Women of the (Music) World

29 04 2008

By Derek Beres

The history of music journalism, as is the case with much of the modern music industry, is male-dominated. Flip through the pages of most any music magazine, or scroll through blog contributors, and nearly all of the names will be masculine. The dominant amount of artists covered in those pages is also male, though the playing field does even out there—a little. It seems odd, and unfortunate, that this is the case, considering the vast amount of female artists who struggle to find their place in this tumultuous and uncertain business, performing and creating with the utmost passion every day.

There exist numerous reasons for this, albeit few of them are openly and publicly discussed. The biggest business on the Internet is the male-governed pornography industry, and daily you will read stories of political, familial, and social oppression on the feminine—if not on actual females, then on the mere idea of being “soft”. Ironically, it was the Chinese sage Lao Tzu, when penning the verses that would be called the Tao Te Ching, who reminded us that true mastery comes by yielding to the feminine—knowing the strong, but residing in softness and compassion.

Unfortunately a good amount of men—especially those with political power—have not heeded this advice. The trickle-down effect of politicians and priests (where the feminine is, in Western faiths, often seen as a lesser form) has created a psychology that is embedded so deeply in our unconscious that while we applaud gender equality, our habits point in the other direction. What’s truly tragic about the whole situation is that there is little in this world as beautiful as the female voice. Sometimes it’s necessary to stop and remind ourselves of this.

To read the full article on PopMatters click here

Seeking Security Outside My Homeland, Inside My Country

23 04 2008

By Derek Beres

By the time the Fourteenth Dalai Lama fled Tibet in March, 1959, he had gone through a steady period of disillusion with Chinese officials, who had been offering much lip service to communism — a philosophy he thought was, in theory, practical and promising. The reality of those officials, spearheaded by one of the twentieth century’s most villainous characters, Chairman Mao, was anything but what he initially expected.

One of their unusual practices was a constant concern for his “safety,” as if leaving the Potala Palace at all was a constant threat on his life. At first the man formerly known as Lhamo Thondup was surprised at their generosity concerning his welfare. When they began suggesting that native Tibetans posed a threat, he knew something was suspicious. This was proven when these officials invited him to a dance performance at their post in Lhasa, telling him to arrive in secrecy (an impossibility for a man in his position). The citizenry found out, and united–tens of thousands of them — they blocked the entrance to the Palace so he could not leave. In the ensuing chaos sponsored by the Chinese army, he fled, eventually setting up camp at Dharamsala, where he resides today.

While in Paris this weekend, both of my cards — a bank-issued Visa ATM and a Mastercard–were denied after having used them once each. This put me in a tough situation, whereby I had to borrow money. Upon returning, I called Bank of America to find out what was going on. Turns out that they have implemented a new security measure to battle fraudulent claims. This is understandable — last year they successfully blocked a $930 charge to a Wal-Mart in Texas, after two smaller charges went through. (The timing was horrific, though — I had just landed in Alabama to lecture at the state university, and found myself having to borrow from my hosts.)

Fraud is a serious crime that is truly bothersome. That someone would steal the numbers of my account and go on a Wal-Mart shopping spree, after spending $35 at two different “wings” restaurants (on a vegetarian’s card, no less), is sad and depressing. Yet equally bothersome was the Bank of America representative’s assurance that all this was for my “personal safety” (a point she reiterated numerous times). She did not mention the article in today’s NY Times that stated the bank “raised its credit loss provisions to $6.01 billion from $1.24 billion,” and had a 77% decrease in its quarterly profit.

Click here to read the full blog on the Huffington Post

Our Daily Meds: Navigating the Polypharmacy

23 04 2008

By Derek Beres

In the 1970s, Professor J. Scott Armstrong put forth a conundrum to close to 2,000 business school students and executive trainees. Intrigued by the corporatizing of the pharmaceutical industry, he created a scenario (based on an actual 1969 incident) in which a company has a new drug with a projected $20 million profit. The catch: For each million the company nets, there is one death from side effects. The first twenty million meant twenty deaths, and so on thereafter.

Students and trainees were given five options, ranging from immediately pulling the drug from shelves–regulators stated cheaper, more effective pills without such grave side effects exist–to downplaying risks and promoting the drug heavily, creating a media-driven whitewash in which consumers could not discern problems, and therefore readily open their pockets.

The results? Zero took the first option; 79% chose the latter. As former NY Times journalist Melody Petersen writes in her new book, Our Daily Meds: How the Pharmaceutical Companies Transformed Themselves into Slick Marketing Machines and Hooked the Nation on Prescription Drugs (Sarah Chrichton Books), “For these students and trainees, who were playing the roles of the executives they would soon become, profits took precedence over patients.”

As one can imagine by the book’s subtitle, the above is not an isolated case study. In fact, it shows how the drive to maximize profits at any expense is built into the educational system by which students become executives. Petersen spends the majority of her book citing such examples, moving from hard facts and statistical data to personal interviews with people who have fallen victim to the marketing of pharmaceutical companies or, worse, have lost loved ones during the same process.

Click here to read the full blog on the Huffington Post

No Coincidences

21 04 2008

By Jill Ettinger

“Banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. Already they have raised up a monied aristocracy that has set the government at defiance. The issuing power (of money) should be taken away from the banks and restored to the people to whom it properly belongs.” – Thomas Jefferson

While on a trip to France last week, both of us at InnerContinental found our Bank of America Visa/debit cards unusable due to their new “fraud protection” program. This had me quite curious as my spending amounted to a total cash withdrawal of about $350 (200 euros), and a one-night hotel stay in Bourges, roughly $150. This does not strike me as an outrageous or suspicious spending spree, especially when you consider the strength of the Euro right now.

Even more interesting is that the “fraud block” came after our very first use, which was at an ATM machine in the airport when we arrived on Wednesday morning. It seems a smart thief would have 1) taken out more than a few hundred euros, and 2) tried their luck several more times. And an even (theoretically) smarter bank would have only had to look at recent purchases on the same account of France rail tickets, hotel reservations, plane tickets, etc.

When I called my bank this morning, I was notified that this consumer fraud protection is a new system that rolled out earlier this year designed to protect me. (Aw shucks Bank of America, thanks so much, but are you sure that it’s just about protecting me and not the insurance rate increases you have to pay when fraud actually happens?) I was advised to “alert the bank of my travel plans ahead of time” so as to avoid any suspicion about where I use my card causing them to turn it off, “It’s much better than being embarrassed when you try to make a purchase and your card won’t work,” the girl politely reassured me.

All of a sudden, I felt like I swallowed a bulky bank fee. Advise my bank of my travel plans? I told the script reader on the other end of the phone that my travel plans were frequent, sometimes last minute and often open to change. It’s hard enough for me to alert family and friends of my location, but now I have to add my bank to the list?

A few years ago, I got rid of all my credit cards. The system struck me as a complete scam: interest rates change without notice, and often paying monthly minimums only guarantees prolonged interest payment to these corporate bullies. The few extra frequent flyer miles seemed hardly worth the frustration. So I rely only on cash, even though it may be virtual – tucked in a bank account I’ve had for close to a decade – I spend only what I know I can afford. So having my access to money halted because the bank thinks it’s suspicious for me to leave my house is incredibly disturbing. I probed the operator about this program, and she let me know that “most banks” have implemented this security measure. Which basically means that even if I did have a credit card in addition to my bank card, I would run into the same problem if I don’t alert them to my travel plans. [ed note: I’ve asked a few of my friends about this “security measure” since we returned, and nobody has heard of such a thing. Also, my credit card DID get turned off, in addition to my debit card. DB]

I told the operator that I had a number of travel plans coming up and could she please put some sort of “frequent traveler” label on my account. (Which in theory should have happened automatically with this system installation, if they looked at my previous transactions coming from all over the country quite regularly.) She assured me there is no such designation for bank customers and the most she could do was to enter in some upcoming travel dates for me, which the system will only allow for a month at a time. I struggled to grasp this as I complied and hurried to end the call.

Seeking distraction, I surfed over to the NY Times only to find this article on the front page outlining Bank of America’s drastic drop in profits: “Bank of America’s global consumer and small business unit, its core source of revenue, reported net income of $1.09 billion, a 59 percent drop from last year. The firm said that the unit’s credit loss provisions had swollen to $6.45 billion for the first quarter, up significantly from $2.4 billion last year, tied directly to weakness in the housing markets and the general economic slump.”

So let me see if I understand this correctly. Bank of America is losing money. Lots of it. And largely in part to the state of our sluggish economy and their answer is to make it more difficult for their consumers to spend money? Clearly I am not an accountant, but something seems overwhelmingly strange about this.

It’s of no concern to me if my bank likes to know where I am. It’s obviously easy for them to track my location from day to day. But being denied access to my funds for not telling them of my travel plans ahead of time has taken our relationship to an uncomfortable new level. This is a homeland security tactic that is only going to increase interest rates, bank fees, frustrations and our country’s favorite modus operandi: Fear.

Suddenly, Europe just got a lot more appealing than as an occasional vacation destination.

Victims of the System

13 04 2008

Buy Organic, Buy Local, Buyer Beware

6 04 2008

By Derek Beres

Whenever possible, I buy organic. This is not just confined to food, but extends to any materials, clothing and household products I can purchase. Yet like many consumers, I am often confused by the available choices, as it has become harder and harder not to buy organic. Like many important terms, once the economics of the idea prospered, it became a vague and often meaningless adjective.

This is not to say that there isn’t integrity in adopting a lifestyle by which you know that the least possible environmental damage is being done in the manufacturing and growing of your purchase. I’ve worked and been around enough people and companies in the natural foods and sustainable living world to know that good intentions abound, and ecological promises are oftentimes followed through. There are a lot of people fusing philosophy and economics in creating a sustainable environment. The hard part is deciding which companies are doing so when two dozen choices stare at you from supermarket shelves.

In general, I adhere to one of Michael Pollan’s golden rules: buy locally. Just this morning I walked through the Union Square Farmer’s Market, which not only informs me of what marketers are gearing up for Spring, but also of what crops are actually available at the moment–not imported internationally or trucked from California. Granted, I too enjoy eating strawberries in March, but knowing the real cost of those berries (including transportation fees, read: gasoline), I often seek out another sweet. When I see “locally produced” signs in Whole Foods, I tend to pick up that product over another, if the product seems of worth.

To read the full article on Reality Sandwich click here

Stuck in the 80’s: High Fructose Corn Syrup’s Survival Tactic

5 04 2008

By Jill Ettinger

The 1980s were a strange time in America. I turned nine just a month after Ronald Reagan was sworn in for his first term. I remember my parents explaining we had a new president who used to be an actor. How would he do his acting now, I wondered. My mom had just started working full-time, after my parents’ separation, and although we had a live-in nanny, my siblings and I spent a lot of our time unsupervised.  We were spastically enthusiastic about all things pop culture, discerning our likes and dislikes as they were delivered to us through radio, Solid Gold and peeling through copious stacks of Teen Beat with Cheetos residue on our fingers.

By early 1982, our dad had cable television in his apartment, where we’d spend weekends packing in as many hours watching MTV as he would allow (which was many; Pops is in the TV business, and was just as curious as we were). I soon developed an unrelenting ritual of begging the folks to take me to the mall every weekend so I could do my best to convince them that looking just like Madonna was tantamount to me not falling off the face of the earth. (If only we had Tevo back then, I could have paused the “Borderline” video and counted exactly how many black rubber bracelets one must wear.)

As the “brought to you by the 80’s” culture penetrated our country (like a thick splinter stuck in the foot), a line began to fade where artistic expression became muddled up with corporate agendas. Coca Cola launched a clothing line. I (gasp) owned crest toothpaste earrings. I remember clearly the moment of glory (?) when I purchased them, deciding that they would absolutely define me as some sort of rebel. (Against what I still don’t know.) But it was during Benetton’s bourgeois branding experiment that I was shaken into another reality. When they launched their shamelessly self-promoting line of rugby jerseys – which bore their name boldly across the chest – my father refused to buy one for me. “You’ll look like a walking billboard. They should pay you to wear something like that.” His point was shattering, too true to ignore.  My reliance on corporate agendas began to turn into suspicion.

If identity was defined by what we do or do not wear, then I saw too that important designation relating to what we eat, as it literally is what we become. My body was made of Starburst, Cap’n Crunch, Lemonheads, Twix Bars, Doritos and of course, Pepsi. Sometimes a 7-Up or Sprite would do, but nothing was ever as delicious as Cherry Coke. Maybe Dr. Pepper. Our mom tried to get us to drink juice and other beverages, but they too were just as sugar-laden as the sodas, only less obvious about it.

By 1984, Coca Cola’s famed “secret formula,” which had been virtually unchanged for one hundred years, replaced its number two ingredient with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). The shift, like many as they occur, was regarded as just another advent of technology – modern science making lives better and easier. Microwavable brownies and high fructose corn syrup, that’s good modern day Jetson’s living. Syrup made from corn even sounded better for you than just plain old sugar. That stuff makes you fat and your teeth rot. Our family like most hardly gave it a consideration. Though my parents both were “diet” soda drinkers, the taste was too bitter for us kids, and we’d complain until we got to drink the sweet stuff. Obviously  we weren’t the only children who felt that way.

Fast-forward a quarter of a century where HFCS is considered to be the main source of calories in America, and one in three children are likely to develop Type II diabetes. Those same corporations that made us sick by hiding this stuff in virtually every packaged/processed food are now the same ones trying to normalize the disease in hopes that we don’t stop getting it, but rather just learn to live with it.

HFCS has long been touted as a “natural” sweetener by the Corn Refiners Association, but a look at the ballooning waistlines of our six year olds (and its other unhealthy effects) are clearly unnatural. The FDA, who has deflected regulating the term “natural” in the wake of strict organic regulations, are now raising a red flag in the food business, saying that HFCS is not natural and should not be allowed as an ingredient in products that make natural claims.

We’ve recently seen trans fats begin to exit our diets, with some cities banning it altogether. But Coca Cola? It’s an American institution for heaven’s sake. It’s not as simple as just reformulating back to sugar. There’s a huge, thriving corn syrup industry that needs to make record profits every year. So what will happen now that the FDA is suggesting more discrimination be used in marketing HFCS?  How crafty will marketing get to continue to invite people into serious health problems?

One thing I remember most fondly about the ’80s brands (before my disdain for corporations set in) was how needed and loved they made me feel. They were really open about their dependency on my measly allowance. Yes, lonely bag of Skittles, I will buy you and make you part of me. Don’t look so sad. Just keep tasting good for cheap and making cool commercials that look like my favorite videos. As I read this article on Jay Z and Live Nation “reinventing” the music industry yet again, I couldn’t help but think that maybe they should all quit beating around the bush and put the cards on the table with Coke, Pepsi or Taco Bell. (Roca Wear could be Coca wear … ya dig) Heck, those brands are already paying for placement in music videos and sponsoring tours anyway. All they need to do now is get MTV to start showing videos again and it’ll be just like the ’80s never left.

MTV Recreates the Holocaust – for Teens

3 04 2008

By Derek Beres

A recent series of commercials produced by MTV’s youth networking website, Think MTV, poses an interesting conundrum to the modern television viewer. Using the Holocaust as the backdrop for what could befall America if we are “not careful,” the 30-second spots questions the integrity of the network for using an example that remains fresh in the memories and minds of a culture. Which seems to be exactly their point, if they have one.

The first, Subway Roundup, starts off on a NY underground car that buckles along shakily. The lights go out; the faces of riders are nervous, or disinterested; the car rocks side to side, apparently mimicking concentration camp railways. When the car stops, fierce officers gaze in, machine guns cocked. They lead the riders out in a single line fashion, sometimes pushing, forming an orderly line. The final image dissolves into Nazi Germany.

The second, Home Raid, uses the same motif. A family is at home, relaxing, until being brutishly handled by the same thug cops. They come in, guns drawn, and put them into an open truck, where they will be shipped off to … dissolve: Hitlerian times. Both use minimal dialogue (gruff commands from cops, barely audible); I suspect the silence is meant to represent part shock/part Paxil sedentary. The victims never fight, allowing themselves to be escorted into what I guess to be a sort of penitentiary system or, worse, some futuristic concoction of oppression that the MTV marketing staff has dreamed up.

Read the full article on the Huffington Post

A Light is Born: Jesus, Jeremiah & Sam

1 04 2008

By Derek Beres

I find it interesting that between two polarities being expressed regarding the role of religion in mainstream politics — the recent over-saturation of Barack Obama’s affiliations/non-affiliations with Jeremiah Wright, and the elucidating essay by Sam Harris on this site — there has not been any discussion of religious symbols and what they represent. This is not to fault any party aforementioned. Obama/Wright stick to a very broad and easily digestable understanding of faith, in which God is a man or spirit of some sort, and plays with humans like humans play with pets. Harris’s work has always been about the dangers of faith, especially blind faith, where we give credence to an abstract idea without investigating the actual effects those beliefs create in the world.

Yet religion has always been about symbolism, and it is in the personification of ideas that we “miss the mark,” which is an original meaning of the word “sin.” That is, taking universal ideas and limiting them to one or a few particular historical individuals, instead of comprehending and integrating the symbols into our life in the here and now. Hence, Jesus did this or that, and the best we can do today is mimic that idea; we will never touch the perfection by which he did it anyway. It’s no wonder that people involved in this sort of religion feel both 1) disempowered by the world and their place in it, and 2) immediately hateful toward anyone that questions their beliefs.

There’s little surprise that in such a reading of popular Christianity that the entire spectacle takes place in the underworld–the birth of Jesus, which roughly corresponds (and more traditionally, exactly corresponds) to the winter solstice, and his death and resurrection, which falls near the spring equinox. The soul of the Christian is literally in darkness: winter. This is a very old motif, used some time before the Jesus figure in the story of Osiris, as well as the underworld quest of Gilgamesh. A similar idea was employed in Persephone and Hades. All these examples deal with the barren soil and the “resurrection” of agriculture in spring. It is the sun’s descent and rebirthing, which in turn gives us nourishment through grain and greens, when soil is once again virginal, ready to bring forth fruit.

Read the full article on the Huffington Post here