Thursday, September 24, 2009

Sometimes a Funny Team Name Is Just a Funny Team Name

Fantasy football is a waste of time and money. Fantasy football is inconsequential and kind of sad. Fantasy football is a game for middle class White guys who don't have real problems. Your fantasy football team, to anyone else, is uninteresting. It's like describing your dreams. And worst of all, it doesn't even have an accurate name. If this were really a fantasy, I think Mila Kunis would be involved, not a Robert Meachem spot-start.

But tell that to my brain. I actually didn't give work my full attention yesterday because I was too conflicted about a possible Slaton-Palmer-Benson for Turner-Sproles-Carlson-Washington trade. For something that is, in the long run, pretty negligible, the game within a game occupies a lot of this particular man's time and consideration. So fantasy football is a function of culture, sure, but I didn't realize until recently how much it taps into the male psyche, how it converges with and fulfills our brute instincts.

First page of search results. Gorgeous.

Because I'm ahead of the curve when it comes to time-wasting, I've been playing since high school, but the fantasy football tipping point was about five years ago for culture at-large, coincidentally about the same time the early-aughts poker explosion was leveling off. Not coincidentally, the games have similar clientele. Poker became popular because men in their twenties--a generation raised with over-protective parents and participation trophies--realized that the professional world they had just entered wasn't going to hand them anything. Rather than, you know, working hard to achieve things, they found an outlet that would reward them for the decision-making, judgment, and balls so often ignored by their bosses. Finally, they could take these skills and get what they really deserved with very little effort. They could experience tangible rewards for something as patently intangible as intellect.

Fantasy football, which doubles these goals while also being an excuse to watch more sports, requires the same mixture of skill and chance. Whereas the most important parts of poker are solitary though, fantasy football thrives on group interaction while still glorifying the self.

Since fantasy football is a game of prediction and conjecture, no one, including ESPN's Matthew Berry, is an expert. He's just a guy who has more time and spreadsheets to study this stuff, and even then, he's rarely right about it. Or at least that's what we tell ourselves. The reason why he can keep his job is two-fold. If we acknowledge that even an expert is throwing darts, it makes the amount of time we spend on this seem pointless, and the whole enterprise seems more silly, which we don't want. So we allow that his help is useless but seek it out anyway. Also, and here's the part that ties into being a man, it makes us feel smarter if the expert is this fallible. It taps into the "I could do that" arrogance surrounding every man ever. We hate Matthew Berry not because he doesn't do his job well, but because we believe we could do it better.

Would you trust this man with anything other than fantasy sports?

We don't worry too much about this because fantasy football has refreshingly low stakes. Instead of agony, it forces us to deal with the discomfort of defeat. Traditionally, because you only have one opponent per week in fantasy, you always have tantalizing odds of winning and feel as if you've come very close even when you lose. It's like heads-up poker, except you don't need a pokerface.

Finally, what is brilliance if we aren't recognized for it? And what is brilliance if we are secure in that brilliance? We have to second-guess ourselves with systems or matchups, with sleepers and clever replacements for injured stars. We have now upped the ante for what separates those in the know from those in Yahoo public leagues, and that standard isn't even winning. For example, every fantasy player has said something like this in conversation: "I'm in third place right now. The dude in first has Adrian Peterson so..." Of course he's in first; he has the best player. Is that not enough? A female mind would just take the best player and be done with it. A male mind almost has to apologize for not being counter-intuitive. Another example of this nay-saying is the fact that every league has had an argument about its scoring, ignoring the fact that those values are as arbitrary as anything else in the game. As long as everyone is playing by the same rules, even if those rules are "one hundred and eleven point bonus for any first down play," your league is fair.

When I started playing in high school, the more research you did before your draft, the better your team was. Now that almost hurts you because you key into players and second-guess the obvious value picks. In one of my leagues the guys in the number one and number two spots on the leaderboard used auto-draft. Like everything else with guys and fantasy football, I don't think that's a coincidence.

At once, fantasy football presents man at his best and his worst. Always striving, never achieving. Always independent, never alone. Always strong but crippled by self-doubt. And even though the NFL is experiencing a golden age, something tells me this isn't the last of the games we'll play to express ourselves.

Monday, September 21, 2009

#45 and #39 Songs of the Decade- "You Are the Generation..." and "Postcards from Italy"

#45- Johnny Boy- "You Are the Generation That Bought More Shoes and You Get What You Deserve"

#39- Beirut- "Postcards from Italy"

Let's fast-forward eight years. You're my guest at an ironic 2009 party, because that's something I would invite you to. We're friends like that I guess. On the wall I have posters for something period but forgettable--Imagine That or Confessions of a Shopaholic maybe. I'm wearing skinny jeans and a bright hoodie. Maybe I even thought to tape cotton balls onto the door in the shape of a cloud with a tasteful picture of Michael Jackson on top. We share a laugh and maybe I say something inappropriately flirty because I'm already drunk.

The most defining part of such a future-retro party would be the music, right? Before you even get to my delicious seven-layer dip no homo, you would notice the music I chose, and whether or not it correlated with your idea of what the '00s were. Perhaps I picked the unabashedly repetitive pop of "Pokerface" or "Boom Boom Pow." Maybe I'll just soundtrack the entire night with auto-tune, since, for better or worse, it'll be recognizable.

But we all know being recognizable is not the same as being memorable. That's the problem with art that follows trends. People can tell whether or not your heart is in it. When Harry Potter blew up earlier this decade, batches of fiction writers threw together a children's fantasy thinking it would sell. But it was easy to distinguish between the writers who had an affection and comfort for the material and the ones who were looking for a buck. We sustain trends; they don't sustain us.

Some of the music I'll remember the most from this fading decade sounds nothing like our idea of the aughts. These songs I'm profiling, for instance, sound downright old. Johnny Boy's "You Are the Generation..." is an anti-consumerist message in the form of a vociferous mock doo-wop with close-mics, reverbed tambourines, and no brakes. You start by questioning whether or not they ripped off the intro to "Be My Baby" (they did), but you finish stomping along with them and responding "yeah-yeah" to their call of "aww baby." And if I didn't know better, I'd think they play bottle rockets throughout that second verse. It sounds too pure and innocent to be made in 2004.

The same goes for Beirut's "Postcards from Italy," which begins like every other Beirut song: a lonely melody repeats on a dusty peasant-like instrument--in this case a ukelele--until it expands into a wedding march of Eastern European rhythms, swirling away with old world charm until Zach Condon's wistful nasality reminds it where its bread is buttered. At times the formula works so well that it feels calculating. Here it's perfect.

Here's what you have to understand though: these songs don't stick with me just because they have a vintage sound. They last because I experienced the songs in a way I rarely do anymore. In both cases, the tracks were recommended to me by another DJ while I was working at a radio station, and I thought the album covers looked cool. That's it. That throwback word-of-mouth began a relationship with two songs that I'll take along with me for the rest of my life. Not algorithms that predict what I'll like based on other recommendations. Not a streaming radio station tailored to my specifications.

I know nothing about Johnny Boy, and I've kept it that way on purpose. I don't own any of their other music. I don't know who they are or where they're from. Maybe I'm afraid none of their other work lives up to this single and don't want to find out. In my own way, I kind of feel as if I'm keeping pure that experience that people had in the time the band is replicating. Information travels fast in our culture, and it's easy to know so much about an artist that you can't even listen to their music with any objectivity. That experience is automatically tainted with hype and expectations. With Johnny Boy, a friend of mine liked it, and the cover looked cool.

I feel as if I already know too much about Zach Condon, the sixteen-year-old who made Gulag Orkestar in his bedroom and found an audience for his 19th century gypsy music, ironically, through the most modern of means. I could write a whole postmodern essay on that dynamic, but I think I'd like to stick with this future-retro stance.

Future-retro. I like that. Remind me of it in eight years while you're trying the dip.