Friday, January 29, 2010

The Dave Matthews Band: Greatest Ever?

I am excluding the Beatles and 98 Degrees from this debate—they are music immortals.

As the Dave Matthews Band nears two decades of relevance, I wonder: Is the Dave Matthews Band the greatest band ever? How long do we have to wait before fans can begin to measure Matthews’ place? He’s toured relentlessly, playing sold-out shows in every corner of the world. The band has authored four great studio albums (plus others): Under the Table and Dreaming, Crash, Everyday, and the latest: Big Whiskey & the Groogux King, which Rolling Stone Magazine called the band’s greatest. DMB’s complete discography--studio discs, concert CD’s, and compilations--easily number over twenty. I have been to 10 shows. Every concert has been amazing, full of energy, an incredible blend of great singing and instrumental solos, violin, guitar, drums, you name it. All shows went well over two hours, and a sweat-soaked Matthews left it all on the stage every time, even on the second night of a double bill. The encores never disappoint, plus his tickets are cheap ($75.00-$40.00 vs. the Stones or U2 which sell for hundreds). For your money, there's nothing more powerful than being immersed in a sea of 20,000 people, all swaying back and forth and singing along to “Say Goodbye” or “Dancing Nannies” as the sun sets. At that moment, when you see Dave Matthews holding that crowd in the palm of his hand, you realize how great he really is.

If a band sounds like crap live, forget it, that band isn’t even in this conversation. I don’t care about theatrics or some drunken lead singer bouncing around the stage like Jim Morrison or Axl Rose. I don’t need elaborate stage setups like U2’s. When I talk to Phish fans, another popular road show, they all carry on about ridiculous things like barbershop quartets and “far out” stage lights. The truth is Phish is just a mediocre jam band, like Garcia and the Dead were, with a great drug scene. For me, it’s about music. Just make the music sound good.

Let’s look at the heavyweights in this debate. The Rolling Stones are legends, but I would take “Jimi Thing” and “Everyday” over “Start Me Up” and “Satisfaction.” Zeppelin, Floyd, Cream, AC/DC, the Who, all great. But come on, they’re pretty formulaic and their songs sound basically the same. Albeit, great songs, but kind of the same idea. I’d take “Two Step” or “Number 41” over “Comfortably Numb” and “Shook Me All Night Long.” Aerosmith is amazing, but they disappeared in their prime to play with drugs. Nirvana and Pearl Jam put G N’ R out of business. But Nirvana was relevant for four years, maybe, and Cobain didn’t make an album as great as Crash. Nevermind? Great album, but are you kidding me? Pearl Jam’s Ten was super, but I’d take Under the Table and Dreaming first, and that’s not even DMB’s best. In fact, I defy you to find ten albums better than Crash EVER, in any genre, and I’ll give you Dark Side of the Moon, Appetite for Destruction, and Thriller.

Some others. The Eagles? No. Fleetwood Mac? Not even close, although Rumours rocked. The Hendrix Experience? Can you say overrated? Halen? Rush? Queen? STP? Chili Peppers? Metallica? Maybe. But I don’t think so.

It’s hard to say a modern act is an all-time great. We want to defer to history. But the fact is--musically speaking—DMB is the greatest ever. The lyrics are razor-sharp and awesomely smart, the instrumentals are brilliant, and nobody is better live. Recently I went to a Tom Petty concert. I love Petty. I was literally asleep by the fifth song. Matthews has spoiled this generation. Everything else live is pedestrian at best. As a society we've gotten smarter with time. I pay all respect to the musical pioneers, but being first doesn’t mean being best. And I know you won’t find DMB on any Top 100 list. You’ll find Bob Marley and the Wailers or Earth, Wind, and Fire. I know. Who?

I ask: Why do we have to wait for a performer to be long gone or past prime to recognize their greatness? I’m saying we don’t. I’m saying right here and now: The Dave Matthews Band is the greatest band ever. If you don’t believe me, buy a ticket for the June 4th or 5th show at SPAC.

This year DMB has been nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys for Big Whiskey and the Groogux King. I hope for the sake of all music, the committee doesn’t give this great award to that silly circus-freak Lady Gaga, or that fifteen-year-old puppet Taylor Swift. And don’t even tell me about Black Eyed Peas and Beyonce. Something different this year: Give the Grammy to the “best” album not just the most commercial.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

K9 Violence: One Torturous Death Deserves Another

The story about the Schenectady man who murdered two small dogs and burned a third shook me to the core. In fact I think it’s unfitting to even call that piece of human-garbage a man. I recognize rape and domestic violence as crimes that need to be treated with a harsh hand. But there’s no more pointless, cowardly, horrible act than torturing and killing a helpless animal, an animal whose whole purpose is to please its owner. Don’t tell me about someone’s past history or unpredictable temper. I don’t want to hear it. To consciously and graphically destroy a family pet for ANY reason is beyond belief, and should be treated the same way as crimes against humans. That’s right. These scumbags that drown or electrocute beautiful animals should be locked up the same way as rapists and violent offenders. There’s no room in society for such sick, twisted lunatics. And I applaud Congressman Jim Tedisco for captaining Buster’s Law. It’s a great initiative, and because of it, he has my vote till the end of time. But more needs to be done.

Not convinced? How about some unsettling details?

The 28-year-old slime ball in question here, on three separate occasions, tortured and/or murdered small dogs with his bare hands. Police say the first dog was killed sometime in December after this pig-of-a-human became upset when the female long-haired dachshund named Beary urinated in the house. So he drowned the animal in a bathtub by holding her nose and mouth under water and then squeezed her to death. SQUEEZED TO DEATH. A second animal, a female toy poodle named Carmella, was burned on her legs and backside on Jan. 12 after being held under scalding water. BURNED. Police also say this waste-of-life ripped the hair from Carmella's legs. The latest incident happened on Sunday when another long-haired dachshund named Fudge was struck once, fatally, with a pool stick. STRUCK IN THE HEAD. Why were these last two dogs tortured this way? Excessive barking. Sometimes I forget how disgusting human beings can be. Then I’m reminded.

"This is a classic furtherance of the domestic violence behavior of him forcing her to watch her animals be tortured and killed," said David Dean, a spokesman with the Schenectady County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

I’m a firm believer in America’s prison system, and innocent until proven guilty. I believe there are many criminals who can be rehabilitated in time. But, if these charges are true, that belief doesn’t apply here. In a perfect world, this guy would be sentenced to a painful fight for his life in dirty, bathtub water, then burned with white-hot water while every last, little hair was ripped from his body, before having a pool cue smashed across his face. After all that, I say, if guilty, give this creep the electric chair. That’s right. He deserves to die. I’m a dog(s) owner and if anyone ever did this to one of mine, his life would henceforth be a ticking time bomb. The bible says eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. I extend that belief to paws, and snouts, and tails. Family comes in all forms.

So I say: One torturous death deserves another.

Of course that won’t happen. If convicted, he’ll do some time then be back on the streets, armed with his rap sheet that counts 10 prior convictions. Some of his past crimes include false imprisonment, harassment, and most recently, domestic violence. All horrible crimes, of course. But no way as inhuman and horrible as eviscerating defenseless animals.

If you need proof of society's slap-on-the-wrist way, look no further than that disgraceful joke, Michael Vick, who after signing a $125 million contract with the Atlanta Falcons, serially slaughtered dogs with his own hands. He strangled, drowned, hung, electrocuted, and beat dogs to death. Now he’s back in the NFL, winning Ed Block courage awards.

Despite this pathetic, stomach-turning case of cowardice, I know there are so many who love dogs of all shapes and sizes. So here’s some ways to counteract the violence and/or neglect against dogs (and cats of course). Most Hannaford Stores in the area have a cardboard box where shoppers can drop just-purchased food or treats for homeless animals. There are many Capital Region shelters and humane societies. The Hudson-Mohawk Humane Society is one that comes to mind. Donate if you can, please. And for God’s sake, don’t take on a dog unless you’re willing to keep that dog for the duration of its life, bad or good. There’s nothing more horrible than giving a dog (or cat) a sense of security and love, then ripping it away.

Obviously I’m an animal lover, and what’s transpired in Schenectady breaks my heart. So give your loyal, loving pet a hug, and help out the abused and neglected animals out there if you can.
Brian Huba

The Last Word on Late Night: Who Cares?

Last Friday night, NBC aired the final show of Conan O’Brien’s seven-month, Late Night disaster. In short the show was a 65-minute snapshot of why the self-deprecating redhead failed in the 11:35P.M. time slot.

Conan entered center stage to a studio applause that went on, unnecessarily, for several minutes. His hacky monologue included a bit about all the super-expensive things he was going to spend NBC’s millions on in his final night. His first guest was Tom Hanks, a Hollywood giant, but just plain awkward when asked to deliver an unscripted kind of funny. Neil Young’s musical performance was incredible, but was quickly forgotten when Will Ferrell (as Ronnie Van Zant) high jacked the show for the final 15 minutes, for a karaoke version of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” full of bad dancing, cow bells, and Ferrell butt-crack shots, while Conan faded into the background of his own farewell. The show was bad. The whole seven-month run was bad.

At the end of it all I was left with one question: Who Cares?

The fact is the Late Night concept is outdated. Whether it’s Leno, Letterman, Kimmel, or Conan, none of it is relevant or remotely funny. From the studio audience, packed with seventy year olds from Nebraska, to the hacky monologue with lousily-written jokes about Obama, to the terrible bits and pre-rehearsed celebrity interviews, it’s the most antiquated hour left on TV. There was a time when the likes of Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson were important, a time when their late-night shows could curve public opinion, sway the political landscape. America would swallow the crappy humor and endure that guy with the exotic animals to see their favorite celebrities promote new movies, albums, etc. But America doesn’t need to do that anymore. With Twitter, and the Internet, and the nauseating number of reality shows and gossip rags, we have endless access to celebrities. Nobody needs to suffer through Leno’s horrible humor, Conan’s low-budget bits, and Letterman’s stupid Top-Ten List, to watch some scripted interview with Reese Witherspoon about her kids' Halloween costumes, while said host fills in the blanks with dumb jokes. Larry King’s and Howard Stern’s celebrity interviews are a thousand times better anyway. They’re real. And I’m not even going to sound off about the insanely-long commercial breaks that cut up these Late Night shows. Come on Middle America. We’re better than this. Right?

Honestly, this train wreck between Conan and Leno is the only interesting thing to happen in Late Night in the last 17 years, when Letterman jumped ship to CBS after being passed over for that soulless robot Jay Leno. Drama is king because the content is rubbish.

Everybody wants to blame someone or something for this debacle at NBC, but the truth is nobody (and everybody) is to blame. At this point Conan should thank his lucky stars for getting 32.5 million to walk away from this ratings Waterloo. So please: no feeling bad for O’Brien. He’ll pocket that money he didn’t earn, then, in September, get hired at FOX, and start up another 11:35P.M. snoozefest. If you want to, feel bad for the guy working 80 hours a week to keep a roof over his family’s head, while dealing with the never-ending threat of layoff or economic downsize. Feel bad for that guy.

At the end of the day, Leno has chinned his way right back to where he believes he belongs: competing with his tacky, gap-toothed rival David Letterman. So rest easy America. The unfunny battle of overpaid irrelevants, with their prepackaged punchlines, studio bands, and dreadful bits, wages on. Just don’t be fooled. The obsolete format that is Late Night TV slumbers along for one reason only: Money. They are cash cows, so we’re told. But I sure as heck don’t understand why or how. And quite frankly I’m not sure if America’s actually watching this crap or just falling asleep after the local news with the TV on. My God, I hope it’s the latter.

So once again, here’s Dave, or Jay, or Jimmy.
Then again though: Does it really matter?

Brian Huba

Thursday, January 21, 2010

It's Destiny: The JETS will win

Steve Huba was my father. He died last January. He suffered a fatal heart attack. It was the alarmist barking of our family dog Pepper that woke my mother and made her come downstairs to the living room to find him. She said the second she saw him slumped in the chair, she knew. He’d made a cup of tea because he was having chest pains. He never took a sip. It was still warm when my mother touched a finger to it. He’d planned on going to the grocery store then watching the NFL’s wild card games. He was happy. He was 54.

There’s no justice in death and usually it lacks climatic value. It just happens. So you have to focus on the life that precedes it. My father was a blue collar, family man. He worked hard, second shift at the GE Plant on Anderson Drive in Albany. He drove just 2 different cars in 20-plus years: a rusted Ford Granada and a Dodge Dakota with a broken driver’s door. He had a beat-up motorboat that never ran right. In a world where everybody wants the flashy toy right now, Steve Huba’s working-hard-to-earn-it ethic was out of style. He was a man who could’ve driven a Cadillac with all the whistles if he wanted. He could’ve. But he didn’t. He worried about the grocery bill but would cough up his bank account to save his family from the slightest hardship. He smiled in every picture. 700-plus people went to his wake.

My father was a devoted Jets fan and season-ticket holder. A few times a year we’d make the drive down 87-South to East Rutherford, NJ to watch Gang Green. I liked the games, but I’m a Giants fan, so I always felt like I was at the wrong party. In the parking lot before Jets kickoff, we’d tailgate with hot dogs and burgers, maybe toss the pigskin. The men would drink Bud and smoke cigarettes. It was a world of old cars, and bearded, blue-collar guys in Jets hats and jerseys, those heavy, button-up flannels. It was a world of Steve Hubas. When the Jets scored, the whole stadium would chant (in waves) J-E-T-S: Jets! Jets! Jets! Most years they stunk, no real shot at the playoffs, and forget the Super Bowl. That was for the Giants, and their CEO-type fans. The Jets represented the working class, the guys that busted their butts to make an honest living, listened to Lynyrd Skynyrd, never got ahead. The Jets were seen as second class. After all, the stadium they played in was named after New York’s “white collar” team. But year after year we’d drive down 87, only to be disappointed with another “I can’t believe they blew it” moment. I remember the days of Kenny Interception, and Browning Nagle, and Rich Kotite. Every season would end with my father saying, “same ole Jets.” One week before my father died, his Jets missed the 08-09 playoffs after starting the season with an 8-3 record. Same ole Jets.

Now the NY Jets--with rookie QB and coach--are one win away from the most improbable Super Bowl trip in NFL history, while the Giants sit home with memories of their ‘07 run through destiny. Four weeks ago the Jets were dead, on the way to blowing it . . . again. Then destiny stepped in and here they are. The Bengals were just bad and the Chargers’ surefooted kicker botched three chipshots. And here they are: the J-E-T-S. I have no idea what that destiny is or what higher power Rex Ryan has at his disposal, but I can venture a guess. And now, if the Jets can conquer the same Colts franchise they stunned in Super Bowl III, 41 years ago, they will be a single win from being world champs. No longer New York’s little brother, the symbol of hardworking guys who never make it all the way. They'll be the team all others blue print for success. Great defense. Solid running game. Destiny. These are the new Jets.

Some may say this Super Bowl shot comes one year too late for my family’s interests. Maybe that’s how destiny works, especially if you’re a NY Jets fan. Either way, my guarantee is simple: The NY Jets will win Superbowl XLIV. First they will take down Peyton Manning then outmuscle the NFC champion. I know it the same way Joe Namath knew it in 1969, when my father was just 14.

And when they do, I, a diehard Giants fan, will celebrate my father’s victory. Then I’ll remember his old Jets sweatshirt and the Jets mug he always had with him. I’ll wish I had appreciated his blue-collar ethic when he was alive. I’ll be sad for letting a whole life slip away without him knowing how much I respected him. I’ll be sorry if some fool in a sharp suit ever looked down their nose at him. In a world where nobody wants to get their fingers dirty, I’ll know that Steve Huba, working class hero, will have the last laugh, because the team that represents guys like him will sit atop the NFL mountain, if only for a year. And because he wore that same old sweatshirt and drove that clunker-truck, his wife will never worry about money again. A family man till the end.

And even if the Jets don’t take the Lombardi Trophy, in so many ways they’ve already won, because nothing in life is more important than hope.


Brian Huba

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Lovely Bones Movie: Irresponsible & Bad

I know the old rule: The movie is never as good as the book. We need not look further then The DaVinci Code for that. I am not a person prone to hyperbole but the Peter Jackson directed mess The Lovely Bones might be the worst movie ever made. (My apologies to All About Steve.) Now I wouldn’t use this forum to write a film review, but I feel there is a larger misdeed here than just shockingly-bad movie making.

I’ll get to that in a bit.

For those who have not seen this bastardization of maybe the most important novel of the 21st century (along with The Kite Runner)--Alice Seabold’s 2002 story of Susie Salmon who is raped and murdered at age 14 then tells her story from Heaven--let me summarize. The film is way too long (an uncomfortably-dramatic 135 minutes) and the action is excruciatingly slow. Usually rock-solid Mark Wahlberg and reliable Susan Sarandon give their most hopeless performances to date. The narration of the young Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) is oppressive at best, and her actual acting is cringe-inducing. Every dialogue exchange is pregnant with foreshadowing and figurative language a two year old could recognize as unrealistic. Peter Jackson sledgehammers viewers to death with symbolism in every! single! scene. Jackson’s version of Susie Salmon’s Heaven/the "in between" is a cartoonish interpretation, wrought with every special-effects cliché, better fit for something out of Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka. Nikki SooHoo is murderously-stereotypical as Susie’s Asian friend in Heaven. Even Michael Imperioli, who co-starred in the greatest TV show ever, The Sopranos, is beyond bad as the formulaic detective. The only bright spot in this trainwreck is Stanley Tucci’s portrayal of the creepy killer George Harvey. But it would have helped to have a hint as to why this man serially murders little girls. Any kind of back story would’ve fit the bill. From Susie’s five-year-old brother clairvoyantly breaking down the afterlife-rules, to the so-far-over-the-top-it’s-ridiculous attempts at teenage romance, I think a first-year film student would’ve left this on the cutting-room floor. Oh yeah, how come not a single character ages a day in a time span meant to be at least ten years? I was speechless when I left the Latham cinema. What can I say? It was AWE-FUL!

But that’s not the worst part.

As a high school English teacher I recognize the diminishing role of the written word in our children’s lives. We live in a fast-paced society of X-Box 360’s and DVR’s. It is increasingly difficult to get our students to push through a 300-page novel and appreciate the beauty and genius. Most students see that medium as archaic and a waste of time. That’s why I applaud Stephanie Meyer (Twilight) and JK Rowling (Harry Potter) for reawaking that passion on such a broad scale. Every time a student comes to me and wants a “good book” I hand over Alice Seabold’s The Lovely Bones. It is a magnificently complex and layered story about life and death. It does not shy away from issues of sexuality and deviant human desires. It is a mature story meant for a reader of mature makeup. Seabold’s handling of such hot-button subjects (rape/murder/death) is done with perfection at every turn.

But now, in an attempt to secure a PG-13 rating and rein in a larger, younger audience, Peter Jackson has reduced Seabold’s complex tale to a Razzie-worthy abomination. He shies away from every controversial angle, refusing to even allude to the fact that Susie was raped before being murdered, and keeping all actual/genuine sexuality off camera. In doing so, Jackson offensively strips the movie of all emotion and realism. For the sake of filled theatres he clumsily butchers away all trace of what it means to be prey to earthly desires of the body and mind vs. the liberation of the afterlife.

This dumbed-down farce is to date the most blatant example of diminishing Hollywood standards meeting censorship run-a-muck. The Lovely Bones isn’t Willy Wonka or Twilight, but for some reason is theatrically treated as such. Seabold’s story is far more important. It’s a novel timeless enough to kickstart generational student-interest in reading and being literate. But I fear that is lost now. Because of the irresponsibly-bad production of this film, nobody in their right mind could watch then wish to read the novel it’s supposedly adapted from. So in the end, the same teenagers Peter Jackson tried to pander to he has hurt through overuse of censorship and this silly, money-grubbing interpretation of literary greatness. This film is so singularly bad, I see it as a direct shot against student reading, and the brilliance of a book I used as a tool to compete with our X-Box society. And that is the saddest thing of all.

I promise you, the Troy Record reader, I am going to pull every string I can to contact the book’s author Alice Seabold. I think her readers are owed an explanation for this dramatic deviation. When I get that from her, I will give it to you. Stay tuned.

Brian Huba

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Devil Down In Haiti

In the wake of the awful 7.0 Earthquake that rocked the impoverished
island-nation of Haiti, spiritual leader for the stupid, Pat Robertson, declared the disaster a result of the Haitians making a deal with the devil. That’s right, in Robertson’s view as self-described demigod, the death and suffering of possibly 200,000 3rd-world people was God's punishment for Haitian slaves' "pact with the devil" to win freedom from France in 1804. Let me start by saying anyone who’s ever invested a red dime to Pat Robertson or took seriously any of his Evangelist ramblings should have their head examined. Robertson’s on-line mission statement mentions how he wants to be part of God’s earthly plan, and his teachings offer help to such things as overcoming debt and facing down fear. But his real mission is money, and the phantom of religion, his weapon. I understand that most people recognize Robertson as a typical TV-preacher, who’s built his bank account and fame off the backs of the weak and vulnerable. Quoting scarcely-known bible lines to pass as some high-ranking prophet in God’s play is no different than what David Koresh, leader of the Waco Davidians, did to fill his cult-quota. And we all know how that ended. In a country where the greatest political-lightweight in world history, Sarah Palin, was a Katie Couric interview away from Washington, and a top-drawer dimwit like Tila Tequila is rich and famous, I sometimes question our collective-intelligence as Americans. On this day, Pat Robertson, a man who once claimed that God “personally” told him to be President, has an unshakable base of believers that number in the millions.

But I have bad news: religion might not be real.

I’m not suggesting there’s no such thing as God or Heaven and Hell. I don’t know that for sure and neither do you. In fact the thing that binds all living people is that none of us have a scrap of actual afterlife-evidence. In fact the majority of evidence would suggest life on earth is the whole show. Obvious? Of course. If you are a Catholic or a Pat Robertson believer for example, you must accept the fact that the Earth is roughly 4,000 years old, everything you see was created in 6 days, dinosaurs and human beings lived at the same time, and some guy named Noah built an arc and ushered all earth’s animals aboard to ensure procreation. If you believe some of the story you have to believe it all. I’m not knocking anyone who goes to church or lives by the Ten Commandments, but any person that makes him or herself a slave to an invisible and unprovable force, or hands their life savings to some horse thief like Robertson might as well have the dunce capped sown on permanently. And if you don’t believe there’re people who’d give their shirt to such a transparent phony, just remember 20% of Americans believe that the Sun revolves around the Earth.

Not only were Robertson’s Haiti comments catastrophically out of touch, and his continued assertion that he has a direct pipeline to the Divine Being absurd and self-promoting, but his fact checkers embarrassingly dropped the ball. Robertson, when breaking down his deal-with-the-devil nonsense, missed Napoleon III’s time of reign by 44 years. Then went on to insult the same revolutionary spirit that brought about Haiti’s freedom from France the same way it brought America’s freedom from Great Britain. So in a sense, he insulted the very fabric of our own path to independence. Which seems doubly-ridiculous coming from a “preacher” man who profited off a country where free religion is the foundation of our beliefs.

In closing I’ll say the earthquake in Haiti is a tragedy of epic proportions, and there is no deal with the devil at work behind it. I promise you that. Nothing more than stunningly bad luck for an island-nation that has known nothing but. And I was happy to hear that Barack Obama was immediately sending 100 million in relief funds. My only hope is he withdrew it from Pat Robertson’s personal account. And, if you are so inclined, say a prayer for the people of Haiti.

Brian Huba

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Bring Back the Draft

Eight years ago when the terror attacks on New York City and Washington D.C. brought this country together, I agreed it was time for war. Time to smoke those responsible out of their holes. I wrote articles in support of our president and dismissed anti-war protests as irritating and ineffective. I believed my commander and chief would have an exit strategy in place before our boys’ boots ever hit enemy soil. Now I’m not so sure. All this time later, the theatre of terror has shifted from Afghanistan, to Iraq, back to Afghanistan, and those supposedly responsible for that awful September day in ’01 are still at large. So the boogeyman talk we’ve been told for years about that slippery Osama bin Laden keeps the crossfire shows going. The war plan has changed too many times to count and the politics have stayed the same. So as we surge through the mountains of Afghanistan, hoping to do what the Russians couldn’t do in 16 years, the definition of what it means to win is unclear. And the idea of one day leaving this Middle East mess behind feels like a pipe dream. There won’t be a ribbon-cutting ceremony or planting of the flag that marks an irrevocable end of tensions between the Taliban and America. The days of civilized war are long gone. Now it’s practically man against animal, because anyone who’s willing to blow himself, and a crowded commercial flight, to smithereens doesn’t pass the mankind-exam.

So if you’re one of the many Americans who wants to see this war end, because you can’t understand its connection to our everyday safety or just don’t care about problems half a world away, here’s what I say: Bring back the draft. All the roadside bombs and mortar attacks have somehow become accepted elevator-music in our daily routines. Sure, we sometimes go through the motions of thanking the troops and slapping magnetic yellow ribbons on the bumper of our SUV’s. But for those who don’t have a personal connection to the conflict, care level is low. For soldiers, recruiters target two places mainly: inner city populations and areas of higher poverty rates. This war is being fought by Dirk from Dunham Hollow and the kid who left high school at lunchtime to catch the Vo-Tec bus. College competition is high and if you don’t have a leg up in this economy good luck and God speed. And as long as that’s the way it is suburban housewives and their high powered husbands are fine with this war. But I promise that sentiment would change if talk of a draft made it to Clifton Park, or Westchester, or Greenwich, Connecticut. If little Tyler and Caleb had to trade their IPods and Blackberries for fatigues, the “Not My Son!” backlash would cripple this country in about three seconds. The two most powerful forces on earth are nuclear warheads and PTA moms. So I say draft soldiers at the front doors of Shen and Shaker. Tell your elected officials we want the kid with the Abercrombie jeans to protect our interests abroad. Let the fortunate sons hunt down “the enemy” through 100 degree weather where suicide attack waits behind every mountain and inside every cave. I bet we’d stop treating CNN’s war coverage like Reality TV and start putting our democracy into action.

It pains me to say I can’t recall the last time I read of a protest against Obama’s ordering of more troops to the front. Half the people I talk to aren’t even following the war anymore. The problem is there’s two classes in this country. And right now the have-nots are dying or returning stateside disabled (psychologically/physically) so the have-everythings can live on the lam. If you think about it the draft isn’t such an outrageous idea. For God’s sake, the armed forces are already backdoor drafting the enlisted few anyway. At this point we have two choices if we want this war to end: stand up and make an anti-war voice be heard, a voice that won’t shrink or submit until its agenda is met. Or cross fingers and pray that maybe someday we’ll collect our tanks and guns and leave the Middle East a stable, secure place. I say there’s no way the latter ever happens. And I say the magnetic yellow ribbons and passing interest aren’t cutting the mustard. But I promise you this: If our government started drafting suburban boys by the basket load, the PTA protests on Washington would make Vietnam-era flower power look like a Chinese fire drill.

Brian Huba

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Reality Bites

This week the public gets a well-deserved break from this insulting brand of reality TV we’ve had to endure since last season’s sweeps. American Idol returns to the airwaves. With apologies to MTV’s The Real World, which in the last 10 years has degenerated into a caricature of what it once was, Idol is not only the greatest reality show ever made, but maybe one of the greatest TV shows period. Here’s how I see it: Seinfeld is the greatest comedy, The Sopranos the greatest drama, The Honeymooners, and Lucy were great for their time, but can’t touch Seinfeld or The Sopranos for actual content. Friends is the highest rated sitcom and Frasier has won the most Emmys. I say American Idol is as good as any of them. But before we look ahead at the upcoming season, let’s look back at the modern history of reality TV.

In 1992 when Bunim and Murray released MTV’s The Real World, a turning point in TV history arrived. The show was compelling, and above all else, REAL. I’m not saying Real World was the first reality show. That was The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (minus the love triangles, race/religious debates, and sexuality, both gay and straight) which ended its TV run in 1966. But let’s get real (no pun intended), The Real World is the reason you have to comb through Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, America’s Got Talent, and The Sing Off to find a decent sitcom or drama. The Real World is also the reason MTV has abandoned the airing of music videos, instead choosing to ride Road Rules, True Life, and Teen Mom to surefire ratings in the 18-35 demographic.

The Real World is the pioneering force behind the quasi-relevance of Nick Lachey, Tila Tequila, and Ray J, not to mention the regretful reemergence of Hulk Hogan and that god-awful Flavor Flav. But now, after 20-plus years of this sorry chapter in TV history, we have finally scraped the bottom of the reality-TV barrel, a dark place where David Hasselhoff and that annoying girl from The Apprentice dwell. That’s right folks, The Bachelor is bland, there’s no life left in Rock of Love, and I can’t survive another season of Survivor. The copycatting concept has derailed, and the spinoffs have hit a skid. (Sorry Whitney from The Hills and your super-exciting shot at making it in the NYC business world). And, E! Network, don’t try insulting me with a reality show where we’re forced to stomach Lamar Odom and Khloe Kardashian stupiding their way through obviously-scripted scenarios so far removed from reality it would be like watching extra terrestrials in designer jeans. You already made America choke down Kourtney and Khloe idioting it up in Miami. The only scene from that feeble-minded mess I remember was when Khloe (the taller, not-so-smart one) was having a conversation with a store mannequin in some misguided attempt to be funny for the cameras. It was bad, really, really bad. And oh by the way, before you fall in love with oh-so-famous sister Kim Kardashian’s airbrushed body and flowing hair extensions, know that her boulevard of fame was paved in part by her late father’s successful defense of killer O.J. Simpson.

But what bothers me more is the fact that all these quote-on-quote reality shows are so blatantly fixed with a script. Blatantly fixed to some degree at least. The Real Housewives of Wherever. Nope, not real, sorry. I defy you to sit through the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th fist fight of a single episode of Jersey Shore and tell me that show’s not staged for ratings. Oh yeah right. I’m sure on a regular day Hulk Hogan and his bottle-blond family would dress up in disguise and take on Disney World, then take turns retreating to some weird “confessional” room with rainbows on the wall to give their personal perspectives of the Disney day. MTV’s True Life is anything but, and the vapid wastes-of-space on The Hills are so clearly puppeteered through that 30-minute train wreck, it’s ridiculous. These Spencer Pratt, Brody Jenner, Heidi Montag space cadets are so devoid of any actual brain energy that they fully carry on these TV-show angles in real life, for the sake of the always-existent tabloids. So if a show is “sort of reality” and the rest is situational, is it really reality? Can a non-fiction book be called non-fiction if half of it is made up? Ask James Frey about that. Can a show like Bromance or Paris Hilton’s BFF be considered real if the winners are never allowed to start a real bromance with Brody or be best friends forever with Paris? So what’s the point? What are they competing for? Reality TV has fallen so far and chosen to examine the lives of so many different people not made for the TV-waves, for instance repo men and custom motorcycle makers. There was a time when reality TV was real. There was a time when it was good. MTV had it right once. That time was long before that insufferable bore Tyra Banks on America’s Top Model and the mindless ramblings of Heidi Klum on Project Runway. And for anyone who’s seen the new season of VHI’s Celebrity Rehab I pose two questions: Why is MacKenzie Phillips using claims of sexual abuse against her dead father to take her 15 minutes of fame? And why is Dr. Drew Pinsky, an addiction specialist, wearing a stethoscope when interviewing these celebrities for intake to the rehab house? Is that so the “stupid” viewers from Middle America can recognize him as a doctor? Oh by the way, has anyone seen that soulless, exploiting piece-of-junk The Jacksons: A Family Dynasty? Wow that show is about as transparent and lowdown as it gets. And don't even get me started on those two pigs Jon and Kate.

So anyway, back to American Idol. Already in its 9th season, Idol is as relevant and real as it has ever been. Need proof: more people phone-in votes for Idol than Americans cast vote for president. Its contestants, like Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson, are household names. There is never any contrived drama between the participants. The contest is real and every singer shows up to win and that’s it, regardless of rumors that the early-episode’s rejects are actors. They are not. The 3-judge panel (Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, and Randy Jackson) with the hooky, over-enunciating host (Ryan Seacrest) has been pathetically copied too many times to count. Some competition shows have even gone with the token British-accented judge with the bad disposition. See Hell’s Kitchen for an awful, horrible version of that once-unique concept. As far as ratings go, Idol pulls 30-million twice a week every week, which if you know anything about ratings is what Friends pulled three or four times a season, maybe. If Idol can survive the recent shakeups of replacing Abdul with Ellen DeGeneres and the talk of Simon’s jumping ship, and make it to a tenth season this strong, I would argue that Idol is one of the two or three most important shows ever made. And although Real World was first on the modern-reality circuit, Idol has remained real, and today is the only actual reality TV show left. Trust me I get the thinking behind these bad VHI shows. I do. Placate to the lowest common denominator. But if you want something with a bit more substance, put your tuner to FOX every Tuesday and Wednesday night and enjoy American Idol. And if you’re not an Idol fan but still want reality TV, there’s always the national news or Sesame Street.

Brian Huba