Jul 15, 2013

The List: The First Piece of Art We Loved

By Wine & Pop Staff

Josh Oakley: The Cosby Show
Recalling my TV education, I grew up on a steady diet of animated shows aimed directly at children, “big kid” shows I probably shouldn’t have been watching, and, most importantly, the classics filtered through the window of Nick at Nite. The most vital of the many 80’s sitcoms that found their way to me (including The Facts of Life, Family Matters, Diff’rent Strokes, etc.) was The Cosby Show. This can mostly be attributed to the notion that Cosby Show was the best of the bunch, a sitcom that had strong writing, a great set of performers and a plethora of ideas that sprung up from time to time, in powerful or hilarious ways. The former could be seen in the episodes that focused on black culture. They were rare (purposely so, I believe), but immense when utilized, most importantly in the episode “Vanessa’s Bad Grade”, which ends with the family gathered around the television watching Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speech. The episode originally premiered days before the first celebration of MLK Jr. Day, but I would not learn of that until years later. What was important in the moment of watching, from the vantage point of a young white kid in a mostly white suburb, was the contextualization of civil rights, and, vitally, the emotions surrounding that aspect of black culture. It wasn’t an entire history lesson, but it served as a window into a human connection that many (as has been in seen in recent days) still cannot muster. The episode didn’t solve world issues, and I wouldn’t be a bad person without it, but as the Huxtables became one of my many TV families, it did form a bond that I do believe to be vital to my current way of thinking, and feeling.


Artistically, the show mainly stuck to the framework of the multi-cam sitcom, but did so much better than many of its colleagues. The emotional content was often richer and not as saccharine as other multi-cams, and while Bill Cosby was a master at the goofier side of comedy, various family members balanced out the tenor of the show well (Phylicia Rashad’s various side eyes play in my mind to this day, like gifs imprinted in my memory). Some episodes as a whole stuck out more than others: “Cliff’s Nightmare” utilized the haunting oddness of Jim Henson’s Muppets to create a hoagie-induced dream that rode of line of comedic and unsettling. The show was never afraid of an extended reading of Shakespeare or a beautiful and hysterical tap dance interlude. The latter comes from the episode “Mr. Sandman”, which pits Cosby against vaudeville tap dancer Sandman Sims. The scene goes on for a full five minutes (impossible to think of in today’s network sitcoms), featuring the beautiful talents of Sims and the increasing weariness of Cosby. The sequence, almost wordless save for Sims’ “Challenge!”, alternates between two true skills: that of a man quick on his feet and that of a man hilarious on his. My favorite moment the show ever produced comes from season five’s “Mrs. Huxtable Goes to Kindergarten”. The episode itself is great, a true showcase for the character of Claire, one of the greatest characters in television history (especially in a feminist context), as she proves herself smarter and wiser than a panel of “intelligent” fools. But the final moment may be the most important piece of art I’ve ever consumed. Cliff is saying goodbye to his old furniture, as Claire has ordered a new set for the living room. The close of the episode sees Cliff alone in the living room, draping himself over the soon-to-be-gone couch and chair. The studio audience laughs throughout, and it is very funny, but it is more than that as well. The scene, again wordless (for a show with such great dialogue, The Cosby Show’s silence could often speak volumes), has an emotional purity within it, capturing the silliness (Cosby milks the scene for laughs and earns them) and wistfulness of saying goodbye to inanimate objects. The scene taught me the importance of melding humor and pathos, and the great dividends it could pay. The Cosby Show taught me about race (in what it didn’t say as much as what it did), family, the fear of eternal dependency (through Theo), the coolness of being different (through Denise), and any number of other lessons pertaining to both the making of art and the making of one’s life. The Cosby Show was my gateway into a life overflowing with pop culture, and I can’t think of anyone I would have wanted to start that journey with more than the Huxtables.

Ian Cory: Final Fantasy VII
As a kid my parents were incredibly skeptical of video games. For a long time I only experienced them through a handed down Gameboy, which I imagine my folks tolerated because of how well it kept me occupied during car rides, and through visits to my friends' houses. I have vivid memories of every living room where I watched kids play N64, Playstation, and on rare occasions Sega Genesis, only picking up the second controller to get my ass handed to me in Goldeneye and Super Smash Bros. After years of hero-worshiping and humiliation I decided to save up my allowance and purchase a system of my own, a PSOne, the adorable portable version of the Playstation that Sony rolled out after they’d already released the PS2. I chose this console for three reasons: It had a wider game library than the N64, I couldn’t afford a PS2, and I had recently had my mind blown while watching a friend play Final Fantasy VIII. The vast scope of the game’s world, combined with the organized and clinical action suited my budding nerd tendencies, and the focus on story and solitary game play matched my lack of competitive instincts. In a twist of fate that seems absolutely ludicrous now, I did not have enough cash to buy FFVIII with the PSOne, but I did have enough to purchase Final Fantasy VII.

Chances are, no matter which of the two games I bought, the results on my psyche would have been pretty similar; the difference is really just a matter of dosage. To give you some context, I started playing FFVII in the fall of 2000 at age 10. I was suffering through 5th grade with the first teacher that I ever hated, and with classmates that I was beginning to find impossible to relate to. The Mets, my childhood would-be heroes, were getting creamed by the Yankees in the World Series, thus proving that the good guys are not predestined to win. I was ready to withdraw from the world to just about anywhere else, and the first place available was the cyberpunk dystopia of Midgar. Being only 10 and relatively ignorant of most pop culture, I was completely oblivious to all of the different sources that FFVII drew from. No amount of superhero cartoon programming could have prepared me for the dismal and frankly horrifying world of FFVII. Surreal and terrifying monster designs, gritty industrial decay, a group of eco-terrorists as the heroes in a battle against a fascist mega-corporation, and the all encompassing coolness of Sephiroth; my brain soaked up as much as it could get. What amazed me at the time was how focused on narrative and character the game was. Of course in retrospect the plot is bloated and sprawling in a lot of the wrong ways, but as a kid it was revelatory to me. The fact that the game kept me engaged by constantly upping the stakes of the central conflict along with making the game more challenging was too potent of a combo for me to handle. I really fell in love with these characters, I wanted to see them win and was willing to sink as much of my time as I could into helping them. I was stunned at every twist and reveal of Cloud’s origins, and in case you were wondering, yes I did cry after THAT part. Even when I picked up the game again in college I was immediately sucked back in.

More than anything, Final Fantasy VII gave the groundwork for my nerdiness. The setting prepared me for post apocalyptic fiction and cyberpunk aesthetics. The towering WEAPON’s taught me how to love and fear Kaiju (which in turn set up an audience of strangers to have to deal with my screams of joy during Pacific Rim this weekend). The bizarre and psychedelic trip into Cloud’s mind, along with the consistent interest in his broken psychology, planted the seeds for my eventual Neon Genesis Evangelion fandom. Jenova, with her otherworldly origins and fucking terrifying appearances was a training course for the Lovecraft that I would devour in high school. But undoubtedly the most important thing Final Fantasy VII gave me was the music of Nobuo Uematsu. Immediately following the opening cut scene, I ran through the game’s booklet in search of the name of the person responsible for the game’s score. Ever since, Uematsu has been my favorite musician. I would replay segments in the game just to hear certain pieces again and again. When I finally got a hold of the soundtracks for the Final Fantasy series I was amazed to find traces of nearly everything I wanted from “real” music to be scattered through out Uematsu's midi scores. To this day, 13 years later, I still regularly listen to his work, for pleasure, and for inspiration.

Paul Krueger: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
By the time Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone came out, I’d been mainlining books for years. I’d read them for fun, I’d read them for school, and once even read a book on a dare (you don’t understand, guys; it was a girl book). But while I’d read some Big Important Books before age ten, and I’d read my fair share of whatever the literary equivalent of a summer blockbuster is, mine and Harry’s inaugural trip to the wizarding world was the first time I’d found a book that felt like both at once. Perhaps it’s because I was the absolute perfect age to read it when it was released, and then managed to age at just the right pace with the next six books. Or maybe it was because J.K. Rowling wasn’t interested in talking down to her readers, nor smugly keeping her themes just out of their reach with a reassurance of, “I’ll tell you when you’re older.” Whatever the reason, reading it changed the way I saw all the other books I’d read or would read, and all the movies and TV shows I watched as well. Since the day I first peeled back that cover emblazoned with that image of a boy riding a broomstick, people have tried to sell me on the idea that “real art” doesn’t use such plebeian devices as wands and house-elves and the like. When they do, I look to the millions of people who’ve been touched, influenced, and changed by a story including precisely those things and more. And then I think: if that’s not what art’s supposed to do, then why would anyone want to be an artist?



Mike Horky: A Day at the Races by Queen
I remember the first songs I listened to were sung by children’s musicians like Raffi, or were on television sung by Barney. And believe it or not, those songs can get on a child’s nerves, to the point where music was nothing more than an annoying noise to me. What’s sad is that it wasn’t until I was seven years old that music became more of an art form to me, and less of another noise plaguing my life. Stumbling across my parents’ old music collection, I found a CD of Queen’s A Day At The Races. I had never heard of Queen, let alone listened to an entire rock album, but I’m glad I stumbled upon this gem of musical genius. It’s quite possibly one of the best albums ever recorded. Released in 1975, Queen’s fifth album had the disadvantage of having a large generational gap between itself and me. It had very little to connect with me, and wasn’t as relatable as some more modern artists of the 90s. Yet the album struck me as something much more personal, and provided me with a much more thought provoking experience than most pop artists of the time could have managed. The opening track of A Day At The Races, titled "Tie Your Mother Down", was the first rock song I can remember appreciating for being loud and flamboyant in its delivery. It gave me an understanding of the rock anthem, and delightful sound created by layering guitars on a single track. Already the album provided me with an array of sounds that ecstatically flowed through my ears. Coming off of that heavy guitar-fueled track I was introduced to another staple of rock music: the ballad. Listening to "Take My Breath Away" did in fact take my breath away, and actually made me understand love a little more clearly. As strange as that may sound, the song provided an intimate account of what it’s like to fall head over heels for someone. The lyrics sounded so personal, and Freddie Mercury’s amazing voice made each word even more heartfelt and at times heartbreaking. That was the first song where I remember paying as much attention to the lyrics as I did to the person singing them, and the first song I was completely mesmerized by. The next three tracks provided me with a deeper understanding of love, and a greater appreciation of the instrumentals in songs, with the standout being "The Millionaire’s Waltz". The piano on that track danced through my ears, providing a light, whimsical musical experience. However, the latter half of the album completely sold me, with the powerful "Somebody To Love" taking the cake. I remember being blown away by the amount of layers the song had, from the one hundred or so different vocal tracks layered to make it sound like a choir singing along, to the instrumental progression of Brian May’s guitar, and the powerhouse leading vocals of Mercury. This song made me appreciate music more than anything ever could have before. It was big, boisterous, but still held a certain amount of grace and elegance with itself. From there, "Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy" provided me with a sense of what being a romantic was, and how love is one of the most desired things in life, while "Drowse" pushed through like a strange dream. The final track, "Teo Torriate (Let Us Cling Together)", provided one of the most haunting musical experiences I can remember. I remember being captivated by Mercury’s unsettlingly soft voice, and the subtle piano dancing in the background. It was like a build to something bigger, which was of course the mind-blowing chorus. Complete with crashing percussion, brash guitar, and ending with a children’s chorus of singers, this song was an amazing experience to end on. By the time I had finished the album I had gone through musical ecstasy; a feat few albums have been able to achieve since. This album is truly a work of art, and should be experienced by those who love, or want to start loving, music.

1 comment:

  1. I recently sat listening to A Day At The Races with a glass of Millionaire Waltz, Queen's very own wine. Happy days!

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