Long Island

Ho Ho Ho, Ha Ha Ha!

My car is quite possibly the most annoying place to be during the month of December.  That’s because I listen to Christmas music almost non-stop.  I have an entire CD wallet full of CDs that I bust out between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and a preset on Sirius for holiday music.  Now, this may seem like a far way to go to listen to the sounds of the season, especially when there is a regular radio station that plays non-stop Christmas music, but the station near me plays a pretty bad selection.  Everything on Z-95.1 is too inspirational or the same bad Sinatra (or Sinatra impersonator’s) rendition of an otherwise okay song.

Especially missing is the humor.  Oh sure, they’ll play “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” and some stay-at-home mom with the fashion sense of an elementary school art teacher will call in a request for “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,” but those songs aren’t very good and even if I did like them, it’s not worth listening to Dan Fogelberg to get to them.

When I was younger, the local deejays would run the occasional Christmas song and not a 24-7 holiday barrage that we have now, and while they played their fair share of traditional Christmas tunes, some of the rock stations (I was particularly attached to WBAB, the classic rock station that was one of the very few my radio actually picked up) would find the time to play something out of the ordinary.  WBAB is the reason I’m so familiar with The Kinks’ “Father Christmas” and The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping,” but it’s also the reason I am familiar with Bob Rivers’ Twisted Christmas tunes and other warped material.

So, if you are being forced to suffer through little brats singing about hippos, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra playing the caroling of bells as if it has explosions, or versions of “Do You Hear What I Hear” that are so epic you expect to hear Gandalf shout “You shall not pass!”, may I present five songs that will provide some relief. (more…)

Nails, Gary, and the Greatest Game Ever Played

Mike Scott, the bane of the Mets' existence in the 1986 NLCS

I always hated the Astrodome.

Granted, in my entire life, I have spent an hour in Houston and that was for a layover between Austin and Washington, D.C., so I don’t have any personal experience with the Astrodome, but ever since I sat down and watched the 1986 All-Star Game, which was broadcast from the Eighth Wonder of the World, I hated the stadium, and I still kind of do.  Part of the reason for that is my aversion to outdoor sports being played in domed stadiums, but part of it is that it seemed whenever I watched a Mets game in the Astrodome back when I was nine years old, they were bound to lose.

That certainly seemed the case when I turned on the sixth game of that year’s National League Championship Series in the seventh inning and saw that the Mets were down 3-0 and it looked like they weren’t going to be able to go to the World Series like I had hoped because Bob Knepper had been mowing them down left and right and the starting pitcher for game seven was scheduled to be Mike Scott, a name that I had become as familiar with and angry at as I had with Cardinals ace John Tudor the year before.  Prior to my turning on the game in the late innings, I had been at school, so I had missed the Astros’ three runs off of Bob Ojeda in the first, but I have to say I wasn’t surprised by the lackluster performance in the Astrodome because I’d watched the first few innings of game one, when Glenn Davis had hit a home run off of Dwight Gooden for the game’s only run and an Astros win.

In fact, I don’t think I can talk about that sixth game of the ’86 NLCS without going all the way back to that All-Star Game and my first experience with the Astrodome.  It was the first time I had ever seen a game inside a domed stadium and even though the Tigers’ Lou Whitaker homered pretty early in that game, I remember wondering how anyone ever hit a home run there.   It didn’t seem that visitors fared well offensively because during the next four days, I watched a sporadic amount of Mets-Astros games from Houston and the Mets dropped three out of four, plus three of the Mets were arrested in an infamous nightclub brawl.  Of course, I didn’t know that this particular Mets team was known for its debauchery (and many of the stories of said debauchery would go unknown until I read Jeff Perlman’s The Bad Guys Won! nearly twenty years later); all I knew was that I hated Houston, I hated the Astrodome, and I hated the Astros.

Mike Scott didn’t make things better.  A rather mediocre pitcher that the Mets had off-loaded a few years earlier (a fact I only knew from a baseball card as it was before I had started following them in 1985), Scott had emerged as a dominant pitching force in 1986 due to his split-fingered fastball, a pitch that destroyed hitters and led to accusations that he was scuffing the ball, something that the Mets seemed a little too obsessed with as he beat them twice in the series–in the aforementioned game one and then game four, which was the only night game in three games played at Shea.  So looking at a 3-0 Astros through seven, and then eight innings and Scott scheduled to pitch the next day, it was safe to say that it was over.  All over.

Or was it?  I certainly couldn’t believe that, even at the age of nine, not after I had watched two insane endings earlier that week. (more…)

Put on your Mystery Sneaker and Give Me a Clue Because it’s Time to Ride the Sunrise

Mystery Sneaker, which was the "Holy Grail" of vocabulary development in Mrs. Hickman's first grade class.

She was telling us the class rules, and every single one of us was at attention.  After all, she had attention as being the “strict” teacher and her tall stature, tightly wound red hair, and impeccable wardrobe reinforced that.  Every once in a while, though, I’d sneak a glance at the back of the room at the giant target, which took up the entire bulletin board with its eight multi-colored rings and brown bull’s-eye that read “Mystery Sneaker.”  I had no idea what “Mystery Sneaker” meant, but I knew that it was probably important to Mrs. Hickman, who was still talking but now looking straight at me.  I sat up, looked right at her and allowed her to continue.

It was my first day of first grade and I was scared out of my mind.

Now, when I was five years old, I really didn’t know what “strict” meant, let alone that a “strict” teacher could be a good teacher.  I just knew that “strict” equaled “mean” and that meant bad.  Such information concerning Mrs. Hickman was gleaned from conversations with older kids who had been through first grade at Lincoln Avenue Elementary and spoke from experience—but also spoke knowing that we had no b.s. filter and it was fun to scare younger kids, even though some of the stories were true.  We found out right away that if your desk was too messy, for instance, she would put a sign that said “Lincoln Avenue Garbage Dump” above it.  And on the bulletin board behind her desk was the paddle.

Brown and stamped with “RAH,” the paddle looked like something she had gotten from a sorority and was single-handedly the source of every rumor about Mrs. Hickman.  Students who never had her and never would know about the paddle and the more you heard about it, the worse it became.  It didn’t merely hang on the wall.  Oh no.  The word on the Lincoln Avenue playground and the homes of Sayville elementary school students was that if you got out of line in any way, you got hit.

Now, I know there are people who did receive beatings at the hands of teachers, administrators, or nuns at some time or another. But by the time I got to school in 1983, I am sure that if Mrs. Hickman had hauled off and beaten the crap out of me because I didn’t clean my desk, tenure or no tenure, she would have gotten into serious trouble.  In fact, there was one time you did get a paddling and that was on your birthday, and even then it was a light tap or two (though I’m sure that you couldn’t get away with that today).  But when you sat in the classroom and looked at her desk, there it was, hanging, taunting you, telling you that she meant business.
And she did, although she didn’t need a paddle on the wall to show us.  She marked up our work with a red pen and expected nothing less than what she knew were our best efforts.  I remember one night sitting at the top of the stairs crying because I had colored in the exercise in my phonics book using a green Whitman crayon and had colored it so thickly that it prompted her to write, “Messy!  You can do better!”  Maybe I was being hard on myself or had a need for approval from authority figures, but this feeling that I had let her down was a sign that she was effective.

But as we discovered, she was effective because despite the pressure of high expectations and perceived fear of the paddle, she wanted us to love being in her class.  I’m sure that’s why she turned learning to read into a game.  Because when you’re six you may have a natural curiosity but you don’t have the natural love of learning that makes you purposely want to delve into existential philosophy or debate the merits of socialism in regards to public policy.  No, you are still getting the shakes from naptime withdrawal and you’re still struggling with making a lowercase n not look like a lowercase h.  So, with our education at such a base level, she knew that she not only had the challenge of teaching us how to read but the opportunity to make us want to read and love words and love reading and that is why the very first thing you noticed when you walked into the classroom wasn’t her paddle, but the giant target. (more…)

Summertime has come and gone and everybody’s home again …

A 1970s-era Shasta advertisement, although my grandparents had a different model.

I suppose it’s only appropriate that on Labor Day weekend, I keep thinking of sunsets.  I have seen some gorgeous ones in my lifetime in all sorts of settings, but if I had to choose my all-time favorite sunset it would have to be the one I watched when I was seven years old and spent a couple of nights at the beach with my grandparents.

Now, if you’re my age and come from the south shore of Long Island, a summer at the beach means taking the ferry over to Fire Island for the day, and an overnight probably means that you are staying at someone’s house, either out in the Hamptons or as part of whatever share you have on Fire Island or somewhere else.  But Grandma and Grandpa Chopping were part of a different sort of beachgoing culture, one that doesn’t get as much attention as it used to back through the middle of the Twentieth Century.  Instead of a beach house or time share, they owned a camper; specifically, a 1978 Shasta Camper, which they used to take every summer to the RV camp site at Smith Point County Park, which makes up the easternmost part of Fire Island.

Shasta, along with, say, Winnebago, is often associated with the RV and camping subculture that still exists and I’m sure that people who still hitch a trailer to their cars or drive their camper to a park would say is still going strong.  After all, most national and state parks still have campsites and in my travels both up and down interstate highways on the eastern seaboard, I have seen my fair share of signs for campgrounds.  Although, to be honest, I associate Shasta campers and trailers more with ephemera from the 1950s than with the 1980s of my childhood.  I hear “trailer” or “camper” and I think of spage-age-looking silver trailers with check-pattern tablecloths on the fold-away table and a family of four very happy people using a campsite grill for that evening’s dinner. No, really, like something out of an old Dick & Jane book or an ad for the suburbs.

The bathroom of a 1970s-era Shasta, which had a very 1970s-era color scheme.

And for a while I think that it was.  The Shasta brand is pretty well-recognized and if you do a search for the campers and trailers you see those classic models (which sometimes come in the red and aqua you might associate with that era.  However, what my grandparents owned was manufactured after Shasta had been bought by a competitor, Coachman, in 1976 and it had less of the charm of the 1950s and more of the stifling interior design that you’d expect from the 1970s.  The floor on the inside was a deep brown carpet and every single surface was some other shade of brown, right down to the wood-looking laminate that covered the particle board composite counter.  Even the dashboard of the camper’s cab was a light mocha, as were the padded steps of the ladder that led up to the “Grandma’s Attic” where we could sleep.  This, of course, was in addition to the harvest gold and rust orange stripes that ran across the side and the front of the camper, which itself had the same sort of utilitarian design that so many cars of the late 1970s and 1980s did.  But it did take leaded gas (or “regular”), which I don’t think that many people born after 1990 are that familiar with because it’s been at least that many years since I saw a “regular” pump next to an “unleaded” pump at a gas station.  But back then, when they pulled out of the side yard of their house near the foot of Foster Avenue, my grandfather would lumber the camper down to what was then an Amoco station on the corner of Foster and Montauk Highway and pull up to the yellow regular pump to make sure he had enough to make it all the way out to Smith Point.
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So no one told you life was gonna be this way

I just started participating in a Facebook “challenge” (meme?) called the “30 Day Song Challenge.”  For the next month, I have to post one song per day to my wall and each day has a different caveat.  For instance, Day One was “Your Favorite Song” (for the record: “Summer, Highland Falls” by Billy Joel) and Day Twenty-Seven is “Song You Wish You Could Play on an Instrument” (I have yet to share this one).  I got bored one night and wrote a list down in a notebook, although I’m sure those songs will change somewhat when I go to post them.  Day Seven’s song is “Song That Reminds You of an Event.”  Now, I would have used my wedding song but that is already being used for Day Twenty-Three, “Song For Your Wedding,” so I wound up being stuck trying to think about something else.  Strangely enough, the first song that popped into my head was “I’ll Be There For You” by The Rembrandts.

If you are unfamiliar with the song’s title, you’ll know exactly what I mean when I say, it’s the theme from FriendsFriends premiered in the fall of 1994, back when NBC’s Must See TV lineup consisted of Mad About You at 8:00, Seinfeld at 9:00, and ER at 10:00.  Friends took the 8:30 slot and a very short-lived and largely forgotten Dabney Coleman sitcom called Madman of the People premiered at 9:30.  The night for NBC was a powerhouse because CBS was premiering Due South and Chicago Hope and ABC had Matlock along with the culturally significant but ratings anemic My So-Called Life.  But the time winter and spring rolled around, Friends was the breakout hit and everything that had been new and in direct competition was basically scorched earth (I love MSCL but even the most ardent of fans will admit that Angela Chase and company got their asses handed to them).  Friends was one of the few Generation X-oriented shows/films that actually connected, so much so that by the time Ross got off of a plane at Kennedy Airport with Julie on his arm while Rachel waited unknowingly with flowers and new feelings, you couldn’t escape the show.  There were posters, T-shirts, magazines covers, a hairstyle, and that theme song.

It’s somehow ironic that “I’ll Be There For You” because so popular because at the previous fall’s Emmy Awards, Jason Alexander had done a song and dance number about TV theme songs because they were considered to be a dying breed, and kind of still are.  After all, the last TV theme song written specifically for television that charted I think was this very song.  In fact, I think this took most people by surprise because by the spring of 1995 when Friends-mania began gaining serious traction, the entire version of the song had yet to be released or even recorded.  The Rembrandts had recorded a one-minute TV version of “I’ll Be There For You” for the show’s opening credits and wound up rushing the full three-minute version of the song onto their album because there was serious demand by people for its radio airplay.

I was still listening to WBAB in the evenings while I did homework and the station had been receiving requests for the song.  Now, radio stations weren’t going to just play a one-minute television theme song, so some deejay decided to just loop it three times to create a three-minute song (according to Wikipedia, said deejay was in Nashville).  WBAB began playing this as a way to placate the listeners, even though I’m sure there were plenty of real rock and roll fans who wound up being disgusted.  As I sat in my bedroom doing my homework that May, I managed to catch a playing of the song and hit record on my stereo (having a tape in the cassette deck ready to record stuff was still a common practice of mine at the time).  Then I played it over and over and over, to the point where I nearly wore the tape out.  This, of course, was in the days before I would go and find out via the Internet who sang the song and could download it for about a buck, so I had to wait for the opportunity to take a weekend trip to the mall to see if it was on CD.

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Uncool as Ice

For a brief moment in the eighth grade, I thought this was cool.

When you’re unpopular in junior high, pop music can be as cruel as the people who seem to make it their mission to go out of their way to make your life a living hell.  I guess I should clarify that because music itself can’t be cruel–for the most part, anyway–but it, combined with the hormonal awkwardness that can only come from being an early adolescent can make you do pretty stupid things, like think you can dance.

The usual popular culture portrayal of a junior high dance is the image of an extremely awkward evening in a humid gym where girls spend most of their time as far away as possible from much shorter boys, who are too busy trying to gross one another out to notice those girls.  In those movies or television shows, two people eventually dance and it winds up being a rather chaste, sweet moment.

However, the dances I went to at Sayville Junior High between 1989 and 1991 were nothing like the ones we used to see on TV.  I may be exaggerating here, but I remember those dances feeling epic, as if each was one night in my young life when I was in the right place at the right time.  The student council and junior high staff certainly seemed to make it that way, at least by using the building’s architecture to its fullest advantage.  Our dances were never held in the junior high gymnasium; rather, the student council utilized the large commons area that rant the length of the building from the main entrance to the gym hallway.  The commons area floor was carpeted and the second floor was completely open save for a catwalk and a couple of balconies that looked over the rug.  Most importantly, the commons area had an extra-sized stairway that pivoted on a platform, which is where the deejay would set up.  When you break it down from the perspective of twenty years later, it’s a junior high dance, but to an awkward kid who didn’t get out much, turning off the lights in the commons area on a Friday night made the place a dance club.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t much of a dancer.  If you pressed me, I could probably move back and forth to the beat of whatever music was playing but I really didn’t know my way around a dance floor.  That wasn’t a problem in the seventh grade because I spent most of my time in the cafeteria, working the soda table with my friend Rich.  People would give us 50 cents and we would slide a cold C&C Cola to them.  We got a few breaks and were allowed to roam the dance floor, but the two of us were fiercely dedicated soda jockeys, so much so that when a girl whose name I think was Becky asked me to dance one time, I declined because I was going to be back on my soda-serving shift.

My social ineptitude wouldn’t improve much from twelve to thirteen.  I’d blame it on the terrible accident that I was in two days after my thirteenth birthday because it’s not easy to go through an entire year of junior high with two fake front teeth (that you could remove) and a scar under your nose that looked like a giant pimple, but I’d been walking the halls with comic books and once wore a Star Trek pin to school.  Scar or no scar, I wasn’t a superstar.

But I wanted to be, or at least I wanted a girlfriend, which meant that at some point I was going to have to talk to a girl and maybe even ask her out.  This wasn’t happening, though, because I spent most of the year (and pretty much half of high school as well) with a mind-numbing crush on a girl who was completely out of my league and while I am sure she’d engage me in conversation if I tried, I suffered from the typical thirteen-year-old boy issue of acting stupid whenever I was around her.

There was something different about dances, though.

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The Curious Case of Donna Troy (My Life as a Teen Titan, Part Eight)

The “origins” issue of New Teen Titans (baxter series), #47.

Open New Titans #85 to the letters page and tucked among the correspondence and editorial comments is a letter from two kids from Sayville, NY.  The contents of the letter are more or less forgettable–the two guys talk about how awesome they think the Teen Titans are, they ask why issue #80 had no letter column, and then make a prediction about the Vigilante coming back–but they sign off with something that seemed to get the editors’ attention:  PLEASE KILL DONNA TROY.  To drive home the point, they referred to themselves as the “PEOPLE FOR THE DEATH OF DONNA TROY.”

Yeah, I was a 14-year-old with a hit list.

I don’t honestly remember which one of us came up with the idea that Harris and I should write in clamoring for the death of Donna Troy, but I do know that we really didn’t want her dead and the true reason was that we thought that in order to have a letter published, we should come up with a gimmick.  Donna Troy became the target because she was going to be the focus of the next big storyline, and we figured that they’d already screwed with every other member of the Titans, so why not her?

I think that’s what the powers that be on the Titans were thinking at the time as well, because if you look at every issue since New Titans #71, Donna wasn’t really affected because for the most part she was shuttled off to an adventure with Wonder Woman and then War of the Gods before being around at at full strength to take on Jericho and the Wildebeests.  But, is the fact that she really didn’t have much to do during the Titans Hunt enough to warrant focusing an entire three-book crossover on her?

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The tale of a continuing voyage on the sea of no cares

Love stories are hard to tell.

Oh sure, I can point to an endless number of works of literature, film, and song that suggest otherwise, but for the most part they’re either complete garbage or don’t tell the whole story.  Or perhaps they attempt to tell the whole story but they’re just way too broad, so they skip over a lot of the details.

Then again, isn’t pre-packaged love with a nice soundtrack what we have all been conditioned to look for, anyway?  It’s certainly less complicated than being in a relationship or being married, and our modern world certainly allows ourselves to encapsulate first glance to last kiss in a narrative.  I certainly am guilty of polluting my girlfriends’ lives with mix tapes that were sometimes so awful that I am shocked that I wasn’t broken up with after the first listen.  But for as much as my musical taste has been questionable throughout my life, I know that at least a few time I found a gem among what Sir Paul once called “silly love songs.”  In fact, it’s happened several times, including when I first heard Great Big Sea perform “Sea of No Cares.”

Great Big Sea is a band I stumbled upon in the summer of 1999 when Amanda and I were house-sitting for a friend.   While we spent a good amount of time exploring the greater Arlington/Alexandria area and seeing every movie that was in theaters at the time, I spent much of my days hanging out while she went to the internship she’d started after graduation.  Most of that time, I was working on a novel and the various 1980s mixes in my car were wearing thin, so I went diving into her friend’s CD collection and found Rant and Roar.  I’d heard of the band because I’d seen a video or two on MuchMusic, but wasn’t that familiar with them.

They didn’t need to do much to make me a fan, to be honest.  The band was from Newfoundland, which is where my grandmother hailed from, and they had a boisterous sound that was what I was looking for after spending most of the last four years trapped in my roommates’ Grateful Dead/Phish/Jimmy Buffett death spiral.  A year or so later, they played the Birchmere is Alexandria to support Turn.  It was a great gig and I knew I wanted to see them again, so when my sister heard that they were playing the Maritime Festival in West Sayville on July 13, 2001, I was on the phone the minute tickets went on sale.  I mean, when you come from a town that’s as obscure as mine, you definitely jump at the chance to see one of your favorite bands play there.

So we went, and in the hot July afternoon right next to the Great South Bay, the band started with “Donkey Riding,” which had become somewhat of a staple as far as opening numbers were concerned.  The next couple of songs were from a few albums back and then, the band decided to play “Sea of No Cares,” which was going to be the title track to the new album.  Amanda was standing next to me and humored me by letting me hold her even though by that point we were both sweaty and gross, and Alan Doyle began: “When you’re in love, there’s no time and no space/There’s a permanent smile on your face/Your friends all complain that you’re goin’ insane/But the truth is they’re just afraid/Hey, hey, hey somewhere/You threw your fear in the sea of no cares …”

Almost immediately, I found myself struck by the lyrics, as if they were some sort of revelation.  Or, at least, I flashed back to an earlier point in our relationship where those first few lyrics rang true.

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If I could just hold you again

When it comes to nostalgia, there are those things that are true memories and those which are false memories.  No decade has more of this going for it than the 1980s.  Eighties nostalgia is a juggernaut that began when I was in high school back in the early 1990s and really hasn’t stopped since, especially since I’ve had students who say they’re nostalgic for the 1980s, something I find hilarious considering they weren’t really old enough to remember it (And no, they don’t, because that would be like me saying I remember the 1970s when I was born in 1977 and my only memory of anything world events before 1981 is seeing Jimmy Carter on a television screen.  That might be a 1970s memory but it doesn’t exactly put me inside Studio 54).

If you are truly a Child of the Eighties, you are fully aware of these two sides of nostalgia because for every movie, television show, compilation album, or Glee medley that says, “Remember Eighties?  Here it is!  No, don’t think about anything that really happened.  This is Eighties.  Enjoy these memories.”  You’re not supposed to remember that Wang Chung had three good songs, only that they recorded “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” and made a seizure-inducing video to go along with it.  You’re not supposed to remember Fresh Horses, the piece-of-crap other Molly Ringwald/Andrew McCarthy flick, just Pretty In Pink.  And you’re not supposed to remember the Cloris Leachman years of The Facts of Life.

Okay, sorry about that last one.

Anyway, I’m one of those people who will listen to a flashback station on Sirius and be happy that Alan Hunter has decided to play “Stone in Love” instead of “Don’t Stop Believin'” for the hour’s dose of Journey.  Maybe it’s because I’m a nostalgia dork, or maybe it’s because I’ve been exposed to so much Eighties nostalgia for the past two decades that I need more than something that scratches the surface.  I think that everyone reaches that point in his life, where he wants more than just another playing of “Hungry Like the Wolf,” and usually there is one work that serves as a trigger for the true memories that lie beneath the VH-1-produced surface.  For me, it was “At This Moment” by Billy Vera and the Beaters.

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Long Island State of Mind

I rarely intend to turn this space into a media studies seminar, but I have to say that I’m intrigued by how the culture of YouTube has upped the ante on homemade parody and satire, especially when it comes to music videos.

The idea that you can watch a television show, movie, or music video and then grab a video camera and film your own version has been around longer than the world wide web.  When I was in junior high school, my friends and I would commandeer my parents’ video camera (one of those huge cameras that held a full-sized VHS tape) and make funny videos of us lip-synching to certain songs or pretending to be in movies or on talk shows (we had one recurring thing that was a parody of Geraldo where the guests would always get into fights).

If YouTube existed back then, I’m sure we would have posted at least one or two videos, although remembering what those videos were like, we would have definitely had to perfect our craft in order to get noticed at all.  The idea of copying a professional’s work and making fun of it/paying tribute to it is a craft all its own and just as the people who are creating videos on sites like YouTube have gotten better over the last few years, the audience has definitely gotten more discerning.

Which begs me to ask: is there a benchmark for homemade quality?  Have we become so flooded with homemade videos that our home movies now have to have production value?

To examine this, I want to take a look at what’s been a parody meme of sorts (if that is even the right term–I’m not an academic, so most of this really is talking out of my ass) in the last year or so, which is videos that parody, or re-appropriate the Jay-Z/Alicia Keys hit, “Empire State of Mind.”

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