Monday, April 06, 2009

Milam's Mailbag!

After weeks of Milam's March Madness and subsequent mania, my mailbag's a mess. Unmanageable, even. Time to do some spring cleaning and answer your questions!

As always, if you'd like to submit a question to Milam's Mailbag (or really just say anything at all) just email me with "Mailbag" in the subject. Thanks!

I read your bit on Louis CK/Facebook a little while back and this begs the question: What do you think of the new Facebook? I think it sucks, but everyone’s saying it’s like Twitter, and I have no idea what that means. I feel like this re-design makes it take more time for me to stalk people. Lend me your thoughts.
--Wicker Sangria, Grand Rapids MI

I actually like it. I liked the original Facebook format the best, and then they changed it about 18 months ago to some jumbled, over-stuffed mess. Now they've streamlined it and prioritized the status updates. The problem that some people have is that the new version chose to prioritize status updates, which was a conscious move to compete with Twitter. This made other features harder to find or less accessible, which made stalking more difficult. Since Facebook's original appeal was unprecedented internet stalking, the change caused a rift.

The most interesting thing to me is that Facebook has become a place without demographics, which is my fancy way of saying "older folks are on it." At its zenith, if you were over forty and on Myspace, you were:
1) A pedophile
2) A professional in the entertainment industry
3) All of the above

Now, of course, Myspace is a graveyard of club promoters, spam, and softcore pornography, and Facebook's the standard for every age group. I've wondered about why our parents' generation took to Facebook and not Myspace, and don't have an answer. I do know, however, that the handful of Baby Boomers who have signed up recently did so because one of their friends tried to show them pictures via Facebook. They were prompted to sign up to see the pictures, so they did. In other words, Facebook didn't catch on because of some paradigm shift in the way our older generations interact with technology; it probably caught on because none of them knew about Flickr. Good. Grief.

Finally, there's Twitter, which nobody seems to make any sense of. I like it in principle, and I have one (Twit me, yo), but its format is ideal for people who think in six words or less. The premise is rapid-fire communication, real-time-life-sharing-updates, but it's often counterproductive. I spend twice as long trying to figure out how to fit something in 160 characters and end up just posting a link. Instead of giving up-to-the-minute updates, I waste the better part of my afternoon thinking about how to sound off-the-cuff.

And what I'm trying to say is this: I just bought a cabin.

Greatest American rock band? Not just current, but greatest American rock band ever. Side question, why is America great at producing single artists but not bands? Is this question correct/true/fair?
--I'd Fight Gandhi, Memphis TN

Great question. When I started Milam's March Madness, I was alarmed at how many of our current top bands are from overseas. Then I remembered, "well, that's always been the case." While American artists have led in terms of pop cultural invention, the best rock bands have almost always hailed from somewhere else. In other words, for every Elvis (American solo artist), there's a Beatles (British rock band). For whatever reason, the best American music is often made by individuals, and the best British music is often made by groups.

What's more interesting is how consistently this has been the case. It's difficult to pick a year since, say, 1964, in which the best band on earth was American. While Americans made stellar rock in the 60's (Beach Boys, the San Fran-bands like Jefferson Airplane, The Byrds), it's hard to argue that the decade didn't belong to the Brits (The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, Cream, etc.).

For every Eagles and CCR in the 70's, there was a Fleetwood Mac (truthfully a mixed-bag in terms of origin, but at least half Brits). Besides, it was Zeppelin's house and everyone else was just playing in it.

The Ramones make the short list if only for their massive influence, but can you say definitively that influence was greater than their British contemporaries (The Clash, Sex Pistols, etc.)?

The hair metal bands of the 80's were mostly American, too, but if you really think Winger belongs in this discussion you're probably not reading this blog in the first place.

REM gets plenty of consideration for their work throughout the 80's and 90's. For every diehard who says they were actually the most important band of the 80's (like me), you'll find five who say it was U2. And you'll find Chuck Klosterman, who says it's Guns N Roses.

Perhaps the most American-dominated time of great, interesting rock was the grunge revolution of the early 90's, in which Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden redefined the genre for a new generation and sent everyone--from California to Australia--scrambling to keep up. So, those bands are on the short list.

So, to sum up, here's the short list as I see it. In no order:
--The Beach Boys
--The Ramones
--Pearl Jam
--Big Star (I include them here with a bullet. I have an upcoming post about Big Star, so hopefully that'll shed some light on their inclusion.)

Nice. Lots of great music in there. Now let's weigh that against the Brit's short list, just for fun:
--The Beatles
--The Rolling Stones
--The Who
--Led Zeppelin

Ouch. I don't care who you are, that's sobering. Brit-comparisons aside, the original question was Greatest American Rock Band of All-Time, right? The problem is that, for me, no one from the American group jumps out as an obvious pick. They're all interesting choices, and have had incredibly different careers. Gun to my head, I'd pick Nirvana, because I think they did as much in a 3-year span as any band has (American or British). I don't hold brevity against them, but I count the time they didn't have for them (i.e., some would give them credit for the "great albums they would've made").

I'm saying Nirvana, and I don't feel great about it. Who am I missing? What do y'all think?

Oh, and to the question about why America produces great solo artists more than bands, my first thought is the obvious one: "Americans are individualistic, have our own singular visions, idolize those who perform/struggle/achieve in isolation, etc." And that probably has something to do with it. I also think that, when it comes to rock specifically, distance can help.

For example, the Beatles learned to play rock by listening to records by American artists (Elvis, Chuck Berry, Arthur Alexander, etc.) and imitating them. At the same time, they were also learning and imitating a contemporary British trend, skiffle. They were also learning from Western European classical music, and the English piano-standards that Paul's dad loved. When American rock made it to them, they naturally synthesized it with all of their other influences (some non-American). So, by the time their version of rock came back to America, it was something new, and fresh, and vibrant, and limitless. That band couldn't have come from the same South that produced Elvis, and Berry, because their deep familiarity with that one musical heritage would've limited their influences, and the type of music they would make. They couldn't have made rock new, because they would've only been exposed to (or expected to play) the rock that had become old. Distance can set you free.

Led Zeppelin and the Stones are also classic examples of bands that felt free to take traditional blues in a new direction. Perhaps the best current example of this is the White Stripes, a band from Detroit who have made the blues new again. It's important, though, that these bands so frequently come from outside the South they're inspired by, because the South itself is very much interested in preserving its musical heritage. It's a wonderful and invaluable musical heritage, and one that should be preserved.  I only want to make the point that you're more likely to find actual Delta blues in Mississippi (or actual bluegrass in Kentucky, etc.) than a genre-bending, facelifted version of it. Even the North Mississippi All-Stars (who sonically have much in common with the Black Keys and White Stripes) are mostly covering blues standards rather than writing new songs. They came up in juke joints, and that's their heritage.

But, if you're Zeppelin, and you love the blues, and you play it for barrooms across England, you're liscenced for experimentation, because there's no regional identity to uphold, no stake in being a purist. At a safe distance from the old, you're free to try something new.

You said March was "probably the worst" month. Well, what's the best?
--Thomas, Richmond VA
You know what? While we're making concrete lists about abstract things and making the subjective into something objective, let's RANK ALL TWELVE MONTHS!

12) March
Winter's my least-favorite season, and spring is second-to-least-favorite. March is the horrible mutant bastard of both, 70% winter, 24% spring, 6% flu, 100% awful. Also, it's a pathological liar and ushers in "pre-spring-training" baseball segements on SportsCenter. The worst.

11) February
Winter's lame, and February's it.

10) January
The week after New Years is one of the worst on the calendar. Also, coldweather months are bottom-dwellers on my list, because I'm one of those people who doesn't think all weather was created equal. I would absolutely rather be hot than cold, always, every time. I've seen Texas in the summer and I grew up in the Roman bath-house that is Memphis in August; I know oppressive heat, and I'd take it anyday over whatever the hell I experienced in Chicago/Hoth one winter.

9) May
In NBA-talent-scout terms, May's the "tweener." Not really spring, not officially summer. As much as I love having 4 seasons (instead of the glorified two that Memphis gets), everything I enjoy about spring is at its best in April. May's the month where it's warm but people aren't tan yet. So you've got a lot of pale folks running around outside still carrying their "holiday weight." Eh.

8) June
The most non-descript summer month, and the one furthest away from fall. On this list, everything works toward the fall.

7) April
Welcome back, Sundresses.  I've missed you.

6) August
The hottest month, it also boasts a very important birthday/national holiday. The fact that it's the final, brutal, overlong home stretch before football is both its gift and its curse. August lasts forever, but (unlike March) it delivers at the end.

5) November
November should be the apex of everything fall-ish and great in the world, but it's usually just a rainy segue between October's autumnal greatness and the chilly holiday season. Still, there's football.

4) July
Summer at its height! If you've got jorts and a dusty Camaro, you've got a party. Just add a bucket of soap, this song, and watch the ladies come a'flockin.

3) October
Best weather of the year. Usually clear, sunny, warm during the day and brisk at night. Trees on fire. Football abounding. If a record comes out in October, I am automatically 24% more likely to enjoy it. You're welcome, Band of Horses.

2) December
If you think for a second that I don't walk the streets passing out ham and drinking eggnog out of a brown paper bag...that my middle name isn't Cinnamon...that I don't own a dancing Santa...that I don't call everything "snuggly"...that I don't refer to this month as "Girlfriend Season"...hi, I'm Chris, and we haven't met yet.

1) September
If March is the worst of both worlds, September's the best: it begins with the lingering heat of summer, it ends with the slowly-falling temperatures of fall. It has all the remaining energy of summer but the renewed exuberance of a new school year, a new football season, a new everything. September's the time when things start to happen, the payoff from the overlong waiting game of summer, the beginning of the end of the year. I swear (in Nashville anyway), you can feel the energy pick up September 1st. And while it's got all the perks of fall (weather, football, girls looking their best, amped-up music releases, etc.), it's got the bonus of being first. As it's happening, you can still look forward to the next months and all implied greatness therein. There is no downside to September.

Unless you're a UT fan. In which case your season's probably over by Week 3.

Biding my time,


Michael said...

You know, I would've agree w/ your month rankings when I lived in Tennessee and Illinois. But now that I'm in Florida ... the months of November to April are by far my favorites. Who doesn't love 60 and sunny every day of the week?

ross k. said...

Hey-o! I saw somebody mention Winger and knew I had to get in on this! Hee hee ha ha ho ho oh God why?

My favorite month is October, but I know it's always going to be in your top three or four, so I have no problem with September. Fine month, I just don't really care about football and the first part is a little too hot.

And I'm glad you've got an entry coming just about Big Star. They deserve it, and it seems like the things they stand for are key to a lot of your thoughts on music. I'm curious to see what you say about them. So good looking out. And good point about distance taking the pressure off of artists. I always thought it was interesting that English blues-rockers sold so well in America copping our bluesmen who sold so well in England. (By the way, never mentioned Sabbath.) And I think you're right that Nirvana was the most 'pivotal' band of the '90s and that they have had no successors. You are right to wrestle with the choice of Nirvana, but it's still the only choice that holds water. After Cobain's suicide, I think people are reluctant to try by publicizing anybody that much.

Lady M said...

Intravenous one-liners from Chris Milam sent directly to my phone/web/etc.? That could either be awfully terrible or terribly awesome. Jury's still out.

Chris Milam said...

Yep, the month ranking is totally based upon current locale. May's ranked higher in Memphis, because of Memphis in May. November in Jackson, Mississippi is like October here, or September in Ohio, etc.

The exception to the rule is March, which sucks always and forever, amen.

Lady M said...

Your April looks a little like my March, which consisted vastly of sad songs with upbeat tempos (i.e. Gone, Gone, Gone by Alison Krauss/Robert Plant; When Did Your Heart Go Missing by Rooney; Honey and the Moon by Joseph Arthur).

With the warming weather (these last two days withstanding) I'm eager to roll down the car windows and blast some tunes. Therefore, drive-able, head-bopping, liberating songs make up my April playlist (i.e. Romeo on the Radio by The Normals; Everybody's Free (to feel good) by Quindon Tarver from the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack; Mandy Moore's cover of Joan Armatrading's Drop the Pilot...yes, Mandy Moore. Get over it)

Get some Arnica supplements from Whole Foods. They'll help with the bruising.

Lady M said...

d'oh! totally commented under the wrong post. drat.

ross k. said...

Props to the Lady, however, for putting the apostrophe in "d'oh!" You're too cool, Lady! I just love a good "d'oh" rolled out correctly. I'd also like to ask Matt Groening what it stands for. Does anyone know what is being contracted by the apostrophe? Unlike "good-bye," I don't think "d'oh" is attested from the 1400s by the OED.

Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?


Lady M said...

What can I say? It's my job to use proper (and even improper, I suppose) grammar correctly.

Here's an answer via Wikipedia:

"D'oh!" is a catch phrase used by the fictional character Homer Simpson, from the long-running animated sitcom The Simpsons (1989–present). Originally written in a script as an "annoyed grunt", Dan Castellaneta rendered it as a drawn out "d'ooooooh". This was inspired by a minced oath used by Jimmy Finlayson in several Laurel and Hardy films. Matt Groening felt that it would better suit the timing of animation if it were spoken faster, so Castellaneta then shortened it to a quickly uttered "D'oh!"

Homer's ubiquitous catch phrase was famously added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2001,[1] without the apostrophe. The spoken word "D'oh" is a trademark of 20th Century Fox.[2] It is typically used when Homer injures himself, realizes that he has done something stupid, or when something bad has happened or is about to happen to him. Other members of his family—including Bart, Lisa, Grampa, and even his mother and brother—have been known to use it themselves. Other characters have also used this phrase.

In 2006, "D'oh!" was listed as number six on TV Land's list of the 100 greatest television catchphrases.[3][4]

Props to Matt Groening for piggybacking off of Laurel and Hardy. They were right up there with Abbott and Costello in my family.

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