Helpless Stupidity

Baseball might be the stupidest thing in my life. Why should a bunch of grown men playing a kid’s game matter so much? Why should another adult–who has three kids, work, and a home to worry about–care so much?

There are lots of ways I could answer that, justify it, explain it, but at the end of the day, none of them really makes the whole thing less stupid. But it is what it is. And, more importantly, I am bonded with millions and millions of other people in my stupidity. It is bigger than any one of us.  It is historic; its cultural.  It is a collective stupidity.

The Dodgers are doing alright at the present moment, and that makes me happy. If they make the playoffs this year, they’ll have to do better than the San Francisco Giants.  That’s pretty much the only way a team from the NL West is making the postseason this year, since both of the Wild Card berths are looking like they’ll go to teams in other divisions.

And that’s why this recent series against the Giants mattered so much.  That’s not logical, of course. Statistically speaking, every game against every team matters as much as the next. Win more than your divisional opponents and you make the playoffs.  But that’s the statistical reality of it. When you incorporate the bigger picture–the big stupid picture–certain games mean so much more than other games.

The Dodgers swept the Giants this week, and with that got one step closer to the playoffs. We went into this series 3.5 games ahead of San Francisco. To exit it 6.5 games ahead of them, in the first week of September, is pretty good. Add that to the fact that the Dodgers aren’t really playing all that well these days, and it makes them seem even better positioned since the team isn’t quite playing at its potential.

kershaw

If the Dodgers win the division, it would be easy to write the story hinged around this past series. You’d say that this is when the division was won. After these three games, even if the Dodgers played .500 ball from here on out, the Giants would have to be 21-8 in the remainder f the season just to force a tie. Of course, it’s not beyond this Dodgers team to return to playing at or below .500, and then there’s a nice four-game series against the Giants again in the last week of the season.

See, drama and stupidity. The kind of stupidity that requires stories and the weighing of possibilities to help you deal with the stupidity.

Here’s another level to the stupidity of it all. While sweeping the Giants and pulling ahead to a more comfortable lead in the West makes me irrationally happy, and the fact that we’re doing that with a team not quite firing at full force makes me feel like there is potential for more, another part of me is less enthusiastic because we’re getting close to making the playoffs with a team that isn’t playing the way you need to to win in the postseason.

While I’m always glad to see a Dodgers team make the playoffs, that doesn’t always bring with it the same level of excitement year after year.  Some years–many years–they really don’t have much of a chance.  Of course, every team in the postseason has a chance to win the World Series, and that slight possibility is what keeps me glued to the TV and, often, sends me on an emotional roller coaster.  But if I don’t think they have a chance to make it very far in the postseason, some years I wish (I think?) they’d wouldn’t make it.

I actually think losing in the regular season hurts less than losing in the postseason.  Maybe it’s not really about “hurt” as much as frustration. And lord knows the Dodgers have provided me with a heaping pile of that in my lifetime.

Since I was born, the Los Angeles Dodgers have made the postseason 15 times. That’s not a bad ratio, by any stretch. They won their division thirteen of those times (1974, 1977, 1978, 1981, 1983, 1985, 1988, 1995, 2004, 2008, 2009, 2013, and 2014) and they made it as a Wild Card two more times (1996 and 2006).

The thing that matters more to me, though, is that in that same timeframe they’ve won only two World Series championships, one in 1981 and another in 1988. (LA’s three other championship seasons were in ’59, ’63, and ’65, before I was born).  Two of fifteen. That’s just better than a 13% completion rate for them in the postseason. That kind of sucks by my standards.

This is the stupidity I face over the next month. Excited as all hell that my team has a real shot at winning the World Series and, at the same time, anguished that my team has a real shot at losing in the playoffs or, worse, in the World Series.

At least I’m not alone.

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No work, so I can work

The Claremont Colleges kick off another academic year today, but you can’t take any of my classes. That’s because I’m on sabbatical for the fall and spring semesters.

This is the second sabbatical I’ve been lucky enough to have during my career, the last one being six years ago. That doesn’t seem all that long ago and then I remember Bush was still president. The election of Barack Obama, the death of Michael Jackson, and our collective awareness of the “Great Recession” were all part of my year of research and writing. So was buying our first house, and my two kids (there were only two then) turning 3 and 1.

Back then I was still working on my first book, which became Latinos at the Golden Gate. I had much of it researched, and most of it written, but it was still really underdeveloped and kind of all over the place. My sabbatical not only made it a better book; I’m not sure I would have ever had the time to bring it all together and get it published if not for that year. (And now that first book will be coming out in paperback in the spring!)

It already feels like I have a lot going on, almost as much as I normally would at the start of a typical academic year. The big exception is that all of it is related to one, overarching project: Mexican Americans and the Vietnam War. That’s the topic of my second book, which is now officially in progress. I’m also partnering with a local arts center in Pomona on a public history project that’s also related to Latinos and the military, only with a focus on the Pomona Valley. That’s a two-year project that will involve a lot of interviews and culminate in a museum exhibit in 2017.

After a wonderful “family” summer filled with trips to Big Sur, Yosemite, Comic Con, and Palm Springs, I’m primed and ready to get a lot done during this sabbatical year. I’ve been reading a lot these past few months as well as doing a bit of archival work. The months ahead will involve a lot more primary research––both archival and oral interviews––but my primary goal is to write as much of book #2 as I can.

I feel privileged to work at a place where support for faculty research is real and meaningful. I also feel lucky to be in the position to write this book at this moment.

In the months ahead I might start making use of this space to write a little more informally about my work. In the meantime, I wish all my colleagues a productive and fruitful academic year 2015-16!

Nam

 

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Friday Five: 1985

As with any time period, there is popular music of the 1980s that stands the test of time, and music that really doesn’t. I often find myself fascinated by the music of my youth that doesn’t, not because I want to make an argument that it’s really good, but because I’m more interested in why it wasn’t.

That doesn’t mean that all music that fades away is bad, not at all. But there is a commercial reality to popular music where companies can “manufacture” music and then saturate the market with that certain sound until we’re sick of it. Any artistry of these musicians is taken over by that manufactured quality to their sound, their look, and the way they’re everywhere one minute, and nowhere the next.

My hunch is that the 80s was the dawn of a new day in the corporate music world. Lessons of the past coalesced into some sort of new global corporate structures and strategies, aided by music videos, that made the whole thing a little “more” than it was before. Add to that a sound that often incorporated the synthetic and technical, and I think the 80s becomes something of a low point, in a lot of people’s minds, of “good” music and a high point in corporate control.

There’s a lot of things about popular music in 1985 that make me feel like that, too. I don’t begrudge Phil Collins (“Sussudio” and “One More Night”) any of his success (the man was HUGE), but I also don’t respect his music much. In retrospect, he feels like a skilled navigator of the industry more often than he sounded like a “musical artist” (whatever that is). Tear for Fears (“Shout!” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”) and Huey Lewis and the News (“Power of Love”) or even a Paul Young (“Everytime You Go Away”) can take me back, in a good way, but there’s not a lot of love for me in that music when I hear it. It’s kind of like the Energizer bunny to me–it’s alive but not really.

I don’t mean to say these people are not skilled. I’m sure they took their music seriously, too. I know bands like Huey Lewis and the News busted their asses to get to where they were. I also know they brought a lot of joy to millions of people. Millions. And that means something.

At the same time, it’s no coincidence that “college radio” music like REM and U2 had such loyal, young fans in this era. “Alternative” music was an alternative, in part, to manufactured, commercial pop. “Weird Al” Yankovic had a career in the 80s because of the ironic way he could play with that.

So let me try to walk the line and make a list of “popular” songs from the year that are also good, despite being popular, in both the best and worst ways. Indicative of commercial aspect to this, 3 of these 5 songs were featured in major motion pictures that year and part of those movies’ soundtracks. Another was from an artist who benefitted from a choreographed corporate push. One is ironic as it confronts that world of corporatized music.

It goes without saying that this is TOTALLY subjective. In the end it really says more about me than about the music, of course, but here it goes anyway…

5. “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” (Simple Minds)
There might not be more 80’s song tied to a more 80’s movie than this, the musical meat to John Hughe’s Breakfast Club. For people like me, who weren’t old enough to see the R-rated movie until years later, the song was still familiar territory.

4. “Crazy for You” (Madonna)
There is talent in Madonna, and talent in the production of her music. But you can’t talk about her without considering the commercial atmosphere within which she became such a cultural icon. She was already riding the wave of her 1984 album Like a Virgin when this song, featured in the movie Vision Quest–yet another 80s movie mostly about a teen age boy and sex–topped the charts.

3. “Dead Man’s Party” (Oingo Boingo)
Oingo Boingo is probably the least commercial of this week’s offerings. They were a well-known band in LA by this time, and their mix of new wave, ska, and rock made them known among the college radio crowd, too. This song–from the Rodney Dangerfield movie Back to School–certainly made them bigger than before. Lead mad Danny Elfman would, of course, go on to healthy career in movie music.

2. “Saving All My Love for You” (Whitney Houston)
Whitney Houston’s debut album was critically-praised and a phenomenal commercial hit. This, the second single from the album and her first #1 single overall (Houston remains the only artist in history to have 7 consecutive #1 singles, beginning with “Saving”), is a solid showcase of her talent, as well as the effective way she was marketed. In September 1985 she sang it on the Ricky Schroeder TV sitcom “Silver Spoons,” where she guest starred as an emerging singer (of course). It was one of those tie-ins that was so common in the earlier days of TV.

1. “Money for Nothing” (Dire Straits)
This song and its video are indelibly part of the MTV, 1980s generation. What I don’t think people “got” at the time (at least not widely, in the US), was the ironic way the band was commenting on the MTV generation. That they should also come to rule that station’s airtime with the same song is, in itself, so Gen X. (Dire Strait’s 1985 album Brothers in Arms also gave us another legendary 80s cultural moment worth watching.)

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The King is Dead; Long Live the King!

Thirty-eight years ago today, on August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley died.

The more time that passes, I think the less people remember what an amazingly talented performer he was. But strip away the commercial superficialities, and all of the tragedy of drugs and excess, and you do have an amazing voice. Just amazing.

The “Mark in the Morning” radio show, here in L.A., offered a nice reminder of that talent this past Friday (it should be in the “Audio Clips” feature here). They played audio from Elvis’ recording session at American Sound Studio, in Memphis, likely on January 23, 1969. On that day he was about a week into recording the album that would become From Elvis in Memphis, his post-“’68 Comeback Special” release, that stands as his best studio album (although Elvis is not really known for his albums as much as his singles).

Below is the King’s sixth take of the song “Suspicious Minds,” the take that became the single released later that fall. This “raw” track is awfully complete compared to how hit singles are made today.  It lacks the full instrumentation and background vocals that are part of the final release but it is one complete take of a song, the singer and the band playing together, with the singer’s amazing (non-computer-enhanced) voice on display.

“Suspicious Minds” would be Elvis’ last #1 single before his death.

elvis

 

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Friday Five: 1984

Rolling Stone once called 1984 “pop’s greatest year” and, in many ways, it was.

It was a big year for Cyndi Lauper and for Prince. Madonna, who had already become a star, now became a cultural phenomenon. Bruce Springsteen re-emerged to be rediscovered by a whole new generation. And the continuing stardom of Michael Jackson made him into even more of an unreachable star.

The year 1984 was a memorable cultural moment in other ways, too. It was the year of a presidential election, one where Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman to be the VP nominee on a major party’s ticket. The Olympics were in Los Angeles (I got to go to the shooting preliminaries). “The Cosby Show,” “Murder She Wrote,” and “Miami Vice” all premiered on TV. And the movies! The Terminator, Footloose, Splash, The Natural, Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, Gremlins, Red Dawn, The Karate Kid, This Is Spinal Tap, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and, of course, Purple Rain, all came out in 1984.

I could make a list of just Prince, Madonna, and Michael for 1984 (or just 5 songs from each) but, instead, here’s 5 songs that snuck in around them to help make the soundtrack of the times.

5. “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” (Dead or Alive)
Few songs are more memorable in the decade than this dance hit. For that matter, few videos more reflective of the times. As much as the synthetic, rapid beat marked the times, the group was a bunch of New Wave, glammed up, baggy shirt wearing British guys. So 80s.

4. “Wake Me Up (Before You Go-Go)” (Wham!)
I can remember the first few times I heard this breakthrough single from Wham!, the duo of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley. There was this peppy beat, harkening back to the 50s and 60s tunes that were the basis of a lot of 80s pop. But what were they saying? We kept listening to the song trying to figure out what they hell they were saying. And then we saw the video, and the next thing you know everybody seemed to be wearing one of those shirts. At some point I stopped caring about figuring out the song. It just was. Everywhere. And we liked it.

3. “People Are People” (Depeche Mode)
I had never heard of Depeche Mode until this song climbed the charts, but it felt like I was the last person to have heard of them when it did. I never really became much of a fan but this song takes me back to my youth like few others. I used to shower every day at 7:00, in my parent’s bathroom, and listen to the Top 40 station’s “7 at 7” countdown of top requests of the day. This song seemed to be there every day, and it seemed to stick around longer than any other.

2. “You Might Think” (The Cars)
Without a doubt, this is one of the most memorable videos of all-time. There’s nothing particularly good about it, at least not to our 21st century eyes, but at the time it seemed to be new, modern, and funny in a techno kind of way. The graphics, in particular, made it stand out, as did the movement of those graphics. It won the “Video of the Year” award at the very first MTV Video Music Awards. Oh yeah, the song was a hit, too, and not without justification.

1. “Take On Me” (A-ha)
Here’s how good 1984 was: this song–by a Swedish group who were an international hit–it simultaneously indicative of the 80s and yet, strangely, timeless. It still feels like a fresh hit to me, after all these years. It’s a beautiful song, hitting vocal notes most people can’t touch, and most of the lyrics are completely unintelligible to the US ear. On top of that, it just might be the best video ever made.

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Friday Five: 1983

It’s been awhile, I know. After a hectic academic year, I’ve been spent most of my summer reading, playing video games, and just enjoying my time with the family. We’ve had some amazing trips, so good I should post some pictures here. This past month I’ve also been getting back into work, which is currently all about researching and writing my next book. All this is to say, life has left little time for the blog.

But it’s time to get back to business, even the business of waxing nostalgic about the music of my life. After a couple of months making memories with my kids, it’s an easy mental place to visit.

So let’s talk about 1983.

Michael Jackson’s album Thriller came out on November 30, 1982. I don’t know when we bought our copy but it couldn’t have been too long after. Once we had it, we could listen to whatever song we wanted, whenever we wanted. (If memory serves, we listened to it a side at a time more than anything.) We could also memorize the songs that hadn’t yet made it to the radio.

And so we did. When I remember 1983, I remember it as a time of Michael Jackson and Thriller. It wasn’t just the album, of course. For most of the year he was on every magazine, on the news, on TV specials, and on the radio. He was what we talked about at school. Everybody tried to perfect the Moondance, people hid glittered gloves in their desks (such accessories were not part of the Catholic school dress code). Everybody I knew loved Michael Jackson. Everybody.

For me, and for millions of others, Michael Jackson eclipses just about every other thing in the U.S. popular culture of 1983. But he was hardly the only cultural phenomenon, and he was hardly the only good thing happening in music.

To make up for lost time, here’s a Friday Five with a few more selections from 1983, arranged a little differently:

5. The Dance Hits: “Rockit” (Herbie Hancock) and “Let the Music Play” (Shannon)
From the disco era to the early 80s, dancing was a big part of U.S. popular culture again. By 1983, music was inspiring very specific, 80s ways of dancing, too. For example, breakdancing went mainstream in 1983. Perhaps no other song more than Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” helped make that so. My best friend and I once got into a breaking fight, where we danced off to this song and to Taco’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Ah, the 80s! Shannon’s legendary hit of ’83 was the start of something unique, too. It was the first big song of a different kind of “disco,” the kind that lit up the dance and pop charts of the mid to late 80s. This song could still drive folks wild when I was in high school at the end of the decade, something of a dance-floor standard for young kids of color in the suburbs.

4. The One Hit Wonders: “Flashdance… What a Feeling” (Irene Cara) and “She Blinded Me with Science” (Thomas Dolby)
Every generation has its own “one hit wonders.” And every “one hit wonder” has at least one person out there who would contradict the use of the title for each case. Irene Cara had lots of hits, just not lots of musical ones. She rose to fame as part of the 1980 movie Fame, where she played Coco Hernandez. (Cara herself is half Cuban and half Puerto Rican.) She had an acting career that kept her on TV and in the movies for much of the decade. She also had a hit record, for which she won an Academy Award. The musical theme to the 1983 film Flashdance was a monster hit, but even it paled in comparison to the scope of the movie’s success. We were just kids, not allowed to watch (and probably not old enough to understand) the R-rated film. But that did nothing to curb it’s cultural impact on my youth. The song–reminiscent of Donna Summer’s best–lends itself to lip synching dance routines of pre-teens.

Tom Dolby was anything but a one hit wonder. The Brit had a a fairly successful career outside the U.S., and was a favorite of the KROQ crew (alternative, college, emo kind of stuff) for much of the 80s stateside. I didn’t know that then, however. His big hit of ’83 was a standout single for me, as provocative musically as the video was visually. It shares some musical generational markers with Cara’s song, synthesizers and beats familiar to the 80s. As much as Cara’s hit brought up the past, however, Dolby’s presages the synthetic future that was to come.

3. The Headbangers: “Rock of Ages” (Def Leppard) and “Cum on Feel the Noize” (Quiet Riot)

There’s a passionate sub-culture out there for 80s, big-hair rock. There’s a breed of the music that isn’t quite heavy enough to be heavy metal and which comes before the MTV onslaught of crappy glam that did nothing but capitalize on the genre. Some of that is about timing. Some of it is about artistry. Yes, that’s what I said.

Def Leppard doesn’t get a lot of respect outside the world of hard rock but their 1983 album Pyromania is one of the standards of the genre. A lot of that is about the skills of the band, even Joe Elliott’s ability to scream in key, but most of it is due to the legendary producer of rock, “Mutt” Lange. He is the Phil Spector of hard rock, assembling an assortment of sounds and beats to make little masterpieces of excess, beautifully displayed in this radio standard:

Quiet Riot was an unknown rock band in the 1970s that happened to include a skilled bassist (Rudy Sarzo–a cubano!) and one of the greatest metal guitarists in history, Randy Rhoads. In 1980, both Rhoads and Sarzo left to play with Ozzy Osbourne, thereby effectively killing the band. When Rhoads died tragically in 1982, Sarzo and lead singer Kevin Dubrow joined with drummer Frankie Banali and guitarist Carlos Cavazzo (mexicano!) to reform the band. With “Cum on Feel the Noize”–their cover of a 1973 song by the band Slade–they became the first “heavy metal” band to top the U.S. album charts, pop charts, and video charts.

2. The Anthems: “Love Is a Battlefield” (Pat Benatar) and “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (Bonnie Tyler)
Not a lot to say here except I still think these two songs are f-in fantastic. Pat Benatar is an under-appreciated artist. Culturally, this song not only became something of an anthem (it is the fight song of the pseudo-feminist film The Legend of Billie Jean) but the video was a trailblazer, too. I’d freak out when the entire mini-movie version would play, a dance production worthy of a Michael Jackson video. As for Bonnie Tyler…her anthem–written and produced by Jim Steinman, the man behind Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell album (for better or worse one of the biggest selling albums in musical history)–stands the test of time. It even hit the charts again as a dance hit in 1995 with a singer that tried to sound so much like Tyler (minus the raspy goodness) that many thought it was a remix with a sample of the original.

1. The Classics: “Texas Flood” (Stevie Ray Vaughan) and “Billie Jean” (Michael Jackson)
Stevie Ray Vaughan is a blues god. His 1983 album (with his band Double Trouble) was his debut. It generated two bonafide hits–Pride and Joy” and “Love Struck Baby”–but neither is as good as “Texas Flood,” Vaughan’s cover of a 1958 song by Larry Davis. Here it is from a 1985 live performance, the way Stevie should be seen.

And Michael, doing the song that made him “Michael” in the performance that changed the 80s.

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The Limits of Numbers

It’s official now: Latinos outnumber whites in the state of California, making us the largest ethnic group in the Golden State.

The switch happebed sometime last year but the numbers only became official last week. With 14.99 million Latinos in California, there are more of us than there are so-called “non-Hispanic whites,” who number about 14.92 million.

It’s a gradual change but one that will continue throughout the foreseeable future. Aside from immigration, whites in California are old and dying and not reproducing much while Latinos are younger and reproducing at higher rates. We are the future source of the natural birth rate, too. There are twice as many Latinos under 18 (4.8 million) than whites (2.4 million) ensuring that we will make up the majority of the next generation of native-born Californians.

More than 80% of the Latino population in the state is ethnically Mexican, meaning our collective story is rooted to this just one country, whether we are a US-born “Mexican American” or a foreign-born mexicano. That means that sometime in the next few decades it is likely that the ethnic Mexican population alone will outnumber whites in California.

Our youth–coupled with a long legacy of segregation and political disenfranchisement–means that our demographic ascendency doesn’t necessarily translate into political power. That, too, will likely come, but it will take more time, political organizing, and, perhaps, a willingness for the emerging “white minority” to relinquish some of its hold over the reigns of power. If not, every year that passes will make the Californian political system look more and more like some kind of 21st century apartheid state, albeit one that projects a kind of benevolence.

All these changes are important and, in my eyes, good. But there are limits to our demographic ascendancy.

How many Californians will go through their day never once speaking to a Latino? How many live in communities where Latinos are nearly invisible? How many work in places that make this demographic reality look false? How many are educated in classrooms that do not reflect this emerging majority? How many will be surrounded by Latinos–will have their lawns cut, food cooked, and houses cleaned by Latinos–but never have a conversation with even one?

I am Chicano (Mexican American). I live in a Mexican-majority city, in a Mexican-majority neighborhood, next to my Mexican American neighbors. My kids attend a Mexican-majority school. When we go to any store, we see and engage with other Mexicans/Chicanos.

When I go to work, I am one of two US-born, Mexican Americans on the faculty of my college.  The Latino share of our student population is a national-leader for liberal arts colleges but is still only about 1 in 6. Unless they speak with the gardening or housekeeping staff, most of my colleagues can go their entire day on campus never speaking to a member of the emerging majority of this state.

What’s worse, this is hardly a unique condition.

We are the the largest ethnic group in California but we remain segregated, marginalized, and disproportionately confined to the invisible corners of mainstream society. The reality of the demographics should be–it must be–a wake up call for us all that the meaningful reality of a multiethnic, multiracial society is still before us.

And there is work to be done.

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