Musical Snapshot From My Life, or, I Am Not Your Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Most of my life I have had terrible taste in music. From time to time I embrace something unusual and cool (my love of Jelly Roll Morton as a toddler, for instance) but more often than not I brush past musical milestones (the guys in 5th grade who tried to interest me in Green Day, an aunt who worked for an early alternative radio station who offered to lend me her CDs, an encounter with the Seattle music scene during a 2001 visit) without so much as a second glance. It wasn’t until I was in college (with access to peer-to-peer sites, a really amazing college radio station, a lot of art classes*, much more free time to spend listening to music, and boys with excellent musical taste who I desperately wanted to impress) that I started to really pay attention to my reactions to music. I began to slowly take in a song and pay attention to my responses to different sounds.

My final semester of college, a childhood friend took it upon himself to send me two CDs in the mail after a long AIM conversation about music and influences. One was a mix CD, the other was the soundtrack to Garden State. At the time I was dating a guy who imagined himself a charming, romantic, yet rakish figure. He would tell me, “this reminds me of that song by XX, you know, ZZZ,” and I would nod in agreement and make a mental note to look it up later. I had never heard of any of the songs he imagined we were living. About the time my Garden State CD arrived in the mail, he became obsessed with the movie, while I fell in love with the sound track. Several times he compared me to Sam, Natalie Portman’s character, and she always won in his eyes. I was struggling with the idea of leaving my small college town and all of my friends for an uncertain future, and took long walks listening to the soundtrack on repeat. One song would comfort me, and the next would throw me into doubt, back and forth, over and over. It became my own personal soundtrack, to the point that even when I wasn’t listening to the music, a certain mood would queue up the corresponding song in my imagination. Every time I hear any of the songs from this soundtrack I am instantly transported back in time. Today I heard The Shins song “Caring is Creepy” and in my head I was suddenly walking through a small midwestern town under a cold spring sun, pondering my future and feeling depressed yet hopeful. Listening to The Shins, Iron and Wine, and Simon and Garfunkle led me to other artists, re-introduced me to Elliot Smith and the Beatles, and helped me to pay attention to my own internal taste, away from the judgements and pressures of others.

Last year I was introduced to the concept of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl** by the author John Green in this excellent blog post. The very point of identifying the construct of a “manic pixie dream girl” with this phrase, as coined by Nathan Rabin and as explained by John Green, is that many men (and boys) believe in the existence of such a woman. A beautiful, flighty, fun, quirky woman who can bring a guy out of his shell, encourage him to live an exciting and surprising life full of unexpected adventures, and help him transcend his troubles through her presence and influence. She is, in some ways, the man’s answer to many women’s belief in a knight in shining armor. Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State is the typical manic pixie dream girl – and, I fear, has served as a measuring stick for many guys to evaluate their unfortunate girlfriends. Happily, while I enjoyed the movie for what it was, the soundtrack is what has stuck with me. When I hear those songs, I am reminded not of Sam and Andrew, but of my own life and my real struggles with identity and relationships. And, as Sam says, the Shins changed my life–at least as far as the music is concerned.

*I don’t know about all art classes, but there was a CD player playing constantly, and people would bring their own CDs to share.

**I recommend this list of movies featuring a manic pixie dream girl character.

Photo credit:

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I Quite Like These Songs.

It’s always nice when some of my favorite things come together (no pun intended?) in a pretty package: in this case, music history and photography. I Quite Like the Beatles is a blog that always makes me happy, with frequent posts of rare photos of the band.

This photo reminds me of the following exchange: Tom: "Nobody loves Ringo Starr." Summer: "That's what I love about him." (500 Days of Summer, 2009)

Even though most people have heard their songs literally thousands of times, there is still something so fresh and timeless about this band. The union was serendipitous: the perfect mix of the right people at the right time. And I think most people would agree that some of the most successful and critically-acclaimed musicians of recent years (including many of my favorites: Wilco, Radiohead, The Shins, Elliott Smith, Fiona Apple) owe their careers to the musical revolution led by the Beatles. In fact, here’s a  list of many recent “Beatlesque” songs. The comments have excellent suggestions as well. Side note: just seeing Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back in Anger” takes me back to being 14 and listening to What’s the Story Morning Glory, oh, like every night during the summer between freshman and sophomore year of high school. CD on repeat, painting my fingernails blue, and writing angsty journal entries about the boyfriend I was settling for versus the Jordan Catalano-type I secretly pined after. Ugh. I just wanted to graduate and move to London already. (Which didn’t happen, but just going to college improved my state of mind immensely. That, or maybe it was  just not being a teenager anymore…)

List time. My top 20 favorite Beatles songs (always subject to change).

  1. A Day In The Life
  2. Side 2 of Abbey Road (I’ve always considered this to be one song. If you disagree, well, you’re wrong. I’m talking to you, Pandora radio. You can’t just cut off “Mean Mr. Mustard” like that. It doesn’t work.)
  3. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
  4. Something
  5. Mother Nature’s Son
  6. Dear Prudence
  7. Norwegian Wood
  8. In My Life
  9. Here, There, and Everywhere
  10. Lovely Rita
  11. Penny Lane
  12. Come Together
  13. You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away
  14. I’m Only Sleeping
  15. For No One
  16. Julia
  17. Day Tripper
  18. I’ve Got A Feeling
  19. Two Of Us
  20. Hey Jude

St. Paddy’s Part 2: Ireland, Where the Green is Greener.

Yes, my last name might be über German, but I’m also as Irish as…Guinness? I’m actually only about 1/4 Irish, but it’s strange how it feels like so much more. This is probably because 1.) the Irish side of my family bursts with Irish pride (like most Irish families I know), and 2.) because I’m only a few generations removed: my great-grandparents were born, raised and married in Ireland. Since it’s the relatively recent past, the connection isn’t really as far flung as the term “ancestry” might suggest. It also helps that at least some of us look the part- I mean, once even John F. Kennedy commented on the redness of my mom’s hair.*

So, my parents, grandmother, aunts, and cousins used to take summer trips to Ireland before I was born, and apparently they had these magical life-changing experiences, ran along cliffs, met lifelong friends, played with bands in pubs, and hob-nobbed with our distant relatives. Even my dad, who is not Irish, said it was unlike any other place. It was mysterious and ancient and spiritual, somehow closer to to all things eternal and true. He just felt this connection, whatever it is, that makes Ireland so special.

I finally got to visit a few years ago, on a lovely but too-quick trip. In honor on St. Patrick’s Day, here’s a list of some essential Irish experiences.

Some of the best things I did in Ireland:

1. Drink  Guinness in a pub in Dublin. Oh, and  Irish whiskey in Galway. Not gonna lie…I’m not much of a Guinness drinker or a whiskey drinker. As far as Irish beer goes, I’ll take a Harp. But come on, in Ireland, do as the real Irish do.

2. Hear live music. It’s not hard to find. On the streets, in pubs, anywhere. Ireland is overflowing with talented musicians.

3. Get to know the locals. I’m kind of shy in foreign places, but the Irish will not stand for that. It’s true what they say- Irish people are friendly, funny, and they tell great stories.

Some things I need to do on a return trip:

4. Kiss the Blarney stone. (Speaking of talking a lot.)

5. Cross the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. I think this would be a great history lesson, and a chance to really see the gritty, non-tourist areas.

6. Last but not least, visit the town my family is from: Adrigole, County Cork. On my trip, we saw more of the larger cities. This photo I took is as close as I got, and shows the peninsula that the town is on. The rest of my family has been to the actual town, which is is in the southwest, in the more mountainous region of Ireland.

*True! This happened during his campaign stop to Wisconsin in 1960, when she was a young girl. But yeah, this is one of those stories that will probably get expanded to mythic proportions in the family, the way these things do. I know this happens, because at my  job, potential donors will call up and say they have, you know, the bed Abe Lincoln was born in. Because their great uncle Toby said so. Family legends are not good enough for museums, sorry. But that’s another story.

Photos from my flickr page.

How to Celebrate St. Paddy’s Day (Without Getting Drunk)

Well, I’m part Irish and–at least in the US–on the feast of St. Patrick, that’s the part that counts. For me St. Patrick’s day has never been about getting drunk (especially not off green beer… ick) but more about reflecting on my heritage (and eating boiled supper*). As this year’s feast day falls on a Wednesday I suspect most people won’t be out all night closing down an Irish pub. I will be curled up with some potatoes** and a movie. There are a few Irish movies on my to-watch list that look promising (Once and The Wind That Shakes The Barley) and let me suggest five “Irish” films (quotes because, well, one is about Irish-Americans, and only some were actually made in Ireland, and, well, are those enough qualifiers for you?) if you would like to do the same.

The Magdalene Sisters is about what the Irish (well, the Church) used to do to unwed mothers and “fallen women”. It is a heartbreaking commentary on the practice of locking these women up in Magdalene Asylums, away from their families and children, to toil over vats of laundry and piles of ironing. Gosh that sounds depressing. I am terrible at writing compelling synopses. Fun fact: the last Magdalene Asylum in Ireland closed in 1996. Ninteen-ninety-six.

In America is about an Irish immigrant family living in a rundown apartment in Hells Kitchen surrounded by poverty, but here’s the twist – it takes place at the turn of THIS century and is a semi-autobiographical tale told through the eyes of the family’s oldest daughter.

The Quiet Man is full of stereotypes (about men, women, Irish, Americans, priests, drunks), but of all the films starring Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne, it is my favorite. And let’s face it, all the films starring O’Hara and Wayne are FULL of stereotypes, but you just have to make a mental note and get over it and allow yourself to enjoy the wonderful chemistry between them. It’s about an Irish American (Wayne) who returns to Ireland to work his ancestral farm and falls in love with a local spinster (O’Hara). Again, please trust me because I know I fail at writing compelling descriptions, it’s entertaining and sweet and beautiful and funny. I mean, look at this still:

The Secret of Roan Inish is by far my favorite Irish movie. It’s a story about a young girl who believes the story her grandfather tells that her baby brother was taken by the mythical selkies (creatures in the shape of seals who can shed their skins to take human form). The best thing about this film, besides the enchanting Fiona, is the beautiful, sweeping cinematography. If you watch this film and don’t want to move to Ireland to live in a stone cottage and search for selkies, then I don’t want to be your friend.

The Boondock Saints are twin brothers whose particular brand of vigilante justice is sanctioned by God. It is by turns funny, violent, intense, and amazing. Willem Dafoe is fantastic as the FBI agent in charge of finding the brothers. You notice there is an FBI agent in this movie – well, that’s because it takes place in Boston, and the twin vigilantes are Irish American. But this film is just too good not to include in my list.

*Boiled supper is the Irish culinary tradition of cooking meat and vegetables together in one pot. In the US, the meat is usually corned beef, and the veg are usually cabbage and potatoes. The reason Irish Americans usually eat corned beef is it was the cheapest cut of meat available to Irish immigrants, and somehow it became a tradition. Thank goodness the cheapest cut wasn’t something like tongue.

**Because, damn the stereotypes, potatoes are fantastic! And there are so many ways to cook them… the possibilities are endless.

First photo credit from flickr user seminarianvoitus

Mix Tape Monday

Photo from leandroid on flickr

I’ve slowly been working my through the WKE series Don’t Move Here, short video episodes about the Portland music scene, and Episode Six is all about tapes. As in cassette tapes. As in homemade cassette tapes. And this episode, above all others (even the one about awesome poster designers Mike King and Guy Burwell, and believe me, I love me some cool poster design) gives me the warm, fuzzy, music-is-wonderful nostalgic feeling. Even though I was a bit young to make mix tapes with actually cool music and all of my really good mixes have been on CDs or e-mailed to me. Still, I remember sitting by the radio with my finger on the record button on my parent’s enormous stereo, waiting for my current favorite song to come on and praying, PRAYING that the DJ didn’t talk over the into. And even though I’m not sure what I would do with a mix tape if someone gave one to me – my car has a CD player, and I listen to most of my music on my computer – “mix tape” is still my preferred phrase to describe a carefully chosen assortment of music. “Playlist” isn’t ever going to cut it, and mix CD doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

I’m not confident enough in my own musical taste to share compilations with my friends, much less the internet, but in honor of St. Patrick’s day, allow me to present a collection of classic “bar songs” my friends and I compiled for a St. Patrick’s day celebration a few years ago. I dubbed it the “Drunk Song Sing-Along” mix because most of the songs were chosen for their power to make us want to sing (and our inability to resist breaking into song once we’ve had a few drinks). Let me preface this list with three things – 1. these are not “cool” songs, 2. we are all a product of the 80s and 90s, 3. we are all from the Midwest and cut our teeth in dive bars and VFWs and this music feels like putting on an old sweatshirt.

Art B**tches Drunk Song Sing-Along

  1. Jump Around – House of Pain
  2. Mr. Jones – Counting Crows
  3. Free Fallin’ – Tom Petty
  4. I Think I Love You – The Partridge Family (David Cassidy)
  5. Only The Good Die Young – Billy Joel
  6. Girls Just Want to Have Fun – Cyndi Lauper
  7. I Will Survive – Gloria Gaynor
  8. Shoop – Salt N Peppa
  9. Billie Jean – Michael Jackson
  10. Me and Bobby McGee – Janis Joplin
  11. Summer of 69 – Bryan Adams
  12. Sweet Child O’ Mine – Guns N’ Roses
  13. I Love Rock and Roll – Joan Jett & The Blackhearts
  14. Don’t Stop Believin’ – Journey
  15. Livin’ On a Prayer – Bon Jovi
  16. Piano Man – Billy Joel
  17. Love Shack – The B-52’s
  18. Pour Some Sugar On Me – Def Leppard
  19. Cecelia – Simon and Garfunkle
  20. Sweet Caroline – Neil Diamond
  21. Closing Time – Semisonic

I’m thinking about posting some favorite mixes that my friends have given me over the years… any interest?

Photo credit leandroid on flickr.

Part Shins + part Gnarls Barkley = delicious ear candy

Spring seems slow this year, but it’s coming. Tiny tulip heads are proudly popping up in the barely un-thawed* ground. Dogs are muddy. And finally, the only remnants of December’s several feet of snow are the disgusting black lumps that dot parking lots and curbs. March is dirty here in Madison. But along with the new season, I need some new music. One album I can’t get enough of right now: Broken Bells, which is comprised of James Mercer of The Shins and Danger Mouse of Gnarls Barkley. Sound like a weird combination? It is- in a good way, and sounds just like what you’d expect it to: The Shins with a bit more edge- electronic and otherwise. I just love the atmosphere it conjures up…it’s perfect for spring, with interesting melodies, danceable beats, and a bit of Animal Collective-esque weirdness but more accessible. Check it out; it’s streaming on NPR, and I already bought a copy on iTunes.

*Thawed. The beacon of truth that is answerbag.com attempts to shed light on that age-old conundrum, one nearly as perplexing as the chicken and egg thing. Best answer? “They don’t mean the same thing. It is similar to saying “nucular” when you mean nuclear. Some folks’r jist igorent.” Guilty as charged.

Music videos I’m loving right now

In the past few days I’ve come across two lovely videos – and the songs aren’t bad, either. Actually, the videos are so lovely that I have a difficult time paying attention to the music and lyrics, so I really should listen without watching and spend some time with the music.

The first is a stop-motion film for the song “Sleepwalking” by A Fine Frenzy. Angela Kohler and Ithyle Griffiths directed the film (How much do I love the name Ithyle? Quite a bit).

Next is an enchanting animation to the song “No Turning Back” by Sarah Blasko.

In trying to round out this post with another few videos, I wasn’t able to quickly recall any newer videos but was reminded by quite possibly the best music video ever – “Frontier Psychiatry” by Avalanches. This song will always remind me of art classes my sophomore year of college and a certain guy who probably had no idea how amazing I thought he was.

Alison and I have been talking about music and the past and memories, so it seemed fitting to tack this on. As you can see, I’m a sucker for quirky, creative and (often) animated videos.