Live In The Moment At Concerts (Because Writers Can’t)

Aside from the fact that her hand was in my way...this girl had been recording for OVER A MINUTE. How much did she miss out on?!

Mediated art: Aside from the fact that her hand was in my way…this girl had been recording for OVER A MINUTE. How much did she miss out on?!

They were the most stereotypical punk couple I had ever seen. The guy rocked a studded leather jacket with chains protruding from his pockets. The girl had as many piercings in her face as tattoos on her arms and chest—which is to say, more than she could count on her black-painted fingernails. And they were going absolutely nuts to the crazed music of Oklahoma-based garage rockers BRONCHO.

One part of me was terrified for my brain as I ducked the guy’s flying elbows. Another part of me was annoyed, because as hard as it already is to take notes at a concert in the dark, it’s even harder when someone’s smacking into your arm every few seconds. My music-reviewing handwriting usually comes out somewhere between a drug prescription and a first grader going sans pencil grippie for the first time; this night, I essentially scribbled out an EKG of the punks’ dance energy. If the purpose of note taking is to write down specific occurrences from a band’s performance, then I had cramped up my hand for no reason.

But as I decompressed in bed later that night, away from the sweat-soaked floor of Chicago’s Lincoln Hall, a different feeling washed over me: gratitude. Gratitude at the ecstasy of the dancers, who were so completely lost in the music that they made no notice of their immediate surroundings (read: me). Gratitude at the group of eight or so yuppies shaking and shimmying for the entirety of the opening band’s set. But most of all, gratitude at the lack of damn cell phones in hand at all times.

It happens at nearly every notable concert I attend, and it eats away at me. Instead of dancing to songs that were meant for dancing, people in the midst of the general admission throng stand as still as they possibly can (not very, given the hubbub of the setting) and loft their Galaxy S4s and iPhone 6Ss skyward to capture as many moments as possible for posterity. Maybe they’ll Snapchat the anthemic choruses to their friends, or post an Instagram clip of the amazing drop or guitar solo expecting to rake in at least a hundred likes. Maybe they just want something to watch the next day as they’re coming down from the emotional high of the previous evening.

To some extent, I’m fine with that. The sensory aspects of memory respond powerfully to pictures and videos that allow us to relive amazing moments of our lives. We can revive some of those indelible feelings, recapture an afterglow of elation, and reminisce on the already happy past with rose-colored lenses. Pride plays a role as well, as we incorporate the experiences into our sense of self and share them with friends as if we’re somehow better people for having been there.

But in the process of recording the present for the future’s sake, what do we miss in the present?

Friedrich Nietzsche spoke of music as the artistic expression of the Dionysian, the formless, abyssal life force that aches to direct human action. The Dionysian cannot be contained within the boundaries of a self, or transcendent value, or time—it’s spontaneous, it’s life-affirming, it’s completely within the moment. Stepping out of the immersive, ecstatic experience of a concert to document the moment in the permanent form of a picture or video is a denial of the music’s very life energy. And if you’re not experiencing the music in full, if you wrench yourself away with an eye on social media or later viewing pleasure, your memory of the show—both in your mind and in your smartphone—will not make up for the fact that you didn’t make the most of the moment.

This is a notion I struggle with any time I’m on the job. Do I look down at my notepad to ensure that I’ll be able to recount the setlist in detail and risk missing a frontman’s priceless facial expression? When I snap a picture and view the concert through the camera’s eye, even for a few seconds at a time, can I adequately track the stream of emotions the music evokes in me? How can I even review a concert accurately when the very act of review not only can never recreate the experience, but actually changes the experience by putting it through the filter of my hippocampus? I do my best to strike a balance, keeping one foot in the sonic river and one foot on the dry bank of objectivity—after all, the people who will read the review weren’t at the show, so I need a taste of outside perspective to do them justice.

I wonder how other journalists feel when they cover a live event, particularly in an age when they’re expected to keep one hand on their Twitter at all times. Social media has made it much easier to follow along with breaking news from home, but would we get a more accurate and more valuable narrative if we allowed our reporters to submerge themselves in the present and then churn out the story later, in a time of reflection?

Unfortunately, it’s part of the writer’s credo to live in the present and the future simultaneously. This is not required of concertgoers. And yet so many choose to eschew the glorious ecstasy of the moment for the translucent idea of collecting artifacts. By using a recording to supplement memory, they sacrifice the true timelessness of the experience.

I envy the punks who were able to lose themselves in dance at the BRONCHO show. I just wish more people would follow their lead.

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leonard fournette, lsu, nfl draft, nick chubb, injury, ohl, junior hockey

The NFL Must Adopt An Exceptional Player Status

leonard fournette, lsu, nfl draft, nick chubb, injury, ohl, junior hockey

Leonard Fournette is an exceptional player and should be treated as such. (Photo courtesy of Fox Sports)

It happened again yesterday. In a game as brutal as football, we shouldn’t be surprised that it continues to happen.

Nick Chubb, the brilliant sophomore running back for the University of Georgia, was tackled on his first run against the Tennessee Volunteers, and his knee bent in a way that knees should never, ever bend. His face crumpled in pain and utter despair just as quickly as his body crumpled to the ground. Courtesy of the 423,801 reposts of the video on Twitter, everyone knows that Chubb probably shredded every ligament and will likely face a long, uphill battle if he ever wants to play football again, let alone reach his pre-injury skill level.

But much of the reaction on the internet was focused not on Chubb—a supreme talent in his own right, in fact a preseason Heisman Trophy favorite—but on LSU’s Leonard Fournette, another sophomore running back who has rattled off an almost unheard-of string of dominant performances over the past month. Based on scouts’ analysis, he could be a difference maker in the National Football League if he turned pro today. And every chronicle of his personality, including this feature by ESPN’s Ivan Maisel, paints a picture of a man who both looks and acts well beyond his years. For instance, he doesn’t drink or smoke, unusual among college athletes, and last year gave up fried foods.

Yet Leonard Fournette will not be able to make money from his football abilities until the 2017 NFL season. It seems unfair to force Fournette to put extra mileage on his legs without any return for his efforts, particularly when a single unfortunate hit at any point over the next two years could wipe out all of his earning potential.

Writers and analysts have fallen on both sides of this issue. Newsweek’s John Walters called Fournette’s lack of ability to make his own decision patronizing and “un-American,” and claimed that there’s hypocrisy in not attacking the decisions of spectacular young tennis, golf, and hockey pros who forgo college. Meanwhile, Christine Brennan, writing in USA Today last week, argued that no 20-year-old football player is prepared for the physical and mental rigors of the NFL. “I would still rather put the fate of Fournette and talented phenoms like him into the hands of officials of our athletic-academic industrial complex than I would into the hands of agents — some good, some not — who would be leading their change into the NFL,” she wrote.

Brennan concludes her piece by stating, “Waiting for anything is difficult in 21st century America, yet they know there are going to be no exceptions to this rule, even for the most exceptional among us.” But why can’t there be exceptions? There’s precedent in another sport for players of extraordinary ability and character to gain access to the next level a year early: Canadian major junior hockey.

One reason that NHL players are most often ready to become professionals at age 18 is that they’ve already been playing in a quasi-professional environment for two years prior to their draft eligibility. Junior hockey in Canada is akin to college football here—teams attract huge crowds, players balance travel and practice with schoolwork, and they make no money for their efforts. It forces players to grow up quickly, which is why the minimum age for major junior hockey players in Canada is 16.

Unless you’re an especially remarkable talent. If you are—as Connor McDavid, the next coming of Sidney Crosby, was in 2012 or last season’s Calder Trophy winner Aaron Ekblad was in 2011—you can be granted “exceptional player status” by the Ontario Hockey League or the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, which allows you to begin playing at age 15. The process is rigorous. Hockey Canada assembles a Special Evaluation Panel to examine all aspects of your life, from your skill on the ice to your maturity off it, and comes to a decision on whether or not you qualify as “exceptional.” So far, only five players have ever been granted exceptional player status.

Admittance into junior hockey isn’t the same as admittance into the NFL, to be sure. But the fact that there is a process that offers unfettered growth for the rare player who deserves the opportunity to move ahead seems absolutely fair. Not every young person develops at the same rate—academically, athletically, maturity-wise—and although in general the three-year rule for the NFL might be a good limitation to ensure that rookies are physically and mentally ready to play professional football, it clips the wings of the occasional prodigy who has demonstrated readiness earlier.

Putting together a Special Evaluation Panel wouldn’t be hard for the NFL to do, given the league’s vast array of scouts. Players could apply for early draft entry and be placed under extensive review by the panel, which like its analog in Hockey Canada would examine both on and off-field factors to determine exceptional status. Each year, one player could be offered early draft entry. If such a rule existed this year, I’m nearly certain that Leonard Fournette would be granted exceptional player status and have one fewer year of terrifying gauntlets between him and financial security for the rest of his life.

To his credit, Fournette has stated his desire to remain at school. But seeing Nick Chubb go down yesterday had to serve as a reminder of how fragile his future is. And every additional game that he spends electrifying college football fans holds him back from reaching his true potential—perhaps, if he gets unlucky, forever.

Leonard Fournette is, by all accounts, an exceptional football player and human being. The NFL should treat him as such and ensure that he makes it to the league with his body and earning power intact.

Kanye Is Reviving 808s For A Reason: To Remind Us (and Drake) Who’s The King Of Rap

When I awoke yesterday, I checked my Twitter feed, as I normally do.  My day was instantly brightened:

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If you’ve read this blog before, you love that I love Yeezy.  I would go to the edge of the earth to protect his unfiltered genius.  He’s earned his right to an ego, and in an era when many celebrities seem afraid to express real thoughts, Kanye seems authentic and speaks his mind (but not in a hateful, Trump-ian way).  The last time I saw him live was at the United Center in Chicago–where this new show would be taking place–and I nearly cried tears of joy.

Then, a few hours later, I got some real bad news:

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But my ‘Ye train of thought was still chugging down the tracks.  I began to wonder about this whole affair, and what might be going through the mind of Kanye West right now.

This would’ve been the third 808s show of the year.  He played the album front to back at the Hollywood Bowl twice last month, and it featured all the over-the-top trappings we’ve come to expect from Kanye’s live shows–fireworks, a full string orchestra, an eerie troop of whiteface men whose main purpose seemed to be artistic intimidation.  And because this was 808s, Kanye sang the entire time.  This despite him and the rest of the world knowing that Kanye West is an objectively terrible singer.  He has to know that, right?

But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Kanye has chosen this moment to remind the world that 808s and Heartbreak exists.  The album, which debuted to very mixed reviews in 2008, is in the midst of a vast critical reappraisal.  From the LA Times, in advance of his performance of the album at the Bowl:

“West’s 2008 LP “808s & Heartbreak,” with its mix of emotional devastation and frosty minimal electronics, has turned out to be one of the most influential albums of contemporary pop music.”

Pitchfork’s hip hop critic Jayson Greene also wrote a magnificent retrospective on the album last month, stating, “Contemporary R&B would not glower at us from beneath a cloud of discontent and painkillers if not for 808s…West, then as now the most fascinating, celebrated, and scrutinized egomaniac in pop culture, managed to perform emotional vulnerability without necessarily demonstrating it”

If we regard Kanye West as a genius (and by all rights we should), 808s is the album that cements that legacy.  My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy may be viewed as his magnum opus, one of the best albums of the past twenty-five years, but it’s brilliant because of the tale of self-overcoming he spins in tracks like “POWER” and “Runaway” interwoven with stunning production and commentary on the status of blacks in America.  If MBDTF is Kanye at peak Kanye, 808s is Kanye at peak artistic influence.

And he needs to remind everyone of this.  On the whole, Kanye has had an up-and-down 2015.  He kicked it off with a bang when he dropped “Only One” as a surprise on New Years.  Finally, listeners got a taste of the fruits that had come of his long-reported collaborations with Paul McCartney.  Another of these fruits, “FourFiveSeconds,” gave Yeezy his biggest hit since “Heartless.”  And yet another, “All Day,” gave us the most frightening, mesmerizing, show-stopping live awards show performance of the year.  Meanwhile, Kanye’s fashion work is starting to gain relevance despite its detractors, and his speech at the VMAs will absolutely go down in history as one of the best of all time–call it rambling, call it the ravings of a lunatic, but it was ART, man.  #Kanye2020.

But there was the ignominious beef that Kanye started with Beck at the Grammys.  That knocked him down a few pegs, a throwback to the nadir of the 2009 VMAs.  And everything I’ve mentioned has taken place against the backdrop of Kanye’s mysterious eighth studio album, which keeps getting pushed back and back.  It was going to be called So Help Me God, and now it’s going to be called SWISHbut still the record shows no signs of appearing anytime soon.  That makes me think that either Kanye is simply focused on other things–totally acceptable, if slightly disappointing–or he’s hit a creative roadblock and can’t work around it just yet.

Meanwhile, Drake has taken advantage of the gap in Kanye’s releases to establish himself as the current king of hip hop.  A week ago, a friend of mine posted the following image in a GroupMe I’m in where all the members just talk about music (it’s awesome, by the way):

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And that’s not to mention the success of If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late, and it’s also not to mention the impending release of Views From The Six, which will surely take the rap world by storm.  Fetty Wap and his bouncy summer positivity will probably be wiped from the public consciousness.

Drake is in the middle of a nearly unprecedented run of success that dates back almost to the start of his career.  It’s probably fair to call him the best hip hop artist in the game right now.  And if there’s one thing we know about Kanye, it’s that no one else but Kanye can be the best.

So if you’re Kanye and you want to usurp the current king and take back your throne without releasing an album to do so, what’s your best plan of action?  Remind him that you’re the reason for his success.  Without 808s, there’s no Drake.  There’s no The Weeknd.  There’s no Cudi.  There’s no Frank Ocean.  Critics often revisit the work of unknown, failed artists years later and crown them as major influencers once the artists are old or dead and can’t even fully reap the benefits of their newly minted masterpieces–think The Velvet Underground and Nico.  But in this case, it’s happening to an artist who is very much still in his prime, the most self-conscious man in music, a man who knows exactly what he’s doing and is going to take full advantage of having yet another of his pieces elevated to legend status.

That’s why Kanye is bringing back 808s.  It’s a feather in his 2015 cap that’s finally reached full bloom after seven years.  And because he’s Kanye, the world’s greatest living paradox, a man who claims to not care what anyone thinks of him but repeatedly contradicts that statement, that feather needs to be rubbed in the nose of anyone who thinks they’ve taken his place as the ruler of the hip hop world.

Now if only he’d bring 808s home to Chicago.  (I’m still holding out hope.)