Thursday, May 30, 2002

Star Wars: The Next Generation

Let's talk about Star Wars. Try to forget that it has become larger than life itself. Imagine it not as a blockbuster, culture-defining event and remember it simply as a fun product of human imagination. Try to ignore all the marketing gimmicks and promotions, including a Walmart giveaway that promises "First prize: Star Wars R2-D2 fully operational droid from Hasbro (2 winners)." Fully operational? As in, helping you to fly your X-wing fighter, showing a video of a distressed princess Leia, and assisting you with blowing up the Death Star? Or fully operational, as in it lights up and beeps at you?

It reminds me of the special offer from 20 years ago, a Boba Fett action figure that actually fired a small missile and was deemed a hazard to children. Those were the days, back when you could bend your R5-D4 backwards and use him as a cannon in a grand game of "war," and you'd somehow end up with several different Luke Skywalkers (birthday presents), but they all looked a little different, for some reason.

Star Wars has been carried into a new generation now, and this is serious business. The guy at the ticket counter didn't even grin when I said "one for Star Trek, please." He just looked at me like I was an idiot, and said "you mean Star Wars?"

The culture built around the stories set "a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away" is an intricate study in fantasy mingling with obsession. If some of the fans spent half as much time considering true spiritual growth as they do a fictional concept called simply "the Force," we might be awash in levitating, peace-loving higher beings who could lead us into the spiritual promised land. Instead, we have enormous web servers and chat rooms of debate as to why one jedi knight simply dies when he is slashed-by-saber, while another disappears. Not surprisingly, the leading theory has something to do with the influence of the "dark side." It's amazing that hours of discussion have focused around a "force" that would have been just as appropriate in a Sunday morning cartoon.

But every good sci-fi or fantasy epic has its die-hard fans, and in general, it's all in good fun. The new movie is okay, by the way. The writing is bad, the story is in turns both unnecessarily complex, and surprisingly juvenile - but the film is still captivating and often visually stunning.

George Lucas, "you may yet be of some use to us…"

For the sake of sanity, we ignore the fact that "Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace" (may we never breathe its name again) ever happened. The new flick, "Attack of the Clones," is far from perfect, but if we pretend that it is the first prequel, it's pretty cool. True fans will feel like a kid again seeing storm troopers, Boba Fett (and his 'dad') and Yoda kicking some serious ass. Go to the matinee and buy a big popcorn (or, if you prefer, a big hot dog). This is what sci-fi used to be about. Wooden acting, cheesy lines - with some wild action and incredibly imaginative worlds. Just don't ask the 30-something, Chewbacca-shirt-wearing guy next to you when Captain Kirk and the rest of the gang will show up to save the day. You may get a 30-minute lecture about avoiding the path to the dark side.

Tuesday, May 28, 2002

Texas Music: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Texas music is always a mixed bag. Every now again you come across a Lyle Lovette, a Buddy Holly… a Grand Champeen. Other times, it's the dregs, like the hundreds or so top 40 country "musicians."

But in most cases, there's just the muddled middle. Artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Don Henley and Steve Miller. Guys who you know you don't hate… but you're not really sure you like them, either. Sure, any self-respecting Texas pool hall should proudly play Stevie Ray… and that Miller song "the Joker" is just so damn catchy. But how long could you listen to their CDs?

This generation's artists of relevance try, with varying success, to break out of that "yeah, whatever" classification. These are the stalwart Texans, the Americana "country-rock" icons. The Robert Earl Keens and Steve Earles of the world (any other Earls out there?). The ones, like Jack Ingram or The Gords, who tear this way and that across Texas on a mad, never-ending spree of live shows that you can never quite decide if you have the time or money to go to.

The Gords probably lead the list. They are a decidedly good band, and one which leads you to wonder: To what extent can a fan base have a negative impact on artistic expression? For The Gords, one of their shows gives a good impression. Their fans outside of Texas love their rootsy sound, their completely Texan swagger, and the way they do that "Gin and Juice" song. Their (maniacal) fans in Texas love their rootsy sound, their completely Texan swagger, and, you guessed it, the way they do that "Gin and Juice" song. Their shows are pretty much just killin' time until they play "Gin and Juice." Never mind that the novelty should have worn off by now - Austinites have been hearing this for 10 years. But some fans have the attention span of a walnut.

Then there's an icon like Robert Earl Keen. He hung around with dorm mate Lovette just long enough to really solidify some talent. But now he spends it playing the same show month after month, and writing the same song year after year. It's what his fans want. Some of the songs are great - well-written, rockin'… And the shows are usually a blast. But you feel your stomach turn at points… maybe it's when the 19 year-old sorority girl next to you vomits on herself. Or maybe it's when Keen sings "Copenhagen," which, unfortunately, is not an ode to the city in Denmark. Nope, it's Keen's make-out session with the snuff company. During the song, you actually expect a man in a Copenhagen shirt to walk up on stage and hand the singer a bag of money.

To be fair, a lot of these artists push barriers at times. Some more than others. Steve Earle, the rocker from Houston, kicks out a great new song every once in awhile, before falling back into his beaten path. Others, like Austinite Patty Griffin, seem ready to burst onto the scene with more brilliant music - then they surprisingly hold back, as if trying to hang on carefully to their fans.

Or maybe a lot of Texas musicians are truly happy just playing the music they've always wanted to play. A seeming lack of progression is frustrating, but I suppose music doesn't have to be about "progress," which would admittedly be difficult to measure or qualify. Perhaps a large body of Texas music is just a product of some well-worn advice: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

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