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Where Dirt and Glitter Always Cover the Floor: Exile in Ke$haland, Part I

March 4, 2011

She's ba-ack... and yes, that is that guy who played Dawson. (screen shot from "Blow")

Observing the pop cultural silence enveloping Ke$ha recently, I was beginning fear that all of her crass brawn and glitter-coated sleaze had fizzled out after the mega-success of her first album.  It seemed like a distinct possibility that the overly produced, self-reflexive pandering of “We R Who We R”  finally did her in.

At the very least, I’ve noticed recently that radios have dropped Ke$ha’s newer releases in favor of “Tik Tok” — a move that seemed to say that Ke$ha’s moment was far enough in the past that it’s now appropriate, even kitschy, to revisit her original hit.

But all of these fears were allayed when Ke$ha strode back onto the scene in typically attention-greedy fashion with her newest music video, “Blow” — an amazacrazy, suggestively intelligent flick that works to parody Ke$ha’s own ridiculousness. And if that weren’t enough, she’s succeeded in pulling James van der Beek out of cultural obscurity along with her.

“Blow,” which features violent acts against both unicorns and the aforementioned obsession of bygone teen girl fantasies, as well as an interlude about muenster cheese, is essentially a culmination of all that has begun to define Ke$ha’s cultural brand. The video puts the final glossy sheen on the fantastical locale that shapes the background of all of Ke$ha’s music: where bars boast seedy back jukeboxes, where partygoers break bottles and hurl trashcans with gleeful abandon, the loyal congregate at voyeuristic holes in the wall, where the party never truly starts ’til she walks in– this is Ke$haland.

In an effort to chart the fantastical locale, I offer the following list of themes that run throughout Ke$ha’s oeuvre. Their powers combined, these factors coalesce into the glitter-coated sleaze that makes Ke$haland so alluring– and, importantly, that allow the platform from which Ke$ha launches the parody of her own style in ‘Blow.”

So begins the first part of a multi-part series, in which I will attempt to explore this bright new terrain…

Factor #1: Sordid dissonance: First and foremost, the inconsistency that makes watching any Ke$ha video a joyfully ambivalent experience. The psychological terrain upon which Ke$haland is constructed.

Part of what gives Ke$ha songs their enduring appeal is the contrast between the impersonally auto-tuned, saccharinely nondescript voice and the abrupt insertions of profanity or explicit sexual desire. Evident in song, this phenomenon grows exponentially in the corresponding videos.

Take “Tik Tok”: a song that conjures up images of waking up in a gutter accompanied by nothing but your own vomit is played out across a constructed video landscape prominently featuring suburban children and a bright pastel palette. The songstress herself spends much of the video tooling around on a bicycle decorated with juvenile handlebar ribbons, pedaling prettily as she chants about liquor and (presumably) riotous parties.

Talk about scandalous: Tik Tok's suburban setting

“Blah Blah Blah” is even more intensely dissonant: Arguably her most sordid song, featuring the truly excellent lyrical gem, “don’t be a little bitch with your chit chat/ just show me where you dick’s at”, the entire video takes place in what looks like a mix between a boring bowling alley and the least cool, most brightly-lit club you’ve never wanted to visit. No wonder she (allegedly!) just wants to hang out in the back with the jack and jukebox. But Ke$ha one-ups the bizarrely lame visual vibe with her video antics, in which she pulls off such more-or-less harmless, stock middle school pranks as covering an idiotic suitor with duct tape and then pants-ing him. All while singing, in a show of her gleefully absurd inconsistency, about how much she just wants a little love in her glove box.

While “Blow” lacks much of the lyrical perversity that defines early Ke$ha, it’s more than present visually. The video at first seems, disappointingly, to parrot the typical trope the female pop star: she appears overly produced and incongruously shoved into fetish-style garb. Then it becomes clear that the object of all this sexual posturing is not the same infantile male playthings of her earlier oeuvre but a room full of unicorns. We are officially in Ke$haland.

Screen shot from "Blow"

And for next time:
What to do if you’re hot and dangerous– Ke$haland is nothing without its inhabitants.

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I heart the ’90s… A Belated Tribute to Love & Other Drugs’ Commercial Nostalgia, Now Available on DVD

March 3, 2011

Inspired by Anne Hathaway’s quips about artistic nudity during her desperately gamine turn as a host of the 2011 Academy Awards, I am finally posting my review of 2010’s Love & Other Drugs. The movie, now on DVD long enough to have been freshly forgotten, features one of Hathaway’s less tween-friendly turns—in addition to joining the increasingly popular movement (back) to ‘90s revival media.

Courtesy imdb.com

Despite the prodigious star-power shock waves caused by putting both Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhall in the same movie – or more to the point, mostly naked and on the same movie poster– Rottentomatoes.com gave Love and Other Drugs a resounding ‘splat’ rating. This, combined with a bevy of critics’ reviews declaring the movie—essentially—an intellectual and moral succubus, meant that I went into the film feeling understandably depressed for dwindling away my unemployment funds on yet another feel-good flop.

Contrary to my constructed expectations, the movie was awesome.

At once entertaining, indulgently saccharine, and giddily nostalgic, L&OD is perhaps most tellingly smart.

Smart: the word that seems to get thrown around whenever a movie somehow surpasses the stereotypes foisted upon it via its marketing or supposed audience or a combination of the two. For perspective, The Social Network— the tell-all tale of geeks and geniuses and the multi-million dollar endeavor that is Facebook—recently earned that descriptor. Burlesque did not.

So what do we mean exactly when we call a popular film smart?

First, what makes me think that L&OD actually is smart? Most obviously, the combination of successful witty banter and the deeper medical/personal tragedy afoot hints at a genre transcendence that takes many viewers by surprise. In L&OD, the pervasive theme of medicine—and medication—is a multipurpose utensil, poking fun at the drug industry while pointing to the quieter tragedy/hope cocktail of those who depend upon pharmaceutical drugs for daily survival (mental, physical, or otherwise).

This type of combination—the simultaneously romantic/humorous and thought-provoking—seems oxymoronic, of course, because of the tremendous number of films that fail to gracefully mix genres. Unfortunately, these films seem to rely most often upon a “romantic” classification to rope in hordes of supposed commercially susceptible female viewers (a recent film to fit this category would be The Last Song, in which the heavy-handed marketing of lead Miley Cyrus resulted in a convoluted drama that masqueraded as a tween love flick, to disastrous effect).

Add to that an association with the moniker ‘chick flick’, a term rife with inherent derision, and it’s hardly surprising that many viewers don’t even enter a romantic comedy with the expectation of finding a smart film.

Small wonder, then, that L&OD’s successful mélange of romantic comedy with intellectual entertainment is surprising—and thus intelligent. We viewers have come to equate similar holiday-season romantic comedies with lobotomy-worthy time fillers—particularly when populated by two actor/tresses who exude the frank sex appeal and star power summoned by Gyllenhall and Hathaway. And who can blame audiences for their skepticism, anyway, after such patently non-smart hallmarks of the genre as the widely hyped Valentine’s Day?

But apart from its genre manipulation, L&OD is smart for an additional reason—one that allows the film to pack an affective punch long after viewers exit the theater. The secret to L&OD’s cleverness lies in its careful, intelligent manipulation of nostalgia.

The movie takes place in a ’90s-tinged elsewhere, verified by such neat filmic tricks as splices of dated, black-and-white home videos and liberal visuals of laughably bulky machinery (the film starts, perhaps a bit obviously, in an electronics store).

A.O. Scott wrote about the film’s admirable adaptation of the ’90s, speculating as to the reasons that such a specific historical grounding (1996) existed at all, let alone worked so well. Ultimately, Scott argues that the ’90s, from our vantage point here in late 2010, are indeed a time at once knowable and understandable. And, I would add, seductively yet untenably hopeful.

This lost-yet-found peace of mind (the hallowed simpler times, pre-terrorism-as-we-know-it, and a good 16 years before the supposed impending apocalypse) allows for a suspense of belief as we, the viewers, are caught between the known present and the now-untenable — yet still cinematically visible — past.

Such a suspension of belief understandably allows for a factual leniency in which we no longer mind, so much, when things take a turn for the trite. When Gyllenhall decides that he can’t live without Hathaway, Parkinson’s and dark future be damned, we viewers all the way up here in 2010 think, Why not? And that is smart filmmaking.

Critical Fandom: Are We Already Practicing New TV Criticism?

February 21, 2011

Fandom at its most triumphant! From last.fm.

When TV critic Alan Sepinwall performed the somewhat undramatic act of appearing as an extra on Community, one of the shows that he writes on, he was in fact crucially re-defining the shaky line between criticism and fandom. Much to his surprise.

In the bygone era of cultural criticism, the critic and the fan were two distinctly different entities. The critic was marked by his (and yes, I do mean his) high educational and social standards as well as his staunchly supported belief, despite his leftist leanings, that ‘culture’ belonged in museums and tomes. The fan, meanwhile, belonged to the culture-less masses, those who are instrumental in consuming culture but not clever enough to wittingly produce it. The intellectual shift responsible for recognizing pop culture as a valid source of information and knowledge was, accordingly, a momentous one– and one that necessarily heralded a change in our understanding of the barrier between critic and fan.

That this barrier remains contentious is illustrated by the small media frenzy (which seemed understandably larger if your day revolves around your culture blog RSS feed) caused by Josh Levitt’s article in Slate about Sepinwall’s questionably fan-like practices. Levitt’s original article pointed to Sepinwall’s obvious enthusiasm for the shows that he reviews, while simultaneously situating Sepinwall as a key figure in the evolution of popular, inside joke-rife and episode-recapping TV criticism as we know it. Nonetheless, as Levitt points out, are some of Sepinwall’s more dramatic antics, such as writing this open letter to save Chuck, or his aforementioned appearance on Community, too far over the ethical/entertainment line of the media journalist?

That Levin’s original piece touched on a troublesome cultural nerve is indicated by Sepinwall’s response to the original article, which was followed by Levin’s response to Sepinwall’s response. The original Levin piece also triggered lengthy responses from Times’ James Poniewozik and the A.V. Club’s Myles McNutt. Woah.

The issue, as Sepinwall points out immediately in his response, is the question of subjectivity/objectivity in pop-cultural criticism. Themes which certainly aren’t new in cultural/media theory or in fan communities, but which have taken on new urgency in the ever-expanding and immensely popular realm of journalistic TV-criticism. As Sepinwall writes,

A complaint I get tagged with sometimes is that a review “wasn’t objective,” which seems to miss the whole point of the subjective artform of criticism. We all bring our own tastes and biases to the entertainment we consume…But because what I do involves expressing an opinion, and because I sometimes do it passionately – particularly in circumstances where I’ve argued to save shows like “Chuck” or “Terriers” – I can see how some might feel the line gets blurred between “critic” and “advocate.

What Sepinwall crucially points at and what seems to be missing in the other critiques involved in the debate is an important self-reflexive understanding of his place within the media industry. Try as we might, as he says, we can’t escape our likes. On a structural level, this holds important considerations for all media. Journalistic stories are always, at a basic level, filtered through the opinion of an editor and a brand concept. While journalistic writing importantly strives to minimize bias, this “ethical” relationship is increasingly complicated when looking specifically at criticism and reviews– a facet of journalistic production that cannot escape the quandary of the opinion.

Thus I have to wonder if Levin’s question, posed in his Brow Beat response, is really the relevant point at stake. As Levin asks,

It’s possible to think Sepinwall is a fantastic critic—which I do—while also pointing out that some of his behavior wouldn’t be kosher if he operated under the guidelines of the New York Times ethics policy…Isn’t it possible that a critic who appears on a show or spearheads the effort to keep a series on the air will, consciously or unconsciously, have a harder time criticizing that series if it loses its way?

Of course Sepinwall’s actions would likely be a problem at the NYT— but then again, the type of criticism that he’s writing is an entirely different breed, born more out of the largely un-traversed annals of fan communities than the distinguished newsrooms of established media bastions.

The interesting issue here is not actually the ethical conundrums of the entertainment journalist, but rather the relationship between Sepinwall’s type of TV critic and fandom– particularly when we are talking about a type of writing that owes much of its stylistic format as well as its longevity to the fans that, throughout the responses to Sepinwall’s writing, are often a forgotten factor (though McNutt does address the unique relationship between Sepinwall and his own fan base).

Indeed, as both Sepinwall and Levin note, the episode-recap style of TV response comes from early TV fan communities– Levin cites Dawson’s Wrap (now Television Without Pity) and Sepinwall performs a shout-out to Tim Lynch on Star Trek.  The legacy of critical output revolving around specific TV shows or media products is exhaustive, but there are certainly useful bodies of work that similarly coalesce around, for example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (look to Slayage) or, earlier, Dallas (see most notably the work of Ien Ang). But what this expansive body of variant critical thoughts and styles shares is the fact that the writer is necessarily a viewer and–yes!– a fan of the show. Fandom has always provided the organizational backbone to good TV criticism: it brings together a community for which the discussion is relevant and thus worth having, and it shapes, pushes and persists to care about what might otherwise be relegated to cultural obscurity or to Comic-Con.

To wish to clarify the line between fan and critic in Sepinwall’s case indicates a couple of things for me.

First, it seems troublingly (albeit unconsciously) flavored by the dominant disdain of fandom — and pop culture– more generally. This trace level of snobbery is characterized by an old-school obscuring of fan intelligence– visible in our desire to refer to fan bases as characterizable “masses” or “mobs.” Take current Bieber coverage for example: nowhere is there a more abjectly disliked and mythologized mass as Bieber fans… even if a select few were acting a bit immature with the guerrilla defacing of Esperanza Spalding’s Wikipedia page. The desire to have a more readily enforced line between fan and critic seems to be, at its core, a desire to retain a vaguely elitist separation between the educated critic and the mindless fan– a separation that, based on recent styles of TV criticism, is rooted in fantasy.

Second, what becomes increasingly clear is that writing such as Sepinwall’s cannot easily be talked about in the same terms and with reference to the same ethical guidelines as traditional print media. Indeed, what new TV criticism is doing is rooted in and formed by the products of virtual social media rather than reporting. What is at stake here, then, is a critical split in what we understand and go to as relevant journalism. The obvious take-away from the discussion of Sepinwall’s work is that journalistic media is at a critical juncture, in which its various new forms fail to align–and likely will never align– with traditional understandings and products.