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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Parking on the Dance Floor: Dance Reviews 2008

My reviews of dance singles released during the first quarter of 2008.

Karen Young: Hot Shot (Reheat) *
I find it odd that this 'remix' made it into the top ten on Billboard's Club Play Charts. But it did. I don't find this in the least bit interesting - none of the remixes do anything to elevate the original beyond its mediocre, modest beginnings. So why bother?

Kristine W.: The Boss *****
Kristine hits another one out of the park! Grrrreeeeat vocals - earthy and meaty. Something this song so deserved. The mixes here are great fun - hard to pick a favorite. I have bounced from the the sanchez to the infinity to the goodyear as my fave. The radio edits are nice and precise. But it is ultimately Kristine's incredible vocals that sell this baby - especially her Michael Jackson-like fills. Love it.

Erin Hamilton: The Flame 2008 ***
This was a pleasant surprise. Not the usual Hi-NRG remake - a cut above all that. It actually manages to reinvent the song without simply taking a small slice of the song and repeating it ad nausea. Very ethereal. Erin's vocals don't possess a lot of presence, but it is a real ear-tweaker.

Filo & Peri Featuring Eric Lumiere: Anthem ***
I love this one... even with its vacuous European pretensions. Pleasant male vocals, decent lyric, fun chorus, interesting construction. A tiny bit faceless - and that is my only complaint. Definitely deserves all the radio airplay it has been getting.

Idina Menzel: Gorgeous ***
I keep getting this one confused with 'Defying Gravity'. The reason: Indina's vocal style is so incredibly unique that her mannerisms seem to place a shadow over the songs themselves. That's not a bad thing... I'm just waiting for her to find a song that is her equal. None of the pap from 'Wicked' is going to cut it. This one, simply due to its subject material almost does it. It's fun, but not memorable. I like to segue this in the middle of Taylor Dayne's far superior 'Beautiful' and a remix of Xtina’s ‘Beautiful’. Makes for a nice subject block.

Erika Jayne: Stars ****
Hmmm... is this really the woman behind 'Roller Coaster'? Wow. A sweet chill. Very nice - demonstrating a little variety. Surprising. I love the vocals and song itself. It actually possesses a bit of a hook, something sadly missing from most dance music. Something tells me I need to pay attention to this one - she's a total keeper.

Janet Jackson: Feedback (Ralphi Rosario Radio Edit) *****
Finally! Janet gets a song worthy of our time. I loves me some sexy, sexy, sexy, robot Janet. Percolates like an orgy at Starbucks. Okay, so all that stutter/stop/shift stuff plays like a thick veneer distancing the heart of Ms. Jackson from the public, but it's been ages since she's been this nasty and danceable. It would have been nice if her company would have sprung for a few more remixes to make this a great buy. And, yes, the heavy flow line makes me gag a little. I just bear it and wince. So glad she's back, auto-tuned to death or not. Amen.

Britney Spears: Piece Of Me (Remixes) / Gimme More ***
Timely and entertaining. But not memorable. Nice double-header, though. Britney's in there somewhere and she's the only reason to come to this party. The songs themselves skitter by like a tweaked out circuit boy peering over the edge of an eighth floor balcony. A little short on substance, but fun enough. Everybody loves a little drama - and this plays out like a Greek tragedy on roids. Medea, anyone?

Mary J Blige: Just Fine (Moto Blanco Remix) *
Uh-uh. No. Tired, tired, tired. Mary needs a new pair of shoes. She works way too hard and has too much going to simply float by on dated, bloated flotsam like this. Her i-pod commercial played way better than this stuff. Make me shiver, not shudder! Redefine, Ms. Blige - don't regurgitate. Evah.

Idina Menzel: Defying Gravity *
Fun stuff - very unique vocals. Maybe a tad annoying. One for the circuit queens. The song itself - eh. So canned the Campbell soup twins could have written it - homogenized to the point of sterility - and that flies in the face of the song's message and intent. Defying gravity? This song doesn't aspire to defy, impact, or encroach upon anything - including the listener's ear. Idina, fortunately, has a lot of vocal mannerisms in her bag of tricks, and that almost makes this worthwhile. Almost.

Taylor Dayne: Beautiful *****
A song that fits Ms. Dayne to a ‘t’. Capitalize that ‘T’. A perfect marriage. It’s been a long while. I love her big broad sound and lovely R&B styling. Always have. She hasn’t sounded this engaged since her remake of Barry White’s ‘Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe’. I can’t get enough of this song. It is on permanent repeat in my car CD player and haunts my thoughts as I drift off to sleep. If I have two wishes this spring, one of them will be that this goes to the top of Billboards Club Play Charts and more. And it should. Diva needs a break and Diva has finally done something to deserve that break. Beautiful, indeed.

Robyn: Every Heartbeat **
Big surprise…. big, curious surprise. When this first played on my i-pod I thought it was some long lost Kate Bush song I’d downloaded out of curiosity and in my compulsive need as a completist. Guess again. Nice to hear her, glad she’s back – didn’t expect this. I was thinking some of the old hip-hop/r&b stuff with the big beat would bring her back stateside, but this is such a far cry from those days – dare I say – this is hardly the same artist. Nice chill. The vocals are a bit thin, so while her sound has matured, her vocal style has not. Not a dance hall burner by any means, but a decent listen.

Sia: The Girl You Lost *
Bizarre and lacking substance, considering the subject matter. Vocals are Olsen Twin-thin and a tad annoying. Strikes me as more of an experiment than a fully realized song; like the product of a 14 year old girl who just got her first key board hooked up to Pro Tools. About as convincing as a midi file and just as cringe-inducing. Lose her.

Cascada: What Hurts the Most ****
This song sounds like something Leanne Rimes did about the time of Coyote Ugly. It’s got a very country-friendly vibe going. It’s fun. Great pop. A little too clean for my taste – lacks real character. Cascada is kind of like that – very Ace of Base minus the hint of funkiness. Nothing funky going on here. Acne-free. Kind of like a Mentos Mint ad or those surreal Orbit gum commercials.

Sarah Atereth: It Doesn’t Take Much ****
Pleasant. Not a barn-burner, but a great song. In fact, it is a complete pop song. Its lyrics actually show some depth. Sarah’s voice is pleasant enough, too. It could use a little more character. Not bad, but not a fire, either. The three stars are for the lyrics. They’re of a quality rarely found on a dance track. Of the mixes – Tracy Young is my current pick.

Plumb: In My Arms ****
Great hook, nice meaty vocals. Nice to hear a singer with some bottom to her voice. I love the little catch she gets in her throat – distinctive and not over played. Needs to be careful of the whine thing, though. The song itself is a gem with a couple of infectious hooks, catchy chorus. Like ‘Numb’, their last biggie – this one is a winner.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Need for Humility in Business

When I was 19, I was cast in the role of Thomas Becket for a production of T.S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral”. I spent many hours gleaning truth from Eliot’s beautiful, succinct verse. Philosophically, it would forever alter how I view those in power and the choices they make.

As the play begins, word reaches the cathedral that the king has dispatched soldiers to kill Becket. Becket’s congregation and fellow priests plead with Becket to flee. Becket calms them, while remaining steadfast in his decision to accept his fate. He is then visited by four tempters, each offering some form of reward for a given choice. He handily rejects the scenarios of the first three tempters. However, the fourth tempter forces Becket to examine his personal motives for accepting such a fate. The tempter reasons that the choice of martyrdom is ultimately self-serving; undertaken not for the sake of the church, but in a bid for historical significance. Momentarily thrown, Becket regains his resolve, stepping back from the most subtle treason of the soul:

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.1

These words encapsulate a very basic quandary for anyone who makes decisions. It begs the questions:
· How do we know when we are doing the right thing for the right reason? And…
· What is the key factor that prevents us from doing the right thing for the wrong reason?

I think the key is humility; a very simple, yet not-so-simple, choice. To make the right choice for the right reason, those in power must do so with a sense of humility. They must be careful their personal desires and needs don’t circumvent the needs of others. They must subjugate themselves to serve a greater cause.

Humility. It looks great on the resume of one’s humanity. Kindness? Check. Fairness? Check. Humility? Check. Like listening, it’s a fairly effortless way to gain something. By listening we gain information, but also the reputation of being a good listener. Good listeners are rare and such a quality is respected. Genuine displays of humility are equally rare and also admired. So choose humility! But is it that simple? If so, why isn’t the world filled with humble, passive people? I think it has to do with the opportunity costs such a choice holds.

What do we forgo by allowing others to talk without interruption? Speaking. Perhaps allowing things we disagree with to go unchallenged or receiving information we don’t have any use for. What is the opportunity cost of humility? Perhaps not getting full credit for something we’ve accomplished. In business, not getting credit for something can hurt career momentum. But if what has been contributed is truly praise worthy or valuable it will help the greater cause. So if you’re part of the big picture you get the benefit, if not the credit.

People have a hard time seeing the big picture. Therefore, the whole concept of the greater good escapes us. We tend to see things in terms of instant impact. We ask – how does this affect me? That’s not a bad thing. Self-preservation has a place in the big picture. If we don’t survive, we can’t contribute. Striking a healthy balance between self-interest and selflessness is necessary. But being selfless? That’s hard work.

When I think of selflessness the role of the humble servant comes to mind - as in ‘humble servant of God’. I also think of maintenance people and those who humbly clean up after others. As an administrative assistant, I frequently ‘clean up after the elephants’. I’m the one at the end of the parade who sweeps up after the pageantry has swept by. I frequently do it begrudgingly. I know that if I ever do become an elephant, I’m going to let the folks manning the brooms know that their efforts make me look good. So why do they do it?

They do it to be of service to a greater cause, a greater good. It’s not about what’s in it for them, but about what they have to offer that’s of use to others. In the purest sense, these people are rare. Mother Teresa springs to mind, but few fit the bill. Most political/socio-economic activists have a selfish agenda that underlies the good they accomplish. In these media savvy days, the world has developed a jaded eye and even the best of intentions must pass a purity-of-motive litmus test. That’s why the Bonos and Geldofs of the world don’t cut it.

I’m talking about true servants: the type of people who work for the greater good of others without consideration for their own gain, safety or well-being. Why are such people rare? Because it’s a calling. A true calling. It’s not something tacked on at the end of a pop star’s career. Not that that’s a bad thing, but hey, the Mother Teresa’s of the world have set the bar pretty high.

What about the rest of us? How does humility work in our daily lives? Or in the workplace?

Such philosophical battles play out at corporations throughout the world. Should we benefit from doing our jobs? Absolutely. However, in my studies at Augsburg, while analyzing business management scenarios, a pattern caught my eye. Time and again, managers trying to do the right thing were ultimately foiled by their own egos. Many got hooked on the sound of their own voice and failed to listen to others. Others sought massive amounts of personal media attention to keep their company in the spotlight. This resulted in a kind of blindness that prevented them from making good decisions. Then there were those who had become a fixture of the company – so integral to the corporation’s culture that they impeded their company’s future success because they were unwilling or unable to change, step aside, or step down.

In each case, they will tell you their intent was to improve shareholder value for their company. However, history has shown that they were really serving their own needs. I’m not referring to the most obvious cases, such as Enron, Tyco, or WorldCom; instances where management chose to do the wrong thing and seemed to relish doing so. I’d like to address a more subtle type of conflict – where people believe they are doing good for the greater cause, but are in fact serving their own egos and personal agendas. Let’s look at few examples.

JetBlue Airways recently made headlines after the worst operations breakdown in its seven-year history led to more than 1,000 canceled flights. There’s been just as much good news about the way chief executive David Neeleman responded to the crisis - by bending over backward to admit failure, accept responsibility, apologize and compensate customers for their inconvenience. Everyone from public relations experts to aviation analysts is praising Neeleman for doing things that are largely unheard of in corporate America.2
Such humility has not always been characteristic of Neeleman. For years he’d captured the media’s attention as an upstart taking on the big cats. He became so enamored with this vision of himself as David (JetBlue) taking on Goliath (big airlines) that he failed to notice when he and his company had become Goliath. That failure resulted in the alienation of his employees, an ailing corporate culture, and an inability to make long-term decisions. Neeleman woke up in time. His story has a happy ending, but that’s not always the case.

In interviews and speeches, Dachis smugly proclaimed that his company was superior to its Old Guard competition because it was created with a New Economy mindset. After Razorfish went public in 1999, valuing his stake at $77 million, he claimed he was worth every penny…"There are sheep and there are shepherds, and I fancy myself to be the latter," he told The New York Times.

Now, Dachis is paying the price for his hubris. Talk to him today, and you'll meet a chastened 34-year-old. He says his new mantra is: "Be humble because in success, humility will win, and in failure, humility will win." These days, Dachis is focusing on just one thing--turning his company around.3

But Dachis’ humility was short-lived. He continued to spout off in the media, cementing his reputation as the bad boy of Silicon Alley (NYC). He failed to turn Razorfish around and in 2004 Razorfish, Inc. was acquired by SBI Group. Dachis was no longer part of the company, having left the company in 2001. Under new management, SBI.Razorfish managed a change in fortunes, leading to a buy-out by Microsoft in 2007 as part of a $6.0 billion cash purchase of their parent company, aQuantive.4 Dachis recently surfaced as the CEO of a new company called Bond Art and Science. Their clients include MTV Networks,, Armani Exchange, and The Week.5 Time will tell if he has learned his lesson.

My own experience with humility and power was short and bittersweet. In 1985, I became the artistic/managing director of a small theatre company in Minneapolis, MN. It was a young, promising company that had garnered the attention of several local critics. It continued to grow under my leadership, receiving a second ‘Critic’s Choice’ award from the Star & Tribune. I was elated. So were those around me; a group of very talented individuals. But I failed to listen to their advice, taking the theatre on a path of my own design which resulted in my resignation in 1987 and a slow, embarrassing death for the company by 1991.

It was a hard lesson to learn. In hindsight, my choices were self-serving; my arrogance appalling. I had failed to listen to others. I had failed to make the right decisions for the right reasons.

Theatre is an ego driven business. It was my cause. I felt justified making the decisions I did in a quest for artistic integrity. In doing so, that quest became derailed; tainted by my ego and my own private, petty agendas. My sense of self became entwined with the fortunes and failures of the theatre company. Because I failed to separate the two, both suffered. I lost my way because I lost my compass of common sense - I had forgotten the lessons gleaned from Eliot’s verse.

When I returned to college I decided to pursue a degree in business, not theatre. I was lacking something and couldn’t continue approaching theatre in the same way. During my thirty years in theatre, time and again I’d witnessed artistic promise undermined by a lack of business knowledge. I’ve learned many valuable lessons through the case studies that I’ve analyzed during my time at Augsburg. Hindsight is a great teacher. We learn from our own mistakes and those of others. History enlightens. It also humbles.

Humility in business takes courage and vigilance. Those in power must constantly question their motives when making decisions. They must consider the big picture in the long run and listen to the counsel of others. They must be selfless, making decisions with humility, not hubris. For those not in positions of power, they must gently question the choices of peers and superiors when they sense the taint of ego or hidden agendas. These are not easy things to do. But history has proven, and my studies at Augsburg have shown, that success without integrity and humility is short-lived and unsustainable.

1. Murder in the Cathedral, T.S. Eliot, 1935
2., Faith, Flight Plan Guide JetBlue Boss: Other CEOs Need his Humility by Jeff Benedict, Boston Harold, March 5, 2007
3., A Web Hotshot Learns Humility by Heather Green, BusinessWeek E.Biz, March 19, 2001
4., Microsoft to Buy Aquantive for $6 Billion by Margaret Kane and Dawn Kawamoto, CNET, May 18, 2007