26 July 2007

He Gets None of Me Love

Hey guys! Don't forget that the deadline for the Simpsons Contest is on Saturday. Keep those entries pouring in!

Now I need to ask a serious question...

How do you feel about Sean Kingston?

Has his music even traveled outside the U.S.? His laughably poor Wikipedia entry doesn't give me any clues about his international reach. It does, however, tell me he uses MySpace to "hit J.R. up 5 times a day."

You know! J.R.

Anyway... for those of you both here and abroad who don't know Mr. Kingston's music, let me bring you up to speed.

He's currently foisting two singles on American radio, and both blend samples of classic hits with a pop-reggae sound. It's sort of like Shaggy, but with fewer references to banging on the bathroom floor.

Of Kingston's singles, "Beautiful Girls" is the most inescapable. If you live near a radio or have ever walked down a street where people play radios, you've probably heard his slightly whiny voice singing over a Jamaica-ed up loop of "Stand By Me."

Missed this jam? Go here.

It's highly likely "Beautiful Girls"--which finds our young hero bemoaning his weakness in the presence of the title characters--will be the number one song in America next week. At the very least, it will be in the top five.

Then there's "Me Love," his even newer song that has started getting played on the radio here in NYC. Rock purists should probably take a seat before I tell you about this one.

"Me Love" egregiously rips off "D'yer Maker" by Led Zepplin.

I remember people foaming at the mouth when Sheryl Crow covered the song pretty faithfully, so I only can imagine what they're doing now. Look out your windows. Do you see fires in the streets? This song may be why.

And I'm not saying "Beautiful Girls" and "Me Love" aren't catchy. They are. The latter is especially so because "D'yer Maker" just sticks in your head. (Oh! Oh-oh-oh-oh! You don't have to go-oh!)

No... I get why the songs are hits. But even for silly pop songs, I find them almost painfully insipid. At least a dumb song like "Barbie Girl" has some irony, and Nelly's "Hot in Herre" has a wicked good beat. Sean Kingston's music just sounds lazy. Like, sub-P. Diddy lazy. There's nothing distinctive about Kingston's voice, and his producer (the aforementioned J.R.) has used the most inauthentic, mall-friendly reggae riffs. They're straight out of a Caribbean Cruise Line commercial, where old white people in floral print shirts dive under "da limbo stick" while white-jacketed "ethnic" servants stand nearby pouring daiquiris.

And remember how I mentioned Shaggy? His reggae pop has about three million times more complexity. Go back and listen to "It Wasn't Me." It holds up pretty well.

For those still doubting that Kingston's music is insincere, I offer these lyrics from "Girls:"

It was back in '99
Watchin' movies all the time
Oh when I went away
For doin' my first crime

Oh it was, was it? Back in '99? Because Kingston was born in 1990. I do not for one quick second believe he was in jail at the age of nine.

"Mark," you say, "Are you suggesting that Sean Kingston is the first teenage pop star to be turned into a total phony by the industry machine? Did you not pay attention to your own post about 'Kids, Incorporated?'"

Obviously, Kingston's not the first offender. However, he drives me especially crazy.

What about you? Do you think I'm right, or am I overreacting?

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24 July 2007

An Open Letter to Boy Shakira


Dear Boy Shakira,

Why? Why am I so fascinated by you?

Well... I know why. Because you're a conundrum. I mean, what the hell? You are a sincere drag queen. Sincere! Drag queens are supposed to be campy and acidic, commenting on the idiot world with every flick of their world-weary eyelashes. Or else they're supposed to be RuPaul, making happy dance music and giving a performance of feminine attitude that comments on how we construct our notions of women.

But you, Boy Shakira, are none of those things. Maybe it's the way "AGT" is editing you, but you don't seem calculated. You seem like a guy who just loves to get in a halter top and lip synch. In tonight's post-performance talk with Jerry Springer, you said, "It's not about the wig or the costume. It's about entertainment. We're entertainers."

In other words, Boy Shakira, you have decided--with no apparent irony--that the best way you can entertain these folks is to dress up like Shakira and dance.

Or not even Shakira! Because tonight, Boy Shakira, you were Boy Britney! And you did a really good job with the dance moves to "...Baby One More Time!"

That's another part of the conundrum, Boy Shakritney. I have to admit that you're a talented dancer. And now that you've mixed it up and started impersonating other people, you're making it harder for me to dismiss you. I'm interested to know who you'll be next week.

I mean, you're not an A-list drag queen like Justin Bond's Kiki. Kiki is, like, the best drag identity of all time. But you're not a one-note joke like I thought you were.

And let's talk more about your sincerity. Is it possible that's the greatest weapon you've got?

Often, drag queens are fierce. Their anger gives them power, but it's a power that lets them remain feminine. That's what many gay men need to withstand the attacks of vicious people. It's like they're saying, "Oh, so I can't love men because that makes me like a woman? And being a woman is bad? Well, watch this. I'm going to turn into the hardest woman you've ever seen."

Are you making the same statement from a different direction? Just by your very existence, are you a middle finger to the people who can't handle it when a big Latin guy in drag comes out and dances his ass off, refusing to hide one inch of feminine side?

In your polite, smiling ability to make David Hasslehoff squirm in the presence of unabashed queerness, are you shouting a political battle cry? Are you saying, "Look here. You can boo me and hate me, but I will not turn callous for you. You will not rob me of my kindness or my joy or my love of my self. And? Also? I will wear the skirt you hate me for wearing, and I will dance like a crazy locomotive to boot."


Yes. I think that maybe you are saying that.

Oh, Boy Shakritney, you've got me in your web. It would be so easy to make a joke out of you, but you're not a joke. You represent something. It's just taken me a few weeks to see it.

So guess what?

I voted for you.



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22 July 2007

An "ITHT" Contest!

Hello everyone! I am very excited to come back from my hiatus with a contest.

That's right... you have the chance to win an actual prize by reading this post.

And that prize is a free copy of the book "The Psychology of The Simpsons," published by BenBella Books. (You can learn more about the book here.)

In a later post, I will actually review the book myself, but for now, I'm happy to facilitate giving copies of it away. Here's the deal: Watch the following clip of an episode from the show--which has all of its sound removed--then provide your own dialogue.

The five people who write the funniest new "scripts" for this scene will win the book, which will be sent to you directly from the publisher.

To enter, just e-mail me with your dialogue at mark@markgblankenship.com. I will be the sole judge of whose submissions are funniest, and I cannot be bribed! Also, if you know me personally, don't think that's going to get you any special favors. Bring your A game!

Submissions are due by Saturday, August 27. Winners will be announced on Monday, August 30. I will e-mail winners asking them to provide their mailing addresses for the publisher.

That's it. Have fun everyone!

Oh... and here's the clip...

13 July 2007

Being Trans All The Time

So I've just published my first story in Time Out New York. It's a feature about transgender performance artist Scott Turner Schofield and his refusal to stop calling himself trans, even though he now passes for a biological man.

A 700 word feature doesn't give me room to dig into the issue with all the depth I'd like, of course, but I think it offers a nice jumping-off point for a conversation about labeling and identity within the trans community.

Hope you enjoy!


Amy's Wisdom

I have been traveling all over the Northeast this week. After coming back from Maine, I left almost immediately for upstate New York, and on Sunday I'll be heading to rural Connecticut. The last two trips are business related, but hey... it all kind of feels like vacation.

Yesterday, as I was checking my voicemail before heading into a production of Shaw's "Saint Joan"--being performed at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York--I heard a message from my friend Amy. You might remember her as the one who got up in Five For Fighting's grill.

Well, she's back with more thoughts on FFF's easy listening music, and her opinions this time may surprise you!

Rather than try to summarize it, I'm going to transcribe Amy's message in it's entirety. It's that awesome.

Read on and understand why I love her...

Received on Thursday, July 12, 2007:

"Hey, it's Amy! Just wanted to say hi. So I'm driving in Des Moines, Iowa, and this song by Five For Fighting came on. I think it's Five for Fighting, because it has that whiny voice. And I realized I've heard this song for a long time. It has the lyric like, "When you've only got a hundred years to live" or whatever, and I realized I never really liked the song until I saw it in this really, really sentimental Visa commercial.

And then I liked it.

Because it was showing this family going through different lines of credit and the different Visa cards they had. And the song was playing in the background. And I don't know why, but it made me think, 'Oh, how sweet! When they have kids they get the Disney Visa. And when they're old they have the AARP Visa. That's kind of cute.'

And you know how people complain when their favorite bands sell out and let their music be used in commercials? I'm realizing I don't really give a shit about Five For Fighting's integrity or anything, so I think their being used in commercials makes me like them more. Is that wrong? Does that make me wrong and consumerist?

That's all. Take care, sweetie!"

Plenty of good points in there, I'd say. Thanks, Amy!


09 July 2007

What Are Your Musical Pet Peeves?

Andrew and I are just back from an excellent trip to Maine, and for the first time in the history of our travels together, we didn't hit any traffic coming back into New York. It was amazing. We made it all the way home in less than five hours, which is sometimes how long it seems to take to go from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

But even with the Traffic Spirits on our side, we still had plenty of time to listen to music. At one point, the radio hit us with Madonna's "True Blue," and Andrew quickly revolted. You see, that particular ditty is on his list of permanently forbidden car songs. (Other banned titles include Rihanna's "Umbrella," Avril Lavigne's apparently plagiarized "Girlfriend," and T-Pain's "Buy You a Drank (Shawty Snappin').")

Andrew finds "True Blue" to be, and I quote, "insipid."

I just asked him to clarify what he means. Glancing up from his laptop--and looking quite dashing in a blue t-shirt and some shorts recently purchased at a Banana Republic outlet store--he says, "Musically, it's a boring chord structure that never goes anywhere. It's like substandrard fifties music. And lyrically, it's pedestrian. That would be a nice way to put it."

Now while I find "True Blue" to be a charming, inoffensive early draft of the girl-group homage Madonna would later perfect with "Cherish," I can take Andrew's point. This song is not the deepest puddle on the sidewalk.

More damning for "True Blue" (in Andrew's case) is the fact that it embodies two of his musical pet peeves. Not only does it have a music track that is endlessly repetitive, but it also features the lyric "your heart fits me like a glove." For Andrew, saying something "fits like a glove" is forced and phony. That's like how I feel about the "shelf/self" rhyme.

I'm interested to know: Which songs have no chance with you? What are your musical pet peeves? Are there any elements of songwriting that make you want to ball your fists in fury?

If so, don't let that rage fester inside. We here at "I Totally Hear That" want to help you work through it

As for me... well, I just mentioned how much I hate the "shelf/self" thing. And I really, really hate overuse of the vocoder. It's cool on Cher's "Believe," but it's egregious on almost everything else. Case in point? The aforementioned "Buy You a Drank."

See there? By letting out my anger, I found another link with Andrew. We both hate that damn "Shawty Snappin'" song. Amazing!

Truth brings connection, people! Truth brings connection!

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05 July 2007

"Die Hard's" Message for the Ages

I've seen three movies in the last week, which is an enormous number for me. Even more surprising is the fact that all three of them have been major Hollywood blockbusters. None of your "Onces" or "Waitresses" here! Well, okay... I saw those last month. But still, I've recently been inundated with "Ocean's Thirteen," "Transformers," and "Live Free of Die Hard."

Of the three, it's "Die Hard" that I can't stop thinking about. Critics have been analyzing this franchise since it started, especially because Bruce Willis' character John McClane is positioned as a bastion of Wild West American machismo. He swaggers in, makes some cocky remarks, and then uses his combination of street smarts and--most importantly--brute force to obliterate all the evil in his path.

In a July 3 story in the New York Times, Caryn James makes the excellent point that "Live Free or Die Hard" finds its terrorists in the people who would deny us access to technological information. The central villain--Thomas (Timothy Olyphant), a computer whiz who used to be highly ranked in the American government--wreaks havoc on the country by systematically undoing everything that is run by computers. He takes out the internet, the cell phone towers, and the TV satellites. Then he obliterates the computers that control water, electricity, and gas. "The loss of our information fix," James writes, "hits a very raw nerve."

James' story is an excellent starting place for examining of the film's central anxiety. In her closing paragraph, she cites its "blend of old-school action and new-school tecnhology," and her phrasing hints at the question running beneath every frame: Now that technology is undeniably in control, how is the classic image of the American man--the one who shoots first and asks questions later, the one who protects the weak with his muscles and guns--going to survive?

The film's assumption, of course, is that many Americans are worried about the emasculation of the archetypal cowboy, and as it addresses and ultimately coddles this fear, "Live Free or Die Hard" becomes a template for how the most conservative (and often reductive) American ideas about gender and power can remain firmly in place.

WARNING: I'm about to give away almost every plot point of the movie. Don't read further if you want to see it later and still be surprised.

To read on, go to PopPolitics!

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03 July 2007

From My Other Writing Life

Hey everyone,

I wanted to direct your attention to an article I just published in "American Theatre" magazine about a theater company called The Civilians. In February, I lived with them for a week in Colorado Springs, Colorado, observing their creation of a documentary-style musical about the influence of Evangelical Christianity on the local community.

Hope you enjoy!

(If you'd like to see the story in print, you can find the piece in the July/August 2007 issue)


Tambourine: Not Just for Jan Brady Anymore

After canvassing both state and federal statutes, I am surprised--and admittedly relieved--to report that the beat on Eve's new single "Tambourine" is not illegal.

It probably will be soon, though, so we'd better enjoy it while we can. I mean, what choice will law enforcement have but to ban a rhythm that's so likely to cause chaos in the streets? Have you guys heard this thing? I cannot remember the last time a song left me so powerless. When it's on, I have no choice but to dance. And what if it came on while I was driving? Or operating on someone? Disaster.

Here's the back story: A few days ago, I noticed the track was climbing up Billboard's Hot 100, so I went to listen to the iTunes sample. And that thirty-second clip practically melted by brain. I was sitting in my Joe-average desk chair, my t-shirt and cargo shorts weren't particularly bootylicious... you'd think I could've resisted. But before I knew it, my arms were up over my head. My hips were shaking. "Tambourine" owned me.

Obviously, I bought the song. Ever since, I've been leaving messages for friends telling them they have to hear it. I brought my iPod to a party just so my friend Rachel could listen in. As expected, we stopped all conversation for an instant dance party.

To fully explicate the awesomeness of "Tambourine," I'm going to do a close reading. It may take me hours to finish it, though, since I'll have to keep getting up to groove to the very object of my analysis.

Undaunted, though, I present you with my thesis:

Unbel-EVE-able: A Close Reading of Eve's Tambourine

First: If you haven't heard the song, go here. You have to get past about 15 seconds of Eve promoting her new album, but then you're good to go. The song is bowdlerized on her MySpace page, but I'll be discussing the uncensored version.

00:01 -- The first thing we hear, after a few shakes of a (duh) tambourine, is Swizz Beatz, the song's producer, saying "You gotta shake your ass!" The phrase "shake your ass" echoes. Right away, we know this is going to be a serious dance song that nevertheless has a sense of fun.

00:02-00:10 -- We first hear the refrain, which is a man chanting something like "Shake your tambourine. Go on. Get yourself a-whistlin." (Only he says it "a-WHISS-uh-linn.") The cadence of this chorus is unusual because there's almost no pause between any of the phrases. The words flow into each other without stopping, which tells us the impending tempo is going to be insistent.

00:21 -- The beat seriously drops. For twenty seconds, we've had an exciting build-up to this moment. The male voice. The tambourine. A chorus of higher voices chanting "Shake. Your. Tambourine. Shake." (Or something. I can't quite make it out.) All of these components get layered on top of each other to create an increasingly intense sound. You can feel the tingle of expectation... and then... BOOM. A single bass note thuds across the track. Then it's time for the serious drum loop. The track explodes with sound and fury.

00:31-00:42 -- Wait a minute! The major bass notes drop out for a minute! The beat changes! And by 00:41, a swooshing synthesizer has been added. Those synth sounds are... lovely. They're like something out of an 80s ballad. They pop up occasionally throughout the song, and they're a key to its brilliance. This is not a lazy, flat hip-hop joint. This is a track with texture. This is a beat that changes and evolves. Its unpredictability makes it much more exciting.

00:41 -- Eve starts rapping. After the frenetic intro, her laid-back flow is a fascinating counterpoint. Again, it gives the song more tension and makes it more exciting. If Eve were rhyming at hyperspeed, the song would sound like Outkast's "B.O.B.," in which everything is just so insanely fast that your body can barely keep up. Now I love "B.O.B," but it's equally awesome to hear the interplay between a rapper who takes her time and a rhythm track that never stops.

1:28 -- Rapping almost a cappella, Eve hits the lines "Pop them bottles, yeah, drink that up, man. Got you feelin' crazy? Well, that was the plan." This is the perfect sentiment for her voice. No matter the song, Eve always sounds like she's smirking while she raps. Whereas, say, Kanye West or Fabolous or Missy Elliott can rhyme with vulnerable emotion, Eve only sounds believable when she's coolly asserting her awesomeness or instructing us to party. Confessional raps like "As I Grow," from the album Eve-olution, feel woefully stilted.

"Tambourine" highlights her skill as an MC, and nowhere more obviously than on this line. The way she enunciates the words--hitting "pop" like she's firing a bullet, giving every syllable in "that was the plan" the same hard emphasis--gives her the confidence and swagger she needs to sell a song about ruling the clubs.

-- -- --

Those are the core elements of "Tambourine," and they keep building and expanding until the end. And speaking of the ending, it comes really abruptly. We're in full-tilt boogie, and then everything just stops. No beat, no music, no nothing. Just a quick echo of a man shouting, and then we're out. Obviously, Eve and Swizz Beatz have said everything there is to say. Assured of their mastery of the dance floor, they just pick up and go. Their confident exit only further proves their point.

And that point? Well, it's right there in the opening. You do gotta shake your ass, by god. And "Tambourine" is the perfect motivator.