, Gene Wojciechowski of wrote an excellent article on the same topic. Wojciechowski, a native Chicagoan, specifically mentions Lollapalooza.]

Somewhere between the maverick anti-label glory and the depressed public posturing lies the truth about Radiohead: they are a very good, very successful rock band. They long ago slid into the top-tier ranking—along with bands like U2, Dave Matthews, and Pearl Jam—that guarantees sold-out tours, excellent sales figures, and universal adulation. Like those other bands, Radiohead is largely mythologized, but they are also misunderstood.

The group’s legend roots in an absurd four-album run spanning 1997-2003. “The Bends,” a monumentally gorgeous record, came out in 1995, but, as has been noted repeatedly, it was “merely” a good pop record. Two years later, though, Radiohead released “OK Computer,” an experimental concept album that made unprecedented aural sense. Rock radio listeners were treated to daily airings of “Karma Police,” and “Paranoid Android” made the late-night MTV video rotation.

Radiohead released “Kid A” in 2000 and then “Amnesiac” one year later. In 2003, they submitted “Hail to the Thief” for public consumption.

Deservedly, these recordings lent the band a certain infallibility, a categorical assumption of genius that so few artists ever merit. Mythologized though they might be—their first album, “Pablo Honey,” is unremarkable, as is their latest, “In Rainbows”—the purpose, at least for the band members, was never to be a big, snotty rock band. In fact, what makes Radiohead so vastly misunderstood is that their music is hardly rock star fare. Much of it is quirky, electronic, and loping. Much of it is low-dynamic and hookless.

Much of it is completely indecipherable to a person brought up on U2, Dave Matthews, and Pearl Jam.

Which brings us to Lollapalooza: since there’s nothing cooler than professing to a) love Radiohead, and b) know all their songs, dozens of thousands of people jammed the main performance area for Radiohead’s performance on the festival’s first night. Body to body traffic spanned 200 feet from the stage, making passage impossible. At a festival like Lollapalooza, where neophyte listeners are as prevalent as diehards, it is difficult to say how much of the elbowing mass might be the genuine, Radiohead-addicted article.

For the initiated, the 24-song set was a Pantheon recital, with a few new tracks mixed in with the greatest hits. Glorious oldies included “Airbag,” the oddly apocalyptic “Everything In Its Right Place,” and “The Bends.” About half the audience knew the words to most songs, and a handful demonstrated the fixated geek information: track names, guitar patterns, historical context, etc.

At the set’s midway point, with the night just having stolen the last bits of sunlight, the Chicago skyline shone like a million small diadems. Fireworks exploded in curlicues just beyond of Grant Park, teaming with the skyline and Radiohead’s stalactitic light show for a seraphic gestalt.

Since the show ended at 10pm, there was time for a considerable spiritual debriefing afterwards. Radiohead-sated hordes flanked the streets, seeking food and further drink. Many coalesced at a small diner with a dance club in the basement, eager to either sit at a booth and reflect or get more boogie on. As we recounted the ways in which Thom Yorke's cadre had just reorganized our pleasure sensors, one benevolent truth stood accented above the rest:

For one night, Radiohead was understood.

Stay Seminal, OK Computer
DJ Diary

Monday, August 11, 2008

Lolla, Part 2: Perry, Perry Good

[Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of The Verbal Calorie’s slightly impaired, still unnamed Lollapalooza diary. See the last blog, “Lolla, Part I: You’re Not as Bad as You Think,” for a complete intro.]

I assume, as an ardent theist, that my deceased ancestors are either in heaven or hell. Hopefully heaven, but it takes temerity to posit where a given man or woman is situated. Since it’s been a very long time since various religions’ sages claimed to have temporally passed into the next world, maintaining faith in the heaven/hell construct can be a bit trying. Is the concept of a binary destiny merely an appeasement, a chimera shaped by terrified theologians and opportunistic feudal lords? Are heaven and hell the netherwordly parallel to the tooth fairy and tax rebates? Is the image of DJ Bloggers past enjoying a cup of ethereal tea simply too pleasing to be true?

Thank goodness I went to Lollapalooza.

No less an authority than Lollapalooza founder and Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell sermonized on our post-dead destiny. Performing on the Kids’ Stage on the festival’s third and final day—and accompanied by Guns N’ Roses/Velvet Revolver guitarist Slash—Farrell echoed my long-held suspicions about the afterlife.

“Well, kids,” he said, walking the length of the stage, “some of you might have a grandfather or grandmother who died. That means they’re in heaven right now.” There were some kids, even some borderline toddlers, in attendance. Farrell’s own 4-year-old son, wearing a pair of oversized red earphones, stood to stage right.

“And so that’s what this next song is about. It’s called ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.’”

And with that, the band launched into a semi-spirited rendition of the Dylan standard, its basic chord structure easing my cosmic doubt. With Farrell’s philosophy restoring my forebears to their rightful resting place, there was time to enjoy his music (see below for video of the almost rockin' "Knockin'").

The set closed with a less-than-inspired rendition of “Jane Says,” the original version of which remains history’s most jaunty song about heroin addiction. In that moment, however, after Farrell had spoken so definitively about Eternity, the song sounded ominous: where do heroin addicts go when they die? Farrell, a dabbling Kabbalist, could surely opine on the question, but that was not to be at this Lollapalooza.

Instead, the 49-year-old’s focus was more immediate.

“There are a lot of cute girls here,” Farrell told the kids. “You’ll understand that when you’re older.”

Stay Spiritual, Perry
DJ Dylan

Friday, August 8, 2008

Lolla, Part 1: You're Not as Bad as You Think

[Editor's Note: The Verbal Calorie attended Lollapalooza in Chicago this past weekend. This is the first of a multi-part retrospective that, despite The Verbal Calorie's best efforts, does not have a name.]

Chicago is not like New York. So I was told over and over this weekend, by both geographically yielding locals and adamant out-of-towners. For all that Lollapalooza had to offer—Radiohead and Rage Against the Machine, an extensive wine selection and homely joie de vivre—its greatest shortcoming was location. “Sure, Grant Park is really nice,” someone would say, referring to the festival’s home base, “but it’s not like New York.”

Chicago’s Trump Towers, watering holes, subways, and intellects were offered on a pyre of sub-Manhattanism. According to residents, the country’s third-largest city has pretty girls, but the really pretty ones move to Manhattan. The bars in Lincoln Park, Chicago’s ritzy hot spot, don’t make drinks like the bars in New York. You can see live music every night, but not like you can in New York. The skyline is nice, but can’t hold a scaffolded candle to the Big Apple’s.

Los Angelenos do not suffer from the same inferiority complex. Neither do Miamians, Clevelanders (although they should), or even the genial folks in Akron. But Chicago, the unrivaled Midwest monarch, is terribly insecure. Midway through Blues Traveler’s set, the girl standing next to me eagerly offered that, if she were me, she’d leave Chicago and never come back.

“Why?” I asked her.

“Because Chicago isn’t as good as New York.”

Trouble is, she’s right. Chicago isn't as good as New York, insofar as in all matters urban, economic, and demographic, the latter easily outstrips the former. Chicago, like many cities, is a scaled-down New York, and although the Sears Tower could cast a shadow over any building in Manhattan, the perception along Lake Michigan is far more defeatist. For four days, people of every creed, color, and political persuasion aggressively denounced their home city, simply on the grounds of its not being exactly as they imagine New York to be. The attitude is not just deferential, but reverential: masochistically, the people with whom I spoke celebrated how incomparably better my city is than theirs.

Theirs is a worldview borne not of particulars, but of outsized fantasy. It wouldn’t matter if a Chicago sports team were to beat a New York sports team. Hosting the 2016 Olympics wouldn't loosen the city's fatalistic grip on second place. “Chicago is not like New York” is so ingrained in their cosmopolitan conscious that Chicagoans assume it to be true on all levels. Their trees, thoroughfares, and traffic signals are dingier. Their lawns, museums, and pavilions are shoddier. Their residents aren’t as smart and their jobs aren’t as good; their food doesn’t taste as good and their money isn’t worth as much.

Our contingent at Lollapalooza was particularly targeted for praise, as all five of us live in various boroughs of New York. Chicagoans felt silly around us, like a group of poseurs who walk into an Armani and suddenly feel less fashionable than they once thought themselves. It was only in the small moments, when our zip code was incognito, that we got a sniff of Chicago's civic pride. Its residents desperately want the Olympics, and even more desperately want to celebrate the outlandish riches of Millennium Park, Wrigley Field, and yes—Lollapalooza.

The diary to follow will recount the thrills, oddities, and rapid-fire milieus of the latter. In just one weekend, we met an ex-dominatrix, heard Perry Farrell lecture about life and death to little kids, and saw fireworks cascade behind Thom Yorke.

Not surprisingly, Chicago proved to be very much like New York.

Stay Similar, Cities
MC Manhattan