Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Slate's Takedown of Yale University Press's Anthology of Rap: Why I Love and Hate the Internet

Over the past month Slate's Paul Devlin has written an exhaustive critique—in several installments—of the recently published Anthology of Rap from Yale University Press. You can find it here, here, and here. Devlin discovered that the Anthology, which aims to be a collection of the most important rap lyrics since the genre's founding in the 1970s, has numerous transcription errors, many of which betray an ignorance of the songs context and many of which render a meaningful lyric nonsensical. Some of the errors also are identical to transcription errors made by amateurs who contribute to lyric archive websites. Further digging on Devlin's part revealed that the project's editors only consulted with their impressive advisory board briefly toward the beginning of the project (and never again) and that, while the editors sent proofs to about 30 of the featured artists, these artists were not given sufficient time to make corrections.

This paragraph—a quote from Adam Mansbach, founding editor of the hip-hop journal Elementary and a member of the Anthology of Rap's underutilized advisory board—is especially damning:

The Anthology is disappointing to me on several levels. Most importantly, this is a book that seeks to establish the relevance and artistry of hip-hop lyricism, and instead it's made many of the world's best MCs look downright incoherent by misrepresenting their words. When Ice Cube says "your plan against the ghetto backfired," and it gets turned into "you're playing against the ghetto black fly," more has happened than just a simple error in transcription; you've made an important song perplexing and impenetrable—while staking a claim, backed by institutional power and market presence, that your version is canonical.

Thank goodness for the Internet. Twenty years ago a critique such as the one Devlin has put together would have appeared in an obscure academic journal or possibly in an article in The Source (and it would have been much smaller in scope). The critique would have reached a small audience several weeks or months after the Anthology's publication. Today, I wouldn't be surprised if the number of people who have read Slate's critique of the Anthology is greater than the number of people who own a copy of the book. An anthology of rap lyrics is a worthy project and is something that I'm sure many scholars, students of culture, and hip-hop fans would love to have. But surely all interested parties are now aware of this volume's shortcomings and can decide whether they want to spend $35 on a book with dozens of critical errors or wait for a revised edition (or a better anthology from a different publisher).

This discussion has spread well beyond Slate, inviting many people to take a close look at lyrics they have heard but never analyzed and giving many readers a greater appreciation of the skill that the best MCs bring to their craft. Well done, Internet.

On the other hand, I feel bad for the editors of the Anthology and others involved in its production. While there's much that they could have done that would have limited errors and made the final product stronger, I'm sure they worked hard to create what they felt would be a quality piece. As someone with many years of experience in publishing, I understand that editors seldom have time to take all of the quality control measures they would like to take; there's a lot more to publishing, after all, than writing (or compiling) and proofreading (such as typesetting, copyediting, hitting catalog deadlines and trade lists). I don't want to excuse these editors' mistakes, but I feel bad that the Internet has exposed every flaw in their work and that people who otherwise wouldn't have known about the Anthology are well aware of its editors' goofs. I feel for anyone who has to deal with that sort of pressure (even if the pressure is somewhat warranted).

That said, good job, Internet. To all people: Know that the Internet could call you to account for anything you do or work on. No matter how obscure the subject matter, there are people out there who care and who won't accept anything resembling corner-cutting. This devotion to quality control is in many ways a blessing, but it also puts a lot more pressure on anyone who dares to create.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Fraction Jackson Has No Use for Special Agent Oso

Some years ago, I wrote a series of children's stories about a character named Fraction Jackson. Donald "Fraction" Jackson was a fifth-grade math whiz who earned a little spending money from helping people work through fraction-related problems. He was a lot like Encyclopedia Brown, except that he dealt in math instead of detective work. I never found a publisher. At the time I knew nothing about the publishing business and made the mistake of sending it only to major publishers. In retrospect, I feel honored that one of these publishers—Dutton, I believe—took the time to personally write me a rejection letter addressing the content of the Fraction Jackson stories. The Dutton editor was concerned that the stories were not realistic; she decided that the idea that adult community and business leaders would have no grasp of basic fractions was too implausible even for children's literature. It was a fair point. Children's stories often ask readers to suspend their disbelief, but suspension of disbelief has its limits.

Actually, the first Fraction Jackson story still lives on the Internet. So you can read it for yourself.

Enter Disney's Special Agent Oso, a cartoon for preschoolers that airs early in the morning on school days. Each episode of Oso involves a small child who faces a dilemma: A child needs to make her bed or brush his teeth or tie her shoes. All of these problems could be quickly solved if the child were to consult with a parent or older sibling. Instead, the title character, a 3-foot-tall anthropomorphic yellow bear, gets involved. Oso is never on the same continent as the child he is tasked to assist; sometimes he's even orbiting the earth in a rocket when he gets the call. Getting Special Agent Oso to the little boy who's having trouble cleaning his room always involves space-age transportation and communications technology.

I won't fault Oso for having its hero travel by bullet train and rocket; the jetpacks and satellites are what makes the show fun. Oso's technology is well within the bounds of what is acceptable for a children's show. The problem with Oso is what happens when the special agent reaches his destination.

Oso, you see, lacks the knowledge and skills to assist any of the children he's been summoned to help. He can't tie shoes or brush teeth or make a bed. He relies on the television audience to do his work for him. Breaking the fourth wall by talking to the viewers and asking them to respond is a children's television staple, but I can think of no other character who is completely helpless without the counsel of his or her audience. Dora and the Little Einstens invite their viewers to participate, but they are always in control. They know the answers to the questions they're asking and the success of their mission never depends on whether a three-year-old is paying attention to the television at a given moment. Go into any elementary school in the country and select a first grader at random. You will have found someone more qualified than Oso to be a special agent.

I'll give Oso some credit. The animation is great, and I'm sure that James Bond fans appreciate the not-so-subtle 007 allusions. But every time I watch Special Agent Oso I ask myself, "How could anyone argue that Fraction Jackson is too implausible to publish when Disney is willing to invest in a show about a special agent who has access to world-class technology despite having no discernible skills?"

Monday, November 15, 2010

Reasons Not to Order Your Pizzas Online

  • You enjoy taking risks and want to increase the chances that your order will be incorrect.

  • You aren't convinced that it's safe to enter your credit card number at PapaJohns.com and prefer the security that comes from reading it off your card to some dude who works at the local Papa John's.

  • The neighborhood Papa John's (on certain nights) will donate 20 percent of what you pay for your pizza to your child's school, iff you tell the restaurant over the phone that you are affiliated with that school. (The website has no interest in one's elementary school affiliation.)

  • You can't recall the username and password for the family Domino's/Papa John's account, and your spouse (who created the account) cannot be reached.

Otherwise, ordering pizza online remains the best, most reasonable way to order food.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Tuesday Night Trivia

Tonight, Tuesday Night Trivia gets biblical:

Five books of the Christian Bible, Old and New Testaments, have exactly one chapter. Name them.

Friday, November 05, 2010

The Twelve Best TV Theme Songs, Ever

Spending the better part of last week with the Who's the Boss? theme song stuck in my head got me thinking about the quality of sitcom theme music during my formative years. For about two decades, from the mid 1970s to the mid 1990s, easy listening fare that was too bland and/or corny for the lite rock stations dominated the sitcom-theme-song landscape. From Welcome Back, Kotter to Full House hard-to-listen-to sitcom music was a prominent part of the soundtrack of my childhood and adolescence. ("Welcome Back" by John Sebastian, formerly of the Lovin' Spoonful, actually received quite a bit of play on the lite rock stations and even hit #1 on the charts in 1976. That doesn't make it a good song.)

After dealing with "There's a time for love and a time for livin', a brand new life around the bend" for five consecutive days, I considered compiling a list of the era's worst sitcom theme songs and discussing theme music conventions that I don't care for (releasing a theme song as a single, with or without a music video featuring the show's stars; an opening song performed by one of the show's stars; songs that describe, explicitly, their show's premise; cover songs). Instead, I decided to be positive and to give you the Twelve Best TV Theme Songs. (The year each show first aired is in parentheses. Also, if you're wondering what television show the worst-ever theme song belongs to, that would be the Super Mario Bros. Super Show.)

  • 12. That '70s Show (1998): "In the Street" by Big Star, performed by Cheap Trick. It's a good song; it was part of a memorable title sequence; and it suited the show nicely. Also considered for this spot: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Golden Girls (that's right).

  • 11. Laverne & Shirley (1976): "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!" That alone is enough to earn Laverne & Shirley—and "Making Our Dreams Come True"—a spot on this list.

  • 10. The Big Bang Theory (2007): I don't care for the Barenaked Ladies, but they did a nice job with this one. It's entirely appropriate for the show and is the ideal length for a TV theme song.

  • 9. The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1990): If you, like me, spend much of your spare time watching Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, you know that most of the sitcoms on these networks open with a song recorded by one of the show's stars. And if you watch these stations as much as I do, you also know that most of their sitcoms have bad theme songs. Well, Selena Gomez and Victoria Justice aren't Will Smith. While Smith doesn't have a place on my Top-50-Greatest-Artists list, he's a talented and proven entertainer. Moreover, when The Fresh Prince of Bel Air first aired in 1990, its title track was the best song that D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince had recorded to date. (A year later it would be surpassed by "Summertime.")

  • 8. The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970): I suppose that Sonny Curtis's "Love Is All Around" (the Mary Tyler Moore theme song) differs little from the easy listening fare I complained about above. But Hüsker Dü recorded a cover of it, and that's reason enough to give "Love Is All Around" a reprieve. But Mary Tyler Moore's theme would have made the list even if no Minneapolis punk band ever touched it. Take a break from whatever you're doing and sing along with me: "Love is all around, no need to waste it. You can have a town, why don't you take it? You're going to make it after all." Feel a little better about life, the universe, and everything? I thought so.

  • 7. Monk (2002): I'm not sure why more television producers haven't asked Randy Newman to write and record theme music for their shows. His contributions to movie soundtracks have been, without exception, above average. I would guess that commissioning a Newman-penned opening number would give the average producer a 90% chance of upgrading his or her show's theme song. "It's a Jungle Out There" (the Monk theme) is among Newman's best.

  • 6. M.A.S.H. (1972): M.A.S.H.'s instrumental theme song, written by Robert Altman's 14-year-old son (Altman directed the movie that inspired the television series), has a name, and lyrics. It's called "Suicide Is Painless." (Sing it: "Suicide is painless. It brings on many changes. And I can take or leave it if I please.")

  • 5. The Cosby Show (1984): The The Cosby Show's eight seasons featured seven different variations of the same theme, called "Kiss Me." The tune evolved with the show and never went stale. (The show itself, on the other hand, went stale when it added Cousin Pam to the cast.)

  • 4. SpongeBob SquarePants (1999): "Are you ready kids?" A unique and quirky theme song for a unique and quirky show. A perfect fit. Before Resha Kate or Malachi could talk, each could sing the "Ohhhhh" that precedes "Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?"

  • 3. The Simpsons (1989): The Simpsons has been on the air for more than two decades. In that time the characters have not aged and their clothing has not changed and the theme music and title sequence (aside from the chalkboard and the living room couch) have remained the same. Yet no critic of any significance has ever accused the show of being dated. Danny Elfman's jaunty theme music has stood the test of time as well as anything on The Simpsons.

  • 2. The Twilight Zone (1959): No piece of music better sets the mood of a television show than the Twilight Zone theme. It's fantastic—not just the iconic G#-A-G#-E guitar riff, but also the horns and the percussion and the entire arrangement.

  • 1. The Muppet Show (1976): Fun. Catchy. Timeless. Performed by Muppets. Part of one of the great title sequences in television history. The Muppet Show theme is so great that it doesn't need to apologize for being guilty of the sins of being performed by the show's stars and describing (more or less) the show's premise. When you hear the low brass and see Sweetums and Thog emerge beneath the arches of Muppet Theater, you know that "It's time to get things started with The Muppet Show tonight.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Halloween Pictures

Some of these didn't turn out too well; the kids weren't eager to be photographed while trick-or-treating. Anyway, Malachi was Mario, Meyer was Luigi, and Resha Kate was Peach (or Daisy, pick one) riding Yoshi. The picture at the bottom right was taken on "Decade Day" at the preschool. (The preschool has a week of themed dress-up days leading up to Halloween.)