Saturday, November 14, 2009

Mash Up My Heart

Who can resist the concept of the mash-up? Take two seemingly disparate things, gloop 'em together and make something genius. For example, Bert & Ernie and gangsta rap. That's a classic. Or pickles and ice cream: for those about to gestate, we salute you. There are some things that don't go together well at all, like children and PETA, but most of the time, the juxtaposition of two different things can allow one to give insight into the other. Or just reveal a delicious bassline in a C.Walk joint.

I first encountered mashups in my freshman year at U of T, when I lived with one of those boarding-school girls who had been dumped in a dorm when she was twelve. Lots of money + little supervision is one of the world's oldest mashups, so my new gal pal was well-versed in sneaking into clubs and whole genres worth of music that I was ignorant of. 2 Many DJs, authors of the Radio Soulwax phenomenon, were a well-established blend of pop-rock and electro elements when I finally found them. But to me, they were a game-changer. Music became something that was DIY, not officially sanctioned tunes from a band. Music, especially electronic music, was something that could be molded, something that didn't have to be played.

Mashups aren't anything new: for anyone who's interested in the history of awesome beat-driven music, may I recommend the impeccable tome, Last Night A DJ Saved My Life? It's got facts in it! On the other hand, if you're more televisually oriented, I'm going to have to steer you towards a recent episode of my new favourite shame, Glee. (Shut up. It's awesome. Seriously, crazily, shamefully awesome.) The book is full of words about music; the show is forty-three minutes of total insanity. There's singing! Dancing! Fake pregnancies! Cheerleading! The best put-downs this side of the Rio Grande! Strangely familiar-looking leading men! Hot Jews! God. I love it.

That recent epsiode of my new favourite shame Glee (I'm just going to start calling it MNFSG, which is less embarassing and sort of has a NASA-esque tang to it) featured some of my all-time favourite classic plot points on teen dramas: namely, hilarious hijinx with psuedoephedrine. Oh, and Journey. That's right, Journey. She took the midnight train going anywhere? Sing along; I know you know the words. Anyway, the whole show is sort of a mash-up: what happens when nerds and popular kids interact because they, like, want to? Chaos, apparently. Riveting TV.

Glee makes me wonder about American high schools, though. Aside from all the rah-rah-fame-is-everything message that's been old hat since Survivor started its hoary reign an unbelievable nineteen seasons ago, Glee, along with most American media, sends a message about class mobility that isn't really all that, um, truthful. Unfortunately, working hard and trying your best isn't going to net the average kids - and face it, we're all average kids - anything better than assistant regional manager down at the local IHOP. Breaking out of the little box we're in - and, like it or not, we're all in little boxes - and hitching our wagon to the stars is a long shot.

Glee sort of addresses this in its pilot episode, when the quarterback of the losing-est high school football team in Ohio history reminds his knucklehead teammates that they are all losers: that half of them won't go to college, and that maybe two of them will leave the state to do it. Why not try to have a little fun while we're busy being losers? Who gives a damn what's "cool" and what isn't, as long as your heart is pure and your soul is wild and...zzz....sorry.

Okay, yeah, it's still evening-soap melodramatic and therefore 85% unbelievable. But what's really got me hooked is its mash-up qualities: it combines demi-realistic staging and scripting (as much as you're going to get in any other non-reality TV show on the airwaves) with choreographed musical numbers. It splices totally absurd plotlines with with relatively understated acting. It plaits together the amazingly mean and crazy Jane Lynch with the exasperated and unexpected Iqbal Theba. Hello, it actually gets Broadway-style singing and dancing into a network television show. That's weird. And it works. It's a mash-up of the most epic proportions, and like the best mashups, what makes it different also makes it successful.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Naming Names

About a year ago, I was at a concert with my mom, and I asked her about names. I said, "If you have to name me now, knowing who I am, having met me, blah blah blah, what would you name me?" According to family legend, I was named after a character in a Paul Newman movie, which my parents saw together and made admiring noises at the name. It is, naturally, spelled differently in the film. I think it's required by federal law to have all spellings of Kaitlyn to be distinct from all others.

After thinking for about, oh, three seconds, my mom proposed "Mary." I refused. "Cella?" I pointed out - correctly - that Cella is a totally made up name and frankly, I've had a lifetime of mystified stares at the spelling and pronounciation of my current name. Saddling me with Cella would have been child abuse. (My mom has a history of lusting after unusual names. Had my brother been born a girlchild, he would have the inappropriate-for-kindergarten handle of Anais.) We finally settled on "Scout." Upon hearing this, my sister snorted, "Scout? Fine. Then I want to be called Boo Radley Kochany. That's a bad-ass name." She's not wrong.

The literary highlight of today was reading about Fernando Pessoa, who, according to Harper's, published under 72 different pseudonyms and made up elaborate backstories about all of them. My personal favourite is Alvaro de Campos, a "seafaring, bisexual, naval engineer who wrote Whitmanesque poetry." I mean, please. That leapfrogs right over awesome and into previously undefined areas of total, unadulterated coolness. Pessoa - which translates to "person," which, like, whooo, meta - thought of his alter egos as people who wrote things he, Fernando Pessoa, could not. This is both wonderful and not a little crazy.

I'm jealous of great names. I like collecting them: characters in films, like the fabulous Oseary Drakoulis from The Life Aquatic, or books, like Claudia Kishi. In real life, we have the ridiculously well-named British photographer Rackstraw Downes; also, the Western writer/man's man Cormac McCarthy, who apparently renamed himself Cormac because, presumably, Charles wasn't tough enough. I think my favourite name of all time is Tenzing Norgay, who was Sir Edmund Hillary's sherpa, because it's just fun to say.

Especially for a writer of fiction stories (which I occasionally fancy myself to be), naming characters is a whole crazy kettle of fish. Too insane and you run the risk of making your characters wacky by virtue of their name, which is lazy and trite. Too straight-and-narrow and your brilliant creations feel flat. There are some truly iconic names out there in literature: can you imagine if our childhood classics had been Joanne in Wonderland or Denise of Green Gables or Walter Pan? Yeah, exactly.

Names are important - not as important as good health and shiny hair, but for someone like Mildred Bonk (one of the lesser characters in the Infinite Jest libropolis), it would be hard to argue that a terrible moniker does not beget a terrible life. Fortunately, we rarely confront such a uncontrollably bad name in our real lives - although New Age moms are trying, yo - so most of the time it's just your standard-issue unfortunate name.

Trend names - a tribe to which I belong - are an especial pet peeve of mine, since your children are not going to appreciate being called Tercel and Terrina when they apply for college. Criminal use of "y" (as in Mychael, Kyrsten, Delyla, Lyle, etc.) gets right up my nose; so does the practice of having a child, giving it a stupid name, and then naming its younger sibling something equally brain-injured so that they "match." Socks match. People don't.

Given half a chance - okay, given a baby - I would be flummoxed. I've adored some classic male names for a while (not that you asked, but Henry and Angus, thanks), but am at a total loss for female names. It's hard to be classic without being boring: classic names like Ruth or, let's face it, Mary, don't have a ton of sex appeal. Names should be honest, hard-working and grounded. Name a baby Priscilla and you're just asking for trouble. Pryscylla? I'll just punch you in the mouth. I want earthy, solid names that still convey romance and mystery. Names that evoke classic scenes of adventure, names that don't make a kid lisp, names that would inspire a Jr. or even a III on the end. Above all, names with a total lack of the letter y. Non-negotyable.