Monday, September 30, 2013

Music Midtown 2013: A Spiritual Odyssey into Adulthood

How a trip to Atlanta’s largest annual music festival proved I’m no longer the young Turk I used to be…and why that’s ANYTHING but a bad thing. 

Every year in Atlanta, this multi-day mega festival is held at Piedmont Park, called “Music Midtown.” This year’s line-up consisted of bands whose general discographies I more or less enjoyed -- Weezer, The Black Lips, Tegan and Sara, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs -- and a couple of bands that, in my opinion, are extraordinarily overrated -- the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Queens of the Stone Age and Imagine Dragons, among them -- and a whole hell of a lot of acts I’ve never heard of before -- ZZ Ward, Mona, The Neighbourhood and pretty much everybody else on the schedule.

I’ve never been to Music Midtown before, but this year, I said “why the heck not?” After all, there were a lot of quasi-decent bands there, and it’s a full Saturday filled with rock and roll, food trucks, and all sorts of kitschy, kooky stuff that you really don’t get to see anywhere else (primarily, because the rest of society isn’t littered with alcohol and weed-intoxicated twenty year olds averse to wearing shirts.) I’d heard from quite a few folks that parking there is generally a nightmare, so I asked my other of much significance if she wanted to get there extra-early; as in, like six o’clock in the morning (when the first act, mind you, wasn’t scheduled to begin until about noon.) Because she’s the most awesome girlfriend in the world, she said yes, and after filling my stomach with a 22 ounce Styrofoam cup of QuikTrip Cappuccino, we were on our way to what is pretty much the largest musical festival in the Southeast -- not called Bonnaroo, of course.

Now, I know Atlanta quite well. In fact, I’ve spent pretty much every other weekend of my life for the last three years hanging out there. That said, I’ve never really been on the streets of Atlanta on a Saturday morning, and it was downright surreal. For one thing, there was hardly any traffic at all on 10th Street, and if you know anything at all about the ATL, you’d know that stretch of real estate (basically, everything from The Varsity to the Midtown Art Cinema) is usually congested like a mofo. Alas, there were few vehicles on the pavement, and even fewer people ambling around (outside of the joggers, of course -- by the way, half of Atlanta is populated by people in really bright shoes just running around aimlessly.)

So, me and Miss Internet Is In America grabbed a quick coffee at Starbucks (for Atlanta area travelers: the one next to the Chick-Fil-A at Colony Square is one of the few public spots within walking distance that has guaranteed bathroom access) and just watched the sun come up. That sounds like something really boring people do, but watching the sky turn from purple to light blue as the giant-assed orange sun just radiate across all of the skyscrapers was something truly magnificent, and something suburbanites just can’t bear witness to on a daily basis. You know, for a city that has a reputation as being one of the hardest places in America, Atlanta truly is a beautiful town, in many respects. Well…as long as you stay out of Vine City, I suppose.

From there, we did some ambling. Not walking, “ambling,” which is sort of like walking, only without any true direction in mind. If you don’t amble, you should try it sometime; you really have no idea what exciting, unexpected locales you may find yourselves in when you do (that morning, I ended up in a strip mall parking lot with a Thai restaurant, a seasonal Halloween store, and what I am fairly certain was about three or four gay bars.)

Piedmont Park, for those of you out of the loop, is a really, really big park, and even though a majority of it was roped off for the festival, half of the place was still open and accessible to joggers and dog walkers. As pretty as it is, it’s also one of the more depressing sites in the city, as its often home to any number of impoverished people, sometimes sleeping on top of playground equipment until the police walk on over to them and tell them to scram. It’s an unfortunate plight, on so many levels, but at least the city’s ordinances don’t make them ILLEGAL by default, which is actually on the books in some places. Places that really, really ought to be ashamed of themselves. And by all of that, I mean “Columbia, South Carolina,” which by all contemporary measures of human decency, can go fuck itself anytime it so chooses.

After ambling around a bit, I found myself at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, which is sort of like Busch Gardens, only with a lot less roller coasters. We didn’t explore all of it, but we did manage to see this impressive sight -- a topiary toy canine, which almost looked like a bichon frise made out of moss. And in case you were wondering; there was a security camera placed right in front of it, so no take-home souvenirs of grass-puppy-chunks were collected that day, sadly.

Despite my well-established adulation for breakfast cereals, the actual meal of breakfast itself is something I rarely experience. Hell, most days, I don’t actually get around to eating anything until about 5 or 6 PM, and on the weekends, the wait is sometimes even longer (primarily because of the nature of this whole online writing business -- I’m more or less enslaved by my laptop a good ten or 12 hours a day, and even making a trip to the microwave could cost me a much-needed phone call or e-mail.) So, at around 10 AM, we decided to hit up the Flying Biscuit Cafe, one of Atlanta’s more popular non-franchised eateries. Yeah, it may not be a Gladys Knight- endoresed chicken and pancakes stand, but it’s own reputation remains fairly vaunted, nonetheless.

A ton of people were in the restaurant that morning -- mostly for Music Midtown, I’m assuming, but there was also the PGA Tour (who the hell wants to spend money to watch OTHER PEOPLE play golf, exactly?) and the Georgia Tech/Whoever Georgia Tech Was Playing game down at Bobby Dodd Stadium going on, too. Now, I’m sure you’ve heard lots of things about Atlanta’s demographics, but for those of you that think Atlanta is filled with nothing but Antebellum South leftovers and the likes of Curtis Snow, you’d be plum shocked by just how diverse the city ACTUALLY is. Black gay dudes into punk rock hobnob with forty year old white hipster dudes that really like Etta James, and really fat looking old dudes that wear tank tops and look like they hate all minorities live on the very same block as acoustic guitar virtuoso African-Americans and hardcore women’s rights Puerto Rican lesbian Georgia State professors. I haven’t seen any seven foot tall Filipino transgender strippers walking down the street holding hands with their live-in-albino-midget boyfriends yet, but at the same time, I haven’t checked out every street in Atlanta, either. For all I know, there could be an entire village of them living behind the Carter Center or something.

The interior of the Cafe is really something else, too. For one, there are indeed literal flying biscuits painted on the walls, and you can actually open up the windows while you eat -- which, I guess, is the kind of thing that makes dining and dashing a lot easier, but apparently, that's not much of a problem for the proprietors of the restaurant. Weirdly, there's this glass enclosure inside the building, so there's basically an inside part of the cafe and an outside-inside part of the cafe that's kinda' like a ring around a planet. Also, it makes you feel like you're eating behind a plate-glass window at the zoo (or prison), therefore making the dining experience, as a whole, that much more awesome.

So, what did my breakfast consist of at the Flying Biscuit Cafe that morning? Well, I had all of this deliciousness right here -- a MEGGSXICAN omelet, with potato chunks (like home fries, but way more Georgian in nature) and a complimentary biscuit (the red stuff in the thimble was the best goddamn jam anyone's ever had in their life, by the way.) You know you're in a major metro area when your vegetarian-friendly options entail the ability to substitute tofu for scrambled eggs, which is precisely what I did with my plate. Needless to say, the whole meal was freaking delicious, and I'd highly recommend it to anyone who is in the ATL for any prolonged period of time. It's metropolitan-urban-alternative-soul-food at its finest, and just to remind you that you are still eating in the Deep South -- one of the menu offerings is a Coca-Cola glazed chicken. (And further proof you're still in Dixie: there were people in the eatery that morning chowing down on scrambled eggs and washing it down with Blue Moon ale at the same time.)

With about an hour to go until the festival officially kicked off, we decided to make the brief march back to Piedmont. At this point, not only did the lines start forming, so did a light drizzle -- which, over the course of an hour, turned into a medium-sized downpour. Thankfully, at least one of us in the relationship watches the Weather Channel, and as such, we both came prepared for inclement conditions. My little rain slicker thingy even had a sweet-looking flannel interior -- which would soon prove itself to be an utter and complete good time-killer a little bit later on in the evening.

The first thing I noticed about the line was that it was filled with some young folks -- I mean, like high school aged and shit. So many white people, with blonde hair and braces: yeah, I guess a few of them could've been sorority girls from Georgia Tech or rich kids from Nashville, but I was still aghast at just how much the demographics that day skewed towards those in their early 20s and late teens. And after an hour of being harangued by the park's ticket taker gestapo -- who made people give up their "oversized" umbrellas and pointed out people in the crowd smoking cigarettes illegally  -- the entry gates finally swung open, and the day's festivities had officially kicked off!

By the way, did I mention that it was raining like hell, windy as hell, and colder than hell throughout the entire day? Well, it was, and it made the entire foray about as much fun as realizing the interior lining of your jacket was melting and covering your entire body in a semi-permanent red dye -- which is exactly what all of that excessive moisture did my "sweet" flannel jacket parka thingy.

There were a lot of neat attractions there -- food trucks, a ton of vendor spaces and even a Ferris wheel -- but since a junior-sized tsunami had broken out, all of that shit went straight out the window. From there, "having fun" became a secondary function to "not being out in the open and having water seep into every nook and cranny of your body," so I ended up spending a good 95 percent of my time there hugging the bark of a tree and TRYING to not get any more rain in my socks.

It was a really great look into the psyche of humanity, too: it was clear that everyone there was totally miserable, but since they had already spent $200 on tickets, nobody had the willpower to leave. Even more fun was watching the impromptu entrepreneurs blossom, with park custodians turning around and (probably illegally) selling plastic garbage bags as makeshift ponchos. The one tent that was already selling actual ponchos probably had the biggest end-of-day purse of any vendor there, but I was just wondering why in the hell they were selling "pregnancy tests" next to the cash register...

I guess now's a good time to talk about the music at the festival, no? Well, the first couple of acts were far from impressive, in my humblest of opinions. Ever heard of the bands Mona or The Neighbourhood? If you haven't, long story short, they suck, and you didn't miss anything. Except for rain. A whole hell of a lot of it.

The first band that I actually cared about took one of three central stages at around 2:30 PM, which was around the same time the downpour got the most ferocious. While it was no doubt cool hearing Weezer torch through "Say it Ain't So" and "El Scorcho," the entire scenario was marred considerably by three factors:

#001.) You know how the park ranger Nazi from earlier told everybody that smoking was verboten at the festival? Well, a large throng of festival-goers decided that was more of a "suggested practice" than an official mandate, so while I was wedged up against a leaky oak for protection from the elements, I was forced to suck down approximately 43 metric tons of second-hand Camel Crush smoke, in tandem with the 88 metric tons of second-hand marijuana dust that was bellowing out of the mouths of a good 87 percent of the festival's attendee's collective maws.

#002.) So, while my lungs are being McGangBanged by all sorts of noxious fumes, a downwind from across the park cascades across the plains -- in short, the collective stench of EVERY SINGLE fried food being sold at the park, in one John Carpenter-esque miasmi, hung directly overhead during the entirety of the set.

#003.) Oh, and then there were the port-a-potties, which apparently began leaking a bit and mixing in with the mini-flood that was sweeping across the walkways of the park. So, to reiterate, the positive here was that Weezer sounded pretty all right. As for the negatives, for a solid hour, I was forced to stand shivering underneath a leaking branch, while a perfect storm of B.O, weed, tobacco, grease and various forms of poop and/or pee danced underneath my nasal passages.

The Black Lips -- one of Atlanta's finest home-grown acts, as we all know by now -- took the stage right after Weezer's set concluded. I caught a couple of their songs, and decided that it was time to scout the surroundings for both food, protection, and a clean place to urinate. And by the way: you've probably heard some bad things about music festival bathrooms before, and I assure you, EVERYTHING you've heard about them are true, and then some.

The line for vegetarian corn-dogs were the shortest, so that's where we decided to pick up some mid-day grub. Around this point, I had no option but to spend five bucks on one of those cheap-ass ponchos everybody was selling, and somehow, it was even LESS effective at preventing rain from seeping into my boxers and socks than my bleeding flannel overcoat. So, basically, if you missed out on Music Midtown in 2013, the only thing you really missed out on was pretending to be a Bosnian refugee for an afternoon.

Regarding the vendors, two in particular stood out to me; one was a Dunkin' Donuts truck, which instead of providing delicious, warm beverages that could've possibly saved my ass, was handing out mini-sample cups of iced coffee and allowing patrons to have their pictures taken inside a corporate branded photo booth. The other was a table selling various "cooling products," and needless to say, their money boxes looked quite vacant when I waltzed by.

Let's talk about the patrons of the festival, why don't we? As stated earlier, the demographics skewed pretty young, but there were quite a few older folks at the show, too. The security protocols for the festival were utterly perplexing to me; por exemple, large umbrellas were illegal, but people on five foot tall stilts were COMPLETELY all right with the guards. Similarly, totem poles -- basically, ten-foot-poles with flags and stuffed animals on them -- were permitted without hesitation.

There was a LOT of alcohol swirling around at the festival, which, I suppose, shouldn't be too surprising. A rain-drenched populace spent most of their day trying to improvise protective apparel, and some of their ideas were downright ingenious. In one instance, some Verizon spokeswoman was handing out free tote bags -- while under normal atmospheric conditions, nobody would even stop by her booth, people were FLOCKING around here like she was handing out free Chuck E. Cheese tokens. Why were they so desperate to procure one of the bags, you're probably thinking? Because they could be transformed into impromptu pope hats, and there were TONS of folks rocking the head much so, that they more or less become the most fashionable item at the entire festival.

By the time the Black Lips set was over, the park was a downright muddy mess. Flocking across the park to catch Tegan and Sara's performance, there was more or less a massive gulch of wet dirt...a couple of inches thick...separating patrons from the green space in front of the stage. And because so much of the park was corralled off, there was NO way to get over there WITHOUT wading through the bog. 

Conditions were miserable before, but now, things were just comically awful; so it's cold, rainy, everything smells like a septic tank, and there's mud encrusted on your leg all the way up to your ankle. So how do you make such a predicament worse? Easy, amigo: you add in people

So, we're huddled underneath the most anorexic looking oak tree you've ever seen, when this diminutive blonde girl -- probably 19 or 20 -- stumbles over to us, blows beer breath in our face, and asks us how we would "describe the place." I respond by telling her "rainy and muddy," and she then proceeds to drop her smart phone in the mud. "No," she responds, almost doubling over when she goes to pick up her phone. She points towards a text message on her phone, which I can barely read. Apparently, she's trying to tell one of her friends where she is, so my girlfriend responds by saying "well, it's the place next to the tree." The drunk girl's response? "OK. Which tree is this?" You know, because the things are so clearly labeled and shit. Eventually, she just wandered off, while another college-age looking kid literally dragged his near-comatose date right through the mud, like she was a flat tire or something. Cue the mid -20-something that decides to smoke one of those clove cigarette things right in our face with no regard to our own well-being, and that was when our worries REALLY started to blossom. 

I'm convinced that Tegan and Sara fans are the most sociable people on the planet. While I was hanging out on my flannel jacket -- it had long lost its utility as anything other than a makeshift blanket by this point -- this one 20-something decides to just hop on the jacket with us and start talking about her adventures.

"Tegan and Sara are the twin lesbians, right?" she asks us. "I'm here to meet up with these two girls, that actually ARE twin lesbians," she continues. "I mean, how cool is that?"

Now, I know what you're thinking -- here I am, surrounded by a bunch of drunk lesbians and drunk non-lesbians, gleefully splashing through the mud in their $250 dollar flip-flops and $30 emerald-puke-green toenail polish, and I'm COMPLAINING about the experience? Well, yes, I am, because perspectives are different once you're in your late 20s. Maybe 20 or 21 year old me would have LOVED getting sloshed on Coors and slip-sliding around in brown gunk and trying to hit on Savannah College of Art and Design co-eds that we're probably on ecstasy, but as a quasi-professional writer-person, who's in a committed relationship that more or less constitutes a common law marriage in 30 states, the event was, surprisingly, not that fun at all. And that's when HE showed up.

You shouldn't -- and really can't -- be surprised when you see people tanked out of their minds on Budweiser and rat weed stumbling around at a concert. But when the 300 pound, baby-faced lard-o in a bright yellow tee-shirt started stumbling through the bog RIGHT IN FRONT OF US like a monster truck, my reasonable disappointment with the evening quickly transitioned into my first sensations of mortal terror for the afternoon.

The guy falls down once, and just kind of lays there in the mud, like some sort of stillborn fetus. The poor bastard is so smashed out of his mind, its virtually impossible for him to pull himself up. Had some good Samaritans not been there to yank him upright, it's likely that he would've been petrified in the sludge for all eternity, like a woolly mammoth that fell into a tar pit or something. So he, starts stumbling forward, and stops, about five feet in front of us. And that's when he starts swaying back and forth, with his tongue hanging out, looking like he's about to do his best impersonation of a Jenga game.

The dude just STOOD there, for like, five minutes, slightly bobbing up and down, forward and behind, before suddenly correcting his posture and walking on out of the park like a normal bipedal creature. My girlfriend, now with some downright grisly blisters on her feet, asked if we could call it an early evening after that. I may not have gotten a chance to see the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or the Queens of the Stone Age, but I really didn't care, either -- I wanted out of that madness just as much as she did by that juncture.

Now, I know you're thinking it: "Jimbo, had the day been really sunny and warm, wouldn't you have really enjoyed it, and had no grand sociocultural epiphanies while you were there?" The answer is pretty clear: yeah, but God made it rain, and rain makes you think about all of the inherent miseries of the world, and that's not all that bad of a place to be, because only seeds of distress bear fruit. Good times make you drink, after all, while bad times make you think.

First and foremost, the day made me realize that I'm old. Maybe not old-old, but certainly beyond the threshold of being "just another kid out there without a concern in the world." A lot of the younger folks there had a great time, being all wet and dirty and plastered out of their gourds. But to me, such an environment is utterly detestable; I mean, why do I need to be physically and mentally battered to enjoy myself? That's the kind of instant-gratification, sensorial-before-existential experiencing that young people like, and older people can't stand. Now, I still don't mind blasting some Monster Magnet or old school Emperor through my cochleas every now and then, but it doesn't have the same universal, experience-for-the-sake-of-just-experiencing-something appeal that it used to. I haven't had a sip of alcohol this decade, and I've never used any illicit substances -- looking at the kids that day, I really wondered if they were using that stuff to enhance the experience, or just because it was the only way they could experience anything at all. It was a sad observance, for sure: these poor kids HAD to be smashed to enjoy themselves -- the only pleasure they derived from the event coming through a chemically-brewed fog.

So, I'm in the parking garage, about to leave town at 6 PM -- the festival, remember, isn't supposed to end until midnight. I toss my dirty shoes in the trunk, and I think about how much I LOVED that morning, when I was just walking around in the park and having a quaint breakfast and just talking to my girl, and then I thought about how I utterly ABHORRED the rest of the afternoon, with its rain, and mud, and shit, and ZZ Ward (that bony-assed Adele wannabe had the audacity to do a cover "I Can't Stand the Rain" during her show, thus earning her my eternal contempt.) For a second, I felt like an old coot -- being an early bird and all that jazz -- but then, I realized something: my outlook on life had matured, past the phase of sheer experientialism to the phase of profound experientialism. I enjoyed the morning because of its holistic qualities -- the exploration of nature as a whole, the connection with my girlfriend, that sense of shared experiences. I was deriving pleasure form observance as opposed to participation, while at the festival, I was...well, really, really wet and muddy for the most part. In short, at the concert, I was amid a throng of (generally younger) folks that were deriving pleasure from what they were doing, while earlier that morning, while I was just parading around Midtown with my gal, I was deriving pleasure from what I was being. I was happy with existence as a whole, beyond my own meaty perspective, while at the show, there was only circumstantial happiness wholly focused on individual pleasure. The former is the mindset of the aged, while the latter is the mentality of the young; in that, I left with a bigger smile on my facing leaving the party than I did at any point while I was actively partying.

So here's to Music Midtown 2013 for being another one of those pivotal, life-changing experiences: henceforth, September 21st will always be that day where I realized I was kinda'-sorta' old...which, not coincidentally, was also among the happiest moments of my life.

Friday, September 27, 2013

In Defense of...the Insane Clown Posse?

Does the Internet’s most hated group deserve its perpetual lambasting, or is ICP merely the victims of a brutish Internet mob mentality?

In 2010, the Insane Clown Posse (ICP) -- a horror-core rap group that’s been named the worst musical act in history by a litany of publications -- released a music video for the song “Miracles.” Shortly thereafter the video and corresponding song became viral sensations, inspiring countless critical remarks from YouTube passer-byers, most of whom ridiculed the group’s supposed anti-science stance due to a single line from the song…which, of course, became an overused Internet meme itself.

The rancor directed towards the song is somewhat ironic, since “Miracles” seems to be one of the few truly “life-affirming” tracks to get mainstream play in quite some time. While multimillionaire rappers like Lil’ Wayne record tracks equating the savage murder of Emmet Till to their own sexual escapades and artists like Tyler the Creator receive critical acclaim for releasing such heartwarming ballads as “Bitch Suck Dick,” it seems to be more than a little peculiar that an ICP song with lyrics like “appreciate the things that life has to offer” has become the de facto media punching bag for so many self-righteous hipsters and Internet know-it-alls.

Not only is it fashionable to hate the Insane Clown Posse -- and their legions of fans, affectionately referred to as Juggalos -- it’s more or less an encouraged online pastime. With their pancake-makeup covered faces and incessant lyrical references to Faygo and their fan base’s less than pristine public image (the FBI went as far as to classify the entire Juggalo subculture as a criminal element in 2011), it’s crystal clear why ICP is a favored target for the Reddit and YouTube-weaned masses. Alike the smelly, probably-mentally-handicapped kid in high school that always said stupid things during lunchtime, it’s hard to not buy into the group experience and savagely pick apart ICP -- lame prey is lame prey, after all.

The question in front of us is this: does ICP truly deserve all of the antipathy they receive, or are they just being utilized as a whipping boy for an inherently uncivilized Internet culture with a pathological need to brutally berate and scornfully mock something?

Before we go any further here, let me start off by saying that music is by no means a science of any kind, so there’s absolutely no way anyone can say that [band x] is genuinely better than [band y] to any truly logical degree. Of all the arts, music is probably the most subjective; so, what one may consider listenable, another may consider absolute aural torture. John Tesh fans will never understand the implicit value of grindcore metal, and fans of Vader will never detect the joyful subtleties of Zamfir’s discography. With that in mind, there’s really no such thing as a gauge for whether music is good or bad, outside of one’s personal tastes. To say that ICP is a horrible band, you must recall, is an individualistic opinion, and one that is culturally disseminated the same way the popular conviction that The Beatles were a good band was/is. It might be an opinion shared by a whole hell of a lot of people, but that doesn’t make any more or less epistemologically valid as a notion.

On a personal level, I’ve never really been a huge fan of the Insane Clown Posse. I did own their “Amazing Jeckel Brothers” CD back in middle school,  however, and I’ve seen four of their DVDs -- two of their Juggalo Championship Wrestling offerings, and the feature film forays “Big Money Hustlas” and “Big Money Rustlas” (seriously.) So, outside of those experiences and their periodic pro wrestling appearances back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, that’s all I can really say about them. From what I’ve heard, however, I would feel comfortable in saying that I would likely prefer their music to any number of popular music acts, from The Police to the White Stripes to Neutral Milk Hotel. Of course, none of those other acts get the same amount of criticism from the general music complex, even though there’s absolutely zero scientific or technical gauges out there to clearly demonstrate that the music of Sting or Jack White is somehow superior to the music of Shaggy 2 Dope or Violent J.

In many ways, the criticism lobbed towards ICP isn’t necessarily directed towards the group itself, but rather, towards the band’s crypto-Christian leanings (as evident by the staggering amount of hate the group received for the afore-mentioned “Miracles” video) as well as their “Juggalo” fan base -- a collection of supporters that are, for the most part, lower-class, generally uneducated white boys. These two elements, I believe, are worth discussing further.

To begin, the Insane Clown Posse is popular with a certain segment of the population for a reason -- because the group, more or less, is the lone pop cultural representation out there for a class of individuals (that being, working-class, largely rural Caucasian males that may or may not have completed their GEDs) who are either completely ignored or callously mocked and stereotyped by a snobbish media industry that considers abstruse acts such as The Animal Collective and Bjork worthwhile while incredibly popular social constructs like pro wrestling -- despite being embraced by a much, much larger percentage of the national populace -- are worthless diversions for “white trash.” On the surface, it appears that ICP has resonated with the Juggalo audience, first and foremost, because they are one of the few popular contemporary media forces that don’t think they’re human parasites and ridicule them accordingly.

Now, I’m not going to say that ICP’s music can’t be fairly stupid and, depending upon your tolerance for sophomoric necrophilia jokes, somewhat offensive. That said, if you look at the general discography of the group, you’d come to the conclusion that their ditties about chasing live poultry around and murdering children are actually a relatively small sliver of their catalog, which also consists of pseudo-uplifting tracks alike “Miracles” and songs that are almost on the verge of being coherent as political and social commentary, alike “Terrible” and “Fuck the World.” At the absolute worst, you can only accuse ICP of making somewhat predictable, misogyny-lite satire, which is ultimately much less harmful than the genuine, non parodying hardcore hatred spewed out by rappers like Ice Cube and the Geto Boys.

The music of ICP is crude, and it’s no doubt idiotic to some degree, but is it honestly any more idiotic than the refrigerator poetry spat out by such universally loved musicians as Nirvana and Beck? At least ICP’s music has a standard, detectable lyrical pattern to it, which is something you can’t really say about popular acts a’la Soundgarden, White Zombie or Stone Temple Pilots, who just seem to cut and paste random words together and sing them along to their guitar riffs. If someone did a spoken word performance of an ICP song, it would at least sound like actual human interaction; trying using any Pearl Jam lyric in a real life conversation, and see if you don’t come home to a few deleted Facebook friends.

Clearly, ICP remains a popular target because they’re so goddamn easy to criticize. A buncha’ fat white dudes, in Mickey Mouse make-up, singing about assassins and acting all gangster on an episode of “The Dating Game,"whose fans are a legion of weed-smoking Jiffy Lube temp workers, that can’t even figure out how magnetic fields work? I mean, how could you not ridicule such a pathetic underclass?

Well, first and foremost, try explaining how magnets work right now, in three sentences, without resorting to Wikipedia. Hell, it takes the University of Illinois an entire webpage to adequately explain it without getting into quantum physics, so you might want to readjust your smug disposition on that one. As far as ICP fans in general go, yes, they can be quite delusional and frequently post IQ scores somewhere between “pumice” and “swamp algae,” but the fact of the matter is, you could say the exact same thing about any group’s fans, whether you’re talking about Judas Priest, One Direction or Devo. The only thing that really makes Juggalos empirically different from any other group’s fan base is their sense of communal pride and identity politicking, which is clearly commonplace among other media franchise -- if you think Juggalos are inherently pitiful, then you’d probably have to say the exact same for every Trekkie and “Game of Thrones” fanatic out there, too.

But at the end of the day, the scorn directed towards the Insane Clown Posse is largely mere transference, a  heaping helping of redirected personal hatred targeting the easiest clay pigeon out there. Virtually all of ICP’s naysayers, ironically, are individuals that will never achieve even a fraction of the personal success the group has achieved, not only as musicians, but as businessmen. Superficially, the group may just be those weirdoes that throw discounted cola on fans at elaborate stage shows, but behind the scenes, they’re also the weirdoes that have sold more than 6.5 million records -- largely without the same mainstream AOR/MTV pre-packaged marketing blitzkrieg that most big-time acts are gift bagged -- while simultaneously creating, branding and expanding an entire pop culture machinery that generates $10 million a year in profits.

Shaggy 2 Dope and Violent J are two high school dropouts, schooled in the streets and trailer parks instead of Harvard or MIT, who then went on to become not only successful musicians, but one of the most remarkable independent media sensations of the last 25 years. And if you want to know why so many people on the Internet hate them so vehemently…well, I think their indelible entrepreneurial success is probably the masses’ true unstated grievance with the group.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Book Review: “The Sociopath Next Door” by Martha Stout (2005)

According to Stout, America is in the clutches of an alarming “sociopath” epidemic. Too bad most of what she says is absolute bullshit.

It’s often said that psychology is much more of an art than a science -- a study with far more in common with philosophy than biology, ultimately. In that, even your top-tier psychologists and psychiatrists -- your Freuds, your Fromms, your Ranks, etc. -- are really just taking educated guesses about human nature that sound viable instead of demonstrating physiological truths about the human mind.

The old lions of 20th century psychology, however, seem to be at least partially vindicated by relatively recent discoveries in the emerging field of neurophysiology -- while the pioneers of psychoanalysis  hypothesized that parental interaction altered how one thinks, modern medicine has proven definitively that nurture has a significant impact on one’s nature, with newfound neurological data telling us that environmental factors and experiences do play an incredibly important role in an individual’s cognitive development.

By the time one reaches puberty, his or her synapses have effectively finished pruning, more or less determining the lifelong capacity one has to learn and store new information. Environmental stressors, researchers have found, can negatively impact a child’s synaptic pruning process, with detectable deficiencies sprouting up as early as pre-K. Adolescence,  researchers have determined, is an extremely important phase of neural oscillations, with even the slightest neurological hiccup resulting in lifelong cerebral deficiencies. The prefrontal cortex -- the part of the brain that’s responsible for judgment, planning and urge suppression -- isn’t fully developed until one reaches the age of 25, and any number of experiences before then can greatly hinder one’s executive functions. In that, the age-old discussion is all but settled; empiricisms impact innatisms just as much as innatisms impact empircisims…if not proving more important in determining one’s totalistic behavior.

With this in mind, Martha Stout’s “The Sociopath Next Door” rings as a decisively anti-scientific screed, and in some ways, an anti-psychoanalysis tract. With an overwhelming amount of neurological data clearly showing links between experiences and cognitive development -- the fact that the tome was penned in 2005 is no excuse -- Stout seems to go out of her way to completely ignore such data, instead embracing an alarmingly deterministic stance that some people are just plain “born” sociopath, and there’s ultimately nothing clinical psychologists can do to treat them.

There are many, many red flags concerning the accuracy of Stout’s claims, beginning with her assertion that one out of 25 Americans are sociopaths -- a figure she culled from a 1997 Journal of Family Practice study and a SAMHSA bulletin from a quarter century ago. And two years after Stout’s book was released, the NIH said the total number of adults in the U.S. with antisocial personality disorder was about one percent -- a considerably smaller estimate than Stout’s highly suspect claim of 4 percent.

Additionally, Stout never really comes out and says what she means by sociopath, at times, using the term interchangeably with antisocial personality disorder and psychopath. The problem is, both sociopathy and psychopathy aren’t actual medical conditions recognized by any reputable mental health organization. The closest thing we have to clinical definitions to what Stout calls “sociopathy” are Antisocial Personality Disorder and Dissocial Personality Disorder -- and keep in mind, the checklist for both conditions are completely different, depending on whether you use APA or WHO standards. Both, however, are categorized as personality disorders, with the APA going as far as mandating that clinical ASPD diagnoses also entail the detection of conduct disorder before the age of 15. The best criteria we have for what a “sociopath” is, precisely, is much more stringent than the casual definition Stout lays out, and virtually all of the examples she trots out in the book would likely not be considered ASPD cases using APA standards.

Which, of course, brings us to the giant, gaping hole in Stout’s arguments -- namely, the fact that she admits in the preface that she MADE UP all of the patients she “describes” in the book, stating that one is a flat out fabrication and the rest are “composite figures” -- in other words, imaginary case studies.

Stout’s book, not surprisingly, is more of a half-assed philosophical treatise than a full-fledged sociological analysis. And even then, she piles on the hypocritical assertions; one of her chief “sociopaths” is a CEO type that tortured frogs as a youth -- a clear indicator of future aggressions, despite the fact that adolescent hunters and fishers engage in equally destructive hobbies that are largely accepted as proper social behaviors. At one point, she brings up the cliché of the wounded soldier scurrying across enemy lines to save his comrades as a clear-cut example of conscientious behavior, while decrying the 9/11 attacks as unconscionable acts of non-conscientious behaviors -- not that in both examples, the characters in question are making personal “sacrifices” for a perceived greater good that, in the classical sense of the term, are both utterly conscientious as acts. Even Stout’s own definitions of what conscience supposedly entails is contradicted by her own ill-informed examples. Among the allegedly “conscientious” figures she lists in the book? Mother Teresa (a good friend of several right-wing dictators and Wall Street conmen, not to mention a woman who more or less said AIDS victims deserved it), Thomas Jefferson (America’s most quotable slave-owning paedo) and even good old Gandhi…the less said about his exploits, clearly the better.

Really, Stout’s book is more or less a 200 page argument in support of the non-scientific concept of “the conscience” -- in that, it’s a tome that is, at best, drab pop-psychology, and at worst, flat out sensationalistic pseudo-science. Sociopaths, she believes, are amoral figures (there’s not really a “sociopath spectrum,” it appears, with Stout claiming that all individuals with ASPD display similar behaviors, albeit with fluctuating degrees of criminality) whose chief medical ailment is the profound lack of a conscience -- you know, that thing that, neurologically-speaking, is just a “concept” and not a true physiological condition at all. Deterministic to the point of fatalism, Stout doesn’t really make any statements encouraging the promotion of therapies that would conceivably “help” these individuals get in touch with their consciences, either. Instead of helping those with ASPD conditions, Stout seems hell-bent on exalting their statuses as one-dimensional boogeymen -- condemnation, she keeps crying, is the solution, not treatment or, god forbid, a nuanced understanding of the ASPD condition.

In short, using Hervey Cleckley’s highly subjective checklist of potential symptoms of antisocial personality disorder, Stout more or less invents her OWN definition of ASPD as a conjectural condition in which an individual completely lacks the ability to empathize with others and/or form true emotional bonds. This is the same skeleton key used by Dave Cullen in the 2009 book “Columbine” to describe Eric Harris -- a woefully deterministic conclusion that, through highly dubious readings about genetics, essentially says that unconscientious “evil” is an inborn, biological condition. In terms of environmental factors, the best Stout can muster is that, maybe, what she calls “sociopathy” is the end dividend of attachment disorder, a childhood affliction in which infants never develop emotional connections with their mother, and as  a result, never learn how to “love” another human being. So yes, Stout’s explanation to pseudoscience is, of course, more pseudoscience.

For the most part, it seems as if Stout’s war on “sociopathy” is indeed an attempt to lump all sorts of douchey yet non-criminal behaviors -- shiftlessness, infidelity, etc. -- under an umbrella of quasi-psychosis. Even worse, her ultimate advice for readers -- in the form of a nebulous “top thirteen” list -- basically boils down to encouraging readers to be more paranoid and, ironically, less sympathetic to others. Throughout the book, Stout tosses out self-declared (and self-defeating) statements about “sociopaths” like she was cleaning out a sock drawer -- despite claiming that sociopaths are “without feelings,” she constantly reminds readers of their trademark irritability, and while championing those that have reached Kohlberg’s “post-conventional” level of moral reasoning (in which the relative morals of an individual take precedence over social norms), she seems to forget that the very first pillar of ASPD is a profound rejection of social norms. She’s quick to blame a majority of the world’s ills on sociopathic individuals (because, as we all know, EVERY single person in Germany from 1933 to 1945 were all clinical psychopaths), and makes some very dubious comments about sociopathy in India, China and Japan being less common in the Western world, most likely due to cultural takes on collectivism. You know, the same India the posts the world's highest number of annual homicides (in addition to being the second most racist nation on the planet), the same China that appears to be the world’s number one supplier of knife-wielding maniacs, and the same Japan that raped, pillaged and mutilated Asia for half a century.

The horrific irony about Stout’s work is that it posits a “solution” -- to a problem that really doesn’t exist, no less -- that she genuinely has no idea is hypocritical. According to Stout, a bulk of the world’s atrocities can be attributed to de-humanizing others, but her take on sociopaths -- in short, a collection of people she fascistically clumps together under incredibly loose, subjective and decisively non-scientific criteria -- is more or less a rallying cry to view them as the sociocultural other. In fictitious anecdotes, Stout describes the unremarkable assholes we all encounter on a daily basis, ultimately bumping them up to the level of mentally deranged maniacs who, alike the reptile people in “V,” so easily blend in with the rest of society.

What’s the point of all of this, exactly? To scare middle aged women that peruse through the self-help section at Barnes and Noble? To pander to a bunch of blue-hairs that are already overly-suspicious about everyone they encounter? Whatever the roots behind this sensationalistic, pseudo-psychiatric potboiler, it’s most certainly NOT designed to inform or help anybody. By creating a vague, easily applicable definition of “sociopath,” Stout essentially creates a world of possible monsters, all of whom  are irredeemable and incurable. At one point, Stout writes that the only way to deal with a sociopath is to avoid them completely; to what extent does that aide a mother with a sociopath son, precisely? For a book that vaunts the “conscientious” ability to form bonds, Stout’s book seems to go out of its way to promote a complete shunning of those whose non-clinical traits and attributes can be construed to met HER definition of antisocial. In that, “The Sociopath Next Door” is clearly NOT a scientific tract, nor is it even a plausible “pop-psychology” offering. But for those of you that enjoy baseless alarmism and shitty storytelling…boy, are you in luck!

Monday, September 23, 2013

A Visit to the Georgia Aquarium!

Whale Sharks! Penguins! Beluga Whales! Waiting in Line for Three Hours!

The ultimate lesson I learned from my recent trip to the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta is this: if you can get tickets online, then by all means, get those mofos online.

Of course, in a metropolis like Atlanta, you expect to wait in line for things. That said, even a hardened ATLien such as myself was ill-prepared for the two hour long queue that awaited me at my first visit to the Aquarium. For starters, the line to just get tickets was about an hour long, and if you know anything about Georgia, you know that a good half of the population doesn’t wear deodorant. Add a scorching overhead sol and the coalesced scent of nearby fast food eateries into the mix, and you have yourself a recipe for some perturbed nasal passages, no doubt.

The really troubling thing here is, after you get your ticket, you still have about an hour wait before you can get in line to get into the building. So, for those of you keeping score at home, you spend an hour waiting in line to get tickets, an hour just milling around the area waiting to get in line to get into the aquarium, and finally, another hour waiting in line to actually enter the building. So, all in all, if you plan on visiting the attraction, sans pre-purchased tickets, expect to spend at least three hours caught up in a queue -- and keep in mind, it will probably take you just two hours to see everything the Aquarium has on display once you actually get in there.

So, uh, outside of counting up the number of individuals wearing “Duck Dynasty” shirts that afternoon (seven, as an unofficial tabulation) and exploring Pemberton Place (the heavily branded walking space that connects the Aquarium to another iconic Atlanta tourist trap, the World of Coca-Cola), how was my cumulative Georgia Aquarium experience? Well, not too shabby, really, although that three hour wait makes it hard to justify just about anything, I suppose.

For whatever reason, there were quite a few protesters standing outside the building for my most recent journey to the Aquarium. It wasn’t too impressive a display, I am afraid, unless you consider watching a 12-year-old, overweight kid with clearly no grasp of what he’s doing hold up a sign scrawled with all sorts of ELF propaganda. The presence of “protesters” holding up signs promoting “Blackfish” was a pretty big indication that the event was most likely an on-the-cheap publicity stunt for the film, although it is Atlanta, after all -- a city home to more misguided, art-house pseudo-activists than any other major city south of Columbus, Ohio and east of Austin, Texas.

Once you finally enter the building, you’ll probably note two things: one, that there are a shit ton of people there, and two, the constantly changing, colored-gel lighting fixtures (complemented by edited versions of contemporary pop music hits) are annoying as all hell. I mean, I understand that there’s probably some pop-psychological reason as to why that’s the case (to encourage people to move faster through the disorienting scenery, perhaps?) but still, it was really irritating.

Thankfully, once you enter the cafeteria section of the building, that troublesome blinking gives way to a more traditional, sterile lighting arrangement, which is always a positive when it comes time to chow down on overpriced comestibles. When I say it’s a cafeteria, I mean it’s a cafeteria in very much the traditional, high school sense -- you grab a tray, stock up on items, get shuffled past a lunch lady, and then you wade through a sea of humanity in a feeble attempt to find any open seating whatsoever. All that was missing was some dude yelling “look at that Homo!” and lobbing spitballs at me, and it would’ve been a nigh-perfect recreation of my junior high dining experiences.

I always wondered if the aquarium, in a display of hilarious irony, actually served fish on their cafeteria menu. As it turns out…yes, yes they do. Whether or not my fried fish sandwich consisted primarily of underperforming grouper or just something out of Gorton’s box…I may never, ever find out.

In terms of aquatic wild-life, there was a ton of stuff on display -- you know, something that's not really all that surprising, it being a giant ass aquarium and everything. For the matter of keeping things as simplistic and aesthetically pleasing as possible, I reckon it's for the best if I just zeroed on on certain attractions, and let the photographs speak for themselves. If you're ever in the ATL, and you got yourself a City Pass, these are the absolute must-sees (must-seas?) at the Georgia Aquarium...

The Beluga Whales!

These graceful creatures are definitely one of the premier reasons to visit the Georgia Aquarium. Odds are, you've never seen one up close before, and seeing them just inches away from you is pretty damn remarkable...even if, as my significant other stated, "they kinda' look like giant sperm."

According to one of the tour guide speaker people, Beluga whales are among the most tactile of sea mammals, with trainers often rewarding obedient whales with "special touches." (Whoever sends me the best, most tasteless Michael Jackson joke will receive a prize...of some kind.)

There were also a couple of seals swimming in the drink with them, which looked downright microscopic compared to the Belugas. I also noticed that the whales had a tendency to literally rub up against the Plexiglas, perhaps knowing that they're being admired from afar. These things are divas, through and through, and I for one, absolutely adore them

The Giant Japanese Crabs! 

There was an entire section dedicated to them, and I don't think this photograph can do justice to just how large these spindly-legged crustaceans actually were. I'm not joking when I say the things are literally the size of a small dog, and I also wouldn't be lying if I didn't think, at least partially, about attacking its weak spot for massive damage the entire time I was there. 

The Wolf Eels!

As with the afore-mentioned giant Japanese crabs, it's really hard to describe how massive these things are without actually staring them down in person. Rest assured, however, that these things are big, and very, very spooky looking. And they also, presumably, know where you live

The Penguins!

Of course, you can't talk about the Georgia Aquarium without talking about its resident penguins. In all, there were quite a few of them (somewhere between 20 and 50, I would like to say.) Their environment was pretty much what you would expect, albeit with a somewhat disappointing lack of snow-capped boulders. Also; these things actually DO seem to have feathers, or at least a coat that's extremely ruffley. You wouldn't necessarily catch that if, until that point, you're only exposure to said creatures was a "Batman Returns" action figure that came equipped with a rocket launcher.  

The Reptiles with Unintentionally Hilarious Namesakes!

Laugh out loud...concinna

The Upside Down Mini-Alligators That Swim DIRECTLY OVER YOUR FREAKING HEAD!

These horrific alligator-like fish beings (sorry, but I can't recall their actual species nomenclature off the top of my head) are no doubt cool to gawk at, but what REALLY made their display worth checking out was the fact that they were suspended, in glass coffers, FROM THE TOP OF THE CEILING. That's right, you're just walking around, thinking about otters, and then you look up and BAM! A mutant crocodile fish is literally swimming over you. The architecture at the Georgia Aquarium, to some degree, is even more remarkable than the aquatic life you'll encounter there. So even if you aren't exactly a fish freak, maybe the engineer inside you can reveal in the craftsmanship of the place? 

The Albino Alligators!

Not content with having just one ghost-colored alligator, there are actually TWO albino gators on display at the Georgia Aquarium. Fun fact: the very night before, I tasted a dish containing alligator for the first time. Fun fact two: I'm pretty sure this guy right here knew it, too

The Electric Eels!

No, the two photographs above aren't leaked twitpics from Anthony Weiner, but rather, totally different "head shots" of a real-life electric eel. And no, it never electroshocked anything that evening. I know, because I held up the line for two hours waiting for it to Blanka the shit out of its aquarium-mates...

The Piranhas!

Prior to visiting the Georgia Aquarium, I just assumed that piranha were a bunch of bug-eyed freaks with really sharp teeth. After my visit, I had to change my tune: in reality, they were a bunch of bug-eyed freaks with really sharp teeth that were a whole lot bigger than I thought they would be. Roger Corman ought to make a cheapie exploitation flick about these things, someday...

The Lionfish!

Lionfish, if you weren't aware, are really, really pretty looking fish that are also kinda' deadly and stuff. Apparently, these non-native fishes have somehow managed to swim their way into Georgia's waterways, which, of course, has all the makings for an upcoming SyFy original movie. 

The Jellyfish!

There were a ton of jellyfish varieties on display at the Aquarium, including some really cool, Metroid-looking ones that were stuck in a green display. These behemoth invertebrates, however, were certainly the belles of the jellyfish ball. You can't tell by the photo, but the "caps" on these things were easily the size of the average human head. And in terms of length? I've seen wiener dogs that were stouter, if you can believe it.

The Seahorses!

I've never seen a seahorse in person before, so seeing these delightful creatures at the Aquarium was a rather splendid experience. Whereas most of the aquatic beings on display at the Aquarium were noteworthy due to their impressive girth, what made these seahorses so fascinating was their diminutive stature. So yeah, you've probably eaten chicken nuggets that were bigger than this fella before.

The Denizens of the Ocean Voyager Exhibit! 

The Ocean Voyager exhibit is pretty much the reason to visit the Georgia Aquarium. As soon as you see one of those huge ass whale sharks swim up against the Plexiglas, all of a sudden, you realize your $70 tickets were well worth it. And by the time you see your first giant manta ray -- seriously, it's the size of Yao Ming on stilts -- the three hour wait and corresponding Level 5 sunburn scabs on your neck instantly become agreeable trade-offs.

More specifically, it's the exhibit's underwater walkway that makes it worth it. We've all seen "Jaws 3," right, and the part where everybody at not-Sea World is hanging out in that cool translucent tube before Jaws the III rams into 'em in really, really slow motion? Well, the Georgia Aquarium has pretty much the same thing, only way, way more technologically advanced (it even has a MOTORIZED walkway inside the tunnel, so you can watch the swordfish swim merrily about AND pretend to be in a Jamiroquai video at the same time!)

And Now Just Some Random Pictures of Fishes! 

Yep...that's what I would call a series of random fish photographs, all right. There's actually a ton of other stuff I didn't get around to photographing, including a kinda' interesting exhibit about frogs (did you know that there's one breed of frog in the Amazon that produces a narcotic 200 times stronger than morphine?) and this really neat "touch pool" containing urchins and non-deadly manta rays. Unfortunately, my "Mortal Kombat" reflexes kicked in at the latter, and I may or may not have splashed have a dozen or so people with aquarium water. Like I said, may or may not have.

And of course, what visit to any tourist trap would be complete without a visit to the gift shop? Unfortunately, there's not really a whole lot to talk about here, other than the occasional cute, albeit insanely overpriced, trinket or doodad. But as a plus, they DID have those little aquatic squeeze bags with plastic fish inside it, which in hindsight, I really, really wish I would have bought. 

So, yeah, that's the Georgia Aquarium, in a nutshell -- some cool stuff, some really, really long lines, blinky lights and fish that you'll probably never ever get a chance to view in the wild. If you haven't been there, you should probably check it out, at least once. I mean, they have Beluga whales...where the hell else are you going to see those in Atlanta, anyway?