Top 5 Songs I Learned About From My Friend Michelle (i.e. Vegetarians Can Have Good Taste In Music, Just Not In Food)

May 31, 2009

You Call This FOOD???

This post is dedicated to my friend, Michelle, who I used to work with at a Seoul hagwon years ago. She’s studying art in Oregon now (it’s something got to do with video; it sounds all very complicated), but she came to Korea for a little bit a couple of weeks ago, and I had the pleasure of seeing her again.

But first, a few random musings. I’m feeling a whole lot better about my decision to leave my school. I’m going to make the most out of the time I have left, gently break the news to the kids a week or two before I go, take group photos with everyone, give each and every 6th-grade kid a copy of their group photo as well as a handwritten letter (I should get a headstart, that’s about 180 letters), leave a long letter for the incoming teacher telling them everything they need to know, and basically not do anything in the next few months to mess up anyone’s memory of me. I’ve also started formulating a plan for the coming year–beyond Paris in October–which I think is brave but potentially very stupid, but I’ll wait to outline that until I’m more certain about details.

Okay, now back to Michelle. She’s definitely one of the best people I have met in Korea, both in terms of personality (deep and mysterious) and in terms of taste in music. As I remember it, she only started talking to me once she found out I had a Heather Nova song on my Mp3 player (“Walk This World”). She listens to some stuff that strikes me as rather laborious (drone, drone, no rhythm, no beat, drone, drone), but she’s also introduced me to some amazing songs that I probably would’ve never heard of if not for her. So, with gratitude and fondness, I present the Top 5 Songs I Learned From My Vegetarian (why?) Friend Michelle:

5. I Don’t Care What You Call Me –David Ford: David slowly works his way up to absolute heartbreak, never overreaching, never making a false move. When he finally lets his anger show, it’s just self-flagellation heaven.

4. Jealous of the Moon –Nickel Creek (I always want to say Nickelback, which is strange because I can’t stand that band): I had no idea what bluegrass music sounded like until I turned into the Oscars one year and saw songs from that one George Clooney movie “Brother, Where Art Thou?” being performed. It was enough for me to be sure that I’d never listen to anything like that again without the threat of torture. Well, it turns out I was wrong yet again. Bluegrass, greengrass, yellowgrass, no matter what the heck the color is, the pleading chorus of this song is just impossible to resist.

3. This Old Apartment –Sarah Harmer: I think Sarah Harmer is to Michelle what Tori Amos is to me. So I was actually quite worried when I started listening to her stuff and found much of it rather suffocating (see the drone-drone formula above). But I needn’t have worried. “This Old Apartment” has rhythm to spare, and then some.

Priscilla2. Red Cape – Priscilla Ahn: I LOVE, LOVE this song, which I’m relieved and proud to say, since Priscilla’s Korean-American. It’s smart and cute at the same time, the chorus sticks to your brain like taffee, and Priscilla’s voice is pure heaven.
Over the Rhine

1. Give Me Strength – Over the Rhine: I’ve used this song as the first one on numerous mix CDs I’ve made for people. It’s such an awesome mood-setter of a song, a mixture of Blondie, the Nine Inch Nails, Garbage, and a dash of Tori in there as well. All in all, a recipe for musical magic madness, and yet another reason for me to be glad Michelle is my friend.

(Top 101) The Ones That Just Missed: #102-125

May 31, 2009

We all face crossroads in our lives, and trust me, I’m no exception. In fact, I’d say a good part of being a teacher is dealing with daily dilemmas when it comes to our students. Take Friday for example. I walk into my last class for the week, tired but ready to discuss large numbers (“The comma is your friend. 10,000 is TEN thousand, because there’s a ten before the comma…”), when I’m thrown a major curveball in the form of a quiet but very nice student wearing a pale blue shirt which proclaims in English these poetic words: “FUCKIN’ FREEZING!”

Hmm. Do I say nothing? Do I ask the boy to not wear the shirt again? Again, a dilemma. In the end, I decided not to say anything, partly because I didn’t want to embarrass him, and mostly because if I did, the kids would instantly notice my discomfort and I’ll end up hearing chants of “Fuckin’ freezing!” everyday for several weeks, regardless of the actual weather conditions.

Anyhow, making decisions can be very hard. And so it was when it came to the Top 101 Countdown. Since we are now 10% through, I thought I’d bring out the honorable mentions, i.e. the ones that almost but didn’t quite make the list. Here they are:

Pat Benatar125. Love Is a Battlefield –Pat Benatar
124. Graduation Day –Chris Isaak
123. Ode to My Family –The Cranberries
122. How Deep Is Your Love –Jinusean
121. Cash Machine –Hard-Fi
120. Could I Have It Like That vs. Trahison –Pharrell+Gwen Stefani vs. Vitalic (Mash-up)
119. Freshmen –The Verve Pipe
118. Jealous –Sinead O’Connor
117. Bitter End –Placebo
116. A Beautiful Lie –30 Feet to Mars
Morrissey115. Stay (I Missed You) –Lisa Loeb
114. This Mess We’re In –PJ Harvey & Thom Yorke
113. Spinning Around –Kylie Minogue
112. If You Don’t Know Me By Now –Simply Red
111. Toy Soldiers –Martika
110. Vogue –Madonna
109. Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word –Blue & Elton John
108. Fly –Celine Dion
107. The First of the Gang to Die –Morrissey
106. You Oughta Know –Alanis Morisette
Elton John105. Someone Like You –Van Morrison
104. By Your Side –Sade
103. You Never Know –Immortal Technique
102. Your Song –Elton John

I really think “Your Song” would’ve made the list if not for that one cringeworthy line, “If I were a sculptor… but then again, no.” Huh??? If you decided not to go with the sculptor angle, why not replace it with another line? It’s the only blemish in an otherwise awesome Elton classic.

(Early) Morning Countdown #8 (5/31/09)

May 31, 2009

This Morning Countdown actually took place a little after midnight early Sunday morning as I took a taxi downtown. It’s been a tough week for me, as I’ve mentioned, and I really, really needed to unwind. How, you may ask. Well, let me just say it’s sometimes nice to feel some weight on you.

BanglesAnyway, here’s the list!

1) Right Here, Right Now – Jesus Jones
2) What’s Up? – 4 Non Blondes
3) Glamorous – Fergie
4) Hero Takes a Fall – The Bangles
5) Flightless Bird – Iron & Wine

Things kicked up with Jesus Jones, and although the song definitely has its moments, it’s just more repetitive than anything else. I would bet that the title phrase is repeated at least 50 times throughout the song, and that’s just way, way too many (EDIT: I actually just went back and checked. To my shock, “right here, right now” is repeated only eight times!).

I actually let out a little groan when “What’s Up?” began (I think the taxi driver gave me a funny look). It’s not a BAD song per se, but it’s just so overly dramatic to the point of being obnoxious. But as I quickly remembered, it’s also insanely catchy, and it’s impossible not to feel your heart move faster when the singer–who now writes songs for people like Pink and Celine Dion–starts howling, “And I said, hey-yay-yay, HEY-YAY-YAYYYY.”

After the 90’s rock flashback of the first two songs, we jumped back into present times as personified by Fergie, who I see as a modern-day, hip-hop version of Taylor Dayne. She’s more subtle and softer than usual on “Glamorous,” which works well here. It almost makes up for that “London Bridge” piece of crap she started her solo career with.

We’re decade-jumping furiously here, as we return to the 80’s when a young girl rock group was just starting out, following the heels of the Go-Go’s. That group was the Bangles, which became quite popular thanks to some tight pop rock tunes–like “Hero Takes a Fall”–and to one hot-as-hell member known as Susanna Hoffs. My brother had the biggest crush on her, and I remember him having a huge poster of Susanna in the room we shared (appropriately, the Bangles would later score with a song called “In Your Room”). Susanna was actually pretty talented as well, perfecting a coy-but-sexy-and-deadpan-all-at-once vocal style that was addictive right up to the point she decided to ditch the other Bangles and go solo.

Iron & WineThe last song on our countdown comes from indie band extraordinnaire Iron & Wine, with an ode to plaintative longing, “Flightless Bird.” You may remember it from the prom scene in the “Twilight” movie, which is where I first heard it. The songs works perfectly in the context of the movie, which I have to admit, I really, really liked. It was ridiculous in parts, like that whole stupid baseball game scene, but the dynamic between the girl and her vampire crush cast some seriously intense dark voodoo romance magic. Perhaps, it shouldn’t be surprising, because love always carries with it a sense of fear (fear of loving, fear of being rejected, fear of losing the one you love, etc.), and the whole vampiric element is the perfect metaphor to draw that out. And the fragile beauty of “Flightless Bird” illustrates it with every vulnerable, longing note. And in that taxi driving into the unknown in the early morning hours, I closed my eyes and soaked it all in. It won me over all over again, and it also wins this Morning Countdown.

WINNER: Flightless Bird – Iron & Wine (2nd: 4 Non Blondes)


French Open Week One: Drama Queens Galore

May 31, 2009

Well, well, well, women’s tennis has come out of the stupor it’s been in for quite some time just in time to inject a whole lot of drama into the French Open. Venus never looked comfortable and crashed out to Agnes Szavay. Maria Sharapova survived a couple of nailbiters but is still in it, proving me wrong in the process (I’d picked Petrova to take her out; D’oh!). Safina and Ivanovic are both looking strong, and I still think one of those two will wil the title.

Despite the number of hard-fought, close matches, the REAL drama came from the catfights. First, the whole grunting debate (natural part of the game or a tactic of distraction?) came to a head once again, thanks to plucky, noisy 16 year-old Michelle Larcher de Brito. I must say, I grunt myself, but young Michelle is something else, on a whole different level than Seles or Sharapova. She may call it being “aggresive,” but it sounds more homicidal than anything else (click on below for an auditory sample, if you dare). The Frenchwoman Rezai took her out, but not before the two both started snipping at each other and the chair umpire after Rezai started complaining about Brito’s grunting. Meow, meow, ladies, play nice.

The best catfight of them all came earlier today, and perhaps not surprisingly, it involved the grande dame of drama herself, Serena Williams. But to her defense, Serena was absolutely in the right in this situation. Here’s what happened: Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez hit a drop shot. Serena rushed to the net and crushed a backhand at Maria. The ball hit Maria’s forearm THEN her racket and went over to Serena’s side of the court. The umpire awarded the point to Maria, to Serena’s understandable dismay. The umpire didn’t even bother asking Maria if the ball hit her, which instant replays show it clearly did.

Here’s the video:

Serena was absolutely livid (I would have been, too), but she came back to win it in three (Hurray for justice!) After the match, she called Maria a cheater, while Maria dismissed the whole situation, saying it was “stupid.” Hmm. No, Maria, what IS stupid is trying to pretend that you didn’t feel a nearly 100 mile-per-hour rocket crashing into your arm. For that, here is a song dedicated just for you and your (lack of) honor:

Shame On You – Indigo Girls

(Top 101) #91. Famous Blue Raincoat – Tori Amos & #92. Northern Lad – Tori Amos

May 28, 2009


This is the only time we have two back-to-back songs by the same singer on this countdown. It’s not surprisingly that the singer in question is Tori Amos. Yes, I love her; I’ve said time and time again, proudly so. Still, I hope people don’t assume that this countdown is a thinly veiled way for me to set up an all-hail Tori altar. She has more songs on this list than anyone–four songs in total–but they are not ranked as high as you may expect. I think it’s largely due to the fact that Tori has been an album artist for most of her career, and many of her songs work best in the context of the albums that they’re in.

As great as Tori is when she’s in her full-attack-of-the-banshee mode (think “Siren,” “Spark,” “Cornflake Girl”), I love her even more when her heart is breaking, as it clearly is in these two songs. They take different roads to a similar result. “Northern Lad” finds Tori working herself up to a wailing state of hysteria, her high notes at the end sweeping you into her drama and her heartbreak. In contrast, her cover of “Famous Blue Raincoat” is all about restraint, her sadness shown by what she withholds as opposed to what she shows us. Her version is even more subtle and brittle than Leonard Cohen’s original, and as such, it is all that more poignant.

Speaking of sad and poignant, I’ve decided to not renew my contract at my school. It was not an easy decision to make, trust me. I really like the teachers at my school, and I love the kids (despite the occasional, unavoidable kids-driving-me-nuts moment), but after three years, it’s just time, I feel. I told my vice-principal earlier today, and a few minutes after I did, I started tearing up and had to go to the men’s room for a while to get myself back together. I think the stress that built up all week from having to make my decision just sort of broke through after I actually told someone.

The worst part of it all is going to be telling the kids. Fortunately, the semester ends in mid-July, and I’ll be working the school’s vacation English program until the end of August, so I’ve got at least a little time to prepare myself, because I absolutely refuse to cry in front of the kids. I remember seeing my high school English teacher cry in front of us one time (I think her dad was sick), and it absolutely freaked me about (A teacher CRYING???), and I don’t want to do that to my students. So how will I tell them? I’m not sure, but I’ll man up and figure it out.

What will I do once I leave the school at the end of August? Well, I’m definitely coming back to Korea, but I’m planning to go back to L.A. for a few weeks and do as much traveling as I can on a teacher’s budget. The only plan I have of any certainty is that I’ll be in Paris on my birthday (October 3rd), as I’ve booked my ticket for the Tori Amos concert that night. Paris. Tori. A walk afterwards on the Parisian streets, looking up at the Eiffel Tower. Thinking about my life, my future, the Great American Novel that I hope to write one day. I hope the kids will understand. I’ll be thinking about them, too…

91 Famous Blue Raincoat – Tori Amos

92 Northern Lad – Tori Amos

The French Open: Rafael And Ana Looking To Repeat (and I think they will)

May 25, 2009

Ana and Rafael

The French Open (aka Roland Garros) is officially underway! Here are my predictions:

This one’s pretty much a no-brainer. It’s all about Nadal, whose biggest opponent on clay is really himself, namely whether he can keep himself healthy. If he is, then he’s going to win. I know Federer beat him in Madrid (finally!), and Djokovic came as close as you can get, but it’s Grand Slam-time now, and if Nadal’s knees hold up, I don’t see anyone being better than him for three sets in Paris.

Semi Picks: R.Nadal d. G.Simon (I like Simon’s upset chances against Andy Murray); N.Djokovic d. R.Federer (Djokovic’s steadiness will outlast Federer on clay)

Final: R.Nadal d. N.Djokovic (in 4 sets)

The main character seems to be Dinara Safina, who as we all know, is the new Number One but has yet to win a Grand Slam. The big question is, can she finally do it here? Well, she’s had a strong build-up, winning at both Rome and Madrid. What’s been the most impressive with her is that she’s finally starting to tough out wins even when she’s not having a particularly good day (Steffi Graf used to do this so well). And I like how she’s become a perfectionist, criticizing her own play severely even after she’s won, instead of taking on the usual “I’m happy that I got through” attitude. It’s a trait that Evert, Graf, Seles, and Serena W. all shared; they almost never seemed satisfied with their games, win or lose. It comes off arrogant many times, but in a way, it makes sense. You need to DEMAND greatness from yourself before you reach it.

Dinara’s main hurdles are twofold: 1) her fitness, namely whether she has enough in the tank after playing so many matches in the warm-ups & 2) the one and only Serena Williams.

Serena’s powers are probably at their weakest on clay, but she’s still by far the best big-time player in this era. Nerves, what nerves? Serena LIVES for the big occasions. To put it simply, if Serena’s in a Grand Slam final (even at the French), there’s no way I’m picking someone besides her.

But Serena’s problem is that those troublesome knees of hers have been bothering her again. She’s 0-2 for the clay court season (three-set loss to unheralded Zakopalova and then an injury withdrawl after losing the opening set to Schiavone), and I think her lack of match play is going to catch up with her on clay, where you have to be consistent enough to endure the long rallies. I think Serena will get through Zakopalova this time in the 1st round (Serena’s ego alone will pull out the win), but I predict Serena saying adieu either in the 4th round to Pennetta or to Kuznetsova in the quarterfinals.

So does that mean I’m picking Safina for the title? Boy, it’s a tough one, but I’m actually going to say no. I think Safina has improved tremendously, but I think she still has some way to go before hoisting a Slam trophy. I’m picking last year’s winner Ana Ivanovic to edge Safina out in the quarterfinals (in a three-set thriller). Not only that, I’m picking Ivanovic to repeat her title.

I know I’m going out on a long, long limb. Ana hasn’t been playing well since… well, about 351 days ago, to be exact. But I like that she’s coming in with almost no pressure, and it’s always easier to do something you know you can do as opposed to something you’ve never done before. She just seems so due for another result, and I think her big game will finally come around again.

It won’t be easy, of course. She’ll likely have to play Venus in the semifinals. It’s a tough match, but Venus has some glaring weaknesses on clay. Her big game is awfully streaky (a big no-no on clay), and her incredible foot speed actually HURTS her at times, because it becomes all that harder for her to change directions when players hit behind her. I think Ana will use that to beat her (in fact, I think both Szavay and Li Na have a decent chance to upset Venus as well).

Who do I think Ana will play in the final? It’s almost a toss-up between Jankovic, Kuznetsova, and Dementieva. I’m going to pick Kuznetsova, because again, she’s been in the final before. Of course, so has Dementieva, but she seems to have peaked, and Kuznetsova has a bigger game than Jankovic. As for young gun-esses, Azarenka and Wozniacki, I don’t think they’re quite ready yet. And Maria Sharapova’s likely using this as a nice warm-up for Wimbledon, and I don’t see her getting by Petrova in the 2nd round.

Semi Picks: A.Ivanovic d. V.Williams; S.Kuznetsova d. J.Jankovic
Final: A.Ivanovic d. S.Kuznetsova (two sets, something like 6-4,6-3)

P.S. Here’s one of my favorite French songs to get us ready for Roland Garros. It’s “Double Jeu” (“Double Game”) by Christophe Willem. It probably has nothing to do with tennis, but I don’t care. It’s an awesome song (I still can’t believe that’s a guy singing, though; he makes Mika sound like Leonard Cohen!)

Double Jeu – Christophe Willem

Human Skin Can Be Hard To Live In…

May 25, 2009

Roh Moo Hyun

Last Saturday morning, former South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun committed suicide, jumping off a cliff behind his house. The news has left the country shaken. The mood at my school has been quite somber, with teachers talking about how much they cried over the weekend. Even our P.E. teacher, a nice young man, came in with his eyes all puffed up, saying “Something has to be done about this.”

The story behind Roh’s suicide is long and convoluted, and I’m not really the guy to explain it, since I don’t watch the news and I’m about as apolitical as they come (although I did send in an overseas absentee ballot for Obama, and I was proud to do it). But here’s what I understand in a nutshell: Roh and various family members have been under investigation for the last couple of months on charges that they unlawfully accepted money from certain businesspeople. Roh eventually confessed that his family had accepted the bribery money and issued a public apology (I’m not clear if he confessed to taking the money himself or if his family members, namely his wife and brother, accepted the money without his knowledge). The news was an especially big scandal, as Roh’s presidential platform was based around his image of anti-status quo and dedicated to removing the corruption that had characterized so many of his predecessors.

Roh was not a particularly popular President as I recall (he had a penchant for talking without thinking first, and my Dad thought his views were inherently “Communist”), and as I said, he did admit to the corruption charges. But as of now, his suicide has seemed to turn him into a martyr of sorts (I think there’s a cultural difference at play here, as I think Western people would be far more likely to conclude, “He did it because he was guilty” and leave it at that). Many people, including the aforementioned P.E. teacher and a couple of my students, believe that current President Lee Myung Bak basically “killed” Roh, presumably because of the harsh investigation that Roh was being placed under.

Again, I don’t know what to really to think about the whole situation. I don’t think suicide automatically erases any wrongs that you’ve committed like some people seem to be thinking. Still, you gotta feel for anyone that takes his own life (I used to think that suicide was a coward’s way out and a terrible crime against your loved ones, but now, I don’t know, I think depression is so powerful a disease that it leaves a person incapable of seeing or feeling anything but his or her pain). And Roh’s suicide letter–he had saved it on his computer for it to be found–was extremely moving and, well, presidential. I read it last Sunday as I was waiting for some take-out chicken for dinner. It read like this (my apologies for my rusty translation):

“I’ve placed a debt on too many people.
The pain that various people have had to face because of me is too great.
I can’t even imagine the pain that is still yet to come.
If I were to remain, it would only add to their burden.
Due to my failing health, I am unable to do anything.
I cannot read nor write.
Do not be too sad.
Aren’t life and death both pieces of nature?
Do not be sorry.
Do not hate anyone.
It is destiny.
Cremate me.
And please only leave a very small marker near my house.
It’s a thought I’ve had for a long time.”

As I was reading this in the chicken restaurant, Seabear’s “I Sing, I Swim” was playing on my mp3 player, and a serendipitous lyric grabbed me: “Human skin, can be hard to live in.” I couldn’t have said it better, Seabear. Roh Moo Hyun, rest in peace.

I Sing I Swim – Seabear