Debunking the myths of ’99 Problems’

So it turns out that, contrary to all appearances, Jay-Z is not the world’s foremost legal scholar after all.

Caleb Mason, a law professor at Southwestern Law School recently published a 19 page legal analysis of Jay-Z’s 2004 hit “99 Problems” in the “Saint Louis University Law Journal.”

In it, Mason picks apart the second verse of the song line by line and describes its various legal implications. (In the song, Jay-Z admits he “ain’t passed the bar” but contends he still knows a little bit about the law.)

For those unfamiliar with Hov’s masterpiece, the second verse describes an encounter with a racist police officer who pulls him over for driving one mile an hour above the speed limit. (Jay-Z says the account is based on a real incident.)

Jay-Z mulls the option of stepping on the gas and giving the officer a chase, as he is carrying narcotics in his trunk, but decides against it because he has the financial means to fight the case in court if need be.

The officer asks to look around the car a little bit, to which Jay-Z responds, “Well my glove compartment is locked so is the trunk and the back, and I know my rights so you gon’ need a warrant for that.”

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Critic’s lawsuit struck a chord

Longtime Cleveland Plain Dealer classical music critic Don Rosenberg last week lost his lawsuit against the paper and the Cleveland Orchestra, which he alleged forced him out of his position because of negative reviews in 2008. (Rosenberg has been re-assigned on the paper’s staff.)

Many in the classical music world have already weighed in. But I thought the best takes were those that spoke of the larger issue at play here: the role of the arts and the arts critic in society. It’s something Glenn Beck has discussed in recent weeks, taking Baltimore to task for maintaining funding levels on the Lyric despite all of its budget woes.

Martin Bernheimer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, wrote in the Financial Times that Rosenberg’s case is an “alarming sign of the times”:

As government cuts of arts subsidies start to bite all over Europe, especially in Britain, there is talk of relying on “the American model.” That means an increased reliance on individual contributions – which goes along with an acceptance, presumably, of the individual powers that accompany substantial donations. Where does critical independence fit into this?

Chicago Tribune movie critic Michael Phillips wrote it’s a healthy sign when the triangular relationship between critic, newspaper and art community gets “sticky.”

There is so much fear and self-censorship in the critics’ ranks in America today. There are so few full-time salaries. You can smell the caution and paranoia in too many reviews weighed down by generalities and a stenographer’s devotion to “objectivity,” which isn’t what this endeavor is about at all. It’s about informed, vividly argued subjectivity.

Phillips also responded to Beck:

Criticism is a way of writing about life, and the world, and a symphony’s place in it, or a performer’s, or a photograph’s. …[N]o matter how frightening the economy, we must remind ourselves that we demonize the humanities… at the risk of becoming a nation we don’t want to become.

The ‘Shaggy defense’ and other pop-culture legal strategies

A recent declaration by our sister publication, Virginia Lawyers Weekly, that the “Shaggy defense” is a term of legal art went national this week.

That’s thanks to Slate, the online magazine that picked up a recent VLW story on a U.S. District Court judge’s ruling on a summary judgment motion. In Preston v. Morton, David Morton said he was working on traffic lights in a bucket truck when William Preston, driving a tractor trailer, hit the truck.

Preston’s defense? “It wasn’t me.”

You can read more about U.S. District Judge Jackson Kiser’s opinion in the civil case here. The defense — coined during the 2008 child pornography trial of singer R. Kelly and attributed to the song “It Wasn’t Me” by reggae star Shaggy — got me thinking of other uses of popular culture in cases. As someone who has not gone through law school, this kind of terminology helps me to understand the basic facts.

For example, South Park taught me one way to win a case is with the Chewbacca defense. O.J. Simpson’s intrepid lawyer, Johnnie Cochrane, was cartoon-ized on “South Park” in the season 2 episode “Chef Aid.” He wins his case despite an absurd argument:

“Why would a Wookiee, an eight-foot-tall Wookiee, want to live on Endor? If Chewbacca lives on Endor you must acquit!” he shouted to the jury.

Here are two other cases that show popular culture making its way into law:

  • The Matrix defense: Three defendants claimed insanity from being convinced they committed the crimes in a Matrix-like virtual reality. Two were found not guilty, but Joshua Cooke, accused of murdering his parents in February 2003, ended up pleading guilty later that year.
  • The Twinkie defense: Dan White, a former San Francisco city supervisor, claimed that junk food diminished his mental capacity, resulting in the murder of city mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978. White’s lawyer successfully argued the case and the sentence was reduced to manslaughter.

Singing Filipinos don’t go ‘My Way’

I don’t do karaoke, but I’ve thought I should have some go-to karaoke songs if ever in a position where my singing could save a damsel in distress or my own life. (Preliminary list: Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy With It”, Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” and, of course, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin.’”)

Now, thanks to The New York Times, I know that if my sing-or-death scenario ever happens in the Philippines, there is one song absolutely to avoid – Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”

According to The Times:

The authorities do not know exactly how many people have been killed warbling “My Way” in karaoke bars over the years in the Philippines, or how many fatal fights it has fueled. But the news media have recorded at least half a dozen victims in the past decade and includes them in a subcategory of crime dubbed the “My Way Killings.”

The story does not say if anyone has been prosecuted for the karaoke-related attacks, unlike a Seattle woman charged in 2007 with hitting a man as he began singing Coldplay’s “Yellow.” But it does point out that karaoke is something of a national pastime on the archipelago, and many karaoke bar owners have simply removed the Sinatra standard from their playlists.

No one is quite sure why “My Way” elicits such a deadly response, but The Times offers an anecdotally-based guess:

Filipinos, who pride themselves on their singing, may have a lower tolerance for bad singers. Indeed, most of the “My Way” killings have reportedly occurred after the singer sang out of tune, causing other patrons to laugh or jeer.

Yup, I’ll stick to practicing those Steve Perry high notes.

Brought to you by the number “40″

Sesame Street turns 40 today. I’ll let that sink in for a minute.

(Yes, I know, it was only yesterday you were a kid watching it, where did the time go, etc. etc.)

Big Bird and friends have taught generations of children how to count, share, play nice with others, and, perhaps most importantly, why you gotta put down the duckie if you wanna play the saxophone.

I tried to see if I could connect Sesame Street with with the law, and I’m not talking about any kind of hidden meaning in Bert and Ernie’s friendship. Turns out the show did it for me, as the following clip clearly demonstrates:

(And, just to save you the trouble of searching, please enjoy “Put Down the Duckie.”)

The King of Pop as peacemaker

With all of the various tributes to Michael Jackson, I was reminded this morning of one of his more underappreciated roles: preventer of gang violence.

I’m of course referring to his rad ’80s music video to “Beat It,” one of many hits from “Thriller.” I know the music video to the album’s title track is the piece de resistance, what with dancing zombies and a Vincent Price cameo all directed by John Landis. But it always felt a bit too high-concept for my tastes.

“Beat It,” on the other hand, tells the gripping story of two rival gangs whose leaders plan to settle their differences one night in an abandoned warehouse. The source of their anger is unknown, but you see it in every gang member’s face as he walks menacingly (but in rhythm) toward the battlefield.

Enter our hero, Michael Jackson, and his piano-key T-shirt. He leaves his sparse apartment (maybe he’s working undercover) and traces the gangs’ footsteps from an empty diner to an empty pool hall. It appears he might be too late, however, as the gang members have already assembled in the warehouse, the leaders with switchblades drawn and linked by a bandana tied to one of their wrists.

The leaders spin in a circle (my favorite part) and swipe at each other, their underlings cheering all around them. Suddenly, MJ appears out of nowhere, perhaps finding the warehouse location by following the strains of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solo. The fighting ceases as Jackson makes his way toward the leaders. Two quick punches straight up in the air later and everyone is following his dancing lead and, I assume, lives happily ever after, proving that dance auditions should become part of any police department’s application process. 

(Then again, maybe not, as MJ appears to become leader of his own gang five years later in the video “Bad.”)

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Santogold tangles with Baltimore, becomes Santigold

santogold.JPGOK, this post may get a tad convoluted, so please bear with me.

Yesterday I got an email from the listserv at Ram’s Head Live, the downtown Baltimore concert venue where I’ve seen two concerts in the last month, advertising a newly-announced show by indie-pop star Santigold. Now, the reason this caught my eye — I’m not a huge fan of her brand of punk-meets-reggae-meets-hip-hop-remix style — is because until a few months ago, the singer was known as Santogold with an “O.” This is important because 2008 was a break-out year for Santogold. She toured in support of British supergroup Coldplay, her album made influential music website’s Top 50 “best of” list, and her songs were remixed  by big-name DJs.

So I did some googling in search of an explanation, and ended up lost in a weird world of infomercials, space aliens, fake rock stars, and ’80s pro wrestling movies shot inside the Baltimore Civic Center (now 1st Mariner Arena).

Let me explain. Continue reading

Napster a pioneer of digitalization movement

napster.jpgI find it hard to believe that next year marks the 10-year anniversary of the Recording Industry Association of America’s (RIAA) lawsuit against music sharing giant Napster.  

Think about all of the advancements that have been made over the last decade in the way we listen to and discover music, through creations like the iPod, YouTube and social networking sites like MySpace and Purevolume

Before Napster, there wasn’t any other means — besides a computer– to store thousands of digital songs.

That’s why many critics and industry executives point to Napster as one of the pioneers of the digitalization of music.

If you haven’t kept up with the legal battles since the Napster filing, the RIAA has continued to get its hands dirty.  The group has sued about 35,000 people for pirating music since 2003. 

But just last week, the RIAA announced it would nix its policy of suing individual file sharers due to the legal costs exceeding the settlement money the practice brought in.

Call me a traditionalist, but I still carry my Discman with pride and I have not succumbed to buying an iPod. 

But I am clearly in the minority.  In 2007, U.S. album sales fell 9.5 percent, but digital music tracks soared for the first time past the 1 billion mark this year.

RICHARD SIMON, Multimedia Reporter

Sing us a song

Casting call: J.D.’s who can play or sing in key.

Although we could not include every musical magistrate and lilting lawyer in today’s story on lawyer bands, it’s apparent that many members of the Maryland bar devote significant out-of-the office energy to their strumming, drumming, or humming.

Like Annapolis attorney Robert D. Klein, who grew up down the street from Jane Santoni of The Objections, writes his own songs and plays in Breathless, a rock-n-roll cover band made up (mostly) of medical professionals.

Unlike R. Kelly in court last month, we (think) we would like to hear your sound. So send mp3’s, YouTube clips, or even photos of you performing — along with a note giving us permission to post it to our site — and we’ll put it up here for all to behold.

BRENDAN KEARNEY, Legal Affairs Writer