PCA/ACA, The Ship Who Sang, and Geek Academia

Next week is the annual Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference, which is my most favorite academic conference, and one that I attend each year. I try to alternate my presentations between sci-fi and music, thus ensuring that my most favorite subjects get equal treatment in my own little academic universe. This year, as you may have read in a previous post, I’m presenting on Mastodon’s “The Motherload” video in a paper I’ve decided to call “The Dialectic of T/werk: Hegel, Marx, and Womanist Agency in Mastodon’s ‘The Motherload’ Video.” I’m excessively delighted with my title. My original intention today was to share a little bit of this paper with you, but I’ve recently had an inquiry from a publisher, so now I’m not sure that I can post it on a blog, because of possible future copyright, blah blah blah. So, I’m going to give you an excerpt from a previous paper, from a year that I presented on sci-fi, that still deals with music. This paper was entitled “Brainships and Dragonriders: Posthumanism and Gender in the Work of Anne McCaffrey.”

Before I give you some snippets, I want to add that the paper was inspired by the surprising amount of commentary after Anne McCaffrey’s death that argued that she wasn’t “really” a feminist writer. Many arguments stated that her feminism was out-dated (a rather odd argument, considering that she was writing in the 60s and 70s. Isn’t everything out-dated when we look back?). I contend, however, that her feminism is groundbreaking, and the she was the first post-humanist feminist writer in science fiction.

Also, I’m really hoping that I inspire you to read the works of Anne McCaffrey, if you haven’t already. Not only do many of her books deal with music in some form, but she also was a contributor to the collection Carmen Miranda’s Ghost is Haunting Space Station Three, a collection of sci-fi short stories that was based on a filk-song.

It just doesn’t get much geekier than that.

So, without futher ado, here’s part of my argument for why Anne McCaffrey’s feminism was radically ground-breaking (and, please forgive any citation problems–for conference presentations, I sometimes make notations, not formal citations):

Perhaps the best example, however, of McCaffrey’s gender subversion and radical post-feminisism is Helva, the protagonist of The Ship Who Sang. The Ship Who Sang, published in 1969, is the first book of the Ship Who series. The novel consists of five short stories, all featuring Helva, that were published between 1961 and 1969. One additional story, “Honeymoon,” was published in the short story collection Get Off the Unicorn in 1977. The rest of the Ship Who series was written with various collaborators from 1992-1994 and by separate authors in 1996 and 1997 to make a total of seven full novels. The premise shared in the Ship Who universe is that persons who are born grossly handicapped/disfigured, and without use of their bodies, can become “an encapsulated brain” (Ship Who Sang 1) by installing their bodies into a shell. Shell people, as they are called, are then hooked up to space ships to become the ship, or to cities to become the city. They are not just cyborgs, but cyborgs whose entire “original” body is encased to become the brain of a new, mechanical body. Helva is a shell person who is installed in a spaceship, indentured to the government (Federated Sentient Planets) who paid for her operations and transformation. Traditionally paired with a brawn, an unaltered mobile human, Helva, like all brainships, takes jobs and accomplishes missions for the FSP to work off her debt and become an independent contractor.

In The Ship Who Sang, Helva’s body, as well as her gender, are called into question in the first sentence: “She was born a thing and as such would be condemned if she failed to pass the encephalograph required of all newborn babies” (1). She, the gendered self, is a thing, not a girl or female, but an it. Gender is disembodied from the start. Helva retains use of her infant body for a few months before she is encapsulated, surgically altered, and given her shell. Within her shell, or rather, as her shell, she can manipulate attached tools to perform tasks; when she is installed into her ship and becomes the ship, she uses those same synaptic connections to control the ship. The ship becomes her body, and her body, in the shell, becomes the brain of the ship. For Helva, her mechanization helps her subvert her gender early on–as all shell people are encouraged to develop hobbies, Helva becomes interested in singing. What she doesn’t realize is that vocal ranges tend to be gender specific. As a cyborg, singing, for Helva, is a matter of physics–her range is not limited by her physical body. So she creates a singing range that includes male ranges: baritone, bass, and tenor, for example. During her first brawn courtship (where the brain chooses a partner), Jennan is the brawn who discovers her ability to sing male roles; later, after Helva chooses him as a partner, he literally fights anyone who mocks her singing until she is known, with admiration, as the ship who sang. Not only does Helva subvert gender, through her cyborgism, by choosing which ranges to sing, her brawn, Jennan, fights for her ability to do so. Gender is something Helva chooses, and her posthumanism, her literal cyborgness, is what gives her the ability to choose.

Her performance of gender, and the destabilization of gender, becomes more pronounced when Helva is given a mission to take a troupe of actors to Beta Corvi. An alien species, the Beta Corviki, live in a lethal methane gas environment and have developed new ways of harnessing energy. In exchange for their technology, they want the plays of Shakespeare (as they have no dramatic arts). Helva is cast as the Nurse (after she demonstrates she could also play male parts, or, as one of the actors exclaims, she could be the whole play herself. Her shipbody does not preclude her from acting, because her consciousness, with the rest of the actors, will be transferred to a Beta-Corvikian body on the planet. Not only can Helva choose which gender to perform, she can perform that gender in a body completely different from her mechanical body–an alien body–which she thinks her “self” into (as do the rest of the actors). If that isn’t disembodiment enough, in “Honeymoon,” the one Helva story after The Ship Who Sang, Helva and her new brawn, Niall, return to Beta Corvi, have the Beta Corvikian version of sex, which is a literal merging of two physical bodies. In the middle of it, the automatic mind-transfer recall is triggered, and they are brought back into their human and mechanical bodies–mostly respectively. Helva and Niall now share physical sensations, like taste–Helva can taste the coffee Niall is drinking. This is beyond posthuman and radical disembodiment because it’s more than an extension of consciousness through technology; it’s a combination of consciousness in two shared bodies. Posthumanism, and radically extended consciousness, allows Helva and Niall not only to choose genders, but to choose to combine their very selves as well. Helva’s dis-embodied gender(s) demonstrates that McCaffrey’s feminism operates through a posthuman paradigm that subverts gender norms by exploring how disembodiment can be re-gendering.

There’s clearly more to this paper, but I hope you get the gist. And that you immediately go out and read The Ship Who Sang (which is soooo good!) and the entire Dragonriders of Pern series, and everything else she has ever written. And then, I hope you write papers on sci-fi and geek rock for academic conferences because hey, that’s what we do, right?

Guest Post: They Might Be Giants, They Might…ROCK? by Barry Hall

I’ve known my friend Patrick since 1990, and he is, without question, the most dedicated and loyal fan of They Might Be Giants that I’ve had the pleasure to know. In early 1996, Patrick made me a cassette tape of TMBG songs (titled “They Might Be Mixed”), and that spring, I attended my first TMBG show at Trax in Charlottesville, Va..

Now, a confession: I’ve been a card carrying member of The KISS Army for 37+ years, which at first glance appears to be the polar opposite of Geek Rock and TMBG. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. I mean, the instruments that stood out the most for me in TMBG’s music, particularly the first few records, were a keyboard, a drum machine and an accordion. Sure, there was guitar in there too, but I wasn’t expecting a “Rock Show” as I made my way into Trax.

I’ll use just two moments from the evening to illustrate my surprise:

“Why Does The Sun Shine,”  in its studio version, is a very quiet, unassuming song that features primarily xylophone and accordion. I believe this song opened the show. If it didn’t officially start the show, the song was featured early in the set and was the first moment where I (literally) sat up straight on my barstool and paid very close attention to what was happening onstage.

Instead of a quiet “science lesson” explaining all about the wonders of the sun, John & John (You’re  reading this blog, so you need no last names, right?) ripped into the number at breakneck, almost thrash-metal-like speed, playing loud and obnoxious guitar. I was shocked! Flansburgh literally screamed the lyrics at one point. It was wonderful. I didn’t know what to expect, but I wasn’t expecting THAT! And, to his credit, Patrick never hinted at what the show would be like, so my surprise was genuine.

The other moment came about midway through the set, and it was from an album that had not even been released yet. The song was “Till My Head Falls Off” from the (then forthcoming) album “Factory Showroom.” No one in the audience had heard the song yet (unless of course they’d seen a previous show on this tour) and, for me at least, this track combined three elements that make it, almost twenty years later, still one of my all-time favorite TMBG songs:

1) Smart, laugh out loud lyrics (“There were eighty-seven Advil in the bottle, now there’s thirty left/I ate forty-seven so what happened to the other ten?”)
2) Great, bombastic drums. (They don’t do “BIG DRUMS” often, but when they do, they always deliver.)
3) A great guitar solo that sounds almost like it doesn’t belong, yet fits perfectly.

This “quiet” duo with their accordion and keyboard literally rocked that night, and thus made me a fan for life. I’ve seen TMBG so often that I’m not sure on the exact number of shows. It’s at least fifteen, but probably more.

I see them whenever I get the chance, and they never disappoint. I can say, because of They Might Be Giants, this card carrying member of The KISS Army is also a proud fan of Geek Rock!

Barry Hall has been a radio disc jockey, an executive producer, the manager of a rock band and drummer. Above all, he is a fan of all kinds of music, and believes that music is a necessary part of daily life. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longarm04.

Mastodon, Geek Metal, and Geek Rock

I’m currently working on a paper for the annual Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference on Mastodon’s video for “The Motherload.” The working title of this paper, by the way, is “The Dialectic of T/werk: Hegel, Marx, and Womanist Agency in Mastodon’s “The Motherload” Video.” (I’m very pleased with my title.) But the upshot of all this writing and planning for my paper  is that I’ve been thinking a lot about Mastodon recently. Their most recent album, Once More ‘Round the Sun (which features “The Motherload”), is excellent. One of the things I particularly enjoy is the exuberance running throughout this album. While Mastodon is always good, there’s an energy here, almost a frenetic, desperate joy, providing an undercurrent that lifts their artistry to another level. Always different, and always fresh, I appreciate the ways that Mastodon continually subverts their genre.

Which brings me to the question, are Mastodon geeky? Could they be considered geek metal? Geek metal falls into the same genre bending as geek rock and nerdcore, with the same result. Much like geek rock has fallen by the wayside of rock, geek metal remains mostly subsumed within metal. Even Urban Dictionary’s definition is poor, although if there was any doubt about the marginalization of homosexuals, the existence of hate speech, or the instability of hyper-masculinity, these definitions clear that up. Geek metal is metal by virtue of it’s subject matter, typically fantasy, and is somehow, as Urban Dictionary seems to imply, “lesser” than “normal” metal. This implication, I think, is because metal tends to be associated with a performance of hyper-masculinity, and any deviation from that is discouraged.

Which brings me back to Mastodon. These guys are not your (stereo)typical metal band. They innovate in unexpected ways. They keep it fresh. They have videos with clowns (or, in the case of “The Motherload,” a great deal of twerking). They subvert the genre of metal which is a subversive genre to begin with. But are they geeky? I say yes. Their acclaimed album Leviathan is about Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby-Dick. Crack the Skye is another example, addressing astral travel and Stephen Hawking’s theories of wormholes. They wrote the score for the movie Jonah Hex, based on the DC comic, and released on an EP titled Jonah Hex: Revenge Gets Ugly. From great literature, to great physics, to great comics, Mastodon knows their way around geekdom.

But is that all it takes to make geek metal geeky? User Zipzop 5565 lists lists the Top 5 Geek Metal bands on Sputnik Music, and Mastodon is not on the list. However, neither is DragonForce, who are perhaps the quintessential geek metal band. The list includes Dethklok, Anthrax, Swashbuckle, HORSE the band, and Wormed. I’m only familiar with Anthrax and Dethklok, and neither would have come to mind immediately as geek metal. However, this user provides justification for his choices, which not only make sense, but which would also include Mastodon in the category of geek metal. However, much like geek rock, the geekiness is the ear of the beholder as much as it’s in the music itself. Whether Mastodon consider themselves geeky is another question entirely. But this geek is happy to call them geek metal, as an accolade and tribute to their brainy metal sensibilities.

Juice Lee’s Final Fantasy

Nerdcore rapper origin stories tend to follow two basic archetypes:

  1. Nerds are seeking an outlet for their nerdiness, and find that outlet in rap.
  2. Rappers have a lot of nerdy interests, and begin to incorporate those interests in their music.

Often they have a conversion story, a moment that they realized what they really wanted to do with their art. Cincinnati-based nerdcore rapper Juice Lee can pinpoint his conversion moment exactly, to a 2010 meeting with legendary nerdcore rapper Mega Ran.

In Juice Lee’s debut album, Metanoia, you can hear Juice straining against the conventional topics of rap. From the opening track, “Deaf Ears,” he is hyper-aware of his difficulty in finding an audience, and in the ways he is violating the stereotypes of rap. Though it has traditional tracks like “Police State,” the stronger ones are those like “Metanoia,” calling himself to a more educated and intelligent rap. When I interviewed Juice recently, he described the experience of recording before his moment of nerdcore revelation, where the local rappers couldn’t understand what he was doing, but the nerdier sound engineer got it exactly. The entire album has a subtext of frustration.

It’s hard to imagine how Juice could have continued. He either had to sell out his voice to an audience that wasn’t interested in it, or he would have to accept his music continuing to fall on “Deaf Ears.” All that changed (not when the Fire Nation attacked) when he was introduced to Mega Ran in 2010.  Suddenly he learned that there was a name for what he did, and that there was already a nerdcore audience waiting for him.

This revelation did not just change his artistic direction; it unleashed him. His next album, The Epic of John Fong, is a rap opera fan fiction of an obscure kung fu film — about as high-concept and nerdy an album as you could imagine. Juice Lee jumped into the deep end of nerdcore, embracing long-form storytelling and relishing geeky obsessions. With Mega Ran as a mentor, he was positioned to make a serious impact.

Then, to hear Juice Lee tell it, he squandered his opportunity. He took relationships for granted, and didn’t hustle like nerdcore artists need to do to connect to their audience. His next albums, It’s Unclear at this Point and Double Dragon (with I-EL) , never caught fire like he had hoped. Juice made a lot of music (that album is huge at 30 tracks), but he assumed that things would just fall into place, and that just didn’t happen.

Here is where his love for retro-gaming didn’t just provide fodder for his music; it informs his career choices. Juice took inspiration from the story of Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of the Final Fantasy game franchise. According the the myth, Sakaguchi was frustrated with how things were going at Square, where he was the Director of Planning and Development, and he had decided to quit game development and go back to school — but he decided to create just one more game, (hence the “Final” in Final Fantasy). The game was a hit, and Sakaguchi’ went from being a failed game developer to a legend.

Juice’s latest album, The Reverie, is an homage to Sakaguchi, and is his own Final Fantasy. Rather than just give up, Juice decided to pour everything into The Reverie. The first-person narrative of the album can be heard either as the voice of Hironobu Sakaguchi, or of Juice Lee himself. Using all the XP he has gained in the last few years, Juice produces tracks like “Con-Soul” that act as meditations on the role that gaming has had on him and a generation.

Although he has good single tracks like those on It’s Unclear at this Point, Juice Lee is at his best when he steps out of himself and does long-form storytelling for others, such as John Fong and Hironobu Sakaguchi. In other words, he draws his strength from roleplaying, allowing his characters to speak for him. It is through his reverie that Juice Lee finds hope for his final fantasy.

Help Us Disney — You’re Our Only Hope!

2014 was a dismal year for film, and it bodes ill for the future. Looking at the top-grossing films of the year (and since it is show business, this is generally a good indicator of what will be made in the future), all of the top 10 were franchise films, and you’ve got to get down to #15, Interstellar, before you hit the first non-franchise movie. Of course, this is not to say that no good films were made this year – 1941 is brought to mind, a year in which the dreadful How Green Was My Valley won five Oscars, yet The Maltese Falcon came in 30th in the earnings, and Citizen Kane came in 57th.

With filmgoers (that’s you and me, folks) voting with their dollars for more franchise films, and not for great original films like The Good Lie, we can expect the next few years to be all franchises. Movies will be a lot of McDonalds, with a dismal sameness to them. Even more depressing is the sheer number of top-grossing movies in which nothing happened at all – consider, for example, Mockingjay, Part I, and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, both movies which consist primarily of reaction shocks from the protagonists because they have nothing else to do.

Great franchise films are hard to make. It’s not impossible for a filmmaker to sneak a good movie through – (1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon is a wonderful example of using thoughtful camera work to make a great creature-feature), but it’s just more difficult.

Let’s say, for example, that you were tasked with making the next Marvel movie. The aesthetics are pretty much already set, so you can’t deviate far (a happy except this year was Guardians of the Galaxy, but it had to be set so far away from the rest of the Marvel universe to make that possible). Characters and their arcs have to be adapted from an existing body of comic book work. From the moment you sign your contract, you’re shackled in setting, character, and plot.

Five years ago, if you had said to me, “Disney will acquire Star Wars, and this will be the best film news in years,” I’d have said you were crazy. And yet, here I am saying just that myself. Although there will no doubt be a few happy surprises in the next few years, our hope for franchises lies in Disney’s Star Wars.

Star Wars still holds, I think, the opportunity to make good, even great, films. Yes, the aesthetic look and sounds of the Star Wars Universe are set, but by relegating the old Expanded Universe to “Star Wars Legends,” Lucasfilm and Disney have an opportunity for good storytelling with dynamic characters and dramatic tension. Everything is really only bound by what came before in the story, and what is to come is no longer preordained. Setting is determined, but plot and character is still free.

This doesn’t mean the films will be great; we are just as likely to get another Phantom Menace as an Empire Strikes Back. But the freedom filmmakers have open up new territory to explore sophisticated ideas, to create thematic parallels with other films, to make Star Wars films aimed at various audiences, from wacky droid adventure musical cartoons for children, to sophisticated character meditations for adults. Could it be a horrible disaster? Of course … just I like to think we’ve got a new hope.

Geek Rockin’ Around the Xmas Tree

Before Guitars and Geeks goes on a brief hiatus this holiday season, I wanted to leave you with one last post.

And it’s going to be reflective.

This year saw the publication of Geek Rock: An  Exploration of Music and Subculture, and, subsequently, the start of this column (yay!). Alex and I worked on Geek Rock for nearly two years before finally seeing it in print (which, by the way, is still one of the the coolest things ever). Geek Rock, as I’m sure you’ve already read in the introduction, began as a panel at the PCA/ACA conference. Despite our panel being scheduled across from George Takei’s keynote speech (really?! A geek rock panel across from George Takei?!), we received a great deal of fantastic feedback and participation. We pitched the idea of a book to Scarecrow (now Rowman and Littlefield), who had already heard about our panel by the time we got to the book exhibit. So we crafted a CFP, created an email address, and waited. And then the submissions came in. We were floored by the reception our CFP garnered, the quality of the submissions, the enthusiasm we received. We chose the widest scope, most representative selections, and highest quality essays to comprise Geek Rock. We edited with diligence. We went through several revisions. We dealt with lyric copyright issues. We met some truly awesome people (and I want to give another shout out to Brad Roberts here, for paying copyright fees for his own lyrics so that Paul Cantrell could include them in his chapter), read some truly awesome writing, and created a truly awesome book.

Geek Rock made my year.

It made my year before, too, really, but this year was the year we went to print. It was the year of turning in the final manuscript, submitting all the paperwork (and there’s a good deal of paper involved in publishing an edited collection), and reviewing the final proofs. It was the year that I came home to a box on my doorstep (which I nearly fell over in my enthusiasm), and I held our finished book in my hands. I probably would have kept the box, too, if my dog hadn’t ate it. Seriously. I geek-hoard things sometimes. And this year, it’s been hard not to.

It’s been a good year for geeks in general. Arrow and The Flash have been spectacular, there’s the new Star Wars trailer (eeeee!), the latest Borderlands game, and a whole bunch of stuff that I haven’t been able to keep up with because I’m busy working and writing and trying to read whenever I can. And there is so. much. music. I wish I had the money to buy everything, but I’ve been reduced to Spotify for now. And going to shows. (Support local, y’all.)

Next year, I predict,  will be stupendous. I’ll be presenting at PCA on the new Mastodon video for “The Motherload” (so let me know if you’re attending!), I’ll be reading and listening to music as much as humanly possible, not to mention starting some new podcasts (Dear Sugar!), and there’s the usual zazen, and geeking, and maybe even writing a new book proposal at some point. There will definitely be writing, and if I don’t see you elsewhere in the ‘verse, I hope to see you here, at Guitars and Geeks. Maybe I’ll even see you writing–I think it’s time to have some guest columnists and find out what some of YOU think about geek rock. Comment if you’re interested! And until then, I hope you have the happiest and geekiest of holidays!  See you next year!

 

A Defense of One Magic Christmas

Let’s be clear on this point: My love of Disney’s One Magic Christmas is definitely a minority opinion. Mostly the film was over-looked, having made less than $14 million when it was released in 1985. The dreadful Santa Claus: The Movie, released the very same Christmas season, made much more than that. No one saw this, and those few who saw it didn’t like it. Even the Rotten Tomatoes round-up of 50% is inflated – the film has only four reviews, and one of the positive ones is clearly ironic, calling it “A holiday flop destined to become a cult favorite among cynics who love it when well-intentioned, sincere family films fail miserably.” Ouch!

Ironically, I think the reason this film is so poorly treated is that it is way more ambitious than what we expect from a mid-80s live-action Disney film with the words “magic” and “Christmas” in the title. What we are expecting, I think, is something where some orphans save Christmas and ride around in Santa’s sleigh with a wise-cracking elf to guide them, with the ultimate message being some stupid, vapid thing like “be true to yourself” or “it’s important to work together as a team” or “run out and buy all our licensed merchandise!”

Beware: There be plenty o’ spoilers ahead.

Instead, we get a grittier version of It’s a Wonderful Life. It doesn’t look magical at all. The ’80s didn’t really look like a music video – it looked like this film. Snow on streets turned to slush. Cashiers wore red smocks that were neither flattering nor ridiculous. Old cars weren’t all beaters, they were just old. When I saw this in the theaters in 1985, I clearly remember being surprised to see a very real-looking portrayal of middle class life. Of course, the economy had really started to improve by 1985, so the depiction is probably a little closer to 1980, but this is what it was like.

The protagonist of the story is Ginny Grainger (Mary Steenburgen), mother of two whose husband Jack is good-hearted but unemployed. Ginny is working a job she hates as a cashier, and they are facing eviction shortly after Christmas, so not surprisingly, Ginny isn’t in a very jolly mood. Immediately we see one reason critics are puzzled by this film – we expect Christmas movies to be about kids, or the cheerful dad, not about a middle-aged woman struggling to survive in a tight economy. It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol are both about adult men, but one is almost cartoonishly generous, while the other is almost cartoonishly stingy. There is nothing cartoonish about Ginny. She has lost her faith, and her stinginess is out of desperate fear for her family’s future, not out of any meanness of heart. She’s scared.

So now Harry Dean Stanton shows up as an angel named Gideon (though it is made clear this is not Gideon from the Bible, but rather a dead soul who has become a Christmas angel). He’s not silly like Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life, but rather quiet and a bit sad. He has come to deal with Ginny’s loss of faith, but from the very beginning we see that the path is very frightening and will require sacrifice. In one early scene, we see him miraculously protect the children from an errant hockey puck, but that miracle ends in a broken window – there are consequences.

Ginny and her husband argue about money and his dream to open a bicycle shop, and when he goes for a long walk around the block all the Christmas lights in the neighborhood go out at once. Later, we come to realize that this rather understated magical moment is an important turning point in the film.

From this point on, the stakes get higher and higher for Ginny, and she goes through real loss. Her husband is killed in a bank robbery, and when the robber flees, he steals the car the children are in. In the subsequent chase, the car goes off a bridge into an icy river, apparently killing the robber and the children.

Through previous conversations about angels, we have come to understand that Ginny no longer believes in any kind of afterlife, and so when Ginny returns to her empty house having lost everyone she loves, we feel her hopelessness as she weeps in the bathroom. Soon after, we find that Gideon spirited the children of the car before it went into the river, and we get a joyous reunion with the children, only to have that joy crushed when Ginny has to tell her children that their father has died and will never come back.

In response to learning of her father’s death, the daughter Abbie (a very young Elisabeth Harnois) runs away, and Gideon takes her to the North Pole where she goes to Santa’s workshop. Here is where we might expect more typical Disney fare, but even Santa’s workshop is marked by grief, albeit hopeful grief, when we learn that elves do not make the toys, but rather the departed souls, including the janitor of Abbie’s school.

Santa gives Abbie a letter Ginny had written to him when she was a little girl to return to Ginny. Not surprisingly, Ginny is stunned to get the letter, and responds with the first hopeful sign she has made in the entire film – she mails a letter to Santa that Abbie had previously given her, but she had neglected to send. At this point, all the Christmas lights in the neighborhood turn back on, and her husband Jack comes up the street, alive. Apparently, all of the events since the lights previously went out had been some sort of vision.

From the point on, the film is a happy one, culminating in a visit from Santa Claus. We have various scenes of Ginny making right all of her wrong choices from before, even to the point of giving her husband permission to use their savings to go after his life’s dream.

It is in these “setting the world right” scenes that we see an act of understated heroism from Ginny. She buys a camp stove for $50 from the robber in the previous timeline, thus giving him the hope he needs to resist robbing the bank. At first glance, this might seem like a maudlin moment of Ginny doing a good deed, until we remember that Ginny just experienced this very same man gunning down her husband and kidnapping her children. This isn’t just Ginny’s compassion toward some penniless beggar; this is literally loving your enemy.

Perhaps the most important part of the ending of the film is that nothing has changed from before timeline split. Santa doesn’t bring her husband a job. They will still be evicted from their home in a matter of days. She’s still working as a cashier in a job she hates. Unlike It’s a Wonderful Life, no one shows up with donations to save them from financial ruin. Scrooge doesn’t give Bob Cratchett a raise and deliver the biggest goose around to save Tiny Tim. Life is still hard; all that has changed is Ginny’s perspective.

In the end, One Magic Christmas is a film about hope, real hope in real circumstances. For a film with magic and Santa Claus, there is very little true fantasy in the film. And for that reason, I love One Magic Christmas. It’s not about visiting Santa; it’s about fixing our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

 

The Soundtrack Awakens

As I’m sure you’ve heard, the new Star Wars teaser trailer was released this weekend. If you haven’t seen it, then it’s really strange that you read Guitars and Geeks, and you should probably see it immediately:

Having just finished most of Fringe (and by most, I mean I couldn’t make it through Season Five. I tried. I may try again. But wow. And not a good wow.), I was trepidatious about J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars. I still am, frankly, but the teaser trailer (not to mention his amazing Star Trek reboot), has alleviated my anxieties, far more than a teaser trailer really should. Why? I have no qualms about admitting this. It’s because of his use of the sound track. More specifically, it’s because of the exquisite partnering of John Williams’ score with each shot from the film. With each shot, we get a snippet of Williams’ score, offering anxiety, urgency, foreboding. The sounds of the action overlay most of the score, and the mysterious narrator teases us with information. And then, after another dark pause where the screen blanks, the Millennium Falcon sweeps across the sky with the sweep of music into the main theme, loud, prominent, triumphant, and promising.

I cheered and shouted the first time I saw it.

I cheer and shout each time I re-watch it, too. It’s hard not to. The Star Wars theme is iconic. It’s the triumph of good over evil, it’s the struggle of the underdog, it’s fighting the good fight, it’s the oppressed overcoming the oppressor. It’s the sonic embodiment of myth. It’s epically epic. And not just the Star Wars theme, but all of John Williams’ principal motifs (and many of his minor motifs). Star Wars is a modern mythos, and Williams’ music reveals how deeply our cultural consciousness has absorbed this epic. Nearly everyone knows the theme, the motif for the Darth Vader, the motifs for Leia and Han, for the Force. And many people know the motifs for the Jawas, the Ewoks, Yoda, C-3P0 and R2-D2, and the Sith. Some of the newer motifs, for Anakin, the Droid Invasion, and Anakin and Padme, for example, aren’t quite as deep in our cultural consciousness at this point, and I doubt anyone would be quite as familiar with them outside of the context of those movies. We will probably not hear any marching bands play them anytime soon. But the Star Wars theme, and the Imperial March, condense and evoke the original trilogy so well that only a few snippets of each are necessary to recognize them.

And the really awesome part is that even 15 years ago, that wasn’t always the case. If Episodes I, II, and III did anything for the Star Wars franchise, it was to make it more recognizable than ever before. I remember college marathons of the original trilogy, on VHS, no less, with the fabulous Catherine Harris (now Brown), an awesome friend and the only other person I knew who could reliably be counted on to marathon the original trilogy (at the time, the word “original” was unnecessary) on any given college night. There were people in my residence hall who had never seen any Star Wars movie and who were not able to recognize any snippets of music, much less any of the more minor motifs. And while people who have never seen a single Star Wars movie still exist today, they are much fewer in number (possibly because there are now six movies, instead of just three), and I imagine their existences to be wispy and unfulfilled.

Commercialism, of course, must account for some of this. Someone figured out that geeks and nerds tend also to be collectors, and began marketing accordingly.  But, what was once unpopular culture has now become popular culture, and comics and sci-fiction and fantasy are now part of mainstream media and mainstream culture. Even the Internet, and computers, once the staple of reclusive geekdom, are everyday and mundane. And while a new Star Wars movie isn’t mundane, it’s possibly even more enthusiastically awaited now than the release of The Phantom Menace in 1999, which brought an abundance of Jedis to movie theatres across America. And part of that enthusiasm is due to the mundanity of things like the Internet, and Facebook, which let geekdoms flourish in their home medium, creating cultural staples and reinforcing the great American Epic. As memes spread, as the Imperial March and Star Wars theme proliferate and multiply, their significance deepens as the motifs to the light and the dark sides of the Force spread to any representation of good or evil. The Jedi Kittens are a perfect example. While the first relied on light saber sound effects (as recognizable as the music), the second, Jedi Kittens Strike Back, additionally created a score reminiscent of Williams (but without any actual copyright infringement), playing on the motif for the Sith.

Abrams’ trailer not only recognizes this, it accentuates it. The music sweeps as the Millennium Falcon sweeps, bursting into the theme at the apex of its flight. The music in the teaser trailer nods to the prequels, in the scene with the Sith, before it evokes the original trilogy with the Millennium Falcon. Each scene is matched with a perfect sonic moment. Because it’s sound that thrills us, that evokes, that lures, that inspires, just as much as the images. When The Phantom Menace was released, I went to theatre early that morning to buy tickets. At the 7pm showing, Jedis and Rebels and Imperial troops and civilians all filed into the seats. The air was electrified, as if by light sabers. We clenched our popcorns and sodas.  And we sat, expectantly, silently. It wasn’t the the words the moved us. It wasn’t the blue text reading “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away . . .” that sent popcorn flying as everyone leapt to their feet, shouting, applauding, stomping, and cheering through the opening sequence.

It was the music.

The Troubling Allegations Against Jian Ghomeshi

I am a long time fan of Moxy Früvous.

I first heard Bargainville when it came out in 1993. At the time, I hung out at my favorite local record store, called Soundhole, on a near-daily basis. The store specialized in punk rock, but my predilection for geek rock, and my TMBG fandom, were well known by the store’s proprietor, Greg, who received a great deal of my hard earned fast food money. One evening, I walked in and Greg played Bargainville over the store’s loudspeakers. “I got this earlier this week,” he told me, “I thought of you right off.”

I bought the album before the second track finished playing.

And I bought every album after that. I saw them live several times, my favorite being at a dive bar in Virginia Beach called the Abyss (and it really was), where the audience was so small, the venue so tiny, it was like a private performance. The audience stood nearly eye to eye with the band. It was the farthest south I think they ever played.

I even travelled to FrüCon (yes, there was a Moxy Früvous convention) one year, making the trek to Toronto (from Virginia) with a dear friend from college, and attending a show at Lee’s Palace where the band got their start.

If you’ve never heard of Moxy Früvous, I’m sorry that you’re learning about them now. They were a brilliant, fantastic, quirky, delightful band. They put out four excellent albums (Bargainville, 1993; Wood, 1995; The ‘b’ Album, 1996; You Will Go To The Moon, 1997) one excellent live album (Live Noise, 1998), one pretty good album (Thornhill, 1999), and one less good album (The ‘c’ Album, 2000) before going on “hiatus” in 2000. The hiatus, as it turns out, was really more of a break-up, but was termed “hiatus” instead because it allowed the members of the band to remain current members, not former members, thus capitalizing on their star power indefinitely. The hiatus-not-break-up idea was proposed by Jian Ghomeshi.

If you are just now hearing about Moxy Früvous, it’s probably because of Jian Ghomeshi. Recently fired from the radio talk show Q, on Canada’s CBC, Jian Ghomeshi is the center of allegations accusing him of sexual assault and misconduct. At least nine women have accused him of non-consensual violent sex, and a police investigation formally began on Halloween. The other former members of Moxy Früvous have stated they were “sickened and saddened” by the allegations, and they were not aware of these behaviors.

Neither was I. Why would I be? I’ve never met him, I’ve never interacted with him. I’m just a fan of his former band. I was made aware when an old friend of mine posted on my Facebook wall about the allegations last week, when the story first broke. We had the same reaction: shock and sadness. The stories of the women coming forward are chilling. And my heart breaks for them all.

What I find particularly troubling is how long this appears to have been going on, in some form or another, as women are now coming forward who claim to have been mistreated while Jian was still a member of Moxy Früvous–nearly 20 years ago.

While I’m glad that CBC took immediate action, I’m also dismayed that women are coming forward from 20 years ago. How is it possible for someone to continue abusing and assaulting women for so long? I think part of the answer comes from the story of Miles Davis, where a man’s contributions to society “outweigh” his flaws, his “mistakes.” But the problem is that mistreating women, beating women, sexually assaulting women–this is not a character flaw. It’s not a quirk. It’s not a mistake that should be overlooked, most especially in contemporary society. There is no possible way to rationalize that violence towards women is anything but wrong.

The allegations against Jian Ghomeshi are heartbreaking because I don’t know how to reconcile this new information with the love I have for one of my favorite bands. I struggle with Miles Davis, too, and how to reconcile his music and his personal life. It’s hard to listen to the music of a man who abuses women. But the thing is, too, that we CAN listen to the music of a man who abuses women. We can still drool over Miles Davis. But Hitler’s paintings are inaccessible, held by the U.S. government and prevented from being displayed. Maybe that’s why women from 20 years ago are still coming forward–assaulting women is a “lesser” crime against humanity.

It may seem strange to compare Hitler and Miles Davis, particularly during a discussion of Jian Ghomeshi. Hitler’s agenda, after all,  was to exterminate all non-white, non-straight, non-Aryan persons. The end result of genocide and wife beating are decidedly different. But both stem from the idea that another being is somehow inherently inferior and that it is acceptable to use violence against beings that are perceived as inherently inferior. Hitler’s genocide is certainly more heinous, but at the same time, it’s important to see that Nazi perpetrated murders were sanctioned by institutionalized constructions of inferiority. And violence against women is also sanctioned by institutionalized constructions of inferiority. I’m not saying that genocide and violence against women are comparable, I’m saying the ideologies behind them, that ideologies that say violence against perceived inferiors is okay, is comparable. After all, America didn’t exactly jump into WWII to prevent and end the Holocaust. And Jian Ghomeshi was allegedly able to assault women for an indeterminate amount of time, and Miles Davis’s wife beating gets swept under the rug. We appear to live in a society where we’ve made a gradient of evil, and some evil is condemned, while other evil is admissible. Particularly if it’s against women.

The more I think about Jian Ghomeshi, the more I think about the status of women, the arguments for and against feminisms, the violence perpetrated against women, and also against men, the more I see disturbing questions and comparisons. But I guess the thing I’m left with is that geek rock, overall, as a genre, still isn’t a safe space for women. Much like GamerGate has shown that geekdom still has enormous strides to make in terms of equality, so has geek rock. So has mainstream society. The most upsetting part about the lack of equality, for me,  is where can woman be equal if not in geekdom, if not in the land of geeks and nerds and fandom and enthusiasm and braininess and sci-fi and fantasy?

And I’m not just angry that geekdom isn’t a safe space for women. I’m angry that women aren’t equal in society overall, and I’m even angrier that I’m still put in positions where I have to struggle with reconciling how a member of one of my favorite bands is also allegedly an abuser of women. This is a no brainer. Don’t hit women. Don’t hit anyone, actually. Don’t abuse living creatures. For geekdom, the bastion of braininess, to fail at what is essentially a no-brainer, is a problem.

My hope is that GamerGate and the allegations against Jian Ghomeshi are flushing out the system, rinsing it clean and showing all the places where misogyny still(!) exists in order to eradicate it and continue the work of creating equality. My hope is that we learn that the abuse of women is not a quirk or flaw, but a crime against humanity and human decency. My hope is that we learn that women are not less important, but equally important, and that abusing women, that abusing anyone is clearly wrong, not only in geek culture, but in any culture. There is no excuse for not knowing that it’s wrong to hurt another, and geeks, of all people, with their claim to excessive knowledge, should know that.

Good Irish Catholic Werewolves of the Middle Ages

While most werewolves are ravening beasts, some are just little old Irish Catholic ladies. Below is a medieval werewolf encounter recorded by Gerald of Wales in The History and Topography of Ireland. The translation is from John J. O’Meara. (No information on whether O’Meara is a werewolf)

About three years ago before the coming of Lord John into Ireland, it happened that a priest, journeying from Ulster towards Meath, spent the night in a wood on the borders of Meath. He was staying up beside a fire which he had prepared for himself under the leafy branches of a tree, and had for company only a little boy, when a wolf came up to them and immediately broke into these words: “Do not be afraid! Do not fear! Do not worry! There is nothing to fear!”

They were completely astounded and in great consternation. The wolf said to them something about God that seemed reasonable. The priest called on him and abjured him by the omnipotent God and faith in the Trinity not to harm them and to tell them what kind of creature he was, who, although in the form of a beast, could speak human words. The wolf gave a Catholic answer in all things and at length added:

“We are natives of Ossory. From there every seven years, because of the imprecation of a certain saint, namely the abbot Natalis, two persons, a man and a woman, are compelled to go into exile not only from their territory but also from their bodily shape. They put off the form of man completely and put on the form of wolf. When the seven years are up, and if they have survived, two others take their place in the same way, and the first pair return to their former country and nature.

“My companion in this pilgrimage is not far from here and is seriously ill. Please give her in her last hour the solace of the priesthood in bringing to her the revelation of the divine mercy.

This is what he said, and the priest, full of fear, followed him as he went to a certain tree not far away. In the hollow of the tree the priest saw a she-wolf groaning and grieving like a human being, even though her appearance was that of a beast. As soon as she saw him she welcomed him in a human way, and then gave thanks also to God that in her last hour he had granted her such consolation. She then received from the hands of the priest all the last rites duly performed up to the last communion. This too she eagerly requested, and implored him to complete his good act by giving her the viaticum. The priest insisted that he did not have it with him, but the wolf, who in the meantime had gone a little distance away, came back again and pointed out to him a little wallet, containing a manual and some consecrated hosts, which the priest according to the custom of his country carried about with him, hanging from his neck, on his travels. He begged him not to deny to them in any way the gift and help of God, destined for their aid by divine providence. To remove all doubt he pulled all the skin off the she-wolf from the head down to the navel, folding it back with his paw as if were a hand. And immediately the shape of an old woman, clear to be seen, appeared. At that, the priest, more through terror than reason, communicated her as she had earnestly demanded, and then she devoutly received the sacrament. Afterwards, the skin that had been removed by the he-wolf resumed its former position.

When all this had taken place – more in equity than with proper procedure – the wolf showed himself to them to be a man rather than a beast. He shared the fire with them during the whole night, and when morning came he led them over a great distance in the wood, and showed them the surest way on their journey. When they parted he gave many thanks to the priest for the benefit he had conferred upon him, and promised to give him much more tangible evidence of his gratitude, if the Lord should call him back from the exile in which he was, and of which he had now completed two thirds.