29 April 2007

I'm just Idlewild for Douglas

For those of you who have been worrying--sending cards and flowers and limericks--I'm happy to announce that I have a new iPod. He even plays video!

Yes, I said "he." His name is Douglas. It just seemed to fit.

Recently, Douglas has been repeating the tracks on "Make Another World," the newest album by Scottish folk-poppers Idlewild.

Now I know what you're thinking: "Isn't 'Idlewild' the name of the disappointing film and even more lackluster album that brought a shockingly sudden end to OutKast's time of relevance?"

Well, yes.

But it's also the name of this band that I had never heard of until Entertainment Weekly gave "Make Another World" a good review a few weeks ago. The critic likens the group to R.E.M., which made me curious. I do so love my boys in Athens.

Turns out, it was a great comparison. If you have access to iTunes or some other music downloading site, listen to the sample of the song "No Emotion." Tell me that doesn't recall the nasally goodness of Michael Stipe!

To be honest, I'm not sure that Idlewild is wildly different from bouncy, guitar-fuzz-loving bands like Snow Patrol, Fountains of Wayne, and Interpol. But so what? You can't expect everyone to come along and revolutionize your concept of what good pop music can be. (You know, like The Postal Service did. Seriously, you guys. Me and Douglas got down to "Give Up" on the subway today. That album still blows my mind.)

Anyway, my point is that Idlewild is making music worth listening to. In a few weeks, I'll probably know their album well enough to suss out exactly what makes them different from those other bands I just mentioned. For now, though, I'm enjoying my first impression.


26 April 2007

Maroon 5, Part 2: Are We In Agreement?

So here's part two of my thoughts on Maroon 5. Think of this like a game we can play on a road trip somewhere. Maybe we're going to Six Flags, and we need something to pass the time.

Imagine it: We're sitting in a dark green Toyota Camry, blasting A.C. because Stephanie always gets really hot. I've got my legs stretched out on the backseat, shoes and socks off, aimlessly wiggling my toes. While I'm trying to spread them as wide apart as possible--and while Stephanie is driving, and while you are digging through the snack sack for that bag of peanuts I asked for fifteen minutes ago--I present this question to the car...

Is Maroon 5 the most universal act in pop music right now?

This is a concept I think about quite a bit. At any given time in music history, are there acts that everyone can agree on?

Obviously I mean "everyone" in a very loose way. There will always be someone who doesn't like something. But you know what I mean... The Beatles are an obvious choice. When they were making music, I think most people dug them.

And let me clarify: I'm talking about artists who scored general approval when they were actually releasing music. It's different for everyone to agree on The Beatles now. That's received wisdom. I'm talking about the merging of the contemporary and the universal.

Now... I once read an article that said the splintering of radio into such distinct genres has sort of eliminated the possibility of another Bruce Springsteen, Beatles, Madonna, or Michael Jackson emerging to stir the entire nation into a frenzy. Maybe that's true, but I don't think the nation has given up its taste for musical unification.

Because in the late 90s, didn't everyone sort of agree on Lauryn Hill?

And right now, doesn't it seem like most people sort of like Kelly Clarkson? Or Maroon 5? Again, I'm not talking about L-O-V-E, but I've never encountered anyone who loathes Kelly C. or Maroon 5. They seem to leap across boundaries.

And that's where the rest of you in the car have to jump in. Want to clarify our terms? Want to challenge my assertions? Make your own? Go right ahead. There's a traffic jam on I-75, so we're not getting to Six Flags for another two hours.


24 April 2007

Maroon 5, Part 1: Who Brought Sexy Back?

You guys, I have two distinct ideas about Maroon 5. Two! So I'm going to have a mini-Maroon 5 marathon by posting two separate posts about them. Here's part one...

Maroon 5: The bringing back of Sexy.

How sexy is Adam Levine, lead singer of Maroon 5? Well, first I guess you should watch this video for the band's new single "Makes Me Wonder":

If you don't think he seems sexy in that video, you may not agree with anything I'm about to say. However, regardless of your sexuality, sex, or gender, I'm betting you do think there's a sexiness about Adam Levine. After all, you have eyes. I mean, it's not just me, right? It's not like I'm talking about the raging sexiness of Bucky Covington and asking for no debate.

Anyway, seeing this video makes me think we should revisit the question of Justin Timberlake's ownership of The Sexy in male pop.

The marketing push surrounding the arrival of Timberlake's album "Future Sex/Love Sounds" focused on how he was singlehandedly (singlecrotchedly?) returning sex appeal to the male face of popular music. Hell, "SexyBack" declared that straight up.

And at the time, it seemed like the truth. Here was J.T., in his well-tailored suits and come-hither stare, unafraid to be seen as an object of desire when so many male pop stars... well, were there any other male pop stars around? Are there?

Timberlake essentially came rushing in to fill the void created after pop radio became dominated by two types of men: (1) rappers and hip-hop artists who insist that they never seem vulnerable or in any way capable of being a sexual object and (2) rockers who keep singing about how fucked up they are over bad relationships.

What does that do for people looking for a male sexual fantasy in pop? (Because face it, the days of D'Angelo and his sculpted nakedness are long gone.) On the one hand, you get a man who equates sex with utter dominance, insisting that his sexuality is entirely defined by his lust. "Sexy" is essentially replaced by "horny," and anyone who wants to be attracted to, say, 50 Cent or Ludacris, had better be ready to have fantasies about being a powerless bitch.

On the other hand, you get a man who seems devoid of sexuality because he is so morose about how sex has messed him up. Even in Hinder's "Lips of an Angel," in which the singer wants to cheat on his current girlfriend with his sultry ex, there's an asexual panic. The guy's immobilized because his girl's in the next room while he talks to the old flame. He can't get it on with anyone.

And in case anyone is getting upset about the "powerless bitch" paragraph, I'm not saying that fantasies of being dominated are bad. I have a liberal arts education, so I'm culturally incapable of denying anyone their identity space. But sometimes, you just want a man who seems like he might actually want to be wanted, you know? Who might enjoy fulfilling your needs or revel in the idea of other people finding him desirable. There's a softness and a humanity in that. And--dare I say it?--it makes room for love and intimacy in the sexual act.

And when J.T. rolled up with "SexyBack" and "My Love," it seemed like he alone was making room for those kinds of reactions.

But you know what? We all just forgot about Adam Levine! Because he's been rocking the same sexy vibe from the beginning. Do you remember the video for Maroon 5's "This Love?" He was not afraid to show some skin.

And in the video for "Makes Me Wonder," he's got the whole Bond-sexy thing down. Granted, it seems a little bit like a "SexyBack" retread, but arguably Levine is giving us more of what he gave before and not just copycatting.

Point being: I think Maroon 5 deserves more credit for The Sexy. Again, there's room for other images of male sexuality, but this particular image is in very limited supply. As a nation, we should make sure to get all hot 'n bothered by those who present it. It's only respectful.


I Totally Hear That in the LA Times!

You read that correctly, folks. My post about Alanis' "My Humps" video has now been quoted by no less than the L.A. Times.

For those who aren't registered at the paper's website, here's the section of the story that mentions me...


THE BIG PICTURE: Satire busts a hump
Morissette speaks volumes about sex, power and YouTube with a sly spoof.
April 24, 2007

PEOPLE endlessly complain that Hollywood is full of dopey, superficial films bereft of anything new to say. And they're right. Anyone looking for art that is edgy or relevant — and inspires comment — is turning to Internet video, which has become the true engine driving our pop culture.

Nothing demonstrates this better than the tsunami-like viral success of Alanis Morissette's "My Humps," which surfaced three weeks ago on YouTube and quickly became the most popular video on the channel, attracting 5.5 million views, easily outdistancing such rivals as "Otters Holding Hands" and "Farting in Public."

At first glance, it simply looks like another pass-along parody, a takeoff on the original "My Humps" hit by the Black Eyed Peas. But Morissette's video is armed with a provocative subtext that has people abuzz with debate. It's a fascinating piece of video art, an inspired combination of satire, social criticism and career reinvention that is a signature artifact of today's viral Web culture.

On one level, "My Humps" is a commentary on dim-bulb pop. The Black Eyed Peas' "My Humps," though a huge smash, was widely mocked for its vapid, suggestive lyrics. (Sample: "The boys they wanna sex me, they always standing next to me, always dancing next to me, tryin' a feel my hump, hump.") The video, featuring Fergie, the group's lead singer, was, if possible, even tawdrier. Full of nonstop teasing and thrusting, it's the kind of hip-hop booty porn that would make great torture material for Muslim prisoners at our Guantanamo Bay prison camp.

Dressing herself Fergie-style, with baubles and bling, surrounded by black-clad male dancers, Morissette retained the original's visual sluttiness but replaced the Peas' thumping rhythm track with a pensive solo piano. By removing the intoxicating bass line and clearly enunciating the crass lyrics, she gave the song's sexpot swagger a new tone of sadness and desperation while simultaneously parodying her own artistic tendencies toward self-absorbed angst.

It's a striking performance, functioning as both social criticism and self-criticism. It also has given an instant shot of street cred to Morissette, whose career had slid downhill after her incandescent debut in 1995 with "Jagged Little Pill." Stereotyped as an earnest navel gazer — one blogger recently dismissed her as an "emo-feminist" — she suddenly has fans seeing her through fresh eyes.

As Mark Blankenship put it in his ITotallyHearThat blog, "Remember when I was saying Pink didn't manage to criticize the objectification of female sexuality in 'Stupid Girls' without becoming the very thing she supposedly opposed? Well, Alanis found a way. If that kind of wit, intelligence and humility is in her next album, I'm buying it."

This is what gives YouTube its real power. It is a forum not just for amateur pranks but also for career reinvention.


So if anyone is here visiting because of that story... welcome! Have a seat and read a while. May I suggest something in a vintage post?

How about... asking me to determine your pop-chart astrology?

Or perhaps you'd like to debate a disasterpiece?

For that full-bodied, "I Totally Hear That" flavor, try our sampling menu (also known as my run-down of the best songs of 2006).

We hope you'll join us again.

And by we... I mean... me.



22 April 2007

Something from my other (writing) life

Hey everyone!

I don't often do this, but I wanted to post a story I wrote for this week's weekly edition of Variety. I'm really pleased with how it turned out, and I thought it was worth sharing.


Posted: Fri., Apr. 20, 2007, 1:53pm PT

'Naked' festival exposes face of war

Mark Blankenship: Critic's Notebook

NEW YORK -- What if, just for a little while, people stopped being angry about the war? What else would they feel?

Anger has dominated much of our cultural discourse about the strife in Iraq, from talking heads bellowing on cable news to pop stars like Eminem recording tirades. Fury has steered the theater, too, whether it's in the barbed satire of musicals like "Bush Is Bad" or the intellectual protest of David Hare's "Stuff Happens."

But while those sentiments are necessary, there are other responses to war that deserve exploration. With largely exceptional results, "Armed and Naked," an Iraq-minded festival of 14 short plays and four short films that wrapped April 22 and was organized by cutting-edge Off Broadway company Naked Angels, evoked the feelings that can live next to anger in the nation's heart.

The most striking plays trafficked in sorrow. Instead of pushing a political agenda or demanding a partisan allegiance from the audience, they explored how war devastates all Americans, no matter if their states are red or blue.

Enough pieces took this humanistic stance to form a kind of coalition, inviting us to step back from our idiosyncratic beliefs and grieve together over what's happening to our soldiers and our families. Over two weeks, the effect was harrowingly cathartic.

That impact points to the quality of the festival's work. While some of the pieces founder, most exhibit deep critical thinking and careful attention to craft.

Writers like Theresa Rebeck, Itamar Moses and Deirdre O'Connor make particularly good use of the short play format. Each scribe takes an everyday image -- playing cards, interpreting foreign speech, packing for a trip -- and develops it into a piercing metaphor. Delivered in 15 minutes or less, their insights are as taut as they are surprising.

With "Amici, ascoltate," Warren Leight returns from a long sojourn in television (on "Law & Order: Criminal Intent") to create a miniature epic. Without a single wasted word, he introduces three generations of a military family as described by Tony (Tony Campisi), a man whose mother almost shot him in the hand to keep him from going to Vietnam.

In a stellar coup de theatre, Leight lets Tony inherit his mother's fear by picking up her gun and carrying it, in one gesture, into the present day, when his own son is about to leave for Iraq. As Tony makes a silent, crucial decision, the pistol becomes more than a prop, representing any family thatloves its country but wants to keep its children alive.

Shifting meanings also invigorate "Myrtle Beach," a poetic and unsettling mediation by fest co-producer Dan Klores. The play is a conversation between the head (Yul Vasquez) and body (David Deblinger) of a solider who has been blown up.

At first, there's a dreamy calm as the two body parts -- inventively costumed by Jessica Wegener -- discover each other in the rubble. Ultimately, though, the playlet erupts into keening for the innocent man who was destroyed. The force of its imagery almost terrifies.

"Myrtle Beach" is particularly gratifying theater because it couldn't work as a film. The same is true of Will Eno's "Bully Composition," which invites the audience to imagine itself as a platoon of soldiers posing for a wartime portrait. A major question -- posed by Thomas Jay Ryan and Elizabeth Marvel, playing a photographer and his assistant -- is whether we're posing before a day of battle or just after we've returned. Wouldn't our expressions be pinched and fearful either way?

Eno asks this question so elegantly, couching it in a story about an ambiguous photo from the Spanish-American War, that he makes a moral point without preaching. If we examine our current standing in the war, he suggests, we have no way of knowing if we're at the end of the nightmare or the beginning. Capturing the image of our current historical moment means framing worried, uncertain faces.

Eno's play creates a reverential sadness. The audience is asked to become a congregation, considering its own mortality and the fates of all anonymous soldiers. But there's something liberating in that communion, in sensing how much we can empathize with fighters we'll never know.

A similar empathy floods Louis Cancelmi's "President and Man." But before it was even seen, the media and several conservative groups prematurely announced the play was a fantasy about assassinating George W. Bush. That sounds juicily inflammatory, but it isn't Cancelmi's intention.

To be sure, a nameless president (Chris Sarandon) gets killed in his bedroom by an aide (Brandon Miller), but Republicans might be surprised to learn the commander in chief is portrayed in a sympathetic light. He spends most of the play telling the first lady (Lizbeth Mackay) how much he loves and wants to help his people.

He's just afraid to tell them how much he cares. "I'd probably clam up," he explains. "I get too self-conscious when I know people are making judgments about what I say."

And just as the president can't face his people, his people can't face him. While slitting his boss's throat, the assassin says, "It's what they wanted. The people. They just didn't know how to ask for it."

That doesn't read as an attack on any particular official but as a cry of anguish for leaders and citizens so alienated from each other they can't communicate. A lack of understanding trumps good intentions, which leads to anger. And while anger results in action, the action doesn't fix the problem.


20 April 2007

Welcome to My Random Thoughts, Pt. 2

It's time for another clearinghouse special on my random thoughts!

(1) Obviously, it's about time Sanjaya got kicked off American Idol.

Is that a revolutionary statement? No. But let me tell you... when it was down to just LaKisha and Sanjaya, I was literally sitting with my head between my knees, rocking with fear that she was going to get eliminated before the far inferior Malakar. I can't take that kind of stress every week, so thank goodness it's over.

(2) On the subject of Idol, I hope Jordin, Melinda, and LaKisha comprise the top three.

Chris Richardson drives me up a steep wall. First of all, his voice? Sucks. Justin Timberlake is not the greatest singer in the world, so being a less accomplished version of J.T. is not to Chris' credit. Plus, he just seems so skeevy to me, wearing those white sneakers every week and oozing this aura of cheap beer and Velveeta and peeing in the sink in the middle of the night.

Oh, and? And? He used to be a "supervisor" at Hooters. Hooters! My deepest love to everyone reading this who enjoys hot wings served by girls in mini-shorts. Seriously. It's a free country, and I'd probably let a guy in a thong bring me a cheeseburger. But if I did that, I'd know it was trashy. Just like Hooters is trashy. And being on the management staff at Hooters makes you trashy with benefits.

As for ther other guys: Phil is just not very good. And Blake is talented and cool, but he strikes me as phony. There's something about him that tells me he's trying too hard to be awesome. (Could it be his "improv performance" that one week, when he was wearing those fake teeth?) There's never a moment when he doesn't seem really calculated and image-obsessed, so even though I think he's good, I'd like him to place fourth.

(3) Rihanna has cleared her name of "Unfaithful" by releasing "Umbrella"

Rihanna doesn't have much of an artistic personality, so my affection for her rises and falls based on how much I like her current single. Last summer, I examined the hot mess of "Unfaithful," which was the murder ballad of 2006.

But now she's back with her new single, "Umbrella." Listen to it below...

There's no way around it. This song kicks ass. The bass? Thumps like a mother. And her reggae-accented singing--especially on those "ay ay ays" in the chorus-- is cool.

And how great is it in the chorus when the synth swells up underneath her voice? It sounds sunny and uplifting, just like the lyric about how she's never going to stop loving her fella.

Welcome back, Rihanna. I'm back on board. Who knows? Maybe this time you'll keep me for two songs in a row!


18 April 2007

Arcade Fire... Better Late Than Never

Did you know that Arcade Fire is a really good band? I know! In the last three years, not a single publication, friend of mine, or random person walking down the street has suggested such a thing.

Okay. That's a lie. But you know, sometimes I just can't get down with the latest hip band or TV show or whatever. For whatever reason, there are always certain "of the moment" cultural presences that exhaust me before I've even begun to know them. I think that's because they get embraced by people who are much more hip than I will ever be, and I just don't feel like I will ever be able to keep up. Like, my jeans will never be that skinny, so I should just wait until some less undeground version of said cultural touchstone emerges and enjoy that instead. Instead of Beth Orton, I'll listen to Sandi Thom. Instead of "The Believer," I'll read "Salon." I still get to enjoy a solid product, but I don't have to feel intimidated by the uber-coolness.

Some of you may have noticed that I have a minor hang-up about uber-coolness. To me, that's an attitude that eschews fun of all varieties. And trust me, I have been around this attitude at certain parties. It always gets me in trouble. Here's an example of a conversation I actually had in grad school...

Not Me: "I just got back from seeing [Obscure Polish Play]. It was life-changing."

Me: "Totally. That's how I felt after seeing the Madonna-Britney Spears video this morning."

(chirp. chirp. chirp.)

See, I was trying to be funny, and it just died. "Not Me" refused to laugh about that, and he looked at me as though he thought I actually believed there was a comparison to be made between Obscure Polish Plays and "Me Against the Music." I won't go into all the six thousand reasons I actually said what I said. But suffice it to say, I'm pretty sure "Not Me" had just been talking about Arcade Fire.

And... see? I allow myself to get pushed away from certain things becasue I think it's going to make me stop laughing at myself, at the world, etc. But it turns out that I'm usually hurting myself when I restrict myself that way. "The Believer" is a good magazine, and Beth Orton rules. And as I said earlier, Arcade Fire makes great music. (If you can find it on their very complicated website, listen to the song "Black Mirror" here.)

The Canadian ensemble recently released their second album, "Neon Bible," to much acclaim and very good sales. I bought it last week, and I have been happily absorbed in its lush rock songs ever sense. The review on iTunes correctly likens the band to Bruce Springsteen, both because of lead singer Win Butler's raspy wail of a voice and beacuse of his penchant for lyrics that explore middle-class anxiety with bombastic riffs.

An excellent example of that spirit is on the song "Windowsill," which opens with soft electric strings and the whisper-sung assertion, "Don't wanna hear the noises on TV/Don't want the salesmen coming after me/Don't want to live in my father's house no more." And that need to escape keeps building--along with the number of instruments and the speed of the rhythm--until Butler is railing against media culture, the war, and all the other things that might make someone feel overwhelmed by living right now.

But it never gets so intense that he starts screaming. His vocals are passionate but controlled, which makes the song feel like an almost-explosion. The tension of what never quite breaks out makes the song fascinating, and it certainly recalls some of Springsteen's spookier, folkier music.

On other tracks, there are just so many people in the band that their music can have delicious texture. A song like "Black Wave/Bad Vibrations" stacks choral singing on top of rolling drums on top of a very plaintive series of chimes. It's an epic-sounding lament, made more painful by the refrain, "There's a great black wave in the middle of the sea/For me/For you/For me." Really, the song reminds me of sobbing. It just gets more and more intense as its sadness grows.

Then for fun, there are song like "No Cars Go," where the interplay of men and women's vocals (and people repeatedly shouting "Hey!" in the background) create the breezy energy of running in no particular direction because you just feel that free. Kind of like the energy of U2's "Mysterious Ways," though the songs sound nothing alike.

So there you go. Arcade Fire. "Neon Bible." Awesome. Glad I finally figured that out.


14 April 2007

Trapped in Olde Tyme Brooklyn

It had to happen, I suppose. Last summer, my iPod started giving me the "sick face," and now it has died. All 2,000 songs have been erased.

However, the clock has managed to keep perfect time. Strange.

All in all, this has not been a great week for technology. Along with my iPod, Andrew's phone and cable box died. Oh, and the overhead light in my living room isn't working, but my landlords are out of town for the next week.

So here I am, sitting in the almost-dark with no iPod, dating someone with no phone and no cable.

Screw it, you guys. I'm going all the way Colonial House. Coming soon, my report on the latest fife and drum music from Goody Goode and her tunesmith sisters!


13 April 2007

Rejoice! Kelly Clarkson has a new single!

Quick question: Did you ever wonder what would happen if Pat Benatar had a younger sister?

Well, wonder no more. "Lil' Patty" (or is that "Baby Benny?") has now been revealed to be Kelly Clarkson.

Need proof? Just go listen to "Never Again," the new single that was just released today. (Much to my excitment, I assure you!)

Once again, Kelly's angry. Andrew made a good point that on her last album, only "Breakway" and "You Found Me" are even remotely positive. Otherwise, it's all "you'll never see the tears I've cried because of you, that I've cried since u been gone, that I 've cried behind my hazel eyes while pondering the beautiful disaster from which I must now walk away."

But a girl gets pissed, you know? I mean, homeslice named her upcoming album "My December." She's cold; she's tormented; she's telling you all about it.

But with Alanis about to headline at Caroline's Comedy Club, I'm happy to let Kay-Clacka (what? she needs a nickname! I can't just say "Clarkson" over and over, and I refuse to call her "Kelly" until we're BFF) be our new dark queen of pop. You know, along with Amy Lee.

There's no denying the influence of Evanescence-style, gothically dramatic grunge on "Never Again." I'd even say the song is alternative rock, which is a striking departure from the rock-pop of the "Breakaway" album. But the single still has poppy influences.

Listen to how high up in the mix Clarkson's vocals are. Many harder rock songs are produced to push the guitar and drums to the fore, letting the vocal get absorbed in a wall of raging sound.

It's the hallmark of a pop song when the singer is placed so obviously in front of the band. (So guess what kind of song that makes "It's Not Over!" Snap, Mr. Rock Face!)

The vocal mixing on "Never Again" is really reminiscent of Pat Benatar's hits, which give pop diva grandeur to a rock sound. And there's not a thing wrong with that. We need to hear these women, right?

And Clarkson's hitting high notes in "Never Again" that sound exactly like the ones Pat Benatar busts out in "Heartbreaker" and "Invincible," slight warble and all.

If you know the overlooked Benatar classic "All Fired Up," maybe you'll agree with me that K.C.'s new one sounds like a cousin, what with the crunchy bass and the ominous drums. Granted, "All Fired Up" is really positive and rebellious, but the structure is similar.

All in all, I say good job Kelly (okay, I guess we're BFF now). Way to keep your music interesting and surprising without giving up your affinity for catchy hooks!


08 April 2007

I love you, Marla Hooch!

Yesterday, as Andrew was getting ready for a ski trip, I was flipping through the channels on his TV. Imagine my cries of happiness when I stumbled across the opening credits of A League of Their Own! Despite the fact that I've seen that move at least six times--two of them in the actual movie theater, back when I could get a Chattanooga matinee ticket for about $3.00--I sat down and watched the first hour.

And good lord, it was satisfying. Marla Hooch! Saying goodbye to her dad as they both cry! And what about that scene where we meet Dolores (Rosie O'Donnell) and Mae (Madonna)? See Rosie balance a bat on her hand! See Madonna be sassy!

My response to the movie got me thinking... what are my "stop titles?" Meaning, which movies will make me stop the remote control if I flip past them on cable? Which songs will keep me from changing the radio dial in the car, even for just a second? Which books, if I'm walking past them in the bookstore, will make me pause, smile, and read the back cover for fun?

(The implicit question here is what are your "stop titles?" Soon you'll know mine. Tell me yours!)

I think each genre I mentioned has different criteria. For a movie, I'm likely to stop on something light and escapist that doesn't requite a great deal of emotional involvement. "Terms of Endearment" and "Magnolia" are great movies--two of my favorites--but I don't want to pop in on them for a few scenes before I go do my laundry. If I don't get the total experience, I'm not that satisfied.

For a cable tv pop-in, I need something whose enjoyment can be reasonably contained in a few minutes.

That burst of pleasure has a lot to do with where the movie is when I find it. My favorite part of "A League of Their Own" is the first hour, so if I don't happen across it until Bill Pullman is back from the war, ready to woo Geena Davis away from the Peaches, then I'm not having it. On the other hand, "The Matrix" is more likely to get me at the end, when it's bad-ass, grab-the-guns -and-shoot time.

Those are two of my big "stop" movies. Others include "A Few Good Men," during the "You can't handle the truth!" scene; "Fried Green Tomatoes," at any point after Kathy Bates' discovery of her self-worth; and "Bring It On," during any cheer routine.

Of course, I think one of those five movies is guaranteed to be on cable every weekend, so I should just never turn on the TV.

For songs, my reasoning is a bit more capricious. The entire point of a pop song is that it doesn't require more than five minutes of your time (unless you're listening to Meat Loaf.) My musical "stops" have no rational explanation, and I don't know that I can definitively name all of them. However, I am certain I will always stop my radio station scanning if I hear...

Madonna in any form

"Gloria" by Laura Branigan

"Take on Me" by a-ha

"All I Want" by Toad the Wet Sprocket

or "Mo Money, Mo Problems" by The Notorious B.I.G."

As for books, it's all about childhood. I am obsessed with looking at how the Narnia books are presented in each of their re-printings.

Which... by the way... is anyone else bummed that The Magician's Nephew is now being packaged as book six and The Horse and His Boy is being pushed as book three? Half the fun of reading those books late--out of chronological order, but in the order in which C.S. Lewis wrote them--was discovering the answers to questions you forgot to ask about The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe and Prince Caspian.

For instance, I'm happy that the first time I read about it, I didn't really understand why there was a lamppost behind the wardrobe. It was just there. Then, in The Magician's Nephew, it felt totally magical to realize that it had grown from the soil after an enchanted woman threw a piece of iron into the ground... and that that woman was the White Witch! AAAAAAGH!

Okay. Okay. I'm sure it's just as magical to read it in the other order, but I like what I learned first, you know? That's why all this talk of the new movie featuring the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles--that does not feature Shredder--will only make me scoff.

Wait... is this just the first step of my evolution into an arch conservative? Will all this "Don't change what I know in pop culture" business lead to a stubborn insistence that gays shouldn't marry and U.S. health care should never be affordable?

Whoops! I'll be right back. I've got to go buy my ticket to TMNT.


06 April 2007

More love for "I Totally Hear That!"

The website Pop Politics has given a very kind shout-out to my post on Alanis' "My Humps." Thanks guys!

And I recommend their site to everyone. It's very smart in its pop culture analysis, and you don't find that every day.

Plus, the incredible website Okayplayer mentioned the post, too. Just scroll down their homepage until you see an entry called "A Sense of Humor is a Terrible Thing to Waste." That particular post gives a great argument for why hip-hop artists should laugh at themselves sometimes. Does 50 Cent have a million-dollar grin? Does T.I. know what it means to dream? We may never know.


A Song By Any Other Name (Would Sound Better)

Listening to Athens, Georgia-based band Of Montreal, I am conflicted.

To be sure, I love the band's music. It's dancefloor boogie created by people with a real talent for composing. (Or person, rather. Kevin Barnes, the only permanent part of the revolving-membership ensemble, is the primary songwriter.) The sound is fun and bouncy, even though the lyrics are about failing marriages and the like. I appreciate that contrast. It gives the good times a bit of rebellion, like when I went out dancing after I got fired from my job at a crappy bookstore or broke up with my first boyfriend. Dance, dammit! It proves they didn't win!

I'd put Of Montreal somewhere between New Pornographers (because of the classic pop structure in several of the songs) and Scissor Sisters/Beck (because of the loopy sound effects and occasional falsetto singing). I encourage you guys to go to the band's MySpace page (linked up top) and listen to the songs "Suffer for Fashion" and "Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse."

A Promethean what? Exactly. Because that's the other thing with Of Montreal. Despite making good-to-great music, they are just so damn pretentious. The name of their album is "Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?" Song titles include "We Were Born the Mutants Again With Leafling," "A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger," and "Voltaic Crusher / Undrum to Muted Da."

Good God. Get over yourselves already. These ridiculous strings of words recall the reason Fall Out Boy drives me crazy. With FOB, long, punny titles like "Champagne for My Real Friends, Real Pain for My Sham Friends," while occasionally clever, are preemptive weapons against anyone saying the band is mainstream or inauthentic. If you have to work to remember a song's name, then it can't be for everyone, right? No matter how many people buy it? Those plastic kids that wouldn't invite you to their pool parties and made fun of you at lunch... they don't get it, right?

The New Yorker ran a really smart piece about how Fall Out Boy seems terrified of admitting that they're popular. And while Of Montreal isn't selling hundreds of thousands of copies, they're on a similarly self-conscious path to making sure they seem bizarre. It's the rock version of how hip-hop artists have to keep it real.

But here's an obvious lesson none of these bands ever seem to take: Overtly trying to seem different makes you just as inauthentic as people who desperately try to be popular.

Ultimately, it's all about wanting to be accepted, I think. It's just that Of Montreal wants to be accepted by a different clique than the ones Akon or JoJo are eager to join.

So, Of Montreal, here's my request: Please stop trying so hard. You're not David Bowie, creating an elaborate identity of freakishness in order to blend theater and rock while commenting on the fluidity of gender. You're not Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman, using long song titles to accentuate the grand theatricality of your music. Right now, you're a group of talented musicians who seem afraid to drop your facade of carefully-constructed otherness. Your music already sets you apart. Why not let it speak for you, rather relying on song titles that tell us in advance how we're supposed to feel about your work and persona?

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03 April 2007

"I Totally Hear That" on Slate.com!

Well, damn! Slate.com just wrote about my post about the Alanis video. On the page I link to, just scroll down to find me quoted there.


And welcome Slate readers!


Isn't It Ironic?

You guys, when did Alanis Morissette get a sense of humor?

I ask that question not because I don't like her music. Sometimes, I do. "Hand in My Pocket?" "Hands Clean?" Absolutely. But after she released so many albums of naval-gazing rock-pop, I thought I knew her. I figured "Alanis" was synonymous with "convoluted lyrics" or "increasingly fewer instances of a discernible chorus or hook because all her songs are just long lists of people's names or the forty-one reasons she's praying."

So how was I supposed to predict that she'd be able to mock both herself and the current pop music Zeitgeist so well?

Okay, her particular target for parody isn't super current, but it's not like "My Humps" has become this old relic that no longer resembles anything else in pop culture.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Some of you may be asking, "How the hell do Alanis Morissette and 'My Humps' go together?"

Before I answer that question, let me offer a little background material. If you haven't seen the video for Black Eyed Peas' "My Humps," you might want to watch it here:

Mind reeling? Been too long since you had to taste that particular brew of Fergie poison? Been trying to forget her since she likened herself to a bridge? Sorry to bring back old memories, but it had to be done. Because having seen the original, it's easier to appreciate Alanis' take on the video. Take a look...

I say, "Brilliant."

My god. Brilliant.

Because not only is Morissette mocking the ludicrousness of "My Humps," she's also mocking herself. The fact that she recorded this song in the "Morissette style," with the haunting piano and angsty wailing in tact, proves that she knows she can sometimes seem like a drippy flower child. And it's not like when Tori Amos records silly songs in her freak-out-fairy style. A Tori video of "My Humps" would be filled with symbolic images of mountains melting or something. Like when she covered that Eminem song. That shit was scary. Yes, Tori offered a strong critique of Eminem, but she never seems to do the same for herself.

The fact that Alanis copies the images of "My Humps" but changes the sound only points out how over-the-top both she and the Black Eyed Peas can be. It can all be an artifice, she's saying. Everything hurled at us on the radio or television or movie screen can be an artificial attempt to seem totally authentic, but sometimes it's all just silly posturing.

And it's good to be reminded of that.

Plus, remember yesterday when I was saying Pink didn't manage to criticize the objectification of female sexuality in "Stupid Girls" without becoming the very thing she supposedly opposed? Well, Alanis found a way.

If that kind of wit, intelligence, and humility is in her next album, I'm buying it.

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02 April 2007

Pink and Pop-Culture Justice

Sometimes there's justice in pop culture. Like when someone as cool as Jodie Foster gets to be a star or when people finally stop believing that M. Night Shyamalan is anything more than a pony with one increasingly insufferable trick.

Another example of justice? Pink's career is being reborn. Again.

It won't be a surprise to long-term readers of "I Totally Hear That" that I have soft spot for this lady. But come on! She's awesome. Yet her awesomeness has been strangely overlooked since the heyday of "Don't Let Me Get The Party Started Like a Pill." Even her big comeback album "I'm Not Dead" looked like flopapalooza...

...until now. Suddenly, "I'm Not Dead" is racing back up the album chart, the long-moribund single "Who Knew" has sold enough copies to debut on Billboard's Hot 100 chart, and the song "U + Ur Hand" has become an actual hit. As I write this, it's top 20 on both Billboard and iTunes, and it's in the top ten of radio play.

What? Crazy!

I've said before that I don't think "U + Ur Hand" is one of her best songs, and I still think that's true. (Though, admittedly, it's growing on me.) But who am I to complain? Maybe now more people will start listening to the rock-awesome tracks on her new album.

And I do mean "rock-awesome." She shreds it up, both vocally and musically, on monster ballads "Long Way to Happy" and "Runaway." And though lyrically it's not the most sophisticated song, "Dear Mr. President" has a lovely vocal and arrangement that give emotional weight to its anti-Bush sentiment. Plus, the song features the Indigo Girls in their least mawkish performance since 1997. I really thought I would never be able to like any of their newer music, and now I do.

And for the third and final time, I implore you: Listen to "Leave Me Alone (I'm Lonely)." There's so much to love.

But remember: It's all about cherry-picking with Pink. Enjoy the good and skip the bad. At her best, Pink is a raw-throated belter with a filthy mouth, bruised heart, and diverse taste.

At her worst, she's a hypocritical copy of all the bling-n-booty twits she's supposedly above. Case in point: The video for "Stupid Girls," in which she sings about hating airheaded starlets while cavorting around in skimpy clothes to "parody" them. But if your parody involves booty shorts and getting drenched with water, you've allowed yourself to become the very thing you're supposed to oppose, Pink. You don't get to have it both ways, strutting around as an overt masturbatory fantasy for teenage boys while trying to justify your own objectification by calling it a social comment. The guys jerking off over you aren't making the intellectual distinction about whether the reductive caricature of womanhood writhing before them is ironic or not. Better to present an alternative form of feminine sexuality than suggest you don't have the imagination to think beyond the images you disdain. That's like saying the "stupid girls" have won.

So, right... not a clear-cut case. But for the most part, Pink's art seems like a refreshing, tuneful alternative. She's a bad girl with feelings. She's got raging hormones and a real, vulnerable humanity.

For those looking to explore her two most recent albums, "Try This" and "I'm Not Dead," let me offer these suggestions. I hope you enjoy.

From Try This:

(1) Trouble (this single should've been a huge hit)
(2) Last to Know (aggressive, angry beat. lots of cursing. inventive overdubbing on the vocals)
(3) Oh My God (seriously, one of the dirtiest songs ever. with rapper Peaches)
(4) Save My Life (a message song with lovely harmonies on the chorus)

From I'm Not Dead:

(1) Leave Me Alone (I'm Lonely)
(2) Long Way to Happy
(3) Runaway
(4) Nobody Knows (a bluesy torch song that builds to a seventies-rock cresecendo)
(5) Dear Mr. President

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