Friday, December 11, 2009

No pain, no gain. Black Friday at its worst

The morning is a chilly 18 degrees and there’s a mob waiting outside Target in Grand Forks, N.D., clutching their Black Friday sales ads and making game plans in hushed tones. At 5 a.m. sharp, they stampede through the doors like they are racing for one of the last lifeboats on the Titanic.

Shopping carts suddenly turn from wheeled baskets used for transporting goods to weapons used to run over the backs of peoples’ ankles or as an edge to push someone out of the way. One woman grabs a roll of wrapping paper from a nearby box and people start ducking as she proceeds to swing it around her head like a lasso in an overzealous effort to clear her running path.

The electronics department quickly becomes a battlefield as crazed shoppers paw at each other to get the last DVD or digital camera. The toy department is no longer a fantasyland for children, as aggressive mothers dive and grab for Barbie dolls and Hotwheels.

It may sound crazy to stand outside (or in extreme cases, sleep outside) a store in the wee hours of the morning after Thanksgiving to fight through hordes of people going hog-wild in an attempt to be a thrifty shopper. However, Grand Forks is far from alone—nearly 135 million Americans in cities across the country participate in this yearly “ritual.”

The “holiday” after Thanksgiving originally got its name because it was the day retailers would entice Christmas shoppers with sales, hoping the consumers would help them end their year ‘in the black.’ However, the inhumane actions experienced on this day in recent years makes the ‘Black’ in Black Friday take on a startling new meaning.

No one can forget the Great Black Friday Massacre of 2008, which left at least three dead in its wake with one trampled Long Island Wal-Mart employee and a fatal shootout between husbands defending their wives’ honors in a California Toys ‘R Us.

This is when it’s time to ask—is the chaotic, sometimes life-threatening, experience of Black Friday shopping really worth your ‘bang for a buck’? (Pun intended.)

You don’t need to wake up before the crack of dawn to wait in line for three hours so you only have to spend $2 on a three year-old copy of The Holiday for your best friend. And parents, spend the extra 50 cents and get some rest instead of rushing out to get the “discounted” Play-Doh.

Retail companies have to laugh at how they have American consumers wrapped around their little finger when they print their post-Thanksgiving ads, which often don’t even flaunt that many significant discounts, if shoppers would do their research.

Christmas is the season of giving, so do it the right way. Show courtesy and kindness during this time, not scowls and fangs. Don’t put the emphasis of the holiday on getting the “perfect present.” Kids won’t need psychiatric attention if they don’t get every gift on their wish list. And, chances are your loved ones will be happy enough to spend this great holiday with you, so don’t risk your sanity, or your life, along the way.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Battle Studies

Though his string of girlfriends and his Twitter-streaming jokes make him a tabloid staple, John Mayer’s musical ability is nothing to be defaced by grocery aisle gossip.

In 2001, Mayer released his first LP Room for Squares and it found immediate success among radio stations’ Top 40 playlists. He went on to win a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for the album’s single, “Your Body is a Wonderland.” During his acceptance speech he was quoted as saying, “This is happening very, very fast, and I promise to catch up.” He’d didn’t just catch up; he passed us.

By the time 2006 rolled around, Mayer was releasing his third LP. Continuum went on to be nominated for a Grammy Album of the Year and took the Grammy home for Best Pop Vocal Album. Though he was initially labeled as a pretty-boy pop artist with a raspy voice, the music world finally recognized Mayer’s true talent in his writing and instrumental abilities. Rolling Stone named him a “guitar god” in its February 2007 issue and compared him to the lauded guitarist, Eric Clapton.

In short, Johnny had a lot to live up to with his latest album, Battle Studies.

The album opens with the sounds of instruments tuning up and “Heartbreak Warfare” unfolds. With “clouds of sulfur in the air, bombs falling everywhere,” Mayer starts off true to his battle theme. A solid drum train and strong bass line keep the song moving at a steady pace. Known as a crooner of heartbreak, “Warfare” follows suit with Mayer singing about how tumultuous a relationship can be, complete with “red wine and Ambien.”

With a soft acoustic guitar solo, “All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye” opens to Mayer singing about moving on from a relationship that just isn’t working. Though a melancholy tune, it is still light-hearted—perhaps because it seems he has accepted his decision for a final farewell. The featured counter-melody at the song’s end is a highlight—and a perfect mask for Mayer’s all-too-often fallback of repeating a song’s title several times instead of writing another verse.

A strong guitar melody leads into “Half of My Heart” and carries listeners through a catchy song that features a thankfully small appearance by Taylor Swift. Sure to become an album single, the song gives the image of a man saying ‘I love you’ with his fingers crossed while the lyrics tell of a bachelor who isn’t quite ready to love someone else.

“Who Says,” Battle Studies’ first single released a couple months before the album, can at first appear to be a less than stimulating ballad about getting stoned. Although paraphernalia references are made, they are not abused. The lyrics, “Who says I can’t be free, from all of the things that I used to be,” are reflective of a night at home alone, contemplating the bigger picture of life. If you feel like this song sounds familiar, it’s probably because it has the same opening chord as Continuum's “Stop This Train.”

With a catchy hook, “Perfectly Lonely” is a song that almost begs to be sung along to. Taking a turn from his tear-jerking breakup tunes, this song is a battle cry for those who are content with being single.

In a strong contrast from “Perfectly Lonely,” “Assassin” is a song perhaps more curious in its lyrics than its music. However, the quiet intro and the drum backing creates the dark, mysterious mood necessary for the tale of an ‘assassin’ stealing a woman’s heart, only to find that the tables were turned on him before he had a chance to finish the job. Though it may seem creepy upon first listen, it becomes more so amusing when the cleverness of the lyrics is understood.

Performing Robert Johnson's song, “Crossroads” is Mayer’s only cover on Battle Studies. Although the guitar solo is predictably impressive, the song is out of place on the album. It's a good display of craftsmanship, it doesn’t come close to being a favorite like Mayer’s other cover performances such as “Bold As Love” and “Free Fallin’.”

There is a stark irony in the next song in the fact that “War of My Life” is actually quite mellow. The sweet melody is not about relationships, or about love. It’s a story of someone going through an inner war, preparing for battle.

The following two songs, “Edge of Desire” and “Do You Know Me,” are average examples of Mayer’s ballads. They neither hurt the album, nor enhance it. “Edge of Desire’s” whimsical lyrics, “Maybe this mattress will spin on its axis and find me on yours,” bring back memories of Mayer’s “wit” found in “Your Body Is a Wonderland.” The light guitar line in “Do You Know Me” makes an otherwise boring, repetitive song easy to listen to.

The album’s finale is just that—a strong finish. “Friends, Lovers, or Nothing” opens with a solid guitar melody that leads into a similar vocal melody. The use of dynamics is a perfect complement to the song’s story. Contradicting Us Weekly’s “womanizer” label, Mayer sings, “There can only be one—friends, lovers, or nothing.”

Since Mayer’s Continuum was so loved by fans and critics, it is hard to forget about it while listening to Battle Studies. However, they are different works. Continuum was an album full of singles; Battle Studies is a theme album. This can be artistic, but at times Mayer pushes the limit of 'battle' references, creating monotony instead. It's a musically strong album, but I don't see it having as many hits or gaining as much general popularity as Continuum—or as his tabloid appearances.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Completely un-"twitten" by Twilight

This week was marked by “Twihards” awaiting the premiere of New Moon, the latest movie installment of the ever-popular Twilight book series.

Twilight is unarguably the most influential “literature” on the market for teen girls today. I understand that fantasy is a dominant trait in youth fiction’s genre, but is this the kind of example that should be showcased?

The saga: Bella meets vampire Edward and becomes completely smitten with him. Bella and Edward breakup (gasp) and Bella slips into depression, considering suicide. Finally, Bella decides that in order to be with her true love, she must become a vampire, forever changing herself.

The books give an unrealistic expectation for love and no earthly male can live up to Edward’s standards. Bella portrays a classic ‘damsel-in-distress’ role, fully dependent on her better half. She is an example to girls that they are nothing without their man—something I'm sure all parents dream about for their daughters.

In addition to teaching girls how to pine for their boyfriends and turn over their souls, Twilight's success is a slap in the face to authors who have actually earned their place among the best-selling lists.

I hope the excessive popularity of all things Twilight will end before its lingo moves from Urban Dictionary to Merriam-Webster.

Today's verdict: People have taken the term "fan" and morphed into something that Merriam-Webster never saw coming.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

May your days be merry and bright...

It’s here. Or should I say, it's here!

Television commercials are flaunting holiday shopping deals and the stores are draped in red and green. This can only mean one thing—the rest of the world has finally caught up with me.

As someone who pulls out my Frank Sinatra Christmas classics on Labor Day and decorates the ol' Tannenbaum the day after Halloween, I've been awaiting ABC Family's month-long gift of airing holiday classics. For this Christmas-fanatic, nothing rings in holiday cheer more than the 1954 classic, White Christmas.

I scoff a “Bah! Humbug!” to those who have labeled the film a cheesey, staged, Bing Crosby publicity deal. Christmas just can’t be Christmas without this movie full of Irving Berlin favorites articulated by a more-than-capable cast.

Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) team-up to form a successful song-and-dance act after serving together in WWII. When the duo meets two singing sisters, Judy (Vera-Ellen) and Betty Hanes (Rosemary Clooney), they decide to join the women and spend their show's holiday break at Columbia Inn in Vermont, where the sisters are slated to perform.

After a train car singing performance of “Snow” (in four-part harmony, nonetheless), the travelers arrive in Vermont to find dry ground, and Wallace and Davis discover that their former general now owns the lodge they are staying at.

With full-fledged Christmas spirit, the foursome decides to bring Wallace and Davis' show, “Playing Around,” to the inn to boost the lodge’s business and the spirits of the men’s former general. Amidst the musical numbers, the characters find time to do a little matchmaking on the side.

Regarded as one of the best singers of his time, Crosby's smooth baritone carries the film’s defining favorites, such as “White Christmas,” “Count Your Blessings,” and “What Can You Do With a General?” The crooner’s virtuosity is a perfect counterpart to Kaye’s comedic clumsiness—which is quickly exposed as an act every time the audience witnesses Kaye's impressive dance moves.

Clooney's vocal jazz is rich and smooth—almost like the maple syrup that is so characteristic of Vermont. Her harmonies with Crosby create strong, steady performances of White Christmas’ unforgettable songs. Vera-Ellen's singing talent is only featured in group numbers. Perhaps because she is too busy displaying her undeniable agility in the movie's dance-focused numbers.

Though the plot of the film is predictable, the movie's story is enhanced with the singing and dancing. With two renowned singers in Crosby and Clooney and two acclaimed dancers in Kaye and Vera-Ellen, the talent in the movie is impossible to go unnoticed. However, so is Vera-Ellen's severe battle with anorexia...

Director Michael Curtiz' balance of music and acting carried the movie to its success. In addition to earning Irving Berlin an Oscar nod for Best Original Song (“Count Your Blessings”), White Christmas was among the highest grossing films of 1954.

Even though White Christmas is more than 50 years old and doesn't feature the special effects that we have grown to take for granted, its story is timeless. With a theme of giving and coming together, the movie spells out the true meaning of Christmas.

With that warm-fuzzy, I'm making myself a mug of hot chocolate and starting the season the right way—dreaming of a white Christmas.
Today's verdict: 55 years later, and Bing is still at the heart of Christmas

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Taking aim at "Battle Studies"

Six days and counting. I am eager, yet nervous. John Mayer’s new album Battle Studies will be released on Nov. 17 and I’m afraid of being disappointed.

While waiting for the album to be released, anxious fans/critics are listening to sneak-peek, 30-second clips from Battle Studies, in addition to its full-length single “Who Says.”

“Who Says” exhibits Mayer's acoustic ability, but it's perhaps too familiar. Musically, the song sounds like his Continuum ballads “Heart of Life” and “Stop This Train.” Lyrically, the song is less than riveting, but when the first line is “Who says you can’t get stoned?” you can't expect earth-shattering revelations. However, this may be one of Mayer’s most personally descriptive songs--an autobiography in music form.

The clips of intros and choruses from the rest of the songs off Battle Studies are coy snippets that leave you wanting more—as in, OK, where are you hiding the good stuff we’re used to hearing? Overall, the intros are quality examples of soft rock and Johnny’s featured guitar. But the choruses have little impact, which is disappointing from a man who declares himself a writer as much as a musician. You can only hope the rest of the songs’ lyrics will add meaning to their choruses.

Listening so far, Battle Studies sounds different from the beloved Continuum, and Mayer prepared us for this. Although not devastated, I'm not yet dazzled. I just hope that the album’s title, as well as its songs “War of My Life,” “Heartbreak Warfare,” and “Assassin,” are only in reference to his tumultuous public relationships, and not to a (nearly) midlife music crisis.

I just pre-ordered my album. Now all there is to do is wait.

Today's Verdict: Sometimes it is best to believe in the sayings we repeat to comfort ourselves--Good things come to those who wait.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

What begins as an assignment

Okay, here I am. Now what? Is this where I say, “Are you there, world? It’s me, Megan.” Or do I just greet the people? Either way—Hello world, it’s Megan. And, welcome.

Double majoring in journalism and communications and finding myself in my fifteenth year of schooling (really, 15?!), I have many times said, “I wish I could just write about topics I want to write about.” And, here it is—a class-required blog that tells me to do just that.

How does that saying go? Be careful what you wish for?

In a day where print seems to be quickly leaving us, and the cyber world welcomes us with open arms, I am excited to explore this new medium. It is starting as an assignment for a Critical/Editorial journalism class. I will see where it ends up taking me.

Personally, I hope to continue the blog because I have found writing to be a method of self-awareness and constancy—two things everyone needs in life. With professional aspirations of writing, I hope to continue the blog because I grew up hearing, “You’re only the best at the things you do the most.” Thanks, Dad.

Here embarks an indefinite journey.
Today’s verdict: Dads, though often quirky, sometimes give the best advice.