Saturday, November 17, 2007
I had an inkling as to what this place would be, and it has definitely evolved into what it should be -- a place to dwell on the things which aren't our jobs, and which aren't supposed to be serious, but which we like talking about anyway and are worth discussing in depth. In that regard, the posts immediately below this one -- on the history/impact of MTV and on the RRHOF merits of Donna Summer (with the comments attached to both) -- are perfect reflections of what this place has been all about, and even more so since I didn't write either post.
There are five groups of people I need to thank right now, and while most of this is obvious it still ought to be said: first, to my co-bloggers, who amuse and enlighten me daily. Without Matt, Alex, Isaac, Phil, TPE, Kim, Bob and Kingsley, none of this is nearly as much fun or as interesting. Second, to all of our readers, commenters and lurkers, co-adventurers in building this increasingly large community. We aren't a "we" without all of you.
Third is for all the people who write stuff to which I link, because I'm not that smart on my own, and to all the people who have created the pop culture about which we write. And fourth for the folks behind Blogger, because, seriously -- free? easy to use? unlimited distribution? and free? None of this was necessary, yet all of it is essential.
And finally, of course, I thank Jen and Lucy, who tolerate my nonsense both in real space and cyberspace on a regular basis. As is written in the Song of Songs and on our Ketubah, I have found the one in whom my soul delights.
Okay, but I can't leave you on that note. Instead, I was able to dig up an updated version of a dead link from that first week of the blog (Larry King! Fred Neulander! Chunky A! Talking about practice! Reference to "the greatness of Dratch-Fey-Poehler-Rudolph"!) which in many ways encapsulates what this place is all about. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome back Kikko-Man! (now with allegedly accurate subtitles), and let's keep a-goin'!
Friday, November 16, 2007
Founded in 1981 by 27-year-old Bob Pittman (later to achieve notoriety as the fall guy for the AOL/Time Warner fiasco) MTV took record companies' promotional videos and turned them into a new cultural brand: Music Television. Packaging both the network and its programming as odd blend of hip novelty and synthetic product, the channel's earliest promo spots were more about attitude than art, as video stars repeated, ad nauseam, "I want my MTV!" Judging by the early press coverage, MTV could do no wrong: it revived the moribund recording industry, attracted a young and free-spending demographic, and showcased some genuinely innovative videos.
In its first couple of years, though, MTV had a major race problem. In the documentary series The History of Rock & Roll, video director (and all-around pop-culture genius) Don Letts tells a story of arriving at MTV's studios for a 1982 interview, only to be greeted by shocked staffers who told him that his physical appearance (black, with heavy dreads) wouldn't go over well with MTV's "target audience." Platinum-selling performers like Rick James and Michael Jackson could not get their videos into the channel's rotation. Eventually, the story goes, Columbia threatened to pull all of its videos unless MTV started playing "Billie Jean." The network soon capitulated, and by late 1983 the "white only" policy had quietly died away. Within a year or two, rap made its MTV debut with Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys; by 1988 hip hop could boast its own regular program, Yo! MTV Raps, which joined 120 Minutes and Headbangers Ball in segmenting the network's audience into more manageable and marketable parts. (And, of course, in 1992 came the first season of The Real World, which in retrospect marked the dawning of a very different kind of MTV.)
Back in summer 2006, around MTV's 25th anniversary, we reflected on the network's high points in programming and special events. For this occasion, let's shift the focus a bit, away from MTV per se and toward the cultural form it popularized: the music video. How have music videos influenced other arenas of popular culture, such as popular music, television, and film? Are music videos really a genuine, independent form of popular culture, or are they merely advertisements for other products, like CDs, TV shows, and movies? With MTV increasingly focusing on reality shows and other original programs, is music video as a pop-culture form doomed to extinction, or will it endure in other settings?
Next week: hip hop and turkey (no class on Wednesday or Friday). By the way, if you're looking for some Thanksgiving reading (in addition to Life of Pi), pick up a copy of Steven Johnson's Everything Bad Is Good for You; I'll be discussing it during the week of December 3.
THIS TIME I KNOW IT’S FOR REAL. Donna Summer has been nominated this year for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Here is her “Keltner” analysis based upon the so-called “Keltner” list used to evaluate whether a given baseball player belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The “Keltner” list was developed by famous baseball analyst Bill James in his 1985 Bill James Baseball Abstract. Over the years we have adapted the questions on the list so they make more sense for musical artists (look here for our other“Keltner” musical assessments).
This time around I made a few changes to the questions to make them even more meaningful for musical artists. Also, in a few spots I changed the wording of the questions from “rock music” to “pop music” because the Hall is certainly not limited to “rock and roll” music.
1. Was Donna Summer ever regarded as the best artist in pop music? Did anybody, while she was active, ever suggest that Donna Summer was the best artist in pop music?
I think you would have to say no on this, but it’s a much closer call than you might expect. Donna Summer was among the top 2 or 3 pop music stars from 1977 through 1980, a period during which she had ten Top Ten hits, including four #1 hits and a #2.
This is as good a place as any to deal with a recurring yet tiresome question – is “disco” within the category of “rock and roll”? The answer is an emphatic yes. Let me quote rock critic Robert Christgau, as he wrote in 1978:
“Whatever other genre distinctions you want to make (and they're always fuzzy), it's a weird switch to act as if black music (whatever exactly that means) is not rock and roll. If Motown was rock and roll, then so are the O'Jays and Donna Summer; if Linda Ronstadt and Randy Newman are part of the tradition, then so are Natalie Cole and Gil Scott-Heron. Rock and roll is a direct descendant of rhythm and blues, and so are soul, funk, middle-class black pop, ... Philly-derived disco, reggae (less categorically), and jazz fusion and Eurodisco (less categorically still, since both are genuinely interracial styles with disparate forebears).”
Donna Summer is in fact much more than a disco artist. Her work has featured a fusion of disco, R&B, rock, inspirational, electronica, techno, and dance music. For example, her hit “Hot Stuff” is basically straightforward rock and roll.
Donna Summer’s 1979 album “Bad Girls” was #10 on the 1979 Village Voice “Pazz & Jop” Critics Poll, a remarkably high showing considering that at least as of the year before only 12 of the 98 participating critics focused on “black” music and only 2 of the 98 focused their efforts on disco. In 1980, critic Dave Marsh named Summer’s album “The Wanderer” as the second best album of the year behind only “The River” by Bruce Springsteen.
Last but not least, I swear that I once read an interview with Billy Joel in which he described Donna Summer as the best artist in pop music circa 1980, but I cannot find the quotation on the internet.
2. Was Donna Summer ever the best artist in her genre?
Possibly yes. Assuming we view the relevant genre as disco, then there are four other contenders worth considering: Earth Wind & Fire, the Bee Gees, Chic, and KC and the Sunshine Band. Earth Wind & Fire (who have been inducted into the Hall) had less success on the Top 40 than Summer did, but greater critical acclaim.
The Bee Gees had greater commercial success than Summer did (the Bee Gees are in the Hall). It’s a harder question for me to say if the Bee Gees were “better” than Donna Summer. I’d say that they were roughly equal in quality, but I happen to like Donna Summer more than I like the Bee Gees.
Donna Summer had more commercial success and a much longer career than Chic (also nominated this year) or KC and the Sunshine Band. I think Chic was perhaps better at its very peak, but Summer clearly had more “career value.” Summer is considerably more influential than KC and the Sunshine Band.
3. Was Donna Summer ever considered the best at her instrument/role?
No. Summer was certainly a talented vocalist, trained as a powerful gospel singer. I don’t think anyone ever suggested that she was the single most talented vocalist of her time, though.
4. Did Donna Summer have a noticeable influence on a number of other artists?
You betcha. According to David Bowie, her influence was recognized early on:
“One day in Berlin ... Eno came running in and said, 'I have heard the sound of the future.' … he puts on 'I Feel Love', by Donna Summer … He said, 'This is it; look no further. This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next fifteen years.' Which was more or less right.”
Donna Summer appears to have heavily influenced Janet Jackson, Madonna, Mariah Carey, and Beyoncé', among many other artists.
5. How long a career did Donna Summer have? Was she a good enough performer that she could continue to perform regularly after passing her prime?
She has had a very long career. Her first hit was in 1975, the infamous "Love to Love You, Baby." As recently as 1997, she won the Grammy for “Best Dance Recording” for her song “Carry On.” Summer placed a song on the Billboard Hot 100 every single year from 1977's "I Feel Love" to 1984's "There Goes My Baby".
She has been a good enough performer that she continued to perform regularly even after “the last days of disco.” She still continues to record and to perform.
6. Is Donna Summer the very best eligible artist in history who is not in the Hall of Fame?
No. I would say that you’d have to put Madonna ahead of her. But I’d put Donna Summer on the short list of the most worthy contenders.
7. Are most performers with a comparable recording history and influence in the Hall of Fame?
Yes! For example, Earth Wind & Fire (who are in the Hall) had slightly less success on the pop charts than Summer did. I would say that Earth Wind & Fire is perhaps slightly less influential than Summer, but reasonable minds can differ on that topic.
See also #9 below, regarding Summer’s chart success. I have to believe that very few artists with twelve Top 10 hits and eleven gold or platinum albums are not in the Hall.
8. Is Donna Summer the best artist in her genre who is eligible for the Hall of Fame (and has not already been admitted)?
Yes. See #3 above.
9. How many songs of Donna Summer hit one or more of the major music charts? How many songs hit #1? How many of her albums went gold or platinum? Did Donna Summer ever win a Grammy award?
Summer has had twenty Top 40 hits. Twelve of those songs hit the Top 10, including four #1 hits, and two #2 smashes. Many of her other songs have hit the dance charts and the R&B charts.
Donna Summer has also had enormous success internationally, with over 40 songs charting in the
Eleven of her albums went gold or platinum, a particularly impressive total considering that many people think of disco as a genre focused on singles. Donna is the only artist to have three double-albums in a row go to number one on Billboard's album chart.
She has five Grammy awards in the R&B, Rock, Inspirational, and Dance categories. Donna Summer was the first African American woman to earn a Rock Grammy.
10. How long did Donna Summer dominate the music scene? Did most of the bands with this sort of impact go into the Hall of Fame?
She dominated the scene for about 3 or 4 years (roughly 1977-1980). Most bands that dominated the scene as Summer did are in the Hall.
11. Is there any evidence to suggest that Donna Summer’s influence or greatness is significantly more or less than what you can see just by counting Grammies and gold records?
Summer wrote or co-wrote most of her songs, which was not a common situation for disco artists. That being said, she was fortunate to hook up with gifted producers such as Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte.
See also #4 above, regarding her influence on other artists, and #5 above, regarding her ability to succeed long after disco’s heyday had passed.
But more than anything else just think about her amazing hits:
- The synth-dance riff of “I Feel Love”
- The way that “Last Dance” moves your heart
- The power of “On the Radio”
- The joy of “This Time I Know It’s For Real”
12. If Donna Summer was the best performer at a concert, would it be likely that the concert would rock?
I have never heard her perform live, but I gather that she is a thrilling live performer. That being said, she never headlined an “arena” concert tour as far as I know.
13. What effect did Donna Summer have on pop music history? Was she responsible for any stylistic changes? Did she introduce any new equipment? Did she change history in any way?
As noted at #4 above, her song “I Feel Love” was very influential due to its innovative use of synthesizers.
14. Did she uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?
This Boston-born woman has upheld the standards of sportsmanship and character. For example, Summer has played for AIDS benefits and has donated proceeds to AIDS research.
Several of her songs have been banned for being sexually suggestive, but, well, I’m certainly not going to hold that against her!
Bottom line: Summer belongs in the Hall. This is not a close case.
Meanwhile, I'm still amazed at how well 30 Rock keeps developing its characters and their relationships amid all the nonstop jokes. Did you notice how Jack and Carmela's "My cell phone was ringing [v]agner"/"[V]agner?" exchange was a callback to Liz, Jenna, and Birdbones's "Kill the Wabbit" discussion, a fraction-of-a-second reminder of how, underneath the accretions of possessions and affectations, Liz and Jack are more or less the same? I have two questions here: (1) Did Tracy Morgan somehow lose 20 pounds all of a sudden?; and (2) is this show in danger of provoking a variant of Simpsons-logorrhea, that affliction characterized by one or more people being reminded of a Simpson's episode and then being annoyingly incapable of shutting off the quote spigot?
Thursday, November 15, 2007
According to the San Francisco Chronicle back in late 2004, "Barry Bonds told a federal grand jury that he used a clear substance and a cream supplied by the Burlingame laboratory now enmeshed in a sports doping scandal, but he said he never thought they were steroids."
ETA: The full indictment is here.
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
As is often the case on Project Runway, the final battle came down to a decision between having too much vision and not-quite-enough, and we know how those things often end up. I'll just say this: it's good to have Michael Kors back, and I still kinda miss Nick Verreos. Season Two is an awful lot for this group to live up to (as fashion and as tv), and I'm just hoping for the best now.
I came late to Bravo's "Project Runway," and I have no excuse for my lateness save ignorance and an outdated, pig-headed resistance to reality TV. But now I am a TV critic, so I am watching everything and, frankly, I cannot believe how fabulous, and unnervingly addictive, "Project Runway" is. I sit down to watch an episode of a previous season on DVD and, bam, there's three hours gone while deadlines fly by and dinner simmers to scorched nothingness. Because I have to find out What Happened Next.Reality Blurred has more links, including Denhart's own piece about how the show (and this season of it) has more talent than any other in reality tv.
Who thought of this show? They should get the first-ever Nobel Prize for television. Combining the best aspect of reality TV -- truth is always stranger, and more disturbingly ambitious, than fiction -- and the survivalist cunning of a really good spy serial, "Project Runway" is essentially "Mission: Impossible" for fashionistas. To save the world, host Klum intones, you must construct a prom dress out of whatever you can find in a dentist's office. And next thing you know, a perfectly presentable frock made out of dental floss and spit cups is waltzing down the runway.
From the Wayback Machine, here's just some of what we've written about the show over the years. Season four, tonight: let's make it work, people.
Home video dealt the first blow to network dominance. Sony introduced the Betamax in 1975; a year later, JVC/Matsushita countered with the VHS format, which was soon adopted by other companies like RCA. As the commercials at those links show, most early consumers bought VCRs for the purposes of "time-shifting" -- taping broadcasts for later viewing. Although VCRs took a while to catch on (partly because of their expense, partly because of the VHS-Betamax format war), by 1985 they could be found in 27% of American homes.
Television networks were frustrated by VCRs because they disconnected audiences from timeslots, thereby complicating the business of measuring a show's viewership, analyzing its demographics, and selling advertising. Hollywood studios were even more worried, haunted by visions of millions of VCR owners taping movies off the air and then selling them on the market; consequently, the studios decided to sue VCR manufacturers, charging them with encouraging film piracy. In 1984's "Betamax case," the Supreme Court ruled that off-air taping for personal use was legal, and that the manufacturers couldn't be held responsible if some VCR users employed their technology for illegal purposes.
By that point, however, Hollywood had already begun to change its tune on VCRs, thanks to the boom in pre-recorded cassettes. In the early '80s, local retailers had started renting videotapes of popular movies. Although the studios had initially intended that these cassettes be sold, not rented, retailers defied Hollywood's demands, citing both the explosion of consumer demand (from 30 million rentals to 262 million between 1983 and 1985) and the legal protection of the first-sale doctrine. Studios soon recognized the huge revenue streams waiting for them in video rentals, which in turn reoriented both Hollywood's marketing plans and audiences' movie-going and TV-watching habits. By 1990, three out of four households owned a VCR -- and the networks' share of viewers had dropped to 65%.
The other key force in remaking American viewing habits was cable television. Originally designed as a means to get broadcast signals to rural viewers, cable became a programming arena in the 1970s and 1980s, thanks particularly to the increased availability of satellite technology. HBO debuted in 1975, ESPN in 1979, CNN in 1980; by 1990, some two hundred non-network stations had appeared. As with VCRs, consumer adoption of cable was slow but steady, growing from 23% of households in 1980 to 60% in 1990. And as its reach grew, so did cable's share of the TV audience, with viewers flocking to the greater variety and (in some cases) more daring content available on cable.
Over the past decade, three other new technologies -- DVDs, DVRs, and online downloads -- have further perpetuated the trends of network decline and audience fragmentation. In Sunday's New York Times, in fact, Damon Lindelof (of Lost fame) argued that television as we've known it for the past sixty years is "dying," and that the WGA is striking for "a future generation of writers, whose work will never 'air,' but instead be streamed, beamed or zapped onto a tiny chip." Is Lindelof right? Are DVRs and downloads merely another phase in the history I've described above? Or are they game-changing innovations that will utterly transform the medium of TV? How will we watch television ten years from now? Will we watch "television" ten years from now?
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Last week, as playwright Jonathan Larson's family looked on, Truman was the site of the national debut of a new high school version of the Broadway smash Rent.According to Wiki, the deleted song is "Contact" -- i.e., "hot, hot, hot, sweat, sweet, wet, wet, wet, etc."
Truman was handpicked to be the first school in the country to translate the play - the story of a year in the life of group of young artists, dealing with AIDS, love, and friendship - to a school-age audience. ...
Rent's themes are decidedly mature. Aside from AIDS, there are same-sex relationships, death, a stripper, and other weighty matters.
Senior Ashley Vitale plays Mimi and Maureen in alternate performances. Vitale said rather than shying away from the subject matter, the student actors embraced it.
"It's not Grease, it's not Oklahoma! It's modern, and we can all relate. I love it," she said.
Before they saw the script, Vitale said, students worried the play might be too sanitized. And there are subtle differences - less cursing and overt sexuality, one song removed.
But Mimi is still a stripper. She and Roger are still HIV positive. Maureen and Joanne, Angel and Collins are still couples.
Would anyone like to suggest what further edits the audience will be seeing?
And speaking of icons, is there a better character on TV than Jack Donaghy right now? ("Look how Greenzo is testing. They love him in every demographic: colored people, broads, fairies, Commies. Gosh, we've got to update these forms.)
- Oberlin College students have been offered the irresistible opportunity of "Poop in the Adam Joseph Lewis Center toilets anytime between Saturday, November 10 and Friday, November 16 and sign up to receive a quarter per poop." (via Gawker)
- The new hot fear for children? Automatically flushing toilets. "Unlike their antiquated, manually operated predecessors, the toilets can flush at the slightest movement, and emit a high-pitched whine that, to some ears, sounds like a cat being strangled."
Monday, November 12, 2007
- 3% Original Biomatter Content Spice
- Litigiously Knocked Up Spice
- UK Office Dawn Spice
- Looks 10 Times Better Without the Union Jack Dress and the Clown Makeup and I’m Not Just Saying That in Fear of her Apparently-Computer-Generated Personal Trainer Spice
- Used to Be a Wild Party Girl Then Settled Down and Married a Commodities Trader and Now Has Opinions on Double-Strollers Spice
Although many narratives of punk in the U.S. put the Sex Pistols front and center, American punk boasted a long prehistory, dating back to the late '60s and early '70s and featuring acts like the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, and Richard Hell. In 1973, punk got its most famous stage, New York's CBGB, a club that welcomed bands united by little more than a refusal to conform (or, in many cases, to learn how to play their instruments). Over the next several years, the punk subculture attracted more adherents, drawn by its musical energy and "do-it-yourself" attitude. By 1977 (when the Sex Pistols finally hit the States), punk's public profile was high enough to earn Iggy Pop an improbable appearance on Dinah Shore's talk show.
Disco, too, was hardly an overnight sensation. Musically, it descended from early '70s funk and the smoothly orchestrated "Philadelphia sound"; culturally, it originated in urban discotheques (and especially black, Latino, and gay clubs), where DJs put together 20-minute "party music" medleys to keep the crowds dancing through the night. Even without major-label contracts or significant airplay, disco artists were selling tens of thousands of singles. By 1976, radio stations finally took notice, programming performers like Donna Summer, KC and the Sunshine Band, and the Village People. Of course, what really launched disco into the pop-culture stratosphere was the December 1977 release of Saturday Night Fever. The film grossed nearly $400 million (adjusted for inflation) in its first run, and the soundtrack sold 15 million copies. Within months, major labels and mainstream artists were hopping on the disco bandwagon; by 1979, some 200 radio stations had converted to an all-disco format, and disco records accounted for forty to fifty percent of the Billboard Hot 100.
By 1980, however, both punk and disco had imploded. Punk collapsed in political confusion and commercial chaos, giving way to the more stylish and accessible "new wave"; disco inspired a vicious, often racist backlash that led to a further segregation of pop music. Looking back a generation later, then, which late-'70s phenomenon do you think has had the more lasting influence on American popular culture? Try to think about "influence" both creatively and commercially: how did punk and disco reshape both the making and the marketing of popular music? (And if any ThingThrowers of a certain age -- like, um, me -- wish to share embarrassing personal punk or disco stories from their late-'70s youths, the mosh pit and dance floor are open for that, too.)
Step One: prosthetics with limited neural interface.
Step two (and this is the kind of out-of-the-box thinking I expect from our cutting edge researchers): a moth with wheels.
I did say they were small steps.
Sunday, November 11, 2007
The only thing which could have improved this leg -- other than eliminating a less pleasant team than those we were clearly going to lose -- would have been had there not been a "hoist expert" to certify the teams on that task. Would have been much more fun to see poorly-knotted tv sets dropping from the sky, but that's just me.
When he was accepted at drama school, he committed himself fully to acting, but Day-Lewis never gave up his interest in the process of honing a skill. For his films, at least initially, imagining the life of his characters often involves a kind of physical invention of their world. During “Last of the Mohicans,” he built a canoe, learned to track and skin animals and perfected the use of a 12-pound flintlock gun, which he took everywhere he went, even to a Christmas dinner. He was first attracted to “My Left Foot,” the story of Christy Brown, a man with cerebral palsy who became a renowned painter and writer in Ireland, by the opening scene of the script: Christy’s left foot puts a record on a turntable, there’s a skip and the foot picks the needle up and then puts it down again. “I knew it couldn’t be done,” Day-Lewis said, “and that intrigued me.” After weeks of practice and eight weeks spent with cerebral-palsy patients, Day-Lewis mastered the scene on the first take. For “There Will be Blood,” he studied the historic period for nearly two years and became comfortable with the tools of California oilmen circa 1900.Is there an actor-slash-cobbler alive who does a better job picking and choosing his roles?