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the shocking discovery I made about boy bands may or may not shock you

This is how I remember New Kids On The Block: The girls in third grade had buttons of them pinned to their winter coats.

“Buttons!” I told my mother after school one day. Why would you need a button of a band? I had NKTOB’s cassette tape and posters of Madonna, but I didn’t wear my fandom as an actual, physical badge (which wasn’t so easy to do back before the internet).

I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. They sang that one decent song, “The Right Stuff,” and that was about all that interested me about the whole endeavor. I think my mother might have liked them more than I did. And then, not so long afterward, they were gone – and Madonna remained.

That was my first and last exposure to boy bands in my youth. If there were any in the 90s, they were invisible to me (aside from Boyz II Men, of course – I am from Philly) and I was headed to college by the time Backstreet Boys and NSYNC broke. I remember the summer after freshman year – just a few short weeks shy of the birth of this blog – dancing with the incoming students to “Bye Bye Bye” during their orientation party, bobbing and weaving across the dance floor with my broken collarbone sending twinges of pain through my body with every choreographed wave goodbye.

Weirdly, that’s a positive memory, and so NSYNC has always benefited from a bit of unearned goodwill from me even though I have – and this is the honest truth – never again heard a single verse of a song by them in the intervening fifteen years.

Unless last week. Last week I liked to “Bye Bye Bye” a lot. Probably not enough to make up for my decade-and-a-half of abstention. Certainly not as much as a girl with a button on her winter coat might in a single 24hr period. But, a lot. Enough to have it mapped out cold in my head so we could rehearse it today as a result of sustained requests for more “boy bands,” plus the avalanche of cheering and drunken singing along that greets our cover of “I Want It That Way.”

Here’s the shocking discovery I made about boy bands along the way: most of their members are not really so much better at singing than the rest of us plebes (again: aside from Boyz II Men).

Okay, maybe it’s not so shocking for you. For me – brought up on non-stop Doo Wop on every car ride – it came as a bit of a revelation.

Sure, you need a tenor or two in there to fill out the chords, but there’s a reason that Justin Timberlake is the one one of the two guys in those two bands with a significant solo career – most of their voices aren’t all that interesting or amazing on their own. There’s no David Bowies or Freddie Mercurys in the bunch or else all of their songs would be as fucking weird as “Under Pressure.”

As it turns out, I can deliver perfectly serviecable versions of both “I Want It That Way” and “Bye Bye Bye” songs. The Backstreet Boys tune is on the high side for me, but I can nail the NSYNC without much strain. Even the harmony – which I had always assumed the whole point of assembling five good-looking guys to be a singing group – is easy enough that Ashley can jump into it and easily teach it to me.

This made me a bit curious about my original boy band: those New Kids. I listened to that seminal album on my way to work one day and made it two songs – just far enough to hear the first ragged and somewhat tuneless attempt at falsetto.

That will probably be my last listen to NKTOB for at least another fifteen years. I’m open to hearing some more NSYNC, though.

the big kids are in the next room

Tonight I brought EV to a party with more or less the complete collection of college friends I regularly attended parties with in the summer before I met E – sans Erika in Boston and Jack, off being a turtle doctor somewhere, or doing whatever a turtle doctor does in cold weather when the turtles are presumably moving more slowly than normal.

(I’m sure Jack would tell me that’s a turtle misnomer, but Jack is not the topic of this post.)

The difference between college and today? We’re now all married (well, one re-married, two divorced), we drink less by an order of magnitude, and between the eight couples we have eleven children with another incoming.

(No, not from us. For heaven’s sake, get a hold of yourself.)

It is moments like these that remind me that I’ve never seen EV spend time with other children. Not by design, really. None of the children in the neighborhood passing my extensive background check to make sure they won’t tell her about Disney or princesses, she’s not exactly hanging out with babies.

(Just kidding – none of the neighborhood kids have even passed the qualifying verbal and potty exams to get to the background check.)

I set that chubby baby down on the floor and a fascinating thing happened. She had no interest in the other kids running and whooping all around her except for briefly babbling with another baby around her age. Instead, she wanted to explore, examine things, and smile at the adults.

(She also signaled for and used the big girl potty four times, because she is the best baby ever. In case you were wondering how that was going. Because you were.)

Effectively, it was like watching a young me exploring a social space. I never had any interest in other children – almost disdained them for their running and whooping. I never lacked for creative play ideas, but if I was at a party with adults I typically wanted to enjoy their company. Even now, I am not an extrovert at a party unless I am the host. I wander from conversation to conversation, sharing a laugh or a smile, and then I settle down in a corner regardless of if it is inhabited.

For a few hours tonight, EV and I both did that – sometimes together, sometimes independently.

I don’t mean to project that smaller me onto EV. She will be the person she will be, and that doesn’t have to be a reflection of me. Nor would I want it to be, honestly – I did plenty of great things as a child, but there’s a lot of things I could have handled better.

I suppose that’s the point of parenting just as much as it’s hard not to see yourself in the behavior of your child when they already look half the part.

type a-ness

Tonight Jake came over to play bass.

This is kind of a big deal. Jake had become a sort of essential, twice-a-week presence in my life in 2012 when he was the bass player for Arcati Crisis and – more than that – a rare male friend. Then he was off to Rochester for some life changes, and a year into that Arcati Crisis ceased to be an ongoing concern.

There were some good things and some bad things about both of those happenings, but the worst by far was not playing music with Jake at least once a week. Tonight remedied that situation by a measure, as we began to get him up to speed on some of our many dozens of Smash Fantastic cover songs with an eye to him joining the band.

That’s a lot of songs, for which I have a lot of finely detailed lead sheets. They each have a little “At a Glance” box at the top that details their key, BPM, and a quick summary of chords and special performance notes. No song enters our repertoire without a sheet. The practice of making one all-but-assures that I not only know a song before we attempt it, but that I understand how it works.

I insisted on printing our entire binder of leads for Jake at the end of our rehearsal. That took a little while, and resulted in a large chunk of a ream of paper which I methodically alphabetized and hole-punched as it emerged from the printer while Jake noodled on a series of Dave Matthews songs that I half-sung under my breath. I grew frustrated with the jumble of sheets and muttered, “fine, we’ll do it as a merge sort,” as I spread them on the floor.

Finally, I was satisfied. I carefully tapped the sheets against the floor to get their edges flush, and then handed the packet to Jake.

“Wow,” he replied as he received them.

“What?”

“Just… you,” he left that hang there for a moment before gesturing to the stack of nearly a hundred songs I had handed to him. Some of the pages were no longer perfectly flush. “This Type A thing you do. Your Type A-ness.”

“It’s a thing,” I said, honestly. It’s not quite OCD in a unpreventable, diagnosable fashion, but it’s close. “Plus,” I continued, “who wants to constantly ask to have things reprinted or figure out the chords again or have the sheets out of order or argue over lyrics, right?”

“Wow,” he said again.

This is why Jake is joining a second band with me. Not that he covets the sheets – the guy plays a by-ear circle around me. Because he understands that I need to do it that way, and he just says “wow” and then does things his way too, and when we’re both doing our things our two ways at once it makes some lovely sounds – lovelier than the sounds that would be made by two people doing things the exact same way as each other.

need you in my arms tonight

Part of my daily routine is now to briefly lull a small human being to sleep in my arms before deftly placing her down in her crib to rest.

This wasn’t always the case. E used to handle bedtime, but it felt weird that EV only knew how to get to the sleep in the arms of one particular human being. We began to split the task, and it turned out I had an unexpected knack for it. Sure, I have my difficult nights and the odd sleep regression where all that baby wants to do is stand up in the crib, but on a typical night I get her down in record time without a peep.

Bedtime became mine in short order – I conduct the proceedings six days a week, leaving one night for E to dabble in sleep-making.

As it happens, I haven’t been on bedtime duty for the past two nights. On Tuesday E’s brother was on duty while we were out. It did not go well. There was much thrashing, gnashing of tiny teeth, and ASL signals to return to the potty. Last night E took her once-weekly turn. It did not go well, though it usually does. The problem? I stopped by the room to give EV a hug goodnight and then left. Instant and irrecoverable baby meltdown followed. I stayed tucked away in the attic while E dealt with the aftermath.

Tonight? Back to father, back to easy-as-pie sleep without a peep. She practically threw her head at my shoulder as I read her our nightly pair of pages of Neverwhere. “Two paragraphs are fine tonight,” she shouted with her body language, “let’s just get to the sleepy part.”

I knew that I was going to be responsible for taking care of this small human. I acknowledged that she would have some preferences only I knew or understood. However, this might be the first time where I’ve become essential to her biology – she simply doesn’t like going to sleep without me.

It’s at once delightful and ludicrous. I don’t know if I’ve ever been required by another person in such a central fashion, and there is something immensely pleasing about it. I like being the irreplaceable assistant for someone – to a point that I considered working as an Executive Assistant earlier in my career before a more defined path opened up for me. Yet, it’s also insane! I can train anyone to say the things I say and do them in the order I do them. Why wouldn’t she go to sleep for them? Why does it matter so much if I hug and run rather than conduct the entire procedure?

I know the why. Because those other people don’t have my voice, my movements, my scent. They don’t hug the same, play her belly like a drum while they dress her, or sing her name to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” while they brush her teeth.

Nor would I want them to. That baby needs me to go to sleep, and I need that baby to fall asleep in my arms. I could have a dozen nights left or a hundred, but when it’s over it’s never coming back again. We’ll be on to the next routine.

For now, we belong to each other, six nights a week.

two sides of a naked truth

There are naked pictures of me on this blog.

What can I say? I went through a brief, months-long phase in my late teens where I was at the edge of my early-college thinness, had a web cam, and thought I was some form of internet soft-core porn star. I was young, newly single, and attractive.

Even in my youthful pride and vanity, I understood the context of my actions. I knew that by posting the images to CK I was committing them to the collective consciousness, and that they would exist in perpetuity through my every job interview or public exposure. I was okay with that. It was my choice, which I own even if I may later regret it.

This weekend one of the biggest stories on the internet was that the private photographs of dozens of actresses had been hacked from Apple’s iCloud service and posted on the internet. These images were not taken to be committed to the collective consciousness, but for personal use. The only choice made was to take them – they may have even been deleted later, only to persist in the cloud. They weren’t carelessly misplaced or lost. They were stolen.

This is not only a theft, but a sex crime – which is to say, the criminal behind it intentionally and with harmful intent removed the sexual agency from these women. Yet, the general reception to the photos was not disgust or icy dismissal. Many people rejoiced in the chance to see these stars naked. In catching up on the story, I read one particularly disturbing comment from a woman who said she loaded the photos, handed her laptop to her husband, and said only, “You’re welcome.”

I suppose he was supposed to be thanking her for acting as an accessory to a disgusting crime she was now implicating him in as well? I’m not sure.

Let me state plainly that there are important issues of misogyny to unpack here. I’m not the writer most-qualified to contend with those topics, or even list them. I’ll simply point out that few if no men had their solo photographs leaked as part of this crime. It would be just as much as a theft and a sex crime if there had been, but the crime would be in a different context.

That’s the context I find myself mulling over, since I have the capacity to do so – the one we might be discussing if this had not been a sex crime solely against women. That is the idea of public versus private communication.

(No, not in the disgusting, victim-blaming, “don’t take the photos if you don’t want them to be seen” way that I’ve seen it happening so far. We can be surprised that stars might take these photos – I personally am – but let’s not pretend that the facts that a human is sexual and that a body can be naked in front of a camera entitles us to see the results.)

At work, I lead a session for new employees on Brand Voice. The prevailing theme is that when you represent a brand you should assume all of your communication is public-facing and brand-representing. There is no private. It doesn’t matter if it’s an internal email, a comment on an elevator, or a personal posting. If you can be construed as a representative of your brand, your comment counts! Once you fix that in your brain and use it as your global filter, your risk is greatly reduced. If something runs counter to your brand, you don’t say it or share it willfully.

Celebrities are certainly aware they are brands and in any potentially public-facing venue act accordingly. These women would never have committed these images to the public consciousness, as I chose to over a decade ago. They were all clearly private – just as I expect some of my colleagues might say something in the privacy of their home that would fall outside of my recommendations in the Brand Voice talk.

What defines private? In my colleagues’ case, it’s the knowledge of their surroundings and the assumption of security. They are in their living space with a known quantity of other people, presumably safe from being intruded upon, overheard, or recorded. That assumption could be in error – someone could knock down the door at any second! But, they have a reasonable, evidence-based expectation that they are secure.

What defined private for the victims in this case? They, too, were in secure spaces. They, too, did not think they would be seen by anything other than their own camera and their intended recipient. However, once these digital photos were allowed to sync to the cloud, a whole new set of assumptions came into play.

Do you know what it means when you commit a photo to iCloud, use DropBox, divulge a personal detail on a social network, or even speculatively place something into your shopping cart in the same browser session where you have been logged in to any website, anywhere? I suspect you don’t. You assume what you are doing is private because you want it to be, and because there are some measures in place to maintain that illusion of limited access. You don’t understand the whole chain of custody of your information and how it will be used.

You may not realize the website you visited knows which ads you clicked and what you did afterward, though you would surely object to someone following you through a grocery store, taking notes. You don’t know what server your private Facebook message sits on, or what prevents it from going to another user, yet you are likely as confident (or moreso!) in the privacy of that communication than you are that a letter will reach its intended recipient unmolested. In fact, it is the digital thing is so much more fragile and corruptible.

If this sounds like it’s turning into, “So don’t take a naked digital picture ever!” it’s not. Again, just because a naked photo exists doesn’t mean everyone should be allowed to see it, just as because a woman has a body does not mean every one has the right to comment on it.

It is, “Why do we trust who we trust?” When someone tells us, “your data is private and secure,” do we understand what those words mean? Private unless what? Secure until when? My clients frequently request documentation or NDAs to confirm that statement, but it turns out the most famous people in the world just click “I Accept” on the iCloud user agreement like the rest of us and go on with their lives.

They trust just like we do. They think private means the same thing we do. The violation they are experiencing is the same one we sign up for every time we click that “I Accept” button. We’re all the same, except more people recognize their faces.

If I suddenly became famous tomorrow – joined a reality TV show, or released a hit song, or ran for public office – all of the content on this blog would become fodder for both my fans and foes. Hundreds of details about my actions and beliefs. Indecent photos. Terrible demo songs. That was my choice.

What happened to the victims of this situation wasn’t a choice. It isn’t fair or just. It’s terrible, it’s a crime, and it can never be erased. Famous or not, woman or man, no one deserves to lose their sexual agency or to be treated like an object.

And it’s all because one criminal decided he wanted to change the meaning of the word “private.”

#MusicMonday: “Bang Bang” – Jessie J, Ariana Grande, Nikki Minaj

Bang-Bang-Promo-Cover

One of many fan-made “Bang Bang” promo covers with a decidely retro feel.

I have always loved Motown. This post is about Jessie J’, Ariana Grande, and Nikki Minaj’s late-summer hit, “Bang Bang.”

These two statements are closely related, I promise.

I grew up revering Motown music. I was obsessed with “Stop! In The Name of Love,” and listened to Oldies 98.1 WOGL on every car ride with my father. The beauty of the great majority of Motown songs is their disarmingly simplicity. The classic and seemingly complex “I Want You Back” is mostly just one endlessly descending bassline. Smokey Robinson created intricate riffs and harmonies over the simplest of blues progressions. My favorite dance tune – “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” – distills down to just one pair of chords.

As it turns out, simple songs with clearly distilled messages are hard to ignore.

This presents a terrific conundrum when it comes to Motown covers on acoustic guitar. “I Want You Back” translates to plenty action on an acoustic guitar, and Smokey songs can be dressed up or stripped down as you choose. Yet, other songs lose their sing sans arrangement and bassline. Plus, what to do with “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” – so simple in its execution that it hardly holds together on one instrument? There, the power must be in your delivery and interpretation – there’s nothing spare to dress with.

Which brings me to “Bang Bang,” a raunchy summer slam from two of the hugest young female voices in pop. I heard it for the first time a few weekends ago while standing in a cell phone store, and my immediate first reaction wasn’t, “Who is singing?” or “Why is the production so huge?”

Nope. My reaction was, “This is so Motown!” I tried to explain it to E later that day, but not being the Hitsville connoisseur that I am she didn’t wholly appreciate the distinction. However, when I confessed it to Ashley in Smash Fantastic rehearsal yesterday, she shrieked, “I know!”

At which point we attempted our first cover of the ridiculous hot weather confection that is “Bang Bang” and discovered its true Motown realness: It’s just one damned chord! C7, over and over again. I thrashed it over and over in rhythm while Ashley annihilated that crazy Jessie J vocal that starts on an Eb. (I claimed Ariana’s verse as my own, as I love belting to her range. We are still negotiating over the Nikki verse.)

The similarity doesn’t stop there. Despite the decidedly unsubtle chorus, the first linee in Grande’s verse is practically cribbed from pint-sized Michael Jackson, “She might’ve let you hold her hand in school. But I’mma show you how to graduate.” Is that so different than the punnish innuendo in “The Love You Save,” where he sings, “When Alexander called you, he said he rang your chimes. Christopher discovered you’re way ahead of your times!”

It remains to be seen if Ashley and I can make our cover interesting enough to hold its own sans all of the arrangement and production on the studio cut, but at least now we understand why the song screamed “Motown!” at us on first contact.

Happy Birthday To This

The Collector

I cannot remember the first thing I collected with the studied intent of completion.

I think that is because the collecting was being done for me before I can recall. Both of my parents bought every record from their favorite artists. My mother documented our adventures in homemade photo storybooks. I had a complete collection of He-Man toys. Collecting is just what you did.

Why have only one record, or memory, or toy, when they are meant to be strung together with magnificent context?

That urge stuck with me past my childhood years. In fact, it was the urge to obsessively collect all of my words into one place that lead me to create this blog, fourteen years ago today.

The Limits

When I was a child, the main limiting factor in my quest for completion was resource availability. I knew who all the GI Joes were, but old lines were impossible to find and even newer ones yielded rare figures. Later, I wrote up a wishlist of every comic issue I wanted, but even after researching how to mail-order my missing issues my budget was the limiting factor. I also wanted to see every episode of X-Files, but I could never catch re-runs of Season 1 even when the show went into syndication.

As I began this blog in 2000, the only limiting factor was my interest. I had all the technical resources and time I could want for, and my other major hobby of songwriting was a natural complement to the content here. The only element that could be in short supply was the will to write.

I never run out of a will for the things I love to do. I think that is the secret of being a good collector, actually – the delight in the effort and chase. It is that delight that made me a good blogger, but also a great bandmate and professional. I would organize all the songs and make all the lead-sheets and know the harmony like the back of my hand. I would reach Inbox 0 and have notes on every project and measure my efficiency every week.

And so I did for many years of happiness and continued improvement in my two chosen careers.

Now, a little over a year into this experiment of raising a small human being, there is no question that the main limiting factors to anything in my life are not will or delight, but space and time. I want to be at Inbox 0, but there are sometimes more emails than minutes I have to read them. I own every issue of X-Men ever published, but I’ve run out of places to put them and I have to sneak them a handful at a time before bed or on my commute. I have every X-Files episode on DVD (well, all of the Mulder seasons, anyway), but when will I watch them again? I barely have the 42 minutes to spare in any given day. What used to take weeks or months to enjoy could now stretch on for years.

I have thousands of songs in my collection, but if I try to listen to them all when will I write, learn, and perform my own music? Even if I gave up performing and focused on recording my music for posterity, I’m out of recording space on a tremendously huge set of hard drives. Plus, when would I fine time to grind away at the perfect track for hours at a time?

I have a blog to collect every fleeting memory and opinion with a veritable unlimited amount of space to fill, but when will I set the words down?

If I am a collector because I yearn to complete every collection, what happens when I realize I cannot have it all every time, forever? Who am I, and what have I spent all of these years doing with my life?

What’s Lost

I can remember the first time I lost something irretrievably.

I was four years old, at the beach with my father, wading out into the water until it reached my waist. I brought my favorite toy – Wonder Woman – with me and had her tied to the string of my swimming trunks. As the water ebbed and flowed around my tiny body, her arms caught the current and she drifted out from my body for a moment before sinking, inexorably, never to surface again.

I later received another Wonder Woman – the first of many – but the lesson was not lost on me. Don’t be capricious with what you’ve collected. Don’t risk.

I was a forgetful teenager, so I lost a lot of other things. Pencil cases, keys, and calculators. But, never anything too important – a thing I collected. Never a GI Joe or a comic book. Only twice the lyrics to songs. Never a friend I meant to keep.

If there is is a second disappointing truth I’ve learned in the past year, it is that I cannot always control the things I lose, no matter how much care I take. Moments left unrecorded are forgotten. Instruments are worn and can break down irreparably. Teams of colleagues splinter and move on. Friends depart.

The Mystery

Every day I debate if I am trying to raise another collector. It helps that one of EV6′s nicknames is “chaos baby,’” and that she enjoys knocking things over and spreading them out much better than amassing them in a neat pile.

Earlier this year a friend gave EV6 a trio of adorably wobbly wheeled dinosaurs, and I noticed on the back of one of their packages there was a fourth. Of course, you can imagine that I immediately set out on an online search for the wayward member of the quartet. After five minutes I looked down to see EV6 mashing one of their heads into her mouth. She’s perfectly happy with three, I thought. The fourth could remain a mystery.

When you’ve spent your whole life being a collector the mystery is both your inspiration and antithesis. You thrill in tracking down a missing piece, but its absence seems to detract from the parts of the puzzle you’ve completed. So you strive to eliminate the mystery, brighten all the corners, place every piece – only to find that your completed collection sans the mystery isn’t as satisfying as it was with one last thing to strive for.

I’m trying to learn to appreciate the mystery. It’s still hard for me to not go back for an episode of a show I dozed off while watching, or to avoid picking up an awful back-catalog album from a now-mature musician.

However, I have come to accept that this blog isn’t complete. It never was. Each year I spend this day highlighting my favorite posts, but also the memories that went by the wayside – now disappearing through a haze of recollection like that tiny plastic superhero into the waters of New Jersey.

The best thing I can do here is the same as the best thing I can due with my tiny ball of chaos: be honest. Be honest about what I do write, and about what doesn’t need to be written. Be honest that I appreciate my memories and your attention to them, but that if I don’t go out and live I’ll never have stories to tell later. Be honest that it hurts to lose things, but you’ve never truly lost a thing you’ve loved.

I love this blog and every moment I’ve spent writing it, so it will never be lost. I delight in adding to it whenever I am able because I am always willing.

Thank you for finding it and reading it for these past fourteen years.

Thank you, and happy birthday to this.