Omar J. Pahati

Sexing Up the Boy Bands

JC walked him to the door. Suddenly Justin grabbed him and pressed his lips against JC's. JC gasped in surprise and Justin slipped his tongue inside JC's warm mouth. JC kissed him back for a mere second and than pushed him away.

'Justin, no!' JC touched his lips. 'You can't kiss me. I'm with Ryan.'

Justin stared at the floor. 'I'm sorry.' He looked up with tear filled eyes. 'Don't be mad.'

JC reached out and hugged him. 'I'm not mad.'

Justin flashed a tiny smile. 'Thanks.'
Wait a minute! How did Justin, JC and Ryan -- three members of the boy band N'Sync -- become enmeshed in a gay love triangle? Are we reading the pilot of some new reality show? Or a crossover issue of Teen People and Men Who Love Men?

Not quite. The episode above is the creative fantasy of "zero," a writer in a growing online community that lets tens of thousands of mostly young people put a new spin on an old concept -- fan fiction.

Since the 1960s, sci-fi and fantasy readers have been creating fan fiction, taking characters from television and movies and writing them into their own stories. With the advent of the Internet, fan fiction and its sexually charged sub-genre, "slash" literature, skyrocketed into wide popularity. The most well known works of slash chronicle the sexual dramas of some our favorite sci-fi characters: the escapades of Kirk and Spock, the love affair of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, the secret tryst of Skinner and Krycek (also known as Kirk/Spock, Luke/Han or Skinner/Krycek -- hence the genre's name.)

The fan fiction universe has grown to include many sub-genres and unusual concoctions that original fan fiction enthusiasts could never have imagined. The newest of the sub-genres is music group slash -- "band fiction," if you will. Too impatient to wait for the next installment of VH-1's Behind the Music, fans have taken to re-inventing their music icon's personal lives. And in doing so, band fiction writers have stirred up a divisive controversy in the fan fiction community.

The content of band fiction varies greatly. There are stories of band member conflicts, chance meetings with fans, songwriting meetings, family relationships of the bands, record biz goings-on and much more. Quality, too, is inconsistent; for every readable, engaging story, there might be ten other pieces of schlock. Sifting the wheat from the chaff can be a chore.

Several web sites serve as repositories for band fiction. The most impressive of these is FanFiction.net. Their "Music Groups" section indexes stories for around 150 bands, totaling nearly 20,000 writings.

Xing Li, the creator of FanFiction.net, says there is a simple reason why band fiction is so popular. "I believe people write music group fiction simply because they are big fans of these groups."

But for the creators themselves, it's more than just that. It's a way to connect with their heroes -- albeit in an often sadistic way.

"There [is] always this overwhelming desire to strip our heroes' feelings bare, to lay it all open for us to see," says slash writer Allaire Mikháil, "to see them hurting, crying, sobbing, clinging to each other for support; to see them break down and show their emotions to the world, cracking the tough facade, stop the teasing, the banter, the macho behavior, and bring out the agony."

Another writer, identifying herself only as Stacy, relishes the fantasy life that slash brings her. "Slash forces you to open your mind, and really think about what these people would be going through in such a life altering experience. And as someone who's never had the experience, it's all the more profound."

But band fiction represents a significant change in the fan fiction universe, because instead of creating fantasies around fantastical characters, band fiction features characters who actually exist. Many feel that Real People Slash (RPS) is creepy at best, and unethical at worst. When made-up stories about real celebrities -- in a way, rumors posing as literature -- are passed to thousands upon thousands of readers via the Web, that creepiness is multiplied.

The issue of RPS is much debated in the fan fiction community. Writing on a fan fiction discussion board, one author named Ghost says, "If you write real person slash, you should not be surprised when the lawsuit smacks you in the face for defamation of character, slander, libel or anything else an attorney can come up with. An ethical person wouldn't even distribute such things. A lie is a lie is a lie."

RPS faithful paint a rosier picture of the work they do, saying that no harm is intended.

"These fictions are at the core completely fiction and never pretend to be the truth," counters Xing Li. "The stories are created in good fun ... I do not see an ethics issue."

Web site Citizens Against Bad Slash (CABS) -- a group of fan fiction veterans that bill themselves as the authority on quality fanfic -- has also embraced the controversial RPS.

"We have taken heat for becoming pro-RPS," says the CABS administrator, who calls herself Jane Doe. "This stuff is as literate as regular slash, and since I don't really care about the virtues of Justin Timberlake, I can't bring myself to lose sleep over how he's portrayed."

All controversy aside, band fiction continues to draw in readers and aspiring writers. CABS is a good place to start for the new fan fiction writer. They have writer guidelines and a place to have works in progress critiqued. Their reference page, "The Art and Ethics of Boy Band RPS," has become a manifesto of sorts for band fiction. To quote from it: "Sure, there's an appalling amount of subliterate teeny codswallop out there, when it comes to 'real person' fanfic. Sometimes, it's superb."

While depicting real people in fictional situations may make some uncomfortable, others will be put off by how sexually explicit band fiction can be. Indeed, the majority of RPS is homoerotic pornography. Typical band slash plots revolve around the hidden love of two band members -- instead of Luke and Han, we're treated to sexual encounters between John and Paul or Mick and Keith. Though a very small amount of heterosexual band slash does exist, slash lit traditionalists look down on it with disdain.

For the uninitiated, band slash can be a jarring experience. Imagining one's musical heroes in such situations might seem ridiculous, especially with bands whose machismo is just as important to their image as their music (think Metallica or Kid Rock). In the case of one Metallica slash, lead singer James Hetfield and guitarist Kirk Hammett discover a new twist in their relationship. A fan named Renegade penned this slash entitled "Love with a Friend":
... Kirk watched him from across the stage. Watched James walk with those long legs. His short blond hair clinging to the back of his neck with sweat. His bare back just glistening, being able to see the muscles tense and un-tense perfectly as he walked ... Kirk swallowed hard. What the fuck was happening to him?! He groaned when he looked down and realized that he was really fucking aroused by just watching James walk! This had definitely never happened before!! He closed his eyes and wished he were somewhere else. This couldn't be happening!
    -- from "Love with a Friend," by Renegade
But without a doubt, the most slashed musicians are boy bands. N'SYNC and Backstreet Boys top the list on FanFiction.net, with about 14,000 submissions between the two. It seems that their brand of sensitive- but-sexless, male-but-safe pop music translates nicely into homoerotic fantasy. And for boy bands' predominantly female audience, slash can be a perfect way to re-imagine their idols as sensitive, emotional men, reinforcing the image they portray in their music videos.

This Backstreet Boys slash is standard boy band RPS:
"Oh, Nick!" -- Brian gasped.

"Yes!" -- Nick shouted. Never in his life he had had so much pleasure. Never in his life he had been that hard. Never in his life he wanted something so bad as what they were having now.

This was the most erotical experience both Brian and Nick had ever gone through.

"Nick, take off your boxers, I wanna feel you." -- Brian pleaded and Nick obeyed.
    -- by Luciana Littrell
Though it might seem on the surface like playful, raunchy fluff, these stories also hint at a deeper desire -- the attempt to humanize musicians who otherwise seem like inaccessible gods. In place of their carefully crafted images, the musicians of RPS are infused with non- musical desires, deep emotions and fallibility. Often these themes are extracted from the songs themselves. Other writings are based on tabloid news and rumors. It's all fantasy and much of it is hacked together (Aaliyah likes Usher, but he's dating Alicia Keys. What is she gonna do?), but here and there you can find a well written one.

One story pits the members of Journey in the Vietnam war. It seemed particularly engaging, if only for sadistic reasons. It's Journey meets Platoon:
Neal Schon stood looking at the army officer like he had three heads. "Me?"

"Just come over here," the man sighed impatiently, taking Neal's paper. "So, Mr. Schon, passed the physical huh? Welcome to the United States Army, where we like to make many lives a living hell." The man stamped his paper and handed it back to him. "You get your uniform over there and then you'll go to bunk number twelve in room 10. Have a nice day!"

"Nice, huh," Neal said as he walked slowly to the room he was assigned to. He came to room 10, found his bed, and sat heavily on it. The army wasn't a place for him. He'd rather be home playing his guitar or playing football with his buddies. He sighed, getting up to unpack his things.
    -- by Kristin G
The enormous amounts of band fiction being churned out suggests that maybe fans are more interested in what's "Behind the Music" than the actual music itself. Just by watching MTV or VH-1, one can know all about the career of Def Leppard and not own a single LP -- and maybe that's the point. Fans want more and more behind the scenes coverage and they want musicians who are heroes -- even if they have to make up the stories themselves. Band fiction is satisfying that demand faster than VH-1 ever could.

To read more excellent slash visit Yahoo's fan fiction directory page (http://dir.yahoo.com/Entertainment/Music/Fan_Fiction/), and the Slash Fan Fiction Ring (http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/Cafe/3040/slash.html).

Omar J. Pahati is the associate editor of AlterNet.

How Much for That GOP in the Window?

$5,951,570.

That's the amount that Enron and its executives paid for political influence between 1990 and 2002, according to the Federal Election Commission. Those millions were contributed to the campaigns of dozens of candidates, propelling them into office. Three-quarters of the money went to Republicans. That's $4,404,161.80 -- not an insignificant sum, especially considering that not all soft money contributions have been accounted for.

Republicans in Enron's home state of Texas have especially benefited from the company's support over the years. Even George W.'s rise to the Oval Office was brought to you in part by Enron. One has to ask, does Enron own the GOP?

One group of Texas Democrats believes so. Their Web site address says it all -- EnronOwnsTheGOP.com. The organization, called "Texas '02," launched the site as the Enron scandal started unfolding. It lists the amounts of cash given to prominent Texas politicians by Enron, and calls for Republicans to return the tainted funds.

Though some politicians have returned money, Texas Republicans have refused to do so and EnronOwnsTheGOP.com is garnering national attention for letting voters know about it. This has Republicans who are gearing up for elections very nervous and searching for ways to silence the Web site.

In mid-February the Texas GOP took offense to the site's design, which is based on TexasGOP.org, the party's official Web site. The parody is so similar to the original that, Texas Republicans claimed, it should be shut down on the grounds of trademark infringement.

The GOP's elephant is prominently displayed on the parody site superimposed by the Enron logo, or the "crooked E" as it is becoming known. And the top banner welcomes you with "The Republican Party of Texas ... Brought to you by Enron."

In a letter to Kelly Fero, the director of Texas '02, the GOP claimed that the parody was "clearly intended to imitate and mimic the RPT trademark symbol and Web site, and to create confusion and mislead the public."

Fero's lawyers fired back with a letter of their own. "Using a mark to ridicule what the mark stands for is the type of criticism that has traditionally been afforded both 'fair use' and constitutional protection," wrote attorney Doug Ray, "If you pursue this matter, please be assured that your actions will be met with a vigorous response."

A week later, Texas GOP softened and instead filed a complaint with the state ethics committee. The complaint will hardly put a dent in the site's operation. And the backpedaling comes a little late, as news coverage of the scuffle has picked up, a fate the GOP could have avoided had they just ignored the small Web site. Since their initial letter the Web site experienced a marked increase in traffic.

Fero, who is a key strategist for Texas democrats and an experienced media expert, moved quickly to frame this as a triumph for his cause. "No one has disputed a single fact featured on EnronOwnsTheGop.com," said Fero in a column for Buzzflash.com. "The site will stay up until the four statewide Republican candidates whose political operatives are trying to shut it down return their Enron cash to the ex-employees of the failed energy company."

Those four candidates he mentions are the "stars" of EnronOwnsTheGOP.com. The site's right hand column -- labeled "Enron En-fluence" -- names these culprits and their Enron contributions: Governor Rick Perry, $227,075; Attorney General John Cornyn, $193,000; Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, $71,500; and AG candidate Greg Abbott, employee of Bracewell & Patterson, a large creditor of Enron.

Click on the names of these powerful people and the site presents some of the slimy details behind the contributions.

Perry refuses to return the money despite receiving a healthy sum of $25,000 the very day after appointing former Enron executive Max Yzaguirre to head the public utilities commission.

Cornyn also received $25,000 after the Yzaguirre appointment and a separate sum before "siding with Enron in a utility case in which the company sought to keep financial information secret as it competed for business in the deregulated utility market," notes the Web site.

The site criticizes Rylander for mismanaging the state tobacco settlement fund, to the tune of $61 million, in bad Enron investments and other deals.

Abbott also accepted Enron contributions while campaigning for lieutenant governor. Though he says he has given money back, he is closely tied to a law firm whose biggest client and most famous debtor is Enron.

A notable exclusion on the site is Texas' most prominent politician, George W. Bush. Enron was one of Bush's top corporate supporters during gubernatorial elections in 1994 and 1998. And Enron's contributions swelled to nearly $2 million during the 2000 presidential election.

Republicans in and beyond Texas emphasize that Enron is a business scandal and not a political scandal. The close timing of political appointments and Enron contributions have been dismissed by Republicans as mere coincidence.

Considering the facts presented on EnronOwnsTheGOP.com, that defense seems laughable. Predictably, Republicans aren't even chuckling. As Fero says, "We are not surprised that the GOP fails to see the humor in this Web site."

Omar J. Pahati is the associate editor of AlterNet.org. Email him at oj@alternet.org.

Microsoft Goes McCarthy in War Against Linux

Microsoft Windows is the single most widely used computer program in the world. Chances are, it's running right now on your computer at home, in your office, at your kids' school, you name it. Millions of people see the flying Windows logo every day, as it waves across 90 percent of all computer screens on the planet.

Windows and its related programs have become so dominant that, as anyone who has ever heard of Bill Gates knows, the Justice Department is fighting a protracted legal war to break Microsoft's monopoly power. Over a year ago, Microsoft was ordered to split into three different companies. Lately, Justice has threatened to block the release of Windows XP, the latest version of the program, until the courts have decided on a remedy for Microsoft's misbehavior. Microsoft tried to get this decision delayed through complicated legal wranglings but was struck down by federal appeals court on August 17.

But considering how handily Microsoft lawyers have dealt with the government in the past, that may not be Bill Gates' biggest worry these days. Instead, he's probably looking over his shoulder at a program that is equal to (if not better than) Windows, one that's steadily eating away at Microsoft's market share, is constantly being upgraded, and is completely free: Linux.

Known in the geek world as "open source" software (its source code can be used or tweaked for free), Linux has become Microsoft's #1 competitor. According to market researcher International Data Corp., Linux garnered a 27 percent share of operating system software for computer servers sold last year. That's up from 24 percent in 1999 and 17 percent in 1998 -- a surprisingly high growth rate that positions Linux as the prime contender to knock Microsoft Windows (41 percent) from the top spot.

That has the folks in Redmond worried. So worried, in fact, that Microsoft bigwigs are calling Linux "un-American" and a threat to innovation. At a congressional hearing on intellectual property earlier this year, Microsoft operating system chief Jim Allchin said, "Open source is an intellectual-property destroyer. I'm an American, I believe in the American Way. I worry if the government encourages open source, and I don't think we've done enough education of policymakers to understand the threat."

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer called open source software a "cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches."

Even founder Bill Gates weighed in with his own rhetoric saying that open source was created with the belief that the business of software should not even exist.

Microsoft's gripe is that once a company develops software using open source code, it must forfeit its right to charge for the intellectual property that is the product of that development. It's largely viewed as a bogus argument, since there is nothing illegal about Linux or the General Public License that guarantees its open development and use; it may even be protected as free speech. In reality, Linux is less a threat to the intellectual property business than to Microsoft's business.

Linux developers, known as penguin-heads (in reference to their penguin mascot), are naturally a bit upset at Microsoft's attack. Posting on the popular Linux hangout Slashdot, a programmer going by the name of "herk" remarked, "Well if they can't destroy Linux through corporate stronghold tactics and intimidation, they may as well resort to convincing the general public it should be illegal."

Of course, many in the Linux community view the Microsoft offensive as confirmation that Linux has arrived. "It is telling when an unethical company who engages in various illegal practices descends into nothing short of crass nationalism to defend its case," added another open source programmer.

In a statement released in response to Microsoft's charge, several open source leaders -- including Linux's creator, Linus Torvalds, Red Hat co-founder Bob Young, VA Linux Systems CEO Larry Augustin, publisher Tim O'Reilly and Free Software Foundation guru Richard Stallman -- defended their movement, saying, "We have become so serious a competitor to Microsoft that their executives publicly announce their fear. However, the only threat that we present to Microsoft is the end of monopoly practices."

Ironically, Microsoft's accusations were made before a government that has already adopted Linux's for its own computers. Several federal agencies have chosen to use Linux over Microsoft on their machines. Even the National Security Agency (NSA) has developed its own security-enhanced version of Linux. Jeffery Hunker, Senior Director for Critical Infrastructure at the White House National Security Council says, "Open source software plays an increasingly important role in federal IT systems. I'm delighted the NSA's security experts are making this valuable contribution to the open source community."

The federal government isn't the only powerful friend Linux has made. Carly Fiorina, CEO of Hewlett-Packard, has said that "the open source movement is natural, inevitable and creates huge benefits." And last year, computer maker Compaq sold 24 percent of all servers that ran Linux, making it the best selling platform for Linux and an important piece of the puzzle for open source's future.

But IBM has emerged as the biggest player in the race to get Linux to the top. They alone have pledged to spend $1 billion in 2001 to develop and promote a line of Linux servers. With that kind of backing, Linux could become a household name by next summer.

"We see Linux as a major force in IT and moving IT to the next generation in the Internet business," says Irving Wladawsky Berger, IBM's vice president of technology and strategy. "So we are supporting Linux across all of our hardware platforms, our middleware and our services business." Specifically, mid-sized businesses will be able to adopt robust Linux technologies once reserved for larger enterprises. This trend of running Linux on smaller and smaller platforms should eventually reach the desktop of the average user, bringing Linux to the largest possible audience.

The open-source community's reaction to IBM's commitment has been largely positive. "For the Linux community, this means a long-term solid name to rely on for support," posted one penguin-head. "That's wonderful, as international companies will be able to get support anywhere, and smaller companies that really want a reliable solution will look at the IBM label as a plus."

Another Slashdot member added, "IBM might not be the biggest name in the PC world, but they are still one of the (if not the one) biggest companies when it comes to corporate mindshare. It's good to have them on this side and not paired up with Microsoft."

Needless to say, Microsoft won't be going down without a fight. This summer Bill Gates announced the Microsoft .NET initiative, which aims to move Microsoft's existing software onto the Web, where it will be available for use through a subscription service. Gates hopes that in the future all electronic devices -- from computers and televisions, to palm-helds and cell phones -- will connect to .NET's web of services. The success of this plan depends a great deal on achieving "vertical integration" -- in other words, Windows running on servers, on individual computers, and everything in between. Many believe that Microsoft's future depends on .NET, making it all the more important that they clear Linux from the path.

Since its congressional hearings, however, Microsoft's approach towards Linux has gotten softer and more subtle. "There's no attempt on our part to characterize open source as bad, or bad from a policy point of view," said Craig Mundie, senior vice president of advanced strategies at Microsoft. Instead, they've co-opted open source strategies by creating what they call "shared source." Through shared source, Microsoft has made available a fraction of their program code. But unlike open source, a developer is severely limited in the ability to modify and reuse that code.

The open source community is not buying it. Boston-based Linux developers Ximian recently announced plans for a software project they hope will compete with .NET. The project will help .NET-type services become popular by opening its doors to Linux users, but will undermine Microsoft's control of it.

Linus Torvalds, who launched Linux a decade ago, has joked in the past about achieving world domination. As his program celebrates its 10th anniversary this month (at a BYOB event) Torvalds' once-laughable dream seems more realistic than ever before. If Linux does become the next Microsoft Windows, it will probably owe its success to a mixed maelstrom of corporate forces, rather than the ambition of it creators. After all, as the penguin-heads will tell you, their real goal is "not world domination, but world liberation."

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