Love a Little Better

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Valentine's Day may be a crass, purely commercial holiday, but don't try telling your lover you're boycotting it. Even if the object of your affection sympathizes with your conscientious objector platform, it's a safe bet your hard line will bruise her tender heart.

Bottom line: You had the opportunity to buy her a gift and you didn't do it. Will you pay for that down the road? Personally, I wouldn't want to roll those dice.

Thankfully, there are alternatives. You can, in fact, turn your back on the mountain of V-Day junk at Walmart ( WMT) and seize the opportunity to help build the world you would like to see.

The idea here is simple: Be proactive. You have to participate, but as you do you can choose to raise the level of the cultural conversation by some small degree. You win, she wins, everybody wins.

My few suggestions are all related to music I happen to like -- take them or leave them but, hopefully, if you choose to do the latter you can catch the spirit and apply this same thinking to other areas more specific to your Valentine.

No. 1: They're Playing Your Song

If there's a local jazz club, or a restaurant that has live jazz, go for it. Reserve a table, pick up a single rose, have nice dinner and enjoy the band.

Obvious, right? But this simple choice is magical in its effect.

Assuming the musicians are being paid, your money is going into the grassroots pockets of the culture business. You're also showing the local restaurant that hiring a band does indeed draw in customers. With that, your money is already working doubletime.

From your date's perspective, nothing is more romantic than jazz -- except, maybe, you. Even when you don't know a whole lot about the music, it still has a flirtatious appeal.

All those sultry jazz associations from old, black-and-white movies? They haven't faded one bit but are just lingering there in our collective subconscious, waiting to be activated. (Just don't say, Here's looking at you, kid. Bogart's ghost is likely to step out of the shadows and slap you.)

No. 2: Rock the Powdered Wig

Support a local classical music ensemble. A simple pair of tickets to one concert would be great, but a subscription is where the smart money is.

Beginning with the economic downturn, private money became very guarded and the revenue from contributions on which these ensembles depend fell off a cliff. Even the best, most beloved ensembles got the crap kicked out them. Those that survive are often still struggling.

That's where you come in: A big piece of our musical culture is at risk of collapsing and you can do something about it -- while impressing the heck out of your date.

The details vary from ensemble to ensemble, but the drop in subscriptions is a national phenomenon. Even regular attenders prefer to buy single tickets at the last minute these days. That creates a cash flow problem and makes it extremely hard for the business office and artistic management to plan entire seasons.

Subscriptions are generally cheaper, on a per-concert basis, than single tickets. You can often buy a small subscription to only three or four events, so you don't have commit to going to a concert every week, for instance.

If for some reason you can't go, you may be able to donate the ticket back to the ensemble for resale. That allows you to write it off on your taxes. The ensemble makes twice as much from the same ticket. You've done good.

As a bonus, many regional orchestras have Valentine's Day special events, coordinating with a local restaurant for a dinner and concert package, for instance.

The program and the quality of the playing will vary, but among regional orchestras the level of ability generally is still quite high. Especially on Valentine's Day and other popular holidays, you stand a good chance of hearing familiar music performed well.

No. 3: Wrap It Up in Vinyl

If your true love loves a particular artist or style, see if that music is available on old-fashioned 33 1/3 RPM long-playing discs. A large number of artists offer limited runs in the old medium, so even new music can often be purchased this way.

At used-record stores, LPs can be had for a song. Unlike CDs and downloads, LPs are a solid investment. Depending on the artist, the value could increase dramatically the longer you own them. I bought an early pressing of the Beatles' "White Album" about five years ago for a lofty $80 and I suspect it's worth at least a few hundred now.

In an essay last year for a small Web site called Asbury Pulp, I talked about why LPs are such beautiful artifacts. But vinyl recordings also have a reputation for higher sound quality. As you buy records, you're sending a message to marketers that you care about such things. You don't have to be an audiophile or a collector to want the best product for your money.

No. 4: A Stay-Home Movie Night

Maybe you've cooked a nice dinner and you just want to stay in, just the two of you. There's nothing wrong with a romantic evening in front of the TV. But for goodness sake, don't spend it watching "Teen Mom" re-runs.

May I suggest any one of these three classic films? Rent them if you like, but after you've seen them, you'll want to buy them:
  • Amadeus: Directed by Milos Forman and based on the hit play by Peter Schaffer, this is a retelling of a famous legend surrounding the composer Mozart's death. There's a lot of fiction here, framed into what one friend termed, "more of Peter Schaffer's crackpot theories about God." Mozart was a genius, that part is indisputable, and that genius decorates a compelling storyline. Best of all, there are many spot-on dramatic uses of his music.
  • Blue: Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski, part of his three-part tribute to French culture, this features music by Zbigniew Preisner. In the film, a composer, played by Juliette Binoche, walks away from her career after the death of her husband and child, only to be dragged back by the music itself. It's a complex film, romantic and haunting, and the music is used brilliantly. Get it in French with English subtitles ( Bleu).
  • Ray: Directed by Taylor Hackford and starring Jamie Foxx, this traces Ray Charles' remarkable career and includes some terrific music and great dramatic moments. Foxx is totally convincing in the title role and there are plenty of illustrations of Charles as a business genius as well as an artistic one.

    In different ways, each of these films examines the mind of a musical genius at close range and the music that exists as a compelling, romantic force inside each of us.

    Way better than chocolate.

    -- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in Asbury Park.

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