"Now, it's time for the happy recap." - Bob Murphy
Pop Culture Archives
October 5, 2017
POP CULTURE: Tom Petty on Political Beats
NRO Political Beats: talking Tom Petty just after his death.
July 30, 2017
POP CULTURE/HISTORY: Dunkirk Is A Horror Movie
March 18, 2017
POP CULTURE: RIP Chuck Berry, The Founding Father of Rock
January 16, 2017
POP CULTURE: At The Movies, Technology Isn't Everything
October 13, 2016
POP CULTURE: Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize
October 7, 2016
POLITICS/POP CULTURE: Oh, NOW David Letterman Thinks Trump Should Be Shunned
August 12, 2014
POP CULTURE: Robin Williams, Suicide, Depression, and Evil Spirits
People are talking about depression and suicide in the wake of the shocking death of Robin Williams. That's mostly a good thing - the lives and deaths of celebrities are a common language, and we can use it to discuss the world we live in. But these conversations seem to me to end up oversimplifying the issue in a way that creates pointless conflict and obscures what we really need to understand about depression and suicide.
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What tends to happen when people talk about these issues is, they divide the possible responses into two extremes:
1) Suicide is a moral choice, a selfish act, and depression is no excuse for it and is just an emotional state.
2) Depression is a medical condition caused by a chemical imbalance, and people under its influence cannot be condemned or even judged for their actions.
If these seem like straw-man caricatures to you, they are; but people writing about these issues have a tendency, even if they don't make these arguments themselves, to argue as if they are the only possible positions. This would be a good example of arguing against Strawman #1, and this post from Matt Walsh is a good example of arguing against Strawman #2. Both of those pieces have some valid points to make, and I have no problem with their being made while we are having this conversation, but their strawman-baiting ends up leaving the reader with a set of false choices.
As to suicide itself, as an act, it is absolutely the case that it is an immoral and selfish act - the Catholic Church for good reason has long regarded it as a mortal sin, as it involves not only the willful taking of a human life but also an awful lot of pain and guilt inflicted on innocent people around the person who commits suicide.
But. But. Even in our human and thus inherently flawed system of criminal justice, we show mercy to those who do things when not in their right minds. I have to believe that God, whose mercy is beyond our comprehension, is likewise merciful to those who take their lives while not in their right minds. That's not true of every suicide, but it is generally the case when suicide follows depression. Anyone who has suffered clinical depression or dealt with anyone who has knows the devastating effects it can have on a person's judgment, their tolerance for suffering, even their will to live. Of course, people in Robin Williams' position should be viewed with mercy, and with pity, for reaching a point where they could no longer see hope.
At the opposite end of the scale, however, it is perilous and maybe more harm than good to reduce depression strictly to a question of chemistry. Because the problem of depression runs deeper than that, and if we had drugs to fix it entirely, Robin Williams and others like him would probably still be alive today. It's actively dangerous to tell people their problems are just a matter of chemicals, then give them drugs and tell them it will all be OK, when it actually won't and they may feel like they have just lost the only hope there was. It's dangerous to tell people they have no free will in the face of depression, when they do - when the thing they need most is to have it pressed into their brains that no matter how dark things get, there is always help, always hope. Depression is a sickness of the soul, and the fact that we can diagnose its physical manifestations doesn't change that. Ben Stein, I think, gets closest to this:
I no longer even remotely believe in psychoactive anti-depressant meds for suicidal thoughts. I've taken them long ago and they made me suicidal beyond any other times in my life. I strongly suspect that overuse of psychoactive anti-depressants and the contrary effects they often seem to have is a factor in military suicides. Any drug strong enough to change your basic mood is going to be dangerous.
What works for Ben Stein may not be, precisely, what works for you, or for someone else in need of help. (Mollie Hemingway, on Twitter, suggested this book from a Lutheran pastor's first-person account of depression). The mind and the soul are complex things. But while depression is a disease, it's not just a disease, and combating it is a matter of treating a person, not treating a disease alone.
You know, we don't talk much anymore in our society about evil spirits. The Bible is full of such talk, and people in more primitive days ascribed all sorts of things to them, including a great deal of what we would now describe as mental illness. We've moved beyond that kind of talk because - aside from the handful of cases these days in which the Church still calls for exorcisms - science has found their chemical footprints and declared them to be diseases. Yet, in most cases we are no closer to explaining their causes than people were in Jesus' time. In many cases, we're still far from curing them with science as well. Maybe there is wisdom in the fact that we still colloquially refer to people like Robin Williams as battling their "demons".
My pastor is fond of quoting a scene from the play written by George Bernard Shaw (a famous atheist) about Joan of Arc, where she is quizzed about the voices she hears, telling her to save France in the name of God:
JOAN: I hear voices telling me what to do. They come from God.
Or, to use a more recent example from the world of fiction, Harry Potter asks Dumbledore, when he meets him at King's Cross at a place between life and death, "Is this real? or just happening inside my head"? To which Dumbledore replies, "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?" To say that depression is all in your head, in your mind, is only to say that it is where you are. In the words (or perhaps paraphrased words) of C.S. Lewis, "You don't have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body."
We pity and do not condemn the dead, because they lost hope, lost sight of the fact that they had a choice, lost the strength to make that choice. But the living need to know that that choice is always there. Of course, when modern medicine offers help, when it finds the physical footprints of demons in our minds, we should not refuse its aid. Scientific reason is one of the gifts God has given us to use to help those in need. But we should also not forget that a sickness of the soul needs every kind of help that God and man can offer.
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December 2, 2013
POP CULTURE: The 2013 American Music Awards
My wife and I recorded last weekend's American Music Awards and watched them with the kids this weekend. A few observations about the 2013 AMAs:
This was one of the worst performance lineups for a music awards show I've ever seen, even in the context of today's music scene, although that may also be a symptom of ongoing shifts in the music landscape from as recently as a year or two ago. Imagine Dragons was the only act that could even halfway plausibly be described as "rock," and the "pop" acts were so overrun with rap interludes (close to half the performances had a rapper involved, even including one of the two country acts) that I actually missed people like Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift (Swift was there to pick up trophies but didn't perform). From my perspective as a fan of both rock and pop-rock, the best performances were by Imagine Dragons, Luke Bryan and Ariana Grande, none of whom are exactly my cup of tea.
As to Bryan, it's the first time I'd seen him perform, and it's not hard to see why the man is a country music superstar; he's got stage presence to burn. The 20-year-old Grande, by contrast, has a lovely voice (although one that produced no comprehensible lyrics) but looked petrified, performing with her eyes closed and using up about half her speaking time - when she accepted the "New Artist of the Year" award - just navigating the steps to the stage in high heels and a tight gown without faceplanting. And the overwhelming impression left by Imagine Dragons was that the lead singer really, really, really likes hitting very large drums.
The weakness of the roster was largely driven by the absence of veteran performers, only a few of whom - Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Lopez, Pitbull (who hosted the show), R. Kelly, a TLC reunion - took the stage. Besides Imagine Dragons, there were no bands, not even bands like Kings of Leon that are currently promoting new albums (Dave Grohl was on hand only as a presenter; the bizarre piano duo of A Great Big World doesn't count as a band). No rap warhorses like Jay-Z, Kanye or Eminem. Besides Aguilera, who contributed an uncharacteristically understated featured vocal to A Great Big World's performance, the veteran pop divas - Beyonce, Kelly Clarkson, Pink, Britney, Avril, Alicia Keys - stayed home. Even Carrie Underwood, customarily ubiquitous at music awards shows, wasn't in the house; Bryan and Florida Georgia Line were the sole country representatives. Nearly everyone left onstage debuted within the past 5-6 years, many of them more recently than that.
Timberlake, who performed a horn section-laden number called "Drink You Away," seems ready at last to embrace his Memphis roots, but his voice and personality are still too smooth and boyish to sing the blues. Meanwhile, speaking of boys, the British talent-show package One Direction performed with the careful stagecraft of a group that knows their fans want screen time for each of the five heartthrobs. They're slightly more talented and no less harmless than the recently-disbanded Jonas Brothers (the core One Direction demographic is girls too young to know who the Jones Brothers were), and still a few years from figuring out if there's a future Timberlake (or Michael Jackson or Frank Sinatra or Brian Wilson - boy bands have a richer history than you'd think) in their midst.
As for the rappers, they did their level best to showcase their embrace of musical styles that involve actual music. Pitbull did a Cotton-Eye-Joe-style square-dance type number with Ke$ha, who appeared to have showered for the occasion, while Macklemore spat inaudible verses over a catchy horn section-powered groove.
R. Kelly's performance as...John F. Kennedy?...accompanying Lady Gaga only served to answer the question "how can we make a Lady Gaga appearance even creepier?" Given that Gaga's latest album looks primed to lose her label $25 million, maybe her ambitions will be scaled back in the future.
One of the fun people-watching aspects of a music awards show is watching the crowd, including their peers, react to the musicians (or just be themselves, like Jay-Z sitting in the front row at the Grammys with a snifter of brandy looking like he owned the joint). Taylor Swift got into just about every performance; Lady Gaga looked distinctly nervous and wound up waiting for her turn to go onstage. During Luke Bryan's performance of "That's My Kinda Night," it was painfully obvious that only a fraction of the crowd actually knew any of the words to his song, despite it being a huge hit.
But all that changed when Miley Cyrus took the stage for another bizarre, howling rendition of "Wrecking Ball," dressed in what can best be described as two-thirds of a leotard covered in kittens and performing with a psychedelic floating cat graphic twice her size. Not once in the entire performance, nor its immediate aftermath, did the cameras pan to the crowd to see how they were reacting (they finally cut into the crowd briefly before going to commercial, catching one guy with a skeptical look on his face). I was left wondering whether, after the viral "audience reacts to Miley and Thicke" buzz following the VMAs, one of the conditions of her performance had been to demand that the network not show any crowd shots while she was onstage.
Is modesty making a (slight) comeback? Probably not, but it had a better night than usual. Katy Perry opened the show in a sort of mock kimono as part of a Japanese-themed number; her dress contained enough material for about five typical Katy Perry dresses. Lady Gaga's Marilyn Monroe-themed dress was, basically, just a short skirt, while Rihanna - who was there with her mother - wore a long, classy gown. And Grande brought the old-school class. The men, meanwhile, were mostly on better behavior than Robin Thicke's notorious antics with Miley Cyrus at the VMAs, while Timberlake and Pitbull set the tuxedo tone. Cyrus, of course, was the exception as far as clothing, but even her outfit looked more like she was dressed for a 1981 aerobics session with Olivia Newton-John than for a stripper's pole.
The AMAs are a fan-voted awards show, so the awards themselves were dominated by the kinds of acts - Swift, Grande, One Direction, and the boy-band granddaddy Timberlake - who appeal most strongly to the kind of teen and preteen girls who are the most devoted "early and often" voters for this kind of thing. Swift has finally abandoned the patented and increasingly unconvincing "Taylor Swift shocked at winning an award" face, but her acceptance speech for "Artist of the Year" showed why she commands the loyalty of "Taylor Nation," as she tells her fans that she and they are still "on the same page" in what matters to them, what affects them, and how they feel:
Faith and Politics
Speaking of reaction shots, one of the show's more vivid moments of frisson was generated when Rihanna's mother - presenting her daughter with an "Icon" award after being introduced by Bill Maher - prefaced her remarks by saying, "First of all, all praises and honor be to God Almighty through Jesus" while Maher rolled his eyes looking like a teenager embarrassed by his square older relatives:
America has perhaps no nastier public "atheist" (I put the word in quotes because a man that angry at God can't really claim not to believe in him) than Maher, so naturally watching a proud mother from Barbados discomfit him merely by sincerely witnessing her faith without embarrassment. But the evening's other more explicitly political moment was more cringe-inducing, as pasty Irish Seattle rapper Macklemore (who may or may not have cribbed his nom de rap from Mark McLemore) offered up a ham-fisted sermonette on the Trayvon Martin case from Miami, where he had a scheduled show:
Martin Luther King, Jr. said "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." And due to the fact that we are in Florida tonight accepting this award, I want to acknowledge Trayvon Martin and the hundreds and hundreds of kids each year that are dying due to racial profiling and the violence that follows it.
This is nonsense, junk law and junk statistics of the worst kind - and what's more, obvious pandering by a white guy trying to polish his street cred - but a decidedly subpar evening for the music business wouldn't be complete without some subpar political posturing.
For once, I actually ended the evening thinking, "well, the Grammys have to be better than this."
August 15, 2013
POP CULTURE: Concert Review: Kelly Clarkson & Maroon 5 at Jones Beach, 8/11/13
Sunday night, my wife & I went to see a double-billed concert, Kelly Clarkson and Maroon 5 at the Nikon Theater at Jones Beach (in a fit of corporate sponsorship, this is billed as the "Honda Civic Tour"). As far as current pop music goes, this is about as good as it gets: Clarkson is, in my oft-stated view, the best thing in pop today, and Maroon 5 has for some years now been the best pop band that's still played regularly on mainstream pop radio, notwithstanding my disappointment with the direction of their recent releases. On the whole, it was a good show - but not as good as it could have been.
Jones Beach is easily the most beautiful concert venue I've seen, and is a convenient place to see a show, with good acoustics for an outdoor venue. It's a good size, as well, providing seating for a sizeable crowd without any bad seats or the impersonal feel of a stadium show. (The picture above is spliced together from two shots I took during the show, giving a sense of how each side of the stage looks before sunset).
The crowd was...really pretty terrible, one of the worst crowds in which I've seen a show. Maybe worse because it was a Sunday night. There was clearly a mixture of longtime Maroon 5 fans, a smaller but vocal contingent of Clarkson fans, and a chunk of people who seemed only familiar with Maroon 5's most recent radio hits. Demographically, I wasn't nose-counting that much but it was a varied crowd by age, almost all white, and I was able to waltz past acres of empty urinals in the men's room while the lines for the ladies' room looked like the last helicopter out of Saigon.
What bothered me, mainly during Clarkson's set, was that nobody but a small coterie on one side of the stage seemed to be standing up. Sitting down is no way to enjoy a concert unless you're 90 years old or in a wheelchair, but at my age (41) I'm not bold enough to stand up alone if everybody in my section is resolutely sitting, which they were (you need the front row up or nobody else budges). It was seriously lifeless and embarrassing to be a part of. The crowd got up sporadically during Maroon 5's set, mainly during the more recent radio hits, but there were still people sitting down or bolting for the exits during the encores. To say nothing of people walking to the bathrooms in the middle of songs.
We arrived too late to see the opening act, Rozzie Crane, although she did come back onstage to sing with Maroon 5 on "Wake Up Call" (a really odd choice of song to add a female voice to, plus like most female singers her voice is deeper than Adam Levine's falsetto), and thus while I can't judge her material, she does have a good voice and a lively stage presence.
This is the third time I've seen Clarkson in concert - she joins Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and the Saw Doctors as the only acts I've seen three times - and I wrote up previous reviews after seeing her at the Hammerstein Ballroom in October 2009 and at Radio City Music Hall in January 2012.
When I saw Clarkson at Radio City, she was touring in support of her fifth and arguably best studio album, Stronger (the album won a Grammy and the title track was a ubiquitous hit single), and coming off yet another of her periodic controversies for saying she liked Ron Paul. She has kept busy since then, singing at the 2012 Super Bowl and President Obama's second inaugural, starring as a judge in Duets, ABC's ill-fated Summer 2012 entry into the singing-show sweepstakes, doing a joint tour with The Fray, releasing a Greatest Hits album, a pair of country singles (one a duet with Vince Gill), and a Dallas Cowboys 'theme song', recording a big-band/country/blues/rock Christmas album due out late this fall, and getting engaged. Her upcoming wedding will marry her into country music royalty: her fiancee is the son of her manager, the stepson of Reba McEntire, and is himself the manager for Blake Shelton.
Clarkson, now a veteran touring act at 31, particularly made a name on her last few tours by doing "fan requests" - songs requested by fans on Twitter. She's not the only artist to do something like this; Bruce Springsteen, for example, plays songs from his back catalogue requested by sign-holding fans at his shows, sometimes even songs he hasn't played in decades or has never played live. But in Clarkson's case, only a handful of the fan requests have been her own songs; it's been the covers of other people's songs, generally only rehearsed the day of the show, that have cemented her reputation as a one-woman walking iTunes. She's covered everyone from the classic rock gods (the Beatles, the Stones, Springsteen, Dylan) to modern rock (the Foo Fighters, Radiohead, Kings of Leon, Florence and the Machine) to 90s-to-present pop-rock (the Goo Goo Dolls, No Doubt, Gavin DeGraw, .fun) to country (Tammy Wynette, Trisha Yearwood, Lee Ann Womack) to the big-voiced pop/R&B divas (Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston) to the little-voiced pop tarts (Madonna, Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Rihanna) to the blues (Etta James) and the pop standards and show tunes (songs from Funny Girl and Grease) to even a respectable hoodie-and-all stab at rap (Eminem; the cover met with the approval of Eminem's brother who was in the audience). Entertainment Weekly collected fan-shot YouTubes of the whole tour's worth of covers here and here. The fan request covers offer something unique about each show and showcase the versatility as an interpreter of songs across genres that made Clarkson a star on American Idol in the first place.
The setup for this tour, with Maroon 5 as the de facto headliner, called for Clarkson to go on first, with just an hourlong set compared to her usual 90 minutes. Given her breadth of material (Clarkson didn't even have room for all her top-10 singles on her Greatest Hits album) and need to promote her current singles while making room for at least one cover, that left a lot on the cutting room floor, including - unfortunately - the fan requests. She played a series of her biggest signature hits, from the opening "(What Doesn't Kill You) Stronger" to the closing "Since U Been Gone" to her first really big pop hit, "Miss Independent," but also worked in her most recent pop single, the Lady Gaga-ish "People Like Us," a solo version of her hit country duet "Don't You Wanna Stay," her wedding-themed current country single "Tie It Up," and a cover of Aretha's "Never Loved A Man."
The planning of her set was well-designed: she brought a 3-man horn section, a highlight of her 2009 tour, and presented a number of her songs (particularly live favorite "Walk Away") with new instrumental arrangements heavy on the horns. "People Like Us," the next to last song, featured some of the visual effects and costume changes Clarkson has eschewed with past tours, including fluorescent outfits for her and her band. But the execution had one flaw.
Clarkson's voice in concert is ordinarily such a marvel, and coming from such a tiny person, I've compared it to watching Pedro Martinez pitch. But the analogy holds up further, because Sunday night her voice was in such rough shape it was like watching an ace pitcher take the mound when he doesn't have his A+ fastball: she was straining and falling short of a lot of the big notes and booming volume she customarily produces with ease. Like an ace pitcher, though, she knows how to compensate: she dialed up the soul on the Aretha cover, relied more heavily on her backup singers, was even punchier than usual in her goofy in-between songs banter, and constantly urged on the crowd to sing along with her, trying to get audience participation to step in where she couldn't go. You can see this from the closing number, "Since U Been Gone":
The reason why Clarkson sounded so ragged was obvious: when she tours on her own, she insists on not scheduling back-to-back shows to reduce the strain on her voice. But the Jones Beach show was the joint tour's third straight night in three different cities, and she was audibly out of gas. Still, she gamely soldiered on, and even at partial strength is still an entertaining and energetic performer and a master interpreter of songs (if you'd never heard what she sounds like live you might not have realized this was not her best). Clarkson's a trouper; last summer she badly sprained her ankle but refused to cancel a July 4 show at Fort Hood, at which she performed some of her more uptempo hits while bouncing on one foot with the other in a cast.
But she was engaging as always. Clarkson commented on how well Jones Beach had been rebuilt after Hurricane Sandy (it was not as hard-hit as Coney Island or the Jersey Shore). She also waved around her engagement ring and gushed about being engaged and the importance of finding someone who lets you be yourself; for someone whose public persona and musical personality was built over the past 9 years around breakup songs and loneliness, it's a sharp turnabout that she clearly relishes.
This was the second time I've seen Maroon 5 live, the first being a Jones Beach show on the same day in August 2010. Like Clarkson, Maroon 5 has seen its share of ups and downs in a decade-long career in pop music. There's been personnel turnover - they replaced their drummer in 2006, and one of the keyboard players has been on leave from the band this year. Their first two albums, 2002's Songs About Jane (which hit it big in 2003-04) and 2007's It Won't Be Soon Before Long, were both great successes, selling millions of albums and launching #1 singles, but they waited three more years to release their third album, Hands All Over, and it launched poorly after the modest success of the lead single, "Misery." It sold badly out of the gate, and the other singles disappeared without a trace. Hands All Over was a good album, mostly in the vein of their first two albums but with some Def Leppard-ish touches added by veteran producer "Mutt" Lange (best known for producing the best-selling albums by AC/DC, Def Leppard and his then-wife Shania Twain). Unfortunately for Maroon 5, their old sound was out of step with what radio stations were playing by 2010, and a pop band can't really get away with releasing an album every three years. They looked like they might be yesterday's news - but then lead singer Adam Levine joined The Voice, the hugely successful NBC singing show, and teamed up with equally flagging co-star Christina Aguilera to record "Moves Like Jagger," an insipid piece of fluff that replaced Maroon 5's signature "pop/rock with a touch of disco" sound with "disco/disco with a glob of more disco." "Moves Like Jagger" was a colossal worldwide hit, the band's career was saved (Hands All Over was re-released with it added and went platinum) and a monster was created. Later in 2011, Levine had another #1 hit appearing on the Gym Class Heroes' "Stereo Hearts," lending a melodic chorus to an otherwise fairly dreary hip-hop song.
That brings us to 2012's Overexposed, which sent its first three singles to #1 on the Top 40 chart, starting with "Payphone," another catchy, frothy melody weighed down by the appearance of rapper Wiz Khalifa. Overexposed featured a lot less rock, even the light rock of the band's earlier albums - you can barely hear a guitar until well into the second half of the album, not coincidentally the point where guitarist James Valentine gets his first writing credit in place of hitmaking producers like Max Martin and Ryan Tedder (both of whom have also worked with Clarkson in the past). A few of the songs are good but several are terrible, and most are more like "Moves Like Jagger" than like the band's first three albums: overproduced machine-made goo with few real instruments. The best track is the last one on the deluxe version of the album, a 7-minute long cover of Prince's "Kiss" done in the style of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Few of the new fans flocking to Maroon 5 these days would recognize the musical reference.
Valentine is a legitimately outstanding guitarist, and he's also Levine's musical anchor, what keeps the band from floating away into a sea of mechanized pop fluff; just as Clarkson often presents her songs live as more 'rock' than the studio versions, Valentine's guitar was a distinct improvement on the Overexposed tracks, which if performed in their studio arrangements would have entailed Levine singing while the rest of the band just twiddled their thumbs. (This Billboard puff piece on the show runs through the various covers and part-covers that dotted the show, most of them just quick musical interludes).
The band came out bouncing; Levine sweated clear through most of his shirt within 20 minutes of taking the stage (it's an accomplishment to outdo Clarkson, a famously sweaty live performer, in this regard), leading to screaming demands from women in the crowd to strip off his shirt (he eventually got down to a tank top). He nodded as well to the difficulty of getting a Sunday night crowd to participate when he raised a sing-along to "She Will Be Loved." In a clever touch, they released glowing beachballs into the crowd for "Lucky Strike," at least one of which ended up in the drink:
Levine is aslo recently engaged (Clarkson cracked on Twitter that they should call it the "Off the Market tour") and is typically a little funny and a lot full of himself; I used to follow him on Twitter until I tired of his politics. Between songs at this show, he was much less of a wiseass than at the previous show; he went on about how grateful he was to the fans, how much the tradition of Jones Beach shows has meant to him over the years, and how the band's first appearance there was playing in the parking lot before a Sheryl Crow show in 2002. Perhaps at 34, settling down and having bounced back from the commercial low point of Hands All Over, Levine was in more of a mood to contemplate the limits to how long his band would remain near the pinnacle of the pop music scene.
In a way, that meshed well with Maroon 5's set. Stripped of some of the studio production, the emotional core of songs like "Daylight" and "Payphone" as well as older Maroon 5 songs like "Won't Go Home Without You" - the lyrics, the music and even the technology references in "Payphone" and "Stereo Hearts" - is a nostalgic wistfulness for relationships slipping away. That's where Levine is at his best. I actually got a little bit of chills from the opening of "Daylight," which naturally closed the show (it's one of the few songs off Overexposed I really like, and its theme of holding on until the morning and then slipping away makes it a perfect show closer):
If you enjoy quality pop music, or what remains of it circa 2013, I heartily recommend seeing this tour or either of these acts while you can - but ideally, not on a night when they've been going a few days straight without a day of rest.
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June 17, 2013
POP CULTURE: Songs of Steel
Since everybody's arguing about the new Superman movie Man of Steel, how about another argument: the best songs about, or referencing, the Man of Steel?
My top five?
1. The Kinks, "(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman" - the live version on One for the Road is by far the best version of this song, here's a live version from the same era in the same arrangement, but slightly less crisp audio:
"Superman" comes from the Low Budget album, a sort of perfect period piece if you want to go back to capture the zeitgeist of pre-Thatcher England and pre-Reagan America, One for the Road is one of the best live albums ever recorded, and the match of the Ray Davies' lyrics and Dave Davies' blazing guitar solo brings vividly to life the ache of that era for simple, old-fashioned heroism to shake the malaise of the late 70s.
2. 3 Doors Down, "Kryptonite"
"Kryptonite" remains 3 Doors Down's signature song, a catchy, driving rock song that's just plain fun. It uses Superman more as a motif than a storyline.
3. Spin Doctors, "Jimmy Olsen's Blues"
The Spin Doctors didn't have a long run, but their debut album Pocket Full of Kryptonite had some fun, bouncy guitar pop-rock, and the thematic signature track that catches you from the opening guitar and tells the mournful story of Jimmy Olsen trying to compete for Lois Lane's heart with the Man of Steel.
4. Donovan, "Sunshine Superman"
It's Donovan's backwards guitar riff, accompanied by a solo by Jimmy Page on electric guitar, that makes this oddball bit of Sixties pop shine. It would be number one if this was a list of songs about Green Lantern, who is playing over his head being listed in the same breath with Superman.
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5. Jim Croce, "You Don't Mess Around With Jim"
Jim Croce's odd, truncated career veered between goofy, jangling tall tales and heartfelt weepers, both of which were entertaining in their own very different ways. This song is kind of a poor man's version of "Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown," but with fewer racial stereotypes. This time, Superman gets paired with the Lone Ranger - and you don't tug on his cape.
Honorable mention: the Taylor Swift "Superman" song is not bad, if you like Taylor Swift songs.
Dishonorable mention: Any slow, drippy ballads, worst of all the Crash Test Dummies "Superman's Song." Superman is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive; you don't mope on his cape, either.
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May 16, 2013
POP CULTURE: Concert Review: The Killers at Madison Square Garden
Checking off the top act remaining on my current "gotta see live" list, I went with my wife to see The Killers in concert at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night. While there were a few bumps in the road, on the whole the show was a reminder of why they are possibly the best rock band still in their prime today.
I've previously described The Killers as "[t]he best young (under-40) rock band, period" - the main competition right now being Grace Potter & the Nocturnals - and their 2006 album Sam's Town is arguably the best album of the last 15 years, so I was eager to get to see them live while they're still at the top of their game, ten years into their career and touring in support of their fourth studio album. Lead singer Brandon Flowers is 31, and the rest of the band is in their mid-30s; Flowers and drummer Ronnie Vannucci released solo projects before their latest album came out, Flowers with a solo album (Flamingo) and Vannucci with his own band, Big Talk (Big Talk). The concert had originally been scheduled for a Friday night in December, but was cancelled when Flowers came down with laryngitis, so our wait for this show had been a long one.
MSG is generally regarded as a great arena to see a show - it's not as scenic as Jones Beach, as perfect acoustically as Radio City or as impressive as a stadium show, and it's very loud, but for its size it's a good venue. And, of course, given the proximity to Penn Station it's about the easiest concert venue there is to access by mass transit.
I would estimate that the bulk of the crowd was in the mid-20s to early 30s range, which would be people who were in high school or college when the band hit it big almost a decade ago; there were a fair number of people around my age (41) or a little older, but few of the fifty/sixtysomethings you'd see at, say, a Bruce Springsteen concert. There were clearly some college kids but I did not see a whole lot of teenagers, perhaps unsurprisingly given that the band's current album, Battle Born - their only studio album since 2008 - hasn't sold especially well in the U.S. compared to their prior albums or received a ton of radio attention. Every single person I saw at the show was white, a fact that speaks to rock's demographic problem going forward. There was a fair amount of singing along, and the first few rows of general admission in front of the stage were a fist-pumping lot, but otherwise it was your basic crowd of adults on a Tuesday night. A number of people near us bailed out during the last song to head downstairs, presumably to catch trains at Penn Station. On the other hand, this was the first show I've been to in a while where there was really a lot of noticeable pot smoke around us, and on the way out two guys near us started jawing and came to blows.
The opening act - originally planned to be Tegan and Sara when the show was first scheduled - ended up being a New York-based band called The Virgins, and their opening set must have been short; the official start time was 8, my wife and I arrived at 8:30 from an event at my son's high school and they'd finished their set already. The Killers went on at 9:10, and played until a little after 11pm.
The show opened with an unusual twist compared to most of the concerts I've seen: The Killers just walked onstage without fanfare with the house lights still on and launched right into an energetic rendition of 'Mr. Brightside', their biggest radio hit and still arguably their best-known song. Playing with the house lights on made the Garden feel less like The World's Most Famous Arena and more like an oversized high school gym, all the better to foster a little less distance between the band and the fans.
The second song was 'Spaceman', and that was one of two songs on the night - the other being 'Somebody Told Me', much later in the set - that had real audio problems, as there was a lot of rumbling feedback that made it difficult to hear Flowers' vocals. 'Spaceman' has a lot of electronic background production on the album, and I suspect perhaps there was a backing track playing along with the band on those two songs that didn't work all that well. But the sound problems wouldn't be an issue for the rest of the show, as vocals and instruments were both crisply audible.
The set also seemed a bit minimalist at first for a band that's always put a lot of thought into its music videos and other visuals, aside from the band's lightning-bolt logo front and center; the one video screen was mounted behind the stage and a bit hard to see from further up. But the laser light show worked well for 'Shadowplay' and the fireworks and confetti as the show reached its conclusion were good visual touches.
Flowers talks less between songs than most frontmen; after an early apology for cancelling the original concert date, it was pretty late in the show before there was a break between songs at all, although he did introduce the extremely Springsteenish 'Dustland Fairytale' with a little talk about growing up in Vegas and 'When You Were Young' by talking about being nervous recording a followup to Hot Fuss. There were two other musicians besides the 4-man band onstage, and he completely failed to mention them when introducing the band midway through the show, and ended up re-introducing everybody during the last song.
Flowers' quavery, emotional voice isn't really the type that you'd expect to hold up well in concert, but after a bit of a rushed start over the first two songs, he was solid and about 95% of how he sounds in the studio. He's exceptionally skinny - the man has the lower body of a 15 year old - and his stage presence is that of a teenager performing alone in his room with the stereo cranked to 11; rather than try to control his nervous energy, he just channels it into his performance, hopping on and off the risers at the end of the stage and exhorting everybody to clap and sing along with him. He demanded that the fans forget it's Tuesday and put on their dancing shoes for 'From Here On Out', a rockabilly number from the latest album that is fun but not really something you could dance to.
Musically, there were not a lot of departures in how the band played their songs, unlike a band like Grace Potter & the Nocturnals that leaves a lot of room in the setlist for extended jams; seeing how sharply executed their songs were and how closely they hewed to the studio versions was a reminder of quite how tightly constructed The Killlers' songs really are. They just seem to have put too much thought into every note of the melodies already to mess with them. Vannucci's drums are the real driving force behind most of their songs, but Dave Keuning's guitar work is just remarkably precise. (Bassist Mark Stoermer has the low-key role, as bassists usually do).
Overall, the 20-song setlist was pretty evenly divided and reflected the astonishing depth of quality music for a band with 4 studio albums: 5 songs from their 2004 debut Hot Fuss, 4 from Sam's Town, 3 from 2008's Day & Age, and 5 from Battle Born, plus their cover of Joy Division's 'Shadowplay' from the 2007 Sawdust compilation and 2 covers. They couldn't hit every single one of their good songs ('Bones', for example, really requires a horn section), but they got close; my only real gripe with the setlist was the omission of the best song on Battle Born, the driving uptempo anthem rocker 'The Rising Tide,' while playing the less inspiring title track as a show-closer and the somewhat disappointing 'The Way It Was' as the third song of the show.
The more fun of the covers, which the band has been doing this tour, is one of my favorite guilty-pleasure pop hits of the 1980s, 'I Think We're Alone Now', originally by Tommy James and the Shondelles but more famously covered by Tiffany in 1987 - it's a pop song that resonates for my generation (I had just turned 16 when the song hit the airwaves, and it was sung by a 16-year-old singer, and they played it in such heavy rotation on Z100 at the time that you could hear it 3 times in an hourlong school bus ride), but I'm not sure how well-recognized it is by younger rock fans, let alone the Tommy James original (Flowers, with a nod to his own band's pervasive U2 influences, introduced the song by saying, "Tiffany stole this song from Tommy James and the Shondells. Tonight, we're stealing it back.").
The other cover was 'New York, New York,' which Flowers delivered well enough in the traditional tempo and arrangement. Which brings up an odd point about The Killers. Some of my favorite musicians - from Bruce Springsteen to the Irish band The Saw Doctors to pop star Kelly Clarkson - give off a strong sense of geographical rootedness, of being from and of a particular place (respectively the Jersey Shore, Galway and Mayo Counties in the West of Ireland, and Texas). The Killers are from Las Vegas, Nevada, and since Flowers discovered Springsteen before recording Sam's Town (named after a Vegas casino) he's made a point of making a lot of references to the band's home town, from the desert motifs of 'Dustland Fairytale' and 'Don't Shoot Me Santa Claus' to 'Battle Born' (named for the Nevada state motto) to his solo track 'Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas'. In the intro to 'New York, New York' and 'Dustland Fairytale,' Flowers seemed intent on talking up New York (partly, no doubt, in an effort to flatter the local audience) and about how "if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere" is a lot more inspiring than "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas." Something in that echoed one of the (fair) criticisms I've seen of Flowers' recent writing: that he may be from Vegas but he's not really of Vegas and doesn't really get the city's gamblers-and-stale-booze culture. He is, after all, a Mormon family man, and his favorite band growing up was the Pet Shop Boys, an influence you can hear in Hot Fuss, an album that sounds more English than American and has no references at all to Vegas or Nevada. As earnest as they are, Flowers' efforts to claim his home town always seem a little forced, forced in the same way as singing 'New York, New York' just because you're in New York.
With a touring hiatus and half the band making solo albums before they reuinted for Battle Born, and then the less smashing commercial performance of the album, fans of The Killers can be excused for worrying if their future as a band may be a little uncertain. Battle Born itself might have benefitted if a few of the weaker songs had been replaced by the best songs on Flowers' and Vannucci's solo albums. Even the crowd did not seem all that into the new material beyond the two singles, 'Runaways' and 'Miss Atomic Bomb' (the latter is a ballad, and while it's grown on me, we saw in the ballads on Battle Born why The Killers have rarely recorded ballads). But for now, in concert, they remain at the peak of their game, playing both the old and new material with enthusiasm and skill. It's a very fun show and very much worth seeing if you care about rock & roll.
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For what it's worth, this was the 21st concert I've attended; here's the full list of the rest:
1-Billy Joel, Worcester Centrum (Storm Front tour December 9, 1989) (no opening act).
2-Tom Petty, Worcester Centrum (Full Moon Fever "Strange Behavior" tour February 7, 1990) (opening act: Lenny Kravitz).
3-Billy Joel, Giants Stadium (Storm Front tour August 1990) (no opening act).
4-Rush, Worcester Centrum (Roll the Bones tour, December 10, 1991) (believe the opening act was Eric Johnson).
5-Meatloaf, Holy Cross College (May 1992) (free concert on campus; no opening act I can recall).
6-U2, Yankee Stadium (Achtung Baby "Zoo TV" tour, August 29, 1992) (opening acts: Primus and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy).
7-Bruce Springsteen, Boston Garden (Human Touch/Lucky Town tour, December 14, 1992) (no opening act; closed with a duet with Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band).
8-Billy Joel, Nassau Coliseum (River of Dreams tour - looking back at tour dates this was probably January 6, 1994) (no opening act).
9-Rolling Stones, Giants Stadium (Voodoo Lounge tour, August 1994) (opening act: Counting Crows).
10-Harry Connick Jr., Jones Beach (She tour, summer 1994) (no opening act I can recall).
11-Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Giants Stadium (Reunion tour August 1999) (no opening act).
12-U2, Madison Square Garden (All That You Can't Leave Behind "Elevation" tour, June 17, 2001) (opening act: PJ Harvey).
13-Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Giants Stadium (Rising tour July 2003) (no opening act).
14-Saw Doctors, Irving Plaza, Manhattan (March 14, 2003; reviewed briefly here) (opening act: ex-band member Padraig Stevens).
15-Saw Doctors, Hammerstein Ballroom, Manhattan (March 20, 2004) (no opening act I can recall).
16-Kelly Clarkson, Hammerstein Ballroom (October 6, 2009) (opening acts: Parachute and Eric Hutchinson; reviewed here).
17-Saw Doctors, Irving Plaza (May 14, 2010) (opening act: former Smithereens frontman Pat Dinizio; reviewed here).
18-Maroon 5, Jones Beach (August 11, 2010) (opening acts: VV Brown and Owl City; reviewed here).
19-Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, Irving Plaza (March 10, 2011) (opening act, which I missed: Belle Brigade; reviewed here).
20-Kelly Clarkson, Radio City Music Hall, January 21, 2012 (opening act: Matt Nathanson; reviewed here).
-John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band, Holy Cross College, spring 1993 (I also saw the part of a show by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones at HC, who later went on to become a slightly well-known national act).
-Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, the Today Show at Rockefeller Center, September 28, 2007 (reviewed here).
-Kelly Clarkson, the Today Show at Rockefeller Center, October 25, 2011.
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April 30, 2013
BASEBALL/POP CULTURE: 42
Over the weekend, I went to see 42, the Jackie Robinson movie. A few thoughts, with spoilers for those of you who do not already know the story by heart (I can't say my take here is that radically different from a number of other reviews I've read from other baseball writers):
1. The movie is a snapshot - not the full story of either Robinson's life and career or the integration of baseball. It starts with Branch Rickey's decision to bring a black player to the Dodgers in 1945, and ends with the Dodgers winning the 1947 NL pennant. Even within that snapshot, once Jackie makes the Dodgers' minor league team in Montreal, almost nothing is shown of his 1946 season, and some other events are compressed (the Cardinals get off easy, as the film focuses on the Phillies as the main villians who threatened not to take the field against an integrated team). That keeps the plot and pacing relatively tight (even though the endpoint is no surprise), but it necessarily leaves off a lot of background and detail as well as the other storied chapters of Robinson's career. And relatedly, the film is intended mainly to tell Robinson's story to a generation of moviegoers who don't know all the details, so there's a bit of broad exposition that would not be necessary for people like me who are already steeped in the whole story.
2. The performances are everything they needed to be. Harrison Ford - while still recognizably Harrison Ford - steals every scene he's in as Branch Rickey, and captures "Mr. Rickey's" character and style (complete with his trademarks - his sermonizing speaking style and outrageously bushy eyebrows). Similarly, Christopher Meloni and John C. McGinley look, act and sound like the real Leo Durocher and Red Barber, other than Meloni being a lot bigger and bulkier than the diminutive Lip.
Chadwick Boseman has the unenviable task for a young actor of having to carry the film while competing with Ford and other more experienced actors, but while he doesn't mimic Robinson's high-pitched voice, he captures the man's fierce competitive drive and hatred of segregation, and perhaps even more importantly he's truly believable at bat and on the basepaths, where Jackie worked his memorable magic. More broadly, the baseball in the movie is really well-done: the players, the game and the parks all look like 1940s baseball. Brad Beyer as Kirby Higbe, for example, looks very much the part of your typical Sourthern farm boy turned power pitcher of that era.
In some ways, Jackie Robinson's challenge in holding his temper in check and channeling it into the game reminds me of what I've written about George Washington; neither was the kind of man to meet adversity with Zen-like calm, but both managed to become complete masters of their own powerful emotional currents - anger, rage, despair - and present to the world a stoic face. That's an incredibly impressive skill, for such a strong personality to remain so contained. The film captures that challenge, and takes some dramatic license to illustrate it with a scene (which almost certainly did not happen) of Robinson breaking down in the tunnel behind the dugout and requiring a pep talk from Rickey.
(Nicole Beharie is elegant as the still-elegant Rachel Robinson, but doesn't really have much of a role to work with beyond the standard baseball-wife scenes. The film does spend some time with the Robinsons as newlyweds, which reminds me of an interesting question that I think I asked on Twitter a while back to not much satisfactory response: what is cinema's most compelling black romantic couple? We can all name lots of famous onscreen romances, but it's only much more recent films that have really developed those relationships between a black man and a black woman, and I can't think of one that stands out as iconic. But there has to be one I'm not thinking of.)
3. The dialogue is frequently terrible, windy and too self-aware, and there's a handful of scenes that are anachronistic in the way the characters speak and interact (men in the late 40s didn't talk with each other about their feelings a lot, for example). While the usual rule in biographical films is to avoid mimicry, the best dialogue is actually characters like Rickey, Barber, Durocher and Happy Chandler speaking the way those men actually spoke (I sat through all approximately 478 hours of Chandler's Hall of Fame induction speech in 1982). Branch Rickey really did talk as if he was orating for the history books; most of his players did not.
4. The movie's inaccuracies were irritating but few and minor. Leo Durocher's suspension for the 1947 season is portrayed as solely the result of his scandalous affair with Laraine Day, when in fact the stated reason for the suspension was over Durocher consorting with gamblers (Happy Chandler also cited "the accumulated unpleasant incidents in which he has been involved," which also covered the affair and a variety of Leo's other feuds). (I'll forgive the filmmakers for sneaking into a night-time phone conversation Leo's iconic "Nice guys finish last" line). Pee Wee Reese is given Gene Hermanski's famous clubhouse wisecrack about how the Dodgers should all wear 42 when Jackie gets a death threat, so nobody could tell which one was him. Fritz Ostermuller's family claims that the film inaccurately portrays him as a racist who beaned Robinson in a game. (The family of Ben Chapman, who eventually repented of his racist torments of Robinson late in life, could make no such claim). The film ignores Dan Bankhead, the second black Dodger who joined the team in late August. But on the whole, I was pleasantly surprised by the attention to getting details right that historians of the game would notice. The movie captured both the essential truths of Robinson's battle against the color line and the twists along the way. Particularly interesting and mostly accurate was the differing motivations of the players who rallied around Robinson, from Reese's reluctant solidarity (as a son of Kentucky) to the scrappy Eddie Stanky, who like his mentor Durocher would walk over fire for you if you were on his team and could help him win a ballgame.
Every generation learns history anew, and Jackie Robinson's corner of history is one worth retelling. If you haven't seen 42 yet, you should.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 1:30 PM | Baseball 2012-Present | History | Pop Culture | Comments (4)
April 9, 2013
POP CULTURE: Oz
A few weeks back, I took my family to see Oz, the Great and Powerful, the Disney reboot that has drawn - from reviewers and people whose opinions I trust - wildly divergent reviews, some people liking it and others loathing. (This review's a little late, but I had written about half of it shortly after seeing the film). We hadn't planned in advance on seeing the movie and had paid only modest attention in advance to reviews and the massive promotional campaign (which included a yellow brick road installed in the middle of Penn Station), so perhaps I was spared the expectations that a lot of others brought to the film. It won't go down anywhere in movie history next to the original - parts probably won't hold up that well on repeated viewing - but there was enough movie magic to make it well worth our while.
A few quick disclaimers. First, we saw the film in 3-D, so your mileage may vary if you skipped the 3-D or watch it at home.
Second, I'm a sucker for fantasy or sci-fi as long as it's at all competently done. I enjoyed, more or less, the Star Wars prequels, even if they were not what they should have been. I enjoyed reading the Eragon books, derivative as they were, to my kids. Heck, I actually re-watched The Black Hole with my kids not long ago. Just give me something to work with.
Third, I regard the original Wizard of Oz as the greatest movie of all time. Not my personal favorite (that would be Star Wars, followed by The Untouchables), but certainly a movie I've seen more times than I could count. While you can make the case on pure artistic merits for competitors like Citizen Kane, The Godfather or Lawrence of Arabia, the Wizard of Oz stands out among the all-time great movies as having the broadest appeal across ages, genders, generations, and genres; a classic story that long since transcended its original political allegory; scores of memorable and quotable lines appropriate to many situations; breathtaking, groundbreaking and still-fresh-today cinematography that is woven into the plot; lots of songs that range from the memorable to the classic; and some vivid performances, from the star-making turn for Judy Garland (the best female vocalist of the first half of the twentieth century) to the iconic roles of Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West and a slippery-limbed Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow.
Tampering with the original movie would be borderline heretical. But I had no real objection to doing an Oz prequel - Frank Baum wrote more than a dozen other Oz stories himself. And in fact, not only did the original film take some liberties with Baum's classic, Baum himself had previously done so when adapting it to the stage. (The Broadway show Wicked, which I have not seen, covers the same time period as the Disney film, albeit - from what I understand - with a radically different story). What matters is whether the adaptation is done well.
With those preliminaries out of the way, my review - spoilers included - below the fold.
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As I said, Oz contains a lot of visual movie magic, riots of color that evoke the original film. But it rises and falls on its story and characters. The most emotionally powerful moments come from one of the few parts of the movie with no real parallel in the original film: the scenes with the China Doll and the devastated China Town are heavy tearjerking, but effective nonetheless. The cheesiest scene is the concluding duel between Glinda the Good and Evanora, the Wicked Witch of the East, which essentially rips off Yoda's showdown with Palpatine in the Senate chamber in Revenge of the Sith.
It's the actors that have to bring life to all that CGI. As prominent as their works are, I'd actually never seen anything with James Franco, Mila Kunis or Michelle Williams in their entirety (naturally, I've seen parts of the Spider-Man films and bits of some That 70s Show episodes). Williams lends warmth and emotional depth to Glinda, and Rachel Weisz chews the scenery with campy, vampy abandon as the Wicked Witch of the East. But the really polarizing performances are by Franco and Kunis, the young leads.
Both of their performances betray the callowness of youth, in contrast to the Wizard and the Wicked Witch of the West we remember from the original film, especially the toweringly theatrical malice of Hamilton's Wicked Witch. But of course, those are mature characters; these are confused young people finding their way in the world, and we would expect them to be less mature and imposing. It's the same basic challenge of every prequel giving youthful backstory to an iconic character.
Franco too often fell into the Joe Biden trap of letting his teeth emote for him, and at times he's too obviously unbelievable for the trust people place in him, but on the whole his Wizard stole enough scenes to pull off the Big Con. It's easy enough, watching him as a young man on the make, to see in him the tired old Wizard eager for a last look at his home when he greets Dorothy - who, this film suggests, is the daughter of a woman he left behind in Kansas. (One continuity irritant: we never see how he gets his original hot air balloon back to the Emerald City).
Then there's Kunis as Theodora, the Wicked Witch of the West (Kunis, by the way, is almost certainly the last major American film or TV star born in the Soviet Union; her average-American-teen locution is a facade to cover the fact that English is not her native tongue). When we meet her, her big puppy dog eyes are impossibly enchanting, a physical counterpart to the almost excessive beauty of the Land of Oz. (My wife was more offended by the idea that she was wearing leather pants and high-heeled boots in 1905, but this is a fantasy world and she's a witch; some license can be forgiven in the area of literally outlandish clothing). On the scale of cinematic transformations to the Dark Side, her turn into the Wicked Witch is no Michael Corleone, and the filmmakers took an easy out by having her transformed by a single, irrevocable magical choice, but her woman-scorned is miles more convincing than Hayden Christensen's Anakin Skywalker. Rather than a maestro of wickedness, Kunis plays Theodora as a merciless zealot with the fervor of a new convert - shocking even her more purposely wicked sister - giving herself over wholly to a bitterness that has literally rotted her.
Just as J.R.R. Tolkien intended Middle-Earth to provide a distinctly English fairy tale, Frank Baum designed Oz to be a distinctly American fantasy world, and Disney's Oz stays true to that ambition. Where Tolkien's cast of characters was full of duty-bound aristocrats and humble gardeners resistant to change and technology, the Wizard is a blend of audacious self-promotion and Yankee ingenuity, a disciple of Thomas Edison who borrows from Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee in his improvisation. Some reviewers have characterized the film's message as a trite "believe in yourself," but that's not exactly what's going on here - Oz at the beginning of the film is full of self-confidence and big dreams, and he's failing miserably. What he learns, in part, is how to accept responsibility, but even that's not really all that selfless, what with trading in his threadbare transient showman's existence for a hoard of gold, a beautiful and (literally) enchanted woman and power over a luminous city. More importantly, Oz learns to take his friends, his allies and his talents where he can find them - to, as Don Rumsfeld would say, go to war with the army he has, rather than the army he'd like to have.
Disney has reportedly signed at least Franco and Kunis to a sequel, which will present new challenges: the plot will be even more constrained by the problems of prequel-hood, and the actors will have to add more gravitas to characters who can rely less on their youth and newness as the story progresses. But at least the first visit back to Oz was worth the trip.
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April 2, 2013
POP CULTURE: Death at Downton
Like a lot of its more recent viewers, I was originally skeptical of the Downton Abbey phenomenon, somewhat grudgingly agreed to watch it with my wife, and got completely hooked by the end of the first episode. The show is a really excellent example of both historical fiction and character drama. Some have complained that Downton is something of a glorified soap opera, but of course that's true of any drama, especially an episodic TV drama - the line between Shakespeare and the soaps is often one of degree, not kind. I was particularly sucked in by the World War I storylines that dominated the second season.
That said, I think the show will face a serious problem as it enters its fourth season.
NOTE: SPOILERS FOLLOW IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN ALL THREE SEASONS
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Dramas do need to kill off characters now and then, and as you know if you watched through the end of the third season, Downton Abbey upped the ante dramatically this season by not only killing off younger sister Sybil in childbirth but then - in a particularly melodramatic sequence - killing Matthew Crawley in a car accident driving home from seeing his first-born son for the first time at the hospital.
The show's writers had no real choice but to get rid of Matthew, given that actor Dan Stevens wanted off the show (a decision he only half-explains in interviews), and the manner of his death felt a little like the writers were making it deliberately soap-operatic in a snit.
The smaller problem for the show is that Matthew's death leaves the younger generation of the family depleted - only two of the sisters now remain, plus Sybil's widower Branson, requiring the show to add a theatrically flighty new female cousin who seems designed to blunder into trouble in screamingly obvious fashion. The larger problem is that the show's narrative lens is now broken, probably beyond repair. The world of Downton Abbey is a world quite different from our own, and while parts of that world are glamorous and attractive, the whole idea of an idle aristocracy supported by - and supporting - a tirelessly laboring servant class is quite literally un-American and in many ways ridiculous to the modern eye. Particularly at the show's start, there were very few characters who were both sympathetic and worthy of the viewer's respect. But crucially, we were given a bridge into the world of Downton by two outsiders who had to work their way into the two levels (upstairs and downstairs) of the household - Matthew, the practicing lawyer with middle class tastes and work ethic who often found the place as silly as the average viewer did, and Mr. Bates, the wounded Boer War veteran who had to surmount opposition among the servants to secure his position as valet and who, alone on the staff at the time, knew a world outside "service."
Many of the other characters have become more sympathetic and three-dimensional since the opening; Matthew had become more thoroughly assimilated, while the other servants got out in the world more, with two of them going to the trenches. Mr. Bates' term of imprisonment for a crime he kinda sorta didn't commit (but believably could have) made it necessary to change the way the downstairs part of the show unfolded.
But the show's basic perspective on the family at the center remained: Matthew's modern, professional-class sensibilities bridged the gap between the world of the Crawleys and the world of the viewers, who got to see them through his eyes. Branson (at his best a prickly, impulsive and Utopian character), as the remaining outsider, is no substitute for Matthew; the show has never really written episodes from his point of view, and it would be late to start now. That means that the sisters don't just need new love interests; the show, in effect, needs a new protagonist. That's generally easier said than done. I have to think the narrative problems caused by Matthew's departure will doom the show to extinction at the end of the fourth season, already an unusually long run by the standards of this kind of British TV. Which is a shame; the third season wasn't as good as the first two, but the show did not, previously, feel as if it was ready to run its course.
Then again, the aristocracy didn't see it coming either.
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June 20, 2012
BASEBALL: So, He's Got That Going For Him.
Bill Murray, minor league baseball owner:
June 11, 2012
POP CULTURE: The Glade Hander
One of the TV shows my wife and I are now in the habit of watching regularly is The Glades on A&E. It's not Shakespeare, but I'm basically a sucker for crime shows, and South Florida is a wonderful place to set one, something Dexter and CSI:Miami have also exploited (Dexter is a great show; we gave up on CSI:Miami a few years and several hundred removals of Horatio's sunglasses ago).
Which brings me to my rant: Jim Longworth, the main character, is the worst TV detective I have ever seen at questioning witnesses.
Longworth, if you haven't watched the show, is a transplanted Chicago detective turned FDLE homicide investigator. He's cocky, good-looking, wise-cracking, irreverent...he has a shtick. Which is a double-edged sword: a detective with a shtick can become a self-parody like Horatio, but at least it's more entertaining than the colorless parade of no-character characters that a lot of the network police procedurals have turned out over the past decade, while the cable nets like USA have focused on more character-driven shows.
Anyway, it's not Longworth's personality that's an issue, but how it gets in the way of his job. Week after week, he's faced with the whole menagerie of suspects Florida can serve up: UFO freaks, snake handlers, gun and moonshine runners, stock car racers, high school football boosters, drug kingpins, Ernest Hemingway impersonators, you name it. And he can't stop himself from sneering judgementally at them - their lifestyles, careers, hobbies, love lives, what have you. While he is questioning them. Which, even when questioning fictional characters, tends to cause them to get their backs up instead of winning their trust. And then he walks off instead of completing his interrogations. In last night's episode, he literally walked out of an interrogation room while a suspect was shouting, "That's not how it happened!" Any reasonably competent cop would have sat back down at that point and demanded to know, really, how it did happen.
The predictable result of this - which, granted, helps stretch out the episodes to an hour and keep the viewers guessing - is that everybody lies to him. Just about every witness he questions on the show has to be questioned two, three, four times before he gets their full and honest story. He can occasionally be effective in intimidating people he's locked up (he generally locks up 1-2 suspects per episode who turn out not to have done it), but not in the spectacular fashion of Vincent D'Onofrio's Detective Goren or Andre Braugher's Frank Pembleton. He's just a guy who has you locked up and maybe has a case against you.
(I'm leaving aside the political content that sometimes creeps in when Longworth is railing against gun shows and the like, which is a separate issue; it's at least not out of character for a guy from Chicago to have a different, more Jack McCoy view of the world than Floridians)
Now, some TV detectives are interesting because they have character flaws. We used to watch Monk, which at times was an excellent show, and the writers made no bones about the fact that, while Monk was a genius, his various phobias and obsessions sometimes got in the way of doing his job. But the writers of The Glades never give you the impression that they realize that Longworth is doing anything wrong; after all, he does eventually solve all his cases. Sooner or later, they should realize that their main character is bad at one of the principal aspects of his job.
January 24, 2012
POP CULTURE: Concert Review: Kelly Clarkson at Radio City Music Hall, 1/21/12
I try to write up here every concert I go to. I've written more than enough about pop singer Kelly Clarkson lately (most recently here; 2009 concert review here), so I will be brief; my wife and I saw her show at Radio City Music Hall on Saturday night.
Radio City, if you haven't been there - I'd previously only been there for the Christmas show - is a fantastic concert venue, at least if you prefer good sightlines and great acoustics and comfortable seating to intense, sweaty mosh pits. It's probably second only to Jones Beach among the concert venues I've attended. Like the Empire State Building, Radio City has retained the style of the 1930s, to the point where you feel like you're in an old movie stepping through its doors - a perfect fit, in some ways, for Clarkson's retro nature as a wholesome entertainer and traditional vocalist; the theater is built like the inside of a 1930s-era radio. Clarkson overflowed with kid-in-a-candy-store enthusiasm for playing there, openly whooping and hollering at how excited she was and mentioning that she'd never even been inside the place before.
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The Opening Act
Clarkson had one rather than two opening acts this time around, pop/rock singer Matt Nathanson, who is touring with his first album since 2007's Some Mad Hope. My wife had that album and I listened to it and only liked a few songs, so I was pleasantly surprised when he opened with the one I did like, To The Beat of Our Noisy Hearts. His new material includes more upbeat stuff in that vein, to the point where we'll probably pick up the album. He was talkative and at ease, and yet another reminder how even many male singer-songwriter types these days are influenced by Bono as vocalists.
The Main Event
It's never possible to recapture the magic of the first time you see a musician in concert, and this show was different in a number of ways from the Clarkson show we caught in 2009. The overall presentation was much more upscale and professional, losing along the way some of the rough charm of Clarkson's sweaty, bare-bones rock show on the last tour. The crowd, given a weekend show in a larger, pricier venue, was heavier with families, although as with the last show we were surrounded by a number of large, burly gay men. The stage was well-lit this time, including a blinding strobe light for Let Me Down, the song off her latest album with a John Bonham-sized beat. The horn section and DJ were gone (I missed the horns, but they didn't go as well with this album's material), replaced by a third backup singer, and Clarkson was a little thinner and better dressed, but still as chatty and self-effacing as always. She joked about still being single as well as making reference to her penchant for feuds and hell-hath-no-fury songs, noting that I Forgive You, one of the songs off her latest album, is clearly one she could not have written. Clarkson, typical of her attitude towards criticism, entered to a series of graphics of harsh media and internet jabs at her, including immediately preceding her entrance with huge red lettering declaring her "FAT," something I'm quite sure other female pop stars would not embrace.
It's a mark of Clarkson's confidence in the depth of her setlist by now, almost a decade into her career, that she played one of her biggest hits, Behind These Hazel Eyes, as the show's second song, and her signature hit, Since U Been Gone, as the third. On the whole she ended up playing 7 of the 17 songs on her new album (my wife was rather miffed that there weren't more) off her new album, Stronger, which may well be her best and certainly her most 1980s-influenced. That includes her hit country duet with Jason Aldean, who appeared as a 15-foot-tall hologram.
Clarkson has matured tremendously as a vocalist over the years - on the whole, maturity suits her well - and she put that and her famous versatility to great use doing a variety of covers: rock with Florence and the Machine's Heavy in Your Arms (on which Clarkson's voice is a great improvement from the dreary Florence Welch), country with a heartfelt, bluesy version of Carrie Underwood's ballad I Know You Won't, Broadway with the Funny Girl tune My Man (Clarkson's taking requests on this tour over Twitter, and got a request to sing something Broadway), and a special tribute to the recently-departed Etta James (whose standard At Last Clarkson had sung 10 years ago in her original American Idol audition), with a cover of her blues song I'd Rather Go Blind. And as usual, she reworked some of her own stuff, redoing the blazing rocker Never Again as an anguished piano ballad. And she also offered an unreleased track, You Still Won't Know What It's Like, that she'd written on a trip to a South African orphanage.
I'd Rather Go Blind:
Heavy In Your Arms:
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December 29, 2011
POLITICS/POP CULTURE: On, Yes, Kelly Clarkson and Ron Paul
Sometimes you write the stories, and sometimes they write you. I awoke this morning to a big, blazing Drudge headline about Texan pop starlet and American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson having endorsed Ron Paul for president. As it happens, I'm probably the only conservative political writer in America who has taken Clarkson seriously at some length (see here, here and here; I still follow her on Twitter and Facebook and the like), while at the same time following my RedState colleague Leon Wolf's magnificant series on the lunacy of Ron Paul and his campaign (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for lots of gory details), and for that matter I've written about the intersection of music and politics with an exhaustive look at the culture and politics of my favorite musician, Bruce Springsteen, so this story has my name written all over it. There's actually some lessons to be drawn here, whether or not you have any interest in Clarkson per se.
The first point up is how Clarkson's tweets about Paul are revealing of the mindset of a lot of 'soft' Ron Paul supporters. Those of us who write about politics on the internet tend to assume that all of Paul's support comes from hard-core Ronulans, of the sort who will swarm you on the web with the kinds of barrages of talking points and - often - ALL CAPS and hate speech (or just rambling email manifestos) that carry an overpowering stench of political fanatacism. (This is a major reason why RedState has banned the Paul supporters for years; en masse, they make reasoned discourse impossible).* Even the more polite, otherwise reasonable people who support Paul in web discussions tend to be absolutely immovable in their support, to the point where there's no realistic chance they could support any other Republican.
But when you do polling and casual discussions with people not following politics all that closely, you discover a fair number of people who have gotten the whitewashed version of Paul and aren't aware of the full depth of his crazy - people I have to believe are still persuadable that Paul is toxic. And that's exactly what Clarkson sounds like here. It started with this tweet
I love Ron Paul. I liked him a lot during the last republican nomination and no one gave him a chance. If he wins the nomination for the Republican party in 2012 he's got my vote. Too bad he probably won't.
we shouldn't try & help/tell other countries how to solve their issues w/the poor when we can't even solve our own.
I am about progress. Ron Paul is about letting people decide, not the government. I am for this.
All of which sounds reasonable enough; Paul is certainly in favor of more liberty at home and a less vigorous American role abroad, and while I regard his brand of isolationism as deeply dangerous, the general concept of getting out of the UN and the 'world policeman' role is attractive to an awful lot of people who are not crazy. This is the sort of thing why I run into people - friends, family - who tell me "you know, Ron Paul has a lot of good ideas." It's also why some of the saner people in the GOP who have some overlap with Paul's ideas - from the more conservative types like Mike Lee, to Paul's son Rand, to the more libertarian types like Gary Johnson - might be better spokesmen for some of those ideas.
Unfortunately, you buy Ron Paul, you buy the whole batty package: the flirtations with 9/11 Trutherism and other conspiracy theories, the "we had it coming" view of anti-American terrorism, the anti-Semitism and pro-Palestinian bias, the racist newsletters, and whatnot, all of which you can find at length in Leon's posts. And Clarkson, with nearly a million Twitter followers and nearly 3 million Facebook fans and a prior record of trying to keep herself out of political controversies, got inundated with hostility she clearly wasn't expecting for backing Paul, ultimately complaining about the volume of "hateful" attacks. Thus, the backtracks:
(There's a longer story here, which Dave Weigel has covered, as to why Paul still has apologists among gay liberals despite the content of his newsletters)
Most entertainers tend towards knee-jerk leftism, and even the more thoughtful ones - like Springsteen, who as I've discussed is in some ways a culturally conservative figure in his music despite his leftism - are often hard-core liberals or leftists. And the exceptions are sometimes no better; John Mayer came out as a vocal, hard-shell Paul supporter in 2008, and in Mayer's case that seemed to dovetail with some of his own more unsavory characteristics. One of the reasons I like Clarkson, aside from her music, is that she thinks for herself and is frequently a lonely voice for sanity in the insane world of pop music. Her words on the death of Amy Winehouse was one example of this:
Sometimes I think this job will be the death of us all, or at least the emotional death of us all. Maybe that is why as a little kid in sunday school I learned that God didn't want false gods or idols. I thought it was terribly selfish of God as a child but I think I get it now. He didn't want us following people or things that are imperfect and not so much for the followers but for the gods and/or idols who will never be what everyone wishes or needs them to be because we are made imperfect. He knew we wouldn't be able to handle the pressure, the shame, the glory, or the power the spotlight brings.
Her background ought to make her the kind of swing voter the GOP can reach: raised poor among strict Christian Texas Democrats, Clarkson is something of a stubborn holdout for decency and modesty in pop music, refuses to describe herself as a feminist, owns 9 guns and sleeps with a Colt .45 for protection, and is a self-described Republican but one who voted Obama four years ago:
I just want someone that's about change, and that's what [Barack Obama] campaigned on, and that's what I'm hoping happens. I'm very much a Barack fan.
A lot of people felt that way about Obama in January 2009, but the thrill is long gone, even in Hollywood.
Political coalitions, of course, inevitably involve picking and choosing positions that alienate some people you might otherwise reach. Ron Paul, now 76 years old, will be gone from the stage after this election, but the challenge of how to appeal to people who like some of the themes he projects but aren't fans of more conventional Republican ideas - people like Kelly Clarkson - will persist.
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* - We at RedState are by no means the only people in the political sphere to notice this. For a flavor from Twitter across every stage of the political spectrum of horror at the nuttiness of both Paul and his fans, see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
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August 3, 2011
BUSINESS: Negotiating Through The Media
There are many species of bad journalism, most of which involve too much opinion by the writer, but sometimes the opposite is true and a writer gives you the apparent facts without the context needed to make sense of them. Let me use an article from the NY Times about 30 Rock to illustrate a common type of bad journalism that I find to be equally amusing and annoying: reporting negotiating positions without bothering to explain to the reader to take negotiating positions with a grain of salt, let alone how to interpret statements made in the course of negotiations. This has been a common thread in scores of articles these past few months about - among other topics - the debt ceiling negotiations, the Libya war, the perpetual Israel-Palestine 'peace process,' the NFL and NBA labor negotiations, the Mets' legal dispute with the Madoff trustee and other business machinations and their efforts to re-sign Jose Reyes, and the legal imbroglio surrounding the Dodgers. I've read more articles on all these topics than I could count that failed to give the reader the guidance to put the parties' statements in the context of the underlying negotiating dynamics.
The Times tells us, first, that Alec Baldwin has said he's leaving 30 Rock after next season, a departure that of course would be a terrible blow to a show built around the tensions between his (awesome) character, Jack Donaghy, and Tina Fey's Liz Lemon. It may well be true that Baldwin sincerely has other things on his mind, maybe even a run for public office, and/or that he's feeling he's done all he could with the character. But it's at least equally likely that he could be persuaded to stay on if NBC offers money or other contractual concessions to make it worth his while.
Then we get the response from NBC brass and from Lorne Michaels, the show's executive producer:
Executives from the show and NBC aren't sure, but they made it clear in interviews here this week that his departure would not mean an automatic end to the award-winning comedy.
Again: I don't doubt that NBC would very much like to extend the show's run one extra season for syndication purposes; many a sitcom past has been kept on past its proverbial shark-jumping point for that reason. If 30 Rock is still making money at that point, the network would probably try to soldier on without Baldwin. And Lorne Michaels has never been a guy who thought any of his cast members were indispensable (to put it mildly). But this all smacks strongly of a negotiating posture: the network and Michaels are doing interviews here precisely to send Baldwin the message that he's not holding all the cards. And the reporter, Bill Carter, doesn't breathe a word of that, probably because he knows full well why they are giving him these interviews.
Of course, Greenblatt and Michaels have their own competing agendas:
Mr. Greenblatt did open the door to a possible disagreement with Mr. Michaels over the re-entry of "30 Rock" onto NBC's schedule. The show's sixth-season premiere has been postponed until midseason because of the pregnancy of its star, Tina Fey.
Of course, if Baldwin's future with the show is in doubt, that's one reason the network would not want to commit valuable Thursday night prime-time space, plus Greenblatt is taking charge of a fourth-place network and probably should keep his options open. But NBC has to keep Michaels happy, too; as the creator of Saturday Night Live, he remains a vital part of the network's brand image. Michaels' certainty here is obviously intended to send an unsubtle message that he will not be a happy camper if the network moves his prime-time baby out of its Thursday night sinecure.
I don't mean to pick on Carter, who in this article has at least offered us enough quotes from each of the participants that a skeptical reader can piece together what is really being said here; that's not always the case with this sort of journalism. But in general, reporters aren't doing their jobs if they don't report how someone involved in negotiations could stand to gain from taking a particular position in public, and worse still if they straight-facedly claim that someone will never make a particular concession (e.g., Jose Reyes won't talk about a new contract during the season), when in fact they might well do so for the right price. The dynamics of negotiations and how they are handled through the media can differ across situations, but there are a finite number of basic underlying approaches to negotiating, and they crop up across many different fields of endeavor.
Consider the debt ceiling debate - surely many Republicans would have preferred to pass 'cut, cap and balance,' and some were genuinely opposed to raising the debt ceiling at all. But for many people involved in the fight, pushing for the ideal policy, even if it was the policy they wanted, was also a matter of getting leverage to extract a better deal when the time came to compromise. Similarly, many Republicans sincerely opposed any deal that would raise any taxes at all; others may have been willing to trade some revenue-raisers for something better, but found it convenient to stay in line with the ATR pledge against tax hikes as a posture unless and until that better offer materialized. None of this is insincere; it's just good bargaining.
Learn to look for the signs of negotiating postures between the lines of news articles, and they will surface again and again in every section of the paper.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:26 PM | Baseball 2011 | Basketball | Business | Football | Law 2009-Present | Politics 2011 | Pop Culture | War 2007-Present | TrackBack (0)
June 19, 2011
POP CULTURE: RIP Big Man
RIP Clarence Clemons. Bruce will undoubtedly tour again, but it really is an end of an era, the end of a whole, long period of my life and the lives of so many other fans of the E Street Band, to think we'll never see the Big Man on stage again.
UPDATE: Read Joe Posnanski on Clarence. Just do.
I offered up some video memories here. A few more below the fold.
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Cadillac Ranch, 1985 - this really captures the power of Clarence's horn, and how it just drives this classic driving song along:
Detroit Medley 1984 - always a fan favorite, and more of Bruce & Clarence's showmanship on stage:
And for the farewell, Land of Hope and Dreams, 2002...
...and Bobby Jean, 1984:
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June 13, 2011
POP CULTURE: The Big Man
Clarence Clemons, hospitalized in Florida after a stroke, has had two brain surgeries but is "responsive and in stable condition," according the authoritative Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band fan website, backstreets.com.
Prayers and best wishes for the Big Man, one of rock's greatest performers in his own right. I could offer you a thousand words on his impact on Bruce Springsteen's music as well as his other projects, but instead, here's a collection of great memories on video:
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So Young and In Love, 2008 - nobody does the opening sax solo like Clarence:
Sherry Darling, 1984 - another great opening sax solo, plus some classic clowning around with Bruce:
Quarter to Three, 1989, with Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band - another opening sax solo, and Clarence as bandleader:
Quarter to Three again, 1979 - this picks up in the middle of the song, but shows the breakneck tempo at which the E Street Band used to play this song without losing cohesion, as well as Clarence playing fight referee and duck walking:
And I couldn't leave the Bruce section of this post without Rosalita, 1978:
part 2 of that clip:
Freeway of Love, with Aretha Franklin, 1985:
Santa Claus is Coming to Town, with the Pointer Sisters, 1987:
Here's what could be Clarence's swan song, the Lady Gaga single Edge of Glory (which, thanks in no small part to Clarence, is the first of her songs I have actually liked) - his sax solo starts around 3:05, and starts the outtro around 4:30, and will no doubt be heard everywhere on radio this summer, just like it was 1985 one more time:
And finally, Clarence in his own words on meeting Bruce for the first time:
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March 11, 2011
POP CULTURE: Concert Review: Grace Potter & The Nocturnals at Irving Plaza, 3/10/11
My wife and I braved the heavy rains and high winds last night to see Grace Potter and the Nocturnals at Irving Plaza. It was a vintage rock show that transported us back, for one evening, to the golden age of classic rock.
I've written previously about Potter & Co. and their album, for my money the best album of 2010, in the rock section of my "State of Rock and Pop" essay. As a vocalist, Potter is basically Janis Joplin with a little Stevie Nicks thrown in, and with an exceptionally powerful voice (on occasion, she takes this just a bit far in showing off her ability to drag out really big notes, like on the studio version of 'Tiny Light,' but on the whole she's a remarkable, soulful vocalist). The band is, oddly, co-ed since adding bassist Catherine Popper in 2009 (most female-fronted bands tend to be either all-girl like the Go-Gos or male-backed like Blondie, although Fleetwood Mac would be the most notable exception and a bit of a cautionary tale in this regard), and features two guitarists (including excellent lead guitarist Scott Tournet), a drummer, and Potter on either keyboards, guitar or tamborine as the song demands. Musically, they're also very much in line with Joplin, the Allman Brothers and other roots/soul rock acts of the late 60s and early 70s. Potter, however, insists she didn't listen to Janis growing up and was more into the Kinks.
The Venue, The Crowd and The Opening Act
I said my bit on Irving Plaza after seeing the Saw Doctors there last May (they're playing the venue again this weekend). On the one hand, it's a wonderfully intimate place to see a show, and positively scandalous - when you consider some of the acts that play stadiums and big arenas these days - that a band as talented, charismatic and musically mainstream as Potter and the Nocturnals are still doing shows for a few hundred people, three albums into their career. And seeing such a great show for $28.50 a ticket is an incredible steal. On the other hand, I have really come to hate General Admission - my wife and I had good position in the center of the crowd until some taller people just forced themselves in front of us about three songs into the set, after which we had to flee to the side (where we had to make way every few minutes for a waitress carrying beers) to see the stage (I'm a shade under 5'10" but my wife is only about 5'4").
As for the crowd, it was almost entirely white (as you expect with a rock act) but otherwise pretty diverse in age, with probably the bulk of attendees in their 20s and 30s. It was also one of the lamest crowds I've seen, rivaling the Billy Joel show I attended at the Nassau Coliseum in 1993 or 94 (described here), really lacking in visible enthusiasm. Maybe it was the weather, maybe it was being a work night in Manhattan, maybe it was how densely the sold-out audience was packed that prevented people from moving or raising their hands much, and maybe in part my earplugs drowned out some of the crowd noise, but the audience really did not seem to react all that much compared to shows I've seen in the past. I suppose I was spoiled by some of the recent shows I've been to in that regard, ranging from the raucous Saw Doctors crowd to the outpouring of emotion at the Kelly Clarkson show. It was also the first time in a while I've been at a show with really noticeable pot smoke.
The opening act was a brother-sister fronted pop-rock band called Belle Brigade (as with the Saw Doctors show, no opening act was listed when I bought the tickets, so I only found out the day before who it would be). You can hear one of their songs here, they are apparently releasing their first album next month. We came in about halfway through their set, so I can't really offer much of an evaluation - I think I liked the song they were playing when I arrived better than the last two.
Potter and the band played 17 songs in a set that lasted for about two hours, including a two-song encore; the setlist, courtesy of Potter's twitter feed, is here, featuring seven songs off the band's latest album. If you're keeping score at home, that clocks in at an average song length somewhere around seven minutes. My wife complained that the set contained too many slow songs and too many long instrumentals and preferred the shorter tracks like 'One Short Night,' but of course that's the band's jam-band style (in most cases the band didn't actually stop playing between songs, just slowing down to a segue; as a result, Potter didn't do that much talking between songs). With a nod to the weather, Potter opened up with my personal favorite off the latest album, the rollicking rocker 'Hot Summer Night,' and played a particularly extended and borderline-psychedelic version of 'Oasis.' The band also played a couple of covers (including as part of the encore Heart's 'Crazy On You,' which Potter had performed with Ann Wilson on VH1 a few months ago) and some songs I didn't recognize from any of their albums, which may or may not have been covers. At the inevitable request for 'Free Bird' when Potter mentioned they'd be doing some covers, Potter sang the opening line and then quipped that "you'll have to slip a lot more dollar bills in my panties to get the rest of that one."
Here's video from last night of the blues-stomp number 'Joey,' off their first album; the video quality is better than the audio but should give a sense of the stage setup and the shaggy, white-suited band:
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Potter herself alternates between singing center stage and playing the keyboards off to the side, where some of the long instrumentals allowed her to drink from an oversize coffee mug. When doing the former, her electric, sexually-charged stage presence dominates. Potter's intensity and gyrating onstage dancing has something in common with Stevie Nicks, but whereas the diminutive Nicks has always been at a bit of a remove from the audience with her flowing black shawls and mystical dances, the tall, leggy Potter - dressed in a tight, short gold lame dress and punctuating her uptempo numbers with grunts and squeals - holds nothing back, throwing herself into her performance with complete abandon.
The centerpiece of the show was the 1-2 punch of spiritual/bluesy numbers, 'Nothing But The Water' (the title track from the band's first album and their longtime live signature song), and 'Big White Gate' from their second album, This Is Somewhere. You couldn't possibly be unmoved by the 'one more song before dying' last verse and chorus of the latter. As for 'Nothing But The Water,' which opens with an extended largely a capella vocal before breaking into a riotous uptempo tune, here's another video from last night, this one with better audio (you can hear that the crowd did get into clapping along for this one):
The main set closed with 'Paris (Ooo La La),' the guitar-heavy rocker that has been promoted as the lead song from the latest album - it's not actually one of my favorite tracks on the album, but I liked it a lot better live. The show-closer was the other high point of the album, another rocker, 'Medicine,' in the midst of which Potter climbed down into the audience.
On the whole, an incredible show. On the chance that Potter and her band might graduate some time soon to the bigger venues their talent deserves, you should catch them now while you can.
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February 3, 2011
POP CULTURE: Music To My Ears: A 50,000 Foot Review Of The Current Rock and Pop Scenes (Part I of IV - Overview)
Much as I love music, I basically went into hibernation on the current-music scene beginning in the years between 1995 and 1997, when - in the span of little more than two years - I got married, finished law school, started a full-time-and-then-some job and became a father. Oh, I kept up with new Springsteen and U2 releases and occasionally noticed things going on here and there, and I got majorly into the Irish pop/rock band the Saw Doctors, but for the most part I didn't listen to the radio, didn't get into new artists, didn't buy new releases by even some of my favorite veteran artists, and generally got left behind by the march of new music. For a long time, I assumed I hadn't really missed anything, but of course somebody's always making good music somewhere, and as fractured and degraded as the current music scene is, there is still good stuff out there if you look hard and have some help and advice.
I finally got an iPod for Christmas in 2007, and after spending a year loading CDs and buying up a lot of the stuff on iTunes that I'd been living without for years, I started exploring the music world again in earnest in the first half of 2009. Since then, I've dug hither and yon for "new" music, i.e., things released in the past decade or so. I've scoured iTunes, plowed through YouTube videos, music blogs, Twitter and message boards, hit up my wife's CD collection, begged help from siblings, friends and this blog's readers, scanned the pop charts, looked at everything - new releases by veteran rockers, the alt rock scene, the adult contemporary pop market, the American Idol and Disney pop factories, you name it. Ben Domenech was particularly helpful, and Keith Law's alt-influenced list of the top 40 songs of the decade of the 2000s was a valuable resource - I listened to all of them. And I should acknowledge as well that following Kelly Clarkson on Twitter and elsewhere was also very useful - other than Steve Van Zandt, there's probably not another major recording artist who spends as much time and enthusiasm promoting the work of such a varied collection of other musicians.
On to the results, broken broadly in two groups: rock and alternative, on the one hand, and pop and other radio formats on the other. Come with me as I emerge, squinting, into the light of today's rock and pop scenes.
Rock and Alternative: Overview
We live in an age without new rock giants, and there is a reason for this. Rock had its heyday, its period of riotous creative ferment, in the mid/late 60s and into the 1970s, and the format in a sense grew up and came of age in the 80s, with the maturation of the first generation of musicians weaned on rock and with perhaps the period of rock's greatest commercial success. But the pipeline of new artists and new, great music has been running ever drier since about 1990. There's still good stuff out there, but there's nothing and nobody as great as the best of classic rock.
This is the way of music. We won't have another Springsteen or another Beatles or Rolling Stones for the same reason we won't have another Mozart or Beethoven, another Gershwin, another Sinatra - when a genre of music starts being mined, a whole scene of talented people develops that's dedicated to tapping every available vein. But after a generation or so, they've run through most of the best ideas, and the really pathbreaking types of people are looking somewhere else. Look at the kinds of people who were session players, sidemen, studio whizzes and the like in the late 60s and early 70s, both the ones who went on to major stardom in their own right and the ones who stayed in supporting roles - Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Leon Russell, Jimmy Page, Joe Cocker, Elton John, Steve Winwood, Al Kooper, Phil Spector, Billy Preston, Chuck Leavell, etc. (one of my favorite factoids of that era: The Eagles were originally hired as Linda Ronstadt's backup band). But that time is over. Rock is not dead, but it is past its prime, and we shouldn't cling to the illusion that it's ever going to be 1969 or even 1987 again. Think: how many songs recorded since 2000 would earn a place in the canon of great rock songs that includes so many songs from the 60s, 70s, and 80s? I can only think of three that would draw broad support - 'Beautiful Day' (U2), 'The Rising' (Springsteen) and 'Seven Nation Army' (the White Stripes). Probably a few others would make the list, but it's a short list, and you'd get very little consensus on its contents.
Is there an alternative source of great new rock? The "alt-rock" genre is something of a hybrid these days. On the one hand, I generally don't buy the argument that being an alternative or indie artist makes you somehow better or more noble (everybody's trying to make a living in the business) or musically superior, and specifically I very much doubt that the very best musicians ever go undiscovered or unsigned by major labels, at least not in the US or the UK. You were never going to find a guy singing clubs in Jersey who was better than Sinatra, or a garage band better than the Stones. Good acts can miss their chance at the margins, but you'd have a hard time convincing anyone that the very best music of the past century wasn't almost entirely made by artists signed to major labels.
And alternative music is usually alternative for a reason. Alt-rock bands often eschew the very things that make music musical - melodies, choruses, bridges, the basic building blocks of song structure. And in particular, alt rock is plagued with terrible vocals, either due to bad singers or what I think of as the alt-rock disease: mixing/mastering the recordings to submerge the vocals to the point of being barely audible over the music. This isn't a rock thing - guys like Roger Daltrey, Robert Plant, Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler were always front and center and crisply audible on most of their records - it's a deliberate decision to make the listener choose between working to hear the singer and the lyrics and just giving up on them. There's rarely a justification for that unless you're just going to go all-instrumental. And indeed, a clearly-mixed and produced record should also have crisply audible instruments that you can pick out each on their own.
As for the vocalists themselves, listen to enough alt-rock and indie bands, and you gain a new appreciation for Sammy Hagar, Replacement Level Rock Singer. Hagar's uncool and unglamorous and he'll never win you over on a song all by himself, but every time out, he gives you eight strong innings and gives the band a chance to win. So many bands out there fail for the lack of a replacement-level vocalist. A band with Sammy Hagar will never have that problem. (I put Ringo Starr in the same general class with Hagar as a singer, but Ringo was the fourth-best singer in the Beatles).
Tied to the alt-rock disease is the alt-rock worldview, the cloying attitude of fans who don't want their favorite artists to be commercially successful (see this handy chart from Cracked). I don't get this at all - I'll listen to music from people who are famous and obscure, cool and uncool, but all things being equal, I like seeing my favorite artists succeed and be recognized, have their music heard by other people and influence other artists. It heartens my faith in the music business, and it encourages imitation; if the Saw Doctors had the kind of success in the US as Nickelback or the Black Eyed Peas, we'd have a much better chance of seeing more bands with a similar sound.
For all of alt-rock's problems, there are nonetheless a lot of good bands working in the alt-rock or indie scene that really are just quality mainstream rock acts left orphaned by the contraction of the mainstream rock universe. There's no musical sense in which The Killers or Muse or the White Stripes or - of all people - Coldplay are alternative bands, any more than Pink Floyd or Rush or U2 or Led Zeppelin were alternative just because they were doing something musically a little different than the bands that immediately preceded them.
Pop and Other Current Radio Formats: Overview
What about pop, and the other styles of music that compete for airplay on today's current radio formats? Pop music is in a bad way these days, overrun by soulless machines, assembly-line corporate hip-hop and "singers" better suited for careers in silent films, but for all the failings of current pop, I still believe in pop music. Specifically, I believe in the idea, the goal of pop music as it's been since the dawn of the mass record-selling market in the 1940s: music that's fun, catchy, immediately accessible, and enduringly memorable. Whether it's traditional Big Band/pop, Beatles-style pop/rock, Motown-style R&B, 80s pop, or even styles like disco that I personally have little use for, a good pop song jumps off the radio and sticks in your head, to the point where you can sing along to it even if you haven't heard it in years. Good pop can be smart or emotionally powerful, can be uplifting or profound, can be danceable, but it doesn't have to be any of those things; it just has to be catchy and tuneful. But what's missing from so much of modern pop is the human element: real human voices, human beings playing real instruments, lyrics that speak to us on a human level. Instead we get machine-processed "voices" backed by machine-made "music" mass-produced by the same handful of paid corporate professionals, none of whom will ever have to present their creations to a live audience.
But all is not lost. The few remaining practitioners of quality pop music aren't all played on pop radio, but some of them are still soldiering on in those trenches. If you look hard enough, you can find them.
Part II of this essay is my look at the people still trying to make relevant rock in today's market, whether they're aging rock legends or young bands on the make, and whether or not they are considered "alternative" or "indie"; rock is rock. I also take a whack at a few of the acts that disappointed me, as well as some who are unique and off the beaten path. I'll pass over, however, artists like the Rolling Stones, Billy Joel, the Who, Bob Seger and others who - however much I like them - simply aren't producing new music of note anymore. Part III is my overview of pop and other current radio formats: the good, the bad, the interesting and the disposable, the mass-marketed and the relative unknowns. Part IV wraps up with a look at the best albums of the past three years, a quick run through the artists I haven't covered here, and a few other odds and ends.
Pull up a chair.
POP CULTURE: Music To My Ears: A 50,000 Foot Review Of The Current Rock and Pop Scenes (Part II of IV - Rock and Alternative)
The State of Rock and Alternative
Let's take a look at the surviving rock scene, one artist at a time. In addition to a thumbnail of my impressions of each artist, for those who have some songs worth checking out, I'm offering my list of their best songs since 2000 or so, so you can check them out for yourself if you're unfamiliar.
Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band - I start, as always, with Springsteen, about whom I've written more than I could hope to summarize or even link here (see here, here, here, here, and here). As I've noted previously, Bruce has had a good decade or so since turning 50 in 1999; following 1998's Tracks box set of three decades of unreleased recordings, he got the E Street band back together in 1999, released the definitive post-9/11 album in The Rising in 2002, and has put out three other original studio albums (2005's Devils & Dust, 2007's Magic and 2009's Working On A Dream), an album of covers of classic American folk songs (2006's The Seeger Sessions), a classic concert album/DVD (the 1975 Hammersmith Odeon show in London, his first overseas concert), two new live albums (2001's Live in New York City and 2007's Live in Dublin) and, most recently in the fall of 2010 opened the vaults again for The Promise, a 2-CD set of previously unreleased tracks from the Darkness on the Edge of Town sessions. And, through it all, keeping up a punishing touring schedule that would wear down a man half his age.
The production of good studio albums isn't as effortless as it once was - a man who would once leave whole abums worth of great stuff unreleased has at least a few dull filler tracks on each of his last three studio albums - but Bruce is still making quality rock, and Working on a Dream was better and, oddly, more pop-oriented than its two predecessors, with many tracks reflecting, at last, his contentment at a stable marriage and desire to hang on to those days of relative youth that remain. Now into his 60s, Bruce is very much aware of his own musical mortality. I recent read Big Man, Clarence Clemons' quirky, impressionistic look back at his life and career with Bruce, and that's one of the core recurring themes of the book - Bruce's voice just keeps getting more gravelly, Danny Federici is dead, Clarence has a battery of problems with his knees, back and heart, Max Weinberg has a bad back, Nils Lofgren's had hip replacement...the band's days are numbered, and true to form, the only way Bruce knows how to deal with that reality is to keep playing show after show like each one could be his last. And as the Live in Dublin album attests, to this day, Bruce is putting new spins and reinventions even on some of his oldest songs.
As for The Promise, it's not really new music (although Bruce has been promoting it with the full-tilt enthusiasm of a man with new songs and something to prove) but it clearly illustrates how the track selection for Darkness worked. There are nearly no hard-rocking songs left in the vault, as those all made the album. There are a number of fun pop songs; of the songs on the album only 'Prove It All Night' was remotely pop, whereas poppier tracks like 'Fire,' 'Because the Night' and 'Talk To Me' are well-known songs by now because Bruce gave them to other artists. As for the slower, mopier songs that fill out the rest of the 2-CD set, those were clearly lesser songs than others in the same vein that filled out the album (I include the title track, and I know I'm a heretical Bruce fan for not liking it much; Joe Posnanski offers the majority view).
Best Tracks (since The Rising): 'Working on a Dream,' 'Radio Nowhere,' 'Save My Love,' 'Surprise, Surprise,' 'Gotta Get That Feeling,' 'Maria's Bed,' 'Ain't Good Enough For You,' 'Tomorrow Never Knows.'
U2 - They may be younger than Springsteen, but age has caught up with the best rock band of the past three decades. Bono, now 50, no longer has the effortless powerhouse voice that seemed to fill stadiums by itself, and the band had to cancel the US leg of its summer 2010 tour after he suffered a back injury requiring surgery. Their most recent album, No Line on The Horizon, is a good listen all the way through but is clearly their worst album since their earliest days, lacking any one standout song; it's like the second side of The Unforgettable Fire stretched to a whole album. Even the Spider-Man Broadway musical they scored has been beset by production delays. Meanwhile, Bono has taken up another sideline as an occasional NY Times columnist; he comes off as a smarter, less China-toadying Tom Friedman.
U2 is promising they're not done, with as many as three albums in production (including a new rock album, an album of the Spider-Man songs and, reportedly, a "dance" album with hot electro-dance producer David Guetta and - gag - Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas). They may be down, but I wouldn't count them out just yet. Here's a taste of some of the new stuff.
Best Tracks (since 2000): 'Walk On,' 'Beautiful Day,' 'Love and Peace or Else.'
The Saw Doctors - Longtime readers know I never pass up a chance to talk up The Saw Doctors, the great Irish pop-rock band about which I've written repeatedly (and have a longer profile piece still in the works). With their Beatles-style pop-rock with its twinges of Irish folk influences and their rollicking live shows, the boys from Tuam in County Galway are still going strong, and released their seventh studio album and third of the decade, Further Adventures of...the Saw Doctors, in 2010, following on the heels of a greatest-hits compilation (To Win Just Once) in 2009, a compilation of unreleased songs and live recordings (That Takes The Biscuit!) in 2007, and three live albums since 2004 (2004's Live in Galway, 2008's Live at the Melody Tent and 2005's rare but awesome tsunami-charity release Live on New Year's Day), plus a single recorded for charity (a cover version of the Sugababes' 'About You Now') that hit #1 on the Irish pop charts in 2008. They were last in the news playing the inaugural ball for Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley.
The new album has a bunch of good songs, the standout tracks being the distinctive guitar riff and wistful lyrics of the lead single, 'Taking the Train' and the hard-rocking 'Hazared' (in which Davy Carton boldly declares "me, I'm back on the rock and roll"), but it does have two weaknesses: first, two corny, clunker ballads ('Be Yourself' and 'Somebody Loves You') that lack the usual Saw Doctors touch, and second, no songs by Leo Moran, the band's other frontman.
Best Tracks (since 2000): 'Taking the Train,' 'About You Now,' 'Villains,' "Hazared.'
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers - I most recently wrote about Petty, Florida's gift to rock, here. Following on the heels of a really excellent 4-CD live anthology, Petty and his band were back in 2010 with a new studio album, Mojo, his first since 2002. Petty's voice hasn't changed in 35 years and his band's only gotten better (they recorded all the songs from this album in live studio sessions). There's nothing here as catchy as 'Refugee' or 'Runnin Down a Dream' or 'American Girl', but this is a quality vintage Petty album from beginning to end, rock with blues influences and tempered by Petty's general mellowness. Tom Petty's still in this for the long haul.
Best Tracks (since 2000): 'Running Man's Bible,' 'The Last DJ,' 'High in the Morning.'
The Killers - The best young (under-40) rock band, period. After they were recommended by a whole bunch of different people, I only had to sit through three or four of their songs to decide I'd go out and buy all their albums and wonder how I'd missed them before. With massive success in the UK in particular, over 15 million albums sold since their 2004 debut, and a sound that would fit comfortably on Top 40 radio if Top 40 radio still played rock, The Killers are the closest thing going to a logical successor to U2 as the world's best rock band.
You might be forgiven, especially if you were introduced to them by watching their music videos, for assuming that 29-year-old frontman Brandon Flowers is a gay Englishman who came up through the clubs (unsurprisingly, his favorite band growing up was the Pet Shop Boys), rather than a married Mormon father of three from Nevada, the band's home base. In fact, The Killers' blending and shifting of musical and visual styles is a big part of what makes them a compelling and evolving band (their videos are actually quite good, unlike much of what's done in that medium these days), but they remain unmistakably rooted in rock. The second and best of their three studio albums, Sam's Town, shows the repeated influence of Bruce Springsteen after Flowers went on a huge Springsteen kick between their first two albums; the lyrics to 'Read My Mind,' their best song, are sprinkled with little Bruce touches, and 'A Dustland Fairytale,' off their third album, Day & Age, could not possibly be a more obvious homage to Bruce. Flowers' crisp vocals stand in stark contrast to so much of the current trend in 'alternative' rock, and make the band's music immediately identifiable and accessible. If anything, his recent solo effort, Flamingo, was even more lyrically Springsteenish, but nonetheless a little weaker - as is often the case for solo debuts by band frontmen - for the lack of the musical backbone provided by the band. Fortunately, the band will end its hiatus with a return to live performance in April.
The Killers are slightly crotchety and prone to feuds with other bands, such as when Flowers blasted Green Day for filming a DVD of the America-bashing American Idiot before a UK audience, horrifying some left-wing music fans with what was really nothing more than simple patriotism (the band played a 2010 campaign rally for Harry Reid, so they're not exactly a right-wing outfit). They also put out an annual Christmas song, the best of which was 2007's tongue-in-cheek 'Don't Shoot Me Santa.'
Best Killers Tracks: 'Read My Mind,' 'When You Were Young,' 'All These Things That I've Done,' 'Mr. Brightside,' 'For Reasons Unknown,' 'Spaceman,' 'Human.'
Best Brandon Flowers Solo Tracks: 'Magdalena,' 'Jilted Lovers & Broken Hearts.'
Grace Potter & the Nocturnals - If rock-fan readers of this post come away with nothing else, I hope you all go out and listen to the work of this Vermont-based throwback rock band, fronted by a tall, leggy 27-year-old with a serious Janis Joplin vibe and a powerful set of lungs (Potter is basically Janis if she was prettier and not wacked-out on drugs; in fact, while the music scene will always have its junkies and burnout cases, my sense is that relatively speaking there are fewer people on drugs in the rock and pop worlds than there have been for a very long time). My wife and I are going to see Potter in March at Manhattan's Irving Plaza, a tiny venue where I've seen the Saw Doctors twice. One major booster of the band is Peter Gammons, who has been a devoted fan since their appearance at the 2006 Boston Music Awards.
For my money, the band's self-titled third album is the best album released in 2010, with essentially no filler. It shows their continuing growth, as each album has had progressively more strong songs. You can definitely tell that the band is making a major push to break through commercially; they've followed a tireless promotional schedule (everything from the VH1 Divas "Salute to the Troops" to performing at the Knicks game at Madison Square Garden on Christmas Day), Potter did a duet with country superstar Kenny Chesney, and she has clearly made an effort to glam up her image, with blonder hair and shorter skirts standing in contrast to the slightly frumpier, more bohemian look you can see in older concert clips.
One part sugar/Two parts feeling... Three cups full of bottled lightning... Four parts water/Five parts believing... Mix it all together and put both feet in
Best Tracks - 'Hot Summer Night,' 'Mastermind,' 'Medicine,' 'Colors'.
Pearl Jam - Pearl Jam should be the best rock band in the business today, but even if they're something less than that now, they're still worth seeking out. I always liked them better than Nirvana, and their first three albums in the early to mid-90s were outstanding. If Kurt Cobain had somehow mastered his demons and lived on to 2011, Nirvana might well be where Pearl Jam stands today, a popular and successful touring act but generally considered past their prime and largely left behind by the music-listening public outside their fan base. Of course, to get from there to here, Pearl Jam had to wage a long series of self-destructive battles, from their war with Ticketmaster to ultimately striking out on their own independent label to pettier decisions like refusing to make music videos for more than a decade. Much as I enjoyed those first three records and their backing of Neil Young on 1995's Mirrorball, the last Pearl Jam album I bought was 1996's No Code, and other than the Eddie Vedder-less 'Mankind' (a very underrated song) I didn't bother replacing that album or any of the songs on it when I lost the CD in the fall of the Trade Center. It doesn't help that Eddie Vedder, while he has a great and powerful voice, so often sounds as if he's singing while eating a sandwich.
But their 2009 release, Backspacer, seems to signal a comeback to more listener-friendly music. After checking out a bunch of the songs I keep meaning to buy it (I can never find it in stores and there's like 12 different versions of the thing for sale on Amazon, but I'll get there eventually).
Best Tracks (since 2000): 'The Fixer'
Sheryl Crow - The female Tom Petty, in terms of being an artist who's churned out quality music year in and year out with a minimum of fuss (not that she's lacked her own personal dramas, between a battle with breast cancer and a relationship with Lance Armstrong, and as with Pearl Jam, the less said of her politics, the better) and wears her Southern heritage lightly (she's from Missouri). Her sound's softer than Petty's and even at age 48 she's only been releasing albums half as long, but she's built up a considerable catalog of hits since 1992's breakthrough 'All I Wanna Do.' Crow's latest album, 2010's 100 Miles From Memphis, sees her back to her Motown roots (she got her start as a backup singer for Michael Jackson in the late 80s), with a record heavy on the horn sections. It's a good, mostly mellow listen, even if you aren't in the mood to sit through 'Say What You Want To,' a catchy but not very thinly veiled diatribe aimed at Sarah Palin and plunked down in the middle of the album.
Best Tracks (since 2000): 'Soak Up The Sun,' 'Peaceful Feeling,' 'Summer Day,' 'C'mon C'mon'
Jack White - Imagine a 2-person band consisting of a singer/guitarist and a drummer, in which the singer isn't especially good at singing and the drummer's not that good at drumming. You might expect a failure of a band, but instead the Detroit-based White Stripes made some of the best, most uncompromising rock of the past decade, and 35-year-old Jack White's guitar magic, eclectic influences and relationships with other artists have made him and his various bands vital figures in the rock world. The White Stripes officially announced their breakup yesterday, perhaps an inevitable development given (1) Jack and Meg White's divorce and Meg's remarriage (which finally put to bed the longstanding air of mystery they'd cultivated over whether they were husband and wife or brother and sister) and (2) the fact that Meg was really never musically necessary to the band and was never entirely comfortable with the limelight.
The White Stripes never reached the heights of the great rock bands of the 60s and 70s, in large part because of Jack White's limitations as a vocalist; while White, like Bob Dylan, could do more with his voice than you'd guess at first glance, he was never an accessible vocalist, and an even worse vocalist live (White's reputation as a live act rests instead on his guitar wizardry). But his musical virtuosity made the vocals take a back seat anyway. The band was also masterful in its use of iconography - the red-black-and-white motif of their outfits, equipment and album covers, the hypnotic video to 'Seven Nation Army' - one element of their success that is unlikely to be carried over as Jack White moves on to other projects.
I still need to check out more of Jack White's music across his many ventures, including his other bands, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather. His most recent project, since relocating to Nashville and starting his own studio there, is backing an album by septuagenarian rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson, following on the heels of a prior effort for country legend Loretta Lynn, and with the White Stripes going the way of Cream, more collaborations are undoubtedly in the works.
Best White Stripes Tracks: 'Seven Nation Army,' 'The Denial Twist,' 'Icky Thump,' 'The Hardest Button to Button,' 'Catch Hell Blues,' 'Ball and Biscuit.'
Kings of Leon - In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, and so it is with the Kings of Leon, a conventional, straight-up no-frills hard rock band that places in the top tier of young rock bands today. A Tennessee-based brother act fronted by 28-year-old Caleb Followill that originally hit it big in the UK, the Kings were on their fourth studio album when they had their crossover commercial breakthrough in mid-2009 with the success of 'Use Somebody' on the pop charts (it hit #1 on top 40 radio, an extremely rare accomplishment for a rock band these days). As Clarkson - a fan since seeing them open for U2 earlier in the decade - described the band to the New York Times on the eve of their breakout, "The rock category is not rock anymore, so I love that they're a rock band. Nothing about them is not rock." And indeed, Only By The Night, their 2008 breakout album, is a good rock album from stem to stern, without a weak song in the bunch, and I'd recommend it to anyone; the 2010 followup, Come Around Sundown, lacks the distinctive tracks that made Only By The Night a hit, but it's likewise a worthwhile listen.
But realistically, if the Kings of Leon had come out in the mid-70s, they'd have been ranked closer to Foghat, Golden Earring and Bachman-Turner Overdrive than Aerosmith or Zeppelin; it's only the weakness of today's rock scene that puts them near the head of the class. In a generation that would regard the second coming of Foghat as a blessing, it's good to be the Kings.
Best Tracks - 'Use Somebody,' 'Sex on Fire,' 'Crawl.'
Muse - Muse is a cross between pre-Joshua Tree U2 and Rush. A trio like Rush, with a reputation as a spectacular touring act, their sound is distinguished by the powerhouse vocals of 32-year-old frontman Matthew Bellamy, probably the most strongly Bono-influenced vocalist in rock (even more so than Flowers or Coldplay's Chris Martin), and they too have opened for U2. Musically, Muse is is even more synthesized and electronic than Rush, but unmistakably still guitar-driven rock. They're an intensely political British band; Bellamy is something of a 9/11 Truther and prone to pronouncements like "[t]he one thing religion has got right is that usury is a fundamental problem with the worldwide banking system." Originally successful in France and scorned at first in their native UK, they've backed into a lot of free publicity on account of Twilight author Stephenie Meyer being a fan and insisting on their music being used in the soundtracks of her massively successful film franchise. Bellamy is reportedly romantically involved with Kate Hudson, one of those useless bits of gossip-mag celebrity trivia I can somehow never avoid absorbing.
Best Tracks: 'Resistance,' 'Uprising,' 'Knights of Cyclonia,' 'Starlight.'
Nickelback - I really tried to give Nickelback's music a fair hearing, honestly I did, but their songs were so forgettable I sometimes forgot what they sounded like while they were still playing. There's nothing actively offensive about Nickelback other than that they take up airplay that could be given to good rock bands; they're by far and away the most-played rock act on radio over the past decade, which may have helped convince the public that rock is well and truly out of ideas. The only song of theirs I own is 'Into the Night,' the single Chad Kroeger recorded with Santana, suggesting that Kroeger's bland voice isn't the entire problem with Nickelback's music.
Coldplay - Like Nickelback, I worked hard to come to Coldplay with an open mind, knowing that both bands were hugely popular yet frequently derided. I didn't have an auspicious start: my initial reaction to the song 'Viva La Vida' was that it sounded like it was building up to really go somewhere, and never did. But eventually I was sold, not on Coldplay generally as a band, but on a handful of their songs. Given the narrow range of their style, I can't really imagine listening to an entire Coldplay album at one sitting, but they make a good change of pace on my iPod.
Best Tracks: 'Viva La Vida,' 'Clocks,' 'Speed of Sound,' 'Low.'
Slash - Back in the day, I was a very big Guns 'n Roses fan, and still listen a good deal to their best stuff from Appetite for Destruction and the Use Your Illusion albums, as well as more offbeat stuff like their superior but hard to locate cover of Jumpin' Jack Flash. Probably no other band has disappointed me as badly as Guns 'n Roses without the death of one of the key members of the band, to the point where I've never even mustered the desire to listen to The Spaghetti Incident and only just finally listened to the long-delayed, Slash-less Chinese Democracy after finding a copy of it in my older brother's car amidst the other possessions of his we ended up with after his death.
I'm probably overdue to catch up on Slash's work with Velvet Revolver, but I did pick up the 45-year-old London native's self-titled solo debut released in 2010, and it's very, very much worth it. The album features collaborations with a variety of vocalists ranging from Ozzy to Adam Levine of Maroon 5 to Chris Cornell, Iggy Pop and Lemmy from Motorhead. Slash also appeared on a recent single, 'Rock Star,' by Rihanna, about which I can only say I hope he was paid in cash.
Contrasting Slash with Chinese Democracy, which is in effect an Axl solo album and has maybe two good songs ('There Was A Time' and 'Catcher in the Rye'), you can definitely see that Slash - like Keith Richards and Pete Townsend - was the more important member of the band (in fact, Izzy Stradlin's 1992 solo debut Izzy Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds is also a vastly better album than Chinese Democracy, with hardly a weak track on the record).
Best Tracks: 'I Hold On' (with Kid Rock), 'Beautiful Dangerous' (with Fergie), 'Starlight' (with Myles Kennedy, who provides some of the album's best vocals and has toured as the vocalist for Slash's band).
Chickenfoot - Supergroups have a checkered history in rock, but Chickenfoot is a perfect situation for a supergroup: three low-key guys who know how to play in a band (two Van Halen veterans - Hagar and bassist Michael Anthony - and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith) unite with a spectacular talent who's never played in one (guitar god Joe Satriani). The result is a solid debut album that flat-out rocks, and more impressively, sounds like the work of guys who have been playing together for years.
Best Tracks: 'Future In The Past,' 'Soap on a Rope.'
Them Crooked Vultures - If Chickenfoot's album was a success for rock supergroups, I have to class Them Crooked Vultures as a failure. I really wanted to like this band, built around Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones and Dave Grohl of Nirvana and the Foo Fighters. But as I went through track after track on YouTube, I heard way too much jam and not enough song. It kept sounding like they were giving us the studio sessions instead of the album. A real missed opportunity.
Gov't Mule - An Allman-Brothers style classic rock jam band, and the Allman Brothers sound isn't coincidental, as 50-year-old frontman Warren Haynes spent almost a decade as a member of the reformulated Allman Brothers starting in 1989 (he's also toured with the surviving members of the Grateful Dead after the death of Jerry Garcia). Gov't Mule is more of a live act whose studio albums are just excuses to tour, so while the band's catalog of songs is solid, it features little in the way of standout signature songs other than 'Soulshine,' a good studio track that really shines in any number of live performances.
Best Track: 'Soulshine'
Arcade Fire - Arcade Fire was another band I genuinely wanted to like, given their reputation as a quality, rising rock band, and I gave the indie darlings fronted by a husband and wife duo from Montreal a couple of looks, even going back after seeing a clip of them performing with Bruce (maybe it's just me, but the song - 'Keep the Car Running' - reminded me of John Cafferty's 'On the Dark Side'). I did like one of their songs, 'Rebellion (Lies),' and found a second, 'Intervention,' to be adequate, and might have been a good song with better sound quality. But the band fronted by a husband and wife duo from Quebec just suffers too badly from the alt-rock disease of murky production and barely-audible vocals, and seeing one of the members of the band laud "that amateur sheen, that nonprofessional sheen that I treasure," suggests that perhaps the poor production values on their recordings is a deliberate way of keeping the listener at arms' length.
Best Track: 'Rebellion (Lies)'
Ben Harper - I'll refer you to my essay on the Lost Black Voice of Rock if by now you're thinking that this list is a little too white. Anyway, there's always somebody to provide the exception to the rule, and for now that's Ben Harper, a 41-year-old Californian who combines guitar theatrics with a distinctive, gritty voice. Whichever of his various backup bands he's playing with at any given time, Ben Harper rocks.
Best Tracks: 'Shimmer & Shine,' 'Why Must You Always Dress In Black,' 'Burn to Shine.'
Spoon - One of the poppier "indie" rock bands (the horn riffs on 'The Underdog' remind me of the old Motown classic 'Build Me Up Buttercup,' but maybe that's just me), featuring the slightly gravelly voice of 39-year-old frontman Britt Daniel, Austin, Texas-based Spoon has built a steady following with seven albums dating back to the mid-90s and a fairly consistent, listener-friendly sound.
Best Tracks: 'The Underdog', 'You Got Your Cherry Bomb,' 'My Mathematical Mind,' 'I Turn My Camera On,' 'Got Nuffin.'
The Black Keys - An Akron, Ohio-based blues-rock duo that loves fuzzy guitar and throaty vocals but sometimes loves the fuzz a little too much in both, the Black Keys sound like a throwback to 50s bluesmen, but with modern technology. Like Coldplay - a very musically different band - I find them better suited as a change of pace than a band I really have a hankering to hear ten songs in a row by. The one album of theirs I own is 2010's Brothers. Their videos are often darkly witty.
Oh, and this is just concentrated awesome.
Best Tracks - 'Tighten Up,' 'Howlin' For You,' 'Unknown Brother.'
Dave Matthews Band - The 1990s jam band isn't just still going; it's coming off its most critically acclaimed album in 2009 (following the death of saxophonist Leroi Moore) and is one of the biggest touring acts of the past decade. I have two Matthews albums (Crash and Busted Stuff), one of which I got as a gift, and I still have mixed reactions to the band - I like a handful of songs on each album, but I really don't get into them.
Best Track (since 2000) - 'Grey Street'
Elton John - Some people hang it up when they're done as pop stars, some keep soldiering on in obscurity. Elton John instead headed for a natural field for his talents in middle age, finding a profitable second career writing for Broadway and Disney movies. (At last check, he was working on, of all things, an Animal Farm stage musical, when he wasn't performing at Rush Limbaugh's fourth wedding - like Bono, Sir Elton is savvy about the virtues of entertainers being civil to their political opposite numbers).
But in late 2010, Elton John went all the way back to his earliest musical roots, recording a new album, The Union, with that other early-70s piano legend, Leon Russell. (The Oklahoman Russell, now 68 and white-bearded, was last seen performing at the 2010 Grammys with the Zac Brown Band, a young country group that looks like they got lost on their way to the Lonely Mountain). The result? I went through on iTunes and found too many slow songs to be worth buying the whole album (the last thing I need in my life is nine new Elton John ballads), but the remaining tracks are really good stuff, as the gruff, flinty Russell curbs Elton John's maudlin side and brings out the best of his old time rock n' roll side.
Best Tracks - 'Hey Ahab,' 'My Kind of Hell,' 'Jimmie Rodgers' Dream,' 'If It Wasn't For Bad,' 'Hearts Have Turned To Stone.'
Kid Rock - I would never have predicted, a decade ago, that I would grow to like Kid Rock, but he has gradually been winning my respect. He's always been a guy who defied genre boundaries, and is now firmly established as a rock-country-rapper, not necessarily in that order. He's a gritty vocalist and a devotee of the sound of his fellow Michigander Bob Seger, especially his latest, the 80s-esque anthem 'Born Free.' I hated 'All Summer Long' at first for its utterly shameless use of those 70s classics 'Sweet Home Alabama' and 'Werewolves of London,' but it like Kid Rock himself, it grew on me.
He's also one of the few open Republicans in rock (he's campaigned with Sarah Palin), which is worth some good will with me but not enough that I'd listen to a Ted Nugent album voluntarily.
Best Tracks - 'All Summer Long,' 'Born Free,' 'I Hold On' (with Slash), 'Rockin' My Life Away' (with Jerry Lee Lewis and Slash).
Daughtry - Kind of a junior Nickelback, to the point where Daughtry even opened for Nickelback on a recent world tour, but Chris Daughtry does have a much better voice than Chad Kroeger, and occasionally that comes through on his songs. The 31-year-old North Carolina native also seems like a really likeable guy. I still find the band's music boring and disposable and have yet to buy any of it, but a couple of the songs are at least listenable, and I haven't ruled out Daughtry the way I have with Nickelback.
Green Day - Most of this list consists of artists who range from politically liberal to hard-shell leftist, but usually the politics is off center stage just enough to sit back and enjoy the music. Not so with Green Day, a once-juvenile punk band that must have read a few mimeographed pamphlets somewhere and decided to declare themselves public policy solons. Now, they've sent American Idiot and its Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-bashing message to Broadway. Dude: even Neil Young got over Nixon eventually.
Bon Jovi - I have to say, speaking of defying expectations, I never imagined, back in 1987 or so when I was in high school in North Jersey and listening to their albums (few of my favorite artists of that era have aged worse, besides Def Leppard, although I do still love 'Runaway'), that Bon Jovi would still be trucking along in 2011, still putting out records that get played on the radio in addition to Jon Bon Jovi's Lifetime Movie acting career; the band's put out five studio albums since 2000, and according to Wikipedia, each has sold between 3 million and 11 million copies worldwide. They're less hair band, less New Jersey and less obviously Van Halen-meets-Springsteen these days, but still very much Bon Jovi.
Best Track (since 2000): 'Who Says You Can't Go Home' (with Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland; I was astonished, after hearing the song, to discover that Nettles was a skinny white girl), 'It's My Life.'
John Mellencamp - The fifth pillar of American roots rock, along with Springsteen, Petty, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Bob Seger, the 59-year-old Indianan produced a lot of good pop-oriented rock in the 80s, and two of my favorites of his (the hypnotic 'Human Wheels' and a cover of Van Morrison's 'Wild Night') were recorded in the early 90s. The last Mellencamp album I own (or rather that my wife owns) is 2001's Cutting Heads, although I also liked his 2005 anthem 'Our Country' even after it was beaten into the ground by Chevy truck ads. Unfortunately, Mellencamp's latest album went the folk/acoustic route, so I've taken a pass.
Best Tracks (since 2000): 'Our Country', 'Peaceful World'.
Paul McCartney - True story: the first album I ever purchased, in vinyl, was 1982's Tug of War (don't judge: I was 10. 'Take It Away' is the only song from that album I still listen to). I basically stopped listening to his stuff after that, even when he drew good reviews for 1989's Flowers in the Dirt and 2007's Memory Almost Full, two of the eleven solo albums Sir Paul has turned out since then.
After my older brother died in November, we've been cleaning out his apartment and dividing his stuff, always a grim duty, but that means carving up his extensive CD collection. I made off with a huge amount of Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead, a bunch of Hendrix and Janis Joplin CDs, and a variety of other stuff, one of which was Memory Almost Full. And it's pretty good. A McCartney album inevitably disappoints on the first listen - for all his pop gifts, you have to listen more than once to stop expecting a Beatles record - but with only a few exceptions (the hideous 'Gratitude') it's an album you can hear through without skipping (including a number of songs in the album's second half that run together, not as a single composition like the Abbey Road medley but more like Sgt. Pepper). McCartney's voice is well-preserved for 65 (he's 68 now); you can hear the age on some songs, but not the miles. 'That Was Me' is the one track that sounds like it could have been recorded by the 1970 version of McCartney.
Best Tracks (since 2000): 'That Was Me,' 'Ever Present Past,' 'Dance Tonight.'
Santana - No, I didn't expect Carlos Santana to become a pop radio star in his 50s either, and anybody who predicted that in the early 70s could only have done so by imagining a pop music landscape totally unlike the one that welcomed Santana with open arms beginning with 1999's Supernatural. His guitar style remains as distinctive as ever.
Best Tracks (since 1999): 'Smooth' (with Rob Thomas), 'The Game of Love' (with Michelle Branch), 'Into the Night' (with Chad Kroeger).
Aerosmith - To be honest, I haven't heard any Aerosmith songs other than horrible pop ballads since 1989's Pump album, and if I never heard another of those post-1990 ballads again it will be too soon. From what I can tell, Joe Perry feels the same way. For all of that, for all the band's hard-living history and threatened breakups as recently as the spring of 2010 and recent injuries (Steven Tyler's fall from a stage, Perry getting rear-ended while driving his motorcycle), they've endured remarkably well - Tyler's vocal range seems undiminished after 35 years of wailing, and they're still touring and promising new studio work, and of course Tyler is now a judge on American Idol.
Fountains of Wayne - I mentioned the Saw Doctors above as a modern heir to the Beatles' sound, but the New York City-based alternative band Fountains of Wayne qualifies as well (bassist and songwriter Adam Schlesinger wrote three songs, including the title track, for the early-60s-pop-homage Tom Hanks-written film That Thing You Do! and is also in the band Tinted Windows with members of Hanson, Smashing Pumpkins and Cheap Trick). Some of their best songs aren't entirely appropriate for mainstream radio for content or language reasons (although this didn't prevent their signature song 'Stacy's Mom' from being a hit of sorts).
Best Tracks (since 2000): 'Bright Future in Sales,' 'Traffic & Weather'
The Strokes and Franz Ferdinand - Two highly similar alt-rock bands other than their geographic roots (The Strokes are from New York City, Franz Ferdinand from Scotland), both of which alternate between (1) good songs that rock over a solid grounding in pop melody and (2) songs that succumb to the alt-rock disease of unnecessarily submerged vocals. (The Killers, with the addition of a superior vocalist, are sort of the evolutionary, mainstream version of these bands, to the point where Entertainment Weekly's review of their first album quipped, "isn't it a little too early for a Strokes tribute band?").
If you've heard the Rolling Stones' 'Dance No. 1,' you have heard the roots of every Strokes guitar riff ever.
Best Tracks (The Strokes): 'Last Nite,' 'Someday,' 'You Only Live Once'
Best Tracks (Franz Ferdinand): 'Take Me Out,' 'No You Girls'
Razorlight and The Jayhawks - Two pop-rock-oriented "indie" bands with a few catchy tunes, Razorlight from England, The Jayhawks from Minnesota.
Best Tracks (Razorlight): 'Who Needs Love,' 'America,' 'Golden Touch.'
Best Tracks (The Jayhawks): 'Save It For A Rainy Day,' 'I'm Gonna Make You Love Me.'
The Wallflowers/Jakob Dylan - It's debatable who is rock's most disappointing band of the past two decades; the competition from acts like Guns n Roses, Nirvana and Living Colour, and to some extent Oasis and the Black Crowes, is stiff. But The Wallflowers are definitely on the list, a band that showed a lot of promise (and of course the Dylan pedigree) as a breakout mainstream rock band with 1996's Bringing Down The Horse. But their second album, Breach, was a step backwards and they've deteriorated ever since. I listened to a sample of each song from Dylan's last project, 2010's Women + Country, and couldn't turn it off fast enough.
Best Tracks (since 2000): 'Letters from the Wasteland,' 'Sleepwalker'
Radiohead - I listened through about six Radiohead songs recommended by friends and they were all slow, whiny and turgid, at which point I gave up. I know Thom Yorke has a reputation for having a great voice, and at least you can hear him loud and clear on their songs, but I ran out of patience with Radiohead before I found anything that would impress me with his vocals. They've recently made a splash in the record industry by announcing that they're abandoning albums and focusing entirely on selling individual digital song downloads.
The Ben Folds Five - I listened to a song by this band (I forget which song) and I came away thinking they were a pretty talented act that made catchy, poppy music, but that the song made me want to punch Ben Folds in the face. Fair enough, a lot of artists record something like that, so I tried another one, and another, and another - maybe about five songs. And each time, I kind of liked the music, but I still wanted to punch Ben Folds in the face. I couldn't even exactly put my finger on it, the way I can with Green Day's politics. But eventually I decided that, whatever the reason, Ben Folds' smug, hipster face would be safer if I gave up trying to enjoy his music.
Susan Tedeschi - Another female blues-rocker with a fantastic, gritty voice; I need to dig further into her music.
Best Tracks: 'Evidence,' 'Tired of My Tears'
The Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly - Given my enthusiastic following of the Saw Doctors and enjoyment of another local NY Irish band with a national following (Black 47, although I only have the one album, 1999's Live in New York City), I gave a look at some other distinctively Irish bands. Now, the Irish are probably second only to African-Americans in their impact on American music; besides Irish imports like U2, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello and the Pogues, the roster of musicians of Irish or significantly part-Irish descent includes John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, John and Tom Fogerty, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Harry Connick, Mariah Carey, Kelly Clarkson, Tim McGraw, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly and Rosemary Clooney.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of Irish music: the kind you listen to after three beers at a party, and the kind you listen to after twelve beers at a wake. Your mileage may vary, but my own preference is for the former. (After one of my freshman roommates in college bombarded me with their music for a year, the only Pogues song I came away liking is 'Blue Heaven,' which not coincidentally is not gargled by Shane McGowan). The Dropkick Murphys, at least, have some upbeat songs worth a listen - I love their guitars-and-bagpipes instrumental version of 'Amazing Grace,' and 'Tessie' is an enormously fun song, plus you cannot possibly stop me from loving a song about the 1903 Red Sox that takes reasonable care to know its history (with shoutouts to Cy Young, Chick Stahl, Bill Dineen, 'Nuf Ced McGreevey and his Royal Rooters). It's maybe the best baseball rock song ever written, surpassing even John Fogerty's 'Centerfield.' They're also Springsteen fans - Bruce will appear on their next album on a new version of the nearly century-old standard Peg O'My Heart, and guitarist Tim Brennan even proposed to his girlfriend from the stage of a 2009 joint appearance with The Boss.
I'm less enamored with Flogging Molly, no doubt to the consternation of my RedState colleague Moe Lane - they're more the latter type of Irish music - but Moe has at least sold me on their song 'Float.'
OK Go - An alternative band with faintly catchy music and irritating vocals, I have to list them here because they make the best music videos ever, videos so good they landed the band's lead singer a lengthy spread in the Wall Street Journal on rethinking the economics of the music business. Really, go here and here if you've never seen one of their videos. Go now. I'll wait.
Jars of Clay - Few phrases frighten true rock fans away more quickly than "Christian rock," which conjures up images of cheesy, overly-earnest hair bands singing ham-fisted lyrics about Jesus. Yet, as I alluded to in my most recent Springsteen essay, Christian spirituality infuses the work of many of rock's giants (Bruce, U2, Van Morrison, for a time Bob Dylan) and even the occasional classic song by ordinarily non-religious artists (see The Who's 'Who Are You'). Questions of faith are too profound, and faith is too huge a part of human life, for popular music to ignore it. The difference is that artists pigeonholed as "Christian rock" acts tend to try too hard to squeeze explicit Christian witness into song rather than letting the pervasive influence of their faith flow naturally.
On the recommendation of Steve Dillard, I have recently started checking out the Christian band Jars of Clay, which has more in common in terms of sound and in terms of the more abstract, poetic lyrical style with bands like U2, The Killers and Muse than they do with Stryper, and thus far I'm positively impressed, but haven't delved far into their catalog.
Best Tracks: 'Work,' 'Good Monsters.'
Gogol Bordello - A band that mixes punk rock with Romanian folk music and sounds pretty much exactly like what you'd expect from that description. They were recommended by a reader; not my speed, but worth a look on YouTube if you're in the mood for something very different and think that might be to yours.
Wasted Tape - Patterico pointed me to HUTT, a free-for-download collection by this LA-based indie band that makes quality rock, at least some of it pop-friendly to my ears (not pop-rock, but more the kind of stuff you get from, say, the Kings of Leon if they were fronted by the Gin Blossoms' Jesse Valenzuela). I haven't explored the rest of their stuff but it's a good album.
Best Tracks: ''Too Far Gone,' 'The Bean King,' 'Friend The Monster.'
POP CULTURE: Music To My Ears: A 50,000 Foot Review Of The Current Rock and Pop Scenes (Part III of IV - Pop and Other Current Radio Formats)
The State of Pop and Other Current Radio Formats
Kelly Clarkson - The best thing going in current pop, and an interesting personality to boot, for reasons I explained at exhaustive length in this essay and this concert review, is the original American Idol, Kelly Clarkson, now in her creative prime at age 28.
Among Clarkson's virtues is that she's the best balladeer in current music. As should be clear from some of my comments in Part II of this essay and below, I'm fairly picky about ballads (defining ballads broadly to include any sort of slow or quiet song); I love a good one, but not everybody's cut out for them, and the presence of a whole bunch of them on an album is as often as not a sign of creative failure. Instead, too many artists seem to think that doing slower, quieter or acoustic songs is some sort of statement of artistic credibility rather than a failure to properly practice their craft. (There's a reason why I prefer the live versions of virtually every song on Springsteen albums like Nebraska and Ghost of Tom Joad). As a rule of thumb, if you have more than two ballads on an album, you better have a very good reason, and few do. Even the greatest balladeer of all, Frank Sinatra, really needed to have about half the songs on any given album be more uptempo or risk inducing the snooze. Clarkson's last album had, depending how you count them, four or five ballads, and even for her that's getting close to the limit.
Clarkson doesn't seem to be done with her famously acrimonious relationship with her record label; it appears that she's back in record-company limbo, unable to release her followup to 2009's excellent All I Ever Wanted, possibly due to a management shakeup at her label. Since I last wrote about her in 2009, however, she has managed to keep doing the things she does best. She's produced more impressive live covers; I was particularly taken with her cover of When in Rome's 'The Promise,' which took a classic 80s pop song and replaced its mournful tone with a decidedly Springsteenish edge of desperate commitment (it reminded me of 'My Love Will Not Let You Down.') She lent her voice to 'Don't You Wanna Stay,' a power-ballad duet with country star Jason Aldean. She performed the National Anthem at Game 3 of the World Series in Texas, raving afterwards about meeting Nolan Ryan (aside from current and former owners like Ryan and George W. Bush, Clarkson is about all the Rangers have in terms of celebrity fans). She's continued to find herself in controversies sought and unsought, from a broadside against the head of Taylor Swift's record label for dissing American Idol to finding herself caught in the crosshairs of a coalition of left-wing anti-smoking zealots and fatwah-waving mullahs after the promoters of her Asian tour lined up a cigarette company as a sponsor for her show in Jakarta (Clarkson complained about being "used as some kind of political pawn," but the sponsorship was ultimately pulled). Clarkson also got a bunch of her unreleased demos stolen by German hackers who apparently had a fairly sophisticated scam to hack the computers of a bunch of pop stars; while others, like Ke$ha and possibly Lady Gaga, seem to have paid the Dane-geld when threatened by the hackers with blackmail, Clarkson went to the FBI after receiving a tip from her German fan club, leading to the hackers' arrest by the German authorities. Clarkson joined Twitter about a year ago, and characteristically alternated between touting other artists, indulging her goofy sense of humor, sharing pictures of her farm animals, sniping back at random nutjobs bashing her on the internet, and indulging her music-industry-curmudgeon streak with tweets bemoaning lip-syncing, pantsless pop stars, and the poor quality of current radio hits. Typical of her relationship with her fans, on one occasion she announced on Twitter that she was headed to a bar in Nashville to do karaoke with whoever showed up off the street (you can see her in the middle doing her best Axl Rose impression here).
Best Tracks - 'Addicted,' 'How I Feel,' 'All I Ever Wanted,' 'Walk Away,' 'Never Again,' 'Since U Been Gone,' 'Close Your Eyes.'
Maroon 5 - I covered Maroon 5, the best pop band that still gets played on the radio today (which says maybe more about the state of pop bands today) and a 21st century answer to The Cars, in this summer concert review. Since then, the band has released its third studio album, Hands All Over, continuing their run of deep-in-quality records.
Best Tracks - 'Won't Go Home Without You,' 'Little of Your Time,' 'Wake Up Call,' 'The Sun,' 'Stutter.'
Hanson - I've written previously about the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based 1990s boy band's single 'Thinkin' Bout Something' (and its Blues Brothers homage video), which for my money is the best pop song of 2010. Hanson is all grown up now, ranging in age from 25-30 (oldest brother Isaac on the brothers all being married with kids: "I actually don't think that we're off the majority of this country's standards. I think it's mostly a coastal thing"). Despite clever viral promotion, the band's residual name recognition and high-profile TV appearances on shows like Letterman and the Today Show, as well as the simple fact that it's a better song than their worldwide hits of 13 years ago, 'Thinkin' Bout Something' got essentially ignored by Top 40 radio, a tribute to the difficulty of getting played on the radio without the support of a major record label.
Going beyond one song, let me now sing the praises of the entire album, Shout it Out - it's basically a Southside Johnny album (note: this is a high compliment), like Sheryl Crow's latest a deliberate homage to the Motown/Stax sound with vintage Motown horn arrangements and Ray Charles style keyboards. The band takes its influences seriously, saying the album "harkens back to the type of music they listened to as kids - '50s and '60s rock 'n' roll, Motown and R&B, like Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin." (And more contemporary throwbacks as well - on one recent tour, they regularly did a passable cover of Gov't Mule's 'Soulshine'). Granted, Taylor Hanson (the middle brother and primary vocalist) doesn't have Southside Johnny's thick, soulful voice, but he and his brothers do fine with the album's numerous upbeat tracks; the only downside is that they all lack the voice to pull off ballads, of which the album has two ('Use Me Up,' sung by drummer Zac, is especially excruciating, and 'Make It Through Today,' sung by guitarist Isaac, is also a dud), but that's a small price to pay for a talented band that's making good, fun, lively new music in a genre that's lain fallow for far too long, and doing it their way after going the indie route following a bitter and draining war with their record label.
Best Tracks (since 2000): 'Thinkin Bout Something,' 'And I Waited,' 'Make it Out Alive,' 'This Time Around'.
She & Him - She & Him is, as you may know, the indie-pop band that grew from Zooey Deschanel deciding to branch out into music as a recording artist rather than just an occasional on-film singer, culminating in the release of the band's first album, Volume One, in 2008. Surprisingly, not only does Deschanel have a gorgeous voice, she's also the band's principal songwriter and keyboard player, with guitarist M. Ward handling most of the rest of the musical arranging.
Basically, Zooey Deschanel is Katy Perry if Katy Perry had talent and class instead of big breasts. I'm not sure if Perry would take that trade. Yet despite the fact that Deschanel was a winsome, famous movie star for years before Perry arrived on the music scene in the same year (2008) and has more musical talent and makes incredibly catchy pop, She & Him remains a niche music act unknown to pop radio audiences. Granted, pop songs don't market themselves and the rollout for She & Him was deliberately low-key, but it's still an indictment of the current pop scene that the Top 40 radio stations that once gave Eddie Murphy a hit record wouldn't try their hand at She & Him's songs.
2010's Volume Two is in the same style as Volume One, but not quite as good; continuing my complaint about ballads there are a few many slow/quiet tunes. Still, enough good stuff to be worth buying if you enjoyed the first go-round.
Oddly for a successful actress, Deschanel's stage presence has tended to be rather wooden and disconnected from the audience (her voice is still great in clips of her live performances); or maybe not so oddly, since her stock in trade as an actress has been her deadpan, monotone expressionlessness. Either way, more recent appearances promoting Volume Two have seen her get a lot livelier and more comfortable as a live performer.
Best Tracks: 'Sweet Darlin,' 'Black Hole,' 'Why Do You Let Me Stay Here,' 'I Was Made For You,' 'In the Sun,' 'Don't Look Back.'
Gin Blossoms - One of the very best pop bands of the 1990s reunited after breaking up in 1997, and put out a new album, Major Lodge Victory, in 2006, and a second, No Chocolate Cake, in the fall of 2010. Both had the old Gin Blossoms sound - the new stuff isn't on par with their earlier albums, but it's listenable and each had a few good songs. Odds on them recording another 'Hey Jealousy' are slim. The Arizona-based band has been on the road visiting the troops overseas and performed a free concert after the memorial in Tuscon following the recent shootings.
Best Tracks (since 2000): 'Come on Hard,' 'Wave Bye Bye'.
David Cook - The winner of the seventh season of American Idol in 2008, Cook has the vocal chops to be the next Bob Seger (I admit I'm sort of arbitrarily listing him with the pop artists and Daughtry with the rock artists, but Cook is still establishing himself). The question mark is his material, which on his first album leaned far too heavily on ballads. Don't get me wrong: I liked the album and Cook can deliver a good ballad, but it dragged in spots and could have used some crisper uptempo numbers. Judging from early clips of his next album, there seem to be some tracks with a Police influence. I'd love to see Cook have some pop hits, if only to prove that a non-rapper who sounds like a grown man can still get played on the Top 40.
Cook has suffered family tragedy - the death of his older brother to a brain tumor - and on a lighter note, the 28-year-old Missouri native is also a dedicated Kansas City Royals fan, which should give him plenty of blues to sing for the foreseeable future.
Best Track: 'Light On'
Harry Connick; Brian Setzer Orchestra - I covered these two veteran crooners here. I'm still hoping for something livelier from Connick.
Best Tracks (since 2000): Connick: 'Your Song,' 'Jambalaya (On the Bayou).' Setzer: 'Americano,' 'Mack the Knife,' and a couple of tracks off his Christmas albums.
Michael Buble - A fantastic Big Band singer like Connick and Setzer, albeit with fewer original songs or arrangements; the 35-year-old Canadian crooner mostly sticks to singing the standards, which he does quite well. Unlike Connick, he shows no signs of departing from the formula that serves his talents best. Buble can sometimes overdose on the bombast, as with his version of 'Cry Me A River'.
Best Tracks: 'Haven't Met You Yet,' 'At This Moment.'
Melody Gardot - Traditional if quirky torch singer with a compelling, unique voice.
Best Track: 'Baby, I'm A Fool'
(I could add a writeup here on Norah Jones, who has one or two songs worth a spin, but Ravi Shankar's daughter is way more well known than there is anything interesting to say about her).
Pink - Pink (or, if you must, P!nk) is one of those artists with a decidedly schizophrenic body of work. On the one hand, the 31-year-old from Doylestown, Pennsylvania made her name singing what amounts to club music, which I can't stand, and her public image always seemed deliberately obnoxious. On the other hand, she's got a fantastic voice, with that Joan Jett/Joplin style throaty rasp, and since she started recording more pop-rock type tracks with hitmaker Max Martin, she's won me over on a few songs, especially 'Who Knew,' one of the best pop songs written on the subject of grief. The Funhouse album also has some good bluesy-rock-ish album tracks behind the singles. And from what I've seen of her in interviews, she's blunt (eg, her assessment of Kanye West) but otherwise fairly laid-back. She's also made a name for herself with her acrobatic live performances, like singing while suspended upside-down from a trapeze. Strangely for someone with her vocal talents, however, Pink's ballads are just awful, dull and lifeless; she needs somebody to get her a ballad worthy of her voice. Pink is presently on something of a hiatus while expecting her first child, but still spinning pop hits off her recently-released Greatest Hits album.
Best Tracks: 'Who Knew,' 'Please Don't Leave Me,' 'One Foot Wrong.'
Rob Thomas - The former Matchbox 20 frontman grew up as an Army brat; now 38 and with solo albums released in 2005 and 2009, he's one of the most reliable producers of mid-tempo pop-rock in the business, the most successful artist in modern 'adult contemporary' radio, occupying roughly the musical space inhabited by Phil Collins in the 80s.
Best Tracks: 'Smooth,' 'Her Diamonds.'
Colbie Caillat - An understated singer; as a vocalist, Caillat is a female James Taylor, though she's obviously not his match as a songwriter. The 25-year-old Californian actually auditioned for American Idol and failed to get out of the auditions, which is maybe unsurprising given her anemic reputation as a live performer, but her records are pleasant and mellow, good filler for a large iTunes playlist.
Best Tracks - 'Midnight Bottle,' 'Don't Hold Me Down,' 'Never Let You Go.'
The Black Eyed Peas - I hate the Black Eyed Peas, and all their works, and all their empty promises. The band's brand of mechanized hip-hop combines so many different forms of awfulness, from its repetitiousness to its artificiality to the near-complete absence of any human emotion, that it's almost impossible to list them all. It's easier to note what's missing: melodies, good vocals, instruments, and lyrics that connect with either head or heart. Their only redeeming feature was when their manager punched out Perez Hilton, who may be the most awful person on the entire internet (a crowded field). I am halfway tempted to boycott Sunday's Super Bowl rather than have to see even a promo for their halftime show.
It gets worse: listening to Fergie's song 'Beautiful Dangerous' on Slash's album and a few of her other live performances of rock songs (see here and here) only made me hate the Peas all the more for the fact that she's wasting real talent as a rock singer on this band's crimes against music (as well as her own heinous solo work). If the Peas traded Fergie to Nickelback for Chad Kroeger, both bands would be improved immeasurably (tell me you could picture Chad Kroeger singing 'My Humps' and not crack a smile).
Fun fact: Fergie got her start doing the voice of Sally on some Peanuts specials in the 80s.
Taylor Swift - I'm not a teenage girl, never was one and frankly never understood one, so Taylor Swift is not on my playlist, but through my wife and older daughter I've been bombarded with her three albums. The gangly, elfin 21-year-old pop/country singer's talent as a crafter of pop music is undeniable - you can't teach the ability to write a melody like 'You Belong With Me' (which Swift wrote with a writing partner who's collaborated on a number of her hits), to say nothing of her ability to write lyrics that capture the fairytale princess world that girls cling to as their last defense against the freighteningly cynical and responsible world of adulthood. Unusually for a country artist, Swift is from Eastern Pennsylvania, but then her monster hit record Fearless is more a pop than a country album, and its successor, 2010's Speak Now, is really not that much more country. As a vocalist, she's basically Avril Lavigne without the permanent sneer.
Swift is a pleasant, appealing personality who seems like a good role model and has good sense of herself. Parents of preteen and teen daughters agree: the world could use more like her. One hopes she'll remain relatively unspoiled by her early and enormous success, although a long string of Hollywood boyfriends is probably not the way I'd recommend for her to do that. It remains to be seen if she can seamlessly navigate the tricky transition to adulthood, musically, commercially and emotionally.
Maybe it's just me, but the tune and pacing of 'The Story of Us,' from Speak Now, sounds a lot like the Killers' 'Mr. Brightside.'
Best Tracks - 'You Belong With Me,' 'Love Story,' 'I'm Only Me When I'm With You'
Lady Gaga - Comedy, tragedy, or all just an act? Nothing about the 24-year-old Manhattanite is certain; performance art is the name of the game, so it's always an iffy proposition to take her statements, or much of anything in her biography or carefully crafted public image, at face value. The onetime Stefani Germanotta has a good voice - when she's not burying it with mechanical effects - and is a talented pianist, and she apparently started off as more of a rock artist (her stage name comes from the Queen song Radio GaGa, and she's a professed Springsteen fan), although the extent to which she moved into electronic dance music as a natural musical development, an effort to get noticed, or a marketing strategy handed her by others is subject to some debate. (She does, however, write her own stuff; the talent is genuine, just as her impact on the rest of the pop music scene is undeniable). Judging by her appearance on this MTV show from 2005 (she's the one in black), she was also once a fairly normal-looking Italian girl, not the walking freakshow in a suit of meat or Kermit the Frog heads she is today.
Gaga's mechanical music pretends to be ambitious, but that's not the same as saying there's any real content to it, as hilariously illustrated by Christopher Walken's dramatic reading of the lyrics to 'Poker Face.' She has a knack for writing memorable choruses - I even confess to liking the anthemic, ABBA-style chorus to 'Bad Romance' - but they're just brief respites from the throbbing monotony of the rest of her songs.
If Katy Perry is - as discussed below - all about the joy of lust, Gaga is her opposite. As Camille Paglia has noted, Gaga may present herself as drenched in sex, but her image and music are full of sex without fun, sex without passion, sex without genuine emotion, and of course her image is that of a sickly drag queen, devoid of even an attempt to appeal to heterosexual men. (Her marketing to, and bond with, gay men is another subject in its entirety, and certainly central to her career). Taken seriously, 'Poker Face' is nothing if not a renunciation of intimacy. In that context, her declaration of celibacy - again, if taken at face value - seems less the useful caution it might appear, and more a symptom of emotional dysfunction. "I have this weird thing that if I sleep with someone, they're going to take my creativity from me through my vagina," she contends.
What makes Gaga a potentially tragic figure is the possibility that some of this isn't an act, that like Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, she has demons that are inseparable from her talents and driving her to an inevitable doom. She's confessed to using cocaine, and of course no cocaine user can ever really be trusted to accurately describe the extent to which they have it under control. Her weight has fluctuated and at times plunged dangerously, and she's collapsed a few times on stage, possibly for real (there are recurrent rumors of her record label worrying about her health). Her video and stage imagery is full of what might be cries for help, as she's frequently shown injured or bathed in blood. As dissimilar as they are, artists like Clarkson, Perry and Beyonce give off a certain zest for living; Gaga seems as if she might well prefer to be a martyr, to be hung on dorm room walls with John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix.
Or maybe she just wants you to buy the poster.
Katy Perry - Practically the dictionary definition of an "It Girl," the shapely, bug-eyed 26-year-old Californian has mastered the art of being ogled; listening to Katy Perry on the radio makes about as much sense as watching Joe Cocker with the sound off. She's the worst live vocalist I have ever seen, completely lacking in singing talent of any kind; even her studio recordings can only do so much to mask this. She can't dance or play an instrument, either, and while she's playful and occasionally witty, it's never not about her sex appeal. Even her controversial appearance on Sesame Street ended up being nixed because she insisted on wearing a low-cut dress completely inappropriate to the occasion. Her husband, chronically disreputable British actor Russell Brand (his bio reads like his life has been scripted by Ricky Gervais), won the UK Sun's "Shagger of the Year" award so many times they renamed the thing after him.
Like Lady Gaga, Perry isn't entirely what her public persona makes her out to be; her real name is Katy Hudson (discarded for obvious reasons), and she was raised by Christian preacher parents and started her career as a gospel singer, the residue of which was briefly on display when she griped in the aftermath of one of Lady Gaga's Madonna-esque videos that "Using blasphemy as entertainment is as cheap as a comedian telling a fart joke". (Anyone familiar with Perry's Twitter feed will notice that she has nothing against fart jokes, lots and lots and lots of them). But Perry is all about selling records these days, so she swiftly issued an unclarification. God forbid the girl should have any principles.
Perry's verbal wit makes her an occasionally clever songwriter - the two songs she wrote for Clarkson's last album were good pop songs, and at least 'Hot n Cold' had a memorable chorus - but as long as she's limited by her own voice and hemmed in by the need to sell sex with every syllable, she'll remain a blight on radio.
Beyonce - Diana Ross 2.0, upgraded and fully armed and operational, the New York Yankees of pop. The 29-year-old from Houston is an unstoppable commercial and entertainment juggernaut, probably the most commercially successful musician since Michael Jackson and Madonna. Even if - like me - you don't like her style of music, you can't help but respect her beauty, her tremendous voice, her dancing skills and her all-around work ethic; her success is comforting if you want to think of pop music as a meritocracy that rewards talent, effort and discipline. On the other hand, she also comes off as cold, imperious and ruthless (she's been sued multiple times for copyright infringement), and that can't help but be projected in her music; she's no more capable than Madonna of conveying real emotional vulnerability, no more a likeable underdog than Derek Jeter.
John Mayer - Mayer, a 33-year-old from Fairfield, Connecticut, is living proof that being an interesting and talented guy is not the same as making interesting music. Mayer is certainly good copy - he's smart, good-looking, independent-minded, a near-legendary Lothario with a long string of celebrity conquests, and can be wickedly funny, as illustrated by his once-frenetic Twitter feed (since discontinued; the highlight was his savage and thoroughly deserved mocking of Perez Hilton after the Black Eyed Peas incident, but some reports blamed his excessive tweeting for his breakup with Jennifer Aniston), his broadside against the Huffington Post, and his self-satirical FunnyorDie video. None of that is the same as saying he's an admirable guy, as he's courted controversy for interviews where he used racial slurs and talked wayyyy too much out of school about the famous women in his sex life. And that's before we get to his oddball politics, such as his mouthy support for Ron Paul for President.
Mayer is reputedly a very talented guitarist in concert, but his languid singing style seems to lack even the energy and ambition to finish a sentence without trailing off, and his musical ambitions seem limited to whatever can get him into the next bed. Which seems unnecessary; the man's a rock star. It's not as if, say, the members of Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones ever had trouble with the ladies. But Mayer simply won't try to be anything more.
Jack Johnson - If you found John Mayer asleep and nursing a wicked hangover and shot him full of elephant tranquilizers, he'd be Jack Johnson, a singer so mellow he makes Fred Rogers sound like Motorhead. You might not hear John Lennon's 'Imagine' and think, "this song is way too hard core and needs to be slowed down significantly," but that's why you're not Jack Johnson. Suitable only for lullabies.
Jason Mraz - 33-year-old former tobacco-store operator from Mechanicsville, Virginia, Mraz is a light-pop singer but jauntier and more energetic than Mayer's ilk, and enjoyed colossal success with the 2007 hit 'I'm Yours,' which is kind of overrated but still a fun song. Mraz is living proof that if you take a goofy-looking guy and have him wear a porkpie hat everywhere, all anyone will remember is the porkpie hat.
Best Tracks: 'I'm Yours,' 'Butterfly,' 'Make It Mine.'
The Fray and The Script - Honestly, it took me a while to be convinced that these were two different bands (The Script are the ones from Ireland). I may eventually be won over to a couple of The Fray's songs, but it will take some persuading.
Mariah Carey - Has anybody ever wasted as much talent on as much terrible music as Mariah Carey? The 40-something from Huntington, Long Island is a beautiful woman with a gorgeous, almost unbelievable voice, but nearly all of her music is awful, and on top of that she's gotten progressively loopier over time. The only good stuff she's ever produced is the Motown-style tunes on her 1994 Christmas album. Presently expecting twins. It seems too late in her long and inarguably lucrative career for her to come to her musical senses.
Christina Aguilera - Same story as Mariah Carey, and despite her obvious gifts the 30-year-old ex-Mouseketeer from Staten Island seems to be sputtering commercially due to her persistently awful material and charmless public persona. Then again, her performance with the Rolling Stones suggests that maybe despite her natural vocal talents, Aguilera's not really that skilled a vocalist; given the chance to sing a rock classic, she didn't do much more than growl. (I love the sax solo in that video, by the way). You can confirm the same impression by going here to hear her do to 'Imagine' what Mark David Chapman did to its composer. She has her sights next on the National Anthem at the Super Bowl.
Whitney Houston - Drugs are bad, hmmkay? Hard living and age seem to have destroyed her once-beautiful voice.
Britney Spears - Lament all you will Britney Spears' dolorous impact on our culture and on the pop music world over the past 13 years and I will join you in every note. The Louisianan ex-Mouseketeer long symbolized the oversexualization of underage girls, needed all sorts of studio help with her voice to produce acres of terrible music, and has a rap sheet of stupid or provocative behavior a mile wide. (Clarkson, yet again, had the definitive reaction when Britney shaved her head).
But I'll give her this: Britney Spears is a survivor. Nobody thought she'd still be a major music star at age 29 (around 1999 I'd have made book on the big-voiced Aguilera outlasting her), and earlier in this past decade you'd have had even odds she'd be dead, in jail or in a mental ward by now. Instead, even with her meager vocal gifts, she's still cranking out top-10 singles, is still a first-name-basis household name, seems to have passed over the worst of her acting-out-and-possibly-mentally-ill stage, and is virtually the only under-40 artist on the annual lists of best-selling tours even though she lip-syncs her live act. Maybe the self-destructive three-ring circus of her personal life is only on a temporary lull - there are still signs of that - but for now, given the limitations of her talents and personality, she's had the last laugh.
Justin Timberlake - I knew Justin Timberlake for his comedy (he's the funniest man in music and could legitimately make a living as a sketch comic), his tabloid romances, his stylish image (three piece suits are always classy) and his involvement in the infamous Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction," but I'd never actually listened to any of his music. Turns out I'd missed nothing. Comparing his whiny hit 'Cry Me a River' to the Joe Cocker version of the classic of the same name is enough to make you weep not only for the state of music but of manhood itself. Stick to the funnies, Boo Boo.
Ke$ha - Just when you thought pop starlets could not possibly get any worse, along comes Ke$ha, the 23-year-old icon of poor hygiene and faux rap. Other pop starlets have some redeeming quality - they have a good singing voice, or are good writers, or are good dancers, or are pleasant to look at, or play an instrument, or if all else fails seem like reasonably wholesome characters or compelling personalities. Ke$ha (I believe the dollar sign is supposed to be stupidly ironic instead of just stupid) strikes out on all counts - she's basically just postured 'attitude' and marketing. Maybe this explains how she got that way.
The chorus to her hit 'Your Love is My Drug' owes a major debt to Hall & Oates' 'Your Kiss Is On My List.'
Orianthi - Picture Joe Satriani or Stevie Vai as a slim, exotic-looking twentysomething blonde woman, and you have Orianthi, a guitar hero badly miscast as a pop starlet on account of her gender, age and looks. She can axe but she sure can't sing, and hopefully will move on to a role better suited to her gifts. Like Sheryl Crow, she got her big break working for Michael Jackson, as a guitarist in his final tour (she was hired after playing the Eddie Van Halen solo for the Gloved One, once).
Avril Lavigne - I admit a few guilty pleasures among the earlier works by the diminutive, sneering black-eyed Canadian pop-rocker, who amazingly enough is still only 26.
Best Tracks: 'Complicated,' 'My Happy Ending,' 'Sk8ter Boi.'
Sara Bareilles - A similar kind of female singer-songwriter to Caillat who'd been talked up by a number of people, but while I gave her a listen, none of Bareilles' songs really had a catchy melody (too many stops and starts), and in combination with her too-precious-by-a-half lyrics, I gave up after about three or four songs.
Train - I admit it: I liked Train's earlier hits, stuff like 'Drops of Jupiter' and 'Calling All Angels' and even 'Meet Virginia.' They seem like they aspire to be Huey Lewis & the News for the 21st century. But their comeback has been utterly insipid, fueled by the trying-too-hard 'Hey Soul Sister'. A band with this little soul to start with shouldn't sell what was left. (This assault on that song is over the top but good for a few laughs.)
Owl City - I had the misfortune of seeing Owl City live this past summer, opening for Maroon 5; I wrote up the experience here, and hope not to relive it.
Carrie Underwood - If you were to set out to create the perfect female country star in a laboratory, you'd end up with something very closely resembling the winner of American Idol's fourth season in 2005: a pretty, blonde Oklahoma farm girl with a relatively demure personality with no rough edges and a powerhouse voice. My country collection is pretty slender, so I can't say I've heard anything from her I'd listen to voluntarily, but Underwood is precisely what Idol needs to find more of if the show wants to survive.
Jordin Sparks - Besides Clarkson, the only American Idol winner to make her home on Top 40 radio, and do so with some measure of success. Sparks seems like a sweet, wholesome kid with a good voice, but her music is bland and unmemorable. Physically, she's enormous, almost certainly the only female pop star I can recall who's built more like a WNBA center. She's also co-chairing a project with Nick Jonas to raise youth awareness of Ronald Reagan in time for the Gipper's 100th birthday this weekend.
Leona Lewis - In the category of Most Boring Ballad Ever Recorded, nobody's scored more entries than Leona Lewis, the best-known winner of the X Factor, the UK's version of American Idol. Last seen doing underwear commercials; she's probably the only female pop star who could make underwear boring. Her more upbeat pop track 'Bleeding Love' is listenable.
Best Track: 'Bleeding Love'
The Jonas Brothers and Justin Bieber - Yesterday's and today's pop stars du jour for teenyboppers. The Jonas Brothers are, in the classic Disney tradition, inoffensive and seemingly squeaky-clean, and their watered-down pop-rock, while without any real appeal, at least doesn't make me immediately feel the need to flee to another station. They are what they are.
As for Bieber, the 16-year-old Canadian (he was a month old when Kurt Cobain shot himself, if you want to feel old) makes the Jonas Brothers sound like Otis Redding by comparison; even his hairdo, which Tom Brady appropriated in an effort to determine what it takes for a supermodel-dating, Super Bowl winning NFL quarterback to overdraw his Man Card, is more annoying than the Jo Bros' malt-shop pompadours. That said, I do admire the kid's pluck for making his own career path; he basically marketed himself over the internet to get famous.
Best Tracks: No, really, you didn't ask me that.
Miley Cyrus - If you enjoyed the Lindsay Lohan Experience the first time, fear not, you'll get to watch it again! A completely predictable train wreck, still in the relatively early stages.
Unfortunately, what Cyrus didn't inherit from her father Billy Ray is a good singing voice.
Bruno Mars - No, I couldn't pick his music out of a police lineup from that of Jason DeRulo, Taio Cruz, Jay Sean, Enrique Iglesias, or about fifteen other of these guys that seem to come out of a factory somewhere, singing prefabricated machine-driven corporate hip-hop that sounds as if it was designed by a committee and produced by a focus group. (I at least know who Jamie Foxx is from his movies, but his music is in the same vein). The whole lot of them should be locked in a room somewhere for a month with a turntable and a stack of Wilson Pickett, Four Tops and Temptations records and told not to come out until they know what soul sounds like.
Amy Winehouse - Musicians are famous for their dissolute lifestyles, but only occasionally are they so comprehensively messed-up that it becomes impossible to enjoy their music; I like the style Winehouse works in, but she's so repellent - and her singing style so idiocyncratic - that I just can't get into any of it. A shame.
Jewel - The best, or at least most tolerable to my ears, of her generation of Lillith Fair female folk singers (Sarah McLachlan has a lovely voice but bores me to tears; Alanis Morrissette's sneering is unlistenable), the 36-year-old yodeling Alaskan is still trucking along, now married to a prominent rodeo cowboy and expecting her first child. Jewel hit it big in 1995, but she's put out five studio albums since 2000, two since moving to a small label. Her preening pretentiousness can be tiresome at times, but at others she pulls off some decent songs, especially on the pop-oriented 0304, released in 2003. She's also got a sense of humor, as seen in this FunnyorDie video of her doing karaoke undercover, and was a rare dissenting voice of sanity in the 2009 flap over Roman Polanski.
Best Tracks (since 2000): 'Standing Still,' 'Run 2 U,' 'Sweet Temptation,' 'Yes U Can.'
KT Tunstall, Duffy, and Natasha Bedingfield - Three female singers from the UK who seem to have had trouble following up their hits. Tunstall, a 35-year-old Scottish folk/pop singer who hit it big with 2004's Eye to the Telescope, has effectively disappeared from popular consciousness without a trace despite releasing two subsequent albums, in 2007 and 2010. Duffy, an odd-looking 26-year-old Welsh pop singer, had huge success with 2008's Rockferry, but from my early listen to her followup, I don't hear anything worth a second look. The same goes for Bedingfield, a 29-year-old English R&B singer, who had a couple decent enough tracks off 2008's Pocketful of Sunshine.
Best Tracks: Tunstall - 'Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,' 'Suddenly I See,'; Duffy - 'Mercy,' 'Rain on Your Parade'; Bedingfield, 'Pocketful of Sunshine,' 'Put Your Arms Around Me.'
Kris Allen & Lee DeWyze - While I've never watched American Idol, as you can see from this list, I do give the show credit for doing a decent job as a gatekeeper in identifying talented singers. But nothing emblemizes the decline of Idol as a talent pipeline more than the show's last two winners, both of whom are basically in the John Mayer mold of low-wattage male singer, too light and mellow either for rock or for Top 40 radio. I can't see either of these guys having any significant upside as recording artists, which is what a show like Idol is supposed to promise. Maybe the judge the show really needs is Bluto.
Jay-Z - I'm no rap guy and never will be - I own just a few rap songs, mostly pop-rap from my college days. But there are a few things about Jay-Z that I can at least respect. First, the man legitimately cares about music; unlike a number of his rap colleagues, he seems to make an effort to incorporate actual instruments and women with singing talent into his songs, and even went so far as to record an anti-Auto-Tune song, 'DOA (Death of Auto-Tune).' And second, he's a fantastically successful businessman, arguably far more successful as a mogul than a musician. The 41-year-old from Bed-Stuy is also pushing the limits of age in a field where the leading rappers have tended to be dead by his age. His marriage to Beyonce made them music's ultimate power couple, all the way to the White House Situation Room.
POP CULTURE: Music To My Ears: A 50,000 Foot Review Of The Current Rock and Pop Scenes (Part IV of IV)
The Best Albums of the Last Three Years
Top Ten Albums of 2010:
1. Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals
Honorable Mention - Kings of Leon, Come Around Sundown; Gin Blossoms, No Chocolate Cake.
Top Ten Albums of 2008-09:
1. Kelly Clarkson, All I Ever Wanted
Honorable mention: Pink, Funhouse; Michael Buble, Crazy Love
That concludes my look at the people I've had enough exposure to to have something worth saying about them. Here's a quick look at the rest.
Not Worth My Time
There are a bunch of other recently active acts I've sampled or been exposed to and come away unimpressed, but who weren't really worth a full writeup:
I'm not done; there are definitely a host of other artists I know I need to give a longer listen to, including:
-Wilco, which I'm hesitant to judge on a quick first impression.
-Most of Weezer's catalog (I only know 'Buddy Holly,' which is a really good song and a better video, and 'Island in the Sun'; I'm assured that there's more good stuff out there - they've put out nine studio albums - and Rivers Cuomo has a good pop music voice).
-Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, an old-school R&B act.
-Airborne Toxic Event (I've liked what I've heard so far, especially 'Gasoline' and 'Sometime Around Midnight,' I just haven't gone far enough to figure out how many good songs they have).
-Josh Ritter (I like 'Rumor' and 'Mind's Eye')
-Alter Bridge (Myles Kennedy, the lead singer, did a couple of solid turns on Slash's album)
-AC/DC's output since 1981's For Those About To Rock, especially 2008's Black Ice.
-Bob Dylan's output since 1990's Under the Red Sky; I have a few of his later CDs now from my brother's collection.
-Rush's albums since 1991's Roll the Bones.
-Paramore, which has a couple decent-sounding songs, although I suspect I won't like enough of their stuff to buy more than a song or two.
-The rest of Black47's output besides 1998's outstanding Live in New York City.
-Metallica's post-Black Album output (I did check out their album of covers, and didn't like most of them other than their cover of Bob Seger's 'Turn the Page,' which - this being neither here nor there - was used as Adam Dunn's music at Nationals Park).
-Possibly a few more of the suggestions from the comments to this post.
One Song Only
Other artists I've picked up just one post-2000 song by, but haven't yet heard anything suggesting I should dig deeper:
The Fratellis - 'Chelsea Dagger' (now that is a pop song).
The music scene is more fragmented than ever, and the golden age of mainstream mass-market rock, pop-rock and rock-influenced R&B will never return. But fans of Sixties pop, old time rock n' roll, Motown and Big Band shouldn't give up entirely on today's music world. If you look hard enough, there's still good music being made, interesting careers to follow, and good live shows to be attended.
January 10, 2011
POP CULTURE: Bruce Springsteen and the Right
When New Jersey's Republican governor, Chris Christie, was sworn into office, he chose to celebrate at his inauguration by joining a Bruce Springsteen cover band in singing the Boss' signature anthem, 'Born to Run'. Governor Christie hails from Bruce's home state of New Jersey, and his zealous Springsteen fandom is perhaps unusually dedicated for a politician. But it also symbolizes a paradox: while Springsteen has long been open about his left-wing political views and has hit the campaign trail for the last two Democratic presidential candidates, he remains enduringly popular with a broad segment of conservatives and Republicans. In part, that's for the obvious reason: Bruce is a rock legend with a ton of fans, so we should be unsurprised that he would have fans of every political persuasion. It's also partly demographic; Bruce's fans tend to be disproportionately white and, increasingly, older, and those are more conservative groups than the population at large. But my own anecdotal sense is that Bruce's fanbase is - if anything - more conservative-leaning than you would explain by those factors alone, and certainly not markedly more liberal. Speaking as a conservative and a longtime Springsteen diehard, let me offer some theories as to why that is. This is not an essay dedicated to claiming Springsteen for the Right, or arguing that he's unwittingly some sort of crypto-conservative, although I do note at a few points conservative themes in his writing and his life. Rather, my argument is that the things that appeal to fans of Bruce Springsteen and his music are, quite logically, most appealing to conservatives.
Generally, we conservatives have pretty low expectations, politically, for our pop-culture icons. We understand that most of them don't agree with us on politics or policy. So, what we look for are artists who have some tolerance and respect for us, some themes in common with our worldview, and sometimes being one of the good guys on something. Bruce delivers on all counts.
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One of the principal complaints of conservatives about the culture is that it's a sewer of indecency: too much sex, too much bad language, too much immorality of various kinds...in general, too much bombardment of the young and the unwilling with messages and imagery that subvert any effort to bring kids to maturity gradually, with the perspective of time.
Bruce may be a liberal, but on this count, he's been one of the good guys for a very long time. People bring their kids to Springsteen concerts and play his albums in the car without worry; out of his vast catalog, I can count on one hand the number of Springsteen songs I have to censor from my kids, and none of them are his major hits (on Live in Dublin, you can hear an audible crowd reaction to the line in 'Long Time Coming' where Bruce uses the F word). Bruce deals in adult themes without forcing his listeners into adulthood. Contrast this to a self-identified Republican like Britney Spears, who launched her career as an icon of underage sexuality, sings about threesomes and has presented an ongoing reality-show-style trainwreck of a life offstage.
In his personal life, Bruce is no perfect role model, but by and large he's avoided the public spectacle of a life of rock n' roll dissolution; he's raised a family (his first marriage collapsed quickly, but the second one has endured two decades), stayed out of trouble with the law, kept any tales of excess and vice out of the press. Clarence Clemons, in his book Big Man - which I highly recommend - recounts that Bruce had a "no drugs" policy for his band, more out of professionalism than anything else; while Clarence admits to violating this policy rather regularly, he nonetheless respected the fact that Bruce sought to hold himself and his band to some standards, if for no other reason than to keep the band from unraveling. (TIME's famous 1975 profile of Bruce noted his avoidance of drugs, an unusual stance in the 70s, a decade before Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign).
(2) Separation of Music and Politics
Bruce's first three albums were wholly apolitical; he didn't start to get into anything like social commentary until 1978's Darkness on the Edge of Town, and his first real stab at political activism was with the "No Nukes" concerts in the fall of 1979. Since then, his politics have been no secret, and Bruce's worldview has certainly made its way into his music. But for the most part, his songs seek to describe the world as he sees it and leave it to the listener to draw his or her own political conclusions. Anti-war songs like 'Souls of the Departed' and 'Devils & Dust' remained at a high level of generality and never veered into the self-parodic rantings of the likes of the Rolling Stones' 'Sweet Neo Con' or the tendentious retellings of fact in Bob Dylan's 'Hurricane' (which is still a great song, but a transparently political tract that makes a lot of demands of the listener).
Even when Bruce puts politics front and center in his music, he doesn't stack the deck against his audience. A perfect example is one of the rarer explicitly political songs in Bruce's catalog, 'American Skin (41 Shots)', a song about the politically charged shooting death in early 1999 of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed 23-year-old Guinean immigrant street vendor who was shot 41 times by a team of 4 New York City cops. The cops, for their part, contended that they thought he was pulling a weapon when he reached for his wallet to identify himself after being chased into the vestibule of a Bronx apartment building. In the hands of, say, Eddie Vedder or even Neil Young, an incident like this would have been an occasion for preachy denunciations of the cops as racist and trigger-happy. But Bruce, with a defter touch as a lyricist and understanding how many of his own fans are cops (many of whom protested the song when he debuted it at Madison Square Garden a few months after the shooting), was more balanced and sympathetic; while Diallo's innocent plight frames the song, the chorus starkly portrays the horrible life and death dilemma of the cops' split-second decision:
Is it a gun? Is it a knife? Is it a wallet, this is your life
Or consider 'Born in the USA,' which took on the hardships of many Vietnam veterans a decade after the fall of Saigon. Ronald Reagan, who presumably relied on his speechwriters for the line, famously misinterpreted the song as a straightforward patriotic anthem, which a lot of people did the first time they heard the chorus. Personally, I blame Bruce in part for the common misperception of that song; if he didn't want it to be heard as a hymn to underappreciated patriots, he should have thought twice about releasing a video full of warm, fuzzy Americana where he played in front of the flag; about putting Old Glory on the cover of the record, and as the backdrop to the stage show, and as the backdrop to the tour posters, all at a time when the "USA! USA!" chant was at its highest ebb. But strippping away the iconography, the song itself simply tells the hard story of a guy who got shipped off to fight in Vietnam and couldn't catch a break ever since; while it's clearly an anti-war song (the best Bruce can come up with to describe the war's purpose is "go and kill the yellow man,") it's really neither a pro- nor anti-American song, just a human story of a group (Vietnam vets) that had gotten a raw deal. And more importantly, the song symbolized the point in our history when the activist Left's hostility to the war and the men who fought it was giving way to a broad, bipartisan consensus that the veterans of that war needed to be treated better (the early to mid-80s were the same years that saw the erection of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the election of pro- and anti-war Vietnam vets like John McCain and John Kerry to Congress).
Bruce has likewise mostly avoided excessive political speechmaking, signs and the like at his concerts; while he'll pop off now and then, he's a great believer in the idea that a concert is about "communion" with the audience, and so his shows never lose sight of the fact that Bruce is there to entertain and bond with the crowd, not to lecture from a distant pulpit.
(3) Roots and Respect
Related to the point about why people believed 'Born in the USA' was a patriotic anthem: for all Bruce's liberalism, and for all the times he's sung about breaking away from his native New Jersey as "a death trap, it's a suicide rap, we gotta get out while we're young," he's always had an element of traditional love-my-hometown, blood-and-soil patriotism to him, and respect for his fellow Americans, that sets him apart from the cultural Left and its visceral contempt for both. Bruce has never been the type to bash America with broad-brush complaints about "Jesusland" and the like; you get the sense that he actually likes ordinary Americans, with their flags and their churches, their muscle cars and their guns and their quaint middle-class notions about marriage and family and loyalty. As the protagonist of 'Highway Patrolman' sings, "Man turns his back on his family, well he just ain't no good."
The idea of patriotism and familial loyalty in its classic form - the love of hearth and home, of the dear and familiar, a preference for one's own over others - is one of the foundation stones of any form of conservatism, and one that comes in for frequent scorn from the internationalists and transnationalists of the Left. Bruce's songs appeal to conservatives who hold these things dear because he treats them with the respect due to serious things. This aspect of Bruce's view of the world can be seen in his ease and even enthusiasm at mingling with fans of all stripes, but it's also all over his songwriting. The sense of geographic rootedness starts with the omnipresence of New Jersey in his writing, even when Bruce struggled for a time in the early 90s with the pressures of being a local icon (memorialized in 'Local Hero': "First they made me the king then they made me pope...Then they brought the rope") and moved for a while to California. 'My Hometown,' of course, is one of the classic odes to the emotional pull of home even when home is falling apart, a theme Bruce was mining with deepening sadness by the time of 'Youngstown' and 'My City of Ruins'. Bruce's songs about busting out and hitting the open road are likewise frequently tinged with the nostalgic pull of home, as shown perhaps most clearly by the protagonist of 'Independence Day', in which Bruce's mournful vocals illustrate the conflict in a young man striking out on his own from a father he could never talk to and a town that offered him no future.
Bruce treats the ordinary, average American with respect, too. As Jon Stewart wryly put it, "When you listen to Bruce's music, you aren't a loser. You are a character in an epic poem...about losers." David Brooks, a sometime conservative and long-time Springsteen fan, connects Bruce's respect for the people in his songs to something deeper and more profoundly conservative:
In Springsteen's universe, life's "losers" always retain their dignity. Their choices have immense moral consequences, and are seen on an epic and anthemic scale.
There's never a snide or mocking tone in Bruce's depictions of factory workers, cops, waitresses, cowboys, steelworkers, guys who race cars in the street, distant fathers, single moms, or for that matter the country or the Church or anybody who takes the big things seriously. This is less common than it should be. Consider, for a fairly typical contrast, a sampling of lyrics from the Green Day song 'American Idiot,' the title track of one of the most successful albums of the past decade, now a Broadway musical:
Don't want to be an American idiot. Don't want a nation under the new media And can you hear the sound of hysteria? The subliminal mind f**k America.
It's not possible to imagine Bruce mustering that kind of sneering contempt for his countrymen and the land they live in.
(4) Consequences and Responsibilities
Springsteen will never be mistaken for a social conservative, given his consistent support for liberal politicians. But an overarching theme that recurs throughout Springsteen's writing - noted by the Brooks quote above - is the central theme of social conservatism: that actions have consequences, both moral and practical. So much of the lyrics and imagery of rock and post-rock pop is about one form or another of hedonism, the ancient Dionysian lure of indulging today without thought of tomorrow. But while the characters in Bruce's songs may be no saints, the world they inhabit is as relentless in tracing the consequences of their sins as anything sketched by Dostoevsky, Victor Hugo or Cormac McCarthy.
One of the starkest examples of that trend comes in 'Outlaw Pete,' the overblown but still oddly entertaining 8-1/2 minute cowboy opera that opens Working on a Dream. Pete, essentially a born criminal in the Billy the Kid mode, eventually decides to marry and retire from his career of murder and bank robbery to the quiet life, but he's tracked down by a remorseless bounty hunter:
He found Pete peacefully fishing by the river Pulled his gun and got the drop He said "Pete you think you've changed but you have not"
And he's right; Pete is pursued to the hills after that, and never seen again, his wife and child left behind and bereft by his past. Consequences, in Bruce's universe, aren't always equally distributed; the previously law-abiding protagonist of 'Johnny 99' gets 99 years for murder during a botched robbery from a tough judge, while the protagonist of 'Highway Patrolman' lets his brother escape to Canada for a killing in a bar fight after years of misbehavior. But in the latter song, it's the highway patrolman who must contemplate the compromise of his position as a result of his brother's crime. The law turns out not to be the end to the ripple effects of sin. As Bruce writes in 'Adam Raised a Cain':
In the Bible Cain slew Abel/ and East of Eden he was cast/ You're born into this life paying/ for the sins of somebody else's past. Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain/ Now he walks these empty rooms looking for something to blame/ You inherit the sins, you inherit the flames/ Adam raised a Cain
Bruce applies the same lessons to love and sex. 'The River' is just one of an endless number of famous songs about teenage sex, except that Bruce follows the consequences with pitiless certainty as the protagonist gets his girlfriend pregnant and ends up in a hollow shotgun marriage and a dead-end job:
Then I got Mary pregnant/ and man that was all she wrote. And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat. We went down to the courthouse/ and the judge put it all to rest. No wedding day smiles no walk down the aisle/ No flowers no wedding dress
Now all them things that seemed so important/ Well mister they vanished right into the air. Now I just act like I don't remember/ Mary acts like she don't care.
For the flip side of that story there's the song that immediately precedes it on the album, 'I Wanna Marry You', in which the protagonist's reaction to a single mom is the most traditional stirring of the masculine heart: he wants to marry her and share the burden of raising a family with her, recognizing in full the measure of adulthood:
Now honey, I don't wanna clip your wings/ But a time comes when two people should think of these things/ Having a home and a family/ Facing up to their responsibilities
The protagonist of 'Hungry Heart' makes the opposite choice, walking out on his wife and kids, but he ends up regretting his wanderlust:
Everybody needs a place to rest/ Everybody wants to have a home/ Don't make no difference what nobody says/ Ain't nobody like to be alone
We're a very, very long way here from free love; love, in Bruce's universe, always has a price, but it's still worth paying. That's one reason why so few of Bruce's songs, comparatively speaking, are about the blush of first love and lust, and so many are built around fraying relationships and pledges to stay in it for the long term. Bruce writes about love through the eyes of a grown man who understands its cost. As 'The Price You Pay' puts it: "You make up your mind, you choose the chance you take...Now you can't walk away from the price you pay."
Bruce's sense of moral consequence undoubtedly derives at least in part from his Catholic faith, and that faith is another thing he shares more in common with the Right. It's no secret that conservatives in the U.S. tend as a group to be more religious, and more comfortable with public discussion of religion, than liberals in general and entertainment industry liberals in particular. Bruce's body of work isn't perhaps as overtly religious as, say, U2, and as with the light touch of his political commentary he often invokes the concepts and imagery of faith as a theme rather than delve more explicitly into matters of theology, but the recurrent theme of faith throughout his work offers a distinctive appeal that separates him vividly from many of his peers and endears him to religious, often conservative fans.
Hope and faith are linked everywhere in Bruce's songs, and are treated as perhaps the most important thing a man can have. In 'Badlands,' one of his most enduring concert staples, Bruce declares:
I believe in the love that you gave me/ I believe in the faith that could save me/ I believe in the hope/ and I pray that some day/ It may raise me above these badlands
In 'The Promised Land,' Bruce warns of "a twister to blow everything down/That ain't got the faith to stand its ground." Almost a quarter century later, in the powerful 'Into the Fire,' Bruce offers a prayer for the faith shown by the firefighters who perished on September 11:
May your strength give us strength/ May your faith give us faith/ May your hope give us hope/ May your love give us love.
'The Rising' goes further, building the entire structure of the song around the parallel between the firefighter's ascension of the steps of the Twin Towers with his ascension to the next life as the building collapses. And Bruce closes that album with an explicit prayer in 'My City of Ruins':
With these hands,/ I pray for the strength, Lord/ With these hands,/ With these hands,/ I pray for the faith, Lord/ We pray for your love, Lord/ We pray for the lost, Lord/ We pray for this world, Lord/ We pray for the strength, Lord/ We pray for the strength, Lord
Bruce's revivalist streak is never more on display than in the marvelous 'Land of Hope and Dreams,' the theme of which is a train carrying passengers to a "land of hope and dreams" where "faith will be rewarded":
This train/ Carries saints and sinners/ This train/ Carries losers and winners/ This Train/ Carries whores and gamblers/ This Train/ Carries lost souls
In 'Living Proof,' Bruce treats the birth of his first child as a sign of God's goodness:
Well now on a summer night in a dusky room/ Come a little piece of the Lord's undying light/ Crying like he swallowed the fiery moon/ In his mother's arms it was all the beauty I could take/ Like the missing words to some prayer that I could never make/ In a world so hard and dirty so fouled and confused/ Searching for a little bit of God's mercy/ I found living proof
Nor does Springsteen shy away from explicit references to Scripture; he draws directly from Bible stories in 'Adam Raised a Cain,' (Cain & Abel), 'The Price You Pay' (Moses and the promised land), 'Lion's Den' (Daniel and the lion's den), 'Leap of Faith' (Moses and the Red Sea, to which he returned in covering the old-time spiritual 'O Mary Don't You Weep,'), and 'Pink Cadillac' (Adam and Eve), among others.
This article by a Jesuit on Bruce's Catholic influences quotes Bruce noting, in a letter responding to Catholic writer Walker Percy, "[t]he loss and search for faith and meaning have been at the core of my own work for most of my adult life" and, speaking of the influence of Flannery O'Connor on the Nebraska album:
It was always at the core of every one of her stories - the way that she'd left that hole there, that hole that's inside of everybody. There was some dark thing - a component of spirituality - that I sensed in her stories, and that set me off exploring characters of my own. She knew original sin - knew how to give it the flesh of a story.
Bruce's view of a mean, sinful and fallen world, repeated throughout his lyrics, is an unmistakably Christian perspective, and one specifically that appeals to social conservatives. Contrary to the caricature, conservative Christians are firm believers in the inevitability of sin, and indeed that reality shapes the worldview of conservatives who see God's saving grace as the sole remedy for sin. Springsteen may not share the politics, but his vision of man and God is much the same.
(6) Tone and Style
I've discussed here the themes in Bruce's work, his lifestyle and his interactions with his fans, but there's also something to be said for the man's tone, style and public persona.
One piece of that is sincerity. Bruce's music is all about passionate commitments, not ironic distance, and while temperamental preferences of this sort don't always split neatly along ideological lines, Bruce's approach - like that of many country musicians - by nature lends itself more to a fanbase tilted towards the kind of folks who go to church and get misty-eyed at God Bless America (even if Bruce himself never liked that song). From the early days of 'Born to Run', 'Thunder Road' and 'Backstreets' to 'Badlands' and "The Promised Land' to songs like 'No Surrender' and 'My Love Will Not Let You Down,' Bruce was always about taking the big things in life seriously, giving it everything you've got and holding nothing back, clutching fiercely to your commitments, and pursuing joy with the full knowledge that it's a respite in a hard life in a hard world. As Jon Stewart put it, Bruce "empties the tank" in everything he does. His marathon concerts - with no opening act, exhausting length, blazing energy level and even today few concessions to age - are part and parcel of that commitment.
Other aspects of Bruce's style contribute to his appeal to conservative-leaning fans. In a field full of boy bands, bent genders and perpetual adolescents, Bruce has always been an unapologetically manly figure, a sweaty, hard-working, blue-jeans-wearing, cars-and-motorbikes loving adult, a grown man who sings about a grown man's concerns. 25 years ago, Bruce's long-time romance with cars and motorcycles and the open road wasn't a "conservative" thing, but in an age of environmental nags and a red-blue divide between liberal cities obsessed with mass transit and bicycles and conservative suburbs and countryside still wedded to big cars and personal independence, Bruce's fascination with Cadillacs and Harleys seems positively reactionary.
Bruce Springsteen is, as I said at the outset, an unapologetic political liberal, albeit one with a distinctly 1930s tinge to his liberalism. He writes about many common liberal themes - economic inequality, hostility to big business, hatred of war - campaigns for liberal Democratic politicians and vocally opposes much of the conservative political agenda. No amount of lyrical exegesis or biography can or should refashion him into something he's not. But as I have tried to make clear, Bruce nonetheless has much in common with conservatives, and avoids many of the traits and themes that cause many other liberal entertainers to rub the Right the wrong way. And that's why you can find so many of his fans on the opposite side of the political fence from the Boss himself.
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January 5, 2011
POP CULTURE: The Lost Black Voice of Rock
Race is only skin deep, but so is voice; it's one attribute that is indelibly intertwined with racial identity. Let us consider the tragic loss of the black voice in rock n' roll.
Listen with me to the voice of Chester Arthur Burnett, a/k/a Howlin' Wolf*:
The birth of rock n' roll is usually traced back to the early African-American bluesmen, from Robert Johnson in the mid-1930s to Muddy Waters in the late 1940s and early 1950s. If you listen to those artists, you can see why; their vocal and guitar stylings are quite different from the prevailing Big Band, jazz and country/bluegrass sounds of their era, and you can hear echoes of the rock artists that have covered their songs and built on their foundation. But Johnson and Waters are not, themselves, rock; you would not confuse them with rock recordings. It's listening to the more raucous and powerful voice of Howlin' Wolf that you can hear, for the first time, the blues become something that would become rock. And Howlin' Wolf, even moreso than his predecessors, did so with a voice no white man could quite duplicate. It's why he was such a big influence on early rockers, especially the Rolling Stones, who - while they took their name almost by accident from a Muddy Waters song - not only imitated Howlin' Wolf but opened doors for him to perform with them on white television (which in the early 60s was the only kind of television there was):
Rock, from the time of its inception, was predominantly black music. Never solely so; for example, one of the genre's most important forefathers was electric guitar inventor Les Paul. Rock's early days included a lot of people like Jerry Lee Lewis who brought country influences into what became rockabilly (Carl Perkins, the King of Rockabilly, drew more obviously on both sources). And even Elvis, who famously got his big break because he was seen as a white man who could sing rock in the style of a black man, still drew a lot of his sound as a crooner from the Bing Crosby school of smooth singing. But many of the most dynamic, influential and oft-imitated early rockers - Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino - were African-American. As those early stars faded and the first generation of great rock bands arrived, the influences of the black pioneers were obvious - the Beatles covered songs by Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys just openly stole his riffs, and the Stones recorded standards by the bluesmen. Yet, as white bands built on what they'd started, the voice of black singers was still something distinctive and irreplaceable.
That voice had moved by the early 60s to early R&B and soul, personified first and foremost by Ray Charles and James Brown in the late 1950s, but followed over the next decade by a long series of artists on the Motown and Stax Records labels: Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, the Four Tops, the Temptations, the Supremes, and many others. Ray Charles, James Brown and the Motown/Stax artists were commercially anchored in black radio and live performances to black audiences, but they crossed over repeatedly to white radio, and their work was frequently covered or influential on white artists. The instruments, the beats, the styles of production - both black and white artists of that era had a lot in common. And the relationship wasn't entirely one-way, either; the Motown/Stax sound was influenced by white writers and producers like Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller and Phil Spector, and leading black artists would also cover songs by white artists. Consider Wilson Pickett's version of Hey Jude, written by Paul McCartney and featuring the guitar stylings of Duane Allman.
The point of the foregoing is to emphasize that the 1960s were a high watermark for the cross-pollination of the most popular genres white and black music, and that a major component of that was the mainstream white rock audience's acceptance of black artists and the unique sounds of black vocalists. True, African-American influences have always been a part of the American musical scene, from the influence of the old 'Negro' spirituals on American folk music to the influence of black jazz on the Big Band era; there's really no dispute that no other racial, ethnic or religious group has had as much influence on American music. And true, too, music's audiences were still basically segregated in the 60s - white listeners listened mainly to Top 40 and the newly-emerging FM rock radio, while black audiences generally listened to R&B and Soul stations. And true as well that while black artists influenced and were influenced by white artists, and white audiences embraced black artists, it seems that black audiences still mostly listened only to black artists. Musical integration was never truly symmetrical. But the musical ferment of that era was nonetheless the product of remarkable talents of both races feeding off one another's sounds.
At the apex of this era, in 1967, rock got its first true black superstar. Jimi Hendrix wasn't an R&B musician crossing over to rock; he was straight-up rock n' roll, the archetypical guitar god. He was also his own lead vocalist, and while vocals were never Hendrix's forte, there was no confusing him with a white man.
Did Hendrix bring a lot of black fans into rock, or even into his own music? I can't answer that question, and I'm not sure the data is really out there to study the question in a systematic way, but it's hard to detect any real signs of a cultural shift among black audiences (check out the sea of white faces in the crowd shots at any Hendrix show). I do know that his career lasted only four short years after Monterey, and that he died at age 27, probably leaving more great music on the table than anybody in rock history (only Duane Allman and Otis Redding could really compete). Hendrix had his share of problems handling success and more than his share of drug issues, but unlike, say, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin or Kurt Cobain, there's nothing in Hendrix's life that makes it that hard to imagine him surviving, as Clapton and Keith Richards did, and prospering to this day as a 68 year old creative genius carrying the blues not as a pursuing demon but as an old companion, his self-designed studio still attracting younger artists. If that had happened, I have to believe that somewhere along the line, Hendrix would eventually have attracted a following both of black fans and black imitators, and maybe helped keep a bridge open from the rock world to the African-American audience.
It was not to be. There were other black rockers (e.g. Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy), and eventually in the late 80s there were a few who tried to step into Hendrix's shoes (Lenny Kravitz, Living Colour, Slash - Slash's mother is African-American), but times had changed, and the moment could not be recaptured. There was never another time when you could find a black face among the handful of rock's biggest stars. Hendrix had come along at a moment in rock history when it was possible to imagine a genuine integration of black music and the rock world that owed so much to its black forbears. That possibility would evaporate within half a decade.
The world didn't change overnight when Jimi Hendrix died; it never does. But the trends started moving in different directions. Motown and Stax suffered a series of reversals between 1967 and 1972 - Otis Redding died, Sam & Dave broke up (as, later, would the Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas, as well as Sly & the Family Stone, which wasn't a Motown or Stax act but shared a similar sound), the Holland/Dozier/Holland songwriting team left Motown, and eventually Motown left Detroit in 1972, around the time Stax went into irreversible decline. Many of the signature artists of that era - the Four Tops, the Temptations - never found the same success after the early 1970s, while others (Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles) went into slower decline.
At first, the next generation of Motown artists, like Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5, recorded in something like the old style, and by the early to mid 70s, Stevie's various experiments included funkier rock (Superstition, his best song, remains the high watermark of his rock influences). But by around 1976, tastes and trends were changing quickly. R&B and Soul moved more in the direction of crooners like Barry White and Teddy Pendergrass who had little in common with anything being done by the rock bands of the era, and then the disco craze hit, propelling stars like Diana Ross, Donna Summer and Gladys Knight to success that left the old Motown sound in the dustbin. Some mainstream rock acts (the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Rod Stewart) tried their hands at disco as well, but unlike the blues, disco had no lasting imprint on the rock world.
It's debatable, given the complex racial politics of the 70s, what drove white and black audiences in divergent musical directions from the mid-70s on, but the trends away from the Motown and blues sounds were evident on both sides. Led Zeppelin drew openly on the blues roots that traced back to Jimmy Page's Yardbirds days, but the success of Zeppelin ushered in a whole era of metal that would be almost entirely white, as were the glam rock of acts like David Bowie and Queen, the ethereal sounds of the likes of Yes, Styx, Supertramp and eventually Journey, the mellow California rock of the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, and most of all punk, which rose and fell in parallel with disco (neither the prime years of Sex Pistols, the Clash, nor even the Ramones lasted much longer than those of the Bee Gees). (I'm simplifying here by skipping the rise of reggae, which had only a modest impact on the rock world.) The keepers of the flame of the integrated musical heritage of the mid-60s - Springsteen, Southside Johnny, even the Blues Brothers (backed by essentially the old Stax house band) - were audibly out of step with their times. And when the waters of disco and punk receded, the nascent genre of rap began to emerge.
And that, for the most part, is where we stand today: despite its black roots, rock is made by and for white people, abandoned by African-American performers and audiences alike. Oh, every few years we get a black-fronted rock act - Living Colour, Lenny Kravitz, Hootie and the Blowfish, Ben Harper. But they don't represent a significant movement, anymore than Grant Fuhr represented a significant movement in the NHL. Michael Jackson's Beat It aside, the leading black performers popular with black audiences haven't set more than a toe in the rock world in the past 30 years; the lone exception would be Prince, who in his 80s heyday melded electric guitars with current funk. And Prince has been over the hill for almost 20 years. Black women have been even more absent in the ranks of rock vocalists - any list of the best straight-up rock acts of all time will get down in the hundreds before you locate a black female lead vocalist, even though the pool of talented black female singers is perennially deep, and their voices unique (as one can see by the number of major rock acts that have drawn on black women for backing vocals).
This doesn't mean that the music world is wholly segregated today - there's still crossover in other formats (like Elvis back in the day, arguably the biggest star in rap is a white man, Eminem), although surely the gulf between rock and other formats contributes to a more generally heightened level of segregation in radio and live entertainment. But the loss of black influence and interest in rock is surely a loss for rock, and a contributing cause in the fragmentation of the nation's musical culture. Some voices can never be entirely replaced.
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* - Howlin' Wolf was also almost certainly the last major African-American music star named after a Republican president.
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December 22, 2010
POP CULTURE: I Knew Tron. Tron Was A Friend of Mine. You, Sir, Are No Tron.
A guest post from Leon Wolf, who sent this mostly spoiler-free movie review along after seeing Tron: Legacy last night. And if it's not harsh enough for you, may I recommend this Fark review of Little Fockers.
So at the outset, I should note that as a young boy in Valdez, Alaska, there was not really a whole lot to do to occupy your time. My parents were not well off (although not fairly called poor), but we did have a VCR. However, we did not own movies as in those days it was prohibitively expensive to actually own them. The local library, however, had some that you could check out for a day at a time, and it was within easy walking distance. However, the only things they really had that interested me were the Walter Cronkite World War II collection, and Tron. Day after day after day I would make the trek to the library to renew the Tron I had checked out the previous day. It is no exaggeration to say that I watched that movie over 150 times. In other words, I had a real connection to that movie even though as an adult I have no delusions that it was Citizen Kane or something. SO I was prepared to overlook an awful lot in the sequel for the sake of reconnecting with a movie that was a meaningful part of my childhood. I even paid for the 3D and the EXTRA FEE for the "Big D 3D" - it was $28.50 for my son and I to see the movie (!!!!!!). I wanted the whole Tron experience, baby.
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First, the good: the movie did indeed have some pretty stunning visual effects, and the sound effects were even better. The scoring of the movie was excellent even though I'm afraid the movie will be dated in 10 years (or less). Bridges as always did a good job of playing his character(s) despite their limitations. Also, and this cannot be emphasized enough, this movie features Olivia Wilde in a Tron suit. Also, this was a great movie for kids and I'm certain they will all love it, although the volume in this particular theater was so freaking loud that I was kind of worried that it was going to give my son a headache at a couple of points.
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December 8, 2010
POP CULTURE: Early Lennon
In honor of the 30th anniversary of John Lennon's death, a few clips from the early days:
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Twist & Shout, Wembley, 1964:
Rock & Roll Music, Paris, 1965:
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November 5, 2010
POP CULTURE: Jagger on Richards
Slate has a fantastic essay purporting to be Mick Jagger responding to Keith Richards' new book (which is supposedly really good). I'm told this is the parody section of Slate - which implies that some of Slate is not intended as parody - and there are other signs as well that this isn't really a straight essay by Jagger himself, but the essay captures so many truths about the band that it doesn't really matter that it's a parody. Worth reading for the gratuitous cheap shots at Jann Wenner alone. There are too many good parts to excerpt them all, but this should give you a flavor:
And yet I was surprised when it happened. I take the point that professionalism, one's word, rock 'n' roll merriment ... these are fungible things in our world. It is a fair charge that I have become less tolerant in these matters over the decades. In our organization, inside this rather unusual floating circus we call home, I am forced into the role of martinet, the one who gets blamed for silly arbitrary rules. (Like, for a show in front of 60,000 people for which we are being paid some $6 or $7 million for a few hours' work, I like to suggest to everyone that we start on time, and that we each have in place a personal plan, in whatever way suits us best, to stay conscious for the duration of the show.)
And this really sums up in two sentences an entire era:
Society could have effectively halted the upheavals of the 1960s simply by requiring all of us to "intervene" with one another. In any event, considering half our circle was on heroin and the rest were coke fiends, I think it wouldn't have efficacious in our circumstances.
Go read the whole thing.
October 27, 2010
POP CULTURE: 35 Years Ago Today
The famous 1975 TIME Magazine profile of Bruce Springsteen, which I'd heard about but never sat down and read before. Some things haven't changed: even then, the media talked about "the scuzzy Jersey shore." Funny to read back now that Bruce's manager tried to get him booked to perform at the Super Bowl...in 1973, more than three decades before he finally did the halftime show. It's a good read to go with the upcoming release of The Promise, the making-of-Darkness on the Edge of Town album and DVD, which catches Bruce at the next step down the road from this profile of him as a 26 year old still finding his way.
October 2, 2010
POP CULTURE: The Curse of the Cardboard Case
Allow me to vent against the latest scourge of the failing music industry: the cardboard CD case. Yes, I know: it's supposed to be some sort of enviro-friendly packaging. It's supposed to ease the conscience of wealthy musicians. But let's count the problems:
(1) It's not a standard package. No two musicians seem to put these things out in the same shape or size, or with the CD removable from the same angle. Some have the CD falling out the sides, others require you to hold the package just so in a straight line to shimmy the CD out the middle. And in nearly all cases it's impossible to take CDs out of the package or put them back in with one hand while at a stoplight, as one often does in the car. And they can be hard to store: Pearl Jam's Vitalogy album, an early pioneer in this area, simply doesn't fit in any standard CD case.
(2) It's not voluntary or discounted. I pay extra for recyclable soda cans, not by choice but at least you can get the deposit back. If you're buying substandard packaging they should at least charge you less.
(3) It's not waterproof. My wife, in particular, listens to a lot of CDs in the kitchen while doing dishes and the like. Kitchens are wet places, and this is not a problem for plastic CD cases; for cardboard, it's a death sentence.
Plastic exists for a reason. It's durable, it's convenient. If I wanted a cardboard CD case, I'd ask for one.
August 31, 2010
POP CULTURE: Just Because
Two videos for your...er, entertainment:
August 12, 2010
POP CULTURE: Concert Review: Maroon 5 at Jones Beach
My wife and I had an early celebration of our 15th wedding anniversary yesterday, spending the day at Jones Beach capped by seeing Maroon 5 in concert at Jones Beach Theater. My review:
Maroon 5 is the best pop band that still gets played on the radio today, which says maybe more about the state of pop bands today, but they are a good band. It may not have seemed it at the time, but the 1990s and the very early 2000s were actually a great time for pop bands - among others, the Gin Blossoms, Fastball, the Counting Crows, the Spin Doctors, Matchbox 20, the Foo Fighters (I count them as a pop band), Sugar Ray, 3 Doors Down, even jam bands like Blues Traveler and the Dave Mathews Band that had their pop moments. Few of those bands are still on the pop music scene, although some of them are still recording in one form or another (I got the Gin Blossoms' last album and will probably eventually buy the one they're putting out next month; Dave Mathews is obviously still a big star).
Maroon 5 is basically a 21st century answer to The Cars, a pop music machine that manages to turn out consistently good stuff even if a lot of it sounds alike. Granted, they'd be a better band if frontman Adam Levine sounded more like Ric Ocasik or - better yet - Michael Hutchence of INXS, but Levine's voice does have its own character, and the softness of his vocals undoubtedly helps the band continue to get airplay in today's increasingly feminized pop radio market. Their first two albums, 2003's Songs About Jane and 2007's It Won't Be Soon Before Long, were both about 8-10 deep in quality songs, which is a sign of people who know what they're doing. I also liked Gotten, Levine's song on Slash's new album, although it's not one of the very best songs on that album.
Of all the places I've seen concerts (full list here), the Nikon Theater at Jones Beach is unquestionably the best, a gorgeous outdoor waterfront amphitheater with good acoustics (this helped make up for the fact that the tickets cost as much as the last two shows we saw - the Saw Doctors and Kelly Clarkson - combined, but we had seats this time instead of general admission). This was the second show we've seen there, the first being Harry Connick about 15 years ago. The crowd was pretty varied - a lot of girls in their teens and twenties, but also a fair number of gray-haired types (my wife thought this was unusual, but hey, Billy Joel is 60 now and Ringo Starr is 70; there's a whole generation in there) and even, bizarrely, some families with small children. The show appeared to be sold out or very close to it.
I finally gave in this time and joined my wife in wearing earplugs to the concert, which turned out to be a great decision. We knew the show would be really loud when we heard the band doing sound check from the beach parking lot in the afternoon, and while the earplugs were uncomfortable and made conversation difficult, they really didn't interfere with hearing the show (even the banter from the stage) with crystal clarity, yet unlike other recent shows I didn't have ringing in my ears and difficulty hearing for days afterwards. Recommended.
The Opening Acts
While it was still daylight, the show started with an unbilled opening act named VV Brown, a woman with an English accent in a skintight catsuit. She was energetic and had some decent pop-rock songs (she also did a passable cover of Coldplay's Viva La Vida), but it was pretty clear that most of the audience had no idea who she was, an especially serious hazard for an opening act when you don't tell people in advance she'll be performing. I was wondering if maybe she was some sort of house band, playing to a half-empty theater.
Next up was Owl City, which is sort of a one-man recording artist (a guy named Adam Young who started making music in his parents' basement in Minnesota and, well, looks the part) under the name of a band. Owl City has to be the wierdest act I have ever seen live. His band opened with (counting him) three keyboardists, a drummer, a violinist and a cellist, although he and one of the other keyboardists then switched to holding guitars (there was, however, little in the way of audible guitar-playing sounds). Impossibly skinny, with a scraggly beard and dressed like Han Solo from the original Star Wars, Young seemed to be carrying on an extended Emo Phillips imitation with his helium voice, spastic dance moves, precious lyrics and - near as I could tell - performing his entire 10-song set with his eyes closed. (Quote from the stage between songs: "Hey, there are a lot of pretty girls here! I get really nervous around pretty girls.") He did have kind of a cool light show. The crowd roared its approval when he finally got to Fireflies, his big pop-radio hit, which I don't like but at least it was finally something familiar, and to Young's credit he sounded live pretty much like he does on record. I wouldn't rank Owl City with the most excruciating opening acts I've seen (those would be the 1-2 punch of Primus and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy opening for U2 in 1992), but it was definitely the most surreal.
The Main Event
Maroon 5 went on around 9:30 and played a little under 2 hours, cruising through all their singles as well as a number of songs from Songs About Jane as well as a cover of an Alicia Keys song I'd never heard (that was the only cover, although in the middle of Secret, Levine broke into a few verses of What's Love Got To Do With It) and, if I recall correctly, three songs from their upcoming album, including their current single Misery (which they opened the show with) and a song called Stutter that I liked - here's a live version from last week:
(It's a sign of a good live act that they can sell a song the crowd hasn't heard).
My wife and I were happy that they played our favorite song by the band (Won't Go Home Without You, which has an opening and rhythm reminiscent of Fastball's pop classic The Way) but each missed one song from the last album - I'd have liked to hear Little of Your Time, she wanted to hear Goodnight Goodnight. The show closed with a two-song encore of Makes Me Wonder and Sunday Morning. The band was obviously eager to show off their rock chops on a couple of songs (Harder to Breathe, Wake Up Call and The Sun all featured more guitar theatrics and a heavier rhythm section than you might have expected from the record), but balanced with the ballads and the more bouncy pop tunes, for which the band lowered a giant disco ball (the stage setting was otherwise a large curtain painted to look like a street in the band's native Los Angeles).
Levine's voice was mostly as on the records. He's kind of a wiseass and a little full of himself (the ladies love him, and he knows it, basking in the oohs and ahs when he tossed his shirt into the crowd to play the rest of his set in a tank top), but funny at times and not without some self-deprecating humor (after the Alicia Keys cover: "this next song is one of ours, if you can't tell because I sometimes sound like a girl.") He did one routine about handing out Maroon 5 condoms that drew some dirty looks from the crowd, and when he split the audience into a sing-along for She Will Be Loved, had a funny riff about the reaction of men in the crowd to being asked to sing (including the guys who were "like dude, I'm here because my girlfriend likes you, let's just get this show moving along.").
As I've noted before, I've mostly seen really good concerts, so I can't rank these guys with the top tier of shows I've seen, but it was a good concert and well worth seeing if you like Maroon 5's music.
August 9, 2010
POP CULTURE: Reapplying For The Job
Good news: U2 is back on tour following Bono's back surgery (after cancelling a battery of shows that had already permanently messed up the 2010 schedules for a bunch of MLB teams), and debuted two new songs at their return show Friday. This one, Glastonbury, sounds like it might be pretty good with better audio quality, and requires Bono to wail harder than he usually does these days:
The other, North Star, is below the fold:
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July 22, 2010
POP CULTURE: Concert Review: The Saw Doctors at Irving Plaza, 5/14/10
So, among the many half-written or written-in-my-head posts is an overdue concert review of one of my favorite bands, the Saw Doctors, at Irving Plaza May 14. Here we go.
This was the third time I've had the pleasure of seeing the Irish pop-rockers in concert, the first two being in 2003 at Irving Plaza and 2004 at the Hammerstein Ballroom, both small indoor venues in Manhattan. The band was very much in their prime then; six years later the lineup has changed and they're just beginning to show the cracks of age (lead singer Davy Carton recently turned 50, the same age as his countryman Bono; he and Leo Moran are a little grayer now, but then so am I), but it's still a tremendous show, and the band debuted some excellent new material from their soon-to-be released album, unimaginatively titled The Further Adventures of The Saw Doctors, including my personal favorite, lead single Takin' the Train:
When I bought the tickets, there was no opening act listed. The day of the show, I was checking the Irving Plaza website for things like when the doors opened, and saw that the opening act was a guy named Pat Dinizio. Some readers will doubtless recognize the name, but I didn't; I thought maybe it would be some obscure young local artist or something. Instead, out on stage comes a heavyset, balding middle-aged guy in a T-shirt and a baseball cap and introduces himself as the lead singer of The Smithereens. It was just Dinizio and his guitar, but it turned out to be a good opener, as it dawned on the crowd that a lot of people knew more Smithereens songs than they thought. Dinizio was affable, telling stories about his best-known songs (how A Girl Like You was originally written for the film Say Anything and how the band was basically able to bank a year's earnings when a snippet of Blood and Roses got used for a Nissan commercial) and closing with a fine sing-along cover of Behind Blue Eyes.
From the first two Saw Doctors shows, I recalled liking Irving Plaza better, but my tastes have obviously changed. The Hammerstein (more on that here) may be kind of a dump, but Irving Plaza is so tiny and intimate, with what has to be a capacity of well under a thousand people - a good thing, you might think - that my ears couldn't handle the sound. I enjoyed the show, but I couldn't hear a thing for two days. For the next concert we're seeing (I'm taking my wife to see Maroon 5 at Jones Beach in August for, roughly, our 15th wedding anniversary), I may finally give in and try the earplugs my wife wears to shows.
Here's the set list; the band played 5 of the new songs (Takin' the Train, Addicted, Last Call, Indian Summer, and Hazard), all of which sounded good and allayed my fears that the new album might be too mellow (older rock bands are in trouble when they start heading in that direction); Takin' the Train in particular is a really good song, power pop as it was meant to be. One of the things that really marks the Saw Doctors as a great live act is their ability to sell songs you are hearing live for the first time. There were also four other songs that had been released since I last saw them - they opened with Last Summer In New York and also played Out for a Smoke, both off the 2006 album The Cure (their last studio album) and the 2008 singles About You Now and She Loves Me. I've blogged previously here about their cover of About You Now; it's one of the things I'd hoped to hear for the first time live and didn't disappoint. Unfortunately, that squeezed out room for some of the band's classics, like Joyce Country Ceili Band and the achingly beautiful World of Good, but that's live shows for you and the perils of recording too much good music. Anyway, after a protracted six-song encore including Hay Wrap (featuring a guest appearance by Carton's son) and a segue of Hope You Meet Again into the outtro from Hey Jude, it was hard to complain that the band hadn't gone on long enough.
If you ever get the chance to see the Saw Doctors live, don't think twice, get the tickets. It's truly a tremendous rock n' roll show.
May 13, 2010
POP CULTURE: Wonder
With a hat tip to the surprisingly entertaining Sesame Street Twitter feed, in honor of Stevie Wonder's 60th birthday, here he is doing a tremendous live version of Superstition in front of Mr. Hooper's store. Check the kid rocking out around 4:10:
Stevie kind of got away from this sort of funk-rock after the mid-70s or so, but this clip is a reminder of what an excellent musician he was at his peak.
April 20, 2010
BLOG: Quick Links 4/20/10
*The Mets have had some questionable decisions already this year. We saw Fernando Tatis try to score on a wild pitch with two outs, the bases loaded, down 3 and David Wright at the plate against a pitcher having trouble throwing strikes. We saw Jerry Manuel pinch run Tatis for Mike Jacobs and then have to use Alex Cora to pinch hit in the same inning. We saw Manuel play for one run on the road with Joe Mather pitching and Jose Reyes on first base, asking Luis Castillo to bunt before Mather had proven the ability to get anybody out. But perhaps none worse than Manuel on Saturday having K-Rod staying warmed up for 12 innings and possibly as many as 125 pitches in the bullpen before coming in tired to blow the save. Let's hope that doesn't linger. That's why you use the closer as soon as you hit extra innings on the road.
*Joe Posnanski's all-time NBA top 10. His mini-essays on Wilt, Kareem and Jordan are all spot-on, and in Jordan's case reminded me of his obvious, though smiling, irritation earlier this year when Jay Leno asked if he could still dunk. This, about Wilt, is an excellent point:
You know, if you think about Wilt Chamberlain's career - it really is staggering to think that he has through the years been labeled as a guy who did not win enough. I mean, Jim Kelly or Dan Marino or Charles Barkley or Barry Bonds - fair or unfair, it is true they didn't win championships. Chamberlain won TWO. What's more, he led his team to the Finals four other times. What's more than that, his teams were beaten by the Celtics six times in those years, and while so many would like to make that a Russell vs. Chamberlain thing, the truth is those Celtics teams had 10 Hall of Famers. TEN HALL OF FAMERS! Two starting lineups of Hall of Famers. Those teams at various times had Havlicek and Sam Jones and Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman and Tommy Heinsohn and K.C. Jones and so on and so on ... all in addition to Russell. They also were coached by Red Auerbach and Bill Russell.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 5:30 PM | Baseball 2010 | Basketball | Blog 2006-Present | Pop Culture | War 2007-Present | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)
April 16, 2010
POP CULTURE: The White Brothers
So, right after I wrote about the Blues Brothers, up pops a new music video from Hanson doing a homage to the Ray Charles music store scene from the film (keep your eyes peeled for Wierd Al Yankovic on the tamborine):
Yes, that Hanson. No, it's not 1997 again. I didn't like their boy-band hits back then, but I always thought they were talented enough musicians that they'd eventually grow up to make good music once they outgrew the Tiger Beat scene and got some maturity under their belts. I actually have on my iPod two songs they did around 2000 (If Only and This Time Around - the harmonica work on If Only is done by the incomparable John Popper of Blues Traveler), but unfortunately just when they seemed to be getting pretty good, they dropped off the face of the earth, and have apparently been putting out obscure independent records in recent years that I haven't paid any attention to.
I really like the song they do in this video, which is apparently off a new record; it's the kind of Motown-throwback pop we don't get nearly enough of these days (it's not coincidental that you get good pop music from people who respect their musical heritage), with a horn section and vintage Ray Charles-style keyboard work. That's apparently the plan for their new album, featuring Motown veteran arrangers and session players. They'll never be confused with Wilson Pickett - whichever Hanson brother it is who sings still kind of has a boy-band voice - but compared to most of what passes for pop music these days, it's a breath of fresh air.
All of that said: after watching this video, I would not recommend they dance again in public.
April 14, 2010
POP CULTURE: A Bluesy New Year, 1979
In the annals of unusual but awesome concert bills, this one has to be up there: the last show at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, on New Year's Eve 1978-79, headlined by Winterland habitues the Grateful Dead, and featuring, as one of their opening acts, the Blues Brothers.
The Blues Brothers remain one of music's most improbable success stories, a band fronted by two comedians, including a lead singer (John Belushi) who was actually a latecomer to the blues (Wikipedia says that he started listening to blues records in 1977 while filming Animal House), and both visually and sonically completely out of step with the prevailing disco trend of 1978. While Belushi and Aykroyd were already TV and film superstars (Animal House was released in the summer of 1978), this performance was just at the point where the Blues Brothers were taking off as a genuine music phenomenon - they debuted on Saturday Night Live in April 1978, Briefcase Full of Blues had been recorded live in September 1978 and was released in late November 1978 and would hit #1 on the Billboard album chart in February 1979, and Soul Man would be released as a single in January 1979 and peak at #4 on the pop charts in February 1979. The movie and a concert tour would follow in the summer of 1980. Belushi died in 1982, and while Aykroyd and the band have had other projects since, some of them musically productive, it's never been the same. They weren't just a comic novelty - the band, largely assembled by Paul Shaffer (then Saturday Night Live's musical director) was astonishingly talented, Belushi turned out to be a remarkable vocalist, and Aykroyd even contributed some impressive harmonica work. Their version of Jailhouse Rock may be the best Elvis cover ever, and arguably tops the original.
Anyway, the video clips are below the fold - it appears that this performance was televised and these were recorded off the TV.
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Here's the opening, with the I Can't Turn You Loose intro and the classic Hey Bartender:
Here's Soul Man, featuring Belushi attempting to give a proper introduction to some of the amazingly accomplished musicians in the band:
A rousing version of B Movie Boxcar Blues:
I Don't Know - you can see Shaffer at work on the keys at a few points in this one:
And here's what appears to be the set closer, a blistering rendition of Jailhouse Rock (Belushi's voice is a little rough at the opening, but gets better as he goes):
Sadly, I couldn't find any YouTube video of the Dead's performance that night, but here's a really excellent audio-only clip of Looks Like Rain from a Winterland performance two months earlier to get you in the mood:
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February 16, 2010
POP CULTURE: Harry Connick, Brian Setzer and the State of Swing
In the fall of 2009, Harry Connick Jr. and the Brian Setzer Orchestra both came out with new albums - Connick's Your Songs, and Setzer's Songs from Lonely Avenue. Both are professionally done albums, and neither will place among the best, or worst, recordings these mature, mid-career artists have made. But the contrast between the two illustrates how Connick's recording career has gone astray after a great beginning, while Setzer gives his fans what they want.
Once upon a time, Harry Connick was not just an exciting musician, but a nearly unique one. A child-prodigy jazz pianist since age six, the son of the New Orleans DA burst on the national scene in the late 1980s, gaining national stature at age 22 with the double-platinum, Grammy-winning soundtrack for the romantic comedy classic When Harry Met Sally... At the time, the world of traditional pop/Big Band/swing music had largely atrophied - there was still a mostly-aging audience for then-veteran traveling performers like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Andy Williams, Perry Como, etc., and that style of music was still vibrant on Broadway, but suddenly here we had a young crooner breathing new life and energy into the standards and - on albums like 1990's We Are In Love and 1991's Blue Light, Red Light - writing some new ones of his own.
Connick's talent and flair helped sell the form to new generations of music fans. Lots of people still listened to Sinatra even if they didn't otherwise go for the traditional pop sound. Others, like me, had grown up listening to that kind of music - it's what my parents listened to, and was really all the music I knew until my older brother got me into rock around age 9 - and had a lingering affection for it. Connick proved that a young artist making new music in the old style, with his brassy Big Band sound and retro-cool pompadour, could still sell records and make a name for himself.
Then, on the heels of his successful 1993 Christmas album When My Heart Finds Christmas, Connick decided to take an unexpected turn. Ditching the big band, he put out a New Orleans funk-rock album, 1994's She. Not all his fans appreciated - I was him tour for the album at Jones Beach, and there were older fans who walked out when they heard the new material. But matching Connick's vocals and piano with the funk-rock sound worked, and made its own distinctive and different sound. He followed up with 1996's Star Turtle, a solid album if not as outstanding as She. Approaching his 30th birthday, Connick had mastered three genres - the third being jazz piano - all of which tend to reward their masters with long careers.
Unfortunately, it's been mostly downhill since then. Connick's output since Star Turtle has been steady - two more Christmas albums, seven other vocal albums, plus instrumental albums, show scores - but he has never matched his promise either as a Big Band act or a funk-rock act. Albums like 1999's Come By Me and 2004's Only You were dull and barely-listenable slow jazz. He's spread himself thin, dividing his time with feature film and TV-series acting, raising a family, disaster-relief work after Katrina, even hosting a series on the Weather Channel.
Your Songs was supposed to be a return to a more mainstream sound for Connick, and at first glance, its 14 songs fit the bill, running the gamut from Sinatra standards like "All the Way" and "The Way You Look Tonight" to 70s pop like "Just the Way You Are," "(They Long To Be) Close To You," and "Your Song." The album was the brainchild of legendary record executive and co-producer Clive Davis, who explains how they picked the songs:
We embarked on this project together. Over a five- or six-month period, we'd meet every Wednesday afternoon for five or six hours and just listen to music, looking for the right songs. I felt it shouldn't just be old classic songs but also more recent composers, and that's why we included Billy Joel's "Just The Way You Are" and Elton John's "Your Song."
Well, relatively recent. The good news is that the finished product is polished and pleasant to listen to - the songs are all professionally rendered with loving care, and Connick glides through standard after standard with good-natured ease. It's Easy Listening at its easiest, and there's a place for that - I pop it on in the background while I work.
The bad news is that Your Songs is yet another wasted opportunity. Not one of Connick's renditions is likely to make anybody forget the previously definitive versions, or even place him on equal footing as a vocalist with Billy Joel or Elton John or Sinatra or Karen Carpenter or Roberta Flack. He's just treading water, and he's not even doing it because he wanted to follow some artistic muse - it's an essentially commercial record.
Part of the miscalculation in the album is Connick's singing style. There remain two schools of crooning, the Frank Sinatra school and the Bing Crosby school. Sinatra, at least once he matured as an adult artist, was legendary as an emotional interpreter of songs, the guy who could climb into the lyrics and make you feel them. When you listened to the older Sinatra, you felt the miles in his voice. That wasn't all his appeal - he also had that swaggering cool and of course the great voice - but the ability to mine the words of a song was the distinctive feature of his style of singing, and one reason why he remained popular even with the rock generation.
Bing Crosby represented the apex of the opposite style, the smooth crooner who focused on making beautiful music to listen to. You could get an emotional wallop from a Bing song as well, if it hit you right - his Christmas songs do that, the warmth of Crosby's voice being all the song needs - but the focus was on the smooth sound.
Whatever doubt there may have been in his youth about whether Connick would ever develop into a Sinatra-style interpreter of songs, it's clear by now that he's remaining firmly in the Crosby camp. There's no heartache or heartbreak in Your Songs, no sense of emotional vulnerability - Connick still sounds like a guy singing to impress on a first date, not a man baring his soul. On the Big Band and funk-rock albums, that didn't matter much; the invigorating swing and the infectious groove were all he needed to set his sound apart and make great music. But singing ballads, Connick exposes his limitations.
An album of this sort is doubly frustrating because it's so unnecessary - anybody can sing these songs, or we could just listen to the originals. By contrast, Connick, Setzer and Canadian singer Michael Buble are about the only male vocalists in the business with the chops to do justice to new Big Band albums and the major-label platform to get them heard. Maybe he's just running out of ideas, but we can only hope that Connick does more with his talent on his next record.
Setzer's Songs from Lonely Avenue goes in the opposite direction. The 50-year-old Setzer, of course, started as a throwback 50s rockabilly artist in the early 80s with the Stray Cats, and reinvented himself in the mid-90s through a novel fusing of that sound with Big Band/swing music on albums like 1998's The Dirty Boogie and 2000's Vavoom! Setzer, too, has been away from making new music in his signature sound for a while - the past decade has been largely consumed with making Christmas records as well as 2007's Wolfgang's Big Night Out, a mostly instrumental record reworking classical tunes - but Songs from Lonely Avenue is a return to his wheelhouse, and the first album in which he wrote all original songs.
The focus on original music means that Songs from Lonely Avenue faces the opposite challenge from Your Songs' excessive familiarity; it has none of the instantly recognizable classics that powered earlier Setzer albums, songs like Jump Jive an' Wail or Mack the Knife. But in their place, it has a consistent film-noir-ish mood and fresh quality music all the way through. The only questionable decision is putting two instrumentals - Mr. Jazzer Goes Surfin and Mr. Surfer Goes Jazzin - back-to-back in the middle of the album rather than separating them as thematic bookends. Probably the best song on the album is the slightly bluesy, hard-luck saga Dimes in The Jar, and while Setzer's not really any more of a bluesy vocalist than Connick is, he brings his best Tin Pan Alley sound to the track. And unlike Your Songs, which gives Connick only minimal opportunity to match his dazzling piano to his vocals, Songs from Lonely Avenue gives us plenty of Setzer's signature guitar work.
Harry Connick Jr. could learn a few lessons from Brian Setzer - like not making records that don't mean a thing 'cause they ain't got that swing.
February 9, 2010
POP CULTURE: Beatlemania!
It's tempting to chalk up this performance to a more innocent age in rock, and it was, but if you're familiar with the Beatles' live performances before February 1964, you know it's more a reflection of a more innocent age in television; they were usually not this tame.
Three things stuck out at me watching this. One is how young George Harrison was. A second is how heavily they leaned on songs featuring Paul McCartney; you'd almost not know John Lennon was a major figure in the band. And the third was the graphic reminding the ladies that, sorry, John was already married.
January 27, 2010
POP CULTURE: Oedipus, Go Home
ST Karnick notes one of the things that makes "24" and its characters more compelling than so many other TV shows, even in its 8th season : the shows characters may have suffered onscreen or recent offscreen traumas they have to grapple with, but few of them, at least on the good-guys side of the ledger, are driven by some canned backstory about their relationship with their parents (Kim Bauer is obviously an exception, but we've been given ample evidence of the sources of strains between Kim and Jack, including Kim's tendency to get kidnapped by Jack's enemies and her boyfriends' tendency to lose limbs).
January 22, 2010
POP CULTURE: Atlantic City
Your moment of Bruce: a more uptempo live version of Atlantic City than usual, from a Parkinson's benefit show - and yet another reminder that while Springsteen's voice may be awfully gravelly these days, he's at his peak now as a guitarist:
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Bonus: Code of Silence:
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January 21, 2010
POP CULTURE: Served Cold
January 8, 2010
POP CULTURE: Good To Be The King
In honor of Elvis Presley's 75th birthday, Jake Tapper tweeted the video below the fold, which contains so many different wonderful things in under two minutes I lost count.
There's a fair debate over who is the greatest male rock vocalist of all time (more on which below - the women are hard to rank for distinct reasons, although Janis Joplin would probably win most polls). But there's really no debate over who the most influential rock vocalist and stage performer of all time was - everyone who came after was inspired by or reacting to Elvis.
I'd thought of someday doing a longer essay on the best male rock singers of all time, but I have so many other essay ideas unwritten and so little time to write, let me offer here for now my quick top-10 ranking and a few thoughts:
1. Bono. Just an unbelievably rich, powerful, compelling, distinctive and expressive voice, and until the last few years sounded as good or better live in a huge stadium as in a studio.
2. Roger Daltrey. Nobody else could put as much into a scream as Daltrey. An absolutely primal force.
3. Jim Morrison. Would rate ahead of Daltrey except he was such an inconsistent live performer and had such a short career - his voice was already much rougher by the time of the LA Woman album. But Morrison at his best was unreal.
4. Mick Jagger. Mick's voice has been shot for almost 30 years, and it was always idiosyncratic, but for the first two decades of his career, nobody could purr like Jagger (think of Sympathy for the Devil).
5. Elvis. I don't love his Heartbreak Hotel style, but Jailhouse Rock pretty much defines rock n' roll. Interestingly, on many his slow songs Elvis was more of a traditional crooner of the Bing Crosby school.
6. Steven Tyler. Maybe controversial to rank over Plant, but the man has incredible range (and still does to this day) without being stuck in the high end of the scale. Tremendous swagger.
7. Paul McCartney. Who still sounds pretty good even today. Paul's voice is the most melodious on this list, but he could always rock out as well.
8. Van Morrison. In some ways more a crooner and bluesman than a rocker. Notice the heavy prominence of singers of Irish nationality or descent on this list.
9. Rod Stewart. OK, Rod Stewart can be a little cheesy at times (not that McCartney or Steven Tyler can't) - Van Morrison's version of Have I Told You Lately That I Love You makes Stewart's sound like a block of Velveeta - but he's still a master at that world-weary sound.
10. Robert Plant. I know some people would rate him higher, and certainly Plant has been massively influential, but too much of Plant's work was too ethereal and not emotional enough for my tastes, at least.
Honorable mentions: Roy Orbison; Springsteen, who has never had a pretty voice but until recently had as emotionally expressive vocals, even live, as anybody; Billy Joel; John Fogerty, who has a truly unique sound; Eddie Vedder; Bob Seger; Michael Hutchence; David Lee Roth; Eric Clapton. (With the possible exception of Little Richard, we've never had a black rock singer who had the kind of great voice that the R&B masters like Wilson Pickett had). UPDATE: I should have mentioned Meatloaf as an honorable mention. Fantastic voice.
Anyway, that digression aside, the Elvis clip is below the fold.
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December 30, 2009
POP CULTURE: Honoring The Boss
Last night on CBS they aired the annual Kennedy Center honors ceremony, which honors five major figures in arts and entertainment - this year, it was Bruce Springsteen, Robert De Niro, Mel Brooks, a jazz musician and an opera singer (no, I hadn't heard of either of them, although for most of the night I was convinced the jazz guy was Martin Landau). Politics aside* - and yes, it was hard to put aside the sense that Bruce was being honored at this time and in this venue in good part for his work for the Obama campaign - it was definitely a fitting tribute.
Jon Stewart opened with a funny and heartfelt monologue, using his trademark delivery to explain that "When you listen to Bruce's music, you aren't a loser. You are a character in an epic poem...about losers." And on a more serious note, Stewart cut to the center of Bruce's appeal: "He empties the tank every time." Which really is it; it's certainly the essence of Bruce's live show, but really it's true of his music as a whole: Bruce at his best has always been about giving everything you have to the things that matter, from music to love to the open road, and no matter the inevitable hardships along the way. It's that sense of total commitment that makes Springsteen such an emotionally compelling performer.
You can catch here Stewart's remarks and Sting's show-closing version of The Rising (Sting was apparently dressed for a night at the theater with Mr. Lincoln):
Sting isn't maybe the best voice for that song, but the climactic choruses of The Rising always give me the chills, and he does a solid job as the song goes along. Also performing: John Mellencamp did a serviceable if overly gravelly version of Born in the USA, switching back and forth between the acoustic version and the arena-rock version; Melissa Etheridge delivered a rocking version of Born to Run; blues-rocker Ben Harper and country singer Jennifer Nettles did an interesting duet take of I'm on Fire; and Eddie Vedder, who really is a more expressive and versatile singer than you'd guess from Pearl Jam's catalog (in which his vocals are always great but usually limited mostly to howling rock and brooding slow-rockers), sang a stirring version of City of Ruins (it was a little odd to pick two songs from The Rising and none from Darkness on the Edge of Town or The River, but perhaps it was just the luck of the draw).
By and large, it's been a banner decade for Springsteen between turning 50 in 1999 and 60 this year. He's toured regularly with the E Street Band since the reunion built around the release of the Tracks box set in 1999; Billboard Magazine tabbed him as the 4th highest-grossing touring act of the 2000s, behind U2, the Rolling Stones and Madonna, bringing in over $688 million from more than 400 shows before over 8.6 million fans, and the #3 tour of 2009, behind U2 and Madonna, covering 72 of those shows. He released an excellent live double album in 2001, and five studio albums - the Seeger Sessions record of folk standards and four original albums (The Rising, Devils & Dust, Magic and Working on a Dream). The Rising remains virtually alone in music, film, literature or any other art form as a successful post-September 11 effort to come to grips with even a part of that day's events. The Seeger Sessions record is really good (I highly recommend some of the additional tracks you can get on iTunes). The other three albums have been a bit half-baked in terms of quality, but each had several good songs on them; Working on a Dream is probably the strongest of the three. And Bruce isn't going gently; this fall at his last appearances at Giants Stadium he performed a good original song, Wrecking Ball, written for the stadium's demise:
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Yup, still the Boss.
* - To touch on one political item: one of the topics I mean to explore in a longer essay if I have time some day is why Bruce's lyrical universe is so congenial to social conservatives despite the man's own lifelong dyed-in-the-wool leftism. One piece of that puzzle is that Bruce has always been an odd fit with modern cultural liberals because, however far left his politics, he doesn't share their contempt for ordinary Americans, with their flags and their churches and their marriages. But the key is that Bruce's stories, as told in song, almost always contain within them the essential element of social conservatism: individual actions have consequences for the people who choose them and for others as well. His characters are always haunted by the things they have done, the choices they have made. The contrast that provides to most of popular music is stark. Put another way: perhaps Bruce can't so easily escape the lessons of his working-class Catholic upbringing.
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December 25, 2009
POP CULTURE: Christmas Collaborations
We've introduced our kids to some new Christmas entertainments lately, and it has me thinking about those rare occasions when great talents come together at the peak of their powers.
One is the Grinch. We've only just introduced the Grinch to our 3-year-old, first in book form and then the video of the TV special. And the TV special is truly a perfect storm of three great talents: you have the words by Dr. Suess, who isn't just a great children's writer but a great writer, period - the things he could accomplish and convery with a few words of the English language surpasses much of the vastly wordier and less lyrical literature and poetry aimed at adults in its artistry. You have the animation by Chuck Jones of Bugs Bunny, Road Runner and Tom & Jerry fame, the greatest of the 1930s-1970s golden age of animators - Jones was a true genius, and his signature moves are all pulled out for the Grinch. And you have the priceless narration by Boris Karloff. And on top of those three legends, you have the pitch-perfect songs and vocals by less well-known musical figures.
The other is White Christmas, the 1954 film, which we just introduced to our 10- and 12-year-olds and which frankly I only started watching - now an annual ritual - at my wife's insistence after I got married. The film may have some of the weaknesses common to the old musicals - contrived plot, cheesy scenery, songs that are wedged into the storyline - and it may have been a recycling of the idea of building a film around the song "White Christmas" (first debuted in the 1942 Bing Crosby-Fred Astaire film "Holiday Inn"), but it's a classic collaboration of four great talents in their primes - two great singers (Crosby and Rosemary Clooney), a great dancer (Vera Ellen), and the great comedy/song-and-dance talents of Danny Kaye, and of course the classic music by Irving Berlin. A classic alignment of the stars.
In a similar vein, a third film that seems destined to join those two in the pantheon of Christmas holiday entertainment is Elf, a film that has worn well now over seven Christmas seasons. As I think I have written before, my guess is that aside from the obvious exception of James Caan, none of the highly successful entertainers in the film - Will Ferrell, Bob Newhart, Ed Asner, Zooey Deschanel - will turn out to have done anything quite as lasting as a classic Christmas film.
(I should add here as well my recommendation of another Christmas favorite: "Scrooge," the 1970 musical version of A Christmas Carol, starring Albert Finney, for my money the best version ever done).
This is also the time of year when I annually revisit my list of the greatest contemporary Christmas songs.
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I put the list together in 2003, and I wouldn't change much if I did it today. Probably the one substitution in my Christmas mixes is that I have moved on from the Elvis version of "Blue Christmas" in favor of the Leon Redbone version, which is characteristically mellow and melancholy, and the Kelly Clarkson version, which is characteristically wrenching. More broadly, Redbone's whole Christmas Island album is one of the real must-have Christmas CDs (I think he may have my favorite take on "There's No Place Like Home For The Holidays," among others). And while I'm on the subject of Leon Redbone and Elf, his duet with Deschanel of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is quite good:
As for Clarkson, she really ought to do a Christmas album of her own - Bing Crosby still owns "I'll Be Home For Christmas," but her live version of it is something special:
As for additions to the list, there are none I would definitely add besides the Billy Squier song already referenced, but three that have grown on me over the intervening years are Mariah Carey's "Joy to the World," with its mashup of the traditional hymn and the Three Dog Night song of the same title (as I mentioned before, I'd own a lot more Mariah Carey records - rather than just the Christmas album - if she'd have tried her hand at more songs in that old-school Motown style); Bing Crosby's "Silver Bells," which of course is a New York City classic; and Jimi Hendrix's instrumental mashup of "Little Drummer Boy" and "Silent Night":
As for the worst Christmas songs? My least favorite has to be "Santa Baby," especially the Madonna version that manages to be both cloying and inappropriate at the same time. But the award for the song that suffers the most from repetition is Paul McCartney's "Simply Having A Wonderful Christmastime," which is a pleasant little jingle to start with, but the song drives the chorus into the ground, and then its repetition over the month leading up to Christmas is enough to drive anyone around the bend.
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November 23, 2009
POP CULTURE: Makin' Some Noise
What at first sounded like drudgery, Mr. Petty says, digging through 30 years of concert recordings for the coming "Live Anthology," turned into an "adventure." Engineer Ryan Ulyate made the first pass through the recordings in the Heartbreakers' vault, including some old analog tapes that first needed to be baked in an oven before playing to prevent disintegration. He assembled an iTunes library of some 3,500 songs, then pulled out hundreds of potential highlight tracks for Messrs. Campbell and Petty to assess. "It's amazing how the best take really shines compared to everything else," the singer says.
Read the whole thing. The Journal poses the question why Petty doesn't get the sort of reverence that follows Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan or other "rock gods," but to me it's kind of obvious: he's never been an innovator or influential; he's always been content with being a meat-and-potatoes rock n'roller making good records and putting on good shows (as I noted when I recently tallied up my concert-going experiences, I saw him live at the Worcester Centrum in early 1990 on the tour for his best album, Full Moon Fever, and it was a really good show). Plus, Petty's a wierd-looking guy with a quirky voice, so he never got the pop culture cache of being a matinee idol type (although he put both his look and sound to great use in his legendary video for Don't Come Around Here No More).
Anyway, there's nothing wrong with making lots and lots of really good music; not everybody has to be a pathbreaker. Within his own "roots rock" genre, I'd rate Petty ahead of the likes of Mellencamp and Bob Seger but behind Bruce; the artist he's probably most comparable would be Creedence (plus, I think of them together because Petty's a Southerner who sounds like a Californian and John Fogerty's a Californian who sounds like a Southerner).
November 20, 2009
POP CULTURE: Special Night, Beard That's White...
I'm posting this one just so I can use a sentence I'm sure I will never use again:
I prefer the Raffi version to the Bob Dylan version.
November 3, 2009
POP CULTURE: Does Not Need More Cowbell
A dramatic reading of the Lady Gaga song "Poker Face" by Christopher Walken:
Genius. Even granting that many good songs would not hold up well under this sort of treatment...ouch.
October 28, 2009
BLOG: Quick Links 10/28/09
*Josh Painter looks at how the latest financial disclosure forms tell the story of the intense financial pressure put on Sarah Palin by the stream of bogus ethics complaints filed by left-wing bloggers, culminating in the complaint that prevented her from accessing funds raised for her legal defense. It certainly makes a compelling case why an ordinary person in Palin's shoes would step down rather than be driven under by the expenses. Whether that's enough to absolve her as a potential presidential candidate is another matter; we tend to expect potential presidents not to act like ordinary people. Of course, most politicians would have escaped the mounting debts by writing a book or giving speeches for money, but Palin may have felt, not without reason, that any such activities while serving as governor would lead to further ethics complaints that would tie up those sources of income as well. Meanwhile, Melissa Clouthier looks at a CNN poll finding 70% of the public currently thinks Palin unqualified to be president.
I'm not picking a horse for 2012 yet, nor will I until after 2010. It's unclear if Palin will run, anyway. I do know a few things. One, for reasons I've been through many times, I'd much prefer to support a more experienced candidate - we're not the Democrats, after all, who have permanently forfeited the right to say anything on this subject by backing Obama - and the fact that people in my position are even open to Palin at all at this juncture is a sign of the weakness of the field so far. Two, Palin has proven to be extraordinarily effective at retaining the public's interest and even at exercising her influence as a guerilla opposition leader armed with nothing more than a Facebook page; by mostly absenting herself from the public eye except for Facebook and a few op-eds and obscure speeches, she's kept 'em wanting more (witness the explosive early pre-orders for her book, which non-fiction publishing people viewed as unprecedented), while still driving the public debate (i.e., "death panels"). But the Newt Gingrich experience is vivid proof for Republicans that effective guerillas don't always make good leaders when they come into power.
Whichever way Palin chooses to go, the book tour (including the appearance on Oprah, who is naturally hostile but not really accustomed to tough interviews) will be a sort of second coming-out for her on the public stage that will be critical and should reveal whether she has spent well her time out of the limelight in terms of boning up for future policy debates. We'll be able to assess her future much better in a few months.
*Meanwhile, a man to watch if he gets persuaded to run is Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. (H/T) I'll have more on him another day...upside: Daniels is serious, tough-minded, won re-election in Indiana in 2008 (while it was carried by Obama) after being given up for politically dead in 2006 (when his low approval ratings were blamed as a cause for heavy GOP House losses in the state, paralleling a similar trend in Ohio and Kentucky). Downside: Daniels is as yet reluctant to run (recall how well that worked out with Rudy and Fred), and as a public speaker he's dry as dust.
*The Democratic circular firing squad over health care continues. And Jay Cost explains why the continuing threat to Lieberman from the Left has made it politically necessary for him to oppose the public option.
*Dan Riehl looks at how the GOP made the disastrous decision in the Congressional race in NY's 23d district to nominate Dede Scozzafava, who now seems likely to finish third in that race. Meanwhile, Newsbusters notices that the NY Daily News still refuses to acknowledge the existence of Doug Hoffman, the Conservative candidate in the race. Jim Geraghty is unsparing on the folly of Newt's continuing support for Scozzafava.
*George W. Bush, motivational speaker - without a teleprompter. The WaPo seems astonished that a man who won something on the order of 110 million votes in two national elections is actually a decent speaker. Key quote from Bush: "It's so simple in life to chase popularity, but popularity is fleeting."
*Naturally, he's retracted it, but you can't top Anthony Weiner's initial assessment of Alan Grayson as being "one fry short of a Happy Meal."
Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:48 PM | Blog 2006-Present | Law 2009-Present | Politics 2009 | Politics 2012 | Pop Culture | Comments (19) | TrackBack (0)
October 22, 2009
BLOG: Relatively Entertaining
Another college friend has been blogging on pop culture with her siblings at a relatively newly-established blog entitled "Relatively Entertaining." Check it out, if it's to your taste (it's well-written, although her taste in entertainment is not mine).
October 21, 2009
POP CULTURE: Shine a Light
For your morning music, a duet with Bonnie Raitt of one of the most underrated Stones songs:
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October 7, 2009
POP CULTURE: Concert Review: Kelly Clarkson, Without Shame or Reservation*
Last night, my wife and I went to see our (for once, mutual) current musical enthusiasm, Kelly Clarkson, in concert at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan. I am here to tell you that if you have any interest whatsoever in Clarkson's music, you owe it to yourself to see her live while she's in her prime as a concert performer. There's no other way to put it: Clarkson's voice goes to 11. It's a fun show, it's cheap (our $49 tickets were a fraction of what I'd have had to pay to see U2 or Springsteen again), and there's no substitute for the energy of a performer who's still young (she's 27), at the peak of her talent and still has something to prove. And as I'll discuss below, her live show, at least at this stage of her career, is unmistakably a rock show.
Now, obviously, versatile a singer as she is, Clarkson's music isn't for everyone. There's a reason why people are often a little embarrassed to like her music or describe it as a 'guilty pleasure.' Personally I have a fairly high tolerance for cheesy, as long as the end product is really fun music, real emotion, or both, rather than ersatz, generic Hallmark crapola. Thus, for example, music made by Meatloaf in the 1970s or Aerosmith or Bryan Adams in the 1980s: cheesy, but good. Music made by any of those artists from about 1990 on: makes me want to gouge out my eardrums. And Clarkson is definitely cheesy, cheerfully and unapologetically so; she makes Jon Bon Jovi look like Mark Knopfler by comparison. But she succeeds on both grounds: she makes a lot of fun music, and she pours genuine emotion into nearly everything she sings, even the fluffier pop tunes. I may be an emotional guy, but I'm a grown man and I have well over 2,000 songs on my iPod and more than that in my CD and tape collections, and I can count on one hand with room to spare the songs that still have the power to choke me up a little after repeated listening - but Clarkson's unreleased song "Close Your Eyes" is definitely one of them. Not without reason, she has swiftly surpassed Blondie as my favorite female artist and surpassed - well, nobody - as my favorite young (under-40) artist. As has been often pointed out, she's not just a singer of songs but an interpreter of them, and that talent has matured significantly in the years since her arrival at age 20. And very gradually, she's been accumulating some actual respect for being, basically, a musician's musician, the kind of artist other people in the industry want to work with: veteran performers, including rock warhorses like Jeff Beck, Melissa Etheridge, and Joe Perry, always come away impressed from working with her. Cheesy or not, my own guess is that if Clarkson's voice holds up well enough to have a long career in the business, she'll end up as one of those pop music stars (like Brian Wilson or Tony Bennett) who comes in for a round of more serious later-in-life re-evaluation. But whether that day comes or not, I'm not the type to miss a good show just because it's uncool.
The Ghost of Concerts Past
The concert was definitely a break from my past concert-going habits in two ways: Clarkson's the first female headliner I've seen, and the first who was younger than me. Here's the full roster of previous concerts I've seen, so far as memory (supplemented by Wikipedia) holds:
-Billy Joel, Worcester Centrum (Storm Front tour Nov. 1989) (no opening act)
-Tom Petty, Worcester Centrum (Full Moon Fever tour circa spring 1990) (opening act: Lenny Kravitz)
-Billy Joel, Giants Stadium (Storm Front tour summer 1990) (no opening act)
-Rush, Worcester Centrum (Roll the Bones tour, December 1991) (opening act was a guitar-only guy...Joe Satriani, maybe? Eric Johnson? I think it was Satriani.)
-Meatloaf, Holy Cross College (May 1992) (no opening act I can recall)
-U2, Yankee Stadium (Achtung Baby "Zoo TV" tour, August 1992) (opening acts: Primus and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy)
-Bruce Springsteen, Boston Garden (Human Touch/Lucky Town tour, December 1992) (no opening act)
-Billy Joel, Nassau Coliseum (River of Dreams tour...this must have been December 1993 or January 1994, though I thought I remembered it being later in the 1990s than that) (no opening act)
-Rolling Stones, Giants Stadium (Voodoo Lounge tour, August 1994) (opening act: Counting Crows)
-Harry Connick Jr., Jones Beach (She tour, I believe summer 1995) (no opening act I can recall)
-Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Giants Stadium (Reunion tour August 1999) (no opening act)
-U2, Madison Square Garden (All That You Can't Leave Behind "Elevation" tour, June 17, 2001) (opening act: PJ Harvey)
-Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Giants Stadium (Rising tour circa July 2003) (no opening act)
-Saw Doctors, Irving Plaza, Manhattan (March 14, 2003; reviewed briefly here) (opening act: ex-band member Padraig Stevens)
-Saw Doctors, Hammerstein Ballroom, Manhattan (March 20, 2004) (no opening act I can recall)
That's the full shows I've paid to see (although the Meatloaf show, I believe, was just a few bucks), excluding things like seeing Bruce do a few songs at Rockefeller Center for the Today show in 2007 when he released the Magic album, and excluding cover bands and people like John Cafferty or the Mighty Mighty Bosstones that I've caught pieces of shows by. I've been fortunate: I've never seen a bad concert.
The best show, unquestionably, was the first Bruce show, even though he was playing without the E Street Band (thus: no "Rosalita," although we did get "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town"). Partly that was seeing my all-time favorite artist live for the first time, and it was a classic college adventure: a friend loaned us her car for the drive to Boston on condition that we first dig it out of a foot of ice and snow. But it was also a sensational show: Bruce went on at 8:20 and played past midnight, closing the show when the Garden clocks struck 12 by bringing out Peter Wolf, the lead singer of the J. Geils Band, for a duet of "In the Midnight Hour," after which the crowd screamed for 10 minutes for more encores. After "Badlands," always the emotional high point of any Bruce show, he played a blazing stop-and-start version of "Light of Day" that held the entire crowd in his hand for close to 20 minutes.
The show that sold me the most on a band was the first Saw Doctors show; my younger brother had given me one of their CDs, the Sing a Powerful Song collection, so I knew I'd have a good time, but I was totally sold after that on a whole raft of songs I heard for the first time live - "Tommy K," "Galway and Mayo," "Villains," "That's What She Said Last Night," etc. Definitely another act a lot of people haven't seen, but they're amazing live, and I highly, highly recommend them.
The band that sounded most exactly like their records was Rush. A high-quality, impressive and enjoyable show, but the only spontaneous moment was the fistfight that broke out near my seats. But then, you listen to Rush to think, not to feel, which is different from what I usually look for in music.
Hard to pick the worst. Meatloaf was at the low ebb of his career, on the eve of his mid-90s comeback; that's why he was available for a small-college campus gig. At the time, I was unprepared for the crudity of his stage act, but his voice was tremendous and he performed his biggest hits with verve. The most pot smoke was definitely at the Petty show, the most beer-drinking crowd at the Stones show. The worst crowd was the third Billy Joel show, a Friday night crowd of working adults too worn out to get out of their seats, and that's probably the least-fun of the shows I've seen, but while he wasn't quite as good as the first two times I saw him, it was still a good set.
Unfortunately, I can't say I've never seen a bad opening act. None have been all that great - Lenny Kravitz was pretty good...as for Rush's opening act, my patience for guitar-only guys is pretty limited no matter how technically impressive. The most disappointing opening act was the Counting Crows, who literally were barely audible; they just weren't loud enough to be heard in a huge stadium on a sound system designed for the Stones. By far and away the two worst acts I have ever seen were the two opening acts for U2 at Yankee Stadium in 1992. Primus, a metal band, lived up to their fans' slogan ("Primus Sucks!") by, so far as I could tell, hitting one note and staying there for 45 minutes. I love metal as much as the next guy - Zeppelin, early Aerosmith, AC/DC, Guns n' Roses**, Pearl Jam, even a little Metallica - but these guys forgot that good metal is still supposed to be music. The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy were even worse - granted, I (like probably a majority of U2 fans) loathe most rap anyway, but these clowns' big hit was some song called "California Uber Alles" about - I kid you not - how Pete Wilson, that icon of squishy liberal Republicanism, was a fascist. I'm sure that one goes over real well in concert in the 21st century. The fact that there were two opening acts only added to the atrocity. U2 was great, but they didn't take the stage until around 10:30; throw in gridlock on the Tappan Zee Bridge, and we didn't get home until after 2am.
The Continuing Story....
I thought, after penning an exhaustive profile of Clarkson for The New Ledger back in mid-June, that I was done writing about her, but I confess that I've stayed hooked on keeping an eye on her doings as the perennial scrappy underdog of pop music, the populist pop star who sings what she wants, says what she thinks, and doesn't give a damn about being cool, trendy or fashionable - and watching the ongoing befuddlement of a celebrity culture and music industry that still don't know quite what to make of her. She is, as a result, great copy. She's had an eventful and newsworthy few months since then, being embroiled in a series of increasingly ridiculous controversies, none of her own making (although in a few cases she poured gasoline on an existing fire):
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-In late June, while Clarkson was in Toronto for the MMVAs (Canada's equivalent of the MTV Awards), her longtime tormentor, sleazy gossip blogger Perez Hilton, got in a fracas with Black Eyed Peas frontman Will.i.am after the show in which, in order, (1) Hilton called Will.i.am a "f*ggot," (2) the Peas' manager slugged Hilton in the face, and (3) both Hilton and Will.i.am, being idiots without decent legal advice, immediately recorded video statements about the incident and posted them to the web, in Hilton's case weeping melodramatically. It was believed at the time (but see below) that this was the most awesomely asinine thing ever to happen at a video music awards show. Clarkson was asked at an interview the next day about Hilton getting slugged, and busted out laughing at him and his weepy video, cracking "you're hurtful to children, no one's going to pity you." At a second interview she piled on the scorn: "I've been hit [in the face] before and I didn't make a video crying about it." While a bunch of other celebrities took out their long-festering grudges against Hilton, Clarkson's comments ended up leading most of the subsequent news stories on the incident.
-Clarkson wrote the lyrics and melodies to "Already Gone," the third single off her latest album, to a backing drum/piano/strings track written by OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder; the song is widely believed to be a very personal account of a relationship she had to break off. Unfortunately, Tedder seems to have fallen into the trap of people who are too much in demand too quickly, and around the same time, gave a nearly identical track to Beyonce for a more upbeat ballad called "Halo."*** Halo got released to radio first and became a big hit, leaving Clarkson blindsided and stung by suggestions that she was ripping off another singer. Clarkson revealed in an interview her irritation at Tedder and that her label (RCA) had released the song as a single without her consent. Hilton, still smarting, retaliated with an anonymously-sourced and later-disclaimed blog post claiming that RCA was about to terminate her recording contract over her comments. Adding insult to injury, the director of the video for the song posted on Twitter his anger at RCA for its editing of the video (which Clarkson had injured her neck shooting), which was mysteriously released with the last minute of the song cut off.
-Clarkson's gained a noticeable amount of weight in the past year (not that she's seriously overweight or anything, she just no longer fits the celebrity mold), for which she has received a seemingly endless barrage of mockery from Hilton and other tabloid and internet sources. Unlike say, being a pedophile - which is apparently no obstacle to being honored by the highest levels of our government - sleeping with your subordinates, or abusing drugs, a woman putting on a few pounds is one of the genuine taboos in the entertainment business, for violation of which not only apology but full penance is expected. Clarkson, showing the combination of mulish stubbornness and imperviousness to criticism for which Texans are justly famous,**** has responded (at least in public) by laughing at the criticism, giving interviews loudly insisting that she looks just fine as she is, and generally dressing and carrying herself in a way that suggests that she believes this. Self magazine honored her for her "positive body image" with a glowing cover story in their August issue...but then shot their own storyline in the foot by photoshopping her cover picture to look significantly thinner than she has in some time. The resulting media/blog firestorm over retouching run amok ended with entire segments on Good Morning America and the Today Show in which the magazine's beleaguered editor was confronted with the most unflattering pictures available of Clarkson's current figure. For her part, Clarkson's only peep during the uproar was to post a giggly video of herself playing golf before a show in Montana. The flap ended up making Clarkson something of an accidental hero to overweight women and feminists just by being there - and proving as well that she could take a (metaphorical) punch in the face and not make a video crying about it.
-Clarkson was nominated for an MTV Video Music Award, along with (among others in the same category) Beyonce and country/pop singer Taylor Swift. When the 19-year-old Swift was announced as the winner, rapper Kanye West rushed the stage, swiped her microphone, and announced, basically, that he thought Beyonce should have won, leaving the stunned teenager at the podium speechless and visibly shaken. Clarkson had skipped the show in favor of a Kimmel appearance in L.A., but unloaded on Kanye that night in a profanity-laced tirade on her (rarely-updated) Wordpress blog, calling him "a sad human being" and asking acidly
The best part of this evening is that you weren't even up for THIS award and yet you still have a problem with the outcome. Is winning a moon man that much of a life goal?? You can have mine if it will shut you up. Is it that important, really??
Yet again, Clarkson's pitch-perfect response ended up as the lede in most of the media roundups of celebrity responses to Kanye's idiotic stunt.
Ironically, one event that didn't ensnare Clarkson in controversy was her participation in "Get Schooled," a September 8 Bill Gates-sponsored education documentary that featured Clarkson's keyboard player, Jason Halbert, along with aides to President Obama and LeBron James, and was scheduled on the same day as Obama's controversial address to the nation's schoolchildren (I speculated at the time that Obama's imprudent timing of the speech was designed to coincide with his participation in the previously scheduled Gates special). As it turned out, the segment went back over a prior controversy, focusing on Halbert's and Clarkson's efforts to rework the live arrangement of Already Gone to sound less like Halo.
I hesitate to make this point since it mixes music with politics, which generally ends badly, but Clarkson's summer of controversies cemented for me some of the parallels I'd been contemplating between Clarkson and Sarah Palin.***** Palin, being a politician, is naturally a polarizing figure, while Clarkson, as I explained in my prior profile, is precisely the opposite, and there are other obvious dissimilarities as well. But what they have in common, besides their small-town Middle America backgrounds, competitive streak, general disdain for convention and elite opinion, and preference for trusting their own family, friends and supporters over "conventional wisdom," is that while neither is terribly erudite, both have a natural instinct for cutting to the emotional core of a situation in a way that connects with people on a very basic gut level. It's a talent also reflected in Clarkson's songwriting: her deceptively simple and direct lyrics are never clever or witty or expansive (it's impossible to imagine her writing a song like "Jungleland" or "Tangled up in Blue" or "Sympathy for the Devil"), but somehow never canned or forced either, despite writing largely in a genre (popular songs of love and heartbreak) that's been done to death and is a minefield of cliches. It's harder than it looks to evoke something real and fresh-sounding in few and simple words.
Theater of the absurd aside, we paid money to see Clarkson and hear her sing because live entertainment is what she does best. And it really was a tremendous show, as good as I could have expected. I wouldn't put anybody on the same level as Bruce, I'd rate Clarkson behind U2 - they're U2, after all - and perhaps just a bit behind the Saw Doctors, and it's hard to compare her to the Stones, who on the one hand played a much longer set from a vastly superior catalog of music, but on the other hand were well past their prime when I saw them. But on the whole, I'd compare her show favorably to any of the others I've seen, and like I said, I've seen some good ones. And with the exception of Bruce and the Stones, it was as hot, sweaty, hard-working rock as I've seen.
The downside of the scheduling: I'd thought when I bought the tickets that the show would be wedged between the end of the regular baseball season and the playoffs, and instead I ended up missing most of the Twins-Tigers classic. I tried checking the score on my Blackberry between sets, and a couple of the other guys around me were doing the same thing, but the game was still going when Clarkson took the stage around 9:45.
The Venue and the Crowd
This was the second show I've seen at the Hammerstein, an old-fashioned and somewhat dumpy ballroom that holds about 2,400 people, and was packed to capacity last night (the Saw Doctors show was probably closer to 1,500-2,000 people; I recall there being at least a little breathing room at the back of the ballroom, which there wasn't last night). We arrived 40 minutes after the doors opened and still had to wait on an around-the-block line that felt like the longest line I'd been on since I saw Return of the Jedi the weekend it opened.****** Most of the crowd, us included, was General Admission/standing room/free-for-all, which is pretty unpleasant, to say nothing of being a test of your kidneys. I expect to stand for a whole show, but I don't like having to spend half the show trying to protect my turf against encroachments (I was stuck next to the biggest gay dude I've ever seen, who almost took my head off with his elbow at one point). Between the lack of fixed seats, the floor coated with popcorn and the generally distracting behavior of the people standing next to us (note: don't take pictures of yourself during a song, and don't go running through the crowd during the last song of a concert), the setting left much to be desired. The place was also sweltering, but to some extent that's a good thing for really getting into the full experience of a rock concert. And a small indoor venue can be very intimate: even near the back of the crowd, I was closer to the stage than for any show but the Saw Doctors.
Clarkson's crowd seemed to be dominated by three groups: packs of women, mostly in their 20s; gay men; and moms with teen/preteen daughters. This being a late show on a school night in Manhattan, there were a lot more of the second group than the third (I don't believe I have ever been in a room with so many gay men in my entire life). I don't think I was the only straight man there with my wife, but there were precious few of us.
Concerts usually attract a lot of die-hard fans - the Billy Joel and Saw Doctors crowds certainly knew every word of every song by heart - but only the Springsteen crowd could quite compare in terms of this audience's raw, uncontained enthusiasm for the performer and her music. Between the small, hot room, Clarkson's light show, and the jumping-and-fist-pumping crowd, I seriously felt like I was in the middle of a music video for much of the night.
The Opening Acts
I swore after the U2 show at Yankee Stadium that I'd never see another artist with two opening acts, but Clarkson had them. First up was a Virginia-based band called Parachute that makes music for soap commercials. OK, that's unfair; they apparently sold a couple of their songs to Nivea, a skin-care company, to use in their ads. One of the great things about the YouTube era is that you can check out the opening acts ahead of time so as to be familiar with their songs. I'd gone in with an expectation that these guys would sound something like John Mayer, who I hate for his singing style of running out of energy to finish his sentences hmmmhmbmbmbhmmmm. But they were actually livelier and more rocked-out in person (and really young). Highlight of the set was a cover that did justice to the Beatles' "Get Back," with dueling guitars and a little sax solo. I wouldn't write home about them - the vocalist didn't have a very strong voice - but much better than being compelled to sit through Primus, and they may yet have a future.
The second opener was singer-songwriter Eric Hutchinson, a skinny mop-topped guy in a white suit and plaid shirt who played piano and guitar and seems to be a coming star of sorts. He, too, was better than I'd expected; the clips I'd watched reminded me of Michael Penn, but he had a bluesier sound live, a little bit Traffic and a little bit Supertramp. You could see the escalation in stage presence: Parachute was just a band there to make music, but Hutchinson strode around the stage cajoling the crowd and cracking jokes. And Clarkson's stage presence was something else entirely from his.
The Main Event
You could see the crowd's transformation the minute the speakers started playing Clarkson's traditional entrance music ("You Shook Me All Night Long"), and Clarkson kicked off with "All I Ever Wanted," the title track to her current album and my favorite on the album, a rock-ish song with an R&B/hip-hop beat to the verses and a massive anthem chorus. Even having heard her records and seen concert clips on YouTube, there's nothing to quite prepare you for her voice live. It's the first concert I've been to where I could feel the vocals shaking the floor. The song was basically a big wall of sound crashing over the crowd.
Watching Clarkson's voice at work is a little like watching Pedro Martinez' right arm at work ten years ago: you're amazed by what she can make it do, but there's also a real sense of vulnerability, as it's hard to see how long such a powerful and complex instrument can be wielded by a body scarely large enough to support it (she's barely 5'3"). The downside of the show is that she could only play for 90 minutes, since more than that would presumably be too much strain. Her voice has been healthier on this tour than in the past, but she still had to cancel one show for laryngitis. It's one reason I wanted to see her now, while she still has the full range of tools at her disposal.
One of the reasons why Clarkson's show comes together so well, as well as why most of her songs rock harder live than on the record, is that her band is really good, most notably her guitarists (although the drums really took over on the pop single "I Do Not Hook Up"). She's got two guitarists (one of whom doubles on the violin and backing vocals), a bass player (who's a dead ringer for Peter Garrett), drummer, two female backup singers (one of whom also doubles on guitar), a keyboard player, and on the current tours a DJ and a three-man horn section (sax, trumpet, trombone). I'm a big fan of the idea that horn sections make everything better, and the horns and keyboard give the band a bit of the Jersey Shore flavor - there will only ever be one E Street Band, but it's not a bad model to imitate. The sax solo that opened "Walk Away" live really adds something to the song. A bunch of her songs were reworked live to a harder edge: "Miss Independent," an R&B hit for Clarkson in 2003, is sufficiently jacked-up live that it's not at all out of place when her guitarists kick into the Black Sabbath "Iron Man" riff in the middle of the song. Ditto for "If I Can't Have You," a dance-pop track that seems likely to be the next single off the current album. "My Life Would Suck Without You," a girly-pop record, plays live as a soaring, Meatloaf-ish anthem with the keyboard and horns, as Clarkson sings it in a lower key but brings it up to dizzying high notes. Even "Cry," a maudlin ballad that plays on the record as a country waltz, was redone as a Heart-style power ballad. Of course, it's not just the band that does that, it's also the boom and blare of Clarkson's enormous voice, especially in a small venue like the Hammerstein. In terms of pure rock power, the high points of the show were a roof-rattling rendition of Clarkson's Hell-hath-no-fury-like-a-woman-scorned song "Never Again," and a stirring cover of the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army"; videos of both have already been posted on YouTube, so I'll offer those as a sampling:
Seven Nation Army:
Unfortunately, the crowd was nearly still at Seven Nation Army, which she played as the next to last song of the encore. I admit I know only a little of the White Stripes myself, but I was pretty pumped for the song, and would have liked to see a little more enthusiasm; it was really the only song of the night that the crowd wasn't into. Maybe the encore is too late to play a song your fans don't know.
Clarkson's vocal skill and control live is also amazing. I'm not the biggest fan of the ballad "Because of You," and wasn't really getting into it, until she hit the song's signature high note (on the line "now I cry in the middle of the night for the same damn thinggggg...") and couldn't resist getting chills - Clarkson stuck that line so well she had to stop the song to let the applause die down. And her bluesy cover of Patsy Cline's "Walkin' After Midnight" has just taken ownership of the song, to the point where it will be a serious mistake if she doesn't get a version of it on her next album. Here's
(Clarkson says she chose to add Walkin' After Midnight to her set because her stepfather used to wake her up singing it, but I wonder if there isn't another unstated kinship with the song: Cline is today one of country's most revered figures, but she originally shot to national stardom in 1957 when she sang Walkin' After Midnight on Arthur Godfrey's TV talent show.)
The setlist was dominated by nine songs from Clarkson's current album (others I haven't mentioned here include "Ready," "Impossible," I Want You," and the reworked Already Gone) and five from her smash hit Breakaway album (also including "Breakaway," an acoustic version of "Behind These Hazel Eyes," and, of course, her signature song "Since U Been Gone"), plus one song each from her first and third albums and four covers, the other two being the blues song "Lies" by the Black Keys (Clarkson is never more in her element than singing the blues) and a sort of medley-mashup of an Alanis Morrissette song ("That I Would Be Good") with the Kings of Leon's "Use Somebody,"******* which I mostly enjoyed despite generally despising Alanis Morrissette. My wife and I were a little disappointed there wasn't room in the list for our favorite of her songs, the Pat Benetar-ish "How I Feel" from My December, her third album. It's a sign of how far Clarkson's come in just four albums that she doesn't need to sing her first #1 hit, "A Moment Like This," or other songs like "Addicted" that are widely known. Probably the most obvious absence from her set is any of the R&B/Motown-style ballads that made her a star in 2002-03; I didn't miss them myself but I can see how people who've been with her from the beginning might.
Visually, the show was a bit more upscale than Clarkson's usual set. She's known for performing barefoot in a vintage concert t-shirt and hideous bell-bottom jeans with only the band behind her, although she had recently added a light-up microphone stand that looks like Darth Maul's lightsaber. Her outfit was mostly the same; feminine vanity is generally no obstacle to her shows, which are all about the music, as Clarkson sweats profusely onstage, unravels any efforts at a hairstyle and generally gets progressively more disheveled as a show progresses. But for the fall tour, she's added a snazzy translucent stage and a wall of lights. I'm not usually a fan of the visuals, since I go to a concert to see and hear the performer (U2's stages have always been overdone, although I'll confess to being impressed by Rush's high-tech laser-light show), but the light show was subdued enough to complement the music rather than distract from it. And whatever the gripes about Clarkson's weight, her performance isn't affected; while she does a few of her ballads sitting down, she spent the rest of the show spinning and bouncing about the stage as if on springs, and she never gets winded.
Clarkson's personality is the final ingredient of her stage show. Her stage presence while performing is commanding; even on a crowded stage, there's never any doubt who the star of the show is. But between songs, she chats amiably and sometimes aimlessly with the audience, at this show going off on one tangent about how she'd had a blueberry shake before the show and didn't want the people in the front row to think she didn't brush her teeth if her mouth was still blue. She's disarmingly down-to-earth and can be quite funny and spontaneous; another of her headline-grabbing incidents this summer was when she plucked a life-size cardboard cutout of Edward Cullen from Twilight out of the crowd and serenaded it. She has the ability to speak to a crowd of thousands, or a TV audience of millions, as if chatting with a group of close friends; flip through any random page of the concert reviews at Ticketmaster and you'll see over and over people saying they felt like she was talking to them personally as a friend. The fact that this is apparently just her natural personality shouldn't obscure what a rare gift this is: if you could bottle it, throw in her seemingly endless reserves of energy and enthusiasm and sell them to politicians or other entertainers, you'd never run out of customers.
Kelly Clarkson and The Future of Rock
While she continues to straddle multiple genres of music, Clarkson today stands as one of a dwindling band of heirs to the rock n' roll tradition, in her case the pop/rock side of that tradition - the Beatles, Beach Boys, Eagles, Blly Joel, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, etc. And one who respects the heritage: she's named Jimi Hendrix's "Red House" as her favorite song from her childhood, and it's her encyclopedic knowledge and enthusiasm about music of all kinds that makes her something of a walking iTunes. While Clarkson's voice would have distinguished her in any era, her music wouldn't have stood out in a 1980s female pop/rock scene that included Blondie, Stevie Nicks, Heart, Pat Benatar, the Bangles, the Go-Gos, the Pretenders, Joan Jett, the Eurythmics, Linda Ronstadt (who was sort of the Kelly Clarkson of the 1970s), Scandal, Bonnie Tyler, even Cher.******** But those days are gone. Few women still make and successfully sell anything that could be called rock, and those that do - Avril Lavigne, Alanis Morrissette, Pink - tend to project such off-putting personalities that it's hard to embrace them. Besides Clarkson, about the only significant female rockers I can think of from the past two decades to avoid that trap are Sheryl Crow and Gwen Stefani, both of whose careers have tapered off some of late.********* The pickings are slim. And really, despite the recent success of the Kings of Leon and Daughtry, the male rockers aren't doing a whole lot better.
Jon Landau, in his historic 1974 Springsteen concert review, declared "I saw rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen." That was 35 years ago, when Bruce was younger and less accomplished than Clarkson is now. Today, it's not clear that rock has a future, and neither Clarkson nor anyone else on the music scene appears a likely candidate to lead a revival.********** But as we await a return from rock's Dark Ages, it's encouraging to see a young, energetic, enthusiastic artist carrying that tradition to the next generation of music fans. In that sense, Clarkson and her band have less in common with Bruce than with how Elwood Blues (Dan Aykroyd) described the Blues Brothers on 1978's Briefcase Full of Blues, recorded at the pit of the last nadir for rock, blues and similar formats:
So much of the music we hear today is pre-programmed electronic disco, we never get to hear master bluesmen practicing their craft anymore. By the year 2006, the music known today as the blues will only be found in the classical records department of your local public library.
So, I'll say it to my fellow straight, male, dads-with-jobs rock fans, without shame or reservation: don't be embarrassed, grab your wife and maybe your daughters, get yourself a ticket and go see Kelly Clarkson.
* - Hat tip to Jonah Goldberg's ode to Budweiser for the title.
** - Yes, I had a Guns n' Roses poster on my wall as a freshman in college.
*** - I noted in my prior column that the track also sounds a lot like the 1989 Aerosmith ballad "What it Takes." My next-door neighbor my freshman year broke up with his girlfriend and played "What it Takes" round the clock for weeks, maybe months. I'd know those opening bars anywhere.
**** - Seriously, this trait is common to more famous Texans in baseball, football, politics, law, business and other fields than I could possibly hope to list here.
***** - And more generally, a point I'd also meant to make back when the All-Star Game passed up the opportunity to do a more fulsome tribute to Stan Musial: that is, our celebrity culture's preference for crazy people and jerks over people who are sane and normal and have their priorities in order.
****** - Memorial Day 1983; we had to wait the duration of an entire showing in sweltering heat.
******* - Use Somebody recently hit #1 on the pop charts, the first song by a straight-up rock band to do that in I don't know how long (a reminder that, however little rock gets a fair hearing on the radio, there's still a great untapped demand for it). But Clarkson's been raving about them for some time.
******** - Even I have my limits to what I'm not embarrassed to do: back in the day, I actually liked one or two of the power-pop-rock songs that were hits for Cher on the radio in the late 80s, but while I have a fair amount of embarrassing stuff on my iTunes, I just can't pull the trigger on buying a song by Cher. Can't do it.
********* - Katy Perry, one of pop's current "It" girls, is arguably rock as well - her songs are largely guitar-driven, and she wrote two of the songs on Clarkson's latest album - but I've caught a few clips of Perry singing live and she is legitimately the worst singer I've heard in 30+ years of listening to music, so tuneless she makes Bob Dylan sound like Pavarotti.
********** - I'm not willing to go as far as Camille Paglia, who declared of Clarkson's song "Irvine" in 2007 that "As long as music of this quality is being made, the American fine arts will revive." But then, Paglia loves being contrarian and embracing the genuine and the unpretentious.
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October 5, 2009
BLOG: Quick Links 10/5/09
*Is there a bigger example on the web of not knowing your audience than ESPN.com automatically playing video content - i.e., with sound - when you open the page?
*I'm still unclear on why exactly the Twins-Tigers game has to be tomorrow instead of today....I'll have a more detailed post - whether you like it or not - on my Roto team, but I enter that game tied for first place, and if I lose the pennant by one home run or one RBI (both a real possibility) despite having the possible AL MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year on my team, I swear I'm gonna sue Grady Sizemore.
It's been sad watching the direction of Letterman and his show the last few years. I've had progressively less time to watch anyway since I started working for a living, but I'd been a fan on and off for decades. If there's one lesson here, it's that if you wanted to keep an affair secret, you don't take the woman you're sleeping with, put her on air on your national TV show and flirt with her shamelessly. Well, that and a guy who's a producer at 48 Hours shouldn't be dumb enough to think he could get away with blackmailing a public figure. Another glorious chapter in the history of CBS News.
*The Olympics story is pretty much a dead horse at this point, but this American Thinker piece does a bang-up job of dissecting the Obamas' sales pitch to show how it violated pretty much every rule of sales pitches.
*The Washington Post's paid left-wing activist Greg Sargent is proud that the Left is playing the race card on health care - seriously, read this post. Sargent's thesis is that the ad in question is racial code and that that's a good thing. Regardless of what you think of the ad itself, that speaks volumes about Sargent's mindset. What remains less clear is why the Post employs a full-time left-wing activist in the first place.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:54 PM | Baseball 2009 | Blog 2006-Present | Politics 2009 | Pop Culture | Comments (12) | TrackBack (0)
September 30, 2009
POLITICS/POP CULTURE: Christie & The Boss
I thought I was a serious Bruce fan, but you know, I've only been to 3 shows, 4 if you count seeing him at Rockefeller Center on the Today Show in 2007; NJ GOP gubernatorial candidate Chris Christie has seen the Boss 120 times, including 9 of 10 shows of a set and scheduling a Paris trip with his wife around Bruce's European tour. Now that is dedication.
It's an uncharacteristically nice piece from the NYT, but of course only in a non-substantive puff profile way; they capture pretty well the uncomfortable position for Christie being a Springsteen fan while Bruce was out campaigning against his party.
September 29, 2009
LAW/POLITICS: Whoopi Goldberg, Moral Monster
I knew Whoopi was rude, an ignoramus (she told John McCain last year that the Constitution doesn't prohibit slavery) and a walking crime against comedy, but even I was startled to discover her cavalier attitude towards the violation of a young girl.
Oh, and also following the same story with what only tries to be parody: the Onion.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:36 PM | Law 2009-Present | Politics 2009 | Pop Culture | Comments (22) | TrackBack (0)
September 2, 2009
POP CULTURE: Music Bleg
As part of my recent effort to locate new-ish music worth listening to, I have finally decided once and for all to listen to some songs by three of the biggest "rock" acts of the past decade - Nickelback, Linkin Park, and Coldplay - and decide whether they have made anything worth listening to (my suspicion for some time has been "no," especially as to Coldplay, but I may as well see if I am missing out on anything. Also on my list are Wilco and the White Stripes).
Anyone have suggestions as to where in their catalogue a beginner would start?
September 1, 2009
POP CULTURE: Satisfaction, Not Gotten
August 14, 2009
POP CULTURE: Kinda Funny Sir To Me
Here's an argument-starter for the hard-core Springsteen fan: a 1-200 ranking of his songs, with an effort to justify each slot.
A lot of these just seem very wrong to me, and reflect the biases of the guy doing the list. Near the bottom, "Mary's Place" was one of the high points of The Rising, and doesn't deserve being rated so low. Near the top, "Thunder Road" is rated way too low at #18. And the writer goes way overboard on Bruce's wordier pre-Born to Run tunes and mopey Nebraska tunes, at the expense of some of his masterpieces: "Incident on 57th Street," though a good song, is way too high at #3 and "Lost in the Flood" at #7 (personally, I never, ever listen to the studio version of either, preferring the live version of "Incident on 57th Street" that I picked up from a Japanese release of extra songs off the 1975-85 Live album, and "Lost in the Flood" off the 1999 Live in New York album). Yet, inexplicably, the same guy puts "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City" way down at #155. And seriously, "Highway Patrolman" at #13, ahead of "Thunder Road" and "Badlands" ("Badlands" is always the high point of any Bruce concert)? "Meeting Across the River" at #17? "Stolen Car" at #19? "Your Own Worst Enemy" at #23?
I did appreciate the love for "Loose Ends" at #24, though, one of the classics that was held off too long until the Tracks compilation.
July 27, 2009
POP CULTURE: Swing And A Miss
You know, I love Bruce Springsteen, have for many years, and I've scarcely ever heard him do a bad cover, so I was fairly enthused when I saw on his YouTube channel a live rendition of the Clash classic "London Calling." But unfortunately, this just doesn't work:
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The major reason is that Bruce's voice is pretty ragged these days (it's a miracle he has any voice at all - he'll be 60 in September, and all those years of howling 3- and 4-hour arena shows are more punishment than almost anybody has put on their vocal chords. But he's still in better shape vocally than Dylan or Jagger, and he's probably lost less range to time than Bono or Billy Joel have). On his own material, that's less obvious, as he generally knows how to work the gravel in his voice to keep performing live, but this is a shouting song, and a classic young man's song at that, and Bruce just isn't up to it. The band just doesn't stomp enough on the main guitar and drum lines, either. Bruce does pull out a very impressive guitar solo around the 2:30 mark that makes the video worth watching all by itself (Bruce is a better guitarist now than he was in the 80s), but otherwise, thumbs down.
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July 16, 2009
POP CULTURE: Down At 30 Rock
Is 30 Rock really a ripoff of....well, go see.
July 2, 2009
POP CULTURE: How To Sing About You Now
Longtime readers know that - as discussed here - I'm a very big fan of the Saw Doctors, the great Irish pop/rock band, who in a just world would be international musical superstars. Anyway, here is a study in contrasts for you: among their more recent releases, which hit the top of the Irish pop charts last fall, is a cover of "About You Now," originally recorded in the U.S. by the Sugababes, but translated into something rather different by the Saw Doctors (a cover tune is a departure for a band that typically writes their own stuff, but this one was originally done to raise money for a cystic fibrosis charity...and yes, writing that made me think of Dean Barnett again). Check out three versions of the song. First, we have the Sugababes' decidedly R&B flavored original, which I will confess is not at all to my taste, here. Second, a version by teenybopper singer Miranda Cosgrove, here, which is basically the same thing but slightly less funky and more...well, for lack of a better word, white. Then we get the Saw Doctors' guitar-driven version, which of course is more rock n' roll and also, naturally, less girly and more wistful:
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One side note: I think I mentioned on Twitter that I learned when assembling the Kelly Clarkson profile quite how much of today's pop music is written by the same handful of people regardless of who the singer is, especially female singers. This tune is no exception, having been co-written by Cathy Dennis and Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald, who between them have been involved in numerous hit singles by Clarkson, Britney Spears, Pink, Katy Perry, Avril Lavigne, and the Spice Girls, among many, many others. In a way, everything old is new again: the concept seems alien to people who came of age in the 70s and 80s (although the name "Burt Bacharach" may come to mind), but if you go back to the days of Elvis and Motown, stables of professional songwriters who worked with large numbers of different singers were quite common.
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June 26, 2009
POP CULTURE: Wacko Jacko Not Coming Backo
I'd always expected Michael Jackson to go by slipping into the Cracks of Doom while clutching his Precious....Seriously, I never had any sympathy for him, given that he was a pedophile or something very like it (leave for another day the people who thought it was a good idea to send their children over to his house), but Jackson was a figure deserving mainly of pity. His family, especially his father, wrecked him, and he spent most of his life mutilating himself and indulging his increasingly bizarre fixations, and seeking the company of children, old women, animals, basically anyone but adults who could have dealt with him as a peer. I have to wonder if his death was more or less intentional, especially given some of the financial problems the Wall Street Journal had been reporting he'd been having lately.
Musically, Jackson wasn't my cup of tea - I loathed him when he was big in 1983, and other than some of the pure Motown-ish Jackson 5 stuff, once the craze was gone the only one of his songs I liked (which is on my iPod) was "Beat It," his collaboration with Eddie Van Halen, which really does rock after all these years. But I came to appreciate the fact that he was a great musical talent and, in his day, a great entertainer. But his personal wierdness did that in as well - an entertainer needs some sort of connection with the audience, and after Thriller, Jackson was just too bizarre for anybody to identify with or connect with him at all. Smeagol was long gone by then.
June 24, 2009
BASEBALL/POP CULTURE: Out Of Money Ball
June 23, 2009
POP CULTURE: "The Most Important Instrument"
I don't read interviews with Bruce Springsteen all that much anymore - although Bruce's music is still mostly only vaguely political, as I discussed at some length back in 2002, in recent years he's gotten sufficiently actively partisan that I prefer to just listen to the music and tune out the politics. But this interview has some telling (if in a few places overly grandiose) musings on the thing that - other than the music itself - I've always loved and admired about the Boss, and that's the fact that the man truly gives a damn about connecting with his audience, and works at it, which is why he remains the best live showman in the business:
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The idea of a show was delegitamised [in the late 60s] through that bohemian notion of selling out, which I always felt was somewhat misguided. Because once you're onstage, you're in a show, my friend, whatever you're doing. There's certain kinds of people I wouldn't want to see put on my show, because it's not who they are. But the idea - and it remains a good one, and a bridge to your audience - was putting on a show with the intent of reaching a deeper level of communication and getting at a deeper truth.
An excited audience is an exciting audience. The audience is a very decisive factor in our show. It is a place of communion, that's the point. You are in concert, truly, with the audience - they're the other instrument you're playing. That's something I've learned and studied since I was very young from the very first band I was in, The Castilles. It's a survival mechanism. We played to all kinds of audiences - supermarket openings, drive-ins, to all black audiences, to all rocker audiences ... And we knew how to survive in each situation by reading that audience and, within the realm of what you wanted to do, reaching them. So I go out at night, I know everything I can know about the instruments I have onstage. I go out every night cold about the most important instrument - the audience. It makes it interesting.
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June 21, 2009
POP CULTURE: Democracy's Pop Star
I mentioned a few weeks ago that I'd recently gotten into the music of Kelly Clarkson. Well, I ended up digging up enough material on her to turn out a fairly exhaustive profile for The New Ledger of her formula for success and place in the culture (consider it a counterbalance to all the Bob Dylan content on the site). I've always had a soft spot for people who made a career path where one didn't exist before, and Clarkson isn't quite like anybody else in the music business. I also came to the conclusion that she is, with the exception of Justin Timberlake, probably the naturally funniest person in the music business.
June 16, 2009
POP CULTURE: Democracy's Pop Star: Kelly Clarkson
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The first step was controlling her own destiny. Clarkson's initial victory gave her the basic platform: a recording contract, a song that became her first hit, a long round of promotional appearances, and a contractual obligation to appear in a universally-panned "romantic comedy" with the runner-up, Justin Guarini (who is now mostly a pop culture footnote). But that just extended her allotted 15 minutes of fame, and at the time it was expected that she'd make a living a Celine Dion-style crooner, as Cowell predicted. But Clarkson had other ideas of her own. It was her second album, Breakaway, released in 2004, that launched her to real stardom, with hits of varying styles ranging from the country-ish ballad "Because of You" to the rock anthem "Since U Been Gone." And before she did Breakaway, Clarkson took a critical step: she sacked her managers and took more creative control of her album, pushing RCA Records to include six of her own compositions. She has gone on to butt heads again with the industry, from a nasty public feud with RCA president Clive Davis over the songs she included on her darker and commercially disappointing third album, My December (which sold anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 million copies, depending upon the source, but still far less than its predecessor), to firing her second set of managers. Besides songwriting, she also now scripts her own videos. As the dropoff in sales for My December proved, Clarkson's judgment hasn't always panned out (either that, or feuding with your record label is a bad way to get your album promoted; the album's most radio-friendly song, "How I Feel," was never released as a single). On her fourth album, All I Ever Wanted, she's returned to a 50/50 mix of her own compositions, rather than 100%. But the strife has preserved her independent identity as something more than the prepackaged product many expected to come off Idol's assembly line. Most 22-year-olds with one album under their belt wouldn't have taken the step that Clarkson did, but as she has since noted, the goodwill she'd generated with a mass audience gave her the confidence to demand that her own judgment be respected. They were her fans, not the record company's, and like any savvy elected official, she knew when to go over the heads of the gatekeepers and appeal directly to her constituents.
To illustrate the versatility of that stage presence, consider as well her raucous televised performance of "Since U Been Gone" at the 2005 MTV Video Music Awards; Clarkson's voice was getting raw by this point of the marathon Breakaway tour, during which she was frequently ill from exhaustion and overwork, but she compensated with energy what she was missing in polish:
Clarkson's stage show sets her apart from many female pop singers of the day: no dancers or choreography, no outlandish costumes, no light shows, no lip synching, no layers of electronic sound, just Clarkson (typically barefoot and attired in jeans) and your basic garage-band backing (drummer, keyboard, some guitars, two backup singers, an occasional horn). It's more a rock stage setting than a pop one, and tends to lower the barriers between performer and audience: her act is less dancing than cheerleading, goading the crowd to clap, jump, wave their arms and sing along, and her onstage banter veers from the humorous to the confessional.
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June 9, 2009
POP CULTURE: When A Plan Comes Together
Well, we all have our ways of moving on from tragedy in our lives. If you're Liam Neeson, that entails....assembling the A-Team!
Liam Neeson is in talks with movie bosses to star in the upcoming big screen version of The A Team.
I pity the fool who's not excited about this. There's actually a good deal to be said for remaking something that was cheesy at the time and is now terribly dated; there's a lot more freedom. Of course, it could still be awful, as most Hollywood rehashes are. As for Neeson, well, I hope it's a fun movie to make, he could use that.
June 6, 2009
POP CULTURE: Only One Bob Dylan
A collection of Dylan's idiosyncratic observations from his radio show, some of which can't help but crack you up. H/T. And while I am at it, my New Ledger colleagues have more on Dylan: Pejman on Dylan's self-education, Sean Curnyn on Dylan's new album, and Paul Cella on "The Patriotic Bob Dylan." I'm not a huge Dylan fan but enjoy the best of his work, and as Paul has often reminded me, he's a man who has always defied easy classification.
May 30, 2009
POP CULTURE: The Best Sellers
Interesting list from Yahoo of the best-selling artists (by albums sold) of the decade. It says something about the state of rock that the top seven are two rappers, three country artists, Britney Spears and The Beatles, although there are still a handful of rock acts on the chart.
May 29, 2009
POP CULTURE: Johnny Still B Goode
There really is no possible objective way to measure the greatest rock n' roll song of all time, but pretty high on any list would be whether a song was so essential that just about everybody who's ever picked up a guitar had to try their hand at it. I say you can't go wrong with the original, primordial, classic rock standard that's one of the very few songs of the 1950s that sounds as fresh today as it did five decades ago (warning, the volume of these is variable):
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May 28, 2009
POP CULTURE: And Now For Something Completely Different
This video, featuring an appearance by Kelly Clarkson on what appears to be German TV, cracked me up for some reason...picture a foreign pop star who speaks barely any English appearing on David Letterman, with the attendant awkwardness and translation problems, and ending up in one of his stunts, and you start to get the effect.
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UPDATE: I should add, by the way, that I actually like Clarkson's new album quite a bit... it's kind of cheesy, of course, but I'll take a little too cheesy over a little too hip and ironic any day of the week. Oddly, I had never had any familiarity with her music until maybe a month ago (I have never watched American Idol, although through the usual pop culture osmosis I have a general idea of who wins every year). More broadly, I have a terrible time locating new music to listen to, given the parlous state of rock these days.
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May 26, 2009
POP CULTURE/BASEBALL: I Pity The Pirates
May 14, 2009
POP CULTURE: Red Shirt Boogie Blues
This could be a metaphor for any number of things in different walks of life, but really it's awesome enough to deserve its own post:
May 6, 2009
BASEBALL: Animated James
April 7, 2009
POP CULTURE: In The Criminal Justice System, The People Are Represented ....
POLITICS/POP CULTURE: Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down
The good: reader Rob B points me to the Tauntaun sleeping bag, which of course I now want...or at least, wish I had had when I was about 11.
The not so good: Brian Faughnan looks at the new General Motors ....vehicle. Um, yeah, let's see how this drives on the highways of Minnesota in winter. And this Iowahawk video Brian links to is too good not to share:
February 19, 2009
POP CULTURE: The Jack Bauer Song
Speaking of things Japanese, this is awesome:
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February 14, 2009
POP CULTURE: Wait, How'd This Happen?
Old college friend Mike Sergott has a new site, "Appetite for Deconstruction." His look back in horror at the 2008 movie season is here. Check it out.
January 12, 2009
POP CULTURE/HISTORY: Valkyrie
Via Jonathan Last, an interview with Christopher McQuarrie, screenwriter of "Valkyrie" (which I have not seen, although I think I can guess how it ends). A lot of interesting stuff; I liked this:
Q. ... Saw "Valkyrie" and really enjoyed it. What struck me was that the film is a throwback to a time before "Saving Private Ryan" -- when movies about World War II didn't have to be Big Important Statements and could just be thrillers.
January 8, 2009
BASEBALL/POP CULTURE: Posnanski Rocks
Joe Posnanski, the best working baseball writer, has a fine Hall of Fame column (although I seriously disagree with him on Tommy John, and kinda disagree on Grich and Trammell), with a marvelous digression about Barry Manilow and the songs of the 1980s. His earlier effort on the Hall was good too, and has some interesting historical walk data - basically, the recent high tide of walk rates in 1994-2000 in the AL (in the NL it was just 1999-2000) has largely receded to historical levels akin to those of the 1969-93 period (walks have always been less common in the NL, even before the DH; the all-time high was the AL in the late 40s, with the NL season high set in 1894).
January 2, 2009
POP CULTURE: Cooped Up
I watched the ball drop New Year's Eve on CNN (we decided we'd had enough of Dick Clark's Rockin' New Years Deathbed Watch), and I have to say, the co-hosting team of Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin had to have the worst chemistry of any on-air partners since the heyday of Monday Night Football's bad booths. I'm not a terribly big fan of Cooper, but he's a Jennings/Brokaw type, a newsman who tries to take his job seriously and has a dry, deadpan sense of humor - and they had him matched up with the unwatchable and unfunny Griffin, whose shtick is slapstick and saying inappropriate things. All she did was step on and undermine his lines, and I swear on several occasions Cooper looked like he wanted to punch her in the mouth, and I'm not sure too many of the viewers wouldn't have sympathized with him. Talk about terrible programming. (She added insult to injury with some heavy-handedly staged flirting with Cooper - a little semi-flirtatious banter is sort of expected in a male-female TV pairing like that, but c'mon, at least half the audience knows Cooper is gay). Meanwhile they sent Erica Hill, Cooper's usual co-host and who normally is on the same wavelength with him, down to the street in a vain effort to get frozen revelers to say something interesting (one area where Griffin's shtick as a provocateur might have at least caused something unexpected to happen). Terribly incompetent TV.
November 7, 2008
POLITICS/POP CULTURE: Crichton On The Rags
Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray's case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the "wet streets cause rain" stories. Paper's full of them.
One of my recurring themes on the media is that the preference for liberal politics - big government, social liberalism, political correctness, disdain of conservatives and the religious - is really only the tip of the iceberg of what is wrong with the mainstream media. The state of sportswriting, business and legal journalism, pretty much anything that gets covered in the papers and on TV is subject not only to political bias but also to a whole host of other individual and institutional biases and prejudices and axes to grind, laziness, sloppiness, failures of substantive knowledge and logical reasoning...the blogosphere has no shortage of flaws of its own, but the fact that so many bloggers have had careers doing things (the law, the military, business, medicine, etc.) means in general that you get a class of people who have substantive knowledge and exposure to more rigorous disciplines than the typical journalist. Crichton, with his medical background, brought that same advantage to his craft as a novelist, and we were richer for his work (I read a whole bunch of his books; my favorites were The Great Train Robbery and Disclosure).
November 5, 2008
POP CULTURE: Council of Elrond Reconsidered
Over at RedState yesterday a bunch of us had some Election Day fun with a little tongue-in-cheek geostrategy about the Council of Elrond. A good diversion from a discouraging day.
November 4, 2008
POP CULTURE: Personally, I'd Vote For Lando's Running Mate
See more funny videos at Funny or Die
Via Gabriel Malor at Ace's place. Amazingly, Billy Dee Williams was available.
August 5, 2008
POP CULTURE: Music Television
July 17, 2008
POP CULTURE: Every Time I Think I Am Out, They Pull Me Back In
The new animated Star Wars film may actually be pretty good. It actually sounds as if the director is following the same lines of thinking I laid out in my argument about how the prequels could have been better.
July 9, 2008
POP CULTURE: Wall*E World
Unlike past vacations, I don't have much to report in the travelogue from last week's brief trip to West Palm Beach. I did finally get to see an Obama ad on TV, which featured him taking credit for welfare reform, tax cuts and other Republican-sounding things, and catch just a little of that epic 18-17 Rockies-Marlins game, and we did get to experience the joys of daily thuderstorms. During one of those, we took the kids to see Wall*E.
I'd definitely give the film a thumbs-up, especially the first half and the short at the
There's been some minor debate over the movie's anti-consumer environmental politics, but the movie wasn't dominated by heavy-handed propaganda like the NGO-shilling penguins of Happy Feet or even the enviro-silliness of Evan Almighty, and in any event the trash-will-overwhelm-us doomsday scenario was self-evidently absurd even within the context of the movie (they show the humans' new spaceship home as gleamingly spotless because they have the technology to jettison their garbage into space). I did think they hit one or two slightly sour notes when Fred Willard tried to sneak in Bush-bashing references to his dialogue (a completely out-of-context "stay the course!" interjection), which I didn't find annoying so much as sad in the way it will date the film - imagine watching that 40 years from now, as if you were watching Peter Pan and they threw in a random potshot at Dwight Eisenhower.
A marketing note: when we talked about going to a movie, my 2-year-old daughter piped up with "I want to see panda movie." She watches only Sesame Street and Teletubbies videos and Jetsons and Muppet Show DVDs - nothing with ads (my wife and I have no particular axe to grind with commercial TV, but aside from baseball the kids don't really watch it, mainly because the things we think are worth showing them are the things we grew up with on video or DVD). So, how did she know about Kung Fu Panda? Maybe she saw it on a breakfast cereal box or something, I do not know (my son thinks maybe she caught an ad for it on a Mets broadcast).
July 8, 2008
POP CULTURE: Bad Lessons From Hollywood
One might even say that this list from Cracked.com is the most fundamentally conservative thing you will ever read about the movies.
This is also hilarious, and could also be applied to the world at large. I like the Venn diagram about Sweeney Todd. They don't mention the worst offender of all, which was the ad campaign for the animated Lord of the Rings movie in the 1970s, which led filmgoers to believe it was the entire trilogy, not just the Fellowship of the Ring.
June 10, 2008
POP CULTURE: Indiana Jones of the Fourth Kind
I took the kids Saturday to see the fourth Indiana Jones movie, and I must say, it exceeded my expectations, which I had worked to keep modest. You have to remember that the original Indiana Jones movies were not such film legends because they were compelling human drama or fantastically realistic; rather, they succeeded because they offered three things:
1. A classic action hero (I know I was a minority in enjoying Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but the film was nonetheless a vivid reminder of how much a film like that loses when it has a bland hero instead of a charismatic swashbuckler);
2. Non-stop action that keeps you on the edge of your seat too consistently to allow for reflection on the amount of disbelief you have to suspend; and
3. A tongue-in-cheek attitude towards the fact that this is a movie; they were supposed to be a fun throwback to the action films of the 30s and 40s, and all three of the originals had their share of explicit winks to film convention or homages to specific films of old.
I was reminded of this by recently re-watching them. All three are still a lot of fun, but there's still plenty that's outright preposterous, from the action sequences to the romantic dialogue to the 'monologuing' villains to the inevitable deus ex machina supernatural ending. Temple of Doom, which may have been my favorite of the three when I saw it in the theater as a young teenager, has undoubtedly aged the worst and/or holds up the worst when watched as an adult (it's also the most politically incorrect of the three), although the opening action sequence remains a classic.
On to the new installment (a few very mild spoilers, but the main spoilers will be below the fold). First of all, Harrison Ford's still got it. He looks great for his age, but he definitely looks his age (65); he basically defines "grizzled" at this point. And he's still got some of the old charm, much moreseo than in interviews with the real Ford, who has been a crusty old man for years now. That said, Indy comes off as more serious and sober now, which is inevitable with the passage of years (we're reminded early on that Indy's father has died - Sean Connery chose not to return for the film - as has Indy's professorial colleague Marcus Brody, played by the late Denholm Elliott; John Rhys-Davies' absence is not explained, and mercifully Short Round does not turn up). We are definitely given to believe that in the years between 1939 and 1957, treasure hunting and womanizing have had to take a back seat to the grim business of defending the free world from Nazis and Communists, a reality that's consistent not only with the world's history at that time but with why Lucas and Spielberg originally set the first three films before the outbreak of world war, when it was still possible for an American rogue to travel the world and fight the bad guys without a lot of friendly military help or polarized local resistance. Indy by now, like Han Solo in the later Star Wars flicks, has largely been absorbed into the chain of command. In fact, an early plotline about Indy being the victim of a sort of McCarthyism (in today's Hollywood, you can't have Commie bad guys without a little McCarthyism, even as late as 1957) serves mostly to ensure that Indy can function once again as a free agent.
The second really crucial decision was bringing back Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood to be Indy's love interest rather than pair up Ford with some young starlet. Not only does this spare us the spectacle of a woman in her twenties or thirties falling for a guy twice her age, but by bringing back the best of Indy's old flames, we get to skip almost entirely over the whole process of flirtation and courtship, which almost invariably goes down badly in a George Lucas film, and stick to the action. When you see Indy and Marion together, you don't need to be sold on their immediate attraction; it's baked into the characters and our history with them. And the 56-year-old Allen is still appealing, even cute if you can apply that word to a woman her age who - like Ford - definitely looks her age.
The movie has plenty of fun action sequences, my favorite being a lengthy, rollicking chase sequence in the Peruvian jungle that borrows very liberally from the speeder bike sequence in Return of the Jedi and features the meanest ants since Them. Early on, we also get to see Indy one-up Jack Bauer by surviving the shockwave from a nuclear blast, which is amusingly ludicrous.
Lucas and Spielberg, as children of the 50s (in Lucas' case, also a veteran of the first wave of 50s nostalgia with American Graffiti), lovingly slather on every detail, both realistic and cliched, to evoke the time period, from Elvis to malt-shop bobby-soxers to "I Like Ike" to the Red Scare. There are more than a few obvious tips of the hat (some literal, some figurative) to the prior movies as well as to other films. The most obvious is when Shia Lebeouf, with his hair compulsively slicked back to look like a ringer for James Dean, makes his first appearance dressed exactly like Marlon Brando in The Wild One:
More spoilers below
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Of course, the ultimate homage is the way the movie's ending apes Close Encounters of the Third Kind, from the look of the aliens to the flying saucer. On the whole, the alien bit was hokey but necessary; the decision to have Indy marry Marion at the end was more in the nature of a forced sentimental sendoff (I assume there won't be a fifth film), with the line at the end about so much being lost in the waiting an obvious nod to the audience at how long it took to get this one to screen. And as for the nuclear blast scene, I still came away thinking that lead-lined refrigerator or no, Indy's gonna have one nasty case of radiation poisoning.
Some of the other cliches were insanely predictable: of course, as in Raiders and Last Crusade, we get villains undone by their lust for knowledge and power flowing from the supernatural, and of course, as in Last Crusade, we also see a double agent refuse Indy's hand in the collapsing temple out of a lust for treasure.
Anyway, on the whole, despite some of the quibbles, the movie was a lot of fun, and well worth the price of admission.
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June 5, 2008
POP CULTURE: Catch That Pigeon!
Your nostalgia for the day:
May 19, 2008
POP CULTURE: Another Amazing Escape
Apparently, at least somebody thinks the new Indiana Jones is really good, as the Daily News gives it four stars. Frankly, I was going to take the kids to see it even if everyone said it was horrible, so it's good to see that the reviews are at worst mixed. George Lucas may have lost his touch, but Spielberg hasn't, which bodes well.
April 18, 2008
POP CULTURE: The Boss Has One Less Right Hand Man
Dan Federici, founding member of the E Street Band, has died at 58 of skin cancer. A great loss; the E Street Band has several key components, but Federici has always been one of them.
April 11, 2008
BUSINESS: Couric Flounders
CBS, besides defending a $70 million lawsuit over the dismissal of its last Evening News anchor, is now pondering dumping Katie Couric, who has failed to earn her own $75 million paycheck.
For Couric, this turned out to be a bad case of hubris: she assumed that, having been a commercial success in morning TV, she could switch to the different format and audience of evening news and not only succeed but turn around a floundering, scandal-tarred news division. It didn't happen; not only did she lose one of her principal assets along the way (Couric's chipper demeanor always went over well with the morning-TV crowd), but once CBS made the decision to stay a nominally straight news outlet rather than becoming an openly left-leaning news source, Couric was always the worst possible person to try to correct CBS News' decades-long reputation as the most liberal news source on TV.
Clearly, CBS should have listened to me when I suggested back in December 2004 that they hire CNN's Erica Hill instead. Hill's career has only headed up since then; Headline News ended up rebranding her prime-time shift as "Prime News with Erica Hill," and more recently she moved to the mother network to pair with Anderson Cooper on one of CNN's two most prominent news shows (the other being The Lou Dobbs Really Hates Foreigners Hour). Hill probably wouldn't have singlehandedly turned around CBS overnight either, but hiring a younger, lower-key and undoubtedly less expensive anchor would have kept costs and expectations lower, and signalled a commitment to rebuilding the brand from scratch rather than trying to poach from NBC. Instead, CBS is now reduced to denying reports that it's going to outsource newsgathering to ... CNN.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 9:16 AM | Business | Politics 2008 | Pop Culture | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)
April 4, 2008
BLOG: Quick Links 4/4/08
*This analysis of major league managers' tendencies illustrated as cartoon faces is...well, you have to click on the graphic to get the full effect. It's bizarre. H/T Rays Index.
*Today is the 97th anniversary of the introduction of baseball's MVP Award by automaker Hugh Chalmers. The first-ever MVPs? In the AL, 24-year-old Ty Cobb for his first and best .400 season, batting .420/.467/.621 with 47 doubles, 24 triples and 83 steals, scoring 147 runs and driving in 127. In the NL, 28-year-old veteran Cubs rightfielder Frank "Wildfire" Schulte, narrowly over Christy Mathewson, for batting .300/.384/.534 with 21 triples and 21 homers (only the third 20-HR season ever if you exclude the fluky 1884 Cubs), 105 Runs, and 107 RBI.
*Our old friend Dr. Manhattan is back blogging! While I was tied up doing my baseball previews, he had a fine column taking John McCain to task for his knee-jerk ignorance on the connection between vaccines and autism. As a general rule, the more science is involved in an issue, the worse McCain is. He seems sometimes to have a superstitious faith in junk science.
*Former equipment manager Yosh Kawano is leaving the Cubs clubhouse after 65 years. That's a very long time to work for one baseball team and not get a World Series ring. I think Kawano's name is familiar to me from one of Joe Garagiola's books...as in, he was there when Garagiola played for the Cubs.
*Via Pinto, Travis Nelson at Boy of Summer has a lengthy attack on Melky Cabrera. I'm more optimistic about Cabrera's potential for across-the-board growth as a hitter, but I'd generally agree that his prospects are much dimmer if you don't regard him as a competent defensive center fielder.
*There's no such thing as an innocent non-Muslim? This may go a ways to explaining what this means. I can't buy into Hawkins' notion, which has been pushed for some time by my RedState colleague Paul Cella, that the U.S. should bar immigration by Muslims, but when you consider Hawkins' logic, I have to admit that that's more an emotional reaction than a reasoned position on my part.
*While I don't agree with all the analysis, David Frum and Bill Kristol have some useful points about the perlious passivity of the Bush Administration in responding to criticism, most particularly the conviction that there's no point in fighting over the past. The Administration's enemies have nourished a number of myths about the past 7 years that have proven terribly corrosive of its credibility, goodwill and, ultimately, ability to get anything done. (On a related note, consider how little press went to the Army Corps of Engineers' ultimate admission that its design defects caused the flooding of New Orleans).
*Yes, Glenn Greenwald is still a fool who has trouble with elementary logical reasoning.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 9:09 AM | Baseball 2008 | Blog 2006-Present | Business | Hurricane Katrina | Politics 2008 | Pop Culture | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)
March 11, 2008
WAR: True Chuck Norris Fact
This story about Chuck Norris' cult following among U.S. troops in Iraq is pretty amusing, but he is apparently popular with the locals as well:
Norris' appeal is not restricted to U.S. troops either. At an Iraqi police graduation ceremony in Fallujah, graduates called out for their "Chuck Norris" to pose with them for photos.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 9:04 PM | Pop Culture | War 2007-Present | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)
February 15, 2008
BUSINESS/POP CULTURE: Unbuild A Bear
One of yesterday's biggest stock losers was Build A Bear Workshop, which saw its stock price plunge 20% on a disappointing earnings report. Motley Fool looks at the roadblocks the company has faced, mainly escalating costs and a general sense that the novelty of bear-building has worn off. The suggestion that someone like Disney snap up the company makes some sense, and probably a lot more sense if the price continues to drop.* When we took the kids to Citizens Bank Park last summer, they had a Build-a-Phanatic store; I would think that Disneyworld could do something similar. The good news for a brand like this is that if kids get bored with it, there's always another generation of little ones for whom everything is new.
One thing that isn't mentioned here but should be, though, is the rising threat of Webkinz. If you're not familiar, Webkinz sells stuffed animals, much like a slightly larger version of Beanie Babies, but the hook is that each Webkinz can be registered on a website so that kids can then play online games with an online avatar of their stuffed character, buy things for the character (e.g., furniture for its room). The site is engaging and it's kid-safe, in that while kids can interact with others over the site, such as by playing games with them and exchanging some canned forms of communication, there's no way for them to actually talk to other kids on the site - and thus no way for them to talk to people pretending to be kids, either. It's enormously addictive, and the Webkinz site has definitely drawn my kids away from Build a Bears to Webkinz.
That said, we were back at Build a Bear this weekend (much to the particular joy and amazement of my youngest, who is almost two). Why? Because Build a Bear has opened its own website, and in addition to registering all new stuffed animals on the site they are having a limited time offer to register previously purchased stuffed animals. While "Build a Bearville" doesn't seem to be on a par with "Webkinz World," it at least got my kids back to wanting to go to the store and check out the site.
So that's the real story from the trenches. It remains to be seen which of the two prevails in the long run (Webkinz has the advantage of lower margins, since they don't operate retail stores), or whether perhaps there is even an opportunity for the two companies to merge their operations (less likely). But it's proof that even so prosaic a company as Build a Bear needs to adapt to the internet to stay competitive.
* - I should note that (a) I'm not giving investment advice, nor would anyone in their right minds take investment advice from me and (b) I haven't checked on whether Build a Bear is one of my law firm's many clients and I don't personally have any non-public information about the company or any of the other companies mentioned here or in the Fool.com article.
February 7, 2008
POP CULTURE: Good News
Looks like the writers' strike may be close to an end, which means no more of this. Hopefully, the actors won't go out next.
February 4, 2008
POP CULTURE: Department of Narrowly Averted Disasters
Come spring, the show's writers and their Fox bosses began having informal telephone conversations about how to recover for next season. By the May 21 season finale, the audience had dropped to just over 11 million. Fox gave the writers carte blanche to "reimagine" the show. One of the team's chief considerations was how to address the controversy surrounding Jack's use of torture. Should Jack be feeling the guilt the media would have him feel?
As Dave Barry would say: 24 has writers?
December 23, 2007
POP CULTURE: Ernie and Bert
December 20, 2007
POP CULTURE: Stairway, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah
December 19, 2007
POP CULTURE: Hobbitt 2: Bilbo Meets Jar Jar
The bad news: I gather the "sequel" discussed here will be set between The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Rings, which means it will have nothing to do with Tolkein, who wrote very little occurring in that period, and nothing resembling a fully fleshed out adventure. The Silmarillion and other parts of the Tolkein canon, including the LotR appendices, provide more than enough material for pre-Hobbit storytelling; I have no idea why Jackson would want to do that other than a positive desire to make his own stuff up. I mean, I want to see the fall of Gondolin, the flight of the Noldor from Valinor, the fight of Morgoth and Fingolfin. If he wants to do a story with a lot of creative liberties, he could do a full film treatment of the Last Alliance or some of the battles in the earlier Third Age.
UPDATE: More than a few people are questioning whether the "sequel" is really going to be something other than doing the book in two parts. I hope it won't, and maybe I have heard incorrectly. When I get a chance, I'll look for more sources on this.
BLOG: Quick Links 12/19/07
*TIME Magazine looked into Vladimir Putin's heart, too, and named him their Man of the Year for discarding the remaining constitutional breaks on dictatorship in Russia. Unlike President Bush, TIME can't excuse this as diplomacy.
*You'll shoot your eye out! Mike Huckabee may have a serious problem with granting too many clemencies to violent criminals, but Mitt Romney's refusal to grant any pardons or clemencies at all took him to the ridiculous length of refusing to expunge the conviction of a decorated Iraq War veteran who was convicted at age 13 of shooting a friend in the arm with a BB gun.
*Britney Spears' 16-year-old sister, who was supposed to be the responsible one, has announced that she is pregnant. At least she's keeping the baby.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 9:19 AM | Baseball 2007 | Blog 2006-Present | Pop Culture | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)
December 18, 2007
POP CULTURE: FrankTV
My wife and I have been watching some episodes of FrankTV lately on TBS. The show, if you're not familiar, is basically as low-budget a concept as you can get this side of a reality show: Frank Caliendo does sketches in which he plays nearly all the characters, and the sketches are broken up by Frank on a couch with a semi-randomly selected member of the studio audience.
The writing on the show isn't particularly good, but it's worth tuning in for an episode or two if you haven't seen Caliendo's impressions, which are uncanny. Longer term, of course, the show is yet another point in the evolution of original TV programming towards budget-consciousness. Even some scripted shows these days seem to be under pressure to make do with smaller casts and fewer sets. It's an economically rational response to the decline of mass-market ratings.
November 22, 2007
POP CULTURE: Hollywood's "Social Conscience" In A Nutshell
Julia Roberts designs Armani bracelet for World AIDS Day. Mother Theresa should have been so virtuous.
November 20, 2007
POP CULTURE: Valuing the Writers
Writers make a lot less money in comparison to directors and actors than they used to. And the less money you make on a project, the less control you can exert over the creative process.
His whole post is worth reading...the analogy isn't perfect in terms of market structure: writers have more of a free market than NFL linemen had pre-free-agency, but as Last notes in the comments, the market they have is not the most effective one, given the stranglehold a handful of consumers (i.e., network heads) have on the decision to hire them.
As Last notes, writers bring a large marginal value to the table: it's far more common to see TV shows fail for bad writing than for bad acting, so improving the writing can dramatically improve the expected return on investment on a show (unless the show's concept is so bad as to be beyond salvage by any writer). That's partly a function of an inefficient market (i.e., inability to identify the best writers, as compared to a relatively efficient market for locating good actors), possibly partly a scarcity-of-quality issue, and partly that - unlike novelists or movie writers - TV writers are signed in advance of turning out multiple stories, so the network heads may not want to pay in advance without assurances that a given writer will produce consistently good work.
The problem with writers not getting their due in terms of their marginal value to the projects they work on is, I would guess, the combination of the first and third points: networks don't have - or don't feel they have - a really good system for telling the difference between good and bad writers, and lack confidence that today's good writer will continue to churn out quality tomorrow. At least, that's my speculation. Because if the networks really did believe they could measure the difference between good writers and bad ones there would be a very big marginal investment return to be made by expanding your writing budget to snag the best ones.
November 7, 2007
POP CULTURE: The Sad Thing Is...
November 3, 2007
POP CULTURE: I Did Not Know That
October 26, 2007
POP CULTURE: Tell Me Where The Trailer Is!
Warning: contains spoilers if you have not watched all 6 prior seasons (I learned things here I did not know, not having yet caught up on seasons 4 & 5):
October 18, 2007
POP CULTURE: Hey Bulldog
Matt Welch links to a cool video of the Beatles performing "Hey Bulldog," one of their lesser-known but still excellent tunes:
October 15, 2007
POP CULTURE: What's Next, The Jar Jar Jar?
September 28, 2007
POP CULTURE: Bruuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuce at the Rock
Just a moment to blog here - I just got back from seeing Bruce Springsteen live at Rockefeller Center (which is just a block from my office). It was awesome (and a good deal more fun than last night's Mets game, which I was at Shea for, and which quickly turned from desperation to a funereal atmosphere). Granted, I couldn't see Bruce from where I was standing, and I couldn't hear nearly any of what he said when he bantered with or hectored the crowd or chatted with Matt Lauer, but (a) I was still closer to the stage than I have been for the three times I saw him in concert, and (b) hey, it's free. It was sort of surreal, since I was across the street and while Bruce was playing there were an endless stream of cabs, trucks, cop cars, buses, etc. streaming by. I also got to see Tim Russert, who wandered in front of one of the big panoramic second-floor windows on his cell phone and waved to the crowd.
Bruce was scheduled to go on at about 8:30, but he came out to do a warmup at 8am sharp - and oddly, he played "The Promised Land," which he then played a second time as his opener on the air. Bruce and the band both sounded great. After that he played two of the new songs that for various reasons I had not heard previously. First was "Radio Nowhere," which rocks, and if anything reminded me of "Trouble River," but bouncier. Second up, and preceded by some political screed about tearing up the Constitution and whatnot (I couldn't make out enough of it to really be irritated, and besides, we know Bruce's politics by now) was "Living in the Future," which has a real vintage E Street Band feel to it. Then he did a fairly somber version of "My Hometown," and came back out (I assume for the last time - I left a few minutes later) for an encore of "Night," a little bit of an odd choice at 9am but the longtime Bruce fans in the crowd ate it up.
UPDATE: From YouTube, audio of Bruce doing "Radio Nowhere" in Asbury Park Tuesday night:
And here is "Living in the Future"
It would appear that Bruce may have done one more song after I left....grrr.
September 24, 2007
POP CULTURE: Napster Killed The Radio Star
Will Collier explains how the record companies' declining profit margins from selling music in the age of iTunes are pushing them to focus on acts who generate profit from things other than their music, with inevitable declining returns on the quality of the music.
July 31, 2007
POP CULTURE: This Little Light of Mine
It's the feel-good story of the year:
UPDATE: This is good too.
July 28, 2007
POP CULTURE: Harry Potter and the Riddle of Death
So, late Thursday night I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final installment in the series. My review of the book is below the fold.
WARNING! SPOILERS! WARNING! SPOILERS! WARNING! SPOILERS! WARNING! SPOILERS! WARNING! SPOILERS! WARNING! SPOILERS! WARNING! SPOILERS!
In other words, don't read further unless you have finished the book or don't mind finding out how it goes and ends.
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Now, I have greatly enjoyed each of the Harry Potter books, and this was no different. As a piece of storytelling, I thought this was a tremendous book, in many ways the best of the series and at least the best since Book 3. There wasn't a false note up through the death of Snape (more on which below); the action sequences were great and avoided being repetitive, the book's and series' many mysteries unfolded at regular intervals rather than all tumbling out at the end, and there was excellent pacing, alternating between the action sequences, the plot narration, and the occasional quieter character-development vignettes in a way that let the reader catch his or her breath.
Rowling also didn't fall into some of her tics from earlier books. She didn't abuse adverbs as dialogue modifiers (said Harry fiercely). She didn't end too many paragraphs with ellipses..... Other than Dumbledore's large-scale decision to ration the information given to Harry, which at least was a mainly deliberate strategic decision with some thought behind it, she didn't keep the plot going by having characters constantly and inexplicably failing to share crucial pieces of information (my wife and I have been watching old seasons of "24" lately and the same problem is just as rampant there).
She also mostly didn't keep Voldemort at bay. Like a Batman or Bond villian (or, to be fair, like the real-world evildoer Osama bin Laden), Voldemort has constantly screwed up by preferring long-brewing plots of baroque complexity and melodrama to more regular applications of brute force and savagery. Even when considered in light of the difficulty of penetrating the protective charms around Harry and Hogwarts, his own paranoia about the prophecy and his own vulnerabilities, and his limited personnel, Voldemort's insistence in Books 4-6 on waiting all year to rely on a single plot with multple ways of going wrong was just hard to understand. This time, while he remains personally consumed by the hunt for the Elder Wand, Voldemort at least has his servants and allies on the constant attack, giving Harry and friends no peace and killing, torturing and taking hostages at every turn.
Unlike J.R.R. Tolkein, who never could kill a hobbit and let 8 of the 9 members of the Fellowship survive, Rowling certainly wasn't even remotely squeamish about killing off characters we have gotten to know over the years. Voldemort and Bellatrix, of course, had to die - the series as a whole would have made no sense if Voldemort wasn't done in, andBellatrix was the one of his servants furthest beyond redemption. But the list of the others is impressive, and includes a number of the types of characters who don't usually die en masse in stories of this nature: Fred, Snape, Lupin, Dobby, Moody, Tonks, Hedwig, Crabbe, Pettigrew, Scrimgeour, Collin Creavey. Fred Weasley's death in particular was wrenching, though less so because Rowling really never slowed the action again to focus on it (we never saw George again, for example). She blanched, though, at killing Hagrid, despite leaning in that direction on a couple of occasions.
More broadly, Rowling made sure that nearly no character who had made a significant appearance in the series - other than those already rather permanently dispatched - missed an opportunity to contribute to the plot, even highly obscure characters like Griphook, Dedalus Diggle and the Bloody Baron. I noticed from early on that Rowling was working hard to bring us full circle with her references to people and things that we hadn't seen since the start of Book 1 - Diggle, Sirius' flying motorcycle, the Put-Outer (now renamed the Deluminator).
All that said, the book did have flaws. The Epilogue in particular seemed pointless and cheesy, yet uninformative - I had expected more along the lines of a credits-rolling type epilogue with a list of 2-3 sentence descriptions of where each character went next, not just a vignette showing us that yes, Harry married Ginny and named their kids after his parents, Dumbledore and Snape, Ron married Hermione, and Voldemort is really most sincerely dead (maybe Rowling will eventually put something more expansive on her website). The epilogue told us nothing of the later careers of anybody but Neville, nothing really about what kinds of adults the teen characters became, not even precisely who raised Ted Lupin or whether he was a werewolf. If you are going to bother with an epilogue, make it count for something.
I also thought the chapter of Snape's memories felt awfully rushed and not all that revealing, and the chapters that followed, while critical to the story, were a bit unevenly done, in some places (e.g., Mrs. Weasley's dialogue with Bellatrix) too obviously playing to the crowd. Now, I was reading by that point in haste, and it's hard for the ending of anything this long and this good and built around long-running puzzles to live up to all expectations, plus parts of it simply had to be a real downer (Harry resigning himself to death and discovering that Dumbledore had planned him to die all along for the greater good), so maybe I will feel differently on a second read-through. But other parts simply felt like too-good-to-be true twists: Harry waking up alive to talk with Dumbledore, the reinforcements poring over the Hogwarts walls at the right moment, Harry 's duel with Voldemort being resolved in a single spell simply by who had, er, the bigger wand.
The two major themes of the series as a whole, of course, are (1) the power of love, generosity, tolerance and selflessness over hatred, racism, cruelty and the will to power and (2) the need to accept death as a part of life. Unsurprisingly, Book 7 hammers away at these themes, and places them at the very center of the resolution of the Harry-Voldemort feud.
Harry clearly becomes a man in this book. That fact reaches its conclusion when he willingly lays down his life, but it's never more vividly driven home than when he tells Lupin to stay home from the Quest and take care of his pregnant wife (a scene that must have been more poignant to Rowling, as a former single mom).
We see throughout the story the ways in which Voldemort's followers - tortured, manipulated, intimidated - fail him or turn on him (in the case of Narcissa Malfoy when she lets Harry play dead, explicitly out of love for her son), while help comes again and again to Harry un-looked for due to his generosity to house-elves, goblins, etc. (recall that Harry had saved Malfoy's life at great risk to his own barely two hours earlier). Sometimes that generosity brings him no obvious benefit (as when he breaks up the Ministry's concentration camp-style roundup of Muggle-borns while escaping with the locket), but he does it anyway out of a refusal to accept injustice.
More than a few commentators have speculated as to whether Harry's sole self-sacrifice makes Rowling's work, like Tolkein's and CS Lewis', explicitly Christian in orientation. I haven't seen enough in the stories to go that far, and of course those are writers who are high among her influences anyway, but certainly one couldn't miss the significance when Harry, having laid down his life in sacrifice, waits before returning to life in a chapter entitled "King's Cross."
The hunt for the Horcruxes naturally gave the book a structure that took it out of the pattern of the prior six books, built as they were around the Hogwarts school year. We knew that plot would be supplemented by the final unveiling of Snape's loyalties, what happened in Godric's Hollow, and the last showdown with Voldemort. What was added unexpectedly to this was the interlocking stories of Dumbledore's past and the Deathly Hallows.
One of the real entertainments of the final book, for the adult reader, is in trying not only to figure out where the plot is going and how it holds together, but in trying to deduce after the fact which parts of the plot Rowling came up with years ago and which were added more recently. It's clear that she has done a fair amount of planning ahead, and unlike George Lucas she doesn't paint herself into story corners.
In a way, the simplicity of the chapter on Snape and his enduring love for Lily is further evidence that it was part of Rowling's original story, before the advancing complexity of the books led to an escalation in the complexity of her storylines, whereas I have to assume that the Hallows were a relatively late addition.
I had one uncertainty about the Hallows storyline. Harry defeats Voldemort at the end because Voldemort is not the true master of the Elder Wand - Harry is, by virtue of having defeated Draco who defeated Dumbledore. But was Grindelwald a true master of the wand? If so, unlike Draco, he was a powerful enough wizard that he should never have been defeated by Dumbledore. If not- because Grindelwald stole it, after all - then Dumbledore was never the true master either; the true master was the wizard who killed its prior owner, Gregorovitch. In other words, Voldemort.
Of course, if you have read my extensive post after Book 6, you will recall that I made quite a lot of predictions for this book, with enough of a mixed record that I can feel justified in seeing some things coming without feeling like I had no surprises left to enjoy. Let's walk through them.
1. Dumbledore's really dead: I was right, Rowling wouldn't violate the essence of the lesson about the reality of death by bringing him back, although he does return in Harry's sorta-dream after sacrificing himself to Voldemort. The blue eye in Harry's mirror and the phoenix-looking fire from his wand provided early, tantalizing suggestions that Dumbledore wasn't really dead, but it turns out that the only trickery in his death was the recovery of his wand (I only skimmed so far back over the end of 6 but I can't see where it mentions who did that - Snape wasn't around to sneak it back) and its entombing with him.
2. Dumbledore left memories and the Pensieve behind for Harry: He left clues, but no memories, and Snape provided memories only at the last instant. Harry had to track down witnesses and tap into Voldemort's head to get the truth about his parents' death, the Hallows, Dumbledore's background, etc.
3. Regulus could be alive and be Scrimgeour, and in any event somebody we think is dead is really in hiding. Wrong on all counts.
4. Harry, Ron and Hermione all survive. Yup.
5. Harry will have to trust Snape. I was amazed that we didn't see Snape until the very end, and he essentially played no visible role in the story (the delivery of the sword by the silver doe notwithstanding); Harry never spoke another word with the man until he received his memories.
6. Snape was in love with Lily, working to protect Harry and destroy Voldemort. No zig or zag here, Rowling followed the conventional analysis to a T.
7. The Half-Blood Prince's book was written by Lily, who had a crush on Snape. None of that part panned out.
8. Snape took the Unbreakable Vow with Dumbledore. No, he didn't.
9. Snape somehow contributed to Voldemort's failure the first time. No, it went down just as Dumbledore always said - it was his mother's sacrifice, nothing more.
10. The last Horcrux was the Sorting Hat, and if not that the sword or Harry's cloak. Well, Rowling quashed the Sorting Hat notion before the book was published. The sword and the cloak, though, did play pivotal roles and the cloak did turn out to have a powerful magical history. As for Ravenclaw's tiara, I sort of guessed that a chapter or two before their arrival at Hogwarts - I had assumed all along and predicted that one Horcrux would be at Hogwarts, and once my original guesses were eliminated and other ideas stumped, I went back and looked through the chapter on Harry hiding the book in the Room of Requirement and concluded that it was probably the bust or the tiara...by the way, you missed it if you blinked, but Harry lost two beloved magical objects in battle - the Prince's potion book was presumably consumed by the Fiendfire, and Harry dropped his Firebolt from the sidecar of Hagrid's bike during the dogfight.
11. Regulus got the locket out with Kreacher's help. Yup, sort of.
12. Dumbledore's statements while drinking the potion were echoes of things said when the young Riddle tormented those kids in that cave many years before, and Harry may need to track down the now-elderly Muggles involved to find out what happened. Nope, off base there, it was reliving the fight that killed Dumbledore's own sister.
13. We will see more of Zacharias Smith, in the hunt for the Hufflepuff cup. Nope, not a peep.
14. There are at least four characters (Neville, Snape, Draco, and Pettigrew) and possibly others (Ginny, Hagrid, Aunt Petunia, the house-elves) who JKR has set up to potentially step in and play a surprising role at a key plot point to get Harry through the remaining tasks of destroying Horcruxes and killing Voldemort....I can easily see Pettigrew killing the snake.
Well, I got the details wrong, but Snape, Pettigrew and Dobby all either sacrificed themselves for Harry or, in Pettigrew's case, were undone by a debt to him, and Malfoy's hesitance to kill Dumbledore proved crucial to the plot.
15. Harry returns to Hogwarts as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at the end of the story. The Epilogue clearly indicates that Harry is not on the Hogwarts faculty.
I'd have to agree with several people who have said that this book will - or at least can - make a tremendous movie. Yeah, there's a good bit of backstory explication that will need to get cut, but the action scenes are so inherently theatrical, especially the aerial dogfight at the beginning, the robbery of Gringotts and the escape from Malfoy Manor.
I think the Gringotts breakout was my favorite scene in the book. Having seen a proposed cover with the trio flying a dragon, I knew from the moment we saw the dragon that they were going to use it to break out. In fact, at one point after they lost the sword, I thought that they were going to need either Grawp or a dragon to destroy the Horcruxes.
This is obviously a coincidence, but I can't be the only adult American reader who was reminded powerfully of the last scene in the Sopranos when Harry, Ron and Hermione, fresh from escaping the wedding, sit down in a diner, order coffee and then start wondering about the ominous strangers who enter and pass their table. Of course, unlike David Chase, Rowling didn't leave the scene hanging but lunges directly into the Death Eaters' attack on the trio.
Best line of the book? Viktor Krum's "what's the point of being an internationally famous Quidditch player if all the pretty girls are taken?"
The Battle of Hogwarts was inspiring,with every inch of the castle and its inhabitants rallying to defend the school. I also can't re-read Harry's walk to the forest without choking up.
The taboo on the Unforgiveable Curses broke down, as we see Harry use two of them and McGonagall use the Imperius Curse, although only Mrs. Weasley - justifiably so - is shown, among the good wizards, using the Avada Kedavra curse.
End of the day, does the Potter series stack up against Tolkein's epic? Maybe not quite, although we will need the perspective of time to judge. But I do think the finale amply justifies mentioning it in the same breath.
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July 20, 2007
POP CULTURE: Harry Potter and the Daily Prophet
I'm still appalled that the NY Times broke embargo and published a review of the seventh Harry Potter book yesterday, though given the Times' attitude towards far more serious and dangerous secrets, I can't say I'm surprised. At any rate, I will never forgive anyone who spoils the ending for me, doubly so because I'm swamped with work at the moment and will take longer than usual to get through the final 784 pages of the saga. This isn't like the Sopranos, where we could all watch a single episode the same night. My one consolation is that the media is so fixated on "does Harry die?" that that may be all they report. Either way, I will have to avoid a lot of media for the next week or two.
As for my predictions for Book #7, I can't add much to my lengthy analysis after Book #6. Jonathan Last has more here, including a link to a lengthy analysis of the "evil Snape" theory (i.e., that Snape is actually a Saruman-like figure). I continue to believe that we will find that Snape was never fully loyal either to Dumbledore or Voldemort.
July 16, 2007
POP CULTURE: Harry Potter and the Grumpy Old Dude
It being my son's brithday last Thursday, we took the kids (sans baby) out to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. On the whole, it was yet again an enjoyable film, as the first four were. But a good many of the scenes felt rushed - they didn't just trim out scenes to squeeze an 870-page book into a single movie, they also simplified the scenes that were left, taking out many of the delicious ironies, clever plot twists and one-liners that make Rowling's books more than just fun kiddie stories. I swear, if they made a movie version of Gilligan's Island today the first thing the studio would do is tell the director that the plot needed to be simplified and there were too many characters. The film ran something like 2 hours and 20 minutes, and while a 3-hour movie is always a hard sell, especially for kids, you could easily have added 20 minutes to the film and lost nothing in terms of pacing. Remember, the bulk of the kids in the audience have plowed through multiple 700+ page books, they will have the patience.
Of course, the book is always better. And I'm not unsympathetic to the problem of condensing a book of that length. More after the fold - I'm writing for the audience of people who know the books here, so spoilers will follow if you don't.
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One of the problems with movies made from book serieses is that they tend to cut things that are essential to the plot of the series but not of the particular book, and this one is no exception - why did Harry have to hear the prophecy in the Ministry in front of his friends rather than from Dumbledore? You'll recall that the Goblet of Fire movie cut the crucial scene that sets up Order of the Phoenix: Cornelius Fudge's stubborn refusal to believe that Voldemort is back. I always suspected that the decision to cut that scene was partly driven by a refusal to face the contemporary political parallels in a scene where the hawks who warned of the Voldemort threat were obviously right - notwithstanding the fact that JK Rowling wrote the scene before September 11 and all that.
Order of the Phoenix, of course, is the most political of all the Potter books - not political in the sense of an allegory of today's headlines, but political in the sense that it deals with issues of government, and in fact the Ministry of Magic provides a cornucopia of governmental malfeasance and incompetence:
*Mulishly denying the existence of an external, terroristic threat.
*Misusing the judicial process to bring trumped-up criminal charges against its critics (having already staged an attack one of those critics).
*Micromanaging education by decrees of the national government.
*Censoring the press while putting out propaganda.
*Cracking down on individuals' right to defend themselves just when they are most in need.
*Influence peddling (Lucius Malfoy).
*Foolishly entrusting prison security to enemies.
*Excessive surveillance of communications.
*Sanctioning torture of students and abusive interrogation (the use of Veritaserum).
*Appallingly poor security around what ought to be closely guarded secrets.
Something for everyone! In that context, the film doesn't cover everything - we especially miss the revelation that Umbridge set the dementors on Harry, as well as the background of Umbridge's racism - but it does nicely canvass the oppressiveness of the Ministry and its accompanying fecklessness with regard to the Death Eater threat.
The scene I missed the most, of the ones that were cut, was the hospital scene - granted, the return of Gilderoy Lockhart didn't advance the plot and would have required them to bring back Kenneth Branagh, but the scene in the film where Neville talks about his parents is a poor substitute for showing them. I also missed the whole dynamic of the faculty passive-aggressively undermining Umbridge by making her do things they claimed to be unsure of their authority to do (like chasing down stray fireworks).
I actually thought that the most theatrical scenes in the book were the ones that translated least well, like Dumbledore's duel with Voldemort. The scene that probably suffered the most from haste was the scene where Dumbledore leaves Hogwarts - a tremendously skillful tableu in Rowling's hands, with Dumbledore at turns mirthful and shrewd in improvising Harry's acquittal and conspiring with Kingsley, to say nothing of how Hermione's jinx on the "Dumbledore's Army" list played out. But that brings us to the larger flaw that could utterly sink the sixth film if not repaired: Michael Gambon is an awful Dumbledore, taking a vividly drawn character and reducing him to just another grumpy, gruff old guy who can do some magic. All the things that make Dumbledore so impressive on the page - including those aspects that Richard Harris brought so ably to life in the first two films - are missing here: the sense of commanding power, the wry and mischievous humor, the serene confidence, the Fred Rogers level of gentleness. In the books, Dumbledore doesn't struggle like a man in a tug-o-war when fighting Voldemort, he does things with a flick of the wand. The ultimate Dumbledore scene in the series is when he's cornered at the top of the astronomy tower in the sixth book - weakened, disarmed, surrounded by enemies threatening him with death - and is speaking with them pleasantly, and one of them sneers that they have no time for his jokes, to which he replies, "Jokes? No, these are manners." Can you picture Gambon pulling that scene off? I can't. He needs to be replaced.
The rest of the cast does a good job here, though. Among the child actors, Emma Watson has always had the Hermione character nailed, and Daniel Radcliffe has managed to grow as an actor with the increasing demands of what started off as a fairly easy role in the first two films. Rupert Grint is no longer the disaster he was in the second film, having traded in comic mugging for an average-guy slightly sullen teen look (of course, Ron's importance to the series is his normalcy, his Sam Gamgee to Harry's suffering, conflicted Frodo). The other kids have held their roles well. Imelda Staunton did a much better Umbridge than I expected from the previews, and that was critical to the film. With the passage of years and the harsh lighting, most of the adult actors looked rather the worse for wear, but Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith and Robbie Coltrane remain perfect for their characters.
One thing I liked in the flying scenes was the emphasis on the modernity of London; in the books you get that this is set today, but most of the scenes of the Muggle world are more rural or suburban rather than juxtaposing broom-flying wizards with an urban skyline at night.
One last odd choice: the movie rather strongly suggested that Harry's real romantic connection should have been with Luna, who is shown as the only one who understands him, rather than Cho, to whom his attraction is unexplained and inexplicable. (The scene at the end with Luna tacking up posters requesting her lost possessions back ran long enough that I don't know why they left out the book's poignant line where she indicates that they do this to her every year).
UPDATE: Forgot to mention this - I don't necessarily agree with Chris Lynch that Grawp looks enough like a left-wing caricature of George W. Bush to suspect intentional dumping of contemporary politics into the film, but I can see where he's coming from; Grawp looks mostly like Alfred E. Newman.
As I said, the story is inherently and unaviodably small-p political, but that kind of politics holds up well for generations of readers; efforts to inject more specific references to today's debates and personalities is exactly what causes things to get dated. For example, the Muggle Prime Minister in the first chapter of Boox Six is certainly at least a little Tony Blair-ish, but the scene works perfectly well if you have no idea who Blair is.
SECOND UPDATE: Gambon in his own words:
Empire: Are you kind of easing into the role a bit more now you have done one film as Dumbledore?
(H/t Jeff Emanuel for the link)
THIRD UPDATE: Here is a provactive idea, though I'm sure there are better choices: Sean Connery as Dumbledore for the sixth film? He wouldn't capture Dumbledore's gentle side but at least he could be twinkly and mischievous, serene and yet powerful. Plus, of course, he's Scottish.
Richard Harris is still a tough act to follow.
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June 30, 2007
POP CULTURE: It's The Shades
June 16, 2007
POP CULTURE: Yet Another Sopranos Fanfic
An exhaustive explanation from the setting of the final scene of why Tony is deader than Paul McCartney. Via HotAir. Of course, all of this is equally consistent with Chase teasing us to build suspense. I still think the whole "show ends when Tony's point of view ends" assumption is inconsistent with the show's prior seasons, in which we saw plenty of things Tony never saw.
By the way - another spoiler here, albeit from an older film:
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people keep mentioning Michael Corleone's death in Godfather III. I saw the movie and I swear I never saw that. I was certain that the movie ended with his daughter
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June 12, 2007
POP CULTURE: Chase Speaketh
An interesting interview with the Sopranos creator, including an unsurprising admission:
[R]emember that 21-month hiatus between Seasons Five and Six? That was Chase thinking up the ending. HBO chairman Chris Albrecht came to him after Season Five and suggested thinking up a conclusion to the series; Chase agreed, on the condition that he get "a long break" to decide on an ending.
Translation: if it feels like filler, it is filler. The Kevin Finnerty thing went on at least an episode too long as well.
June 10, 2007
POP CULTURE: Don't Stop Believing
Let's talk about the ending of The Sopranos. Spoliers, of course, aplenty. DO NOT READ IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW HOW IT ENDED
(NOTE: POST HAS BEEN UPDATED SEVERAL TIMES)
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If you do know how it ended, let me know...I mean, seriously, what the hell? I'm not saying that a non-ending of sorts, with the family sitting down for a meal and life going on, would have been a bad thing; we had a resolution of the war, with the death of Phil; we know that Tony is still in legal jeopardy; we know that his line of work will continue to expose him to risks. That, I can live with. The "choose your own adventure" ending is another story. And: Journey???? All the great music they have chosen in this series...don't get me wrong, I like cheesy music as much as the next guy (I even have that song on my iPod), but going out with "Don't Stop Believing"?
On the whole, the suspense was incredible throughout - shots of security cameras at the Bing, people coming up behind Tony, etc. But as with many past seasons, the real action was the next to last episode.
My best guess at the last minute had been that Tony would try to cooperate with the feds, Paulie would sniff him out, and the last words Tony would hear would be "Sorry, T." As it turned out, Paulie did indeed seemingly stay loyal (albeit with grievances as always) to the end. But there was one scene where we saw Paulie make a face after telling Tony he needed to think about the promotion...until he explained later the whole vision of the Blessed Mother thing, I thought he was feeling guilt about somehow betraying Tony while Tony was promoting him. (The funniest line in the whole show was Tony's response: "F*** strippers, we coulda had a shrine, sell holy water by the gallon").
In fact, at the end we never saw any secret mole, any hidden betrayal (Carlo flipping when his son gets pinched doesn't count) - although of course the final scene certainly showed the possible setup for either (1) a hit on Tony or (2) Tony and family getting killed in the crossfire of some totally unrelated criminal beef.
Since basically everyone else had been corrupted on this show - cops, the Church, the doctors and psychiatrists, the educators, etc. - the last episode was the FBI's turn, with Agent Harris having an affair with a colleague and basically taking Tony's side in selling out Phil's location. That crossed a serious line, and we definitely see that even as he has moved on to nastier things - or maybe because of that - Harris has taken to sympathizing with Tony just as it becomes obvious that Tony is playing him. This was Harris' episode as much as it was anyone's besides AJ.
I was surprised that we got more Junior, but a fitting end - he thinks it's "nice" that he ran North Jersey with Johnny Boy, but he doesn't remember...and doesn't know where he stashed his money.
Tony, for all his feigned contempt for therapy, was quick to start in with the Livia stuff again. Why does AJ have a new therapist - did Dr. Monotone get dumped for failing to see the suicide attempt coming? And Meadow, of course, is quite the expert in knowing what guilt buttons to push to shut up her father.
I forget if I'd blogged it here but I'd been wondering aloud for a while if we were building up to AJ joining the Army, albeit out of misguided reasons (a love for violence and a newfound hypersensitivity to the Arab world). Of course, he is easily enough bribed out of doing something genuinely noble by his parents. Carmela, by contrast, never did play a key role in the wind-down, nor really did Janice or Meadow.
Phil...couldn't happen to a nicer guy. That rollover scene looked like something from "Scary Movie" with the Greek chorus/peanut gallery cringing at the sight of his head getting squashed like a grape. Who would have thought that even Butchie would buy into killing Phil? I really had thought last week that one way or another he would win.
We never did get to see Tony use the big gun.
UPDATE: Saltier comments here. The ending really is a failure of storytelling. Shakespeare would have cringed.
At least Carmela got that AJ would never be an officer, but somehow I doubt the Army would take a guy who is just weeks removed from a suicide attempt.
I see someone mentions this in comments - I do think it's likely that Harris' motivation was strongly influenced by Phil having once set up a female FBI agent to be raped, whether or not it's the woman he's sleeping with - that's not legal or morally right, but it's the old-school cop response: a mobster violates the unwritten rule on not going after cops, he doesn't get arrested, the cops just look the other way or lend a hand in his gang rivals killing him.
No open casket for Phil, I guess.
I liked the comments by people saying the cat was Adrianna and that AJ is now officially on the Little Carmine career path.
By the way: if there is any artistic defense for Chase writing a highly suspenseful scene and then stopping in the middle of it to end the series, it would be wholly undermined if they ever did a Sopranos movie.
OK, I'm hearing this a lot, but I see no evidence that Tony Soprano got killed last night.
(You could add #4, things the writer says, but thus far beyond Delphic hints Chase has said nothing to confirm Tony's murder).
We didn't see Tony die.
STILL MORE: The blackout, of course, was a reverse War of the Worlds, sending people to call the cable company to find out why their TV showed nothing happening in New Jersey.
A couple of contrasts to the Godfather series - the guy goes in the bathroom and never comes out; we are invited to think of the whole family except the daughter getting killed at the end; AJ doesn't end up serving in the Army, in contrast to Michael Corleone.
If you are doing the "Tony bought it" fanfic thing, I guess there's a parallel to the Kevin Finnerty sequence - there, Tony came out of the coma when he heard Meadow calling. This time? He, never gets to see - or at least we never get to see - Meadow come through the door.
This really was a great exchange:
Meadow: "The state can crush the individual." Tony (incredulously): "New Jersey?"
Also, perfect AJ hearing Bob Dylan and thinking it's some sort of revelation, 40 years later.
And yes, part of me wonders if Chase was trying to get plaudits from the usual suspects for dissing his audience, and part of me wonders if he was holding back multiple alternate endings to sell DVDs.
Lest there be any confusion: I did love the episode, every bit of it up to the blackout. But the blackout was weak.
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June 4, 2007
POP CULTURE: Penultimate Sopranos
Now, now, we are really in the home stretch. SPOLIERS from last night's Sopranos included, so don't go below the fold if you are still waiting to watch it.
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David Chase has done a lot to keep us guessing throughout the series, so in a sense it was a surprise when last night's episode followed the most conventional path from the plotlines laid out the past few weeks - Melfi dropping Tony over the study about sociopaths, Phil deciding to whack Tony and the rest of the remaining leadership of his crew, and the whackings proceeding apace. Thoughts:
*I assume this is it for Melfi, as a Tony on the run won't have time - nor does the show - to have a final encounter. My wife and I debated whether Melfi should have been less angry and more clear about having revisited the literature and decided that she couldn't do anything for him, but (1) Tony respects anger and needs confrontation, (2) there's no good way to say "you're a hopeless sociopath," and (3) she was obviously frustrtated at feeling she'd been used all those years. Will Tony nonetheless draw on his experiences in "terapy" to survive his looming encounter with Phil?
Melfi's shrink acted unethically in opening the issue of Tony at a dinner party, even if the others at the table are all psychiatrists (so much for patient confidentiality) but it did force Melfi, who we have seen as the moral counterweight (i.e, unlike Meadow with Coco she refused to tell Tony about the rape and trigger his vengeance, or Carmela who takes the money and looks the other way) to confront the fact that she has been taking Tony's money and the vicarious thrills he provides and enabling his behavior.
It was, of course, amusing to see Tony, who has gotten away with so much, get called on swiping a recipe from a magazine, and ironic to call her "immoral."
*Bobby's death was telegraphed clearly the second he walked away from the ringing phone - I had no doubt he would not make it, especially given the contrast between his gentle, wistful love of classic model trains and the brutality of mob life finally tracking him down. Of course, you have to feel for Bobby's kids, who lost both their parents and are stuck now with Janice.
As for Silvio, he almost made it out of the Bing parking lot - and might have, if he hadn't spent time unloading the cash from the safe and collecting receipts. In a way I was sadder about Silvio's death, since he's been with the show longer and it wasn't as obviously coming, but he is not a sympathetic character, as we've seen from his murder of Adrianna to the guy he garroted at the opening of the episode.
As I mentioned a few weeks back, Silvio is the embodiment of the Soprano crime family as an organization (in addition to being Tony's most reliable and least self-interested counsellor). His death makes clear that whatever happens to Tony and Phil, Phil's side wins.
*What was the place Tony was hiding out? Junior's house? The porch reminded me of the Kevin Finnerty house and the upstate place where Tony B met his end. And was it just me or was there a big cardboard cutout of Silvio in the corner?
And I could not advise sleeping with that huge gun - right at hand, yes, but you don't want to startle out of bed and shoot your own guys. Note how that closing scene mirrors the season that ended with Tony waiting in his backyard for the bear.
*AJ is still a whiner to the end, and while I momentarily expected Tony to give him a gentle farewell, he really did need to be smacked out of his therapy-talk and made to understand the urgency of the situation. Note that the family had taken his belt and drained the pool - the pool that always meant so much to Tony - but of course there are still lethal weapons everywhere at hand.
*The final insult to Paulie - Phil doesn't think him worth killing. Silvio and Bobby were within their rights in letting Paulie know that he wasn't entitled to hear confirmation that the boss had ordered the hit on Phil (deniability vs Paulie's big mouth), whereas I have to assume that Al, the third guy at the table with Phil and Butchie, is Agent Harris' source. Unfortunately, Harris' uncertainty means they didn't have Al wearing a wire, or Phil would be in huge legal doo-doo for ordering multiple murders accross state lines. (For this reason, when I saw Al open a store, I was sure we'd see him get gunned down).
*We got one more Artie scene, plus a further offscreen humiliation for Junior. (Janice says they don't have the money to pay for Junior's care, but Bobby has $8 grand to blow on model trains).
*So where does this end, now? I guess it's possible Tony could turn in to the FBI, but right now everything is pointing to a continuation along this week's path, with Phil's crew hunting down Tony and Paulie and possibly Tony's family (recall that Phil doesn't respect limits - he tried to have an FBI agent raped - he's still bitter about his brother, and now they killed his girlfriend). Tony is cornered now like a king on a chessboard with one rook and some pawns facing an opponent with a full set - there's no way he can win this against Phil, even if he takes out Phil personally.
UPDATE: A couple of thoughts, keying among other things off the TWOP forums:
*Melfi's shrink, Elliott, mentioned in an earlier episode that his dad was an Untouchables fan - so we should conclude that he's named after Elliott Ness?
*It's not clear what house Tony is hiding in - some people seem to think Livia's house - but it does seem dumb that they are ordering out pizza from there.
*Yeah, Silvio should have had his gun a lot handier. A few people pointed out the parallel between Silvio crawling in the car for his gun and the way Adrianna was dragged from the car and crawled when he shot her.
*Anybody think Janice is going to kill Phil? (I didn't notice that Tony failed to warn Janice about the coming war with Phil).
*Tony still does, or at least had been doing, illegal business with Phil. Is it wise of Harris to tell Tony that Phil has a rat in his organization?
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May 31, 2007
POP CULTURE: Treason
Jonathan Last has been pumping up the Harry Potter 7 speculation with posts discussing the possibility of an early-in-the-book death for Mrs. Weasley and speculation that Professor McGonagall is a double agent. I don't buy the latter at all - I don't think even a fictional character could be convicted in a court of law of treason on such flimsy evidence, most of which consists of (1) sour facial expressions and (2) questionable decisionmaking.
May 21, 2007
POP CULTURE: Two Sopranos To Go
I'm a little bleary-eyed from watching the Sopranos last night after the Mets got shut down by Tyler Clippard on the way to his junior prom....thoughts in the extended entry below, SPOILERS INCLUDED.
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First of all, that beat-down Tony put on the guy who harrassed Meadow climaxed with one of the most shocking acts of violence we have seen on this show, and that's saying quite a lot. I'm still cringing from Tony fracturing the guy's dental plate.
Is this the end of AJ's story arc? It's hard to top a failed suicide attempt (via a typically incompetent effort to make himself sleep with the fishes - I thought Tony would find him dead and assume Phil did it and go bonkers) except with a successful suicide or some other method of AJ killing or dying. It's hard for him to get well in two episodes, too. I have to think it will get worse.
(I will say no more than to observe that Bush-hatred appears to be part of AJ's downward spiral and avoidance of his own reality).
Tony was awful slow to put down that hot dog while running to rescue his son.
It really is all about Tony's mother. His bus metaphor with Melfi shows how thoroughly he has absorbed her Freudianism. I'm guessing we will see more of Melfi, although her scene with her own shrink put a fairly appropriate ending on her storyline.
One of the quiet highlights of the episode was Carmela almost but not quite telling Meadow to avoid getting involved with a man in the mob. She just can't admit that to herself.
The Mayor of Munchkinland is now "Nobody Sees the Wizard," with crazy Butchie as the doorwarden. Of course, Phil tries to elevate himself above Tony by refusing an audience, but then ruins the effect by yelling out his window like a teenage girl in a snit. The man's resentments and grudges make Johnny Sack look like Fred Rogers by comparison. The coming attractions underline the obvious: the gang war David Chase has been tantalizing us with for over a year now will finally erupt into serious blood. I have to believe that one of the pleasures Chase will deny us is seeing Phil get his comeuppance; he's probably more of the device that brings down Tony.
Is this the first time we have seen Little Carmine introduced as "Carmine Lupertazzi" instead of "Little Carmine"? As Little Carmine would say, his statue is adding gravity.
Anybody taking bets on when Tony smashes the picture of Christopher?
Speaking of coming attractions, are we to believe that Silvio's loyalty will be called into question? He's really the only one left Tony can trust. And he really knows where the bodies are buried.
UPDATES: #1, I think someone other than Phil (Rusty?) was the Mayor of Munchkinland, or am I forgetting? And #2, maybe I heard wrong in the previews - was Sil saying he, Silvio, was playing both sides, or that Tony was?
#3 - Even if the Muslims are more of a target than the FBI is letting on, the fact that they showed pictures to Tony confirms what was already obvious: they are not going to ever use Tony as a witness against these guys in court.
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May 16, 2007
BLOG: Random Thoughts From Last Night
I was switching back and forth last night between the GOP debate and the Met game before catching up on last night's "24," so let me give you my observations on what I did catch, plus a few other bits:
*It may almost be time to add Shawn Green to the list of Omar's successes - I'm really amazed that he is hitting .324 and slugging .525, when he looked for all the world like he was headed irreversibly downhill last season. It's a Mike Lowell-style resurgence. Green doesn't look like a power hitter; he's built like a finesse pitcher. The Mets have batboys beefier than Green.
*24 has just gone catastrophically off the rails since the end of the plot with the Arabs. They should probably have ended the season right there. In particular, we have seen no explanation of how Chaing new where and when to call Jack to start this whole thing, and no good reason why the White House should have agreed in the first place to negotiate with a state actor holding a U.S. citizen hostage in Los Angeles. It's gone downhill from there. The Russians seem awfully touchy about nuclear technology that their own consul was basically handing out like Halloween candy, yet blase about threatening war with the U.S. when they know that the U.S. has access to that technology. The simplest explanation is this one.
It looks like Jack is finally leaving Los Angeles after this season. This means we can ask a question that would come up for no other show: will they kill off Los Angeles?
*The account of the White House hospital visit to John Ashcroft, by the way, sounds so much like something from 24... a scene very, very radically different from the caricature of Ashcroft as a jackbooted thug. I would love to have been a fly on the wall for Bush's talk with Comey to know how his concerns were ultimately dealt with or whether Bush just twisted his arm on the importance of the intelligence being collected.
*That set for the debate looked like a bad game show...I missed the rules, were the candidates actually buzzing in for rebuttal time?
*Rudy had the best response of the night when he slammed Ron Paul for essentially saying the U.S. had invited 9/11. I think Paul misread his invite to the Green Party debate. As I have said before, one Ron Paul in Congress is a good thing, but more of them would be a disaster. Any time he opens his mouth on foreign affairs you see why.
*Runner-up line goes to Mike Huckabee: "Congress has been spending money like John Edwards at a beauty shop".
*Of course, both of them have stiff competition from Fred Thompson's brilliant and hilarious response to Michael Moore.
*Having seen only transcripts of the first debate, I had not seen Paul or Tom Tancredo live before, and they were much unlike my image of them from reading their statements for years - Paul seemed like a frail old man, and Tancredo seemed meek and nervous; I was expecting a guy who looked and sounded like Bob Dornan.
*Goldberg and Vodkapundit had basically the same reaction to Romney - of course, Romney's father was a car salesman (well, a CEO of a car company, actually). In positioning himself as a conservative, Romney is basically a smart businessman pursuing an underserved market, not a man seeking higher office out of a firm belief in anything in particular, and it shows.
*There is really, really no purpose to Thommy Thompson and Jim Gilmore being in this race, none.
*Other than his position on trade, I can't think of a single thing I have seen from Duncan Hunter to dislike. Hunter has no realistic chance of getting the nomination, but he might not be a bad running mate - he's a serious guy who looks and sounds like a serious guy.
*From what I saw, compared to some of the last debate's questions, I have to say that the Fox team was just miles better than the MSNBC team in asking questions that GOP primary voters would actually want to see answered (one exception was the justly-booed question to McCain about the Confederate flag) and avoiding speechifying by the moderators. From here on out they should just have Brit Hume & co. do all the GOP debates and Tim Russert do the Democrats.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:30 PM | Baseball 2007 | Blog 2006-Present | Politics 2008 | Pop Culture | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)
May 14, 2007
POP CULTURE: Just What We Need
More environmental propaganda from Hollywood children's movies. Oh, goody. Quoth Cameron Diaz: "Well, hopefully there'll be a planet in four years." Ya think?
LAW/POP CULTURE: IMDb Protected
A California appeals court throws out a lawsuit against the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), holding that under California's SLAPP statute (designed to reduce lawsuits targeting public speech), IMDb was entitled to immunity from suit for basing its listing of film credits on the credits used by the studios. The plaintiff claimed an entitlement to be listed as a producer on three films but had had his credits deleted by the studio after he left its employ.
May 13, 2007
POP CULTURE: Three Sopranos To Go
Thoughts on tonight's episode - SPOILERS INCLUDED so don't say you were not warned...but I will warn you that you should watch this one ASAP if you recorded it. There were Things that Happened in this episode.
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Tonight's episode was pretty cleanly focused on two of the major remaining storylines - Tony's real son AJ and his surrogate son, Christopher - and, perhaps tellingly, Tony's reaction to the latter's death while paying minimal attention to the former's downward spiral. About the only distraction was the sudden death of Paulie's Ma. The main question is whether Tony killed Christopher
1. Because he thought he was basically dead anyway
The really interesting one is #1 - we pretty much know from the rest of the episode that #2 and 4 were true and we can guess #3 from long experience with Tony. But we are never really told what Tony thought Christopher's condition was. What is also interesting is the look on Christopher's face - he doesn't look like he is resisting or even disagreeing with Tony when he cuts off his air.
A question: the woman Tony sees in Vegas - have we seen her before, with Christopher? She has obviously been out of touch with him for some time, but she looks enough like enough interchangeable women we've seen on the show that I just couldn't tell.
Tony seems to be getting at least a minor case of what Christopher had in a major way: a desire to spill his guts. I almost felt like the scene in his bedroom Tony was in some sense signalling that Christopher may have died for reasons other than the reported cause, but that Silvio seemed to be the only one picking that up (either that or Little Steven left his other facial expression at home during that scene).
I can't even count the number of episodes where Tony and his crew did something that could get them easily caught - here he was talking openly - even directly with the head of another crime family - about illegal asbestos dumping on a cell phone. I guess it would be ironic if he goes down for pollution, but I almost feel like it's the boy who cried wolf for law enforcement to finally catch up with him over some loose end we have seen on camera.
As for the coming attractions, two unsurprising plotlines are afoot, though they may end in surprising ways: AJ's descent into either suicidal depression or incompetent gangsterhood, and Phil's bottomless desire for revenge.
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May 9, 2007
POP CULTURE: Not Over Yet
This sounds like news, at least incrementally:
Lucas... says he is readying "Clone Wars," an animated series for TV that's derived from "Star Wars." Many "Star Wars" characters appear in "Clone Wars," but voiced by other actors.
I wonder if the Clone Wars show will rehash the stuff in the animated micro-series or be different.
POP CULTURE: A Bing or a Whimper?
So I have been pondering in recent days how The Sopranos will or should end, with 6 or 7 seasons (depending how you count) behind us and 4 episodes to go. There's much speculation that David Chase, the creator of the series, really doesn't want to give us a neatly wrapped, satisfying ending, and of course there is the fact that many long-running serieses leave us with endings that go wrong in one of two opposite directions: either it leaves us hanging or it ties things up with a forced, didn't-see-that-coming ending. (A discussion for another day is the best and worst ways that long-running shows have ended).
More below the fold, for those of you who aren't caught up. If for any reason you have genuine spoilers rather than educated speculation about the last four episodes, TAKE THEM ELSEWHERE.
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The Sopranos has a large cast of characters and a lot of long-running or intermittent plots, loose ends, etc. Nobody expects all of that to be wrapped up in four more episodes.
That said, I do think that Chase owes us a resolution of some sort as to a handful of the central characters and plotlines. Here's where I think we do and don't need to get some answers:
A. No More Needed or Expected
There are a bunch of characters who have had relatively satisfactory resolutions - i.e., we know where they are headed from here on out and they don't need to appear again unless to advance someone else's storylines. Obviously that includes everyone who is dead. It also includes Junior, who is settled in his mental hospital in irreversible decline; Artie Bucco, last seen rediscovering the joy of cooking after pressing his luck fighting mobsters; Rosalie Aprile and the various other widows and children; Hesh; Beansie; Little Carmine; Fr. Intintola; Tony's sister Barbara; Carmela's dad; Paulie's Ma; Finn; Tony's various discarded love interests/sex objects; Sal Vitro the gardener; various of the minor gangsters; and even, to some extent, Dr. Melfi, who really doesn't need a role in the climax of the series.
There's also a number of characters who are certain to appear but who don't really need to do anything but keep going as is: Meadow could yet figure in a more catastrophic ending for the family, but if she leaves off where she is, that's fine. Bobby and Silvio don't really have individual dramatic arcs in need of resolution; Silvio is basically the embodiment of the Soprano crime family, so we should expect him to share its fate.
Then there are loose ends that probably won't be tied up, or don't need to. Many acts of crime and evil will likely remain unavenged, and unprosecuted. We will not, I assume, see again Furio, the Russian from the woods, the bear, the garbage company heir whose kneecaps Paulie broke, Johnny Cakes, or Melfi's rapist.
We may or may not have seen the last of the Muslims.
B. More Required.
What that leaves is a handful of the key characters who seem certain to figure in the wrapup. Two of those also don't really need their own endings, but will probably get them if the ending is something other than "life goes on as always for Tony": Janice and Phil. But of the others, we need to have the following questions answered:
1. Does Tony die, get prosecuted, suffer a great loss in his life, or go into witness protection? These are the only four possibilities that give us a sense that sharing the journey all these years with this sociopath was worth it, and obviously the last is the least plausible, even if it does involve Tony ratting out terrorists or corrupt politicians instead of his fellow mobsters. The "great loss" would have to be Carmela, A.J. or Meadow - I used to think it would be Christopher, but he's far too estranged from Tony now for that to be a real ending for Tony. Of course, the loss of an 'innocent' family member is perhaps too much of a Godfather III ending - Chase may want to go all the way and end his tragedy the old-fashioned way, with the death of the protagonist.
I don't see things deteriorating badly enough in Tony's marriage, despite the mounting tension, for Carmela to leave or murder Tony. I think it's much more likely if he dies that it's at the hands of (1) Christopher, (2) Janice, (3) a heart attack, (4) Phil, (5) some random outsider like the Muslims, or (6) A.J., probably in that order. I can't see Paulie or Bobby taking down their boss, and I don't see a mob boss getting in a shootout with law enforcement.
2. Does A.J. follow his father's footsteps? This has been a crucial question throughout the series and one that absolutely must not be left hanging, especially with this Sunday's episode having reintroduced A.J. to illegal gambling and loan sharking as a cure for depression. The two most likely endings now for A.J. are both dire: either he proves himself an incompetent gangster and gets himself or someone else in the family (or The Family) killed, or he falls apart on his own (perhaps from continuing to mix alcohol and antidepressants).
3. What happens to Christopher's rage, guilt and urge to confess? Like Tony's actual son, his surrogate son is headed for a crash landing. I can't possibly see how this all ends without him killing Tony, getting killed by someone in one of the crime families, or going the Henry Hill route (having him O.D. on drugs would be a cop-out). I actually don't think he will get arrested, for J.T.'s murder or anything else; I think if he goes the witness route he will do it on his own out of spite or to save himself or his family from the mob.
4. Will Carmela ever walk away from the privileges of Tony's money? I can't see it happening... maybe it's me but I don't see Carmela being the center of what's going down. I think she has passed the point where she could or would leave, betray Tony, etc. And I'm not sure I see how this ends with her getting killed.
5. Will somebody please, finally, kill Paulie? I mean, Paulie has been an entertaining character but the man is utterly lacking in redeeming characteristics, he's insubordinate and can't stop feuding with Christopher, he's probably put more hurt on more innocent people than anyone else still living on the show, and he's not even a very effective mobster. By the way, in the episode on the boat, I think Paulie was saved by the fact that he refused to give in to Tony's hectoring about the joke about Johnny Sack's wife, even though Tony obviously believed Paulie was the one who told him. I know some people thought his denials robbed Tony of an excuse (to himself) to kill Paulie, but I think Tony wasn't interested in the truth, he was interested in putting Paulie on the hot seat (while at the same time assuring him that they were just friends swapping stories) and see if Paulie could keep his yap shut for once, resist the urge to tell a yarn and stick to the lie. He survived the trip because he showed he could stick to the lie.
I'm hoping and expecting that Paulie finally gets his, probably from Christopher but maybe from some more random direction.
6. Does The Family survive? The other big question is whether Tony's crime family can go on after he is gone, one way or another. Silvio doesn't want the job, Bobby seems a pitiful excuse for a leader, and the heir apparent, Christopher, is in no way set for the job, while A.J. is wet behind the ears and Meadow too wrapped up in the respectable life. Everybody else of note is dead. The only person left who is strong, savvy and ruthless enough is Janice.
7. Will we finally get a full-on war with New York? I suspect not, but I do think it's almost impossible that we'll get through the last four weeks without Phil killing someone else in Tony's crew or family or getting it himself.
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April 25, 2007
POP CULTURE: Some Good May Come of Imus Imbroglio*
The Imus controversy has had a number of ripples, including the car accident that nearly killed the Governor of New Jersey. But now we see the opening of a door that just might lead to some good:
Prominent U.S. hip-hop executive Russell Simmons Monday recommended eliminating the words "b___h," "ho" and "n____r" from the recording industry, considering them "extreme curse words."
Simmons, co-founder of the Def Jam label and a driving force behind hip-hop's huge commercial success, called for voluntary restrictions on the words and setting up an industry watchdog to recommend guidelines for lyrical and visual standards.
Good for Russell Simmons, one of the few people with enough clout and enough credibility to make something like this happen.
* - YMMV as to whether this story was an imbroglio, a kerfuffle or a brouhaha.
April 11, 2007
POP CULTURE: Sticks and Stones
So the Rutgers women's basketball team held a team press conference yesterday to respond to Don Imus:
Rutgers' outraged coach, C. Vivian Stringer, wiped away tears as she recounted her own battles with racism and said she won't let Imus "steal our joy."
The decision to hold this press conference is a horrible failure of leadership on the part of Stringer and anyone else in the athletic and academic establishment at Rutgers who let this happen.
To recap, for those of you just tuning in, radio 'shock jock' Don Imus is in hot water, and justifiably so, for referring to the Rutgers women's hoops players as "nappy headed hos," and a fair debate is to be had as to whether this proves that Imus is
(a) a racist and/or sexist;
I'm not here to defend Imus, as his remark was indefensible, and besides, Imus endorsed and relentlessly touted Kerry in 2004, so let the Left defend him. On the other hand, as I have long argued, not everything that is indefensible is necessarily a capital crime. Imus has, appropriately, been given a two-week suspension for the same reason you hit the dog with a rolled-up newspaper when he poops on the living room rug. Whether he should be fired depends on what you think more generally about shock-jock radio, since this kind of thing is basically an occupational hazard of employing people like Imus. Of course, there's also the fact that Imus isn't funny (granted, I've never been a regular listener, and I first heard him around 1980 so I may be selling his early work short, but in my book a guy who is unfunny for going on three decades is not funny).
But here's the thing: whether or not they think they are just in the business of winning ballgames, college coaches are role models to their players. College students are at a particularly impressionable stage in their lives: finally old enough to first start to see adults as peers rather than distant authority figures, they naturally begin to model themselves on whomever they meet that most impresses them. Most college athletes - and I assume this is true of the Rutgers women as well - will not become professional athletes, and thus are preparing themselves for life and jobs in the real world. It is incumbent on their coaches to teach them lessons that will help them there.
Imus' remarks were crude and ugly, but the lesson Stringer should have been sending these young ladies is that they say a lot about Imus but nothing about them. Different people handle these things differently, but a coach worth his or her salt could have played this at least two perfectly reasonable ways. One is to laugh it off with the traditional "sticks and stones" attitude, and show the players that this really shouldn't mean anything to them; there will always be people who say inappropriate and mean-spirited things in life, and you shouldn't take that seriously. A more combative personality of the Bobby Knight variety would respond by taking some personal public potshots at Imus, drawing the story away from the players and into coach vs. shock jock; this would teach the players the valuable lesson that when somebody sucker punches your people, you hit them back in kind and teach them a lesson.
What you do not do is call a press conference like this:
"I want to ask him, 'Now that you've met me, am I ho?'" said Rutgers center Kia Vaughn of the Bronx. "Unless they've given 'ho' a whole new definition, that's not what I am."
Somebody gave these young women the message - or at least failed to disabuse them of the notion - that they should take Imus' words seriously, take them to heart. This press conference was a show of the coach and the players wallowing in Imus' words, embracing them, and thus elevating them as if any serious person would think less of them - rather than of Imus - for what Imus said. This story should never have been about the players, because Imus' words were generic (indeed, that's precisely why they were offensive). It's the Culture of Victimology at its most destructive, teaching these young women that they should consider themselves to have been genuinely maligned by an aging boor and to seek out the status and posture of one to whom a deep wrong has been done and who is owed.
Put more succinctly, when someone calls you a 'nappy headed ho,' you should not feel the need to call a press conference to deny it. Maybe these young women don't know that - but if they don't, it was the business of someone in a position of authority to teach them. Shame on Vivian Stringer and Rutgers University for failing to teach them that.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 9:22 AM | Basketball | Politics 2007 | Pop Culture | Comments (26) | TrackBack (0)
April 9, 2007
POP CULTURE: B.C. RIP
Josh notes the passing of B.C. creator Johnny Hart, who suffered a fatal stroke (at age 76) while working on his comic strip: "the dude died at his drawing board. That's hardcore."
As Josh notes, B.C. was a deeply idiosyncratic strip, with thick and sometimes impenetrable doses of Hart's Christianity and a lot of running gags, most of which were not funny. I bought a book of B.C. strips some years back; when Hart was on he could, in fact, be both funny and thoughtful, even though a lot of what he did wasn't really my cup of tea. I agree 100% with Josh that the strip shouldn't be continued by Hart's family.
April 4, 2007
POP CULTURE: Drugs Are Bad
April 3, 2007
POP CULTURE: KITT for Sale
You know you want it. They're asking $150K. Of course, some disclaimers are apparently thought necessary:
Although it cannot achieve the 300 mph speeds that KITT reached, soar 50 feet in the air or throw smoke bombs, key features of the star car are intact. Perhaps most important, the red scanner light on the nose glows and makes a humming noise.
Well, I'm glad they cleared that up. Of course, you will want the car David Hasselhoff drove before he ended the Cold War.
March 26, 2007
POP CULTURE: In Honor Of Tonight's Episode of 24
A potentially relevant provision of the US Constitution:
(Note: Spoiler involved for those of you who are not caught up. Double note: I won't see tonight's episode until later this week and have not seen seasons 2-5 or the second half of season 1, so please don't spoil anything for me, either)
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Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.
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March 25, 2007
POP CULTURE: These Are Their Stories
Jonathan Last noted last week that Law & Order may actually be in danger of getting cancelled. That seems daft to me - while people like Jerry Orbach and Sam Waterson have been major factors in the show's success, the Law & Order format doesn't depend on keeping particular writers or cast any more than, say, the Tonight Show, Saturday Night Live, or the Evening News do - if the show isn't working, the answer is to replace the people, not cancel the show.
That said, obviously if the show were to go off the air, Fred Thompson - who is increasingly being urged to run for president by Republicans dissatisfied with the 2008 field - might have one less reason to stay out of presidential politics.
March 15, 2007
POP CULTURE: All I Want Is To Have My Peace Of Mind
Boston lead singer Brad Delp's death has been ruled a suicide by carbon monoxide posioning. Delp was 55; his body was found by his fiancee. Boston did little enough of note after its legendary first album, but that's more than enough memories for one lifetime. Rest in Peace.
March 1, 2007
WAR/POP CULTURE: I'm Not A Torturer But I Play One On TV
While I remain deeply skeptical - putting aside for a second the moral and legal arguments - of claims that torture is never the most effective way to get information, there's no question from what I've seen (bear in mind I've only started watching the show this season) that 24 way overstates the practical case for torture - Jack Bauer basically never gets any useful information until he starts abusing people, and always gets more (and it's always accurate) when he turns the screws on them. I have no problem with that as a theatrical convention, but the real world is a lot messier.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 9:00 PM | Pop Culture | War 2007-Present | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)
POP CULTURE: Go Vote
UPDATE: Of course, I voted for Holy Grail.
February 28, 2007
POP CULTURE: An Oscar To Grouch About
Well, I didn't watch the Oscars on Sunday; I ended up getting sucked into an Iwo Jima documentary on PBS instead. I don't get to the movies much anymore and it's rare these days that I see anything that gets nominated (well, except for those agitprop penguins).
I live in East Hollywood. I do not like that Bush fellow. I'm worried about Global Warming. I really liked An Inconvenient Truth (except for the horror bits where Robot Al whispering his haunted memories about some river, his son, Katherine Harris, whatever). I'm really happy that lesbians rock the mic and get married and make babies with evil David Crosby's sperm; I'm on that team (well, not David Crosby's, but you get the point). But watching these people congratulate each other for their enlightened views, their activism, their spreading of "awareness," kinda makes me want to do one-handed pushups with Brent Bozell, or at least lick my hand & slap that Guggenheim kid on the back of his Gore-loving neck.
February 18, 2007
POP CULTURE: Spears' Razor
Isn't the simplest explanation for Britney Spears shaving her head that she had some hygiene-related need to do so (the word "lice" comes to mind)? I mean, we're talking about a woman who rarely appears to have washed her face or hair.
February 15, 2007
POP CULTURE: MTV Generation Gap
If this keeps up, the network may have to fill time by showing music videos.
February 5, 2007
POP CULTURE: Apple Pie
Apple Computer has settled its longstanding trademark dispute with Apple Music, the publisher of the Beatles catalogue. The good news is that this means some hope of finally bringing the Beatles to iTunes.
January 29, 2007
POP CULTURE: The Force Could Have Been With Him
Re-watching some of Revenge of the Sith the other day finally crystallized my thoughts on the Star Wars prequel trilogy, now with a distance of some 18 months from the completion of the last of the prequels.
When each of the prequels came out, I enjoyed them (my review of Episode III is here). Of course, any male born between about 1965 and 1975 was hard-wired to embrace the prequels, given how much the original trilogy dominated popular culture in our childhoods and preteen years. It took a lot to alienate us Star Wars fanatics; although George Lucas nonetheless succeeded in alienating a good number, most everyone who loved the first three could find something to like in these - the Phantom Menace, for example, had all sorts of problems as a film, but the lightsaber duel between Darth Maul, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan was the best lightsaber fight of the whole Star Wars series; likewise you would need a heart of stone not to get excited about finally seeing Yoda square off in combat at the end of Attack of the Clones.
Looking back, Lucas produced two uneven films (Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones), each of which had a bunch of fun scenes but also with plenty of cringe-inducing scenes and neither of which hung together that well as a complete film, and one good movie (Revenge of the Sith) which could and should have been a great movie but for a few potholes along the way.
If Lucas' goals were simply to complete his story arc his own way, make a bucketload of money from films, books, games and other merchandise, and play around with modern special effects, then he succeeded. But there was no reason to set his sights that low. The prequels could have been genuinely outstanding films.
The particular errors that Lucas made are well-worn ground by now - Jar Jar was a bad joke told for far too long, the midichlorians unnecessarily de-mystified the Force, the fish-faced Neimoidians with the Charlie Chan accents were silly and off-putting at best, racist caricatures at worst, and the handful of efforts at contemporary political commentary were distracting and incoherent. I'm more interested in not just the excising of particular mistakes but rethinking how the films could have been better, even within the parameters of the basic prequel storylines and characters as they have been laid out in the films, novels and the animated Clone Wars microseries.
Lucas started the films with two related and significant disadvantages - first, a lack of suspense, since everyone knew that the prequels had to end with Anakin turning into Vader, Obi-Wan headed to Tattooine, Yoda to Dagobah, Palpatine becoming the Emperor, etc. And second, limited ability to get creative with the storyline for the same reason - his endpoints were already set in stone.
But the films also started with tremendous advantages that most filmmakers would kill for: (1) an emotionally powerful, built-in double dramatic arc of downfall and betrayal, both Anakin's and that of the Republic; (2) a stable of pre-existing characters with known and in some cases reasonably vivid personalities, who require little further introduction, combined with a pre-existing fictional universe free from current realities of human existence; (3) employment of the best special-effects teams and the best film composer of our times; (4) a huge, built-in audience; (5) complete creative independence and an essentially unlimited budget, given Lucas' wealth and the justifiably high box office expectations; and (6) the combination of pop culture cache (especially for male performers of roughly my generation) with the prior two factors, making it child's play to attract the best talent in Hollywood to work on the films.
Bearing those in mind, here's four things Lucas should have done differently:
1. Don't Go It Alone. I'm hardly the first to make this point, but it was the original error that spawned so many of the others. Lucas is a man of considerable gifts, and some of these are still evident in the prequels - his imagination, his talent with special effects, his gift for the pacing of action sequences. But he has always had weaknesses as a filmmaker - he has no talent for directing actors, his dramatic and especially romantic dialogue can be horrendous - and one thing he did well in the original trilogy (well-timed wisecracks and one-liners) seems to have ossified in the intervening years as he went from quirky and ambitious film buff to merchandising tycoon.
All of that would have mattered a lot less if Lucas had made the decision to bring in the best help he could get from talented directors and writers to work over the films and make them wonderful and realistic and human. It's not as if Lucas would have had to worry about losing creative control, since he owns the place, and it's not as if fans and reviewers would have forgotten that this was a George Lucas production (how many besides Star Wars fanatics can name the directors of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi?). The use of a revolving door of directors has worked quite well for the Harry Potter films, for example. If Lucas had only been willing to get the input of some other people, he could have worked with better dialogue, better performances, and people to point out huge mistakes before they hit the screen.
2. Combine the First Two Films. Since the original Star Wars ("A New Hope") billed itself as "Episode IV," the prequels had to be three films. But they didn't have to be these three. In fact, I think most Star Wars fans expected the first of the three films to introduce Anakin, the second to cover the Clone Wars, and the third to bring Anakin over fully to the Dark Side.
Had Lucas stuck with that order, a huge number of the narrative problems and omissions in the prequel trilogy would have fallen away. First, Lucas himself has admitted that he had to pad out Phantom Menace to get to a full-length film. Making an Episode I that covered Phantom Menace's storyline in 45 minutes before jumping ahead 10 years to pick up the Attack of the Clones storyline would have immediately removed or drastically shortened a lot of the filler and the redundant plotlines - the Gungans (Jar Jar even would not have been so bad with five minutes of screen time), the storyline where Anakin accidentally destroys the Death Star-lite, the fun but overlong pod race, the repetitive fight scenes at Padme's palace. As a corollary, instead of being off in a star fighter Anakin should have been present for the final battle with Darth Maul. That would have presented several opportunities - have him witness the death of his first mentor, intensifying his emotional scars. Have him play some role, through a not-entirely-intentional use of the Dark Side of the Force (perhaps even a Force-choke on Darth Maul that isn't noticed by Obi-Wan) that saves Obi-Wan and lets him kill Darth Maul, thus (1) establishing Anakin's unusual precocity without the need for a midichlorian blood sample and (2) serving as a sort of original sin in his relationship with Obi-Wan. Personally, I would also have laid out near the beginning the death of Sifo Dyas, whose critical role in ordering the clone army is never explained onscreen.
Granted, Attack of the Clones covers a lot of plot, some of which would get submerged if you combined the two, but with a full Clone Wars film to work with, the reworked first episode could have cut a lot of the romantic scenes with Padme, to be developed during the war. Some of the more video-game-y scenes could have been dropped (i.e., the conveyer belt scene). Certainly there was a half hour's worth of fat to be cut, and the films could have run close to three hours without exhausting audience patience if done right.
The resulting space cleared for a full-length film treatment of the Clone Wars would have given the trilogy much-needed epic scope (we see far too little of how the main characters' dramas affect the wider galaxy) and dramatic depth, as well as giving us a lot more insight into the character development and growth to manhood of Anakin, a little backstory to make cartoonish villains like Dooku and Grievous less incomprehensible, and perhaps space to let Sam Jackson take Mace Windu out to play more. Certainly the novels and the microseries offered numerous examples of the kinds of storylines available during the war - seiges, hostage situations, the deaths of Jedi in battle, intrigue among the villains, opportunities for Anakin to learn how to command, the whole whodunit story of the Jedi pursuing Sidious (leading to Palpatine needing to get off Coruscant to dry up the trail and thus motivating him to stage his own abduction). A full Clone Wars film could also have given us a live-action Asajj Ventress, a character who is vividly drawn in the novels, and who is naturally theatrical, with her shaved tattooed head, taut, leather-clad figure, double lightsabers and depthless rage; in fact, she could well have been a sort of Boba Fett crossed with Princess Leia in terms of combination geek factor and weird sex appeal. She would also have given us a chance for either Anakin and Obi-Wan combined, or perhaps Yoda or Mace, to get another lightsaber kill.
3. Rethink and Recast Anakin: Hayden Christensen took a lot of grief for his performances, but in Attack of the Clones I thought some of the criticisms unfair - he was asked to play a whining, petulant, self-important teenage boy, and he gave a very realistic portrayal of one. In Revenge of the Sith he was asked to do more as an actor, with decidedly mixed results - he stuck one key scene perfectly (the final showdown with Obi-Wan), gave a weak performance in the other (his conversion to the Dark Side), and proved incompetent at any scenes with Padme.
The core problem, though, wasn't so much Christensen himself as Lucas' failure to grasp Anakin's full potential as a character and cast him accordingly. While Obi-Wan is important to the plot, Anakin's personal drama is, after all, the center of the prequel trilogy. And the Anakin we could have expected from watching Vader in action and hearing about his youth had enormous potential as a classic film role: a young man who is cocky, ambitous, and supremely talented, but also rash, reckless, impatient, and subject to passions and rages he can't control and that ultimately consume him. Any screenwriter worth his salt would kill to write that character, any actor to play him. He could have been the ultimate bad boy anti-hero, James Dean with a lightsaber, the guy every teenage guy admires and every teen girl wants (indeed, ask Peter Jackson how it helps the box office to have teen girls swoon over your male lead). The role could have launched the next Brando, if written and cast properly - more swagger, more smirking, more volcanic temper, less whimpering and speechifying. Leo DiCaprio would have been perfect for the role if he was a foot taller.
4. Find A Han Solo: One of the critical elements of the original trilogy was the balance between the whiny, self-centered Luke and the wisecracking, free-wheeling Han. Throughout the films, Han (and his relationships with the other characters) kept the movies light-hearted, deflated some of the pretensions of even Obi-Wan and Leia, and generally injected the same retro 1940s charm that Harrison Ford would later bring to Lucas' Indiana Jones films. Han was at all times the movies' sense of humor about the absurdity of its own cosmology.
Obviously, neither Han nor Harrison Ford could appear in the original trilogy, but some character could and should have been given a Han-like personality to lighten the mood. There's no reason it couldn't have been a Jedi (the first two Jedi we meet are the mischievous Yoda and the dryly witty Obi-Wan, so there was no rule that says Jedi have to be somber and dull to be self-controlled), maybe even Mace Windu, but regardless, somewhere in the films we needed a foil for the overly serious tone. As discussed above, a better Anakin would have provided a little of this mood-lightener in the re-imagined second film in particular, and in fact a whole film focused on the Clone Wars would have created more room for a gun-wielding character who helps command the Clone Troopers.
January 4, 2007
POP CULTURE: Year in Review
You must read Dave Barry's year in review (via Instapundit). I could not believe it when he had jokes in there about the Winter Olympics - that was less than a year ago? It seems like another century. It's been a long year. A few classic lines:
This was the year in which the members of the United States Congress, who do not bother to read the actual bills they pass, spent weeks poring over instant messages sent by a pervert. This was the year in which the vice president of the United States shot a lawyer, which turned out to be totally legal in Texas.
[January] dawns with petty partisan bickering in Washington, D.C., a place where many people view petty partisan bickering as honest, productive work, like making furniture.
In Paris, thousands of demonstrators take to the streets and shut down the city to demonstrate the fact that, hey, it's Paris.
Read the whole thing.
December 21, 2006
POP CULTURE: Deathly Hallows
December 19, 2006
POP CULTURE: Harry Potter and the Ministry of Neocon Warmongers
Like any good fable, the Harry Potter books can be read to support a variety of worldviews and political viewpoints, although if there's a common theme in the politics of JK Rowling's writings it's more libertarian than anything, as she plays up the value of individual self-reliance and self-defense and trashes goverment in all its forms - dovish government, hawkish government, law enforcement, government interference in schools, government interference in the media, etc.
That said, only a lunatic would look at the fifth Potter book, in particular, as supportive of left-leaning politics as applied to the post-9/11 world (perhaps the sixth, to some extent, with its running storyline about an innocent detainee, but not the fifth). Jonathan Last has more, on an article I had meant to blog about myself but he's got it covered.
December 17, 2006
POP CULTURE: Eragon
Yesterday I took my 9-year-old son to see the film version of Eragon. I read to him every night, and in between the six Harry Potter books, the Hobbit and (currently) the Fellowship of the Ring, we did Eragon and its sequel in a proposed trilogy, Eldest.
The Eragon books are well-done, and certainly an impressive achievement for a teenage author. My son enjoys them, and while they are perhaps not books I would bother to read on my own, Christopher Paolini keeps the story going well enough to keep my interest.
That said, they aren't the most original things in the world. Some people have suggested that they are a Tolkein knockoff, but they are more accurately described as a Star Wars knockoff transplanted into a Tolkein-like universe:
*Ancient order of guardians of peace and justice reigns for a thousand years, gets done in by the treachery of one of their own.
*Ignorant farmboy who lives with his uncle discovers that he is the last heir to the order, is guided by old bearded hermit type who used to be one of them after the bad guys toast his farm and his uncle.
etc., etc., etc. The parallels grow stronger as the story goes on and into the second book (for any of you who may read the books or see the movie without having read both books, I'll keep the spoilers below the fold). What is stolen from Tolkein is more the world this takes place in - Paolini's elves and dwarves are almost entirely indistinguishable from Tolkein's, for example.
The movie wasn't terrible, taken in its own right, but I had a couple of specific problems with it. The most baffling problem was that the filmmakers systematically eliminated all of the plot elements that tied the story to its sequel, including eliminating key characters (Katrina, Jeod, Elva, Solembum, the dwarves, the Twins, the Cripple Who is Whole) and even appearing to kill one other character who survives to the third book. I assume they made this movie without either reading Eldest or consulting with Paolini, because the sequel will make far less sense without an explanation of how the threads of the story connect. Either that or they just assume that no sequel will be made.
A second problem is that the film changed all sorts of things big and small that did not need to be changed, and in many places by doing so removed the elements of Paolini's book that were original, or at least were cribbed from sources other than Tolkein, Peter Jackson and George Lucas. The Shade, for example, is a very vividly distinctive character in the book, with pale skin and red eyes to signify the extent to which he is possessed by evil spirits. In the film his skin doesn't approach that hue until the end, and his eyes are normal. But other characters, the Urgals, have red eyes. And about the Urgals: unlike Tolkein's orcs, they aren't supposed to be simply misshapen but rather are almost minotaur-like, standing taller than humans (the tallest breed run some eight feet tall), broad-shouldered and with horns. In the movie, no horns, and they are basically just ugly men with bad makeup, and look like rejects from a Peter Jackson casting call.
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Specifically, the film appears to kill off one of the Ra'zac, the Nazgul/dementor-type horrors whose pursuit remains a theme into the third book.
I also thought some of the more theatrical scenes in the book had been undone unnecessarily - a classic example is the scene where Eragon is grievously wonded by the Shade (a wound that is a key element of the second book's plot) but is able to kill him when Arya and Saphira break the dwarves' treasured stone, distracting him. In the movie, no wound, no stone, no Arya, just Eragon defeating Durza in an aerial battle. Ajihad also suffers - Djimon Honsou plays him as a proud tribesman rather than the savvy politician he is.
Anyway, I could go on, but the basic point is that the film stripped away the epic sweep that allows us to see how Eragon becomes not only a warrior but also a leader, one who learns to understand the vast consequences of each of his acts and decisions. All that is left is the knockoffs.
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December 11, 2006
BLOG: $1200 Necktie
I was reading a few weeks back an article in the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal, discussing high-end neckties. There were a variety on offer at different prices: $79 tie, $100+ tie, even a $220 tie. And then...a $1200 tie.
See, this is where I get lost. I mean, while I personally don't have the kind of disposable income to go throwing $220 after a tie, I can imagine the situation where it would seem reasonable to do that. Say you are a corporate CEO making millions, and always need to look impressive. Or you're Jay Leno: you appear in a suit and tie on national television something like 200 times a year. A $220 tie, I can see.
But $1200? I don't care how rich you are, I just can't see where it would ever seem worth it. How much visibly better can it be than the $220 tie? Plus, even if I was a billionaire I'd still be worried about spilling something on a tie that expensive.
December 9, 2006
POP CULTURE: Driven Astray
So let me get this straight: we know that Princess Diana's driver was drunk, speeding and trying to flee paparazzi, and she wasn't wearing a seatbelt...and yet some people still find her death mysterious?
December 4, 2006
POP CULTURE: Like A Virgin
Gwyneth Paltrow says she relies on Madonna for "advice about how to say no". The punchline pretty much writes itself, doesn't it?
November 20, 2006
POP CULTURE: Flippers Down for "Happy Feet"
If you have small children I would highly recommend that you not take them to this movie (if you don't, you surely won't go anyway). First off, the film is often dark, depressing or scary, probably too much so for kids under 8 or 9. Second, the second half of the film is basically an extended diatribe in favor of a UN ban on fishing in the Antarctic. As with so many cartoons today featuring talking animals, carnivores and humans are uniformly evil (well, except for the penguins themselves - the fish they eat are not anthropomorphized). And the anti-human, anti-fishing messages are not subtle but heavy-handed and preachy.
The film had other weaknesses, of varying degrees of obviousness. The bouts of sexual suggestiveness among the penguins were reasonably subtle enough to sail over smaller kids' heads, and to some extent necessary to a film the first half of which centers on penguin mating rituals. There were Hollywood stereotypes abounding: unfavorable characters were given Southern or Scottish accents, misguided religious superstitions and a bluenosed insistence on tradition and conformity (even though the film's beginning dramatically emphasized the reality that tradition and conformity are essential to the survival of emperor penguins), while favorable ones got Latino accents, rythym, a sense of humor and a lust for females; and the scene in a penguin house in a zoo may turn kids against the joy of watching penguins in the zoo, something my kids love. (These would all be minor grievances - I'm not suggesting I'm outraged about giving penguins ethnic accents - if the movie was funnier or less preachy). The movie also never explains why the lead character ends up with blue eyes and a permanent adolescent fuzz, although presumably this is just to let audiences keep him straight from the other penguins.
This is not to say that the movie is all bad. The animated landscapes and action scenes are breathtaking, for example. The voicework is pretty good, notably by Robin Williams in dual roles. But inhuman (or at least, anti-human) environmental propaganda wrapped in the veneer of a kids' movie is not the best way to spend a Saturday afternoon with the family.
October 27, 2006
POP CULTURE: Noooo!
Please tell me I did not just see an ad for a Broadway musical with the music of Bob Dylan.
October 12, 2006
POP CULTURE: Signs You Are Definitely Getting Old
Slash of Guns n' Roses advertising Volkswagens.
September 25, 2006
POP CULTURE: Dog Bites Man
The last thing you expect if you hire Keith Richards is for him to show up drunk, right?
September 4, 2006
POP CULTURE: That's A Croc
Kids, in particular, will have to be crushed to learn of the death early this morning of "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin, stung fatally by a stingray while filming a documentary. Like Dale Earnhardt, Irwin made his name by taking risks in full view of the public, so you can't really separate his death from the way he lived.
UPDATE: CNN headline: "'Crocodile Hunter' Steve Irwin dies, Al Qaeda official captured"
And here I had thought the two stories unrelated ...
August 31, 2006
POP CULTURE: Go Sell Crazy Some Place Else
August 15, 2006
POP CULTURE: RIP "That Guy"
Actually, Bruno Kirby was a cut above the usual "that guy". I was actually surprised that his role as the young Clemenza in Godfather II didn't rate a more prominent entry in his obit, given the series' iconic stature, but he had so many memorable roles. RIP.
July 14, 2006
POP CULTURE: Comedy Gold
Mr. T, whose real name is Lawrence Tero, stars in "I Pity the Fool" debuting in October on TV Land. He dispenses advice to viewers who are struggling with life's problems.
July 5, 2006
POP CULTURE: Great Moments in Movie Cameos
Keith Richards will appear as Johnny Depp's pirate father in the second Pirates Of The Caribbean sequel, playing "a whisky-soaked buccaneer." I'm guessing that won't be a stretch.
July 1, 2006
POP CULTURE: I'll Take Blogging For $1,000, Alex
In the future, at the fifteenth minute, everyone will have a blog. In that spirit, welcome Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings to the blogosphere. Via Orin Kerr.
June 5, 2006
POP CULTURE: Back to Hell
May 5, 2006
POP CULTURE: "I'm Always Innocent"
It's nearly impossible to keep up with the steady stream of criminal activity by people associated with "The Sopranos," but this just cracked me up - Louis Gross, who just joined the cast as Tony's bodyguard (the one Tony picked a fight with to prove he was still top dog), has been arrested twice in recent months:
[Gross] was busted Sunday for allegedly bashing in the front door of a home in St. Albans in Queens, N.Y., and walking off with $2,700 in property.
He was busted on Feb. 3 for allegedly stealing a shirt from Michael K, a trendy SoHo men's shop, and then beating the store manager and a security guard when they confronted him, law enforcement sources said.
What I just loved was Gross' response:
"I don't know nothing. I'm innocent. I'm always innocent," he said last night. "They were personal items - they belonged to me," he added. "I had the right to take them."
I think I would not advise him to say that one in front of a jury.
May 4, 2006
POP CULTURE: Han Shoots First, At Last
April 30, 2006
POP CULTURE: Woo-Hoo-Hoo-oo, My My, Woo-Hoo-Hoo-oo
OK, let's hear it: what song can you just not resist singing along to, however unwise it may be to do so? There's a couple of them I can't resist at least singing along to quietly, but I think #1 on that list is the Eagles' "Already Gone". Which I cannot sing, yet I am compelled to do so. And, I should add, singing along when it comes on your iPod makes you look twice as ridiculous. I also whistle along to pretty much all the sax parts of Springsteen songs, but whistling's not quite as bad.
(On a separate subject, the only song I've tried my hand at at karaoke is Elvis' "Burning Love" - surprisingly, alcohol was involed.)
April 12, 2006
POP CULTURE: Smallville: Tattooine
I missed blogging on this when it came out, but it was reported about a month ago that filming on the new Star Wars TV show will begin in 2008. So far, so good. But then there's this:
The series will be set between episodes three and four of the film saga.
Please tell me that this franchise, which has made so many critical missteps in the past decade and which has something of a chance to start afresh with a TV series, isn't going to make a TV show about young Luke Skywalker. I mean, the entire point of Luke's character in Episode IV is that he's been off the scene for 20 years, at a distance from the battle against the Empire, frustrated and bored living life on a moisture farm in the middle of the desert. Nothing interesting ever happens to him, and at the start of Episode IV he's never seen a lightsaber and never practiced the Jedi arts. Are they gonna rewrite that history, or is this going to be a bunch of tedious stuff about Luke's teen angst having only a tangential connection to events outside of Tattooine? (UPDATE: Anyone want bets on how many episodes they do before we get to see Luke buying power converters at Tosche Station?)
What would be doubly frustrating is that there are a whole raft of existing Star Wars characters who would be interesting to follow in that 20-year period - Darth Vader, Tarkin, Chewbacca (OK, I recognize the dramatic limitations of a series with a Wookie as the main character), Han, Lando, R2D2, C3PO . . . short of watching Yoda alone in the swamp, Luke is about the worst character you could pick. Perhaps most obviously, you could break the mold by building around a female character: Princess Leia, who is at the center of things in Alderaan, watching her father navigate the politics of staying in the Senate while he leads the Rebellion. Leia has obviously been active herself in the Rebellion, has dealt with R2, 3PO, Vader and Tarkin . . . but instead, we are to be treated to Smallville: Tattooine?
UPDATE: Tim Harden at Flying Sparrows says I've been led astray and that the series will actually focus on other characters. If Lucas knows what's good for him, one of the first 2 or 3 episodes should feature the death of Jar Jar Binks, ideally involving either the Sarlaac or how Boba Fett got a reputation for disintegrations.
SECOND UPDATE: Hey, a love interest for Admiral Ackbar!
March 13, 2006
POP CULTURE: Sopranos Spoiler Thread
Well, The Sopranos certainly opened the new season with a dramatic flourish last night. I'm glad we managed to watch, since today's NY Daily News had not just a writeup but a photo spread inside the front page of this episode's big development. Click below the fold for more, but beware that there are spoilers here.
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So, where from here? The episode ended with it uncertain if Tony would survive being shot by Uncle Junior, but it's not feasible to kill him off just yet. First, there are 19 more episodes to go, and that's a lot without Tony. Second, this would be a terribly anti-climactic way to go, shot by a senile old man for reasons having nothing to do with Tony's life of crime. Third, and perhaps most importantly, there are no good dramatic storylines set in place that could carry the show without Tony, and there need to be before they bump him off (which I still consider to be at least a 50/50 chance by the end of the show).
By the way, has any TV cop ever had worse luck than the FBI on this show, which loses informants at a record clip? This is what, three in the past 5 episodes, maybe more?
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March 8, 2006
POP CULTURE: Hooked on Hasselhoff
I hope you can watch video on your PC, because I couldn't describe this with all the words at my disposal.
KITT was still a better singer, though.
February 11, 2006
POP CULTURE: Toon Memory Lane
If you ever want a time-wasting walk down memory lane, spend a few minutes with the five-decade-spanning IMDb page of Hanna Barbera voice specialist Don Messick. What a career: Scooby Doo, Bamm Bamm, Boo Boo, Ricochet Rabbit, Muttley, Mumbley, (gag, cough) Papa Smurf . . . the list of cartoons this guy was in is just amazing.
And if you really want to waste some time, try Toonopedia.
January 20, 2006
POP CULTURE: Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na
RIP Wilson Pickett. Nobody in the worlds of rock, pop and R&B ever had a better singing voice.
January 19, 2006
POP CULTURE: This Is Not The Actor You Are Looking For
The problem today, and I think it's a very dangerous one for the people concerned, is that there are quite large numbers of very young men and women - boys and girls to me - from 18 to 30, and they are playing very large parts in huge films and they simply, through no fault of their own, don't have the background and the experience and the knowledge to pull if off.
Via Althouse. He doesn't actually say the name "Hayden Christensen," . . .
January 15, 2006
POP CULTURE: The Wasteland
It's . . . hard to believe that [Jake] Gyllenhaal is in demand because, as recounted by Snead, "there is nobody else around to cast as an under-40 romantic male lead." She's asking readers to suggest names. ... Wasn't it only a few days ago that The New York Observer was telling us about a shortage of romantic female leads? No wonder Hollywood is in trouble. ("Can't we get a penguin in that role?") ...
Of course, I doubt very much that there's a shortage of attractive and talented young actors and actresses in the movie business. If Hollywood is having trouble making young stars who can handle these kinds of roles and connect with the public, maybe it needs to start casting them in movies with better scripts and more appeal to the public. Bad movies don't make stars.
January 3, 2006
POP CULTURE: Four Reasons Why Not
I keep seeing ads for the new ABC series "Emily's Reasons Why Not," starring Heather Graham as Ally McBeal. One thing about the show that doesn't bode well is its title. A TV series' chances of long-term success decreases exponentially with each additional words in the show's title - successful shows nearly always have short titles (usually one or two words, especially if you omit the words "the" "and" and "show"), while shows with really long, clever titles usually bomb, and if they don't they find a way to shorten the title (e.g., "Buffy"). On that evidence alone, I'm skeptical that this one will fly.
January 1, 2006
POP CULTURE: Dick Clark's Croakin' New Year's
You know, I can respect Dick Clark not wanting to have last year's stroke be his career's end, and I can respect how hard he worked to get in shape for last night, but really, the man sounded awful last night (he looked healthy, but weak and frail), and I can't imagine any good will be done by bringing him back again. Last night's performance looked like a cruel SNL skit imagining what Clark would be like when he's too sick to go on and nobody will tell him not to. Hat's off for the try, Dick, but it's time to go now while you still have some dignity.
December 23, 2005
POP CULTURE: A Christmas Playlist
November 23, 2005
POP CULTURE: A Glittering End?
By this point in rock history, they're running out of novel ways for rock stars to die. But as far as I know, firing squad hasn't been done yet.
October 17, 2005
POP CULTURE: D'Oh!
As reported by Friday's Wall Street Journal ($), the new Arab-language version of The Simpsons sounds more like a parody of Arab cultural hypersensitivity:
"Omar Shamshoon," as he is called on the show, looks like the same Homer Simpson, but he has given up beer and bacon, which are both against Islam, and he no longer hangs out at "seedy bars with bums and lowlifes." In Arabia, Homer's beer is soda, and his hot dogs are barbequed Egyptian beef sausages. And the donut-shaped snacks he gobbles are the traditional Arab cookies called kahk.
A teetotaling Homer Simpson pretty much misses the point. The article doesn't mention the fate of Ned Flanders and the show's occasional scenes in a Christian church, which are presumably even more problematic than Moe's.
August 5, 2005
POP CULTURE: Horcrux of the Matter - Predictions For Harry Potter #7
Following up on this earlier post and this discussion thread at Michele's, I thought I should go ahead and put on record now my fearless predictions for the concluding Book Seven of the Harry Potter cycle. It should go without saying that YOU SHOULD NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU HAVE NOT READ ALL OF BOOK SIX, UNLESS YOU LIKE PLOT SPOILERS.
I should add that, with one or two exceptions I will detail below, my thoughts are not so much original observations as my best guesses and intuition after reading the informed speculation from a number of other sources. So, if I've said something here without explicitly crediting the person who thought it up, my apologies.
Anyway, if you don't mind playing along with this guessing game, read on for my predictions. As Dumbledore would say, "from this point forth, we shall be leaving the firm foundations of fact and journeying together through the murky marshes of memory into thickets of wildest guesswork." Specific predictions are in bold.
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I. Subversion and Death
Let's start with a caveat here. The two most interesting "big picture" questions for Book 7, which affect all of my predictions below, are as follows:
A. How subversive it will be of the things we think we know?
In other words, how much have we been told so far that is not true? For example, is Dumbledore not really dead? Are Harry's parents, or Sirius or his brother Regulus, not really dead? Is someone else Harry's real father? Etc., etc. The speculation you run across is almost endless.
Personally, I hope we don't see much bringing people back from the dead or discovering too many secret identities. Certainly it would violate the whole series if Dumbledore, Sirius and/or Harry's parents aren't really dead (Harry's parents not being dead wouldn't fit with their emergence from Voldemort's wand, nor with Harry's memories of that night), or Snape isn't really Snape (which would create problems with his memories). And my predictions are based on the idea that most of the surprises in Book 7 will be new information that fills in gaps, not things that totally invalidate "facts" from the earlier books.
But let's review two things we think we know, that some people have speculated might not be the case:
1. Is Dumbledore Dead?
Yes, Dumbledore's dead. Let's look specifically at Dumbledore's death. While there are certainly enough oddities about to sustain speculation that Dumbledore isn't really dead, or has some way to come back, or left a horcrux of his own behind, I do think he's really most sincerely dead. First of all, Dumbledore has been telling both Harry and Voldemort for years that there are things worse than death, that death is a natural part of life and should not be feared, etc. And a critical theme of the end of Book 5 (especially Harry's conversation with Nearly Headless Nick), as well as the episode with the Mirror of Erised in Book 1, was the need for Harry to learn that death is real and final. It would be a real breach of faith with the tenor of the story and Dumbledore's character for him not to be dead. And, of course, Dumbledore would naturally regard the making of a Horcrux - which requires a murder, people - as abhorrent on several levels.
We may, yet, see Fawkes again, if someone shows real loyalty to Dumbledore. And we'll doubtless see a conversation with Dumbledore's portrait, although I suspect that, once again, the portrait will have to remind Harry that he's just a painting, less even than a ghost; he isn't the real Dumbledore and thus can't provide information or plot strategy. The most he can do is reflect the personality of the original.
On the other hand, the suggestion that Dumbledore has left behind extra memories to guide Harry, to be used in the Penseive, seems fairly likely. In a lengthy, must-read three part interview I'll excerpt repeatedly here, JKR makes clear that we will see more of Dumbledore's thinking come to light in Book 7.
2. Is Regulus Black Dead?
As discussed in my earlier post, I agree with the general consensus that the "R.A.B." who had preceded Harry and Dumbledore to the cave and had figured out at least something about Voldemort's Horcruxes is likely to be Sirius' brother Regulus Black. There are just too many hints dropped about Regulus in the books for him to be a red herring - after all, other than Snape and Karkaroff, he's the only known defector from the Death Eaters - and he fits too well with the information in the note.
On the other hand, the most intriguing line in the whole Book 6 is when Dumbledore says to Malfoy, "we can hide you more completely than you can possibly imagine". It seems likely that JKR is setting up someone who is believed to be dead and gone who's actually in hiding or disguised as someone else, and Regulus seems a likely candidate - he had the need, since he was leaving the Death Eaters (as Dumbledore was suggesting Malfoy should do); and while he's presumed dead, nobody seems to know the actual circumstances of his death. If it's Regulus, and as someone has noted "Regulus" has an association means "lion" as "Sirius" and "Remus" do with dog and wolf, he could be Scrimgeour, who is repeatedly referenced as having hair like a lion's mane (a fact that's almost certain to have some meaning in Book 7, whether as an Animagus or a relation to Gryffindor, or both). This would be quite the accomplishment for a guy in witness protection, becoming the head of state.
But: if Regulus lives, whether as Scrimgeour or someone else, and Dumbledore knows where he is, does that mean that Dumbledore knew or should have known that he and Harry were risking life and limb chasing a Horcrux that wasn't there? That's what bothers me. Although it may be that, wherever he is, Regulus' cover keeps him from knowing that Dumbledore is hot on the trail of the Horcruxes.
I'm shying away from an explicit prediction here. In either event, I do think that Harry will get more information from, or left behind by, Regulus, but it would make Book 7 rather anti-climactic if Regulus could guide Harry through everything.
(Note: I've speculated elsewhere that Regulus could be Crookshanks the cat, but JKR has apparently insisted that Crookshanks is not an Animagus)
B. Will JK Rowling break faith with these being children's books and kill off one of Harry/Ron/Hermione?
That's the other big one. I can't see her killing Hermione, but Ron has done nothing useful since risking his neck in Book 1, and I do think he'll have to come in handy again. But it would be, to my mind, a major shock to the many young readers of the books to kill one of the three major characters.
I say she doesn't kill any of them. But more on Harry below.
II. Truth and Belief
We were left with at least two big particular questions at the end of Book 6:
A. Is Snape really still really working on the good side and/or against Voldemort?
B. Is Harry himself, or Harry's scar, a horcrux, such that Harry may have to die to kill Voldemort?
I will say this conclusively: because both of these questions potentially present mortal dangers to Harry - and Voldemort - based upon how they are answered, I believe that Harry will be put in a position where he has to try to answer them before he finds out what the answers are. For example, he may be asked by Snape to trust Snape, based only on what Snape tells him - and have to decide whether he believes him. And he may decide that he has to die to be rid of Voldemort - only to have a horrified Ron and Hermione (and perhaps Ginny as well) try to talk him out of it. The dramatic possibilities of Harry not knowing the answers to these questions are just too juicy for Rowling to pass up.
III. Snape's Loyalties
There has been endless discussion of whether Snape is really working on the good side and/or against Voldemort, notwithstanding having killed Dumbledore, and I won't rehash that all here. I do think, first of all, that it remains possible that Snape (a) changed his allegiance between Books 1 and 6, as opposed to having been a traitor to Dumbledore all along, (b) was always consciously working both sides, or (c) was plotting to eliminate both Voldemort and Dumbledore for his own, Saruman-like purposes. That said, I do think that when all is said and done, it will be proven that Snape was working, and continues to work, for Voldemort's downfall and Harry's protection.
It's been strongly hinted at that Snape - who is endlessly critical of James Potter and Sirius but never says a bad word against Harry's mother Lily - had a thing for Lily. JKR drops further hints in that direction. There's this:
ES: Was James the only one who had romantic feelings for Lily?
MA: Oh, here's one [from our forums] that I've really got to ask you. Has Snape ever been loved by anyone?
Of course, JKR could just mean he had parents. If Snape was in love with Lily (who, like Snape, was a Potions expert), this would explain/open several possibilities:
*It would confirm the importance of Slughorn's observations about the dangers of obsessive love.
*It would explain why Snape's worst memory is an instance when he snapped at Lily and she sided with James.
*It's possible - vindicating Hermione's insistence about the Half-Blood Prince - that the textbook Harry found was at least partly the work of his mother, as well as Snape (that would explain the girlish handwriting, and if she had a schoolgirl crush on him at some point, the "property of the Half-Blood Prince" is the kind of thing a teenager would put in the back of a book), and of course it would explain why Snape hung on to the thing in his classroom for years as a memento and why he'd be incensed when Harry found it.
(A side note: I only noticed this long after the fact, but we saw Snape use at least some form of the Half-Blood Prince's Sectumsempra spell once before Book 6: in the "Snape's Worst Memory" chapter in Book 5, he casts a spell on James Potter that opens a gash on his face.)
*Regardless of where his loyalties lie, I do think that Snape has taken the Unbreakable Vow with Dumbledore at some point, possibly a vow to protect/not harm Harry, which would explain both why Dumbledore trusted him and why he never harmed Harry. But it's possible there was a parallel vow between Snape and Voldemort: Voldemort promised Snape he wouldn't harm Lily, which would explain why Voldemort tried to get her out of the way rather than kill her straight away to get to Harry.
In fact, if Voldemort has made the Unbreakable Vow not to kill Lily and then he tried anyway, that would explain what really went wrong for him that night. Or if he just made a regular promise, perhaps Snape was there. Either way, the "Snape turned away from Voldemort because Voldemort killed Lily" storyline has something to it.
IV. The Horcruxes
OK, we've been told that Voldemort's soul is in 7 pieces, six Horcruxes and Voldemort himself. As she must, to keep the plot manageable, JKR confirms that this is the case:
Dumbledore's guesses are never very far wide of the mark. I don't want to give too much away here, but Dumbledore says, 'There are four out there, you've got to get rid of four, and then you go for Voldemort.' So that's where he is, and that's what he's got to do.
So, we have:
Well, I've tried to be a careful re-reader, and I've got some predictions on the Horcruxes and what Harry has to do to get to them. But bear in mind that we don't yet know (a) how one makes a Horcrux - is it a spell that must be performed at or near the murder (b) how being a Horcrux affects an object/person/creature, other than that Riddle's diary took on a life of its own, and (c) how you destroy the Horcrux, if this can be done without destroying the object/person/creature. That said, the nominations:
A. The Sorting Hat
First of all, I assume that precisely one Horcrux will be at Hogwarts, so Harry must return there but also must go elsewhere. (JKR has confirmed that there are no more Quidditch scenes, which implies that Harry will keep his vow not to go back to school. But the school is too important to the saga, and too many key characters will still be there, for there not to be scenes at the school.
Second, think misdirection, as well as the fact that Rowling has hinted that we know some/all of the Horcruxes already. Dumbledore points to the sword and says it's the only Gryffindor relic. We know it's not, and there's one ancient enchanted object that belonged to Gryffindor, and has a connection to all four founders, and that would amuse Voldemort because it sits under the headmaster's nose: the Sorting Hat. (The hat says in one of its songs that Gryffindor pulled the hat off his head). It would have to have become a Horcrux after the diary, since otherwise the teenage Riddle would not have been so contemptuous of Fawkes bringing the hat into the Chamber of Secrets.
Only two reasons to think otherwise: first, when would Voldemort have been alone with the hat? Is it possible he made a Horcrux with that little flick of the wand Harry saw in the memory of Voldemort's meeting in Dumbledore's office?
And second, can a thing be a Horcrux and not show signs of Voldemort's personality (the hat is clearly willing to warn and work against him, although it did briefly try to convince Harry to join Slytherin).
Still, I think the hat is an excellent candidate. Consider this remark by Rowling in 2000, prior to the publication of Book 4:
The character you might be most surprised to see evolve is none other than the Sorting Hat. "There is more to the Sorting Hat than what you have read about in the first three books," Rowling says. "Readers will find out what the Sorting Hat becomes as they get into future books."
Well, we saw the hat warn the students about standing united against Voldemort, but otherwise, it hasn't done much in Books 4 and 5 and didn't appear at all in Book 6. Sounds to me like there's still more surprises to come with the Sorting Hat in Book 7, and being a Horcrux could well be it.
Runner-up possibilities: the sword, or Harry's Invisibility Cloak.
B. The Locket
We know Voldemort had a Horcrux in the cave. It was probably the locket, which presumably made its way (via Regulus) back to Grimmauld Place (recall the heavy locket that wouldn't open, from Book 5), and which, I assume, was then stolen and fenced by Mundungus. Tracing the locket will provide a good story, one that may involve Dumbledore's brother Aberforth (who is in the Order of the Phoenix, is apparently the bartender at the Hog's Head and who JKR has suggested we'll get to know better in Book 7) as well as possibly some of the other seedy characters we haven't seen lately, like Bagman and the goblins.
I agree with some of those who have suggested that Regulus got the locket out by traveling with the family house-elf, Kreacher (recall that Dumbledore needed a second with him), who may have suffered ill effects from drinking the potion and who could be the conduit for providing information to Harry about Regulus' activities.
There is, however, a school of thought that says that there is deeper significance to Dumbledore's actions after ingesting the potion, implying that the Horcrux was the potion itself or was somehow already in Dumbledore. Dave Kopel has a fascinating look at the scene where Dumbledore drinks the potion in the cave, which is worth excerpting at great length here:
[M]y guess is that the primary source of the "revulsion and hatred" [on Snape's face when he kills Dumbledore] is that Snape knows the same things that Dumbledore had learned just a few minutes before, when Dumbledore drank the magic potion - from the basin in the secret lake where Voldemort had hidden a Horcrux. (Note the meaning of "whore/horrible cross" - a perverted version of the soul-saving object which overcomes death.)
Very interesting. Personally, I think that Dumbledore's statements while drinking the potion were echoes of things said when the young Riddle tormented those kids in that cave many years before, and Harry may need to track down the now-elderly Muggles involved to find out what happened.
C. The Hufflepuff Cup
Not a lot I can add here, but I can say this: we will see more of Zacharias Smith in the next book. He's a Hufflepuff, as was Hepzibah Smith, who owned the cup. Same surname, same house - can't be a coincidence. Of course, if the cup is indeed a Horcrux and - per my earlier prediction - is not at Hogwarts, there will have to be some other interesting adventure connected to locating it, and some sensational murder involved in making it a Horcrux. At present, I can't think of either.
D. The Snake
Maybe I'm being too conventional here, assuming the snake is the last Horcrux, rather than either Harry himself or Harry's scar. One thing: there are at least four characters (Neville, Snape, Draco, and Pettigrew) and possibly others (Ginny, Hagrid, Aunt Petunia, the house-elves) who JKR has set up to potentially step in and play a surprising role at a key plot point to get Harry through the remaining tasks of destroying Horcruxes and killing Voldemort. The need to dispose of the snake does offer one such opportunity, and I can easily see Pettigrew - who, as Harry has been reminded, owes him "a life debt" - killing the snake.
From Alas, A Blog we get this informed speculation:
Occasional "Alas" poster Elkins, who knows quite a lot about thing Potter, pointed out something interesting, which is that in alchemy, the philosopher's stone is made through a system of refinement in which the stages are black, then white, then red - a fact that has been referred to in passing in the novels. In book 5, Black died; in book six, White died ("Albus" means "white"). If so, then Hagrid (whose name means "red") is going to die in the next novel.
Well, maybe. Then again, there's an entire family of redheads this could also refer to.
VI. The Epilogue
Harry is, according to Scrimgeour, "Dumbledore's man." Despite his wishes to be an Auror, he's not a Ministry guy, hates the politics. And he always parallels Voldemort, who didn't want to teach but kept asking for jobs at Hogwarts. And we know Harry can teach, from the DA. And ever since Voldemort got turned down, they've been unable to keep a Dark Arts teacher. JKR has said we will see at least a little of what the surviving characters do afterwards. Isn't the obvious wrapup ending of Book 7 that after Harry vanquishes Voldemort, he comes back to Hogwarts - the only home he's ever known - to become the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher?
Anyway, this post has run on too long already; if I think of more, I'll post again on the subject another day or add updates to this one.
UPDATE: Random predictions:
*The book will open with Harry's last visit to the Dursleys - that's where he was headed at the end of 6, before making his way to the site of his parents' death in Godric's Hollow. I fully expect something bad to happen at the Dursleys', which may force the issue of whether Aunt Petunia has magical powers after all.
*There will clearly be an intensive focus on the events surrounding the death of Harry's parents.
*It is possible, if the missing Horcruxes are things we've met before, that the Goblet of Fire could be one. That seems a stretch, and we know nothing of its provenance. But I am convinced that the Horcruxes are going to be things we've seen already, so if there is a Ravenclaw Horcrux, there will need to be an association made to an existing magical object.
UPDATE #2 (8/23): I should mention here the Special Award for Services to the School won by Riddle, which sits in the Trophy Room at Hogwarts - Ron cleans it in detention in Book Two. It's certainly one of the lesser candidates for a Horcrux - a plausible candidate because it is significant for Riddle/Voldemort and because Rowling's mention of it seems gratuitous. But a lesser candidate because (1) I think it more likely that only one Horcrux is at Hogwarts and it's something like the Hat or the sword, and (2) because of its connection to the Chamber of Secrets, it's sort of redundant to have along with the diary.
I would think that we will, at the end of the day, be able to identify each of the seven parts of Voldemort's soul with one of the books: say, Voldemort himself (or Harry's scar) with Book One, the Diary with Book Two, Nagini (or Voldemort's new body) with Book Four, the locket with Book Five, the ring with Book Six. But Book Three comes up a bit empty, plus where do the hat and the cup fit in?
To explain Dumbledore's "look of triumph" when he learns that Voldemort used Harry's blood in the "comback" potion, consider the following. When DD explains "all" to Harry at the end of OOTP, he goes into considerable detail as to the nature of the "protection" that Harry enjoys at the Dursely's because his mother's "blood dwells" there. Since Harry has his "mother's blood" also, when Voldemort took Harry's blood, he took Lily's blood, as well. So Lily's blood also "dwells" with Voldemort. It may come to pass that the "ancient protection" comes to apply to Harry when he is in Vodemort's presence.
That is probably not exactly correct, but I suspect it's at least partly true.
UPDATE (October 2006): My best deductive reasoning to the contrary, JK Rowling herself says that the Sorting Hat is no Horcrux.
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August 4, 2005
POP CULTURE: Backstroke of the West
This sequence of stills from a Revenge of the Sith bootleg with English subtitles badly re-translated from Chinese back into English is hysterical. I think Obi-Wan's advice to Anakin about the Jedi Council is cribbed from Jerry Maguire.
July 25, 2005
POP CULTURE: A New Low
When I think that Hollywood can go no lower in terms of bad taste or unoriginality, the movie business finds a way to surprise me. But it's a rare treat when both are accomplished in one fell swoop, as they were this weekend when I started seeing billboard ads for a sequel to "Duece Bigelow: Male Gigolo."
Locusts, famine and pestilence to follow.
(On a similar note: I accept that the new "Bad News Bears" movie is raunchy and not at all suitable for chidren . . . but is it really necessary to advertise the not-suitable-for-chidren parts on baseball broadcasts?)
July 21, 2005
POP CULTURE: Harry Potter's Sixth
I just finished the new Harry Potter book last night. It's well-done and entertaining once again, although the book in general hewed rather more closely to the formula of the prior books than I would have expected, given how far along we are into Voldemort's terror war (and at the risk of overdrawing the parallels, Voldemort's organization is a classic terrorist group, working in secret and spreading fear through random and/or unexpected violence). A more detailed review below the fold, but be warned that there are MAJOR SPOILERS, so don't click through if you haven't read the book yet but still intend to (in fact, one reason I pressed on to finish the book rather quickly was the fear that I'd hit major spoilers on the web, having already encountered one of them quite accidentally some months ago - click here for details). Now for the SPOILERS - READ ON AT YOUR OWN RISK:
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*It did seem to me that, for the second book in a row, things were unaccountably quiet for most of the school year, given the state of open war involved. I know Voldemort was having people murdered regularly, but it does seem that you'd expect more of him than one major operation per year, always timed near the end of the school year. Is he really still so understaffed that he has to place his entire battle plan for the whole year in the hands of Draco Malfoy?
*By contrast, presumably the seventh book will break out of the mold, since Harry, Ron and Hermione will not even be at Hogwarts, which will put an end to the scenes of Quidditch, new Dark Arts teachers, exams, etc. (it's pretty clear that Rowling has run out of things to do with Quidditch matches). It will be interesting to see how many of the other characters come with them - I rather like a lot of the supporting characters, notably Neville and Lupin - or whether Rowling tries to strip the story back down to a few characters.
*Presumably, the last book will be structured around the hunt for the remaining four Horcruxes, which will give it a structure familiar to readers of fantasy novels. (Rowling's overall universe may be original, but her plot elements are always recognizable from other sources). Of course, Rowling has to rely on the plot device of Voldemort being both superstitious and predictable in his choice of the identity, location and number of Horcruxes.
*It took me about a half hour of bending my brain last night, but I'm pretty sure I figured out who the "R.A.B." who had already destroyed the Horcrux is, which if I'm correct should put me ahead of the game for the last book even before there are any official spoilers leaked. After futilely running mentally through characters with last named beginning with B - Borgin, Burke, Bagman, Bell, Blotts, Bones, etc. - and thinking which of them would have had a falling out with Voldemort (recall that only his supporters would refer to him as "the Dark Lord") it hit me that it really had to be Sirius' brother, Regulus Black. We know (or at least have been told) that Regulus was a Death Eater who repented but was fairly shortly thereafter killed. Plus, of course, it would be both heartening and ironic to discover that Harry had been helped along on his quest by the brother Sirius spoke of as being no good.
*The various romantic angles in the book were a bit much: some of the romantic storylines were amusing at times, but this book really had too many of them. The Harry/Ginny thing felt forced, as did the book-closing revelation of a Lupin/Tonks romance.
*I felt rather betrayed by the revelation that Snape had been a bad guy all along. First of all, the whole "Snape's on the good side but is a jerk and hates Harry" and "the kids always suspect Snape but they still have much to learn about people" plotlines gave the story some complexity that was lost here. And Snape and Draco both joining forces openly with Voldemort raised again the question of why they keep Slytherin House in business, if nearly everyone associated with it becomes a bad guy (I had at least thought that Sirius was a Slytherin, given his heritage, but Rowling even made a point in this book of noting that he'd been in Gryffindor). But the second chapter of this book also raised the tantalizing possibility that Snape had been genuinely playing both sides for some time. Having him turn out to have been on the bad side for years undid some of what Rowling had done in the prior books.
*My enjoyment of the book was colored by having seen the "Dumbledore dies" spoiler. I was glad he was given a timely sendoff at the end; for a while I thought he'd die mid-book and leave the whole "Riddle's background" investigation unfinished. For young readers, at least Rowling gives ample foreshadowing, between references to his age and blackened hand and the whole buildup with him drinking the poison at the cave. Dumledore's death serves two necessary plot elements - like Obi-Wan and Gandalf, his death leaves the hero to finish the task alone, without the aid of the bad guy's equal; and, his death underlines the point he had long made about the need to not fear death. Of course, it was nonetheless sad to see his last act be the betrayal of Snape, whom he had trusted.
*Maybe I'll return to them another day, but there seemed to be all sorts of parallels in mood and plot to Revenge of the Sith.
*The opening scene with the Prime Minister was funny, but it will have to be cut from the movie version - partly because the best parts were his internal dialogue, and partly because on film you can't finesse the "do we make him Tony Blair or not" aspect, which will be a distraction. Overall, the scenes with Scrimgeour underline Rowling's contempt for politicians and government, as they demonstrate that the more hawkish Scrimgeour is really not much of an improvement over the denial and appeasement of Fudge.
*You do sometimes have to stop and wonder why these people, Harry in particular, just never learn. I mean, anybody had to realize the possibility that the Half-Blood Prince was either Snape or Voldemort (in fact, the clues pointed to the latter), and Harry was even reminded early on by Ginny that he shouldn't trust books without knowing their sources. I mean, doesn't he at least know enough now not to try out potentially lethal spells on people without finding out what they do?
*The Harry/Ginny breakup was straight out of the ending of Casablanca.
*This link has some good quality speculation about Regulus Black, the location of the missing Horcrux and the possibility that we still don't know what Snape's really up to.
*On the other hand, the longstanding ambiguity about whether Snape is part vampire seems to have been laid to rest.
*The door is still open for Pettigrew to play a Gollum-like role, after Harry spared him, if Rowling wants to be that unoriginal.
STILL MORE: This comment thread at Michele's picks up some more interesting speculation, including the possibility - which I'm more convinced of now that I think about it - that Snape killed Dumbledore to keep his cover, and that Dumbledore knew it was coming. Lyford reaches the same conclusion, with supporting evidence.
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June 17, 2005
POP CULTURE: A Real Princess
Norwegian Princess Leah's name was inspired by a character in a "Star Wars" movie, the mother of the infant princess was quoted as saying Thursday.
As long as they don't give her the hairdo . . .
June 16, 2005
POP CULTURE: "Would These Faces Lie To You?"
OK, I'm not a fan of Triumph The Insult Comic Dog, but here he's unleashed on a deeply deserving assemblage of Michael Jackson supporters and reporters. Viciously funny stuff. Via The Intern.
June 12, 2005
POP CULTURE: To Sing the Blues, Some Are Born
June 6, 2005
POP CULTURE: Moldy Oldies
Michele mourns the loss of oldies radio station WCBS-FM. Now, some of her sentiment is about good memories, and everyone's got their own memories. But let me tell you: I will not miss this radio station.
When I was in college, I had a dismal summer job working at a book packing warehouse, usually working 12 hours a day (6am-6pm) in a breathtakingly dusty environment, filling orders on a sort of assembly line. The warehouse had a split-day radio policy: from opening until noon, we heard WCBS, and from noon to closing, WNEW, when it was still classic rock. Which meant six hours of the same old "oldies," starting at 6 in the morning, every single day. These oldies were mainly late 50s/early 60s pop too soft to really qualify as rock (a more complete description can be found here); if I never hear Paul Anka again, I will be very happy.
June 3, 2005
POP CULTURE: Bizarre Safety Lesson
This bizarre, gruesome bicycle safety video is definitely a blast from deep in the past. I'm not even sure where or how I saw it, but it's certainly memorable.
POP CULTURE: The Real Sith Lord?
With Mickey Kaus, Jay Tea at Wizbang and Dale Franks at QandO still kicking at the politics of Star Wars, let me note the one contemporary parallel to Palpatine that should be jaw-droppingly obvious (one other blogger has noticed the same thing). Just think:
*Rises to power in a weak, corrupt and dysfunctional republic in a time of civil war.
*Gradually consolidates extraordinary executive powers, mainly with popular approval if not entirely legitimate assent, to deal with security threats.
*Assumes direct control over the regional governors to consolidate his power outside of the purview of the legislature.
*Possesses civilization-destroying weapons.
*Is, to public appearances, warmly embraced by the leading power for good.
*Isn't above using assassination attempts as a political tool.
*Ruthlessly dispatches corrupt oligarchs who had supported his rise.
*Was trained by an old order now thought extinct, and stuns observers with nostalgia for its accomplishments.
You don't have to be the biggest critic of Vladimir Putin to see a parallel. I assume Russian audiences will pick them up. Will Putin? This is a man, after all, who complained that Dobby the House-Elf from Harry Potter looked too much like him.
May 25, 2005
POP CULTURE: More Sith
Gary Farber has a long, interesting post on Revenge of the Sith, including a link to the original script and discussion of deleted scenes, some of which might have been useful to developing the plot. (via Instapundit). Farber and his commenters stress the usefulness, in understanding the broader story leading into Sith, of checking out the animated Clone Wars series and the Lucas-authorized novel Labyrinth of Evil, which leads directly into the opening of Sith. I missed the series but I'll probably check out both, eventually.
In addition to busting several box office records in the US with a $160 million opening weekend, Sith had "the most successful film-opening in UK cinema history" and "grossed $144.7 million overseas for a total of $303 million worldwide," including more than $26 million in the UK and $22 million in France.
May 23, 2005
POP CULTURE: Fully Armed and Operational
Well, I went to see Revenge of the Sith yesterday; my wife and I took the kids, ages 7 and 5. I should say that the movie was rather intense for their age, and my daughter had to hide her face in a few places. I think it's OK for a 7-8 year old, but if we'd been able to get away with it I wouldn't have brought a 5-year-old to see this.
I went in really wanting to like this movie, and if it wasn't perfect, it was a heck of a thrill ride and a fittingly satisfying end to the Star Wars saga, one that I think will stand up as the equal to Return of the Jedi in terms of action, drama and the resolution of loose ends. And yes: the Wookie army is cool, and serves as a crucial plot device. The bottom line: this was so much fun, and there was so much going on (some of which I missed, due to the mumbling of some dialogue and the kids peppering me with whispered questions) that I'm dying to see it again. (You should read the reviews (including spoilers) by Michele and Will Collier, who had much the same reaction).
I'm not quite ready to say "all is forgiven" - in particular not turning the Force into a biological phenomenon - but most of the misfires that marred Episodes I and II were but distant memories after Sith. Of course, I didn't hate Episodes I and II - Phantom Menace was enjoyable at the time, but the whole Jar Jar thing, among several other key failings, makes it painful to rewatch much of the movie. Attack of the Clones was better, but the love scenes were deadly and the entire thing was more a series of entertaining set pieces than a cohesive story.
Sith is better in that regard - everything is finally working together in a single multilayered plot held together by the masterful evil of Palpatine/Sidious, and the pacing of the movie (as well as its one startlingly graphic sequence) reminded me more than anything of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The movie's climax packs an emotional wallop despite the inevitable lack of suspense, as both Anakin and the remaining good guys watch everything they have fought for slip from within their grasp.
The special effects are great, and only in a few places - the big lizard, and some parts of the opening space battle - do they look a bit cheesy.
The dialogue isn't . . . well, it just isn't the point of the movie, but for a guy who gets a rap for bad dialogue, Lucas sure has written a lot of memorable lines. He gets in a few well-placed one-liners here.
Many of the knocks on the acting are misguided: while the acting is uneven in places, and even Ian McDiarmid - who gives the film's showstopping performance as the Emperor - takes a few lines a bit too far, most of what you want from the acting in a movie like this is not to detract from the plot.
I still think Hayden Christensen gets a bit of a bad rap - he was entirely realistic in his portrayal of Anakin in the last movie as a whining, melodramatic, self-important teenager, and he expands on that performance here as a young man who is long on courage and ego and short on patience and good judgment. In fact, if you go back and think about the Darth Vader scenes in Episodes IV-VI and imagine Christensen's voice and expressions, they actually fit quite well. Darth Vader was never, after all, an evil genius - he was always a villain whose downfall was his impatience and rash, impetuous decisions. When the Death Star is under siege, does he devise a clever, multifaceted defense of the station? No, he hops in his own specially designed Tie Fighter to go take care of what his damned incompetent subordinates can't do themselves. He runs through generals and admirals like Steinbrenner used to run through managers, sends a fleet of star destroyers into an asteroid field, and lets the good guys get away repeatedly.
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More random thoughts; I may add to these:
*I liked some of the contiunity touches, especially the way Anakin's burns matched those on Darth Vader's head at the end of Return of the Jedi; also Obi-Wan making off with Anakin's lightsaber at the end of their battle. And the opening sequence gives us confirmation, if we needed more after the Phantom Menace, of Anakin's reputation as a pilot.
*We saw again that the Stormtroopers get their reputation for deadly accuracy from shooting people in the back as well as from liquidating unarmed civilians and whupping overmatched Jawas and battle droids. Real opponents remain elusive.
*Lucas' treatment of mercy toward enemies is rather inconsistent. Anakin's journey to the Dark Side is shown as being advanced when he beheads Dooku, but then again, Mace Windu is obviously right - if tactically foolish given Anakin's response - to want to finish off Palpatine then and there, and no moral frieght is placed on Obi-Wan finishing off General Grievous. On the other hand, Obi-Wan's decision not to kill Anakin is reminiscent of Bilbo sparing Gollum in terms of its later significance.
*General Grievous' decision to fight Obi-Wan rather than have him shot was, of course, ridiculous and stupid.
*Was I the only one who half expected Mace Windu, when he told Palpatine he was under arrest, to add "m_____f_____"? I guess that's just subtext when you have Samuel L. Jackson in the role. At least he got to be a critical plot device.
*I assume we are to believe that Palpatine was lying through his teeth with the story about the Sith being able to stave off death. At any rate, you have to figure that he knew from the outset that Padme, given her history, would never go along with the whole Dark Side thing.
*The political angle has indeed been overdrawn by critics. There are a few War on Terror parallels, which felt especially strong in discussing the manhunt for General Grievous, but on the whole Star Wars is a fable like the Lord of the Rings, adaptable to and resonant with many political circumstances but ideally parallel to none. And if you can imagine George W. Bush giving Palpatine's oily lecture about how good and evil are just a point of view, you need professional help.
*As many people have noted, what the whole prequel trilogy was missing was someone like Han Solo. Lucas couldn't find one character besides Jango Fett who at least preferred shooting people to lightsaber fights?
*The intervening 20 years were obviously hard on some people. Obi-Wan, like Luke's Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, obviously aged quite a lot living in the desert. Vader, of course, has been stewing in his own bitterness - a young man entering the prime of his life and starting a family, suddenly widowed and friendless by his own betrayals, charred, disfigured, and propped on prosthetic legs. And Chewbacca has gone from being a major figure in his planet's army to a wandering co-pilot taking orders from a smuggler.
*I'm not sure I see the same problem Jim Geraghty does with the construction schedule at the Death Star. The second one was very unfinished at the time of Return of the Jedi.
*Instapundit, as always, has more links.
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POP CULTURE: Ghost of Christmas Past
Via Pejman, a scathing IMDb review of the infamous Star Wars Christmas Special, which I am thankful not to have seen, or at least remembered. I assume that a condition of Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher returning for the sequels was no more TV specials.
May 16, 2005
POP CULTURE: "[B]etter than 'Star Wars'"
Update: Ace thinks the NYT's enthusiasm for anti-Bush themes is a bad sign (via Basil). I still haven't heard anything from the advance reviews that you could identify as an actual Bush criticism without a microscope; yes, the movie has villains, and for some people any villain is a reminder of Bush. Whatever. But I loved this, from the comments to Ace's post:
[T]here was always this one brief shot (competely irrelevant to the story, I know) that said a lot about the Empire.
May 14, 2005
POP CULTURE: Sneering at Star Wars
In the interests of balancing my sight-unseen irrational exuberance about Revenge of the Sith, I present to you a nasty, sneering essay in the New York Observer. (via Instapundit). Frankly, in complying with the First Rule of Sequel Reviews - tell the reader what you thought of the earlier movies - the author, Dale Peck, gives the game away with his assertion that "[t]here has not, in fact, been a good Star Wars movie since the first one." And frankly, the entire article is almost a parody of sneering contempt for the whole Star Wars enterprise and its fans, to the point where I sincerely doubt that Peck enjoyed the first one, either. Plus, of course, the picture of the elitist New York movie critic unable to enjoy a good show wouldn't be complete without totally non sequitur anti-Bush rants.
Look: the Star Wars films are not everyone's taste, but you really have to work at this kind of animosity towards the entire project. Among other things, you need to separate yourself wholly from the ability to enjoy films with even a shred of the joy and innocence of childhood (just from reading this "review" - which scarcely discusses Revenge of the Sith, so it's really more of an essay on Star Wars in general - I would bet good money that this guy has no kids of his own).
I didn't understand this line at all:
[T]he real loss in the immediate sequels was the cantankerous sexual triangle of Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia that had given Star Wars a recognizable and genuinely compelling psychological frisson . . . Mr. Lucas jettisoned the sex stuff, along with any other traces of personality that had crept into his original story . . .
Did this guy see The Empire Strikes Back? I mean, you don't have to like the romantic angle in that movie - I certainly don't - but there's really quite a lot more of it than there was in the original Star Wars.
I should add that, in general, I've never liked the romantic stuff in these films. At first, looking back, I thought that might be because I saw them first in boyhood, when my natural reaction to such scenes was "yuck." But now that I'm an adult and enjoy romantic comedies and drama and the like as much as the next guy (romance, that is; not sex scenes . . . I've never really grasped the appeal in watching two people making out if I'm not one of them), I still don't like these scenes. I think it's a combination of two things. One is that Lucas just doesn't know how to write these scenes, or for that matter to write female characters in any mode other than scrappy, sassy and wisecracking. The other is, really, that I almost never enjoy this kind of stuff in action/sci-fi/fantasy films, because that's not what I'm in the mood for when I go to one of these movies; the scenes very often seem forced and artificial and I wind up feeling like I wasted valuable time that could have been spent advancing the action.
May 12, 2005
POP CULTURE: The Fool Who Follows Him
May 9, 2005
POP CULTURE: "Padme is the new Jar Jar"
A mostly-good review of Revenge of the Sith, but awfully harsh on the film's lone significant female character. Of course, Natalie Portman's not as unpleasant to look at as Jar Jar, but given Lucas' track record of attempts at writing romance, I'm not optimistic.
May 6, 2005
POP CULTURE: Alderaan's 9/11
Michele, who's obviously getting as sucked in to the Revenge of the Sith hype as I am, has a wee problem with Princess Leia's reaction in the original:
Tell me something: how would you react if you watched your home planet blown to smithereeens right in front of you? Would you collapse in grief? Break down in uncontrollable sobs? Faint? Go deaf, dumb and blind from the horror of watching everyone you have ever known or loved be wiped out in milliseconds? Or would you gasp, let out a stifled cry and then, a short time later, engage in flirtatious banter with a rogue space captain?
April 25, 2005
POP CULTURE: Phil: The Monster Who Sometimes Likes to Eat a Cookie
The whole point of the Cookie Monster character was to have a character who was silly because he ate so much. If Cookie Monster were a Greek god, he'd be the god of gluttony. Wouldn't it have been more honest and simply better to implore kids not to be too much like the Cookie Monster rather than make the Cookie Monster like everyone else? We all understand we shouldn’t be like Oscar the Grouch.
Frankly, it doesn't take a very bright 4-year-old to grasp that Cookie Monster's behavior is not acceptable. But it's funny.
POP CULTURE: Bruce is Back
I've got the first single off the new Bruce album, and unfortunately it sounds like we're back to the mopey, acoustic Bruce, although I'll wait and hear the whole album. Thought for the day, from Springsteen: "Talking about music is like talking about sex . . . Can you describe it? Are you supposed to?"
POP CULTURE: Muncha Buncha
If you noticed his recent appearance on "Law & Order: Trial by Jury,"
April 7, 2005
POP CULTURE: The Preachy Monster
Another sign that we'll never again see children's entertainment that actually places entertaining children first: Cookie Monster is shilling for moderation in eating cookies. Wile E. Coyote wouldn't even get on the air today. "Sesame Street" has always been both educational and moralistic, and that's a good thing. But Jim Henson understood that a little plain old childish mischief is what made the show work well enough to keep kids coming back for more letters and numbers.