Monday, April 30, 2007

Extra, Extra...

Bad Boy Baldwin Bawls out Boorish Brat.

The world was stunned when Alec Baldwin’s voice mail tirade denouncing his daughter as a rude little pig hit the web. Gossip mongers were quick to jump into the fray. That’s to be expected, but so did some of the main stream news shows. A lot of time, money and energy went into figuring out what it all means.

Granted, Baldwin’s rant is something you’d expect out of the aging actor if he was given a bad seat at Spago or if some sycophant handed him a bottle of Aquafina instead of Dasani. It wasn’t appropriate for dealing with an insolent child but it wasn’t exactly something the world needs to worry about. I’ve personally endured much worse from my own parents and I’ve seen others get worse than that. I never had to retrieve such a scathing voicemail message on my Razor, but when I was 11 we didn’t have cellular phones so I got to enjoy the live performance. I have to tell you that nothing drives home an abusive message like errant spittle flying from the mouth of an angry parent.

We don’t have the whole story. We think that Alec Baldwin is an abusive husband but that’s only because his manic depressive ex-wife tells us he is. Kim Bassinger has squandered her mega-stardom telling everybody why they should feel sorry for her. Mommy was mean, kids made fun of her big lips and she hates all of the attention. After Alec left she told the world about his dark side. He used her insecurities against her. She never had a problem getting paid to be in movies and seemed quite content to let everybody enjoy her feminine perfection but on a deeper level she was a victim. Maybe Kim drove Alec crazy with her psychotic behavior. Of course nobody really cares about Kim any more. Everybody knows she’s a loon. The world is worried about the child. Alec went off on a 12 year-old girl. He’s a monster.

Really? Think about your average 12 year-old. They’re monsters. It’s a miracle so many kids make it out of puberty alive. In nature adolescents are part of the food chain for this very reason. Alec Baldwin’s daughter is at the age when parents become shrill caricatures of themselves because their children make them that way. Given the fact that we’re talking about a child who is probably more than a little spoiled it’s not hard to imagine that she needs a kick in the butt. Alec’s voice mail message might reveal more about the child than it does his own personality.

Think about it: We have a rich little girl with famous parents. Let’s go ahead and assume Alec has a fragile ego; kids are quick to figure out how to push those buttons and do it just for fun. Kids are cruel. Anybody with kids will tell you that much is true with all kids. Now you have Kim, a pill-popping nut job with a truckload of emotional baggage on top of a fragile ego. Instead of fighting with her daughter, Kim probably encourages conflict with Alec. Would we really put it past her? We’re talking about a freak who has bared every little personal secret in countless magazine articles. Kim will do anything to evoke sympathy for herself. She’s proven that time and time again. It might not be the kid's fault, but she’s got to be a terror. We’ve all seen kids who are out of control and in those cases a Baldwin-esque rant would certainly be in order.

I’m not going to go on record and call Alec a saint. There’s no question that he’s got a big ego and some character flaws. His rant might have come from his frustration with his daughter’s behavior but he’s a celebrity in the middle of a custody hearing with a deranged woman who used to be famous. He’s got to be smarter than that. Even if his rant was more about his bruised ego than it was his daughter’s irresponsibility, he’s got to know that things like this will become public domain.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

MADD about you

Somebody has got to get MADD under control. The organization started by Candy Lightner in 1980 initially did a fine job addressing the issue of drunk driving. Campaigns drawing awareness to the dangers might have done more to cut drunk driving accidents but increased enforcement but stiffer penalties certainly made it difficult to suspend better judgment.

Lightner, however, left the organization in 1985 when it was hijacked by oppressive people with a selfish agenda. Candy expressed concern that MADD had abandoned its original mission and replaced it with a neo-prohibition policy. She wanted her daughter's death to precipitate a positive change, not become the catalyst for abolishing civil rights. That suspicion was confirmed by the subsequent presidents who have aggressively backed a 0.0 BAC level.

Lightner believes, and the statistics bear it out, that the current legal limit of .08 is not addressing the issue of drunk driving. People getting tickets for drunk driving are typically less than a 100 th of a percent over the limit and often pulled over for something incidental while the accidents are tied to people testing at .15 BAC or more. Instead of imposing arbitrary BAC threshholds, why not work to put the onus on bars to police their patrons. Boycotting a pub that regularly lets people stagger out the door with keys in hand would do more to get drunk drivers off the road than imposing penalties on people who might not be impaired.

Sobriety checkpoints are a controversial tool supported by MADD. They draw attention to the organization and demonstrate the effort, which justifies the quest for money. However, these checkpoints are not very effective. While a half a dozen police officers tend to a checkpoint, the location of which is identified well in advance, drunk drivers are careening all over the road in other locations throughout the community. Many of them plan an alternate route home from the bar. Besides, there are typically other crimes being committed. Public money and time are wasted on what is really a public relations device.

Reaction to alcohol is subjective. Some people have a higher tolerance than others so a specific BAC doesn't always address the issue of impairment. Not everybody is OK to drive at .07 and some people are sober at .10. MADD readily acknowledges this which is why they currently endorse a ZERO tolerance policy and a corresponding BAC limit of 0.0. They make a compelling case on paper but is it fair? Hell no.

The current testing mechanism isn't fair. Breath analysis devices can register a margin of error of .02-.05. That's bad news for the person who had a glass of wine with dinner and has an actual BAC of .05. If the legal limit is reduced to 0.0 three fourths of the people tested are going to get tickets. It's possible to register a .02 BAC 10 hours after consuming the last of 6 beers. If MADD is really serious about addressing the issue of drunk driving they should put some of that 50 million dollar operating budget behind more effective testing procedures or identify a realistic measurement of impairment rather than wage a witch hunt.

Punishment is another issue. Recently Tony LaRussa was in the news when he was arrested for driving under the influence. The Cardinals skipper dozed off at a traffic light and tested at .09. That's a smidge over the current legal limit and a bit under the old standard. MADD gleefully points out that at .09 LaRussa was clearly impaired but was it because of the booze or was he simply exhausted after a couple of 16 hour days? Perhaps the combination of alcohol and physical exhaustion worked together. Sleepy drivers are often more deadly than drunk drivers.

MADD and its like-minded supporters were quick to demand severe action even though Tony's only crime was holding up traffic. He admitted he was wrong and will pay the consequences in accordance with the law but MADD isn't happy. They believe he's getting off too easy. He should have been fired by the Cardinals and set on fire by Major League Baseball. They are of the attitude that he could have killed somebody and should be punished as such.

Joe Paterno got a lot of hate mail from MADD when he refused to kick a player off his team for getting a DUI. Paterno chalked it up to a stupid mistake and addressed the issue internally but didn't see anything productive coming from turning a kid's life upside down for screwing up one time. The State of Pennsylvania imposed its penalties, Paterno gave the player an earful but it wasn't good enough. MADD felt that Paterno had compromised his integrity by overlooking the deadly potential of the mistake. Had Paterno revoked his scholarship and kicked himoff the team that player might have become a chronic alcohol abuser and a repeat offender, but MADD doesn't care.

That's simply not fair. People must be held accountable for their actions but that accountability should be based on the actual consequences of the actions, not the maximum potential of those actions under different circumstances. Where do you draw the line?

MADD claims that things could have been worse if a police officer hadn't been stuck behind the napping LaRussa. They insist he could have lost control of his vehicle and run somebody over, or his foot could have slipped off the brake and he could have caused a serious accident. You could take that argument a step further and theorize that LaRussa could have crashed into a nuclear power plant and vaporized the state of Florida. Goodness, what if that had been mistaken for an attack and the President retaliated by launching a nuclear strike against China. Tony LaRussa could have destroyed the whole word!

It's just not rational to hold people accountable for what might have been, especially when you're only speculating about the negative consequences. In his impaired state Tony LaRussa could have made a wrong turn and ended up in front of a burning building in time to rush through the flames and save dozens of people. He could have staggered into a convenience store to ask for directions and broken up a robbery.

The reality is nobody knows what could have happened. Tony might have woken up, realized he was unable to drive and called himself a taxi or he might have sheepishly driven back to his room and climbed into bed unscathed. All we know is that Tony got busted for DUI for the first time in his life and nobody got hurt. No need to overreact.

The name of the organization says it all: MADD. These are angry people, many of whom lost a loved one to an alcohol related accident. The propaganda offered by this organization focuses on reckless drivers who were behind the wheel with BAC's of .20 or more. My son Johnny was killed when he ran out in front of a car traveling at 300 miles per hour. The driver was a bottle of Jim Beam. They don't seem to realize that they're illustrating the senselessness of their campaign for a lower BAC. How does a legal limit of .08 cut down on the number of people who get behind the wheel when they can't see straight? Most of the people getting citations for driving under the influence aren't guilty of anything more deadly than failing to signal a turn. Cops troll for DUI's because it's easy money and unless there's an accident the guy blowing a .083 gets the same punishment as the boozehound registering a whopping .183. Is that fair?

Instead of going after real issues MADD focuses on the money maker. Alcohol provides a measurable evil. And it attracts millions of people who want to see alcohol banned in general, not just from the highways. Even though many of the accidents attributed to alcohol often have other factors involved MADD would have you believe that booze is always bad. So if we have a 15 car pile up on an icy freeway MADD will pour over the records to see if anybody had any alcohol in their system. If one person gargled with Listerine that morning MADD is there with a lynch mob and the state patrol had better list alcohol as the culprit.

MADD doesn't concern itself with other impairment issues even though there are hazards much more deadly than somebody at .08. Cellular phones, LCD televisions and laptop computers cause more accidents than .08. People who drive while gobbling down breakfast pose a greater risk. We don't even have a reliable method for determining the level of impairment associated with illegal drugs, but MADD wants to make it illegal for people to think about drinking if they plan on driving. People are driving with no brakes and MADD wants a breathalyzer attached to every ignition.

It's not even about safety anymore. MADD has already fulfilled its purpose and refuses to accept the challenge of taking on other issues. They have a cash cow and they have greedy business associates. As long as they can connect drinking with driving, no matter how much of a stretch that connection might be, they can collect money and broker power. It's all about the bureaucracy. MADD is an organization drunk with its own influence. That's more dangerous than all the impaired drivers in the world.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007


I watch American Idol. It’s not because I really like the show but once in a while somebody does a great job singing a good song. More often than not mediocrity is the best you can hope for with most contestants falling below that bar. At least Simon Cowell is there to properly humiliate the offenders.

Although it’s a highly subjective casting call sometimes real musicians make the cut. Maybe producers resign themselves to the necessity of having real performers on the show to lend a little credibility to a process that clearly favors looks, curiosity and faux charisma over true talent. Once in a while somebody nails it.

Among the better performances, Bo Bice established himself as a savvy rocker who had the guts to be judged without music or backing vocals when he belted out the Allman hit Whipping Post. Chris Daughtry never compromised his hard rock roots and delved deep into alternative rock archives to uncover a dark version of Walk the Line when American Idol inexplicably forced Johnny Cash on the ears of a pop music audience. No offense to Cash, he was great, but most people butcher his songs and end up sounding like trailer trash (Carrie Underwood). Taylor Hicks overcame a propensity for tomfoolery and Phil Donahue’s hair with a versatile, soulful voice that is wasted on the bubblegum crap American Idol has forced him to record.

Kelly Clarkson stunk on ice when she released her first album and she stunk even more when she starred in that awful movie with Justin the Weenie. Why didn’t Uncle Samuel L. Jackson sign on for that? At least Kelly’s got a little more junk in the trunk than Christina Ricci. Maybe it was the PG rating. Samuel L. apparently won’t sign on unless he is guaranteed at least four f-bombs or one “I hope they burn in hell”. For a while Kelly seemed like a wistful cocktail waitress with a decent voice and no personality, destined for a phot spread in Playboy for a quick payday before her 15 minutes expired. Fortunately she found herself and became a musical force after getting the cheese out of her system. She still might knock out a Playboy centerfold.

American Idol is designed to be cheesy. Gwen Stefani has limited talent which was hidden behind the eclectic talents of No Doubt. On her own she is a gangly, less talented version of Madonna. Her solo hits are indulgent, made for video exercises in musical futility. If I could escape, I’d leave Gwen Stefani’s music behind. Still, American Idol had to have her as a guest. After giving contestants bad advice, possibly to ensure they wouldn’t out sing her, she delivered a horrible performance of one of her awful songs.

Diana Ross night was equally cheesy. Ross was always a fine entertainer but her vocals paled in comparison to the likes of Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin. Today, Diana Ross simply isn’t relevant and her performance showed the world that her voice has taken a few steps back. We can’t take anything away from her, but forcing performers who could be her grandchildren to perform her catalogue of dated material results is bad entertainment.

Today’s performers understand cultural fusion. Modern pop music is a combination of everything. Tim McGraw performed a duet with Nelly that went to the top of the charts. The HOT 100 is peppered with songs that are either raps or feature heavy hip hop hooks. Times have changed. Guys like Barry Manilow have always been punchlines but now they are out of touch. Peter Noone might have made teenaged girls swoon back in 1960, but 47 years later nobody really cares what he has to say. Now the guy writing the songs that make the whole world sing is Timbaland.

Most musicians are influenced by who they listened to while growing up which means that today’s American Idol performers relate to people who were cranking out hits 10 or 15 years ago. Sometimes really dedicated musicians explore much older music but most don’t care to make that connection. There’s nothing wrong with that. There is a lineage there so the stars of the 1960’s still have some genetic material floating around in today’s music but aside from a select few, most of that influence is indirect. Instead of Smokey Robinson or Quincy Jones, American Idol needs to track down Teddy Riley and Babyface.

Last night was a classic example of a really bad American Idol idea: Tony Bennett. There are plenty of people who love the guy and you have to respect somebody who still loves performing at 80 years of age. Tony Bennett is worthy of respect but he’s so far removed from today’s music it’s not a good connection. The performances revealed two things: the songs and music were boring, and that type of music is really forgiving to mediocre performers. Tony Bennett sings a bleached version of jazz. Vocals are subtle, smooth and restrained. The music is light and lively but never raucous. Nobody gets to bust loose and show any soul or personality.

I’m 36 and I don’t like Tony Bennett. My parents don’t like him much either, which is bad news for Tony because my father owns a Captain and Tennille album…maybe two. On the list of lame music that’s got to be top three. You have to go back to my grandparents before you touch the generation Tony Bennett relates to best and I can only assume my grandparents didn’t like Tony either because they couldn’t stand Sinatra. Tony Bennett is like a less energetic version of Frank Sinatra. It’s lounge schmaltz.

People try to avoid saying anything bad about Tony Bennett because he’s such a venerable pop culture figure. Most people don’t care for his music at all but they like the fact that he’s still got a little vitality. It’s heartening to see a guy his age still active and able to perform. His shows are a novelty to most people.

It’s not my desire to offend Tony Bennett. He’s never given me any reason to dislike him but I can’t stand his music. It’s just slightly less objectionable than country music. His music and style isn’t timeless at all. He has a career because he is a living historical exhibit and that’s not a bad thing, but he’s got no business telling 20 year-old kids how to impress a younger audience.

It’s unlikely any of the contestants were thrilled to sing his style of music and I wasn’t excited to hear it. The only possible way to salvage the evening would have been for somebody to arrange the songs with all of that big band sound trashed in favor of stripped down guitars. It’s hard to put a rock edge on something like I’ve Got Rhythm but somebody should have tried.

And it’s not as though Tony has any real appreciation for today’s music. He took subtle shots at the performers as they tried to inject a little youth into his tired old play list. He told Beatboxing Blake that one song was written before rap and he should stay true to it. He complimented one of the singers because she could carry tune and added that it was rare these days. Isn’t that a version of “you kids these days”?

American Idol would have you believe that Tony Bennett and the style of music he represents is loved by all…that there is no generation gap, but there is. Sure people still applaud for him when he sings but are they applauding the performance or the fact that the old coot lived through it? Are they truly entertained or are they entertaining him?

We don’t have to like it. That’s what entertainment is all about. I know what I like and Tony Bennett is not on that list. I wouldn’t go to a Tony Bennett concert unless I was paid to be there and there is a very good chance I ‘d balk at a paid appearance. Tony Bennett probably wouldn’t bother going to a Fallout Boy show unless he got six figures so it’s all good. Even Steven. There’s nothing wrong with a healthy generation gap. It’s only too bad American Idol didn’t see it that way before they dusted off that tired old list of songs.