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Monday, September 26, 2011

Good Times, Bad Times, the New York Times Have Had Their Share.

It’s the end of the world as we know it, but Bill Keller feels fine.

At the end of Page One: Inside the New York Times, the former Times Executive Editor (he stepped down earlier this month), addresses his staff from a makeshift podium on the staircase in the middle of a full newsroom. It’s a powerful image: one stoic man in a sea of frantic faces.

Picutre from here.

The newspaper industry is not as stable as it once was, and the Times staff know it.  But when their leader tells his people, “Journalism is alive and well and feisty, especially at the New York Times,” the crowd roars with approval. You can't help but feel reassured.

The film did not start out on such a positive note.

On Friday, myself and 70ish other eager communications students crammed into the snug Cinematheque theatre to watch a screening of Page One. The atmosphere was vibrant. We were there to see a film about the field we all hoped to enter. We were there to watch our future.

The energy changed, however, as we watched as the first few scenes of the film.  We saw empty newsrooms and weeping journalists, embracing each other on their last day at the office.  We saw news reports declare the death of many major American newspapers, and we felt slightly less secure about our futures.

Such images did not inspire confidence in a room full of kids hoping to find a career in this industry. I shouldn’t speak for everyone, but I was starting to feel anxious.

The decline of print media is nothing new. I certainly wasn’t shocked by the stats that Page One threw at me from the opening credits, but they were still upsetting.  Being a journalist is no longer a steady career. To paraphrase David Carr, Times reporter and key player in the film, seasoned journalists have less to worry about than those just starting out. For Carr and his contemporaries, a comfortable retirement is just around the corner. For beginners like Brian Stelter, things are direr.

Stelter, however, represents a new breed of journalism. He got his start as a blogger and completely embraces social media.  “I don’t know why anybody who’s a reporter isn’t on Twitter,” he tells a room full of media hopefuls in one scene. The film often shows him at his desk, his laptop in front of his desktop computer, and his smart phone in one hand as he dials the office line with the other. A small TV sits on the corner of his desk amid stacks of paper.

If Stelter is the new face of journalism, then the industry has nothing to fear.

Brain Stelter. Picture from Business Insider.

Times are constantly changing. In my first few weeks of school I’ve been overwhelmed by the flood of social media pouring into my brand new smart phone.  With the pace at which new media is created, however, who’s to say these technologies will still be relevant when I graduate? Will there be room for me in the industry two years from now, or will a new species of pre-programmed media cyborgs make me obsolete?

Should I try to make a crack at this business? Or, just give up now and run off to a shack in the woods to spend the rest of my days taming woodland creatures? Sounds pretty tempting.

We may be witnessing the decline of print media, but the New York Times remains optimistic. The Times welcome change and adopt digital media. The industry is changing, but if a 160 year-old newspaper can change with it, I’m sure I can too.

The New York Times is not giving up, but another giant of American culture called it quits last week. REM announced their breakup on September 21, putting an end to a 30 year career. As I left the theatre Friday afternoon, I couldn’t help but think of this tune.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Glen Downie Did Not Have a Minor Role in "Reservoir Dogs"

I must admit, when Glen Downie began his Thin Air reading on Thursday, September 22, I momentarily thought I was listening to "K-Billy's Super Sounds of the Seventies."

Downie's voice was uncannily similar to that of the deadpan radio DJ from Reservoir Dogs, voiced by Steven Wright.  Did anyone else get that?  Just me?  Okay then.

Not Glen Downie.
Not Steven Wright.

Downie's gravelly voice became a powerful instrument for poems from his recent collection, Local News.  His pain and disappointment were palpable in works about failing neighbourhood shops, dusty attics, and old dogs.

Glen Downie's Local News.
I've been to poetry readings before and am generally underwhelmed by the reader's interpretation of their own work. Too often, readers try to jazz up their poems by shrieking or whining into the microphone. Such theatrics were not necessary for Downie.

Poems are short bursts of creativity, but for me they often lack the narrative interest of prose. If there's no discernible story going on in a poem, I get bored fast. Downie's poems painted vivid, juxtaposing scenes of decay and gentrification. He didn't need to shout or thrash his arms wildly to tell his story. The deep timbre of his voice was a perfect backdrop for sadness, confusion, and occasionally, hope.

 Glen Downie believed in his poetry, and he got a room full of college students with short attention spans to believe in it too.

His poems were the embodiment of "Show, Don't Tell."  He described a mom and pop store whose storefronts hadn't been painted in decades, where the spiders lazily spinning their webs were the only signs of activity. Instead of saying "The store was depressing and no one had been there in years," Downie's imagery lets readers draw their own conclusions.

Downie lamented the changing face of his Toronto neighbourhood, where he suspected corporate giants such as Starbucks and Home Depot would soon replace the old shops. He seemed stuck, trapped between the old ways and the new.

Stuck in the middle.  It's a weird place to be.

You didn't think I'd be able to tie the Reservoir Dogs reference back in there, did you? Well, I did. In a really lame way, but I did.

Monday, September 19, 2011

You Can Call Me Al

... But, don't actually.

Graceland is one of those albums that's followed me since childhood. It was the constant soundtrack to family dinners and road trips while I was growing up, which basically made Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo honourary Hugheses.

Picture from The Guardian

Of course, I hated this album as a child. Mostly because my parents liked it so much. Therefore, my knee-jerk reaction was to despise it with every fibre of my tiny being.

As years went on, I found it harder and harder to deny this album's appeal. Simon's earnest and prose-like lyrics, combined with the upbeat and eclectic musicianship, make for an excellent collection of songs. Try as I might, I could not not like it anymore.

Though not without its controversy, this album is undeniably catchy. My dad gave me his old LP when I got my first record player last year, and it takes me back to my youth whenever I give it a spin. I can't help but smile and swallow my pride a bit when I remember how much I once hated this fabulous record.

Now, here's the adorable video for "You Can Call Me Al", featuring Simon and a dashing young Chevy Chase:


It turns out my parents were right about a lot of things I disapproved of as a child. Vegetables, Peter Mansbridge, and going to bed on time are just a few of the things I used to think were ridiculous, but am now quite fond of.

What do you think, readers? Did you ever end up liking some of the embarrassing music you grew up with? Were your parents ever right about something you hated as a kid? I swear, I won't tell them.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

This Year

I used to be one of those folks who was so completely overwhelmed by Twitter I didn't even bother with it. When I learned that having an account was a requirement for the program I'm in at Red River College, I had a brief moment of panic. I wasn't sure I'd be able to successfully navigate through a world filled with #s and @s and RTs and OMFGs.

I decided that Twitter must be okay when I started following the tweets of one of my favourite musicians, John Darnielle from the Mountain Goats. In my opinion, Darnielle is one of our greatest contemporary songwriters, and his tweets are no exception to his lyrical mastery. Each 140 character snippet provides an insight to his humor and genius. If Twitter's good enough for John Darnielle, it's good enough for me.

I now follow many of my favourite musicians, comedians, and other public figures. I've realised Twitter's a great tool for communication - it's an easy way to stay on top of current events and breaking news, as well as getting a much-needed laugh in the middle of a busy day. You can choose who to follow, so your home page isn't bombarded with messages like "omgzzzz tuna agin 4 lunch?!?! WTFFFF @mom!!!"

Now, here's a song* that's sure to get me through a hectic year at CreComm:

Also, I urge you to check out this clip of two of my all-around favourite people and Twitterers, John Darnielle and Stephen Colbert.  You may have to do some digging to find a clip that's available in Canada, but it will be well worth it when you do.

Photo from here.

So, what do you think, friends? Do you find Twitter useful? Who are you following?

*Yes, I realise this song is about much heavier things than school-related stress. I just like it is all.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Everything You've Done Wrong

Ten years ago today, something bad happened. We all know what it is. We all know that it was terrible, life-changing, and tragic. We all also know that terrible things happen all over the world, every day. Things that are equally tragic, but for many of us, the events of this day were the first time that such things could happen on our happy little continent.

I was 14 years old on September 11, 2001. Up to that point, my world was a pretty tiny place. I was aware that things went on in other parts of world, but at that time, unless something scary happened within the cozy confines of my neighbourhood, I really couldn't care less.

Everyone has their own 'where were you when you heard' story, and I'm sure mine is no more interesting than anyone else's. I was just as scared and confused as my classmates, except maybe the girl whose dad was in New York at the time (she soon found out he was okay).

I remember feeling deeply unsettled. I suddenly wasn't as invincible as I thought I was.

We stayed at school til the end of the day, and though no one knew what exactly was going on, the rumor mill was in full force. One girl said there was a war going on in New York that was making its way to Winnipeg, and that we might all be enlisted to fight. Even this seemed plausible in the uncertainty of the moment. And though I didn't really believe her, there was some truth to her thought - the fear would make its way to Winnipeg, and things would never really be the same.

When I got home that afternoon I instinctively put my favourite CD on the stereo. I needed something familiar to remind me that things had once been normal, that I could still feel safe though my peaceful little world had been rocked.

One Chord to Another. murderecords, 1996. Photo from Wikipedia.
The album was Sloan's One Chord to Another. I'd become obsessed with Sloan after overhearing one of my friend's cool older brothers listening to them one day. They reminded me of the Beatles, my mom's favourite band (a band that practically raised me), and I could relate to their simple Canadian-ness and pleasant hooks.

On that day I needed comfort. Everything You've Done Wrong is my favourite song on that album. It has nothing to do with terror or death or politics, and that's exactly why it helped me feel a bit better that day.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The First Day of My Life

Welcome, loyal readers.

As my sub-header suggests, this blog is all about songs that saved my life. That may sound insanely dramatic, but I know I'm not alone in this one. The perfect song can make your day go from bad to better, from good to great.

I'm going to tell about my favourite songs. Maybe I'll tell you about when I heard it live and it blew my mind. Or maybe how I heard it for the first time while surfing in Tofino.  In any case, I'll try my darnedest to make it interesting.

As this is my first post, I only thought it appropriate to name it after one of my favourite Bright Eyes songs.  Now, Bright Eyes isn't one of my favourite bands.  Far from it, in fact.  While my music-snob girlfriends swooned over Conor Oberst's poetic lyrics and big brown eyes, I found the Nebraskan indie hero precocious and slightly annoying.

Nevertheless, I agreed to go along to his concert when he played in Winnipeg four years ago.  The only Bright Eyes album I had was one of the latest ones, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, which my friends scoffed at.  Apparently "it just wasn't as good as the early stuff" (the typical music snob's lament).  I enjoyed the folkie, alt-country feel of the album and remembered being particularly smitten with the painfully adorable love song, The First Day of My Life.

Bright Eyes. Garrick Centre, November 2, 2007. Photo by me. He is pretty dreamy...

The concert was held at one of the Garrick, one of the most unfortunate music venues in Winnipeg.  The slanted floors of this converted movie theatre make for an uncomfortable standing experience, and given that I was squished between hoards of crazed 16 year-olds, I was not the happiest of campers.

Gradually, I began to relax.  I realised I didn't have to impress anyone there, and I eventually forgot that my back hurt and my feet were aching.  As the night went on, the obnoxious crowd collectively shut up and everyone just listened, mesmerized. The fast songs were fun and the slow ones were gentle and sincere and heartbreaking.

Conor Oberst famously doesn't play First Day live.  But the lack of it made me feel it all the more. After the show, my friends hit up a local bar in hopes of tracking Conor down and wooing him.  I declined, and instead drove home, locked myself in my bedroom, and listened to I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning from start to finish about five times through.

The next year, I finally got to hear this song live. My boyfriend played it on his guitar one morning while I was lying semi-conscious in bed.  I'm not sure if he played it for me or if he was just practicing, but it at that moment, it was even better than it could have been that night at the Garrick.

Yes, cheesy. I know.

Thanks for reading.