New Website

I have started a new website. It is called Pop Culture and Feelings.

So far I’ve written about Glee, the classic M-G-M musical The Pirate, and Taylor Swift.

I don’t like to pick favourites, but The Pirate one is totally my favourite so far:

The song is pretty forgettable as these kinds of songs go, but the scene itself is luscious. Their faces are so close to each other and the camera is so close to them and the overwhelming sense is one of proximity, which is something I didn’t have, and so, so badly wanted. When I think of that scene, I don’t remember the song very well, but I do remember the sound of Judy’s voice, and the way the camera held close to both of them. I leaned forward on the couch unconsciously, straining to be closer to them. I wanted to reach out and touch them, to touch that. I understood instinctively that I was on the outside of something, that the camera was pressing as close as it could but could never really get there, and all I wanted was to get inside.

If you are interested in reading my thoughts about pop culture and feelings, it will be the place to do it!

In terms of Moot Point – the archives will stay up as long as Alex wants to keep hosting them – and thanks to everyone who’s read and linked and commented here. The reason for the move was that a) I wanted my own space and b) wanted to start blogging with a clean slate.

On not being perfect

I. In Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music, Marisa Metzer spends a bit of time talking about the pressure girls feel to be perfect. I liked the book a lot, but this sentence had bells going off for me all over the place: “The desire to be perfect, while not unique to girls, is a persistent hurdle that often stops girls from feeling like they could be legitimate performers.” I’m not a musician and really have no musical aptitude, but this kind of thing doesn’t limit itself to women in music. You start feeling like you could never be perfect, so you don’t even want to try. Metzer cites a study done at Duke University that found that “its own undergraduate women felt the need to be ‘effortlessly perfect,’ combining beauty, intellect, success, style, and a slender body without looking like they were even trying.” She also quotes The Blow’s Khaela Maricich talking about how scary it is to put yourself out there: “My experience of being a girl is that you don’t want to show off in front of people unless you really know what you’re doing. [...] There’s a huge dividing line between girls and boys. Guys just do it without thinking. They’re so balls out, they just keep throwing their shit out there.”

I mean, yeah. This is definitely a dynamic I’ve read about before, but now, maybe because I’m in full-on quarter-life crisis mode, I really feel like this tendency – to not want to put it out there until it’s perfect, and you can never totally be perfect, because no one’s perfect – actually probably affected some of my life decisions. There are a lot of reasons I never really tried to be a writer despite doing the campus paper thing and the having a blog for, like, 8 years now thing, most of them stemming from the fact that I really think the kind of writing I want to do is better suited to grad school than to being a freelancer, but certainly the fear of failure was a big factor.

I’m not saying that my failures to live up to all my childhood ambitions are sexism’s fault, or anything like that, but I do feel like the fear of failing publicly is something that women feel a lot more strongly than men, partly because women are not given a lot of room to have flaws or be wrong in public.1 I don’t know for sure why it is, but I have definitely found that my male peers (in academia) are by and large more comfortable about putting themselves forward for things or advancing risky arguments or generally promoting themselves than the women. I’m not talking sexist dudes here, or dudes who are trying to take space away from worthy ladies, or even dudes who have less than total respect for the intellectual capacities of ladies, just dudes who feel more comfortable taking risks and being ambitious than the ladies do. I think there may be social factors behind that. Maybe it’s just me, and other ladies don’t feel the same discomfort about asking for stuff they deserve and promoting themselves, but it’s not just lack of confidence, it’s also that ladies actually get more shit for putting themselves forward and generally promoting themselves.

How is this something we learn to overcome? Metzer takes heart from the DIY ethos of riot grrrl. The riot grrrls built their own network of girl-togetherness and revolution. Even though it was short-lived, it’s left a powerful stamp. I was too young for riot grrrl in the 90s (though not too young for Lilith Fair!), but I still have Bikini Kill albums and I did get a chance to see Sleater-Kinney in concert before they split up.

II. Emily Gould’s book came out recently. Apparently a lot of the reviews have not been good? I haven’t read the book, but I do want to because I like Gould’s writing and I’ve always been a fan. Her book, and she, relates to the above in that she is about my age but has been in the public internet eye for some time, and she has made some mistakes in public. That’s actually part of why I’m a fan. As much as now she appears to be maintaining an internet presence without blurring lines of appropriateness in a Heartbreak Soup kind of way. But here’s the thing. I used to write vaguely “personal” blog-type-stuff on the the internet. Those posts aren’t on the internet anymore (as much as anything is ever not on the internet anymore) because I stopped being 19 and I was pretty embarrassed by some of the more revealing stuff I’d written. I don’t think Gould isn’t embarrassed about some of the stuff she wrote – she says as much – but she left it all up there.

I like that she’s owning these ugly vulnerable moments. Leaving it up where people can see it says “This happened, I own it, it was a part of my life, and it’s still there.” I really admire that she did that, and I am suggesting that part of the reason she gets the negative attention she does is that she is a woman who has allowed herself to be flawed in public.

III. Everyone sure did freak out about Miley Cyrus’s new video! It’s…not very good, but that’s not why people got freaked out. They were freaking out because Miley is “cage-dancing”! A seventeen-year-old girl is being vaguely sexual! Stop everything. Tiger Beatdown already explained this, so I’m not going to re-explain:

SADY: Yeah. And Thinking Of The Children often seems to involve… not a lot of thinking about how The Children actually tend to behave? Like: My shameful secret is that I actually ENJOY THE HELL out of this video. Not because it’s “empowering,” or because I take ANY of its messages at face value, but because — like Miley herself — it’s so goofy and embarrassing in precisely the ways that 17-year-old-girl rebellion is goofy and embarrassing. [...] SADY: Right! I mean: We talk about growing up in public. But Miley Cyrus, despite (DON’T READ THIS PART, MILEY CYRUS) having released some of my least favorite songs EVER, actually seems to be, like… growing up. In public. With all the associated awkwardness. But that’s the thing, about Thinking About the Children: We have this very idealized normative concept of how a “good” teen behaves and it’s just not in line with these realities. At all! And honestly it is, as you said, just about shoving aside what makes us uncomfortable.

AMANDA: Yeah, and why the fuck are we acting like all our insecurities can be resolved by Miley Cyrus not doing some weird shit in a music video? I’ll also add that Miley’s actually doing pretty fucking awesome at navigating all this stuff. In February, she said this: “My job isn’t to tell your kids how to act or how not to act because I’m still figuring that out for myself. To take that away from me is a bit selfish . . . Your kids are going to make mistakes whether I do or not. That’s just life.” Coming from someone who was EVISCERATED for appearing in a magazine with her back visible, that point is well-taken.

I feel like Miley’s an interesting case of being vulnerable in public, because she doesn’t seem to draw the same kinds of lines between controlled public performances and her “real” emotional life as previous teen idols. My favourite instance of Miley-ness is still the “7 Things” video:

It’s a great video, with Miley and a chorus of teddy-bear-hugging tweens trying to be sassy in the face of heartbreak and crying into the camera. But the real thing in it – she’s wearing Nick Jonas’s dog tags. She flashes a real picture of her and Nick Jonas (with Nick’s face scratched out) at the camera. There’s something so painfully earnest about that, the ultimate teen girl moment. I’m not saying that Miley is just being real with no thought to how she’s perceived here – I am sure that the reason that she did use her real stuff was because the director of the video thought it would endear her to her fellow teenage girls – but nonetheless, she is being real, and in a way that will probably make her cringe in a couple of years.

IV. At some point in writing this, “being flawed” somehow morphed into “being confessional” but I don’t think that’s a coincidence. You don’t have to confess things to take risks, but “confessing” is definitely allowing yourself to be flawed in public. I feel like I’m starting to head towards the part where I conclude that being confessional is brave and “raw”, so this has to be the part where I point out that confessing is always also a performance, even if it’s true. (But what isn’t? Am I right?)

I do think the way we live now, on the web, with the blogs and the facebook and whatnot, has really changed our senses of public and private. It’s easy in the heat of the moment to put stuff up online that you wouldn’t want certain people to see and reason with yourself that they probably won’t see it. (Odds are, when you do this, they probably will.) Everyone has to make their own rules about how much they write about online. I have a lot of them. I never write about work, even on my non-public facebook page, like beyond the fact that I have a job. I don’t write anything that I wouldn’t mind saying to anyone publicly. Because once you put something online, you lose control of it and it is very, very easy for people to see it. You’re exposed. I tend to hold things back until the last minute – not showing anyone drafts until I turn them in, totally isolating my ideas until I’m completely confident with them. Now that I’ve fallen out of practice, I work things over, even blog posts, for weeks until I think they are remotely good enough, I’m so cautious about what I’m doing. One answer would be to just write my ideas down in private, but I don’t think isolating myself is really a solution. Obviously earnest pop culture criticism will never really shake people up like playing punk rock with “slut” written on my stomach – though I do think it’s important. I still think we could all use a little bit of riot grrrl in our lives.

  1. And I feel this way as a woman in the liberal arts! Where women are not even a minority in any way! And the field is replete with successful female and feminist role models! And I have never actually experienced any kind of sexism (though I am sure it happens). 

Taking you there

Americans have decided to be stupid and shallow since 1980. Madonna is like Nero; she marks the turning point.

Joni Mitchell

I think Joni’s probably right about some stuff here; that’s why I’m starting my discussion of Glee’s Madonna episode with a quote from a totally amazing interview that ran two days after it aired. I don’t know that it’s really popular or interesting to say, but something did change around 1980. I wasn’t there, so I don’t exactly know how people felt at Woodstock, but you get the sense that people still really felt like things could change. Things were changing, and there was nowhere to go but up: our institutions would all be remade. Then what really happened is basically every progressive movement and piece of culture either got forgotten or it got co-opted.

I’m not trying to be all boo-hoo death of the 60s here. I can’t really imagine what endless potential could have felt like because I grew up in a world where it was already foreclosed.

Madonna’s a good avatar of a lot of this stuff because of what she’s stood for. She’s a master appropriator, the face of “post-feminism,” and she’s kind of the perfect postmodern pop star in that no one really talks about her talent at singing: it’s all about her persona. (Not to say that she hasn’t produced some amazing music, but that tends to get submerged in the Madonna narrative. She reinvents herself, she makes smart choices, she positions herself.) More importantly, Madonna was one of the first people to basically say that she was going to work the system. She couldn’t sell out, because she’d already bought in. When the Beatles were in a Nike commercial, it was controversial, it was Yoko tarnishing their legacy. When Madonna was a in Pepsi commercial, it was cross-promotion. (Pepsi wound up pulling her ad after two airings because the video for the same song included burning crucifixes, but Madonna was cool with it. She did what she wanted and she got paid.)

That’s why — more than the gay icon thing, which is admittedly a huge part of all of the above, since camp is one of the most powerful weapons we have against the corporate monoculture when it’s deployed right, though you have to be careful, because it’s not immune from being packaged and sold to us — Glee devoted a whole episode to “the power of Madonna” this week. The way they frame Madonna — as an unproblematic feminist icon and force for equality — puts Glee pretty firmly in the pop as liberation camp. Not that there aren’t political positives to the whole hour. A group of seven dudes harmonizing on “What It Feels Like For A Girl” — and realizing that they are kind of responsible in little ways for making the women in their lives feel a bit smaller — is a pretty inspiring and progressive scene to have on TV. Plus the part where America was all really psyched to watch a 50-year-old lesbian reenact the “Vogue” video. Even having a real conversation about how disempowered girls feel seems crazy-progressive these days. Hearing Quinn tell Mr. Schue that women make 70 cents on the dollar, and the implied sense that there’s nothing we can do is heartbreaking.

I want to point out that I really do love Glee since I will be saying some pretty cynical things about it. I think it’s really well done. It’s a musical about high school. And feelings. Its title is even a feeling. It’s also awfully dark and cynical. At its best you get the sense that living in a small town in Middle America is really shitty and singing pop music in glee club is all these people have.

The fact that they sing already-existing pop music is the best part of the show. For me, this makes it really so much about how much we shape our emotional lives to the prepackaged content made available by “the music industry.” It feels more “real” than something like “Fame” where they mostly sang originals because we’ve all probably done the exact same thing. What teenage girl hasn’t sung something like “Take a Bow” into a hairbrush after a breakup?

They do manage to wrench some strongly felt emotion out of stuff like this:

Avril Lavigne has never been so poignant.

But, some people complain, the musical numbers don’t always feel right. Even the New York Times, on what’s maybe Glee’s most awkward scene.

With that, he tears into “(You’re) Having My Baby,” the maudlin 1974 Paul Anka love dollop, saying the words he wasn’t able to without a melody.

In the “Glee” universe, which revolves around the show choir from William McKinley High School in Lima, Ohio, music is a curative, a perfect problem solver. It’s not a job or an obligation or a drag in any way, even when the subject matter is heavy, music is only joy. Finn’s plan ultimately backfires — Quinn’s father, infuriated, throws her out of the house — but by the end of the episode his outburst of song has paid dividends. The couple is together, in love and, for the moment, healed.

But still, that song: lumpy, unsteady, cringe-worthy. “Glee” may love music, but often it abuses it, with performances wholly lacking grit. In each episode a handful of songs receive similar treatment: antiseptically elated, heavily doctored recordings, with no line between the truly affecting and the genuinely off-putting.

It’s not just that the songs are pre-recorded and lipsynched, unless you want to raise that complaint at virtually every movie musical shot in the last 80 years. It’s not just the autotune, though that probably doesn’t help. It’s the subtle disconnect between the “feelings” expressed in “You’re Having My Baby,” and the complex emotions of the actual situation.

This happens to Finn a lot, actually. Possibly because he’s so dumb. Just last week, Mr. Schue gets him to buck up by singing the Doors. It wasn’t really that the song expressed his feelings — it’s more that his feelings get changed by the song. The song is like a magical incantation that changes his feelings at least temporarily. I will at some point quote someone other than Adorno on my blog, but I think he has a totally germane point here, which is essentially that rather than expressing some thing we inherently feel, pop culture introduces us to things that we should be feeling: “The dream industry does not so much fabricate the dreams of the consumers as introduce the dreams of the suppliers among the people.”1

The short version of my point is that Glee is a postmodern musical. Instead of having original songs meant to be perfectly integrated expressions of the characters’ innermost feelings, the characters try (and often fail) to express their feelings using the packaged emotions available to them in pop music. Pop music even drives what they should be feeling, like with Finn, or with the way Madonna’s strong take-charge sexual ethos convinced Rachel and Emma both that they should be ready. Madonna has a positive effect too: Sue learns to love herself by reeanacting the “Vogue” video, and Kurt and Mercedes decide to step outside glee club and be the stars they are in probably the most joyous performance of the night, “Four Minutes.” So, I don’t want to be all-negative about how pop music makes us feel, because it’s really not. As much as it sells us stuff, including itself, pop music also brings us together and it can and does speak to real things we’re feeling.

Ending with “Like a Prayer” makes perfect sense. Though I’ve always maintained that it’s a song about blow jobs (“When you call my name it’s like a little prayer/ down on my knees, I wanna take you there/ In the midnight hour, I can feel your power”), I am willing to consider that it probably has other meanings. The “there” where she wants to take you, where your voice can take her: it’s wherever you want it to be. There is an obvious sexual meaning, but the juxtaposition of the sex with the gospel choir gives the whole thing a sense of a kind of religious ecstasy. On Glee, where religion when it’s mentioned at all is just another form of hypocrisy (the celibacy club, Quinn’s parents who throw her pregnant ass out in a very un-Christ-like manner), letting the choir sing is as close as we get to the sense of community and of touching the numinous that everyone can get. It’s kind of an invocation to pop. For a few minutes, it really seems like we can get there. Does it really matter that the song was first heard in a Pepsi commercial?

I really don’t have an answer to that question. If I did, I would have culture pretty much solved. At its best, like it was this week, Glee makes a strong case that pop’s ability to shape our feelings is full of positive potential: potential to make us more empathetic, stronger, more beautiful, more free. But it also ultimately limits what we can feel: as much as Madonna’s message is equality and strength, it really still does emphasize a certain kind of sexualized “strong woman” who’s okay with the system as long as she gets paid. (Like she did. This week.) This wouldn’t be a problem if there were non-commercial versions of female strength and sexuality available to us — or even if the market allowed for more alternative versions of what that could look like — but that’s not the world we live in. So celebrating the times when something progressive or even subversive breaks through the net is often the best we can do.

  1. Page 93, “The Schema of Mass Culture,” in The Culture Industry

Cherry Bombs

Besides both being movies I saw this weekend, Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976) and The Runaways (Floria Sigismondi, 2010) have in common that they both open with scenes of a teen girl getting her first period. Carrie is from 1976. That first scene in The Runaways — which actually opens with a shot of blood falling on pavement — is set in 1975. Both of them are about different ways the power of womanhood runs away with the main characters. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Sigismondi chose to start The Runaways with that image, also.

In Carrie, and this has I’m sure been discussed ad nauseum by all the people who’ve seen it in the past 35 years, Carrie’s telekinetic powers first start to manifest when she gets her period. In the beginning, this seems like a good thing. Carrie asserts her own power, telling her mom it’s not the devil, it’s her, and decides to make a cute dress and go to the prom and be happy for a minute without worrying about sin. But of course — this totally backfires. When Carrie gets upset by a cruel high school prank, she loses control and burns down her school gym with everyone in it. Then she kills John Travolta by crashing his car and crucifies her own mom. (Granted, her mom had already stabbed her, but Carrie’s “fling every pointed object in the kitchen into her mom’s torso” method seems excessive.) The takeaway is that menstruation and therefore the female body are scary and monstrous.

Things are different in The Runaways: it’s not a horror movie, it’s a rock n’ roll biopic. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it starts with De Palma’s image of female grotesque-ness. In the hands of a lady filmmaker making a movie about lady culture, the period is no longer a source of supernatural horror. It’s just a pain in the ass. But it sets the scene for the story that follows, which is about Cherie Currie having her own form of power – the ability to make herself, to perform, to be fierce, to be Bardot and Bowie – packaged and sold as something she can’t really control. It’s not a coincidence that Cherie’s song is “Cherry Bomb”: “Hello Daddy, hello mom/ I’m your ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb/ Hello world, I’m your wild girl/ I’m your ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb.” She’s offering herself up to you in all her jailbait sexiness, but it is clear that she will blow right up in your face. In the movie, a lot is made of the way Kim Fowley tries to commodify her self-made image and claim it as his own. This is the main source of conflict between her and the other heroine, Joan Jett. Selling yourself like Cherie does is (as countless contemporary female celebrities can tell you) a hard road to walk: it doesn’t take much for things to blow up in Cherie’s face, and she’s left alone, working a menial job in a store.

Cherie’s story is not that much of a different message about teen female sexuality from Carrie’s. But the difference is that The Runaways has two girls in it. Joan Jett’s going through the ups and downs of fame right along with Cherie — but for her it’s never about anything but the music. It’s not a simple good girl/bad girl story: Joan’s complicity in turning Cherie into a Cherry Bomb is pretty clear. She’s seen contributing to the song (and the narrative); her relationship with Cherie is also complicated by lust. Where Cherie (at least in the movie, I know things were different in real life) gets lost, Joan’s able to symbolically cleanse herself through songwriting and emerge with a badass solo album (that she released herself after every label ever turned her down, though we don’t learn that until the end credits). I didn’t love everything about the movie — the bathtub scene where New Joan emerges cleansed of her corporate past was lame, and I wish the rest of the band got more to do since they also seemed interesting — but the core story about Joan and Cherie was really well-done and kind of amazing for a mainstream film.

That said, I’ve been reading Adorno lately, and I think it’s worth pointing out that the “power” that Cherie and even Joan have are limited to their abilities to enter into a male-dominated and corporate-owned milieu. This isn’t women’s lib, it’s selling some records. It’s women being powerful, but they are getting power by imitating culturally provided ways of being powerful and masculine.

That’s a pretty standard “pop culture makes us all zombies” argument — which doesn’t make it not kind of true — but at the same time, what else are girls supposed to do? If we’re stuck in the system, the least we can do is win on its own terms. And maybe blow things up a little.

My Greenberg Letter

Dear Noah Baumbach,

My original plan was to write a standard review of your new movie Greenberg responding to some of the other things I’d read about it. But I can’t really be critical and objective about your movies. It’s not so much that I love them so hard; it’s more like I relate to them so hard. It’s not so much that I find myself in situations like Greenberg and Florence’s (though being in a similar age and situation except not single, I found Florence very easy to identify with). When I walked out of Greenberg, I felt suddenly self-conscious, imagining what my life would look like if it were a movie. Walking down the street, picturing how the camera would frame me. Part of Granville Street was closed so a TV show could film some kind of police car thing. It was very cinematic. Hearing movie speech rhythms in the way my boyfriend and I bantered. We were weirdly on that night.

I’m not always sure how to deal with the way I relate to your movies. Lines like “We call each other ‘man,’ but it’s a joke. It’s like imitating other people” are clearly inviting me to judge Greenberg, and maybe people who don’t do stuff like this will judge Greenberg, but don’t most people do stuff like this? I sure do; I’ll start saying stuff “ironically” and then before long it’s just part of my vocabulary. That’s the thing about Greenberg — the details and the throwaways are really the bits that convince me such a cartoonishly awful person lives in my world (that, and the fact that we have all lived with facets of his cartoonish awfulness). Details like the recycled POM-brand iced tea glass Greenberg’s drinking out of when he writes his letters: they don’t even sell POM tea in those glasses anymore, and haven’t for a while, so I’m pretty sure some art director had to find that and choose it for the scene. I have one of those at my house! Also, Florence’s holographic dinosaur ruler. I had that exact ruler! It’s a cutesy way of showing that she still lives like a kid (and I don’t still have my dino ruler) but that moment of recognition really did work. We all know movies are captured images of things that really happened — though CGI means that that direct relationship is always in doubt now — but the things they capture so often feel fake, removed from our everyday life.

I feel uncomfortable about the precise way I like your movies, because I like them because they feel real. I know this is why a lot of people like a lot of stuff, but I, being a Greenbergian asshole, feel like that’s a really naive way to like things. I tend to pride myself on liking things that are self-consciously artificial, either in the art film way or in the genre way. “Realism” is a totally bourgeois notion, right? I don’t know, I think people like having things they relate to in movies? But I’m still pretty sure it’s somehow like I’m totally “buying into” an emotional experience. My laughs are coming from a place of (occasionally uncomfortable) recognition, which I totally think was your intention; but it was still a place that I paid money to be in, and a place that’s just as “artificial” as the self-conscious camp that I love.

I realize the device of writing a letter about these feelings to you, which is similar to the way Greenberg wrote letters to Starbucks and Hollywood Pet Taxi, is a trite literary device.

But your movies make me feel trite.

Sincerely, Brenda

Gimme Sympathy

I have long gotten over any conflict between my image of myself as a woman of culture with two degrees and the fact that I am also a woman who watches American Idol on purpose. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gone from being all Frankfurt school about the “culture industry” to seeing value in the mainstream; it doesn’t need to be subversive to be pleasurable. Not all fun is ideologically suspect. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten a lot less concerned about what’s good, to the point that I always find myself mentally composing defenses of Taylor Swift against her detractors whenever I read feminist blogs about all the (totally present) virgin-whore issues in “You Belong With Me.”

So I watch American Idol. For me, it is partly about fun, not going to lie. It’s also partly about getting a lot of stuff about America, and also for reminding me, a Canadian, that America is a whole other country. I tend to think I “get” American culture because Canadian pop culture is so suffused with American products and American forms, but then I watch American Idol and I remember that the red states are real places where people live and love and are loved, not just Daily Show punchlines. It’s easy to forget that America isn’t just like a bigger Canada in a lot of really deep important ways.

But I just couldn’t handle Rolling Stones night last week.

It’s weird that of all the serious artists who’ve had their music karaoke’d on Idol — the Beatles, MJ, Leonard Cohen, Marvin Gaye, Dolly Parton — it’s the Rolling Stones that I just couldn’t hear covered. I actually thought Rolling Stones night would be good for Idol, since they write great blues-rock songs, and the vocals rely as much on personality as ability. I am not even that big a Stones fan — I like their music, but I would not ever list them as my favourite band. I think it’s because my dad does. I grew up listening to this music. I know the songs automatically; they’re part of my musical landscape, and a piece of my vocabulary of what rock n roll is. I can’t tell you what album every song is from, but I know the words and the melodies instinctively. This was the soundtrack of my childhood to the point that every now and then I’m shocked by the goodness of these songs, just because I heard them so much growing up that they are just there. It’s in my bones.

I started losing it when Andrew — who did that great version of “Straight Up” early in the season — sang “Gimme Shelter.” I don’t know how you can sing “War, children, it’s just a shot away” without conveying that you understand any of those words, but he manages. I wondered why I watch this show again.

Then pageant teen Katie came out and sang “Wild Horses,” which she interpreted as being about her dream of being on American Idol. Then I remembered that this show is produced by people who think the Susan Boyle version of “Wild Horses” was a good idea.

But here’s where I experienced a break. My AI feelings went from kind of amused affection and a fun investment to detached hate in five minutes. Tim Urban, coming up with “Under My Thumb”. Oh no he is not! Yes, yes he is. He is singing a totally earnest reggae guitarbro Jason Mraz “The Mellow Show” version of “Under My Thumb”, the nadir of rock misogyny.

Well, you can watch:

I don’t remember the last time I was just quivering with “what” at the TV. Everyone was like “Hey, it’s a fun song.” But it’s not a fun song, it’s a jam, sure, but it’s not a fun song. The only way to do that song nowadays is to go the Tina Turner feminist détournement route. In the posted clip, you can see the judges’ reactions. Obviously this kid is too stupid to understand what’s wrong with the words he was singing; but I kept waiting for everyone else to just kind of stare at him open-mouthed and then for Ellen to be like “Hey bud, maybe if you don’t want to alienate people as a potential ’sensitive’ pop musician, you shouldn’t sing songs about how you’ve ground your lady’s independence down so now she just does as she’s told?”

How is it not beyond the pale to go on TV in front of millions of women and sing “It’s down to me/ the way she talks when she’s spoken to”?

Ugh, I know this a post about how American Idol is really shallow and isn’t about art. Also, did you know that many of the lyrics to Rolling Stones songs are in fact somewhat sexist? I am blowing the lid off pop culture right here on my internet blog.

I have been on this intellectual trajectory where I’m all about analysis over evaluation; but maybe to the point where I felt weird about making distinctions and everything blurred into this sort of bland field where everything is “interesting” but nothing rocks my world (except Lady Gaga). Maybe this is part of why I’ve been posting less: I feel like everything’s kind of dissolved into pop culture soup.

Eventually you fall into this murk where like, Hannah Montana is just “interesting” even though it’s seriously the worst TV show ever made. And the worst part is, I haven’t even been writing all that much! Thinking everything is interesting is, at a certain point, not all that interesting at all. It is just as snobby in its own way as just straight-up hating Hannah Montana; it’s hard to do without being condescending or pretending disinterest that you just can’t have if you want to actually do any kind of cultural criticism.

I still stand by the idea that analysis is more important than evaluation, and I still don’t think our experiences of “high art” and “low art” are all that different. My experiences of lots of “bad” stuff isn’t really all that different in terms of reactions or pleasure — I still don’t know for sure if The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans was good or bad, but I sure loved it, and I loved it not all that different a way that I loved, say, Hiroshima, Mon Amour. I’ve always felt like this is kind of an “enlightened” point of view, a sense of being “above” discussions of “quality”; not because it can’t be measured, but more because there are more interesting things to talk about. This is somewhat true, but at the same time — some things are better than other things. I want to get good things back. I want to be able to care about those things more than other things. You don’t need to be a snob to do that.

Movies I have seen in the past little while

I haven’t really watched that many movies this past while, it’s been a lot of Olympics this week. We celebrated the gold medal hockey win by making some very tasy lamb curry. (It is from a fine Canadian cookbook!)

  1. The Wolfman (was apparently directed by someone on purpose, okay his name was Joe Johnston, and it turns out he also directed Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, who knew?, 2010): I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie this deeply bad on purpose. If you like bad movies, it’s pretty fun, in that it features Anthony Hopkins wearing a tiger bathrobe, totally phoning it in, delivering shocking revelations like he’s talking about what he had for dinner last night; it also features a severed arm that is STILL ABLE TO SHOOT A GUN. And an arbitrary romance. And Benicio del Toro, English Shakespearean Actor. No seriously, that is his character.
  2. A bunch of more recent John Waters movies: things really go downhill after Serial Mom, huh? Of the later ones, I liked A Dirty Shame the most, and Pecker the least. Pecker is rough, y’all. I still love J-Dub though.
  3. Welcome to the Dollhouse (Todd Solondz, 1995): This kind of hurt to watch, almost. I was never really Dawn Weiner in junior high, but there was a year where it was close, and that felt really important in 8th grade. This came out when I actually was that age, and I never could have dealt with it then, never could have had the distance to find it funny as well as painful. Even now, it’s such a great combination of funny and awful: the way the kidnapping turns from this thing where everyone’s almost sincere about the kidnapping — but then it still kind of turns into a triumph for Missy and it’s back to being so cynical. I don’t know if you can really say anything else about this movie. This says it all:
  4. Jennifer’s Body (Karyn Kusama, 2009): I actually saw this first, but I put it after Welcome to the Dollhouse because it is clearly a worse movie about the perils of adolescent girldom. This one is more in the horror vein, sort of a pinker, poppier Ginger Snaps. It suffers from a bit of Diablo Cody’s patented adorableness, but I liked it better than Juno. It’s one of those things, like Twilight where I love it precisely because it speaks to such a fundamental thing of how I remember being a teenager. This is a different thing than Twilight, which is fully about the danger of one’s own desire; Jennifer’s Body is about toxic friendships. I don’t where this thing comes from, if it’s a teen girl thing, or a white girl thing, or a suburban high school thing, but I sure had a couple of those incredibly intense teen girl friendships where they’re the main person in your life. It’s the old-time “romantic friendship” thing: it’s not necessarily that you want to bone your best friend, it’s more that you just have all this energy to devote to…something that’s not your family, and you’re not ready for that to be a boyfriend yet, so it winds up being your BFF. And that’s scary, and those friendships always kind of implode. I love horror, and I love when things turn real high school fears into something fantastic and hideous. I’ve been listening to “Live Through This” constantly ever since.
  5. A Single Man (Tom Ford, 2009): One word review: disappointing! The press has been so good, and the negative reviews (like at The Awl) complain that the fashion designer director aestheticizes the emotional content of the story too much, which to me, is not really a negative per se. But the problem for me was that the emotional content wasn’t even aestheticized well! You know me, I love a Minnelli, or a Fassbinder. I wrote a whole thesis on Almodóvar. Bringing all the emotion into the mise-en-scene is what melodrama’s all about; there’s a Hollywood tradition to this. But at this point it’s so done that you have to do it well to be effective. The thing where most of the movie’s shot with this yellow-ish gray filter, but then the full spectrum of colour comes in when something nice happens to Colin Firth (who was great despite the general lameness he’s working in) is so bad, and the “I’m a sad man in my meticulous modern house” sequence at the beginning is so laboured. It did get better as it went on and some life was injected (in the form of Julianne Moore and Nicholas Hoult). And the clothes were great: the suits, Nicholas Hoult’s giant awesome sweater, J. Moore’s giant hair; but ultimately it’s not fabulous enough to really transcend its coldness. Tom Ford might be able to make a great movie someday — but this wasn’t it. I keep thinking what an interesting story it is, how great it could have been if Almodóvar or Todd Haynes or someone had made it.
    There are some arresting images though. I’ve woken up with ink all over my bed.

Three Weeks of Movies (January 11-31)

So I have had some stuff to do that I don’t want to jinx by posting about until I have more information. But, movies!

  1. An Education (Lone Scherfig, 2009): So my feeling on this is that Carey Mulligan is delightful, and I walked out with a smile on my face and a skip in my step, since it’s a happy story about Learning Life Lessons and Growing while wearing fabulous 1960s clothes, but it seems a little insubstantial? I guess it didn’t really blow my mind that a teenager having an affair with a much older man who literally picked her up in the street turned out to be not such a great life choice for our hero. I don’t think it’s bad that she emerges more or less unscathed instead of as a ruined woman or whatever, but that combined with the whole glamorous fun times of having a guy take you to Paris and having your first sexual experience be all French cigarettes and Chanel no 5 makes the whole thing seem really awesome and less scarring than it probably should? It’s not so much that I need didactic storytelling here, so much as I think this movie was maybe too light-hearted. I liked the story of a girl, bored and stultified by the pressures of accomplishment and school and normalness, self-consciously making a mistake because it’s more fun and because the Times They Are A’ Changing, but like, pretending that you’re free when you’re letting yourself pretty much be bought, it is not really free. Jenny learns that, and Carey Mulligan’s so full of life that she covers up a lot of the films’ flaws, but it’s all a bit obvious with the life lessons and the Oxford and the so forth.
  2. DiG! (Ondi Timoner, 2004): This is a documentary about relationship (friendship turned to rivalry) between the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols, which basically means that I have no idea why I put this on my rental queue, since I don’t really care about either of these bands. But! It turned out to be really interesting. Because the filmmakers spent years filming these guys, you have all this footage of the real stuff that happened. On the one hand you have the well-adjusted Dandy Warhols, who started out indie but signed with a big label and, being moderately talented, eventually found a place for themselves with moderate success. (They never really got big in North America but they’re apparently pretty huge in Europe.) On the other, you’ve got the totally fucked-up BJM, a ’60s revival-type band with like a zillion rotating members, most of whom seemed to be on really a lot of drugs at all times, but who are headed by visionary and asshole Anton Newcombe. It’s totally amazing: you get footage of the two bands partying and performing together in the good old days, and of Anton Newcombe kind of stalking them to try to drum up a kind of rivalry, and of the BJM beating each other up and spoiling their big shot at an industry showcase, and of Anton Newcombe fully kicking an audience member in the head. It’s more or less from the point of view of Courtney Taylor, who narrates the film, and apparently some of the BJM were upset at the way they were portrayed. But I felt like a lot of the choices TImoner makes undermines Taylor. You come away with the sense that the Dandies did kind of sell out, they get really slick and still try to kind of have the Brian Jonestown coolness rub off on them, but you can’t really have it both ways. On the other hand, Anton Newcombe kicked a guy in the head. At some point you have to compromise something to exist in the world. (I was heartened to read on Wikipedia that a lot of the members who left the BJM in the movie had come back after the release, and that they actually played a couple of songs with the Dandy Warhols at Lollapalooza in 2005, so that’s nice.)
  3. Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945): So I decided to watch this after reading this lame, hateful list of “overrated directors”. One of the directors he lists is David Lean, whose movies are supposedly overlong, and apparently none of his movies are really masterpieces. Brief Encounter is one hour and twenty minutes of perfect. They meet in a train station, they fall in love, it can never be, he touches her shoulder. The narrator describes falling in love by saying “I never knew such violent things could happen to ordinary people.” The just-too-overwrought piano of the score. Celia Johnson’s breathless voiceover. Absolutely fucking perfect.
  4. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009): Wow. We saw this Saturday, and I don’t have a lot to say other than complaints about the people down the row from me who couldn’t make even the simplest plot connections without discussing them. Some movies you can maybe murmur to your seatmate without distracting people. The White Ribbon is not one of them, it’s so quiet it’s almost painful. One thing that surprised me, for such a hard, hard movie to watch, is how much people were laughing at the “light” moments (like a father tying up his adolescent son to keep him from masturbating LOL). It’s not that I blame them — it’s not the way I felt uncomfortable watching Inglorious Basterds, which deals with the spectre of Nazis in a completely different way — it’s more that everyone was kind of grasping for any kind of release, the whole thing was so tense. It starts out in black, black silence and then slowly dissolves to an almost impossibly bright white. It almost hurts to look at for a minute. It’s set in a German village in 1913, and it’s basically about this town suffused by cruelty. Mysterious, awful things start to happen. We don’t really get an answer to who’s doing those things, but I think we mostly know the answer from the beginning, no matter how much we try to deny it. It is actually much nicer than any of the other Haneke movies I’ve seen.


Sorry, internet, I totally dropped the ball on NaBloPoMo this year and then completely disappeared. I have an excuse that involved my energy needing to be elsewhere, but I’m not going to go into it. I’m not going to lie, I had some amazing stuff happen in 2009 (I went to London and Spain and Seattle and I made some cool friends and I learned how to make pizza dough), but I also feel like I’m in a bit of a rut. This is the absolute longest I’ve ever had a full-time job and it’s kind of made me complacent. There’s nothing really wrong with my job, but I’ve used it as an excuse for a lot of stuff. I am all, I work hard all day, I deserve to come home and watch TV and not really do much of anything. Not that there’s anything wrong with TV — it’s more that there’s something wrong with never “having time” to do stuff I actually like. Obviously this is a gross first-world problem — but I have nonetheless been in a funk. I don’t like talking about my feelings on the internet, but I have been having them, and they have mostly been frustrated with myself.

Where's my book deal?

But is a new year, so it’s a good time to make changes. Positive changes. I have generally not been a believer in resolutions because I think they’re cheesy and they generally set you up for failure, but I could use some resolve this year, so I am making them anyway! Here are my changes of positivity:

  1. Read more: Books, specifically. I read a lot of the New Yorker and the internet, so I’m not setting a number goal here, it’s really just about making time for all the stuff on my shelves.
  2. Cook more: Try out at least 2 new recipes a month. I am a halfway decent cook, when I actually put in the effort and let myself be adventurous; also it is fun and happy making to come home and turn stuff into stuff you can eat and then eat the stuff.
  3. Work out more: I bought a gym membership last year, and when I was going regularly I really noticed a difference. Not so much in losing weight, but in terms of muscle tone and energy and strength and stuff. It sort of fell apart when things got busy in September, but I need to get back on it. I’ve started saying that I’ll go whenever I don’t have something else going on after work; I’m shooting for at least twice a week, which seems sustainable.
  4. Take more photos: I have an amazing camera that I don’t use nearly enough.
  5. See more movies: Especially in the theatre. This year was not a big cinema attendance year for me. I used to see everything.
  6. Write more: Um, update my blog. Maybe weekly? Maybe start doing the strict writing about every movie I see thing? I liked that thing.

So press record, I’ll let you film me

I have a post in my head about how amazing Gossip Girl was tonight, and a Glee post I have been trying and failing to write for months now, but I am not in a position to write anything coherent right now for reasons that should stay off the internet.

I am basically just watching this video on repeat to comfort myself:

I tumblr’d this already with a different YouTube embed, but I am pretty much dying of awesome over here. I love almost everything Beyonce does, but this is maybe my favourite video of hers. It is basically her shooting dayglo guns at men with cameras for heads and adjusting her gold bra/breastplate, with Lady Gaga. It’s so amazing because on the one hand all this stuff makes it seem like this really straightforward commentary on Beyonce’s role as subject of the male gaze and her aggressive response to same – -again, she shoots bullets and arrows at dudes with giant video cameras for heads — but she still is not wearing pants. Lady Gaga always does self-aware, but it’s usually like “Look, I’m being self-aware, enjoy me!” (which I do). When B does self-aware, it’s this weird complex thing where she’s self-aware, and she’s badass, but she’s also still somehow presenting herself very carefully as a brand, and she still brings this incredible sense of passion and abandon to everything she does. But in a way that seems calculated. It’s like a faucet of abandon she turns on and off. Look at her and Gaga dancing side by side. Gaga does all the steps, but Beyonce does them with fervor. She hits it harder, she pushes it further, she snaps back faster. That’s what I’ll always love about Beyonce, no matter who else comes along; she lives in this weird dichotomy of, like, crazy passionate fire and total self-control and self-packaging.

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