Sunday, December 28, 2008

Giving Boston Legal Its Due

I tend to be a little grand in terms of storytelling, I've never been limited by anybody's sense of reality.

--David E. Kelley

Boston Legal isn’t a show that gets a lot of press. It’s an adult show, made by adults for adults, and the average age of the cast is somewhere in the late 50s. It’s polemical, and the characters are essentially mouthpieces for creator David E. Kelley’s views on everything and anything political, cultural, historical, legal…you get the picture. His characters are ridiculous, often acting like spoiled children who use the law to spout off their own opinions in the hope to win some ridiculous lawsuit.

Meaning that it sounds very much like many of his other shows.

David E. Kelley has a certain style, one that you either embrace or completely reject for being completely preposterous. It’s apparent in many of his most famous shows—The Practice, Ally McBeal, Boston Public. The only one of these I’ve never seen is The Practice, another “for adults only” show.

Despite being a huge fan of Ally McBeal back in the day, I would never have sat down and watched Boston Legal on my own because of its reputation as an adult show. My parents watched it, and I got suckered in—surprised by how much I enjoyed the political back-and-forth, the fact that he raised pertinent and topical issues, often “ripped from the headlines” in a much less lurid fashion than is usually implied. Of course, Kelley’s overt statements—half an episode was devoted to why we should vote for Barack Obama—made the show objectionable for many but standout in that it went where shows rarely go.

Probably the best-known aspect of the show is Denny Crane and Alan Shore’s relationship, featured at the end of every episode where they sit on a balcony high-rise overlooking Boston, smoke a cigar, have a drink, and wax philosophically. Bromance is usually labeled onto younger men’s friendships, but in the case of two adult men, the word merely reduces their relationship to something trivial. These are two men not afraid to say “I love you”—over and over again, with endless florid expansions on the subject.

The actors—including the leads Candice Bergen, James Spader (who won the Best Actor Emmy last year in quite the upset), and William Shatner—are very good, making the ridiculous human and believable.

David E. Kelley is the master of the monologue, and only he can take ludicrous premises and make you believe. As he puts it (through Alan) in his fantastic injunction against the Chinese conglomerate that bought out the law firm in “Made in China”, “Did you know the kinds of cases that we argue, week to week? Typically preposterous, mostly unwinnable on their face, and yet we win them, whether we have grounds or not.” That not only sums up Boston Legal, but pretty much any David E. Kelley law show.

In the penultimate episode, Denny Crane (Shatner)—genius lawyer, notorious womanizer, and all-around character, suffering from Alzheimer’s—wants to try an experimental drug that has shown promise. He goes to the Supreme Court to advocate for it. He also asks his best friend, Alan Shore (Spader), another brilliant lawyer, to marry him. Now that homosexual marriage is legal in Massachusetts, he wants to marry Alan so that he can be in charge of all his medical and financial decisions, especially as his faculties deteriorate. The firm he is head of, Crane, Poole & Schmidt, is being bought out by the Chinese, which gives the main characters plenty of time to rail against communism, China’s human rights violations, and the nature of democracy. Oh, and Shirley Schmidt (Bergen), the other partner, is getting married to Carl Sack (John Larroquette), her colleague. Looks like a double wedding!

It’s the first time in 20 years that David E. Kelley won’t have a show on the air—but he’ll be back sometime in the next year, for another law show. Boston Legal had one of the richest audiences on the air, but its “mediocre ratings” caused ABC to cancel it—a fate befalling other shows that have very rich demos and older audiences.

Boston Legal is now rerun on ION, another network that reruns “fuddy-duddy” shows (bring back The Wonder Years!)…which means that it won’t gather many new fans outside of the ones it already has. I watched the last two episodes (aired as one two-hour finale) on, and I was struck by how different the “experience” was: The ads revolve around “adult” concerns. Blackberry was the biggest advertiser, followed by Tropicana (it’s healthy!). What a contrast to other shows—perfume, gadgets, junk food! These ads were often silent too, and makes you click continue in order for the show to continue, which I dislike—I want my shows to automatically play!

Boston Legal will be remembered as a show that won many Emmys that many people thought were undeserved, partly because it ran against popular fare like Lost, The Sopranos, and 24, and featured a bunch of older actors running ridiculously around a law firm, but it deserves some respect—for showcasing issues and concerns not usually deemed relevant for a television audience.

Note: Check out this Wikipedia description on Candice Bergen's character, Shirley Schmidt:

Shirley is portrayed in the series as the ultimate ideal woman: smart, sexy, graceful, dignified, a great lawyer and businesswoman, phenomenal in bed, easy to fall in love with and impossible to get over.

The Merchants of Cool

In doing some “research” for my Britney Spears entry, I came across this Gawker piece, which reviewed “For the Record”. The reviewer mentioned he recently watched Frontline’s documentary on the merchants of cool, and compared the two. I came to Frontline today to watch a documentary on the US Navy I caught the end of several months ago, and when I couldn’t find it, watched “The Merchants of Cool” instead, which aired in 2001. Whoa, nostalgia!!!

One of the first people interviewed is Malcolm Gladwell (with a very short haircut), whose essay in the New Yorker on coolhunters formed the basis of the documentary. (I first discovered this concept when I read The Tipping Point, which lifts a chapter from his article).

The special reminded me very much of my “Media & Persuasion” class in college, and no wonder—one of the experts interviewed wrote a book that was a text in class (which I thought was slightly outdated and also-ran). Obviously many of the statistics are outdated and the documentary is very much a capsule of a specific moment in time, but many of its overarching themes are still present in society today, if in a different context and format.

TRL is the big thing, and there’s a lot of discussion around rap-rock music, Limp Bizkit and the Insane Clown Posse (in fact, it was that clip that made me feel déjà vu, as there’s a chance I’ve seen this documentary at some point in the last seven years.)

Here, the internet is shiny and new! Media fragmentation! AOL and Time Warner are still buddies, and Viacom rules the universe (which might still be true). There’s no talk of how the internet is killing whole industries, no mention of Napster...iPods haven’t been invented yet and the Macs used by some of the marketing companies (using what some consider unethical practices) are the old-time blocky ones. Real children’s and tween’s programming is given lipservice in the form of MTV, but there’s no acknowledgment of Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel’s grip on the youngest generation of Americans. Social networks are still years away. TRL is the epitome of cool.

But what I found most fascinating, in this clip (Chapter 3, The MTV Machine--no embed capabilities), was the synergy between advertising, marketing, and real programming, how MTV used a launch party for as content for one of their brand new shows at the time, Direct Effects (which aired after TRL for a few years).

Although the documentary itself cursory mentions Eminem, he’s a focus in a lot of extended interviews, from Jimmy Iovine to Brian Graden to Dave Sirulnick. There’s a lot of discussion focused on music, marketing, and the intersection of the two; a lot on history as well. It’s interesting to look at this piece—while still relevant—as also a unique moment in time, before the internet overtook practically everything, when the economy was good and everything was flush, when even the angry music wasn’t depressing.

As for Eminem—an artist who’s gone largely out of the spotlight the last few years—even MTV was a bit naïve when it came to promoting him:

[D]o you worry about fanning this flame?

Yes. At MTV, we are absolutely in a constant internal discussion about our role in the media. One thing that is true now that wasn't true 10 years ago is that 10 years ago, we might have been the only proprietor of a certain kind of art or a certain kind of product. Now, in this particular age, there are 20 channels playing music videos on television. There are endless channels programming for a young audience. On the computer you can get access to absolutely anything musical and otherwise. I worry less about what we're perpetrating and more about just finding the right line for ourselves. And it's a very fluid discussion; what is true today may not be true six months from now.

And as MTV, I don't feel we can ever stop having the discussion. There's a tendency to say, "Well, we found our line. Let's move on." But you can't do that, because culture is always shifting. It is a non-stop discussion, because we take the responsibility very seriously to not put dangerous things out there. At the same time, the reason the audience trusts us in the first place is because we don't censor. We present their art in the most honest way. . . . We won't cross violence lines. We won't cross certain language lines. But otherwise, we will let the art express itself as purely as possible.

Well, let's take an artist like Eminem. He may be the most popular and most controversial figure at the moment. You not only went with his videos--but you really gave him a platform. Tell me about the internal decision there. Why did you decide to go that way?

Around Eminem, what you have to remember is that his second album had a different tenor than his first album. There is definitely a through line, and you can see the progression. When we decided and planned. . . we had not heard the second album in its entirety. What we had was a very sanitized, friendly, saturated video that was very much targeted right at a young consumer, and that video was perfectly innocent. It passed all of our standards in terms of violence and language. And away we go.

It's only after we had a chance to really listen to the album and we had a chance to sit down with lots of other groups . . . that we began to have second thoughts in pulling back the promotion. And we did, in fact, pull a lot of the promotion back. And we decided we don't want to censor the artist. The video's going to play on the channel if the audience chooses to have it played on "Total Request Live." But we did feel a responsibility to express the other side of the controversy. So we did this half-hour special on hate lyrics. I think it's infinitely better for us as MTV to get out both sides. . . . That's a better role for MTV to have than to simply say, "Let's not show this and let's not talk about it," because that's disingenuous.

Is it fair to say that you may not have done the two-week thing had you known the full album?

Yes. Hindsight is always 20/20. I don't know that. That would sound like a cop-out if I just said we wouldn't of, but certainly the picture became clearer over the ensuing weeks. And like I said, since the discussion is fluid at MTV, we weren't afraid to say, "You know what? Let's pull back on promotion, and let's tell the other side of this story."

You have wonderful documentaries about the issues that are raised by the rest of your programming. You don't see yourselves as moral guardians. You can't act in that role.

I would say that MTV works on two levels. We see ourselves as champion of artists. And whether we like it or not, the themes that artists sometimes choose to embrace reflect sometimes anger, sometimes views that we would never agree with. For the most part, we aren't going to censor the artist, beyond standard television network standards. As MTV, we do believe that we have some broader role in educating consumers, in getting behind social campaigns like our campaign to vote, our campaign to stop violence. So we tried to make both coexist on the channel. Artists can express themselves, but so can we.

And doesn't this sound interesting?

And at about the same time, Roland Joffé came in and pitched the show "Undressed." And his pitch was really interesting, because he is fascinated by these small conversational moments that ultimately really say volumes about a relationship. His pitch was that you don't get honest until you get home at night and you start to get in bed. Once you . . . get undressed--which was his metaphor--that's when you start to get real.

I saw only a few eps, and was kind of squicked out but perversely fascinated--it was very much soft-core porn, just really awkward and not terribly realistic, though it was porporting to be.

Many of the extended interviews are pretty interesting, even just for skimming purposes. I recommend Dave Sirulnick on MTV, TRL, and how they influence the culture; Jimmy Iovine for the historical background with teenagers and music, and how MTV fits into that; Brian Graden for MTV as a business and many of their strategies; Robert McChesney on the state of the media and music landscape in 2001; and Todd Cunningham for how MTV conducts market research.

P.S. A guy named Barack directed “The Merchants of Cool.” Ha!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Outlining the Record

I love this moment:

This is the Britney I like—cute, cheerful, one who has good video concepts. I don’t know why the director decided to go with this for “Womanizer”:

As Ellen Carpenter at Spin writes,

[“Womanizer” is] a lusty blend of The Office and Alias, the flashy, streamlined vision of the modern sex wars takes place in some sleek corporate setting — as if the high-school girl from "…Baby One More Time" has become a vampy career woman and brought her school's back-up dancers with her. There are Louise Brooks wigs, "Mad Men" glasses, choreographed dance sequences, and not a single stripper pole.
Although the song has grown on me (I wish I remembered my first thought upon hearing the song—something about her voice belonging to a old, craggy woman who had been chain smoking for fifty years), I’m dismayed (I know, I shouldn’t be) by the gratuitous nudity. Really, Britney, a naked you veiled in sweat and smoke? This has been done by oh, everyone, including you. It’s not titillating in the least, especially as there isn’t a semblance of seeing anything remotely interesting.

Carpenter happens to agree with me. There’s no reason here to show off her body—it doesn’t fit into the storyline of the video—except because she can, and that’s not always the best reason. It’s not risqué or cool, not even vaguely interesting, but practically expected. Blah.

"For the Record" shows Britney living her life—one dominated, as one might expect, by dance rehearsals, photo sessions, and security, security, security. She’s always surrounded by people, never alone, and you rarely see her with her children. It’s hard to think of starlets as actual mothers, and Britney is a glaring example of why. It’s not that she’s not motherly, it’s because she just doesn’t care for them directly and have the mindset of what most mothers have. As Carpenter again puts it:

Ever since Britney trotted out her tagline "not a girl, not yet a woman," she's been stuck in some kind of limbo. Though she has two children and two failed marriages under her belt (if she wore a belt) none of us can quite consider her an adult. Certainly not the kind of adult we think of her putative role-model Madonna as being -- someone who self-exploited with a bit more flair and authority.
"For the Record", available online by MTV in 23 different installments (!!!!! And yes, I watched it all in a row, Fantasy commercials be damned), received a lot of criticism for false advertising, for not showing us the real Britney and the “truth” behind her last few years of craziness. There are few details in “For the Record”, that’s true, but I enjoyed the documentary, ostensibly to promote her new album, Circus. Britney came across fairly intelligently, and her goofy humor is apparent when she happy and enjoying herself, usually interacting with her close associates. Britney very much has a babygirl voice, one that has been exploited in conjunction with her body for years, but it shines through most genuinely when it is unencumbered by pop stylings.

But we always want to learn more, and her past few years have only made us want to see the reasons behind the odd behavior. Britney, true to form, likes to tease us, promising that we will understand her through her music, but that’s rarely the case. Why should we expect so much out of dance pop?

Britney Spears is making a habit of putting out albums with titles that promise more self-revelation than she's ultimately able to provide. Last fall, she released Blackout...which turned out not to have anything to do with experiencing blackouts. This year, it's Circus, with a title track that's not about the madhouse her life has become but just a brag about her prowess as a whip-cracking sexual ringmaster.
That’s the opening to Entertainment Weekly’s review of Cirucs, which has generally received positive reviews. But as with most music of her genre, the review barely means anything. It’s hard to believe that Blackout came out a year ago—we’re so used to Britney the Paparazzi Princess that her music has become quite the backburner, even though it’s supposed to fuel her life. Up until a few months ago, it was kind of a big deal that she had never won any moonmen at the MTV Video Music Awards, despite being, arguably, their biggest star this decade. So, engineered for her “comeback”, she wins a few for “Piece of Me”, a song that's supposed to be about how she loses herself among her celebrity life. Bleh. Really, out of all her songs she could win for—especially for Video of the Year—“Piece of Me” should not even remotely be on the shortlist. But it’s supposed to be “deep”, a real look at the inner Britney—all bunk as far as I’m concerned. So many artists nowadays especially sing and moan about the perils of being famous that it all gets so trite to the listener, especially as it’s not a universal experience. But that’s a rant for another time.

I have no doubt that Britney will go on being Britney, and we will be treated to plenty more gym-ready gyrations, just as we will go on endlessly discussing her life. But don’t go on expecting a real breakthrough.

P.S. Though I’m not a fan of Lily Allen, she has a pretty good cover of "Womanizer".

Friday, December 19, 2008


I am totally going to this show next year.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Love Stories

A couple weeks ago, I wanted to write about how the success of House gives me faith in America. House is a complex show that deals with philosophical issues, about medical ethics, of right and wrong, connecting with people, of how to live. The fact that it is one of America’s top-rated shows—and one that is well-acted, generally well-written, and both a critical and fan favorite—makes me very happy. But I also realized that House does something that is very rare on television shows: two of the main characters, Gregory House and Lisa Cuddy, are both single for a long time.

As most people know, these are two characters who flirt and argue with each other, and often their scenes are fun to watch. They are the standard couple that fans are suppose to root for, and of course they’ll get together at the end of the series, as is television convention. What is notable is that their relationship obstacles are themselves—their own stubbornness, expectations, beliefs, habits, and personality quirks—and not other people. House does not date. Cuddy does not date. This is pretty big for television; most shows have boyfriends and girlfriends and affairs and would-be suitors that rotate out of the main characters’ lives, with various missed chances and misunderstandings. But as House has continued the past few weeks, with Cuddy and House kissing and acknowledging their attraction to each other, there have been those classic television misunderstandings, most notably in last week’s episode, “Let them Eat Cake”, where House is off flirting with a woman he hired to play a prank on Kutner and Taub. Cuddy sees this just as she’s about to forgive him for an earlier incident, since House had done something special for her.

Last weekend, I saw three movies that revolve around “grand” love affairs: Twilight, Australia, and a Bollywood hit titled Fanaa, which means “Destroyed in Love” in English. While it’s true that love stories follow similar arcs—there’s a meet cute, often involving a misunderstanding or a dislike, a gradual time of becoming friends, then really good friends, periods of crisis that draw the two together, the requisite confusing/scared emotions, the obstacles that keep the two apart (whether external or internal, or a combination)—it doesn’t mean that they are particularly interesting, victorious, or that they work at all. A formula does not mean success.

This is why most love stories aren’t good. They just aren’t. They’re everywhere, and that’s one of the problems—love stories are supposed to be special, exciting, meaningful, infused with pain, yet there’s an unbreakable sense of connection, friendship and yes, love, that underscores it all. That’s what the good ones do. You can follow all the rules, and still not have the story matter. Twilight, Australia and Fanaa had many of the standard elements, but none of them were particularly good. What struck me and my compatriots in watching the movies, though, was that there were thematic and tonal similarities: while all of them were over-the-top, the drama was ridiculous in Twilight and Fanaa. There was too much back-and-forth, too much “I can’t live without you!” hysterics. There was too much talk of dying for each other, of “You can’t be with me, because I will get you killed! I will ruin your life! And therefore we must STAY AWAY from each other!” In both Twilight and Australia, there was a scene where one of the leads doesn’t know how to dance and is shy. The genders were reversed, but the dialogue was practically the same in both movies, despite that one dealt with cowboys and the other vampires.

Love stories are overhyped, fit into any story because it’s considered a necessary element of success. Upping the ante by introducing politics, death, illness and other catastrophes is often considered another requirement of epic romances, but it’s not necessary and often takes away from the central story. That’s what happened in Twilight and Australia (although Australia's story wasn’t really about the romance, but was a substantial part of it). These elements are usually so over-the-top that they obscure the real romance and move it into parody, drawing out the movie so we just don’t care any more. That occurred in all three movies.

What’s missing in the movies, and in most love stories, is the friendship behind the leads. In Roger Ebert’s review of Twilight, he says, “They’re in love with being in love.” Bella and Edward spend the movie giving each other smoking, lustful looks and discussing why they can’t be together (he wants her blood too much), but there’s nothing else besides attraction that hold them together.

The central question of any love story should be: why do these two love each other? Why them? The audience needs to see why each cares for the other, why each genuinely likes the other. Most treat this question superficially, glossing over it for the more exciting romantic tension that awaits. But tension is meaningless and not as much fun if the fundamentals aren’t there, if the reason for the tension is perfunctory and silly.

I’m convinced that Michael Patrick King wanted to create a great love story in Big and Carrie in Sex and the City, and that’s the overwhelming feeling I’m left with whenever I see the finale. (I’m excusing the movie here because I feel it retreads a lot of the same ground, but it could work within this framework, since their love ends happily after a massive screw-up.) Here we see why Carrie and Big just have this overwhelming affection for each other—that they can laugh and flirt and just be fun with each other, and each likes the other’s playful attitude, that person’s love of New York City. Despite all their problems, they go back to each other—a controversial point in most romantic relationships, because this tendency can be destructive, hampering the necessity of moving on. Carrie and Big’s epic love story is one thing I take away from the show, and I think he succeeds in creating a lasting, captivating story, one with many believable, heart-wrenching turns.

One of the reasons The Office is such on shaky ground this season is that it doesn’t know what to do with its central couple, Jim and Pam. The show was phenomenal in its second and third seasons partly because it was powered by the unrequited love between those two, and the second season finale “Casino Night”, where Jim confesses his love to Pam and then kisses her, is considered by many to be the best episode of the series. Watching the friendship between the two, Jim’s longing and confusion followed by Pam’s longing and confusion, was at times exhilarating, heartbreaking, and frustrating, and garnered lots of fans of both the show and the characters. By coupling the characters early enough in the series, considered a radical move by many, the show set us up to watch their relationship grow. But the lack of romantic tension, sad to say, was not replaced by genuinely interesting and compelling storylines, but ones that had the potential to be so and then written off. Romantic intrigue was passed onto other characters, poorly, as if one great love story can be substituted for another.

While The Office can and hopefully will bounce back from the stupidity this lackluster season has brought, it could show what many want to see: a full-fledged, real relationship, without the excessive drama that plagues most television and movie romance. It can be done, and it can be done well—it just takes imagination and a real commitment to write a story based around interesting and compelling characters. But too often it just doesn’t seem palatable. After all, it’s very hard to write about a relationship in television or in the movies that’s about the after part of “happily ever after.” The joke is that it doesn’t exist.

As Emily Gould put it recently, when discussing Gossip Girl:

It’s rare to watch a tv show’s writers basically confess that they’ve hit a wall. Imagine if, somewhere around the third season of Friends, Ross had sat Rachel down and said, “You know, we’ll never stay together, because there would really be nothing to hang the misunderstanding-based hijinx of this show on.” When Chuck told Blair that “the game” is “what we like,” he might as well have been staring into the camera and addressing the audience directly. ‘When we finally get together,’ he’s saying, ‘you’ll know that Gossip Girl’s writers have finally gotten that memo from CW headquarters that they’ve got another episode or two to wrap things up.’

But less cynically, or maybe more cynically: the audience basically never gets to watch the ever-after part of romances – it’s boring, we’re given to understand, all that moviegoing and hand-holding. Love affairs have three acts, we know from tv, and even, a little, from our own experience. There’s the thrilling beginning, fraught with obstacles and delicious suffering. And then there’s the middle, the happy normalcy phase that actually maybe doesn’t even exist and is just a slow slide into the mediocrity and boredom that signals the end. Maybe there are just two acts, then.

And when act two is running its course, it’s back to the drawing board again.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

More Beyoncé Angst

Emily Gould does a really good job describing "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" in her post on marriage:

Since she’s a married lady — married to Jay-Z, duh! — Beyoncé can’t very well sing lyrics like “man on my hips/got me tighter than my Dereon jeans,” anymore, so she has had to create an alternate persona named Sasha Fierce. Sasha performs the half of B’s new double album that’s not treacly, wife-appropriate ballads, and the best of the resulting tracks, ‘Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)’ is not going to start getting played by wedding DJs anytime soon. It’s a feminist anthem! Well, sort of. If you want it to be. It’s a classic post-breakup eff you about being “up in the club” and dancing with another guy to make your ex jealous — “I could care less what you think,” ‘Sasha’ sings, which is always a funny kind of line because, hello, you are making it clear that you’re just acting this way for the dude’s benefit. (cf: “You probably think this song is about you” [MediaMaven note: Carly Simon's "You're So Vain"] or “Thanks to you, now I get what I want.” [Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone"]). And then the chorus: an amazing, jumpropey chant of “If you like it then you should have put a ring on it.” In the video the chorus is accompanied by an amazing hip-twitching dance that’s capped by this move where Beyoncé and her backup dancers raise and revolve their left hands, flashing what ought to be conspicuously ringless fingers — “All the single ladies, put your hands up!” But Beyoncé doesn’t just have her famous 5 million dollar diamond — hey, what happened to ‘Sasha?’ — on hers, she’s also got on a whole metal-plated robot glove that makes ominous and addictive and comic-bookish kriiiing sounds when she twists her wrist.

‘Sasha’ wants to be up in the club, acting up, drink in her cup — but she also, badly, wants someone to put a ring on it, or at least she wants someone to want to.
Emily's onto something. She ends her post in a very Housian way, with "we're all going to die alone anyway"--very cynical and reductive. But I understand her ambivalence, and the onslaught of the current culture, especially if you're single and a woman, is just so damn hard to fight sometimes. I listened to a lot of "Single Ladies" last week (as well as I am Sasha Fierce, since it's available free on MySpace), and while the album was better than I expected, it was still the usual Beyoncé fare. And I felt incredibly guilty and conflicted listening to it. Why? I liked the music, and I actually thought it was good, but it was just that the messages offended me. Do people feel this way when they listen to Eminem or hardcore racist mysogynistic rap? Beyoncé's songs (like so many other pop songs) are reductive. There's nothing wrong with that--music doesn't have to be deep, and I love plenty of music and musicians that aren't. But I just can't figure out why her music bothers me so. One of the reasons I've always loved Beyoncé is because she's a consummate professional--she's just so confident and cool and just so good at what she does. I've never seen her perform, but my brother told me she's one hell of a performer, and her performance with Tina Turner at the Grammys was fantastic, to say the least. I'm tired of her songs being the same two notes--I-love-my-man-so-much-I'll-do-anything-for-him, and My-man-screwed-me-over-I-don't-need-him-anymore. It doesn't fit her life, and if she wants to show audiences a more personal side of her, she's failing (I am Sasha Fierce is not bold and honest). She needs to grow up, look past the simplistic polars of relationships, and stop infusing an entire generation of women with retarded notions of love.

But boy, do I ever wish I could dance like Beyoncé in that video. Hot damn.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


TRL is ending.

Too much JT, too much new stuff. Stick with the nostalgia.

OF COURSE they go over. If I remember correctly, if they went over with the actual show it'd just be cut off and we'd hear Carson shoving the last words out before the camera cut.

And in true TRL style, the top ten videos played are on for less than a minute. Nice.

I was hoping they'd do a lightening-fast montage of every video played, every artist on the show...those things are fun.

Britney Spears, "...Baby One More Time" is the #1 most influential video under the TRL years. And yep, I totally guessed it.

So yeah, pointless post. Time to truly say goodbye to my teenage years.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

And Another Thing, Beyoncé...

As if women don't have enough problems, we should expect a man who will do all these things:
[...] what I deserve
Is a man that makes me then takes me
And delivers me to a destiny, to infinity and beyond

Dear Lord, Beyoncé, a man is going to exalt me to such new heights that I'll go beyond infinity? That orgasm sure must be powerful.

I deserve a man who's going to take me to my destiny. Which means that my destiny can only be achieved by such a great man. So then that great man must arrive, right? The logic of this gives me a headache.

So does this mean that if this unbelievable man with unbelievable charms doesn't fit into this unbelievable package, then "like a ghost, I'll be gone"? I shouldn't accept anything less than infinite magic?

What Beyoncé Should Sing...

...Is "Angel". Natasha Bedingfield's "Angel."

Now this is a song about respecting your man. It's the complete opposite of practically everything Beyoncé sings, even as a member of Destiny's Child. Natasha wants her man to be disrespected so she can rush to his defense and show the world how proud of his she is. She wants women to stand up to prove there are good guys out there. She's tired of the Beyoncés of the world, constantly bashing their men.

"Angel" even fits into the retrograde values that Beyoncé & co. espouses. Although there are elements of the "Cater 2 U" philosophy, Natasha Bedingfield doesn't intend to pamper her guy or bow down to his every whim. She does, however, put herself aside so her man can have the spotlight. That's a bit worrisome. But she'll do whatever he wishes. There are no strings--she just loves the dude.

What struck me the first time about "Angel", though, was that the sentiment of the song--wanting to protect one's lover "from the pain"--is something most commonly heard from males. Men sing about protecting women all the time. Women, not so much. It's the verb that changes the sentiment slightly, since it's men who are the stereotypical protectors and saviors. Men will sing promises of keep their lady "safe from danger", not the other way around.

But she's still a woman. She'll guide him home and provide shelter, as images of hearth and home are traditional to females. Even the title of the song, "Angel", tends to be associated with women, though guardian angels can be either gender.

"Angel" continues the trend of spelling out the title (see Stefani, Gwen; "Hollaback Girl", and Fergie; "Glamorous"). The video has multiple Natashas singing in multiple outfits (like Beyoncé's current video for "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)"), but it's done in front of black-and-white drawings in panes, like comics, a style I really like. Also, her green dress reminds me of the one Carrie wore in the Sex and the City finale.

Overall, Natasha Bedingfield is a woman who's had lots of positive messages in her music. She even released a song, "Single", about how great being single is. It wasn't sarcastic; unfortunately, it was dreadful. So dreadful that I won't link to it and I'm embarrassed to mention it. Her songs are positive, and from what I've seen, she's a pretty upbeat and down-to-earth person who seems to have some semblence of what she's singing about. Now that's the kind of women pop music needs more of.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Beyoncé, Don't Be Hatin'

Oh, Beyoncé .

For a long time, Beyoncé was my girl. I knew I shouldn't like her thanks to all the Destiny's Child hijinks back in the early years of this decade, but damn, that girl knew how to deliver hits. And she was so professional, so poised and just so great. "Crazy in Love" didn't start to get old until last year, that's how good it was.

A guy I know once noted that all Beyoncé/Destiny's Child songs are about how their men have screwed them--and while they do have positive songs about men, they're few and far between and are usually not the singles. It's funny that Beyoncé is still singing these songs, because she's married now to her beau of six years, Jay-Z. "Crazy in Love", after all, like many of the songs on her multiplatinum Dangerously in Love, is about him.

Beyoncé has a new album coming out November 18. Her obvious competition now is Rihanna, who, thanks to her glut of singles the past few years, will soon be taking a break. Beyoncé's done the curious thing and released two single simultaneously, one for R&B/urban radio and one for the pop audience. It's kind of an odd strategy--I'm not in favor of rushing singles, as I feel they can cannibalize one another and shorten the album's lifespan. Both singles--one a ballad, the other a club jam--will inevitably be compared to one another, fighting it out for greater prominence.

Both singles are lacking, but "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)" edges out "If I Were a Boy" just by its sheer danceability. "If I Were a Boy" drags. Both songs share thematic similarities--both men screwed up badly and she's gone for good. A DJ on the radio, introducing "Single Ladies", called it the song that all the girls are going to go wild for in the club, and it's meant for that with its calling of "All the single ladies (repeat) / Now put your hands up" in the opening. Who knew women were clamoring for a song about being dumped because their man wouldn't marry them!

"Single" is a term that can mean two things: a person is not married, or they are not in a relationship. It's generally meant as the latter, but here she uses the census definition. Like many “single” songs, the girl has just broke it off with her man, and is all about having fun with her friends. This sentiment is seen in Pink's extremely frank "So What" and in many Destiny's Child/Beyoncé songs. It's a true enough feeling, one that seems to get too much airplay, but ok.

But where I object is the overt message of the song, that in order for the man to keep her, he should have put a ring on it. It's also noteworthy that the lyric is "If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it"--not her, not me, not my finger, not my love. What is this it? Sex? Companionship? The relationship? Her? I guess it is easier to rhyme with (although it only rhymes with it here, so it's a poor excuse). Why?

The problem also with celebrity is that we know Beyoncé got her man, she got her ring. She won, essentially, if that's the game you're playing. So she’s saying that if you want to get married and the guy doesn't, if he's not ready for that commitment, then throw him to the wind--he's not treating you right. She "cried her tears, for three good years"--either waiting for him or putting up with him, and now she's done.

What's fascinating is that apparently Beyoncé is not that type of girl. She didn't want an engagement ring. So why--if she considers herself untraditional--does she espouse such retroactive thinking in her music? "Single Ladies" does sound very much like her last single (also only sent to R&B/urban markets), "Get Me Bodied", a favorite of mine. She's talked about her multiple personalities through her music, especially her wild and crazy stage persona Sasha, and "Single Ladies" is very Sasha.

"If I Were a Boy" is her imagining of what it would be like to be a boy. This sentiment has also been expressed before (but what hasn't in popular music?), recently in Ciara'sLike a Boy”, even reminding me of Madonna's "What It Feels Like for a Girl" (album version). “If I Were a Boy” really only works with the music video—again featuring a lyin’, cheatin’ boyfriend. Seriously B, one gets the idea from your music that you’re married to one hell of a loser if that’s all you sing about. Beyoncé has two love interests, one black and one white, a twist notably used in Rihanna’s “Unfaithful”. I’ve seen this in videos featuring mixed-race lead female singers, as a way of showing both sides, although the boyfriends tend to be black. The song alone is spare, but her vocals just don’t hold interest, while in the video the swoops in her voice underscore the tension in the plot. The lyrics seem particularly stupid, especially the chorus:

If I were a boy
I think I could understand
How it feels to love a girl
I swear I'd be a better man
I'd listen to her
Cause I know how it hurts
When you lose the one you wanted
Cause he's taking you for granted
And everything you had got destroyed

I don’t think loving someone else, at its core, is that different from gender to gender. And of course, if she’s becoming a male version of herself she’s going to project that she’s going to do all the wonderful things she wants her boyfriend to do.

If Beyoncé is trying to do something different and expand her reach, more power to her. But she’s one of the most successful artists of this decade (along with the aforementioned Rihanna), and so much of her music is based on attacking men. In this world, they’re all horrible people and women should be independent women, but they somehow go back to the losers time and again. They never learn. Beyoncé needs to move beyond this awful stereotype, especially as her own relationship is widely looked upon as an example of doing it right. She’s setting her listeners up for failure by constantly invoking that men suck, and her male fans are getting quite the slight. After all, she’s married to a guy that’s widely known to be devoted to her (he sings her praises constantly, as do other rappers wishing they were able to tap that), so why malign an entire gender? Her women don’t look so good, either. So Beyoncé , please, if you’re ready to grow up career-wise, please consider your subject matter.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

On Tonight's TV

I’ve had a feeling since the premiere of The Office three weeks ago that season five was going to be a rough one for the show, a time of transition. This was only strengthened by tonight’s episode. Erratic, psychopathic Jan needs to leave. Michael is increasingly becoming stupid and mean, just like the show. Dwight spent most of last week worrying about how much time he wasn’t working; this week he spent an hour or so wrecking an expensive stroller. Pam and Jim keep missing each other; we hear bits of cell phone conversations, just like in an episode of Gilmore Girls. Michael did the right thing though and finally asked Holly out on a date.

This might be a historic election, but it is not a historic year for Saturday Night Live in terms of quality. Their first sketch with Sarah Palin was the best. Weekend Update is still the highlight. I was very disappointed in tonight’s debate sketch—they should have had John McCain go off the deep end with his anger instead of his imaginary Joe the Plumber friend. The writing just wasn’t there, but I guess that’s to be expected, with the cast so crunched. Weekend Update, as usual, was the best; their lines on the debate, especially about plumbers and McCain, were great. Like their “Really?!?!” sketch last week, the “Things We Liked” portion was eviscerating, pointed, and hilariously funny. Kristen Wiig’s portrayal of the nutty woman practically made Seth Myers break (and he’s no Jimmy Fallon). I had no problem with their trashing of McCain. They’ve gone quiet political this year, but I love it. I suspect non-Obama fans probably won’t.

SNL will have a new episode Saturday and another Thursday night special next week.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

That's All I Have to Say

Anna Faris should play Britney Spears.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Wanting It

Last week, watching the season premiere of House, “Dying Changes Everything”, I was struck by the patient of the week’s philosophy. Wanting something for her wasn’t attainable, and she single-handedly shot down Thirteen and the popular conception that Americans, but women in particular, have, about wanting something.

Like Thirteen, I was taken aback by this woman’s attitude. She was a minion to a woman who didn’t care a whit about her, but the woman didn’t care how terribly she was treated. Thirteen’s attitude isn’t wrong, per se; it’s a very ingrained notion to the last two generations of women. But the more I think about it, the patient is right in a way. We can aspire—want—whatever we want, but we shouldn’t expect that we will get it. But she fails because she’s given up; she doesn’t even want to try.

Wanting something has become this big catch-all. We are supposed to want more and more, and increasingly, expect to fulfill those wants, whether they are monetary, romantic, consumer, or status-oriented. Aren’t we supposed to teach children that they can’t have everything they want? Yet why do we believe so ardently that we will eventually win the life lotto?

The core of the American dream seems to be boiled down to if you work hard, you will achieve. If you achieve, you get what you want: money, status, the family and kids and great job. Somewhere along the line this idea beefed up; now it’s just the idea of fervently wishing, of praying and working and imagining the success, of putting a plan in motion and believing that it will succeed. There is no realization that it may not work, because it will.

This idea is rampant in books like The Secret, those self-help tomes of visualization, of “positive thinking.” Positive thinking can be delusional, but nobody wants to call it that. We’re conditioned to want more. More ice cream please!

I tend to fall under the very Housian quote, first mentioned in the pilot, to borrow Mick Jagger’s line “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need.” The problem being that you often don’t realize what you need, and knowing that you won’t get what you want is a very depressing thought. There’s no way to get around this.

Oh, I am always told, things will work out. They always do. It seems a rationalization of the way life unfolds, from one bad or depressing turn to something else, unexpected, a different direction. Maybe it is what was needed, though they didn’t know it. But this is something I’ve only heard from women. It’s not that men don’t ruminate; maybe they aren’t as obsessed as finding the right way, or the best way.

The SNL skit does what the best SNL skits do: boil down an issue to its essence, pointing out the truth while mocking the absurdness of it all. Sarah Palin represents that American notion, as indelible as the frontier spirit, of if you believe it, and you work hard, luck will conspire with you to form great things. Hillary Clinton here is the opposite, the underside of the American dream: what happens when hard work isn’t enough, when forces outside your control conspire against you.

Politics especially seems to have that quality, of “if only”. Al Gore is always served as an example. If only he was president! But look, he completely changed his career! He’s now considered one of the most beloved figures in America, and has had a tremendous amount of influence that he wouldn’t have if he became president. But that is what you do. You adapt; you go in a different direction because you must.

(The only reason this wasn’t posted last week was because FOX makes you wait a week and a day for House episodes to be available online. And while I was waiting, the New York Times published an article relating to the topic.)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Be Sexy. Just Don't Have Sex. But Don't Wait Too Long, Or Then You're Weird.

“You can see how what they want the most is beauty. Not in a chauvinistic way, not even as something they can act on. Just instinctively, to look at and enjoy. It’s what they expect, and who they expect it from most of all is teenage girls. When you’re older, it’s all right to get heavy, but when you’re a teenager, being beautiful or at least cute is your responsibility. Say the words sixteen-year-old girl to any group of males, eleven-year-olds, fifty-year-olds, and they will leer, maybe a lot or maybe a little or maybe they’ll try not to leer. But they will be envisioning the sixteen-year-old’s smooth tan legs, her high breasts and long hair. Is expecting her beauty even their fault?”

--The Man of My Dreams

How has it that teenage pregnancy has become this big thing? Yes, teenage pregnancy was always around, and for most people it always loomed as a danger to avoid (at least in modern life). But in the past year it’s just exploded, with the idea of teen girls having sex a linchpin of the culture wars.

There has been a lot written, particularly aimed at Juno, about how “normalized” teen pregnancy is becoming, and it must be that newfound attitude that the Republicans and the media adopted when the news that Bristol Palin was pregnant hit. She and her mom were lionized for keeping the baby, and unbelievably, this story is spun as a positive thing.

I do not want to suggest that Bristol should be shamed by her pregnancy, but the hypocritical attitude towards girls and sex boggles my mind. On one hand, you have conservatives—including her mother—who want to avoid teaching teenagers anything about sex and preferring to stress waiting until marriage to do so, and on the other hand, the encouragement to think about sex constantly; it’s the national pastime.

Sex is this great chasm. Angela Chase put it best in an episode of My So-Called Life (7:30): “There's this dividing line between girls who have had sex, and girls who haven't. And all of a sudden you realize you're looking at each other across it.” She’s talking about an old friend here, one who’s suddenly grown up, on the other side of that line. Sex is adulthood, and you haven’t reached it until you cross that threshold.

Sex is the bane of young adults. Watching the VMAs brought this home: Many of the stars were under 20, and their stances on sex were Not Until Marriage. The fact that they were so public about it—and that Jordin Sparks felt compelled to defend her choice so ardently in front of millions of people when attacked by an aggressively heterosexual 35-year-old male—just made that culture line so much sharper.

Jordin Sparks’ sex life is only her business. Making a joke about how the kids are wasting their youth by choosing to not get any by any of their ardent fans might elicit a chuckle and some boos, but it’s tacky, and makes it seem like they are only in it for the booty, not because, y’know, they actually like music. Nor is Sparkscomment that sex = slutty fair. It’s just promulgating a standard and a detrimental label, one that’s increasingly used as a general all-purpose slur.

One of Britney Spears’ biggest mistakes was to announce that she was waiting until marriage to have sex, because that vow was constantly hanging over her head. It subconsciously colored her image, and made her appeal vastly more interesting. But when she couldn’t hew to that misguided standard she set for herself, her image fell apart. She shouldn’t be judged for doing something millions of other teen girls do, and she shouldn’t be punished because she said something really stupid when she was young. But it also shouldn’t be the standard that is espoused to the youth of America. Since her downward spiral, she’s become a laughingstock of the public, eliciting pity and scorn. Her sister’s own pregnancy was just another nail in the coffin of the Spears saga. Someone somewhere must have made the case that because she had sex outside of marriage, breaking her vow to wait, her punishment is to become insane. After all, in pop culture, teen sex is bad! We see that time and again on TV, now it’s proven in real life!

It’s not fair that these starlets are forced to say these things. Miley Cyrus may really and truly want to wait until she is married…but she’s 15, and she will probably reevaluate many of her statements for the next few years. After all (and you can take this with a grain of salt, since it is a post-scandal apology), she said she didn’t realize the pictures in Vanity Fair were sexual, and is deeply embarrassed by the outcry. A teenager, especially one in the public eye, should not have to discuss her opinions on sex when most of us know—even if she doesn’t—that they will probably change, and if our immediate reaction to the comments is smirking that they are lying.

These statements are a way to protect the stars, a way of saying it’s ok to look up at them, an excuse to offer them as role models. It’s ok to emulate them, even though they put up provocative pics on the internet, because they aren’t going to have sex until they’re much older and have a wedding ring to prove their commitment. It’s not just dishonest, it’s a terrible message to send. We can sexualize ourselves all we want, make ourselves sexual commodities for other people’s fantasies, but we hold off until it really matters. The song and dance is old hat; it’s called being a tease. And yes, being a tease can be fun. That’s also called flirting. But in a public space, it’s also ripe for judgment, because it’s a way of subverting the system, of having the cake and eating it too, with no caloric payback.

The stars also become oddly sexualized by just making these statements. I know very little about the Jonas Brothers, but hearing that they all wear promise rings—and having that become a defining fact, instead of their music—immediately makes one think of them as sexual beings, because they are announcing their (lack of) intentions to the youth of America. They shouldn’t be mocked for that decision, but rather we should be questioning ourselves to why it’s necessary in the first place.

Our culture is also conditioned to accept teenage girls as sexual beings, and increasingly, they are marketed that way. Victoria’s Secret has its own line of teenage lingerie (shouldn’t that be an oxymoron?), Pink. It’s as if they’re not ready for red. Red = blood, lust, lipstick, fiery passion, adult. Pink is gentle, mild, lipgloss, sweet, girl.

Other clothing retailers, like teenage mainstay Abercrombie & Fitch, have similar lines. And they are hardly the only ones marketing sexualized material to a young audience. Music, movies and especially television always revolve around sex as the be all and end all, with looking good as the way to get sex, and often some of the most memorable episodes of a teen drama revolve around When They Finally Have Sex (see Everwood, Gilmore Girls, Dawson’s Creek, 90210…). This attitude has not only grown, it’s been enhanced. Teen stars are no good girls; they have to flirt with sexuality. It’s mandated by the rules governing pop culture. Other than Daria, can one think of a teenage character that resists the lure? She was constantly trying to prove that she shouldn’t have to tart herself up to be accepted, that she was just fine in her black skirt and green jacket. She didn’t need to conform to the ridiculous standards of beauty that a girl in her demographic was expected to don. But Daria is a glaring exception, and that’s a reference a half-generation removed. She, incidentally, decided to wait in her sex episode.

Sex and its consequences are also the backbone of the popular Twilight series; the first book will be released as a movie in a few weeks. Popular with teenage girls, Twilight features a traditional female lead, complete with a waiting-for-marriage-to-have-sex philosophy.

This ideology is hailed as being a positive role model for the target demographic, despite the fact that Bella, the protagonist, is largely a cipher. The sexual content of the novels is one of the draws; there’s no sex 'til the fourth novel, Breaking Dawn, but it’s all heart-throbbing lust until then. Edward, her eventual husband, is marketed as the perfect man (except in vampire form), patient, understanding, responsible: a real caretaker. Yet she gives up everything for him, and when she does, both she and the story lose a lot of their appeal. Reviews of Breaking Dawn all harp on this point; the story dissolves into a very traditional happy homemaker life, one that author Stephenie Meyer apparently has. In addition, her views of love and what makes a happy couple are very alarming: most, including the main one, seem to fall somewhere on the “abusive” scale. She also does not believe in the word “choice”, for in her world, everything is preordained, and nothing goes against destiny; it’s just a matter of waiting.

Twilight might be telling girls to wait—but sex here is also viewed as an act that has violent and horrifying consequences: she is badly beaten up during it, and becomes pregnant with a child whose sole existence is seemingly designed to torment her physically, psychologically, and mentally. The passion and her new life are supposed to be worth the expense of physical torture, but it’s a trade-off that doesn’t sit well with many readers. The message to wait is lost—thirteen-year-olds (not to mention twenty-five-year-olds) may be scarred by the idea of sex equaling broken bones and demon spawn.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with waiting to have sex, though in this culture, it’s often scorned at. At a certain age, the choice to wait is regarded as a curiosity. How can you not have sex? It’s a biological imperative. The 40 Year-Old Virgin exemplified this. Despite its “old-fashioned” values, the movie still managed to condemn the lead character, and by doing so, scared some people into having sex because they didn’t want to end up in his position.

Teenagers shouldn’t be forced to hold to a societal standard of sex, whether or not that is the rampant hookup or sanctioned chastity, and they shouldn’t have to defend their choices on a public scale. It robs them of the complexity of sex, boiling it down to an either/or, a narrow line of wrong or right, depending upon who’s doing the judging.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Stop the Presses!

The Adventures of Carrie Bradshaw, Fashionista Teen, will be hitting bookshelves in 2010.

I do not approve.

I am a purist. These teenage prequels are watering down the brand. “Carrie in high school did not follow the crowd — she led it,” Bushnell explained. While Carrie is a trendy character, I doubt she would be Miss Popular—and honestly, it never once occurred to me she would be. There has never been any evidence in the show that she was that kind of girl, even the few that discussed high school (“Boy, Interrupted”, “Hot Child in the City”). She had her friends, she dated, she liked fashion and most likely already wanted to go to New York, maybe even write.

Executive Producer Michael Patrick King once said that all four ladies are supposed to represent different facets of a woman; they are each archetypes, and together they make up one woman. Carrie is hardly an everywoman, especially with her affinity for high-class fashion and shoes, but she stands for certain kinds of women; none of them scream to me catty, seductive, or Type A; that’s Samantha.

The prequels also raise an important issue: Carrie has to have a family, a background that was previously nonexistent on the television show (and, presumably, the book. I never finished it.). The prequels demand a whole new cast of characters. After all, sometime in her twenties Carrie moved to New York (she was already in the city when she was 22, mentioned in “Coulda Woulda Shoulda”), and it was while in New York that she met Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte. Her high school boyfriend Jeremy (played by David Duchovny) could make an appearance, and theoretically some of her other “friends” that had a one-episode arc could have been her friends back then, but it has always appeared that she made her own life in New York, one that has no connection to her past.

That was a deliberate choice. Michael Patrick King has said in one of the show’s commentary that he never wanted to show any of the main characters’ family. The exceptions were in “My Motherboard, My Self” when Miranda’s mother dies, and in “Shortcomings”, but he regretted the latter case. Even when Charlotte gets married we do not see or hear her family. He’s done this because he wanted to focus all of the energy on the foursome, and the idea that you can create your own family. He did not want to go into their pasts, for the story was not about their previous relationships outside of the show’s time frame; the few that were mentioned, like this exchange in “A Vogue Idea":

Carrie: Hey, you think it could really be as simple as my father walked out, therefore I'll always be messed up about men?

Miranda: My father came home every night at seven on the dot and I have no clue about men either.

were meant to illuminate the characters’ present conditions, not to flashback to an earlier era.

Of course, Michael Patrick King is not Candace Bushnell, and while their versions of Carrie Bradshaw may overlap tremendously, they probably each have a certain conception of the character in mind. Who really owns the character? Sarah Jessica Parker embodies Carrie and Bushnell created her, but Michael Patrick King (and Darren Star, and to a lesser extent, all the other writers and producers) brought her to life. They created her stories, formed her life, her personality from the template that Bushnell set up in Sex and the City the book, which is very, very different from the series. Arguably, King owns the screen version, and Bushnell the book version. Each, I suspect, wants to stay true to their own idea of the character.

As much as I don’t like the idea of a prequel for all these reasons, I have to separate the show from the story, Michael Patrick King’s vision from Candace Bushnell’s. They are part of the same universe, but they are not the same.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

TRL Heading for Retirement

Yes, it was still on.

TRL will officially be saying sayonara in November, after 10 years on the air. The show has been limping along the last several years, with a revolving cast of VJs, ever-younger acts, and odd timeslots. Designed to capture teenagers, the show started in 1998 from a meld of MTV Live and Total Request, two shows nobody watched. Carson Daly inexplicably became the guy with the coolest friends in the world, despite being incredibly dull. Unlike legions of young'uns who would love to be MTV VJs (many of whom appeared on TRL for their "I Wanna Be a VJ" contest), he either wanted to be a priest or a professional golfer, two deadly boring things for an MTV viewer.

Total Request Live's popularity is linked to the teen pop boom; both the show and the stars it created--Britney Spears, *NSYNC, Eminem, Fred Durst--fueled the maniacal teen-centered culture of the late '90s and early '00s. It was a symbiotic relationship; neither side would have done as well without the other.

Eminem, one of the show's mainstays back in its heyday, lampooned TRL frequently, in "White America" and in many of his videos. A version of TRL was mocked on Saturday Night Live, with Jimmy Fallon infamously quipping "Hello, I'm Carson Daly and I'm a massive tool." It also spawned BET's most popular show, 106th & Park.

TRL was no American Bandstand, but it became the de facto destination for actors and musicians to stop and pimp their work, taking a few pictures in the photo booth for posterity.

What's most notable might be that the show managed to hang on so long, even after most of the original acts showcased dropped out of the limelight. TRL was such a basic concept, easily fitting in with the realities of the new century by being user-friendly before that term was applied so liberally. The show increasingly edited videos down to nothingness, even forgoing some altogether, and while it gave a VERY skewed interpretation of what was popular in the US, it tapped into a certain teenage sensibility. The stats were interesting, and the idea of retiring a video meant that the countdown would never be dominated solely by one or two acts, though it sometime seemed that way. Apparently though, as the internet became increasingly sophisticated, the reason to vote for videos waned, and the structure behind the show changed.

New Yorkers knew to stay away from the MTV studios in Time Square during certain times of the day--notably immediately after school. In the summer, TRL would broadcast certain weeks from whatever Spring Break or beach haven the network camped to, moving the slot back earlier in the afternoon.

I spent many an hour after high school idly watching TRL. I never voted, although I once recognized the voice of a classmate on the television. It was also useful for checking out the weather in the city. That practicality never changed, even after all the names and faces did.

I also learned how to properly shout "Woooo!"Now that's a skill I will need.

I thought that I should let you know

Why does the guy in "Damaged" have to fix the girl's broken heart, if it was caused by the one before?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

(Fully Fleshed Out) Characters Needed

So "Gossip Girl" is hot. I saw ten minutes of it and never went back. But according to Newsweek, lots of men are loving it (Dawn Ostroff wants proof of this, in the form of ratings.) Why? Because it has fully fleshed out male characters.

Well, duh. I don't like buffoons and one-note male characters any more than I like silly and one-dimensional female characters. Joshua Alston notes that the reason why the Sex and the City movie got thumbs-down by men is because the men were "pencil sketches", "a cavalcade of broken men" with a variety of hang-ups ill-suited for their ages. Hey, I agree! One of my biggest problems with that movie was that the men were so underutilized, and their sides of the story (specifically Steve's) needed to be told. Just like women want to see a female character hanging out with the boys (Seinfeld, see anything related to superheroes), men want a male character who doesn't suck in their chick-heavy entertainment.

I knew many males who liked "The OC" back in the day, too. Cause the friendship and the characters of Seth and Ryan was compelling and realistic; it was Marissa and Summer who were boring. Everyone agreed on that, and Seth Cohen's character became an icon for a certain type of male.

There's always a lot of talk about how television dumbs down it's audience. That's true, especially if you watch a lot of "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?", but in creating shows with compelling characters, it pays to make sure that they're interesting no matter the gender or genre.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sex Is Bad

While I have no interest in watching the new "90210", I read the Times interview with many members of the old cast, and this jumped out at me:

[Executive Producer Charles] ROSIN We did our prom episode, which was written and directed by Darren, and Brenda loses her virginity to Dylan McKay in a hotel room and comes down and tells Kelly that indeed this has happened.

[Creator Darren] STAR The affiliates were scandalized — not because they had sex, but because Brenda was happy about it, and it didn’t have any dire consequences. I was strongly advised to write a show that would address the consequences of that sexual experience. So the first episode of the second season Brenda broke up with Dylan because their relationship had gotten too mature. (Bold mine)

There has been a long history in television of showing negative consequences for teenagers having sex. Pregnancy scares are usually the first plotline, hyped up to get the kids a-watching. For girls especially sex is usually aligned with punishment--something Amy Sherman Palladino tried to mock in "Gilmore Girls" by having Paris have a public meltdown when she discovers she was rejected by Harvard, thinking it's a direct connection to losing her virginity. Of course it's preposterous, but that wasn't the message that came across. If you have sex and enjoyed it, you will pay.

So now we have "Beverly Hills, 90210" to thank. I haven't watched this show in a long, long time--since maybe I was 14--and even then I didn't like it. I found it then to be too slow and painfully boring; I found it hard to believe that this show was so controversial and scandalous. And the episodes I saw were the early seasons. To a viewer with another eight years of teen shows behind her, the old 90210 would only look even more old-fashioned and quaint (those were the words I used then) compared to Gossip Girl, Dawson's Creek and The OC.

But notice: The Dylan/Brenda breakup--which I'm sure was a pivotal, dramatic moment in the history of the show--was necessitated by suits too uncomfortable to show a regular teen girl (albeit in stylish Cali '90s wear) living a regular life. They can't show that! This is a show about teens for teens! What will happen to the youth?!?!? Brenda fell for the bad guy, a guy who was going to lead her down the Wrong Path, and for that they needed to show that she should have waited.

I bet that many, many shows followed in this wake, whether it was because the execs pressured them to, the showrunners felt other pressure to showcase a certain value set, or just because they couldn't fathom doing something different. Teen sex isn't always the best course of action, we know. But to demonstratively prove, time and again, that the woman who is having the sex must be "punished" in some way is sexist and ridiculous. Far too many girls (and even boys) take away messages from the television they watch, both conscious and unconsciously, and for them to fear or worry that sex will always negatively affect them is wrong and irresponsible. I understand where the execs were coming from, especially considering a new network that needs to desperately please advertisers, but too many times the need to moralize is just a knee-jerk reaction. Did Dylan go through any doubts or fears? I doubt it. From the little I can recall, he was an Elvis-type figure, aloof and cool to the extreme. This was before the era of sensitive guys, and it wouldn't have occurred to anyone that he would have any of the hangups that Seth Cohen did.

Granted, I haven't seen the scene, so if someone has, feel free to enlighten me. This also goes for the original "90210" as well, in addition to any examples of teen sex where the plot twisted in a way that made the girl regret she had sex (though if you give me time, I can find some that aren't Gilmore Girls-related).

Monday, September 8, 2008

Notes on the VMAs

Yeah, I watched them.

--What's with the glitter? Everything Britney Spears wore was sparkly. Ciara sparkled. It was too garish and made me appreciate the black leather on Rihanna and Russell more.

--I liked Russell Brand more than the audience did. He was a vast improvement over Sarah Silverman. He was a little too loud, a little too earnest, and had quite the motormouth, but he seemed genuine and sincere and wasn't vulgar, despite the fact that he only made sex jokes.

--The videos nominated, like in past years, usually sucked. Mariah Carey should have won Female Video of the Year, as her video was the most interesting out of the insanely boring crop.

--Christina Aguilera, of whom I am not a fan, actually did a very smart thing by opening with a funky, spacey version of her first single, "Genie in a Bottle". Even the choreography scored with what her new single must be, which sounded like "Superbitch".

--Most of the videos nominated I hadn't seen, but knew the song. But I could still tell they were nothing special. Seriously, "I Kissed a Girl" is the perfect song to have an interesting video, but all anyone could think of was put Katy Perry in a vaudeville-esque outfit and have the camera focus on her pouty faces.

--Parade of young and hip Hollywood, with the exception of the random appearances by Kid Rock, Demi Moore, and Slash.

--While sex is always the backbone of anything music-related, it seemed like this was fighting with the Forces of Virginity. Russell Brand made one two many jokes about sex, invoking the Jonas Brothers and promise rings, and Jordin Sparks had to climb on her high horse to defend her the decision to wear a promise ring to wait until marriage. Russell Brand then apologized in his rambling way. Honestly, guys, let's move on. It's bad enough that when I saw Vanessa Hudgens standing next to Zac Efron I thought about how they totally had sex.

--T.I.'s lady in his performance was wearing what looked like a sluttier version of a dress I own.

--Paramount Theater was much smaller than their usual performance halls, and many of the performances were outside. As it was in Los Angeles, it was still light at some points. I liked the smaller theater, though it seemed that the network wanted the VMAs to be low-key compared to the past.

--Kanye closed the show by performing a new song. But he was singing, and the song was about love, two things that are not Kanye. And the song was somber, with a backdrop of pretty sunsets and skies. Not the best note to end on; would have better fit midshow.

--Hayley Williams of Paramore should have stuck with her usual black/white combo. Tight yellow pants just didn't work, and she kept touching her inner thigh for some weird reason, though the pants did make her hips look wider.

--Commercial breaks were designed to cut off performances. The television audience only saw the end of The Ting Tings performance. And Katy Perry's much-touted "Like a Virgin" and "I Kissed a Girl" medley was chopped in half by ads. Her pinup outfit worked in conjunction with her "style" but didn't fit her songs.

--Both MTV and MTV2 aired the VMAs at the same time, the first time as far as I'm aware that they've done that.

--Lil Wayne needs to pull up his pants. Nobody needs to see men's underwear on a stage.

--Pete Wentz and Ashlee Simpson need to stop. Now.

--Tokio Hotel won Best New Artist, though I'm not convinced of anything except that they're the token hipster band. I couldn't even tell if the lead singer was male or female. I decided, after scrutinizing the poor person's body, on a girl...and then he spoke.

--But perhaps the biggest thing of all is how staged the whole Britney deal was. She won three moonmen, the first time she's ever won a VMA (yes, that's correct), and they were all for the horrendous song and video "Piece of Me", a supposed commentary on her tabloid life. Blah. The wins were engineered for her career, a low-key "comeback" to present her as being normal, to prove that she's back from crazy. Her acceptance "speeches" amounted to nothing more than "thank you God, my lovely children, and my fans." That's it. She was perfectly polite, but there was nothing there. She knew she was going to win in advance, hence the dead "I'm so happy" that appeared at the end.

Next year will be my tenth VMAs, assuming I watched all of them. But considering how low my VMA IQ was in regard to this year's nominees and how high my age is in comparison to the groups showcased, it might be time to move on.

Sunday, September 7, 2008


So the Video Music Awards are on tonight. I kinda want to watch them, but just for the performances. Although I check in on MTV often enough, I’m still out of it. Every year they nominate a bunch of videos that are rarely seen, but making sure that the big names of the day (and some from yesteryear) make an appearance, and try to manufacture something shocking. Most of the time it’s not. I used to watch all the documentaries on the MTV of the past, the “Greatest VMA Moments”, the “Best Performances”, the backstage happenings when MTV poured through its history back in the early years of this decade. But the last few years, as MTV has lost its way among the mass of other media, the VMAs have largely become irrelevant. What does it say when I—a person most of friends consider knowledgable about pop culture stuff—cannot recognize the host? Even his name (though rarely used in the advertisements), Russell Brand, means nothing to me.

The nominees, too, have also tended to include esoteric artists, a way to afford cultural panache with a group of hipsters that tend to not watch the channel anyway. Tokio Hotel? Not really big with the name recognition. The ones that do are superstars (Rihanna) and “kiddie music”, Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers.

I should know better than to watch the VMAs. It’s best to watch parts of it, selected performances, mainly, and now with the web it’s best that I do just that. I remember watching the show in its entirety several years ago (P. Diddy hosting? All I remember is him) and it was just horrible. I was so mad at myself for wasting two hours of my life on that dribble, and vowing never to watch the VMAs again. Of course, like most of my vows, I knew it wouldn’t hold.

It’s sad that MTV is relying on Britney Spears to give the show a boost. Britney’s “comeback” backfired last year (though I didn’t think the performance was that bad), and the girl should just not bother. But her career is in the same stage as the awards show: completely, totally uninteresting.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

For Once I Wish a Song Could Be Literal

On "Damaged", the song by that Pussycat Dolls wannabe group Danity Kane (terrible name, by the way):

Am I the only one who wants the song to be about a physically damaged heart, as in a defect or murmur?

Just kind of funny if you imagine they’re singing this to a doctor a surgeon, trying to find one who can repair their heart.

Hey, some of the lyrics could be interpreted that way if so desired:

Do, Do you got a first aid kit handy?
Do, Do you know how to patch up a wound?
Tell me, Are-are-are-are you?
Are you patient,
'Cause I might need some time to clear the hole in my heart and I
I've tried every remedy
And nothing seems to work for me

So how you gonna fix it, fix it, fix it?
(Baby, I gotta know)
How you gonna fix it, fix it, fix it?
(What you are gonna do, baby?)
How you gonna fix it, fix it, fix it?
(Baby, I gotta know)
How you gonna fix it, fix it, fix it?
(What you are gonna do?)

Edited to add: Ok, in the video they add in a little hospital storyline at the end. But don't watch it, it's boring. My idea is much better.

Monday, July 28, 2008

My Issues with Mad Men

Mad Men, AMC's premiere show, had its second season premiere last night. I watched it warily, because I had watched the first season on and off and because I hadn't sat down to watch an actual show in a long time. It was the most nominated show, and at this point in the summer, the only show that had any buzz.

I also realized why I was so ambivalent about the show last season.

Mad Men is exactly like the Sopranos in that none of the characters are likeable. This shouldn't be surprising, because Matthew Weiner wrote some of the best episodes of that show ("Kennedy and Heidi", where Christopher dies; "The Blue Comet", the action-packed and ultra-suspenseful penultimate episode). All the women in Mad Men are petty, shallow, and mean; the men are boorish, selfish, superficial. One of the points of the show is to comment on and tear apart the shiny facade of the characters, comparing them to the bright and glossy advertising campaigns they work on. Indeed, most of the characters are dressed bright and glossy, shellacked to perfection, meant to offset their inner turmoil.

Some might say this is human nature, that we are all nasty people, and that the people in this business then were that way since they could be. Fine. You can transplant the same characters in any story. But what's missing for me is a character to root for, to care about. For all the mystery surrounding Don Draper, or even his bland wife, Betty, I just don't see it. I don't even care for the actors that much (although I like Christina Hendricks). I think it's also that I tend to like spunkier characters, so those that are quiet or meek without a hint of fire burning underneath are boring to me. I'm all for complicated, nuanced portrayals of characters, but I find the majority of those on Mad Men to not be, no matter what their backstories are.

The reason to watch Mad Men is for the stylistic period details. Matthew Weiner and co. do a tremendous job of paying attention to every little pant crease and dinner dish, and the lush scenery and costumes make the show. It is in these things that we do notice how things have changed, since nobody takes the time to be that careful and put together anymore.

Mad Men has also made me realize that no matter how bad our current situation is in the world, I'm still a million times glad that I live now and not then. The fancy gowns and the free-flowing drinks do in no way make up for the crushing rigidity of the rest of the culture. Part of the fun is the cringe factor in watching the appallingly horrifying remarks and the completely inappropriate behavior that would be a lawsuit in five seconds flat--every time a woman left a room, all the men would ogle her behind in the most vulgar fashion, or when a mother remarks that her daughter has taken to cutting up her food in tiny bits and only eating a fraction of it, her friend responds that "It's good she's watching her weight," and the mother agrees. But this wears thin after a while, when it feels like the characters are just small people who do and say horrible things. Occasionally last season I saw glimpses of humanity from Peter Campbell, Vincent Kartheiser's ruthless young adman who married a terribly spoiled whiny brat of a woman, caught between his wife's wishes, his family's pride and his own dreams. My answer to Betty's loneliness was "get a job", not a nanny, a housekeeper and an equestrian hobby, though I did like that her daughter now has lines. I prefer watching the working environment, catching glimpses of history; it is here that we see how thoroughly researched and written the show is, and how much more interesting it is than Betty's stultifying home life. As Peggy Olsen gains confidence, I'm sure her character will grow on me.

I wonder if Mad Men is a show that will just become knockout good to me later on, when the characters are more fully developed, or if by watching enough, I'll learn to tolerate it and even like a few episodes. It's just a matter of whether I'm willing to invest the time to get that far.