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2015: The Year in Random Thoughts and Obsessions

For my yearly wrap up of 2013, I wrote, “All hail the return of the king – David Bowie – and the art of the music video.” And I included a link to his surreal collaboration with Tilda Swinton for ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’. Two years later and RIP, we’re talking and posting about how much we’ll miss Bowie. (My thoughts can be found here.)

Yes, the last year has been especially tough. I’ve lost friends and heard of marriages dissolving, read helplessly of terrorist attacks in France and the continuing assault on women’s rights in the U.S. Not to mention the masses of refugees desperate for safe havens and the innocent lives struck down by gun violence.

“Day In Day Out

Stay In Fade Out”

Yet, in the midst of everyday upheaval, small glories continue to reveal themselves. Glimmers of hope to remind us that we are not alone, that quite simply, wonders never cease. Here’s a small sampling of some of my favorite things from the world of popular culture:

lady story

Yes please! More stories about strong females. (photo taken at a shopping center in Sha Tin, by therockmom)

  1. Serena Williams tops my list for consistent awesomeness. What a joy to watch her match against Heather Watson at Wimbledon. I was with my daughters and nephews on a sunny summer morning, trying to explain the arcane scoring system. All of us cheered on Williams yet at the same time felt inexplicably proud that Watson could stretch her to three sets. Later in the year, the girls and I watched the marvelous doc, Venus and Serena, and although Williams didn’t get her Grand Slam at the US Open, we still knew: she is the greatest.
  1. In movies and television, we sought out strong girls and women and, even in the midst of the industry’s glaring inequalities, still found a few to shout about, namely: Kate (Emily Blunt/Sicario), Riley and Joy (Inside Out), Alex (Priyanka Chopra/Quantico), Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw/Beyond the Lights), Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska/Ida) and of course Rey (Daisy Ridley/Star Wars Ep VII). Recently I’ve had the pleasure of introducing my kids to The X-Files Season One and the complex relationship between Scully the scientist and Mulder the believer. As the new episodes remind us, the X-Files is just great storytelling.
  1. While I still can’t convince EO and YO of the wonders of Jane Austen, school assignments and various recommendations (not quite me shoving a book in to their hands and saying: read this! but close, lol.) have introduced them to classics by Harper Lee, Truman Capote, Joan Didion, F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Golding along with plenty of Judy Blume.
  1. And in the Department of Obsessions, I still can’t get enough of Castle, Mesut Ozil (COYG!), Maneki Nekos and Justin Beiber’s (lack of) facial hair. Say what you want, go on, I can take it 😉

    Imagine Dragons & phones

    The lights! The sounds! The… phones. Well, two out of three ain’t bad. (photo taken at Imagine Dragons’ HK show, by therockmom)

  1. Last but certainly not least, music! Live highlights of the year were Clockenflap in Hong Kong and Taylor Swift in Washington DC. For Swift, it was the girls, Grandma plus me and my dear friend and her daughter. We sat (and stood) in awe at Swift’s seemingly effortless command of the stage. She is a Force, thankfully using her powers for good, not evil. However, due to her dissatisfaction with Spotify, she’s not on my playlist of the year’s best. Instead I’ve included Ryan Adams’ version of ‘Wildest Dreams’, which was my favorite song of hers from 1989. His cover is just okay, kind of standard, sensitive RA. As I listen I realize that his whole take on 1989 has missed the point entirely. The point is that these songs were written by and about a young woman and her very specific experiences with the push and pull of desire. So a guy in his ‘40s? I don’t think he can quite capture what she’s feeling, that moment in time. As much as I love Ryan Adams, he could have given this project a miss.

I’ll finish here with the playlist – 25 songs from fantastic recent releases and a few new-to-me-this-year discoveries (KING, Sun Kil Moon). Interestingly, over half the songs are from female singers/bands and women-fronted bands. Not that I was aiming for that gender balance, it just happened, but I’m pleased nonetheless.

So much good music out there – listen, discover, enjoy!

 

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2012: The Year in Random Thoughts & Obsessions

Forget those Best Of / Top 20 / Hot Lists, here’s my year’s worth of musings:

No need to say anything else.

No need to say anything else.

The best music snap of the year (above). Comes from a Berlin disco. Found on the Twitter page of Stana Katic, who’s one-half of the TV show, Castle, which my family can tell you I’m senselessly, annoyingly addicted to. It’s Moonlighting with Canadians! It’s awesome. And, yes, this does make me realize that the internet is high school. Now, if someone would just remake Remington Steele

My Fleet Foxes fixation continues unabated. Old stuff, new stuff, it doesn’t matter. It’s like I’ve become oddly attracted to Crosby or Stills or Nash (which one’s which?). In one of my favorite movies of the year, “Your Sister’s Sister”, Emily Blunt and Mark Duplass name drop the Foxes. I was so excited, I squealed on the inside and thought about them for the rest of the movie.

Fiona Apple is a bonafide torch singer, and if you cross her she will light that torch and stick it up your sorry a**! Unstable, brilliant, painfully vivid, awesome. ‘Hot Knife’ is just crazy good. Makes me dream of Alvin Ailey dancers in motion across a shiny black stage.

With his upswept ‘do, baby skin and wife beaters, Justin Bieber’s lesbian-chic androgyny is strangely fascinating.

If Cat Power battled Feist, who would win the chance to drop kick Lana Del Rey’s ass?

On iTunes, what’s the difference between Alternative and Indie?

The most wonderful Angry White Man is back! I’m so glad to see you, Bob Mould!

Frank Ocean – meandering, unfinished, falsetto doodles… yawn. What am I missing here???

Since everyone – Fun, The Belle Brigade, Best Coast – seems to be channeling Fleetwood Mac these days, it was inevitable. A Fleetwood Mac reunion tour 2013! Yes! Worship at the sky high heels of Stevie. We’re getting the band back together!

Lumineers? Decemberists? Lumineers? Decemberists? Can’t tell the difference. Like ’em both.

Green Day appearing on the Twilight: Breaking Dawn OST surely is the final nail in their coffin, n’est pas? Now go away until some kind of reunion in 2018.

Singles I enjoyed this year, even though some of them are old:

‘I Know What I Am’ by Band of Skulls

‘Solitude is Bliss’ by Tame Impala

‘Pumped Up Kicks’ by Foster the People

‘Mykonos’ by Fleet Foxes, xxxxx, call me 😉

‘Satan’ by Beast

‘Nightlight’ by Little Dragon

‘UMI Says’ by Mos Def

‘Gangnam Style’ by Psy (come on, it is irresistible)

Favorite albums 2012:

Jack White’s Blunderbuss

Fiona Apple’s Idler Wheel…

The Black Keys’ El Camino (technically released at end of 2011 but hey)

Texans of the Year:

San Saba County

Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears – follow Joe on Twitter, he tweets entire Cowboys’ games. Hilarious!

So call me mainstream, I’m still not tired of Adele and I keep the new Taylor Swift on even after I’ve dropped off EO and YO at swim training.

Rihanna just bugs me. They say she does it her way but I’m seeing no self respect.

When I dip a toe in to dance music I enjoy Morgan Page and the gloomy glam of The Presets, who are so deliciously Depeche Mode, it hurts in a sweet, angsty way.

The guy I’m digging & rediscovering at the moment: Willie Nelson. He sounds fantastic on “Live & Kickin”. Makes me homesick.

In this digital day and age is it really necessary to deny Hong Kong Spotify and Pandora? There is a border between us and the Communists, but I can’t do anything about the pirates.

So many folk-pop, California mellow, girl-boy duos – Tennis, Best Coast, Teen Dream – so little time. Or interest.

Rufus Wainwright’s “Out of the Game” doesn’t hit the highs of “Release The Stars” but I’ll take it all the same.

Mumford & Sons = The Pogues x Coldplay – Elvis Costello with even more points deducted because Jake Gyllenhaal joined you guys on tour.

Saint Etienne are either celebrating pure pop like Kylie or subverting the genre in some kind of Pet Shop-Blondie mash-up. This kind of thing works really well in the UK. Too fey for the US I’m afraid.

I want to write like a Radiohead song: compact, intense, perfect.

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year from therockmom x

Country Ain’t Easy

In Hong Kong that is.

Dwight Yoakam’s got a new CD out, Three Pears. It’s his first original album in seven years, a welcome surprise from a guy who’s done more acting than singing lately.

Is it a New Order cover? Jazz fusion? Hell, no.

So I was in HMV Central the other day, to pick up the new One Direction for EO and some other boy band birthday gifties for one of YO’s friends. And I thought: I could really use some Dwight today – what are my chances of finding his latest?

Not great, let me tell you. The popularity of country music in Hong Kong started with Johnny Cash, peaked at Glen Campbell and ended somewhere around “Rocky Mountain High”. George Strait? Never heard of the guy. Miranda Lambert? Not interested. Taylor Swift might sell squillions worldwide – and a stack of her latest was greeting everyone who walked through HMV’s doors – but she’s firmly in the pop camp these days.

I knew it would take some effort, but if you’ve ever seen Dwight live or heard that warble in his voice, you’d know he’s worth it. First, I had to ask the clerk, Joe, where the country section was. He showed me maybe three shelves to the left of jazz, mixed in with easy listening and folk. Carrie Underwood was there, filed between The Brothers Four and Connie Francis. Okay, random. Lady Antebellum was there, and I couldn’t help but notice that they filled a section of shelf about equal to John Denver’s allotment.

Sometimes it’s hard to be a (country) woman.

But Joe the clerk was my champion. I spelled out Dwight’s name and Joe checked their computers and then disappeared. After many frustrating minutes – are you telling me there is only one Dixie Chicks CD for sale and it’s a cheesy, quick-compiled Greatest Hits album? – Joe returned with the goods. I almost hugged him.

The album cover was simple: three pears against a stark white background. No hats, boots or truck bumpers in sight. It’s definitely not your typical country album cover, but Dwight has never followed Nashville’s playbook. He made his name as a student of the Buck Owens-Bakersfield sound: old school and proud of it. He’s had an eclectic acting career, happily playing comedy weirdos or brutal villains. For Three Pears, he got Beck to come in and produce a couple of tracks. Put all that together and I’m looking forward to some boundary pushing, thinking this might be his Van Lear Rose.

Unfortunately, the production on the new album is slicker, fuller, and disappointing in its middle-of-the-road sound. I couldn’t tell what he was going for: a kind of ‘60s pop feel or a big ‘70s Eaglesque rock sound. “It’s Never Alright” could be an amped-up “Desperado” (with horns!) while the Beck-produced “A Heart Like Mine”, I swear, would not have been out of place in an episode of The Monkees.

The twang is still there – just not as rough and ready as in his younger years – and I did find some moments to enjoy. The pedal steel and the ache in “Missing Heart” – the other Beck number – remind me of some of Dwight’s best bittersweet songs, and the lone cover tune, “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” (by Joe Maphis), is a great honky tonk number.

What I miss is the intimacy of his early work. The songs on Three Pears are too big, too loud, too stadium. I’m not asking for another Hillbilly Deluxe but where are the fiddles, at least? Where’s the man who seems most at home in a beer-soaked, sawdust-floor dance hall? I searched and searched for him. Now I miss him.

To Beyonce or Not To Beyonce?

That’s the question on my mind this week as I ponder what life has in store for America’s most famous new Mom, Beyonce Knowles Carter. I wonder what kind of nanny she’s going to hire. A drag queen, as suggested by some pseudo-reality-celeb? A reformed thug aka Memphis Poppins, from mediatakeout.com?

It’s a crucial hiring decision – one of the most important she and Jay Z are likely to make this year. So, in the spirit of rockmom solidarity and experience, I’ve drafted a sample want ad. Bee, feel free to use this verbatim. I believe it conveys your Super Couple lifestyle needs and requirements while conveying the aspirational ethos you live by.

Tell me what you think:

I can also help with interviews. Call me!

Much has been written about the low sales figures of Beyonce’s latest album, 4. Some speculate that marriage and pregnancy have been a natural pull on her ambitions, and after fifteen years in the spotlight who can blame her? I’ve never felt that Beyonce was anything more than a professional, and I mean that in the sense that she doesn’t betray any desperate need to be loved (yo, Britney) or to spread the ‘Beyonce’ message a la Madonna or Lady Gaga. You get the feeling she would do a great job at anything she tried – business, politics, teaching – and that the Beyonce we see and hear is nothing more than her public persona, not a window in to a tortured (Je suis une artiste!) soul.

I’m not ragging on her by any means. I’d prefer that my daughters listen to a true vocal talent like Beyonce or Adele, rather than a cartoonish, cynical vamp like Katy Perry or Ke$ha. It’s funny how you can watch Beyonce’s videos, with their full-on displays of sexuality, and yet not be offended by them. To wit:

I wonder why this is so. Is it because she is so physically superior that we can accept her bodaciousness the way we marvel at and appreciate the talents of a great athlete? Maybe it’s related to the lack of scandal in her private life. She works hard. She sings for Obama. She’s a humanitarian in stripper heels! Again, I think the key word here is professionalism. Beyonce covers all the bases: a feminist with an all-girl backing band and girl-power anthems; a woman who honors her roots by sporting afros and playing Etta James in Cadillac Records; yet edgy enough to appear in a weird ol’ Lady Gaga video. Not much there to cause insult or injury. So while we might prefer our rock stars to speak to and for our inner selves – Radiohead seems to fill that role for me these days – we can also swim at the shallow end of the pool and enjoy a good beat and an amazing voice.

Just once I'd like to be this fabulous. Photo courtesy thirstyroots.com

Yet I still can’t answer the question: is Beyonce a good role model? Since my girls reached an age where pop culture is a part of their lives, I feel I have to consider these things, whether the girls understand the lyrics or not. Maybe I’m overestimating the power and influence of Sasha Fierce here. Who knows? My litmus test for tween music has always been: what’s the message and is it a good one? Is it harmless and fun like Camp Rock or spunky and friendly like Taylor Swift? If it’s subversive, is it rebellious in a healthy way (think Pink or Kelly Clarkson)? Are the women on equal footing with the men? Or are they being degraded, exploited or abused in the name of so-called sexual freedom? Rihanna, I’m talking to you! The funny thing with Beyonce is I’m still not sure. Back in the ’80s, Madonna grabbed her crotch, sang out ‘Express Yourself’ and we teens thought: right on! These days, Beyonce grabs her breasts and hollers, ‘Girls! We Run This Mother!’ and I honestly don’t know what to think beyond: well, I can’t put this on our Beyonce playlist because she’s basically saying ‘mofo’ in the chorus.

There was a rock critic named Ellen Willis; she wrote for The New Yorker from 1968-75, covering the heydey of the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Sex Pistols, Lou Reed, etc. I’ve been reading a collection of her writing called Out of The Vinyl Deeps and have been struck by so many of her insights in to rock stars, especially one of her favorite performers, Janis Joplin.

Putting multiple rings on it. Photo courtesy musiqueray.org

She writes, “unlike most female performers whose act is intensely erotic, (Janis) never made me feel as if I were crashing an orgy that consisted of her and the men in the audience. When she got it on at a concert, she got it on with everybody.”

Willis wrote those words over thirty years ago. Now how many female performers can you name who are truly like that?

It’s a short list.

Taylor Swift in Hong Kong – OMG!

Ukulele's rock! photo courtesy zeibiz.com

This is the blog where I blog about not being allowed to blog about the Taylor Swift concert. I like to call it:

Operation Seriously, Mommy!

You see, as I’m learning, in the tween-girl lexicon, the word “Seriously” carries a multitude of meanings, including but not limited to:

1. Are you serious?
2. You’re not serious!
3. I totally meant what I just said.
4. I am not kidding.
5. You’re a dweeb and a doofus.
6. Don’t you know anything you immature ten-year-old-boy who I can squash like a bug?!?

And this one:
7. Stop what you’re doing immediately, Mommy, you’re embarrassing me.

Which I hear often – when I’m singing aloud, dancing to Justin Timberlake in the comfort and anonymity of my own home and/or excessively hugging Eldest One (EO) in public.

So I was expecting to hear “Seriously!” a lot on our exciting night at the Taylor Swift concert. EO’s first concert! Get me a tissue, I’m all verklempt! I certainly wasn’t anticipating a huge bonding experience – we were with lots of other mums and daughters, so I knew EO would rather hang with her friends (you talk about me being embarrassing in public?) rather than sing along with me to “Speak Now”. What I was looking forward to – in a sociological sort of way – was watching EO’s reaction to the power and beauty of the live show. What I like to call, when I take my music way too seriously: the rapture of the collective experience.

But today when I asked EO what she thought of Taylor Swift, I got a smile and a “Pretty cool”. Pretty cool? Is that all? Oh, my EO plays it close to the vest.

I reckon the opening act – calling himself Johnny from Japan – got it right when he said, “In Japan, I met Taylor Swift. She is perfect.”

Let’s see: beautiful? Check. Talented? Double-check. Charismatic? Triple Check. And most importantly: Believable? Check that to the nth degree. So when she smiled her aw-shucks smile and told the audience, “I love you Hong Kong,” I expect a good ninety percent of the concertgoers – an only-in-Hong Kong mix of tween girls and twentysomething Chinese boys – actually believed her.

And when she sashayed to the edge of the stage and threw a beguiling look left, I thought, heck I haven’t seen this many sideways glances since Susanna Hoffs in the “Walk Like An Egyptian” video. Miss Swift may play the ingénue/outcast in her music videos but on stage and on the 30-foot video screens, she knows how to work it.

Ten thousand tweens can't be wrong. From a photo contest on the official Taylor Swift website.

Okay, so her voice is a bit thin and her lyrics are, well, the lyrics of a young woman dealing with love, love, love and, oh, lost love. I can accept that. I can even accept her singing – way too often if I may say – about finding a guy who’ll transform her, who’ll come along and discover the real Taylor. (Normally you might add ‘warts and all’ to the end of that sentence, but in Miss Swift’s case I don’t think a blemish has ever come within ten yards of her.)

I’ll take the lovelorn longing that Miss Swift sells to my daughter, because well, she is talented and seemingly sincere. But most of all I’m hopeful that her massive success will lead to:

1. The rise of a new modesty in pop culture.
2. A renewed appreciation for the clarinet and the ukulele
3. The return of the perm.

Seriously!