Friday, February 29, 2008

SNL and one-joke sketches

One-joke sketches on Saturday Night Live aren't inherently awful. "It's Pat" wasn't exactly complicated. Tom Hanks did well as "Mr. Short-Term Memory." Even The Coneheads and the wild-and-crazy Festrunks didn't exactly match the complexity of a classic Seinfeld or Arrested Development. Nothing wrong with that.

But when a debate sketch, so often SNL's bread and butter, resorts to one joke, that's a missed opportunity.

That's why SNL's otherwise excellent return to the air last weekend had a slow start.

OK. We get it. The media have been fawning over Obama recently. Just as they fawn over every front-runner. Say, Hillary Clinton, three or four months ago.

That's really not enough for a debate sketch. Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, Will Forte and Jason Sudeikis are left with little to do but caricatures. (I especially feel for Wiig, who gets stuck with a lot of these characters for some reason -- the new woman in the cast, Casey Wilson, is already getting better parts. In the evening's best sketch, a parody of birth-control pill ads, Wiig is seen making out with a dog.)

The classic SNL debates have layers of jokes on all the candidates. Dana Carvey's memorable Bush vs. Jon Lovitz's pained Dukakis. Carvey's Bush vs. Carvey's Perot vs. Phil Hartman's Clinton ... a trifecta of brilliant characterizations. Then the best of them all -- Darrell Hammond's overbearing Gore vs. Will Ferrell's borderline illiterate Bush, which was heavy on Gore but still introduced "strategery" into our vernacular.

The whole racial question over Fred Armisen playing Obama is overblown -- both men have family trees that look like Benetton ads. Maya Rudolph had no problem playing characters of any ethnicity. Neither should Armisen.

The blame here is on the folks who were on strike all this time -- the writers. Come on, folks. These people are funnier than that.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Song du semaine: Anna Nalick, "Shine"

Yes, it's a current song. New territory here at MMM.

It's so new that I don't see an actual video for it yet, just a couple of things at YouTube. One is apparently an official release of some sort, though it's just a bunch of pictures of the handwritten lyrics (with unfortunate apostrophe errors included). So as you're reading, you can watch that or just listen at her official site.

Nalick's breakthrough -- spurred along by Grey's Anatomy, proving that something good can come from that piece of dreck -- was a few years removed from the Great Young Woman Invasion of 2000-2002. You remember those days -- Michelle Branch, Vanessa Carlton and Avril Lavigne all hitting it big while a bunch of oppressive male critics lumped them all together. I have vague, possibly hazy memories of people claiming you couldn't tell them apart, which is about like a critic in 1966 saying you can't distinguish Roger Daltrey from Mick Jagger.

(Unrelated TV quiz: Name the show that made reference to "the Rolling Who.")

All three of these women were tagged as "anti-Britneys" because they clearly took their music more seriously than their image, refusing to sell themselves as mere teen lust fodder. That was before Branch and Lavigne posed for Maxim. Carlton was apparently one of Jane's "11 people you'd most like to see naked," which was an odd stance to take for a magazine allegedly marketed to young women. In any case, I don't know of any evidence that she took anyone up on the "offer."

And all three brought something different to the radio (or Launch player, in my case). Branch delved into several pop-rock styles, from overt Beatles references to modern dance beats. Carlton had sort of a retro piano-rock vibe. Lavigne was to postpunk rock as Liz Phair was to classic rock, recasting all the standard themes from a female perspective.

Not that they were polished and brilliant. All three needed some work on the lyrics. But they were far better than anything I was writing at age 17. I'm just glad YouTube wasn't around when we recorded the R.E.M.-style video for Let's Rock and Roll 'Til We Get Herpes and Die. I always dreamed of being a rock star and was actually a little jealous of Debbie Gibson, but the 20 or so people who've heard the recordings of my high school "band" would surely tell me I made the right career choice. Sniff.

But instead of progressing, all three declined. Carlton's later singles were listenable but not particularly memorable. Branch released a second album with several solid singles, married her bass player despite a rather substantial age difference, formed a country-ish duo and has a daughter who's more than a year older than my second son. Lavigne, despite heading to the altar as well, seems to be getting younger, creating the unnerving duality of a tween-oriented signer flouting her sexuality from a magazine rack.

That leaves Nalick as the great hope for those of us who like to hear women on the radio and can't wait an eternity between Sarah McLachlan albums. Those of you who have read this blog for more than 30 months know I have a soft spot in my heart for Nalick because she sang in a Rush cover band.

And she has the best voice of this group, by far. She puts it great use here. At times, she sounds like Kate Bush in places, but less pretentiously ethereal.

The lyrics aren't bad, either.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Lindsay Lohan sheds clothes, not cynics

This isn't so much about the Lindsay Lohan nude photos (NSFW) as it is about the predictable blog reaction:

Spoiled Pretty: "what baffles me is why legendary photographer Bert Stern chose Lohan to recreate the shots that Marilyn Monroe made famous. Makes you wonder who turned him down before Linsday jumped at the bit."

The FiveForty: "As we mentioned yesterday, probably everybody expected Lohan to pose nude eventually, particularly in light of her declining career—so the fact that she posed nude isn't surprising."

Feministing: "I am appalled. Not because Lohan is pictured nude - to each their own on that front - but because there seems to be no awareness whatsoever about how this spread fetishizes the death and downfall of women in the public eye." (Some of the commenters in a rather intelligent thread point out that it's not so different from James Dean and River Phoenix fetishes, and I'd add Jim Morrison to that list. "He's hot, he's sexy, he's dead," indeed.)

If You Write It: "As has been noted elsewhere, Lindsay Lohan is no Marilyn Monroe. Even a nude Lindsay Lohan is still just Lindsay Lohan. Except for that drugged out look of the-end-is-near in her flat eyes , she has none of Marilyn Monroe's charisma." (So, wait, the drugged out look was part of Marilyn Monroe's charisma?)

Kottke (et tu?): "This photo shoot of Lindsey Lohan as Marilyn Monroe only serves to underscore how unlike (and inferior) Lohan is compared to Monroe."

(OK, the Gawker limericks are pretty funny.)

Those of you who know me know that I love to tweak conventional wisdom. So here goes ...

1. Two words for those who want to write off Lohan at this stage of her career: Drew Barrymore. And Drew hadn't done half as much substantial work as Lohan before she went into her wild years. By the time Mean Girls came out in 2004, Lohan was a well-regarded teen actress. She was also damn good on Saturday Night Live.

2. Monroe, on the other hand, was a model who had some "work" done before she broke through as an actress.

To recap so far: Lohan was a well-regarded actress who became known as a "babe." Monroe was a well-regarded babe who became a well-regarded actress.

3. Read the story, and you'll see that Lohan is well aware of the Monroe history and is determined to avoid living the last few months of it.

4. If you ask me, the more control a woman has over her nudity, the less it bothers me. This isn't a desperate Dana Plato turning to Playboy and some questionable films.

5. And it's not quite as hypocritical as, say, Avril Lavigne on Maxim.

No, the Lohan portfolio isn't some iconic piece of art, though it's certainly the most interesting nudity I've seen since ... I don't know, some dance performance in college? But neither should it be an excuse to trot all sorts of overly romanticized notions of the past. This isn't Tawny Kitaen reprising Meryl Streep's role in Sophie's Choice (or even the underrated Postcards from the Edge). It's not Pink attempting Barracuda. It's a troubled, frequently downloaded actress recognizing history.

And we say kids don't care about history these days.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Tonight I'm gonna party like it's 1989

My hometown of Athens, Ga., isn't the hotbed of major musical acts that it once was. But isn't it great to hear such strong singles from R.E.M. and the long-dormant B-52s?

Has Gen Y simply given up trying to produce anything that can compete with this stuff?

Records meant to be broken

While I'm waiting for a few interview callbacks ...

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Wars not make one great

So says Yoda, but in some perusal of the Star Wars "expanded universe," I'm finding wars are just about all we find.

Just read what Luke and company had to deal with after a few decades of mopping up the remnants of the Empire: "The Yuuzhan Vong war was possibly the most devastating crisis the galaxy had faced. The cost in lives were staggering; the number of deaths over the known galaxy were estimated at about 365 trillion sentients."

Wow! Can Lucas make that movie?

The theme that makes the Star Wars saga more than a bunch of cool light sabers, funny droids and bad-shooting stormtroopers is the complex struggle between good and evil. Lucas realized that this struggle takes place internally just as easily as it takes place between governments and armies. I don't buy the notion that Episode III was an allegory of the Bush administration, but I think Lucas' vision would necessarily expand our notions of good and evil into something a little more complex than the typical neocon would allow.

Which is why the only part of the "expanded universe" I've found compelling is a somewhat recent comic book series on the life of a Skywalker several generations down the line -- Cade Skywalker, who trains as a Jedi but turns to drug addiction and wonders, reasonably, what's the bloody point.

From a panel in which he confronts the ghost of Luke: "I've read the histories! Time and again, the galaxy -- which we served -- turned against us! And we keep coming back for more! That's real clever of us, isn't it?!"

Now that's a movie I'd want to see.

Book reviews: "The Code," "Chess Bitch"

While writing, I've been seeking inspiration by reading some books I've long had on my wish list, trying to get a sense of what does and does not work as I move from the world of 700 words to the world of 70,000.

I got plenty from these two books.

The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL by Ross Bernstein (Amazon)

Great topic, isn't it? Everyone who knows a little bit about hockey knows the existence of "unwritten rules," but few fully understand them. Why not investigate and write them down?

This book doesn't quite deliver because the author gets too close to the subject. He doesn't seem willing to explore the areas in which the rules are unclear or disputed, and he doesn't want to ask tough questions of his sources. The result is less of an honest examination of hockey's physicality and more of an ode to the "enforcer" -- the guy who deals out the big hits and drops the gloves.

Most hockey fans know that enforcers are rarely brutes off the ice. Paradoxically, they tend to be well-educated, charitable guys who do their jobs and shrug it off. That's worth stating in print, but it doesn't put their art above question. The endless fawning over the enforcer's art ended up turning me against it -- I came out of it less convinced that fighting is a necessary part of the game.

One related flaw: The book is organizationally all over the place. Each chapter diverges from its stated topic and return to the central theme: "Enforcers are great."

This Amazon review nails it: "Most quotes read like this: 'Blah blah positive comment about fighting in hockey. Blah blah some anecdote about respect. Blah blah one time I did this, and here's why I beat this guy's face. Blah blah that's what the code means to me.' That's great, and I get the point. But do we need 119 quotes that all sound alike."

Flaws aside, this is still a fun read because Bernstein gets so many great stories. My favorite: Two buddies are compelled by the code to drop the gloves. One gets a decisive upper hand. The guy getting the worst of it pipes up:

"Loser buys the pizza."
Response: "Well, I guess you're buying."
"Yeah, but winner buys the beer, asshole!"

This book must have done pretty well for Bernstein, because he's writing something similar: The Code: Baseball's Unwritten Rules and Its Ignore-at-Your-Own-Risk Code of Conduct. Baseball's rules are considerably dumber than hockey's, but you have to love the cover photo of Nolan Ryan pummeling Robin Ventura.

Hockey's code deserves a thorough examination, but at least Bernstein got a few good stories out of it.

Which is the opposite of this book ...

Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport by Jennifer Shahade (Amazon)

The cover and title are misleading. This isn't a book about the steamy, sordid stuff that happens in the chess world, like some Led Zeppelin bio heavy on the groupie exploits. It was published before the "Anna Kournikova of chess" was at the epicenter of a possible love triangle that turned into a nightclub brawl.

What we get instead is a thoughtful look at the history and sociology of women in chess, examining how different cultures and philosophies have created different approaches to gender and competition.

Sure, that sounds like a grad school class most of you would rather avoid. But even if you're less inclined to masters-level discussion of gender roles, you'll be interested in this question: Why do so few women appear in the ranks of the world's top chess players?

Chess isn't a physical activity, though Shahade digs up an old Sports Illustrated cover with a female chess player on the cover. It's not about speed, size or strength. There's no physical reason why men should be better at chess than women. So why are they?

Women are usually conditioned to approach competition differently than men do. Anson Dorrance, the dean of women's soccer coaching, discovered this trait early in his career and learned how to adapt to it. Shahade gives an illuminating examination into this issue, wondering if this is something that can be or should be overcome.

She also finds herself on both sides of the issue of women using their looks to market themselves. She's not completely comfortable with it, despite her come-hither look on the cover. But she's not quite comfortable judging others who have no objections.

If you're looking for tales of wild partner-swapping in luxurious hotels, you won't find them here. If you're not up for some intellectual exploration, you'll find this a little tough to read, though Shahade's writing is far livelier than the typical academic gibberish. But if you're at all interested in culture, gender and competition, enjoy.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Song du semaine: Heart, "Barracuda"

All together now: Dum duh-duh-dum duh-duh-dum duh-duh-dum duh-duh-dum duh-duh-dum duh-duh-dum duh-duh-duh-duuuuh ... braaang ... bwaaayayayayaya ...

(Yeah? YOU try to take harmonics whammy-barred into submission and represent it in letters. Up next, Alex Lifeson's solo from Subdivisions.)

Heart was a hot band in the '70s and '80s for entirely different reasons in each decade. In the '80s, Heart was "hot" in the sense that they had four freaking top-10 songs off one album, and in the sense that video directors kept diving toward Nancy Wilson's cleavage like X-wing fighters attacking that trench on the Death Star.

In the '70s, they were "hot" in the sense that two good-looking sisters with guitars and powerful voices ("sternum-shattering" was the best description I've read) were a rarity in music in those days -- any day, for that matter -- and they rocked.

Heart built up a solid catalog of songs on their debut Dreamboat Annie -- Crazy on You was a showcase for Ann Wilson's voice and their three-guitar attack, Magic Man had a good groove, and the titletrack was a nice change of pace. This one took them to another level, with Ann Wilson snarling over a ferocious wall of guitars.

You know the song. Enjoy the video.

To see where the band would end up, go back to my old post on Nothin' At All, in which the director makes Nancy look too cute for words, hides Ann's weight gain, makes the poor drummer keep time on a railing and hints that the Wilsons don't have much of a problem dating guys with sister fetishes. Ewwww.

Hard to begrudge a deserving band a fair share of commercial success, but which song would you use if you were making a movie soundtrack today? Yeah, I thought so. Dum duh-duh-dum duh-duh-dum duh-duh-dum duh-duh-dum duh-duh-dum duh-duh-dum duh-duh-duh-duuuuh ... braaang ... bwaaayayayayaya ...

Progress report

Today, at Starbucks, around 1:30 p.m., I finished Chapter 11 of my MLS history book (rough draft). At 62,200 words, I have now written a viable nonfiction work.

All that remains of the rough draft is a conclusion, which I may not write in detail until I've done some interviews -- already underway -- and gone back through the book.

I feel exhausted and really, really happy. I wasn't sure at first that I could do this. Now, whether this book ends up selling 100,000 copies for a major publishing house or 10 through self-publishing at Amazon, I know I will have written a decent book. I'll spend the rest of my mini-sabbatical making it better.

The funny thing -- since going on this final roll, my Freecell skills have seriously deteriorated.

Friday, February 08, 2008

The Streak

From the Freecell game I've been playing a lot while home all week with a flu-ridden kid:

I'm getting nervous about the next game.

Update: The game went just fine, as did the next. The next two were a struggle.

Got one more, but then it ended.

The final record:

How out of touch am I?

Are my tastes completely out of line with everyone else's?

Consider the following:

Music: No, I don't know much of the current Top 40. But in today's fragmented media landscape, that's not so unusual. The days of a band like the Beatles stretching into every demographic are long gone. The bands I like are all relatively popular within their various niches. I get a pass on this one.

Reality TV: Every TV blogger seems sick of American Idol's audition phase and is excited to see the show heading to Hollywood. This is the point at which I tune out every year. The parade of American narcissism and comeuppance, mixed with a few heartwarming tales of the truly talented, is over. Now we get the tedious task of narrowing it down to 12 people who will be asked to grit their teeth through a variety of styles, many of them unsuitable, and then sit through the weekly "results show." People watch this, apparently.

I do think it'd be amusing if figure skating adopted the "results show" model. Let the judges sound off for a while, then have the skaters stand and smile through 30 minutes of "Sasha and Kimmie are in the bottom two" nonsense.

Scripted TV: I'm used to it by now. Popular shows like Grey's Anatomy grate on my nerves. My shows, from NewsRadio to Arrested Development to Friday Night Lights, live on the verge of cancellation. Only The Office has worked its way into pop culture.

Sports: You all know I'm a soccer guy. But did you know I watch biathlon? You won't be seeing highlights on SportsCenter any time soon. (Granted, I like almost all sports -- it's not as if I skip the Super Bowl.)

Food: I finally found a food at McDonald's that was relatively nutritious and genuinely tasty -- the Southwest salad. Don't look for it on the menu. It's gone.

Children's TV: I've just learned that The Upside Down Show has not been renewed.

Politics: Don't ask.

Perhaps my tastes are actually better than most people's. Maybe I appreciate true quality while others don't make the effort to do so.

Elitism, though, is no comfort. Not when I keep get attached to things that disappear because no one else is interested.

So perhaps I need to start a movement. The Campaign to Bring Back The Southwest Salad, Renew The Upside Down Show, Save Friday Night Lights, Revamp The Two-Party System and Put Biathlon on ESPN. Who's with me?

Monday, February 04, 2008

Song du semaine: Fiona Apple, "Fast As You Can"

With all the time I've been spending in Starbucks and Panera recently, I've been subconsciously exploring the depths of the adult-contemporary-alternative-sort of-jazz genre. Panera actually plays a lot of really bad self-indulgent post-bop that makes you want to go back in time and strangle the guy who invented the saxophone. Starbucks plays a mix of Sinatra, Norah Jones, mellowish alt-rock, etc. I'm starting to hear the same songs over and over again, but it's generally inoffensive stuff. Both are OK for background music -- the Panera music is awful but forces me to concentrate on the work I'm doing, which is the idea.

With both styles of music, small doses are good. I went through a brief jazz phase, but it didn't take, apart for a couple of excellent albums by various Marsalises. The Starbucks blend, so popular it has its own XM channel, is fine but occasionally needs a tempo shift and some quirkiness.

Which brings us to this wonderfully quirky, time-shifting effort from Fiona Apple. She's often stuck doing meandering piano-and-vibe songs that don't stick in your head, as if some record exec or producer got the word "chanteuse" stuck in his head and forced her to record whatever he thinks a "chanteuse" would record. Not here. This song is wry and witty, propelled by the great Matt Chamberlain on drums.

Wikipedia goes a little overboard in praising the video, directed by then-boyfriend Paul Thomas Anderson. Some of the camera angles aren't particularly flattering, and the obsession with keeping her face on-screen all the time smacks of a video directed by ... well, her current boyfriend.

But it's not bad, and it sells the song as it should. Embedding is disabled, so follow the link and enjoy.

Explaining The Simpsons to a 4-year-old

"Daddy, why did Moe drive past the hospital?"

"Well, sometimes Moe is mean. In fact, Moe is usually a bad guy."

"But he gives people beer. What makes him bad?"

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Now that's what I call avant-garde classical music!

If you have a good nerdy sense of humor about classical music and want to laugh yourself silly for 30 minutes, check out BBC Radio 2's Blaggers Guide.

Some of the would-be snark demons on VH1 specials should take note. This is funny.