31 May 2007

Dave Navarro + Beauty Queens = Skeeve

Undaunted, I will now rewrite my post about Monday's Miss Universe Pageant, even though the original got lost in a technical misfire. Courage, y'all. It comes for free around here.

So on Monday night, I capped off my Memorial Day weekend by watching Miss Universe with my friends Kerri and Om. (Well, Om was sort of an innocent bystander, since he's my roommate.) At first, we assumed it was going to be a situation where we watched women in ridiculous costumes and ironically gasped at how terrifying it was.

And while we never stopped making fun of the show, the terror became genuine. It's one thing to say "God! Miss Malaysia's outfit frightens me!" and quite another to feel a cold shiver down your back as NBC spends two hours proving that women are still being debased by the same dismissive attitude that once kept them from getting the vote in this country.

I know, of course, that women all over the planet are subjected to constant human rights abuses and that in America they still hit glass ceilings every day. However, I naively believed that misogyny and objectification were only peddled as entertainment in lad mags like Maxim and Stuff. I didn't know that such things were still being sold to us in the guise of female empowerment.

And that type of "girl power" is just what the hosts--including Mario "A.C. Slater" Lopez--were trying to shill when they announced that Miss Universe had the thrilling opportunity to do charity work during her reign. The so-called importance of the pageant was also the subtext of a video package of last year's winner, which showed her alleviating the suffering of impoverished children by helicoptering in to tickle their scabrous faces with the tresses of her magical, lustrous hair.

I'm certain that if we accused NBC executives or the Miss Universe folks--including pageant owner Donald Trump--of being flesh peddlers, they'd point to these bits as proof that the show actually enriches these women.

But let's get real. All that "up with ladies" stuff took less than three minutes. The real purpose of the show was parading a variety of hot babes around to the strains of popular music. Sure, a couple of them had humanitarian interests, but hoo-boy... all of them had firm buttocks!

And you guys? Miss Universe doesn't even have a talent competition. Just swimsuit, evening gown, and a question from a judge. The only thing these women are expected to do is look pretty while walking.

And some of them can't even do that. Miss USA busted ass in the evening gown section. Later, when Miss Mexico--the pageant was held in Mexico City--didn't make the top 5 and Trippy McFallerson did, the hometown crowd booed and booed. They booed right through Miss USA's question-from-a-judge. The poor woman answered and smiled, but you could tell she wanted to ralph.

Here's a clip of the falling...

And here's a clip of the booing...

Anyway... the lack of a talent competition is merely a subtle act of objectification. Want something bolder? How about the fact that Dave Freaking Navarro, famously drug-addled member of Red Hot Chili Peppers, was a judge? You want to know what his question was?

"Would you rather have a relationship with a guy who is spontaneous and wild or one that plays it safe?"

What? Seriously? And worse, Miss Venezuela had to wait for a translator to explain this bullshit to her. I imagine the translator said something like, "The greasy American just propositioned you for sex. I recommend you provide a circuitous non-answer or a fake cell phone number."

No amount of charity work can erase the fact that Trump and the rest of the team let a lecherous skeeve like Dave Navarro be a judge.

Oh! Oh! And I haven't even told you about the cubicle wall. At the back of the stage, there was this giant wall made of boxes, like those IKEA bookshelves you can get or like they use in Madonna's video for "Human Nature." Each box held a losing contestant, and during every competition round, the cast-offs were required to dance inside them. The lighting made it impossible to see their faces but easy to see their legs.

Seriously. Women in cubicles, faces obscured, shimmying. It was like an international strip-a-thon, especially when everyone was required to wear a skimpy bikini during the swimsuit round.

But I don't think anything clarified Miss Universe as a girls-for-sale racket quite like the music being played under the various "performance" segments. During one--I think it was when the top fifteen were announced--the ladies paraded around to a loop of Nelly Furtado's "Say It Right." As they strutted, we heard Furtado endlessly singing "You don't mean nothing at all to me."

And then during evening gowns, we heard a loop of Sean Paul's "(When You Gonna) Give It Up To Me." The title of that song says it all.

So remember contestants: You don't mean nothing at all... unless you give it up.

And girls watching at home? That's a lesson for you, too. Got it? Good! Now get to your cubicle!



You guys, I could cry. I just wrote this whole thing about watching Miss Universe on Monday night, and Blogger ERASED it. So much for "saving my drafts automatically."

I could cry.

I don't have the energy to type everything again (it's almost 2:00 AM), but I'll do my best to get it up here tomorrow.

26 May 2007

Mark in the New York Times

Check it out, y'all. I've got a story in this week's Sunday Arts and Leisure section of The New York Times. Excellent!



24 May 2007

There's More Than One Way To Rule

There are just so many ways to rule.

And I don't mean "rule" as in "leader of people, Queen Helen Mirren." I mean "rule" as in "that rules!" (I've been on an 80s slang kick this week.)

For instance, you can rule in the manner of Patrick Wolf, creating music that makes you sound like the male Fiona Apple. You know, all smoky vocals and unexpected drum beats and sultry piano playing.

Oh, okay... that's not all there is to Patrick Wolf. On a song like "Get Lost," his voice just begs to be part of 80s new wave. I can't make a one-to-one comparison, but he sounds like he'd be right at home with Robert Smith and Morrissey and that guy from Human League. One of the best things about his music, really, is that it's recognizable as pop and instantly accessible, but it doesn't sound like anything else around right now. It's like... I had this friend Steven Kidd in high school. He resembled his sister and his brother, yet his brother and sister? Looked nothing alike.

So Patrick Wolf's music is like Steven's appearance. It's pieces of The Cure and Fiona Apple and even Garbage, but it isn't exactly like any of them (and they aren't exactly like each other.)

Does that make sense? It's after midnight. Close enough.

Back to my original point... another way to rule is the Miranda Lambert way. It's not for nothing that Slant Magazine called her "a country music legend in the making." Just half a listen to her current single "Famous in a Small Town" indicates how sophisticated she is. "Everybody dies famous in a small town," the lyric goes. Good point. Everybody being up in your business all the time may be annoying, but it also means you'll be remembered.

I'm just discovering her catchy, rebellious, emotionally open songs, but I wanted to pass along the news immediately. As the title of this post suggests, she... um... rules. (And having a voice that recalls Natalie Maines of The Dixie Chicks is always fine by me.)

If you like country music, Lambert may be just the thing you need.

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23 May 2007

Not quite gnarly, but totally Wicked

I want to call your attention to a pop music oddity you may have missed.

Idina Menzel, Tony-winning star of several Broadway musicals, had a record deal in the late nineties that produced an album called "Still I Can't Be Still." My friend Stephanie once bought it at a used CD store, and it's... well, it's weird. Totally unfocused, from what I remember, bouncing between imitations of alt-rock and pop without ever sounding comfortable with any of them.

Well, now Menzel has another record deal, and she's apparently releasing a new album soon. And the first single from that album?

"Defying Gravity," the anthemic centerpiece of "Wicked." (follow that link to hear the song)

For those who don't know, "Wicked" is currently the most popular thing on Broadway. It's about what happened in Oz before Dorothy showed up, and Menzel became a theatrical superstar by playing the role of the green-skinned "wicked" witch Elphaba. But in this show, Elphaba's not a villain. She's a misunderstood hero whose difference (read: skin color) makes her an outcast. The song "Defying Gravity" accompanies her end-of-act-one discovery that she can fly (and love herself). There's a lot of other complicated plot stuff going on that involves Glinda the Good Witch and a talking goat, but it's not worth going into.

And seriously, y'all, people flip out for "Wicked." It's kind of impossible to overstate how successful it is. Every Saturday morning, there's a "Behind the Emerald Curtain" tour that attracts hundreds of people, including those who haven't even seen the show but still want a taste of it.

Has this phenomenon translated to the rest of the country? I know the tour has been a hit, but I'm guessing that if you don't live in New York and care about the theater, it can be easy to miss the huddled throngs of teenagers who sing the show's songs while they wait to see it for the hundredth time.

As for me, I've tried to understand what's going on with "Wicked," but I can't.

I just don't like it.

I find it incredibly phony, bloated by self-empowerment cliches, obvious jokes, and tacky special effects. Worst of all--for me, at least--I find most of the lyrics inane. For example, in "The Wizard and I," sung when Elphaba is about to meet the Wizard of Oz for the first time, she croons:

And with all his wizard wisdom
By my looks, he won't be blinded.

Do you think the Wizard is dumb?

Or, like Munchkins, so small-minded?

Later in the song, she imagines him not being freaked out by her green skin:

And one day, he'll say to me,
A girl who is so superior,
Shouldn't a girl who's so good inside

Have a matching exterior?

And since folks here to an absurd degree

Seem fixated on your verdigris,

Would it be all right by you

If I de-greenify you?"

This is supposed to be a big, emotional song, yet it features lame puns about Munchkins being small-minded. And I'd call it more than awkward to use words like "verdigris" and fake words like "de-greenify." Sure, it's "clever" that the lyric can reference Elphaba's skin in so many ways, but that verse in no way resembles how people actually speak. And it's true that people speak this way throughout the show--both in the book and in the lyrics--but the entire conceit of "fake words" draws attention to the artifice of the writing, which weakens the show's affect on me.

All that said, though, I really love "Defying Gravity." I even listen to the cast recording of the song on my iPod. The bombastic instrumentation is stirring, particularly when matched by Elphaba's big notes. And the lyrics are solid. The soaring declaration of the crescendo--"So if you care to find me/Look to the western sky/As someone told me lately/Everyone deserves a chance to fly"--uses witch-appropriate imagery to make a clear point about overcoming other people's negative opinions.

And now "Defying Gravity" is a pop song. Well, it always was a poppish song, but the new version drops the show-specific lyrics and replaces the original orchestra with the gentle percussion and electric guitars of adult-alternative rock. Menzel's voice is a strong as ever, but it's been filtered and echoed in a manner you don't hear on original cast recordings. This version of the song would make sense on a Vanessa Carlton album or as the finale anthem for next year's "American Idol."

Without the orchestra of the stage version, I find this version of the song less arresting, but I'm still enjoying it.

And while it probably won't be a massive hit, it's nice to hear that the days when Broadway numbers were routinely turned into pop songs aren't completely behind us.


20 May 2007

Thanks, Belinda!

As she so often does, Belinda Carlisle has saved the day.

You may remember from my last post that the first morning of my vacation to Delaware was kind of horrifying. Katy asserted that she has little sympathy for anyone who grouses about being on a trip, particularly one that involves free breakfast, but I'd submit that it's hard to have an enormous amount of perspective on these things when they're actually happening. But I've got perspective now, by God, and it's largely because the aforementioned former Go-Go helped turn my trip around. (It ended up being really, really fantastic. Rock on, Delaware!)

And the first great thing that happened? Just before mini-golf and my discovery of a pair of sunglasses that doesn't look askew on my slightly crooked nose?

I was on the radio! In Delaware! Requesting Belinda Carlisle!

You see, this radio station was playing an "All 80s Weekend," and the guy said they were looking for requests. So quick as a Wild West gunslinger, I pulled out my phone and dialed. I got in right away and spoke to the DJ.

Here's what was broadcast on the radio:

Mark: Hey! Are you taking 80s requests?

DJ: Sure thing! Whaddya got?

Mark: I would LOVE to hear "Heaven is a Place on Earth" by Belinda Carlisle

DJ: An 80s classic.

Belinda: Oooh, baby, do you know what that's worth?

At this point, Andrew cranked up the radio, and we set to jamming. God, it was awesome.

And this got me thinking about how much I l-o-v-e "Heaven is a Place on Earth." Whenever I find a radio station that plays oldies, I kind of always hope they'll play that song.

To be bold, I'd say "Heaven is a Place on Earth" is one of my Top 10 Songs of the Eighties.

I know that's quite a statement, but I mean it.

A few qualifiers: When I say "top 10 songs of the eighties," I mean songs by artists whose careers didn't substantially exist in any other decades. Therefore, my top 10 does not include tracks by Madonna, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Janet Jackson, or the like. Plus, I'm not allowing myself to include songs by groups whose lead singers were popular in the 90s. Therefore, no Wham! or The Smiths.

We're only talking songs by people who can be entirely contained within that magical decade of "Family Ties."

(Note: Deneice Williams had a number one hit in the 1970s. "Let's Hear It For the Boy" would otherwise make my list.)

Herewith is my entire Top 10. Which songs are in yours?

Mark's Top 10 Songs of the 80s (in alphabetical order by title)

"Buffalo Stance," Neneh Cherry

"(Don't You) Forget About Me," Simple Minds

"Don't You Want Me," Human League

"Heaven is a Place on Earth," Belinda Carlisle

"It Takes Two," Rob Base and D.J. E-Z Rock

"Kyrie," Mr. Mister

"Lean on Me," Club Nouveau

"St. Elmo's Fire (Man in Motion)," John Parr

"Take on Me," a-ha

"Walking on Sunshine," Katrina and the Waves


19 May 2007

Vacation with a capital "Dammit"

Do you ever have one of those mornings where everything just sort of explodes in your face, and then you think, "Oh, right! I'm on vacation!"

Well, that's what's happening to me right now. First of all, it's 8:00 AM on a a Saturday, I'm on vacation at a Delaware beach, and I'm awake. What? Exactly. I know that for many, many people, being awake at 8:00 AM is a regular thing, but for this freelance writer--who is accustomed to working until the wee hours of the night--this part of the morning generally happens only in theory. But here I am, in my (admittedly very cute) room at a bed and breakfast, unable to sleep because the sounds of people making said breakfast are coming so strongly through the wall. Then there's the sound of the people upstairs, who apparently are practicing their clog dancing routine while breaking in their heaviest pairs of WWI-era boots. And, finally, there's the good Lord's sunshine, which is streaming over the bed like the brightest lamp in the tanning salon. I close my eyes, but it burns through the lids. Nuclear winter right here in the Delaware spring.

Plus, Melinda got kicked off American Idol, and my brand new iPod only works if I plug it into the external speakers I brought. Unplugged from the speakers? Just headphones? Nothing. Not even a picture on the screen.

So what do I do in the face of this rib-tickling adversity? I sing, dammit. Or at least, I think about singing. I can't actually sing, because Andrew is still trying to sleep. In the middle of the night, he moved to a small twin bed at the back of our little suite, trying to escape... well, I don't know yet. When he wakes up, I'll ask him what pushed him over the edge.

But anyway. Singing. In this bleary-eyed wasteland that is my Saturday morning, I keep my imagination on singing songs that put me in a good mood. Perhaps the Facts of Life theme. Or
"Walking on Sunshine" by Katrina and the Waves.

Because I find that singing can actually improve my mood. Andrew tells me it stimulates some gland or other that makes this mood-enhancement a fact, but I don't remember the details.

And lord knows I need a little mood enhancement right now. I would love to...

...oh, sorry. I got distracted. The upstairs guests also have a small child, and she keeps testing out the volume level on her new voice. I mean, I assume it's new. Why would she use it so carelessly unless she was discovering all the features? Maybe in a few minutes she'll realize that the "shrieking Mommy's name" option isn't really meant for early morning employment.

Right. Singing. "You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have the..."

Oh. Sorry. I got freaked out a little right there. It literally sounded like someone dropped an entire tray of coffee mugs.

But screw it. Singing! Walking on Sunshine! Walking on all the sunshine that is streaming through this room! This bright, bright chamber whose ample illumination only reminds me of all that's good in this world! Like the voices of children! Shrieking for mommy!

I'm on vacation!


12 May 2007

A Sampler Platter of Songs

Whew! After what has seriously been the busiest two weeks of my professional life, I have finally found a little downtime. And obviously the first thing I wanted to do was give a Tennessee mountain holler to everyone at "I Totally Hear That."

So... hey y'all! (Imagine me saying that really loud, while sporting the overalls I insisted on wearing in grad school. Because I was subversive.)

Anyway, here are a couple of singles that I think are worth a listen.

Have you heard...

"Stolen" by Dashboard Confessional? I know, right? Generally, this group merits the big "meh" from me. But this new single is really pretty. It has a sadness that strikes me as genuine, and Chris Carrabba's vocals are surprising. Why? Because they don't get all screamy and tortured. Instead, the singing stays simple, the music stays restrained, and the whole experience stays lovely. A tuneful keeper.

And that reminds me... did you all ever hear the song "How I Go" by Yellowcard featuring Natalie Maines (of The Dixie Chicks?) It's astonishing.

Really, I'm kicking myself because I didn't remember to put it on my list of favorite songs from 2006. If you want to hear it, you can watch the following YouTube video, which features the song set to scenes from the anime movie "Princess Mononoke."

Which... bwahahaha! It's just so dorky to put rock songs under snippets of animated films. But I kind of love the towering geekiness of it. I understand the impulse to make something that expresses your own response to a beautiful song. But still... bwahaha!

Anyway... here's the video...

There's an epic sweep to this song that I find really impressive. It manages to be dramatic without sinking under Jim Steinman levels of syrup. Although how amazing would it be to see scenes from "Spirited Away" underscored by "It's All Coming Back to Me Now?"

And if you're looking for some new R&B, let me suggest "Anonymous" by Bobby Valentino. The bouncy beat--created, of course, by Timbaland--has these odd beeps and swooshes in it, as though Bobby just couldn't stop playing his old-school Nintendo while he was in the recording booth. It's fun, and he can hit high notes without resorting to a tremulous falsetto, which means he's a better singer than many of his contemporaries.

Hope you enjoy some of the samples from this platter!


04 May 2007

Another PoP post

Y'all, I went crazy and wrote about "Ugly Betty" over at PopPolitics. Wasn't expecting it. Just happened.

You can read my entry here.

And while I'm posting links, have you seen this video? It's worth it for the second time through, with subtitles.


02 May 2007

Two quick things...

Hey all!

Two quick questions...

(1) Do we really need R. Kelly writing and performing a tribute song to the victims of the Virginia Tech nightmare?

(2) I'd like to create a "Greatest Hits" section on "I Totally Hear That." Which posts on this blog do you think merit 'best of' status? I know... I know... all of them. But if you had to choose just a few, which would the be?

01 May 2007

My Politics Go Pop

Remember a few weeks ago, when I mentioned that the website PopPolitics had referenced my Alanis Morissette post?

Well, now they've got their hooks in me but good. Starting today, I am a contributing editor at the site, and I'll be weighing in on music, culture, and whatever else tickles my fancy.

But dont' worry. I'll still be keeping it real here at "I Totally Hear That." And when I write something for PP, I'll always let you know.

For instance, click here to read my first post for them, in which I argue that Kelly Clarkson's relationship to her own fame makes her one of the most unique pop stars of the moment.