Friday, January 25, 2008

I'm in the business of misery

I love “Misery Business”. I cannot remember another song that is just so gleeful, so damn gloating with every word. Maybe she never meant to brag, but she’s sure going to do it now, and I can’t blame her.

Although I’ve been rocking this song since the summer, it’s only been the last few months that it’s really done well, hitting radio where it’s on quick rotation. "Misery Business" is essentially the story of a girl finally getting the guy with whom she’s in love…and throwing this in his ex-girlfriend’s face. But the song is not about the boy at all. It’s about the girl—the girl who first stole her man, and how much she is disliked by the narrator for causing so much pain. It makes perfect sense that the song was written by a teenager—19 year-old Hayley Williams.

"Misery Business" is the perfect companion to Avril’s "Girlfriend", basically a continuation of that song. "Girlfriend" is bratty, childish, daring; "Misery Business" is defiant, confrontational, yet boils down the truth succinctly and eloquently. Both songs are rooted in a high school mindset and are loud, passionate, and candid, but it’s "Misery Business" that captures the frustration, the elation, the pure passion of the moment. I love the little details: "when I thought he was mine she caught him by the mouth", "she's got a body like an hourglass, it's ticking like a clock", how the narrator belts out “I told him I couldn't lie he was the only one for me”. It doesn’t matter that the other girl has it out for her—that line is delivered quickly, emphasis on how now she wears the biggest smile, a line that cannot be delivered without that gleeful, gloating smile.

Overthinking this song, one day I was struck by the chorus, how she was basically bragging that she had the boy wrapped around her finger now…the same thing that Avril said she could do, but “better”. This bothers me. It implies that the boy will be whipped, that she now would have the power over the boy that his previous girlfriend had. It cast the song in a darker, sinister light, and I was uncomfortable with it. She refused! She wasn’t going to be that girl! But I guess we all fall into that pattern once in awhile, becoming what we hate. Besides, she’s just trying to prove a point…and it’s against the woman who stole her man originally, so stealing him back is justice. Yes? Who also cannot help but wonder if they are among the millions of girls who have looked innocent but really weren’t? Maybe it wasn’t their modus operandi, but it could be still part of their psychology, a mode of behavior internalized knowing that if they act coy they can get what they want. That’s the kind of behavior I saw in high school all the time.

Although the video keeps the high school theme, it doesn’t use the story but the emotion of the girl who ruins lives. The mean girl in question just acts like a complete bitch throughout, doing hurtful things for no reason other than to assert her own power, something Hayley alludes to in her LiveJournal (June 27, 2007 entry) and in the second stanza: "Well there's a million other girls who do it just like you /Looking as innocent as possible to get to who /They want and what they like it's easy if you do it right/Well I refuse, I refuse, I refuse!"

It’s this part that especially feels very high school. The “I refuse, I refuse, I refuse!” is a knee-jerk, automatic reaction against this girl, whose every fiber antagonizes her, and so she essentially vows never to be a such a coldhearted person, without regard for others. But she does go after what she wants, and she gets it in the end, too--not caring about anyone else's feelings except her own. After all, she waited eight long months (which really isn’t that long) for the relationship to be over so she could pounce.

The video for "Girlfriend" also features Avril pouncing on her rival, this time her with a wig, intercut with performance shots and also partly set at a high school. Here the girls are reversed: the mean girl is the one who wins the guy in the end. She also gives a “yes!” at the end of it. It’s the innocent girl who loses, also in a comic fashion, of being dumped and knocked around, just like the bitch in "Misery Business" has her padding swiped from her chest and her makeup smeared. Paramore has been compared to Avril, because they sing in a similar pop-punk style, and because there are few girls doing that type of music that has hit the mainstream. Neither song, because they are speaking from the girl's point of view, explores how it is to be the new girlfriend of a guy who'd just been with someone else. They only focus on the winning.

Speaking of girls and songs, "White Houses" to me is another song all about girls and their relationships with each other. The first time I saw the video I was intrigued not only by the concept of one Vanessa Carlton dancing to another playing, but that they were both in some sort of standoff. BalletVanessa opens the video by giving PianoVanessa a smoldering look of dismissal and contempt, but she narrows her eyes and gets up and dances. PianoVanessa watches her, cautious and fearful. I wonder if they are actually watching each other, or if what they are looking at is a reaction to what they are thinking about, and the other is a manifestation of that. But watch PianoVanessa’s movements: She moves with the mood of the song. She is happy and fast when the character she sings about is in love and falling with the boys; she rushes through during the part when the narrator explains losing her virginity, but pauses on the last line about it being her first mistake. She’s thinking, and then she gets up to do more thinking, evidenced by her body movements and the way she walks away. She comes back as the piano starts again, and is filled with the memory of her friends, happy that she has, momentarily at least, found peace. Yet BalletVanessa continues moving, and in her last move she stumbles slightly. She stops and looks away from PianoVanessa.

The song is a synopsis, with few details, of a period in the narrator’s life: It starts with her moving in to a new apartment with five girls. They become tight. Life is fun. She meets boys, and falls in love. All of a sudden she’s in a new world, one that she’s losing grip on. Everything’s moving too fast, and the friends are gone and the boy is gone. She is now older, and is mulling over what happened: “Maybe you were all faster than me/We gave each other up so easily/These silly little wounds will never mend/I feel so far from where I've been/So I go, and I will not be back here again."

Boys have key words in their songs—whenever a boy is talking about a girl he likes and she’s with someone else, he always references that he is a better lover. They use the same words: faster, stronger, better. (No, this has nothing to do with the Kanye West song, incidentally.) But while the girls sometimes do incorporate that in (see examples above), their attitude toward the other woman isn’t always flaming hatred: Taylor Swift genuinely seems to be nice to her, at least in her head: "She'd better hold him tight, give him all her love/Look in those beautiful eyes and know she's lucky cause/ He's the reason for the teardrops on my guitar." She’s too charitable. In that state, how can you think nice? Sadly, thanks to those pretty girls, both Taylor and Rachael Yamagata can’t sleep at night. Poor kids. Brandon Flowers was starting to drift off when the girl of his dreams had to ruin it by fooling around with someone else. *Shakes head.*

(I’ve been working on a mixed CD featuring songs that are all about the narrator being in love with someone who is in love with someone else. Most of the above songs are included, with a few more, including Rilo Kiley’s “Does He Love You?” and Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl". I’m also sad to say that the Pussycat Dolls’ “Dontcha” fits into the mold too. Feel free to add some--I barely have half a CD at this point!)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Hannah Montana

Since I have a need to understand phenomenons, I have begun to watch Hannah Montana.

The girl with two lives–-one normal, one superstar–-seems to connect with everyone under 15. Her concert selling out has become huge news. My mom wouldn’t even let me go to a concert when I was in high school, so the idea of taking an 11 year-old to see a preteen performer still strikes me as odd, especially if they’re paying top dollar for tickets. So why is she such a big deal?

Although she’s supposedly a huge star in the show, the few episodes I’ve seen have barely touched upon it, focusing instead on her relationships with her father, best friend, and slightly older brother. Yet it works precisely because of this–-deep down Miley is just a regular girl having wacky, normal issues, but in cooler clothes. There’s no sense of her fighting celebrity, or dealing with the tensions of trying to be accepted in both worlds, or falling prey to bad things. I hope this works out for Ms. Destiny Hope in real life, that she doesn’t follow any of the paths of Disney stars of the recent past.

Her show still has all the conventions of a kid/preteen show–-the over-the-top, mugging acting, the same stale jokes and inflections when making a joke, the lessons learned, as well as the silly, misunderstanding-based plots. Miley Cyrus isn’t above it, but despite its formula, the show works by keeping the personalities somewhat grounded and by having her father be levelheaded and easygoing. I don’t roll my eyes during Hannah Montana, or go “I can’t believe I’m watching this!” with an embarrassed giggle. It’s enjoyable. It’s light. It doesn’t feel too kiddish or silly, despite its popularity. And that’s probably why it’s popular.

I’m even intrigued by her music. The past few years Top 40 radio has let a few songs from those Disney stars of the mid-00s enter the airways, instead of being regulated to Radio Disney. All bright, focused pop, they are meant for the vast legions of teenagers and tweens who are just beginning to discover their own taste. Miley Cyrus’s “See You Again” doesn’t vary from that formula-–it’s catchy, tells a story, and is about a crush. But her voice is deeper than the usual fare, and the beat is low, two things that immediately set it apart from other pop tarts in training. “See You Again” has that everygirl quality of describing how excited she is to be around her crush, but how she stutters and stumbles around him, with the very excellent chorus: “The last time I freaked out/I just kept looking down/I just st-st-stuttered when you asked me what I’m thinking bout/Like I couldn’t breathe/You asked what’s wrong with me/My best friend Leslie said ‘She’s just being Miley’/The next time we hang out/I will redeem myself/My heart can’t rest til them, whoa whoa/I, I can’t wait/to see you again”. It’s so very much a teenager’s dilemma. Even though Fergie’s “Clumsy” has the same topic, the retro sound and especially the bridge talk of an adult’s version of the same scenario, although clearly Miley has cooler friends. I’m also a sucker for any song that uses “big words”, and redeem, especially in this context, qualifies.

Both in her songs and in her character on her show she is very upbeat and confident, giving advice to others and taking charge. She’s not shallow or fake like Lizzie McGuire, debating between different outcomes, but instead leading the way. Despite her songs’ subject matter, she’s not boy crazy, nor is she obsessed with being popular, liked, or into celebrities. She’s usually preoccupied with helping out her friends or her father, which is what leads her to getting into jams with her big mouth. Those qualities can be very appealing to kids who aren’t into the whole popularity thing, or who are trying to escape it. She’s got that great both-sides-of-the-coin fantasy/real life thing going on, a staple of kid-appeal from Sabrina to Bewitched, but instead it’s celebrity without all the crazy and paparazzo drawbacks. In this day and age, to be a tween rock star yet still be able to do normal, cool stuff with your friends seems to be the ultimate fantasy for that age group.

It’s interesting now that preteens and children have their own entirely separate culture, distinct from teenagers: webkins, neopets, High School Musical and Hannah Montana. It’s an entirely different world that largely doesn’t exist except anecdotally unless you are in contact with someone in that audience. While I am very glad for oh so many reasons that I am not in that age bracket, there’s a certain wistfulness that I didn’t have that kind of shared pop cultural experience. My age group reminisces about Teenage Mutant Turtles and Ace of Base, Saved By the Bell and Full House, but they don’t have the cachet nor the huge, extended following and marketing push that kids’ products do today. In a way that’s good, though, because we weren’t force-fed these creations by adults, we found them on our own, on Saturday morning and weekday mornings and afternoons, and then found out that others did too. There was always that moment where you gathered every day to find out if you’ve seen the latest episode. And that kind of community bred by media doesn’t change by age, location or generation. Even still, these touchstones of our childhood are still around, and have been passed down to those too young to remember when they were new: there was the TMNT movie earlier this year, Zack is eternally playing pranks in loud clothes on a clueless Mr. Belding, and Full House is a proud Nick at Nite staple, to many of my generation’s horror. It's like we couldn't let go, or rather the TV executives couldn't let go of us, assuming we would follow reruns blindly whenever we needed a pick-me-up of the nostalgic or horrified order.

Maybe this is the beginning of the eventual takeover of the kiddie universe. American Idol is going to start soon, and some days it seems that preteen girls rule the world. Or at least, the pop culture landscape.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Sex On the Brain

Angela: I mean, I think about it... all the time, but...
Brian: Wait, you *think* about it all the time?
Angela: Brian! Yes! Shut up... guys don't have a monopoly on thinking about it.
Brian: They don't?
Angela: *No!*

My So-Called Life

"You were not bored. There was plenty of stuff to watch on TV. And Blair Witch Project was about to come on Starz, and you were like, "I haven't seen this in forever" and you wanted to watch it, but then you were like "Oh no, we should just make out instead. La la la."

–Paulie Bleeker, Juno

Maybe it’s all because of Sex and the City.

It used to be that girls didn’t want sex. Oh, they wanted it, but it wasn’t acknowledged, it was never talked about. Girls wanted the boyfriend to cuddle and to pay for their movie tickets, but they didn’t actually want to make out. They didn’t lust after anyone sexually, even if they swooned over Brad Pitt. It was just a crush.

But you can’t say that anymore.

Everywhere I look, it seems, there’s another girl taking charge of her sexuality. She’s the one who initiates it. Knocked Up, Superbad, Juno, Mean Girls–-in all of them the girl is the one who’s going "fuck me hard" and leaving the boy’s head spinning.

The moments above are both comic and real, but what’s notable about them–-with the exception of Knocked Up–-is that they all deal with teenagers. Is it a way to acknowledge the feelings at a time when they are possibly the strongest and most frightening? Or that this attitude has trickled down to teenagers? It’s years after Sex and the City went off the air, after all, and that show was known for both being very appealing to teenage girls (heaven knows I was one of them), and for allegedly changing the way sex, and female attitudes towards it, were portrayed.

All I know is that I love every one of those scenes when the girl goes for it. She’s vulnerable but presses on anyway. She has to. And the boys are always baffled by what’s happened, confused how it all came to be, never knowing how to act but that they want to be the good guy. They’re never prepared. Maybe watching enough of these movies they’ll get the drift and won’t be so taken aback the next time a girl jumps them.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

It's so good it hurts

A friend of mine recently complained that television isn’t realistic enough, especially when it comes to romantic relationships, that in real life (specifically, his life) you don’t end up with the girl you want. I’ve ranted about this for years, but for the first time, I felt no desire to enthusiastically agree; in fact, I disagree.

I find entertainment today–especially when it revolves around the romantic relationships of young people–way more real than it used to be. And I have Judd Apatow to thank.

When My So-Called Life premiered in 1994 it wasn’t a hit, but its confessional, it’s-so-raw-it-hurts tone set the stage for everything that followed: Seth on The O.C. wasn’t a cool kid in his universe, the kids on Dawson’s Creek overanalyzed all their problems, and Freaks and Geeks really dealt with all the humiliating and soul-crushing banality of high school. While the phrase “cringe humor” has never been used to describe a Marshall Herskowitz/Edward Zwick production before, all their hyperreal creations fall into the same category as the ones that proudly carry the mantle: The Office, Juno, Knocked Up. What ties these all together is that the humor and the pathos comes from very real circumstances, the kind where you’re left gaping, “holy shit, they just stole that from my life.” Judd Apatow has brought this to the masses, bridging crass comedy with heartwarming, realistic stories that seem to hit the nail on the head for everyone.

While there arguably is some degree of wish-fulfillment in these entities–after all, things generally do end happily–it’s not the kind that results in anger, but in a smile of hopefulness. You’ve survived the awkward sex scene, so maybe one day you too will end up with the girl of your dreams. The “things work out in the end” ending is also somewhat necessary, considering how bleak at times the story can seem. All the premises surrounding the above entertainments deal with harsh situations and often crushing disappointments, but the pleasure of watching a sweet moment is magnified knowing all the pain that came before.

Even entertainments that are predicated on sweetness and airy romance have a dark element to their stories. Pushing Daisies’ central couple cannot ever touch. Enchanted is a perfect fairy tale that mixes both the conventions of the genre with the charming grittiness that is reality. Both balance out their saccharinity by acknowledging that happily ever after doesn’t exit, but that working on relationships is how you come close to it.

People do need and want fantasy in their entertainment, but maybe nowadays people want their fantasies to be as pure as possible, untainted by reality, and want those based in reality to have some degree of realness to them. Celebrities are no longer mysterious or worthy to be lusted after for their glamour when you can pull up a tabloid to see what they wear to the supermarket. Maybe that’s why pure fantasies are so popular now. Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are more fantastic than ever, thanks to CGI. I have a friend who argues all the time that what she looks for in sci-fi and fantasy worlds is the sense of realness, but in terms of emotions and human reactions, not in technicalities. I, often unconsciously, look for that in a lot of the entertainment I pick.

A ridiculous plot sometimes can be forgivable if emotions are true–and that works for anything, ranging from Futurama to Sex and the City to Superbad. Look at Grey’s Anatomy. For all its faults as an overwrought soap, so many have found a real kinship with the words and actions that the characters use to describe their myriad fuckups. The storyline, even in the midst of its ridiculousness, stays true.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Notes on Popular Music

I'm firmly on the Chris Brown train. He has Usher's confidence but without the conflicted love life, and the fun of old-style Michael Jackson, which even I can appreciate. Ignoring the fact that he's still a teenager (and feels the need to point it out), he's able to get people dancing steadily without sleaze, and RollingStone listed Exclusive, his sophomore album, as the #34 best of the year, pretty surprising for a type of pop album that will usually get no respect other than pointing out he has a good guilty pleasure single or two.

While I do like RollingStone and do not degrade its lack of relevance--something the mag has always been slammed with since I've been reading it, which is around 10 years--I've always disliked the way it automatically insults popular rock acts like Matchbox Twenty and the Goo Goo Dolls (although they seem to throw some respect to Maroon 5 recently). Their current trashing of Nickelback is only the most recent example. All the Right Reasons has sold over six million copies, according to Billboard. Entertainment Weekly wrote a nice blurb a few months ago, drawing attention to this phenomenon. I wasn't surprised; with five hit singles ("Rockstar", "Far Away", "Savin' Me", "Photograph", "If Everyone Cared") the album's bound to sell, even in this age of digital downloads. Especially if you consider that they're a pop/rock group--aka the type that sneaks in on Top 40 stations and is loved by all the adult contemporary-listening parents as well as their children--they are bound to sell without any buzz. But here's the thing: Their album is really good. Seriously. Even taking out the singles--and half the album is singles--it's still a catchy, rockin' record, and it really doesn't falter or get bogged down in repetition. Give Nickelback their due.

Going back to teen singers, Sean Kingston is another who feels the need to mention his age at every turn. Reminiscing about your middle school kiss isn't something that should be shared in a pop song--it just proves that you can't sing credibly about your chosen topic, which is why Natasha Bedingfield shouldn't have picked him for a song about connecting with an old friend. His "Take You There" is funny, in that he promises he will take his girl to the slums, if that's where she wants to go. Who wants to go the slums? Who sings about the slums--and not in a gangsta-rap way? But he boasts that "he's known in the ghetto", and can show her where to run away from gunshots. Or they can go to paradise, sip pina coladas in the tropics, her pick.

Oh, wait. Sean Kingston isn't old enough to drink real pina coladas. Oops.