Just a friendly reminder that I’m going to live-blog the drop-crotch pants off tonight’s MTV VMAs. Show starts at 9 EST. There is some threat of guests, and of Glenfiddich.


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Who wants to do the due diligence to find out why this map is so wonky? [A Google Maps visualization of every protest on the globe since 1979.] Why so few protests in the same cities throughout the 70s? And why the throbbing wall of lights these recent years with no up-tick in media awareness of the extent of mobilization? What is being counted here, and why is it wrong?



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round again

I missed it, but 17 August was my 6th year anniversary blogging at WITW, and my 10th anniversary blogging. It is entirely in keeping with the philosophy and pedagogy of WITW to diminish this achievement by mentioning it as a passing note in a post that is actually about:


Sunday’s the annual celebration of douchebaggery known as the MTV Music Video which no awards are given for music video achievement. I’ll be live-blogging it, in keeping with tradition…the tradition I believe I ignored last year and possibly the one before. Let’s look it up, shall we?

Here’s 2011.

Here’s 2010.

Here’s 2008.

And if you want the Grammy’s series, just use the helpful search box—>

What should you expect? You should expect an opening burst of enthousiasm followed by a creeping sense of despair, followed with a relaxed descent into madness, followed by relief and grief. If you’re not picturing a music critic’s version of “Drunk History,” you’re not doing it right.

From the show? Oh, the typical nonsense (MINUS CHRIS BROWN THANK YOU BABY JESUS!):

Drake, Bruno Mars, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke, Katy Perry, Kanye West, Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga.

Unfortunately, MTV’s webtextstaff decided to describe the Red Carpet special guest Grimes as an “electro fairy princess” which is only slightly less contemptuous than straight-up calling her Tinkerbelle.

Let’s hope that Thicke has his lady friends go Full Monte so that we can have that debate again, and have it dovetail with the equally stupid on-going Nipplegate fiasco. Come to think of it, it’d be BOSS if Janet showed up to the VMAs.

And they’re in Brooklyn which is a slightly veiled attempt to keep Jay Z happy with Viacom.

So tune in here for your “two screen experience” this Sunday, around 9pm EST and whatever time they decide Californians should fire up their iPads out at the gym.



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The only thing embarrassing about being a sociologist of culture is that deans and departments don’t recruit you.

Everyone knows that popular culture suffuses our everyday lives, right? You don’t know a single human being who goes a day without doing one of the following: watching television, a comedy show, or a play or musical theater;  listening to popular music; reading a novel or a magazine or a newspaper; wearing off-the-rack clothing or accessories; or using consumer electronics.

Can we please all stop pretending that we’re haughty, elitist dicks who don’t want to be polluted by the lowbrow drek of commercial culture? No one is immune to its charms, it is the very water through which we swim, and yet I keep observing people pretending that they’ve just noticed they’re in the tank with the rest of us, and rather wish they weren’t.

[Yes, I'm referencing this...

..but I'm ashamed to say that I discovered it, like, the one time I looked at facebook.]

Enjoying life as a 21st century human isn’t what we should be ashamed of…we should be shocked, horrified, and embarrassed at the fact that the Sociology of Culture is third from last in the list of specialty areas that appeared in Sociology faculty job postings in 2012.

Social control, crime, law, and deviance were first. Now, I’m not saying that the study of deviance is unimportant–I’d actually argue that citizens of a country that has the highest incarceration rate of any country on the globe have a moral obligation to develop expertise in this area. It’s just that we also top the globe in terms of the volume and quality of our cultural output, at least in recorded music and film.

Moreover, students are interested in it. I’ve never once taught a class in popular culture (and I’ve now taught multiple dozens of classes on the topic) that wasn’t immediately over-subscribed. And for all the teeth-knashing and hair-pulling over the inability of Americans to engage a critical consciousness when they engage popular culture, wouldn’t you think having high quality, intensive, college level courses on the subject might help?

You can’t staff those courses well if you don’t hire in the Sociology of Culture, and that doesn’t mean that you make a hire in demography or deviance and tack on a secondary interest in culture. What happens when you do that is that you get someone who is an expert in demography or deviance, who teaches one course every three years on culture. This pattern generates expertise in much the same way that replacing the oil in your car every 3,000 miles makes you a mechanic.


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a life

I have a lot of dead friends. I have friends who have died in their 80s and in their 20s. I have friends who have died from suicide, drug overdoses, and because they were murdered. Sudden deaths and slow deaths. Deaths that shocked me, and deaths that gave me hope that there was a force on the planet that had enough wisdom and compassion to halt suffering.

My friend Mike died this morning, and he’s the first friend of mine who died from cancer.

Mike was born the same year that I was, at least as far as I know. We met in 1995, in Cork, Ireland. He was a student at Colby College in Maine, and I was joining one of their study abroad programs. I don’t remember first meeting him but that’s obviously going to be the case when you meet 15 new people all at once in the Boston airport and then more when you arrive and find a dozen other students had already spent a semester learning the ropes. Mike started in the fall; I arrived in January. We lived in almost contiguous cinder block three floor townhouses that University College, Cork offered to international students.

Mike didn’t live with us, but I can count on one hand the number of times I woke up or went to sleep and Mike wasn’t in our apartment. We became close friends quickly; Will, Mike, Johnny Ryan, Ann, our truly certifiably insane Swiss roommate Thomas, and local friends including Paddy. We went to so few classes I barely remember the inside of any of the lecture halls, and instead have a crystal clear memory of the college bar. We walked down to An Brog if Thomas wasn’t willing to squeeze us into the former Swiss postal vehicle he was using as a car. We had the bright idea one night to walk over to the grassy hill next to my apartment and spike empty whiskey bottles into the black night by hitting them with a golf club we found. There were injuries. I don’t remember eating food that semester except for a few special nights that Thomas would cook pasta with gorgonzola cheese sauce at 3am after coming home from the bar. I mostly ate chocolate bars from the little store at the mouth of the housing complex. I lost a lot of weight that semester.

Mike was a musician: a pianist and a very good one. He was obsessed that semester with the movie Easy Rider (or maybe it just was his favorite of the few films we had in the house) and loved the song “If you want to be a bird” by The Holy Modal Rounders. He’d dance to it by crouching, bending, and bowing, while slowly moving his arms up-and-down, like birds’ wings. It was hilarious.

I don’t know when Mike and I started to write letters, but I think it might have been 1997 when he sent his first collage. He had taken a camping and hiking trip somewhere and compiled photos from his trip with bits of text into a flimsy paper three-ring binder. It arrived without explanation, in the mail. We probably sent each other hundreds of letters between the late-1990s and this week. Depending upon whether you think your 20s were the most consequential, exciting, and important decade of your life, or the most self-absorbed and cowardly years, our correspondence is either irritating or fascinating.

I think this is another letter to him.

I’ve tried to send at least one each week since Mike was first diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. I tried to stay on neutral topics, mostly rambling about whatever nonsense was going on in my life–a new job, a new apartment, friends, family. He went through a few good periods, when the chemo seemed to be working and the cancer abated, but more of them were bad. Once he turned toward experimental treatments, I started to write about our shared experiences more. Last week, I found a bunch of photographs from Cork–mostly from the Strauss Ball we attended–photocopied them, annotated the pictures, and sent them off in a flimsy paper envelope. I sent him two letters on Monday, each with an inspirational verse I’d found in my files while setting up a new work computer. I don’t think they arrived in time.

It doesn’t matter, though. Mike, more than anyone I’ve ever met, accepted you as you were. He saw the best in people. He never wanted more from them than what they offered.

Most of his post-college life he spent in service: first in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, then with anti-war and anti-death penalty movement organizations. He went to a peace demonstration in a wheelchair, this last week of his life, with his 3 year old daughter, wife, and friends.

He spent some time in jail, related to this protest work. He mentioned it once in a note from last February, thanking me for the birthday card I had sent him. Mike wrote: “As per your twirly card, it was received on the same day as another (altered birthday) card offering to spin and based on your first name’s first letter, find out your (Johnny Depp derived) first name. [Ed: from Pirates of the Caribbean, this was.] Mine is Chum Brinybottom. Yours is Booty Tanglebeard. In the Big House there was a dude known as Spoty. And he had an almost-always visible tattoo to prove it which read ‘Spoty.’”

That same letter closed with this list: “Do you Momofuku? Do you Poisson Rouge? Do you send BeDazzles?” In a letter from May, he informed me that he “learned a fun new marching chant this week, ‘Potato, Tomato, No More Nato.’ Cute, huh?”

He wrote about his daughter in every note, after she was born three years ago. Most notes, at least at first, included pictures. He was excited about her, and the girl she was becoming. He felt the same way about his family, and his friends. A group of his buddies, including Will and Johnny Ryan, went to visit him last fall. He sent me a picture of the alphabet doughnuts they bought to celebrate, which spelled out DUDEPOCALYPSE. What hilarious nonsense. Another handmade card, written from his hospital bed during one of many stays, has an illustration of what look like mother and children potatoes cooking over a flowerpot inside an igloo and a newspaper clipping pasted next to it with only the following: “‘The true leisure is to be at home among manageable things,’ said George Santayana.”

I am not gifted enough to describe a person that I know really well, and love. Mike is a part of my heart, and so many peoples’ hearts, and he was a good and kind man. It’s a terrible thing that he’s the one who had to get cancer, and had to die at 38 years old, but we can’t stop terrible things from happening, not even to the best of us.

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religious music

Last night I went to see Sinead O’Connor sing at Lincoln Center; she’s best known  for her 1990 hit cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares to U” and ripping the Pope’s headshot on SNL. She was asked to return to Alice Tully Hall this month after a successful performance at last year’s tribute to Curtis Mayfield. This year she chose to sing from the (early, black) Gospel soundbook, mostly songs famously covered by the great Soul Stirrers, Rosetta Tharpe, and the Staple Singers. With a few exceptions, the concert was a disappointing, uncomfortable, mess.

It’s important to start by saying that O’Connor’s voice is still astonishingly good, especially when she’s in her pocket, in a low register, almost whispering. She’s still got a powerful high yawl, and it’s amazing to see a pop singer hold on to her voice over almost 3 decades of performing. Whatever else she’s done to herself over those years, she’s protected her voice. And last night she chose to sing beautiful songs, songs that are important to our country’s musical heritage and often overlooked by secular pop fans. The roots of contemporary pop and R&B music lie here, and they are wonderful.

But what strengths O’Connor has in her range and song selection, she faces substantial challenges in putting on an enjoyable–even tolerable–live show. First, and perhaps because she hinted that the concert’s program came together at the last minute, she failed to arrange these songs to suit her voice. Almost all of these songs are transcendent, beautiful music because they take advantage of an able singer’s ability to use their broad range and soulful, complex voice to communicate strength, hope, and pain. Arranged correctly, with a minimal reliance on Sinead’s broad yalp, she could do this as well as any singer of her generation. But she played them straight, faithful to the arrangements used by great soul singers, and anyone who knows the originals would wish for a proper gospel group to kick her off the stage and do these songs justice. Because O’Connor was miked, and she sang almost all of the first half hour in a near scream, my ears were blown out by the time she shifted into the stripped down songs that constituted the second half of the show. It was relentlessly unpleasant.

Adding insult to injury, she has the irritating and wholly unnecessary habit of moving the mic to control the intensity of her voice into the PA, and the equally irritating habit of providing direction to the sound engineer during each and every song, sometimes for minutes at a time, both before, during, and after her songs. We spent as much time watching her turn up and down her earpiece, signalling to stage right that the monitor needed to be louder, or asking for a new guitar, as we did watching her sing. As my friends in Nashville were fond of saying, “if you’re correcting the sound engineer more than twice, the problem is probably with you.” I think this is especially true at a venue like Lincoln Center, where people generally can be trusted to do their jobs well. Truth be told, the experience would have been wonderful without microphones–the room is smartly designed, on the small side, and both she and the band had enough power to get it done. And the minimalist approach would have suited the occasion.

The final straw is that she sang almost the entire show off-pitch. The audience didn’t seem to notice (or mind) but even a blind woman would have figured it out after the totally awesome Abyssinian Baptist Church Choir joined her on stage. As soon they started to sing O’Connor would bend her note to match theirs until she was singing on-key. Her dependence on them was so total that she actually drifted across the stage to hear them better, bringing her too close to their monitor, sending a shock of feedback through the PA. Twice.

Her banter was just as odd as you’d expect: she told what she described as a “funny story” about being abused as a child and finding refuge in an image of herself coated in a river of Jesus’s blood. She dedicated songs to “everyone,” and to “all the women who are pregnant,” which really leeches the sentiment out of such tributes. While a friend took exception to her priest’s collar (“that’s so old”), I noted my displeasure with her choice to wear Yoga pants more because I’m sick of yoga pants than my desire to police her appearance.

There were a few high points. “Wade in the Water” was good fun, and she did a lovely stripped down version of Mayfield’s “Jesus.” In her encore, she played two songs from her widely-liked recent album, and closed with an a capella prayer she claimed to have learned from some Irish monks. The band was tight, smart, and generous to her; it included members of The Blind Boys of Alabama and The Soul Stirrers and Bob Telson (Oscar and Tony nominated composer, on piano)  was the musical director. She seemed genuinely happy to be on stage and I was in the minority of unhappy customers. Then again, people are smart; audiences are stupid.

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blogger meet up

The sages have spoken, the cabal has voted (but mostly, Tina did some research & outreach), and we have our ASA blogger party planned:

5pm on Sunday, August 11

for a bloggerly beverage at

Lillie’s Victorian Establishment

249 W 49th St

Tumblr’ers and twits and gawkers and ghosts of all sorts are welcome.

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