Not as Intriguing a Question as You Seem to Think

The image above is a screengrab of an ad I came across while doing some linkbuilding. It hopes to get me to click it by enticing me with the following question:

What do Bing Crosby, Jimi Hendrix and Yanni have in common?

Well, they’re all musicians. So…done?

I’m sure there’s some more interesting and obscure connection between them — or I assume there has to be, by mere virtue of the fact that the question was posed at all — but doesn’t this enticement fall at the first hurdle when all three things are immediately connected anyway?

After all, it’s not like these three individuals had minor, relatively-unknown careers in music before they became famous for something else…music is the first thing anybody thinks of when they hear those names.

Maybe the advertiser just doesn’t understand how these things are meant to work. You can’t ask something like “What do bananas, coconuts and oranges have in common?” and expect people to give you the chance to say “They all have inedible rinds” or something. They’re going to say, “They’re all fruits.”

That’s that. The question is answered. There’s no incentive to await further information because the question, as you posed it, was hardly a question at all. It was just a list of three things that slot quite obviously into the same, universally-acknowledged list.

I don’t know. It’s interesting to me when advertisers miss the mark, and I always feel compelled to dissect it when it happens. After all, it’s the job of an advertiser to be smarter than the consumer, to anticipate attention and behavior. Here, it just makes them sound dumb, and that disappoints me enormously. If advertisers can afford to come across as sounding dumb, what does that say about the people they need to be smarter than?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to pondering what pigeons, robins and bluejays have in common. I’ve nearly cracked it.

Review: History Repeating – Blue

The mere fact that I’m writing this review sort of gives away my feelings, as I didn’t intend to write anything — or, at least, not much — about it at all. But History Repeating – Blue absolutely shocked me with its quality. For anyone who’d like to purchase it before reading my spoilers, be my guest. I recommend it outright.

History Repeating – Blue is the first half of the Mega Man 3-themed rock opera by The Megas. It’s been years in the making, which for a long time had some folks wondering if it would ever see release. It was not only worth waiting for, but it represents an enormous step forward for the band in both their writing and musicianship.

The fact that History Repeating is being released in two parts is my only real disappointment, but stick with me because I’ll negate that disappointment before this review is through.

The 10 tracks on this album suggest that the Mega Man 3 rock opera is going to be significantly longer than its Mega Man 2-inspired predecessor, Get Equipped. After all, that album only had 13 tracks, and two of those were less than 20 seconds long. Here we have four robot master themes (Top Man, Magnet Man, Spark Man and Snake Man), two Wily themes, a long intro theme (split in half) and a gloriously meditative tune built upon the simple Game Over theme.

I can’t stress enough how impressive it is that the band weaves such an emotionally-invested story based on the Mega Man games. Those titles were famously slight on the storytelling. There were hints of themes and continuity, but, overall, they were just an excuse to dodge traps and shoot things. That’s fine. What The Megas choose to explore is the mindset of somebody trapped within such an existence. On the surface, it’s a fun game. On the inside, though, what is happening? What kind of thoughts would he have? How would he cope with them?

The Megas have now covered three Mega Man games, and the psychological progression of the protagonist is noticeable. Throughout the EP based on the first game, Mega Man is silent. He’s been told to destroy the enemies of Dr. Light, and he does that. The closest thing to an emotional response comes from Dr. Wily, who pleads with Mega Man to acknowledge the destruction that he himself has caused in his mission to take the old man down.

Throughout Get Equipped Mega Man is similarly enthusiastic about his quest, but the album ends on the tellingly introspective “Lamentations of a War Machine.” It’s here that Wily’s words seem to have at last gotten through to him. As Mega Man’s body count rises, is there any reason that he can’t be tarred with the same brush? The refrain sees Mega Man questioning his creator, Dr. Light, and pleading for some justification of his actions, or at least reassurance that he did the right thing. We don’t hear an answer. Mega Man’s concerns go unresolved as the song ends, and the rain begins again to fall.

Here, in History Repeating – Blue, Mega Man opens the album by openly wondering how many more times he’ll need to do this. (If he’s feeling this way now, I can only wonder how exhausted he’ll be by Mega Man 10.) His future seems to be set in this cycle of torment, this unending gauntlet of villains and a race of people that turn only to him when they need help. He’s still going about his work, but he’s at least aware that there are alternatives…which is why “Continue” works so well at the end of the disc.

I was a bit worried about the interruption of narrative flow that would occur with a split release, but “Continue” is as perfect a disc-1 conclusion as anyone could ever hope for. Sung by an unknown figure (Dr. Light? Roll? Mega Man to his reflection?) it gives our hero a chance to consider an alternate path for his life. He never would take such a path, the song assures us, but he’s starting to notice that it’s there. Mega Man is, three games and albums later, finally acknowledging the paradox in his prime directive to fight for everlasting peace. That kind of self-questioning is a beautiful sentiment, and it’s handled with impressive atmosphere and emotion.

The fact that it comes after Mega Man is tempted by Snake Man — who, with a smart move, is portrayed here more as a Biblical serpent than with the more naturalistic connotations of a true-to-life snake — to defect and join Wily’s team. While there’s no chance of that happening on disc 2, the question is more important than the answer. Snake Man weaves a tale of murder, hatred, coldness, blindness and…well…evil. But it’s a tale he’s weaving about Mega Man. Both Dr. Light and Dr. Wily send out their creations to destroy and to kill. Can one be inherently better than the other? Their intentions may be different, but their methods are not. Is Mega Man just as culpable for the war? It’s an interesting question, and it’s clear that Snake Man’s words would indeed resonate for the super fighting robot.

One other fascinating theme is continued from Get Equipped, and it has to deal with the concept of surrogate children. In Get Equipped one of the standout tracks was “The Message From Dr. Light,” which revealed that Dr. Light created Mega Man not as a peace keeper or a war machine, but as a son. Unable to have one of his own, Light created a mechanized replacement. He feels a great deal of affection for his creation for that reason, and Wily by this point has decided to adopt and corrupt that idea as well, and has also begun referring to his own creations as children. This leads to a humorous, almost Sonichu-like, frequency of artificial creations addressing humans as “father.”

Dr. Light legitimately wanted a son and transferred that dormant love to Mega Man. Dr. Wily, by contrast, saw how well that helped keep Mega Man in check, and began employing it himself. It’s a brilliant way of subverting the protagonist’s driving force. He fights for his father because he cares about him…but is that any different from his enemies, who are also fighting on behalf of their father? As Snake Man observes, the lines are blurring between wrong and right. Things are starting to look pretty similar on both sides of the fight. Mega Man takes a walk in the sand halfway through his journey — unlike Get Equipped he can’t even finish his mission first — and looks inward. That’s “Continue,” and it’s one of the album’s many accomplishments. We don’t know what he sees, but we know he doesn’t like it.

Elsewhere we have a pair of swirling, rocking Wily tunes as he preps Gamma, his latest WMD, and the other three robot master songs. Top Man’s is a relentlessly danceable masterpiece of mindlessness and Spark Man’s is a militaristic call to arms, but the real winner here is Magnet Man’s, which characterizes the villain as something of a delusional romantic, who may or may not have actually had a fling with Mega Man’s sister, Roll. It’s funny, catchy, and probably the most accessible tune in the collection.

I was prepared to be disappointed by this release, as I thought it would feel like one half of a greater piece. However it just feels like an extremely cohesive and exciting first act. There’s more to come, and we’ve likely got a pretty long intermission, but it’s already worth waiting for.

I used to wonder what it might have been like when Frank Zappa released his masterpiece Joe’s Garage in 3 parts, with delays in between. How did it feel to have that one story, that one work of art, that one musical journey, interrupted and dispersed over a much longer period?

Now I have a much-smaller-scale analogue. It feels pretty great. It’s a sense of creative excitement. And it gives me a chance to focus my attentions more strongly on a first half that, very likely, could have otherwise been buried beneath the impact of the conclusion.

As such, I’m left with a paradox of my own. I can’t wait…and yet I hope The Megas take their time. I’m happy to savor this as long as I can.

Four Great Ongoing Critiques

As they say, everybody’s a critic. As they should say immediately afterward, “Not everybody’s good at it, but there you go.”

Criticism is difficult to perform intelligently. I should know; I’m a particularly shitty critic myself. But every so often some anonymous stranger on the internet says something that — against all odds — turns out to be extremely insightful. From there, a great series of ongoing criticism can be born, and I wanted to take some time to share with you four of my absolute favorites.

This is not just a list of links…these are sincerely fantastic critical explorations that I endorse wholeheartedly.

1) Fred Clark’s Dissections of the Left Behind series.

For the past nine years (incredible but true) Fred Clark of Slacktivist has been analyzing page by agonizing page the entirety of the Left Behind series. For those who are unfamiliar with the series, here it is in a nutshell: God loves me, but not you. Fred, being a religious man himself, is appalled by the many levels of spiritual, literary and humanitarian stupidity on display in these pages, and he pulls them apart gorgeously. It’s a discussion about bad writing, yes, but it’s also a learning experience. I challenge any writer to come away from this series without being significantly more aware of the mistakes he or she is already making. You can check out his archive starting here, but many of the posts have annoyingly gone missing thanks to a change in URL. Regardless, he’s only recently begun the third book in the series, Nicolae, Rise of the Antichrist, and you can read these posts as they go up…which is the best way to enjoy them. First post here.

2) Dead Homer Society’s Discussions of Modern Simpsons.
We can argue all day about when The Simpsons officially became a shadow of its former self, but there’s really no arguing against the fact that it is a shadow of its former self. Dead Homer Society offers a shockingly sharp look at the current state of the show, with every new episode handled over at least four posts: a preview, a next-day recap, a feature that compares and contrasts it with an episode from the show’s golden years, and a transcript of a live chat discussing all aspects of the episode. It’s a surprisingly respectful way of conversing about a show that so clearly disappoints them in every way, and it makes for fascinating reading. Or, at least, it did. Yes, for Season 24 Dead Homer Society will be scaling back coverage, which is disappointing…but they will still be in operation, and — likely — just as worthy of your and my time. They’ve also released a fantastic new ebook called Zombie Simpsons: How the Best Show Ever Became the Broadcasting Undead that you can buy from Amazon or read for free here.

3) ProtonJon’s “Let’s Play Superman 64.”
The Let’s Play is a strange beast. I’ve recorded some myself, but even so I can’t say that I’m sure why people want to watch as somebody else plays video games for them. ProtonJon’s brilliantly exhaustive trek through Superman 64, however, is a glorious exception to a tedious norm. Two years into the project and with only 6 stages under his belt, it’s clear that ProtonJon has a lot to say. He spotlights glitches from the games, discusses characters both inside and outside of their roles in this adventure, and generally goes out of his way to provide fascinating — and sometimes exclusive — information along the way. Superman 64 is widely reviled as one of the worst video games of all time…and rightly so. ProtonJon can’t — and won’t — defend the game on its merits…but he sure does have a lot of fun pulling it apart to learn everything he can about the many, many ways in which it went wrong. From interviewing the developers to playing it alongside other Superman games to comparing it to unreleased beta footage, ProtonJon has taken an effortless YouTube staple and elevated it to the status of genuine — and remarkable — documentary. Tune in.

4) The Annotated Sonichu.
From the moment I started this site, I wanted to do a Noiseless Chatter Spotlight on Sonichu, the addictively weird creation of Christian Weston Chandler…also known as Chris-Chan. Sonichu himself is an unabashed hybrid of Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog, and Chandler’s comic is meant to follow him along on his exciting adventures. Instead, though, the comic sidelines Sonichu in favor of Chandler himself, who appears on the page — as he does in real life — as a man searching for love, and unable to grasp why he hasn’t found it already. Its childish art style and bizarre narrative flow make for an easy mockery, but The Annotated Sonichu takes its source material seriously, and discusses page by page the many direct carryovers from Chandler’s personal life that shape and enrich CWCville, the town in which Sonichu takes place. Family members, friends, his dead dog and strangers online who pretend to be females interested in him all make their way into the comic at some point, where Chandler uses his narrative authority to cope with them in the only way he knows how: with Crayola markers. Truly fascinating, and an unexpectedly respectful deconstruction.

Let’s Go to Spam

Receiving spam is nothing notable anymore. Every so often something crawls past Yahoo’s proprietary filers, but since I only use this Yahoo account for spam anyway, it’s never a problem. But recently I received the following in my inbox:

…and that’s just upsetting. Where’s the craftsmanship? The incentive? The heart-rending tale of woe intended to get me out to Western Union as quickly as possible?

There’s an art to this kind of spam, and it’s an art that “Conniel” is disrespecting entirely by sending out something so effortless.

Set aside the poor grammar (as there’s really no getting around that) and you have a woman(?) telling me she’s sick, and asking me to take her funds so that I can give them to charity. Then she demands — doesn’t even implore! — that I email her back. The subject line is promising, but nowhere does Conniel actually invite me to save any souls so I’m pretty disappointed. Sing us a song…you’re the spammer man.

This is the equivalent of a real-life panhandler saying, “Give me three dollars.” There’s a big difference between that approach and, “Excuse me, could you spare any change?” They both want three dollars, but one is far more likely to get it from me than the other.

And you know how panhandlers will often times call out, “God bless you, sir,” when you pass by, ignoring their request totally? That kills me. That kills me because it preys on the same part of me that guilt-farming spam emails are meant to prey upon.

It’s also suggestive of a story, an unseen personal history for the panhandler. Yes, we know he needs money. But now we also know that he’s selfless enough to wish God’s blessings upon you after you turn away from his needs. It sketches in just enough humanity to make it seem legitimate, like a request above and separate from the money he needs to survive.

By contrast, I dug up the most recent variation on the deposed Nigerian prince email that I’ve received:

It’s misleading, of course — at least, it’s misleading in the sense that it’s a total lie — but there’s also some effort behind it. Details are arranged and the requirements for cooperation are well explained. This does more than pencil in some human tragedy…it writes an encyclopedia entry about it and implores you to learn more.

In short, they’re working for the money. They’re not saying, “Give me three dollars.” They’re constructing an elaborate world of weddings, plane crashes and corporate expansions. None of these details are necessary. Mr. Yacouba Maru could have easy said “yo I’m sick email me, something about charity” and been done with it.

But instead he took time. He thought this through. His story may not be worthy of my money, but it sure as hell is worthy of my time.

Is that too much to ask from my spam? An engaging customer service experience?

A few days later, Conniel tried again. This time, with a little more feeling:

It still needs work, but that’s a lot better. I have a better idea of what she intends to do, if no better idea of what she expects from me. I understand the nature of her tragedy (I’m “sick” too, lady…I have a box of tissues on my desk and by fuck do I ever use them). I also like the passive suggestion that she can’t donate the money herself because she’s already donating her body…as though if she hadn’t promised her body to somebody else already she could use it to deliver the money after death. It’s sweetly innocent. Conniel might be too young to understand why that wouldn’t work…or perhaps she’s dazed by the ravages of her esophageal cancer…which she was kind enough to link as a keyword to a page on a medical website that helpfully explains what it is. I guess if you can’t be asked to spin a yarn yourself, you could just leave some breadcrumbs around the internet and hope I follow them.

Still, though, this is a huge improvement, and I look forward to seeing more from Conniel in the future. I think with some practice and a lot of guidance, she can grow to become a really effective spammer, and I wish her all the best. Sh-So back, Conniel, so I know you got this.

Survival of the fittest ads

When I was linkbuilding this past week, I came across this:

It’s sweet and all, but do me a favor: if I ever die unexpectedly and you’d like to turn my blog into a tribute to me, please remove from the sidebar whatever bikini babe weight loss ads might be undercutting the solemnity.

After all, if you have access to my blog and can therefore post those mournful goodbyes, you can also delete my Google adsense code. I won’t need the twelve cents a year anymore. Thank you in advance, from this side of the veil of tears.

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