Thursday, November 8, 2007

And Away We Go!

Blogging is karaoke for writers.

This thought originally occurred to me while I was sitting in a karaoke bar one evening hoping that the End Times prophesized in the Book of Revelations would commence before a certain Elvis impersonator made it back to the top of the rotation. I detest karaoke almost as much as my wife adores it, the latter fact explaining why I keep attending. It’s a division of labor that seems to work for us: I endure a long night of realtors and file clerks channeling Patsy Cline, and she tolerates various live sporting events in loud and crowded stadiums and arenas from Anaheim to Atlanta. Some years ago, she remained by my side while two ball clubs stumbled through an enless, twenty-some inning baseball game that was only decided when the home team’s outfielders grew too bored even to catch a routine fly ball. In return for that sort of dedication (hers, not the ballplayers’), the least I can do is to occasionally kill off a Friday evening watching drunks hit several of the right notes while pouring their hearts into some forgettable Billy Joel song (as if there were a second kind).

I am, of course, being unfair. Indeed, the one thing you learn upon spending countless hours as an unpaid Simon Cowell, other than the fact that no amount of beer will make Copacabana any less painful, is that there are a lot of outstanding singers out there. No, really. A lot of them. Every karaoke bar has at least one or two, warbling songs you’ve hated since junior high school, but doing so brilliantly. Assuming that most of them discovered their gift years earlier, it’s hard not to wonder why they never pursued a professional singing career. Except that by the time you’ve been blown away by the hundredth or so sparkling diva or her crooning male counterpart, you begin to understand the problem: good singers—great singers—really are a dime a dozen. If dreams die hard, their final resting place is apparently behind a microphone in the Applebee’s cocktail lounge.

You know how when you're in high school, everyone envisions a future that promises great things? Nobody plans to spend their productive years as the assistant produce manager at Albertsons. No, they're all going to be actors or singers or writers or athletes or something glamorous like that. After all, they’ve already reached the pinnacle and tasted the nectar, quarterbacking the football team, editing the school paper, or beating out their peers to play Eliza Doolittle in the spring musical. Life has been a delightful series of validations, each better than the last, and it can only be a matter or time before the Miami Dolphins, the New York Times, and the Shubert Theater beckon.

Ah, youth. The appetizer to a four-course meal of regret and bitterness, followed by infirmity and death.

Aside from the general solipsism of the young, there are two reasons why teenagers and early twenty-somethings tend to overestimate their prospects for greatness. First, no high school kid truly comprehends how many other high schools there are out there. And every one of them has a couple of outstanding singers, actors, writers, athletes, and so forth. So each year, there are literally thousands upon thousands of "best" poets, thespians, point guards, and sopranos coming out of high school, not to mention the ones who graduated the year before and the ones poised to emerge from the junior class.

Second is something I call the “Carpenter Effect”, named for a published, but otherwise unsuccessful, pulp fiction writer that my family knows (I’ve changed the name, so no need to fire up Google). Simply put, people tend to overrate the talent of those who are standing right in front of them, causing the talented ones to overrate themselves. When your cousin plays the piano better than anyone you’ve ever heard, she’s got to be a virtuoso. When your classmate produces thoughtful and moving poems, you just know you’re sharing your homeroom with the next Dylan Thomas. In the case of Mr. “Carpenter”, his prose was far superior to that of his acquaintances, including some very good writers, and his friends just assumed he must be better than almost everyone else on the planet, too, and he assumed right along with them. Of course, he wasn't.

Anyway, what all this means is that there are perhaps millions of enormously talented people who, for some reason or another, never make it. Some don't try, some aren't quite good enough, and some are good enough but just never make the cut because, well, most people don't. Many folks will tell you that if you want something badly enough you can have it, and that with enough hard work all things are possible. These people are lying. Robert Schuller, the California televangelist who celebrates Christ’s ministry to the poor by preaching from inside a cathedral made of crystal, likes to say that anything can be achieved as long as you believe in yourself and drop a couple of Benjamins in the collection plate. I’d like to see Reverend Schuller dunk a basketball.

And when reality intervenes and youthful ambitions wither, what then? After life selects out those very, very few who reach the top of the pyramid and provide false hope to yet another generation of schoolyard superstars, what happens to the folks who didn’t make it? What outlets do they have for their very real, if not quite triumphant, talents?

For some, the answer has always been clear. City recreation leagues, for example, have long afforded over-the-hill jocks an opportunity to recapture their glory days. Former honorable mention all-county third basemen can drag their beer guts out to the ballpark and live out their major league fantasies playing slo-pitch softball. And as they watch their 250-foot home runs arc over the chain link fence and into the children’s playground, they can imagine that they are Babe Ruth, only drunker and fatter.

And then two decades ago, along came karaoke. Today, talented men and women whose audiences had previously consisted of their companion animals and the plastic savior on their car’s dashboard can now show off their skills in front of living, breathing, schnockered human beings. Karaoke may not provide them with the level of recognition they craved during their teens, but at least someone is listening and applauding. If real fame cannot be achieved, at least it can be rented in five or six minute increments for the cost of a two-drink minimum. Regardless of their day jobs, these people are singers at heart, and at last they are finally singing in public.

I was always a writer, or so I told myself. I never wrote for the school paper or anything like that, but my essays constantly dazzled public school teachers who, to be fair, had come to be reasonably impressed by anyone who could properly conjugate verbs and understood that he and I bought the papayas for her and me. One such instructor, throwing caution into hurricane-force winds, simply marked one of my eighth-grade essays with the words, “You are amazing!” If that sort of thing wouldn’t have done for your ego what hydrogen did for the Hindenburg (and look how well that turned out), then you were a better 13-year-old than I. When the makers of the SAT exam asked me to rate myself on several traits (do they do that anymore?), I readily placed myself in the top 1% in the area of written expression. Had I been in the top 1% in mathematical skills as well, I would have realized that in a country of roughly 350 million residents, I was sharing my lofty pedestal with 3 ½ million of my fellow citizens. Clearly, we weren’t all going to earn a byline on the op-ed page of the Washington Post or see our names on the bestseller lists.

There is, perhaps, nobody more frustrated than a frustrated writer. There are no community theaters for writers, no church choirs, no pickup basketball games. If you’re lucky, you might occasionally publish a guest editorial on zoning variances for your local weekly newspaper. If not, you might end up as a technical writer or the author of your workplace newsletter or, if fate is truly unkind, an assistant professor of English.

The mainstream media--and what a stupid phrase that is--seems to be in an unrelenting state of awe over the geometrical proliferation of blogs during the first years of the current century. They shouldn’t be. It is simply the legions of the not-quite-good-enough mustering alongside the not-quite-ambitious-enough and the not-quite-lucky-enough to form a phalanx of frustrated writers ready to take on every topic imaginable, but largely concentrating their efforts on either the latest trivial political gaffe or the myriad deficiencies in the cinematic oeuvre of George Lucas.

As far as I can tell, the majority of blogs fall into one of two categories. Most political blogs specialize in intemperate speech, fanatics speaking to fanatics, playing gotcha over the latest inadequately pro- or anti-Bush article in one of the nation’s leading newspapers. Because of their prevalence among the ranks of the techno-nerds, libertarians tend to be overrepresented in the blogosphere, many railing about the self-evident pre-eminence of property rights from within the walls of homes that are, in point of fact, the property of their parents. My favorite libertarian crusaders, however, are the tenured professors at state universities who tout the manifest virtues of a competitive marketplace from which they are permanently exempt.

The other major blogging category is the personal blog. While many of these are hobby-oriented, others are little more than private diaries foisted on the world, or at least that portion of the world curious about what day in the blogger’s menstrual cycle her cramps finally end. This sort of blogging can seem like an orgy of exhibitionism, but I suspect it represents something a bit sadder. In many cases, it is simply the wallflowers’ cry for attention, loners trading their only fungible asset—their privacy—in exchange for a tiny sliver of recognition.

In this sense, again, blogging is like karaoke: Look at me! Listen to me! Acknowledge me!

There is, however, one significant difference. Unlike karaoke or rec league softball, blogging is not geographically bounded. If you win first prize in a karaoke competition in Boise, nobody in Pocatello will ever know about it. The championship game of the East Mudflap city softball league is of no interest to the citizens of West Mudflap. By contrast, blogging is—or can be—truly national and international.

Unfortunately, this gives bloggers the small and usually unrealistic hope of “making it”, becoming big time players, perhaps hearing their names on CNN or being mentioned in Newsweek. Unless you count American Idol, there are no big name karaoke artists. But there are a few bloggers who have leaped into the public consciousness, at least to the same degree as those insufferable cable TV legal analysts who engage in tedious “tastes great-less filling” debates while discussing the cases of people on trial for their lives. There are blogging celebrities.

To be sure, most of these celebrities gained a significant measure of their recognition simply by being first. Glenn Reynolds, aka “Instapundit”, provides particularly strong evidence in favor of Woody Allen’s well-known aphorism that “eighty percent of success is showing up”. Reynolds, whose day job as a law professor in Tennessee must not be terribly taxing, achieved his “fame” by being one of the earliest and most prolific right-wing political bloggers, locating and linking to various news stories and opinion pieces, while adding his own professorial insights, often consisting of “Indeed” and “Heh”. There are left-wing equivalents, of course, as well as latecomers who have achieved some notoriety by being as offensive as humanly possible. But for the most part, the days of blogging your way to stardom are over.

In short, blogging is—did I mention this before?—karaoke for writers. And if karaoke proves that the world is flooded with outstanding vocalists, blogging likewise demonstrates that fluid, articulate, graceful writing is not in short supply. Bad blogs, like tone-deaf singers, abound, but so do skillful wordsmiths who either didn’t quite measure up or never bothered to try.

When I first started writing this piece, I assumed that this comparison between karaoke and blogging was my original contribution to understanding a phenomenon that still perplexes the a good portion of the populace. But leave it to Google to prove once again that no thought is truly original. If you type “blogging is like karaoke” into their search engine, you get several dozen hits, including a short entry written some time ago ago for a blog called ButtUgly.

You can take my word for it, as well as Mr. Ugly’s. Blogging is karaoke for writers. So if you will, dim the lights, hand me the microphone, put down your scotch and rocks, and quit hitting on the girl on the next barstool. Pay close attention, because I’m gonna be a big star, baby!

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