music friday: linda perry, pink, "what's up?", and sense8

In 1992, a San Francisco band called 4 Non Blondes released what would be their only album, Bigger, Better, Faster, More! The second single from that album, released in 1993, was “What’s Up?” It was a hit, and the video for the song was very popular on MTV. When the dust had cleared, that one album by 4 Non Blondes had sold six million copies. Critical opinion of “What’s Up?” varies ... it makes lots of One Hit Wonders lists, and also makes lists of the worst songs of all time. It’s got a catchy sing-along chorus, and the lyrics are vague and hippie-like.

Now, I would have thought this song came and went, occasionally recalled by folks nostalgic for that time in the early-90s when they were teenagers and this was their anthem. People like Alecia Moore, better known as Pink, who was born in 1979 and was a big fan of the song and Linda Perry, who wrote it and sang it. Pink asked Perry to work on her second album, Perry offered up the song “Get This Party Started”, and the album, M!ssundaztood, eventually sold thirteen million copies. On tour, Pink would sing “What’s Up?”. I caught this the first time I saw her in concert in 2002, and then again when she played the Fillmore in 2006. After that show, I wrote:

Her audience was completely in love with her ... there were a lot of young girls there, young women as well, as is appropriate, and it was their show, they knew every song and sang every lyric. They even knew every word to 4 Non Blonde's "What's Up," which Pink claims as her own. No matter how corny the song, or Pink's delivery of the same, it's quite a moment when all those youngsters throw the peace sign in the air and sing "hey hey hey hey, what's going on?" In fact, it's this element of pop community that I like best about Pink concerts, it would seem, since I wrote about a singalong in my blog post about that earlier show four years ago.

What's odd is that Pink hooked up with Linda Perry for M!ssundaztood, and Perry wrote a lot of the songs for that album, when in fact Linda Perry had written the ultimate Pink song eight years before the two even met. So now Pink sings that song as if she's known it all her life, and based on the voices in the Fillmore who sang every word, her audience has known it all their lives as well, and it's a great pop moment that reflects the optimism of the young just as other Pink songs reflect their sadness. The song indeed no longer belongs to Linda Perry, it belongs to Pink and the fans who know and sing all the words.

Which brings us to the new Netflix TV series, Sense8. Briefly, Sense8 tells the story of eight strangers who have some kind of psychic/emotional link to each other (we’ve only watched four of the twelve first-season episodes, so I’m guessing this gets more clear as the show progresses). Near the end of the fourth episode, one of the eight drunkenly attempts to sing “What’s Up?” at a karaoke bar. All of the other Eight feel the song inside them, and it binds them together in a beautiful way that correctly identifies why “What’s Up?” works no matter how bad or irritating the song might be.

There wasn’t a dry eye at my house. Kinda makes me hate the song, but damn, does it work!

In a fascinating article on the series (“Sense8 and the Failure of Global Imagination”), Claire Light argues convincingly that the show offers “a beautiful vision, if you believe in universality”, but that “To put it plainly: Sense8’s depiction of life in non-western countries is built out of stereotypes ... The universality being promoted here is a universality of American ideas, American popular culture, American world views.... ‘Universing’ everything under an American idea — an American set of choices — is a contradiction in terms”. (“The Icelandic DJ in London puts on 4 Non Blondes’ hideous anthem ‘What’s Goin’ On?’ and infects the entire cluster with a dancing/singing jag.”)

And yet ... that hideous anthem, which did indeed come from America, approached the universal long before Sense8, and not just because young girls knew all the words at Pink concerts. “What’s Up?” hit #1 in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland. Granted, this only disputes Light’s claim by half ... Africa and Asia and South America are missing from these charts. Her essay is very enlightening. But the pull of that “hideous anthem” somehow seems just right in this case.

Here are two more versions of the song. First, Linda Perry is joined by Pink for an acoustic version:

And finally, the version many think is the best, by He-Man:


mchale's navy thrown to italy

The fascinating website Television Obscurities (“Keeping Obscure TV From Fading Away Forever”) has spent the last 12 or so months taking a weekly look at TV Guide during the 1964-65 season. All by itself, TV Guide qualifies as a throwback for me ... we never missed an issue when I was growing up. Here are some items from their look at the July 17, 1965 issue.

  • The cover article, on McHale’s Navy moving to Italy, was written by Peter Bogdanovich.
  • Also appearing in that issue: Curt Gowdy, Walt Disney, Agnes Moorehead, and Nancy Wilson.
  • “CBS is working on a series for British singers Chad and Jeremy, said to be a musical version of Route 66.”
  • “Kate Smith will make six TV appearances next season”.

Here is the first episode of McHale’s Navy in Italy:


penny dreadful, season two finale

I don’t know if I can get the essence of Penny Dreadful into just one word. Excessive? Loony? Dreadful, in a good way? There is a kitchen sink feel to it all, as if creator John Logan had a bazillion ideas and wanted to squeeze them all in. Just looking at the characters reveals this. There’s Dorian Gray, Dr. Frankenstein, his monster, the monster’s bride ... there’s “Ethan” Lawrence Talbot, who is (hard to tell) either The Wolfman, his dad, or maybe his grandfather. There’s Mina Harker, and Doctor Van Helsing. Meanwhile, the apparent main characters, played by Eva Green and Timothy Dalton, are original to the series. (Off the top of my head, I can’t recall another show with both a James Bond and a Bond girl ... given that Logan writes 007 movies ... well, my head is going to explode.)

You get the feeling Logan has no intention of limiting himself. Religion matters, in a good-vs.-evil way, and Eva Green’s Vanessa takes a very personal road, believing in God but using her powers (demonic?) to the point where, knowing “who she is”, she rejects at least the symbols of God. The show’s presentation is voluptuous, full of gorgeous settings and moody music and supernatural happenings ... this is not a show that looks cheap. While Logan has a long tale to tell, he isn’t afraid of jumping this way and that for the sake of a good scene, so continuity isn’t always immaculate. Hey, you know what you’re getting from a show called “Penny Dreadful,” right?

There is some wonderful acting going on. Rory Kinnear’s take on the Monster is both frightening and heartrending, as it always is when the script allows and the actor is up to the challenge (i.e., The Bride of Frankenstein). Many of the others look their parts, which is half the job on this show. When you see Reeve Carney, you can believe he’s Dorian Gray before he has actually done anything. The same goes for Josh Hartnett as the token American.

But this is Eva Green’s show. Emmys aren’t given to the likes of Penny Dreadful, so Green is likely to join her Showtime stable mate Emmy Rossum as an actress doing terrific work without being noticed come Emmy time (pun intended, as always, re: Rossum). Green is totally fearless as Vanessa Ives. Her acting goes from quietly pensive to over-the-top, depending on what the scene requires. It’s in her over-the-top scenes that she really shines. It’s not too much, because it’s closely attached to the show’s overall tone ... she fits right in. Penny Dreadful would be an interesting show without her, but I doubt I’d be writing about it.

(I can’t talk about Green’s Vanessa without noting how much she reminds me of the great Barbara Steele, another dark-haired, odd-looking beauty who had the ability to grab a scene by the throat.)

Perhaps the most representative Penny Dreadful scene came in the finale. Dr. Frankenstein interrupts Dorian Gray and Mrs. Monster as they dance in a large ballroom in Gray’s mansion. First he shoots the monster, but it has no effect ... he doesn’t yet grasp what he has created. He then shoots Gray, but of course, he can’t die. After getting a picture of his future from his creation, Frankenstein leaves, and Gray and the Bride continue with their dance. They are dressed in white ... as they dance, a pool of their blood forms on the floor, while their clothes are increasingly soaked, as well. It makes no sense ... there is more blood than would have occurred if they were ordinary humans, and as near-immortals who cure themselves, they aren’t likely to bleed much, anyway. But the imagery is so extravagant, so soaked with atmosphere as well as blood, and Logan isn’t about to let a little nonsense stop him from giving us such decadent beauty.

But who am I kidding? For a scene to be representative of Penny Dreadful, you need Vanessa.

Grade for Season Finale: A. Grade for first two seasons: A-.


nancy marchand

Television critic Alan Sepinwall has a tradition of revisiting a series every summer, watching and writing about one episode a week. This year, he has chosen Season One of The Sopranos. We’ve gotten through the first three episodes. I bring this up because it was on this date in 2000 that Nancy Marchand, who played Tony Soprano’s mother Livia, died.

Here is the first time we meet Livia:

https://youtu.be/o45oIge8RzY


music friday: regina spektor

Regina Spektor was born in Moscow, and eventually made it to New Jersey, where she graduated from high school. Her music is often put in the anti-folk genre. Here are three of her bigger hits:

Fidelity”.

Better”.

The Sword and the Pen”.

Of course, there’s only one reason I’m including Regina Spektor on this episode of Music Friday. The new season of Orange Is the New Black, for which Spektor wrote and performs the theme song, was released today.

You’ve Got Time”.

The animals, the animals
Trap trap trap till the cage is full
The cage is full, stay awake
In the dark, count mistakes
The light was off, but now it's on
Searching underground for a bit of sun
The sun is out, the day is new
And everyone is waiting, waiting on you
And you've got time
You've got time...

Think of all the roads
Think of all their crossings
Taking steps is easy
Standing still is hard
Remember all their faces
Remember all their voices
Everything is different
The second time around...

Animals, the animals
Trap trap trap till the cage is full
The cage is full, stay awake
In the dark, count mistakes
The light was off, but now it's on
Searching underground for a bit of sun
The sun is out, the day is new
And everyone is waiting, waiting on you
And you've got time
You've got time
You've got time...

Here’s a live version:

And the Season Three trailer for OITNB:


hard times

Today we learned of the passing of Christopher Lee, and Ornette Coleman, giants in their fields. And then that silly thing about death coming in threes slapped us again:

 

Hard times are when the textile workers around this country are out of work, they got 4 or 5 kids and can't pay their wages, can’t buy their food. Hard times are when the auto workers are out of work and they tell ‘em to go home. And hard times are when a man has worked at a job for thirty years, thirty years, and they give him a watch, kick him in the butt and say “hey a computer took your place, daddy”, that’s hard times! That’s hard times!

 

#tbt


while i wasn't watching last week

I usually start a new week on this blog with a roundup of the movies I watched during the previous week. But I didn’t watch any this time around, so that’s out. I’ve been “online busy”, but not here ... I had the usual movie post, and a couple of Marianne Faithfull-centric posts, and that was it. Most of my blogging went to my recently re-opened World Cup blog, which may get a lot of my attention over the next month.

But I also found myself having “undercover” conversations on Facebook about Caitlyn Jenner. I wasn’t really writing anything, I was just posting links. And there was the “undercover” aspect of those posts (where “undercover” just means I engaged in “conversation” indirectly).

Someone I like, whose interests are often close to my own, and who is a very smart person (i.e. he and I share a lot of opinions), went off on a Caitlyn Jenner rant after the Vanity Fair cover. He said he was “astounded at the money-making pranks of Bruce Jenner” and concluded that “Jenner is a media ho through-and-through and even talking about the douche bag does an injustice to the real dialogue we should be having about women's rights.” I didn’t reply in the comments (hence, “undercover”), but instead posted a link to a short panel discussion of the issue that aired on ESPN’s Outside the Lines:

Having decided that I wasn’t making myself clear, I later posted a link to a piece by Christina Kahrl, who also appeared on the OTL segment. She wrote:

Whether you devour or despise celebrity coverage, Jenner is an important player in that conversation, not only because of what she has to say, now and into the future, but because the nature of celebrity affords everyone else the opportunity (and excuse) to start talking about it among themselves. ...

Take Jenner’s looks and the corseted glamour shot, for example. Sure, there’s a lot of money invested in achieving the look; Jenner had the means to spend it and chose to do so. Some might fidget over women allowing themselves to be sexualized in such a way, but Jenner has made a choice that other famous and beautiful women such as Scarlett Johansson and Kerry Washington have been free to choose. There’s something ultimately transgressive in putting a beautiful 65-year-old trans woman in that kind of company. ...

So let’s welcome Caitlyn. She’s not just a conversation-starter, not merely a celebrity or just a person with privilege that some might envy. She is first and foremost a beautiful woman, a parent, an accomplished Olympian. But most of all, like all of us, she is somebody trying to make her way in the world. Let her do things her way, and karma might just pay you back by letting you do the same.

I was sadly not surprised when my posting of this link led to a comment from a friend that went on another rant against Jenner. In this case, I actually inserted myself into the conversation, asking if the commenter had read Kahrl’s piece. She admitted that she had only seen the Vanity Fair cover that accompanied my link, and hadn’t noticed that I wasn’t just posting the picture but linking to an important article.

I used to write more on this blog about what gets the category tag “Current Affairs”. I do much less of this now, because I don’t feel I have enough personal insight or expertise, but even more, because other people who do have that insight and expertise have already written what I want to say, and I don’t often see the point of just posting a bunch of links. Even here, I am focusing less on my opinion re: Jenner, instead looking at the dynamics of Facebook conversations while letting Christina Kahrl say what I think needs to be said.

There’s another thing. Over the years, I have grown tired of a certain method of bringing up a subject that first insists on establishing a distance from that subject. For instance, “I have never once seen a reality TV series, and I couldn’t name a single Kardashian other than Kim, but I think ...” followed by an explanation of why this one thing a Kardashian did was good. Such an approach is more interested in proclaiming the writer’s immunity from popular culture than it is in making its supposed point. I do this myself, of course, but I try to catch myself in advance. So I didn’t want to frame a discussion of Caitlyn Jenner with my own take on reality television or the Kardashians. My relative ignorance about those subjects does not lead to insights, but rather means I lack knowledge in the area being discussed. So I fall back on links to the work of others.


mad men series finale

After Mad Men finally ended, my wife said she was sorry our show wouldn’t be on anymore.

While “our show” is a general term meaning “show we both watch”, I usually thought I liked it more than she did, so in a way, I was pleased by her comment. (Similarly, when she joined the audience applause after Mad Max: Fury Road, I was very happy that she had liked it.) I don’t think there’s a pattern to “our shows” ... some I like more than she does, some the opposite. You can usually tell when more than one show is on the DVR ... the person who picks what to watch is demonstrating a taste preference. I probably like Penny Dreadful more than she does, she probably likes Outlander more than I do. She definitely liked Sons of Anarchy more than I did, while Treme was more my favorite. What is most important is that these are shows we both like. Thus, as I began to process the end of Mad Men, I wasn’t alone, which seems to matter.

If I had to name my worst character flaw, the thing that led to actions I wish I could change, near the top, I’d note my willingness to piss on other people’s pleasures. I recall quite clearly when Frank Zappa died, and in the midst of heartfelt expressions of sadness, I said something glib about how Frank Zappa sucked. Time and place, as they say. I did this all the time. Even now, when I try much harder to be more tolerant, it slips out on occasion. Well, I suppose we all do it, but it’s usually the case that one can express their own taste preferences without trashing the differing tastes of others. Especially in something as taste-related as art, where there are no absolutes. Pitch Perfect 2 outdrew Mad Max: Fury Road on their first weekend, and that’s an interesting factoid worthy of a cultural context analysis. But liking one shouldn’t negate the possibility of liking the other, and it’s pretty much irrelevant anyway ... unless you’re looking at that cultural context, you don’t need to mention Pitch Perfect 2 in your review of Fury Road. And if you loved Fury Road, there is no reason to dismiss Pitch Perfect 2, especially if, like me, you haven’t seen it yet.

I mention all of this after reading a large number of pieces on Mad Men since the finale. Mad Men is a smart show, and several critics noted that they raised their own efforts just to keep up. There has been a variety of critical responses to the finale, but the discussion still exists in a zone of respect ... one critic doesn’t hate on another critic because they don’t agree about this or that angle in the finale. My sense, though, is that those of us who are part of the “non-professional” audience don’t feel the same need to respect. We have our take on Mad Men, and those who disagree are idiots. Too often, I’ve acted that way myself. I like to think I’m better now ... blame the meds. But if I can change, or at least improve my behavior, how can I relate that to Mad Men? How can I turn this post into my longtime template, “Mad Men and Me”?

Well ... a major theme of Mad Men throughout its run revolves around the question of whether anyone really changes. As we got our final glimpses of the lives of these characters, I felt, not that the characters had all changed, but more than many of them had finally become comfortable with who they always were. Peggy has changed outwardly, going from secretary to copy chief, but her character arc wasn’t about her evolution as much as it was about how she fought to stay in the game, rising close to her real worth. She already had worth at the start of the series. By the end of the series, that value was more recognized. But it was always there. Similarly, Joan figures out how to get into a position to accomplish things she was capable of from the beginning. She isn’t a different person, just differently placed thanks to her hard work. (Both women have to fight to be recognized by others in this world, of course.) At first, Roger was a boozing, womanizing raconteur. At the end, Roger was a boozing, womanizing raconteur. He found the right woman at last, but he hasn’t changed ... he has just accepted who he is.

But what about Don? Much of the discussion about him is directed at that question, does he change? Some think the way he gradually lost the trappings of Don Draper over the final episodes prepared us for an actual change. Others look at the ending, where it is implied that Don, hanging out at Esalen, will eventually return to advertising and be a massive success, and see a pile of cynicism about how in the end, nothing changes, especially Don.

I think it is very hard for any of us to get outside of ourselves at times like this. I’m not even sure if we should try to be distanced. I know that it has long been accepted that critics should avoid having their opinions tainted by too much personalizing. I also know that I pattern myself after Pauline Kael ... hence, “Mad Men and Me.” Specifically, I think that what we brought to the finale seriously impacted how we interpreted the finale. For the most part, we saw what validated our already-existing impressions. And since Mad Men was a complex series, and because the audience is made up of complex humans (a redundant phrase), a variety of people constructed a variety of impressions, so our takes on the finale are diverse.

I will give you a rather embarrassing example. A popular game as we neared the finale was to guess what the last song would be. My own guess was Rod Stewart singing Dylan’s “Only a Hobo”, which I suppose reflects my notion that Don would never change, that he would never outgrow the hobo mentality. As “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” came on, I was locked into that guessing game. I saw the slight smile on Don’s face as he chanted “Om”, subconsciously thought about how I wanted Don to turn out, and decided that smile meant that he’d finally seen the light ... about his life. I thought the song was appropriate, if ironic, and I took it almost at face value. (Keep in mind, in the fall of 1970, I was acting out my desire to be a hippie, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I wanted something similar for Don.)

Imagine my surprise when I find that virtually everyone saw the connection between Don’s smile and the Coke ad as a sign that Don had returned to McCann, pulled off that Coke ad, and once again returned to the top of the ad game. That never occurred to me, although it seems obvious with hindsight.

Again looking at what I was bringing to the table: I don’t like advertising. The fact that Mad Men focused on advertisers worked on me rather like The Sopranos did by focusing on mobsters. In the age of the television anti-hero, I rooted against the characters as much as I rooted for them. Don was a brilliant ad man, but he was an ad man, just the same. Since I ultimately wanted to like Don, I wanted his escape from advertising to be real. So I didn’t even see that he came up with the Coke commercial at Esalen.

I’m not exactly “wrong” ... Matthew Weiner at least left things open-ended enough to leave room for multiple interpretations. But the point remains: my interpretation of the final scene was impacted by what I personally brought to the table. Which is always the case with criticism, in my oft-stated view ... it’s just a matter of whether or not the critic admits it.

And so, the moment that hit hardest for me in the finale was directly related to my personal life. I have said since the first season that Betty Draper reminded me of my mother: talented, good-looking, giving up her talents to be a housewife and mother, submerging her best qualities. When Betty shot those birds with a cigarette hanging from her lip, I saw my mom, even though as far as I know she never shot a firearm in her life. As the end of Mad Men approached, Betty got cancer. It was inevitable that someone on the show would get it ... the incessant cigarette smoking was a running joke throughout the series. Well, my mom died of cancer, too. And when I picture her last days in my mind, I see her sitting at a dining table, cigarette in hand, insisting on enjoying one of her only pleasures until the end. The picture in my mind looks exactly like how Betty Draper looked, the last time we saw her. For the average viewer, that shot fit into their vision of Betty Draper. For me, that vision meant I saw my dying mother, cigarette in hand.

Mad Men was never perfect (except, perhaps, when Don gave us The Carousel). The disappearance of gay art director Sal Romano was sad, and he never returned. At least Sal had his time as a significant character ... it is hard to feel badly about the disappearance of any particular character of color, because there were so few of them, and they were so marginalized. Betty Draper was written so inconsistently that January Jones never got credit for her fine acting.

But the pleasures far outweighed whatever problems existed. If I had to list some of those pleasures, I’d point to the actors. Who knew Jon Hamm before this show? I sure didn’t. Elisabeth Moss was the president’s daughter on The West Wing ... on Mad Men, she was a grownup. Before Mad Men, her great work on Top of the Lake would have been startling. After Mad Men, it was just further proof that she was very, very good. And Christina Hendricks, a fave since Firefly, finally got the break she needed ... now everyone knows who she is.

Best of all was Kiernan Shipka as Sally Draper. Only six years old when the series began, Shipka made it possible for Sally to become increasingly important over the years by being that rarest of creatures, a child actor who just keeps getting better. Mad Men could have existed without Shipka ... witness Sally’s brother Bobby, who was played by four different actors over the years. But it would have been a different Mad Men, because Shipka brought it year after year. By the end, Sally Draper was clearly the one character that would have made you watch a spinoff. And a delightful future is in store, as we get to watch Shipka continuing to grow. (It doesn’t hurt that Sally was the one main character who was an actual baby-boomer ... she was born a year after I was. Much of Mad Men consisted of people acting like my parents did. Sally acted like I did.)

Was Mad Men one of the greatest of all TV dramas, or just one of the best? It maintained a high level over its entire run, it gave us a multitude of interesting characters, it showed us a vision of the 1960s, it introduced new-to-us actors ... maybe it was never perfect, but it came closer than most series. When it was on, it was always one of the top shows ... if all of our shows were on the DVR, Mad Men would have been the first choice as often as not. Yes, I’d say it was great. People already miss it so much, they’re filling the Internet with arguments and memories, and the show hasn’t even been gone for 24 hours yet. Grade for series: A+.