The Soundtrack To Your Life

What kind of music do you like? This is a question I ask every new guitar student on our first meeting, so I can gear what we learn towards what they listen to.

Interestingly enough, most adults will answer “I like all kinds of music.” There is the odd one who will be quite specific in their taste; country, jazz, rock. And some will only tell me what they DON’T like. “I like everything except country. Don’t make me play country.”

When it comes to the younger students, these days I’ll ask them where they find and listen to new music, and the answer is most often on YouTube or from their friends. In fact, a lot of the time they don’t even remember.

My generation, the Boomers, and the next generation, Gen X, mostly found our favourite music on the radio. Whether it was on the old radio/record player cabinet our parents owned, on the family car radio, or our own transistor radios, we were always plugged in to the latest hit songs.

If we really liked a song, we’d buy the 45. The single. If we really liked the band, then LPs, or “long playing” albums, were the next step up. I bought my first LP at the local drug store. It was a Three Dog Night record. I wasn’t particularly fond of Three Dog Night, but that’s what the drugstore had. I think I still might have it somewhere.

A.M. radio was pretty popular when I was a kid, and the mix of songs, now called “Free Form Radio”, could be quite eclectic. You might hear a pop/rock song like The Guess Who’s “These Eyes”, then a country song like Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”, followed by the Edwin Hawkins Singer’s gospel song “Oh Happy Day”, and Bob Dylan’s folk/rock song “Lay, Lady, Lay”, all in the same afternoon. It was a great format because you were exposed to a long list of different genres. The DJs were the ones who decided what they wanted to play, based on their whims and their listener’s requests.

Eventually, radio stations started to create playlists. They would target specific audiences or ages and, in my opinion, they kind of ruined a good thing.

I actually worked at a radio station for a year back in the early 1990s. The playlist was only about 500 songs, targeting people who were teenagers in the 1950s and early 60s. 500 songs sounds like a lot, but when you listen to it all day, every day, your eyes start to roll to the back of your head.

I got pretty tired of Elvis. Forgive me.

Ten years ago when I would visit my Dad, who had Alzheimer’s, at his care facility, I would bring a CD player and CD with some of his favourite songs for him to listen to. What always struck me was that, even if he was in somewhat of a stupor when I first arrived, as I turned on those songs, it also turned on his brain. He came alive. He’d smile, sing along, and start chatting away.

Even after the music was turned off, he would still be engaged and chatty. It was wonderful.

What I learned was that music is a “full brain” experience and that, in Alzheimer patients, there are studies that show that their brain activity and function increases when they hear their favourite songs.

When you learn to play a new instrument, it’s like exercise for your brain. In later years, many people can still play their instruments perfectly well and sing along, even if they can’t remember what they had for breakfast!

Most of you would probably include the songs you listened to as a teenager in your list of favourites. There’s a physiological reason for that. According to an article in Psychology Today, “we grow more attached to the music we hear as adolescents than at any other time in our life because of our neurons. When we love hearing a song, our brain’s pleasure circuits get activated and the brain releases dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and other neurochemicals that make us feel good. Our prefrontal cortex retains the personal memory music evokes.”

You’ve probably had that experience of hearing an old song that you love and remembering a very specific time, a scene, or an experience from your youth. Like it was yesterday. The infamous Dick Clark claimed that “Music is the soundtrack to your life.”

In the last few months, I have been gathering all the cuts to my life’s soundtrack, just to have them in one place. I play those songs in my car when I’m out for a drive, just trying to get away from the craziness that has been happening in the world. Give me some of that serotonin! The feelings and memories those old songs evoke are uplifting, and remind me that there have been better times.

And there will be better times again. Play on.

Baby, Baby, Baby, Ooooh…

NYC signing September 1,2009 Nintendo Store - NYCImage via WikipediaI knew the moment would eventually come.

“Mom…are you really listening to a Justin Bieber song?”  my daughter is yelling down the stairs.  I’m  cringing to myself.  “Yep.”

One of my younger guitar students had asked for a Bieber song “for a friend” she said.  I’ll eventually get it out of her whether or not it really was for a friend, but in the meantime I find myself listening through the song and working out the sophomoric lyrics and chords.  Not hard to do for a pop song these days.  There are usually about 4 chords and one phrase repeated over and over, along with some other inane lyrics that little girls swoon to.  I laugh at the occasional Facebook comments like “Dear God, please give back Bob Marley and we’ll give you Justin Beiber“.  It’s inevitable that anything or anyone popular will create rolling eyes and sarcastic sighs from a large segment of the population.  But he’s got a huge, bubblegum fan base and that’s what counts to those marketers and record label execs.

The reason my eyes roll is this marketing madness that swirls around this kid.  How is it that a boy (what is he, 12??) is already releasing an autobiography?  What on earth could he possibly have to say?  How many pages is it?  Well, I guess you use more pages when you’re writing in crayon.  Oh, make me stop.

The latest gimmick I read about is a new line of nail polish.  Justin Beiber nail polish.  OMG.  Yes, the kid can sing and he obviously has that “little girl magnet” quality.  But nail polish?  There have been a lot of jokes, internet pranks and falsehoods that have swirled around since Bieber’s rise to fame, and you have to admit that the way he has been marketed, managed and merchandised since he was just a rising star on YouTube is nothing short of nuts.  It’s no wonder people like to make fun of him.

Okay, so I should confess something before I go any further.  When I was 13 I developed a large crush on Donny Osmond.  I read every Teen Beat magazine I could get my chubby hands on and put posters of him on my bedroom wall.  I bought all his records and sang “Puppy Love” along with him at the top of my lungs, so I ‘get’ these little girls who have “Bieber Fever”.  Donny Osmond somehow survived the 80’s when his career took a nose dive and then he managed to reinvent himself enough to go on to other things.  Other teen idols don’t do so well in between the healed acne and the grey hairs.  Whatever happened to David Cassidy, Bobby Sherman, Leif Garrett and Debbie Gibson?

Well, Bobby Sherman, for instance, is 67 years old now.  Yikes. And one day Justin Bieber, if he’s lucky, will be 67 years old.  That’s 51 years from now.  Yikes again.  By then, that Beatle-esque mop of hair of his will mostly be gone except some around the outskirts. He’ll occasionally see a glint of recognition in the eyes of  the female semi-retired pharmacist at the local mall where he picks up his high blood pressure pills, but she won’t quite be able to place him.   The den at his rancher in the gated community where he lives will be filled with memorabilia, a leather couch and not much else.  Grammy awards will gather dust beside framed photos of him with some strangely attired person named Lady GaGa, and oddly enough, there will be a bottle of nail polish sitting there that he can’t quite remember the story behind.  He will rarely leave his house, a habit he got into after all those years of having to hide out from the fans.  There are no more calls from reporters, no photo sessions or concert dates anymore, except that Bar Mitzva that he promised his nephew he’d show up for.

Yeah, feeling better now.  Baby, baby, baby, ooooh, baby, baby….

(Update:  even the first Chilean miners that were successfully pulled from the mine were bombarded with offers by media and marketers before all of them had been safely rescued!!)

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Got Any Ideas?

Once upon a time many years ago, I worked at our local television station here in Victoria, CHEK TV.  I worked in the traffic department and occasionally I would fill in at the reception desk, direct people as they came into the station and answer the phone, as receptionists do.

Now a TV station tends to be a bit of a magnet for, shall we say, borderline lunatics.  Everybody’s got a beef or an idea.  Beefs could be anything from an annoyed person complaining that their neighbour had knocked down a tree, to more serious complaints about local politicians or organizations.  The people with beefs would be directed to or given a contact number for the news department.  Other members of the public had ideas for television shows.  Most of them were under the impression that you could just walk in and introduce your idea and BANG!  The station would spend thousand of dollars to produce your amazing show.  The people with ideas would be directed to someone in the production department.

And then there were those who you just couldn’t place.  For instance, one day when I was filling in at reception, a rather scraggly fellow with a bit of a scary look in his eyes came in and wanted, or should I say demanded, to talk to someone in the news department.  You see, he had a brilliant idea.  He had it written down and everything and he handed me a dirty, crumpled piece of paper that described it to a tee.  His idea was inspired by the fact that we needed to grow more food and feed more people in the poorest countries of the world.  It was easily solved, he said, if we took everyone’s poop and shipped it to the Arabian desert where it could be cultivated into the sand to make the desert into arable land.

That was his idea.  He was pretty excited about it, and while I quietly wondered whether I should call the cops, he stood with his crumpled diagram and explained it all to me quite thoroughly.  I finally realized the only way I was going to please him was if I took his diagram and told him that I would immediately pass it on to the news department.  That seemed to satisfy him.
I can’t remember what I did with the paper.  I think I showed it to a couple of people and maybe I did, in fact, pass it on to the news department.  But I’ll never forget it.

Lately I find myself enjoying the Canadian version of “The Dragon’s Den“, a show where inventors and small business dynamos present their ideas to a panel of investors in the hopes of getting a little financial help to bring their ideas or inventions to the next level.  Of course, some of the inventions are bizarre, but many of them are very clever.

Since the devastating oil spill in the Gulf, literally thousands of people have come forward with lots of ideas as to how to clean up the 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil that continues to spew out from the pipe every day.  Just go to YouTube and you’ll find lots of videos posted by companies who have ideas or products that they think can help.  Here’s an example:

From what I understand, there have been thousands of potential solutions presented to BP, most of which have been at least considered.  Out of those thousands, a couple of hundred have been deemed viable, including Kevin Costner‘s “dream machines” or V20s, which are said to be capable of separating 210,000 gallons of oily water a day.  Costner has signed a contract with BP for 32 of the units.  But before the spill, he had been trying to employ the technology for 17 years, spending $20 million of his own money, only to be pretty much mired in red tape.

And why is this?  It seems like a brilliant idea, along with the one in the YouTube video above.  But we don’t care about these kinds of inventions or technologies until we are in desperate need of them.  Forward-thinking people are not respected the way they used to be back when Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity.  Or maybe they weren’t respected then either, and it’s only in hindsight that we adorn inventive people with  any admiration.  Or maybe it’s more about the technology itself.

When it comes to cell phones and software programs or anything computer-related, we have hundreds of companies chomping at the bit to come up with something new that the public will eagerly line up around the block to buy.  These companies spend millions and even billions of dollars on the next  big thing.  It’s too bad that they aren’t as anxious to put their money into inventions and ideas that could actually save lives.

Right now, we need the right “idea” people more than ever.  Not just to tackle this oil spill, but to find alternatives to oil dependency in the first place, and to solve so many other problems we have on this planet.  Governments need to put money into programs and schools to encourage younger people to become inventors, and come up with some great ideas to solve all kinds of problems. And big companies have to SMARTEN UP and realize there is a lot more good they could do with all that money.

We have to pay more attention to little guys who have big ideas.  Come to think of it, maybe that strange fellow who wandered into CHEK years ago to show me his idea for creating arable land wasn’t so crazy after all.

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The Boy in the Balloon

Venezia 042 Tez - Brian Eno predicts YouTubeImage by watz via Flickr

Undoubtedly, you have heard all about the “balloon boy” incident by now, where a home-made experimental weather balloon was set adrift supposedly carrying a 6-year-old boy for 80 kilometers as the helicopters and media aircraft followed it, broadcasting live, of course.

People began to suspect that it might be a hoax when Wolf Blitzer of CNN asked the boy a question in an interview with the family, and the boy responded that it was all “for the show”.

And now it has been confirmed that the whole incident was indeed a hoax, and that the family had devised the plan, hoping to get a reality TV series out of it.

Is this what family television has come to?

I could sit here, as I suppose many of you could, and sound off about poor parenting and setting a horrible example for the kids. The fact is that this couple could potentially lose their children because of their idiocy. And maybe they deserve that. But what is even more significant, I think, is what it really reflects about the insanity that been created around reality shows. I’ve mouthed off about reality shows before; who can forget the Jon and Kate Plus 8 mess that ended up with the show being canceled, lawsuits pending, and a nasty divorce in the works? Again, the kids are the ones who are really suffering. And to put your six-year-old boy up to a nation-wide hoax JUST so you can get a reality TV series is almost incomprehensible to me. And desperately stupid.

People have become certifiably nuts about media and fame and money, and in the U.S. this insanity seems even more exaggerated.

YouTube is also contributing to this hysterical drive for attention. People do absolutely outrageous things in order to create a video that may potentially “go viral”. Some of these videos involve hurting people or animals or destroying property; there are beatings, fights, people let their small children drive a vehicle, for pete’s sake. And then they are stupid enough to post these videos on YouTube; do they not realize that the authorities can figure out quite easily who they are and arrest them?

The desire for money and attention has truly become a sickness for so many people. And our kids are growing up with this stuff all around them, so they are almost becoming desensitized to it. It has gone far beyond posting a video of your cat chasing the light from a flashlight, or your little girl learning to ride a bike for the first time.

And where will it go from here? I think the people at YouTube are going to have to start taking more responsibility for what they are, in fact, encouraging. But who is going to hold them accountable? My guess is that majority of the staffers at YouTube are in their 20’s or 30’s. They have not lived long enough to understand long term consequences of anything.

Okay, I’m off the soapbox. I’m not anti-YouTube, I hang out there a lot, but obviously not to watch those kinds of videos. I’m not anti-youth, but I think a lot of them need a kick in the pants. I’m certainly not anti-television, I am in fact a co-owner of a local station. But I’m thinking that the executives at these big media and internet companies are the ones who should be scrutinized. They are only seeing $$, and they should know better. Somebody up there in that fancy office 93 stories above street level should be saying “Hey, wait a minute…”.

I ain’t holding my breath.


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The Grassy Knoll

The Grassy Knoll.Image via Wikipedia

Conspiracy theories probably go back to the beginning as humans first roamed the earth with their knuckles a half-an-inch off the ground. It seems that we have been suspicious of forces at work against us since we were first able to imagine that they could be.

I became aware of the conspiracy phenomenon back in the ’60s when John Kennedy was shot…that whole “grassy knoll” story where people swore there had to be a second shooter and maybe it was the mob or the CIA or Castro that did him in. And every few years, they’d pull out the old, grainy Zapruder Film footage once again and use increasingly sophisticated equipment to listen to the gun shots and watch the poor guy being blasted in the back of the limo, his hands clutching his throat and then his brains being blown out. What an awful thing for his family to have to see time and time again. I hope they didn’t watch.

But people are obsessed with these conspiracy theories and can’t just seem to let them go.

More recently there were dozens of YouTube videos posted after the tragedy of 9/11. One after another had a dark, moody voice-over provoking us with question after question on top of manipulated footage of the plane making a beeline for the towers or the towers collapsing. The planes were apparently “fake” and the government actually blew up the twin towers and all of the other towers too so that they could blame it on terrorists and use it as an excuse to invade Iraq. Well, that’s what the conspiracy theorists say.

There were so many of these videos created by so many people, you started to wonder. A few celebrities even became involved and started to speak out at public gatherings and meetings. What is it with our trust in celebrities? Just because they say something is true, that gives it more legitimacy? Honestly, they are often flakier than the rest of us.

When the Oliver Stone movie JFK came out, people started to wonder yet again whether or not there had been a conspiracy to kill Kennedy, because this was Oliver Stone, for pete’s sake! There were others who came out in support of the 9/11 conspiracy theory, including Charlie Sheen and Rosie O’Donnell.

And even though Dan Brown howled “my book is FICTION!!”, some people insisted on believing that all of the information in his “The Da Vinci Code” novel was fact. You just can’t win.

There is a conspiracy theorist in my back yard. He’s a retired radio jock who runs a local broadcasting and media message board, and every now and then he posts photographs of contrails in the sky over Victoria and insists that they are a conspiracy by the government to secretly make us breathe chemicals for some kind of experiment. Or something like that. Apparently, these are “chem trails” not “contrails”!

Every now and then he posts new pictures of these “chem trails” left behind by larger aircraft as they fly overhead.

At one point, an airline pilot piped up on the message board in response to one of these tirades, trying to explain what contrails actually were, but this conspiracy theorist wasn’t fazed. There is a Wikipedia site that explains the chem trails theory in greater detail than I care to go into.

He has posted other suspicions about global warming and left-wing conspiracies. They’re all out to get us! 

And as it turns out, research tells us that those who believe in one conspiracy theory, tend to believe in another, and that it is very much tied to that age-old ‘man’s search for meaning’ idea. It reminds me of a line from the movie “Signs”, where one of the characters says something to the effect “people either see signs or they don’t”. Well, this guy is seeing loads of them.

And there are lots of theories out there to get the over-active imagination juices stirring!

The Apollo Moon Landing Hoax is one where people believe that the moon landing was actually created on a movie set faked by NASA and some other organizations. The Holocaust, of course, is considered by some to be a Jewish conspiracy. And who doesn’t believe in the UFO’s at Area 51? There’s everything from conspiracies about the Vatican Secret Archives to the theory that “Paul is Dead”. Paul McCartney, that is. Oh, and who REALLY shot Kurt Cobain?

Much to my dismay, as I was researching conspiracy theories to write this post, I found that the latest “victim” is Michael Jackson. Well, I guess I wouldn’t have expected any less. The poor guy had enough weirdness going on around him in his life, it’s not entirely surprising that his death would only stir up some more. It’s unfortunate that the whole thing feels so unresolved because that only fuels the conspiracy fire. Hopefully, for everyone’s sake, when the results of his toxicology come out it will answer some questions.

But I think that as long as human beings have over-active imaginations, they’ll find another incident or persona to create a mystery around. In fact, I think I’m starting to see chem trails over that grassy knoll shot above…do you see them? Look at it long enough and you will 🙂


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