Bob Schwartz

Month: August, 2013

Bowie and Gaga: The Shoulders of Giants

Bowie Gaga
If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
Isaac Newton

Scroll below today’s news about Egypt or the NSA or dozens of other significant stories and you will come to the contest between the new singles from Katy Perry (Roar) and Lady Gaga (Applause). Which is Number 1? Which is better? Listen if you want, or don’t. Life goes on either way. But music and excellence matter, so a related note.

Depending on whether you want to go back centuries or decades, we are now in the nth generation of popular music. Individual songs or entire genres, music and the styles that go with it are invented, perfected, synthesized, inspired by, borrowed; there is some balance between the entirely new and the entirely old.

The question is whether a listener can take a current artist at face value, without reference to what came before, without knowing (in Newtonian terms) what giant shoulders are stood on, or whether a listener should be aware of the influences, precursors, originators. This becomes particularly important when the earlier or original version was, once it is experienced by comparison, simply better art.

David Bowie’s extraordinary artistry can be summed up in two points.

He has six albums among the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. And each of these is created in a different style than the others.

Which brings us to the second point. Aside from creating superb music, Bowie devised the process of total artistic reinvention in pop—not only in musical style, but in performing personality. Up to that time, the assumption was that fans wanted a degree of continuity in their stars. The Beatles had broken through this assumption with a few changes during their short career, but Bowie smashed artistic continuity entirely: Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, etc. A review of his album covers is a roster of these personas.

Above is an image of Bowie as Ziggy Stardust. Next to it is an image of Lady Gaga from her current ARTPOP album period (all caps from her; it’s that important).

All artistically painted faces are not related, of course. But Gaga acknowledges David Bowie as an artistic influence. This presumably explains the various Gagas during her brief career: the artist dressed in meat, the artist emerging from a plastic womb, etc. Change all the clothes and makeup you want, and say all the right things that make you seem like an artist (Bowie, by the way, let his style do his talking), and it still comes down to music.

So, Gaga fans, if you are reading this, listen up, literally. While she may be copying only his approach to style and not his music, nothing she has done measures up artistically to Bowie. This isn’t a song-by-song, style-by-style comparison. It is a reminder, not just about Gaga but about music new and old, that tastes vary, but excellence doesn’t. With the release of the rest of ARTPOP, maybe there will be some artistic gems. Gaga is actually a talented singer and performer, so it is possible.

But for the moment, and pending further developments: Gaga, we’ve seen David Bowie, we’ve heard David Bowie, and you are no David Bowie. Or Isaac Newton.

(For fans of Isaac Newton, who may be wondering why his picture isn’t included, below is something from his CALCULUS period.)


The Republican Health Care Plan Is Obamacare

National Health System for America - Heritage Foundation (1989)

Say something once, why say it again?
Talking Heads, Psycho Killer

Sometimes making a point means repeating yourself and not saying you’re sorry.

The current situation is that Newt Gingrich yesterday criticized attempts by some Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act, saying that the party had to offer alternative plans and unfortunately had not one idea.

He is of course wrong. As pointed out in an earlier post Heritagecare, the Republicans at one time did have a big idea about health care reform. It was developed at the conservative Heritage Foundation in 1989, as a market-based alternative to any sort of single-payer national health plan. The centerpiece of this reform was a national mandate requiring everybody to have insurance. With some refinement, this Heritage plan is at the heart of the Affordable Care Act. Obamacare is a version of Heritagecare.

Following the development of the Heritage plan, this is what happened.

Bill Clinton was elected President. First Lady Hillary Clinton promoted the adoption of national single-payer universal health care. This proved to be a political disaster and embarrassment. Health care was taken off the table for years.

Mitt Romney was elected Governor of Massachusetts. He used the Heritage plan—a Republican idea— as the basis for a state health care program. By all accounts, it was a success.

Barack Obama was elected President. He made health care reform a priority, but with single-payer dead in the water—maybe forever—he promoted a program based on the Heritage plan. As proof of concept for the Affordable Care Act, he could point to Massachusetts, where such an idea had worked.

Republicans intent on eviscerating Obama and his presidency used what they called “Obamacare” as a prime example of totalitarian socialism in action. They ignored the conservative origins of the plan. These Republicans were aghast when the Supreme Court narrowly allowed the plan to proceed as constitutional, but continue to do whatever they can to thwart it, including the dozens of attempts to repeal it—the same useless attempts that Gingrich criticized.

Mitt Romney ran for President. He could no longer embrace Heritagecare/Romneycare/Obamacare. He explained that while the plan might be good for Massachusetts, it is no good for America. He was never directly confronted with a version of the question: Are you serious?

Newt Gingrich is a very complicated man and politician, but he should be given his due. He is joining a chorus of mostly old-school Republicans trying to tell the Young Turks to get real. In this case, getting real could actually work to the Republican advantage, though they seem to be too ideology-blinded (and Obama-hate blinded) to see it.

People really do have some serious and legitimate qualms about the Affordable Care Act, and its implementation is bound to be a rocky road. If the Republicans looked back to their own Heritage plan, and if they took seriously the lip service of “compassionate conservatism”, they might actually be able to offer some constructive, earnest and enlightened adjustments—all for the sake of the general welfare of the country. As it is, that won’t be happening now or anytime soon.

Bandon by the Sea and Living Forever

Continuum Center
This is about a beach town and the possibility of living forever.

Bandon is a small beach town (about 3,000 people) on the southern coast of Oregon. It is special because of its beauty and spirit, including extraordinary rock outcroppings and stacks of bleached drift logs that hover in the sun and occasional fog. It is also special because few know about it. It is far enough from anywhere—248 miles south of Portland, 465 north of San Francisco—that there are other tourist stops better known and, to some, more exciting.

Bandon 4

The New Age is an ignored topic that deserves more than this brief discussion. In the 1970s, the movement toward a new consciousness coalesced around the concept of a New Age, a new era of human enlightenment and evolution that would move us forward, leaving some of the darkest aspects of our sometimes-sorry history behind. This included not only spirituality and religion, but psychology, art, music, mythology, earth, food, sex—anything that could help transform us and the way we live. By name, “New Age” has fallen into disuse; but as a matter of fact, many of the ideas and expressions are now part of our cultural fabric.

In 1979, philanthropist Hugh Harrison visited the Continuum Exhibit at JFK University in California. The exhibit showcased the Immortality Principle, the possibility of consciousness continuing after death. He was impressed and put the exhibit on tour, and also established a home for it in Bandon, in a building on Main Street called the Continuum Center. It was a splendid multimedia exhibit, state of the art for its time.

Continuum Book
One of faces of the New Age movement that is powerful though sometimes mocked is its music. New Age music was once a common category, though it has fallen into disuse. No good cultural development goes untortured. New Age music at its start and at its best is an attempt to coax, drag, push, pull and otherwise move your consciousness by the ear. In less talented hands it has been oversimplified and underpowered, but no different than with any other musical genre.

When I walked into the Continuum Center in Bandon years ago, I saw the oversized graphics and read about a vision of consciousness. But the very first thing I noticed was the music playing. It was, it turned out, the sublime Angel’s Flight by Shadowfax, and it was the first New Age music I had ever heard. The pictures and text of that visit are a little indistinct in memory, but that song isn’t, maybe because I’ve listened to it a few hundred times since.

A recent visit to Bandon, for the first time in a long time, revealed that not much had changed, a good thing. Maybe it was not a surprise that the Continuum Center as an exhibit is gone. But the building is still there, transformed into a small shopping plaza, but as you’ll see above, the name remains. Spirit abides.

So if any of this is interesting, here’s what to do. Listen to Angel’ Flight and other transportive music by Shadowfax and other worthy New Age artists. Learn a little more about the possibilities of consciousness and change, if you aren’t already doing so. Does consciousness survive death? Who knows, but what a beautiful question.

Last but not least, if your travels take you to the Pacific coast, visit Bandon. Unlike the Continuum Center exhibit, which lasted a few years, the beach and rocks and waves go on and on and on, waiting for you. They will wait forever.

Jane Austen To Be American Idol Judge

Jane Austen

Jane Austen is actually dead; has been for almost two centuries. Whether or not that would stop American Idol from circulating rumors about her possible addition to the ever-changing panel of judges is unknown.

There is a new Idol connection to one of the most popular of British authors. The headline from the Daily Mail:

Anonymous donor gives $150,000 to stop U.S. singer Kelly Clarkson buying Jane Austen ring and keep in the UK

An anonymous donor has handed a Jane Austen museum £100,000 so that it may try and buy one of the author’s rings back from U.S. singer Kelly Clarkson who wants to take it out of Britain.

Earlier this month, the British government placed a temporary export ban on the gold-and-turquoise ring in the hope that money could be found to keep it in Britain.

The Jane Austen’s House museum said it had raised £103,200 of the £152,450 asking price since launching a fundraising campaign on Friday, most of it from a single anonymous donation.

Clarkson, a big Austen fan who reportedly owns a first edition of Persuasion, was top bidder for the ring in a Sotheby’s auction. The museum appreciates that the attention of an adoring pop star will help further raise awareness of the already-trendy author (see the newly-released indie film Austenland). But it also bemoans how much of Austen’s legacy has already left Britain, and how little remains there.

Two of the many thoughts this sparks:

Is there an Austen-inspired Kelly Clarkson single or album in the offing? One can imagine tracks inspired by each of the novels.

Should American Idol give up on judges with musical backgrounds (or in at least one case, a comedy/talk show one), and go instead with literary types? It could be current authors (J.K. Rowling, for example). Deceased authors may be out of bounds, although technically they could go with holograms or “tribute” judges pretending, i.e., if Kelly Clarkson won’t be a judge as herself, she could appear as Jane Austen. Given some of the judging antics past, this sort of thing might not be a reach too far.