Saturday, August 21, 2010

Jersey Boys: I heard an America on the radio

Seeing the musical "Jersey Boys" brought back a vivid set of memories for me. At age eleven, I was just beginning to spend a serious amount of time listening to a big old floor standing radio, rather like the one shown here.

I had inherited that from older siblings, along with a bunch of 1950s paperbacks about juvenile delinquents, a flat football, a somewhat exotic collection of matchbooks and matchboxes stuffed into a cigar box, and some 78 records, including Spike Jones' version of "In the Führer's Face".

You can hear that little classic on YouTube at:

My parents were already in their late 50s and my siblings all quite a bit older than me, so while all the stuff I inherited from them was pretty interesting, I was beginning to want to discover the world for myself. I had become a voracious reader of all kinds of kids' books and more recently, historical fiction, so I had a lot of jumbled images of lots of times and places from the USA in my head, not to mention a lot of images from TV news and programs, but the narratives from the books were more complete and more compelling.

What had become most compelling about my current world, though, was radio. There was one local AM channel from Boise, Idaho that played rock and pop, and at night, if I tuned in carefully, I could pick up Wolfman Jack coming up all the way from Tijuana, Mexico on a powerful clear channel AM signal. Increasingly, the America I imagined was the one on radio.

The title to this post is an obscure reference to a song by the Brazilian Chico Buarque, the title tune to "Bye, Bye Brasil," one of my favorite road movies about the Northeast and North of Brazil. Part of the lyrics say, "I saw a Brazil on TV," (which has been a favorite line among Brazilians who study TV). Chico Buarque is referring to the fact, that from the edges of Brazil, while you can see "a" Brazil on TV, it may well not be the one you happen to be living in. Here is a clip with a good version of the song, with visuals of someone riding around Rio on a motorcycle.

I guess the point is that I began to hear an America on radio, which was really several rather distinct Americas held together by pop music as much as anything else. When I heard the Four Seasons singing their first big hit, "Sherry," on that radio in 1962, I had no idea what their America was like, the New Jersey of urban streets, wise guys who would lend you money (for outrageous interest), friends and relatives going in and out of jail for petty crimes, and ambitious young guys singing songs under lamp posts, hoping to make a break out of there and into the big time through music. If I remember right, one of the lines from "Jersey Boys" was that the ways you got ahead in (or out of) that New Jersey were the Army, the Mob, or music. I had not yet begun to form my own ideas about how to get ahead in (or out of) rural Idaho yet, but music from these other Americas was probably part of the process.

At any rate, I found the Four Seasons' music pretty riveting. Eleven year old, pre voice change me could do the Frankie Valli part, which was a lot of fun. Here are the "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man," and Who Loves You" sequences from "Jersey Boys," introduced appropriately by a guy playing a DJ playing the song over the radio, which is how we all heard the songs at the time:

In hindsight, what made my imagined Americas from the radio particularly complicated, was that the big competitor to the Four Seasons for my listening affections at the time was a very different band from a very different America, the Beach Boys, who came out with "Surfin' USA" around the same time. Here is what that looked like on a TV show, in black and white, the way I would have seen it, although I remember them a lot more from the radio than from TV:

I had an easier time imagining the America, or more specifically the California, of the Beach Boys. And when my time to get out of Idaho came, California was where I headed. (By the time I got there, in 1969, it was more the northern California of the Grateful Dead that called to me than the southern California of the Beach Boys, but that is another story.)

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Losing Newsweek (the main info medium of my adolescence)

Caveat: I did a short Face- book post about this earlier, but ended up wanting to reflect a bit more deeply, so the short version is on Facebook, the longer on a blog.

I have mixed feelings about the passing of the newsmagazine era. The story positions it as the loss of one of the few remaining mass news media that spoke to non-fragmented audiences. I do remember starting to read Newsweek as a teenager and feeling that I had entered into what Benedict Anderson calls the national imagined community. I gradually felt that I knew more about and identified more with what was going on beyond Kuna, beyond Idaho, maybe even beyond the USA, which was something I had not thought much about before that. But I found myself fascinated, not only by what was going on in Washington, DC, but around the world.

Newsweek was an important national lifeline to me growing up in rural Idaho. It was something you could find in most any library and in magazine racks at a lot of stores. As a farm kid, I could not afford to buy magazines, but libraries were an even bigger informational lifeline in many many ways. I remember exhausting my elementary school library (in a very small room) and getting permission to use
the high school library. That had its own entrance at one side of the school, up some brick stairs that were covered with ivy. You can see it in this photo from my high school senior year annual from 1969, as the backdrop for a photo of the student council of that year.

That may not seem like the Ivy League, but it seemed exotic and exciting to a small boy. A largish (to me) well-lit room with a what seemed like a lot of books, a magazine rack with quite a few things that were not in the supermarket, and archives of old historical magazines and things you could dig through. Now, I have to admit that I was also a fairly typical boy. The only Newsweek cover I specifically remember from high school was the one with Jane Fonda's bare back facing us, in a story about Barbarella.
That definitely leapt out to my eye from the magazine rack in the Kuna High School library.

As I learned what was going on nationally and internationally, I got very interested in both. It really intrigued me to learn about all these people who seemed foreign but interesting. Mad magazine was almost better than Newsweek that way. I was particularly intrigued with East Coast culture and humor. I couldn't figure out who Howard Johnson was at first and why the magazine wanted to make such fun of him.

Perhaps more important, Newsweek helped me figure out what was important to learn to get ahead in the U.S. I found I wanted to get out into that larger pond and Newsweek offered a lot of clues, if you read carefully. One reason I both took and passed the foreign service test was that I had been reading Newsweek's international coverage closely for over a decade. It turns out that was just about the level of knowledge the test was looking for.

Newsweek was where I learned a lot of the cultural or knowledge capital I had acquired before college. When one of my high school teachers was trying to figure out why I was leaving Idaho to go to school in California (what went wrong from his point of view), after talking to me about it for a while, he put the blame (or maybe the credit) on Newsweek.

By the time I got to college, my other big source was Rolling Stone magazine. I figured if I read both Newsweek for the mainstream, establishment view of things, and Rolling Stone for music and counter-culture, I was getting an interesting kind of balance. Now it seems like the interest in knowing what the large scale broadly shared news and culture of the US is has declined, hence Newsweek's decline. Or maybe as the NY Times article asserts, there is no middle anymore, and people are gravitating to more specific points of view, whether Huffington Post, or Fox News, with very little center to aim at. That seems sad to me. I remember the excitement I felt for figuring out what was going on in US politics and culture, trying to figure out where the center of it was. Now, the center cannot hold because it isn't there anymore.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Pete Seeger's banjo

Pete Seeger's banjo
Originally uploaded by guano
Here at home we have been watching a documentary about Pete Seeger, the man who invented folk music in the way we think about it since the 1950s. It brought tears to my eyes more than once. Here is someone I really admire, who has affected my life in more ways than I realized. Makes you realize among other things, just how informative and affecting a good documentary can be.
Folk music was a key part of the background for growing up in America in the 1950s and 1960s. I didn't get a chance to hear much of it before it finally broke through to mainstream radio and TV in the 1960s. For Sandy, growing in Sherman Oaks, CA, with the kinds of families, kids, summer camps, that a more cosmopolitan (and dare I say the word "progressive") kind of world produced, she heard about all of this, like the Weavers and Pete Seeger himself, a lot earlier, and in a lot more detail than I did. Makes me a tiny bit envious, but hey, I had a whole herd of Holstein cows, barns, fields, a creek and railroad tracks to explore, so it all evens out somehow.
By the mid-1960s, though, Seeger's music was trickling out through people like the Byrds (Turn, Turn, Turn), Dylan, songs picked up by the civil rights movement (We Shall Overcome, etc.). So this guy was informing the most intriguing parts of my world even though I did not know his name yet.
He has a brilliant idea that music makes many things plainer to us than speeches or newspaper columns or TV. Works for me. Certainly worked for me then. I think both Sandy and I have the kinds of curiosity about the world we have, and to some degree, the politics we have because we started listening hard to those songs we liked.
Probably my favorite line from the whole documentary is what Seeger has written on his banjo, "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender." At this current moment when several sides are ramping their followers up to truly hate the other side(s), I wish this were more the tactic now.
One final thought: the documentary was brought to us by our local library. All my life, libraries (along with public schools) have been the thing that gave a poor kid from an Idaho farm the chance to dream big and go after those dreams. In these days when public leaders would rather cut back libraries' collections and hours than even consider raising taxes, I think we need more libraries with more hours to give more kids a chance, even if means raising a few taxes.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Bethlehem, PA

I am in Bethlehem, Penn- sylvania for a couple of days to give an invited talk to a small conference on globalization at Lehigh University and to work on a book project with my former student John Jirik, who teaches here now.

Here is my host, John, framed against the Lehigh River, that cuts through town.

Bethlehem is a very traditional looking small town that has been around since 1741. It was started by the Moravian Brethren who arrived here as political or religious refugees from Germany, and originally what is now the Czech Republic.

This was one of their buildings, now part of Moravian College.

It is a beautiful town with a lot of well preserved historical homes. Here is a nice example, with a bit of autumn color in front of it.

During the industrial heyday of the USA, the town was known as the home of Bethlehem Steel, the firm that made the steel for the Golden Gate Bridge and other markers of the age.

For better, or I would say, for worse, after the steel mill finally failed completely and shut down, part of it was turned into a casino, someone's idea of a clever replacement for those jobs. Here you see the Sands Casino sign framed against a decaying and unredeveloped part of the steel mill.

One of the nice things about this trip is being back in the Eastern part of the USA in October, when the leaves of the hardwood trees and forests begin to turn red and gold, as you can see from this tree that stands in front of the Lehigh University building that houses the Journalism program.

Monday, September 7, 2009

My Brazilan Skin

I had not been back to Brazil in two years. Long time. But after I had been back a day or so, it felt like home again. Sort of like home feels when you have been gone for a while. You don't know the latest political scandal that people are talking about, but the air smells good, the language feels comfortable in your ear and mouth, the little details of a typical street scene make you smile in both recognition and pleasure. I slow down my feet and speed up my ear, so I can try to catch everything because every little detail is interesting: what has changed? What is still pretty much the same?

I had several levels of Brazilian home-coming this time. The first, the three days, was just being back in São Paulo. My hotel was quite close to where we lived in 1989-90, so it was a constant feel of pleasurable deja vu, to recognize that most things really had not changed that much in 20 years. The way that little service shops, like tailors, are still tucked into side streets. The way that people bustle into corner restaurants for a snack. The way people walk on the street and greet each other. The familiar buildings and streets. Things do cost more there relative to their dollar value. I decided I did not want to pay what it took to eat in several places that would have been quite affordable 20 years ago.

The second was specifically spending a couple of those days in São Paulo at the University of São Paulo (USP), meeting with people and using the library to catch up on Brazilian media books and magazines that I can't get at UT. The Benson Latin American Collection at UT actually has an astonishing amount of the things I do need, but they can't afford every academic journal on communication in the Lusophone countries or business monthlies on cable TV. USP is huge and nicely green, as you can see in the photo here of a path near the the communication school (shown in the next photo here) has quite a bit bigger footprint than the one at UT, which mostly means we at UT are way overcrowded. I taught at USP 1989-90, so the communications school has a pleasant familiarity to me, too, and there are some nice new touches like a nice restaurant for faculty and grad students a few blocks away. I was there mostly to get a research project on digital inclusion moving and to see if we can revive our exchange of faculty between the schools. I made progress on both, so we will see how things go.

The third nice level of being back was going to the annual meeting of the Brazilian academic communication research association INTERCOM. I have probably gone to at least ten of these since 1981, when I went the first time to discuss my new completely dissertation research on Brazilian television. So I saw people I have know literally since then or even before. Sandy says academic meetings are a lot like summer camp for grown ups. You get to see your friends, in this case for me a somewhat specialized but remarkably close set of friends that I had not seen for a couple of years. (The photo shows a couple of them, Anamaria Fadul and Sonia Virginia Morreira , as we had lunch in cafeteria at the Universidade Positiva in Curitiba at the meeting.)
You get to do interesting things like presenting your own research or listening to interesting new things being done by others. (This really is fun if you are a bit of a research and culture geek.) In my case, it was a great, quick way to catch up on a lot that is being done in Brazil right now. A great package of things to do for a couple days -- and you thought summer camp was gone forever.

The fourth thing was a bit of surprise at how some things are indeed changing in Brazil. Since the public universities cannot keep up with the demand, new private schools are springing up like crazy in Brazil, some good, some bad. The one hosting us in Curitiba was the Positive University, owned by the Grupo Positivo who are started doing private schools, like some of the private charter school chains in the US, with similarly positive results, then branched into curricular materials and school books, then computers and learning software, and now universities. It is funny how the main Positive School seems pretty normal for a charter school, but a bid odd for a major university to be the Positive University, whose symbol is a big thumbs up.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

One Afternoon at Habib's, or When Old Telenovelas Never Die

After a couple of meetings today, I went book and DVD shopping at one of my favorite bookstores in the world, Livraria Cultura, which has five different spaces -- one bigger than your average Borders-- in a small mall on Avenida Paulista. So many new books on Brazilian media that I got footsore standing and looking at them. So I took a break, going kitty corner across from the back corner of this mall on Rua Augusta, to another of my favorite places, one of the world's most interesting fast food joints, Habib's, which serves good, cheap Lebanese fast food: kibes and esfihas instead of burgers, although they will sell you a burger and fries, if you must. Not much to look at, as you see here, but a lot of good places aren't.

Sitting there happily munching a small snack, I noticed that everyone in their dining room was more than usually glued to the large TV hanging from the ceiling, so I glanced up, too. And what was showing but a rerun session (TV Globo calls mid-afternoon reruns the "Vale apena ver de novo" -- "worth seeing again"-- series) of Sandy's favorite telenovela, which features an Indian girl who is apparently the reincarnation of her boss' long lost (murdered it turns out) and beloved wife. Here you see her and a friend looking at the soon to be boss' house, to which she is curiously drawn. He breeds and creates roses, so she is further drawn to his greenhouse.

So then before long I was literally watching one of THE crucial scenes of the whole nine month telenovela, where the girl is strongly, inexplicably drawn to the one rose that he created for the lost wife. They are indeed destined for one another TahDah! (although it takes MONTHS for their seemingly pre-destined romance to work out--but that is indeed how this genre works).

Some things are just too overwhelmingly melodramatic to die! The whole restaurant clientele, except the ones actually working, was raptly watching this scene. So it is pretty clear that Sandy's tastes run close to the core of what rivets the Brazilian audience most. (I have to admit that I kinda like this one, too.) One of those moments where personal life and our lifelong, ongoing ethnography of media and Brazilian life completely merge. Cheesy but cool.

Back to São Paulo

When I woke up in the plane this morning over Brazil, I popped an eyelid open and looked out the window at the sunrise over the clouds. (Couldn't resist snapping a picture with my trusty iPhone -- the Brazilian guy in the seat ahead was doing the same thing.) I was already filled with anticipation. Brazil really feels like a second home country to me. I get excited thinking about the people I know, the fun of speaking Portuguese again, the fun of catching up on what is going on, even the food.

It is wonderful to get back to São Paulo for a couple of days. I have been here a lot off and on over the last 33 years, including living here 9 months in 1989-90, and teaching at the University of São Paulo. I get hungry for a taste of big city life now and then, even thought Austin is certainly easier to live in.

The city is much too large and sprawling, when you look at it from the air, as in this photo, flying in, it is overwhelming. It goes on forever before you even land. A number of people argue that huge Third World metropolises, surrounded by rapidly growing slums, are one of the main faces of the world's future. Planet Slum, one book by Mike Davis, calls it.

The surprising thing is how green small parts of it can be. People cultivate trees or at least a few shrubs between buildings. The green is almost more delightful, sandwiched into such a sprawling mass of concrete, as the view from my hotel window, at the very nice but trendily and oddly named -- Golden Tulip Interactive, shows. The breakfast room looks out onto the garden by the tree -- a nice oasis.

So time to go walking in the city, enjoying a little observational update a la de Certeau, as I walk to meetings and get re-acquainted with one of my favorite cities.