Don’t look back, you can never look back

I casually tweeted that late one night in November, having caught the commercial on TV. The thought keeps coming back to me. Not only is it a parallel moment, it’s also a reflection of how the music industry has evolved in the three decades since “Boys of Summer” dominated charts and airwaves during the rise of classic rock.

Back then, music was more entrenched in defining societal moments. Henley, the former frontman of the Eagles, a band regularly dismissed as lightweight despite selling a hundred million albums, had begun forging a more thoughtful identity as a solo artist. From his first album, Henley reached #3 on Billboard’s singles chart with the song “Dirty Laundry,” a political commentary on negative advertising that still rings true today (and which remains catchy, if dated).

Henley’s social commentary began to mesh with introspection by 1984, when “Boys of Summer” was released. Coupled with a moody, award-winning music video, the song aimed to capture the nostalgia felt by the Baby Boomer generation as it first confronted aging. Henley, 36 years old when the song was written, had seen America grow from the postwar 1950s to the Reagan era.

“Boys of Summer,” besides being a pretty big hit—a top-five single in the U.S., anchoring an album that sold three million copies domestically, and a track still spun on classic rock radio stations—is memorable for its wistful lyrics, particularly this one:

Out on the road today, I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac
A little voice inside my head said,
‘Don’t look back. You can never look back.’

Henley, of course, is referring to the juxtaposition of cultures represented in this act: the counterculture and independent spirit of rock ‘n roll, a respected but decidedly fringe band and musical genre, a subculture defined by carefree living, illicit drugs and beat-up Volkswagen vans, unceremoniously showcased on the back of the preeminent American luxury vehicle. He thought his generation had sold out. The concept abhorred him; to this day, Henley doesn’t license his music, and actively combats its commercial use.

Fast forward to now. Josh Davis is 42, five years older than Henley was when “The Boys of Summer” was released. As a 24-year-old, Davis, recording under the moniker DJ Shadow, recorded “Endtroducing…,” a striking pastiche of sampled music that is widely regarded as one of the most innovative albums of the recorded music era.

Nearly 20 years on, “Endtroducing…” has sold fewer than 300,000 copies, making it a prototypically seminal work: revered, respected, imitated, yet still somewhat fringe. Not unlike the Grateful Dead in 1984, who, after 15 years of touring, were still something of a sideline in the rock pantheon, selling albums without mainstream exposure (that came a few years later, in 1987, when “Touch of Grey” became an unlikely pop hit).

Except life has changed a lot in thirty years. In 1984, the music industry had one of its boldface names singing on a hit song about the peculiar sight of an independent act getting co-opted by mainstream tastes. By contrast, in 2014, it’s the independent act that’s being co-opted—but willfully, for a payout, to sell perhaps the most mass-market automobile on the road, the Chevrolet Malibu.

The ad is still running, and every time it airs, it reinforces our comprehension of the era we’re in, while reminding us of the parallels to music history of the generation before.

I don’t begrudge DJ Shadow his income, and certainly, music consumption has reached a point where people are discovering songs and artists via TV commercials. (Also, “Building Steam with a Grain of Salt” is a fantastic song, so it’s a nice 30 seconds.) But it couldn’t be further away from the ideals and disappointments Henley so powerfully noted a generation ago.

It happens too fast

Internet pioneer Eric Meyer and his family suffered a heartbreaking loss this weekend as Eric’s daughter Rebecca passed away of a brain tumor on her sixth birthday.

An early blogger, Eric harnessed the power of personal publishing for his catharsis, and in the process, he brought our entire community into his heart. I invite you to read about Rebecca (starting from last August, when Eric first posted about her tumor) and follow Eric on Twitter as well.

Then hug your kids, and spoil them a little, because life is too short, and surely they deserve it.

As all tragedies can have uplifting consequences, in recent weeks my world has been tinted for the better by Eric’s experiences, which serve as a reminder of the wonderfulness of childhood and a way to keep perspective as we collectively grieve for Eric’s loss.

This morning my six-year-old and I watched another parent deliver an aggressive, top-of-her-lungs rebuke to her child for a moment of forgetfulness. When she finished, she apologized—to the other adults. “That mom is really mad,” my son said to me quietly, eyes wide. I could only sigh. Life is too precious, our children too innocent, the world too cruel.

My three-year-old is off to his first “camp” experience later this month. All the children have to wear the same shirt every day. At orientation, the camp director told us, firmly and pleasantly: “If your child doesn’t want to wear the camp shirt, seriously—don’t force it. Your time with your child is too valuable to argue over what to wear. Just bring it and we’ll put it on later.”

Your time with your child is too valuable. We could append almost anything to that sentence, couldn’t we? I think about how I may chide my kids over relatively minor issues, and then I think about Rebecca Meyer, ten days younger than my own kindergartener, and it strengthens my resolve to make their lives as full of kindness and affection as my heart can find. The things we worry about pale in comparison to the issues most of us are fortunate not to confront.

Eric, my deepest condolences go out to you once more, as well as a note of thanks, for sharing your stories and a bit of your soul.

On Michael Sam and gay rights

I am occasionally asked, with a degree of bemusement, why I am so strong-minded and outspoken on the subject of gay rights. It’s a topic I’ve supported at length in this space, from cheering on gay marriage to actively tracking open gay players in pro sports.

I thought I’d take a moment this morning, in the wake of Michael Sam’s groundbreaking announcement, to clarify that support. On some level, it’s personal, as I have numerous gay friends, many of whom are now married, which is heartening.

But on another, more important level, gay rights are about equality. I have never understood humanity’s need for a majority or ruling demographic to suppress the liberties, opportunities or comfort of another. Be it race, gender, religion or nationality, the fear and jealousy that drives this suppression has always upset me. I am strongly in favor of abortion rights, for example, and for multi-racial and interfaith marriages, in addition to institutionalizing support for gay rights.

Even while my own profile is rather straightforward—I’m an ordinary guy who married a woman of the same religion and similar cultural upbringing—I was allowed to choose my path to happiness, and I believe everyone should be afforded the same opportunity. And as a member of a minority religion, albeit a successful and well-assimilated one, I have an appreciation for what it means to be persecuted as well as accepted.

The world is a long way away from universal tolerance. But America comes pretty close, much of the time, and every small step toward openness and understanding is to be cheered. I am rooting for Michael Sam this year, not because he’s gay, but because he’s strong, and honest, and deserves to be a professional football player this spring. I hope he succeeds.

Obsolete vs. useless

Quartz and Wired is making a big deal today out of a new survey that shows 58% of American households still have a VCR.

“It shows,” writes Christopher Mims*, “that a majority of Americans are holding onto a device designed to play a media format that isn’t even available anymore.”

But there’s a reason for this “lingering on past their expiration date,” as Mims nicely puts it: old VHS tapes.

While millions of Americans have moved on from tape formats, decades of media were created and stored on them before discs, drives and cloud storage appeared. And while it’s easy to replace that videotape of “Dirty Dancing” with Blu-Ray or a stream, doing so with home movies and one-offs taped from live TV is much harder. Many families have paid for a service to migrate their essentials; mine has dubbed its childhood videos from Super-8 to VHS to DVD over the past 15 years. But many others have not. And until they do, they’re not ditching their VCRs.

I still have roughly 800 cassettes in my possession (well, technically, they’re in my parents’ basement, to my mother’s ongoing chagrin, but still), including a number of bootlegs, one-offs, hard-to-find albums, and irreplaceable moments, from a Taj Mahal concert at summer camp in 1989 to my college radio shows. It’d be great to digitize them for posterity. But seeing how hard it is even to move all my CDs to MP3, the digitizing of my tapes won’t come for awhile. And while I wait for myself, I’m glad to have a working cassette deck, still gorgeous in its anachronistic 1988 glory.

So color me unsurprised at the persistence of the VCR. It remains peripherally useful for many, even in the rarest of moments. And so it remains, unbothered in many homes’ wall units, biding its time, and probably blinking ––:–– as usual.

* Of course, Mims is the author behind the recently infamous “2013 was a lost year for tech,” which suggests he’s in the dot-com-needling-provocateur game right now, much like Farhad Manjoo a couple of a years ago.

Creating vs. creating

Sploid, on Thomas Julien’s Instagram short film: “Seeing all these pictures in a pseudo stop animation you realize how similar all of our photos end up being. Nothing is original. We’re all just frames in someone’s next movie.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about our collective propensity to take photos, and wondering: why? Why do we need to chronicle a moment that is being captured by another? What is the intrinsic value of a photo that someone else can (probably more capably) take on one’s own behalf? It’s one thing to grab a picture of a loved one, or a sunset on an unpopulated beach, when you’re the only person that can take that picture. But when hundreds of fellow onlookers are snapping the same photograph, unless your DSLR skills trump the crowd, is there value to your taking a shot, too?

Jillian Edelstein, on the remoteness of photography: “It’s image taking rather than image making.”

What’s more, with the interconnectedness of social media, not only are those many other photos being taken, but in a matter of moments you and I can download and share them as well, rendering the multiplicity moot. Sometimes these efforts have value; last month, when a large fire raged up the block from me, I posted photos from my vantage point, then shared others’ images from different (and largely better) angles. But certainly my experience of the moment was interrupted by my fiddling with my iPhone, which, it should be noted, occurred while I helped my two young children stand on my next door neighbor’s radiator cover for a better view.

This can’t be where our future lands. Whether ubiquitous, wearable computing simplifies the media taking-and-sharing process, or whether we slowly learn to find the right moments to engage and disengage with our devices, or whether some other paradigms arise, I strongly hope that we evolve past the current heads-down phones-up phase. Because, if not, sooner or later we’re all going to miss something.

What I learned today (yesterday, really), December 24-25

Americans are 6 percent more likely to get in an automobile accident on April 15: “tax day, likely due to driver distraction caused by stress.”
Other interesting car crash facts: men are responsible for 57% of all crashes, but if it’s due to mashing the wrong pedal, there’s a two-thirds chance a woman was behind the wheel; automobile fatalities are now just 15% as frequent as they were sixty years ago; thanks to reduced fatality rates, fewer people died in an accident last year than they did in 1949, when the population of the United States was less than 150 million.

For what’s right

In my limited forays into politics, I have in this space previously noted my support for Barack Obama (moreso in 2008 than 2012, but still) and my heartfelt support of gay rights and gay marriage and my frustration in this country’s resistance to its obviousness. So today is a particularly gratifying moment, as I can note that Barack Obama, too, supports gay marriage.
That this comes a day after North Carolina residents banned gay marriage in all its forms makes this news all the more enjoyable. Fifty years ago many Americans were against civil rights for African-Americans, too. As Dave Pell noted in his NextDraft newsletter today, “History’s march towards equal rights often feels inevitable, but it can really take a long time.” Yesterday we slowed down, and today we sped up again.
Next Saturday I am attending a wedding party for my gay friends Chris and Stuart, who are getting married at City Hall, because as New Yorkers they thankfully can do so. I couldn’t be happier for them, or more supportive of their right to be married. And I am glad that the President of the United States of America feels the same way.