Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Generational Gaps: Why LeBron James Will Never Be Jordan

Grantland, a sports-writing website sponsored by ESPN and ran by Bill Simmons, is quickly becoming a major voice on the Internet -- or at least my Internet.

It's popularity makes sense, featured columnists and editors are some of today's literary giants (Eggers, Klosterman, and Gladwell) as well as ESPN's best -- Bill Simmons.

One of my favorite parts of the website is the great coverage and analysis of everything LeBron James. This is especially prominent considering what happened the other night (if you don't know what happened then there's a wealth of Internet you haven't explored and TV you haven't watched).

Here are just some of the articles ...

All the writers at Grantland do a brilliant job analyzing and communicating the cultural impact that LeBron James has -- and why we have such an incessant need to pay attention to him -- but one thing I think they fail to mention is the important generational difference that LeBron has become a victim of (don't get me wrong, I'm a Boston guy. I hate the man's guts. But it's unfortunately true.)

In the era of Bird, Magic, Thomas, etc ... big time players were drafted to teams and stayed on those teams. The franchise was built around them and, after five years of hard work and growth, they became a championship caliber team and legendary, well respected players. From everyone.

That phase of pro ball ended -- popularly -- with Jordan. Most major stars after Jordan have played on at least two teams in their career. Just look at the past five years of major trades

-Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett
-LeBron and Bosh
-Melo and Stoudemire
-Steve Nash
-Shaq (extra emphasis for the most teams)

Pierce and Kobe are the obvious exemptions to this trend.

Long story short, there's no more loyalty --  from both players and administration.

Stars have become bigger than the teams they're on and winning championships has been more about individual legacy than the fact that the Lakers and Celtics have won almost every championship between 1980 and 1990. It's about my legacy, not the club's.

Yes, it was always Jordan and the Bulls, Magic and the Lakers, Bird and the Celtics, but they were all around long enough -- and struggled long enough -- that they were able to develop a very, very good supporting cast of role players. In fact, pretty much every major star from the 1980s to mid '90s played with another Hall of Famer for an extended period of time without ever leaving their original team. That doesn't happen anymore.

So, yes, the fine writers at Grantland have done a great job analyzing why we dole massive amounts of attention to the Man We Love to Hate (or, He Who Must Not Be Named). But, most of other pundits have spent the past month or so thinking of ways that LeBron is like Jordan.

But he's not. He's completely different.

Jordan was a mature, battle-hardened, work horse (and a cocky dick) who became a symbol of a team, city, and a generation. All by earning himself a championship -- not by whoring his "talents" to the highest bidder to get on the fast track to the championships because, God forbid, LeBron isn't a NBA champion by at least seven years out of high school.

(By the time Jordan had been seven years out of high school he had:
1. Won an NCAA Championship and earned nearly every college basketball award available.
2. Got drafted a year early.
3. Went back and got his degree from UNC Chapel Hill in cultural geography.
4. Set a still unbroken record for points in a single play off game of 63 and still lost the series to Bird and the Celtics [after missing 64 games from a BROKEN FOOT]
5. Scored 3,000 points in a season with 200 steals and 100 blocks
6. FINALLY, after being in the league for four years, made it out of the FIRST ROUND of the play offs by beating -- lo and behold -- the Cleveland Cavaliers.)

But, given the recent history of transactions and geographical displacement of talent, can you blame LeBron for just being contemporary?

Calling out LeBron for his pre-season fiasco is one thing, but blaming his decision is completely different. That's like calling out your dad for giving up writing letters by hand to using e-mail. He's just getting with the times.

That's what LeBron did. This doesn't just apply to the NBA, but to every major sport. Baseball is the worst of all -- you might as well be a Nomad than a pro baseball player -- but football (Terrel Owens, Randy Moss) and hockey are no different either.

We're in an era where our beloved stars aren't taken care of nearly as much as previous generations. And, because of that, they need to take care of themselves. Do you think Shaq's career would have had the longevity if he hadn't bounced around the country looking for a team to take him in? No.

The times aren't-a-changing anymore, they already have. Sure, LeBron may have pulled the cockiest, most immature, move in sports history by handling his career the way he has, but for simply leaving his hometown is something we can not fault him for.

We seem to forget that he grew up right outside of Cleveland. Can you imagine being of that stature, ambition, potential, and God-given talent and living in your hometown for twenty five years? I would want to leave, too. There's a whole world out there and it's unfair to cage a bird as bright he in a city as dark and dirty as Cleveland.

Long point short is that LeBron can never be compared to Jordan -- as far as legacy is concerned -- because the era that LeBron is playing in is vastly different than when Jordan played.

When Jordan left a void was created (like a bad break up) and during that void the NBA -- and us -- needed to change so we could move on (like a bad break up). This is the change we've created. This is the current state of affairs, where what used to be common practice is now a rarity.

I hate LeBron as much as the next Bostonian, but let's put this cultural debacle into perspective here -- he's just a kid. He's twenty-five and has had more pressure and expectations thrown upon him than most ever will in their lifetime. He's allowed to fuck up.

So, LeBron, I'm sorry for those nasty Tweets I mentioned you in during the playoffs. I realize now that I, like everyone else, got caught up in the disappointment that you are not what I hoped you could have been. You are something different. It was unfair of me for projecting this nostalgic fantasy upon you that maybe -- just maybe -- there might be some unifying player out there that can revolutionize a failing city and bring a Nation together (whether for or against) like what someone else who wore number twenty three did. I realize now that was asking too much.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Avett Brothers vs. Mumford & Sons

Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers. They're seemingly the same -- folk bands that weave influences of rock, punk, and the blues. They use the same instruments: guitar, stand up bass, drums, banjo, mandolin, fiddle -- anything you can find at a yardsale in the Smoky Mountains. But are also very different bands. One, an international pop behemoth. The other, a cerebral and dark band atop a massive cult and critical following.

Mumford & Sons outside their antique store.

Whether you know it or not, like them or not, or even care or not, these bands are quickly becoming mainstays in our Cultural Vernacular -- especially after they shared the stage with Bob Dylan at this year's Grammys and with Mumford & Son's debut album sitting pretty on top the Billboard Top 200 for quite some time now. Which one you choose says more than you think it does.

Avett Brothers and pink rabbit mascot.

Mumford & Sons is an energetic, rockish, and catchy Americana/folk band from West London. They're album, Sigh No More, has reached the top of the charts in three different continents (North America, Europe, and Australia). They're relatively new, forming in 2007, they toured for a while, made an EP, and cut a full length album in 2008 (Sigh No More), released it in 2009, and rocked the world with Bob Dylan at the Grammys in 2011. After their performance of "The Cave", social media was abuzz with Mumford & Sons hype, as a great "break out artist". Despite their first single, "Little Lion Man", having been around around the blogosphere since 2008.

The Avett Brothers started out as a rock/punk band called Nemo in North Carolina. (Nemo, besides being a popular, animated clown fish, is Latin for "nobody"). The two brothers, Seth and Scott Avett started an acoustic/folk side project aptly titled The Avett Brothers in 2000. The brothers quickly rose above their rock band associates and garnered a quick -- and southern -- reputation as an incredibly passionate, energetic live band with intelligent and challenging studio albums. A cult following ensued. They started to gain mainstream attention, and critical acclaim, when their song "If It's the Beaches" aired during an episode of Friday Night Lights.

Still the question remains: what's the difference? Or -- more importantly -- why should I care?

“If It’s the Beaches” written by Scott and Seth Avett from Gleam

Don’t say it’s over
Cause that’s the worst news
I cold hear I swear that I will
Do my best to be here
Just the way you like it
Even though it’s hard to hide
Push my feelings all aside
I will rearrange my plans
And change for you

If I could go back
That’s the first thing I would do
I swear that I would
Do my best to follow through
Come up with a master plan
A homerun hit a winning stand
A guarantee and not a promise
That I’d never let your love
Slip from my hands

If it’s the beaches
If it’s the beaches' sands you want
Then you will have them
If it’s the mountains bending rivers
Then you will have them
If it’s a wish to run away
Then I will grant it
Take whatever you think of
While I go gas up the truck
Lock the old love letters up
We will read them when we forgot why we left here

The Avett Brother's specificity is disarming, almost intruding. It’s as if we are invited into a very private conversation that we're familiar with. It’s clearly the story of a man holding on to a relationship – of any sort – by any means. The Avett Brothers have presented us with a protagonist.

The first verse is our protagonist pleading. He’s willing to change, to bend and break and “push his feelings all aside” for this person. He is a man on his knees.

The second verse presents why he’s in this predicament. “If I could go back…” is all we need. There was clearly a point, earlier on, where this man made the mistake of not communicating his love during a time when someone needed it most. Or, even worse, taking the reciprocation for granted. “A guarantee and not a promise/That I’d never let your love/Slip from my hands.”

The last verse ends with a glint of hope, that at some point during this dark journey they embark on they will read their old love letters and realize exactly what brought them together in the first place. Using nostalgia as a glue.

This is an extremely personal song. A song of redemption and love, flaws and mistakes. This song is a story.

Bringing punk rock energy to folk. 

Musically speaking, it’s gorgeous, even chilling. The soft strum of acoustic guitars, the lonely violin, and a piano as heavy as a set of weights; it’s as if every note cuts a small hole where the song can flow, like a river flooding dry creek beds.

Art has two basic functions – to either expose the culture, or expose the artist. Some artists become zeitgeists, expressing their culture through their medium. Others, put their heart on their sleeve and inform the world what’s going with them. They mold and chip away at certain personal aspects until they have the best representation of themselves, and then present it to the world.

This what the Avett Brothers have done.

"The Cave" by Mumford & Sons from Sigh No More

It's empty in the valley of your heart

The sun, it rises slowly as you walk

Away from all the fears

And all the faults you've left behind

The harvest left no food for you to eat

You cannibal, you meat-eater, you see

But I have seen the same

I know the shame in your defeat

But I will hold on hope

And I won't let you choke

On the noose around your neck

And I'll find strength in pain

And I will change my ways

I'll know my name as it's called again

Cause I have other things to fill my time

You take what is yours and I'll take mine

Now let me at the truth

Which will refresh my broken mind

So tie me to a post and block my ears

I can see widows and orphans through my tears

I know my call despite my faults

And despite my growing fears

But I will hold on hope

And I won't let you choke

On the noose around your neck

And I'll find strength in pain

And I will change my ways

I'll know my name as it's called again

So come out of your cave walking on your hands

And see the world hanging upside down

You can understand dependence

When you know the maker's land

So make your siren's call

And sing all you want

I will not hear what you have to say

Cause I need freedom now

And I need to know how
To live my life as it's meant to be

And I will hold on hope

And I won't let you choke

On the noose around your neck

And I'll find strength in pain

And I will change my ways

I'll know my name as it's called again

The lyrics scream – almost literally – of change, redemption, and personal victory. Existential elements that require serious self-awareness, combining these types of epiphanies to an allusion of leaving Plato’s Cave. It takes knowledge – something brutal and painful – to create the conflict needed for this kind of self conscious breakthrough. “Cause I need freedom now/And I need to know how/To live my life as it’s meant to be”.

But, unlike the Avett Brothers, their lyrics lack a certain amount of specificity and personality. In fact, they maintain a “just right” balance of nebulous and thematic wording. We understand what Mumford is talking about – we get it, we’ve been there -- but we don’t get the intimacy we did with Avett. This is definitely by design.

“And I’ll find strength in pain/And I will change my ways",  are words that clearly ring with crisis, conflict, and triumph, but their simplicity and lack of Identity allow us to fill it with our Identity.

It’s as if we wrote it.

Sigh No More ...

Which is a very smart move on the their part as far as commerciality is concerned. This turns Mumford & Sons into our band. They have that perfect blend of epic optimism with allusions to a vague angst. This balance – a lyrical game, so to speak – is akin to the likes of:

Britney Spears, Madonna, and Lady Gaga.

It’s just enough to get a certain theme across while not getting too intimate. It’s enough for us to relate to it without being challenged. It’s remarkably uplifting, extremely catchy, and makes us feel smarter and better about ourselves.

The Mumford & Sons have created folk-pop.

This is also shines through their image. Their previous tour – with hipster demi-Gods Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes – was spent on a train traveling around the country. They would play their shows then jam at random public places during the night -- like 19th century musical vagabonds making thousands of dollars a night. 

The extravagance really kicks in when they get back to their train to an open bar and a jam cart. Even Jake Gylenhaal jumped on board in LA.

Mumford & Sons is the bloated, commercialized, cash cow of Americana. They have the music chops, lyrical skills, and presence to be a major "niche" pop star -- which is good for them.

It's clear that the two bands are dopplegangers on the rise. Although Mumford may have had more commercial success than the Avett Brothers, the Avett Brothers' critical acclaim, cult following, and creative history make them a more mature band.

This doesn't -- necessarily -- mean they're a band for "mature" audiences, but a band that's been around the block. A band that's earned the awards and acclaim they've gotten. A band you can trust is writing -- and performing -- from the heart. That challenge us, and themselves, in their songs. Whereas, Mumford is a band that hit a homerun on their first swing -- which is great -- but they don't have the sense of vindication that the Avetts have earned.

In the simplest sense, Mumford is a band that will lift you up, inspire you, bring you to your best and cheer you on. They are a much needed band in our trying times for our "trying" generation.

But, the Avett Brothers is a band that will make you a better person. And that's needed all the time.