No kidding. Obviously, the Frank Sinatra version is best:
Happy New Year, guys.
No kidding. Obviously, the Frank Sinatra version is best:
Happy New Year, guys.
Man, when I talk about “mainstream American pop culture and hip-hop [circling] towards each other, until they’re dancing to some of the same steps. Both of their moves have something to do with racial attitudes, whether it’s white Americans assimilating hip-hop style, slang, and norms, or hip-hop recognizing that rebranding and restyling could be a shrewd marketing move,” Jay Sean’s* video for “Do You Remember” is pretty much exactly what I’m talking about:
The visual signaling seems kind of obvious to me: the hanging out on the stoop, the tricked-out trikes, the muscle car, the aggressive sunglasses, the block party. But it’s much more gracefully and naturally done than, say, the video for Christina Aguilera’s “Can’t Hold Us Down,” which I thought was a fairly clumsy attempt to recreate a street scene: kids jumping on mattresses and playing in hydrants! Sassy and beleaguered women of color! Men of color who are uniformly sexist and creepy! Christina signaling her downness by wearing lots and lots of nameplate! (Although there’s something poignant in Lil Kim’s verse about men stealing her ideas.):
My go-too song and music video for this argument is usually Keri Hilson’s “Knock You Down,” though one thing I think is fascinating about that video is the way it sets Kanye up as a hipster artist, and Ne-Yo as a business-like rival for Keri’s attentions. The critical showdown takes place in an art gallery, for goodness sake! If that’s not hip-hop bourgieing itself up, I don’t know what it is (even though I adore the song and video):
But visually “Do You Remember’s” much more “urban” and it also has a dancehall verse by Sean Paul, and distracting (both sonically and visually) but probably marketable post-Usher-doing-”Yeah!” hypemanning by Lil Jon. But the core of the song itself is pure candy: smooth sung vocals, super-sweet sentiments that seem almost at odds with how ripped Jay looks–lovermen tend to play the muscles down a bit. Jay’s been described as a one-man boyband, and I think that’s essentially correct. In other words, he combines a style I think a lot of us are embarrassed to have ever liked (though I’d never go back on the summer I spent teaching small children to sing and forcing them to dance every time “I Want It That Way” came on the radio. Now that was the life.) with elements we’ve come to think we’ve got to like, namely hip-hop and urban style. It’s irresistible. Not good for that, maybe, but it’s hard to focus on that in the moment.
*Can you tell I’m a little obsessed? I’m shocked my neighbors haven’t filed a noise complaint. Either that, or they’re dancing to the sound of these neat little pop ditties filtering through our shared walls.
Among the entrants to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry is the music video for “Thriller,” the first music video to make it into the collection. This seems like a good thing to me. Music videos are on a real creative upswing thanks to YouTube stepping into MTV and VH1′s long-abandoned shoes. And for most folks, I’d bet music videos are the most significant exposure they have to short film. I’m a big fan of the genre myself (music videos are on my list of things to write much more about in the new year), and I’m glad to see them, slowly and belatedly, getting some of the recognition they deserve. While music videos might seem disposable, or mere marketing vehicles, I think they’re more important than that. We live in a world, after all, where folks have pressed play on Susan Boyle’s first appearance on “Britain’s Got Talent” 83 million times: that’s the crudest sort of music video, but music attached to visuals all the same, and available for free.
I know that things I sometimes complain or express doubt about include people’s willingness to make fools of themselves on camera, and overreliance on technology. I want to carve out an exception on an issue where I suspend all doubt: flashmobs that involve dancing. The specific flashmob that inspired that exception was this one, done to Glee covers, in Rome, forwarded to me by my sister (who also got me old-school Archie comics for Christmas. My sister rules.):
Given the high-quality footage FOX put up of the event, and the relatively high quality of the dancing, I’m pretty sure it was a promotional stunt. I’m not sure I care. The folks who are watching look incredibly happy and surprised, a quality I think is both undervalued and underexperienced in popular culture today.
Over at The Sexist, blogfriend Amanda Hess is totally ripping it up with her long posts on masculinity and femininity in the aughts. And damn is she bringing back the memories with her entries on everything from pop tarts to metrosexuality, along with the killer pop culture and gender analysis. Remember this guy?
Probably the only triumphant fashion moment of my life is when Carson Kressley pronounced the outfit I’d put together of a rainbow bikini top, denim miniskirt, and bright red sneakers “absolutely fabulous” (his exact words, I swear). Hey, it was 2003. I had an excuse.
Or how about this particular piece of pop-cultural hilariousness?
Which raises all sorts of fascinating questions. Such as, what happened to Mya anyway? Why hasn’t someone sat down with Lil Kim and helped her figure out how to harness her enormous talent better in the second half of of the decade? And why doesn’t Missy Elliot get more of the credit she deserves for generally ruling this decade (“Gossip Folks” for sure ranks high on my list of favorite songs of the decade, especially ones with lean production, and on my list of best Ludacris guest verses. I would so go to a school where he was the principal.) musically? One of the pieces I most want to write is a profile of Pink, the only one of the four blondes (her, Christina, Britney, and Jessica Simpson) to survive the decade with both her sanity and her artistic integrity intact without a single visible break.
But all of this is just random musing. Some of Amanda’s commenters (on the whole they’re much less nice than y’all) have been complaining that she’s using pop culture tropes rather than so-called “real” people. I think that’s sort of silly. Pop culture is neither all-inclusive nor determinative of how we live our lives, of course. But it’s an astonishingly powerful mirror of our aspirations and our desires, however lowly or lofty. And because we spend so much time and money on it, it’s a strong indicator of what diverts us or encourages us. Of course it makes sense to look to pop culture as part of our conversations about gender, as well as for our conversations about just about everything else.
Some of the commenters over on Bloggingheads are complaining that in the segment Matt and I did yesterday, when we discussed hip-hop’s rise this decade, we don’t adequately acknowledge that white people have been listening to hip-hop for a long time. This is one of the things that I like about writing (even though doing BHTV is a lot of fun)–I don’t have to hit publish until I’m dead-sure I’ve found the best way to express something (though on this blog or at my day job, you don’t get video of me describing myself as a “ray of sunshine,” so BHTV has some clear advantages). I wanted to clarify a couple of the things that I said about hip-hop in the segment.
First, of course white people have been listening to hip-hop since the beginning. I don’t think anyone doubts that. And of course the genre’s popularity has been growing steadily. But I really do think the aughts were the decade in which hip-hop became arguably the dominant genre in pop music. It’s amazing how many standard three-and-a-half-minute pop songs have rap verses, something that would have been incomprehensible a decade earlier. Some folks might have done it, but it would have been an innovation, rather than a standard feature. Latoya Petersen asked on Jezebel yesterday, “Since When Is Ke$ha’s ‘Tik Tok’ Considered Rap?” and while I think it’s a legitimate question, it also speaks to a larger shift in pop genres: do we consider a song with a pop verse and chorus, an R&B verse, and a rap segment a pop song? A hip-hop song? A R&B song? That ambiguity is extremely creatively excitingly, and I do think it’s a unique feature of this decade’s music.
And it’s not just that pop and hip-hop are interacting. It’s that “urban” has ceased to be a useful label to explain how hip-hop’s audience is different from, say, rock’s audience. American culture has shifted such that popular culture and style are much closer to so-called “urban” tropes, and hip-hop has also shifted towards mainstream cultural norms, whether it’s Kanye West and Andre 3000 getting in good with the high-fashion establishment; Ghostface showing up repeatedly on 30 Rock, which, by any measure is a fairly white and square show, Tracy Morgan notwithstanding; or Jay-Z declaring nonchalantly “I sold kilos of coke / I’m guessing I can sell CDs” or urging young men to “Throw on a suit, get it tapered up.” In other words, mainstream American pop culture and hip-hop have circled towards each other, until they’re dancing to some of the same steps. Both of their moves have something to do with racial attitudes, whether it’s white Americans assimilating hip-hop style, slang, and norms, or hip-hop recognizing that rebranding and restyling could be a shrewd marketing move. That trend may not have begun precisely on January 1, 2000, but I do think it’s culmination–or at least a major step forward–happened in this decade.
And I’m not really swayed by the argument that hip-hop’s sales are declining. So are records in other genre, but sales aren’t actually a perfect measure of cultural influence. Illegal downloads, mixtapes, and YouTube views are key too. If sales of every song with a hip-hop guest verse were included, I bet those figures would look different. And record sales can’t measure shifts in style, whether it’s lyrical, production, clothes, or videos. Timbaland’s reach into pop alone is enormous, something that before 2002 (his work with Beck excluded) basically wasn’t the case–he branched out tremendously in the aughts.
I’m not entirely sure yet what I think this all means. I think pop, hip-hop, and rock will all survive as distinct genres. But I think we’re going to continue to see fascinating genre fusions, and that our music will be richer as a result. I think this decade was big for hip-hop in a number of ways. But I think bigger ones are on the way.
I’ve got to tell you, I’m pretty excited for Creation, the upcoming biopic of Charles Darwin, starring real-life marrieds Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly as the naturalist and his wife. I’ve always thought Bettany was a bit underrated, particularly given how wonderful he was in A Beautiful Mind. That said, I think it’s totally insane that the film’s being sold with this trailer:
I mean, I love me a good theological dispute (absolutely no sarcasm intended). But for serious, Darwin traveled around the world on a fairly astonishing exploratory voyage that radically changed his thinking. So why is the second voyage of the HMS Beagle not even alluded to by name in the trailer, and shown only in momentary snippets? Surely the market for Darwin nerds on its own must be fairly small. The voyage of the Beagle seems like a much stronger selling point.
Vulture is surprised that the USA Network rolled over the basic cable competition this year with a bunch of quirky shows that aren’t high-profile, aren’t heavily reviewed, and aren’t aggressively advertised on other networks. The network’s done something that I’ve rarely see another channel attempt, and never really thought was successful elsewhere: made watching its shows a matter not just of entertainment but of values.
Branding around “Character,” the network’s buzzword is brilliant, because it encapsulates both the network’s character-driven approach to shows like Psych, about a two-man detective agency touting a fake psychic, White Collar, about a forger working for the FBI, Burn Notice, about a double-crossed spy and Royal Pains, about a doctor who becomes a private physician to the wealthy. These shows all have plots, some of them even episode-long. But the protagonists and supporting actors are the selling points for every single original show on the network. The network also does high-minded programming, like Tom Brokaw’s American Character Along Highway 50 documentary series. And it sells very aggressively the idea that individual character, both in terms of values and personality, is both more important than race, age, religion, or any other attribute in defining a person, and that the network is a place that respects and embraces that. (The network doesn’t feature more noticeably diverse protagonists in its original programming than other channels do, though I’m fond of In Plain Sight, which stars a female U.S. Marshal dating a Latino minor league baseball player.)
The “Characters Welcome” slogan is great. The whole campaign has managed to suggest that there’s something nifty and individualist about slick and slickly advertised television programming. It’s bunk, of course. But it’s effective bunk.
This DJ Earworm mix of the year’s biggest songs is, typically, pretty great and catchy:
The fact that he’s able to fit all this stuff together does make me wonder, though, if across pop genres, our music is starting to sound more alike? Probably not, since it’s so snippetty, but it does suggest that certain shimmery vocal and production styles are in vogue (I’d describe both Taylor Swift’s and Lady Gaga’s vocals as shimmery, so it may be a quality that makes sense only to me, though). The mix also inspired me to actually listen to Jay Sean’s “Down” in full for the first time, though, and I liked it quite a bit:
Actually reminds me of a No Mercy, though Jay’s Desi and British. Remember those guys?
Of course, one challenge for me is that I was fifteen when 2000 began. My taste has changed–and (I think and hope) improved–since then. So I think it’s no wonder I see the progression of our popular culture as positive. My experience of it has certainly gotten better.
Or has Leonardo DiCaprio grown into a singularly humorless actor? Take the trailer for Inception, which looks gorgeous, and pretentious as hell:
He just looks dull. I’m much more intrigued by Ellen Page’s appearance in the movie, since she appears to have a sense of wonder and a smile left. I feel like DiCaprio may have had that once upon a time, at least when it came to spotting Claire Danes at a Venice Beach party. But not any longer, and it seems like a real missing ingredient in his acting career. Clooney, for one, knows you have to laugh or the hurt won’t seem real when it comes.
I never got the appeal of Everybody Loves Raymond, and as a result, I harbored uncharitable feelings towards Ray Romano for years. Having caught an episode of Men of a Certain Age last night, I feel a need to repent for that dislike. Men has been on my list of things to check out for a while. I like Andre Braugher. And I thought the muted humor of the commercials tended to hit their mark effectively.
But I was surprised by how much I liked last night’s episode. In one pivotal sequence, Braugher’s character discovers that Romano’s character’s ex-wife was cheating on him with the man she got together with once the marriage ended. The conversation leading up to the reveal, at a somewhat awkward function, is almost precisely what you’d expect from adults who don’t all know each other well, and aren’t necessarily clicking on any particular level. And when he convinces himself that the right thing to do is to tell Romano’s character, the reactions he gets from another friend and his wife are also surprisingly–and I think compellingly–awkward. His friend says the marriage must have been damaged for her to cheat. And his wife is more concerned with the fact that his reaction embarrassed his friend’s ex-wife (who is her friend) than in the fact that a manifest wrong’s been done. And I can understand why those reactions might be enormously disorienting: they suggest that the moral universe Braugher’s operating in is mistaken, as is his estimation of his friendship and his obligations within it.
That’s really the thing that the Beach Boys, “When I Grow Up to Be a Man,” the theme song that plays over the opening credits, is about. Digging the same things in a woman that you liked in a girl, or having your kids see you as cool, is really about whether not just your preferences, but your values, persevere.
Growing up, my family was always a little weird about popular culture. We didn’t have a television for a long time. I got to some Disney movies, but my folks don’t go to mainstream releases a lot. We did a fair bit of theater. But one of the biggest cultural legacies I got from my family, particularly from my father’s side of the family, was an obsessive love for the now-late Washington Post editorial cartoonist Herbert Block. My grandfather had a collection of his books that I pulled off the shelves (along with World War II Sad Sack cartoons) and read. I learned more about politics and American history from Herblock than I did from almost any other source, and wrote at least two college papers about Block’s work (particularly on nuclear weapons). He signed his autobiography for me when he received an honorary degree at Harvard.
So it was great to head over to the Library of Congress’s Herblock exhibit today for a retrospective of the great cartoonist’s work. The show made the important point that Block didn’t only absolutely nail generations of political figures, his work was a significant break with the round, doughy Midwestern School of editorial cartooning, and those spikier, more realistic figures were critical to the strength and distinction of his caricatures. The decline of editorial cartooning has always made me sad, given that Block proved how good and strong the profession could be. But the exhibit is a must, particularly since it shows how the cartoons were put together, blue sketching, black pencil and shading, and sometimes even parts of the cartoon cut and pasted in. And I’m psyched to dive into the new collection of Block’s work. His old books had 200-450 cartoons max. This one comes with 18,000 on disc. God bless technology. Especially when it keeps the work of cartoonists like Block accessible and looking great.
Thegirlwhoateeverything and Emily Rutherford had really good points about the cult of Rent that I wanted to highlight here. Thegirl wrote (in the midst of a longer, smart deconstruction of the show):
The film glorifies a starving artist lifestyle at the expense of any actual creations that these so-called artists make. Being broke doesn’t give you extra credibility or talent, especially if it’s not pushing you to develop your craft to a level where you could reach a wider audience and perhaps make some dirty, evil, filthy money. It’s poverty porn for rich kids.
I agree the show would be substantially stronger if the case for any of the artists’ talents were stronger. And Emily makes a point that I think interfaces with Thegirl’s argument. She writes:
The show romanticizes a tragic epidemic that killed off tens of thousands of people in the face of uncaring, homophobic city, state, and federal governments–and that, even though our attitude to the virus has changed somewhat, continues to kill. I can’t read Larry Kramer and Randy Shilts and Ed White and listen to my friends’ and relatives’ stories of the people they lost and really take Rent seriously anymore.
My friends thought I was pretty crazy when I was bitching about this: after all, the story’s a total rip-off of La Bohème, and you don’t see me bitching about how he ignored the realities of his Mimi’s TB. I’m painfully aware of how few of the artsy teens singing “La Vie Boheme” know the meaning of the chant “ACT-UP! Fight AIDS!” that recurs in the background of the cast album, but maybe that’s more my failure than the show’s.
I think this is essentially right. The show spends a lot of time romanticizing the bravery of the people who live with HIV, and very little dealing either with their emotional desperation or the societal conditions that caused it and abandoned many of them to their illness. The reduction of Roger’s girlfriend to this single line “whose girlfriend April left a note saying ‘we’ve got AIDS‘ before slitting her wrists in the bathroom” is really disgustingly callous. The line’s delivered with a sarcastic tilt–perhaps it’s defensive, but given that it’s Mark observing, it doesn’t really read that way. Roger’s mourning over her is treated like moping, and his quick hookup with Mimi doesn’t really dispel the suggestion that it is.
The show also minimizes, in some really strange ways, the sacrifice Collins made in blowing up his job at MIT in the name of an alliance with ACT-UP. Allying yourself with radical AIDS activists was a big deal–Collins didn’t just lose his job, he probably lost himself a chance of ever working in academia at all. But of course, Collins comes back to New York to chill with his bros, and the loss of his job becomes the equivalent of the loss of his coat when he meets Angel because TRU LOVE IS 4EVER and of course nothing else matters ever again.
This isn’t to take anything away from people who faced HIV infection with enormous energy, courage, anger, and empathy. I spent a bunch of time with Larry Kramer in college, enough to know that those positive attributes aren’t the entire story. For government agencies and leaders, and society at large, to face the shame they ought for their behavior in the early years of the epidemic, the whole story desperately needs to be told. I recognize Rent isn’t an act of retribution. But it’s not helping any either, if that’s what a lot of folks know about the ways in which AIDS decimated entire communities–and entire arts scenes, which didn’t have fabulous drag queens at the ends of long dark tunnels telling them to turn back.
So, after setting up my new televsion last night (all thanks due to my parents!) and sitting down to blog, I found that the best option on my television at the moment was, sadly, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen back to back. Fortunately, I only had to sit through about twenty minutes of the former travesty, but it was enough for me to notice that, stunningly, the special effects were actually worse than Jessica Alba’s acting. They were so bad it was distracting: it was as if they’d started doing the CGI on the Silver Surfer, wandered off mid-coffee break, had a surprise visit from Sarah Michelle Gellar wearing a cheerleader outfit and carrying a stake, and just never returned. The movie is so dreadful it doesn’t matter, really. The effects are just another thing dramatically shortchanged in a crass, cheap adaptation of a venerated comic.
But in The League, the poverty of the special effects do make a difference in what could have been an entertaining B movie. It’s highly campy, of course. Sean Connery, at 73, is wandering around punching people in the face. Tom Sawyer’s addition to the crew is diverting, but deeply underdeveloped. The Invisible Man’s nefariousness is signaled by the fact that he runs around naked and refuses to wear his trench coat and cold cream most of the time. So, clearly, goofiness. But the poor quality of the effects is again distracting, this time decisively so. Mostly it’s that Mr. Hyde just looks dreadful: the movie’s effects folks mostly make him look misshapen and awkward and big, but it’s not a convincing distortion, and they signal his transformations back into Dr. Jekyll mostly by waving the camera around and making things look blurry. The animation on a guy who takes Jekyll’s transformative potion to fight him are even worse. Ditto for Mina Harker: they don’t even bother to make her look vampiric, they just toss in some red in the whites of her eyes and have her nuzzle aggressively into someone’s neck when she bites someone. And it’s particularly too bad, because they do a nice job on certain things, like the Nautilus, Captain Nemo’s ship, which looks sleek and gorgeous and steam-punky.
Why they couldn’t have done that across the board is beyond me. Instead, the effects are a constant reminder of the slightly threadbare story they’re hanging on, and the overstuffed cast holding it up. If the effects were plausible, it might have been easy to ignore the movie’s cheerful deficiencies and just gone along with it. With nothing pretty or genuinely grotesque to look at, all its flaws stand in much sharper relief.
While I was off being all Christmasy and stuff, a whole bunch of trailers for new movies dropped. Just my luck, right? Quick thoughts on a few of the most prominent:
Knight & Day
This looks pretty much unwatchable with one exception: it’s one of the only movies I’ve seen hint of recently that, rather than pretending that Tom Cruise is a normal dude who isn’t hypnotizing his child bride and raising the spawn of L. Ron Hubbard, utilizes his core creepiness. He looks disturbing in his role as Cameron Diaz’s semi-stalker-with-a-heart-of-something here, and that dementia looks about right.
I would very much like Tracy Morgan to have a functional career. I would like Kevin Smith to start making good movies again. Cop Out is not a start of a new trend for either one of them. Let’s be honest: Morgan works on 30 Rock precisely because he’s playing himself. He could do good work in other roles that give him similar opportunities. But having him be the generic theoretically hilarious black cop is not that entertaining. Neither is forcing Bruce Willis to be a straight man, when he can actually be pretty funny himself when he’s loose. That said, the line “My partner. He’s smarter than Batman,” is not bad. On the other hand, dragging people behind cars as a method of torture hasn’t been funny since James Byrd’s murder, and considerably before that as well.
Sex and the City 2
So, I’m on the record as saying that SATC-bashing is illegit, and that dudes should basically treat the show as Star Wars for chicks (or in addition to Star Wars, for those of us chicks who love both). But even I have absolutely no idea what this movie can possibly about now that Big and Carrie are married. That doesn’t mean I won’t be at the movie the first full day it’s in theaters, with the girlfriend I’ve watched the show and the first movie with. I will add these caveats: if Big and Carrie break up AGAIN, I will fix Chris Noth with the fiercest glare I can find. And if Miranda is treated as shabbily as she was in the last movie, Michael Patrick King will be getting an invitation he can’t refuse to a fight club of smart women I’ll form for the occasion.
So, dear readers, there is now a new HDTV sitting in my living room, the better for me to watch things and criticize them for you. My question is this: any advice from the Blu-Ray player owners among you? I want one that can stream movies from Netflix, and obviously something that’s as bug-free as possible. Beyond that, I’m flexible. Recommendations via comments or email will be much appreciated.
But this New York Times audio slideshow of music by artists who died this year is a great way to spend some time. The song choices–and the transitions–are a lot of fun.
Is you guys. Seriously, readers, you are the single best gift I could have received this year. I’ll be off for the next two days cooking, opening presents, eating, and generally being familial. But as a very small token of my regard, I leave you with an exceedingly cute depiction of Mariah Carey as Santa’s curvy little helper: