The music we play at work generally, to put it kindly, sucks.  Especially during the middle part of the day, when I am either not-quite-close-enough to the end of my shift to look forward to leaving or when I’m right at the beginning of my shift and thinking the night will never end, I wonder if the music played piped in from corporate was chosen by someone who was a contemporary of Duke Ellington.

Still, every now and again, they will play something decent.  One day not long ago, they were playing “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)” by Gladys Knight and the Pips.  I turned to one of my young employees and said, “Gotta love Motown.”

She looked at me with confusion in her eyes.  “What’s Motown?”

And so, particularly for the younger generation who might read this, here’s my second playlist of the week, a compilation of some of my favorite hits from the Motown label.

Standing in the Shadows of Love by the Four Tops.  Levi Stubbs is one of the most powerful vocalists.  Ever.  Period.  And he sings this song with such force that you wonder if his fingers have left impressions in the microphone when he’s done.

Uptight (Everything’s Alright) by Stevie Wonder.  Recorded when Wonder was still a teenager, this song displays all the energy and passion that became his trademarks throughout his career.

I Want You Back by Jackson 5.  No one that young, not even Michael Jackson, should be able to sing like that.  It’s so good, you almost can’t hear his brothers singing their parts.

The Tears of a Clown by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.  Nobody on the Motown label did such great story songs as Smokey and the Miracles.  This is a prime example and the way they stretch the metaphor through the whole song, including a reference to the Italian opera, Pagliacci.  I don’t know many other pop songs which cite operas in their lyrics.  Okay, actually I don’t know any other songs that do.

I Can’t Get Next to You by The Temptations.  Five guys in the band.  All five of them sing parts of the song.  And it rocks.

Reflections by The Supremes.  I can’t leave the ladies out.  Led by Diana Ross, the Supremes were the Destiny’s Child of the 60’s.  Ross eventually outgrew the group, but not before they spent about a decade with hit after hit.  This song, formerly the opening song to the short-lived show China Beach, is not their most famous number, but I like it anyway.

I Heard it Through the Grapevine by Marvin Gaye.  I could’ve gone with the Gladys Knight and the Pips version, but I don’t like their uptempo arrangement.  I prefer the low-key Gaye performance.  You can hear, in both the lyrics and the music, that he is really pissed about what he heard.

Somebody’s Watching Me by Rockwell.  Rockwell’s dad, Berry Gordy, founded Motown, but signed to the label without his father’s knowledge.  It wasn’t until after the album and single, complete with background vocals from Michael Jackson, were released that the singer’s secret identity was revealed to his father.  Not the first song that comes to mind when you think about Motown, at least not for me, but still pretty cool despite the singer wearing shorts in the shower in the video.  Not that I’d rather he be naked, but come on . . . .

Reach Out I’ll Be There by the Four Tops.  Did I mention that Levi Stubbs can sing?

Hello by Lionel Richie.  Richie did some great work with The Commodores, also on the Motown label, with songs such as “Easy” and “Sail On”, but he became huge in the 80’s when he went solo.  This song is simple and perfect.

Who’s Loving You by Jackson 5.  This song recalls the doo-wap era from its original recording by The Miracles in 1960.  With all apologies to Smokey, Michael did it better.

Overjoyed by Stevie Wonder.  The radio version of this song leaves a lot out.  In the original, there’s a lot of stuff going on–birds are singing, water is plopping, and Stevie is laying down some sweet lyrics.

And, even though it’s technically not a Motown song . . . .

Let’s Just Kiss (And Say Goodbye) by The Manhattans.  Yes, they were on the Columbia label, but these New York guys still had the same R&B soul as their counterparts in Detroit and this song, among others, really stands out.

Anyway, if any of my readers have any comments or suggestions regarding my list, please feel free to drop them to me below.  Maybe I missed a song your particularly liked or you think my picks are the product of a mind warped from too much Elton John.  Either way, feel free to let me know what you think.

The current issue of Rolling Stone magazine is titled “The Playlist Issue”.  As the name suggests, it is full of playlists submitted by several of the movers and shakers in the music industry.  Artists from Ozzy to Tom Petty to Drake talked about their favorite songs from an era, a genre, or even a particular artist or group.

I’m always fascinated by these types of lists.  It’s not the songs (or books or whatever) that intrigue me, but the reasons behind those choices.  On what level does the work connect with the person–the “why” instead of the “what”.  Nightline has been running a recurring segment along these same lines and I always watch to see what the artists have to say about the music they love.

So, considering that I really don’t have much new to report on the writing front, I’m going to do my own series of playlists this week.  I’m normally reluctant to talk about my musical tastes as I reached a point several years ago where I gave up trying to appreciate all the new music coming out so I could go back and see what I missed while I was waiting in the queue in my mother’s ovaries.  I can’t tell you much about what’s new and hip, but that’s okay as I am neither of those things.  For example, I give you . . . .

Playlist #1:  Elton John

I’ve mentioned before on here that I’m a huge fan of Elton John.  He has a unique vocal style and, with Bernie Taupin’s lyrics, he creates stories out of song, even if I can’t always tell you what the story is.

Your Song–Elton’s first big hit, the simple melody and simple lyrics tell a simple story that reflected the beginnings of his and Taupin’s long career and belie all the complexities (e.g. drugs, scandal, Madonna, etc.) that would follow.

Tonight–I’m more fond of the Live in Australia version of this song, which opens with a three-minute instrumental before moving into a deeply emotional song about a couple arguing and the toll it takes on their relationship.  Great feeling, great imagery, great song.

The Greatest Discovery–One of the best story songs ever, about a little boy who wonders what all the fuss in his house is about, then discovers that his parents have given him a little brother.  As an added bonus, my wife loves this one, too.

Candle in the Wind–The original is fine.  The Lady Diana tribute is fine, if a little clunky lyrically.  But my favorite version is again the one from Live in Australia.  At the time the concerts were recorded, Elton was finishing his tour down under and mortally afraid that lesions found on his vocal cords were cancerous.  He went out night after night, barely able to speak during the day, and delivered as gutsy a vocal performance as I have ever heard.  Plus, of course, it’s simply a fantastic song that could have been about anyone taken from us too soon.

The Bridge–Another example of a song with simple lyrics and a powerful message.  It’s about not giving up, despite the odds, and following your dreams.

Empty Garden–The only place Elton every performs this John Lennon tribute song is at Madison Square Garden.  This song is even more poignant, with its startk imagery and haunting metaphors, as we arrive upon the 30th anniversary of Lennon’s murder.

A Word in Spanish–Another great story song about the universal language of love.

The Last Song–I have no idea what the song is exactly about, but it’s haunting and Elton’s vocals are superb in conveying the emotion of whatever the hell he’s singing about.

This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore–One of Elton’s more recent songs, it is, in some ways, the opposite end of the spectrum from Your Song, about the culmination of a long career rather than it’s inception.  Also, look up the video and see how amazing Justin Timberlake looks as a young Elton.

I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues–Elton said in an interview that this is one of his favorite songs to perform because he can do it so many ways–pop style, bluesy, just about any way you can do a song, this one will work.  I like it because it’s cool no matter how it’s done.

Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters–One of Elton’s “New York Songs”, this one describes the bustle of the Big Apple in as poetic a way as another other you can find.

Rocket Man–The best song about space exploration, with apologies to David Bowie, ever.  Also, a wonderful metaphor about celebrity and how lonely it is at the top.

Once upon a time, when I was working diligently on a blog that nobody read, I had the notion to start a semi-regular feature called Topical Tuesday.  In these posts, which may now be found buried deep, deep in the archives, I would talk about whatever happened to be in the news–politics, sports, you  name it.  I did it to encourage discussion about the topics I was writing about and, failing in that, to have something other than writing to talk about on my blog.

Now, with a new venue for my often-skewed opinions, I think I’ll give it another go, beginning with the big topic tonight–Election 2010.

It has been often said (who said it varies widely according to which source you’re using–thanks for nothing, Google) that the people get the government they deserve.  As it happens, I believe this.  And today is a perfect example.

We are a fickle lot, we Americans.  No matter what we have, we want something else.  To some degree, that’s what keeps our economy afloat.  We live outside our means, we spend money we haven’t made, driving ourselves into horrific debt.  We scheme, we gamble, we mortgage the present in the hope that the future deals out a little bit of luck in our direction.  We thrive on our own ambitions, attempting to overcome whatever obstacles we face by any means necessary, even if it comes at the expense of those we care for.  We react violently to any who threaten our safety, we believe ourselves superior to those who do not believe the same things we believe, and we patronize those who have less than us.  We cry out for justice, as long as it’s the justice that works most in our favor.

And yet, when our government does these things, reflecting the actions, if not the lofty ideals, of the very masses that put them in power, we get our panties in a wad about it.

We have seen the enemy, and they are us.

Now, as far as political leanings go, I don’t.  I’m about as moderate a person as you’ll ever find.  I won’t tick off an item-by-item list of my views on the political topics of the day (at least not today), but I do understand the issues of the day and have my own opinions on them.  I listen to left and right equally, without considering my views of higher value than theirs.  I am a negotiator, a peace-maker, and I want nothing more than for Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell to share a long tongue kiss on the Capitol steps.

That said, it saddens me that so many people do their civic duty and go to the polls without having a clue of what the people they’re voting for are all about.  Too many people choose who will run our government not based on a track record of success, a viable plan for the future, or a fundamental decency that seems to be so often lacking in our legislative bodies, but according to the (D) or (R) that appears beside their names.  I’ve asked self-proclaimed Democrats and Republicans alike what their parties stood for and, in most cases, they can’t give me a good answer, assuming they can give an answer at all.  More than a few even spout out ideaology supported by the opposite party.  It’s sad and disheartening.  These are the things that make other countries point their fingers at us and laugh.

There’s no easy solution for this problem.  In this Age of Information, an eligible voter can find out anything from Rand Paul’s underwear preference to the start time for Christine O’Donnell’s next coven meeting, but so few take advantage of the resources out there to really educate themselves on what they are voting for and against.

“So, Smiley,” I hear you say, “Quit bitching and tell me how you’d fix it.”

What I propose is simple–a two-part process to be conducted at the voting booth.  First, the prospective voter takes a short quiz, ten questions or so, on the major issues of the election.  Multiple-choice, true/false, makes no difference to me.  Allowing people to vote with no knowledge of what they are doing is like allowing people to drive a car without passing a driving test.  Anyone who passes the quiz with say an 80% or higher will be allowed to vote as usual.  Anyone who does not pass the quiz must complete a follow-up assessment of their core values and political philosophy and the computers will automatically select the candidates that fit their attitudes.

This system has several benefits.  First, it will reward people who actively engage in educating themselves by allowing them to vote willingly and how they choose.  Second, it will keep the uninformed from being stupid just because they like the letter in front of the candidate’s name.  Also, it will more accurately reflect the values of the people by extracting a representative vote based on those values rather than the popularity contest it has become.

Finally, I think Facebook should handle all elections.  If someone can design a quiz to tell me which 14th century Italian tapestry I’m most like, doing something like this should be a breeze.

Again, we have elected the government we deserve.  This is not all bad, nor is it all good.  It is a reflection of who we are.  We call out for substance, but reward major points for style.  We call out for controlled spending while we ring up another flat-screen on our credit cards.  We call out for integrity when we find our role models, our heroes, and our cherished celebrities with none.  We call out for change and then complain about the loss of traditional values.

So, on this grand election night, meet the new America, folks, same as the old America.

Normally, I would put a Topical Tuesday post in here, but I’m feeling generally meh on most topics today and meh is not a fit state in which to discuss such things. Therefore, in light of my recent light blogging activity, I will now commence updating my imaginary readers on my various projects:

Cursed Blessings. The manuscript is ready to go, but the query is still being tweaked. It’s taken me a bit of time to get back into the swing of things after my weeks of scoring Governor’s Scholars applications, but I hope to have the letter nailed down this week so I can start sending it out as early as this weekend. I’m on the fourth draft now and I think I might actually go with two different letters, depending on which agent I’m querying. The one advantage of being, as yet, unrepresented is that I have no specific deadline on when something has to be done. This is liberating in that I can make sure I have both my query letter and my manuscript as strong as I can make them before I start submitting, but on the flip side, I work well under pressure and the only pressure I have right now is what I put on myself. Thankfully, that’s quite a bit.

Wielder of the Soul. I have started the first draft of this new urban fantasy novel and I’m about ready to get to working on it in earnest. I’ve had a lot of things going on lately that are starting to fall off my schedule and, as things get back to relative normalcy, I’ll throw myself into this story set in Nashville. At some point, I’ll have to go back to Nashville, wander around downtown, take some pictures, and gather some details for that extra verisimilitude, but for now I can just run with the idea screaming to get out of my head and onto my hard drive.

“The Luckiest Man on Earth”. After lounging around on my hard drive for a few months, I’ve decided to try to put this short story to work and have submitted it to a magazine for consideration. Hopefully, I’ll hear something in a month or so. Even more hopefully, it will be a good something.

“The Visible Man”. Same as above, but sent to a different periodical. Same hopes, too. I like both these stories and, though I am not bursting with short story ideas, I think these two are good enough to find a home somewhere.

Dead and Dying. Officially retired, although I do have one full request still out. I might submit it to an agent or two as I research agents for CB. What do I have to lose? It would make quite a story if that one request pans out to an offer of representation, but I’m not going to hold my breath. Breath-holding is a very bad thing for an author to do.

I considered trying to write some short stories in between CB and WotS, but I just didn’t come up with anything strong enough to write this time. Usually, I have my best ideas for shorts while I’m working hot and heavy on a novel. By the time I have the occasion to write them, however, the ideas no longer shine and I lose that sense that it needs to be written down.

That about covers it. Perhaps by next Tuesday something will have sufficiently pissed me off enough to write about it in the return of Topical Tuesday.

I didn’t post about our new president around the election or the inauguration because, well, because I just didn’t want to. It’s my blog, dammit. Now, however, with the man in office, I’ll expound a bit on what I think about the whole thing in this second installment of Topical Tuesday.

First of all, in the interest of full disclosure, I did vote for Obama. I like John McCain as much as I like any Republican, I suppose, and was sorry to see him lose, but not sorry enough to vote for him, even in this “reddest state in the country”. I had hoped he would have emerged as the GOP candidate in 2000 ahead of that wonderful orator we ended up with, but we can’t have everything, can we?

Barack Obama is a lot of things. Most of those things have already been beaten into the ground by the press until we are tired of hearing about them, so I’ll try to steer clear of those old chestnuts and look at things from a different perspective. For example, out of all the candidates available, even during the primaries, I believe that Barack Obama represents most closely what America is. We, as a nation, are not what we would like to be nor what we tell others we are. We like to think of ourselves as hard-working, success-driven, world-leading patriots who deserve the respect (and, in some cases, obedience) of other nations everywhere.

That is not who we are. Sorry, it’s just not true. What we are, my fellow Americans, is the world’s reality television show.

In this week’s episode, the country is turned upside down when a black man is elected President . . . .

We are not the nation we were fifty or a hundred years ago. We are now a country of flash and glitter, of sitcoms and microwave popcorn, of staggering obesity and decadent forms of entertainment that has become our chief export. People overseas may not purchase American-made cars, but they’ll sure watch dubbed episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. We have lost a great deal of our substance in our worship of the glass tit and our constant struggle to stay above the waters of depression.

What does this have to do with Barack Obama, you ask? Everything. Obama is the iconic American, the image of ourselves we would like to see in the mirror. He is well-spoken. He is successful. He is intelligent. He can hit a jump shot. In short, he is everything we would like to be–would be–if not for our increasing dependence on McDonald’s and Xbox and American Idol. Obama got the job, not because he was the most qualified, but because he most represents the identity we want as a nation. He is another figure on television for us to live our vicarious lives through while we sit on our sofas eating potato chips and loathing ourselves. Through this shining new example of the democratic system, we can quiet those voices in our heads telling us that we are losing our collective grip on our rightful place atop the world order.

We value this country as a land of equal opportunity and this election has proved that ideal. A hundred years ago, the idea of a black man becoming President was as laughable as the idea of half our children being obese and a larger emphasis being put on leading the world in entertainment rather than in math and science. It is truly an era of revelation!

I believe that people tend to receive the leadership they deserve and I hope we are better than we have been lately. I hope we have chosen wisely. He is certainly a better choice than who we had for the past eight years. Obama exemplifies another American ideal–the greater the risk, the greater the reward–and I hope by risking so much on him that we reap a reward greater than we have earned in recent years. If not, then the flash and glitter that has us so hypnotized will extend to the White House and we will fall deeper into our current role as the court jester of nations.

I’m thinking about starting a new feature on this blog that nobody reads called, as you can tell from the post title, “Topical Tuesday”. Here I’ll discuss current events and my sometimes benign, usually inflammatory, takes on what everyone else seems to be talking about. If nothing else, it will give me fodder to use at least one day a week while I’m going through the very boring (at least to everyone else) process of editing my novel.

Now, a picture has surfaced of Micheal Phelps, Olympic darling, taking bong hits at a party on the University of South Carolina in November. The world is responding by calling Phelps a poor role model and corporations are responding by possibly withdrawing endorsement deals that promise to make the medal-heavy swimmer a very wealthy man.

What the hell is wrong with us?

Okay, I do understand that marijuana is illegal. I accept that Phelps, knowing he is under a microscope in this world of camera phones and tabloid press, made a very poor decision in electing to light up. I’m fine with all of that. The problem I have is with our reaction and, more specifically, our expectations.

Why do we continue to consider athletes role models when, time and time again, they have proved themselves unworthy of the role? You can list countless examples–Barry Bonds, Charles Barkley, Plaxico Burress, etc. etc. etc.–that have shown us, beyond any doubt, that athletes are, if anything, more fallible and prone to poor decision making than the rest of us are. Are we so enamored by anything that appears on television that we have to engage in a sick form of hero worship or are we just jealous of their fame and compelled by this jealousy to knock them off the pedestals that we placed them upon?

Why do we so often turn to celebrities and athletes when we look for role models for our children when there are so many better ones readily available? We continue to throw our proverbial panties on the stage of these unworthy demigods and overlook the parents and teachers, the ministers and coaches, the soldiers and volunteers that, while human, embody the very characteristics we look for in role models. We do not see through our televisions; we are blinded by them.

So Michael Phelps smoked some pot? There are a good number of 23-year old guys out there who have done that, some who have gone on to fulfilling lives of service and moral behavior. In reality, it is not the disappointment in this Olympic champion that has disappointed us, it is disappointment in ourselves, that we have allowed ourselves to once again place our trust where no trust was warranted, that bothers us. We have failed again to place our reverence with someone worthy of it and that, more than any other reason, is why Michael Phelps is in such trouble.