Saturday, November 30, 2019

Rock Stars

I'm starting off my second post in a row with a term that has both a literal and figurative meaning in common parlance. Figuratively I'm not sure why "rock star" has been singled out as a superlative term as opposed to say "movie star" or "sports star", as all of these folks receive obsessive adulation, some of it deserved, most of it not, by the general public. By the same token, given the state of our society today, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the terms "art star", "literary star", or "intellectual star", just don't have the same impact or better put, pizzazz. What can I say, our  values are skewed, we really really value pizzazz in this country.

Yet it's funny, there doesn't seem to be a commonly agreed upon definition for what is the figurative  meaning of  "rock star", or if  you prefer, "rockstar".

The following are just some of the definitions of "rock star" I found in articles on the web devoted to contemporary vernacular:
  • a talented person
  • a star or celebrity in any field or profession, or anyone who is highly admired
  • shorthand for a virtuosity so exalted it borders on genius
  • someone who fucks all night beyond belief
  • A person who always delivers the goods. If they say they are going to do something they do. Rockstars tend to downplay their success and don't like the attention. They simply deliver consistent results.

I suppose what we can gather from this brief list is that the term can mean whatever you want, in other words, rock stardom is in the mind of the beholder. Speaking of beholders, see if you can guess which definition comes straight out of a New York Times Magazine article on the subject. You can read it here for the answer. 

Because of its nebulous definition, many folks believe the figurative term rock star is something to be avoided. This is from an article in a web site devoted to job searching called TheMuse, with the cloyingly alliterative heading: Business Buzzwords to Banish From Your Vocabulary:
“We need someone smart for this project. We’re looking for a rock star.” 
“She’s a real programming ninja—the best engineer we have.” 
Whether you’re sitting in on an annual performance review at a consulting firm or talking to a hiring manager at a tech company, you’ll hear these absurd non-titles everywhere. But unless your co-worker has actually toured with Mötley Crüe or wields nunchucks at the office, there is no reason to call her a rock star or a ninja. Also to be avoided: guru, wizard, and god. If someone has excelled professionally, praise her for what she’s actually done—don’t rely on cutesy hyperbole.
By and large I agree with this assessment when it comes to language that needs to be absolutely clear and unequivocal. That's what legalese is for. But not everything needs to be spoken or written as if it were a legally binding contract. Just as there is a time and place for legalese, so too is there a time and place for as those masters of cloying alliteration above call it, "cutesy hyperbole."

Truth be told, I actually like the term "rock star". I find it, at least in the vernacular to be a suitable replacement for the much abused word "hero." A hero is someone who willfully performs a noble act in the service of others with little or no regard to his or her own safely or well being. First responders are a perfect example of heroes in my estimation. So are people who fight for what is right despite the possible grave consequences that may befall them for doing so. The Civil Rights leaders of the sixties are a good example, as are journalists the world over who risk their lives, and all too often sacrifice them, by simply doing their job. Soldiers on the battlefield are another example although is must be pointed out that it all depends upon which side you're on. In other words it's hard to call a soldier fighting on the other side, one whose job it is to kill your countrymen and women, and perhaps you or your family, a hero.

But we often use the word "heroic" to describe acts that do not measure up to the true meaning of that word. For example it is used to describe sports, movie and TV celebrities, politicians, and a slew of other folks who perform particularly well in their field of endeavor or perform acts of kindness or charity. While these maybe note-worthy accomplishments, or acts of extreme benevolence, they just don't fit the definition of heroic.

In other words I think the words hero and heroic are special and should be used sparingly so as not dilute their meaning.

Not so the term "rock star". Anybody can be a rock star, at least in the figurative sense. My preferred definition of the term comes closest to the last one found on the list above, the one that starts with: "A person who always delivers the goods..." Now if you look at the second half of that definition, the part that starts: "Rockstars tend to downplay their success...", I think we'd all agree that literal rock stars don't always exhibit that characteristic. Yet since rock star can mean whatever you want it to mean, I think people generally understand it to be a reflection of the values of the person using the term. For me, that definition perfectly describes what I find to be admirable traits in people and ones I try to emulate. Once again, in language, with the exception of legalese, context is everything.

Oh I might add one other component to the mix, the true rock star ability to look adversity straight in the face and say: "eh."

That said, here are a few well publicized examples of rock stardom, of people delivering the goods in spite of adversity, some of whom are bona fide rock stars in the literal sense of the term:

The first is one of the most thrilling moments in a sporting event I have personally witnessed (on TV), Kirk Gibson's limping up to the plate in his one and only appearance in the 1988 World Series, against the best relief pitcher in baseball that year, Dennis Eckersley. The call here by the legendary Vin Scully is almost as beautiful, memorable and rock star-like as the event itself :

Aretha Franklin was dubbed "The Queen of Soul." But as I mentioned in my tribute to her written shortly after her death last year, that title is a vast understatement. She proved that to be the case during the telecast of the 1999 Emmy Awards. The operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti was scheduled to perform his signature aria "Nessun Dorma" from Pucclini's opera Turandot. But as he was wont to do in the latter part of his career, one half hour before the show was to begin, Pavarotti called the producer and said he was sick and couldn't perform. With true "show must go on" spirit, and a 100 piece orchestra and chorus waiting in the wings to perform, Franklin stepped into Pavarotti's enormous shoes, and live in front of an audience of thousands and a TV audience of tens of millions. as she did with everything else, she made Nessun Dorma her own:

If there was a single person who defined the term "Rock Star" in both the literal and figurative sense, it was Prince. He was in fact the Rock Star's Rock Star as Eric Clapton once pointed out. Someone once asked Clapton, (pretty high in the Rock Star pantheon himself): "how does it feel to be the greatest guitarist in the world?" "I don't know.." Clapton responded, "...ask Prince."

At the induction ceremony for George Harrison,  (himself a beautiful if somewhat reluctant rock star of the highest magnitude) at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 2004, Prince (who was also inducted at the event), joined other rock stars on stage to perform Harrison's classic tune While My Guitar Gently Weeps. In the first half of the song,  Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne traded  lead vocals while guitarist Marc Mann re-created virtually note for note Eric Clapton's iconic solo from the original recording of the song. It was a respectful if somewhat uninspired performance, that is until Prince took over during the outro which is four minutes of pure rock and roll star magic. Here is a link to a piece from Guitar Player Magazine which includes a video of that performance.

But the clip I want to share is from a couple years later when Prince signed on to do the half-time show at Super Bowl XLI in Miami. Those big game gigs are usually reserved for the biggest of the big music acts of the time, as they are assured of reaching a televised audience of around 100 million viewers, and the price of a 30 second television ad exceeds the GDP of many countries. The other thing about these performances is that they usually suck. Most of the time, given the conditions of a stage that has to be set up in about five minutes, a lousy sound system. the limited time for the act, and the urge to create the biggest bang for the buck with the grandest of rock star egos usually lip-synching to their recordings because of the bad conditions, most SB Half Time shows are best remembered for their embarrassing moments. And on the night of February 4, 2007, all systems were go for the biggest train wreck of them all as for the first time in Super Bowl history, it was pouring rain. With much concern about the safety of the performers (not to mention pulling off the act), due to the electrical equipment on the stage and dance moves performed on a rain-soaked slippery stage with shall we say, less than sensible footwear, the producers warned Prince about the hazards present that evening. They asked if he might be interested in toning back his performance. His response was simple: "Can you make it rain more?"

In the past few weeks, we witnessed some rock star quality performances that equaled or surpassed these three performances above in terms of delivering the goods in the face of adversity. None of them were undertaken by professional performers and the stage on which they performed could not have been farther removed from the field of entertainment. What makes these performances fit perfectly into my preferred definition of a rock star, is that none of these performers asked for, nor seemed to enjoy the attention they were given, and they downplayed their own accomplishments. They just delivered the goods.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, is, (and probably soon will be, was), a top specialist on Ukraine on the National Security Council. In that role he was privy to a July conversation between the President of the United States and his Ukrainian counterpart, shortly after the latter was sworn into office. In that conversation, the US president asked his counterpart to launch an investigation into his major Democratic rival  in the upcoming 2020 presidential election, Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Vindman was concerned that this was an attempt by a US president to abuse his power, and brought the matter to the attention of the legal staff on the National Security Council.

It should be noted that Vindman was not the only person listening in on that conversation who was concerned of wrongdoing at the highest level and reported it to the NSC; there were in fact six of them. Vindman's reports contributed to an independent whistleblower complaint with the intelligence inspector general. Only after that complaint was made public, did the US President release funds long before approved by Congress in support of Ukraine to help them with their ongoing war against Russia. This led to speculation that the president was withholding desperately needed assistance to an ally, using it as leverage to encourage a foreign government to interfere in a US election, in clear violation of the law. These events are the basis for the current impeachment investigation against the president.

You can read the whistleblower complaint here. Notice the exact language used and the fact that the term "rock star" does not appear once in the complaint.

Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was the US ambassador to Ukraine until she was relieved of her duties in late April of 2019. She was the recipient of the president's ire allegedly for refusing to participate in the scheme that would have Ukraine investigate Joe Biden and his son's alleged acts of corruption in that country, allegations which at least so far have proven to be unfounded. In the months before her firing, she was the target of a smear campaign led by the president's personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani who accused her of trying to undermine the president. In the above mentioned phone call, the US president told his counterpart:
The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news and the people she was dealing with in the Ukraine were bad news so I just want to let you know that...
During the investigation phase of the impeachment hearings, her boss Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made every attempt to impede her testimony before the Congressional impeachment committees. In a letter to Pompeo, ten senators contributed to the following:
For months, Ambassador Yovanovitch faced political attacks based on disinformation and statements later proven to be false...

Throughout these events, you have said nothing publicly in her defense. You have not made a single remark defending Ambassador Yovanovitch or heralding her more than three decades of service to the American people.
It would come out in the hearings last week that Pompeo was himself directly involved in the attempts to persuade the Ukrainians to investigate the Bidens.

For her part, Yovanovitch has a long and distinguished record of service to the diplomatic corps often taking hardship posts in dangerous countries. With the exception of Giuliani and his boss, she is universally respected and has been vigorously defended by her peers.

Former White House national security adviser Dr. Fiona Hill would be the last witness in the current round of testimony before the house impeachment committee.  Hill's background in Russia goes back to her university days when she studied the language at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. She was witness to history as an intern for NBC news when she was present at the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow in 1987

Hill holds a Masters Degree in Russian and modern history and a PhD in history, both from Harvard. She has a long and distinguished career as an intelligence analyst of Russia and Eurasia, working for the Brookings Institution, and the National Intelligence Council, intermixed with various governmental appointments from Presidents GW Bush, Obama, and Trump. In that latter post, she served as the Deputy Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European and Russian Affairs on his National Security Council Staff until her resignation on July 19 of this year, six days before the now infamous telephone conversation.

All three delivered riveting testimony before the impeachment committee to the best of their abilities, given their varied inside positions in the government. Lt. Col Vindman, born in Ukraine, then a part of the USSR, emigrated to this country with his father and two brothers when he was three. In his opening remarks before the committee, he directly addressed his father assuring him that his fate in testifying against the president of this country would be much different than had they been in Russia:
In Russia, my act of expressing my concerns to the chain of command in an official and private channel would have severe personal and professional repercussions and offering public testimony involving the president would surely cost me my life.

...Dad, my sitting here today, in the U.S. Capitol talking to our elected officials, is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.
Vindman like Yovanovitch was at the wrong end of a vicious smear campaign from the Right, who questioned his loyalty to this country despite his exemplary service in the US military which includes a purple heart, the result of an injury sustained during the explosion of a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2004. Despite the outrageous invectives hurled at him by Republicans, he stood proudly as an American soldier in full dress uniform before the impeachment committee, and politely but directly corrected the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, the lead cheerleader for the president, Devin Nunes, when he inappropriately addressed the US Army officer as "Mr. Vindman."

Lt. Col. Vindman is a Rock Star in my book. I give him the Tom Petty award for not backing down in the face of constant intimidation from the Republicans and the president.

Perhaps the most memorable moment in Ambassador Yovanovitch's testimony came when Committee Chairman Adam Schiff relayed freshly tweeted slams at her from none other than the president of the United States. Split screen footage of Schiff and Yovanovitch shows the ambassador's reaction to the unprecedented attack, first slight bemusement, then with a calm but stern response in defense of her record:

That response bespeaks the clearheaded professionalism she exhibited during her career and her testimony. Her performance resulted in a standing ovation from all present in room, including the Republicans. She gets the George Harrison award from me for her quiet determination, her steady professionalism, and her reluctance to take center stage. (see above link to Tom Petty award).

Finally the Prince award, and there is certainly no competition here, goes to Fiona Hill for her take-no-prisoners testimony before the committee. Here is her opening statement:

I think the Republicans knew they were in trouble when the text of these remarks were released before she delivered them. Dr. Hill as you can hear, said at the outset that she would have none of the bullshit (not the word she used) the Republicans were spewing about the Ukrainians' so-called involvement with the interference in the 2016 presidential election. She made it crystal clear that unlike the current US president, she has more faith in US intelligence than in the President of Russia, by stating emphatically that it was the Russians alone who hacked into the last election as they most certainly will the next one. And furthermore she stated that our institutions of freedom and democracy are in danger because some Americans (she didn't need to say which ones), are propagating the false Russian narrative on election tampering.

Then it came out how truly badass she is when she was asked to recount a story about the time in school when a bully set her pigtails on fire as she was taking a test, She put the fire out using her bare hands, then returned to taking the test.

So untouchable and unflappable was she, that the defenders of the president, aka all the Republicans on the committee, gave up asking her questions and used their time to pontificate on all their irrelevant talking points in an attempt to obfuscate the hearings. But she wouldn't have any of that either:

It should be pointed out that Vindman, Yovankovitch and Hill are all naturalized US citizens, none of them were born here. To some, that is immediate grounds to question their loyalty to this country. But think about it, people who were born here have no point of reference, especially if their ancestors were born here as well. Dr. Hill pointed out that brilliant as she is, (my words not hers), she couldn't get into Oxford in her own rigidly class-conscious society because of her working class accent. So she emigrated here and went to Harvard, England's loss, our gain.

I never met a person in my life who loved this country more than my father, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia who experienced first hand, life under Nazisim in Germany and Soviet style communism in his home country. Vindman's assurance to his father was, or at least should have been a clarion call to all Americans of the threats we face when we take our laws and the rights our constitution affords us for granted. My father for one would be heartbroken if he were around today to witness the dangerous game of footsie this current president is playing with brutal dictators, especially the one from Russia. And he would have been further devastated to see the way some of his fellow Americans support the man and his actions.

To some native born Americans, empty gestures like standing for the National Anthem, hugging a flag, or blindly supporting an obviously dangerous and corrupt president whom they happen to like, are acts of patriotism. But these three great Americans understand first hand what is truly special about this country. In testifying before the country to help correct a wrong they see as having dire consequences for the future this republic, they have put their careers, their reputations, and perhaps even their lives in jeopardy. These are true patriots indeed.

These words of Dr. Hill's bear repeating:
Our nation is being torn apart. Truth is questioned. Our highly professional and expert career Foreign Service is being undermined. U.S. support for Ukraine—which continues to face armed Russian aggression—has been politicized .The Russian government’s goal is to weaken our country, to diminish America’s global role, and to neutralize a perceived U.S. threat to Russian interests.
Talk about delivering.

Badass Dr. Hill is not only a Prince caliber Rock Star, she's a Ninja as well. And I think I'll make an exception to a point I made above.

She, Vindman and Yovanovitch are also my heroes.

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