Thursday, April 17, 2014

Before Lorde, There Was Kate Bush

Ask anyone to name a teenage pop music sensation with a wild mane of dark hair and an offbeat artistic vision, and these days the answer you most likely will hear is “Lorde,” the 17-year-old New Zealander of “Royals” fame. But decades before Lorde, there was English singer-songwriter Kate Bush, whose rather reclusive nature and infrequent recording output eventually took her largely out of the public eye – until recently, when she announced her first series of live performances in 35 years.

The quiet, contemplative Lorde, whom Acculturated has discussed before, seems wise beyond her years and more serious about lyrically elevating pop music than are some of her well-known, corporately-packaged peers. With only one album under her belt – Pure Heroine – she’s already made her transformative mark with her whole career ahead of her.

She hasn’t publicly counted Kate Bush among her influences, which interestingly seem as literary (American short story writer Raymond Carver, for example) as they are musical (Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours). But pretty much every artsy female recording artist since Bush has been influenced by or compared to her: Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Bjork, Sinead O’Connor, Alanis Morissette, all the way up to Florence and the Machine, Lady Gaga, and even Shakira. Kate Bush is the spiritual and artistic mother of them all and countless more.

By the time she was in her early teens in the 1970s, the musically self-trained Kate Bush had written a boatload of songs and caught the attention of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, who helped her fashion a professional demo to take to record company EMI. With an eye toward cultivating a long-term career, and fearing she was too young to handle either success or failure, EMI kept her under wraps for two years while she honed her songwriting and performing skills – much like Lorde’s record company Universal, which signed the promising songwriter at 13, and gave her time to develop her material and try out different producers.

Bush’s first single, “Wuthering Heights,” went to number one in England in early 1978, and the wildly and uniquely talented Bush shot to fame. She subsequently had top 10 singles in her homeland with “Man with the Child in His Eyes,” “Running Up That Hill,” and others including a moving 1986 collaboration with Peter Gabriel, “Don’t Give Up.” She had less success in the States, partly due to the lack of touring (more on that below), but largely because, as a record exec put it, her music wasn’t easily categorized for American radio.

Her fey beauty, eclectic and experimental music, ballet-and-mime-trained dance performances, video spectacles like the Grammy-nominated The Sensual World, and historical and literary lyrical content made her a uniquely fascinating and creative figure. Whereas Lorde’s music (so far) is focused on capturing the essence of teenage experience, Bush’s surreal and melodramatic songs ran a bizarre gamut of topics that often stemmed from outside herself and her personal experience. As one critic put it, “As a songwriter, she has the ability to take intriguing subject-matter – yes, Wuthering Heights, Houdini, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, aspects of war, anything from aborigines getting mowed down by trucks to soft-porn – and condensing it into song.

Kate Bush’s last round of shows was 1979’s Tour of Life, a stunning fusion of music, dance and theater which finished up when she was only 20. Though she continued to release albums (10 in total, but only 2 of new material in the last 20 years), she never toured again, reportedly due to a combination of the fear of flying, her perfectionism about the live performances of her carefully crafted studio recordings, and the traumatizing accidental death of her lighting director at one of her concerts.

But now she’s back. Bush will present a concert series at London’s Hammersmith Apollo called “Before the Dawn” that will run from the end of August to the beginning of October. Tickets to all 22 dates – some of which went for upwards of $1,600 – sold out in less than 15 minutes. Kate Bush may have disappeared from the public eye, but apparently not from the public’s hearts and minds.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 4/11/14)

‘Surviving Jack’: A New Kind of Sitcom Dad

The typical family sitcom dad for decades now has been a subversion of the Father Knows Best, The Andy Griffith Show, or My Three Sons standard of the 1950s and ‘60s. Instead of a stable, mature, moral role model, he became a lovable but doughy, bumbling doofus who is barely adequate at life and parenting, who needs more patient mothering from his exasperated and usually more attractive wife than even his kids do. See The King of Queens, The Simpsons, and Everybody Loves Raymond, for example.

Enter man’s man Christopher Meloni, from Law & Order: SVU, in the new Fox series Surviving Jack.

Set in the 1990s, Surviving Jack is aptly described as “a family comedy about a man becoming a dad, as his son is becoming a man.” Based on the book I Suck at Girls by Justin Halpern, author of the hugely successful, semi-autobiographical Sh*t My Dad Says, it stars Meloni as Old School doctor Jack Dunlevy. His wife Joanne has decided to make a late-life go at law school, leaving Jack to guide their teenage children Franky and Rachel precisely at the time when both kids are stumbling their way into adulthood.

Jack’s blunt, heavy-handed parenting style is reflected in his response to Joanne’s suggestion that they try reasoning with their children: “Kids don’t listen,” he says, “unless you rub their noses in their own feces – which unfortunately we can’t legally do.” In that respect, he’s even tougher than Modern Family’s gruff patriarch Jay and vaguely reminiscent of another dad named Jack in a similar sitcom from an earlier generation, The Wonder Years. In the process of steering his shy, awkward son toward manhood, Jack Dunlevy doesn’t bother sugar-coating life’s hard lessons.

In the second episode, for example, Franky and his two closest friends George and Mikey all want to make the high school varsity baseball team. They’ve been together since the second grade, and they envision carrying that inseparable bond forward forever. Franky tells his dad that his great friends would take a bullet for him. “People say that until it’s bullet time,” Jack counters.

Drill sergeant Jack puts them through the paces to prep them for the tryouts. Franky has pitching talent. Mikey becomes a home-run slugger when Jack urges him to tap into his anger toward his deadbeat dad. But diminutive George simply doesn’t have what it takes. Jack tells Franky to give up on the dream of all three amigos making the team: “This is survival of the fittest, not survival of the fittest and his little friend.” But Franky is determined to prove him wrong and keep the trio intact.

During the tryouts, Franky finds himself pitching to George at bat. He holds back in order not to make George look bad – which accomplishes nothing except to make them both seem like weak players. Jack pulls his son aside and advises him, “How do you think George is going to feel when he finds out you both didn’t make the team because you were going easy on him? Use your gift,” he adds. “Don’t waste it.”

Life’s not fair, in other words. Not everyone has the goods to make the team, and those that do shouldn’t squander their talent out of a misguided sense of equality that can only drag everyone down to the lowest common denominator. Franky takes the lesson to heart and hurls some impressive fastballs past his outclassed friend.

He and Mikey make the team, but Franky is “bummed that George won’t be there.” Jack tells him “Life has a way of dragging people apart. But if they’re worth it to you, you’ll make the effort to keep ‘em in your life.” The episode ends with Franky heading over to George’s to hang out and keep their friendship strong.

Jack is by no means perfect – he seems like the kind of father who loves his children but didn’t know how to relate to them until they started to become adults, and I imagine he has a terrible bedside manner as a doctor – but it’s refreshing to see a sitcom dad who is dispensing wisdom instead of being schooled, a good-looking athlete instead of a balding couch potato, and more mature than his children. He’s no Andy Griffith, but he’s a step in the right direction of the kind of sitcom dad audiences need to see more of.

And perhaps they will. The New York Times noted a few months ago that “most new network sitcoms are created and written by men, about men, and in particular, about the bond between fathers and sons.” Hopefully Jack Dunlevy is part of a long-overdue sea change in the way men and fathers are depicted on television.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 4/9/14)

Sunday, April 6, 2014

‘Vikings’: Christians and Crucifixion

A year ago on Acculturated I wrote about the excellent new History channel series Vikings and its potentially interesting conflict between pagan and Christian values, as embodied by protagonist Ragnar and his captive monk Athelstan, respectively. That clash of civilizations quickly moved to the storyline’s backburner, but now that we are well into Season Two (with a third having just been green-lit), it seems to be rearing its head again – in a disappointing way, unfortunately.

Initially repulsed by the bloodlust of the Northmen, Athelstan developed a sort of Stockholm Syndrome in the course of his captivity, apparently backsliding from his Christian faith and gradually assimilating into pagan culture. In the recent episode “An Eye for an Eye,” he is taken prisoner yet again, this time by the Christian, Anglo-Saxon enemy of Ragnar and his seafaring raiders. A bishop condemns Athelstan for his apostasy, and he is tortured and nailed to a cross.

At this point, I did a mental double-take. Crucifixion? Certainly other cultures – most notably, of course, the ancient Romans – have carried out this monstrous punishment on Christians (and others). But, student of the Middle Ages that I once was, I never heard of Christians perpetrating it themselves, even in the heart of the aptly-named Dark Ages, a particularly savage time in European history (not that human savagery has abated that much). Considering that Christ’s torturous death on the cross is at the very heart of the religion, it doesn’t even make theological sense that believers would turn around and inflict it themselves. That’s not to say that the Church throughout history hasn’t been guilty of other cruelties. But crucifixion?

Researching this online, I stumbled across A.J. Delgado’s take on this same Vikings episode. She had exactly the same response as mine, and even reached out to a world-renowned medieval history professor about it. His response? “I know of no instance in the history of Christianity in which any Christians crucified others, even apostates.”

Of course, we’re talking about television drama and not a history lecture. Hollywood always plays fast and loose with historical fact, sometimes out of storytelling necessity and sometimes for political reasons. But this was a fairly eyebrow-raising deviation from historical truth, partly because it was so unnecessary. The bishop and his soldiers could have punished Athelstan in any number of bloody ways that would have been more historically correct, and the storyline wouldn’t have suffered for it.

So why choose crucifixion? And why hammer home the point (if you’ll pardon the pun) by depicting Athelstan as a Christ figure himself – flayed, crowned with thorns, and clad only in the familiar white cloth around his loins? Throw in a stereotypically fat, corrupt bishop, and it seems that Athelstan’s crucifixion was simply designed to paint Christians as cruel hypocrites, merciless crucifiers themselves.

This is disappointing but predictable treatment of Christians onscreen. In a recent article (written prior to the crucifixion episode) entitled “Vikings: A TV Series – and World? – Without Real Christians,” my friend Steve Pauwels urged the filmmakers to move beyond anti-Christian clichés. If they “really wanted to take the innovative route,” Pauwels wrote, “they’d feature an occasional Christian character who modeled strength of spirit and integrity.”

It doesn’t look like Athelstan, who was ultimately rescued from the cross, will be that character. In an interview, George Blagden, the actor who portrays the monk, suggests that Athelstan will continue to struggle with his faith: “As Season 2 progresses, there's a fantastic scene where Athelstan explains his conflicted mind… how Athelstan survived in this purgatory-type world between two religions.”

Fair enough, but the show is missing an opportunity to do more with this, to add some depth to its lead Ragnar, a compelling antihero driven by greed and a lust for power, unable to commit to one wife. How much more interesting his character might be if Ragnar occasionally wrestled with his own pagan faith as Athelstan wrestles with his; if something of the monk’s Christian theology sowed a seed of doubt in Ragnar’s own; if it caused him to change the way he looked at his wives, his slaughter of innocents, the direction of his leadership.

Vikings is one of my very favorite current shows. But as long as the only character who wrestles with his belief system is the Christian, the series will lack a dimension that could elevate it above the mere carnal entertainment of swordplay and sex.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 4/1/14)

Friday, March 28, 2014

Why Do Critics Obsess Over 300’s ‘Homoeroticism’?

The follow-up to the long-awaited Spartan spectacle 300 is finally out, and sadly, so are the predictable reviews tittering and snickering over its perceived homoeroticism, just as they did with its predecessor.

When 300 hit screens in 2006, it spawned gleeful critical fascination with its army of buffed, loinclothed Greek warriors reveling in a “homoerotic blood orgy,” as one reviewer called it. Blogger Andrew Sullivan approvingly quoted a reader who gushed that everyone in the film was gay. In “10 Reasons Why ‘300’ is Gay,” a particularly crude writer for Wired joked that “the movie’s tagline should have been ‘Prepare for gloryholes’ instead of ‘Prepare for glory.’” This speaks volumes about such critics’ inability or unwillingness to appreciate the film’s nobler themes of patriotism, courage, sacrifice, and the warrior brotherhood.

Now comes 300: Rise of an Empire, and along with it, reviewers with the same fixation. Ruthless Reviews calls it “gaygasmic” and confesses, “We all wanted the 300 sidequel to inspire machismo-challenging ‘Rise of an Erection’ headlines.” The Wire explained “Why Gay Guys Love the 300 Movies.” Gawker’s review (and I use the term loosely) was titled “300: Rise of an Empire is Predictably, Hilariously Gay,” and said that “unspoken homoeroticism functions primarily as comedy, regardless of intention” (by the way – had that title and quote appeared in a conservative review, it would have sparked torches-and-pitchforks outrage from the GLAAD crowd).

The fact that critics rub their sweaty palms about the sexual undertones and ignore or openly despise other, higher values, says much more about the critics than the movies. The Dissolve reviewer drooled that, in the new film, the “battle scenes are never more than a lascivious glance and wink away from being a full-on orgy between muscular men clad only in tiny leather garments that just barely cover their genitalia.” Wow. He also said that it “dopily fetishizes brute strength, brotherhood, and rippling muscles.” Actually, brute strength and brotherhood come in handy in wartime, and it’s the reviewers who are fetishizing the rippling muscles.

The nearly sole voice of reason about this obsession came from, surprisingly, a Slate piece in 2007 about 300. Dismissing the critics who “dug the movie because of the hot, sweaty men,” Matt Feeney explained the film’s massive success thusly:

What more plausibly accounts for this? That 20 million closet cases snuck off to see an illicit fantasy about bare-chested men in Hellenic Speedos, or that young men from the vast heartland of this very conservative, Christian, pro-military country flocked to see an unabashedly heroic tale of Occidental, republican military glory?

Although Feeney probably didn’t intend that latter description as a compliment, I couldn’t have said it better myself. I personally know American military servicemen who literally cheered at parts of 300 in the theater. They looked right past the imagined homoeroticism that has been the focus of many a critic, because what spoke to them was the warrior ethos on display, the unapologetic patriotism, the celebration of military courage, honor and service (it also didn’t hurt that the battle scenes were epic).

Such values are held in contempt today by many reviewers. A reviewer, who called the original movie “relentlessly homoerotic,” hated its “hateful war-mongering sentiments” despite the fact that historically it was the Persians who were warmongering and the Spartans who were defending their homeland. Forbes called it “warmongering propaganda” – in fact, “warmongering” is an even more common adjective than “homoerotic” in reviews of 300 (“racist” is another popular one, because critics bristle when white Europeans aren’t the bad guys, regardless of historical fact).

The 300 series may not be great films, but they are greatly entertaining if you enjoy rousing good-versus-evil celebrations of courage and the warrior ethos, as I do. And I’m not alone – 300 grossed over $456 million and Rise of an Empire has earned over half that worldwide in its first ten days. Obsessing over their sexuality is a sadly limiting way to view them.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/26/14)

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Should Gender-Specific Books Be Stamped Out?

Last weekend Katy Guest, literary editor of the UK’s Independent on Sunday, touted an online campaign called Let Books Be Books, which petitions publishers to put an end to children’s books marketed specifically to either boys or girls. She then announced proudly that henceforth her publication will refuse even to review such books:

So I promise now that the newspaper and this website will not be reviewing any book which is explicitly aimed at just girls, or just boys. Nor will The Independent’s books section. And nor will the children’s books blog at Any Girls’ Book of Boring Princesses that crosses my desk will go straight into the recycling pile along with every Great Big Book of Snot for Boys.

Another blow struck for censorship in the name of politically correct social engineering.
Of course, this isn’t technically censorship or book-banning, although I’m confident people like Guest would absolutely favor that if they had the power. She has the right to set any review policy she wishes (even if it leaves her readers less informed), and publishers can continue to publish what they wish. Nonetheless it sends a clear message – or more precisely, a clear threat: progressive reviewers will ensure that ideas that don’t conform to the “correct” gender politics are ignored.

This sort of politics is nothing new in the world of book reviewing. The New York Times Book Review, arguably the most influential in the world, routinely ignores books by many conservative authors, for example, even ones that make the NYT’s own bestseller list. That paper just doesn’t make a bold admission about it like Katy Guest did.

She singled out for condemnation Michael O’Mara, owner of Buster Books, for continuing to publish gender-specific books. He responded by saying that such books sell very well:

It’s a fact of life how a very large percentage of people shop when buying for kids, do it by sex. We know for a fact that when they are shopping on Amazon, they quite often type in “books for boys” and “books for girls.” All boys don’t like one thing and all girls the other, but the fact is lots of boys like the same things and lots of girls like the same things. We can’t ignore the fact that they are definitely different.

Guest isn’t ignoring that difference – she’s steamrolling right over it. A firm believer that gender differences are socialized, Guest says that in her own ‘70s childhood brothers and sisters shared the same books and toys, and “there was no obvious disintegration of society as a result.”

But there clearly has been an obvious disintegration of society. The feminist campaign for equal rights was one thing, but anyone who thinks that this decades-long progressive obsession with erasing the very concept of gender has led to anything but confusion, anger, and bitterness on both sides of the gender line is living a willful delusion.

Guest anticipated my argument: “There are those,” she wrote, “who will say that insisting on gender-neutral books and toys for children is a bizarre experiment in social engineering by radical lefties and paranoid ‘feminazis’ who won’t allow boys to be boys, and girls to be girls.” Her sarcastic exaggeration doesn’t change the fact that it absolutely is social engineering. There’s nothing wrong with gender-neutral books per se; the social engineering lies in promoting them while burying the ideas and speech that stand in the way of her utopian vision.

And yet even as she takes umbrage at “the limiting effects” of gender-specific books, she hypocritically asserts that “books, above all things, should be available to any child who is interested in them.” Yes, they should be – including the ones she is determined to help stamp out, because some children and parents want those. The marketplace should reflect that choice, not just what Guest and her ilk in publishing and the media deem socially acceptable. Let books be books, indeed.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/21/14)

Monday, March 24, 2014

L’Wren Scott and the Refuge of Art: A Response

One of the reasons I appreciate Acculturated is that its contributors are allowed to express differing opinions. Just earlier this week Ashley E. McGuire argued against fellow contributor Kate Bryan’s take on the “bossy” controversy. And now Mark Judge has taken exception to my commentary on the suicide of fashion designer L’Wren Scott, which leaves me no choice but to challenge him to pistols at twenty paces.

In all seriousness, Judge and I do not seem to be embroiled so much in a disagreement as in a misunderstanding. Here was the core of my brief commentary about Ms. Scott: “Her tragedy is a reminder that we all have our demons, and celebrity and luxury are illusions that cannot protect us. It takes an armor welded from elements much stronger than ourselves – family, friends, and faith, for example – to keep those demons at bay.”

Judge seemed to get both much more and much less out of that than I intended. He described it as “a lazy dismissal of a gifted person” who “was, above all else, an artist.” He wrote that I “admitted” I knew “nothing about her and the reasons for her suicide” (which is only half-right – I did know about L’Wren Scott and her work). He seems to think I was using her “as yet another pinata in the culture wars” – I’m not sure where that comes from, since my piece was not about the culture wars. And he felt that I failed to seriously assess her art.

But my short article was not about her art. It was about what people on the outside saw of her life. Judge believes my piece lacks an understanding of pop culture, but the tug-of-war between our fragile humanity and the seductive illusion of luxury and celebrity is one of the most serious issues with pop culture.

Judge wrote that “conservatives often dismiss artistic endeavor, ignoring that it can be brutally hard work and take a lot of courage.” There is truth to that, but I’m not sure why he assumes from my article that I fall into that camp. I was a musician for many years, I tried my hand at acting, and now I’m a screenwriter and a pop culture critic, so I know from personal experience what art demands.

However, we have common ground. In response to my point about people often needing something larger than themselves to keep it together, Judge wrote that “the foundational things in life are the things that can keep us out of trouble and even save our lives. But so can art.” I couldn’t agree more. When I listed “family, friends, and faith, for example,” I wasn’t excluding art or anything else that might work for someone, although in retrospect I should have elaborated on that point to avoid just this kind of misunderstanding. Judge rightly points out that family, friends, and faith can sometimes fail us too – they have failed me on occasion, as I have them – and that art can be there for us in ways that nothing and no one else can.

I fully agree. As just one example, last week I posted a piece about actor John Lithgow and the power of story to bring his ailing father back from the brink of depression and surrender – “back to life,” as Lithgow put it. “Sometimes a song, a play, or, yes, a dress, can make the difference,” Judge asserts, “pointing someone to a life that is missing at home.” Absolutely. “And to assume that celebrity and luxury precludes the possibility of these things reveals a kind of misunderstanding about popular culture and art.”

I think the misunderstanding is his. I never wrote that celebrity and luxury preclude that possibility, nor did I say that they were even the cause of L’Wren Scott’s death. I’m not sure how anyone can think I was lecturing or dismissing her or ignoring the life-saving power of art; nor did I judge her for killing herself. My point was that fame and fortune seem larger than life, but they are paper-thin, and we all need something stronger to anchor us, whatever that may be. I didn’t claim that this is an original or even profound observation – only that it is something we need reminders of nearly constantly in our culture, and Ms. Scott’s suicide is a poignant one.

“Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life,” L’Wren Scott recently wrote, a statement that would seem to bolster Mark Judge’s point about art being a refuge. And perhaps that did sustain her throughout her life. But in the end not even that was enough. And she’s far from alone; legion is the number of artists, both famous and unknown, who have taken their own lives. For whatever reasons, in their final moments there was nothing to keep them from going under – not even their art.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/20/14)

Friday, March 21, 2014

L’Wren Scott, Fashion and Suicide

She had been a model for some of the biggest designers in the fashion world, then became a designer herself. Her clients and friends were the rich and famous. She was in a longstanding relationship with one of the biggest stars in rock history. Her Instagram account was loaded with shots of her enviable life of glamour and worldwide travel. And Monday morning, at the young age of 49, she hanged herself in her luxury Manhattan apartment.

L’Wren Scott was a stunningly statuesque (6’3”) small-town American girl who found fashion fame and fortune in Paris modeling for such designers as Chanel and Thierry Mugler. After moving to Los Angeles to run PR for Prada, she became a celebrity stylist, dressing stars including Nicole Kidman, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ellen Barkin and Julianne Moore. In 2000, she was named the official stylist of the Oscars. She took up with Rolling Stone Mick Jagger in 2001 and they’d been together ever since. Then in 2006 she launched her own line of clothing.

“Luxury is a state of mind,” she had once said, but in fact it seemed to be not just a mental state but her way of life. Private jets and helicopters. Multi-million dollar homes in London and New York. A showroom in Paris. Vacations in India and at Jagger’s home on the isle of Mustique. She was a glamour inspiration for many who were shocked and saddened by her death.

You never know what private pain people carry, unless they choose to share it. When I was a boy, my father was shaken by the suicide of a workplace acquaintance. No one saw it coming, my father said; if only the fellow had opened up about his troubles to someone (though in those days men rarely did).

Then he urged me to keep something in mind as I got older: “If anyone you know ever tells you they need to talk, drop what you’re doing, go for a drive and let them talk. Drive all the way to the next state if you have to, to let them unburden themselves.” I have to wonder if L’Wren Scott had no one to whom she felt she could unburden a pain deep enough to drive her to suicide.

I would not presume to speculate what that pain was. The media immediately zeroed in on the mounting financial woes of her company and the fear of its impending and very public failure. Her designs earned celebrity accolades but were not commercially successful. She was $6 million in debt and unable to pay her staff and suppliers. “She wanted so badly for things to be a success,” said a source. “It was a huge burden on her and she didn't want to fail.” Perhaps that was it, or something entirely different. In the absence of a suicide note or some other clear evidence, we cannot know.

“Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life,” she had pronounced recently on Instagram. But that armor wasn’t enough to prevent her from succumbing to some hidden wound. I don’t want to reduce L’Wren Scott’s life and death to the simple cliché that money can’t buy happiness. Nonetheless, her tragedy is a reminder that we all have our demons, and celebrity and luxury are illusions that cannot protect us. It takes an armor welded from elements much stronger than ourselves – family, friends, and faith, for example – to keep those demons at bay.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/19/14)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Postmodern Jukebox: An Alternate Universe of Pop Music

One of the themes we write about at Acculturated is the distinction (or lack of one) between “high” culture and pop culture today. The topic can polarize critics, artists and audiences, so it’s always a pleasure to celebrate artists who creatively bridge that gap rather than sneer at each other from opposite shores. Case in point: jazz pianist Scott Bradlee, whose Postmodern Jukebox seamlessly blends “high” and “low” art in a fresh, joyful, exciting way.

Bradlee himself initially held a lot of pop music in disdain – a “willful ignorance,” as he calls it, that continued until he began making YouTube videos and receiving requests to perform modern pop songs. As he writes on the Postmodern Jukebox website:

I decided to drop my preconceived notions and examine contemporary pop with an open mind. What I found is that, despite my initial aversion to the stuff I was hearing, I was unable to truly categorize this as “bad music” without first defining a set of arbitrary, culturally-defined criteria... As a relentless devil’s advocate, I then found that by simply altering the context of such songs, I could find quite a bit of artistic merit inside of them.

Artistic merit indeed. I never thought I’d find myself recommending a Wham! song, but check out PJ’s vintage jazz version of the 1984 hit “Careless Whisper,” with pop-up saxophonist Dave Koz having almost too much fun. The song’s outstanding instrumental break features not only a nod to Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5” but also a brilliantly surprising bar or two of The Police’s “Message in a Bottle.”

I’m no Miley Cyrus fan and don’t even especially like doo-wop, but I could listen all day long to Postmodern Jukebox’s version of Miley’s hit “We Can’t Stop,” featuring a couple of members of The Tee-Tones on backup vocals. In fact, I’ve contributed to probably dozens of the YouTube video’s 8+ million hits. Another song PJ performs better than the original artist is Lorde’s “Royals” (6+ million YouTube hits), featuring the almost operatically powerful presence of Puddles the clown on lead vocals.

Other creative PJ takes on pop hits include: a bluegrass barn dance version of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”; a 1940’s swing version of Justin Bieber/Nicki Minaj’s “Beauty and a Beat”; an acoustic-electro-swing-hiphop “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”; a ‘40s jazz cover of Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” featuring a tapdance break; a mariachi-style take on Avicii’s “Wake Me Up”; and an Irish tenor cover of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” – all filmed live against stark white walls in the corner of Bradlee’s living room for their YouTube videos. (All of the above – except “Careless Whisper” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” – and ten more cover songs are collected in Twist is the New Twerk.)

The creative arrangements are driven by Bradlee’s rollicking and rhythmic piano style. The musicianship is tight, flawless, and never grandstanding, including the pure vocals – a welcome relief from the showy contemporary singing style of which it could be said, like Mozart in Amadeus, that “there are simply too many notes.” A special shout-out to drummer Allan Mednard, whose subtlety and precision are a joy to watch – or would be except that you can’t take your eyes off singer Robyn Adele Anderson. Her classic vocal style never overwhelms the song and her merest wink and flick of the hip is loaded with more potent sexuality than the twerking and tongue-wagging Miley Cyrus could ever aspire to.

For anyone who has written off today’s pop music as lowbrow, uncreative, and devoid of real musicianship – as Scott Bradlee himself once did – give him and Postmodern Jukebox a spin.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/18/14)

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Strength, Violence, and Boys

In a previous piece for Acculturated, I wrote about an Upworthy video produced by The Representation Project, which aims to “expose injustices created by gender stereotypes.” It asserts that gender stereotyping begins with the joyful announcement of the baby’s gender and goes downhill from there, condemning boys to violent machismo and girls to sexual objectification. Last time I wrote about its perspective on girls; this time let’s deal with its take on boys.

The video claims that a male child is burdened from birth by expectations that he must be strong and athletic, and can’t “act like a girl” or cry. I don’t see a problem with promoting athleticism for boys or girls, but certainly boys should be encouraged to access, understand, and express their emotions (when appropriate) rather than deny them; no quarrel there.

But then the video specifically targets the notion of physical strength, framing it as violence and rage. It shows pop culture images that it suggests wreak a damaging influence on boys: Marvel superheroes Hulk and Thor, pro wrestling, violent video games, action flick stars Vin Diesel and Jason Statham, muscular men (athletes?) snarling, and – inexplicably – Leonardo DiCaprio as the Wolf of Wall Street. These are “the limiting narratives we feed our children,” the video proclaims.

One speaker in the video says that boys are “led to believe that power is associated with domination”; another argues that “we need to redefine strength in men not as the power over other people but as forces for justice.” Beware when people on a mission insist that we need to redefine words or concepts to align with their agenda. A memorable passage from Orwell’s 1984 is enough to warn where that leads: “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.” We don’t need to redefine anything; properly chosen, the words we have now already do a great job of signifying meaning, so let’s stick with those.

Strength already is, or can be, a “force for justice.” The video itself ironically proves my point: it shows Statham and Thor wielding a shotgun and hammer, respectively, against movie bad guys. These fictional characters are using strength, dominating power, and violence as forces for justice – a valuable lesson for boys to absorb. In the real world, cops and our military assert these characteristics in the service of justice every day.

That same speaker goes on to say that “justice means equality and fairness and working against poverty and working against inequality and violence – that’s strength.” His earnest delivery can’t obscure the fact that: 1) equality is not always justice; 2) working against poverty and working against inequality are not the same thing; 3) fairness is in the eye of the beholder; and 4) violence is not always a bad thing. Let’s stay on topic and address item #4, the only one relevant to the video’s message about boys.

It’s easy for insulated celebrities like Sting to sing that “nothing comes from violence, and nothing ever could,” but in fact violence is sometimes the only or the best way to end conflict, from confronting a schoolyard bully to ending Nazism, and in such instances overwhelming strength is pretty damn valuable. In the real world, violent evil has always been an everyday reality and always will be. Men – yes, men –must be prepared to counter that with dominating power, because the violently evil don’t respect dialogue.

Teaching our boys that violence is always wrong leads to such ludicrous, zero-tolerance extremes as suspending them from school for pointing index fingers like gun barrels (at the same time, in the politically correct name of “fairness” and “equality,” we are putting women into combat positions in the military, which will have horrible consequences). It does no good to teach our boys that strength means social justice (it doesn’t) and that power and violence are wrong, if evil men aren’t teaching their sons the same (and they’re not). Our boys will simply grow up to be beaten or enslaved or killed by those who define strength the old-fashioned way and who are perfectly happy to dominate others with it. If you want peace, as the ancient Roman saying goes, prepare for war.

Boys don’t need to be discouraged from seeing physical strength as a virtue. They simply need the moral guidance to understand when and where to direct it.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/14/14)

ABC’s Resurrection: Believing the Impossible

Last Sunday night ABC aired the premiere of a new series about dead people coming back to life – and for once, not as zombies. Co-produced by Brad Pitt (of the zombie movie World War Z), Resurrection poses a serious question and an intriguing premise: how does each of us deal with the loss of a loved one, and how would we respond if they returned to us?

Resurrection begins with the inexplicable appearance in a Chinese rice paddy of eight-year-old Jacob, who drowned 32 years earlier in his hometown of Arcadia, Missouri but who has not aged a day and has no memory of anything since. His return home to his parents, now 60, throws all his family members into emotional turmoil as they wrestle in personal ways with this… miracle? Fraud? Delusion?

The show is based on the book The Returned by Jason Mott, inspired by the French TV series Les Revenants (a version which Slate deems vastly better), and bears a loose resemblance to The 4400, a series in which missing persons reappear years and even decades later – un-aged, confused, and remembering nothing of the time of their disappearance.

But unlike that show, and unlike the lighthearted sci-fi thrill ride of J.J. Abrams’ and Alfonso Cuaron’s Believe which airs this Sunday night, Resurrection uses its supernatural premise as a starting point for a somber examination of the human drama of love, loss, and family relationships. Based on the first episode, what novelist Mott says of his book seems to hold true for the series as well: “The novel is about loss, and the many different ways we respond to it.”

By the end of the first episode, Jacob is not the only one “returned.” The series will go on to follow the residents of Arcadia, whose lives are upended when more and more loved ones return from the dead, mysteriously un-aged and amnesiac since their deaths. Whether or not the show will answer the most obvious questions – How did these people come back to life? Why did they come back? Where were they all this time? Why do they reappear in random spots around the world? – remains to be seen. The book itself apparently doesn’t resolve these mysteries, taking a more character-driven focus, and if that proves to be true of the series as well, it could frustrate and drive away viewers expecting answers. It doesn’t help the show’s chances that it is scheduled against the heavily promoted reboot of Cosmos and AMC’s The Walking Dead, the No. 1 show in prime time.

The Boston Herald gives the premiere a thumbs-up and states that “Resurrection does something few dramas do today — it gives its characters breathing room to absorb and react to the fantastic in their lives, rather than forcing them to run from one plot point to another.” I don’t entirely agree, since there is a conventional mystery subplot that detracts from the more compelling supernatural one. And the premiere suffered from some odd plot choices, including moments that seemed significant and may or may not be explained in subsequent episodes (why, for example, did the nurse not initially detect a heartbeat in the boy?). It also desperately needs a leavening dose of humor.

The upsides: the premise raises interesting spiritual and philosophical questions; it has an emotionally powerful hook to which everyone can relate, because we have all lost someone; characters of faith, like a young pastor who had been Jacob’s boyhood friend, are taken seriously and depicted respectfully; and it’s a well-acted family show, with emotional intensity but no sex, violence, or foul language. If the series has time to find an audience, it could prove to be uniquely thought-provoking entertainment.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/13/14)

Is Happiness Overrated?

Considering how much misery and turmoil there is in the world, most of us would consider a long, stable, happy life to be a blessing. But University of Toronto Professor Mari Ruti has put forth the theory that human beings “may not be designed for happy, balanced lives” and that “the best lives” might be shorter, messier ones “heaving with feeling and action.”

In an article titled “Happiness and its Discontents” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Ruti writes,

Why, exactly, is a healthy and well-adjusted life superior to one that is filled with ardor and personal vision but that is also, at times, a little unhealthy and maladjusted? Might some of us not prefer lives that are heaving with an intensity of feeling and action but that do not last quite as long as lives that are organized more sensibly?

It’s important to note that she prefaces her piece by saying “As a critical theorist working at the intersection of Continental philosophy, psychoanalysis, and feminist and queer theory, I make observations about human life that are speculative rather than empirical.” In other words, her observations are based on theoretical constructions, not on how life is actually lived by real people.

She asserts oddly that conventional happiness is some sort of societal oppression – what she calls “the cultural injunction to be happy”: “[I]n our era, the idea that we should lead happy, balanced lives carries the force of an obligation: We are supposed to push aside our anxieties in order to enjoy our lives, attain peace of mind, and maximize our productivity.” I fail to see how any of those things is bad or who is forcing these horrible expectations upon us – but then, I’m not a critical theorist working at the intersection of a lot of ivory tower busywork.

As an academic, Ruti trots out predictable references to patriarchy, oppression, and exploitation (“women's ability to keep smiling even when they are feeling miserable is one of the many biopolitical tools of neoliberal capitalism”), and fires a broadside at the institution of marriage: “If you want people to show up at their desks every morning, you hype up the value of marriage to such an extent that people are willing to stay in their marriages no matter how lackluster they may be” – as if married couples are nothing more than enslaved dupes of The System.

She continues: “Why should the good life equal a harmonious life? Might not the good life be one that includes just the right amount of anxiety? Might not the best lives be ones in which we sometimes allow ourselves to become a little imprudent or even a tad unhinged?”

I’m not sure what constitutes “the right amount of anxiety,” but we are all imprudent and a tad unhinged at some point; I certainly have been, and I don’t recommend it. Our actions have consequences not just for ourselves, but for those around us, including loved ones who could be tragically impacted by our unhinged moments of intense imprudence. Many a brilliant artist’s “ardor and personal vision” have left ruined lives in their wake, including their own. Ms. Ruti pays lip service to this by claiming “I don't wish to fetishize psychological or emotional instability; I'm aware of the enormous toll it can exact.”

And yet she’s willing to accept that enormous toll – for others. She tells the story of a young woman who lamented the fact that her father, a renowned psychiatrist who wrote influential books, was largely absent from her life, physically and emotionally. Ruti thinks the woman should appreciate her father’s contributions to humanity more and quit whining about her personal loss.

I have never been one to value the collective over the individual, but Ruti’s assumption seems to be that the masses are mere societal pawns whose conventional idea of the good life is a repressive façade, that they lack a more passionate individual vision and are lesser beings because of it.

By all means, freely choose how you want to live. Strive for passionate burnout over harmonious balance, if you wish – but don’t pretend that it necessarily constitutes a superior or more meaningful way of life.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/12/14)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Age of Arrogance

Benjamin Franklin, who made a methodical, lifelong effort to curb his excessive if justifiable pride, confessed near the end of his days that he was successful only in quelling the appearance of it, not the reality, and “even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.”

“Franklin’s dilemma,” writes David J. Bobb in Humility: An Unlikely Biography of America’s Greatest Virtue, “is America’s dilemma.” How to be great and humble? Bobb, the director of the Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Studies in D.C., believes not only that ‘American humility’ is not an oxymoron,” but that it is actually our country’s greatest virtue. He argues in his book, however, that as a nation today we have lost touch with both our humility and our greatness. We are afflicted with an arrogance that hinders a revival of that greatness, and we must search our past for lessons in humility to guide us forward.

The book begins by sketching the history of humility and greatness in political thought from Aristotle to the Founding Fathers, who had vastly different ideas of the quality. For the leading thinkers of ancient Greece and Rome, who celebrated the great-souled or magnanimous man, pride was “the crown of virtues” and a humble existence was by definition an ignoble one. Why crown the lowly?

Centuries later, St. Augustine of Hippo sought to close this gulf between the great and the humble by positing that pride pushes man away from God, and that, in Bobb’s words, “humility alone offers the possibility of real exaltation.” Jesus, crucified on what Augustine called “the wood of humility,” had elevated the humble and the meek, and St. Bernard of Clairvaux would later list the four cardinal virtues as “humility, humility, humility, humility.” The Christian version of the magnanimous man was a self-effacing servant.

Then St. Thomas Aquinas fused classical and Christian, Aristotle and Augustine by arguing that magnanimity and the “praiseworthy abasement” of humility are complementary, not contradictory, virtues. Later, Machiavelli’s and Hobbes’ influential political treatises rejected the debate altogether in favor of amoral expediency and sovereign absolutism, respectively. The Founders subsequently rejected them and returned to valuing humility as an essential characteristic of true greatness.

The book then looks to America’s early history to illuminate her present, examining five subjects – George Washington, James Madison, Abigail Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass – who Bobb believes demonstrated that “humility and magnanimity can coexist in the same soul.” Their examples also show that “the hidden strength of humility” does not come naturally but is often a hard-won virtue.

Washington’s impatience for greatness, for example, led him to early failures, and he continued to wrestle with his ambition and pride, particularly since the American Cincinnatus was heralded almost as a demigod during his lifetime. But when offered the position of king, he humbly and wisely rejected a temptation that would have rendered the American experiment stillborn. Ultimately, his “boldness and magnanimity,” as minister Henry Holcombe said in a sermon after Washington’s death, were “equaled by nothing but his modesty and humility.”

The diminutive, soft-spoken James Madison possessed none of Washington’s physical charisma. But this “luminous and discriminating mind,” as Thomas Jefferson described him, embodied a quiet strength (Bobb calls it meekness, which he oddly defines as “the strong denial of the power of oppression”) in his fight for freedom of conscience against the “arrogant pretension” of the state. Bobb calls Madison’s petition to the Virginia Assembly, “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” a passionate appeal to the government to adopt greater intellectual, religious, and political humility.

The book moves on to Abigail Adams, a “spirited behind-the-scenes stateswoman” who was humble in her service to family and fellow countrymen: “For myself I have little ambition or pride; for my husband I freely own I have much.” That service included reining in what Madison described as her husband’s “extravagant self-importance,” which John Adams himself conceded was a fault. He confessed in his diary that if only he could “conquer my natural pride and self-conceit… [and] acquire that meekness and humility which are the sure mark and characters of a great and generous soul… How happy should I then be in the favor and good will of all honest men and the sure prospect of a happy immortality!” Early on in their relationship, he rightly saw modest Abigail as the antidote to his arrogance.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Is Heaven for Real?

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern. – William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Recently I wrote for Acculturated about how Christian and Jewish movie audiences are casting a skeptical eye on Hollywood’s upcoming spate of Bible-based films like Noah and Exodus. They justifiably expect that Hollywood’s treatment of their faiths might be disrespectful, if not outright blasphemous. But there is one movie that – at least, based on its trailer – shows every evidence that it will score an unqualified hit with faith-based audiences and others – Heaven is for Real.

Based on the 2010 bestselling book by pastor Todd Burpo, Heaven is for Real stars Oscar-nominated Greg Kinnear, best-known for As Good as it Gets, Little Miss Sunshine, and You’ve Got Mail, as well as a ton of lesser-known off-beat flicks like Nurse Betty, Auto Focus and The Matador. Kinnear plays Burpo, whose 4-year-old son Colton stuns him and his wife Sonja (played by Kelly Reilly of Flight), with revelations of a visit to heaven in a near-death experience during emergency surgery for a burst appendix.

The movie trailer shows not a trace of condescension or ridicule for the characters, which is Hollywood’s default attitude toward believers, or at least toward Christians. The movie won’t be released until early April (and I’ll be reviewing it then), but I just finished the book, which is a very quick, engaging read.

It begins by describing a Burpo family road trip on the Fourth of July weekend 2003 from their home in Imperial, Nebraska to Sioux Falls. On that trip, Colton began casually relating unprompted and eye-opening details of a heavenly visit – about singing angels, Jesus’ appearance, deceased loved ones, and more – that tended to conform to biblical theology. The stunned parents gradually drew out more information from the 4-year-old, such as this vision during his operation:

I went up out of my body and I was looking down and I could see the doctor working on my body. And I saw you and Mommy. You were in a little room by yourself, praying; and Mommy was in a different room, and she was praying and talking on the phone.

The parents had no answer for how Colton knew where they were while he had been under anesthesia in the operating room. Colton also shocked them with the revelation that he had met a sibling in heaven that he didn’t have on earth. The parents had never told him or his sister of Sonja’s earlier miscarriage.

This movie’s comforting message will resonate with many, as did the book, and it seems that it will give the underserved Christian audience an option it can trust at the cineplex. But it will assuredly draw criticism and ridicule from skeptics and disbelievers. It’s easy to dismiss Colton Burpo’s experience as anything from dream to hallucination to fantasy to religious indoctrination – anything but an actual visit to heaven. And in truth, healthy skepticism is a good attitude to adopt when presented with, well, any situation. Todd and Sonja Burpo themselves were skeptical and resisted sharing Colton’s message – that “heaven is for real” – for fear of the controversy and criticism from all corners that it inevitably would bring on the family.

But the fact is that all of us are ignorant of the realms beyond the narrow chinks of our caverns. To paraphrase Hamlet’s familiar lines, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in all our philosophies. Colton Burpo brought a childlike innocence to one of the most profound and mystical questions of our existence – is heaven real? Whether or not one believes his answer is real brings to mind the words of Thomas Aquinas: “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/11/14)

John Lithgow and the Power of Story

Audiobook addict that I am, I recently downloaded John Lithgow’s 2011 memoir entitled Drama: An Actor’s Education. I had been on the fence about choosing it until I sampled the book’s preface (by the author and available in its entirety on the Kindle edition page), which hooked me with a very personal and surprisingly moving story.

Lithgow, now 58, is perhaps best-known for the ‘90s sitcom Third Rock from the Sun and more recently from the decidedly un-sitcom-y series Dexter. He not only has a long, distinguished career in Hollywood and the theater, but he also has created music and books for children, in addition to writing the autobiography Drama. In other words, his life’s work has been, in one form or another, the telling of stories.

In the book’s preface, Lithgow relates how he went to live with his parents in their Amherst, Massachusetts condo in the summer of 2002 to help care for his frail, 86-year-old father, recovering from surgery. The most difficult aspect to manage was his father’s deep depression; he seemed to have lost the will to live, despite Lithgow’s desperate efforts to cheer him up. Lithgow felt he was helplessly watching his father’s slow, inevitable slide toward death – until the actor drew upon his childhood memories for an idea.

As a boy, Lithgow and his siblings curled up every night for Story Hour as their father read to them from Kipling, Dickens, Carroll, and more. Some of his most intimate memories of his father, Lithgow writes, stem from those “lazy, luxurious evening hours on that scratchy wool sofa.” Most memorable was a massive 1939 tome called Tellers of Tales, comprising one hundred classic short stories; the family’s favorite among them was an hilarious P.G. Wodehouse piece called “Uncle Fred Flits By.”

Fifty years later, Lithgow searched for and found Tellers of Tales among his parents’ possessions. He offered to read something to them from it that night. Sure enough, they requested “Uncle Fred Flits By.” The theatrically-trained Lithgow threw himself into the tale, and before long his father was laughing helplessly and breathlessly. “I am convinced,” Lithgow writes in his preface, “that it was sometime during the telling of that story that my father came back to life”:

Acting is nothing more than storytelling… Reading to my parents on that autumn evening in Amherst… was acting in its simplest, purest, most rarefied form. My father was listening to “Uncle Fred Flits By” as if his life depended on it. And indeed, it did. The story was not just diverting him. It was easing his pain, dissolving his fear, and bringing him back from the brink of death. It was rejuvenating his atrophied soul.

Afterward, his father thanked Lithgow for that precious gift; his health and good spirits returned and he lived another eighteen months, longer than anyone expected. But Lithgow received a gift too; that hour sharing the Wodehouse story with them was a revelation:

Only infrequently had I ever paused to plumb the mysteries of my peculiar occupation. That night, however, everything came into focus. Sitting at my parents’ bedside and reading them a story… came to seem like a distillation of everything my profession is about.

That revelation spurred Lithgow to write his memoir. He has since performed the story for audiences in his one-man show.

One of the principal defining characteristics of human beings, besides our opposable thumbs and our inability to resist laughing-baby videos, is that we are storytellers. From the grand sweep of history to “What happened at work today?” we are, like John Lithgow, both the actors and the tellers of tales of our shared humanity. The more uplifting ones have the power to ease our pain, dissolve our fear, and rejuvenate our atrophied souls.

I have read to my two little girls every night of their lives not only so the love of books will be deeply ingrained in them, but so they will connect deeply with stories as a way to understand life, themselves and the world; so they will know they can always find wisdom and laughter and solace in them; and so that, perhaps many years from now when I need it most, they will read to me.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/10/14)