A Not-So-Smooth Criminal…

June 29, 2009

It’s been a tough week. Michael Jackson passed away, of course, and I also finally told the students at my school that I’ll be leaving in August. They’re taking it pretty well (in fact, a little TOO well, ha ha), but still, the atmosphere in Tommyland is a bit down overall. Along with that, there’s the unexpected cold drift coming in from a couple of homeroom teachers (apparently a bit miffed that I’m leaving) as well as the Principal who’s also become a bit grouchy towards me (he refused to write me a letter of recommendation saying that he’ll do it only after I come back to Korea; at least it gives me a reason to visit the school in the winter).

So what am I to do with all this distress? What else? Dance, dance, dance. Or to be more accurate, “dance” with big, are-you-kidding-me quotation marks. Trust me, I’m under no delusions; I know I’m no Fred Astaire. I’m just hoping the kids get a kick out of it (and strangely enough, I really DO feel a whole lot better about everything!).

Morning Countdown #12 (6/28/09): Michael, You’ll Be Missed…

June 28, 2009


Today’s Countdown is dedicated to the one and only Michael Jackson. I am sure a lot of people can relate when I say that I still cannot believe that he is really gone. Like him or not, there can be no denying that he was one of the most integral figures in world pop culture. To think that he is no longer part of our collective consciousness–except in our memories, where he’ll forever remain–seems surreal and even absurd, like saying that the time of 3:05 will no longer exist, and 3:04 will now just pass right into 3:06. I can honestly say that I’ve never felt more affected and shaken by a celebrity’s death (only Princess Diana comes even close).

Here’s today’s Michael Jackson Morning Countdown:

1) Blame It On the Boogie (Jackson 5)
2) The Man in the Mirror
3) She’s Out of My Life
4) Rock With You
5) You’re Not Alone

My first clear memory of Michael Jackson is when he swept the Grammys with his Thriller album (it was either right before or right after I immigrated to the U.S. in ’84). He was winning everything left, to the point that he ended up apologizing to Lionel Richie after winning yet another one. So when I was introduced to Michael, he was already the very definition of SUPERSTAR.

So it wasn’t until a couple of years ago when I ended up hearing “Blame It On the Boogie,” one of the singles from his Jackson 5 days. It’s a fabulous, fun disco number, and I was shocked to find that it performed so disappointingly on the charts (stalling at #54!). Personally, I much prefer it to earlier #1’s like “ABC” and “I Want You Back,” as good as they are.

But it’s Michael’s solo material that really defined him as a legend, and “The Man in the Mirror” is one of the very best, in my opinion. It’s my 3rd favorite MJ track (the first two will both be on the Top 101). Michael brings absolute fire to his vocals, and the lyrics are some of the best he’s ever written. The message is so on-point. One thing that drives me crazy about a lot of celebrities (and celebrity wannabes) is their mantra of “Oh, this is me, I’m not gonna change for nobody, I’m gonna love myself the way I am, if you don’t like it, screw you, etc, etc.” Yes, it’s a valid point, but no one seems to add the fact that a pivotal part of loving yourself is to always try to improve yourself and to work to be a better person than you currently are. That’s the message that Michael’s sending out here, and I say, “Amen to that.”

The versatility of Michael’s voice is (I’m sorry, I can’t bring myself to use “was” quite yet) one of his greatest strengths. Already, we’ve heard him in disco-flutter range, the fire and brimstones of “Man in the Mirror” and now he’s all tears and vulnerability with “She’s Out of My Life.” It becomes a bit too sappy near the end, but the melody, as well as that voice, sure is pretty.

“Rock With You” brings Michael back to disco mode, and it’s my favorite track from his Off the Wall album. It’s danceable but also breezy, perfect to listen to whether you’re getting ready for a night out or just lazying around your couch.

And the countdown comes to a close with “You Are Not Alone,” and as much as I’ve always liked that song, it’s never moved me as much as today. The lyrics can’t help but rip into you right now. “How could this be that you’re not here with me? You never said goodbye, someone tell me why did you have to go and leave my world so cold?” Oh, man, Michael…

Of course, I didn’t know Michael. I’ve never met him (though I did attend his concert when I was a young boy in L.A.). My only real link to him is all the music he’s given me and the rest of the world. But that is certainly more than enough for me to say, “Thank you, Michael.” Yes, you and your music will always, always be in my heart.

Winners (tie): The Man in the Mirror

& You Are Not Alone

(Top 101 Countdown) #87. Finally – CeCe Peniston

June 28, 2009

CeCe The perfect chorus. When you have it, it seems so obvious, like “Of course, that’s how that song’s supposed to flow.” It’s supposed to sound so easy to come up with. Of course, that is far, far from the case. Look at Janet Jackson. All the way through the “All For You” album, she came up with killer single after killer single, but then the catchy hooks dried up, and her last three albums sank without a trace. Mariah Carey, too, lost the plot and the hook for a time before she re-found the magic with “It’s Like That” and “We Belong Together.” Even the queen of the perfect pop chorus, Madonna found the well dry for a couple of albums before “Ray of Light” set her back straight.

But there are some choruses that just seem so inevitable, so gosh-darn perfect, like they were hand-delivered down by angels from pure pop heaven. “Finally” is such a song. Once you’ve heard the chorus, it settles itself into a comfortable nook and/or cranny in your cranium and makes itself home for… well, forever. And you know you wouldn’t want it any other way. “Finally, it has happened to me, right in front of my face, and I just cannot hide it…” Come on, sing along. You know you want to. “Yeah, yeah. Ah, woo.”

87 Finally – CeCe Peniston

Morning Countdown #11 (6/20/09)

June 20, 2009

U2It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon here in Seoul, and I like it. I’ve missed the rain. I’ve been crazy-haggard busy, teaching of course but also dealing with various issues related to my leaving which have turned out to be a lot more complicated than they needed to be. Ugh. It ain’t easy, it ain’t pretty, but like everyone on Project Runway always says, it is what it is. And I’ll deal. There’s no way I’m letting the petty people turning me into one of them. Now onto the Countdown!

1) New Year’s Day – U2
2) A Girl Like You – Bertine Zetlitz
3) Echo – Cyndi Lauper
4) What It Feels Like For a Girl – Madonna
5) You’re Missing – Bruce Springsteen

It’s a star-studded list this week, and it starts off with U2, or as I once liked to call them, The Most Overrated Band In Music History. I’ve since come around for the most part. There’s no denying they’ve had some banging tracks (one of which figures quite prominently on the Top 101), and you gotta give them points for longetivity. But the second coming of Christ they are not, and Bono’s ego puts me off much of the time. And their last CD gets my vote for the Biggest Musical Disappointment of 2009 thus far (Eminem’s CD was terrible, too, but it at least one great song in “Beautiful”). Still, “New Year’s Day” is one of my favorite U2 songs, and it still packs a mean punch after all these years, enough to land it in second place on this Countdown.

Bertine Zetlitz is obviously the least-known of this bunch, but “A Girl Like You” is just irresistible. It’s also helped by what I call the European Girl Power Syndrome. Basically, a great pop song sounds even better when sung by a girl that has at least a hint of a European accent. It’s benefited everyone from ABBA to TATU to Lykke Li. I don’t think it does a whole lot of good for guys with European accents, unless they’re pure novelty acts like Falco.

Now we have the reprise of THE Musical Catfight of All-Time: Cyndi Lauper vs. Madonna. I was exposed to both soon after I immigrated to the U.S. in 1984. I still vividly remember watching the “Material Girl” video on MTV when my dad happened to walk in and said in clear astonishment, “Wow, she looks EXACTLY like Marilyn Monroe!” Well, Dad was clearly impressed, but I quickly chose to align myself with the Cyndi wannabes as opposed to Madonna-bes. She and the Culture Club were my first musical infatuations, no doubt about it. I think I was drawn to Cyndi more because she seemed so out there and yet seemed like a nice person at the same time. And being a kid, I loved the animation she incorporated into her “She Bop” video (little did I know then that it was all about self-gratification). In contrast, Madonna was all about gimme, gimme, gimme, and it was clear she couldn’t care less about kids.

Their songs for this countdown were both recorded decades after their rivalry ended (TKO by Madonna), but they’re both solid additions to their careers. “Echo” is the first Cyndi Lauper song I listened to repeatedly in ages, and Madonna’s “What It Feels Like For a Girl” is one of the stronger tracks from Music, which I consider to be her very best album (edging out Ray of Light, which was great but lacked the sense of Madonna-esque fun she retained in Music). If I had to choose between them, I would have to go with Madonna (the victor yet again!), but if it’s any consolation to Cyndi, she places higher than the Material Girl on the Top 101.

bruce_springsteenThe final song on the countdown is Bruce Springsteen’s ode to 9/11, and hearing the song brought the memories right back. It was early morning in Korea when my mom called me and said that I needed to turn on the TV right away. I did, and I absolutely could not believe what I was seeing. I had to be still dreaming. It was surreal and unreal, everything but real, which it of course was. I went in to work to my hagwon, and the teachers could barely talk, and Sophia Teacher, from New York, just kept crying and crying. The kids were all abuzz, having seen all the images on TV but unable to really comprehend what any of it all meant (not that the adults could either). I remember starting each class that day with a prayer, and the kids, bless their hearts, all followed the prayers with complete silence and closed eyes, even the smart alecks and class clowns that usually never shut up. “Amen,” I said, which the kids repeated together, and I felt my heart in my throat. Listening to “You’re Missing” today, I found myself remembering. And praying again. Amen. Amen.

The Winner: Bruce Springsteen – You're Missing

(Top 101) #88. Walk on the Wild Side – Lou Reed

June 20, 2009


I think I saw Lou Reed for the first time when he was a guest on the David Letterman show. It was a long, long time ago, before Dave jumped ship to CBS. Lou Reed had already aged quite a bit by then. Not that I knew anything about him and his past at that time, aside from the fact that he was a singer. Seeing him, he seemed kind of like an intimidating uncle who didn’t talk a lot who always voted Republican and was really into hunting.

Well, little did I know that Lou was one of the pioneers of glam rock as the lead singer of The Velvet Underground, a pre-David Bowie David Bowie in a world of drugs, sex, music, drugs, art (courtesy of Andy Warhol who managed the band), androgyny, and more sex and more drugs. So much for the Republicanism and hunting theory (D’oh!).

After going solo in the early 70’s, he gave a glimpse into that world with “Walk on the Wild Side.” Who did Lou hang out with on the weekends? Holly the drag queen, Candy yet another drag queen who performed oral services in restrooms, popular hustler Little Joe (apparently, he wasn’t so little), Sugar Plum Fairy who go-go danced like a maniac, and Jackie, the ill-fated speed addict. It’s not exactly the Brady Bunch, and Lou doesn’t help matters when he keeps using the term “colored girls.”

In the end, the song is all about Lou saying, “Hey, this was my life,” nothing more, nothing less. He’s not looking for approval, he’s not asking you to join in (although his disdain for the listener ironically draws you in further); he’s just telling it like it was. Add to that a simple but addictively catchy melody, and you’ve got the musical equivalent of pop art brilliance. “But she never lost her head, even when she was givin’ head.” That’s just genius.

88 Lou Reed – Walk on the Wild Side

The Write Stuff…

June 13, 2009

The Mountain GoatsIt’s only been a few days that I’ve really come to grips to leave my school. I can’t lie; it’s been a pretty tough time–restless nights and nightmares and all–and I’ve come close to changing my mind a few times. But now I can honestly say that it’s the best decision, not just for me, but for everyone, even the students. I’m not exactly running on empty, but I’m pretty darn close, and I don’t think I can give teaching my all for another year. I’m just too exhausted. And an exhausted teacher is simply not going to do a whole lot of good for his students.

Still, there are moments that just feel so raw. On Friday, one of my “chess buddy” students (incidentally the one who sang “You’re the Inspiration”) ran up to me with a big smile and a cut-up elbow. Apparently, he had been jumping hurdles when he fell and his elbow got hurt. And the reason for his big smile? In his words, “Me same Tommy Teacher.” A couple of weeks ago, I took a spill while playing tennis, scraping my elbow and a few fingers pretty badly, which are still scabbed over. So the kid is happy that his elbow is now just like mine. Man, right to the heart… I did the only thing I could think to do, make a few subtle mistakes to let him win the chess game without making it obvious. I’m going to tell the kids soon; I have to.

I’ve decided on a course of action after leaving the school (after visiting my family in the U.S. and seeing Tori in Paris). As cliche as it sounds, I’m going to follow my dream: I’m going to try to write the Great American Novel. I’m going to give myself six months. I’m going to move to a small studio apartment in a cheap area of Seoul, live off my savings, and whole-heartedly dedicate myself to writing. A part of my inspiration is the story I heard about the great writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. Apparently, his family was so broke that he decided to give up his dreams of being a writer. When he told his wife, she took out a bag full of money that she had saved up over time without him knowing. She told him that she had saved up enough for him to work on his writing for another year, and so what did he do in that time? He wrote The Scarlet Letter, and the rest is literary history. As for myself, my ambition is a lot more modest. I’m not looking for a best-seller or a literary classic; but I do want to write a book that is true to myself and can touch some people out there.

You don’t have to wish me luck (though you’re certainly welcome to). It’s not luck that’s the answer; it’s going to be perseverance.

Here’s a song that’s got me through some tough times in the past: “This Year” by the Mountain Goats. (“I’m gonna make it through this year, if it kills me…”)

This Year – Mountain Goats

Morning Countdown #10 (6/13/09)

June 13, 2009

lrichie011) Everything In My Heart – Corey Hart
2) Truly – Lionel Richie
3) How To Dance – Bingo Boys & Princessa
4) Lost In Emotion – Lisa Lisa & the Cult Jam
5) Strokes of Genius – Christina Aguilera vs. The Strokes (Mash-Up)

This week’s countdown starts with Corey Hart, and he’s by far my favorite Corey from the 80’s (sorry, Mr. Haim, Mr. Feldman, and Mr. Parker). I actually lived in Canada for a year when I was in 5th grade (in a teeny-weeny but beautiful town called Bobcaygeon, immortalized in a song by The Tragically Hip), and let me tell you, there was a Corey Hart vs. Bryan Adams rivalry going on, that’s gotta rank along Cyndi Lauper vs. Madonna, Debbie Gibson vs. Tiffany, and N’Sync vs. Backstreet Boys as the most heated in pop music history. For me, it was a no-brainer. As much as I liked “Summer of ’69,” it was Corey, Corey, Corey all the way.

He was a Canadian James Dean, coolness personified, as far as my 5th-grade self was concerned. I think it all started with his “Never Surrender” video. In it, he runs away from home (in a very similar fashion to Pat Benatar in “Love Is a Battlefield”), and he finds himself walking along the dark, dark city streets in a leather jacket, brooding all the while. At one point, he exchanges a long, meaning-laden look with a lady of the night, and I swear, that was the moment I realized that sex existed… Anyhow, “Everything In My Heart” isn’t quite up there with “Never Surrender,” but it’s quite a decent ballad.

Corey is followed by arguably the best 80’s balladeer of them all, Lionel Richie. There’s something about “Truly” that brings me to the edge of tears almost every time I hear it. Much of it, of course, is Lionel’s voice, which is vocal velvet itself. It makes the schlockiest of lyrics seem like the Word of God newly delivered. It takes a lot to move me deeply early in the morning, but “Truly” did the job, and then some.

Only a minute later, I was tapping my toes in the subway car, looking like a fool I’m sure, all thanks to “How To Dance.” I don’t think it was all that big of a hit, but it’s gotta be one of the best dance jams in the early 90’s. It’s awesome, with Princessa trying to convince the uptight dance instructor that dancing isn’t about following directions, it’s about following your heart. Absolutely irresistible.

bingocds“Lost In Emotion” follows a similar vein in 80’s freestyle fashion. I’ve always liked this song, and I’ve always wondered what happened to Lisa Lisa, who looked uncannily like Paula Abdul. I remember Lisa Lisa being on Geraldo Rivera’s talk show one time talking about how she’d never resort to coming off slutty and cheap for her career (I think the show was on the depictions of women in pop music or something similar). Lisa Lisa seemed quite articulate and down-to-earth, which may explain why her career dissipated while the loopy, medicated Paula is still just here for the music, dancing like there’s no tomorrow. Interesting, don’t you think?

Finally, there’s “Strokes of Genius,” one of the first mash-ups I’ve ever heard. The combo works quite well, turning Christina into a rock star of all things. It’s far better than the unmashed “Genie in a Bottle,” that’s for sure.

Overall, this is a great countdown, with no clunker among them. In the end, I couldn’t choose between two very different but two equally fantastic songs. So in an unprecendented Morning Countdown tie, I present you the two co-winners:


Truly – Lionel Richie

Bingo Boys+Princessa – How To Dance

Bonus: Here’s the “Never Surrender” video. The “look” comes around the 2:40 mark; it’s not quite as epically puberty-inducing as I remembered, but hey, I don’t care. Corey Hart all the way.