Thoughts, notes, observations on the everyday nonsense of American Pop Culture from one of the most not-hip people on the face of the planet...

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Too much Passion, not enough Christ

Mel Gibson may have completely lost it…but in an artsy, Stanley Kubrick sort of way.

His latest film, The Passion of the Christ, is typical Gibson in its epic portrayal of a Christ-like figure (hey, this time, it really IS Christ!), but with far more at stake than kilts and Oscars.

A very religious born-again himself, Gibson took his own obsession, his own fascination with the death of Christ, and stretched it into a bloody, beautiful two-hour allegory of epic proportions. While brilliant on an artistic scale, the film is so focused on Christ’s torture and pain that, socially, it veers dangerously close to being a snuff film.

With arguably the best marketing campaign in the history of film, The Passion will be widely viewed and discussed because of its alleged religious/social message. While I realize this is a literal translation of an ancient religious text, from this secular standpoint, the message is missing from this film.

The film’s very literal translation is both its greatest accomplishment and its greatest downfall. By ripping scenes directly from the pages of the Bible, one has to write-off any semblance of characterization or back-story. It seems the apostles weren’t much into description. They were more like good journalists: leaving in the quotes, but taking out the adjectives.

Viewers have no idea what anyone’s motivations truly are. For a movie about Jesus, we know nothing about him, or anyone else. From watching the film, one can only gather:

-The Jewish people, particularly the rabbis, are pretty bloodthirsty folks who turned on Jesus with a really effective negative PR campaign

-The Romans are sadistic drunkards, beating Christ much like Southern good ole boys dragging an unlucky black man behind their pickup.

-Simon feels…something. Pity? Love? Who knows?

-Pilate was an okay guy. He was just doing his job, yo.

For Christians, the movie may carry a message. They know what they believe and can apply their own motivations to the film. The message is supposed to be that of unconditional love for fellow man, characterized in Jesus’ plea for humanity’s forgiveness as he dies. However, (again, from a secular standpoint), the message seems lost in translation. For this secular viewer, a final ten minutes of “love they neighbor” cannot overpower the two hours of ass kicking that came before.

This lack of characterization and, dare I say plot, is what should keep the film from serious consideration. While all the awards in the world can be given for scope of vision and good intentions, plot is still important and this film doesn’t have one. Unlike Martin Scorsese’s vision of the J-Man in The Last Temptation of Christ, this film took no creative license with characters or events, and that very expansion of relaity what good film is all about.

In fact, the film’s stunning audio and visuals are the only real creative part of the film and its saving grace (no pun intended). Gibson proves himself to be a better cinematographer than anyone imagined, making a film without CGI be unwaveringly mesmerizing. The use of real sound, detail shots, fade transitions and representative imagery is the real storyteller here.

A hooded, haunting figure circles Christ in the torture yard and hangs over his shoulder in Gethsemane. A snake encircles his feet at a time of pain and doubt. The sound of nails meeting flesh. Mary crunches stones in her hands at Calgary as her son is mounted on the cross. The drip of blood. Rocks being dropped to the ground during the “ye who have no sin may cast the first stone” lesson. Aramaic being spoken aloud.

This is the sort of tangible storytelling that gives filmgoers goosebumps. But without crucial plot and characterization, all it ends up doing is giving us the willies.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Let’s take a moment to appreciate: Eamon

Even if you’ve never turned on pop radio, you’ve heard the quintessential R&B ode to love. They can be found playing in department stores and faintly heard over the stereos of men trying to get laid via “slow jam.”

Boyz II Men and Keith Sweat perfected this “art form” in the 1990s and R. Kelly seems to me its modern mainstay.

Enter Eamon, a 19-year-old white boy from Staten Island, to turn the genre on its head. His first single “I don’t want you back,” is getting a lot of call-in requests and watercooler buzz. Gee, I wonder why?

The song, written by Eamon himself, starts out with the token slow jam beat and Babyface-esque “Whoa, oo, no no no.” The first verse begins the song of normally enough, with the intro to this poor kid’s story of heartbreak: “I don't, know why, I like you so much/ I gave you all of my trust
I told you I loved you, now that's all down the drain/ You put me through pain
I wanna let you know, how I feel…”

What follows probably shocked the Hell out of the first DJ who heard the single.

You quickly find out that this is not your older sister’s pop-soul. The soaring and absolutely dead-serious chorus features eight f-bombs, two “shits” and one “hoe”. Nope, this is bitter tidings, and absolutely hilarious.

While the excessive use of profanity and flat-out sex-slang lyrics are pretty amusing, what makes this song ingenious is Eamon’s sad-sack soul delivery. The boy dead-seriously sings his heart out…like a pre-molestation-charged R. Kelly.

An unlike other wannabe-daring pop tunes (“She Hates Me” for instance), hearing this song bleeped to the extreme on pop radio is just as funny (if not funnier), than hearing it uncensored.

So, I salute you, Eamon, for creating an R&B song everyone with a sense of humor and a bitter past can appreciate. Here’s hoping it won’t be your last.

(Click here for full lyrics

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

NC-17 busts out

Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers – about sexual experimentation among students during the 1969 street riots in Paris – has just been released with- get this-an NC-17 rating.

Of course, you may say, this is the same guy who made us see Marlon Brando el flagrante in Last Tango in Paris, of course it is rated NC-17 (as Paris was in 1997). So what’s the big deal?

The big deal is that Dreamers is being released by Fox Searchlight, a division of 20th Century Fox. Big studios usually like to keep their hands (and names) off on NC-17 films because of their limited release. NC-17 films can only be shown on certain screens and most big movie theater chains won’t touch them.

Additionally, most newspapers won’t even advertise for NC-17 films…but Dreamers has somehow busted that mold too. The New York Times has been advertising the film in its paper and on its site heavily over the past month.

Could it be that the nation, and the film industry, is finally realizing that NC-17 can still be art? Instead of avoiding such films altogether, or relegating them to the back pages of Entertainment Weekly, this time, it seems, the industry and the media is recognizing art in a mature package, and promoting it as such.

Too bad this did not happen in the past. Films such as 1998’s Orgazmo (one of my all-time favorite gross-out films), 1996’s Crash (features one of the most twisted sex scenes ever) and Jon Waters’ Pink Flamingoes in 1997 may be rightfully kept from newspaper advertisements for being a bit too crude. And films with titles such as Tie me Up, Tie me Down (!) and the epic Flesh Gordon would simply stand out at the local Cineplex.

But what of films such as L.I.E. (2001), which is a haunting story of pedophilia and coming of age? Todd Solondz's Happiness explores very similar territory in 1998 and was heralded. What’s the difference? A couple of male nude scenes?

Or, how about Evil Dead? Or Beyond the Valley of the Dolls? These films, now practically cult classics and name-dropped by every film critic, were also rated NC-17 in 1994 and 1990, respectively. (For a list, go here.

Of course, the NC-17 rating is relatively new, replacing the X rating in 1990. (The X rating, I’m happy to report, is alive and well over in the porn section of your area video store) Prior to the switch, films such as Midnight Cowboy, an Oscar-nominee, had been rated X.

But why were films like Last Tango in Paris given NC-17 while Boogie Nights, which featured graphic sex, nudity and the money shot to end all money shots, was Oscar-nominated? I mean, as a curious 16-year-old, I had an easier time renting that than Crash (but, as a show of our system, I was able to get both…and invited many friends to watch them with me).

Hopefully, Dreamers has broken open a hole (so to speak, he he), that other movies can take advantage of in the future. Perhaps in the coming years, NC-17 films will not simply be written off as “too violent” or “too sexual” to be art. Until then, every film-loving underager will just have to sneak it from the video store.

Monday, February 09, 2004

Grammy show: play-by-play

8 pm

Well, we kick the show off in style with the man himself, Prince, rocking out. The guy hasn't aged a day since Purple Rain. That sort of freaks me out. I was really hoping he'd perform with Outkast....but Beyonce isn't a bad choice of duet.

And...Beyonce wins the first award. Big freaking surprise, right? I expect her to clean up tonight.

And the would has a collective "WTF" moment was Sting, Vince Gill, Dave Matthews and Pharrell do the Beatles' "When I saw her standing there." But the whole random-pairing game doesn't suck here...this sounds really good. Gill, Matthews and Sting harmonize well together...and Pharell plays drums better than Ringo (which doesn't take much).

While I knew No Doubt would win best pop performance, they don't deserve it. They had an off year, and if we're talking pop, "Stacy's Mom" is as pop as it gets. Boo.

Christina Aguilera, ho-hum. At least she isn't flashing anyone or making out with Madonna.

BB King just hit the stage with Aerosmith. I'll bet he is seriously all about "best rap album." Poor guy. They drag the King out there for THIS?

But, there must be a God tonight...50 Cent didn't win. Although everyone else nominated are far better, he's the "pop favorite." Grammy voters are so out of touch, I figure they vote this category based on Entertainment Weekly's covers. Thank God Outkast won, they deserve it.

I'm surprised the White Stripes turned out. I guess I thought they'd want the indie cred of standing the Grammys up. The bass line on "7 Nation Army" is entirely too fast. It sounds too rushed.

Nice to see CBS plugging away at us. I don't watch CSI or Joan of Arcadia...and it won't happen now. But Martina McBride is incredible...I'm glad she did "Concrete Angels" over her other hits.

As per usual, the Academy nominated a bunch of older guys and a random newcomer for rock performance. And somehow, Justin Timberlake is now rock. Weird. I guess the voters think he has to fit there since he's white and all.

Oh! He did not just go there! JT apologizing for the boob incident? This is very mature of him...and he seems to be responding well to all of the talk. Good job, Justin.

Patti Labelle in a tribute to Luther Vandross, what a good idea. Its too bad CBS had to keep Janet Jackson from joining in on the tribute. Alicia Keys is such a natural fit to sing Vandross songs...those two need to duet when/if he's back in the biz. They should have had Labelle sing with her, it would have been much stronger.

Richard Marx and Celine Dion on "Dancing with my father." These two belong together in the lame hall of fame. Oh! Her mic doesn't work! Are we really so lucky? No...I guess not...they had to fix it. Boy, what an embarrassment. Even now it sounds bad, and you could hear the backup channel from the directing booth. Bad form.

It was great to have Vandross beamed in. I'm shocked he didn't get a standing O.

9 pm

Uh-oh, it's Madonna. What's her game? She better not kiss anyone. Introducing Sting and....Sean Paul? Huh? Sting again? Couldn't they get a better selection of aging rockers to mix into this crowd? This is a bit excessive, even if it is "Roxanne."

This duet thing is so messed up. It's like watching a car accident....I can't turn away from the carnage. This isn't even really a duet...just Paul singing to a similar tune, with Sting's lyrics randomly inserted. Yuck.

Hilary Duff looks a bit trashy. And she thinks it’s a pep rally....funny. The category for female pop vocal was rather weak...I mean, Kelly Clarkson? Christina deserved it for "Beautiful." It's the only song of any remote depth on there.

Ok, so I didn’t plan to comment on commercials…but watching the “Survivor” commercial makes me want to laugh. Is it wrong for me to hope the “shocking moment” is one of them getting eaten?

Back to the show. Oh! Justin meets jazz. “Senorita” sounds great with a jazz feel. Timberlake should do more work like this, instead of pandering to teens all of the time. This is really clicking well with his style. Art Sandoval! Seriously, this is cool. Is JT really playing keyboards? Hm. I’m way impressed.

The Academy is only now giving the Beatles the Presidents award? Oh gee, why isn’t Ringo or Paul here to accept? Are they too busy to make an appearance? I think it’s great they got the wives to come. Mrs. Harrison’s wife has made a fantastic speech…but Yoko? How is she getting cheers? She allegedly was the downfall of the band and they cheer her? Funny. And, as per usual, you can’t understand a word she says. Ringo “I’ve been on television a long time” Starr! Yeah, he’s the conductor on “Thomas the Tank Engine,” that works. Paul needs to just not sing right now….I hate to say it about a legend, but c’mon, this is cheesy.

As glad as I am that the Black Eyed Peas are performing…they have much better songs than “Where is the Love?” I guess they just wanted it for the theme and Justin Timberlake cameo.

What’s up with the female country vocal nominees? None of them are the current country girls. I love Dolly, Patty, June Carter and stuff, but it’s a lot of older nominees, as per usual. Obviously June’s going to win….but I have no clue why she was nominated.

Beyonce and interpretive dance? How odd. The choice of numbers tonight are pretty bland, this isn’t exactly the most energizing night.

10 pm

Evanescence? Best New Artist, who are they kidding? Of course, Fountains of Wayne is not new at all…and even though 50 Cent isn’t the height of talent, but he is a much better pick than a band as without talent as Evanescence. Let’s hope the “Best New Artist curse” keeps up and dooms these wannabe Goths to a sophomore slump.

OK, how are all of the members of Earth, Wind and fire still alive? I love the idea of Outkast joining them…they seem to really dig the song. And I love their added bass line. Can I say it? Andre 3000 is such a pimp. Seriously. And who is this Robin and some band? I feel shut out of the loop now.

What is up with Sam Jackson? Is he the black music representative tonight? Weird. George Clinton is showing his age tonight. He doesn’t seem to be feeling it right now. But I love that Outkast and George Clinton are on the same stage. This is phenomenal, it's too bad it doesn’t sound better. Maybe it’s too much of a good thing.

Oh lord, they did NOT just have these legendary people sing a verse from “Get Low”. That song is such crap and these guys are much better than a song by 'lil Jon. Jesus.

Ah, I along with the rest of the country…realized that they missed Dave Grohl just now. And Chick Corea? I wouldn’t have thunk it, but it seems to be working well. OF course, it is sad to see a legend playing backup to a Nirvana leftover….

Coldplay….I can deal with “Clocks” as record of the year….I mean, they DO sound like U2.

Sarah McLaughlin isn’t fit to play harmonica for Allison Kraus. How is the legendary Kraus get stuck on violin duty. Twice now, a legend has become the backup tonight.

Album of the year will so obviously go to Zevon…if only because he’s, well…dead. That’s how the Grammys like it. But it was a good album and an award way overdue for Zevon.

Man, it’s always a bummer to see the dead person reel at these shows. I always find out ten people I had forgotten about had died. You have to live the death over and over again…*sigh*

Wow, this show has waaaay too many tributes to dead people. I don’t even know we are in the program anymore. I haven’t seen a live singer for a while.

How out of touch do you have to be to think “Dance With My Father” was the best song this year. It was written with Richard Marks….I mean, for real.

Outkast again! I knew they’d have to do “Hay Ya!”. It’s waay to popular to be ignored here. At last, redemption! But hey…are those Andre’s nipples? Scandal! Oh, awesome…a drum line too. This is what I wanted the halftime show to be last week. Perfect.

Album of the year…oh, this just got ridiculous…I’m so scared Evanescence will win this award…and that I wrong in every shade. Oh, thank God…Outkast again. All is okay with the world.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Spike Lee IS Black History Month?

I have to say, the "best" part of Black History Month is when organizations attempt to participate by bringing in token "successful black people" as speakers. Last night, Spike Lee addressed Kent State University, for no reason other than the fact that it is Black History Month and he is Spike Lee.

While I have a deep appreciation for the cultural relevance of Lee's films....I have no such love for his public speaking abilities. Spike is not only a god-awful speaker, but he had absolutely nothing to say. He had no message. No topic. Just, "Hi, I'm rich and black."

I thought he'd talk about the importance of education in the black community, offer some sort of inspirational story from his remarkable background. But no.

He talked about Janet Jackson's boob, how we should see his films and a little bit about current events (even though he struggled to actually name one of the Democratic candidates besides Sharpton when discussing primaries). He did manage to get a lot of "white man putting us down" in there, though, when he couldn't think of a topic to move to.

This is not what Black History Month is supposed to be about, is it? Shouldn't we be spending this time focusing on the past achievements of African-Americans and look to brightening the future? Shouldn't it be about coming together instead of further segregation into "us" and "them"?

Nelly: Rapper or Cosmic Joke? You Decide.

Nelly is an enigma in the world of rap. He dresses like a thug, yet he wears a band-aid on his face. He talks like he's from the ghetto, but he actually hails from an upper crust area of St. Louis (he even went to private school).

In other words, he's that guy Eminem defeated in the final rap battle of 8 Mile. A suburban boy pretending to be a dangerous man.

And it is painfully evident in all of his music, not to mention is Super Bowl appearance. Sure, he sings about the usual: cars, hos, money and drugs. In short, he does nothing to set himself apart from his contemporaries of "popular rap." He might as well be the final wheel on the car of mediocrity that includes Ja Rule, Chingy and 50 Cent.

Unlike rappers such as (early) Snoop Dogg, LL Cool J or even Eminem...these guys have absolutely no style to call their own. In fact, they like it that way.

Why? Because they are pop acts in Fubu. Bubblegum disguised as malt liquor. These are the white boys' rappers.

Simple, meaningless rhymes (Hey, we have no real issues to sing about! Wait, was THAT was rap was supposed to be about?), typical upholding of racial stereotypes and typical reliance on the all-important "pop hook."

Yes, it IS ironic that Nelly makes an appearance in protege Murphey Lee's "Wat the Hook Gon' Be?"

He even goes so far as to sing about how he doesn't need a hook to rap well...Just a track playing in the background... as if he has some sort of rap skill.

Hmm...well, that's funny, considering all of his recent songs have blatantly relied on pop hooks. Hence, why his "hits" really only exist on pop radio. Hell, he hasn't had a real rap or original beat since "Country Grammar," which was a fantastically rapped and produced album.

What has Nelly done for music lately? We have the spring break white boy anthem "Hot in Herre," the 3-minute Nike commercial throwaway "Air Force Ones" and the could-only-be-done-by-Puff Daddy "Shake Ya Tailfeather." Quality, to be sure.

Rap, in its purest form, was never meant to be something a Jeep full of frat boys could sing along to. The entire basis of rap music was complicated, tongue-twisting rhymes in the best sense of oral tradition.

Nelly blows all of that out of the water, catering to the audience he knows is buying his CD. Suburban kids, just like him.

I reviewed a Nelly concert this past fall...and I thought I had mistakenly wandered into a Linkin Park show. Oh, Nelly knows who's buying those tickets and downloading those CDs... he can see it in their Abercrombie visor-shaded faces as he looks into his audience. And he's creating crappy little pop hits just for them to gobble up.

So, is he a marketing genius capitalizing on the mainstream popularity of "rap"? Or is he just a no-talent trend flash? I'm going with the latter...but, hey, you decide for yourself.

Monday, February 02, 2004

Super Bowl Halftime Sucktacular

The world has gotten a much-needed wake-up call: MTV is bad. Very, very bad. Oh, wait, we already knew that.

After a spectacularly craptastic Super Bowl halftime, MTV really outdid itself with a "surprise exposure" of Janet Jackson's right breast on live TV. And America acts surprised...for some reason.

CBS acts like the Honor Roll student caught with pot at school. "I swear, that hood MTV just gave it to me to hold onto for wasn't my fault..."

And MTV just smiles like the cat that ate the slutty, leather-clad canary.

Now, due to overwhelming backlash, there's a chance that MTV will no longer be doing the halftime shows. And the world rejoices.

For a network as "hip" as MTV claims to be, the Super Bowl performances have been woefully behind the times. The two years it has produced the performances have been gut-wrenchingly awful displays of genre mixing and digging up fossils of hits long past.

Three years ago, MTV produced the halftime show that made this music critic weep. Mostly washed-up rock band and Super Bowl darling Aerosmith headlined the show. It was actually shaping up to be a great tribute to the rockin' works of a classic band...until MTV dropped a bomb of bubblegum that ruined everything. Because the US apparently can't handle an older demographic for halftime...MTV saved us by having Britney Spears and NYSNC garble and step-dance their way through "Walk this Way."

Apart from the knee-socks-on-the-arms trend Brit was rockin' that night, the entire spectacle was marred by the addition of these crazy-popular pop acts. It was as if Aerosmith was invited merely to give MTV a reason to allow Britney and Justin cover their song without paying royalties.

Two years ago, Clear Channel got it right (yes, I'm giving praise to Clear Channel...take note of the date). The halftime show featured, get this, ONE very popular artist and one great performance. Hearkening back to the memorable cheesefest of Super Bowl XXVII, with Michael Jackson's "Heal the World" show, Clear Channel brought in event-creators U2 to make a show worth watching. Their performance of "One", while displaying a scrolling list of 9-11 victims, was heartfelt and earth-shattering...a show discussed the next day at watercoolers because it was ACTUALLY GOOD.

Today, however, everyone is just talking about Janet Jackson's boob. Because it was the only interesting part of the whole show. The rest was very, very stale.

Lessee...we have Nelly singing "Hot in Herre", even though it was a hit in the summer of 2002. We have P. Diddy singing a song that was popular when I was in high school, though not by him (Biggie's "Mo' Money, Mo' Problems"). We have the momentous addition of Kid Rock, who hasn't had a hit since I've been legal to drink (that's three years). And yes, he too sang an old hit that practically had dust flying off of it as he wore a cut-up American flag as a shirt. Fantastic.

The addition of Janet Jackson was so obviously a ploy for attention. In the midst of her brother's scandal, she is merely nothing more than an aging sex goddess who hasn't had a hit since Velvet Rope a couple years back. Hell, she even wore the same outfit as she wore on that tour.

Was this meant to be the 2002 Super Bowl performance? Apparently not, because in 2002, you wouldn't have seen Justin Timberlake groping his alleged girlfriend's breast on national TV. His addition as the only actually relevant and popular performer is quite sad. The Houston marching band's rendition of Outkast's "The Way you Move" was more least that's a popular song RIGHT NOW.

Since MTV failed to get the year's biggest act(s) (which is what the show is allegedly about), it had to up the shock value. If the network learned anything from the Madonna-Britney kiss, it learned that shocking tape will get played over and over again. So, they had JT rip Janet's shirt to expose a breast. From the look of shock on both Janet and Justin's faces, maybe they revealed more than they meant to.

Whether they mean to reveal as much as they did is not the issue, however. This stunt was planned. Why would any woman intentionally wear nipple pasties if she were not planning to need them?

MTV pulled a fast one alright. It plunged its shock value/Jackass culture right into our all-ages mainstream...and it did exactly what it mean to do.

It got people talking on message boards, at watercoolers and prompted people like me posting about it in a blog.

We all fell for the game.