Tuesday, November 02, 2010

"Right Back Where We Started From" by Maxine Nightingale

Birthday wishes go out today to Maxine Nightingale, whose 1975 hit Right Back Where We Started From is oh-so emblematic of those heady times... Nightingale later had hits in 1977 with Love Hit Me and in 1979 with Lead Me On, while her success with this particular number continues unabated...

The song - written by written by Pierre Tubbs and J. Vincent Edwards - was featured prominently in Paul Newman's 1977 film Slap Shot, and has appeared in numerous other films over the years as well; it's also been covered by Sinitta, Marcia Hines, and Cleopatra.
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Pop History Moment: The Coronation of Haile Selassie

[This gorgeous gold medal was struck in 1955, to commemorate of the 25th anniversary of Haile Selassie's coronation.]

It's always been a matter of curiosity to me how exactly an Emperor of Ethiopia could become a potent religious symbol, first to the people of Jamaica, and thence to the Rastafari movement - which currently numbers some 600,000 people worldwide. Clearly there is much more than meets the eye in Haile Selassie I, for although he was an eminently civilized and cultured person there is nothing in him that would, outwardly at least, seem to inspire the fervent devotion to HIM*. Imagine: a cult of personality formed around a modest, devout figure!**

Selassie's reign actually began in the reign of his aunt, Empress Zewditu, when he was elevated to the rank of heir apparent and eventually came to serve as regent from 1916 onward. While serving as Crown Prince, Selassie (then known as Ras Tafari) continued the modernization begun under Menelik II, and certainly Selassie's rejection of colonial norms and support for pan-Africanism must have struck a chord with blacks everywhere, especially in the 1920s. Nevertheless, there were constant power struggles between aunt and nephew, culminating in a near-coup over Selassie's brokering of the Italo–Ethiopian Treaty of 1928.

Zewditu's death, in April 1930 - under mysterious and never satisfactorily explained circumstances - set the stage for Ethiopia's greatest moment of glory - the coronation of Haile Selassie and Empress Menen, on this day in 1930; held at the Cathedral of St. George in Addis Ababa, the splendid affair (with a rumoured price tag of $3 million) was attended by royalty and dignitaries from around the world.

The introduction of the country's first written constitution in July 1931, providing for a bicameral legislature, would give the Kingdom an all-too short-lived crack at modern democracy; the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and ensuing war of 1935-6 was a brief interruption (during which HIM lived in exile in the UK, at Bath's Fairfield House), but a brief coup in 1960 which installed his son Asfa Wossen as Emperor, the deposition of the Emperor in March 1974 following the Wollo Famine and the 1973 oil crisis, tenure of Communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, and a severe famine in the 1980s*** all served to undermine what Ethiopia could have become, as well as what it dreamt of becoming on that day.

*Rastafarians refer to Selassie by many names, including HIM, the acronym of His Imperial Majesty.
**Sarcasm! Selassie's Christ-like attributes are made abundantly clear on any number of Rastafarian websites.
***No doubt caused or at least exacerbated by central planning - which does. not. work.

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In Memoriam: Marie Antoinette

Born in Vienna on this day in 1755 and raised under the stern gaze of Empress Maria Theresa - one of the most formidable monarchs in European history - Marie Antoinette, as she came to be known, had a sheltered, regimented childhood; her only value, as must have been made clear to her again and again as a girl, was as a pawn in the royal marriage game.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketAnd so it was. In 1767 she was formally betrothed to the Dauphin of France (later the hapless Louis XVI), and finally married by proxy in 1770 following three years of negotiations over dowries and the other fine points of royal marriage. Then the shy yet regal girl began her journey from the heart of Europe to Versailles - out of the frying pan, into the fire.

Court life at Schönbrunn and Hofburg was downright private compared to the same at her new French home, where anyone from peasant to noble might just wander into the palace seeking an audience. It was a highly political place (in both senses - namely, concerned with the politics of the country and the world yet riven with its own factions and issues) and Marie Antoinette was no politician. Had she been, she might have survived what was to come.

Originally much beloved by the people, especially for her patronage of the fine arts (especially music) - her former teacher, Christoph Willibald Gluck, went on to much fame - as history was to show it didn't take long for that mob to turn ugly, blaming all the failings of its French politicians on its most high-profile Austrian possession. Outrageously slandered throughout her lifetime and for many years afterward, it's taken centuries for the light of truth to be shone on the life and character of Marie Antoinette.

The quintessential revisionist text (and I use the word here in its most positive sense) is Lady Antonia Fraser's Marie Antoinette, The Journey (2001) which, with solid research and sterling insight, offers a glimpse into the life of a woman tragically caught in the crossfire of history.
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Happy Birthday Your Majesty

Erudite and multi-lingual, Queen Sofia of Spain (born on this day in 1938) has been a constant, serene presence at the side of her husband King Juan Carlos during turbulent times...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketBorn in Athens the eldest child of King Paul I of the Hellenes and his wife Queen Fredericka, Sofia's childhood witnessed the many travails which have beset that royal house from its inception in 1863 (the main one being, of course, that they are Danish and therefore merely squatters). A great deal of uncertainty shaped Her Majesty's childhood, including two bouts of exile, the first one during World War II and finally, for good, in 1964 (which, naturally, didn't affect her, except as a family matter).

Yet with the fortitude (or sense of entitlement) which is a family trait of the House of Schleswig Holstein Sonderburg Glücksburg, she ended up not doing too badly for herself. In 1954 she met and enchanted then-Prince Juan Carlos on a Mediterranean cruise, she competed in the 1960 Olympics (representing Greece in sailing), and in 1962 she married her Prince, who assumed the throne in 1975 after the death of Francisco Franco.

Since then she has concerned herself with charity, the rightful occupation of royalty. Through her Foundation she carries out numerous engagements, and is in particular interested in refugee relief, the treatment of drug addiction, fine arts, and micro-finance (working closely with Muhammad Yunus the Nobel laureate in the process).
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In Memoriam: James K. Polk

I must confess that I didn't know anything about the 11th US President until I heard the song about him by They Might Be Giants, from their 1996 album Factory Showroom. The song itself is a triumph of pop - not just music but culture - presenting history as it does in such an interesting and memorable way; hear it once, I guarantee you'll be humming it forever. A real earworm, as Mr. Barr would say.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketConsidered the best solution to an impasse in the Democratic Party, the former Speaker of the House and governor of Tennessee James K. Polk (born this day in 1795) was one of the first so-called dark horse candidates when he was nominated. Once elected, rather than merely serving as a caretaker president, he became one of the young nation's solidest leaders, fulfilling the Manifest Destiny inherent in President James Monroe's famous doctrine by completing most of the contiguous 48 states during his single term in office, save for the tiny Gadsden Purchase, which was finally bought for $10 million in 1853.

Neither the first slave-holding President nor the last, his position on slavery (especially involving the prevention of its expansion into new territories north and west of Missouri) made him equally unpopular among slavers, abolitionists, and compromisers alike; Polk favoured the extension of the Missouri Compromise over implementation of the Wilmot Proviso.

From the start Polk was resolved to serve only one term, and he set four clearly defined goals for his administration: the re-establishment of the Independent Treasury System, the reduction of tariffs, acquisition of some or all the Oregon boundary dispute, and the purchase of California and the Southwest from Mexico. It was also during his term that the Republic of Texas was admitted to the Union.

He did all of that in the time he allotted himself, kept to his word by shirking his incumbency, and then to seal the deal, died in June 1849, just three months after leaving office; the Presidency has been shown time and again to take its toll on those who assume it, but it took even more from the once-handsome Polk, who worked tirelessly to implement his agenda, even while reportedly suffering from cholera. At the time of his death he was only 53.

His home is now a museum, in Nashville.
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"Constant Craving" by k. d. lang

It was 1992 when the pride of Consort, Alberta, revealed that she was a lesbian; soon enough the same town that had once praised her shamed itself with hateful graffiti... The place that had already defamed itself once before - when lang came out as a vegetarian - did it all over again, only this time with homophobia. Footage of a billboard featuring her picture scrawled with the words 'Eat Beef Dyke' was shown all over the world.

k. d. lang was one of the first big stars to come out mid-career, and to do so involved a terrible risk; career suicide is what people (usually 'straight' record executives - if they can be considered people) called it. Small town and corporate bigots alike be damned; Ingénue became her biggest selling album to date, and Constant Craving was the biggest single on it. Suddenly the shame of Consort, Alberta, was the pride of the world.

It was the end of May; I remember because the issue of The Advocate in which she came out - now one of the most sacred relics in the collection of the Pop Culture Institute - was (and still is) dated June 3rd. I was then co-hosting a show at Dalhousie University's CKDU-Radio called The Word Is Out, when the producer - the inimitable Brenda Barnes (which, with a Halifax accent, is one hell of a name) - called me half off her nut with excitement to break the news.

I suggested that we should host a coming out party for k. d., she loved the idea, and so that's what we did; I quickly came up with a playlist of songs both old and new, wrote some thoughtful but humourous commentary to intersperse between them, and together we produced a half hour of college radio gold. Unwittingly - and more than a dozen years before the Pop Culture Institute was born - its style emerged, fully-formed and rarin' to go.

Not unlike k. d. lang herself, I might add, who emerged not so fully formed but still rarin' to go on this day in 1961.
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Pop History Moment: The Murder of Theo Van Gogh

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On this day in 2004, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered on an Amsterdam street corner by a terrorist named Mohammed Bouyeri; the cause of Bouyeri's rage against Van Gogh was (at least in part) due to a film he made, in collaboration with Somali-born Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, entitled Submission, which was justifiably critical of the fundamentalist Islamic treatment of women...

Van Gogh was shot eight times with an HS 2000 handgun, and died on the spot; Bouyeri then cut his victim's throat, nearly decapitating him, and stabbed him in the chest. He was apprehended later the same day, after himself being shot and wounded by police. In the days to come many fellow members of the Hofstad Network, a Dutch Islamic terrorist organization he had co-founded, were also arrested. In July 2005 Bouyeri was sent to prison for life.

The violence of Van Gogh's death reverberated through Holland for weeks, resulting in many unfortunate counter-attacks against mosques and counter-counter-attacks against churches; for a country still reeling from the 2002 assassination of Pim Fortuyn, a Dutch politician who was a) openly-gay, and b) an outspoken critic of what he viewed as the intolerance imported into Dutch society by Muslims in particular, Van Gogh's martyrdom to the cause of free speech was a bitter blow.

That Van Gogh was intemperate - even bigoted - in his criticism of Islam is unfortunate, mainly because a well-spoken and thoughtful critic who is killed under such circumstances is a far more effective martyr than one who throws around words like geitenneuker (goat-fucker) as Van Gogh often did when describing Muslims. That his bigotry was born out of a perfectly understandable frustration with the hatred fostered by fundamentalist religion of all kinds did not give him permission to add to the problem with harsh words and hatred of his own; indeed, understanding, not to mention compassion, might have saved his life.

A memorial to Theo Van Gogh entitled De Schreeuw (The Scream) - unveiled in March 2007 - now stands in Amsterdam's Oosterpark, a short distance from the corner of the Linnaeusstraat and Tweede Oosterparkstraat where he was murdered. It stands as a reminder that the current Islamic crusade against Western Civilization isn't merely aimed at our Western-ness - our politicians, laws, and institutions - but also at our civilization - our artists, philosophers, and dreamers - as well.
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POPnews - November 2nd

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[The Chicago Tribune's premature headline on the morning of November 3rd, heading a story by Arthur Sears Henning, gave the world this iconic image; only a few hundred copies of the paper were printed before it was changed, but it was enough to give the President the photo-op to end all photo-ops.]

1852 - Franklin Pierce was elected 14th US President over Whig Winfield Scott.

1880 - James A. Garfield was elected 20th US President over Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock.

1889 - North and South Dakota became the 39th and 40th states. 

1917 - The Balfour Declaration proclaimed support for Jewish settlement in Palestine.  

1920 - Warren G. Harding was elected 29th US President over Democrat James M. Cox. 

1930 - Haile Selassie was crowned emperor of Ethiopia, an event still celebrated by Rastafarians.

1936 - The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was established as a radio network on the same day the British Broadcasting Corporation initiated the BBC Television Service; both channels are still in operation to this day.

1947 - Howard Hughes piloted the maiden (and only) flight of the Spruce Goose (aka the Hughes H-4 Hercules), the largest fixed-wing aircraft ever built, at Long Beach, California. Today it resides at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon.

1948 - Harry S. Truman was elected* 33rd US President over Republican Thomas E. Dewey despite a rift in his own party caused by Dixiecrat candidate Strom Thurmond.

*Because he'd initially become President after his successor Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in office in April 1946, this was Truman's one and only Presidential victory.

1963 - South Vietnam's President Ngô Ðình Diệm was assassinated following a military coup.   

1964 - King Saud of Saudi Arabia was deposed by a family coup, and replaced by his half-brother King Faisal.

1965 - Norman Morrison, a 31-year-old Quaker, set himself on fire in front of the river entrance to The Pentagon to protest the use of napalm in the Vietnam War.

1976 - Jimmy Carter was elected 39th US President over Republican Gerald R. Ford, becoming the first US president from the Deep South since Reconstruction.

1982 - The UK's Channel 4 was launched; within five years it had established itself as the best English-language television network that ever was.

1983 - President Ronald Reagan signed a bill creating Martin Luther King Day, currently the only national holiday honoring an individual American; due to opposition from crackers and bigots, January 17th, 2000, was the first time it was celebrated officially in all 50 states.

1984 - Velma Barfield became the first woman executed in the US since 1962; she was also the first US woman executed by lethal injection. She died at Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina, for poisoning 4 elderly patients in her care.

1988 - The Morris worm, the first internet-distributed computer worm to gain significant mainstream media attention, was created at Cornell by Robert Tappan Morris but launched from MIT as a ruse. Morris is now an associate professor at MIT.

2000 - The first crew arrived at the International Space Station, consisting of US astronaut William Shepherd and two Russian cosmonauts, Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev; since then the ISS has been continuously occupied. 

2004 - George W. Bush was elected to a 'second' term as US President over Democrat John Kerry.
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