Friday, March 30, 2007

What were they thinking?

T-Shirts in Tongues
Originally uploaded by Paul Grant.

I ripped this picture from These people are selling an insider's joke: glossalia, or speaking in tongues. The intent is probably to provoke, while maintaining a posture of being an insider, in the know.

This is cool Christianity 101: Christianity is very difficult to cool up, period.

Accordingly, Christians committed to cool quite often end up in a position of mocking the faith. Christianity is way easier to make fun of than unbelief, because Christians don't wrap themselves in blankets of attitude.

But my question is: Mocking or otherwise, exactly what was the mindset of the creators of holy-ghost T-shirts? I'd love to hear your opinions, because this one stumps me.

P.S. I've posted this image in the Uncool Flickr group. If you've got your own pictures to share, either of coolness and uncoolness, or related topics, join the pool!

Monday, March 26, 2007

Zoot Suit Riots

Originally uploaded by Taxi Lady Joann.
I finally learned the truth about the Zoot Suits. A wonderful book appeared at the library—a book I would never have discovered on my own—called The Great Black Way. It’s a history of African-American Los Angeles in the 1940s.

Author R.J. Smith’s main point is that a second Harlem Renaissance took place in black L.A. during the war years—an echo of the first, but initiated from the bottom up.

If Harlem’s renaissance was a flowering of letters and arts, Smith says (and I don’t agree with his conclusion here), the performance of Black beauty was always for white needs. By way of contrast, the flowering of Black culture in Los Angeles during the 40’s was accidental and low-class, and couldn’t have cared less about white opinion.

It was led by peasants from the Deep South throwing off Jim Crow’s mental shackles in a state where Mr. Crow only lived in the shadows. Even as white L.A. maintained rigid racial lines where wealth was concerned (real estate, union labor etc.), Black self-expression was tolerated to a degree unheard of in the South. In other words, African Americans had the space to express themselves in the street, but not in their choice of career or housing.

In such a world, a man could wear flamboyant clothes in L.A., and many people pouring into the city came from places where anything but grungy work clothes was considered a provocation. The climate was right for Zoot Suits.

There was nothing useful about these suits. They were all show, and no substance. Zoot Suits were for looking cool in the street.

During the early 40s, black and Mexican youth of Los Angeles spent untold sums on Zoot Suits, drawing the anger of their parents and of many white people alike—people who understood the message of street disrespect.

So in 1942 white sailors stationed in L.A. staged a series of race riots, in which they went out into black and Mexican neighborhoods, assaulting kids who were wearing the suits. It all cumulated when several neighborhoods banded together and gave the sailors a beating. These were the Zoot Suit riots.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

"Oh, yodelling is big in Korea"

Rain's Coming. That is, Korean superstar Rain is about to land in the US. He's got the looks, and the dance moves.

Right: a 2006 video of Rain's--probably pirated, so won't be on youtube forever--called Sad Tango.

My only question is: will (non-Asian-)Americans accept a non-English singing star? A related question is: can an Asian be cool enough for Americans--and is Rain even trying to be cool (or is he doing something new altogether)? Too bad I don't speak Korean.

I found an interview (in English), with a German newspaper, with the young man named Rain (myspace), who talked about the emerging pan-Asian entertainment scene, and compared it with Europe's:

"When I go to Japan, I sing something in Japanese. Lots of Korean artists do this. There is hardly anybody who sings in a foreign language at home though, unlike in Europe, where everybody sings in English – that sort of thing is rare in Korea. But when we tour abroad, we try to fit in."

Rain is straightforward about his sources: He's taken a lot from African American music, especially Michael Jackson. But this is no minstrel show: look at the dance moves (video, above: fast forward around 1 minute)--this is a cross between hip-hop (which in turn is a mix of disco dancing and African dance), tango (which crosses European folk dances with African rhythms), and taekwondo (homegrown Korean martial art). In other words, Rain's is as international as it gets.

Americans, to our discredit, rarely dig international, preferring someone who talks like us, and plays the game like us.

One more thing. This is just pure joy: Rain has learned to yodel in the Swiss style.
"Oh, yodelling is big in Korea. There's a very old yodelling tradition. I had a very good teacher, Suh Yong-rhul. He's Korea's most famous yodeller, and travels regularly to Switzerland to learn the best techniques from local yodellers there."
Here's a sound clip from a recent Korean movie. This is wild stuff.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Cool Church, Multi-Ethnic Church

Sometimes big ideas come from the same place as big mistakes: from talking without thinking.

Last Sunday I was interviewed at church by Pastor Alex Gee about my book. Since it was a church service, I was able to talk about a sub-point of Blessed Are The Uncool: the parts about being a church together.

Then it slipped out of my mouth:
"A cool church can't possibly be a multi-ethnic church--which is what we're trying to become."
I'm not sure that's true. Even though it's sometimes OK to make sweeping statements for the purpose of conversation. But I'd love to hear other people's opinions on this.

Obviously it's possible to create a temporary setting that is both Multi-Ethnic and Cool. But in the long run, healthy cross-cultural living will inevitably involve embarrassments, mistakes, miscommunication, and blow-ups. It's another way of saying a cool family can't be a family that has healthy communication patterns.

But seriously: what do you all think? Can a church be cool and multi-ethnic at once?

Monday, March 19, 2007

Pompous Maturity

I love and hate Jay-Z’s latest album Kingdom Come (iTunes link) in equal measure.

Obsessing over the accumulation and spending of wealth, fame and celebrity (defined as celebrity in New York City and Hollywood circles), Jay-Z’s songs are entirely unseasoned with passion, life-giving joy, or anything sustainable. All that’s left is numbness and smallish worlds. To his credit, he doesn’t wallow or navel-gaze, like gawdawful emo-rockers.

If an expression of world-weariness is his aim, he has done a fair job, albeit no better or different than Oscar Wilde (A Picture of Dorian Gray) a full century ago, or U2 (Pop) a decade ago (both of whom, incidentally, were Irish—people who have known more than their share of laughter in the face of tragedy). Jay-Z has yet to learn that there is more to life, more joy and more tragedy, than what one person can experience.

In fact, Jay-Z comes off so utterly unaware of anything beyond his horizons that his arrogance fails to even offend. It merely seems like as much provincial chest-beating. For all his cosmopolitan airs, Jay-Z is country.

I mean, he brags about having a passport. As if international travel is the same as broadening one’s horizons. Which brings me to what I love about Kingdom Come.

For all his pompous braggadocio, Jay-Z reveals a refreshing capacity to learn, and change his mind. His song 30-something is an ode to maturity. He expresses how he’s outgrown the street-smart swagger of his youth, in favor of wisdom. No longer does he flash his gold and diamonds—he’s got a stock portfolio. He’s young enough, he says, to know the right car to buy, but old enough to know not to put rims on it. This is funny, refreshing, and every bit as arrogant as before, but there’s some real life to it.

Is it possible for one song to redeem an album? In the days of iTunes, the question no longer matters. Get this one song, and celebrate the passing of time and the maturity that comes with it. Jay-Z too shall pass, but this one song may well be the best he’s ever written.