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Don't Rain On My Parade

We were never much for the traditional holiday customs around the Michaels homestead when I was a lad. Going on sleigh rides, roasting chestnuts, building snowmen to the specifications of the Steve Nelson-Jack Rollins song -- all of that's kind of hard to do when the mercury never dips below 55 degrees and you're wearing Bermuda shorts. Unless there's a Christmas carol about unusually dense morning ground fog that I'm not aware of.

Still, we tried -- oh God, how we tried. Every holiday season, my sister broke out the John Denver & the Muppets Christmas album and played it until you found yourself secretly wishing that Kermit and the gang would quietly convert to Judaism. A few weeks before the big day, my dad would go out to find us a Christmas tree... and more often than not, he'd find it in the crawl space over the garage, the same place he stored our plastic, pre-assembled tree every year. And sometime during the month of December, shopping mall crowds, muzak carols and pangs of guilt for not spending near enough of my allowance money on presents would cause me to have a full-fledged Yuletide-inspired freak-out -- a Christmas conniption which would end with my denouncing the holiday as a vast conspiracy on behalf of retailers, greeting card companies and overseas wrapping paper conglomerates.

We had other traditions, too -- ones that won't wind up in some psychiatrist's notes with "recommend higher dosage" hastily scrawled next to it in the margins. We had a full and robust slate of televised holiday parades.

Parades were how we knew there even were holidays to celebrate. You could set your watch to them. If the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade was rambling down Broadway, you knew it was Turkey Day. Is the Hollywood Christmas Parade marching across the TV set? Best make your way to the mall, folks -- there are only a few more shopping days left. And every January 1, the Tournament of Roses Parade was there to ring in the new year and begin again the annual cycle that led us to our next round of parades.

Floats, marching bands, incongruous grand marshals -- this is the stuff that young boys' dreams are made of.

But in recent years, none of the parade routes have wound their way across my TV set. I'm usually still shaking off the excesses of the night before by the time the last Rose Parade float has cruised down Colorado Boulevard. The Hollywood Christmas Parade? They don't even bother televising that one anymore. And now that I'm well-entrenched in adulthood, my Thanksgiving Day interests begin and end with the tartness of the cranberry sauce and whether the Lions can cover the spread -- not with how the Underdog balloon is holding up.

In a way, that's kind of a shame. Some holiday traditions you never want to outgrow -- the thrill of coming downstairs Christmas morning to a roomful of presents, the way that first bite of turkey tastes, the giddy thrill of watching some corn-fed linebacker from the Midwest knock a USC tailback into February. Why shouldn't oversized balloons, cheap floats and vainglorious Broadway production numbers in front of Macy's fall into the same category?

I decided to find out. After a decade of being relegated to also-ran status on my remote control, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade made its triumphant return to my holiday routine. That was a month ago. It's taken me a bit of time to sort through the sights, the sounds, the prolonged exposure to Katie Couric. And, a month after the last marcher dutifully trooped in front of NBC's cameras, I think I can reach one inescapable conclusion about the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

I suddenly remembered why I stopped watching this cavalcade of tripe.

I don't know what I was expecting to see -- some peppy show tune numbers for sure, and maybe some jovial banter between Al Roker and the gang. Or maybe I wanted something more. Maybe what I wanted was a return to a simpler time -- in my life, in the life of the rest of the world. It was a time when a handful of marching bands and some papier-mâché floats could get you in the mood for the holidays, when the sight of a block-long Mighty Mouse balloon was the best damned thing you had seen in weeks. It was a time, in other words, when the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade mattered -- not on the scale of, say, your grades in school or whether your parents were fighting or if the Federal Reserve Board was showing a bias toward raising interest rates. But when it mattered, nevertheless.

Was I expecting too much? Not if NBC's tastefully understated voice-over announcer had anything to say about it: "Today millions of people are lining the streets of New York, anticipating the arrival of the year's most spectacular event. Magnificent floats, fantastic big balloons. Hit Broadway musicals. And entertainment's biggest stars."

Indeed. Let's go to the videotape.

0:07: After Katie Couric and Matt Lauer open the show and set the scene for us, it's off to our opening number -- a musical spectacular from a group called America Sings. An ensemble for people who think jazz choir is too provocative, America Sings features 800 young people dressed in pastel sweaters -- pink, lime, turquoise and a shade of yellow not previously seen by human eyes. The group's motto, Matt Lauer tells us, is "To kids who feel they have no hope, from kids with hope to share."

I know what you, the sophisticated TeeVee reader, expects to happen now. You're waiting for me to lob a few cruel taunts in the direction of America Sings, and then we'll all have ourselves a wicked laugh at a bunch of kids whose only crime was not dressing themselves that morning.

Well, forget it. In this day and age, with the rock 'n roll and the hot rods and the vampire role-playing games, it's good to see kids engaged in an activity that doesn't make me double dead-bolt the door, load up the shotgun and punch up police dispatch on speed dial.

At least, that's what I thought before I heard them sing.

Believe in the music
Feel its power set you free
Believe in the music
I can feel it lifting, pushing, calling, guiding me
Yes, I believe in the music

Well... I believe in some music.

0:12: Al Roker is talking to David Hasselhoff, one of entertainment's biggest stars if the voice-over announcer is to be believed. "Central Park is like Disneyland," says the inexplicably popular German pop star. Only with a lot more crack, I suppose.

David Hasselhoff, by the way, is in New York to appear in the Broadway production of "Jekyll & Hyde," assuming the role formerly played by one-time Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach.

In sports, we call this "lateral movement."

0:23: Katie Couric introduces a performance from the cast of "Seussical: The Musical" thusly:

"With music that's pop, gospel, rhythm-and-bluesical, even the Grinch gives two thumbs up to Seussical."

I've paused the tape. There's a mad glint in Katie's eyes, the same kind of glow that wild animals get just after you've got them cornered and right before you stuff them in a sack. For a moment -- just a moment -- it looks like she's about to leap in front of a marching band, with the hopes that the subsequent injuries will prove to be fatal.

Fortunately, for millions of Today viewers, Katie is unable to free herself from her restraining belt.

This, incidentally, is the longest that any writer has gone in describing "Seussical: The Musical" without using the words "troubled," "disastrous" or "shitstorm." And when you see the muscular young lads dancing around Horton the Elephant in leather pants, you suddenly understand why theater critic thesauri are getting such a workout.

0:30: For a better understanding of the parade route -- a parade which we have yet to see a minute of, by the way -- NBC cuts to a computerized, three-dimensional rendering of New York City. We learn that the parade will head down Broadway to 42nd Street to Herald Square.

For those of you unfamiliar with the intricacies of Manhattan thoroughfares, that's pretty much a straight-shot. Yeah, you have to veer a little bit when you hit 42nd Street, but it's not like there's zigs and zags and dog leg lefts. The point is, Matt Lauer could have taken a magic marker and drawn a straight line down a piece of paper, and it would have been as accurate and informative as NBC's computerized map. I mean, the money the network spent whipping out that graphic could have been used to hire two, maybe three more writers for Cursed.

Which is why I'm glad they went with the computer graphic, I'm saying.

0:32: "There are people here who came to this parade three-quarters of a century ago," Al Roker declares. And if they spent any of that time watching NBC's coverage, they still haven't seen any of the actual parade.

0:39: As Al Roker interviews John Ritter -- "one of television's most popular stars," the avuncular weatherman says, leaving out the important qualifier "if you happen to think it's still 1980" -- the temperature has dropped dramatically. According to the graphic in the corner of the screen, what was once a chilly 32 degrees is now a frigid 28. Visions of the parade broadcast team being trapped in absolute-zero conditions dance happily in my brain. One minute, they're happily introducing musical performances from the cast of "Suessical," the next they're making like a Chilean soccer team, hollowing out the Bullwinkle balloon to find shelter from the elements and drawing straws to see who gets eaten when supplies run out.

If I'm Al Roker, I'm plotting my escape routes now.

0:52: Cheryl Ladd is on my TV singing "Sun in the Morning" from "Annie Get Your Gun." I'm starting to question the veracity of the announcer's claim that "entertainment's biggest stars" have descended en masse onto the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade route.

I can't vouch for the musical groups. I've never heard of Kenny Chesney, LFO or Mikaila, but then again, the bands I listen to have long since broken up, retired, or died. But when the top stars you can get are Emeril Lagasse and the aforementioned David Hasselhoff, you have officially moved off of the B-List and into the Yellow Pages.

1:00: The arrival of the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes signals that NBC will begin covering the parade itself. I've suddenly realized that if you cut the commercials, eighty-six the elaborate dance numbers, and dispense with the too-hot-for-TV John Ritter interview, coverage of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade would last about 12 minutes.

1:01: The Lincoln High School marching band from Sioux Falls, South Dakota strides by. Band, Katie Couric and Matt Lauer inform us, is the largest youth activity in South Dakota. Sioux Falls is clearly no longer the hot spot it was in my day.

1:06: We're watching a dance team made up of, in the words of Matt Lauer, "499 girls and one very lucky young man." As we leave Matt to his active fantasy world, it's worth noting that the dance team sports the same kind of lime, pink and yellow sweaters worn by the kids from America Sings. So either there's a focus group somewhere that's determined pastels are endearing and non-threatening, or there was a horrible rumble somewhere along the parade route and 500 members of America Sings are going home bruised, bloodied and sweaterless.

It's also worth noting that the dance team is strutting its stuff to music from the Broadway production of "Pippin." Coupled with the declaration that John Ritter is one of TV's most popular stars, this is making me think that perhaps it is still 1980.

1:11: No pastel sweaters for the Dallas Tap Dazzlers, a team of 20 tap-dancing grandmothers who choose to wear black fishnet stockings and hot pants instead.

"A bountiful harvest," says Matt Lauer, who's thankfully talking about the upcoming float and not the tap-dancing grandmothers. But we have to double-check these things since moments ago, the Today host referred to the Mickey Mouse balloon as "a buffed-up big boy."

Little wonder that Katie Couric appears nervous and on edge.

1:16: Harkening back to my days as a tow-headed, freckle-faced youngster, I seem to recall that the Macy's Parade balloons had some correlation to the popular cartoons of the day. Bullwinkle and Mighty Mouse, Snoopy and Dennis the Menace, maybe even the occasional Smurf.

That appears to have changed in the ensuing decade and a half since the Thanksgiving parade was a regular fixture on my holiday calendar. Oh, there are still cartoon characters floating above the skies of Manhattan -- mostly from shows I'm too old to know about or too self-conscious to admit that I've watched. But a large percentage of the new balloons are now devoted to brand name products and corporate mascots.

Because nothing says "Happy Holidays" like an inflatable version of the Honey Nut Cheerios Bee.

Take Green Dog. No, really... take him, preferably as far away from me as you can. And who is Green Dog, you might ask?

"He's not a hound dog, he's no bird dog, but he's well on his way to becoming top dog," says Katie Couric, whom we must remember is a serious network newswoman and not at a cue card-reading shill. "Meet Green Dog, a new parade personality with a fun job. His name is on a new brand of kidswear. His motto is 'Bold Dog, New Tricks,' and his answer to everything is 'Wowzers.'"

That's Green Dog, kiddies. Ask for it by name at your friendly neighborhood Macy's. Be sure to grab mom and dad's credit card, too. Wowzers!

1:19: As the Sesame Street float rolls by -- sadly, for Katie Couric, with no product to whore -- Matt Lauer informs the viewing audience that Al Roker will be appearing in an upcoming episode of the children's program "in a role he was born to play."

"What?" says my wife, not missing a beat. "As a mordantly obese weatherman?"

Could I love her any more?

1:34: A float's passing by -- I'm not sure for what company, but it's touting some sort of preservation theme. The float, we discover, represents the beauty of our planet and the need to preserve our natural resources.

By gathering them all up and using them to build gas-powered parade floats, presumably.

1:38: Forget what I said earlier about the modern-day Macy's parade balloons being little more than puppets dancing on the strings of their cruel corporate masters. The Ask Jeeves balloon is on the TV. And who among us doesn't harbor warm childhood memories of cuddling up with their plush Ask Jeeves doll and putting on the Ask Jeeves pajamas and reading the book where Curious George logs on to Ask Jeeves to find out where he can buy bananas online?

You mean you don't harbor those memories either? Oh.

Either Katie Couric or Matt Lauer -- I've lost the will to distinguish between the two of them at this point -- informs the viewing public that Ask Jeeves receives four million questions a day. Tough, hard-hitting questions like, "Hey Jeeves, how's your profit margin?" and "Jeeves, why is it that the loose coins in my couch cushions are worth more than your stock?"

1:41: I finally recognize one of the musical groups making an appearance on NBC's telecast. Aboard the Animal Planet float -- with a tie-in to NBC's "Crocodile Hunter" special, natch -- is the latest one-hit wonder, the Baha Men.

That my wife doesn't know who the Baha Men are just means I haven't taken her to enough sporting events. The Baha Men sing "Who Let the Dogs Out," the early 21st century equivalent to "We Will Rock You" and "Rock and Roll Part One." All you need to know about "Who Let The Dogs Out" is that the lyrics go like this:

Who let the dogs out?
(woof, woof)

Now repeat that about a million times or until you're forced to drive a large ice pick into your eardrums, relaxing only when the blood and brain fluid seep out like sweet, red wine.

1:50: Two floats, appearing one after the other, have me convinced that the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is organized by folks with a heightened sense of irony and self-parody. Either that, or they're just drunk.

First, there's the Macy's float that celebrates Native American art and culture -- a fine Thanksgiving-related notion. At least, that's what I thought until I noticed most of the people wearing the elaborate headdresses and war paint were white guys.

Oh well. It's the thought that counts. Thanks for all the land, Injuns!

The next float, sponsored by the good men and women of Jell-O, features Jo Dee Messina, another one of those pop stars who could walk up to me in broad daylight, slap me across the face and still need a "Hello, My Name Is" tag for me to pick her out of a police line-up. She's singing an inoffensive little ditty called "Dare to Dream." Surrounded by children dressed as fruit toppings.

I worry that the impact of that last sentence fragment may not have come across, so I'll repeat. Children. Dressed. As. Fruit toppings. While a woman sings about following your bliss and pursuing your dreams. They can always dream about getting their dignity back, I suppose.

I mean, really -- aren't there child labor laws against this sort of thing?

1:52: As a horde of clowns swarm in front of Herald Square, giving an entire nation a case of the heebie jeebies, Matt Lauer remarks, "I'd say they all graduated magna cum looney."

I think this is important to keep in mind whenever you see Matt Lauer interviewing top newsmakers.

1:57: Hey, it's the M&M float! And who's that riding atop it? Why, it's rapper Eminem! He and the Red M&M are sharing a bottle of malt liquor and making leering comments about their hoes and getting ready to kick the crap out of some...

Wait. I must be turning giddy from all the holiday excitement. That's not Eminem at all. Instead it's Innosense, an all-girl band that makes the Spice Girls sound like Nina Simone. Because, after all, why should boy bands have all the banal fun?

2:00: Two hours into this thing, and the mercury has climbed to 30 degrees. The prospects of the Today crew freezing to death on my watch are rapidly dimming.

Worst Thanksgiving ever.

2:06: A high school band marches past NBC's cameras. It is not playing a song about following your dreams. It is not accompanied by children dressed as fruit toppings. Which really ruins the holiday spirit for me, honestly.

"After three Tournament of Roses parades, two inaugural parades and 12 state championships, it's no wonder three governors have declared this band the pride of Nevada," Katie Couric says.

Nevada, it should be pointed out, also has a legalized brothel.

2:37: And here's where I lose it.

My undoing was the float sponsored by Redi-Whip. No, it wasn't because the float was surrounded by children dressed like dollops of non-dairy whipped cream... though it very well could have been. No, the blame falls squarely on the young shoulders of Aaron Carter, boy singer, and his stirring rendition of "I Want Candy."

Aaron Carter is the younger brother of one of the singers in those dreary boy bands -- 'N Sync, the Backstreet Boys, those kids who sing about the Ultimate Cheeseburger at Jack in the Box. It makes no never-mind to me.

(Incidentally, if you're a fan of one of these dreary boy bands or any of the other musicians that I've libeled in this piece, and you're busily drafting an e-mail denouncing me as a dullard for not appreciating the finer points of empty, joyless pop, save your effort. No e-mail -- not even the spam I get alerting me to great deals on inkjet printer toner -- could interest me less. Let's just pretend that you've sent the e-mail, and that I'm destroyed emotionally, and that I now concede that INSERT NAME OF CRAPTASTIC POP SINGER/BAND HERE has made the greatest contributions to music since Bach. 'Kay?)

I mention that Aaron Carter is the younger brother of a boy band singer for two reasons. One, it confirms my suspicion that somewhere outside of Orlando, Florida, music producers are breeding free-range pop singers. And two, since the older brother won't be scanning his scalp for gray hairs any time soon, that means young Aaron Carter looks not so much like a pop star as he does a singing fetus.

This is not a minor consideration, given the fact that the Rockin' Embryo is performing "I Want Candy." In case you're not familiar with the song, it is not a plaintive cry for mom to buy him some gumdrops or a couple of Hershey bars. Instead, it's a song about sexual longing -- nothing dirty, mind you, but not the sort of thing to be sung by someone still in his mom's third trimester.

That appalling sight -- a pre-fabricated, pre-teen pop singer turning a perfectly good song into a jingle for a pre-fabricated paste that doubles as a dessert topping and household spackle -- proved to be all I could take from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. I fast-forwarded, past the Barney balloon, past Andrea MacCardle singing a funkified version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," past the arrival of Santa Claus and his vow to deliver Macy's-purchased presents to all the good boys and girls. Then I set the tape on fire so it couldn't poison future generations.

That's what the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade has always been: shameless and relentless cross-promotion wrapped up with a holiday ribbon, a three-hour full-court press for moving product. If I didn't recognize it back in my grammar school days, it's either because I was too young or too dense. Balloons change. B-list celebrities come and go. Pop bands and Broadway shows fade into obscurity. But the Macy's Parade continues, marching forward to the steady drumbeat of commerce. It's an empty exercise, bursting with holiday imagery but lacking any holiday spirit or sentiment. The Macy's Parade has as much to do with the holidays as those white guys in headdresses had to do with Native American art and culture. It would be better for all concerned if the parade were to march straight into the Hudson River, its cacophony and drivel drowned out by the icy waters.

Hey! A full-fledged holiday freak-out! Check off another time-honored holiday tradition that I observed this year.


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