Thursday, February 25, 2016

The 2016 Oscar Preview

So, I like movies. I really like the ability they provide to visually tell a story. Not to mention, they're often entertaining and funny and a convenient way to express emotions you may not be able to easily connect with in other ways. This year, Sunday will be a ridiculous night for me - the Oscars are on at the same time the d3 basketball committee will be selecting the national tournament and I'll be working on the mock bracket for My twitter feed will be busy and strange - fair warning.

I've gotten to see most of the nominated films this year, so I thought I'd express my opinions on the nominees. I'll be covering only the categories where I've seen all the nominees. Some of them I'll talk about more, others less. I'm not going to list all the nominees, so if you want to know, read them here.  The names listed below are all the performances in a category I deem worth of a nomination in the order I'd vote for them.  Ready? Here we go:

Best Picture is interesting.  Lots of well made, diverse movies - most of them are emotionally gripping.  I think this is an exceptionally strong year.  The Revenant would normally be an easy winner, but it's up against Spotlight this year, which is both superbly well made and deeply important.  I think it's the best movie of the year AND I think it will win.

The Revenant
The Martian
Steve Jobs
Straight Outta Compton

I'll admit, I'm torn over Best Actor. I think Will Smith's performance is the best of the year, although I'm not sure.  It's definitely the best of his career and I don't know if my surprise over its quality creates bias.  I thought Johnny Depp in Black Mass was incredible, but he's almost always incredible, so maybe I'm downplaying that.  Leonardo DiCaprio has been one of my favorite actors since Growing Pains.  I love the guy.  I'm the only fan of "The Beach" in existence.  He put himself through unbelievable hardship to make The Revenant, but I wasn't overly impressed with the performance.  There are some scenes where he's transcendent (towards the end, when he tells the captain he'll be going out to find Fitzgerald), but are a couple scenes really enough?  I don't know.  I love Leo.  I want him to win - I think he will and I'll celebrate, but if I were voting, I'd give it to Will Smith.  He's the one legitimate oversight in this nomination process (probably because the movie was so poorly directed).

Will Smith, Concussion
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Johnny Depp, Black Mass
Jacob Tremblay, Room
Matt Damon, The Martian
O'Shea Jackson Jr., Straight Outta Compton
Tom Hanks, Bridge of Spies

Best Actress is sad.  A lot of was made about the whiteness of these Oscars, and there are some legitimate African-American performances that could've been nominated, but to me the real travesty this year is how few good roles there were for women.  As you'll see, I only saw two worth nominating - and they're fantastic.  Vikander is actually nominated in the Supporting Actress category, so both of these can win actual Oscars (and I think they will), but The Danish Girl is really about her character; she's the lead.  As good as Vikander is, Brie Larson is stunning in Room.  She's going to win and she should - it's one of the saddest, most beautiful movies I've ever seen and it's largely because of her unbelievable performance.

Brie Larson, Room
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

Best Supporting Actress should go to a women who wasn't even nominated.  In fact, all three of my favorite performances lacked nomination.  Julie Walters (better known to many as Mrs. Weasley) made Brooklyn.  She carried the middle of the movie and kept the plot development from becoming boring.  Brooklyn was my surprise of the year.  I didn't really have any interest in seeing it, but it became the movie I appreciated most.  It's beautifully shot, terrifically acted, and incredibly well made.  It's not a real Best Picture contender, but I hope it takes some of the smaller awards (especially writing).

Julie Walters, Brooklyn
Diane Lane, Trumbo
Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina

I want Stallone to win Best Supporting Actor more than anything else at the Oscars this year.  Everyone forgets that he began his career as a writer - and a darn good one.  He deserves some recognition for his efforts and he puts out a truly stunning performance in Creed.  It's nuanced and heartfelt and real in ways we haven't seen from him, perhaps ever.  He exceeded expectations more than anyone else this year and that's why the Academy will give him the statue.  That being said, Mark Ruffalo not winning will be as sad as Stallone's almost inevitable victory will be joyous.  Ruffalo carries Spotlight.  He's always good, but he's really, really good in this one (I hear he was even better in Infinitely Polar Bear, but alas, I didn't get to see it).  His performance is just head and shoulders above everybody else.

Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
Sylvester Stallone, Creed
Albert Brooks, Concussion
Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina
Stanley Tucci, Spotlight
Richard Kind, Inside Out
Tom McCamus, Room

Best Director is Tom McCarthy.  Spotlight is a tough movie to get right and he did an excellent job.  There are so many little touches in the film that make it incredible.  I feel bad bypassing Lenny Abrahamson, because Room was similarly brilliant, but Spotlight is clearly better and the job was more difficult to get right.

Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
Lenny Abrahamson, Room
John Crowley, Brooklyn
David O. Russell, Joy
Alex Garland, Ex Machina
F. Gary Gray, Straight Outta Compton
Ridley Scott, The Martian

Spotlight is the Best Original Screenplay, although it's closer than you'd think.  I didn't think Creed was particularly well directed (in fact I came to appreciate how difficult that original Rocky was to make well by how mediocre Creed really was), but it was so well written.  Ryan Coogler has a real gift for words and story.

Bridge of Spies

The Best Adapted Screenplay is Brooklyn. I saw it early in my nomination watching and nothing (not even my beloved Aaron Sorkin) could hold a candle to it. I didn't even nominate anything else. Part of the reason I don't think it's getting much Best Picture love is because the movie was so well written, it couldn't have been hard to make well. As I said above, it was my surprise of the year and it's one everybody can and should see - if you're a cinephile or just like to be entertained, it's got something for everyone.

Emmanuel Lubeski is the Best Cinematographer who has ever lived and he should win this award any time he makes a movie.  The Revenant is not his best work, but it's beautiful and deep and full of expression and makes every other movie (even the really good ones) pale in comparison.  Seriously, go back and watch Sleepy Hollow with Johnny Depp - you can turn off the sound, because it's really not a good movie at all - just enjoy the breathtaking visuals provided by Lubeski.  He's a gift to the world.

For the rest of these, I'm just going to give you my pick, because I have no clue what might actually win.

Costume Design: The Danish Girl

Film Editing: Star Wars

Original Score: The Hateful Eight

Production Design: Brooklyn

Sound Editing: Star Wars

Sound Mixing: Mad Max

Visual Effects: Ex Machina

Oh, one last prediction: the biggest winner of the night will be Chris Rock. The racial drama will allow him to say whatever the heck he wants, which will be, as always, incredibly funny.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Medium and Message

Our thinking, development, and philosophy as humans continue to evolve. We're understanding more about ourselves and the world around us as time passes and it leads us into new frontiers. Truly, we're a different species than we were three thousand years ago - not just because of environmental adaptions, but because we're challenging our brains to grow and develop in new and remarkable ways.

As we develop, the way we understand and interact with the universe changes. The next step in religious evolution is our understanding the difference between a religion and the truth is claims to mediate. When I say "truth" I'm merely referring to our baseline definition of the universe and how it functions. This might take the form of a traditional religion; it might be science or astrology or attachment to family or any other thing we use to give meaning to the world around us. Religion is the practice of living out those truth claims.

We are truly evolving a new understanding whereby we dissociate the medium of religion from the message it's designed to carry. This comes with some assumption that there is a "truth" out there, some meaning or ground of being that we stand some chance of grasping. All but the most nihilistic of us hold to the reality of this idea. The self-analysis, though, is truly a profound development for religion, because it means forming a religion that hold religion at distance in hopes of embracing a broader, perhaps more mysterious truth.

This is not something we can logic out or rationally capture. It defies the traditional means of modern understanding. That's dangerous for the status quo. This is why you see the rise of fundamentalism parallel almost completely with the rise of post-modern thought. We think of fundamentalism as age-old because it's focus is the fundamental, which we associate with beginning. Ultimately, though, fundamentalism is a recent phenomenon, built specifically (although perhaps reflexively rather than intentionally) to head off this evolution of thinking by inextricably combining medium and message. As people attempt to differentiate religion from its underlying truth, fundamentalism seeks to make those two things inseparable.

It is, at it's core, a power play. Those who control the religion want to continue to control the truth.

As our thought moves beyond this link, I'm afraid the emphasis on fundamentalism will, instead of connecting medium and message, force us to discard one or the other altogether. My big fear is that we'll lose the really vital and important contributions of religious history. While I am in favor of dissecting the difference between medium and message, we must not throw either one away in pursuit of truth. The two must be held together, but held with the proper perspective and tension.

Christianity needs its historic tradition, but it also needs to view that historic tradition with a critical eye to how our knowledge and understanding have changed over time. As the world globalizes, we have to be willing to hold loosely (although not entirely let go of) the reality that Christian tradition is largely a narrow, western-influenced stream of development. It's not that pre-creedal (or a-creedal) developments must be uniformally embraced, but we have to have some recognition that the historic development of various traditions are not necessarily equivalent to the truth of Jesus Christ, but are culturally conditioned (generally in good faith) means of living into that truth.

At the same time, we must guard against the opposite reaction, which ends with each person developing their own medium, their own religion, and by which we lose any real relational connection to each other. We become automatons, living out the truth as we see it and working tirelessly not to step on anyone's toes. We must walk the tightrope between "I'm okay; you're okay" and "I alone understand truth."

I'd argue, in fact, that whatever the real "truth" might happen to be, it cannot be understood without the necessary connection of medium and message. You might say the message is not so much about what one believe, but how one believes. In some roundabout way, instead of the fundamentalist notion of "the medium is the message," we might say the opposite is true - the message is the medium.

Now the distinction there might seem no more than semantic, but the order, in this case, is important. When the medium is the message, the medium is all important. This is traditional fundamentalism: there is one right way to embody truth. It leads to a zero-sum game in which there is only one winner (or, more properly, no winners, but a lot of losers). When the message is the medium, we're constantly forced to revise and amend the way we embody truth to account for the changes in our experience of truth. We must have the religion, the medium, and we must hold each other accountable for a good faith effort to live it out (even if we don't always agree on specifics), but what we cannot do is believe we've arrived. There is no end to that journey - because the message, the truth, is not a destination, but the journey itself.

So this where the danger comes in to play. Fundamentalism has a tendency to drive people away from the notion that medium and message, religion and truth, could possibly be connected. This is what you see in someone like the late Christopher Hitchens, who held that religion is the exact opposite of truth and the real stumbling block to finding it. He took this position, with sound reasoning, because of his experience with fundamentalism, especially how fundamentalism is, so often, the dominant way of understanding life and faith. Atheists are some of the most religious people on Earth.

Traditional atheists have often made the claim that nothing is unique to religion that can't be found without it. When viewed in this "medium is the message" light, that's entirely true. The problem is, though, that their response is to essentially create a new religion built on the same foundation; the medium is still the message, it's just missing God. It becomes its own fundamentalism.

There's a vicious cycle that's played out over time and repeated throughout history.

We've got to be careful to combat any kind of fundamentalism, whether it be Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Scientific, or Atheist with a profound embodiment of the how. The medium is not the message; the message is the medium. Our ideas are far less influential than the ways we live them out. People will be far more shaped and formed by grace and humility than knowledge and intellect. They will be more moved by openness and honesty than power and persuasion. This is just the way things work.

As we move forward in the world. As we attempt to participate in our communities and congregations, I hope we can step out of this cycle altogether and engage people not with ideas, but with imagination - embodying and exemplifying a way of belief instead of a what.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Constitution has No Clothes

Doesn't the very fact that Democrats and Republicans are willing to fight over this Supreme Court appointment prove that our system of gov't is inherently flawed? The very fact that the final arbiter of legality in this country is entirely controlled along partisan lines mean it's entire purpose is moot. What we've got is the legal version of an MC Escher drawing - one hand drawing the other. We've got each branch of gov't, instead of exercising checks and balances, essentially propping up the next, with no real authority vetted anywhere.

Traditionalists will tell you this is why ultimate power is left in the hands of the people - but those same people will generally tell you the Constitution is fine, if people will just follow it. Those aren't necessarily contradictory opinions, but it sure seems that way. The solution, right, is some kind of new constitution, that can be negotiated and agreed upon - but we know, given the polarization of our country, that this is just an impossible task. It could never be done. And even if it could, we'd just need to do it again later (right France?).

We're stuck playing games in a flawed system we know is dysfunctional, but unable to really admit it to ourselves. This is the naked king continuing to parade down main street and ordering the wise young man who claims he's naked into prison.

Ultimately, we're people, which means we're generally poor at managing ourselves, let alone others. Throw in power and fear to the mix and it's amazing we lasted this long before royally messing everything up. Somehow we managed to keep FDR from doubling the size of the Court to get his ideas passed and perhaps Kansas can keep religious oligarch, Sam Brownback, from naming his own court in the same way. There is some hope that this crisis will not be the one that brings the whole edifice crumbling to the ground (I don't typically go in for Chicken Little scenarios), but if it's not this, it'll be something else, right. I mean we have to, hopefully, maybe, finally admit that our Constitution really isn't some all-encompassing, world saving gift to humanity, right? It's a piece of paper that took a lot of smart people a long time to figure out (on the second try, mind you) that work pretty well for the most part - but it isn't, nor could it ever hope to be, perfect.

This is why the Christian response is, as it always should be, an alternative example. We really shouldn't be worried about trying to make the system work, because "the system" doesn't work. We should be living out the alternative politic handed down by Jesus Christ. A friend of mine recently asked the rhetorical question - What if Jesus is enthroned now and this is the way he governs the world?

I don't think that's wrong. Christ has come. Christ reigns. The Kingdom is here now, but it's one built not on power and might, but on self-giving love, the kind Christ commissioned the Church to carry out in life and practice. This is precisely why I believe no nation can be a Christian nation, because you just can't be both.

It is times like this when it becomes apparent just how little faith we put in our gospel. We're so entirely invested in the systems of the world that we can't rightly believe in Christ's kingdom enough to live in it. I'm not saying we need to withdraw from the political process- not at all - we just need to take it less seriously. An election, even the regular governing of the country, is not the end of the world; it's not a lynchpin of history or even a referendum on the future. Those make great debate quotes, but they contribute to this overwhelming faith placed in flawed institutions.

It's important, sure, but it's not as important as we make it.

It's not unlike your typical homeowner's associate writ large, right? Yes, there are far too many rules, and much of its construction and function make no rational sense, but in the end, you win some and you lose some and you live your life. It might mean you have to cut the grass in a northeasternly diagonal instead of to the south-southeast, and you may have to give in and let Gladys put up that ghastly inflatable snowman, because its in her back yard. It's a nuisance, yes, but the only time it becomes unbearable is when someone takes it too seriously and makes everyone's lives miserable.

The easiest thing to do would just be to let the President pick a nominee and if they're competent to do the job, confirm them, regardless of their interpretive philosophy. That worked for the first 200 years of our country and it would put an end to all this mess. I know the Democrats made a stink when Alito came through, but they did let him through. It was wrong to make a stink then and it's wrong now. It's petty and it's childish and we need to get over it.

I know everyone caught up in our electoral and governance system thinks they're doing really good in the world (or trying to) - I'm willing to grant that kind of gullible optimism - but in reality, life is so much more important. I know I wrote hear a few months ago that as much power as the President has, he could do far more good for the world as an actual community organizer. I really believe that; I think it's true of every politician. Again, I'm not saying we should get rid of them, but we should get over them.

I think this is a good attitude for anyone, but I think it's especially important for Christians. What we say or affirm or swear to has little to do with what we really believe. Our actions bear out our real commitments and it's about time we take seriously the claim that, just maybe, the way of Christ is actually the hope of the world?

I doubt it would end electoral contentiousness, but it would certainly de-escalate the situation if we just all took a step back, a deep breath, and a moment to re-orient ourselves to reality. An election year may be a bad time to suggest such a thing, but it's certainly the time we need it most.

Good day.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Scripture and the Constitution

For some, this title might be redundant. Certainly I've spoken here about the troubling nature of US civil religion, although to be thoroughly en-captured by the church of america doesn't require a sacred attitude toward the Constitution, such an attitude can be a contributing factor.

I find it curious that the debates over interpretation look virtually identical whether one is speaking of the Christian scriptures or the US Constitution. I hope it gives everyone who works with both some pause to consider their assumptions. We can make some distinctions, of course - a conservative faith statement regarding scripture is that it contains "all things necessary to our salvation." That happens to be the statement made by my particular denomination - it affirms that scripture is complete and foundational, but it leaves some wiggle room for wrestling with interpretation.

Personally, I have some issue providing even that much credence to the US Constitution. Constitutions, in general, are fallible, incomplete documents. Just because ours has lasted longer than most others, doesn't, to me, prove it's got some inherent worthy beyond the paper its printed on. I struggle to say "it contains all things necessary to our continued governance," with the same meaning I might talk about scripture. I can't/won't assume it's going to have all the answers, if we just look hard enough.

For me, that would put it on an equal footing with the bible. I'm not real comfortable with that.

At the same time, this debate also helps me to critically question even that assumption of scripture. If documents, divinely inspired as they may be, contain the words and interpretation of people - can they really be relied upon to provide a complete foundation? There are certainly some who look to scripture as 98% reliable - as the best foundation human beings could possibly have for living, but perhaps not as perfect as some would like to believe.

Others, of course, see both the Christian scriptures and the US Constitution as good, historical writing, with more than some important for our lives today. They can be taken seriously without being taken too seriously.

There's at least five streams of interpretation here. There's a dictation theory - that the words, scriptural or constitutional are set in stone and must be taken at face value. There's a strict constructionalist - who wants to understand the original intent of the authors, to get behind the words and make sure the meaning has not been warped or misconstrued by the passage of time. There's also the pragmatist - who looks at these documents as guides, but guides to be weighed and critiqued based on the realities of the world in which they function; there's also the reverentialist, who gives such documents great credit and stature, but will ultimately deviate on some matters, reluctantly and with great turmoil.*

This seems to be the battle between conservative and liberal. Of course, the stricter one's interpretation the farther to left or right one draws a line. Those who believe the Bible was dictated by God couldn't hold even the most conservative interpretation valid if it deviated from their own position. "All things necessary to salvation" is the conservative position of my own denomination - The Church of the Nazarene - but we're often challenged as raging liberals, just as anyone who believes some part of the constitution might evolve over time is lambasted as liberal, no matter how they approach legal interpretation.

I say all this, obviously, because the US is in a big, ugly mess right now. In the midst of a tense election year we've got a Supreme Court vacancy, where one of the most conservative justices in history must be replaced. There are legitimate debates to have over whether eleven months is enough time to make selecting a replacement prudent (although I think the majority of those debates are fueled more by partisan loyalties than any logical pragmatism). At the same time, I want to caution especially Christians, but certainly anyone who takes this seriously to think about the rhetoric we use when engaging in these debates and those to follow about what kind of justice should be selected.

One does not have to hold the same understanding of constitutional interpretation as they do for scripture. I am certainly more conservative in my understanding of the bible than I am in my treatment of the constitution. Regardless of where you stand on what - these are not the same thing. As I said, treating (even subconsciously) the constitution as a sacred document is a surefire path to civil religion; it's a dangerous position for Christians to find themselves in - not a necessarily disastrous spot, but certainly a high-wire act of self-awareness.

We have to be mindful of the way in which we treat the constitution and our comfort in elevating it the level of scripture. That's important.

Secondly, we've also got to be mindful of the way we use terms like conservative and liberal. We can't define those terms based on our own perception of reality. It's perfectly acceptable to say "Bernie Sanders is more conservative than me," or "Ted Cruz is more liberal than me," but to label them conservative and liberal, respectively, is confusing the conversation.

We do the same thing when talking about our justices. Antonin Scalia was very conservative; although he didn't hold to the most conservative possible position on constitutional interpretation, he was about as far right as one can feasibly be and still function in the legal community. At the same time, he can't be the measure of "true conservatism," that's language to avoid. It's perfectly fine to draw the line of personal acceptability at Scalia, but to say this line also defines conservatism will only make dialog more difficult.

This is the same problem we have when some say, "believing in a seven day creation is the only truly conservative position" on biblical interpretation. The debate them becomes about the definition of conservatism (and thus gets personal, especially for self-styled conservatives who don't meet your standard) rather than the substances of actual positions.

I'm being long-winded as usual, but the real message here is to be careful how we talk to one other. Be careful not to draw lines of comfort around terms we want to keep for ourselves. This kind of tribalism may help us feel secure, but it's a recipe for strife and disaster. It leads us to places of generalization and demonization. Even the most conservative person cannot allow themselves to get to a place where they'll rail against a judicial nominee simply because of the President who makes the nomination. This is the real tragedy. If everything conservative is bad and everything liberal is good, then nothing matters but our own opinion and nobody can survive that fight.

The bible and the constitution aren't the same thing. It's ok to understand and interpret them the same way (I think that's a mistake, but you're certainly entitled to make it), but we can't combine the two. That spells disaster. We also can't define reality by own our understanding. We are necessarily communal people. We have to have relationships or we become something less than human. Having a relationship means giving permission for someone else to think differently - and that means giving up control of how we define people.

Let's let everyone speak for themselves, about actual opinions and beliefs without lumping them, or ourselves, into pre-formed categories whose worth we've already determined. I'm not sure either scripture or the constitution would look fondly on that, no matter how you interpret them.

*There's also another school of interpretation that essentially says these documents point to some larger truth and our interpretation of them is only an attempt to reach that higher plane of mystical understanding - whether it be defined as "Jesus," "God," "freedom," "natural law," "human dignity," "democracy" or anything else. Some might call this a middle position, but it's really off the spectrum and, while interesting, not quite relevant to my point in this, already overlong, piece.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Sound & Color

Alabama Shakes' Sound & Color might be my favorite album on the list, but even I have to reluctantly admit it's not the best. It's probably not even in consideration for the win. This is truly an "honor to be nominated" album, one rewarded for showing real growth and future promise.

It is a clear step up in production values from the band's debut. It's sort of expected since they did their entire first album on their own. Sound & Color has a richer, fuller sound whereby their able to explore a lot of different directions and interests without losing their signature sound. Being fronted by Brittany Howard, who also writes all the songs, helps in that way. It's impossible for her to be anything but her.

Still, the band provides, as she's often said, a real diversity of style that makes Alabama Shakes unique. It's Alabama-inspired Southern Rock, but there's plenty of blues and more alternative elements present. Howard, on this album, explores her voice as an instrument, experimenting with falsetto and various rhythms to provide a broader canvas for the art.

"Don't Wanna Fight No More," their most popular single to-date, it likely the best track on the album. It's got a rousing beat and indomitable lyrics that show off the kind of country folk wisdom that seems to exude from Howard. This from someone who, admittedly, was relatively isolated prior to gaining sweeping fame. It evokes even more respect for the introspection and depth present, even on songs with such simple lyrics. This song deserves to be recognized on its own.

Overall, many of the middle tracks on Sound & Color do possess a stark similarity to one another, perhaps more reminiscent of a jam band (something Alabama Shakes certainly has in their DNA). This is really helpful in a young band finding its unique (and awesome) place in the world of music, but it's not likely to garner a lot of Grammy votes. Still, the range, emotion, and sheer power of Howard's vocals propel this to something more than a good follow-up (which is a difficult feat in its own right).

The album finishes with "Over My Head," which does capture the promise, imagination, emotion, simplicity, and complexity that it the best of what Alabama Shakes can do (check out this NPR interview with Howard), but one or two or five tracks does not a "Best Album" make.

In the end, a track like "The Greatest," an adorable, but failed attempt at punk? pop? 50's do-wop?, perhaps an attempt to show a young woman's desire to change herself into anything for a man (which sort of tracks with the lyrics) just isn't something you necessarily put on an album. It almost betrays the rush by which their new label wanted to capitalize on early success - this is perhaps a terrific EP, four songs short of a truly classic album.

This is truly a band, though. Howard's solo project, Thunderbitch, proved she's at her best collaborating with a band and Alabama Shakes is better because of the diversity of input and experience one would only find in small-town Alabama where the only musicians available just have to play together. A track like "Gemini" makes me look forward to what this band can continue to produce, but it's not fully there yet and Sound & Color is not likely to be the album that puts them on the map.

Verdict: Kendrick Lamar's accomplishment is undeniable, simply one of the best rap albums of the last 25 years, certainly the best, by far, of this generation. I'm not sure he's gonna win, because Taylor Swift put together perhaps the most perfectly constructed pop album since the Beach Boys and she's really, really popular, but I vote Kendrick #1. I think I have to put Swift #2, even though Chris Stapleton did do more of his own writing and he certainly transcends his genre by a much higher degree; I might have them 2a and 2b. I (and the voters) don't always like to reward a group effort on par with Swift's soundmachine-ing on 1989, but you sort of have to respect the result. Alabama Shakes is an easy fourth and The Weeknd is last.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Millennial Athletes and the Media

Michael Jordan had a famous line when asked why he didn't speak out more about social or political issues as players in previous generations had. He said, "Republicans buy shoes, too," and thus set the tone for the next thirty years of player-media relations. Guys were going to play along, give the cliched quotes at the right time and cash their checks.

Millennial athletes are taking a different tactic - we saw it on display after the Superbowl. Cam Newton came out visibly sad and frustrated, gave a bunch of one word answers and one incredibly concise, but accurate explanation of how the game went, before leaving the stage. It was raw and honest and expressive and is shows the kind of authenticity and openness that characterizes this millennial generation.

It wasn't pretty. He was sulking and short and visibly upset. He took a lot of beef for being childish or a poor loser. I didn't see any of that, though. I saw a guy who did his duty, answered his questions, took responsibility for his mistakes and gave credit to the other team for winning. He did everything we expect an athlete in his situation to do - he just didn't look happy doing it.

This is the new battle ground, and I think it is very much a generational shift. In many workplaces around the world there are discussion about how we define "professional" and what expectations we place on workers. None of those is more visible, though, than professional sports. We've long been accustomed to the "suck in up" mindset, where even if a player or coach is passionate (either positively or negatively), they calm down for the cameras, answer questions as best they can, and emote in private.

It's prettier, for sure, and it makes the media's job a lot easier. But, as Cam said in his follow up comments today, is it really necessary or required? I'd ask, is it healthy?

We make these guys out to be robots, vessels for our entertainment. We don't like seeing them as real people - unless its in a factory polished window into their real people-hood that's as managed and fake as the image we think we're seeing past. The athletes have played into this, of course - look at the Michael Jordan quote above. It's about marketing and branding and money. Be as bland as possible and don't alienate anyone.

That's the down side of Cam's honesty here. He's going to make some people mad. They're not going to like the way he conducts himself and they might not buy his products or support his team. It could cost him something. He seems to be ok with that - and I am, too - I don't think people have to like Cam Newton. I just have an issue with people saying he's wrong, or it's not the way things should be done.

As with much in life, just because it hasn't been done that way before, doesn't mean it can't. Just because it's how things work, doesn't mean it has to be that way. Reality doesn't make right. Maybe there is no right, and players will choose to do their duty in a variety of ways, rather than those approved by media and tradition.

I'm not quite a millennial, but I really appreciate the millennial love of authenticity. Cam Newton doesn't want to be a different guy in the media than he is out of it. That's incredibly strange to conventional wisdom, but it makes a lot of sense to the kids he's hoping to inspire (and leverage for profit), in fact, it's almost required.

The other element is that players don't quite need the media as much as they used to. Yes, the media is still essential and still pays the bills, just not as many as it once did. Leagues are increasingly beholden to these broadcast deals (although I think the NFL could just set up channels or apps to broadcast all its games and people would follow pretty readily), but the players, especially star players, make more money from endorsements than they do from playing. They need the media, but not desperately. Therefore, they're not necessarily out to make the media's job easier.

Look at NBA star Steph Curry - he's super talented and super likable. He won't put off the old school sports fans upset with Newton - that's just his style. But he's got no problem staking his own claim to the press conference. He was criticized during the NBA Finals last year for bringing his young daughter out to the press conference with him - some journalists felt uncomfortable asking difficult questions or challenging Curry with his young daughter present.

Curry laughed it off (and won the public relations battle largely by leveraging social media - another avenue that marginalizes the traditional player-media relationship) and said essentially that he's an open book, suggesting that both, his daughter can hear the truth AND that perhaps the media need to remember that the guys they cover are real people with families when they ask questions. It was a subtle move, but an important example of how this new generation of players is approaching the media. This long held unwritten contract between the two is being renegotiated and things are a little uncertain.

Allen Iverson was the first to challenge this model (maybe Charles Barkley, although when he spoke out, media just didn't cover it, which means his reach was pretty much non-existent), he was way ahead of his time and we nearly killed him for his honesty. We're now in a generation of players (and increasingly, of fans) who understand and appreciate this approach. It's going to change things.

One thing people seem most uncomfortable with in Cam's performance is emotion. There is, of course, a difference between acting on your emotion and expressing your emotions; people seem to miss this. For the most part, we don't want athletes expressing emotion in a press conference. We like it (sometimes) during or after a game (unless you're Richard Sherman, anyway), but we'd rather get dispassionate comments afterwards. When players and coaches do express genuine emotion, we typically make fun of them (Jim Mora: "Playoffs!").

Cam wasn't whining or complaining. He took responsibility and gave credit to his opponents. When he did finally give more than a one word answer, it was pretty eloquent, honest, and restrained. He summed up the game remarkably well. This was not a guy out of control - he was simply sad. Yes, a happy guy is going to speak louder and longer and more entertainingly than a sad one, but he did his job, faced the press, and answered teh question.

I'm just excited for the precedent this sets. Players might feel free to be more honest about their feelings and we might get to know them a little more as people. You see it being a challenge for everyone, players included. LeBron James tried to manage his response to Newton, but it's clear he's coming from the same long-held mindset that we've too long taken for granted.

It will be interesting to see how the juxtaposition works itself out between this kind of authenticity from athletes and the growing managed output of "reality" stars. In some sense, the millennial generation is trying to figure out the balance between projecting an image and being true to yourself, especially in a world of social media, where the walls are blurred between personal relationships and media portrayals. I find it interesting that we'll get to see this play out among our most recognizable stars.

*Oh, and, yes, there might just be some bias here as well - it might be racial, it might just be flashy vs buttoned down - but this provides an interesting notion to think about with regards to how Cam Newton is viewed.

Thursday, February 04, 2016


I generally say I'm not a fan of hip hop or country music - in reality, though, I'm a fan of good music and it's just that not much of what comes out of hip hop and country is ever all that good. This year we've got some real treats, especially in the Grammy Best Album category. I compare hip-hop and country because they are essentially two branches of the same tree. Both usually comprise simple, straightforward lyrics that are often outright storytelling in nature.

While Chris Stapleton is country, because of his instrumentation, demeanor, and Nashville connections, he has much more a classic southern rock sound. The charts, ironically, have no real place for rock music that isn't alternative anymore - and he certainly fits well with country music, but there is something more appealing to his debut record, Traveller. Stapleton combines a real blues feel to both the lyrics and with his vocals - that made a perfect fit when he joined up with Justin Timberlake at the CMAs for a performance that went viral and launched his popular noteriety that's culminated with this Best Album Grammy nomination.

The song from that performance, "Tennessee Whiskey" is perhaps his most popular, even though its yet to be formally released as a single. A cover of George Jones' 1983 hit, Stapleton's version it perfectly illustrates what Traveller has to offer. Blues, with country roots, but also a broader scope of musicality and spare production that create a unique brand for a guy who's been a Nashville hit maker, writing for huge acts across all genres and just now breaking out, in his late 30's, on his own terms. The music fits the man - or at the least the perception he gives off in interviews and public statements.

The vocals on "Fire Away" sound a bit like Springsteen. The overall vibe of "Parachute" is pure early 70's mellow rock, save for the decidedly simple, country guitar riff. But more than anything else one discovers on Traveller is the vocal talent Stapleton brings to th table. He can just flat out sing. His wife, Morgane, a singer-songwriter in her own right backs him up for the most part and adds some real depth - she's sold for his success more than any other backup singer could be, and it shows.

It would be awesome if the Grammy's would find a way to pair Stapleton and Kendrick Lamar, but seeing as how they're both up for the big award, they'll likely get their own performances. Maybe Stapleton can headline the Glen Frey tribute? He would hit that out of the park. He'll be good doing any strange pairing they find for him, because the guy is just flat versatile - the years as a songwriter for hire just make someone that way. "When the Stars Come Out" is produced country and Stapleton's voice makes it easy to hear country in it, but if you look at the construction and lyrics, it could easily be made into a pop record. It sounds so different than most of the rest of the album, but also fits in so well. I'm not sure it's the best track, but it might be my favorite, just because it shows how much more Stapleton is capable of - and it seems effortless.

I'm not sure Traveller is good enough to win the Grammy in a year like this, with such a stacked field. In other years, he might be a frontrunner. I know I've said this at least twice already, but it's a shame there aren't straight rock stations on the radio anymore, or Stapleton would definitely be getting steady play outside the country niche. Of course, I do have to throw that niche some love, since Stapleton isn't at all looking to break out - songs like "Whiskey and You" and "More of You" are nothing but a fantastic country track.

I haven't officially reviewed Sound and Color yet, but I suspect Alabama Shakes and Kendrick Lamar will be fighting for my vote in this category, so I've spent some time trying to figure out if Traveller or T-Swift is #3. On the one hand, as perfect a pop album as 1989 is, it feels like getting someone to make and then getting people to discover an album as unique and personal as Traveller might be more difficult. You can always find Swedish producers to punch up your pop sounds, but you don't always find a talent like Stapleton. That feels like a slight for the massive talent that is Taylor Swift. In any event, the very fact that it's a discussion in 2016 over which is better says a lot for just how good Chris Stapleton's Traveller really is.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Midnight Jesus by Jamie Blaine

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware a free book isn't enough to assuage my cutting honesty. If I've failed to write a bad review, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

I've had Midnight Jesus sitting on my shelf for almost two months now. I've been afraid to read it, because a lot of the books I've been getting for review lately have been disappointing. Jamie Blaine, though, has gone a long way in saving the reputation of Christian publishing. This is a collection of narratives, both autobiographical and otherwise, about the messiness of life and reality of love.

Blaine recounts stories from his years of working with people suffering from mental health issues. He also recounts stories from his own journey to figure life out and the ways in which God intersects with everything. There's no theological agenda, though, and no easy answers. He doesn't really provide any answers at all, other than to just keep moving forward and to pay loving attention to the people around you. It's profoundly mystical and profoundly concrete.

There's pretty much nothing but gospel here - and by that I don't mean words about belief and technicality, but words about life and grace and forgiveness, and faith. I think it's officially listed under "inspirational" which is definitely true, but not in the way you normally expect from so-called "christian" books. It's inspirational in a very real way, freeing the reader to be both realitic and hopeful about the human condition and our own personal life conditions individually.

I found great comfort and peace in these pages and I sincerely hope other people will pick it up. This book will do you a lot of good.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”