After a month, the consensus on this sixth season of AMC’s Mad Men appears to be that the show has lost a step. The writing is still sharp, yes, the art direction immaculate, its march through history keen enough. But something’s missing. The critiques I’ve read have centered on Don, a lost sailor tossed about in the waves of his life and unwilling or unable to reach for rescue. He lacks tension, motivation, a challenge to face. He’s become, in a word, boring. It’s a fair critique, and one I agree with: Don’s become bland and repetitive this season, bloodlessly reliving his bad habits like Sisyphus in a skinny tie. Roger is the one in therapy, but it’s Don who’s quietly having a midlife crisis: after working so hard to become Don Draper, he takes no pleasure in it. He’s not even sure what it means. It is not compelling television. But it is not trying to be compelling television.
TV criticism is a weird thing. It’s a young genre and, like all forms of opinionated writing in the post-blog era, one subject to a number of pressures as it attempts to maintain — or establish — its shape. TV recaps largely serve the needs of the water cooler, becoming a hub for both websites’ devoted readers and haphazard Google clickers to rate and relate to last night’s episode. There are too many TV shows for everyone to watch and the biggest — mostly singing reality competitions — don’t quite carry the weight of who shot J.R. or the series finale of Seinfeld. TV watching is mainstream, but TV viewers are niche. Recaps serve that niche, but in doing so, they tend to take on the role of a friend or co-worker, ooh-ing and ahh-ing with you rather than serving up insight.
This approach works when serial shows fall into certain categories: the twists and thrills of 24 and LOST, the shared guilty pleasure of Gossip Girl or Real Housewives, the rare show that succeeds in both (Pretty Little Liars). It’s not bad for rating the humor level of one-off sitcom episodes. But Mad Men stopped being a show about plot a long time ago. It has become a show about relationships and mood: the financial state of Sterling Cooper Draper Price or the revelations of Don’s past run a distant second to why its protagonists make choices, not the choices themselves. It has become a dive into the interior.
I don’t like to categorize creative products into the false hierarchy of entertainment vs. art, but if we must make a distinction, it’s this one: art is not being made for you to like. Likability is a fundamental concern of the TV recap, a process that atomizes television into weekly yes/no binaries instead of recognizing a serialized work in its intended aggregate. TV recaps and their participatory culture often seem ready to throw a show to the lions after a bad episode; the current Mad Men backlash, based on three or four hours out of dozens, already feels half-buried in falling sky. Is Mad Men art? Is anything? I don’t care. But it is not being made for you to like.
I am not clearing the show to make boring episodes. But despite suffering the writer’s room betrayal of LOST’s final season, I remain optimistic and open to the possibility that Mad Men, so carefully directed and developed over the previous five years, is making decisions purposefully — that it has not become bad, it has merely become, and chosen to become, unsatisfactory. Don has reached the pinnacle of success, by exterior accounts: he’s an award winner, a creative director, the owner of a Manhattan apartment, a father, a husband. The banality of Don’s unhappiness is the banality of every 40-something’s: yup, this is really as good as it gets. You’re frustrated? Imagine how Don feels.
I’m sure Mad Men will have a windier road to take him on as the season progresses, but it’s also a true ensemble now, and the other characters have vivid, engaging lives. There’s plenty of visceral pleasure to be found there on a per-episode basis. As for Don, if this is the end of the road, perhaps this is where he was headed all along. You can get out of the car — you just don’t get to drive.
New online services need mainstream attention to go mainstream. Consider Twitter post-Oprah and Ashton Kutcher. The userbase increases, Twitter becomes ubiquitous, everyone’s potential audience and network expands; the product becomes better. Network-driven online tools are only as useful as their networks, no matter how savvy the tech. This is abundantly true for Kickstarter, because it is dependent on making people open their wallets: a ridiculously difficult accomplishment, all things considered.
Kickstarter has been largely tech-driven: the biggest projects have been iWatches or videogames or whatever. This is a reflection of Kickstarter’s (and by extension, the Internet’s) deep-pocketed early adopters. The Kickstarter environment will be healthier for a range of projects if the userbase expands and Kickstarter achieves a degree of normalcy. Amanda Palmer aside, plenty of bands have had reasonable successes - under $10k - in making albums or producing vinyl, more than I would’ve anticipated given Kickstarter’s general direction. But the more people who are on it, the better: projects like Veronica Mars and Zach Braff’s movie bring them in, and if even a few stick around, it’s good for everyone. Is it harder to get noticed in a bigger pool? Sure. But that shit’s on you, just like it is everywhere else.
The issue, to me, with mainstream, million-dollar projects is not so much the authentic need of the project (which are often a glorified pre-order and not a noble charity, something the site is clearly not intended to be; selling your work for money is a business, people!) but the affirmation of audience trust. Braff is offering advance screenings and insider stuff that doubles as viral marketing that he’d be doing anyway: it’s good business on his part, but the absence of a $10-20 digital copy option seems like a glaring error. Did you get what you paid for? Backers have to answer that. Nobody else does. This is why Palmer criticism has been lobbed by everyone but her fans: they feel like they did, and ultimately, it’s up to them. That’s one of the crucial purposes of Kickstarter: to take outside observers out of the decision-making process and leave it to the truly invested, thinkpieces be damned.
Many still haven’t heard of Kickstarter, or Bandcamp, or any of the new services that are creating exciting new ways for creators and consumers to connect. Imagine the expansion of that marketplace into an audience of tens of millions. Zach Braff is paving the way for more people to spend more money on Kickstarter. So long as he doesn’t burn them, maybe your thing will be next. Does it help to be Zach Braff already? Is his Kickstarter, in fact, dependent on that as a pre-existing condition? Yes. Duh. But somewhere along the line, people had to like Zach Braff for him to become what he is. That applies to everyone else, too, haters included.
No comment on the merits of his movie, which, uh, hmm.
1. P!nk - “Just Give Me a Reason”
Pop melodrama with the dude from fun., a show tune in search of a forgettable off-Broadway play. P!nk’s a capable performer, though songs like this one demonstrate why her music is even farther removed from the indie consciousness than fellow chart-toppers such as Taylor Swift or Rihanna.
2. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis - “Can’t Hold Us” (feat. Ray Dalton)
3. Justin Timberlake - “Mirrors”
Love JT’s passion on this one, and the chorus, though I don’t see 20/20’s shelf life lasting past the summer — Timbaland’s production, so futuristic in 2006, already sounds dated and predictable, even stretched over 8 minutes of twists and turns.
4. Rihanna - “Stay”
A strong song sung simply. Does this track, so nakedly emotional and piano-driven, exist without the success of, say, Once? Perhaps not.
5. Icona Pop - “I Love It” (ft. Charli XCX)
Perhaps the first major song to apply a Skrillexian bass sensibility to female-fronted pop. It opens like a hammer and never stops hitting. I love it.
6. Bruno Mars - “When I Was Your Man”
Not a bad song, but I can’t stand Mars, a musician who imagines himself as Stevie or Elton instead of a particularly charismatic American Idol contestant. The vocal rasp on this is unbearable and the hook is inadequate.
7. Imagine Dragons - “Radioactive”
God, this band sounds like Collective Soul and Korn having a pillow fight and crying.
8. Selena Gomez - “Come & Get It”
I like some of Gomez’s past singles, but this track’s produced within an inch of its life, all shine and no substance. Its more exotic leanings have promise, but they die in the blinding strobe light of its C-grade Ke$ha chorus.
9. Demi Lovato - “Heart Attack”
A Disney star fares better here, embracing the acoustic-electro bounce that’s already become inescapable pop sound of 2013 (see also: Lavigne, Avril, and Swift, Taylor). The verses are a waste, but the chorus, wow - it’s showy and formidable, and Lovato nails it. I wouldn’t want to sing that one every night. Maybe this is her first step toward Kelly Clarkson-dom.
10. Fall Out Boy - “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light ‘Em Up)”
There’s a certain campy maximalist appeal to this, and Patrick Stump sounds ridiculously committed, but that doesn’t mean it’s not unlistenable barf-rock. This song makes Paramore’s “Ain’t It Fun” sound like one of the Eddie Van Halen tracks from Thriller. Sorry, guys. Still better than Imagine Dragons!
There is a Buzzfeed article with this title today which does not answer this question. So I will attempt to.
Let’s keep this simple. Here is the complete list of artists playing Coachella on Friday. Artists in bold have a female singer, Buzzfeed’s criteria for counting.
Blur, The Stone Roses, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Modest Mouse, Jurassic 5, Grinderman, Bassnectar, Dog Blood, How to Destroy Angels, Passion Pit, Tegan and Sara, Band of Horses, Beach House, Metric, Local Natives, Of Monsters and Men, Infected Mushroom, Japandroids, Divine Fits, Stars, Johnny Marr, Luciano, Wolfgang Gartner, Nicky Romero, Modestep, Tommy Trash, Thomas Gold, the Shouting Matches, Dillon Francis, Four Tet, Aesop Rock, Alt-J, Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine, TNGHT, Jake Bugg, Earl Sweatshirt, Polica, Sparks, Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, Purity Ring, Lee Scratch Perry, Dam-Funk, DJ Harvey, Jamie xx, Seth Troxler, Youth Lagoon, Deathfix, C2C, Beardyman, Lord Huron, Palma Violets, IO Echo, Skinny Lister, the Neighbourhood, Sam XL Pure Filth Sound.
What do these acts have in common? They’re all basically rock bands, to varying degrees of indie or electro. Let’s count just the rock-ish acts: I count about 28 total. 9 of those have a female frontperson. That’s over 30% - not parity, but not awful. Do me a favor and count how many female DJs or MCs you see on this list. Go ahead and do that for the other two days. It’s not a good look. Women are seen as a novelty in both genres - a status many artists are fighting, rightfully - and that means, in terms of artists with a festival draw, the pool is slim. (Azealia Banks isn’t on the lineup but she’s playing this year, by the way.) Coachella breaks artists to the mainstream, but it doesn’t break artists, period: that’s a crucial difference when we point fingers. And that’s one reason why women are missing from this bill and not from the more indie-centric Pitchfork’s, which goes much lighter on hip-hop.
Another thing: posting an article like this implies Coachella is being sexist or doing women a disservice, when in fact many of the female performers at Coachella’s audience caliber are too big or too pop for the fest’s indie/underground image. Male artists have become secondary at television award shows, on Twitter and even on stadium tours as Adele, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Beyonce, Kelly Clarkson, Nicki Minaj, Madonna and many more make equivalent megastars like Justin Timberlake look small. The No. 1 artist on this week’s Billboard chart? Paramore. They play guitars, even. Beyonce and Madonna have both played Coachella, by the way, though since they weren’t billed, they’re not on Buzzfeed’s list. Coachella’s inherent discrimination problem, if it has one, isn’t a female problem. It’s a pop problem. But being scared of losing its edge means Coachella is losing out on the diversity of what people actually listen to — and the artists who make it. Let’s just get Beyonce to headline next year and pretend this Stone Roses thing never happened.
The site is really gorgeous, and the words are OK too. This album deserves just as much attention as the new Fall Out Boy record. It’s a strikingly bold, thoroughly catchy hour of music, and I highly recommend giving it a bit of your time. (Key cuts: “Daydreaming,” “Last Hope,” “Still Into You,” “Hate to See Your Heart Break.”) Thanks to Steven for the opportunity.
I was fascinated today, with the album stream hitting the web, to see the generational appeal of Fall Out Boy in action. Apparently every 23-year-old writer I know loves them. When Infinity on High came out, I was already six or seven years deep into indie rock and graduating college; the emo-est record I loved that year was the Thrills’ Teenager, a should-be cult classic. I grew up in Southern California in the ’90s: you listened to all punk, all the time, whether you liked it or not, and by the time they blew up, FOB’s overly clever, heavily sanitized brand of rock sounded like a joke to me even next to my aging, relatively embarrassing New Found Glory and Saves the Day records. (More context: I also really hated that first Killers album.)
My tastes are considerably more shameless now, but I’m amused that the world has spun in such a way that they — and not Paramore, arguably the most consistent, progressive mainstream modern rock band of the last decade, fronted inarguably by mainstream modern rock’s most compelling young frontwoman — are this week’s default critics’ darling. Poptimism!
I maybe should’ve seen this coming. Pitchfork has written about Fall Out Boy exactly once, in a defensive, foreshadowy news item typed by Ryan Dombal in 2009:
Some may scoff at the notion of Weezer— untouchable high-school-nerd heroes!— lowering themselves to tour with the puerile likes of Blink and FOB but, in 2009, that sort of closed-mindedness seems silly. Simple fact is FOB’s last three albums crush Weezer’s last three albums in every single way. And who wouldn’t want to hear “Dammit” one more time in a huge arena?
The above paragraph would fit comfortably on MTV Buzzworthy, which I know because I write many like it for them. However, in 2010’s lone Paramore mention, Tom Breihan called the band “arguably the best of the MySpace emo wave, for whatever that’s worth.” So they’ve got that going for them. The site, and its dozens of peers, have been extremely hands-off of anything emo-associated until the recent run of emo bands in lo-fi clothing (hi, Japandroids), but I have to wonder if Paramore, one of the last decade’s true breakthrough acts, gets less coverage (or at least less goodwill) from indie sites/critics for the same reason Taylor Swift does: teen girl fanbases, not just their mainstream appeal. Frank Ocean’s music may be a lot more substantial than Justin Bieber’s, but let’s be honest: they top the same charts. It’s only how they get there — and the buying demographic’s cool factor/indie-website-reading likelihood — that’s different. It feels like a marketing choice rather than a critical one; Jon Caramanica, for one, has no trouble writing meaningfully about Swift and Ocean alike if the music warrants (it does!), and his is the lead to follow.
Anyway, Jamieson is the best and so is this Paramore album. Take them both seriously.
During the early days of Twitter, in the rapidly evolving period of Ashton Kutcher and Shaq and Oprah, before it became the unofficial sponsor of every awards ceremony and the Internet’s de facto watercooler, there was Roger Ebert. He was or had been sick, battling cancer, at various stages of surgery and recovery, but he embraced the Internet. It was a place for him to connect at last with the readers who had approached him for so long through day-old ink and pre-taped broadcasts. I found my way to him then, as he poured thousands of words and decades of memories into blog posts that might as well have filled literary journals. They were warm, personal, eloquent, lovely. Perhaps no critic, ever the judge of others, has reviewed his or her own back pages so openly and powerfully.
I started reading Ebert’s blog, and eventually his reviews, during a period of covering news for a living and feeling sorry for myself creatively. I despaired of bothering to flourish another 200-view Rawkblog post with a metaphor. Everything had become a grind. (A mental state weakened by hour-long commutes and caffeine-related headaches that took stupid, paranoid weeks to uncover the cause of.) Ebert pulled me out of the muck. That someone could face the horrors of disease and hospitals and there on the horizon, just past the light, death itself, and give so generously and profoundly to his craft — it moved me in a way nothing ever has. Tonight I’ll open his memoirs and think about how much he loved dogs and try a little harder to make the most of the time that any of us have left, just like he did. Two thumbs up, Mr. Ebert. Two thumbs up.
It has become clear, with Spring Breakers in wide release now, that this film is many things to many people. It should also be, however, many things to the same person, and descriptions of it as subversive art movie or hedonistic trash are far from complete. I agree with several of my colleagues that it’s not an ironic feat of subterfuge: the film is not so much a critique of Gen-Y capitalist-consumer ethos as it is an acknowledgement of it. That this is best experienced as repulsion is because Spring Breakers is a horror film. Among others.
Several films and genres occurred to me during my time in the theater. One, Superbad: Spring Breakers has all the ingredients of an archetypical teen coming-of-age comedy, except its protagonists — trying to find themselves, escape their hum-drum small town lives, get laid, go to a party, have the best spring break ever — have already come of age. As teenage boys flail about trying to get laid or score a beer in alternate movie universes, our ladies are taking bong rips and having threesomes. In film terms, it is escalation. It is nuclear war. It is also not inauthentic.
Less believable, and purposefully so, is the shadowy gangsta world Alien brings them into. The film pushes all the meta-buttons of its Disney-princess casting, yes, but James Franco counts for that: it’s not so long ago he played a kindler, gentler drug dealer. The second half of the movie plays out much like Drive, with a middle-class white experience of hip-hop culture taking the place of the dystopian ’80s and anime allusions that suffuse the latter movie. Both deal with violence as inevitable and as dream-state: the hilariously terse shove of Gucci Mane into the film as a plot prop needs no explanation because the film’s characters are so aware of the Rick Ross narrative they’re playing out that the audience must be, too. Act like it’s a video game. The edgiest parts of Spring Breakers are the ones where the fantasy brushes up against real life and begins to scratch and bleed: the ohgodshe’sabouttogetraped total terror of the scene with Rachel Korine partying, too hard, apart from her friends; her exit, and Selena Gomez’s, both moments that puncture the fantasy and the BFF teen movie expectations. At its most primal, Spring Breakers is about the meaning of escape, and what it takes to get there.
As a horror film, it fulfills a number of genre tropes: drug and alcohol use, sex, the wronging of the innocent; young women in various states of undress; masks. But the film inverts that genre, too, positioning its heroes as masked killers. It’s not until the end, tension and gruesomeness (Gucci Mane having sex: the worst!) peaking, that we realize who the villains really are. Horror films thrive on enforced solitude, on separating the characters from civilization: we know nothing bad will happen to Van-Hudge — that in fact she’s behind the badness — because she can still call her mom.
All together, Spring Breakers is a smart, complicated piece of filmmaking, both clever and crass. The film is not so much commentary on culture as it is culture itself, drunk and half-naked and swerving from erotic charge to tragic meltdown. It is nearly about Lindsay Lohan. But mostly, it’s about us.
My great-aunt passed away in her sleep last night. She was 92. She’d been struggling with various ailments for some time, and it’s unclear if a trip to the hospital yesterday might have extended her time or if she was simply ready to go. More than anyone I’ve ever met, she was a testament to optimism, kindness and resolve. She lived a long, full life, but it was marred by tragedy: the death of her daughter in a house fire, two bouts of cancer separated by as many decades which left her with only a portion of a lung, and outliving her beloved husband, who’s been gone for perhaps a decade now. She broke her hip a few years back, the kind of injury that leaves many elderly bed-ridden and doomed, but she was up and walking in weeks. She was defined by a cheerful, selfless personality, a Jewish mother filling plates with smoked salmon and rye bread until the end. I never saw her not smiling or amused by the scene in front of her. What a beautiful way to live.
Author’s note: this was written in January 2012 and published on Tumblr in September 2012 (backstory). I’m not sure why it’s no longer on the site, but here it is again. This draft is probably missing that final round of edits: sorry. I quit Facebook toward the end of the year and haven’t looked back since.
I’ve been on the Internet since the year 2000, entering the new millennium with AOL, Napster and the still-gratifying achievement of having convinced my parents to spend more money on me. I was 15 years old; the next 12 years of my life have been lived in one form or another online. Much of this history, thank Steve Case, has become the domain of paleontological surveys, buried deep on dead message boards, abandoned AIM logs, forgotten blogging platforms and the shaky tunnels of Google Cache. (Few things have made me feel older than discovering that once-proud emotional safe zone Livejournal, having long since lost its teenagers to Tumblr, has degenerated almost entirely into a slash-fiction free-for-all.) My past was behind me, or so I thought until I enabled Facebook Timeline, the Internet’s best-yet establishment of Jurassic Park.
Facebook incepted me in April 2004, as soon as it moved west from Harvard and deigned to accept public school email addresses. I signed up the day after it arrived at UCLA, which was approximately 23 hours and 58 minutes after my friend Andre, owner of 1,000+ MySpace friends and possibly his dorm’s only active Friendster account, opened his page. He still has twice as many friends – “friends” – as I do, except on Twitter, where I banter to a Hollywood Palladium-size audience every day like the world’s least competent rock star.
Facebook has thus been the primary record for my entire adult life: like a voracious, ad-serving diary, it’s chronicled my first serious relationship, that midterm I slept through, that other midterm I slept through (sorry, Mom), graduation, my first serious breakup, a blissful summer in New York, the manifold embarrassments of single life, two jobs, cat ownership and so on. Timeline allows you to flip through the pages of your past in neatly sorted yearly sections, unearthing photos, updates, relationships and surreal statistics – 107 friends (“friends”?) posted on my wall to wish me a happy birthday in 2012, topping 2011 (50), 2010 (34) and 2009 (21). I suppose my elementary school self-esteem class instructors would want me to feel good about this. (Fun fact: last I heard, one classmate, the daughter of one of those confidence-championing moms, had gone on to become an exotic dancer. Empowerment!)
Looking through Timeline, I decided to start from the beginning. Who was I, at 18? Would I recognize myself in those long-lost 2 a.m. musings? Clicking through a barren 2004, I wondered where my status updates and photos were. Had they been lost? Surely Facebook, which hoards more potentially controversial data than Wikileaks, hadn’t deleted my snobby indie rock opinions and cell phone pics for more storage space. “Facebook didn’t have status updates in 2004,” a friend had to gently remind me.
It’s hard to imagine it any other way. Facebook, after all, has gone from a profile directory to a record of announced memory—an ongoing playlist of our daily greatest hits. It’s the bon mots we choose to make public, our cutest kissy-faces, the gossip we spread in front of our friends, not behind their backs. If all the world’s a stage, its brightest lights are cued by Mark Zuckerberg. Timeline might be the finest monument yet to Millennials’ generational narcissism: it is, crucially, not a log of what we’ve actually done, but what we say we did. The average Facebook page makes James Frey look like the New Yorker fact-checking department. In the ‘90s, with his sour generation chasing meaning through irony, alt-rock pianist Ben Folds sang sarcastically about being “the best imitation of myself”—he had no idea.
On the other hand, I have had a handful of welcome, genuine discoveries with Timeline so far. My wife and I found the first notes we exchanged in 2006, a year before we started dating: “That new Clipse album is sweeeeeet,” she wrote. “It’s blowing my mind,” I responded. Other topics of discussion, Joanna Newsom, Of Montreal and the Pipettes. We met for the first time at a party that year and didn’t see each other again in real life for months—our online bonding over coke-rap and fairy harpists was the entirety of our proto-courtship. Rediscovering it was pretty adorable. At our wedding last week, the Maid of Honor included a few more in her toast: “Depression level: Morrissey solo,” I apparently wrote one weekend when my significant other went out of town. (100% of my decade-plus of Interneting, even in the realm of romance, has apparently involved talking about bands. I regret nothing.)
For the most part – until you run into wall posts from your ex and cringe over your keyboard — Timeline collects your memories as you like them, hidden from the wrong social circles or future employers and curated for maximum rose-colored nostalgia. We are who we are, until we click delete. “When I look back on my life, it’s not that I don’t want to see things exactly as they happened,” Lady Gaga, our era’s most beloved, successful pop star, says in the opening monologue of her “Marry the Night” video. “It’s just that I prefer to remember them in an artistic way. And truthfully, the lie of it all is much more honest because I invented it.” Yet this is the biggest lie of all, a failure to acknowledge that the world began before our first MacBooks and will slouch onward after we upload our minds into iTernity in 2050. Maybe every generation gets the Woodstock box set it deserves.
I found Some Kind of Awesome today doing a Google image search for the album cover of Toro Y Moi’s Anything in Return. At first glance, it is exclusively a link outpost, an ongoing Pinterest board of magazine quotes and Pitchfork news items wrapped up in one-paragraph blog entries, made stickier by the SEO-tightening webbing of internal links. Its readership, if social networking followers are any indication, numbers in the mid-thousands: enough for ad revenue, probably not enough to beat picking up an extra couple shifts at the coffee shop. It appears to be a competent, efficiently run website. Its name, and format, were no doubt inspired by Pretty Much Amazing and the first wave of late ’00s post-Blogads content farms.
There are dozens of blogs like this, if not thousands, cluttering up the Internet with information Xeroxed from bigger sites who got to the news first and will receive the lion’s share of the traffic for it. Their feeds are filled by actual human beings, not RSS-scanning robots, who might spend hours a day looking for content to adopt. To be blunt: it seems pointless, and exhausting. The early days of the blogosphere — and current defenders of the eccentric from Ad Hoc to Yvynyl — were characterized by individual taste and reactions, each blogger carving out an MP3-strewn safe space for like-minded readers. For a time, it seemed like we were heading for a near-utopia of infinitely wide music appreciation; one would think the Internet’s destruction of distribution barriers and whole-hearted embrace of the retweet and reblog would naturally force fresh, independent content and put a virtual end to redundancy. And yet these blogs chug onward like trains to Siberia. I do not understand them at all.
(I am not against news. I am not against anything, particularly, if the blogger is interested in it. It’s hard to believe that’s the case with these kinds of sites.)