Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Don't Mess With Oprah

The men don't know, but the little girls understand"
Howlin' Wolf: "Backdoor Man" 1955

I watch Oprah. You got a problem with that? I used to think when "Jeopardy!" was over, it was time to hit the computer. I associated Oprah with all the other provocative, one-name, daytime hosts, like Phil, or Maury, Sally, or Rikki, who all seemed to cover the same topics on the same day; teen sluts, people who were grotesquely fat, or incest, sometime all three at once. Then I became a househusband and a freelancer, which means any sort of lancing I'm called upon to do is usually pro bono, so I've allowed myself to be coaxed by Melody away from the internet to check out the topics on "Oprah," and have come to the same understanding that all her admirers reach; there are talk show hosts, there are celebrities, there are politicians, and then there is Oprah. And the amazing part of it is that men have no conception of this single, courageous woman's influence, because they don't watch the show. Men think of her as a rich, celebrity TV star, women see her as a force of nature.

I've become familiar with the inner stories surrounding Ms. Winfrey and Harpo Productions. I know of her humble beginnings and her start in broadcasting in Nashville to become the head of not just a corporation, like Martha Stewart, but a business empire that includes publications, movies, television, theatre, and more. And she is the CEO, as well as spiritual leader, of a philanthropic organization that has given more scholarships, medical supplies and treatment than any celebrity since Danny Thomas. Her school for girls in South Africa was briefly touched by sexual scandal until Oprah attended to it personally, ending the problem like Paul Bunyan stamping out a prairie fire. I know her favorite designer is Nate Berkus who lost his partner in the Indonesian tsunami, and her best friend is Gail King. When Gail and Oprah came through Memphis, it was treated by the media like a Presidential visit and their tour of Graceland was hosted by Priscilla herself. Oprah had already won the Freedom Award, given by the National Civil Rights Museum.

Oprah has never used her celebrity to support politicians, until her recent endorsement of Barack Obama and her announcement that she would attend several upcoming campaign events in Iowa on his behalf. Immediately, both Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews, who should know better, discounted the importance of her participation. But, as I said, they are men and just don't watch the show. I have seen spontaneous demonstrations of respect and love by ordinary people toward Oprah that rival the public's response to Robert Kennedy. Olbermann said that she would make no difference unless she started handing out clock radios. Others may only see the Oprah highlights; the ribbon cuttings, the Broadway openings, and the "favorite things" shows, but they don't understand that the devotion of her fans is a direct response to the sincerity of her mission, to help people live better lives.

Oprah will be appearing opposite Bill Clinton, but I bet that secretly, Hillary would trade Bill for her, if Oprah would only offer. Because Oprah is a genuine threat to Hillary and her claim to the women's vote. I, like many people, would welcome a woman President; just not Hillary Clinton. Obviously, Oprah feels the same way, and anyone who doubts her ability to persuade should look at the long list of books, including many classics, that have reached the top of every national best-seller list because of her recommendation. And anyone who wishes to cross Oprah, or take her on, would do well to remember the author James Frey, who's fictionalized "autobiography" caused Oprah to break him into a million little pieces after the hoax was revealed. Or the Texas Cattle Industry, whose lawsuit against Oprah's free speech was thrown out of court as baseless and only caused Winfrey's stature to rise.

I have heard female talking-heads on cable news say that the thought of a woman president is just too appealing not to vote for Hillary. I'd like to see a Jewish president one day, but don't expect me to be voting for Joe Lieberman. Oprah's appeal to women of all regions, economic strati, races, and ages is enough to make the most ardent feminist take another look at Barack Obama, and that chips away at the perception of inevitability that Hillary is attempting to establish. Clinton tries to project competence and toughness. Oprah constantly exudes the single emotion that Mrs. Clinton lacks; empathy. Anyone who doubts this does so at their own peril.

My wife believes that Hillary's interview yesterday with Katy Couric is the equivalent of Howard Dean's scream. Asked if she would support a nominee other than her, Hillary protested that "it will be me," and when prodded by Couric that certainly she must have taken into consideration that someone else could win, Hillary replied that she never thinks of anything other than being the next President. That is hubris that George Bush would admire. No wonder all the Republicans are dying to run against her. But the latest Zogby Poll showed Hillary losing in head-to-head races with five different Republican candidates; Giuliani, Romney, Thompson, McCain, and Huckabee. Her arrogance, masquerading as certainty, may be her undoing.

Celebrity endorsements may not mean much to the beltway types, but they have never reckoned with an Oprah Winfrey. And although Iowans are reputed to be a jaded lot when it comes to celebrity, I'll bet right now that Oprah and Barack are the hottest ticket in town and will outdraw Bill and Hill. And that's because Obama is right; the Clintons are old news and are still caught in the teeth of the culture wars begun in the sixties that my generation will fight until we all roll over and die, and people are rightly weary of it and eager to turn the page. Barack Obama is increasingly looking like the agent of change the country so desperately wants, and Oprah, like her many other successful endeavors, just may convert enough women voters to tip the nomination to him. In that case, Ambassador Winfrey has a nice ring to it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

American I Dull

"Sitting on the sofa on a Sunday afternoon,
Going to the candidate's debate.
Laugh about it, Shout about it, when you've got to choose,
Anyway you look at it you lose."

Paul Simon "Mrs. Robinson," 1968

These travelling road shows called debates have increasingly taken on the air of a TV reality program, complete with scripted and planted questions. I watched one Republican debate, but after seeing a majority of the candidates admit, en masse, that they questioned the validity of evolution, I didn't need to watch another. The Republican debates are only the equivalent of the summer replacement, "America's Got Talent," to the Democrats', "American Idol." The contestants are carefully scrutinized on appearance and confidence, and expectations run high each week over who will stumble and who will rise to the challenge. They even have judges posing as questioners, who critique the candidates' answers and attempt to build rivalries within the group. The role of the intemperate asshole judge is played by Wolf Blitzer. The single flaw is that we can't phone in each week and get somebody bounced, in order to thin this herd and maybe hear something of substance.

I took an online poll where you are asked your opinion on a variety of topics and then you are matched with the candidate who most closely holds your views. Mine came out Dennis Kucinich, which is good and bad. I admire the Congressman's courage to call for impeachment openly and often, (he nearly got a vote to the floor last week). I agree with him on ending the war in Iraq and holding the planners accountable, and he has been the single most consistent liberal voice in all these dark Bush years. But I also know he hasn't got a chance to win the nomination. I'll happily vote for him in the Tennessee Primary to make a statement. Hell, I once voted for Prince Mongo for County Mayor. I also voted for LaToya London. But once again, machine politics and corporate cash rule over the procedure, and even though Kucinich's rousing debate performances rival Bo Bice, he's going to lose to the blond lady who was mistreated when she was younger. Yes, I'm speaking of Kelly Pickler.

Hill & Bill are all but Lords and Ladies in Waiting according to the geek news channels, and just waiting for the coronation. But before Hillary gets measured for crown and scepter, it would be well to remember that not a single vote has yet been cast, and the American voter is a famously fickle animal who will turn on you in an instant. How else can you explain Taylor Hicks winning American Idol, or George Bush winning anything, for that matter? Let's get through the first couple of rounds before we declare a winner. I'm sure Kucinich will get a record deal, even though he deserves at least as much attention as Clay Aiken. But if I had to review Hillary's debate performances thus far, I would say, "It was just aw'ite for me, Dog. You're a little pitchy."

While this lite operetta continues, President Zero is neglecting some serious issues. The Chinese are trying to date-rape our children; Wal-Mart has been discovered taking out life insurance policies on their aged workers and collecting benefits when they die; Lacy Peterson has morphed into Stacy Peterson; a statement from the still deceased Saddam Hussein said his flim-flammery about WMD was not to threaten the US, but to fool Iran; and deluded Dick Cheney was forced to fill in for the absent drug store cowboy, and lay a wreath at the cracking Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, while the blood dripped from his gloved hands as surely as O.J. Simpson's. But stay tuned, Barack has promised to take off the gloves this week. And did I fail to mention our troops are in the middle of a foreign civil war with no end in sight? Too bad we can't just vote the troops off the island.

Al Gore may have won his Grammy, his Oscar, and his Nobel Prize, whatever that is, but Carrie Underwood and Daughtry kicked major ass at the AMA's, and Fantasia was up for an award too. With the current television writers' strike in effect, the mid-January start of the new season of American Idol might have to be moved up, just like those nervy states and their Primaries. Then we could have five nights of nothing but Idol, Countdown, and Debates. But if the Debates are going to compete with Idol, they have to really want it, dog. This is, after all, a singing competition. And there is one lonely voice singing in the corner, crying, "Impeach Now. Impeach Now." Can you hear him? It's Dennis, "the Dark Horse" Kucinich, and his spouse is better looking than Hillary's any day. Hey, no one believed Ruben Studdard could win either. Seacrest out.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The (Bleeping) Phone

I apologise to anyone to whom I owe a phone call. I've attempted to explain individually in the past that it's not personal, I'm just a phoneaphobe. I hate the fucking telephone; now, more than ever. Every advance in phone technology has been cause to hate them more. Remember when the government determined that AT&T was a monopoly and broke them up into "Baby Bells?" Now, everything has been reconsolidated into AT&T again, and to show their corporate gratitude, they have voluntarily turned over your private phone records to the government to see if your call to Lowe's about fertilizer is part of a plot to blow up Home Depot.

I enjoyed the days when the telephone was a black and heavy curio. I recall our family's first number was 38916, changed to 33-8916, and then entered the golden age of the prefix, with terms like "Fairfax," and "Broadway." Our number was Mutual57795 and morphed into 685-7795. The two phones in our house were in the den and next to my mother's bed. If you wished to speak in privacy, it required pulling the phone cord into the kitchen and closing the door, leaving you standing over the oven to converse. The number of wacky phone calls I received increased with my band's popularity, until one late-night caller harassed my mother to the point of arranging a sting with the phone company. Mom had to wait for the call, leave the phone off the hook, walk to a neighbor's, and call the phone company to begin a trace. It turned out to be a girl I knew that I would like to have spoken to in the daytime.

When I returned to Memphis after college, I was pursuing a career as a working musician the hard way; I refused to have a telephone in my apartment. When that chattering bell went off, you never knew if it was a pal calling, or the grim reaper. I had to show up personally to seek work and my friends knew they were welcome to come over without calling first. My mother and my employers, Ashlar Hall and The Looking Glass, finally convinced me to get a phone, but it was uncanny how it could ring at the perfectly inopportune moment. If I chose not to answer, it became a test of wills between me and the unknown caller to see who would give in first. Although I was ignorant of the identity of the person at the other end of the line, the more times the phone rang, the bigger the asshole the caller became in my mind. I worked out one-ring, hang-up codes with my family but it did not always work. Finally, out of frustration, my mother said, "What good is a phone if you won't answer it?" and she gave me one of the first telephone answering machines for a Christmas present.

The machine was so old, it still ran a reel of recording tape to capture incoming and outgoing messages, so I figured I'd have some fun with it. I began recording funny messages with sound effects and it evolved into the recruitment of friends to help me record outrageous twenty second skits before the beep. We made fun of the carnival execution of Gary Gilmore and did parodies of the news and scenes from movies like "Nevada Smith," but then along came "Roots." The message began by me saying, "I'm not home now, but answering the phone in my absence is my friend Toby." Then a second voice said, "Kunta Kinte," and I lashed the kitchen table with a belt until the voice said, "Toby." Granted, it was stupid and insensitive, but only my mutually twisted friends were aware of it, until one of them gave my personal number to an ebony secretary who knew me not, and she thought it was a recruitment line for the White Citizen's Council. I thought I was parodying a TV show rather than insulting a cultural touchstone, but the secretary reported it to the NAACP and radio station WDIA. Unfortunately, I was on the road, unable to turn it off, and when I returned, the recording tape reel had reached it's bitter end until the incoming calls had run the batteries down. I fielded an additional week of hate calls and messages, night and day, until finally the phone company unlisted my number.

One of the first songs I wrote in Nashville was called "Code-A-Phone," about the frustrations of leaving messages for someone to whom you need to speak, but the cell phone is, by far, the most insidious, privacy-invading mutation yet. I first became revulsed when I was placed into a large waiting hall for jury duty with the first great wave of gadget buyers and spent a week listening to sing-song rings and one-sided conversations until my head throbbed. Then I attended a private patio dinner and several of my hot-shot friends showed up with cell phones hooked to their belts where they used to hang their Buck knives when they were hippies. Not only did they allow incoming calls, but first one friend, and then another, interrupted live, face-to-face conversations to take them. I was shocked to think someone believed they were so indispensable that they needed to remain within constant telephone reach, and I actually said, "Hey fellows, it's after 5. You're off the clock."

Public courtesy pretty much disappeared everywhere after that. All incidental contact between humans was precluded by the ever-present phone glued to the ear of each pedestrian. I've stood in check-out lines where cashiers rang-up every item and presented a paper for my signature, without ever making eye contact and talking on the cell the entire time. This insulting behavior is epidemic, but nowhere is it worse, more dangerous, or infuriating than in a car. Observing someone driving blithely along, yakking on the cell, making turns with one hand on the wheel and operating their vehicle in a semi-comatose state, jacks up my barely suppressed, but festering road rage into overdrive. The Suburban Assault Vehicle and the cell phone have made driving among the most unpleasant and hair-raising activities in daily life. It would be logical and easy to stop it, but most local, state, and national governmental bodies are so far in the pockets of the telecommunications industry to make any regulation unthinkable. But I still search like Diogenes for that single, non-corrupted legislator, who will have the common decency to scream, "enough," and pass a law slapping a hefty fine on hand-held cell phone use while operating an automobile. Call it, DWB; "Driving While Bloviating."

I find email a terrific way to communicate because you have the chance to consider what you say before you say it. The Caller ID was a godsend for protection from the unknown caller and it allows you to recognize in advance which calls will take two minutes, and which twenty. But you can answer an email at your leisure and the sender doesn't expect you to drop everything and answer immediately. People get so angry if you fail to answer the phone that they hang up on the answering machine. And then they get pissed-off at me. If it's important, leave a damn message, and if it's strictly convivial, I'll be happy to talk when my anxiety levels are manageable. In the meantime, I'll be here if you need me. Just drop me a line. It's more personal these days.