How to Sing “Fairytale of New York” at Karaoke without Sounding Like a Jerk

The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s “Fairytale of New York” is obviously one of the best Christmas songs of all time. It’s a lively tune with a melancholy final verse (oh god that verse), the story of a couple that wonders if they have any good times left, a bittersweet look at the present compared to Christmases past. I sing along every time it comes on, even if that means I’m belting it out in a busy store, and it makes an excellent karaoke duet. But although it’s a perfectly crafted song, not all the words are winners. My mom came up with some alternate lyrics to one line so that you can sing without cringing, and I will now share them with you, my gift to you for this festive season.

Instead of “you scumbag, you maggot,  you cheap lousy f*ggot,” sing “you scumbag, you fungus, you cheapskate among us.” It scans, it keeps the idea of cheapness and vermin, and you cut out the slur. So go ahead, belt it out and Happy Christmas (your arse).


RIP Prince, One Year On

“It’s really hard to watch other musicians, because you tend to — you know, it’s like a painting you want to make straight or whatever. You just hear music like you hear it. It doesn’t mean that what they’re doing isn’t of merit. I just hear music different, that’s all.”
— Prince, on The Arsenio Hall Show, March 5, 2014

And lucky us, we got to eavesdrop on a little bit of how Prince heard music, in the form of all the amazing songs and performances he gave us.

After Prince’s death last year, a whole host of homages sprung up all over the place. In addition to the inevitable concerts and articles and murals, people showed their love in more unusual ways as well. A couple that I came across were based in the Midwest from which Prince came.

prince crop art

Prince crop art at the Minnesota State Fair, 2016


prince christmas lights park ridge

Prince homage in a Christmas lights display in Park Ridge, Illinois

Prince is dead. Long live Prince.

RIP David Bowie

Ten years to the day before I was born, the album Aladdin Sane was released; David Bowie’s lightning bolt was burned into my soul from the very beginning. When I heard on Monday that Bowie had died, I couldn’t really comprehend what that meant. I’d never even considered the possibility that he might be anything other than immortal.

The shrine at the Bowie mural in Brixton

The shrine at the Bowie mural in Brixton

I went to an impromptu dance party/singalong/wake on Monday night. Bowie was born in Brixton, the London neighborhood I live in, and a few years ago someone painted a mural of Bowie’s face on an alley wall near the Tube. After the news of his death, people turned it into a shrine, leaving flowers, notes, mementos. By the time I arrived at 10pm, the offerings were piled high, and the crowd was large and boisterous. I came across one woman in tears, who asked if she could hug a kindred spirit. I hugged her and told it her it was all right, the Starman had just ascended, which made her smile.

RIP David Bowie

The Ritzy, Brixton's cinema

The Ritzy, Brixton’s cinema

Because of course Bowie was an alien, he told us so himself. He was a starman, an oddity from outer space. He dressed in outlandish costumes and sang of strange worlds. He relished his position as outsider and invited everyone to join him in these new worlds of glam rock, Berlin electro-pop, and all the others.

Granted, after Ziggy Stardust he was wildly popular, hardly an outsider in terms of who was listening to him and how much money he was making. Bowie knew that, and never for a moment was he unaware of his PR or his image. You have to be calculating to be a real star. But as much as he wanted to make money and become known through his image (and what artist wants to remain unknown?), Bowie was also just interested in image creation in its own right. He was hugely into fashion, and how his look and his sound went together. He studied mime, read up on kabuki, hired cutting-edge fashion designers, watched avant garde theater, envisaged elaborate stage shows for his tours. He enjoyed so many aesthetics, and played endlessly with new looks, taking a bit from here, a bit from there, seeing what fit him in certain moods, how he felt like presenting himself at any given time.

Iman's makeup line was in the shop window next to the mural--obviously visitors decided to add the ad to the celebration

Iman’s makeup line was in the shop window next to the mural–obviously visitors decided to add the ad to the celebration

The next day

The next day

For me, when I was growing up as a fat girl in the American Midwest, I tried to say that appearances didn’t matter, that the only thing worth seeing about a person is what’s on the inside. I wanted to forget all about how I looked, what I wore, how I presented myself, because I felt ungainly and undesirable. The more I saw of Bowie’s photos and videos, the more I came to understand that you shouldn’t care what others think of your appearance, but that your appearance should matter to you, for your own enjoyment.

Dress how you feel, wear whatever makes you feel alive. If you feel like a starman, put on that glitter jumpsuit. If you feel like a lounge lizard, bust out the fedora. The idea that you could have fun with what you wore and how you presented to the world excited me, even if it took me a long time after my teenage years to try it out myself.

Goblin King, 2009

Goblin King, 2009

I often bore people at parties by listing the different Bowie personas I’ve taken on for Halloween: Ziggy Stardust, Jareth the Goblin King from Labyrinth (complete with an entourage of Sarah and Hoggle), elder statesman of rock with my boyfriend in drag as Iman. Taking on those personas, which are after all personas that Bowie himself put on, is layering my admiration of him with my desire to mess with gender. It’s also another way for me to perform, and be loud, which I enjoy. When I’m dressed as Bowie, I have a lot of wonderful conversations with people who are also fans. Any time I’m in a Bowie getup, everyone is very friendly; people respond to that joyful expression.

Ziggy Stardust (with original tour makeup!), 2008

Ziggy Stardust (with makeup as it was done on the original tour!), 2008

Even better is that I look pretty much nothing like him (I’m always joking that some year I’ll dress all in white and go as the Thin White Duke, just to watch people squirm when they ask who I am). I’m not sure what Bowie would think about my very homemade, very large costumes when he was always so immaculately turned out. I’d like to think he’d say something like, ‘Go on with yer fat self, babe.’

In 2013, the Bowie-authorized David Bowie Is… exhibit opened at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. My parents immediately bought me a ticket as a birthday present. It was a fascinating exhibit, an integration of sound and vision, as you wore headphones that picked up on Bluetooth signals around the room, so when you were in this area reading about the surprise hit that was “Space Oddity,” you were hearing that, and when you walked over here to read about his influences, John Coltrane’s sax wailed in your ears.

At the David Bowie Is... exhibit

At the David Bowie Is… exhibit

Ah this photographer did not get what I was going for, oh well

Ah this photographer did not get what I was going for, oh well

It’s no secret that Bowie’s influences are varied and wide, including German philosophers, Japanese designers, American musicians, British authors, French artists, and many more. He was a voracious learner, and he enjoyed sharing what he’d learned with others. This wide-ranging interest applied to fellow artists as well. He was always seeking out new sounds, and he generously boosted the profile of musicians he enjoyed. He did this throughout his career, at least as recently as singing with Arcade Fire when they were just breaking big.

That’s another aspect to him that some see, that he would just pick at the parts of other artists’ work that he enjoyed and suit it to his own needs. But unlike some artists who cannibalize what they claim to love, I can’t think of any instance of Bowie diminishing what he borrowed from. He approached art and expression with real enthusiasm but also an almost detached air, like an engineer who wants to put things together in various combinations until he finds the one that best does what he wants to do. Bowie took elements of soul, jazz, rock, and pop, and played with those combinations over the course of his 50-year career.

I love that he was so interested in other artists. I know too many musicians and writers who don’t do much listening or reading to others, which means they’re drawing from a very small pool of their own experiences and ideas when they create. Bowie drew from an entire ocean of artists, which is surely one of the reasons we love him so much: his sound is fuller, more complex and interesting, than artists who don’t paddle out of their comfort zone.

Brixton sidewalk

Brixton sidewalk

Bowie’s songs are all about isolation, loneliness, fear, trying to understand what we’re doing here and trying to connect with others (as he himself has said). Because after all, Bowie wasn’t an alien, he was very human, singing in his sweet, thin tenor about our human hopes and woes. He created art as a way to be in this world, and as a response to it. He wrote, sang, played instruments, danced, acted, choreographed, drew, painted, directed–there was always something to create, a new way to re-order the information in the world, a different key to express himself in.

I have always loved Bowie for the major creative force he was. He approached the world with curiosity, a healthy amount of cynicism, and most beautifully, with joy and love. His songs are all about reaching out to others, and the nearly unbridgeable gap between yourself and any other person in the world, but I never quite got the sense that he considered the task impossible. Even in an absurd and often terrible world, there’s music to be made. So I think that’s what we must do. We must name our fears, we must put them into songs and poems and films, we must share them with one another. If we’re lucky, we’ll find some of that same wonder and tenderness that David Bowie showed us.

Oh no love, you’re not alone
No matter what or who you’ve been
No matter when or where you’ve seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain
You’re not alone…
Gimme your hands, ‘cos you’re wonderful

Keith Moon Is Turning Over in His Grave


The actual line in the song is “Hope I die before I get old,” for fuck’s sake. My feelings on this are complicated because of course Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey have continued touring well beyond middle age, never mind while in the blush and fury of youth, and some of their later stuff is great, and I loved seeing them in concert in 2002, when they undoubtedly rocked.

But still. This shirt. It’s all the smugness and sellout commercialism of the Boomers in one t-shirt. Burn it to the ground.

David Bowie is…: Happy Belated Birthday to Me

Hey, remember when I did this?

Ziggy Stardust, sans Spiders

Ziggy Stardust, sans Spiders

And this?

Jareth, Goblin King, from "Labyrinth"

Jareth, Goblin King, from “Labyrinth” — tempting Sarah to join my world

I’m a big David Bowie fan, so when my mom saw that the Victoria & Albert Museum in London was having a special exhibit approved by the man himself, she knew she’d found my birthday present. It was such an anticipated exhibit that when I looked for tickets in March, all of April, May, and June had sold out. I actually changed some of my plans just so I could be in London for today, July 11, to see this exhibit.

I don’t know all his music well (the Berlin period is one I really want to dive into more), and I don’t like everything he’s done (let’s not ever speak of the “Dancing in the Streets” video), but I find Bowie fascinating. He’s always trying something new, in a combination of original and appropriated ideas that no other musical artist has perfected quite as well, and he makes some damn fine tunes.

I wish you all a Bowie-filled day, whether that means “Suffragette City” or “Heroes” or “Queen Bitch” or “Golden Years” or “Ashes to Ashes” or “The Next Day.” Now I’m off to see how a Gucci-sponsored exhibit called “David Bowie is…” presents the man and the music.

Valentine’s Day Mix (Not Mine)

Dearest fellow travelers, I had every intention of creating a Valentine’s mix for you again this year, but every time I went to Grooveshark it crashed on me. We are talking through it and expect to emerge stronger than ever on the other side, but for now it’s a difficult time. So in lieu of my Motown-heavy list, might I direct you to The Rejectionist’s indieriffic playlist? (The Rejectionist is a stellar writer and also, as it turns out, a good DJ.)

It’s manufactured, it’s silly, but Valentine’s Day can also be a time to smile more at the people you love, and that’s always a good thing.

It’s a day late, but of course I wish you the best Galentine’s Day too. Leslie 4evah.

Valentine's Day blurry hearts


Playing for Change

Several months ago, the video “Stand by Me” went viral, and the eyes of many all over the world welled up with tears at the sight of musicians all over the world playing the same song, separated by distance but united by song. Turns out the organization that distributed that video, Playing for Change, has been busy making many more such videos, touring the United States with some of the featured musicians, and starting up a foundation to build music schools in communities worldwide. The snazzy website features some fun and some touching videos, like “One Love,” “La Tierra del Olvido,” “Satchita,” and “Gimme Shelter.” And at first I was a little wary of the whole operation.

“Good grief, Lisa, will you never just be satisfied with a good thing when you see it?” I hear you asking. And the answer is no, I will always want to look critically at an organization to find its shortcomings, so that I can 1) be fully aware of what efforts I’m supporting, and 2) be in a position to offer constructive criticism to that organization. Mostly, I saw the artists page, which looks like this:

And then I saw the crew page, which looks like this:

And I thought, “Uh oh, white people, what are you doing?”

Because we are so terrified of being called racists that we won’t even talk about racism in this country, white Americans are sorely uneducated about their own privilege and what they can do about it. This leads to a whole lot of nastiness on the more conservative side of the spectrum, and well-meaning condescension of the “let us tell you how to fix your life” variety on the liberal side. None of which goes very far toward mending race relations in the US.

Granted, the whole aim of this project is to go global, to not be confined to the United States. But look at that crew, and the founder, and the company that owns their for-profit arm; they’re all white folks who are likely living a pretty comfortable lifestyle. Contrast that with the artist pages, which shows many people of color in small, poor villages, and maybe you can see why I’m wary of the relationship.

But after I looked into the site more and saw more videos about the foundation, I’m happy to say I think there’s much more good than harm going on here.

Saving the world is a wonderful goal, of course, so long as you’re aware that you can’t do it on your own or all your way. Fortunately, PFC seems to get this. They hold a passionate belief that music is a uniting force that can and will bring peace to the world. They find musicians who share the same belief, and they work together to put the ideal into practice.

Their foundation came about from asking some of the musicians who came from poorer backgrounds, “What can we do to help?” Not “you should do this” — a crucial difference. It was the musicians who said they wanted to schools to teach the next generation how to make music and be a force for peace. The people of Kirina in Mali took the money and supplies provided and built their own school; no outsider crusaders doing it for them and expecting gratitude. This is the kind of assistance — monetary, material, non-invasive — that activists the world over consistently say is the best, most sustainable kind. Kudos to PFC for getting that right.

Everyone involved in the project is devoted to the idea that music can and must be a force for good in the world, that the act of creating music is a unifying one. I absolutely agree, and it’s encouraging to watch thousands of musicians, videographers, editors, villagers, and audience members from all corners of the earth enthusiastically supporting this idea. Check out the participation page on the PFC site to see how you can support an organization supporting the work of musicians and peacemakers all over the world.

And enjoy the music.

Christmas Downers: Tis the Season for Sad Music

As you can probably tell from all the Monday and Wednesday photo features, I’m really into Christmas. I have nothing but fond memories of the season, complete with cutting down our own tree, singing in the pageant at church, and gleefully opening presents from Santa. All that was set to a soundtrack of cheer, of course, and I start listening to Christmas music right around Thanksgiving (ok, ok, sometimes before).

aww have some egg nog and listen to this, you'll feel... about the same

But some of the best Christmas music is the sad stuff, the songs that address the melancholy inherent in a relentlessly upbeat holiday season. Once you’re grown and the magic of Christmas as a conduit for gifts and family visits has passed, the holiday gets shaded with new meanings, usually wistfully nostalgic. Whether it’s a lost love you can’t forget or just a general sense of loneliness, there’s nothing quite like the isolation you feel if you’re alone or blue during the season of nearly maniacal happiness. And I’d wager that most of us have felt that at some point during the long haul from Thanksgiving to Christmas Day. Here’s a playlist on Grooveshark for when you’re in that mood.


Aesthetically Speaking: Em Findley

I’ve written about the singing and songwriting talents of Emily before, but here’s some more. Clearly I’m a big fan, and anyone who has heard Em sing has heard one of the strongest voices out there. It’s Em’s birthday week, so send well wishes in the comments, won’t you? Thanks for sharing, Em!

What is your name and city of residence?
Emily Findley, Brooklyn, NY

What medium do you work in?


How often do you work on your art–is it a full-time endeavor or something you work on in your spare time?

Most definitely part-time/spare time. When the mood strikes me, MAYBE once a week?

How does art fit into your life, in general? Is it something you think about and talk about every day, or every week, or only in certain situations, etc.?

Music is what I know at my core, what I think I am best at, and what I would like to spend my time “doing.” Rather than going everywhere and doing everything, I am quite content to be sitting (or moving!) and listening to melodies and harmonies that inspire me.

When you start on a piece, what kind of end result do you have in mind? Does it get performed or published, put in a permanent form or is it more temporary?

All of the above! Sometimes it’s just one chord progression with a tune or sometimes it’s an entire song. Sometimes I sing it just for myself or sometimes I get up on stage.

What goals do you set in relation to your art, both short- and long-term? Is it something you hope to make money doing, or is it something you want to keep uncommercialized? Does the term “sell-out” hold meaning for you or do you see the art/commerce relationship as a necessary one?

If I could be the next American Idol without the glitter, I would be! Just kidding. If I could be a “known” singer/songwriter, that would be amazing. Or maybe, if I could just open for the bands that I love, THAT would be a dream. If I could actually make money from singing, well, wouldn’t that be fly!

What role does collaboration with others play in your art, if any?

I’ve spent a long time looking for “the one” person to sing with. When Lizzie and I sing together, I feel like I have found that person. I also love it when I get up in front of a room full of people and everyone sings along. I also welcome edits and collaboration on what I’ve written, which is what a lot of my family members (ahem, Lisa) have given me.

How conscious are you of your artistic influences? Who are your artistic influences?

I tend to write from someone else’s bravery. When I hear what someone else has done, I know that I can do it, too. Indigo Girls, Girlyman, Motown, girl groups, tight harmonies, my family members.

Since this is a travel blog, how does travel relate to or affect your art? (Themes in what you produce, road trips to perform your music, thoughts on what happens to your painting when you ship it across the country to a customer, etc.)

Music can go wherever you go. I hope that my music follows me. Or rather than following me, I hope that I make the conscious effort to bring it with me, to perform in new places or just to experience my music in different places because that brings me a new experience of what I have created.

And finally, a right-brain question: If your art was a map, what would it be a map of?

The heart.

Just kidding! Well, not really. But maybe bicycle and paths?

If you’d like, share your website/Facebook page and any upcoming gigs/plans you’d like readers to know about.
Music has, unfortunately, been a low priority for me for far too long. For me, it has felt like a lot of other life things have gotten in the way. But in my center I know that it’s always the biggest part of me so even though I’m not writing or performing, I know that, and that makes me feel ok.