All posts by smcentee

Mistaken for Strangers—a must see documentary

Mistaken for Strangers, a documentary created by Tom Berninger, younger brother of The National’s frontman, Matt Berninger, is unlike any “rock doc” you’ve ever seen. It’s not a story of conflict amongst band members or the long journey to success. It’s not a segment of VH1’s “Behind The Music,” or special feature footage included on a live performance DVD.

It’s a documentary about two brothers; one who became one of the most well known voices of indie rock, and one who did not. 


After being asked to join the band as a roadie on its High Violet tour, Tom decides to film a documentary about The National on tour. The end result the audience sees is so much more than that, delving deep into Tom’s insecurities and depression in the face of his brother’s success. If you haven’t had the chance to see it, I highly recommend it—it’s a $15 download, but it’s totally worth it. And check out this Pitchfork review too.

I watched Mistaken for Strangers four times in the past 60 hours knowing I would be writing about it later on. My first instinct was to talk about how unique it was, breaking the mold set by rock docs previously, but as more reviews popped up, the more I realized I had to think of something knew. 

And then I thought about the college I attend.

Almost all who attend Columbia College Chicago are chasing a dream, whether in the spotlight, in the studio or behind the scenes. Often our dreams are far fetched, but we have the luxury of entering an environment where success is achievable. We are dreamers, and that’s okay.

We start our academic careers hoping to become Matt, but there will always be those of us who become Tom. Our dreams change, interests fade and sometimes it feels like it’s just  not meant to be. As great as Columbia can be for those who find success, there will be disappointment and heartbreak for some of us. We will compare ourselves to the Matt’s of the world and wonder why it couldn’t be us.

Matt Berninger is the frontman and lead vocalist for indie rock band The National.
Matt Berninger is the frontman and lead vocalist for indie rock band The National.

One of the many reasons I loved this film was due to the way members of The National were portrayed: calm, collected, mostly quiet and deeply ingrained in their music. Writing, producing and performing music was their job, and it was a job done well. Matt, along with the rest of the band—Aaron, Brian, Bryce and Scott—defied Tom’s expectations of what it meant to be on tour with a gang of rock stars. In a way, they shattered the illusion for all of us.

Tom’s jealousy toward Matt is sometimes painfully obvious in the film, and Tom’s disappointment in the band’s life on tour makes it that much harder for him to accept his brother’s success. Maybe he was frustrated that thousands of people would worship his brother, who essentially lives a normal life, and he felt Matt was wasting his fame. Maybe it was purely just the lack of substance in his own life.


It sort of changed, in my mind, the conversation on who or what is a rock star. It wasn’t about Matt being better or more deserving than Tom. Matt dealt with the same frustrations that Tom did, but he channeled it through music. Tom, who had interests, hobbies and talents, just less popular ones, didn’t have thousands of cheering fans to aid him as he processed his doubts. 

And that’s just the luck of the draw.

There will come a time when a few of us have to admit we’re not cut out for something. That our name isn’t going to to be in lights. And that’s okay. Although The National found fame and worldwide success, they are still doing a job.

We’re all just doing a job.

There is a societal attitude that if you work long and hard enough, you’ll get where you want to go. We can work our entire lives trying to reach a goal we might never fully grasp. And it’s not a testament of our character or work ethic—it’s not always meant to be.

I’m aware of how negative this might sound.  It is not my intention to bring everyone down, it’s actually quite the opposite—there is no reason to fear being Tom.

I may never achieve the same level of success as Matt Berninger, but I have hope I can become an exception. I will always have something to work toward, and having something—an idea, a job or an opportunity to contribute creatively—and falling a little short is still better than having nothing at all.

SXSW debuts Music Hackathon

imagesThe South by Southwest interactive, film and music festival in Austin, Texas hosted its first annual Music Hackathon, where “world-class hackers and designers will have 24 hours to create new tech innovations in the music space for artists, industry and fans.”

For those who aren’t familiar, hackathons are events where programmers, designers, developers and creative types from all walks of life come together to create an innovative product in, usually, a 24-hour period. Sleeping is slightly frowned upon and those participating almost survive entirely on pizza and caffeine. It’s a hybrid of creative ingenuity and a a high school sleep over where everyone’s drinking Surge.

Dozens of teams participated in Austin, Texas last week, and a full list of the projects created can be found online. The winner, a project titled Moot and only described as a “looper application that you can loop over and add in artist tracks and more,” received a $10,000 prize.

The hacks from the SXSW event range anywhere from playlist creation apps to personal music mixers and social media platforms. Seriously, give this list a quick glance and see everything that was made.

Hackathons are normally events for anyone interested, and being an “expert” isn’t necessary, and SXSW’s first music hackathon differed in this area slightly—participants included “invited winners of previous worldwide music hackathons, experts from cutting-edge music tech companies, and hackers from the public at large.”

The inaugural music hackathon is the beginning of a desirable future: Music, both as a business and passion, working with technology to better advance the industry for everyone, at every end of the spectrum

The music and technology industries have a complicated relationship. Even before the age of Napster, Spotify and torrents, there has always been contention over music distribution, ownership, royalties and digitization. The switch from vinyl to digital music, at least in terms of distributing music to the masses, sparked the controversy of whom owns what, and the legality of reproducing music on one’s own. Basically we’ve all burned a CD and, at the very least, torrented one full discography.

Aside from Thom Yorke’s outspoken hatred for Spotify, the music/technology relationship seems to be doing better. And the SXSW music hackathon is additional proof that music executives are turning to developers and programmers to continue moving the industry forward.  Justin Timberlake—a triple threat actor, singer and entrepreneur—took the struggling Myspace under his wing to redesign the entire site as a social media platform for musicians, performers, designers, etc. The overall look of the Myspace redesign was impressive, and even though the site has yet to catch up to social media giants Facebook and Twitter, Timberlake’s actions prove there’s a future in technology for music we haven’t explored yet.

And he’s not the only big name getting into the technology game.

Neil Young recently funded Pono Music through Kickstarter—in about a day, actually, totaling about $2 million in two days—with the goal to redefine how we experience music in our headphones. Pono, a triangular prism-shaped device, allows listeners to hear a higher resolution sound that is roughly the equivalent of the live, studio master recording.

You’ll need to buy top-notch headphones, though, and the device is retailed at $399.

I don’t think we’re all going to be sending each other songs through our Myspace accounts while developing personalized software and gadgets to enhance our listening experience. A lot of us would have a decent amount of coding and software development to learn. The next generation, though? Most definitely.

It seems the era where the Internet was believed to have ruined the music industry forever is coming to end, and a new era of encouraging new innovation from developers, musicians and executives alike has arrived. Now, more than ever, the individual consumer can be be involved in the development of the next Spotify, Pandora or Garageband application.

You have to wonder what’s next, and more importantly, are you going to be the one to create it?

Are you there, spring? It’s me, Chicago.

I’ve decided the only way I can continue coping with the brutally cold, snowy weather is simply to ignore it entirely. Now that I’ve sacrificed all sanity, I’m able to delude myself into accepting a new reality: It’s spring! The leaves are starting to fill the trees that line a slush-less sidewalk as a warm breeze blows off the lake.

In celebration of winter being over (in my mind), I’ve drafted a playlist—almost entirely of female pop and pop rock artists—to help others transition into the new season. Let’s break it down track by track.

Leave (Get Out) — JoJo
Due to the fact that I willingly live in Chicago, I’m aware that winter is a prominent season. Like all relationships, sacrifices and compromises have to be made. Flaws have to be accepted. As Chicagoans, we learn to co-exist with everything winter throws at us. But sometimes we reach our breaking point, and it’s time to call it quits. Who better to vocalize our frustrations with this winter than JoJo? Get out, winter! Leave right now. It’s the end for you and me, and I truly can’t wait for you to be gone.

Breathe — Michelle Branch
Now that I’ve  liberated myself from winter’s brutality, I can finally breathe. I’m free. No longer am I stuck in a loveless, unbalanced relationship. Let the calm rush over your face.

Soak Up The Sun — Sheryl Crow
Civilization has all but crumbled in Chicago these past few weeks. The never-ending cold and snow started to strip us of our humanity, and if my morning commutes on the bus and subway were warning signs of anything, we’re damn near close to turning on each other. But we don’t have to worry about that anymore. The people of Chicago are reunited as they welcome the sunshine back into their lives. Lighten up, everyone, and soak up the sun.

Perfect Day — Hoku
The feeling in our feet and hands is starting to return, which means it’s time to really enjoy this perfect spring day. Grab your friends, hop on a bike and laugh in unison as you ride off into the sunset together, which is setting after 6 p.m. You’re invincible. There’s nothing holding you back.

Anything Can Happen — Ellie Goulding
What’s this feeling? Is this…happiness? I had almost forgot what that felt like. Suddenly I’m not dreading the moment I step out of my heated apartment and out the door, because you know what? There’s no bitter cold hawk winds awaiting my arrival. The air is filled with the smell of flowers, possibilities and the will to live. Without those heavy winter boots you remember that pep you had in your step back in September. Dance down the street, pop and lock it on the train, do whatever you want because anything can happen.

Go Outside — Cults
Beside the literal message this song delivers in the context of what this playlist is all about, this particular selection also attests to my mental state as a result of this ridiculous winter. “Go outside and live your life, don’t stay inside and sleep the day away,” I sang in the middle of the street in a snowstorm as onlookers inform the authorities.

The Sweet Escape — Gwen Stefani ft. Akon
This song is a musical (and abstract) version of a conversation I would have with Chicago regarding this winter. If I could quit you, I would, and I’m sorry I’ve been in a bad mood. But it’s “your fault you didn’t shut the refrigerator,” Chicago, so can you really blame me for being so bitter and angry? We can make it better, Chicago.

Shut Up and Drive — Rihanna
Here’s where things switch up a little bit. We’re warm, we’re on good terms with Chicago, and we’ve had the absolute perfect day. But as Chicagoans, we’re more than smiles and sunshine. The cold made us hold back, it make us dormant and stale. No longer. The top’s down and we’re taking back the night. Lake Shore Drive, here we come.

I Love It — Icona Pop
If you’re wondering if the previous song was chosen simply to make a joke regarding the lyrics of “I Love It,” you aren’t wrong. Maybe the warmth went to my head and I crashed my car into a bridge after repeatedly being told to “shut up and drive,” but you know what…I don’t care, because I love it. This playlist is officially a success.

Steal My Sunshine — Len
This song is included for two reasons. One, it is perfect and will never get old. Two, I literally don’t know how to make a playlist without including one of the greatest contributions to the music industry. Hop on your orange Vespa blasting “Steal My Sunshine” and live your post-winter life.