Wait for it

One of the knocks against the millennial generation — and there are many — is its slavish devotion to all things smartphone,  reducing lives to an endless series of interruptions via a continuous stream of texts, tweets and snaps, so that people are left with a virtually nonexistent attention span. An unfair generalization, to be sure. While there’s an undeniable effect of digital media, and particularly smartphone culture, on our ability to maintain focus, I’ve seen it affect people aged 50 as well as 20. We’re all changing.

As a result, we’re seeing a gradual reformulation of our entertainment toward bite-sized portions of instant gratification. Record labels used to give musicians two or three albums to find their groove (no pun intended) before getting the payout they hoped for with a No. 1 smash. Comedians like Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby could spin long yarns in their standup routines, with audiences understanding that a big laugh was coming. And TV and movie productions would invest a good portion of the program in a lengthy setup before knocking ’em down with the car chase or fight scene. No more. If there isn’t an explosion, a viral one-liner, or instantly catchy pop hit from the get-go, people have moved on.

Whether this is a bad thing is in the eye of the beholder. I understand that there’s a new bargain taking place between entertainer and audience: give me something that mildly distracts me for awhile, only to be forgotten as soon as the next mild distraction comes along. Some people are OK with that. But what’s lost is the deeper experience, one that I’d argue is richer but requires some work from the viewer or listener.

To see how drastically things have changed, check out any movie made before 1980 (the dawn of the music video era, which profoundly influenced the aim and scope of music, television and cinema projects). I remember rewatching “Airplane!” a few years ago and thinking, “Come on, when are the laughs gonna come?” It struck me as incredibly slow-moving. Of course, the movie is a comedy classic, and once I readjusted to its natural rhythm, I was able to appreciate it as I always have. But two films in particular illustrate the stark difference between how a story unfolded then vs. now. If you’re not used to the pacing, they will test your patience. And it’s a good way to gauge where you currently sit on the instant-to-delayed gratification scale.

“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”

Though artfully shot with breathtaking sequences of cinematography, this Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Western actually moves along at a pretty good clip. There are some interesting interludes, mostly involving the intrusion of the Civil War into what’s otherwise a classically constructed Western. But in the end it comes down to the hidden loot, the dizzyingly large cemetery that contains it, and the three men who intend to claim it. This is a final showdown unlike any done in film, and it takes FOREVER. For the record, the clip I’ve included below clocks in at 6:16, which is an eternity by the standards of any film era. But a funny thing happens as the scene unfolds — our breathing slows, almost stops as the tension has us begging for something, anything to happen. And when it does, it knocks us over. It’s a remarkable thing, to be transfixed not by action, but a distinct lack of it.

“Bridge on the River Kwai”

This David Lean masterpiece takes the excruciatingly slow buildup of the Eastwood shootout and stretches it for well over two hours. I’d venture to say few viewers conditioned to today’s multiplex lineup would be able to stick with it. There are masterful acting performances, notably by Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa, and a few tense moments, but most of the film consists of innocuous slice-of-life scenes held together by the story of World War II British POWs building a bridge for the Japanese while Allied forces stage a sabotage effort. That’s all that happens. For hours. Until the final few minutes, during which the ever louder whistle of the approaching Japanese train signals a frenzied descent into absolute chaos. Like “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” natural breathing goes on hold as the ordered world of the prison camp that we’ve come to know— through Lean’s painstaking efforts — like a second home, abruptly collapses. And then we understand what the previous 2½ hours was all about.

It’s safe to say these movies would not be made today — at least not as major studio releases. I’m not going to get into what we’ve lost or what needs to change. You can’t re-engineer a society that’s accustomed to Googling immediate answers to any of life’s questions rather than taking a few minutes to sort them out from the recesses of the brain. I’m well aware that showcasing Youtube clips 6-7 minutes in length is even asking a lot these days. Art is crafted to meet an expectation of how it will be consumed, and a model that deliberately holds back has no place in today’s culture.


Out of sync

I’d like to think my musical tastes align with broader conventional wisdom. I don’t know why that should be; perhaps that’s a discussion for another day. For whatever reason, it’s important to me that what I like is what most people accept as high quality. If I’m raving on about Buddy Holly, the Clash or Radiohead, my hope is the majority of music fans wouldn’t quibble over the validity of those choices. If I’m lecturing some poor saps at a party about the massive legacies of hallmark albums put out by the Sex Pistols and Nirvana, they’re not likely to dispute it (although they may quietly slip out of the room while my back is turned).

But there are a few notable instances where I get it wrong. Cases where I question artists so universally beloved that to question them unthinkable. Or when I heap praise on music generally regarded as unworthy of any. There’s no explaining such blind spots, other than to accept that we all have them, and that’s when we say “there’s no accounting for taste.” There really isn’t, but I’ll still take a crack at it. Here goes:

Artists I should like but don’t

Bob Dylan: He writes nice songs. They usually tell stories and express angst. But when I’m on the receiving end of the party lecture, having the word “genius” thrown around so liberally is hard to take. Please. The man owns some of worst rhymes in history. Exhibit A from “Hurricane”:

We want to put his ass in stir
We want to pin this triple mur-der on him
He ain’t no Gentleman Jim.

Genius, apparently for some, consists of endless repetition. Play me “Like a Rolling Stone” at your own risk. If I have a sledgehammer or some other blunt instrument within reach, your stereo will be dismantled faster than you can say “no direction home.” (Don McLean fans, beware: “American Pie” elicits equally violent impulses from me.) This isn’t to say Bob Dylan is terrible (although sometimes even his own fans admit he is). He’s a talented singer/songwriter with a knack for capturing the zeitgeist. So are umpteen other singer/songwriters from his era. Sorry, Dylan fans, I’m just not seeing the genius factor.

The Band: The parts are there, but, at the risk of sounding incredibly pretentious, they just don’t move me. Perhaps this is what happens when a band of mostly Canadian musicians tackles Southern U.S. roots rock. Or a former backup band ventures forth with no clear frontman or established lead singer. But I’m swimming upstream on this one. The Band has two associations that have cemented its legacy — with Bob Dylan and his aforementioned demigod status, and with Martin Scorsese and his legendary concert documentary “The Last Waltz.” Clearly they’ve got the goods, but I’ve yet to hear a Band song with a hint of a spark.

Van Morrison: There’s that moment at a wedding reception when the DJ spins “Brown-Eyed Girl,” and every brown-eyed (and blue-eyed) girl in the room tries to haul you out of your seat for a dance. “Don’t you like dancing?” they shriek incredulously. No, it’s not that. I just can’t stand this song. Sorry! Ditto for “Wild Night,” “Tupelo Honey” or “Moondance.” But this one’s on me. Van Morrison has an ability to make people (mostly women) swoon at a frequency that I’m not hearing, and that’s aggravating. So I sit in my chair with arms folded while giddy females sweat themselves silly and shout “who’s the killjoy?”

Green Day/Foo Fighters: For millennials too young for the original punk revolution, or even the second one of the early ’80s, this is all they know of that music. That’s a shame. Both Green Day and the Foo Fighters have built careers recreating that sound so faithfully, they could almost be mistaken for cover bands. Younger generations wouldn’t recognize this, but for those of us who grew up on the Ramones, Clash and Sex Pistols, there’s nothing like the real deal.

All right, that’s enough negativity. Let’s get on to the fun part.

Artists I shouldn’t like but do

B.J. Thomas: Full disclosure: One of the earliest songs I can remember as a kid was “Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.” Unfair association? Well, I liked it then, and I love it now. There are a lot of songs from my formative years that have long since been discarded from my brain’s “favorites” folder. Not this one. And from before my time, there’s the David/Bacharach classic “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” featured with such odd contrast in the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” that, amazingly, it works. Thomas could belt it out for the romping “Hooked on a Feeling,” then tone it down on”Rock and Roll Lullaby” with a touch so soft it’ll make you cry. Speaking of vocal range, you’d better bring it to take on the Beach Boys, and Thomas shows he’s got the goods with his version of “Don’t Worry Baby.”  Heck, his “Growing Pains” theme song was probably the best part of that otherwise forgettable ’80s sitcom.

The Spinners: I don’t know why these guys don’t enjoy the royalty status bestowed on fellow Motown alumni The Temptations, Four Tops, Diana Ross (and the Supremes), the Jacksons or Marvin Gaye. For a period in the ’70s (after they left Motown), the Spinners seemed incapable of putting out a bad single. “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love,” “I’ll Be Around,” “It’s a Shame,” and “Then Came You” featured the catchy hooks and upbeat vocals that defined the soul pop sound of that era. They stumbled badly with the disco mashups “Working My Way Back to You” and “Cupid,” but I’ll forgive them that for somehow, impossibly, crafting “Rubberband Man” into a good song.

Pat Benatar: On the surface, she was adeptly marketed as a petite beauty with a big voice and a spitfire attitude, but beneath that, she put out some pretty good music. Husband Neil Giraldo brought guitar chops that separated her sound from the Kim Carnes and Bonnie Tylers of the day. She splashed onto the scene with “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” and “Heartbreaker,” and “Fire and Ice” is a quintessential early-’80s track, but I believe her music got better later in her career. “Precious Time” and “Sex as a Weapon” in particular deviate from the well-worn course of material expected from pop singers, and, not surprisingly, they hold up better in retrospect.

Stereolab: Many years ago I was playing a Stereolab CD on a drive with a friend through Door County. It was just driving music, in the background as we talked. In the span of a few songs she became less chatty and increasingly irritated until she insistently demanded I shut the radio off. We drove on in silence. Yep, Stereolab will do that. Musical loops repeating endlessly can get to you if you let it. Somehow I can handle it, in a way that I’m not able to with Bob Dylan (see above).  There’s a natural rhythm, like the clicking of the tracks when you’re riding a train, or a dog barking in the neighborhood. If you focus on it, it’ll drive you nuts. But if you let it slip into the background, there’s some sort of enhanced experience you’d be missing with plain silence.