May 23, 2019

UNDER THE SUN: The 2019 Summer Playlist

Before everyone goes their separate ways for the long Memorial Day weekend, please direct your attention to the 40+ songs I've gathered for your listening pleasure. Your pool party, barbecue, and/or beach trip will thank you.

"But Hiko, what are your favorites?" Ah, glad you asked.

Well, Lizzo is a given. KAYTRANADA is delivering some really good W Hotel lounge vibes with "Dysfunctional," P!nk is always a mainstay (see: "Can We Pretend" featuring Cash Cash), and former Glee star Kevin McHale has an adorably breezy number called "Help Me Now."

So go ahead, help yourself to all of this:


May 16, 2019

Belinda Carlisle Taught Me How To Ice Skate

Saturday afternoons during the winters of 1989 through 1992 were usually reserved for visits to the Hommocks Park Ice Rink in Mamaroneck where my plump 10-year-old ass quickly grew familiar with the cold, hard surface of the frozen ground.

I assumed the main purpose for these excursions was to tear me away from the TV and work some cardio into my weekend schedule. Naturally, I didn't take to the ice well at first. Plus, the brown faux-leather rental skates pinched my extra wide feet.

"You've got pork chop feet, just like me and your father," my mother used to tell me. Great. Why couldn't I have inherited something more useful like, I don't know, maybe a million-dollar trust fund?

Anyway, these contraptions were more like laced-up torture devices designed for little boys who wished to spend their Saturdays sitting on the couch with a few reruns of The A-Team and Knight Rider and settling into the evening with new episodes of The Golden Girls and 227. I never felt such throbbing pain.

"You gotta be shitting me," I muttered as I stood up from the bench, watching other children run around with their friends and beg their parents for some greasy fries (the frozen-in-a-bag kind) and hot chocolate (basically Swiss Miss packets) from the snack bar where some sullen teenager tried to keep up with the demands of the hungry families of Westchester County.

Today it was just me and my father. It was usually just me and my father. "Don't look down at your feet," he would tell me as I inched my way into the crowd of skaters. "Just look ahead...and go."

I did just that. I kept my head up and watched everyone whoosh past me on the rink. Moms with their daughters. Hockey jocks in jerseys. Hand-holding couples (yuck). Teens in sweatshirts covered with the faces of New Kids on the Block. And that one asshole -- there's one on every rink -- who just has to speed through and show off his slick moves. My chubby little body never tensed up as much as it did when I attempted to glide across the ice and enter the stream of people. Sometimes my father rented a pair of skates and joined me, but he wasn't perfect on the ice either. And sometimes he just watched me from the bleachers, probably itching to get out of there so he could drag me to the Japanese grocery store in White Plains and stock up on dried seaweed and fermented soybeans (nattō) that always stunk up the kitchen and drove my mother mad.

But his simple, straightforward advice helped. After a few laps, one hot chocolate, and several minutes of watching the Zamboni do its thing on the ice, I got the hang of it.

What also helped me find my confidence on the ice was the mix of pop music the DJ would pump through the speakers inside the rink. One song on heavy rotation at the time was Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven Is A Place On Earth." The playful vocals of the former Go-Gos frontwoman had a hold on me. I couldn't get it out of my head. The empowering chorus got me pumped. I skated faster and faster around the rink, my eyes focused on what was ahead of me, my ears absorbing the synths and lyrics. My feet stopped throbbing. I soared across the ice, determined, inspired, invincible.

In my mind, I envisioned a chorus line of skaters moving in a lively, choreographed rhythm behind me, everyone waving their hands in the air and singing along. "Ooh, baby, do you know what that's worth? Ooh heaven is a place on earth! Ooh heaven is a place on earth! Ooh heaven is a place on earth..."

This wasn't the first time my head was filled with a fantasy musical number. Since the age of 6 (as far back as I can remember), whenever I heard a particular tune, I've always had a tendency to daydream about music videos in which I, or friends of mine, would take center stage. You know, like when Renee Zellwegger's Roxie Hart imagined herself singing "All That Jazz" in the opening scene of Chicago...or when Christina Aguilera's Ali pictured herself covered in diamonds in the first act of Burlesque. I envisioned my elementary school classmates performing in elaborate sequences to songs that included George Michael's "Careless Whisper," Tiffany's "I Think We're Alone Now," and of course, Madonna's "Like a Prayer."

Needless to say, whenever I hear Belinda Carlisle's fantastic contribution to 80s pop, I can't help but think of Hommocks Park, lacing up those skates, and soaring around that rink as if I were some overweight, half-Asian pop star ready to dominate on MTV.

It's no secret that songs have a way of taking us back to particular moments in time - weddings, first dates, high school dances, the first time you rode in your mom's new car...and I have plenty mentally filed away that come out every so often when I hear a certain melody, beat, or lyric. For instance...

"Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana - Riding the Mind Scrambler at Playland Park. The operator of this indoor attraction also acted as a DJ, which I thought was such a cool gig at the time. He must have had a thing for Kurt Cobain, because every time my friends and I got on, it felt as if we were in a psychedelic mosh pit. We would spin around while everyone screamed out the chorus and thrashed their heads. If you had asked me back then, I would've preferred something by La Bouche or The Real McCoy.

Amy Grant's "Every Heartbeat" takes me back to the summer of 1993 during which I spent two weeks at Campus Kids, an overnight summer camp based on a small college campus somewhere in Pennsylvania (hence the name). Armed with an ancient tape cassette player and a snazzier-looking Aiwa portable player, I replayed the song over and over - on the bus ride there, in my room (which I adorned with a Jurassic Park poster) and anywhere else I could. My roommates included a socially awkward 13-year-old who violently tossed and turned in his sleep and a chubby Hispanic kid who made the mistake of swallowing a cup full of mouthwash and burning his esophagus one morning.

"My Heart Will Go On" by Celine Dion - Picture it: Four 17-year-old boys. In my father's Toyota Camry. Lip syncing for their lives. Introducing...the young men of Iona Preparatory.

"All That She Wants" by Ace of Base - Eighth grade. Jeanette Tanner's birthday party. I first heard this song with the rest of my classmates at Westchester, the nightclub her family had rented out for the occasion. My obsession grew shortly thereafter. "Don't Turn Around" became a prominent track on the first mixtape I ever made later that summer.

"Self Control" by Laura Branigan - My mother's friend once owned a house with a pool next door to a cemetery. One night -- it must have been the summer of 1984, a bat had flown into the enclosed backyard, sending everyone running for cover. As a little boy, I kept picturing fangs ripping into my neck and claws scratching my eyes out. I vaguely remember scraping my knee on the concrete deck while trying to scramble out of the pool. Laura Branigan must have been playing on a nearby radio at the time, because whenever I hear this song, I'm transported back to that creepy night. Luckily, back then, I never saw the equally creepy music video, directed by The Exorcist's William Friedkin; my pre-school ass would've had nightmares for days (don't even get me started on Michael Jackson's "Thriller").


May 15, 2019

Pop Culture Rant of the Week: Clapbacks, Stans, and Cancel Culture Are Ruining Us

At the end of 2018, Wynter Mitchell, a digital strategist and panelist on one of my favorite podcasts, Pop Rocket, expressed her frustration with stan culture:

I can't agree more.

Simply put, that cesspool Mitchell calls the internet has infected us. It's no secret that social media has changed the way we live our lives. We know -- or we think we know -- everything about classmates we haven't seen since the 90s. Reactions are more instant. Movements are galvanized faster. As a result, the way we treat and regard each other, especially across these platforms, hasn't necessarily changed for the better. And at the risk of sounding like a "get off my lawn"-screaming retiree, this is especially applicable to a certain generation that came of age during the era of snaps, likes, follows, and subscribes.

Many things have been written about the dangers of stan culture, especially when it comes to the role of critics in pop culture. (I won't reiterate it here; you can read the great articles I just hyperlinked.)

Back in 2017, before the term even entered my vocabulary, I started to recognize just how much traction stan culture was gaining. That was the year MTV's VMA ceremonies were particularly feisty. There was enough shade thrown around to fill several episodes of The Real Housewives of Atlanta.

This was the year Fifth Harmony flung a body double of former member Camila Cabello off a platform -- clearly symbolic of the girl group's feelings about the singer's abrupt departure. Then, there was the debut of Taylor Swift's video for "Look What You Made Me Do," the lead single from her highly-anticipated Reputation. It was chock-full of reactionary references and imagery designed as a message to her haters and so-called enemies. (Apparently Taylor can't "shake it off," and if you ask me, the song should've been retitled "The Petty Anthem.") Meanwhile, unfunny host Katy Perry took a shot at Justin Bieber for forgetting the lyrics to "Despacito," Adam Levine tweeted about how "utterly horrible" the show was, and Girls Trip star and presenter Tiffany Haddish took to the mic to express to her "stupid-as-hell exes" just how much she is "out here killing the game."

The behavior inside the The Forum that night perfectly demonstrated where we were -- and still are -- in popular culture. The venue became its own cesspool, filled with celebrities on the offensive. And all of the clapbacking on display were arguably symptoms of a stan culture that has affected not only the constantly consuming public but the celebs who find themselves on the receiving end of such intense worship.

These are the pop artists who are rapidly built up by their rabid fans and regularly find themselves in the middle of Twitter feuds exacerbated by their overly expressive base. Just ask Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez, or Shawn Mendes... Well, you can't literally ask them. But you can take a gander at their feeds on any given day of the week to see what shit stirrers are flinging insults (usually misspelled, with poor grammar) at fans of other artists, daring each other to "@ me." It's an endless cycle in which everyone feeds off each other's shittiness.

If I hear one more singer reductively say how she has "the best fans in the world," I'm going to throw my brand new MacBook Air off my bedroom terrace.

And God forbid one of those celebs or anyone in the public eye makes a faux pas, because only then will a few loud people convince thousands if not millions of others to "cancel" that someone. Even after an obligatory apology tour. Yes, we're all in agreement when we say we're canceling someone as heinous as R. Kelly, but canceling, say, a YouTuber because he ignorantly wore a T-shirt brand that was made by an indigent seven-year-old in Thailand is taking it too far. Are you really going to unsubscribe from his channel and unfollow him on Twitter and Instagram? What if he really didn't know what it meant? What if he received the shirt as a gift from his great-grandma who is now in hospice and can only eat solids through a straw?

No one cares about the nuances of someone's circumstances because no one wants to take the time to learn about them. You're either awesomely untouchable, the greatest of all time...or you're a dumb, flaming trash heap who deserves the thousands of death threats you receive. And there's plenty of people who will agree with you because we're all shouting into one big digital echo chamber on a daily basis. Folks, therein lies the endangerment of empathy.

God, where the hell am I going with this?...

As someone who is a passionate fan of many things, it is somewhat difficult to indict others of taking their fandom way too far. I too have been guilty of reactionary posts (you're reading one), contributing to the vitriol, and negatively commenting on something I disagree with (see the aforementioned jab at Taylor Swift). In fact, some bloggers, journalists, and those in between have made a living doing just that. They have even come up with a term to describe such opinionated writings: the thinkpiece. It sounds nice, doesn't it? It's a great portmanteau that can be used to disguise someone's disdain or disgust as a reasonably intelligent and articulate argument.

And if you don't like anything I'm saying...well, you can just @ me.


#TBT: The Summer of 1999 Mixtape

It's scary to realize how clearly I can remember the summer of 1999.

I returned to New York from my freshman year at Boston University, took a job working for my uncle's collecting agency, and soon quit thereafter when I realized I was better suited to work behind the stacks of the New Rochelle Public Library (go figure). That summer also saw my first trip to Vegas (I have a souvenir photo of the Hilton's Star Trek Experience as proof) and marked the first time I traveled to L.A. to visit my cousin -- three years before I ever entertained the idea of being a full-time resident of the City of Angels.

But most importantly, the summer of 1999 represented something else: the height of the Teen Pop Boom, the heyday of boy bands and pop princesses who made frequent appearances on MTV's TRL countdown.

In other words, it was a glorious time to be alive.


May 01, 2019

Meals with Grandma: The Adventurous Appetites of a 9-Year-Old

As an only child, and as the baby in my entire extended family for a good chunk of a decade, I was surrounded by a lot of adults. Therefore I quickly learned how to eat like one.

The children’s menu at most restaurants usually say they’re for “kids 11 and under,” but I was ordering from the “adult menu” well before I turned twelve. I like to think that I was a prodigy when it came to dining out, that I accelerated through my food education so that I could order with the rest of the grown-ups. While other kids my age were munching on chicken fingers and fries (How juvenile!), I was enjoying seafood platters and pasta dishes named after famous Italians I couldn’t properly pronounce.

This was no more apparent than when I was with my grandmother. While being raised by two working parents in the gloriously gluttonous 1980s, a memorable amount of my New York childhood was spent with the only grandparent I knew. This involved numerous day trips and numerous tasty meals throughout much of the Tri-state area.

My grandma, Grace Riehm (nee Gibbs), was born on December 21, 1921 into an Irish Catholic family with twelve children on the outskirts of New York City. (Those East Coast immigrants sure knew how to populate the country.) She married a handsome German boy named George Riehm, and at the age of twenty-two, she gave birth to the first of seven children who would collectively give her twelve grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren throughout her lifetime. Holiday gatherings were never quiet.

Since I was the youngest (and only) kid in the family during the entire duration of the Reagan administration, I was fortunate enough receive most of Grandma’s loving attention. I spent many afterschool sessions constructing highways and shopping center parking lots with my Hot Wheels and Matchbox miniatures on the pea-soup-green carpet of her apartment while glancing up at the TV set every now and then to see what dramas were unfolding on General Hospital. Perhaps this is what had instilled in me a deep appreciation for a good, soapy plot twist.

Before my parents arrived to pick me up and take me home, she would cook me dinners that appeared to follow a consistent weekday schedule. Macaroni and cheese – the boxed kind, with that toxic-orange-colored powder – was often served on Mondays. Grandma’s personal touch: adding a can of peas to the mix. Gotta get my serving of vegetables somehow. Fried pork chops with sauerkraut and apple sauce were usually reserved for Wednesdays. Other days featured a rotation of cheeseburgers smothered in tomato sauce with instant mashed potatoes, fried filet of flounder (her specialty) with more mashed potatoes, and spaghetti with Ragu. (I never had a home-cooked Italian meal that didn’t involve sauce from a jar.) I should also mention that there was never a slice of bread or a biscuit that wasn’t slathered in butter in that first floor apartment on Centre Avenue.

I’m salivating just writing that last paragraph.

Dining out with Grandma was always a little adventure in itself. Shopping mall food courts were a given, but they were also child’s play. For instance, the White Plains Galleria offered plenty of options, but it was a restaurant inside the mall called Mr. Greenjeans that provided some memorable meals. Known for their oversized drinking glasses and very 80s décor (random road signs, blinking traffic lights, neon grid lighting), Mr. Greenjeans was where I experienced my first Caesar salad. The garlicky creaminess of the dressing made quite an impression on me, and I felt like I could eat salads for the rest of my life – so healthy, right? I got a slight thrill seeing our server’s reaction when he took my order.

“And what can I get for the young gentleman?” he asked.

“I’ll have the Caesar salad with grilled shrimp and extra dressing on the side,” I told him with the confidence of a high-powered businessman who just landed a promotion after snorting cocaine (again, the 80s).

I clearly caught the guy off guard, bypassing the kids menu for an item usually reserved for Westchester housewives taking a break from the sale racks at JCPenney.

“Oh, okay,” he replied, scribbling it down on his pad.

I could imagine him silently judging my order: This kid doesn’t know what he’s getting into. What eight-year-old orders a shrimp Caesar salad?

He glanced at Grandma for a second as if he expected her to clarify the order and tell him what I really wanted, as if this were some kind of restaurant game of pretend in which little boys order like grown-ups. Little did this guy know what my appetite was capable of.

“I’ll have the chicken club,” Grandma told him, “with a cup of the vegetable soup. And an iced tea.”

“Will that be all?” our server asked, holding out for the possibility that I might change my mind.

“I’ll have a Diet Coke with a side of lemon,” I told him. “Please.” And drop the condescending tone, I thought.

Such exchanges were common in other restaurants Grandma and I visited. If I ordered something that appeared to be on the children’s menu, I always had to clarify that I wanted the “regular, adult version.” There was no way I was going to subject myself to the pitiful portions that came with the kids’ meals at some of these places.

The Ground Round was known for serving a basket of popcorn at each table while you waited for your meal. We’d usually go through two baskets before our orders were served. Every so often Grandma would like to splurge and order a steak with a loaded baked potato. Sometimes she treated butter like the Elixir of Life and went through several little packets to accentuate her meal. Naturally I did the same and joined her in this buttery binge before my cheeseburger arrived.

The Ground Round on Central Avenue in Yonkers was also where I had a surprise party for my sixth birthday. My mother had invited my entire kindergarten class to celebrate. Chicken fingers were consumed. A girl vomited into a basket of popcorn. A clown was hired to make balloon animals. And I made out like a bandit, bringing home a shitload of gifts that made Christmas seem like a pitiful, distant memory.

Friendly’s was another regional chain of family-friendly restaurants that was a frequent stop during my many outings with Grandma. Whether it was lunch or dinner, dessert was always a must. The signature strawberry sundae was one of my childhood vices. Three scoops of creamy ice cream, topped with thick strawberry sauce, whipped cream, chopped nuts, and of course, a Maraschino cherry. As I got older I dared to try to “super-sized” sundae every so often (five scoops of deliciousness with double the toppings). There were never any leftovers. In fact, 99% of the restaurants I visited as a child never involved the taking home of food I couldn’t finish. I always left with a clean plate, something I probably inherited from my Japanese father, a man who never met a meal he didn’t inhale in one complete swoop.

One of Grandma’s neighbors, a kind and bespectacled woman I called Ms. Parker, sometimes dropped by and joined us for one of our trips to the mall or a nice seafood meal out on City Island in the Bronx. She lived on the sixth floor of Grandma’s apartment building and always waved to me from her bedroom window during my morning walks to school. She owned a cream-colored 1970 Chevy Nova that she hardly used. It sat in the same spot outside the building in the large parking lot that was used by most of the businesses of downtown New Rochelle. When I turned 16, there was a brief mention about me inheriting the car. That never happened. It was probably for the best; there was no cassette tape deck I could use to blare my many Spice Girls and Alanis Morissette mixtapes on the way to school.

One outing with Ms. Parker and Grandma involved a short drive to City Island to have dinner at Crab Shanty, an Italian-style seafood establishment that was known for its fantastic garlic bread. When I was nine, and when I knew there was a Crab Shanty dinner in my near future, I made sure my appetite was prepared to take on the Shanty’s many offerings. However, the aforementioned garlic bread was usually my downfall. Because I was so hungry I would usually eat two or more buttery slices before the salads came out, and by the time my shrimp or lobster linguini came out, my stomach was nearing its capacity of bread and blue cheese-drenched lettuce. But I soldiered on, eating my meal as if it were the last meal of my life. I savored every damn bite.

“My word! He eats like a grown-up!” Ms. Parker exclaimed upon seeing me do everything but lick the Alfredo sauce off my dish to make sure nothing was left. This was probably her polite way of saying, “Jesus, Grace! You sure feed this boy well! No wonder he’s so plump!”

I just sat there as Ms. Parker patted my head and smiled at me. I wasn’t sure if I was being congratulated for a job well done, being praised for such a grown-up accomplishment, or being condescendingly criticized for my eating habits. Either way, I could feel myself blush. I didn’t know how to react. I could have responded, “Thanks, Esther. You should see what happens when you put me in front of a chocolate chip ice cream sandwich!” Or maybe, “Mind your business, Esther. Just finish your damn clam chowder and be grateful that Grandma is paying for both of us.”

Ms. Parker was so impressed by my enormous appetite and ability to consume an amount of food that would make Jabba The Hut gag that Grandma thought it was funny to share Ms. Parker’s reaction with the rest of the family. The consensus was that I had a “healthy appetite, and thank God I wasn’t a picky eater like some of those spoiled brats you see in restaurants.”

Grandma passed away at the youthful age of 93. The last meal we shared was a Christmas dinner, cooked by my mother, in the dining room where we had shared numerous dinners and store-bought desserts throughout 28 years. (Shout out to Entenmann’s coffee cake!) Her appetite wasn’t what it used to be, but that didn’t mean she could resist a tasty buttered roll.

However, my last memory of her involves swinging by that same first-floor apartment – that pea-soup-green carpet had been replaced in the late 90s with a plush coral that would only fade and brown from foot traffic – on my way to the airport to catch my flight back to L.A., just three days after the holiday. I hugged her as she sat on the edge of her bed, half-eaten toast left on a small tray, the volume of her TV turned up and tuned in to a Christmas episode of Hot in Cleveland. It was just like any other goodbye. A delicate embrace, a kiss, and an obligatory “take care of yourself.”

But it was the final one, and I’m very grateful that I was given that chance to experience it.

I’m also very hopeful that she is enjoying that grand, all-you-can-eat buffet in the sky. Buttered rolls and all.


Celebrating My 17th L.A.nniversary with a Bang

The impact, like many impacts, was sudden. I heard the crunch of metal, not as loud as those bang-ups you see in the  Fast and Furious ...