Grammy-Winning Group Seems to Yearn for Those Good Old Slave-Holding Years.

Most of us learn in high school American history that “antebellum” refers to the years before the Civil War (it is Latin for “before the war”). So why did the country group Lady Antebellum decide to call itself that?

Here’s the answer given by one of the band members in a recent interview:

We knew when we came up with this name that we’d have to explain it everyday for the rest of our lives. We were taking some photos one day in front of some old ‘antebellum’ style houses in Nashville, and that word came out and it just kinda stuck.  The word has a nostalgic feel to it, and in a weird way we felt that reflected our sound and what we were going for.

Okay, the reason I’m not buying the completeness of that answer is that those antebellum style houses are called antebellum style houses because the word has meaning–the style of those houses is pinned to the period in the South that preceded the Civil War, and since “antebellum” means anything that is tied to that time and place, it is an apt descriptor of the style. That “nostalgic feel” in the band’s name is a nostalgic feel not just for  plantation-style houses, but for those good old slavery years that gave rise to them. I think Lady Antebellum wants it two ways–to subtly evoke nostalgia for that period in those who are nostalgic for it, and to deny any deliberate evocation.

Was Lady Antebellum’s top priority to appeal to racists when they chose their name? I’m not saying that. Since they’re from Tennessee, their first association to the word was probably architectural. But I’m guessing  history is taught mostly the same in the South these days as it is in the North, and that means the band should have been able to step back and say, “Wait a second. This word has meaning–a meaning which is much larger and more central to our nation’s history than whether a house has an exaggerated portico with lots of columns.” They didn’t do that. And (here’s the suspicion I wish I could dismiss) perhaps they don’t mind if, just incidentally, a benefit of their name is that it appeals to a reactionary streak in a portion of their fan base.

Memes and Tropes, Memes and Tropes, I Gotta Get Me Some Memes and Tropes.

Sarah Haskins does funny commentaries on themes in TV commercials directed towards women and how these commercials reflect (or purport to) and shape (or attempt to) women’s perceptions. This is one of my favorites, on “Doofy Husbands.”

Sarah is a Chicago native and a Francis Parker grad! (Oh, and Harvard.)

You Go, Dick Clark.

Some people are discomforted by the spectacle of an obviously stroke-disabled Dick Clark continuing on as host of ABC’s New Year’s Eve countdown show.

I’d like to offer an alternative point of view.

I think it’s swell that one network, on one night of the year, allows a space for a disabled person to host a show as if there were nothing about being disabled that required shame. The other 364.9 days of the year television can revert to showing us only shiny perfect hosts.

I give credit to ABC for this despite the possibility that they have no choice in the matter–i.e., it may be that Dick Clark has a contract with them and is holding them to it. Either way, I think it’s great, and I can handle having reality in my living room for one hour a year.

Why Is This Coen Bros. Movie Different from All Other Coen Bros. Movies?

Two years ago, after seeing Burn After Reading, I identified the one trait that every single Coen Bros. had in common. Romantic comedy or grim film noir, suspense thriller or picaresque romp, screwball epic or journey into depression, every single Coen Bros. movie—all fourteen of them, you pick, I don’t care which one–shared one element:

They all involved characters who thought they were smarter than they were, and suffered for it.

Some of these characters were smart, only not quite as smart as they thought they were, and suffered for it.

Others of these characters were stupid, and fancied themselves smart, and suffered for it.

In True Grit, all the central characters prove just exactly as smart as they need to be, and in some cases smarter than we figured them for. Nobody (with the exception of a minor character in an early scene) does himself in or gets into deep doo-doo for the hubristic sin of overestimating his intelligence.

In all fourteen of the previous movies written and directed by the Coen Bros.—again, I defy you to find an exception—that hubristic sin plagued central (or, in the case of No Country for Old Men, important secondary) characters and drove the plot. The persistence of that element in their oeuvre, whether in stories they created or were attracted to adapting, reflected a strong misanthropic streak in the two brothers.

Many of those movies were wonderful, as misanthropy can be. But True Grit is wonderful in a whole new way for the Coen Bros. It shows that they are capable of admiration for and generosity of spirit toward the human animal, and more important, it succeeds in taking the audience on a journey into these feelings, too. It looks like a new chapter in the growth of these great and still relatively young (53 and 56) filmmakers.

Peaceful Holidays

“Sleeping Snowy Gnome” courtesy of Angie Naron’s Flickr Photostream.

You never know what you’ll find in your own backyard.

The Voice of Christmas: Karen Carpenter

Karen Carpenter was the Great American Songbook singer who wasn’t. On most Carpenters albums, her material, with some exceptions – I Can Dream, Can’t I?; When I Fall in Love; Little Girl Blue – while superior, was of the 1970s and not the Golden Age. There is, however, an album containing many examples of Karen Carpenter assaying the Great American Songbook; it is the Christmas LP the Carpenters released on A&M in 1978, Christmas Portrait.

That record, along with the follow-up An Old Fashioned Christmas issued a year after Karen Carpenter’s 1983 death, are contained on the 2-CD set Christmas Collection. They prove her death was more than privately tragic. She had the talent, the affinity for the material, and the wide contemporary appeal to have kept the Great American Songbook flame burning into our present time and beyond. But we do have this.

Richard Carpenter here surrounds his sister with orchestral and choral-group arrangements comparable to those one might hear in the glory days of MGM musicals, when Conrad Salinger, Hugh Martin and Kay Thompson worked in that studio’s music department. The material demonstrates how Christmas brought out the best in our songwriters. Fourteen songs on this set are Great American Songbook entries, several of them uncommon (e.g. The First Snowfall, by Sonny Burke and Paul Francis Webster, Sleep Well Little Children, by Leon Klatzkin and Alan Bergman, and It’s Christmas Time by Victor Young and Al Stillman). Various instrumental medleys feature Richard at the piano. As for the vocals, the spotlight is Karen’s. With her dark, melancholy alto, the way she subtly scoops up to her notes, the texture in her voice as it ever-so-softly cracks, and her empathic understanding of lyrics, she fashions a style that feels less like a style than the sound of a human heart breaking.

Take I’ll Be Home for Christmas. The song is a story with a killer twist of a last line, one that reveals the singer’s promises of returning home for Christmas are lies, mere fantasy – that the only way the singer is going anywhere, alas, is in her dreams. The pain in that line is nowhere to be found in most renditions. When Karen sings “if only in my dreams,” the pain is more than palpable, it’s exquisite.

If it’s a truism that only one who knows despair can know joy, Karen proves it on the happier material. You can feel the winter air on her Sleigh Ride, you can breathe in the roasting chestnuts in her Christmas Song. She takes songs you thought you never needed to hear again and makes you hear the greatness in them.

An example of the care lavished on this work is that Carpenter sings the little known verses to the songs. Let me spit it out: This is the best Christmas album ever made. For those who have it, it wouldn’t be Christmas without it.

By the way, the album owes a debt to an earlier one, by Spike Jones. It was called Xmas Spectacular, and came out on Verve in 1956. It’s an album in which Jones strayed from his comedic style to play the material (mostly) straight, and it had a large influence on Richard and Karen Carpenter. In the CD reissue of the Jones album (titled Let’s Sing a Song of Christmas), Richard Carpenter had this to say in the liner notes:

In December 1956, my father I visited The Music Corner, one of several record shops in my hometown of New Haven, Connecticut. To my delight he purchased Spike Jones’s newly released Verve LP Xmas Spectacular. Upon my first hearing, the realization came to us that the album was ‘straight,’ with only a modicum of glugs and whistles employed.

…The album was played innumerable times every Christmas in our home and had quite an impact on Karen and me. When we recorded our Christmas Portrait album (1978) I patterned it after the Jones LP, not only in the use of certain medleys, but also including some of the melodic but lesser known titles Spike had used, such as ‘It’s Christmas Time’ and ‘The First Snowfall.’ Xmas Spectacular is a timeless album; our children faithfully play it every Christmas season. I am delighted to see it released yet again and honored to have been asked to write these notes.

It may be a little late for you to pick up these albums in time for Christmas, but if you can, do. And if you can’t, pick them up for next Christmas.

A Horrible Grammatical Mistake That Is Becoming Fashionable, and Therefore Must Be Stopped.

In the last year, I’ve heard this more and more from young adults: Her and me went to the movie. Her and David are dating. Susan and him bought a house.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the young adults talking this way were high-school dropouts. They’re not. They’re college graduates, and they have to know better. I know they’ve been taught better.

That’s why it’s clear to me that this is not a matter of ignorance, but of style. This horrible grammar—this use of the objective case pronoun when the subjective case is correct—is being chosen, deliberately, by young educated people, because it sounds better to them.

The subjective case pronoun is correct in each of the above instances. She and I went to the movie. She and David are dating. Susan and he bought a house. The pronouns are subjects in those sentences, the verbs are predicates. You use the subjective case. It’s a no-brainer.

But if you, an educated young adult, have trouble remembering the logic, and need a handy rule-of-thumb, just imagine using only one pronoun. Would you say, “Me went to the movie…Her went to the movie…Her is dating….Him bought a house?” No, you wouldn’t. It sounds awful.

So is what you’re saying. Stop it.

How Sarah Palin Will Be Elected President in 2012.

Some—even in the Republican party—are saying that a serious presidential aspirant doesn’t pontificate about American Idol, as Palin does in her new book, or star in her own reality show, as Palin is doing on TLC. That’s wrong. More people care about American Idol in this country than care about the deficit, the war in Afghanistan, and health care put together. The more others put Palin down as trivial, the more she’ll turn that to her advantage as caring about the things ordinary people care about. And the people will say yes, she’s one of us. And then they’ll say, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if one of us were president.

Remember, she doesn’t have to get there in one leap. There are steps along the way. All she has to do first is appeal to more Republican caucus members in the Iowa primary. (That doesn’t seem so unthinkable.) Then, on the momentum of that, win a few more primaries. Suddenly, she’s the Republican candidate for president in 2012. And suddenly, you have a whole lot of people—even some who are reasonable, and even some who voted for Obama in 2008—saying to themselves, “You know, Obama is unquestionably a brilliant man, but we’ve now tried the brilliance thing, and we still don’t have enough jobs, and I still can’t sell my house. Maybe it’s time for less brilliance and more gut instinct.” Next, she’s raising her right hand on the Capitol steps.

Bob Cesca at the Huffington Post sees the danger, and has written about the prospect at greater length. I recommend the piece.

The Donna Reed Theory of American Civilization.

I love all these openings of The Donna Reed Show. The first, from Season One (1958-59), brings tears to my eyes, and I’m not sure why. It’s beautiful in every way:

Here, in Season Two, the tempo of the theme music is picked up relative to Season One, and the orchestration made “sprightlier.” Carl Betz (Dr. Alex Stone) now nearly forgets his kiss on his way out the door, remembering just in time. But the kiss is more passionate, no longer just a peck. America’s sexual mores are changing! Paralleling the alteration in the music, the typeface of the titles has gone from a formal serif to a jaunty sans serif:

By Season Four, the music’s tempo is faster still, and the ever-busier and more distracted Dr. Stone takes an extra beat before remembering to come back for his kiss. Perhaps both changes reflect the quickening pace of life as the fifties have turned into the sixties:

Now, in the final season (Season Eight, 1965-66), the music has changed from its peppy Broadway two-beat to a four-to-the-bar jazzy big band swing. Donna is looking “very sixties.” The most striking difference of all (besides the substitution of young Patty Petersen for Shelly Fabares) is that Donna remembers in the nick of time that she’s leaving the house, too; no longer the “stay at home Mom,” she presages the women’s liberation movement of a few years later:

Watching these in succession is like a mini-version of Social Change in Twentieth Century American Civilization 101. Plus, my God, Donna Reed was jaw-droppingly gorgeous. If she’d been my mom, I’d have even more serious Oedipal issues than I do.

Whom You Could Have Heard at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall in 1948-9.

Get a load of these names: conductors Monteux, Munch, Ormandy, Szell, Walter; soloists Schnabel, Stern, Rubinstein, Arrau, Francescatti, Heifetz, Hess, Kapell.

And get a load of these prices: from around $20 to $90 not for a ticket, but for the season.

I found this Chicago Symphony Orchestra leaflet for 25¢ in an antique store and had to buy it. Time to rev up the time machine.