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Thursday, February 21, 2019

It's a Long Way Down

There was a time when I listened to Ryan Adams' music practically all the time. Back in 2001, as I finished college and tried to navigate post-college life, the double dose of Whiskeytown’s Pneumonia and Adams’ Gold led me to everything else he had made before. It was countrified rock music that spoke to me in a deep way, mainly on the musical front.

I don’t tend to really pay attention to lyrics, but I connected with Adams’ lyrics about being young and perpetually heartbroken. I thought some self-inflicted mental pain about awkward and failed attempts at relationships put me in the headspace to relate to songs by Adams, as well as Bright Eyes. There was so much time and energy spent on anger and sadness directed at myself for things not working out, so I found solace in songs like “Harder Now That It’s Over” and “The Rescue Blues.”

As it turned out, there was a pattern in my life: if I had a little taste of a feeling of sadness or anger, I could relate to those who had it much worse than me. I thought of it as coping, “You’re not alone in feeling this way” sort of thing.

Almost every release Adams put out between 2001 and 2005 -- mainly Demolition, Love Is Hell parts 1 and 2, and Rock N Roll -- were in regular rotation in my car. Driving around during seven-day work weeks, shows, and band practices, practically anything Adams did was a major fixture, along with everything else I listened to, from Chicago to Ben Folds to face to face.

Yet after I listened to Cold Roses a number of times, my desire to hear more of his new music suddenly came to a halt. I knew there would be two more albums released in 2005, but something changed in me where I didn’t want to hear everything he released. I didn’t hate Cold Roses, but I wasn’t really onboard with what I thought was more of the same with Jacksonville City Nights and 29.

From then on, I would occasionally hear a post-2005 tune or two that I really liked, but for the most part, Adams didn’t make music that connected with me anymore. Aside from his cover version of Taylor Swift’s 1989, nothing really made me want to spend a lot of time with the plethora of material he had put out since Cold Roses. I knew plenty of people who praised albums like Prisoner, Ashes & Fire, and Easy Tiger, but I could not find the same joy they had.

Seemingly out of nowhere last week, Adams was the subject of a damning portrait in the NY Times. Heavily-researched and backed up -- mixed with various denials by Adams through his lawyer -- there were many allegations from multiple women about his treatment of them. Like a lot of articles written about people who have repeatedly misused power with inappropriate behavior, I lean towards believing accusers who have nothing to gain by coming forward.

Once the allegations were made public, it was understandable to declare that Adams hid in plain sight, as an article in Jezebel laid out. In my eyes, as someone that heard more about his erratic, oftentimes childish, behavior than his new records, I never thought he was that toxic. Yes, I believed that knowing about that angry voicemail he left for Jim DeRogatis, his rather short-lived feud with Power Trip, how he treated people who used flash photography during his live shows, and throwing out a fan who requested a Bryan Adams song at a show.  I knew he had a reputation, but not one that made the lines between his music and personality make me feel uncomfortable about liking what he produced.

Therein lies the way things tend to go with not believing what you hear. You hear bad things about somebody for years, but they tend to be passed off, based on debatable severity. The really damaging -- potentially libelous and/or criminal -- tends to be very hard to prove without concrete evidence. Famous people can get away with it for years.

While Adams apologized and addressed the NY Times article in a small series of tweets last Wednesday, he did not help his damage control by blocking people -- from Zach Lind of Jimmy Eat World to Jasun Lee of the FW Weekly -- for tweeting out scrutiny of him.

Locally, I’ve seen the backlash quickly escalate. Respected musicians like Nicholas Altobelli and Vanessa Peters tweeted about their feelings about Adams not long after the article went live. Altobelli, in particular, is someone I remembered talking about how much he loved Adams’ output. As in, would drop serious cash own certain rare recordings. I don’t think getting to the point of saying “I’m done” was easy for any superfan, but it makes sense when there are allegations to the degree Adams has been accused of.

Many rock stars have had stories of inappropriate behavior follow them around for years. From Chuck Berry to Led Zeppelin, take your pick. Though it’s common, it doesn’t mean that kind of stuff is permissible. I’m not one to burn up or throw away records by artists who have been accused of unethical or unspeakably horrible acts. But listening to them can be tainted to the point where I feel bad about or weary of something as small as streaming a song they get $.0346 cents for. There’s a break that forms between the listener and the artist. A tainting of an experience.

When I look back at the person I was who listened to a lot of Ryan Adams albums, I think about how I had little or almost no social awareness about how I acted. Who would want to date someone who connected with a song like “Anybody Wanna Take Me Home”? Moreover, someone who was still bitter about things that happened years before and no lesson was learned? The hindsight makes things really clear now, but when you’re so full of yourself with your thoughts and feelings -- and not much time thinking about other people’s thoughts and feelings -- it’s easy to stay stuck under dark clouds.

Who knows what will happen to Adams’ career, if there is a way it can recover for the immediate future. A planned new trilogy of albums has been put on hold, amongst the beginning stages of a serious legal inquiry. It’s bad buzz for him, and it seems like years of damage -- intentional or not -- have come back to haunt him.

For me, the songs I used to listen to over and over serve now as reminders of how not to be. As in, you can’t pretend to be a victim when you’re the problem. If you want to keep blaming others and not own up to what you’ve done, well, you deserve to be alone.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Participation Trophies

The topic of participation trophies seems to come up more and more when describing why people aged 25 and younger seem to settle for mediocrity. It's an easy, straight line to make, especially in the sports world, as a women's basketball coach proclaimed in a press conference in 2016. As in, a child is raised to believe any kind of effort deserves to be rewarded -- no matter the win-or-lose outcome -- and he or she can't tell the difference later in life.

As someone who's about to turn 40, this apparently modern idea is not one to me.

I played in an outdoor soccer league for a few years in the mid-1980s. At the end of each season, the coaches threw the team a party and gave each player a small trophy and ribbon. Neither the trophy nor ribbon said something like "Best Striker" or "Best Keeper." They were generic. Even then, as an elementary school student, I didn't think these trophies meant something grand. It was simply proof that I played on a team.

Was I rewarded for scoring two own goals in a season? No. Was our keeper rewarded for having a meltdown one day at practice where he decided to sit and pout inside the penalty area? No. The trophies were mementos of hours spent after school and Saturday mornings on a soccer field in suburban New Orleans.

If memory serves me right, there were tournaments that our team competed in. If you won them, you received really big trophies you could hoist at the end of the final match. Those were the accolades that meant something. But we never got close to such heights. I never felt left out. We were not a great team, pure and simple.

I switched from sports to band a few years later. There were no participation trophies in band, and I didn't hear of any from people I knew who played sports in school or recreational. Trophies that had value and meaning were given to those who earned them, just like those soccer tournament trophies.

I don't really know if something momentous happened in the past 20 years, aside from Columbine and 9/11, but the embrace of children's deep thoughts and feelings became very common in society. Not just what the parents, coaches, and teachers saw -- it was also what the therapists saw. Maybe it was evaluating what truly hurts or hinders children's growth, or something related. For adults who want to make the youth of today happy, the amount of praise for any effort was raised. This was not new to me, as that kind of stuff was addressed when I was young. I saw it in myself as well as other students.

Towards the end of Fred Rogers' life, a certain cable channel designed to counter-program and play devil's advocate singled out a frequent message by Rogers on his show, Mister Roger's Neighborhood: you are special. This channel thought the message gave kids an idea that any effort is good enough, and those kids expect everything handed to them as adults.

As a regular viewer of the show as a child, I never, for one second, thought Mr. Rogers said you're entitled to receive praise for everything you do. It was, you bring value to the world. Not grand or small. You have meaning to society as a whole. Also, it's OK to feel down as not everything you try leads to success at first (or at all). He told generations of kids that it is totally acceptable to own your feelings. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that idea.

No matter the generation, the basic concept of hard work -- along with the rewards of doing hard work -- is still pretty well defined. You want to get further in life? You can't half-ass it. I half-assed a lot of things in my 20s and 30s, thus explaining why a few things worked out well, surrounded by a mountain of frustration and lingering desires.

I freely admit I have struggled with how hard I should put into hard work as an adult. As in, should I be recognized or rewarded for all the things I do? Do I have a right to get defensive about what I've done and shown in a tangible way (versus how much mental energy I spent)? None of these difficulties came from ideas that Mr. Rogers or soccer trophies taught me. They came from my attempts to understand how life really is. I'm someone who didn't know the extent I -- not others -- had to put in to find success.

If you want to pinpoint a problem in modern society of something a lot of kids don't truly value, that's an easy take. If you want to take a deeper look at why young people aren't apparently as motivated as previous generations, a silly little trophy is not the endgame.