Tactile Media Lament Part 2: Kindle Fire: The Temperature at Which Books Burn

Just in time for the holidays Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com, apparently not content with their multibillion dollar dominance of book sale monoculture, nor with the recent collapse of Borders Books & Music, are giving their e-readers the nook and the Kindle a facelift, adding color graphics, touch screens, the ability to stream movies, facebook (verb), play games and more.

Kindle and nook are both a few years old, predating the iPad.  Once matte grayish affairs meant for reading alone, they are now joining their glamorous iPad cousin in the push for a multimedia tableted society, in which one tool replaces notebooks, pens, paperbacks, mp3 players and hand-held video players.  They do seem a little bit bulky to replace digital cameras – I mean you have to leave something for your phone to do.

I know that one of the treasured freedoms of our country is that everyone with money or credit has the right to demand as many digital devices as they can keep up with.  But the tableting of America seems a little like overkill, even for the personal electronics pushermen.  When is enough going to be enough?

In the face of all these social media-enabling media platforms, the question remains whether we are actually more social people in the 21st Century.  Twitter, in its brevity and immediacy, has become the de facto place for breaking news.  But anyone who has taken urban public transportation lately can be made to reflect on the the tension whereby gentrification has put many people in the most “diverse” environs of their lives, only to see them retreat into mobile digital devices that enable us to remain cloistered, even in public places.

(It is rumored that during the next Republican Presidential Debate, the candidates will not only answer questions FROM Twitter, they will answer the questions ON Twitter itself.  [The site’s 140-character limit is not predicted to change the content of the debate substantially.])

In these digital pages I have decried the rise of mp3 culture and its sacrificial victims: album art, local CD/record stores, the excitement you feel when you hear your favorite song on the radio and the Columbia House Music Club.  I was admittedly acting the part of a Luddite.  Since that time I have impulse bought more than three albums with the instant gratification of iTunes, and I have spent endless minutes pouring over the PDFs of album art lovingly on the screen of my MacBook Pro.

But this time I have to put my foot down again.  Did anyone mind using books?  Oh, but this will be saving so much paper!  I guess so, but ways of recycling paper have been pretty well established, and I still have no real idea how electronics get recycled, except that it’s dangerous, expensive and involves open fires without facial protection in China.  And will countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Bolivia will generate enough coltan and lithium to keep up with our exponential handheld device demands?

I’m not saying that tablets aren’t valuable in some applications.  A recent 60 Minutes episode showed the effectiveness of using iPads to teach autistic children, and filmmaker Danfung Dennis (Hell and Back Again) invented a camera lens that allows you to view over 300 degrees of a filming area on your tablet for a truly immersive documentary experience.  But I bristle that we’re being peer pressured to rush out and buy yet another digital device that will put another nail in the coffin of face to face culture and all of its unsung benefits.  Enjoy the convenience of poring through the sociology section of your nook color tablet; you probably won’t have an impromptu conversation with someone also looking to learn more about humans.

There are so many books already printed that we have been meaning to read.  And we spend so much time already looking at screens that it’s probably better to give them a rest every once in a while.


Soap.com Slings Mud at Corner Stores, Talking to People, Carrying Things

by Lauren Pabst, Your Eye on the Street (you better pick it up)

New Yorkers can’t get their own toiletries either or they don’t have to anymore.

Several cars of the L train are now brought to you by Soap.com – apparently for people who love Fresh Direct, but don’t love their selection of Neutrogena acne cleansers. The folks at Soap.com will deliver your drug store needs (presumably not prescriptions, but perhaps) like, according to an advertised goodie box, toilet paper, makeup, laundry soap and you know, etc. This service is also for people who have a doorman or someone to receive these packages as it is probably a new level of indignity to have to chase down a missed-delivery box of toilet paper for your fifth floor walk-up apartment.

No word on whether they will have the seasonal candy selection, surprise inventory of $5.99 Ed Hardy-esque tank tops, linger-worthy slow jams (Luther Vandross? Brian McKnight, anyone? Is that Lisa Stansfield??) and impulse-bought Snickers bars of my local Walgreens in Brooklyn, but my guess would be not.

This reporter finds herself yet again reminiscing about an already devolved chain store experience, like when I wistfully recall my time working at Blockbuster Video during the VHS-DVD changeover (ca. 2001). In my old neighborhood of Morningside Heights, (which is in Manhattan and thus eligible for same-day delivery from Soap.com) I used to frequent Claremont Chemists, which is visible from the elevated 1 train on Broadway (the skeletal trestle of which serves as one of the establishing shots in Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls, or at least in Wayne Brady’s um, reinterpretation) and is an independent business. No, they didn’t have Tom’s of Maine natural $5.00 toothpaste, which my fluoride-Googling self was seeking, but they had plenty. I felt good ringing the tiny bell strapped to their door. And I bet that maybe if I brought up the whole Tom’s of Maine thing to them, they might have considered stocking it (but I didn’t want to be that person, as I eggshell-walked over there feeling like a gentrification, personified. All that fluoride-Googling had gotten me paranoid).

Of course, like the future customers of Soap.com, convenience is what draws me away from patronizing the tiny drugstore located further down Union Ave – they’re usually closed by the time I am walking home from the train, and the comparatively massive Walgreen’s, open ‘til midnight, with its luxuriant parking lot is just there, looming, lit up like a giant bug zapper, only advertising fridge packs of Coca-Cola, 2 for $5.

Claremont Chemist, Broadway & Claremont, New York, NY

Looking down on Claremont Chemist, while looking out for #1

Maybe it’s dumb to miss consumer-culture interactions and it doesn’t matter how we get our soap, but this seems like a dangerous moment of cyber laziness. First we got our books online – sure, a big selection! – then, our music – ditto, as well as instant (often gratis) gratification – then in a bit of an only-in-New York leap, our groceries via the launch of the still-successful FreshDirect in 2002 – for those who have no time or no desire to feel their own grapefruits, prior to selection.

As Tom Robbins of the Village Voice reported in 2007, FreshDirect, the go-to fresh food delivery service for New Yorkers, whose lumbering trucks could be seen idling outside of posh neighborhoods all over the city, and whose witty ads stirred new layers of convenience and distance from the chores associated with food and eating, this happy green and orange company, may have been behind calling ICE on its workforce (undocumented workers from Mexico and other nations preparing and serving the food of Americans, immensely wealthy companies making cash off their labor and then turning their backs on them: surprise, surprise) when the employees began to talk of unionization with the Teamsters instead of the union that capped their salaries at $18/hour.

Anyway. Soap.com could just be the savior of people who have embarrassing body fungi requiring over-the-counter ointment.  And lazy-ass people who don’t like the non-stop barrage of (usually earned) attitude that some Duane Reade employees are serving up, perhaps a side-effect of so many customers treating them with the same amount of human interaction as a vending machine.

But perhaps we need a little coaxing, still. According to a profile of the campaign in the Campaign Spotlight Advertising column of the New York Times, e-commerce company and Soap.com helmer Quidsi, which also runs Diapers.com (okay, that one seems more intuitive), has dedicated half a million dollars to pushing Soap.com in the New York City market alone. And the L train is just the first stop on their courting of the “hipster” public, or those who delight in wackiness:

“…there is a grass-roots element to the campaign, handled by an agency named Bandwidth, featuring 30 people dressed as a character, Box Boy, meant to represent the packages that Soap.com delivers to customers.

“Box Boy is turning up in locations like Bryant Park and Times Square and can be glimpsed riding the subway.”

Indeed. With ads proclaiming “Less Schlep, More Shop,” and (my personal favorite) “The end of an errand,” as well as “We carry it all so you don’t have to,” and the literal-minded “Next stop: home (not the store). “Why rush to the store when you can rush to the door?” Whoa there. Not too fast in your socks on the hardwood floors – did you remember to add band-aids to that electronic basket? (wink)  But the most head-scratching and juvenile: “Life without Soap.com stinks!”

They’re selling another drug: hard-core convenience for customers whose drug store needs (or wants) out-strip their upper arm strength:

“’The convenience of shopping from home means you don’t have to schlep heavy things,’ [Soap.com marketing director David] Zhang says, and the selection on Soap.com gives a customer ‘the ability to have access to products you wouldn’t find at the corner drugstore,’ bodega or the kind of scaled-down grocery store in many city neighborhoods.”

The article continues:

“Christina Carbonell, vice president for marketing at Quidsi, notes the prevalence in New York of the “incredibly busy families” that are “among our core audience” for Soap.com.

“‘Versus spending hours in a store, they can spend time doing things that are fun,’ she says.”

Note that they’re targeting busy families, not people who for whatever reason can’t carry their own stuff who, presumably, that rincon-situated bodega can arrange delivery for in the event that it’s needed. These jet-set New York families, so incredible in their business, they don’t have time to stop at the store to get the most personal things they require to keep those bodies running smoothly. Ahem.

“Ms. Carbonell likens Soap.com to a spate of businesses offering convenience, among them FreshDirect, Netflix and Zipcar.

“The message is that ‘it doesn’t have to be hard to get basic essentials,’ she says.”

Yikes. It’s already not hard for their target audience “to get the basic essentials,” strictly speaking. I mean, what kinds of images would that phrase call up in many, many other parts of the world, where boxes of medical and sanitary supplies are another matter entirely?

I, for one, am not going to be using Soap.com. But I don’t think that my life is going to “stink.” I have grown too accustomed to the charms of these  “corner drugstores” being derided by Soap.com’s pushers (Claremont Chemist is literally on the corner. And it’s the best one) and also their bigger, convenience stakes-raising, national but still local job-providing mutant chain cousins. I’m not telling you what to do. But I, for one, need to see what a given hair color actually might look like via dozens of attractively looped locks glued to a sales shelf in an alluring hair rainbow. Okay? Can I do that? No offense to anyone dealing with fungus.

Red State, Blue State, Old State New State

Russ Feingold, holding his chin, looking like he is deciding something.

Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) taking time, making up mind

So the midterm elections were held earlier this week.  Most of the “pundits” I heard talking about this whole thing seemed to think that it was a referendum on the way the country has been run by President Obama.

This supposed ’10 conservative backlash has spurred a social media backlash in its turn, as many Facebook-ers (I guess I have more Democrat friends than Republicans, even though most eschew the Politics section of the personal profile, or put something quirky) have posted the link to to the website whatthefuckhasobamadonesofar.com – a helpful litany of the social-good actions taken by President over the past almost-two years.

So that is a bit of a face-saver. Although, reading the list, I remembered this election-year explanation from hip-hop legend K.R.S. One, in which he explains how the President of the United States is like the manager of Burger King:

Yeah… so what would that make the Congress? Burger King employees?

Yet and so, America got to go out and vote for its duly elected officials – and I did so too. I’ve heard all the jive talk from friends about how “if voting could really change anything, it would have been outlawed years ago.” Perhaps, perhaps. But politics is like a game based on fear of what others will do, not love of your actions (kind of like Family Feud).

One thing’s for sure: the U.S. does have that whole Coca-Cola/Pepsi, “Autobot/Decepticon” (in the brilliant words of Mos Def on Real Time with Bill Maher), McDonalds/Burger King binary thing going on with its political parties. Other nations don’t seem to feel threatened by breaking up the two-way political cluster-f*** by throwing in a third, or even fourth, party into the elections, but that has been an unheard-of issue for the longest here in the would-be paragon of democracy.

We seem to love watching that map light up with red and blue, and the election projections flashing across our screen up to the last moment before the news media, no, the BROADCAST NEWS MEDIA, tells us who won, based on their calculations. But answer me this: why can’t we wait even 24 hours before we have to know who won (or who was the projected winner – never mind whether the provisional or absentee ballots have been counted yet, or if those damn Diebold voting machines ever got the “kinks” out of them since the ’04 debacle). Do we really have to call it all that night?  Other countries can take weeks to count all the votes and determine winners. Do we need that primary colored map to sleep that night? Even American Idol waits a full day before announcing who is going back to the karaoke bar.

In my state of New York, the Democrats (the Blue Team! Hurrah!) carried the evening.  Supporters of governor-elect Andrew Cuomo breathed a sigh of relief when he beat plain-crazy Republican Carl Palladino and I guess this is good for those of us who like social services, gay marriage (though time will tell) and non-crazy people. But I have a hard time voting for people who have the same last name (and blood kinship) with people who held the same elected post in the recent past. This is supposed to be a democracy, people!  We’re not supposed to keep it in the family!

So, Nov. 2nd being the day after rent day (if I actually paid my rent on the first, instead of being a grace-period kind of person), I was reflecting on how my rent was pretty damn high. So I voted for this man:

My candidate, Mr. Jimmy McMillan got a rare chance to express his platform at the NY Gubernatorial Debate in October, as you can see above. Though laughed off and dismissed, this perennial candidate had a passion and truth of message that touched me at the core. Mr. McMillan got almost 40,000 votes. The karate expert, Brooklyn activist and Vietnam veteran was the easiest vote I cast in my whole voting career. But it wouldn’t be enough. Not by a long shot.

Wednesday’s wee hours of the morning saw the heartbreaking ouster of Russ Feingold, Senator from Wisconsin, my home state, the ethical, quiet, eloquent, broke-ass, vaguely Bert from Sesame Street-resembling Maverick (before McCain and Palin wore out that term with their dead-eyed smiling buffoonery). Feingold voted against the Patriot Act (and was the only U.S. Senator to do so), and looking back, you get the feeling he did the heavy lifting with the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act too.  When others bought their way to the white-domed structure of their choosing with mud-slinging campaign ads designed to make you think their opponent wasn’t just a potentially bad legislator, but perhaps a back alley-stalking predator, Feingold campaigned on TV one year by showing the beat up old van he used to campaign the first time back in 1991. He was the poorest Senator several years running, but Wisconsinites stuck to their populist roots and re-elected him time and again. This week he was ousted by Ron Johnson, a businessman who proudly knows nothing about Washington, and once arranged for an organization he was part of to pay thousands of dollars in speaking fees to hear the Bell Curve c0-author Charles Murray hold forth.

Again, my Facebook network exploded with laments and paens to Feingold, and I was saddened to see the senator I had been so proud of, and always perked up to see on C-SPAN, getting the boot in favor of a serious Know-Nothing who would do who knows what in the name of Wisconsin.

My home state was red. I was already in bed. And I am getting sick of Burger King.

February is the coldest month?

February u got 2 wait 4 the bus

It’s more than half over, but a belated welcome to February.

February, as you probably know, according to McDonald’s commercials and school programs is Black History Month, as opposed apparently to the eleven other White History Months, or wait, Hispanic Heritage Month in October, but not Indigenous Heritage Month, so diez y media meses for European American point of view.  But are some schools and programs in New York City trying to turn that around for the next generation?

February is the shortest month at 28 days, except when it’s one longer and it’s 29, and it’s still the shortest month.  This phenomenon has inspired a movie with that one chica and some I think English guy I don’t know called Leap Year that I have seen advertised with an appealing shade of green that sets off her red hair of that famous person.  When it is 28 days, it’s the same length as the cycle of the moon, incidentally.

My mom’s birthday is in February (happy birthday mom!)

I’ve heard that February is the coldest month; perhaps, because the winter has been so long at that point – 4 months of cold in the deciduous forests of the North Central-East Northern hemisphere, like New York, Wisconsin, etc.  But I think February’s close proximity to Spring has a sense of “this can’t go on forever” that we, as a society might need to experience fully at this point.

February is home to Groundhog Day, Valentine’s Day and President’s Day.  Superstition, Romantic Love and Patriotism all together under one moon shadow.

And it’s been snowing for us North Central-East North Americans – lots of snow – white, packing like the cotton in asprin bottles under your feet, reflecting sun and/or chilling in big packages of coold on corners as you walk by.

What does it make you think of?  Leave a comment:

The Aught-Nots

Subway Ad, New York City, Two Thousand And Nine

Subway Ad, New York City, Two Thousand And Nine

We’re starting to hear about the “aughts” – that is, this decade we are about to bring to a close tonight.  It makes me think of like Charles Dickens, things I “ought” to do.  Or “ought” not to do or have done.  Wow.

I remember a vague debate back when we entered this decade about what we would call it.  You know, what it will say in those Time Life coffee table books summing up the decade or – hey, a new phenomenon since ‘99 – what the VH-1 “I Love the…” shows would term it.  Those shows are a little strange, by the way. We’re reminiscing too young!  Sure, the ’70s had Grease about the ’50s, the ’80s had Dirty Dancing about the ’60s, but we have stuff now about the ’80s and ’90’s?  And lots of it?  I heard somewhere that someone somewhere – maybe social scientists or a think tank – have documented that popular culture is reminiscing at a higher rate, getting nostalgic quicker about more recent times.  That is just weird!  It would be like listening to Gonna Be Starting Something  IRONICALLY when Michael Jackson had just put out Dangerous.  Or something.

Maybe I’m just getting older. Full moon this New Year’s Eve – the first one in 19 years.  Where were you 19 years ago?  I was seven.  Don’t remember what I did for New Year’s, probably didn’t get to stay up.  What could the full moon mean for people this evening?  Anyway, a tangent is oozing out of my blob – it’s about to go out immediately like slime through the vents of a slime infested building in a horror movie, out into cyberspace.  So exciting! – I mean my blog, if I had an editor, this would be neater.  (Shout out to the editors out there.)

I nominate the new decade moniker The Thousand Ands.  We never said “Class of Ought One!  Yes!”  We said “Class of Two Thousand And One!  Yaaaaa!”  I will miss saying it – the addition of “Twenty (Ten)” to the language is already weirding me out.  Just kidding.  Gotta move forward.

So what do you think??  The Aughts or the Thousand Ands.  It didn’t take us much time to say it during the decade itself.  (Peace, decade)

Vote here:

Michael Jackson: The Man in Our Mirror

Michael Jackson and the Sphinx


by Lauren Pabst, Contextual Healing

The only reason I can talk about Michael Jackson is because he’s a freak. His face is all cut up. But just remember, when you look at that thing he calls his face, that he did that for you somehow. Somehow he thought you might – maybe it would help, maybe people might like me more if I turn myself into a white, ghoulish-like creature.

– Dave Chappelle, For What It’s Worth (2004)

Like many others, I was surprised and saddened by the death of Michael Jackson.

I just took for granted that Michael Jackson would always be around – an uncomfortable work in progress, a strange and wonderful phenomenon.

I feel sad that now when I think of Michael Jackson, it will be in the past tense. I felt a similar sadness with other music greats, but in this case there’s also an upsetting sense of:

This is how the story ends.

Thanks to the harsh, immediate spotlight of our celebrity worshiping culture, though I never even laid eyes on the actual MJ at so much as a CD signing event, I – like most of us – was intimately aware of the details of his extraordinary, turbulent life.  Not just aware of the infectious grooves that have become part of our cultural sense memory and cause the blood to pump along with the bass line of “Billie Jean.” Not just aware of his unprecedented success in album sales and music videos, and his wild talent for singing, songwriting and dancing, but aware of the abusive childhood, the reported self-loathing, the clandestine surgeries, the skin bleaching, the claims of vitiligo, the pet chimp and the hyperbaric chamber, the sad attempts to create a fantasy childhood he never had, the allegations of child molestation, the surgical masks, the collapsed nose, the scarf-draped children and dangled baby of mysterious origins.

I realize that part of me was hoping for a comeback – not like the current one that was projected to make gobs of money performing for rich Europeans – but a grand triumph of self-awareness (a decision to “make that change” as he croons in the song “Man in the Mirror”). I half-hoped in the back of my mind that maybe the years ahead would see a calm, rotund, septuagenarian Michael perched on a stool, wearing a sport jacket, his face – if not transformed into the round cocoa original, at least long-since un-meddled with –  singing “We are the World” with Alicia Keys at the 2020 Grammys; releasing a book of interviews conducted by Cornell West in which he examines the troubled cauldron of influences – societal and personal – in which his once-troubled lifestyle was forged. Unlikely, I know. Maybe this would have been possible in a parallel universe. But not here. Not anymore.

And I realize that with this fantasy trajectory, I’m basically wishing that Michael Jackson grew up to be someone other than who he was. It is to wish that he had a less traumatic life, that the little kid with the devastating soulful voice singing and dancing alongside his older brothers wouldn’t have grown into an adult so clearly warped by an entire life under a media microscope.

In a thoughtful article in the New York Daily News on June 26th, 2009 about Jackson’s musical legacy, Jim Farber writes:

“Jackson’s work with his brothers did more than score bullseye’s on the charts. Their relationship gave the mass media a model of a cohesive African-American family operating in joy and harmony at a time when race raged as a dividing point in the country. From that point on, Michael Jackson’s story would be as much about symbolism as talent.”

Symbolism indeed. If in those early years, young Michael – with his youthful charisma, energetic voice and wide, easy smiles – represented a new possibility for the generation coming of age during the Civil Rights movement, then we must also examine where he ended up in terms of symbolism. The problem is that according to some, Michael never came of age. He devoted millions to indulging childlike whims that he had been denied as a famous kid and befriended other current and former child stars. In his 2003 sexual abuse trial, Dr. Stan Katz testified that Jackson did not fit the profile of a pedophile – he had emotionally regressed to being a 10 year-old boy.

In the white-hot height of his career following the 1982 release of the album Thriller, produced with Quincy Jones, the 20-something Michael Jackson seemed to have it all. His epic music videos smashed the color line of MTV and according to Farber, jump-started the pop music frenzy that characterized the 80’s.

If we follow the MJ-as-symbol theory, then when it comes to race relations, the 80’s were the decade of everything being – or seeming, at least pop-culturally – okay. Michael Jackson was the most successful recording artist since Elvis. Equality! On TV, Dr. Huxtable and his family presented a portrait of upper-middle class black contentment. Equality! But as the 80’s wore on, crack swept the streets of black neighborhoods across the U.S. and rates of black and Latino incarceration began skyrocketing. With the closing of factories and deportation of high-paying unskilled jobs, generations were born into what would become decades-long unemployment. And it seemed that that amazingly contradictory happiness of fame took its toll on the emotionally fragile, painfully shy superstar Michael as he became more reclusive and altered his famed appearance more and more.

Was the troubled, surgically altered adult Michael Jackson a sad product of post-Civil Rights era decades of pretending that everything was fine?

Symbolism alert: he made millions to star in Pepsi commercials and was severely burned.

Last night saw the expected wall-to-wall news coverage of the death of Michael Jackson. Even now, TV anchors and “entertainment reporters” are probably readying a days-long audio/video dirge for the benefit of their own ratings. In other words, the pendulum has swung the other way: as with the obscene media treatment of the death of Anna Nicole Smith, it seems that the more mocked and reviled the celebrity was in life, the more embarrassingly obsessed the mainstream media becomes with their untimely passing.

Almost like we had guilty consciences or something.

There are still those who have rejected Michael Jackson completely because of the allegations of child molestation that we brought forward in 1993 and again in 2003. Though Jackson was found not guilty of the most recent charges, many take the fact that he settled out of court with the family from the ’93 suit (in which the plaintiff was the child of a former friend) as proof of guilt. But as in most celebrity trials, it is often the case that myth outstrips fact in the public imagination. In other words: many who pass judgment don’t know for sure what happened in either case or even the details of what happened in the trial. The mere accusation of child molestation is often enough to destroy a reputation.

But when it comes to celebrities, everyone feels entitled to an opinion. That’s the way it goes in our culture: celebrity bashing is the corrosive flip side to the gilded coin of celebrity worship. No matter how much your life sucks, you can vent your frustrations at someone richer, more beautiful and crazier than you.

But even in the world of celebrity, double standards abound. In his 1999 song “Mr. Nigga,” recording artist and social critic Mos Def weighs in:

You can laugh and criticize Michael Jackson if you wanna
Woody Allen, molested and married his step-daughter
Same press kickin dirt on Michael’s name
Show Woody and Soon-Yi at the playoff game, holdin hands
Sit back and just bug, think about that
Would he get that type of dap if his name was Woody Black?

An interesting and valid point. Woody Allen (whose most recent film “Whatever Works” opened just a few weeks ago) and his public image have been basically unscathed by his admitted behavior towards his current wife, who was a minor at the time of their initial “involvement.” And what’s more, it seems that the license to bash a famous person increases exponentially when the person’s appearance does not conform to the ideals or even norms of society.

Which brings up an uncomfortable question. Namely, where does the whole of American culture fall on the responsibility spectrum for the  life of Michael Jackson – a life with as many ups and downs as a rollercoaster at the Neverland Ranch? Of course, though we are all products of our environment, personal choice and the autonomy of the individual is a large factor in the equation of who we all become. But thanks to the work of father Joe Jackson, an ambitious session musician from Gary, Indiana, Michael Jackson – from the tender age of 5 – was specifically and mercilessly groomed to entertain the American public. And he did so – in an unprecedented way.

And now we know exactly how this man’s life has played out.

Along these lines, today I think of the scene from the 1999 film Three Kings. The film, written and directed by David O. Russel (I Heart Huckabees) is set shortly after the end of Operation: Desert Storm and places that conflict in a murky and fascinating context of greed and cluelessness.

In this scene, the Army Reserve Sergent played by Mark Walhberg is kidnapped and tortured by an Iraqi intelligence officer (played by Said Taghmaoui). The topic of conversation turns unexpectedly to the King of Pop:

Tactile Media Lament Part One: I, Pod

Where did you go? The iPod Shuffle

Doing the iPod Shuffle

This week, I went out to buy a CD. I wanted the little booklet, the brittle plastic case and the experience of skinning it from its thin cellophane wrapper. In short – I wanted a tactile media experience. I wanted to go into a store, look around at my fellow shoppers, get to meet – briefly – some people from around who were working there, and see what else is out there on the shelves in the way of music.

I quickly realized that the CD store (the highlight of my high school Saturdays, where during college I stood in line at midnight on Tuesday mornings to be among the first to buy a newly released album) like the video store (where I had worked during high school and college, decked out in khaki and royal blue, “Denzel Washington on a sub? You’re looking for Crimson Tide…”) was teetering on the verge of being bitch-slapped out of existence by something as undignified as a hundred million chewy white plastic cords or a shower of red and white envelopes.

What about people without computers who never stopped buying CDs?

I myself had all but forsaken it in recent years in favor of downloading. I was a senior when Napster hit; on the computers at my high school we downloaded jam after jam, experiencing unheard-of instant gratification. We would graduate that year, 2001, into a brave new world, and our “let-me-get-that-one-song” habit grew. With access to high speed internet at college, we soon got them all. Every ditty in our head. We could get Jon Secada’s “Just Another Day” without dropping $15 on his self-titled debut album. Or something.

Since 2007, New York City has seen the demise of the Kim’s Video (113th Street location), Harlem institution the Record Shack, all branches of Tower Records and recently all of the Circuit Cities. The massive, contradictory Virgin sign still slinks redly on and off over the spreading neon stain of Times Square, but the store underneath is a dark, empty shell. The Virgin Megastore in Union Square has announced that it will shutter May 31st.

I visited the now unplugged Circuit City on 80th & Broadway when it was in the process of being picked over of its merchandise by shrewd bargain hunters, like apparently myself. The shelves were for sale too, and hanging off the walls in some places. Merchandise was herded into small sections of the showroom. I picked up $4 CDs by the stack and felt a weird guilt. There were some I wanted, and would have paid full price for at one time. It was a whole record – like about 15 songs – by musicians I really liked. Their precious little plastic packages full of grooves and heart were being liquidated.

Though national chains like Circuit City are owned by mil- and billionaires, the closure of their outlets has still meant the loss of many local jobs.

But the loss of the Record Shack, forced out of business by the cutthroat gentrification of 125th Street is perhaps the saddest story of the download revolution. Sikulu Shange came from South Africa in the 1960s and opened up the Record Shack to serve the music needs of the Harlem community. This winter, after more than 30 years, Mr. Shange lost his lease in the storefront across from the Apollo Theater. He was not only evicted but saw his entire inventory confiscated by the landlord.

In the case of the Record Shack and Mr. Shange, multiple forces of the current market acted against them. But the winds of change are blowing: the CD store is practically over.

In the past 25 years, we have cycled through four fully distinct dominant music media platforms. There was first the record album, the cassette, the CD and now the ghostly MP3. Music went from analog to digital, then finally non-tactile. Record albums of a size that did justice to the works of art that graced the cover gave way to less dignified playing card-sized plastic cartridges. A generation simply squinted and moved on.

Along with these delivery format changes, the way we listen to music has trended towards the personal. With the popularization of the Sony Walkman in the early 1980s, music began its transition into an individual experience, as opposed to mainly a shared one.

Are those white slippery headphones sucking in more than they’re giving?

Let me offer a rough but probably fairly accurate observation. Thirty years ago, the music people heard over the course of the day was mostly in the presence of other people. Today, the music people hear over the course of the day is mostly heard by them alone, through headphones or in a car. The iPod and other MP3 players have not only made music more individualistic, they have made it more accessible and prevalent. We’re musically saturated.

Before downloading became dominant, I used to scramble to tape record songs off the radio. Hearing a favorite song was – in that case – thrilling and special; my chance. The technology of cassette tapes made possible this serendipitous music trapping; as free as downloading, but more exciting. When I was lucky enough to capture a song from the beginning to the end, it felt like a sign that the forces of the universe were aligning in my favor.

Do you have an MP3 player? Do you sometimes experience premature song fatigue? With thousands of songs at our fingertips, we sometimes become bored and restless halfway through even a favorite song and itch to see what is next. This is not to say that MP3-ers do not love music – indeed, it is the ardent music lovers that have cleaved most readily to the Pod and similar devices. “My own soundtrack? To this crazy life? I think so.”

But are those white slippery headphones sucking out more than they’re giving?

Apple’s advertising campaign around the iPod (launched in October of 2001) was jazzily original… and cryptic. The ads depicted a colorful background with a black silhouette of a slim, hip person, grooving to a gummy white iPod lodged around their ear area. Ostensibly going for funky, distinctive and accessible, this image of a blacked out (missing?) person plugged into a sharply visible iPod – came to haunt every bus shelter and magazine page over the past decade. This hip person is plugged into the iPod. But they’re GONE. Where did they go?

I got to thinking about pods. Two peas in a pod, pod people… Why were these things called iPods, anyway? What if, like the Isaac Asimov book and later the Will Smith/Steven Spielberg movie I, Robot, the “I” in iPod didn’t stand for internet (or whatever), but meant actually “I, Pod.” Interestingly, you could get a glimpse into a person’s life by shuffling through their iPod – so the colorful little robots could actually be seen as a repositories of a person’s musical and cultural tastes. And who’s to say how much other information they can store (at the risk of sounding paranoid, they could even undertake mini surveillance missions). After all, they can now squeeze 1,000 songs – (that’s the 12 tracks of Jon Secada 83 times over) into something the size of a Starburst.

But as a consumer society, the United States has pretty much made the switch to non-tactile music media. But this just means a critical mass of people have done so – not everybody. What about those people who never stopped buying CDs? The people without access to computers or the internet? They are being rapidly left behind as their tactile daily newspapers struggle to keep their non-digital presses rolling, as their neighborhood video rental stores peter out of existence. They’re like rabbit ear TV watchers, cajoled by friendly but forceful commercials announcing the switch to DTV in June. After all, we already slowed up their plans – the original switch was in February – because not enough of us got the converter boxes.

Maybe it’s just me, but I detect a hint of exasperation on the part of the local TV elite embedded in the helpful announcements they’ve been commissioned for:

Bubbly local TV personality: “Digital TV is coming June 12th! If you have cable or satellite, you’re ALL SET.

BUT: If you watch TV using rabbit ears, you’ll need a Digital Converter Box. Otherwise, your TV will go BLACK on the afternoon of June 12th.”

Under her breath: “Get it together, morons.”

We’ll see if the luddite lethargy of analog TV watchers will again cause this grand transition to stick in the mud, hampering the condensation of the TV signal and eventual sale of the saved airwave space to the private wireless companies.

In the meantime, I suggest you investigate for yourself how far the CD store meltdown has progressed in your area. Go out and buy a CD, preferably from a local store. Understand what we will soon be missing for the siren song of the download. Feel the woosh of the door, as you enter a space dedicated to the distribution of music. Make conversation – or at least eye contact – with your fellow shoppers, and the folks behind the counter. Buy a whole CD – risk the presence of dud tracks. They’re probably having a sale, anyway.

City and Western

American Artifacts Behind Glass

American Artifacts Behind Glass

The turquoise and silver Navajo squash blossom necklaces are draped artfully on the sun-bleached skull. Untrained in recognizing cattle, especially after not only the spirit but the flesh has departed, I class it as a steer. The empty eye sockets stare out onto a increasingly posh stretch of lower Broadway. The brilliance of the blankets glow behind the plate glass window. An 8 1/2″ x 11″ sheet of paper taped lower on the window forbids smoking in the immediate vicinity.

How have these artifacts of the so-called American West made their way to Manhattan? Well, the same way that we all have. Bussed, flown, driven, steamed, freighted in – by truck, subway, car – most all of us, from the construction technicians shouldering up another sleek glass condo, to the convenience store clerk selling beer in his sleep, to the customer service representatives pushing endless stylish racks of sweatshop clothes and the office dwellers, absorbed by tiny computers in their hands. Not to speak of those of us trucked in in crates, shoved up next to our neighbors, bruised but still juicy – sold 8 for $1.99, to be dessicated into fresh squeezed orange juice in the back of bistros.

We all arrived recently, relatively, onto this slip of island rotted through with subway tunnels and sewage labyrinths. Even those born here are constantly arriving, leaving, commuting, increasingly being made to vacate.

International tourists can leave this store with authentic cowboy boots, a Navajo blanket, a turquoise cuff, and other mementos of their time in the states. Passersby attracted by the glow of the blankets can be transported for a moment by indigenous colors and irrefutable proof of ancient techniques of dying yarn still being practiced. The more original America – pre-Columbus, pre-conquest, pre-forgetting – a flicker of a reminder behind the glass. A carefully arranged diorama, part-sacred (just like us) in a city ruled by the profane rules of finance.