Monday, March 22, 2010

This Is Gonna Be Huge

This might be a "woman's picture", but I'd like to see more of them.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


I've been published on AOL!

I am now a music journalist.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I Love John Mayer

Every review of Battle Studies has mentioned the dichotomy between John Mayer’s music and his personality. His music—ballads of soft wonder—seems to clash with his kooky, frenetic, self-gratifying , outspoken, cocky persona. His tales of chasing tail, accompanied by his arrogant, rambling observations on all manner of life have led him to be labeled a douchebag—indeed, this adjective is routinely so affixed to his name that it’s hard to fathom anything else he should be called. He’s even said that he wants to repurpose the word, to own it, if it’s going to describe him.

Battle Studies is his most engaging album since his 2001 debut, Room for Squares. His personality might have taken over his music the last few years, just as his ever-changing looks have come to define his erratic mindset, but the reason why he remains so popular is intact. Battle Studies offers the same wistfulness, the same longing and defiance that marked his earlier albums, but this time both his personality and art reflect each other.

It’s not totally fair that Mayer is best known for breaking Jennifer Aniston’s heart, something that he acknowledges in recent interviews in RollingStone and Playboy. Both publications, in fact, boast incredibly candid and eye-opening features on the man, a guy who is not lacking in public forums to express himself. Mayer is one of Twitter’s most popular users, with over three million followers; many of his tweets have reached a wider audience thanks to being endlessly repeated for their audacity. Mayer certainly has odd things to say, but he often comments on women and relationships (and not in the Oprah vein), topics that most appreciate. He has a Tumblr, a blog, where he recently dismantled a TMZ “expose”, plus he’s endeared himself by guest-starring on Saturday Night Live and Chappelle’s Show, in addition to just popping up for some fun.

In fact, the more I read his thoughts and hear his opinions, the more I can’t help but love him. Seriously. Rereading both the Playboy and RollingStone pieces, every few sentences I paused to ask: How do you not love John Mayer?

It didn’t matter if he was talking about how fucking Jessica Simpson was a drug, then backtracking to apologize to Aniston’s hypothetical responses, or riffing on sex and masturbation and girls and his ideal relationship, and how he’ll fuck it up. Seriously, how do you not love him?

I realize for many this is a stupid question. But he is cocky, he is funny, he is self aware, he is just all sorts of fun, and that is very attractive. I liked most of Mayer’s music before, even appreciated it (his willingness to write “love songs for no one” in particular), but found some of his biggest hits really lame, songs like “Your Body Is a Wonderland” and “Daughters” that even he is uncomfortable with representing him.

But as his public persona has gotten bigger, it seems to many that his music just doesn’t fit. He’s taken to pronouncements of random topics, and his mind runs a mile a minute, yet his music is slow, adult contemporary at its best. But Battle Studies very much aligns with where he is in his life, his philosophy toward women, relationships, and life. “I have this bond with infinite possibility,” he says in Playboy, “I want to be with myself, still, and lie in bed only with the infinite unknown. That’s 32, man.”

There is a definite tone in Battle Studies that embodies this, even in the world-weary first single, “Who Says”, similar to “Waiting on the World to Change,” the first single off his last album, Continuum. Overall, Battle Studies is about a guy who is contemplating his life—in many of the songs, from “Who Says” to “Perfectly Lonely”, he is comfortable being alone, yet roaming the streets, taking in everything (like the video for the former.)

Mayer is also very much fighting between impulses. That’s another thing that’s consistent between his persona and his music, or at least between the album as a whole and his recent interviews. In between the sadness and contemplation, there’s acceptance, even defiance (“Edge of Desire”, “Who Says”). The closer, “Friends, Lovers or Nothing” is one of those songs that just speaks the truth: “Friends, lovers or nothing / There can only be one / Friends, lovers or nothing / There’ll never be an in-between, so give it up / Friends, lovers or nothing / We can only ever be one / Anything other than yes is no / Anything other than stay is go / Anything less than “I love you” is lying."

Battle Studies is a lovelorn, breakup album (hence the title), with the first three songs making up a sort of arc, relationships as tug of war. You would be forgiven if thinking the female singer on “Half of My Heart” was merely a background player, as Taylor Swift is wasted on this “duet”. But the problem with records like Battle Studies is the famous significant other that underlies the music, the failed relationship(s) that form the backbone of the album. Ooh, so is he talking about Jennifer Aniston here? But thinking about the real people behind the songs is kind of icky. It’s creepy; the general public only has rumors to go on, and usually the little information known is spurious and not very helpful, and can ruin the enjoyment of the art. Sure, sometimes it can enhance the story, if it’s about gleeful revenge, but other times it’s just a block, too factual for the real messages of the story to shine through.

If you’re trying to decipher insights into Mayer’s personal life, Battle Studies will only get you partway. In the interviews, he’s incredibly candid about relationships. On first read, it’s amazing to hear him speak so much about Jennifer Aniston (and Jessica Simpson, and Jennifer Love Hewitt…) Yet this makes him endearing, extremely likeable, even if your mouth is agape, and while surprising, his candor doesn’t come off as exploitative, another skill Mayer has. There are some who say he is ruining his career, but he has addressed some of his more controversial statements and his shame in going overboard, so much so he’s heading into Kanye West territory. He’s so self-aware that it doubles and triples back on him, and with all the different outlets he has (not all controlled by him), it can seem at times that he’s overexposing himself. But that is part and parcel of his personality, his life, and the way he chooses to live.

Mayer strongly supports the notion that he and Jennifer Aniston broke up because of generational differences, that they are in different points in their life. John Mayer is very much a now guy—one who tweets, blogs, is fully immersive in his life and incorporates his fans thusly. Aniston, according to him, doesn’t have the same regard for these services as he does, nor shares the same philosophy, and that drove them apart. But he is quick to assert how much he cares for her, how much he does not want to offend her.

Playboy says Mayer “is beloved (though not universally) as one of the few uncensored stars, speaking with wit and impetuousness”, and his out-and-out genuineness certainly adds to that. Despite his reservations, his backtracking, his incessant commentary on everything, his need to spout off nonsensical and ridiculous and sometimes shocking things, his wit, charm, and goofball sense of himself shine through. He is a fundamentally good guy, not one of those guys who appears to be good on the surface and then is a douchebag, although admittedly this is all a matter of perception and I find his mischievousness fun, not jerky. Sure, he takes pains to distinguish this in interviews, but it’s apparent in his music, too. Mayer has nothing to apologize for (well, except to maybe the women he’s dated for spilling their intimate relations to the press), and Battle Studies is his proof that he and his music are one and the same.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Notes on Blogging, Gender, Technology, House and Julie & Julia

(I posted this here because of the lengthy discussion of Julie & Julia and House. Unfortunately, the House episode is not available online yet, or I would link and quote from it.)

I had a very bloggy week, between watching Julie & Julia and Monday’s episode of House, which both revolved around women whose blogs got the better of them.

Julie & Julia received a lot of press for its portrayal of supportive husbands, on both women’s side. The Times gleefully wrote of Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci’s portrayal of middle-aged passion, but Julie’s husband was a “saint”, so much so that he objected to the label. Much is made of the Childs’ marriage, how passionate they were, but I found Paul Child to be supportive, but distant; in fact, both husbands in the movie were quite bland. Maybe that’s the point—they both were supportive characters, meant to prop up the leads, so they usually are less developed than the protagonists.

But other than that observation, it was Julie’s bloggy passion that stood out, in comparison to this week’s House episode, concentrated on a blogger who goes a little too personal with her diagnosis. Both women get caught up in blogging about their lives, neglecting their significant others, who come to resent their girlfriend’s hobby. (Tip: Get a boyfriend who blogs, or who at least likes the medium as much as you do.) This is reminiscent of Emily Gould’s fantastic bloggy piece in the New York Times nearly two years ago, where she recounts how blogging about her personal life wrecked her relationship and her life. All three women had successful blogs, the real-life ones turning into successful writers. All three were transformed by their hobby, sharing their love with others and eventually having their own audience. Both Julie and Laura Prepon’s Frankie worry too much about their audience; Julie, about actually having one, and Frankie, about what they think. She uses her blog as a crowdsource of opinion, on both the large and small decisions of her life, including the many major medical ones she faces in the episode. Their blogs become their lives, their reason for getting up in the morning. Julie’s Julia Child obsession is fueled by her blogging, and without it the structure of her project would fall apart, as she is documenting her progress. Frankie, too, is obsessed with documenting her life, and despite protestations from her boyfriend, feels she would be lying if she did not faithfully record or retell everything. Julie does not feel this way, though she does consent to not publicizing a fight she has with her husband (though by it being in the movie we presume that it is retold in her book).

The issue here, of course, becomes privacy. Sure, on the surface, Julie Powell’s project sounds fun, if daunting, and not particularly invasive; she is in charge of how much she chooses to reveal, and on the surface a cooking blog would not be one to draw readers.

But of course, that’s too simplistic. One of the women mentioned in the film who actually makes an appearance is Amanda Hesser, a New York Times food writer who made a name for herself (at least to this writer) by writing a column in the Times Magazine in the early part of the ‘00s, “Cooking for Mr. Latte”, about her meals and dates with a certain Mr. Latte, later revealed to be the New Yorker writer Tad Friend. “Cooking for Mr. Latte”, a kind of Sex and the City meets food, certainly had enough dish and romantic intrigue to make it more than just another food column, and, though it was on paper, had a bloggy feel to it, as it chronicled their burgeoning relationship. (The column also became a book.)

So why are all these bloggers women? Why is it that women feel the need to emotionally reveal themselves online, to chronicle their lives? Men seem to go about it in a much more analytical, data-driven fashion; Nicholas Felton has designed a number of what he calls “Personal Annual Reports”, yearly compilations of the minutia that makes up his life, and it’s fascinating: all the restaurants he ate at, the countries he visited, his most played songs on iTunes. Every year, the charts and graphs, not to mention what he actually records, get increasingly complex. (The MIT Media Lab has done similar projects, recording and analyzing personal, daily data of students.) Sure, I already know all the comments, the criticism: even a friend of mine, when I showed him Feltron, responded, “I know the irony of what I'm about to say as a man that [sic] Tweets but that's kind of self absorbed.”

Sure, it’s self-absorbed. But it’s a whole other form of diary, a multimedia one, life writ large. The data aspects makes it so much cooler, because it’s objective, and it’s a form that you can’t argue with; maybe that’s why men like it. There are so many ways to tell a story, and neither is completely right, for each time it’s told, it’s done a little differently, and they all give different sides to the same one.

The Internet, in all its lovely possibilities, has also given us a way to be anonymous and solicit anonymous opinions. That comes across in blogging—again with the choosing to reveal what we want. But there’s also the new ChatRoulette and, services that flip anonymity on its head.

ChatRoulette, memorably introduced to many (including me) via this New York article, is a basic service that automatically turns on a user’s webcam and randomly beams you into someone else’s browser, and they you. The only options are to engage, move on, or turn off. Most outlets have connected it back to the days of the “wild, wild Internet”, before it became safe for minors, where everything and everyone was searchable. Here, it doesn’t matter if your name or your face or your home really belongs to you, as you are only known by your face, and there is no tag—there’s not even a record of who you’ve been connected with. There’s no way to track, no searching, no user names, no login information, no password. Glorious freedom. And yet it’s scary and incredibly intimidating, a party game to play.
is a site, a meme if you like, that lets people ask questions of a particular user. The person can use his or her real name, or a version of it, if the person desires, and those asking the questions can also identify themselves, though they usually stay anonymous. People asking the questions are strangers and friends; maybe you’ll get something good. It’s a version of a Facebook application known as the honesty box, which always got someone in trouble; that’s what honesty tends to do. And yet it’s addicting, in a way, to say too much; God knows in this era of TMI that it’s hard to put a lid on. Lying is contagious too, but it’s confusing as hell; being openly honest, too openly honest, can be about connecting or prolonging the awkward, having something to say, maybe just making a funny.

So we have two sides of a coin here: a site where we are expected to divulge secrets to those asking, and another an interface where we are personally faced with random strangers, no accountability. The first is implicitly about accountability, though we aren’t supposed to be pegged; the second, an escape route if we wish it to be.

But of course, we often occupy on the assumption that more information is better, and that notion led to ChatRoulette map, where users’ IP addresses are tracked to see who is using the service at any time. You do not need to be engaged on ChatRoulette to use ChatRoulette map, as I discovered this afternoon. There’s an option to turn this off, for it ruins the fun for some people. Exposing IP addresses always has a whiff of creepiness, as it feels like Big Brother is coming down to watch.

There are plenty of people that say that both will be a fad, and in Internet world, there are few things that have escaped this designation, one being Facebook. The Internet is both a blessing and a curse, causing us both to escape and feel trapped by our past, and we eagerly take up the call whenever we need to do so.

P.S. I have a account. Ask questions, readers! Also cross-posted on Notes on Popular Culture.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Men are Stupid, But We Love Them Anyway: A Review of "The Marriage Ref"

Men are stupid.

You will be forgiven for believing this is true if all you watch is American television. American sitcoms routinely portray men as being dumb, selfish, boorish and insensitive, and NBC’s “The Marriage Ref” only perpetuates this, with both the men featured wanting what was portrayed as ridiculous, even creepy things.

Each episode of "The Marriage Ref" spotlights two couples, and three celebrity judges weigh in on their predicament. The host then beams the couples into the studio and delivers the verdict. The premiere episode, aired immediately after the closing ceremonies of the Olympics, concentrated on a man who wanted to keep his pet dog stuffed in their home and another man who wanted to install a stripper pole in their bedroom for his wife to use.

The stripper pole guy tried to play off his request as an exercise tool for his wife, and he was eager for his wife to show off for him. She was not thrilled, to put it mildly, and a large part of the humor was derived from the clips of the wives expressing their outrage at the ridiculousness of their husbands’ wishes.

This was underscored whenever Natalie Morales, the NBC "Today Show" anchor, would state statistics at the host’s disposal, like on the number of Americans who stuff their pets every year (1,000, surprisingly low). She would also tack on information about the couple and their particular issue not shown in the clip; the dog in question, for example, was known for being a menace, chewing up furniture, and even peeing on guests.

Of course, even though Morales was there to lend some credibility to the show and to put the situation in context, if not bolster a participant’s argument, her neutrality was quickly swept away by a raft of jokes from the panel and the host. Morales is largely superfluous, as her role can be absorbed by the host or even included elsewhere in the show. Host Tom Papa is not funny, repeating the same standard jokes, the kind of canned lines that anyone with a corny manner can pull off.

Despite all this, the show was quite funny. The premise is simple and easily modified, and it’s clear that the show is well made, that a lot of thought went into it. The opening is a shortened version of how the idea came to pass: A fight between creator Jerry Seinfeld and his wife in front of a friend led him to ask said friend to be the referee. The characters are cartoons, and a baseball theme quickly takes over. Cute. Then we open to the introductions. It appears to be an old-fashioned game show, as the celebrities smile on and joke.

A couple is then introduced, and a series of both partners explain their problem, sometimes in one-on-one sessions with the camera, sometimes in voiceover. There is always a confrontation, and this is the funny part. The clips are always well-edited, and the couples are chosen because they are funny. They have great faces, they have great lines, and in both these cases, it was absolutely obvious that the wives would win.

Each judge weighs in, usually with a joke, and they banter some more. The host joins in, then flips to Morales, then renders judgment. Preview of next couple, commercial, and the process repeats. But there’s still a few minutes left! Why not go to a recap? The sports metaphor reappears, as Marv Albert is announced, and then he appears next to fancy generic sports lettering where he says the typical line about the sponsor, followed by a joke. Then the winning highlights, one from each clip, are played back. But we’ve seen this before, more than once; they are milking the maximum funny potential. It works in this instance, as the expression and the line chosen are meant to be sealed into memory, and everyone laughs again. But it’s filler, nothing more, completely unnecessary. The commercial highlighting the season’s guest stars is much more appealing.

Although this is very much billed as “Jerry Seinfeld’s show”, he doesn’t appear in subsequent episodes, but the mix of NBC-approved stars does look quite fun, and the episode alone is often much funnier and much more amusing than a random episode of any of NBC’s comedies. The disagreements are silly; we don’t think for a minute that either of these unions are troubled, and both couples featured in this episode have been married for a number of years (they also appeared childless). The show actively promotes marriage, as the show opens and closes with a retort effectively saying that these relationships are worth fighting for and that people should stick them out (preferably with a marriage ref on hand).

The wholesomeness works, as does the celebrity panel. Both couples receive a prize at the end, but that’s not really the point; nor does it matter who the refs rule for, as these couples can do whatever they want. But it’s just fun to peek into someone’s else life, and the comments are quite funny. It’s very clear that the show was engineered well, with a broad base, and the issues mined are both current and evergreen. The men try to come across as being respectful to their wives and enlightened in these sorts of things, as even panelist Alec Baldwin jokes, but they are still every much the doofus next door.

"The Marriage Ref" could use a few tweaks, like nixing Morales and possibly the recap at the end, but it will always remain lighthearted, wholesome, and thoroughly middle-American. Congratulations, NBC, looks like you’ve found yourself your next hit.