Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Super Nintendo Nostalgia

I feel like I came along at the perfect time as a video gamer. I was old enough to know the Nintendo Entertainment System (and the Intellivision before it) before the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) was released 25 years ago in August 1991, so I feel like I was much more able to appreciate the genius of the fourth generation of video games having experienced the previous two generations.

As far as I'm concerned, the SNES was the greatest console of the 1990s and is in the argument as the greatest video game console ever released. The Sega Genesis was great, but it had nowhere near the staying power of the SNES in terms of library or gameplay. The Nintendo 64 and Sony Play Station were more advanced graphically, and the use of 3D opened up new possibilities for designers to explore, but neither of them compared to the SNES in terms of optimization of their abilities or their library.

This Rolling Stone article argues that the reason we're still playing video games is because of the SNES, but its success was not always assured. According to this article from WIRED, many parents did not understand the need for a new "Nintendo" and were skeptical of the system; after all, the idea of video game consoles having a five-year shelf life was still young at that point, and the industry itself was less than a decade removed from a complete crash in 1983 from which it only recovered because of the fantastical footwork of a plucky plumber.

At any rate, the SNES is one of the most hallowed consoles of any generation, and games from its library continue to be ranked among the best of all time even two decades after the end of the console's life. Even now, designers are still making games like Cave Story and Axiom Verge that hearken back to the halcyon days of the best of 16-bits, and there is a deep nostalgia for the style of games that were made popular by the SNES.

I thought, in light of the console's anniversary, that I would spend some time reflecting on how it impacted me and the difference it made in my life, starting with some thoughts on the games I have played for the system (as well as thoughts on the games I did not play), followed by some of my favourite memories and my favourite SNES games.

The games I played

The SNES was the first console I bought on my own. We owned an NES that had been gifted to us, but the SNES was the first console that was mine (well, half-mine and half my sister's). It was in December 1994 - over three years into the lifespan of the console - and we paid $110 (CAN) for the system along with Super Mario World. The SNES was my primary console for the next four years, at which point I bought a Nintendo 64 two years into its life cycle with some of the proceeds from my first job on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas) in 1998.

But the SNES will always hold a special place in my heart as my first real investment, especially since I worked hard to save up money and buy games mostly on my own in those years - many of which I still own twenty years hence (or which I have recently sold for exorbitantly more than the amount for which I originally paid because the general nostalgia for the system has resulted in a significant spike in price for the games).

I was curious, as I considered how much I played my SNES (and occasionally still do, since I still have my original console) just how many games I actually played for the system, so I did what any rational millennial would do: I consulted Wikipedia. As I took a look through the list of official North American SNES releases - all 721 of them - I was quite surprised to see how few I had actually played at any kind of significant level of time commitment: only 38, equal to only 5.3% of the total library.

[Here's the complete list, by my reckoning: Acme Animation Factory; Animaniacs; Chester Cheetah: Too Cool to Fool; Donkey Kong Country; Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest; Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie's Double Trouble!; F-Zero; Illusion of Gaia; Izzy's Quest for the Olympic Rings; Kirby Super Star; Kirby's Avalanche; The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past; Looney Tunes B-Ball; The Lost Vikings; The Lost Vikings 2; Mario Paint; Mega Man 7; Mega Man X; Mega Man X2; Mega Man X3; NHL Stanley Cup; Pieces; SimCity; Star Fox; Stunt Race FX; Super Mario All-Stars; Super Mario Kart; Super Mario RPG: The Legend of the Seven Stars; Super Mario World; Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island; Super Metroid; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time; Tetris 2; Tetris Attack; Tin Star; Uniracers; Wario's Woods; and Wildsnake.]

There are a few reasons for that surprisingly low number, as far as I can figure. As mentioned earlier, the timing of my purchase of the console was a minor factor, as the Nintendo 64 and Sony Play Station both came to the market soon after I purchased my SNES. I ended up spending a lot of time at friend's houses playing Goldeneye and Tekken 2 in those early high school years, though I'm not sure how much those experiences could have been duplicated by SNES games. Money was also a factor: my family had very little money, so I had to find a way to buy most of the games on my own or for very cheap, which meant that I did not have the access to games that other kids had.

There was a lot of shovelware released for the SNES - usually lower-quality third-party releases that were underdeveloped, glitchy, or otherwise poorly executed and/or received - so a good portion of those 721 games were just not worth playing. For what it's worth, I am impressed with the low proportion of shovelware in my own SNES repertoire (between two and six, depending on which games you count), which I think goes to show that my ability to weed out bad examples of any medium goes back to my childhood.

There were a number of titles that were also released for Sega Genesis - the chief rival of the SNES - that I played on that console, including any sports and fighting games; the specific titles I could recall are games such as Disney's Aladdin, Earthworm Jim and its sequel, Hit the Ice, Jurassic Park, Mickey Mania, NBA Jam, NHL '95, Street Fighter II, and The Tick. But even if I include those in my count, I'm still under fifty for my total, which seems absurdly low.

I did not play role-playing games either, which ruled out many of the best games of the system (several of which still rank among the best games of all-time for any system). I had grown up not being allowed to play them, and since I was still in my early teens when the SNES was in its heyday, the only RPG I was allowed to play starred Mario, Geno, and Mallow. There are a few RPGs to which I have still intended to return, but even if I added those, I'm still well under 10% of the console's total library.

The main thing I realized as I reflected on my list of games I played for the SNES was that I didn't "need" to play more games, as I played almost every one of those games I did play to significant completion and usually several times through. There were even a handful of games (at least five) that I owned for a not-insignificant amount of time that I never played (J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Vol. 1; Ken Griffey Jr's Winning Run; Killer Instinct; Pilotwings; and Secret of Evermore) in part because I was happy with the games I did play.

The games I did play were of such depth and quality that they made other games unnecessary for the most part. Even as I re-examine that entire list of 721 now, there are not a lot of games that I feel the need to go back and play, which I suppose makes sense, seeing as how I have had two decades to cross those games off my bucket list but still have not yet done it. In fact, the only one from that previous list that I played after the main end of the life of the SNES was Illusion of Gaia.

My remaining "want to play" games are either role-playing games (Chrono Trigger; Earthbound; Final Fantasy II; Final Fantasy III; and Secret of Mana) or sequels to earlier NES games (Kirby's Dream Land 3; Super Bomberman 2; Super Castlevania IV; and Super Punch-Out!!). Most of them are now easily available on the Nintendo eShop or on another Nintendo system, so it's just a matter of actually finally playing them at some point - and by this point, not having played Chrono Trigger or FFIII is akin to not having watched The Wire; it's just inexcusable.

Favourite memories

At any rate, the games I did play left significant impressions on me, and although I have fond memories of almost each one of those aforementioned played titles, there are a few moments that stick out to me even twenty (or twenty-five) years later. Here are some of my favourite SNES memories.

The battle mode in Super Mario Kart: It's hard to understate just how revolutionary SMK was as a game, but even with how much it succeeded as a racer it was that much more awesome in battle mode. I would argue that the Kart franchise has never truly exceeded the heights of the original battle mode (although MK64 was arguably its equal), and there are few multi-player experiences as tense as squealing around the corner and getting hit with a green shell.

The Special World in Super Mario World: SMW had a high bar to meet, as Super Mario Bros. 3 was only two years old at the point that World was released, but its combination of non-linear play and secret levels put it over its predecessor. There were a lot of great moments, but I really enjoyed the levels of the Star Road, indelibly named after early 90s adjectives - Gnarly; Tubular; Way Cool; Awesome; Groovy; Mondo; Outrageous; and Funky - for their wacky level design and extreme challenge.

NHL Stanley Cup: I'll admit that this is probably always going to be my answer to the question, "what is the worst video game that I irrationally loved when I was younger?" It's a hockey game without the NHLPA license, so the players don't have names; it has Mode 7 graphics that produce an awkwardly forced perspective; it has a secret deke that works almost every time; and it pales in comparison to the EA NHL series. Still, I might have played this game more than any other game for the system, as I played through and recorded my stats for playing through all 84 games for seven teams. (I scored 448 goals with Steve Yzerman when I played as the Detroit Red Wings - no joke.)

Booster's Tower and Marrymore in Super Mario RPG: There are so many moments I could have listed from Super Mario RPG, but Booster's Tower sticks out for several reasons: it introduced Bowser and Peach; it was funny; Booster was a great character; and that moment when you jump behind the curtain and become 8-bit Mario for fifteen seconds.

Discovering Dr. Light in Mega Man X for the first time: I was a huge Mega Man fan, so seeing the Blue Bomber updated was amazing enough - but then to find a secret upgrade that called back to the original series made the game that much better.

En Guarde and the aquatic levels in Donkey Kong Country: There was nothing like DKC when it was released in 1994; it was the first platformer that went beyond the traditional 2D into 3D rendering, and the series holds up after all these years. There are so many moments I could have picked, but I chose playing as En Guarde the swordfish in the aquatic levels

That one time I almost played Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island straight through from start to finish: I was on Christmas vacation and a few days shy of my thirteenth birthday. I started playing in the first world (of six) in the early evening, and for whatever reason, my parents went to bed with the caveat that I would go to bed soon. I played through all forty-plus remaining levels and was just about to beat the second half of the final boss Bowser at five AM when my mother came up the stairs and shut the game off; she had heard me mashing the buttons when she got up to go to the bathroom.

Getting a hole-in-one on Kirby's Dream Course: Nintendo had this whimsical pink puff ball to use, so they put him to use as a golf ball in one of the more unique games I can remember. It's a hard game, but it was very rewarding to finally get that perfect shot in the cup with one stroke.

Encountering Kraid in Super Metroid: I could have just as easily included a dozen moments from Super Metroid, but it came down to this and having to blast the glass tube to enter Maridia for my favourite moments (one of my favourite "out-of-the-box" plot moments of any game ever). I chose Kraid because he was the first major boss in the game and he was twice as high as the screen! It was the first time that I remember thinking that maybe the game might be a bit more of a challenge

Warping to the Dark World after defeating Agahnim in The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past: The whole routine of Zelda games now seems routine, with its introductory dungeons leading to a whole new world and set of new challenges, but at the time, there had been no precedent for this style of dual world challenges.

Favourite SNES games

Even with only forty games from which to choose, I still found it difficult to pick only ten games to rank above the rest because there were at least twenty games that I could have put on this list (not to mention the games that probably should have made this list but couldn't because I have not yet played them). I did make it a bit easier by choosing only one representative game from each of a couple of trilogies, but I still ended up with eleven games, presented in alphabetical order.

Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest: DKC2 is the best of the trilogy, which would all rank among the best platformers of all time. The first game was nearly perfect, but there was something about the different types of levels and the way that players could use Diddy and Dixie Kong that made Quest the best of the three. DKC3 incorporated more map exploration and secrets, but it just didn't quite hit the heights of its immediate predecessor.

F-Zero: One of the launch games for the SNES was one of its best - a high speed futuristic racer with surprisingly advanced graphics and a low margin for error.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past: The definitive 2D Zelda and still one of the best action-adventure games of all time.

Mega Man X2: X2 is another example in which each of the three games in the trilogy could have ended up on this list, but like Donkey Kong Country, the middle game is the best of the series.

Super Mario Kart: It's such a great game that I had to include it here.

Super Mario World: Another launch title that proved that Nintendo was still at the top of its game, SMW still ranks as one of the best platformers ever - plus it introduced Yoshi!

Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island: A sequel only in brand marketing and name recognition rather than game play mechanics or appearance, Yoshi's Island was a completely different type of platformer, and it ranks up with SMW as one of the best for the system - or any system, for that matter.

Super Metroid: Samus returns to explore SR388 in a huge sci-fi adventure that remains one of the best examples of its genre, period.

Super Mario RPG: The Legend of the Seven Stars: Every few years, I return to the Mushroom Kingdom and play through this hilarious and fun game. It's really disappointing to me that there has never been a true sequel to the game (I count neither Paper Mario nor Mario and Luigi), and I would love for Nintendo and Square to return to this universe at some point.

Tetris Attack: The only puzzle game on this list was the one that I played for hours and hours on end. As with any good puzzle game, the concept is simple - match coloured blocks in groups of at least 3 while rows rise from the bottom - but the frenetic nature of the game, combined with the colourful presentation of characters from Yoshi's Island, make this one stick out above almost all other puzzle games for me.

Uniracers: By far the quirkiest game on this list, Uniracers is a wild racing game in which you play as anthropomorphic unicycles that do tricks on crazy-coloured tracks. It had a limited run, since Pixar successfully sued Nintendo for similarity to one of its early characters, but it's worth finding. I spent a lot of time with my favourite bike, "El Sucko", discovering every possible exclamation that came after the various combinations of flips, rolls, and Z-twists that helped speed you across the finish line.

There you have it: some Super Nintendo nostalgia in honor of the console's 25th anniversary. What are some of the memories that you hold dear two-plus decades onward? What are your favourite games for the system? And how much respect did you lose for me knowing that I've never played Chrono Trigger? (It's next on my list to play - seriously!)

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Christian Culture Survival Guide: A review

The Christian Culture Survival Guide: The Misadventures of an Outsider on the InsideThe Christian Culture Survival Guide: The Misadventures of an Outsider on the Inside by Matthew Paul Turner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the decade since I first read Matthew Paul Turner's first book, The Christian Culture Survival Guide, both he and I have changed a lot. I have read several of his subsequent books, and it seems like he has softened his edges and made more peace with his place in the Christian world than perhaps he had when he first started writing in 2004, and I have definitely undergone much of the same journey over the same period (as evidenced by some of my early blog posts). With both of our transitions in mind, I was interested to return to this book to see how it - and I - have aged in the time since I first read it and whether it has aged well.

CCSG is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek examination of many of the clichés of American Christianity as written by Turner (no relation, by the way), himself a former editor of CCM, the chief magazine of the Christian music industry. He works his way through issues such as salvation, church, pastors, volunteering, and worship before getting into some more meaty issues such as boycotts and extremes, dating and sex, Christian entertainment, and living a Christian life. The conceit of writing his thoughts into the "survival guide" style that was all the rage at the time works well throughout, including the incorporation of lists that accompany each subject.

The discussions mostly stay somewhat humourous and satirical, though at times Turner chooses to wade into deeper waters and to make a few comments on some more significant issues.The book itself is quite easy to read and only takes a couple of hours to breeze through, and it works well enough for what it is - an enjoyable critique of Christian culture from someone who grew up with it.

Turner shows a natural talent for writing, though at times it seems as though he is caught halfway between the humour and the heartfelt, creating some internal tonal inconsistencies and a couple of genuinely cringe-worthy moments with jokes that have not aged very well. Then again, he is writing primarily for a Christian audience, and his willingness to address a few taboo subjects, whether in jest or in earnest, is admirable considering his history and the context in which he was expressing his thoughts. He has certainly become a much more accomplished and nuanced writer in the last twelve years, and he has learned how to balance his own thoughts (and even his remaining pains and struggles) with a more tender personal side that allows him more agency to go to those places.

Sure, there are a couple of minor issues with CCSG, but I'm inclined to give Matthew Paul Turner the benefit of the doubt, considering the things he has written in the years since, especially because that last paragraph could have just as easily been written about me (right down to the last name and the time frame), and I appreciate that people have given me the grace to grow and learn as a writer and not to define me by the things I wrote in 2004.

The Christian Culture Survival Guide is an entertaining diversion, and it's one that I will continue to revisit every so often for a laugh or two or because some of the passages included are really interesting. I think that other projects - such as Stuff Christians Like have surpassed it in terms of the satire and that Turner's own subsequent books have surpassed his original observations in the realm of impact and meaning, but I can appreciate this book for what it is: a first attempt, and a good one at that; I can only hope that I have similar success when I finally publish my first book.

View all my reviews

Friday, August 26, 2016

That night in Kingston

The 21st century has not been great for Canada. Sure, we're still regarded as one of the greatest countries in which to live, but our overall reputation and standing has slipped a bit since the turn of the century. We endured political scandal and upheaval from all sides of the house, with more internal autocracy governing us and less international respect given to us. We have had to deal with the reality of residential schools and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the systemic failures of the treatment of our First Nations people. We were embarrassed when we were not selected to join the UN Security Council - the first rejection for Canada from that body.

We had shining moments, but many of them were tinged with tragedy. We had economic recovery and success, even achieving parity with the US dollar in spring 2013, only to see the loonie plunge to exceptional lows again. Jack Layton led the NDP to the Official Opposition in 2011 on a wave of positivity, finally establishing the third-party only to pass away before he could see his dream fully realized. He left us far too soon with perhaps one of the greatest sets of last words ever spoken - "My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful, and optimistic. And we'll change the world." - only for those words to be essentially ignored over the next several years not only by the government but by his own party.

In the wake of the relative dearth of pride in our politicians, I would argue that we as a nation turned to sports to form our national identity. But for every iconic ephemeral moment we've had in the sporting arena - the lucky loonie and winning gold in hockey in Salt Lake City in 2002; the "Golden Goal" and the entire Vancouver Olympics in 2010; Christine Sinclair and women's soccer - we've had an equally disappointing heartbreak: Torino in 2006, the Calgary Flames in 2004, the Edmonton Oilers in 2006, the Vancouver Canucks in 2011. Even the luster of winning double gold in ice hockey in Sochi was accompanied by a sense of tiredness from some quarters that the Canadians were too good for the good of the sport.

Even our usual cultural touchstones were failing us. We had a few highlights - Life of Pi, Alice Munro winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, Arcade Fire, "Call Me Maybe" - but it certainly seemed as though most of our collective pop cultural presence had been reduced to punchlines about Rob Ford and Justin Bieber, our most successful pop music export of recent years.

At this time last year, we were in the midst of a divisive electoral campaign that prominently featured debates over "barbaric cultural practices" and the niqab, and I along with others wondered what future lay ahead of "Canada" both as a matter of a practical reality as well as the idea of what Canada is. It seemed as though we might be destined toward a binary understanding of politics, much like our southern neighbours, and that much of the nuance that had characterized Canadian politics was being forced out in a coup from both ends of the spectrum.

But it felt like things started to shift last fall, and it has started to feel really good to be Canadian again on both a superficial as well as on a deeper level. Justin Trudeau was somewhat unexpectedly elected in a sweep into power, and he immediately began to work to repair both the internal and international reputation of Canadians. He opened up to the media, he designed a cabinet with gender equality in mind, and he started to work hard to undo the damage that had been done over the previous fifteen years by Liberals and Conservatives alike.

Trudeau's first year has been uneven, at best, and though I am fully expecting to read and mostly agree with mixed reviews of his performance when newspapers do their "first year evaluations" in October, I cannot deny that he has worked hard to restore an idea of what it means to be Canadian with a large amount of success. Part of his work was to start making Canadians enjoy being Canadian again, and with the exception of the true-blue Prairie Conservatives, it seems like that has started to happen under his leadership.

Enter the summer of 2016. The Blue Jays and Bautista had given us the Flip and hope for this season. The Raptors electrified "We The North" with an exciting run deep into the playoffs, and their biggest fan Drake repped the 6 on the charts. Even Bieber successfully reinvented himself, grew up a bit, and started making hits again. Sure, no Canadian team made the NHL playoffs for the first (and only) time since 1970, but even that didn't seem to deter the general positivity of the nation.

Then Gord Downie, the lead singer of The Tragically Hip, announced that he had a terminal incurable brain tumour, followed by the band's announcement of what would likely be their final tour, and we were again confronted by the juxtaposition of joy and tragedy, of positivity and perseverance, of celebration and survival that has characterized so much of Canadian history and so many of our great historical figures.

The Oxymoron of The Tragically Hip

The first time I remember being aware of the Hip was when I was thirteen when they released their album Trouble at the Henhouse and their single "Ahead By a Century". It was almost impossible to avoid their follow-up album, Phantom Power, as it was arguably the band's apex in terms of commercial popularity, and its singles were arguably as ubiquitous as any rock songs ever have been on Canadian radio.

Only a decade into their career by that point, The Hip had already produced almost two dozen iconic songs and helped shape a national narrative for two generations, but they were far from finished. They continued to release albums every two or three years to which I paid minimal attention, as I have never been that dedicated of a fan. I own Yer Favourites, their greatest hits compilation released in 2005, but I'm not really familiar with any of the deeper cuts on their albums (none of which I own). I did not ever see them play live (even though they had always been one of my lesser "bucket list" bands), and I gave them little more than passing thoughts which were mostly limited to hearing their songs come over the airwaves.

But I found myself gravitating back to The Hip after Gord made his announcement at the end of May and wondering what it is about them that is so appealing. The weeks preceding the concert produced thinkpieces from almost every cultural corner of the internet, mostly, seemingly, from Canadian expats who were tasked by their respective news outlets with trying to make some sense of The Hip with very little framework with which to do so. Even after reading those treatises - maybe a dozen or so - I'm not entirely sure that it's possible to be able to express to an outsider who the Hip are and why they mean so much to Canadians.

I remember that early on in their career that there was always a sense that they could break through south of the border. They were one of the few Canadian acts to perform at Woodstock '99 (along with Our Lady Peace and Big Sugar), and even though they delivered a blistering set in the middle of Saturday afternoon, they remained ignored by anyone south of the 49th parallel. But for whatever reason - and much smarter people than me have tried to analyze it and not necessarily made any more significant observations than this - the Hip never made the transition, and they stayed "ours".

They're really an oxymoron, from their name onward - a weird mix of blue collar work ethic and eccentric poetic artistry, as demonstrated by the combination of music and lyrics but also by the difference between the regular dude appearance of Gord Sinclair, Paul Langlois, Rob Baker, and Johnny Fay and the ostentatious sparkly suits of lead singer Gord Downie. They're a once-in-a-generation aberration, an exception to the rule, a creative unit that has an identity unlike anyone else.

Perhaps that's part of why they feel so Canadian - it's not just the content of their music, but the nature of what they embody in that mix of working class and esoteric philosophy and history and poetry and complete distinction from any of their peers. It's the same kind of description that could be made about Canada as a country, so it makes sense that the Hip are our avatars, much as U2 are for Ireland or Springsteen is for the US.

Canada, after all, is itself an oxymoron: a mishmash of English, French, and First Nations; a people devoted to "peace, order, and good government" in the midst of surviving in the midst of the harshest climate imaginable; a nation who has defined themselves more by what they are not than by what they are for four hundred years. We are optimistic in the face of failure and survivors against all odds.

Many of our poets and authors have explored this identity over the past century and a half, but I would argue that few have done it as successfully and meaningfully as Downie and The Hip. They have earned a place among our greatest and most significant artists, and I think they will long be remembered as such. I know I will continue to use their music in my Canadian Literature and Canadian History classes, as will many of my peers, so there's that.

A National Celebration

There's something so essentially Canadian about the idea of our national broadcast network, the CBC, choosing to devote their resources to putting on a concert of the most quintessentially Canadian band other than the Guess Who or perhaps Rush. It's even more Canadian that a third of our population (11.7 million people!) watched it live that night, and that Prime Minister Trudeau - who, at 45 years old, is an authentic fan who grew up listening to the Hip in his twenties - was in attendance.

This concert will rank among the moments that will reside in the collective Canadian consciousness for generations, along with the Blue Jays winning the 1993 World Series, the Golden Goal, the lucky loonie in 2002, the 1987 Canada Cup, or the 1972 Summit Series. It will be one of those "do you remember where you were when..." moments that will be shared with future generations, and I would posit that there are few other non-sport events that have served as significant a cultural touchstone for Canadians as this concert will.

As for the show itself, it was an incredible piece of showmanship in what is likely to be the band's last concert (though they have not ruled out making more music depending on what happens with Gord's health). The show was filled with poignant moments as the band wound their way through most of their biggest hits, one album at a time, with a sense of triumph and tragedy both hanging over and underwriting the entire enterprise.

The opening set of "Fifty Mission Cap", "Courage", "Wheat Kings", and "At the Hundredth Meridian" from 1992's Fully Completely seemed to be carefully chosen to set the tone for the rest of the evening. Between the refrain from "Courage" that "it couldn't come at a worse time" and the reminder from "Wheat Kings" that "let's just see what tomorrow brings", it was clear that the Hip were confronting the reality of the finality of this show head-on.

They continued through sets of four songs derived from their new album Man Machine Poem and (unexpectedly) from the underrated 2000 album Music @ Work, featuring a brief interlude in which Downie directed a brief statement about the plight of First Nations to the audience and PM Trudeau in particular. It was a clear, concise statement that both affirmed and challenged Trudeau and us to do better, and I think it will serve a sober call for action for a long time.

Despite being well over an hour into the set at that point, the band was far from finished. They returned to four classics from their early album Road Apples: "Twist My Arm"; "Three Pistols"; "Fiddler's Green"; and "Little Bones". It was near the end of "Fiddler's Green" that it really seemed that Downie was beginning to understand what was truly happening, and I can understand why so many people tweeted that they were choked up at that emotional moment.

Downie returned to rock-star form for four songs from Phantom Power - "Something On", "Poets", "Bobcaygeon", and "Fireworks" - and for most of those songs, it was hard to tell that he was sick, save for the end of "Bobcaygeon", at which point he looked utterly exhausted. His frailty and fragility in that moment was a mesmerizing reminder of what it means not only to be Canadian, but to be human and the perseverance he demonstrated in continuing at that point was truly inspirational.

The band worked through two encores - the trio of "New Orleans Is Sinking", "Boots and Hearts", "Blow at High Dough" from 1989's Up To Here, followed by the trio of "Nautical Disaster", "Scared", "Grace, Too" from 1994's Day for Night - before returning for one final encore of 1992's "Locked in the Trunk of a Car" followed by "Gift Shop" and "Ahead By a Century" from 1996's Trouble at the Henhouse. It was an indelible conclusion to an incredible performance to (likely) conclude an amazing career.

Ahead by a Century

As I watched the final performance of "Ahead By A Century", I could not help but feel like Downie was not only a poet but a prophet. Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier famously said at the turn of the last century that the 20th century was going to be "Canada's century", and although it didn't turn out exactly the way he thought it might, it's hard to argue that Canada was not much better off at the turn of the 21st century than it had been a century earlier.

Downie, like Layton or Terry Fox before him, presented a message of hope for Canada in the wake of what could feel like overwhelming odds. When he sang "you are ahead by a century", I think he was speaking it over our country as a way to encourage us to be and to do the things that make us truly Canadian. He really believed what he was saying about being on the right track with the right man to do it, and while I think it will be some time before we will be able to determine whether that statement is ultimately true or not, I tend to agree with Downie - that we're on the right track for now as we head into celebrating our 150th birthday as a nation.

It would not have been possible to ask any more of Downie and the Hip than what they gave to us that night, which was more than the thirty songs they performed; it was a true reminder of who we are and who we are meant to be, which is united. The parting moments of watching the five band members embrace were among the most meaningful of the night, and it was a striking reminder that, as Canadians, we are better when we are working together. I don't what tomorrow will bring for Downie, the Hip, or the rest of the country, but I'm glad that we had that night in Kingston to bring us together.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Weirdness of Al

The summer of 1993 was a formative one for me in my experience of pop culture. It was the first summer that I started to pay attention to the world around me, and I still have fond memories of several of my experiences from those hot months between Grade 5 and 6, many of which represented significant pop cultural touchstones of the period. We watched Super Mario Bros. in the theatre, and it was an unintelligible mess even then. We went to the drive-in several times, and I fondly remember sitting in our car and watching movies like Arnold Schwarzenegger's Last Action Hero, The Flintstones, and Jurassic Park, which soon became one of my all-time favourite movies (and the basis for a short-lived dream of one day becoming a biogeneticist).

That fall marked the first time I really remember encountering another pop cultural icon: Weird Al Yankovic. His album Alapalooza featured prominent references to Jurassic Park and The Flintstones, and I was immediately taken by the wizardry of this frenetic frizzy-haired funnyman. I didn't quite understand the full nature of all of his parodies or his originals, but there was something about him and his style that endeared him to me - as it does with almost every ten-year-old boy who encounters a peer with a similar sense of humour.

The Saga Begins

I spent some time over the next few years digging into Al's back catalog; it helped that MuchMusic (Canada's answer to MTV) often ran and re-ran the "AlMusic" specials that included Al's videos. So by the time Al released Bad Hair Day when I was thirteen, I was an avowed fan and I eagerly anticipated his new songs, especially his parodies. I had started to have an increasing awareness of pop culture and pop music, so the things Al was satirizing were more real to me, and I was more in on the joke. When Running With Scissors released three years after that in 1999, I was sixteen years old and fully in on pop culture and on Al, and Scissors has a dear spot in my heart despite its ribald content (which, I have to say, has not really aged very well).

But then something strange happened for over a decade: I was estranged from Al, as I was from much of pop culture. Al's next album, 2003's Poodle Hat, came at a time when I engaged very little with pop culture, and I mostly ignored that album and the two that followed (2006's Straight Outta Lynwood and 2011's Alpocalypse), save for the greatness that is "White & Nerdy". Each album featured a couple of funny songs, but they were also unfortunately violent and crude at times, which I did not really appreciate much. Then again, it might not just have been Al; it could be argued that 2000-2010 is the least interesting decade for pop music and possibly even pop culture since World War II, so it makes sense that Al didn't really interest me in that decade.

I Can't Watch This

But then things changed two summers ago when Al announced his most recent album, Mandatory Fun. As the track list and videos were released across the internet in the week of the release, I paid rapt attention to Al and his work for the first time in well over a decade, and I found that I was really enjoying it again. Al seemed to have (mostly) moved away from the more puerile violent and/or scatalogical humour of the previous four albums and back into more genuinely funny territory, and I enjoyed Fun more than any album since Bad Hair Day.

My wife allowed me to go on an epic journey into the world of Weird Al as I spent the better part of a week blogging my way through Al's entire discography in an attempt to discern which of his albums were the best. My results were personally skewed, but my final observations were a bit more reserved and attempting for some sense of balance and fairness as a retrospective of Al's entire career. (In retrospect, I think I overrated Running with Scissors and underrated Mandatory Fun, but otherwise I think I was mostly spot on with my results.)

This summer, she indulged me yet again by actually going to see Al in concert in our current city, allowing me to cross a big one off my personal bucket list. It's strange that I had never seen Al, but I suppose it makes sense when I consider that I did not have much money as a kid and that most of the time when I went to concerts I was not really into Al or pop music in general. At any rate, it was a no-brainer that we would go see Al live this time around.

Perform This Way

The show itself was an incredible piece of showmanship, made much more impressive by the fact that Al is in his late 50s and that he performed hits from throughout his almost four-decade-long career over the span of two hours. He performed 29 different songs or excerpts thereof, including eight of the twelve from his most recent album. Each song or set of songs was spaced out with a collection of video clips from throughout Al's career that allowed him and his band to make thirteen (!) costume changes throughout the show.

The set list can be found here, but it cannot capture the joy of the anticipation I experienced on hearing the opening notes of almost each song. He performed 80s classics like "Fat" (in the suit!) and "Dare to be Stupid" as well as acoustic reinterpretations of a few more from that decade. He nodded to the 90s with "Smells Like Nirvana", "Bedrock Anthem", "It's All About the Pentiums" (which made me really happy!), and "Amish Paradise" (to which I still can rap all the words twenty years later).

He included a minimal amount of material from the early aughts, though his Prince-style tribute "Wanna B Ur Lovr" was arguably the most memorable song of the show, complete with audience interaction (much to the chagrin of several women who were the object of his unfortunate gyrations). "Canadian Idiot" was a hoot - especially with his shout-out to Saskatchewan, as was "White & Nerdy", including an entrance on a Segway. The newest songs measured up to his old material, but none more so than "Word Crimes", which ranks as one of my all-time favourite Al parodies. And, of course, he finished with the Cantina combo of "The Saga Begins" and "Yoda" - a great ending to a great show.

I was genuinely happy with the show that I saw, but I know that anytime an artist starts to hit an age like Al that there is always a worry that it might start to be as good as it once was. I can proudly say not only has Al not lost a step, but that he might be getting better with age. I don't know if I will have the opportunity to see Al in concert again, but I'm okay with whatever happens. I got my fix with this show, and I am just glad to have seen him in his prime.

Word Crimes

Al has said that Mandatory Fun was likely his last album, and although he is likely to keep recording, that he will likely release EPs that are more timely. Considering the way that pop has gone in the two years since his last album, it seems like the time is ripe for Al to release another album. Since Fun released two years ago, there has been a veritable smorgasbord available for parodies and polkas for Al.

Consider this (partial) list of hits: Meghan Trainor's "All About that Bass"; Taylor Swift's "Blank Space" or "Bad Blood"; Mark Ronson's "Uptown Funk"; Drake's "Hotline Bling"; OMI's "Cheerleader"; The Weeknd's "Can't Feel My Face"; Sia's "Chandelier"; Walk the Moon's "Shut Up and Dance"; Adele's "Hello"; Justin Bieber's "Sorry", BeyoncĂ©'s Lemonade, Kanye West, Rihanna, Drake's "One Dance"; DNCE's "Cake By the Ocean"; and Justin Timberlake's "Can't Stop the Feeling". It sure seems like there have to be a few possibilities for parodies out of that group, and it also seems like Al has a lot of gas left in the tank, so I am eagerly anticipating the parodies that will emerge from Al for this season of pop music.

Ode to a Superhero

The question to which I continue to return in each of these Turner Tunes entries is just why the artist under discussion matters to me and to the world of music (and/or pop culture) in general. There are a few easy superficial answers - Al's wacky sense of humour, his complete lack of shame, his physical elasticity - but I think there's something deeper going on here. There are few musicians who have the kind of continuously creative longevity that Al has had; it's a list of maybe ten or fifteen artists, period. If I were to make a mock draft of every pop music star since 1980, I don't know if Al would be a lottery pick (in the first fourteen or sixteen chosen), or even a first-rounder, but he would be a dynamite sleeper pick in the mid-third round.

Al has been around for almost four decades, and he has captured the essence of almost each major pop music star in that time, as well as many of the most significant moments in pop culture of the past three-plus decades through either content of a parody or through the chosen songs. Each song Al performs serves as a time capsule into not only the time of the song, but as a window into the world into which that song was originally made popular. He has been one of the most significant arbiters and mediators of pop culture since 1983, which is an exceptional streak considering the relatively ephemeral nature of the medium. Not only that, he has his own identity as a lyricist and an accomplished musician, which is made all the more remarkable in having watched him master almost every popular genre since 1980, including rap.

It is also impressive that he is still funny after 35 years. Take a moment and think of people who were funny in the early 1980s who are still at the top of their comedic game today; the list is very short - Al and Bill Murray by my (admittedly rudimentary) reckoning. The fact that Al is able to maintain his own musical and comedic identity while adapting to the times and still be making new fans at this point in his career is beyond impressive. It was so much fun watching the reactions of the kids at the show with their dads - who knew that this would possibly be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for their kids to see a living legend live - as they giggled and guffawed at the various visual and verbal vagaries peppered throughout the show, whether they understood the reasoning behind it or not.

And maybe that is the essence of why Al matters - he's mostly just a big kid goofing off giving everyone else permission to goof off too. He likes being silly and making people laugh, and it is easy to tell that he genuinely enjoys what he does, even though he's singing the same songs and doing the same costume changes each night. He has not ever felt the need to be serious or to grow up; he's our pop pied piper Peter Pan, happy to play his accordion and be weird - and that's all we ever want him to be. Stay weird, Al; stay weird.


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