Archive for the 'TV' Category

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

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.

Big boy rides, big boy ice


If I was going to have a threesome with a movie star, I would probably want to do it to this white girl cover of this hip hop song.

Whatever You Like – Anya Marina

Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (Campbell?)


Oh, Mad Men! What a happy, satisfying, the-gang’s-all-back-together kind of an episode! I love how Trudy shows up with sandwiches for everyone, and there’s this warm familial sense that we’re all in this together etc etc. It was almost like watching a different show! Except for the part where Don of all people, who apparently has no self-awareness at all, or was just really angry and upset because his life was falling apart, I guess, called Betty a whore.

Is it weird that I feel weird about that? I have been thinking a lot about how people watch Mad Men lately, and I keep coming back to being surprised that a show like Mad Men — slow-moving, full of unlikable characters (the only exception being maybe Joan, and even then she is still kind of a bitch) whose unlikability you’re constantly being confronted with, about social issues and politics — is as popular and beloved as it is. I know people generally like things that are awesome, and if Mad Men is challenging it’s also compelling and funny and emotionally absorbing, but it still consistently surprises me that some people seem to love it despite apparently not having any idea what’s going on. (I.e. I don’t think the producers meant us to read Don molesting Bobbie Barrett as even a little bit of a proud moment, and I still read forum comments like “Woo! Don’s got his mojo back!” after that episode aired. Then I stopped reading forums about Mad Men.)

So, I watched, I laughed, I totally cheered “Joan!” along with everyone else in the room when Roger said “Let me make a call.” It was seriously satisfying to see Don tell Roger how much he meant to him, tell Pete how actually prescient he is, tell Peggy how much he values and understands her talent, to see Harry get the credit he deserves; but at the same time I feel weirdly guilty about it. I’m supposed to get this feeling from, like, Buffy, the show where love saves the world, not Mad Men, the show about how love is just something guys like Don invented to sell stockings. It’s not that I expect Mad Men to be real, even, it’s more like I expect it not to satisfy my cheeseball desires. I expect to be carefully constructed to totally break my heart. I know NY Mag thinks that it “somehow didn’t feel like some ridiculous holodeck of phony caper-ness,” 1 but I still feel kind of wrong about it. The whole gang just working out of this one hotel room, starting everything anew in some kind of Utopian American Dream blank slate thing — it just seems so much like they were trying to throw me a bone. It feels nefarious; it’s the kind of happy capitalist ending that makes me want to go all Frankfurt school on the whole thing.

Why can’t I just let TV make people happy? I am not usually this weird grad school person who is suspicious of entertainment products that give people good feelings!

  1. Also this has been bugging me, the article claims that Joan has “been with fewer men than Peggy, so far as we know.” I think this is false. We know Joan has been with Kinsey, Roger, that random old dude she picked up when she and Carol went out that one night after Carol told Joan to pretend she was a boy, and her husband; in the pilot she also implies that she boned that creepy birth control doctor she sent Peggy to. Based on what we know, Peggy has been with Pete, that college kid she picks up, and Duck. And that could very well be the entire list of men Peggy’s been with. 

Being a cave painting

So we finally caught up on Mad Men in time for the season finale — which we’re supposed to watch with friends tonight, hence the hurry — and I’m so excited because I’ve been badly avoiding plot twist news for weeks now (I basically knew about most of the major developments, but Mad Men isn’t really that kind of show, so it didn’t really miss out on the experience).

I still have a lot to digest before I do a real post about this season, but I’m excited I can finally read all the posts in my feed reader I have been saving up. If you’re not already reading it, I recommend the consistently rewarding Footnotes of Mad Men, both on the Awl and on Tumblr, which is going to be a book I will buy! It does a lot of work making connections and unpacking a lot of the historical context.

Also, Rachel pointed out this Pandagon post on Facebook, and it is probably the best thing I have read about Betty maybe ever:

The conservative reaction to the Draper marriage shows exactly how effective that storyline is in making its point. A lot of liberals, I’ve found, are bored with Betty for another reason entirely. They can’t understand why she doesn’t just pick up and leave already, if she’s so unhappy. We’re on the other side of it—so feminist that it’s hard to wrap our minds around the psychology of someone who isn’t. But conservatives flip the fuck out, get defensive and start scapegoating January Jones, going so far as to argue that her dull affect is evidence that she can’t act, when in fact it’s evidence that the actress is being fearless in her portrayal of someone whose entire personality has been flattened out by boredom. That isn’t easy for an actress, you know. Most actresses have an urge to be sparkling and charming in every role they play, even those that don’t call for it. It’s because Hollywood is run by men, and you can get a lot farther being eye-catching and charming and making men think that they want to be around you. That Jones, who is very beautiful, is willing to be off-putting onscreen is brave. That she spends a lot of time onscreen making you wish she was far away is the fucking point. She’s supposed to make you uncomfortable.

Betty’s always one of the most controversial characters because she’s so unpleasant to be around, and that’s because she is so, so mired in this world that’s almost completely foreign to viewers now. One of the most persistent critiques you read of Mad Men from people who don’t like it (who are pretty few and far between) is that it constantly reminds you you’re in the 1960s and that takes you out of the story. This is pretty obviously the point of the show, and Betty’s Exhibit A in this argument because as much as you feel for her (or not, as the case so frequently seems to be), it is really hard to put yourself in her place or to understand her. It’s frustrating because she’s speaking English and living in a pretty similar world to the one we are now, but she doesn’t really give you any points of common ground. Betty’s the one who makes it the most clear that the past is emotionally incomprehensible; we can see cave paintings and we can read what they represent, but we can’t really ever know what they meant to people.

Mad Men Rewatch: Season 1, Episodes 7-9

The latest irregularly paced update in the rewatch. This show just gets better the more you watch it. Continue Reading »

Mad Men Rewatch: Season 1, Episodes 4-6

I realize it’s been over a month since the first Mad Men rewatch post, but an actual offline writing project interfered! I do have a game plan for the next few weeks to actually cover everything by the season premiere on August 16th. We will try, but I can’t promise they will all be 2,000 word epics like this one. I’m sure you will be disappointed.

In more general blog housekeeping notes, I do want to point out that my tumblr actually still gets regular updates, though most of them are just pictures of stuff I like. so like, lots of Gossip Girl and Mad Men, and occasional clips of Anderson Cooper being adorable.

Anyway, recaps/thoughts:

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Mad Men: The Rewatch

I haven’t written a ton about Mad Men since fairly early in its run, though I have loved it from the beginning, back when I had no idea how big it would turn out to be (at least in terms of buzz, if not in terms of actual people watching it). I wrote this shortly after. But since then, with the exception of the occasional note that Jon Hamm is really hot. (I know I’m trying to be all serious writer here, but, I’m sorry, he is! There was a whole episode of 30 Rock about it!)

Anyway, that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped watching. I’ve watched and watched and watched. I took Frank O’Hara’s collected poems out of the library after they used Meditations on an Emergency. But I’ve kind of never really felt equal to writing about it – I just have so much to say about it, and I think it says so much for itself.

But I’m rewatching it, and this time I will write out my thoughts more. I will, in all posts, be talking about stuff that’s happened up until the end of Season 2, so if you haven’t been watching the show, my posts will not be a very good primer. You should watch the show though, it’s a good show. (In Canada you can watch every thing for free at the ctv website; I do not know if there is any streaming version available to US audiences?)

Or, if you like rewatches that are about fun, not serious art shows being grad schooled to death when they are basically already doing all the stuff grad schooling usually does, like gender analysis and Making Points About America, and you are in America where the website works for you Tara is doing a 90210 rewatch at her work that is funny.


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You say I’m too kind and sentimental, like you could catch affection (Gossip Girl Season 2)

So I sort of fell off with the Gossip Girl blogging this year for two reasons: 1) I’ve sort of fallen off with all my blogging and 2) it got really hard to come up with things to say besides “So, Dan and Serena got back together and then broke up again. Again.” Though I loved parts of this season, there was definitely an ebb around the period of Blair getting kicked out of Yale (twice) for (as TWOP’s Jacob has pointed out) inviting someone to the opera at the wrong time, and the aforementioned Serena-Dan relationship yo-yo, not to mention basically the fact that disgusting Aaron Rose was ever on the show. It’s like they had 19 episodes worth of story, but they had to shoot 25.

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There Might Be Blood (Gossip Girl, Season 2, Episode 9)

Aw, I kind of loved Jenny’s guerilla fashion show. It reminded me of that scene in…I want to say Girls Just Want To Have Fun, where they crash a society party with their contemporary dance or whatever.

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