Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Understanding the words of pop tunes

By Dick Hirsch

Since I deal with words on a regular basis, it is difficult for me to admit there are so many words I just cannot comprehend. I’ve never complained about this before because it would surely become a generational issue and generational matters are best avoided because they can become very emotional.

Each succeeding generation marvels at the ignorance and vapidity of their elders, as you must realize. They try to conceal it, but it is often evident. Mark Twain once observed that, at age 16, he was so amazed by his father’s lack of knowledge that he was embarrassed to be seen with him. “By the time I was 21,” Twain added, “I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in just a few years.”

Knowing that, I have never revealed the language problem that has been dogging and defeating me. However, experience has shown that it is better to confront and discuss such questions. The hope is that disclosure will be followed by discussion that will result in understanding.

My problem is with the lyrics of popular music. I have trouble understanding. I can often avoid the problem by listening to music of my own choice, music with lyrics that I am able to decipher. But during the warmer weather, with car windows open, I find myself hearing other drivers’ music. It is being broadcast at high volume, often obliterating the more refined entertainment of innocent drivers who happen to be stopped nearby at a traffic light. One of the seasonal benefits of life in the northeast is that we drive around with the windows open for only a small part of the year. The rest of the time we aren’t regularly overwhelmed by other drivers’ music.

Much of that is both cacophonous and unintelligible. I suppose some readers might be expecting me to target rap, which has traveled far beyond its ethnic roots and captured the attention of a fairly diverse audience. Rap seems to lend itself to high volume and it certainly seems to be unfathomable. But my gripe isn’t with rap; my complaint predates rap. I suppose it was born during the heyday of rock ‘n’ roll, but many of the tunes in that general category were accompanied by lyrics that could be listened to and understood.

Let me take you back a few decades for examples of some lyrics that were at the top of the charts, but were still appreciated and understood by the multitudes. There are thousands of examples, but I’d like to cite just a few that demonstrate the skills of lyricists of another time, writers who succeeded in expressing feelings that were understandable and memorable. Here’s a little ditty that came immediately to mind called “Cement Mixer, Putty Putty”:

“Cement mixer, putty putty
Cement mixer, putty putty
Cement mixer, putty putty
Cement mixer, putty putty
A puddle o’ vooty, a puddle o’ gooty,
A puddle o’ scooby, a puddle of veet concrete.
First you get some gravel, pour it on the vout
To mix a mess o’ mortar
To add cement and water
See the mellow roony
Come out slurp slurp slurp.”

I think you’ll agree that has a certain quality that is far different from what we are exposed to these days. Another that was broadcast repeatedly was the iconic “Mairzy Doats.” Here is the chorus: “Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey; a kiddley divey too, wouldn’t you?” A little later in the refrain, the meaning was explained this way: “If the words sound queer and funny to your ear, a little bit jumbled and jivey; Sing mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy.”

Wouldn’t any objective observer agree that lyrics such as those were stimulating as well as entertaining? They contributed to the intellectual prowess of a generation.

Also rating highly were the lyrics of Spike Jones in masterpieces like “Yes We Have No Bananas,” or “All I Want for Christmas Are My Two Front Teeth.” Some classicists remember the Spike Jones rendition of Rossini’s “William Tell Overture.” It describes a horse race, where a horse named Cabbage is leading by a head, only to be challenged by a horse named Banana, who was seen “coming up through a bunch.” The eventual surprise winner was a long shot named Fietelbaum, pronounced Feeeetle-bomb.

You had to be there. As you can see, pop music then was operating at a whole different level.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

At least the experience may be valuable

By Dick Hirsch

There were approximately 1,400,000 students who graduated from colleges in the US in recent weeks and we can salute them all for their academic accomplishments while at the same time expressing our regrets as many of them enter the job market.

Why the condolences?

Because only two of every ten grads seeking to start a career in the workplace have been able to find a job, according to figures just released by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) following its annual student survey. The results showed 20 percent of graduates with new Bachelor’s degrees had promises of jobs, compared to just over 50 percent in 2007.

That is bad news.

There is an abundance of bad employment news these days, much more than the usual portion. Men and women with excellent work records have lost their jobs. Layoffs are common. Positions previously considered essential have been reclassified as redundant. Some staff reductions are large enough to warrant coverage on the newscasts, but there are others that are done quietly, with either the legendary “pink slip,” or, more likely, following a meeting with a representative from human resources. Even in the worst of times, such meetings are unexpected, and the result is termination, with or without a pat on the back and a parting handshake.

If you examined each of those incidents, there is likely to be a sad story developing, a story highlighted by bills to be paid, mortgage payments overdue, future plans scuttled and countless other stressful issues impacting individuals and families. These are difficult times and the stories of individual travails are apparent everywhere.

But, for the grads, it must be an especially painful introduction to the realities of the real world. They have not exactly been sequestered on campus for four years, so they have been aware of the sad state of the world economy, the growing number of unemployed workers, and the less than rosy predictions for recovery. Now, as they come of age, they must contend with the bleak realization that life can be very unfair.

Years ago I met with a college class, a group of students hoping for careers in communications. They were seniors, it was springtime, and commencement wasn’t far away. For most of them, things were already settled. They had been distributing resumes, consulting the university’s placement office and reviewing possibilities. The result for the majority: they not only had a job, they even had a starting date. Excitement abounded. The room was filled with eager recruits, ready for the real world.

Of course, the process was more personal then. Resumes were mailed. The jobseeker might follow with a phone call. Interviews were arranged. Today, in addition to the dramatic reduction in job openings, the process has been depersonalized: e-mail and voice mail dominate the process, with only occasional interviews. The result for most is disappointing, summarized this way in a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

“What they’ve found offers only some combination of...a minimum wage job with no benefits, part time only in a field seemingly unrelated to their degrees...possibly the job is also physically or emotionally exhausting, involves dealing with angry customers, and requires repeated robotic sales pitches and survey questions.”

There is no shortage of advice for the jobless graduates. Some recommend seeking an internship; even if it is unpaid, it provides an introduction to the workplace and often leads to a job offer. Others suggest volunteer work for charitable agencies. Many advise graduate school. There is also a plethora of self-help suggestions, too: be optimistic, don’t become discouraged, and recognize that tough times can help cultivate character; don’t discount any opportunity, no matter how remote, and be flexible and willing to relocate, either in the US or a foreign country.

That advice is well-intentioned but it has a somewhat hollow sound. Yet, it reminds me of a job I accepted without much enthusiasm, but which proved to have a remarkable impact. I sold Fuller brushes at a time when people were still at home to answer the doorbell. It was a job I didn’t wish for, a last resort, viewed solely as a way to earn some money. It proved to be much more, providing experience that was enduring, related mostly to methods of approaching unfamiliar people who weren’t eager to talk to me. That’s the funny thing about experience: you never know until later when you’re adding something valuable.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

For many, a risky challenge performed daily

By Dick Hirsch

I believe I speak for most men when I claim that we despise shaving. It consumes valuable time and requires concentration, usually at a period in the early morning when concentrating is more difficult than it is later in the day.

Those who let their minds stray from the task at hand often regret it. They cut themselves and spend more precious time attempting to stanch the bleeding. Usually the wound is on the upper lip or the chin, although the area in the neck around the Adam’s apple is also highly vulnerable.

The styptic pencil, one of mankind’s unheralded but very significant inventions, usually can stop the bleeding and create a clot. Among those who ignore the benefits of the styptic pencil, the favored treatment is the shred of toilet tissue to blot the site of the damage. The paper adheres to the wound.

Just the other day I had a mid-morning conversation with a man at the office who had a small shred toilet paper dressing festooning his chin. He must have forgotten to remove it as he hurried to the office. It was almost 10:30. Could it be that no one had mentioned it to him? Did I have to be the bearer of bad tidings?

“Tom,” I said, trying to sound casual, “you must have cut yourself shaving and you forgot to take off the toilet paper when you left home.”

He didn’t seem embarrassed. He thanked me, successfully removed the paper with a dainty yank, and immediately launched into an embittered denunciation of Gillette, the major manufacturer of razors and blades.

“Gillette is screwing us with their ridiculous claims and blade prices. They have made shaving more complicated and expensive than it needs to be. I would never buy their damn razors.”

I won’t bore you with additional details of his raging allegations, but I did agree with some of his claims. Each time I go to the drug store to buy blades I shake my head in wonder at the prices. I buy a packet of five Gillette Mach 3 blades for $12.99, which amounts to over $2.80 each. Forgive the observation, but the Mach 3 is no longer regarded as cutting edge technology; although once considered revolutionary, it has been surpassed by the Mach 3 Turbo, the Fusion, and who knows how many other variations that Gillette has added to its branded lineup. Each cartridge for the Fusion contains six blades, five for the beard and one for trimming sideburns, mustache and other areas where precision is required. A package of eight retails for around $22. Schick markets its own brands at comparable prices. Shaving is no longer the cost effective personal care effort that it was when grandpa used the legendary Gillette Blue Blades.

Yes, I was startled to learn that Tom, despite his rancorous comments about Gillette, admitted he did not use their products. I inquired about his shaving technology and the instruments he used, a topic that is frequently discussed in the locker room.

“I use disposables,” he replied. “I buy them at the dollar store.”

That may have helped to explain Tom’s condition, and the fact that he had several times in the past been seen with a scab the size of a dime on his chin or jowls.

“They’re all made in China, anyway,” he added, as he pivoted and strode off toward the men's room to examine his wounded chin in the mirror.

Have you ever wondered why most men at one time or another consider what their life would be like if they grew a beard? There is a good reason for that: the growth of a beard frees the man from daily shaving, a task that is onerous and sometimes controversial. Men are always receptive to new methods. They may not change, but they always consider. Some endorse electric razors, insisting they produce a result comparable to a wet shave. Most men have tried both approaches and made a decision which they consider irrevocable. Once they change they rarely return. Yes, I realize that women shave, too, but I know so little about that activity that I can’t discuss it with any expertise.

Among both men and women there continues to be an enduring argument over direction. Should shaving be done with the grain or against the grain? With the grain is said to be faster and safer; against the grain is considered to be riskier but yield a smoother result. Contrarians often shave against the grain.