Books & Reading · Commentary

Children’s Books – The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. But Mostly The Ugly.

A Homeschool Mom

My wife, thankfully, is a voracious reader. I say, “thankfully”, because someone has to vet all the literature our children read; and they read a lot. The thing is, there’s a lot of ugly stuff out there, and it’s produced by a secular entertainment industry which cares nothing for the well-being of children. All they care about is pushing the envelope in order to tantalize young minds. In the end, it’s all about appealing to the basest of human nature in order to sell a product whilst promoting a worldview untethered from moral restraints. What’s worse is that the entertainment industry is propped up by secular critics who, quite frankly, are shills for their material (whether for ideological or for pecuniary reasons).

Not all critics, however, are quick to embrace the trend toward dark children’s literature. Meghan Cox Gurdon has made the case more than once for “good…

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Commentary · Misc. Reviews

Makeup Opinions Tag

I was inspired to do this post after seeing Makeup.Just.For.Fun. and Mel Thompson tackle an unpopular opinions makeup tag:

I know this is different from my usual fare, but I decided to have some fun today – enjoy! 🙂


1. What is a popular makeup product that you don’t like
?
I dislike liquid lipsticks in general. Granted, I have tried a few brands, particularly Anastasia Beverly Hills, and I really liked some of their shades. However, my major complaint with all liquid lipsticks is that they are a pain to apply and remove. I don’t have the steadiest of hands, so when it came to darker or brighter colors, I kept having to remove and reapply. Plus, I have 30+ year old lips, so anything dry in texture accentuates my lip lines and isn’t very flattering. So I prefer regular lipsticks and lip glosses which are easier and faster to apply, remove, and touch up. Though I have tried one Kylie Cosmetic velvet liquid lipstick (as well as my first ever product from her uber-popular line) and was really impressed by the application, staying power, and easy removal. So I supposed I haven’t given up all hope on liquid lip products – just probably 98%. 😀


2. What is a makeup brand everyone seems to hate but you love
?
CoverGirl tends to get a little more dislike than what I feel it deserves. I love many of their products, all of which are makeup drawer staples for me, especially my foundation and pressed powder. I like their Colorlicious lip glosses and I absolutely love their old Colorlicious lipsticks as it’s one of the best lipstick formulas to me (though, sadly, I can’t stand the recent reformulation). Lastly, their (retired) Outlast nail polishes are some of the longest-lasting polishes I’ve ever used, even toppling $20 polishes. While I don’t love everything CoverGirl comes out with, and some products have been duds, they’re still my to-go brand and I think in general they produce good, quality affordable beauty products.


3. What is a makeup collaboration that you didn’t like or were disinterested in
?
I’m not really up on most makeup artist/celebrity collabs in general. But if I had to choose one I’m at least familiar with, it would be MAC’s Viva Glam line, which partners with different celebrities for each launch. To be honest, this line never held much appeal to me. None of the colors are exciting or unique and most seem easy to duplicate from among MAC’s other lipsticks and even other brands. To be fair, I did purchase the first Viva Glam Ariana Grande lipstick simply because I liked the color. Otherwise, Viva Glam is one launch that rarely grabs my attention or interest.


4. What is a popular makeup step that you don’t do?

There’s many steps I don’t do! 😀  I don’t contour or bake because I don’t feel skilled enough to do either and it looks time-consuming. I don’t bronze because most bronzers are either too brown or too orange on me. I don’t highlight because I have large pores and anything remotely shiny calls attention to them, not to mention I have oily skin. And I don’t use eye shadow or eye liner because, aside from having oily lids, I once battled eczema on my eyelids that lasted for months. I don’t care to go through that again, so the only eye products I use are mascara and shadow to fill in my brows. I’m not a natural-look kind of gal, but I feel I only need a few products to accentuate what I like about my face and cover problem areas.


5. Who is a beauty YouTuber you don’t watch
?
My beauty video searches on YouTube are chiefly limited to watching reviews of products I’m interested in so I can find out about their pros and cons (and my go-to sources for those is Temptalia as well as YouTubers Makeup.Just.For.Fun. and Mel Thompson). So I’m not into the “beauty guru” scene. But if I had to choose someone, it would probably be Nikkitutorials. I have nothing against her or her videos, and I do like her bubbly energy, but her overall delivery seems geared for someone much younger than me. (And, to be fair, she is probably the same age as her target audience, so that makes sense.) Nothing she covers is of interest to me in terms of content or topic as most of her videos seem to focus on creating over-the-top makeup “looks” and doing “challenges” rather than reviewing products. Again, I can see her appeal to a younger audience, but I’m just not in the same demographic.


6. What is a makeup brand you don’t support
?
I used to buy from Illamasqua until they came out against the results of the 2016 U.S. election. Frankly, I’m not sure what they stood to gain by that. For starters, they’re British so why vent about American politics? That’s akin to an American cosmetic company complaining about election results in Great Britain, Estonia, Iceland, or Slovakia. Yes, you have the universal freedom to complain about anything you want, but the company’s “logic” didn’t make sense to me. Likewise, their approach was hateful and intolerant, declaring that they would refuse to sell products to anyone who supported the winning candidate. I thought that was petty and in poor taste and it ironically went against their chief “values” of tolerance and diversity. Tolerance means you need to be open to opinions or beliefs that aren’t the same as your own. You don’t have to agree with or adopt said opinions or beliefs, but you should allow for variety. After all, isn’t that what “diversity” is all about? 🙂


7. What is a makeup trend/product you have no interest in trying
?
Highlighting to the extreme (a.k.a “glowing to the gods”). As stated, I don’t highlight because it accentuates my pores and makes my oily face that much greasier-looking. I’m okay with blushes sporting natural-looking illuminating qualities to them and I do own a few, one of which is one of my favorite blushes. But I have no desire to turn my face into a disco ball that would be visible from space. I’m sure this is one of these trends that looks great from an editorial perspective or in Instagram pics, but going overboard with highlighter – or any product for that matter – usually doesn’t translate into a flattering look in real life.


8. What is a makeup product that was better in theory than practice?

I have two picks for this one, rainbow highlighter and Storybook Cosmetics’ What’s in a Name Rose Brushes. Rainbow highlighter sounds fun in theory, but I can’t see how anyone would look good with a prism streaked across her face. I suppose it might have some uses, such as for costumes/cosplay, festivals, concerts, the stage, or for editorial purposes; otherwise, it doesn’t seem to serve any practical, day-to-day purpose. Concerning Storybook Cosmetics’ What’s in a Name Rose Brushes, aesthetically they’re creative and cute, but I ultimately had no use for them as they didn’t apply my products as smoothly and evenly as I like. Even more disappointing was when I washed them, the red bristles bled profusely, which tells me the company uses a cheap dye. Naturally, I wasn’t happy about paying nearly $50 for these as I have $2 drugstore brushes that perform far better and have never bled their color.

 

 

Commentary · Story & Characters

“And Be a Villain” – What it Takes to Be Bad

One may smile, and smile, and be a villain – Shakespeare’s Hamlet

When it comes to characters, one particular figure who can either make or break a story for me is the villain. As stated in my Top Five Favorite Villains post, I would go so far as to say that a story is only as good as its villain, who serves as the chief threat for the hero. If the villain is weak, then the story suffers. But if the villain is strong and a nearly equal match for the hero, then the story should be rife with necessary drama and tension.

In terms of the type of villain I enjoy, love a good, compelling villain who is on equal footing with and makes for a suitable challenge to the hero. A stupid or lazy villain provides little to no challenge, and a villain who is too smart or too powerful ensures no victory for the hero. So a happy medium is best. However, as much as I love rotten to the core villains (like Harry Potter‘s Lord Voldemort), nothing beats a baddie who isn’t all bad and who might even redeem himself in some fashion in the end.


What Makes a Villain?

Not just any villain will do. Some bad guys/gals are as flat as a cardboard cutouts while others are vibrantly three-dimensional. Granted, there is a time and place for one-dimensional villains, particularly in children’s literature. Because young children do not yet fully understand the concept of moral right and wrong, it makes sense to not over-develop a villain for them as, in their minds, heroes are 100% good and villains are 100% evil. Thus, it’s best if stories for children stick to that equation. However, that formula doesn’t work in stories for adults who are better able to understand moral conundrums. Thus, older readers need and deserve complex villains.

So what are some traits that such villains should possess?

Compelling Backstory. A villain’s backstory can be tragic, ordinary, or fantastic, but there has to be something that makes the character feel like a real person. It’s fine if not everything from the character’s background is spelled out in the story itself because sometimes it’s fun to muse over who this person was before he/she turned bad. But if a villain is inserted just to fulfill the role of being the story’s antagonist with no glimpse into who they were before the story’s timeline, then the character runs the risk of becoming a stock figure. A complex villain requires a workable history, even if not all of it gets revealed in the story, as the background is there for the writer to steep his/her character in. A good, solid backstory really shows through fully fleshed out characters.

Logical Motivations. Villains need to be motivated but their motivations need to make sense within the story’s world and in relation to the villain as a person. For instance, Queen Levana, the principle villain in the Lunar Chronicles series, wants to have absolute power by holding onto the Lunar throne and gaining control of Earth. This desire for control and worship from her subjects makes sense in light of the overall story and makes sense in light of who she is as a personal, especially her desire to be in control and be deemed as beautiful as, in her backstory, she was deprived of both things during her youth. Hence, villains can be motivated to do bad deeds for any number of reasons provided those reasons make sense with who they are, what they ultimately want, and the story’s world.

Moral Codes and Quirks. By giving a villain moral grey areas, personal quirks, and/or distinguishing characteristics, you can take a standard baddie and turn him/her into a multi-faceted person. Along these lines, villains also need to possess some sort of moral code. This can be (and probably will be) the complete opposite of the code the heroes adhere to or it can allow for the villain to waiver between doing what’s right and doing what’s wrong. This, too, makes characters seem more realistic as moral choices sometimes aren’t so clear cut, not even in real life.

Power and Intimidation. Power comes in a variety of ways, from military might, to physical prowess, to  magical or supernatural abilities. Regardless of the villain’s power source, he/she needs to have some degree of control or authority in order to pose as a credible threat to the story’s heroes, which also ties into how intimidating they are. A villain’s intimidation factor makes that character seem like someone the story’s heroes – and the readers – need to take seriously. Intimidation, like power, comes in different forms but usually ties in to the villain’s power as the more powerful they are, the higher the intimidation factor, and the more intimidating they are, the more power they wield.

Sympathy Factor. One thing that can turn a mediocre villain into a great villain is something in their background or personality that elicits sympathy. I don’t mean they should become pathetic or dopey; instead, a sympathetic attribute humanizes them as they possess something that causes readers to feel sorry for them, even if just for a spell. This could be anything from a rough childhood, to a personal tragedy, to even a physical weakness. Not only does this ground the villain, making them realistic, but it also might provide a chink in their armor that the heroes can use to defeat them later on or that the villain comes to grips with and eventually turns from his/her wicked ways.

Tailor-made. Villains should be tailored for their audience. As stated earlier, one-note villains work best in stories for children but not so much for adults. In a child’s eyes, a bad character is only capable of doing bad deeds rather than being capable of doing good deeds he or she doesn’t intend to do or having complicated motives. For adults, a complex or conflicted villain captures realistic moral dilemmas. Keep in mind that all villains had to make a choice – either on-page or off – to get where they ultimately end up, reflecting the law of cause and effect. Sometimes its this series of choices that elicits sympathy as readers understand what it’s like to be caught in a bad situation or make tough choices, only the unspoken message is that we should strive to take the moral high ground, something the villain at some point obviously failed to do.

Classes of Baddies
Not all antagonists or villains are created equal. There are some classes that villains and other neer-do-wells can be sorted into:


Antagonizers
– These are characters who aren’t necessarily evil or even bad but who serve the role of the proverbial thorn in the hero’s side. Two characters who fit this mold would be Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter series and Eddie Haskell from the TV sitcom, Leave it to Beaver. Draco is never the primary villain and I’d make the case that he’s not an evil person. However, he does bully Harry during his time at Hogwarts. The same applies to Eddie Haskell, who, while not a villain or even a bad person, still functioned as an antagonizer to his friend, Wally Cleaver, and Wally’s younger brother, Beaver. Eddie would typically either talk Wally or Beaver into doing the wrong thing or would resort to teasing Beaver. However, while Eddie liked to antagonize, he wasn’t a bad kid as, at times, even he was capable of doing the right thing.


Henchmen and Minions
– These are villain figures who assist a primary villain but who aren’t a primary villain in and of themselves. Some of my favorite henchmen/minions would be the Ten Men in Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society trilogy. Seeing as they don’t function as the primary villain as they assist the main villain, Ledropatha Curtain, with his nefarious schemes, the Ten Men operate as henchmen. But rather than serve as trope goofball, goof up bad guys, the Ten Men are clever, ruthless, and cunning, which gives them a sinister quality that, in some respects, is more frightening than Mr. Curtain since they pose more of an overt, physical danger to the lead characters.


Career Criminals
– These villains make badness their business, whether it’s a hitman who makes a living taking lives or crime bosses overseeing vice operations. What makes these villains different is that there is some form of a code or business ethos dictating their decisions. Perhaps it’s a hitman like Suicide Squad‘s Deadshot who won’t kill women or children or mob bosses who think certain actions are bad for business (and there is a whole slew of gangster films that portray this). Whatever this code happens to be, it dictates the character’s decisions albeit not all of them. One such villain in this class is the Batman villain Penguin (aka Oswald Cobblepot). What sets him apart from the likes of other Batman baddies such as the Joker or the Riddler is that he approaches his line of villainy as a form of business. There are certain lines he won’t cross, such as senseless bloodshed for bloodshed’s sake, and others he will, such as thievery. Not to mention Penguin sometimes has done good that he didn’t intend, such as ratting out a rival to Batman and/or the police. Granted, it’s to protect his own interests but, by proxy, it keeps innocent people safe. Therefore, some of his actions and aspects of his personal business ethos do serve a good purpose.


Ultimate Evils
– These are villains who have no ultimate redemption. They are pure evil and even their positive attributes and talents are used for nefarious means. These are the type of baddies you love to hate and hope they get their just desserts. However, it takes a fine hand on the author’s part to insure that such villains don’t become cliches. My favorite ultimate evil villain is Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. Voldemort is just bad. Granted, Rowling keeps him out of trope territory by giving him a sympathetic, tragic backstory that lets you feel sorry for him for just a bit. However, he made wrong choices as a youth to do evil and abuse others, which carried over into his adult life. Voldemort is the type of villain you want to see defeated because there is no good left in him: he is so consumed with evil and there is nothing left to redeem because he doesn’t want to change.


Morally Grey – Such villains waiver between doing right and doing wrong; however, they steer clear of being antiheroes because they veer a little too far to the wrong. A variation of this would be a villain who waivers between good and bad yet tries to justify to himself that the “bad” they do is somehow good. C.S. Lewis once observed: “When a man is getting better, he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right.” Thus, morally grey villains know they’re not good people yet are still capable of doing the right thing or semi-right thing at times. For these characters, redemption is possible thanks to the fact that their sense of right and wrong might be in tatters but is still intact. Negan from The Walking Dead certainly belongs in this category. He ultimately acts out of his own self-interests, feels little remorse or guilt, displays violent behavior, and often plays mind games and manipulates others. However, Negan doesn’t always do the wrong thing: he believes that “rules keep [people] safe,” he might give someone a stay of execution, apologize for his crass behavior, feel a degree of responsibility towards people under his leadership, or agree to fight common enemies in the effort to keep other people safe. Thus, there is a strand of good inside of Negan as he exists in a grey area where sometimes his actions and reasoning are morally muddled but not morally incapacitated.


Conflict of Interest These villains, under different circumstances, might not have been villains at all and are only deemed as such due to their alignment against the story’s heroes, thus creating a moral conflict of interest. Star Wars‘ Grand Admiral Thrawn fits perfectly inside this category. Thrawn possesses many positive traits such as a high level of intelligence, incredible foresight, astute military tactics and strategies, a distaste of brutality for brutality’s sake, an ability to command respect, and a curious mind that appreciates and analyzes art. Thus, what makes him a villain at all is that he serves the Empire rather than the Rebels’ cause. Despite this, Thrawn harbors personal reasons for joining the Empire’s service, namely the ability to gather intelligence on potential threats and an opportunity to combat said threats should they pose as dangers to his own people, the Chiss. While this isn’t a motivation Thrawn lets known to too many people, it’s an inherent drive that urges him to do what he does in terms of big picture decisions. He isn’t an evil or even a bad person: he’s simply chosen the wrong side in a conflict but has made this choice for, what he believes, is the good of his fellow Chiss.

The Rogues’ Gallery
Part of what makes villains appealing is that they reflect some of the worst parts or tendencies of ourselves. Naturally, it’s a gross exaggeration, but I believe that even in a bad guy/gal’s worst traits, we can see tiny aspect of our less-than-admirable sides or our own personal struggles over making good, moral choices. Through this cathartic experience, we can realize what these less desirable attributes are and strive for a change of heart and moral direction. Just as sometimes even a villain can turn good, that gives us hope that we, too can change.

Commentary · Publications

“Escaping the Grip of Grooming” – New Two-Part Article on Rivulet Collective

I recently penned an article for Rivulet Collective, an online Christian “magazine.” Below is a brief excerpt from each part (as this is a two-part article) followed by a link to each full article:

Part One:

George* was an unassuming, 40-something divorcé who worked from home and had a teenage daughter. He enjoyed reading and writing, he seemed friendly and polite, and he claimed to be a Christian. I was nearing 30 at the time and I too loved to read and write. So when George and I met in a creative writing class I led, I was enamored, despite the age gap.

Ours remained a casual friendship for nearly two years. We met nearly every Saturday for lunch at a restaurant to talk and share our writings and were also involved in a book club and writers’ group. Red flags slowly emerged, but initially I chose to ignore or make excuses for them.

Then one day during lunch, George started quizzing me about sex. That’s when I knew.

I was being groomed….

To read the rest of part one, go to: https://www.rivuletcollective.com/rivulet/escaping-the-grip-of-grooming-part-1

Part Two:

[T]he abuser’s goal is to take advantage of you and have you become desensitized to sexual conversation and normalize bad behavior. This starts in small ways, such as jokes or passing remarks. It may move on to getting you interested in pornography or initiating physical advances. Desensitization is a diminished emotional response to negative stimuli – the more an abuser exposes you to sexual content, the more you become numb to it. This may lead to normalization, which is when you begin to see things originally believed to be disagreeable, even morally wrong, as now acceptable….

To read the rest of part one, go to: https://www.rivuletcollective.com/rivulet/escaping-the-grip-of-grooming-part-2

Books & Reading · Commentary

Oh My Stars! – Rating Books on GoodReads


If you’re on GoodReads, you’ve probably used their star system to rate books. For some users, stars are a precursor to a review while others only give star ratings. I do both though I’m more apt to just grant a star rating unless I have strong opinions or praise I want to share about a particular book.

Currently, GoodReads lets users allot up to five whole stars (not half stars), which correspond to one of five descriptions:
Five stars = “It was amazing.”
Four stars = “Really liked it.”
Three stars = “Liked it.”
Two stars = “It was okay.”
One star = “Did not like it.”

Users also have the option of awarding no stars though there is no given description (e.g. zero stars = “really hated it”).

Granted, star ratings are just as subjective as readers’ thoughts on a book, and some readers’ thoughts don’t necessarily correspond with the generic descriptions GoodReads attaches to its stars. For some folks, three stars might be an honestly good read while others would consider a three-star read merely average.

Naturally, there are no “rules” for rating books, but it can be tempting to award a rating based on what other GoodReads users give. But always rate a book based on your feelings, regardless whether others agree. If you feel a low-rated book was actually good, then rate it high. If you disliked a book that is garnering high ratings, then share why you didn’t care for it. Some people don’t want to rock the proverbial boat by presenting unpopular opinions, but potential readers may want to know about an alternative view.

I read four and five star reviews, but I’ll also look for reviews accompanying low ratings because I’m curious to see if (a). anyone didn’t care for the book or harbored ambivalent feelings towards it or (b). there were issues that caused some readers to rate the book low. I might have some of the same issues, so seeing a low rating accompanied by a review explaining why might cause me to not bother checking out the book, thus saving me time and money.

So how do I award stars? Below are how I define the stars I give on GoodReads along with examples of books I’ve rated:


Five Stars = Loved it!
If I award a book five stars, that means I thoroughly enjoyed it and it rightfully belongs on my favorite reads shelf. I found no flaws in the story, its characters, tone, delivery, and themes. In short, this is a book I would highly recommend without thinking twice.

Examples of Five Star Reads: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Mysterious Benedict Society trilogy by Trenton Lee Stewart, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling, and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.


Four Stars = Very good – but not quite five stars
I’m admittedly very stingy with my stars, so a four-star read for me can still be great – and usually is – but there was just that little something extra it was missing that kept it from being five stars. So in the words of Get Smart‘s Maxwell Smart, it’s a book that…

Examples of Four Star Reads: Scarlet by Marissa Meyer, Fish in a Tree by Linda Mullaly Hunt, Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, and The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd


Three Stars = Solidly good, neither great nor terrible.
For me, three stars means solidly average. I reserve this rating for books that are genuinely good but more middle of the road than four-star reads. Hence, three star books are like a bowl of Corn Flakes – nothing dreadful but definitely not a favorite.

Examples of Three Star Reads: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman, and A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth


Two Stars = So-so/just okay.
Two star reads can go one of two ways with me – they can either be a fairly average read that just didn’t capture my attention or they were all-around so-so and borderline meh. Regarding the first category, there was probably nothing wrong with the story itself, but I either wasn’t investing interest or was not the intended audience. In the other category, there might be issues I had with the book and, as such, didn’t enjoy it but not enough to say I disliked it.

Examples of Two Star Reads: Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult, New Moon by Stephenie Meyer, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and Emma by Jane Austen.


One Star = Not a book I would read again (provided I finished it)
If I rate a book one star, then it was something I didn’t enjoy at all, might not have finished, became bored by, or took too many issues with it. Maybe there was some slight or random redeeming factor, hence the single star, but everything else – plot, themes, characters, and/or content – were not my cup of tea and not anything I care to remember or revisit.

Examples of One Star Reads: Spindle Fire by Lexa Hillyer, A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin, Gunslinger Girl by Lyndsay Ely, and The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck


Zero stars = Not only would I never read this again, I can’t recommend it.
I don’t have too many books on my GoodReads shelf that were awarded no stars but there are a few. In these cases, I had so many issues with the book that I didn’t feel it deserved any stars. These are books I can honestly say I hated, whatever the reason, which can range from a dark, dreadful story; to explicit content; to complete disagreement with the author’s views.

Examples of Zero Star Reads: Hunted by Meagan Spooner (for feminist themes), Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (for a dark story with no redeeming value), I am Her Revenge by Meredith Moore (for violence against animals), and Get Married: What Women Can Do to Help it Happen by Candice Watters (for promoting legalism and age-shaming)

Commentary · Media

Musical Musings – Gorillaz


Aside from being a writer, I’m also an avid music listener. However, I’m just as picky about my music as I am with my books! I still buy CDs but only if they’re from a favorite artist, and my list of favorites is small (for now, it consists of only five: Blur, Paramore, Coldplay, Florence + the Machine, and the band I’m going to discuss at length below) though I download quite a bit of music from iTunes.

However, it seems to me like the quality of popular music is declining as it’s less concerned about creativity and more focused on cookie cutter arrangements and vocals. I’m not here to hate on pop music nor am I a crusty old soul who can’t stand what “the kids these days” are listening to. However, I will always gravitate towards musicians and bands who take the time to create art instead of just generating the next big thing.

Gorillaz is one such band.

Despite being entirely fictional. But I’ll get to that in a moment. 😉

Seeing as Gorillaz recently released their latest full-length project, The Now Now, the time is right to dish on my favorite band.

I was first introduced to Gorillaz unawares back in 2000. I was watching “BattleBots” on Comedy Central and saw an ad for what was their debut, self-titled album. The ad featured snippets from the music video for “Clint Eastwood,” but at the time, I had no idea what I was watching. I just thought it was a commercial for a new mature cartoon show until I realized it was for a CD. It was weird. It was dark. And I all but completely forgot about it.

Until 2005.

I was in college, listening to my car radio on the way home from classes, when I heard the most intriguing song I had heard in the longest time. In terms of my musical tastes up to that point, I mainly listened to music from the 60s, 70s, and 80s and contemporary Christian music. Throughout the 90s, I listened to Christian music almost exclusively because there was a lot to choose from genre-wise. Some of my favorite artists were dc Talk, Jars of Clay, Plumb, and the Newsboys. However, over the years, a lot of the artists I listened to either went on hiatus or ceased to do music altogether, so I felt like I was running out of new music to explore. As the 2000s approached, the wide range of Christian rock, alternative, pop, and rap that I enjoyed was slowly replaced by generic praise and worship songs that, while usually lyrically passable, lacked the sense of creativity and lyrical depth I was craving.

(I want to add that I don’t hate Christian music. I am a Christian myself and I still listen to artists I enjoyed back when I was a teen. Those songs spoke to me then and still speak to me today. So this isn’t a story about how I “graduated” from Christian music to “secular” music. I listen to and love music across a spectrum of musicians, genres, and time periods. I also believe that all truth is ultimately God’s truth, whether it’s sung by an openly Christian artist, an artist with no religious affiliation, or even a virtual band!)

Seeking more variety in my music, I turned to the radio. For years, I mainly listened to a local oldies station and a Christian station that eventually became just a talk show line up. But when I went to college and commuted, I decided to explore other stations. I first tried another local Christian station, but it was dominated by worship music that all sounded alike to me after a while. So I switched to a local pop station and discovered the likes of Michelle Branch, Vanessa Carlton, Pink, Linkin Park, Lenny Kravitz, Evanescence, and Avril Lavigne. While I won’t say everything they put out was/is good, some of their songs were interesting and, at the very least, catchy. I also discovered Coldplay and instantly fell in love their sound and lyrics, and I’m a big fan to this day.

But there was one band that stood head and shoulders above the rest.

So in the fall of 2005, I heard a song that was unlike anything else on the radio. My local pop station played a wide variety of genres at the time (as opposed to the pre-fab pop and rap they spin now), but even then this track stood out. The music was truly undefined as it bore hallmarks of pop, alternative, hip-hop/rap, and electronic. It was a cool fusion of styles that blended harmoniously and made it distinctive. Similarly, the song had interesting lyrics that allowed the listener to derive their own meaning from the curious word play and pictures:


Windmill, windmill for the land.

Turn forever hand in hand
Take it all in on your stride
It is sinking, falling down
Love forever, love is free
Let’s turn forever, you and me
Windmill, windmill for the land
Is everybody in?

I kept listening, hoping to find out who the artist was. Finally, at the end of the song, the DJ announced, “That was ‘Feel Good Inc.’ by Gorillaz.”

Gorillaz. The name sounded familiar but at the time I couldn’t place it. All I knew was I had to look this group up and check out more of their music.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that this was the same band I had seen the commercial for years ago. But now I was intrigued. I snatched up their newest album at the time, Demon Days, and listened to it from beginning to end without stopping. I felt like I was immersed in a musical experience as opposed to just listening to a batch of songs. The album was like a novel put to music where each song was a chapter and told a story. It quickly became a favorite and much-played album of mine and still is to this day.

Naturally, I went on the hunt to obtain the rest of the Gorillaz discography as well as learn more about this strange little band, which technically is a virtual band (read: animated) consisting of vocalist 2D, lead guitarist Noodle, drummer Russel Hobbs, and bass guitarist Murdoc Niccals. But while these characters don’t exist in real life, the musicians and collaborators behind them are real.


Gorillaz is the brainchild of Blur front man Damon Albarn and “Tank Girl” comic creator Jamie Hewlett. These two masterminds started work on their virtual creation back in 1998 and did so partly to poke fun at the state of pop music. It’s no surprise that I’m also a huge Blur fan and I own all of their major albums and then some. I don’t agree with Albarn on his political views, but I admire him as a consummate performer, musician, and songwriter. Just as Blur doesn’t offer mindless fluffy pop songs but presents meat on their musical bones, so Gorillaz delivers the same through a myriad of genres. Gorillaz maintains a mixture of dark humor and dingy tones buried beneath a cheeky exterior, and this style can be evidenced not only in their music and lyrics but also in their videos.

I delved into the band’s history, both the real-life background of their creation and the biographies of the various members (and I’m a proud owner of their fictional autobiography, Rise of the Ogre). I found it all to be a fascinating musical and cultural experiment that has obviously proven successful. The basic premise of Gorillaz is that it ridicules how music is fabricated while, in turn, serving as the ultimate fabrication. Many musical acts seem pre-packaged, ready to consume without much thought. Gorillaz takes this one step further by being entirely concocted yet offering thought-provoking lyrics that encourage analysis.

It’s not too hard to determine that the Gorillaz themselves (the virtual band members, that is) are intended to be caricatures. Murdoc is the egotistical, narcissistic, womanizing rock god; Noodle is the child prodigy; Russel is the low-key, tormented old soul; and 2D is the pretty boy talented singer with a tragic past. I imagine it would have been tempting to make these characters cartoony and kid-friendly. Instead, each one has an elaborately bizarre backstory, making them unique and decidedly mature.


Out of the line up, I like Murdoc the best because he’s the epitome of the ultimate rock star/god in caricature form. He’s christened himself the leader of Gorillaz (as he, technically, is the founder). He believes he’s the most talented musician of the lot despite only playing the bass. He’s touted that he’s a better singer than 2D (Murdoc is tone deaf at least when it comes to singing). He’s a megalomaniac Svengali (so it makes sense that he’s a Satanist) with a razor sharp wit. And he firmly believes he’s desirable to all women despite being less than handsome. Thus, Murdoc represents everything the general public believes about alpha male rock musicians though he is grossly exaggerated for comedic effect, the humor being that despite his grand claims, it’s obvious that Murdoc is no where near being as marvelous as he makes himself sound.

For the record, while Gorillaz doesn’t create offensive music, their image is steeped in dark humor and some of their songs tout a profanity here and there and can touch on saturnine themes, from drug abuse (“Sleeping Powder”), to violence in popular media (“Kids with Guns”), to loneliness (“El Manana” and “On Melancholy Hill”), to even imperialism as a metaphor (“Fire Coming Out of a Monkey’s Head”). Hence, there is more to their songs than meets the ear, which is something I deeply appreciate. Gorillaz’s music is adult but not dirty, poetic but not pretentious, introspective but not mopey or depressing. Nearly every song gives the listener something to consider or imagine, and I love music you have to think about as opposed to earworm-inducing tunes. It’s obvious Albarn and the other Gorillaz song writers take time to make musical art when it comes to Gorillaz.

Jamie Hewlett, too, obviously cares enough about these characters to not present boiler plate animated figures. Much like their sound, Gorillaz retains a mature, darkly comical look rather than be a cast of bright, shiny, colorful cartoons. Hewlett doesn’t try to realistically capture his characters or their surroundings but that’s okay. His renderings mirror the underlying irony of Gorillaz – these characters live in a world that’s not as pretty as it seems despite the seemingly colorful, superficial charm.

Another facet that makes Gorillaz unique is the level of interactivity fans have with the band through various media platforms. Their website (when it showcased the now defunct Kong Studios) was fully interactive, allowing fans to navigate the studio level by level, room by room, complete with videos to watch, tracks to listen to, games to play, and a plethora of strange sights to explore, from the murky kitchen to Murdoc’s crusty Winnebago. The website even earned a Webby Award for its design and interactive content that perfectly represented and encapsulated the Gorillaz brand. Likewise, the band members all have social media accounts (the most “vocal” of whom is – no surprise – Murdoc, who has an active Twitter account). All of this adds to the sense of realism the band’s creators strive to generate around their characters.

Likewise, each major album marks a new “phase” for the band, and, as such, the band’s members change just like real people. Each of the Gorillaz’s members has a birthday and are allowed to age accordingly. At the time of the debut album’s release, 2D was 23 years old, Murdoc was 35, Noodle was 11, and Russel was 26. While their principal designs don’t change much, they’re drawn to reflect their chronological age as time goes on as you can see below through the different phases’ artwork:

Phrase One: Gorillaz (2001)

Phase Two: Demon Days (2005)

Phase Three: Plastic Beach (2010)

Phase Four: Humanz (2017)

Phase Five: The Now Now (2018)

(*Note: Murdoc is noticeably absent from the band’s line up here as, according to the character’s current backstory, he’s serving time in prison. In his place as bassist is Ace, a character borrowed from The Powerpuff Girls.)

Therefore, if you do the math, the band members have aged about 17 years: 2D is now 40 years old, Murdoc is 52, Noodle is 28, and Russel is 43. This adds a layer of attention and creativity that shows that Albarn, Hewlett, and Co. care about making not only good music and visuals but also compelling characters and stories. It would have been easy to create stock characters and give them unchanging designs and a simple backstory. But rather than keep the members of Gorillaz static or condensed, the band’s creators let them age, evolve, adopt their own senses of style, and make their own choices so they seem like real people.

My musical musings wouldn’t be complete without ranking Gorillaz’s major albums and compilations. So here they are below:


8. Laika Comes Home (2002) – This is a rare album and I was shocked I found it at my small local music store. While not my favorite (I’ve only ever listened to this once), it is an interesting musical experiment where the entire Gorillaz debut album is remixed and re-imagined as reggae tracks.


7. The Fall
(2010) – Again, this one isn’t a favorite, but I respect its composition process as it was recorded entirely on an iPad app. There are no vocal tracks (otherwise it would have ranked higher), but it’s still a fun listening experience.


6. G Sides (2002) and D-Sides (2007)
– I decided to combine these two compilation albums. Noteworthy tracks and remixes include “19-2000 (Soulchild Remix)” and “Faust” (from G-Sides) and “Dirty Harry (Schtung Chinese New Year Remix)” (“Dirty Harry” sung entirely in Chinese!), “People” (which eventually became “Dare”), and “68 State” (from D-Sides).


5. Gorillaz (2001)
– Their debut album is chocked full of memorable tracks that present a good range of the styles the band has tackled, from alternative, to pop, to hip hop, to electronic. Standout tracks include “Clint Eastwood,” “19-2000,” and “Tomorrow Comes Today.”


4. Humanz (2017)
– This album is a bit darker in tone (redolent of the Demon Days era only with less cheekiness at times) when compared to its predecessor, Plastic Beach, as well as its bubbly follow up, The Now Now. Not to mention it’s filled to the brim with collaborators, which exemplifies Gorillaz’s noteworthy genre fluidity. Standout tracks include the eerie lead single “Saturn Barz,” the infectiously catchy “Strobelight,” and the somber “Busted and Blue.”


3. The Now Now (2018) – Gorillaz’s latest full-length album is a brighter, more upbeat and scaled back (in terms of collaborations) offering than Humanz. Similarly, this album serves as more of a collection of songs rather than possessing an overall concept, thus serving as a fun call-back to their debut album in this regard. Standout tracks would be “Humility,” “Tranz,” “Sorcererz,” and “Idaho.”


2. Plastic Beach (2010)
– This album retained the album-as-story vibe akin to Demon Days as it’s more of a concept album than a collection of songs. Its prevailing themes are isolation and conservation of one’s external and internal environment, and most of the songs approach these topics in a variety of ways, from somber introspectivity (“On Melancholy Hill”) to cheeky sarcasm (“Superfast Jellyfish”). Standout tracks include “Rhinestone Eyes,” “Stylo,” “Empire Ants,” “On Melancholy Hill,” and “Broken.”


1. Demon Days (2005) – This remains my all-time favorite album and has yet to be unseated. This album, much like Plastic Beach, is a concept album rather than a random mix of songs. Here, the overall themes are change, loneliness, and isolation that ultimately end on a positive note. Much like trying to navigate through a dense fog, the final track, “Demon Days,” brings you into the light of day as it encourages listeners to Pick yourself up/it’s a brand new day/so turn yourself ’round…into the sun. Hence, the album comes full circle, opening with the morose “Last Living Souls” that wonders if there’s any hope left for mankind and ends on an uplifting note. It’s a musical masterpiece and I love it! Standout tracks certainly include “Feel Good Inc.,” “Dare,” “El Manana,” “Every Planet We Reach is Dead,” “Demon Days,” “November Has Come,” and “Dirty Harry.”

In closing, it’s rare for me to become a fan of really anything, from movies to television and books to music. But when it comes to Gorillaz, I make it a point to buy every album, download every remix and single, watch every video, and check out any related media. So, yes, it’s safe to call me a die-hard fan and I won’t mind a bit! 😀 But their music and level of artistry – even if it is all done behind the scenes by real-life artists and musicians – certainly deserves the attention

So if you’re starving for some music that’s more than just catchy hooks and mindless lyrics, then give Gorillaz a try. There’s something for everyone and you just might find yourself a new favorite band, too.

It’s just a shame Gorillaz don’t exist as real people.

Though if they actually did exist, they’d be some very strange folks indeed!

 

Book Memes · Commentary · Writing Insight

Dealing with Writer’s Block

This week, let’s discuss the dreaded WB – writer’s block!

Most writers are often posed the question of what do they do to manage or defeat writer’s block. It’s a fair question because all writers, from professionally published to persons who pen works just for themselves, have faced writer’s block in some form or another and for various stretches of time. Some bouts of writer’s block are mercifully brief while others seem to persist for a while. To be fair, there is no one right method of overcoming writer’s block nor do I believe it’s entirely unavoidable. (Thus, if anyone ever tells me, “I never get writer’s block,” I tend to disbelieve them.)

For myself, here is what I do to help keep myself afloat when I feel my writing gears winding down.

Primarily, I try to have multiple projects going simultaneously, usually one editing project and one drafting project if possible. At other times, I may be revising a draft manuscript’s skeleton by crafting a new outline or character bios or backstories before diving back in and making edits to the story itself. And I might be doing this while writing new material or perusing an old draft and making revision comments/notes. Occasionally, I will switch and work on older things that I want to do something with while letting newer manuscripts sit a while to get my mind off of them. By changing what I work on, sometimes daily, it keeps me from getting too mentally drained. Granted, all writers have off days where it seems like nothing comes. But by having various projects to go between, I’ve found myself stuck in those creative dry spells for shorter periods of time.

To make a comparison, it’s a bit like working a crossword puzzle or a word find. Some clues come to you quickly while others stump you to no end. Some words you can locate in a matter of seconds while others remain seemingly hidden. However, many times if you sit the puzzle aside for a day and go back to it, those clues don’t stump you or you can find those previously elusive words. In either case, there’s something about sitting a project you’re working on aside for a spell and returning to it at a later time that seems to reboot your thought process. It’s as if you can view it again with fresh eyes.

The same holds true when writing. My typical process goes like this: I’ll get an idea; draft an outline, notes, character backgrounds, etc.; generate a rough draft; sit the draft aside for a little while; go back and read through and make comments on the rough draft; sit those comments and the draft aside for about a month; then go back and start making revisions or additions. Again, this is my process – it’s what works best for me and it’s what I’m comfortable with, so this isn’t meant to be a guide or standard to follow. For myself, it helps to sit a draft aside for a while (at least a month or so) before returning to it.

Doing so helps me spot troubles in the plot, continuity errors, sections that don’t belong or move the story along, weaknesses in character background that need fixing, and run-of-the-mill errors. Similarly, I feel like I can read a draft with fresh eyes, forgetting the details of the story after taking a short hiatus, and seeing what works and what doesn’t or what needs improvement and why. On the flip side, I believe if you constantly read and revise the same material over and over with no break from it, you start to belabor your own work and it can suffer from it. Your writing can benefit from stepping back and stepping away from it for a while, however long you need to take.

Again, this is my method, so while it works for me, it might not be a good fit for you. So this is one of many ways to help combat writer’s block, not only while writing but also while editing and revising. Remember, sometimes the best thing you can do for a story is to leave it alone, putting it on the proverbial shelf and returning to it at a later time. Doing so helps clean your mental slate until you feel ready to tackle the project with a renewed energy later on.

So that was today’s Tell Me Something Tuesday! Hopefully, you’ve found it helpful. Until next time, happy writing! 🙂