Fallen in Dark Days

 

gordon corell / flickr

Chris Cornell was undeniable. People who don’t like rock music know and love his voice. He slid between subgenres of rock music without ever compromising his instrument, a voice that had clean, clear power despite sounding like it was squeezed through a burning place before coming through our speakers. If you tried to imitate Cornell’s voice, you did it by singing in a way that hurt you. But it didn’t hurt him. That’s a small miracle.

I was seven when “Black Hole Sun” first came on the radio and on MTV, and it was the first contemporary rock earworm that infected me. While the chorus and the outro are probably responsible for making the song a hit, I love the verses, and how Cornell’s voice and Kim Thayil’s lead guitar are sharing the same simple scale. Even as recently as a week ago, I’d get it stuck in my head, and make up words to fill in for the parts I don’t remember: In my eyes / Indisposed / Wearing clothes that know one knows / etc. Words aren’t important for songs that you loved pre-Internet. I’ll never look up the lyrics. The ones I’ve been making up in my head with Chris Cornell for the past 23 years are all I need.

He also wrote and performed the best Bond theme, “You Know My Name,” for Casino Royale in 2006. This song had a huge challenge set ahead of it. Not only did it have to do all the usual work of a Bond theme—explicating some of the plot and theme of the movie it’s introducing, getting us hyped for the story head, and raising the stakes before the hero meets his villain—it also had the task of rebooting the series with a decidedly darker, more emotionally fraught tone:

Arm yourself because no one else here will save you

The odds will betray you

And I will replace you

You can’t deny the prize it may never fulfill you

It longs to kill you

Are you willing to die?

This song tells you that James Bond isn’t a hero anymore. He’s damaged goods. He’s an anti-hero. The song could literally be slotted into the title sequence of any of the gritty, anti-hero-driven miniseries or television shows that define the contemporaneous “golden age” of television and it would still make sense. “You Know My Name” describes Tony Soprano, Walter White, Jon Snow, Don Draper, and James Bond.

But at the same time, through the visuals of the title sequence, and the lush orchestration from David Arnold, it’s quintessentially a Bond theme. The Skyfall theme is somehow simultaneously too specific and too vague; the Quantum of Solace theme is the only part of the film more forgettable than the film itself; and the truly beautiful theme from Spectre has such a different set of goals – trying to tastefully leave room for the end of the Daniel Craig era of Bond films – that it’s really in a separate category. But as a warning shot, as a statement of purpose on what Bond has come to mean for audiences over the past eleven years, “You Know My Name” rewrote the rule book, and raised the bar. It’s in a very small group of songs that are worth listening to completely divorced from the context of their attendant Bond film, along with Duran Duran’s “A View to Kill” and Sam Smith’s “Writing’s On the Wall.”

And honestly, just listen to that chorus again. The line, “You can’t deny the prize / It may never fulfill you” is masterfully performed. I think about that lyric regularly, when I’m not rewriting Soundgarden ones.

To get this far and not mention Audioslave is a disservice to their legitimately enduring contribution to rock and alternative music, but it would be hard to do justice to all the phases of Chris Cornell’s career in this space. Because I was too young when Soundgarden blew up, Audioslave was where I really cut my teeth on the Cornell sound. And like Andy Greenwald of The Ringer, I will ride to my dying day for “Like a Stone,” and a bunch of other tracks from that eponymous debut album. Pitchfork types would (and did) dismiss that album as what we now call dad rock, but I loved the album in high school and will love it after I become a dad rock kind of dad, too. It’s hard to perform muscular rock music that is, on its face, deeply emotional, and Audioslave made it look easy.

Obviously there were some unknown and unknowable hurts inside Cornell that aren’t my business. Depression and anxiety are widespread, and we’re still struggling with the stigma of discussing these and other mental illnesses as a society. We’ll get there. And hopefully, whoever the Chris Cornell of the future is will have an easier time carrying the burdens of her private and public lives, and her art.

But I feel lucky. The Chris Cornell of my generation was Chris Cornell. Small miracle.

 
 

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weird, happy adults.

 

Embracing Joy – NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour

NPR’s podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour is my go-to weekly briefing on pop culture (just as, hopefully, “the work” is yours). The show features a roundtable of culture writers for NPR, hosted by the likeable Linda Holmes. I first found PHCC back in 2015, when they were discussing this very new and at the time little-known show on Comedy Central called Broad City, a show I couldn’t recommend enough when it first started. And here was a thoughtful discussion that I found myself nodding along to as I listened in the car. I was in. These were my pop culture critics.

Of course, PCHH isn’t the only pod out there doing this – Slate’s Culture Gabfest comes to mind ­– but there’s a different aesthetic to PCHH that’s highlighted right there in the name: Happy Hour. That doesn’t imply the hosts shy away from criticism, there’s plenty of that, but there’s mostly a joyful undertone to the discussions on the pod, with a focus on what they like and enjoy about pop culture, which I find refreshing, because too often, I think, it seems like if we’re not critiquing what we’re consuming, then we’re in some way not being a ‘responsible’ viewer/reader/listener.

Which is true, but sometimes – and I think this is the case with most folks – I just want to watch a Fast & Furious film (a franchise, by the way, beloved by the PCHH hosts) and be entertained, without worrying about the toxic masculine undertones.

In other words: if you don’t pick your battles, then everything becomes a battle, and who wants to live like that?

The final segment of every episode of PCHH is the “What’s Making Us Happy” bit, where the hosts recommend a piece of pop culture that they particularly enjoyed that week – a movie, song, comic, so on. I’ve picked up a lot of great recommendations from this segment alone, so if you’re not so into the pod’s main discussion (which never disappoints, even if they’re chatting about something I’m unfamiliar with), the weekly recommendations alone make the show worth it.  


America’s Sweetheart – Little Esther

Comedian Little Esther (aka Esther Povitsky) is one cool chick and an even cooler (read: funny as hell) comedian. I found out about Little Esther when I heard her on Jake Foglenest’s podcast, The Foglenest Files, back in 2013, when he was interviewing her about how she used to “collect hot girls” on her MTV show, Esther with Hot Chicks.

Esther, who is barely five feet tall, is also very cute, and it would be easy for most of her shtick to be about how she is not in the classical sense one of those “hot girls” she is so obsessed with, but she’s careful to make her comedy more than that. Sure, she admits she’s addicted to watching Kylie Jenner’s snapchats and blowing a lot of money at Sephora, but she also talks about gross body habits and weird sex acts and getting older. As a female who likes girly things but also can be gross and panicky about my future, I find her extremely relatable.

These days, Esther has a new show slated to appear on the Freeform network called Alone Together. Produced by Lonely Island, the show is described as “misfits making their way through the vain and status-obsessed culture of Los Angeles, only to find salvation in their male/female strictly platonic friendship.” The show will star Esther and her real life BFF, Benji. Based on the trailer, the show looks promising, which as a longtime fan excites me – I think Esther should be a household name, and I hope her new show will give her the exposure she deserves.

If you want more on Esther, you can listen to her podcast, Weird Adults, and you definitely ought to follow her very funny Twitter.

- rachel kolman, contributing culture editor

 
 

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all the bleeps that bloop.

 
"Anthony Quinn on The Dick Cavett Show, 1971," ABC / wikimedia commons

"Anthony Quinn on The Dick Cavett Show, 1971," ABC / wikimedia commons

Boys Will Be – Phil Lamarche’s American Youth

I bought a withdrawn book from the library five years ago, so naturally, I got around to reading it last week. In American Youth, a boy mostly referred to as “the boy” is on the cusp of high school and is growing apart from his closest friend Terry. When he’s hanging out with two other kids—brothers—he gets enticed into showing off one of his father’s rifles. After a terrible accident, the boy tries to balance his conscience against his mother’s hope for his safety, paternal pressure to not be a general fuckup in his absence, and his own longing to fit in with someone, anyone.

The boy eventually falls in with a budding hate group called the American Youth and gets his loyalty tested at every turn. On a plot level, the book is tight and propulsive, but when I knew that I was going to finish this book in two or three sittings at the most was when I came across this passage from when the boy has breakfast with his father, who has returned home briefly to check in after the accident:

“The boy and father sat kitty-corner to each other, the boy hunched, his head hanging. The father was barrel-chested and gray-haired. His elbows dug into the table, his eyes scrambled behind thick bifocals. As a child, the father had a cyst removed from his left eyelid and now it sagged slightly. It gave him an inquisitive, untrusting look.”

I only included those final two sentences for fun. What got me was the sentence about elbows, eyes, and bifocals. In a paragraph where 99 percent of writers would give you at least some information about the food on the table, Lamarche gives you verbs and adjectives that are easily applicable to food but used only to describe the boy’s father. I love a weird choice like that. It’s destabilizing, and somehow also assures you that you can trust the person creating this world.

Furthermore, this book, which came out ten years ago, presages things like the alt-right and the fallout from the Great Recession that was still a year down the line. And honestly, given the backlash against memoirs like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, it might serve us all to get our truth from fiction for a while. At least for the next hundred days or so.


Cavett Cavity – Problematic with Moshe Kasher

Comedy Central launched a new show two weeks ago, and it’s stepping into an important cultural gap that’s remained largely unfilled since interviewers like Dick Cavett stopped appearing regularly on TV. [1] Yes, there are hard-hitting and thoughtful shows from the likes of Charlie Rose and John Dickerson, but that balance of depth and unexpected ranginess in conversation, punctuated with spontaneous humor, is hard to come by.

When I was in high school and college, the show that could scratch all those itches was Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn, a panel show where Quinn would shoot the shit, roast and get roasted by other comedians in his New York orbit. It was the first showcase of Patrice O’Neal’s brilliant invective, and it disappeared way too soon from the airwaves. Now we have Moshe Kasher, and I think he is up to the challenge of filling Quinn’s shoes.

In each episode, Kasher announces a controversial topic and introduces a panel of two or three people to have a somewhat uncomfortable conversation on the topic. The first episode dealt with cultural appropriation, a subject of special interest to Kasher because he grew up as a wild child in Oakland, eager to fit in with his mostly black peers. He talks about calling his friend “nigga” and how his friend shut that down with the quickness. Also, Kasher co-hosted The Champs, a podcast that was prima facie created to facilitate conversations between Kasher, Neal Brennan[2], and their black guest or guests.[3] So, this is his zone. And early episode awkwardness notwithstanding, this show is doing some important work in televising conversations between curious, funny people on the subjects that dominate our news feeds. The second episode covered addictive tech, and included Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains; the third dealt with Islamophobia and included television director/producer Amna Nawaz, comedian Maz Jobrani, and writer Reza Aslan.

These are good conversations and, because Kasher has stated in interviews that he wants the show to have an old-school Phil Donahue vibe to it, he opens the floor up to pre-taped viewer questions and questions from the audience. I hope the show gets renewed and has a chance to build an audience visible enough to do some work outside the bubble of typical late-night Comedy Central viewers.


It’s a Trap! – Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes

Speaking of whether technology is ruining our brains, I’m currently managing a slight addiction to Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes, a smartphone game created by Electronic Arts in 2015. Although the game has been out for 18 months, new characters and combat modes and rewards are filtered into the mix almost monthly to reset my dopamine response to all the magical bleep bloops.

It's a simple RPG card collecting type of game. You build a stable of characters from different Star Wars properties—light side and dark side—and you create squads to fight in various missions to earn experience for new characters, gadgets, etc. Through in-app purchases, you can goose your stats and buy additional resources, and I try my best to only make one small purchase every two weeks. So far, so good.

Here’s when I knew I was in trouble. When I first started playing the game a few months ago, all the missions and adventures would reset every night at midnight. When they reset, you can complete a whole new slew of quests and get lots of colorful experience crystals and all the bleeps that bloop. I tend to get home from work close to midnight, so this was a great treat for me. I’d come home, settle in, and play the game for an hour or so before bed. It’s become a great ritual for unwinding.

Then daylight saving time hit and pushed all the reset times back to 1:00 a.m.

And I didn’t adjust my unwinding ritual. I’ve just added an hour of wait time after work where, even though I might wash the dishes or read a book or talk to the woman who shares my life when I’m not a galactic hero, I’m also in large part waiting for the clock to strike so I can go bleep all over those bloops.

Oh, and they added ships. I’m level 75, they added ships, and I have an hour to go until 1:00 a.m.

This game is tremendous fun. Please don’t download it. Admiral Ackbar knows why.

- brendon barnes, culture editor


 

[1] Cavett has been on network television intermittently since the 1960s, and I think he’s an unparalleled interviewer. His final major network show aired on ABC from 1986-1987. It’s been a while.

[2] Talented stand-up in his own right. Co-creator of Chappelle’s Show. Depressive.

[3] The Too $hort episode is an instant classic. As is their chat with comedian Tiffany Haddish.

 
 

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'we've gone too fast for too long'

 

daniel benavides / flickr

The Pivot – Silicon Valley’s Season Four Premiere

 When we last left the Pied Piper gang in season three of Silicon Valley, we were in total comfort zone – the sale of the company to Erlich and Big Head ensured that the group of techie misfits had a certain control now over their destiny. Which is no good for television. So, the season four premiere of Silicon Valley on HBO this past Sunday aimed to disturb that comfort a bit.

In the season opener, Richard finds himself displeased with the direction of the now successful Pied Piper as a video chat platform. He pivots toward an incredibly idealist notion of “creating a better internet.” It’s enough of an earnest but goofy endeavor to put Richard back in the path of ultimate douche investor Russ Hanneman. Which equals comedic gold: I laughed more in the three-minute interaction between Russ and Richard than I have at most things on television this year. Pairing Richard with Russ in his quest for a better internet will make for an entertaining new arc this season.

Richard pivoting away creates another brilliant plotline for season four – Dinesh (played wonderfully by Kumail Nanjiani) becomes the new CEO of PiperChat. The AV Club’s review has it right: “Moving Dinesh front and center is ripe with potential; Dinesh is a bad person who manages power very poorly, [plus] Gilfoyle’s deadpan excitement about how this could fail is contagious.” The Dinesh/Gilfoyle dynamic is probably my favorite thing about this show, so I’m glad we’ll have many opportunities to see them interact this season.

The flattest plotline for me is with Hooli CEO Gavin Belson (played by Matt Ross). Sure, making his pilot fly back and forth to Shanghai a dozen times just to prove Jack Barker wrong is funny in its Seinfeldesque pettiness, but I’m not convinced there’s enough there to sustain an entire third arc – especially since none of our major characters are associated with Hooli anymore. It makes me wonder if the show creators simply couldn’t cut the wonder of Gavin Belson from the show and found some way to work him in. I hope Gavin ultimately crosses paths with Richard & Co. once again, because when Gavin and Richard are at a crossroads, the show is at its best.


Young and Menace – The Progression of Fall Out Boy

Unashamedly, I’ve been a Fall Out Boy fan for a long time. Ten years ago, I was front row at one of the band’s notorious secret shows, wearing battered converse and a lip ring. When the band suddenly dropped a new song this week via Twitter, I hurried and gave it a listen, hoping it would capture what Fall Out Boy captured back in 2005, when they paired those soul-felt vocals with hard-chugging guitars.

Of course, this new single, titled “Young and Menace,” sounds nothing like Take This to Your Grave (arguably the band’s best record, next to the mainstream From Under the Cork Tree, which gave everyone their favorite MTV-friendly single, “Sugar, We’re Going Down.”) This new track features an EDM-inspired, thrashing, noisy chorus in between lingering, vibrato verses of, “we’ve gone too fast for too long,” and “we were never supposed to make it half this far.” It’s a meta-commentary that lyricist and bassist Pete Wentz is known for, but it’s not enough to make this track feel anything like a Fall Out Boy song.

Well, not the Fall Out Boy that lives nostalgically in my mind. In terms of musical progression, “Young and Menace” is not a far cry away from any of the songs on the band’s last release, American Beauty/American Psycho, which produced some very radio-friendly, electronica-influenced rock. Each record after Take This to Your Grave has incorporated more pop and production value, and by the time this song was over, which one review claims “sounds like three bad songs put together to make an even worse song,” I had to accept that this top 40 mess of synth was the progression of a band who’s spent more time selling out arenas than playing secret shows. It’s the problem that most bands with staying power have faced: the fans only want the greatest hits, not the cuts off the new record. With music and memory so closely linked, musical evolution is damned: nostalgia is the driving force in a lot of the entertainment we consume, which places the artist’s new musical experimentations at an immediate disadvantage. We become an audience of crossed arms and thin lips, ready to hate it because it’s not the band we remember. And while “Young and Menace” is ultimately not the sound I want from Fall Out Boy, it’s definitely the sound of a band who’s perfected the radio single over 12 years, which is, regretfully, now a fitting sound for Fall Out Boy.

- rachel kolman, contributing culture editor


ADDENDUM: Moonlight Creeping In – Netflix’s Dear White People

I’m pretty ambivalent on spoiler culture. I love plot, but it’s usually character and good, weird jokes that keep me hanging around with a TV show no matter the genre. So right now I’m conflicted with how much to “spoil” regarding “Chapter V” of Dear White People, the new Netflix series that dropped yesterday. Here’s what I can say, about the show in general, and the fifth episode in particular:

1.      The show stars Logan Browning as Samantha White, a media studies major at a fictional Ivy League university that’s caught up in intra- and cross-racial conflict over a blackface costume party thrown in “Chapter I.” She hosts a campus radio show that shares its name with the series.

2.      Buy some Logan Browning stock. Like, yesterday. Her performance, which is confident and deeply charming, is a big part of what makes this show so easy to binge.

3.      As of “Chapter V,” though, she is not the show’s MVP. That honor goes to Marque Richardson, who plays Reggie Green.

4.      I said, goddamn. This man can act. And I say “man” because, even though he’s playing a college undergrad, dude’s got at least a year on me. You’ve seen television.

5.      In this fifth episode, Samantha breaks away from the main group and the camera sticks to Reggie, Samantha’s best friend Joelle, and the other people in their circle as they bounce around campus looking for free food, hate-watch an urban drama at the local Cineplex, and end up at a house party hosted by one of Reggie’s white classmates.

6.      Richardson plays Reggie as a barely contained force, and he finds ways to shrink Reggie in this episode as his character comes to grips with Samantha’s burgeoning relationship with a white grad student. With each tilt of his head, he’s playing the emotion of the loss, and the reluctance to recognize that Joelle would be more than happy to soothe his broken heart.

7.      The party gets a little wild, and Richardson’s performance becomes a truly affecting display when the cops show up.

8.      So, the episode ends, and I say to my girlfriend, “Jesus, that was intense. And really good.” And then the closing credits tell me who directed it.

9.      Barry Jenkins. Yes, that Barry Jenkins. The Barry Jenkins responsible for the one thing that’s gone right in our simulation since the Cavs came back, the Patriots came back, and Trump came back. Moonlight came back, too.

10.   Can no one stop Netflix?[1]

- brendon barnes, culture editor 


 

[1] As of today, the YouTube trailer for Dear White People has about a 2:1 ratio of dislikes to likes. So, I’ll take that as a no.

 
 

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'tell me when destruction gonna be my fate'

 

New Kung Fu Kenny – Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN.

 

Phone never on, I don't conversate
I don't compromise, I just penetrate
Sex, money, murder—these are the breaks
These are the times, level number 9
Look up in the sky, 10 is on the way
Sentence on the way, killings on the way
Motherfucker, I got winners on the way

-        “DNA.,” Kendrick Lamar

I don’t have the word count allotment to discuss Kendrick Lamar’s new album, DAMN., in full. Paradoxically, it would take more words to discuss just the second single on the album, “DNA.” I can’t even do that. Instead, I’m going to focus on just the last minute of the song.

When the Geraldo Rivera sample comes in.[1] When the beat switches. When the countdown ends. When the sample of Rick James shouting “Gimme some ganja!” from a live performance of “Mary Jane” inexplicably becomes the only sample a song ever needed.[2]

Kendrick’s achievement here is performing in such a way that feels completely in control and constantly on the verge of exploding into thousands of unrecognizable pieces. The “DNA.” outro makes us into passengers in a fighter jet as the pilot executes ever-sharper banks and rolls. I’ve heard music critics this week call the performance “athletic,” “muscular,” and other variations thereof, and they are essentially right. This song reminds listeners how physically demanding it must be to maintain the kind of effortful, precise flow that Kendrick uses in “DNA.” And because the beat and the flow are so jarring, the song also reminded me that I have a body of my own. It’s a physical experience that honestly surpasses the thrill of watching the accompanying music video, also released this week.

The video, directed by Nabil & the little homies, pits Kendrick against a detective played by Don Cheadle. Don Cheadle, who was the original Kung Fu Kenny in a brilliant cameo in Rush Hour 2, becomes possessed by a kind of racial mind meld with Kendrick, which leads to them rapping the lyrics at each other in a hostile dual/duel interrogation. As the video progresses, there are cut scenes of women joyriding, men shooting craps, and Kendrick with his full retinue mean-mugging the camera. At the end of the video, Schoolboy Q stalks up to the lens and decks it. It’s a hell of a video, but the diegetic sounds of the video narrative end up swallowing some of the best sonic textures in the “DNA.” outro. It’s a little hard to make out just how damn hard Kendrick is rapping at the end of the song, and that does a disservice to the track. But beyond that, the video is exceptional.

A funny thing happened on my way through this album. As he sings and raps the chorus of “ELEMENT.,” I realized that Kendrick was doing a Drake impression, and pulling it off at least as well as the original. The harsh lyrics and enunciation are all Kendrick, and the tempo is faster than typical Drake, but the core of the flow is intentionally parallel to the Canadian king of emotional rap, especially in the hook:

If I gotta slap a pussy-ass nigga, I'ma make it look sexy
If I gotta go hard on a bitch, I'ma make it look sexy
I pull up, hop out, air out, made it look sexy
They won't take me out my element
Nah, take me out my element

Then, in a non-sequitur that proves the point, Kendrick goes into a flow that the rapper Juvenile made famous in 1998 on “Ha.” As you might guess, every line ends with “ha.” That’s the whole trick. It was cool and funny then, and it’s cool and funny now, even as it only serves to prove that Kendrick has the chops to elevate something kind of corny into something kind of dope.

Other than the punishing and invigorating “DNA.,” most of my favorite tracks on the album are the slower-tempo songs with jazzed out, electronic flourishes, like “PRIDE.” and “FEAR.” There’s great production here from The Alchemist, James Blake, and Mike Will Made It; and terrific features from Rihanna and U2. Yes, that U2.

I’m not going to put myself in the position of slotting DAMN. into a ranking against other Kendrick albums. There is enough of that on the internet this week. I’m not against rankings, especially after having enough time to let the new work marinate, but the exercise seems counterproductive when dealing with this new album because it’s now clear that Kendrick has a lot of different itches that he wants to scratch as a musician and, for that same reason, each of his albums is going to produce extreme partisans who ride hard for whatever flavor that album primarily represents. To Pimp a Butterfly is discursive, it’s deeply funky, it’s inward-looking. untitled unmastered carries some of those same elements, but substitutes more jazz for funk, and is a masterpiece of compression at only 34:06 running time. And now, just when some segment of Kendrick fans—maybe Kendrick himself—wanted to know whether Kendrick could still just out-rap everyone else in his genre, he releases an album that, again, nods to those earlier flavors, but also rains entire songs’ worth of tightly constructed, muscular bars on you. He reminds you that he’s a rapping-ass rapper here to rap his ass off. And even for talents as expansive as his, that’s a useful thing to do sometimes.

If this trend continues, and Kendrick keeps folding the best elements of prior albums into new ones, ranking his work will become an ever more pointless exercise. The best album will always be the next one.

- brendon barnes, culture editor


 

[1] Rivera had some silly things to say about the deleterious effects of hip hop on black youth back in 2015.

[2] Kanye West also sampled some ad-libs from a live Rick James performance in “Runaway” from 2010. And Lana Del Rey sampled some in “Blue Jeans” from 2012. I didn’t know this was a thing. But right now it’s the only thing.

 
 

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'reach out...what do you see?'

 

History repeats itself – Star Wars: The Last Jedi Trailer

One of the few nice things happening on the internet right now is the collective excitement over the release of the new trailer for Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Technically a teaser trailer, it still clocks in at over two minutes (in other words: it’s pretty much a full trailer), with plenty of sweeping shots and out-of-context dialogue for fans to speculate about. And if there’s anything that Star Wars fans love, surely, it’s speculation. I’m sure the studio was positively giddy over the decision to drop that final line “It’s time for the Jedi to end” – the cliffhanger, uttered as Luke was literally standing on a cliff – out of context at the end of the trailer as an intentional move to get the internet talking. Bravo, Rian Johnson and J.J. Abrams, bravo. Making this teaser a full two minutes (instead of the more typical 30 seconds) was a brilliant move for creating hype for a film that, by the way, is out at the end of this year (already?).

The Last Jedi picks up where The Force Awakens left off, with Rey having arrived on a desolate island on some unnamed planet and found Luke. The trailer makes clear that she’ll undergo Jedi training with Luke, much the way (SPOILER ALERT to the one person who hasn’t seen the original Star Wars) Luke himself trained with Yoda on Dagobah in Empire Strikes Back. Such cyclical action illustrates the difficulty the new Star Wars films encounter: If The Last Jedi mimics Empire too much, fans will complain about the lack of originality – just as many (rightly) critiqued The Force Awakens for its possibly-too-explicit similarities to A New Hope – but if it’s too different, people don’t get to live inside their Star Wars nostalgia, which, this nostalgia, is a major component of the franchise’s success.

Personally, I’m fine with the new films echoing the beats of the original. I embrace the “history repeats itself” motif, because we’re still dealing with the same players – the same Skywalker bloodline (the Kennedys of a galaxy far, far away). The similarities between and among the movies, the echoes, the callbacks, are novelistic, reminiscent of the best family sagas – One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Godfather, The Brothers Karamazov, the Civil War (fyi: Abraham Lincoln died today in 1865).

My point is, I see this so-called “mimicry” in the new Star Wars films as an intentional direction of the storytelling, and not an act of laziness or unoriginality. Time is a flat circle (or maybe I’m just nostalgic).


The art of the cover song – The AV Club’s Undercover series

Mimicry is an interesting concept in art: if noticed in film, writing, or visual art, it’s often considered an insult, a cliché. But in music, it’s flattery. The cover song is the rare exception to the disdain we typically feel toward imitation. There’s something comfortable in the familiarity of a hook, but with a cover song, you can experience familiarity in a surprising new way via a new vocal arrangement, musical genre, etc. It’s that idea of finding the unfamiliar in the familiar ­ – letting ourselves feel surprised by something we thought we knew well.

The internet – namely, YouTube – is filled with more covers than you’d ever want to hear, but when it comes to well-produced, interesting covers, the AV Club has been quietly producing a video series of covers for the past six years on their web series, AV Undercover. It’s essentially indie darlings singing covers from a list of hit songs curated by The AV Club staff. As you’d expect, some of these covers are incredible, and some are horrifying. Whichever way the cover goes, though, it makes for an entertaining three minutes, in large part because of the way we respond to covers: the listener becomes an immediate critic, as we analyze and evaluate, bumping the various decisions the cover band makes against the decisions of the original to decide not exactly whether it’s better, but whether it’s worthy, whether it deserves to stand as homage to the original. Listening to a cover song, in other words, is an exercise in critical thinking, something we could all stand to practice more of.

AV Undercover just wrapped its latest season, but all six years of covers are available at their website. Here are the essentials:

La Butcherette covering Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball”: my favorite cover of the series, the guttural vocal arrangement and energy has me (note the present tense) pressing repeat over and over.

Tokyo Police Club cover Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag”: The first Undercover I listened to, this one got me hooked on the series, as the whiny original vocals have been subdued into a version that perfectly fits with Tokyo Police Club’s established aesthetic.

There Might Be Giants covering Destiny Child’s “Bills Bills Bills”: largely, it’s just how unexpected this one is that makes it entertaining, plus the bounciness of the melody on the guitars.

Screaming Females covering Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”: the vocal stylings here could not be more different than Swift’s, but Marissa Paternoster’s voice fits this melody in a way that works for me.

- rachel kolman, contributing culture editor

 
 

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the come up show / flickr

the come up show / flickr

You Ain’t Bout That Action – G-Eazy & Carnage’s “Guala”

I'm baffled the fuck boy that hate on me
I give the game that they don't see
If they know me, they don't pay no fee
I'm the weather channel man at KOD

-     “Guala,” G-Eazy x Carnage

Culturally speaking, we’ve been in an age of superlatives. We all relish giving superlatives to the culture we love and hate. We build so many Mount Rushmores (Mounts Rushmore? Could be an Attorneys General kind of thing) to television and film and music, that we lose sight of two things: all the great art that falls into the wide middle in terms of greatness, and addressing superlative pop culture experiences over products.

I’m about to do the latter.

The best pop culture experience I’ve had with music, probably since walking around a lake in downtown Orlando in the summer of 2013 while listening to Random Access Memories, happened last week. I was flipping through YouTube videos on my couch with my girlfriend, and YouTube recommended a brand new video. It was “Guala,” from G-Eazy and Carnage’s new EP Step Brothers.[1]

This will be the best music video watching experience you will have in a good, long time. The black and white video is just G-Eazy and Carnage walking around Los Angeles with CGI-enlarged heads. That’s it. The big heads are CGI’d just poorly enough to make the video funny, but the rest of their physicality is serious enough that it straddles the line between novelty-ish pop rap and serious west coast hip hop.

They are each other’s hype beasts, just doing all the subtle things friends do when they’re feeling themselves. The vibe of the video is exuberant confidence and satisfaction. They don’t rush anything—the song and video are over five minutes in length—and they both flow incredibly slowly. The video is so completely committed to creating a mood that you can’t help but laugh along and buy into the myth that these guys are selling: that they are the two coolest people they know.


Welcome to the Sanctuary – Hulu’s Harlots

My search for a new period drama has happily ended. I’m riding with Harlots, the new Hulu series created by British actors/writers Moira Buffini and Alison Newman. Inspired by historian Hallie Rubenhold’s book The Covent Garden Ladies, the show dramatizes the rivalry between two competing brothels in Georgian England.

Fans of British television shows and movies will recognize virtually all of these actors, whether they are former probation workers from Misfits or former daughters from Downton Abbey. But the standout here is Samantha Morton, an English actress who plays Margaret Wells, our anti-hero grande madame. She is trying to position her oldest daughter to marry out of sex work and into high society, and sell her younger daughter’s virginity to the right bidder in the hopes of securing her a similarly upward trajectory. Morton first popped on my radar ten years ago when I saw her in Control, the Ian Curtis biopic from Anton Corbijn, but she has been on a tremendous run recently too, with great work in The Last Panthers and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Like Cinemax’s The Knick, Harlots uses pulsing electronic music to contrast with the period-specific milieu. But unlike more staid dramas, this show revels in every opportunity to inject color into the costumes and production design of each episode. Even characters without speaking roles come off the screen with vibrant colors and make-up.

Visual feasts aside, the show has serious statements to make about hypocritical attitudes towards sex, social mobility, and the ways in which slut-shaming is never really about the shame of the alleged slut. And interestingly, the show’s treatment of race reads very differently from American-set period dramas, with black and bi-racial characters having prominent roles in the show that aren’t about their blackness, but are instead about their desires, their friendships, their despair.

This show should make a good pairing with The Handmaid’s Tale, the adaptation of the dystopian Margaret Atwood novel coming to Hulu later this month.

- brendon barnes, culture editor


 

[1] “Guala” is Spanglish slang that doubly means “money” and “Hispanic.” Carnage AKA Thirty Rack is Guatemalan-American.

 
 

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That gay thing was nothing – Disney’s Beauty & The Beast  

I liked the Beauty & The Beast movie, frankly. It was visually arresting and mostly well-performed; there were some kick-ass feminist tweaks to Belle’s character; and it’s so infused with nostalgia that you can’t ignore the sweet little butterflies that kick in your stomach when Belle’s opening number begins. Of course, it’s nowhere near a perfect film: it relies too heavily on that aforementioned nostalgic feeling; the CGI cast of enchanted servants comes off as hokey and weird (but how could it not?); and I had a hard time buying in to Emma Watson as Belle—her performance never clicked in my mind.

Though it has nothing to do with the film’s quality, the controversy surrounding the “gay scene” needs to be mentioned: Ever since director Bill Condon announced that the film would feature an “exclusively gay scene,” the Internet basically exploded. Certain southern states promised to ban the film from theatres, and religious groups began protesting, all weeks before the film’s release. Spoiler: the “gay scene” is actually a really fun moment at the end of the film wherein LeFou, Gaston’s trusty sidekick and assumed unrequited lover, shares a dance with another man. The two men give a cheeky, knowing smile and waltz off together, and that’s it.

For anyone on the Internet shocked at the implication that LeFou’s character is gay, I could have told you that when I was eight and watching the first Beauty & the Beast film—dude has it bad for the hunky hunter. And this live-action version simply takes that notion one step further: LeFou directs lingering glances, playful winks, and long sighs at his object of attention, plus he devotes an entire musical number to him:

I’m glad Disney decided to embrace this characterization of LeFou. We’re a long way off from a full-length Disney film featuring same-sex love interests, but this addition in Beauty & the Beast shows that Disney’s not completely opposed to it, either. Disney knows its core demographic is predominantly middle-aged, higher-income white Americans; they’ll have to ease their audiences into this whole “acceptance of others” thing. In the meantime, a new generation of Disney parents and consumers can begin to teach their children about inclusion and diversity, to not see it as a strange new addition that makes for countless headlines. Keep it going, Disney, and push it a little further next time.


Someone’s Finally Going to Die – HBO’s Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies feels like it should be a Lifetime movie that your mom and her gal pals get together to watch every Sunday over three bottles of wine. And, it’s almost that: the show follows four privileged women and their families in scenic Monterrey, California, and is filled with all the deception, eye-rolling, and snark you can handle. It would almost be a poor Desperate Housewives knock-off if it wasn’t so brilliantly acted and directed. It’s a powerful cast: Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, and Laura Dern play the four female leads. Kidman, to me, steals the show: any time she and her husband Perry (played by Alexander Skarsgård) are on screen together, I hold my breath and lean in. The tension between them is palpable. Even the long, lingering scenes of Kidman talking to her therapist are wrought with intrigue and complexity, thanks to the subtlety of Kidman’s performance.

The show is technically about a murder, but it’s rarely mentioned – with just one episode left, we still aren’t sure who dies, but the show has spent the last seven episodes providing motive: each of the four women have plenty reason to want to kill someone in their lives. As we get to know these women more each week, we start to gain understanding of the lengths these women would go to keep their families, and their secrets, safe.  

If you’re into house-hunting shows and luxury travel documentaries, this show’s got something for you: it’s basically southern California real estate porn. If not for the murder mystery and the nuanced performances, watch it for the wide, sweeping landscape shots. Great camera work.


Finding an Icon - Missing Richard Simmons  

There have been numerous attempts to fill the Serial-shaped podcast void—out of these, my recent favorite is the podcast Missing Richard Simmons by filmmaker Dan Taberski. The podcast is an attempt to uncover why fitness icon Richard Simmons suddenly disappeared from the public eye in 2014. Simmons, an extremely social, outgoing celebrity, had been teaching classes in his studio in Beverly Hills every day until one day, he just stopped. Stopped talking to everyone, too. And refused to leave the house. Dan, a former client of Simmons, wants to find out why.

The show, although not produced by NPR, feels very much like it could be: Dan clearly takes his cues from Serial, in his interview style, the plot mechanics of each episode, and even the cadence of his voice. As Dan reveals in the first episode, he had become good friends with Richard, spending evenings at his house, and was in talks to shoot a documentary on him. That close relationship with the subject—similar to the way Sarah Koenig started to feel very close to Adnan—drives a lot of the show’s heart. The podcast is not so much about invading Richard’s privacy and demanding to know what happened, but more like a man grieving the loss of his friend and looking for some closure. You can feel the desperation for answers and the deep empathy Dan has for Richard. The podcast is a fascinating look at the man Richard Simmons once was, while trying to explore the motives that potentially drew Richard into seclusion. You’ll be addicted to this one, promise.

- rachel kolman, contributing culture editor

 
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and oh we had so much time...

 

It’s the Complexion, Stupid – White Russians

In The Thick is one of my new favorite podcasts. Hosted by NPR journalists Maria Hinojosa and Julio Ricardo Varela, it’s a show about politics and race from a black and brown lens. In this week’s episode, Varela chopped up the role of whiteness in the Trump administration’s approach to Russia with Terrell Starr, senior reporter at Foxtrot Alpha, and Tarini Parti, Capitol Hill reporter for BuzzFeed News. Star repeated the point that, consciously and unconsciously, the hard core of Trump supporters voted for him to protect and uphold the perceived value of whiteness. This topic is largely one that gets talked around but not about in the wider political discourse, but I think it deserves a more central piece of the conversation. As the panel points out, when intelligence and national security agencies agree that Russia poses a greater threat than any other nation to America in 2017, but the president disagrees, it’s worth considering what fundamental things Trump and his base think they share in common with Putin, and what things they think separate them from people in Mexico or China. Somehow, likely through the polarization of our politics that coincided with the end of the Cold War, an inability to see a white-skinned political enemy as a veritable threat has predominated. I’m sure that the rest of Trump’s time in office will present many opportunities to have conversations about the evolving role of whiteness and white identity in American politics, and I hope that In The Thick becomes one conversation in a chorus of frank and goal-oriented talk about race.


We Are All Charged With Treason – Depeche Mode’s Spirit

And oh we had so much time
How could we commit the worst crime?

-        “The Worst Crime,” from Spirit

Depeche Mode has never been a subtle band. They hit peak subtext in 1983 with the song “Everything Counts,” as Martin Gore sang “The grabbing hands / grab all they can / all for themselves / after all.” So, it’s understandable that the combination of Brexit, politicized xenophobia, the resurgence of right-wing politics in their native Britain and abroad, and Trump’s election, has brought new life to the group.

For the real DM heads, the progressive politics in this new album are nothing new or exciting. What thrilled me as a longtime fan are the more personal, specific tracks. “Poison Heart” was primarily written by lead singer Dave Gahan and is kind of a masterpiece. Martin Gore, who writes the majority of the band’s songs, said in a Rolling Stone interview it’s the best song Gahan’s ever written. Gahan channels some early Portishead and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to great effect, reminding me that even in an angry, political album, Depeche Mode just can’t make a bad love song.

And Gore, who sings lead vocal on two tracks, stuns even more than Gahan.[1] In his more romantic contribution, “Eternal,” he promises to love through a foreshadowed apocalypse. But his angelic vibrato has never been put to better use than when he sings in “Fail,” the album’s final political song, “Oh, we’re fucked.” In an album primarily full of Gahan’s rallying cries and self-admonitions, there’s extra power in giving the final word to Gore, especially when that final word is one that Depeche Mode has never used in a record. But coarser politics lead to coarser lyrics, and desperate times call for albums like this one.


But I Want Everything – Drake’s More Life

Drake dropped a 22-track playlist last week. This would be an irresponsible number of songs for a straight-up album, but the word “playlist” gives him the freedom to step out of the limelight multiple times throughout the 82-minute running time to give complete, unadulterated shine to other rappers and singers. I have a complicated relation to this kind of generosity from an artist like Drake because, while I ride hard for a lot of his work, I’m still coming to grips with the way in which he folds other genres of music, down to vocal inflections and patois, into his own flows. He continually blurs the line between being influenced by music like UK grime and dancehall, and that dreaded hashtag: cultural appropriation.

So, with this much at stake, and with an album that ranges sonically to four continents, it will take more than a week to digest More Life and its place in the pop canon. For now, here are the album’s winners and losers, as it stands, after 574 minutes of listening:

Winner: All of Britain

Three British musicians get their own tracks on More Life: Skepta, a grime artist from Peckham who started his American ascent last year when he notched a spot on Pitchfork’s 100 Best Songs of 2016 list; Sampha, who also had an entry on that Pitchfork list, and is about to turn James Blake into someone that people describe as “the white Sampha;” and Jorja Smith, a neo-soul singer who supported Drake on tour last year in the UK. A fourth Brit, Giggs, spits some truly hardcore grime on two different tracks on the album. The songs that feature these musicians are some of the best, especially “4422” and “Skepta Interlude,” which both hit immediate replay status in my car.

Loser: Jamaica

Drake has found a new musical crush in the African Diaspora, and now that his put-on patois has an Anglo-Caribbean inflection, I’d say Jamaica’s days as Drake’s favorite musical well to draw from are numbered.

Winner: Me

I finally get what Young Thug is all about.

Loser: Sheraton Hotels

Please listen to “Can’t Have Everything.” It’s a gift from the shade gods.

Winner: Skepta, in particular

Here’s a lyric from Skepta’s interlude on More Life, wherein he introduces himself to American audiences: “Died and came back as Fela Kuti / Don’t phone me, send a text to Julie.” Julie handles all Skepta’s beefs.

Real Winner: Julie

Julie’s just an HR titan. She’s super into bullet journals. Just, like, very fastidious.

Loser: The cornballs inside all of us who will somehow remember “Fake Love,” the most emotional Drake song on More Life, as the catchiest one, too.

Winner: Afrobeat

Yet another genre of music saved by Champagne Papi. See: “Get It Together.”

Loser: Quavo

Quavo picked a bad time (read: post-2003 or so) to make an offhand “Ike Turner with the left hand” reference in “Portland.” Hopefully he can ride the wave of think pieces and grow from it.

Winner: Summer, 2017

Between “Blem,” “No Long Talk,” “Passionfruit,” “Portland,” and “Get It Together,” we’re already full-up on summer jams.

Loser: My unborn child

You’re probably going to be conceived to “Passionfruit.”

Winner: Drake

Drake released a 22-track album this week and, through the staggering amount of genuinely great songs and letting all of England carry twenty percent of the weight of making it memorable, it will likely remain one of Drake’s three best albums for the rest of his career.

- brendon barnes, culture editor

 

[1] The real, real DM heads know that Gore has always had a better voice than Gahan. Send your angry rebuttals to editor@sinkholemag.com.

 
 

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the one about comedy.

 

The “Brave” Female – Amy Schumer’s The Leather Special

 First up on my personal watch list of all the new comedy released in March is America’s sexually-liberated Sweetheart, Amy Schumer, in her new Netflix special The Leather Special (aptly named because she wore a head-to-toe leather suit, which, in her words, “looks like an actual trash bag.”)

My first note: Don’t trust the Netflix reviews! The low reviews – averaged at 1.5 stars as I write this – are the result of a push by an alt-right sub-reddit group to get Amy’s stand-up special rating as low as possible. In an Instagram post, Schumer acknowledged the trolling, thanking them because “they make me feel powerful and dangerous and brave.”

However, although the one-star reviews aren’t indicative of Schumer’s performance, the special is not exactly 5-star stuff – the set feels like four or five jokes that go on too long, and Schumer relies too heavily on crude humor. For someone who claims her special makes her feel dangerous, as a Los Angeles Times review puts it: “the dirtier [her set] gets, the less daring it actually feels.”

Bottom line: while The Leather Special isn’t as daring as Amy thinks, it was definitely very her – gross sex, body image issues, and being white trash are among her standard topics. Amy’s set is energetic; she shows obvious comfort in herself and on the stage. But it’s not necessarily daring -  instead, the new special reflects a seasoned pro who’s very good at what she does. You’ll laugh.


The One-Man Show – Mike Birbiglia’s Thank God for Jokes

Mike Birbiglia’s new Netflix special is the direct opposite of Schumer’s. Thank God for Jokes is technically a one-man-show and not a stand-up special; it’s staged on an off-Broadway theatre. It’s an intimate performance, and Mike does what he does best: captivates an audience through layered storytelling and well-timed delivery. He shares stories of his first time being arrested, his experience writing for the Gotham awards, and his set at a Christian college, which was full of Jesus jokes that did not go over too well with his audience (“If Jesus came back today, he’d be a Jewish Socialist; he’s essentially Bernie Sanders”). The show is, very consciously, an homage to joke-telling, Birbiglia asserting throughout the hour, in one way or another, that “jokes have to be about something.”

This is an ironic space to share with Amy, whose jokes are about, well, nothing, really. Or, nothing we didn’t already know about her, at least. Watching the two specials back-to-back illustrates in an interesting way the full spectrum of performed comedy – a well-crafted and well-executed joke can be really funny, but so can a simple fart joke.


The Sitcom Startup – Pete Holmes’ Crashing

Crashing is not a special, but a new HBO sitcom, though each episode does feature several minutes of various comedians performing on stage (a la FX’s Louie). Loosely based on Pete Holmes’ own journey into stand-up, it’s an honest and somewhat brutal insight into the New York comedy scene, chock full of cameos (Artie Lang, TJ Miller, and Hannibal Buress all appear in the first four episodes).

In the show’s pilot, a white-bred, Christ-loving Holmes finds his wife sleeping with a hunky-yet-peaceful art teacher; she (his wife) promptly informs Holmes that she’s leaving him and moving with her lover to Florida. Such a scene would feel way too clichéd if it wasn’t the actual truth: Pete went to a Christian college and met his wife there; eventually, she cheated on him and left him, after which he threw himself into comedy. As he mentions in his Bullseye interview, his divorce was “90% shock, but 10% relief.” 

The episodes that follow the pilot are a snowball of unfortunate events: being mugged (and a little bit stabbed) on the mean streets of New York; his wife selling all of his possessions; bombing on stage in the five minutes he can barely manage to get, other comedians in the scene ruthlessly belittling him. Last week’s episode, “Barking,” brought the first glimmer of hope to a show that seemed to only be a downward spiral: Pete managed to pack a dingy, late night comedy club with a group of travelling Asian business men, after cheerfully giving them directions earlier in the night. The packed club ignites a flame in the bored and tired comedians, a beacon of hope personified by Pete himself. It’s these moments that give the show a little shine – hopefully, there’s more to come, because Pete’s endless optimism is infectious, and it would be pretty devastating if such hope and faith didn’t pay off.

- rachel kolman, contributing culture editor

 
 
 

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you can't come in, you don't live here anymore

 

laura marling / bryan ledgard

The Only Thing I’ve Learnt in a Year – Laura Marling’s Semper Femina

Of course there’s things upon the Earth
That we must really try, to defend
A lonely beast ... a kind heart
Something weak and on trend

I'd do it all for her for free
I need nothing back for me

— "Wild Fire," from Semper Femina

I’m so thankful Laura Marling has popped back up on my music radar this week. Years ago, I worked in a library, and checked out her fourth and fifth studio albums, Once I Was an Eagle and Short Movie, respectively. Her songwriting and performance were inflected with indie sensitivity and a maturity that belied her youth. Now, at 27, her sixth album shows a woman wedding that maturity to the full breadth and depth of her experience, vocally and musically. She is a witch at the height of her powers.

The album, whose title means “Always a Woman,” begins with a jazzy, bass-dominant song called “Soothing.” She sings the verses at the top of her head-voice, crackling and crystalline and clear. The playfulness of her sliding easily into her fuller chest-voice as she sings the coda “You can’t come in / You don’t live here / Anymore” signals to me that her voice has grown into a powerful tool that keeps excellent pace with her writing.

Nowhere in the album is this voice of hers more on display than in “Don’t Pass Me By.” The song is built on a descending guitar scale that recalls “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” but also includes flourishes on guitar and sleigh bell that carry shades of classic Motown, and violins that make this song a contender for the title of Best Bond Movie Theme That Will Never Be a Bond Movie Theme. Oh, and as a love song, it holds its own with other juggernauts in her genre.

Folk-adjacent purists might flinch at the album’s variety of styles. Marling moves from acoustic to electric; from her American-affected indie cadence to at least two different English accents; from intimate, small-scale songs to songs with lush, complicated arrangements. The album is intentionally restless, and it feels like Marling and producer Blake Mills are eager to show her flexibility.

I direct short movies in my head when I listen to singer-songwriter albums like Semper Femina. Songs that are evocative and emotionally rich make the best short movies. Song for song, this album deserves to be filmed. But first, it deserves to be listened to. And if the right television episode or commercial or film snags up one of these songs for licensing, Adele might have to start looking over her shoulder.


Let Me Go On – Corey Lewis’s Sun Bakery #1

According to his author’s note at the end of the inaugural issue, Corey Lewis started the Sun Bakery anthology series to “bring a Shonen Jump type flavor to western comics.” For the uninitiated, Shonen Jump is the Japanese anthology comic series that popularized manga like Naruto, Death Note, and Dragon Ball.

In style and substance, you can see the influence of manga throughout the first three stories in the anthology. In “Arem,” a Metroid-esque space explorer and documentarian travels to distant planets to capture increasingly rare shots for her Nextigram account. In “Dream Skills,” two women in a neo-Tokyo discuss the finer points of high-tech swordsmanship in a culture where aura circles have rendered firearms obsolete. And in the most arresting story, “Bat Rider,” a meditative skateboarder appears to be haunted by his ex-girlfriend while trying to skate her out of his mind. My attention span often craves anthology series, and Sun Bakery scratches the itch perfectly.

from Sun Bakery #1 / copyright © Corey Lewis

These stories are refreshing and highly evocative, often reducing the images down to graffiti-like iconography. I see pieces of Paul Pope, Nintendo video game cartridge art, David Aja, and decades of Japanese manga all being lovingly cannibalized to produce something fresh and uniquely Corey Lewis. Reading Sun Bakery, it was great to be reminded how much work it takes to make things look simple.

So this is it. This is how cultural appropriation makes the world a better place. I get it now. I love Big Brother.

- brendon barnes, culture editor

 
 

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the entire thing was staged!

 

Current Rabbit Hole – that damn Oscars envelope

I gasped at my television last Sunday night when that close-up of Best Picture envelope said Moonlight and not La La Land. The internet is still reeling in the mayhem of the #oscarsfail with nonstop coverage and debate over how presenter Warren Beatty ended up with the envelope for Best Actress instead of Best Picture. As the The New Yorker writes: “an old Hollywood genre had suddenly revived: the whodunit.”

The first to question Envelopegate was Emma herself, mentioning in the press room moments after, “I was holding my Best Actress in a Leading Role card that entire time. So, whatever story that was, I had that card.” We now know that there were two envelopes – one for each backstage wing ­– but that didn’t stop the Reddit theories from quickly forming (the latest – “the entire thing was staged!”)

The answer, apparently, is that Brian Cullinan, the PricewaterhouseCoopers accountant in charge of handing off envelopes, was too distracted tweeting about Emma Stone to pay attention to envelopes.  Nothing like the classic narcissism of checking your retweets to distract you from your job (though the entire team was told explicitly to not be on social media during the show).

Of course, a lot of us were glad that the flub at least revealed that Moonlight was the true Best Picture winner over the Hollywood navel-gazing La La Land. The chaos of the moment prevented Moonlight writer/director Barry Jenkins from giving a proper acceptance speech, but thanks to the internet, you can read his intended speech here at The Hollywood Reporter.

The real award goes to Twitter though, for its perpetual ability to make everything so much worse.


In Defense of the Bottle Episode

I love a bottle episode. The term comes from the phrase “ship in a bottle” and describes a stand-alone television episode separate from the show’s main storyline, usually featuring a minimal cast and a static setting. They’re often lauded as cheap fixes when cast mates are away or scripts need to be changed in a pinch, but they also lead to some of the most brilliant television I’ve seen. Community perfected the bottle after nailing it with that first paintball episode, “Modern Warfare,” at the end of season one. Breaking Bad also did this concept well in Season 3 with “The Fly,” in which Jesse and Walter attempt to kill a lone fly in the lab that threatens to contaminate their batch (spoiler: the episode becomes about a lot more than a fly).

The chance to examine character closely outside of a traditional A and B plotline is the strength of a bottle episode, and this week, one episode that really showcases this concept is Girls’ “American Bitch.” Girls has tried the bottle formula before in the past to some success (with “Taking out the Trash” in Season 3 and “The Panic in Central Park” in Season 5). But this week’s might be their best yet: Hannah spends the afternoon in the apartment of famed writer Chuck Palmer (played by the amazing Matthew Rhys) after she writes an article accusing him of taking advantage of starry-eyed undergrads. The episode is an elongated power struggle as Chuck tries to defend his side of the story and Hannah continues to push back. He eventually gets an apology out of Hannah (through some flattery and subtle manipulation) and they seem to almost bond, even, until the moment he asks Hannah to lay down with him (she obliges) and he flops his exposed penis onto her leg. It seems that Chuck had been manipulating Hannah all along, inviting her into his apartment to prove that she was no different than any of the girls, making her story now hypocritical and therefore, invalid. 

And yes, Hannah does fall for it and ends up touching his junk – but she also releases it quickly and jumps away in disgust, and by god, just maybe, our little Hannah is learning something. Allowing her the full twenty-eight minutes to go from timid house guest, to passionate feminist, to apologist, to victim, to self-aware really shows how strong and entertaining a bottle episode can be, when it’s done right.   


The Legend of Immaculate Gameplay – Nintendo (finally) releases Breath of the Wild

 Nintendo released its newest console, the Switch, on March 3rd, and with it came the long-awaited new Legend of Zelda title, Breath of the Wild. Despite the obvious money-grabbing tactics of making Zelda a launch title, the game is in no way a rushed decision: this follow-up to 2011’s Skyward Sword has been in the works for years, with a new teaser trailer every year at Nintendo’s E3 event. Even in its development phase, it was being called the Skyrim version of Zelda, promising a massive open world for endless exploration.

So far Breath of the Wild seems worth the wait, as it’s seeing near perfect reviews and already on its way to becoming one of the highest rated video games of all time. On top of being gorgeously designed, the game offers more than enough side quests and mini-games to make any Zelda fan happy, on top of a rich story that’s got diehards buzzing about timeline placement. (Best way to waste an afternoon: dive down the hole that is timeline theories).

If you’re like me and unable to pick up this newest title anytime soon, you can watch some of the immersive gameplay in one of a dozen streaming channels. It’ll be better than watching your boyfriend play in a smelly room with three of his college friends, promise.

- rachel kolman, contributing culture editor

 
 

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Move That Dope

 
still from video for "Move That Dope".

still from video for "Move That Dope".

The Future of Trap Masculinity – Future’s Self-Titled Album

Atlanta-based musician Future released the eponymous Future last week, and it took me several tries to get into the record. I know my rap tastes skew New York, but as a fan of Future, I was surprised that I couldn’t just press play on the album in my car and let it play out for the whole of my commute. I kept stopping myself a few tracks in and changing to other music. It wasn’t until I played the album at home, taking breaks to YouTube videos of earlier Future tracks that the reason dawned on me: I see Future as a visual artist at least as much as a rapper, and having solely the aural experience of new Future music was somehow disappointing.

I blame “Move That Dope” for this problem.

I had friends try to turn me on to Future’s music back in 2011, but I didn’t give him a chance until his 2014 album Honest. That album’s fourth single, “Move That Dope,” set the bar in my mind for grimey-ass trap music, and its video showed me that Future had the potential to distinguish himself in trap music, and in the wider world of hip hop. In the video, which starts with a shot of Pusha T rocking a gold chain and a Ronald Reagan mask, I saw a lot of standard hip hop video imagery: guys in front of cars, miming how to cook and mix cocaine into crack, running from the police. Then, Future drops a verse that’s staccato while still sounding soaked in lean. He rhymes Maserati with Maserati and it was one of the best verses I heard that year, despite being nearly eclipsed by Pharrell’s verse later in the same song.[1]

After Pharrell’s verse, the video returns to the same basic trap imagery I’m used to seeing in videos for Desiigner, Migos, and others. But among the cuts are a couple long takes of Future in what can only be described as a too-tight denim jacket that is designed to look as if it’s being worn backwards. The jacket’s popped collar is straight out of Eddie Redmayne in Jupiter Ascending, and he looks simultaneously feminine and pretty in the jacket. Like, okay, fine, he’s a pretty dude. But not only is he leaning into and acknowledging this prettiness—something rappers, whether they’re handsome or not, try to underplay in their videos—he’s presenting it in a deliberately feminine way in a song that is only about cooking and dealing drugs. Rappers, like plenty of musicians, like to inject haute couture into their videos, but for men, this has been almost categorically limited to clothes that read instantly as masculine. By leaning into this feminine aesthetic for a moment, and staring directly into the camera when he does it, Future dared me to see him as more than trap music, more than hip hop, and more than a rote expression of black masculinity.

All of this is to say, Future set a high bar in 2014, and his guest work with Drake and others has generally stayed interesting. In this new self-titled album, he set the personal challenge of creating an entire album with no other rappers. Every verse is his. And while that’s incredibly rare in hip hop, this album isn’t more than something fairly hot to bump in your car when you feel like driving a little too slow in the city or a little too fast on the highway. The Southside-produced “POA” is a standout track on the album, with a beat so hard it had me wishing I could go back to 2003 and cruise my hometown streets in my ’91 Eclipse with the asymmetric hood. “I’m So Groovy” is similarly fun, with a listing flow that he controls with crisp, auto-tuned braggadocio, like Pablo-era Kanye. Musically, the best entry on the album is “Feds Did a Sweep,” produced by Grammy-winning producer Zaytoven. Future reconciles his success with the price he paid for it over a masterful blend of trap style drums and synthy Chinese woodwinds.

Hip hop needs road bangers, for sure, just like it needs club tracks and strip club music and protest albums and albums that are so raw and emotional that fans intentionally put them in hibernation for months at a time between bouts of heavy rotation. But Future has to contend with a reinvigorated Tribe, Kendrick constantly plumbing new depths as a writer, Childish Gambino reincarnating Prince for you and your mama, Migos pioneering a stupidly infectious flow, and Kanye continuing to be Kanye. It’s not enough for Future to be visually adventurous. The real heads need him to find some of that playfulness and put it in the music, too.


Snub List – Christine

I subscribe to the idea that the Academy Awards, which air tomorrow night, tend to honor the wrong films, and the right actors and directors at the wrong times in their careers. This idea has gained traction in pop culture criticism ever since Al Pacino stole Denzel Washington’s 1992 Oscar with his performance in Scent of a Woman, while Denzel didn’t get his Malcolm X award until a decade later, for Training Day. These kinds of awards are nicknamed the “make-up Oscars.” In that same vein, I think Viola Davis has a good shot at earning an Academy Award tomorrow, for an incredibly moving performance in Fences—but really because she stole a scene from Meryl Streep in Doubt nine years ago.

Podcasts like The Cracked Podcast and Fighting in the War Room hold annual re-litigations of past Academy Awards ceremonies, usually on a five or ten-year cycle, and these episodes make for great listening for movie lovers and podcast fans alike.

Because tracking the transitive properties of mis-allocated Academy Awards can be a drag, I decided to skip watching an Oscar contender to watch a bona fide Oscar snub instead: Antonio Campos’s Christine, a drama based on the final weeks of Christine Chubbuck, a Florida news reporter who committed suicide during a live news broadcast in 1974. Chubbuck, who struggled with depression for most of her life, is played beautifully by Rebecca Hall. Hall plays Chubbuck as brusque and self-deprecating, unable to take compliments while, in each alternating moment, craving validation and love from her co-workers and her bosses. Her physicality is heartbreaking, her swings from depression to mania terrifying. Michael C. Hall and Maria Dizzia play two of her co-workers at a struggling news station, and both actors amplify the tragedy through their sympathetic performances.

While it would have been a pleasure to see Christine nominated in categories for acting or costume design, I’m just glad the story was told and it’s available in at least two video on-demand formats. And on Sunday night, instead of getting overheated about sweeps and upsets at the Academy Awards, I’m going to pin my hopes on a slew of as-yet-unrecorded podcasts, to be released five or ten years from now, all titled some variation of La La Who?

- brendon barnes, culture editor

 

[1] Pharrell flawlessly drops 14 “niggas” in 12 seconds, all in the same year he recorded and released “Happy” for that movie about penguins. The man has layers.

 

 
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Trump vs. Truth - The Return of John Oliver

Like most other devotees to HBO’s wildly successful Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, I was cautiously waiting to see how Oliver’s team would handle their first week back on the air since November. So! Much! Has! Happened! What the heck could the show contribute to my already roiling echo chamber? However, I was pleasantly surprised that Oliver’s main discussion for the night—a segment timidly titled “Trump vs Truth”—didn’t try to simply criticize what Trump has been saying, but aimed to understand why he’s saying it and more importantly, where Trump hears it first (It turns out, a lot of his intel comes from cable television. Go figure.). It’s a refreshing and much-needed voice in the circus of politics right now, and Oliver’s team is firm in saying that they will “cover Trump’s Impact, not Trump.” I sincerely welcome the distinction.


You Should Still Be Watching – HBO’s Girls

Yes, I get it, Hannah is mostly insufferable, but the Girls season six premiere was a true return to form. Hannah spends most of the episode at a surfing camp out in Montauk (she’s covering it for a freelance article), and it would have been the perfect bottle episode if it weren’t for the pesky check-ins on the other girls back in Brooklyn: Jessa and Adam are still sleeping together, Shosh is full of energy, Marnie is jealous of everything, and Ray feels uncomfortable. While I think these check-ins could have worked really well in the next episode, and left us more time to slide back into Hannah’s slightly improved station in life, Ray and Shoshanna’s brief scene together (and the return of Elijah!) make the straying worthwhile.

The episode really finds its feet when Hannah sort of gives up on the surfing camp and takes interest in one of the surfing instructors, Paul-Louis, played wonderfully by Riz Ahmed. While watching Paul-Louis perfectly rap the Twista verse from “Slow Jams” while out at a karaoke night, Hannah yells out, “I’m going to fuck him later,” which I found delightfully charming. Of course, in the end, there’s a nice lingering moment where Hannah realizes that she can’t have this life—surfer guy has a girlfriend, she has a life in Brooklyn, and you are left rooting for her, wanting her to find whatever it is she’s chasing so desperately. We’ve got nine more episodes left to see if Hannah et al. will find what they’re looking for before the show calls it quits.


Plz Advise Goes to the Women’s March

If you haven’t been following Molly McAleer’s podcast Plz Advise, this is your nudge to do so. The pod, which is usually a sassy advice show, deviates from the norm to deliver an intimate look at the DC Women’s March. The episode features interviews with a variety of women and captures how raw millions of people felt after the election. Listening to it, I was filled with a real sense of camaraderie with these women.

After listening to Molly’s Women’s March episode, check out one of the other 100 episodes for some real talk on how you should be living your life.


I Like My Games Done Quick - Twitch

Late at night, if I can’t sleep, I usually throw on a Twitch stream. Twitch, a live-streaming website, is primarily known for video games, hosting gaming tournaments, and “speedrunning,” which means beating a game as fast as humanly possible. Speedrunning has become a kind of sport—with leaderboards, world records, tournament brackets—and it’s fascinating. There are a plethora of runners and games to watch, but there’s nothing like watching world records being beat, and no one is better at beating a record than Darbian, whose claim to fame is beating Super Mario Bros. faster than anyone in the world. If you catch his stream, you can hear him talking about strategies that help him break records—frame rules, flagpole glitches, bullet bill clips, all that—and, if you’re lucky enough, you just might catch him setting a new world record live.


Ain’t Nobody Love You Like I Love You – Justin Timberlake  

I am all in for Timberlake. The fact that most of pop culture has embraced Justin Timberlake makes the thirteen-year-old me quite smug, as if I knew something that y’all were sleeping on. This month, The Hollywood Reporter features Timberlake on the cover, now 36 (36!), a father, a 10-time Grammy award winner, and about to star in a Woody Allen film. At one point in the interview he says, “I can't really remember not being famous,” which in turn makes me realize that more of my life has been marked by being a Timberlake fan than not. THR treats Timberlake’s early successes, even his first solo album, as a distant memory—a perspective I didn’t know we’d arrive at until precisely this moment.  Just like that, my own ennui and mortality come zooming into focus. Well done, THR, for reminding us all that time is inescapable.

- rachel kolman, contributing culture editor

 

 
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John L. Magee (c.1820–c.1870) - Lithograph reproduced here, (wikimedia commons / {{PD-US}})

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This Week in White Fragility – Dear White People Netflix Trailer

Two days ago, Netflix dropped a trailer for Dear White People, a series based on the 2014 film of the same name. Since then, white supremacists and other similarly fragile folk have taken to YouTube to blanket the trailer’s comments section with thoughtful, incisive gems such as “Hey everyone, the creator called critics "white supremacists".. Maybe we should do the black kind of thing and burn down their set?” and “Amazon Prime is the new Netflix, and its better. Goodbye Netflix, enjoy your racism.”

To his credit, the show’s creator, Justin Simien, is taking the racist trolling in stride. On his Twitter account, he chalked up the backlash to some white folks’ “fear of being overlooked,” a fear which, he says, is shared by the characters in his new show. I’m looking forward to the show, and to the miniscule uptick in Netflix’s bandwidth now that they’ve lost dozens of racist subscribers. Though, if I know the caliber of people who confine their protesting to tweets and comments, I’m sure they’ll be texting a sibling to borrow that login and password before the show drops on April 28.


Don’t Call it a Comeback – M. Night Shyamalan

I’m a Shyamalan apologist. A knight in the service of M. Night. My loyalty is unbreak—never mind. When I tuned in to a recent episode of The /Filmcast devoted to discussing Shyamalan’s new film, Split, I was almost over-hyped by the hosts’ fifteen-minute-long spoiler warning. I hit pause, texted some friends, and saw the movie the following night. Not only am I glad I went in to the film unsullied by spoilers, I’m glad audiences are coming around to a more balanced take on Shyamalan’s filmography. I haven’t seen all of his movies, and some of the ones I haven’t seen—Lady in the Water,  After Earth—happen to be the most derided of the bunch. And while I admit that The Last Airbender was an unqualified flop by every metric except for box office receipts, movies like The Happening and The Village are underrated. Mark Wahlberg knew the kinds of choices he was making in The Happening. His whiny reticence makes the horrors of the film all the more shocking when they creep into frame on a poisoned breeze.

And speaking of actors’ choices, James McAvoy, the male lead in Split, is putting every choice on full display in this film. He does the most, and it’s always enough. Playing a character with multiple personalities is a dream for most actors, and he does not waste his shot. I leaned forward whenever he was on screen, waiting, unsure whether I was about to laugh or reflexively throw my popcorn in some impotent gesture of self-defense. He’s the real deal, and his co-stars, Anya Taylor-Joy and Betty Buckley, are mostly well-served by the script, having lots of moments to steal scenes in their own right.


We Were on a Break! – Marvel Comics Civil War II

I love crossover events in comics. I love having sustained, multi-month reasons for Iron Man, the X-Men, and Captain America to interact with Miles Morales aka Black Spider-Man aka just be an adult and call him Spider-Man, please. So when a new member of the Inhumans (think X-Men but generally hairier) emerges, with the power to generate visions of a possible future, I was eager to see how this story could play out. Over the course of the event, which ran until last month, characters described this superpower as a kind of profiling, with potential for good and for evil. So, of course, the black and Latino Spider-Man Miles Morales became the moral centerpiece of the storyline, a kind of superhuman hill for either Tony Stark (Iron Man) or Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel) to die on. If you know anything about which of these two characters is played by an actor who might want to retire from making Marvel movies at some point, you can guess which character ends up in a coma at the end of the story.

I wish I could recommend this arc to readers wholeheartedly. The art by David Marquez and Justin Ponsor and many others is as beautiful as ever and there are some great character moments early on, especially in issues focused on Bruce Banner, better known as the Hulk. But part of what makes this storyline a cheap imitation of the 2006 Civil War in Marvel Comics is the false equivalence between Tony’s and Carol’s positions on profiling. Brian Michael Bendis, who wrote Civil War II, never convinced me that Carol’s position was as justified as Tony’s. When you operate at that kind of sympathy deficit as a reader, characters who are supposed to feel like heroes in an impossible crisis end up feeling more like villains or, worse still, plot devices.

Also, we had a character with the power to immerse crowds in emotionally-influenced visions of a possible future. How could Bendis not seize on the Trump parallels? Wasted opportunity! Sad!


You’re Doing It Right – Riverdale

Teen soap operas are back, and none of the characters need to fly, run fast, or shoot arrows with their abs. Riverdale premiered on the CW two weeks ago and, three episodes in, I’m smitten with this adaptation of the rebooted Archie comic series. New Zealander KJ Apa plays Archie, a jacked fifteen-year-old Varsity football player with three love interests (his music teacher, his best friend, and the new girl in town) who has to split his time between football, working construction with his father, and writing really good pop songs about semi-requited love.

This show is perfectly cast, top to bottom. Luke Perry is surprisingly terrific as Archie’s dad Fred. Lili Reinhart and Cole Sprouse, who play Betty and Jughead respectively, both can do so much with a close-up that the show doesn’t even have to be well-written to stay interesting. But since this show appears to be a thoughtful mash-up of Twin Peaks and Dawson’s Creek, staying interesting shouldn’t be a problem.


Simple Pleasure - Swype

When President Bannon gets me down, I take joy wherever I can find it. This week, I’m grateful for the satisfying sine wave I make with my finger on my smartphone’s Swype keyboard when typing the word “awful.” The blue squiggle lingers just long enough for me to appreciate its symmetry and momentarily distracts me from the fact that, until impeachment proceedings become the hottest summer jam of 2017, I’m going to be typing the word “awful” more and more often.


Current Wikipedia Rabbit Hole – The Caning of Charles Sumner

Everything I have read about Representative Preston Brooks brutally beating Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate in 1856 makes me feel tremendously proud of how far our politics have come in the intervening 161 years, and equally concerned about how easily we might backslide. To fall down this particular Wiki-hole is to see shades of the ongoing divide between liberals and conservatives—the liberal habit of condescending to those considered morally or intellectually inferior, the conservative habit of seeing equality and freedom as assured if they exist for themselves and everyone they know personally, and the habit of people who are kind of cool with slavery to be equally cool with assaulting people who are rude to them.

We have so much work to do. Work in the field of treating the mental disease of racism and its symptoms, which manifest to varying degrees in all people. And in the field of repairing our ability to separate open minds from closed ones, and not dismissing open-minded people based on a single criterion. In the field of keeping facts and opinions straight in our minds, and sharing our beliefs, and letting facts guide us to new and constantly improving ideas about how to keep this marble spinning. And we have work to do in the field of protecting one another because, while I don’t think it’s reasonable to hope that we should all have the same number of commas in our checking account balance, we improve as a society when the number of people who feel safe going to a movie theater, or voting for president, or emigrating to a land of opportunity, or getting pulled over for speeding, grows. We have to grow that number. That’s the work.

- brendon barnes, culture editor

 
 
 

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