Monthly Archives: December 2008

Words From A Guest Blogger: Joe Master on Music

It is perhaps a tad ironic that the last entry on “Twenty Pounds of Headlines” in 2008 does not come from me, but instead from my first guest blogger. As both a good friend and fellow pop-musicaphile, I have been asking Joe Master to contribute his thoughts on 2008’s music scene for some time now. And in between working blinding hours at his editor position for a medical trade publication in South Jersey, taking his dog Eppie for long, contemplative walks through Collingswood, and recently getting engaged, Joseph has finally thrown in his two cents. And I’m thrilled.

As a note, 2009 will feature many guest bloggers as “Twenty Pounds of Headlines” begins to move from mere blog to online magazine. If you’re interested in writing (about anything and everything…with the exception of cats) please let me know. In the meantime, enjoy Mr. Master’s ruminations.

—ND


Why Is Joe Master So Highly Suspicious? The Best and Worst of 2008:

By Joe Master 

Joe Locked In A Cabin

Joe Locked In A Cabin

I have a few bones to pick with this year’s rock and roll a la mode. If you add all those bones together you might be able to fashion a spine, or at least a few vertebrae. But even then, the apparatus wouldn’t be able to carry half the weight Jim James carried in 2008.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no authority on well-endowed backbones. I once wrote a song called “Spineless Me.” I do, however, firmly believe that when dispensing titles like ”best” we should hold our fodder to the highest standards.

Like many of you, I listen to the selections on year-end lists hoping that I too can fall for ten albums that music critics got paid to fall for. But I rarely do. For instance, I don’t understand Animal Collective. Not even a little bit. In fact, Animal Collective makes me very uncomfortable.

So, it came as no surprise when most rock and roll literati chose not to favor My Morning Jacket’s Evil Urges with a top ten nod. It came as even less of a surprise, though, when they chose to offer Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago their first-born children. And the one thing that makes me more uncomfortable than Animal Collective is the thought of Pitchfork critics procreating.

So, I’ll spare you my thoughts on Dear Science and Tha Carter III and I’ll try not to Google-search too many obscure details to disguise the fact that, like most of you (excluding our hero, Mr. DiUlio), I have no idea what I’m talking about. So, let’s get down to business…

Imagine yourself alone in a cottage with a guitar, some recording equipment and seasonal affective disorder. The snow is falling, the walls are shrinking and the drugs aren’t working. Doesn’t sound like a very good winter, does it?

Perhaps I am discouraged by Bon Iver’s misery. Or maybe I’m just coming down with the flu. For Emma not only made me sad; it put me to sleep. If I had been able to stay awake long enough to hear the line in “Skinny Love” about cutting the ropes I probably would have been impressed by the pathos. Ok. I lied. I was awake. I heard the line. It’s a great line.

However, For Emma is not a great album. At least not top 10 great. It is a hauntingly fragile, beautifully textured collection of songs patched together by a man who no doubt has a heart worth revisiting and a falsetto worth multitracking.  But the scope of the narrative is towered by the hype. I mean, Mojo went as far as to proclaim: “isolation doesn’t get more splendid than this.”

What the hell does that even mean?

I really wanted to love For Emma. I wanted to bring it close, call it my own and connect with couplets like “only love is all maroon/gluey feathers on a flume,” but I just couldn’t. Especially after looking up flume in the dictionary and finding out that it is not a species of bird.

I get the point. It’s a cold-winter-day record, best played at low volumes beneath conversations with your intellectual friends—right? I dig the back-story, too. In fact, I dare say I find the Old Testament Bon Iver (Christian name: Justin Vernon) creation myth more compelling than the boring New Testament gospel.

Maybe I am just too painfully aware of all the ropes and pulleys. Maybe Blood On The Tracks ruined “break-up” albums for me years ago. But, after many repeat listens, I think I may have finally found an explanation for my apathy. I am supremely confident that if any of my closest consiglieri (Mr. DiUlio included) were to lock themselves in a cabin for a few months with Pro Tools and some instruments, they could produce a more dynamic, lyrically inviting, well-enunciated collection of tunes.

Retract those claws and minimize Pitchfork. Now, imagine yourself alone in that same Wisconsin cottage, just frowning away the day. Suddenly, there is a knock-knock-a-knocking at the door. Who could it be? Why…It’s Jim James. He says he’s here to help—that this is an intervention. Your mother probably sent him. So what does he do? He pulls up a milk crate, picks up your guitar and plays “I’m Amazed.”

When he is finished, he hands you the guitar and wishes you luck. He doesn’t have time to chat, he says, squinting at the horizon. He has to make it across the frozen river by sundown, or there will be hell to pay.

“Thank you, Jim James,” you say.

“It was my pleasure.”

As he vanishes down the river gorge it begins to snow, and you cry a little. What a beautiful winter, you think.

Now, I’m not saying that Jim James is some kind of musical deity. That would be ridiculous. But I’m not saying he isn’t from a different planet either. In fact, he probably is an alien. Either that or a soon-to-be Scientologist. But I have a confession to make: whether Evil Urges came from this world or the next, it is the year’s most promising, most beautifully crafted album.

More than any other record released in 2008, Evil Urges demands classification as a tour de force. From the brisk “Planet Telex” bass drum that opens the title track to the last hesitant breath of “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Pt. 2,” the album is equal parts interstellar tube-rock and subterranean bedrock. In fact, at one point—about three minutes and 40 seconds into the sublime “Smokin from Shootin”—James & Co. plug a pocket so perfectly that I swear you can hear the swish of two bodies fusing and shooting skyward, like lightening in reverse.

“Do you see my smokin’ guns?” James asks.

Yes. Yes I do.

Despite another depressing, yet less marketable back-story—apparently the band almost crumbled while recording the album in a somewhat larger cabin in Manhattan—the end result is uplifting and unabashedly inventive.  Jim James may sing like Kermit The Frog, but he has no problem being green. In fact, he appears so comfortable in his own skin that he bears it all. “Oh! You really saw my naked heart,” he sings on “Thank You Too!”, a song that comes about as close to pop perfection as I’ve heard in a long time. Rarely does Rock and Roll stumble across a voice that has the kind of idiosyncratic, emotive power to pull off what could easily collapse into a tired cliché. Usually, those voices belong to weirdos. And weirdos often lead us on the very best adventures.

Evil Urges is an adventure. It traverses the mountains and valleys of Rock, R&B, Country, Funk and Psychadelia without fitting the mold of either; all the while driving forward with an unwavering confidence—would it be too bold to call it Obama-esque?—that  somehow inspires a trust that sees us through any inconsistencies or odd right turns (and there are a few).

But some of those peculiar twists turn out to be the most memorable. I’ll even go as far as to assert that the devious giggles and falsetto squeal James unleashes toward the end of “Highly Suspicious” are the finest moments captured on record all year, both wickedly subversive and euphoric; everything Rock and Roll should be. Especially in crazy times like these.

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What I Learned From 2008: Part II

 

Lesson Number Two: What The Music Taught Me (Part I)

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I know what you must be thinking. I thought he said no Top Ten lists! Well, this is not a Top Ten. Not in the traditional sense anyway. I’m not attempting to outline the best (or worst) albums of 2008 here. Instead, I’m bringing you my Top Ten Musical Insights of 2008, which could include records as new as the Killers’s Day & Age or as old as Leonard Coen’s Songs of Love and Hate. Due to its length, this post will be broken up into two installment. So, let us begin with the first five…

 

Musical Insight #10: Rivers Cuomo is the Most Frustrating Man in Rock History

riverscuomo

If I didn’t suspect he was doing it on purpose, I just might hate the guy. Or perhaps I do hate him precisely because I suspect he’s doing it purpose. Either way, Weezer’s eccentric and pricklyfinick front man set me up big time with the release of this summer’s self-titled, so-called “Red Album”, only to subsequently let me down in a brutal, cataclysmic way. And I’m not sure what to do about that.

The first time I heard “Pork and Beans,” the album’s standout track and one of this summer’s most enjoyable radio singles, I was driving home from a speaking engagement at Rowan University. When it finished, I almost pounded the steering wheel right off of its column with the force of my elation. With every failed attempt at a cohesive record since the last sublime strum of Pinkerton’s “Butterfly” resounded in 1996, it had been said so many times that Weezer was “coming back” that the sentiment had morphed into cliche. But this time, in the dark solitude of that rainy night, I truly believed it—because “Pork and Beans” kicked ass. All of the haters can just go to hell, I thought. This is going to be the album we’ve all been waiting for!

Oh how wrong I was.

Not only did the rest of The Red Album fail to live up to the potential of its wonderful single, it insulted the composition’s mother, kicked it in the teeth, and left it to die on the side of the road with flies buzzing around its head. This most recent effort from Weezer (despite the righteousness of the mustache and ten gallon hat) is as disappointing as an album can be; not so much because it is plagued by some dreadful songwriting (which it is), but more so because the record begins with such unbelievable promise and then takes a nosedive into a wretched sea of crap.

The first three tracks of The Red Album (“Troublemaker,” “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations On A Shaker Hymn)”, and “Pork and Beans”) are some of the best in Weezer’s extensive catalogue. They are raucous. They are full of bizarre, contagious life and pregnant with lofty power chords. And each of these three songs could easily stand as time-capsule-worthy examples of the sort of rock that Weezer, essentially, invented during its heyday. But what follows them are seven exceedingly lame tracks that had no business ever being released (with the possible exception of “Dreamin’”, if not for its saccharine bridge about meadows and bees and goslings at the river…yuck!).

Rivers, why must you torture us so? We know you’re a brilliant songwriter, so please stop littering your albums with mere fleeting teases of your greatness and get back to giving us the rock we all need now more than ever.

 

Musical Insight #9: Sadly, It Seems Beck is Not Aging Well

beck

Just after the release of Beck’s The Information in 2006, my life entered what one might call a “difficult” period. Suffering from the bitterness of broken love and a subsequently broken engagement, an album that should have otherwise been a relatively carefree ride was inevitably tinged with the murky residue of my confused and darkened situation. It’s mashed up, post-modern rollick was a cruelly juxtaposed soundtrack to the reality I was living at the time, and as all great music is want to do, The Information remained a time capsule for me, a perpetual reminder of that particular chapter in my life.

This is not to imply that I begin weeping bitterly every time one of The Information’s tracks comes on during my iPod’s shuffle. I’ve distanced myself enough from those events now to enjoy the album despite its inevitable reminders. Regardless, one could say I had been looking forward to Modern Guilt before it was even an itch in Mr. Hansen’s musical pants, if for no other reason than to ally myself with another Beck effort minus the pains of my personal life. Little did I know Beck was going to bring so much of his own despair to the table this time around.

The criticism I most often hear leveled against Beck in my day-to-day conversations is that the majority of his catalogue is emotionally empty; that his beats are, at times, fun, but that his lyrics are nothing more than strange, Dadaist mashups of words that happen to rhyme and situations as random and meaningless as dreams (Seachange notwithstanding). On no other album is Beck more seemingly aware of this pop-caricature than he is on Modern Guilt. Consider a line from “Orphans”, one of the record’s standout tracks: “And how can I make new again what rusts every time it rains?/ And the rain it comes and floods our lungs/ We’re just orphans in a tidal wave.” In other words, Here’s a hint listener: I’m tired of blowing your mind.

Whether or not Modern Guilt succeeds in answering the most immediate question—namely, why is Beck so tired of this effort?—probably isn’t as important as one might think, because the album doesn’t concern itself with the journey. It concerns itself with the discovery. And what Beck discovers isn’t very encouraging. It’s a landscape of bones, ghosts, and chemical residues in the sky.

I’ve always maintained that Beck’s oeuvre has never been about ignoring the despairing elements of existence, regardless of how hapless his beats and lyrics may come across. Instead, it’s always seemed to me that Mr. Hansen has been all too aware of the existential confusion inherent in being alive, but that instead of composing murky lamentations to this effect he has taken the cultural and emotional residue of our time and thrown it against a sonic wall, where it can drip and coalesce like the paintings of Pollack. But where most of his songs have been a triumph over the chaos, Modern Guilt seems to be his first full surrender to it, and its a shame that Beck is somewhat unsuccessfully drowns in the weight of this surrender. His lungs are, indeed, flooded. The tidal wave, it seems, has taken him under.

None of this is to imply that Beck is no good at sadness and despair. Some of the best tracks on 2005’s outstanding Guero are concerned with just that. The thing is, on Modern Times Beck seems a little bored with himself and the world around him, resulting in an equally tedious record.


Musical Insight #8: Queen is So Much More Than its Greatest Hits

queen

Several years ago I made a vow that I would never again purchase a “Greatest Hits” (or “Essential Hits” or “Very Best Hits” or “Very Best Greatest Essential Hits”) record for as long as I lived, so help me God. Sometime after college I was struck by the absurdity of the conceit (Steve Miller Band and Rod Stewart notwithstanding) and it occurred to me that these corporately packaged collections of sellable songs were an anathema to the artists they were supposedly praising. All things being equal, an album is a complete work of artistic entirety meant to be enjoyed as a whole. You wouldn’t buy a copy of “William Faulkner’s Greatest Chapters,” or “Van Gogh’s Greatest Brush Strokes.”  Why then has it become an acceptable practice to parse the work of musical artists into easily digestible bits?

Consider perhaps one of the greatest victims of this custom: Queen. I’ve got a homework assignment for you. Tomorrow, ask as many people as you can to name a Queen song that doesn’t appear on the band’s myriad greatest hits collections. Go on. Give it a try. Unless you’re friends with Chuck Klosterman, I will be very surprised if you come across even one person who can do this without the help of Wikipedia. And that’s a shame, because I have recently discovered that Queen wrote some pretty phenomenal songs no one has ever heard.

Two months ago I received an old, dusty vinyl copy of 1977’s “News of the World” as a gift (thank you Courtney). With the exception of “We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions,” the entire track list was foreign to me. Admittedly, I was dubious. I expected little more than a mediocre offering that would make me yearn for yet another spin of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” But after just one listen I immediately fell in love with “News of the World.” It’s a fantastic record. “Sheer Heart Attack” is punk rock I had no idea Queen was capable of. The bouncy, sometimes-trippy piano balladry of “All Dead All Dead” is as heartwarming as it is haunting. Freddie Mercury’s voice (which I often maintain is one of the most under-appreciated gifts to rock music) is in top form. And Brian May’s guitar is incendiary and as slashing as sunlight.

So drop off your copy of Queen’s Greatest Hits at Goodwill and start exploring this band’s entire catalogue. “News Of The World” is the perfect place to start.


Musical Insight #7: My Morning Jacket Is Way Weirder (and Way Better) Than Anyone Expected

mmj-jim-james1

Rather than compose an original blurb for this one I have chosen to reprint an e-mail I sent my friend Joe back in June when he asked me what I thought about MMJ’s recently released Evil Urges (which both of us loved). Please forgive its lack of refinement. I did not edit before pressing “send.”

Subject Line: Evil Urges, Brilliant Surges

Joseph…

Frequently, my friends and I play the “cover game.” You know, what artist would you like to hear cover what song? It’s especially fun when the artist is dead and the song is very contemporary, like Elvis doing “Hit Me Baby One More Time” or Johnny Cash doing almost ANYTHING by Lucinda Williams or Neko Case. But in this case I’m excited by the reverse, as I think no one vocalist today could lend a more interesting and righteous take on Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” than Jim James. And it’s because of Evil Urges that I am having this sudden conviction.

I know a lot of MMJ fans may decry this album. Strike that. I know a lot of people who think they are fans of My Morning Jacket are going to decry this album, because anyone whose been following the band with any serious verve is probably aware that Evil Urges is the most logical (and most enjoyable) step this band could have taken. Yes, I fell in love with them the way most did, with It Still Moves’s “we’re playing from the bottom a well in a deep and mysterious forrest” sonic and lyrical vibe. Yes, I fell in love with the alt-country-meets-psychedelia spirit behind the music. But I believe the mark of any great and lasting artist is the pursuit of new territory, and when that new territory is arrived at and explored with as much solidity and self-evidence as MMJ does on Evil Urges, the pursuit (and the art) becomes sublime.

I think this album is fantastic. Sure, I was slightly thrown by the first three tracks, which sound like Prince on acid playing to the gods of some forgotten rock universe, but the surprise was perfection. I think “Highly Suspicious” is one of the best songs they’ve written. I think My Morning Jacket has always been a little more eccentric and weird than a lot of people give them credit for, and what makes it work is that they are such an incredibly tight band musically. The guitars are so sharp, so crisp, and yet still organic and meandering. And then there’s the vocals of James.

I think Jim James is perhaps the best rock vocalist performing today. What may have been dismissed as slight novelty in It Still Moves et. al. (lots of reverb and the like) were clearly the beginnings of a master vocalist just starting to get his footing. I thought he was almost there with Z—which was a departure in its own right—but what he began exploring in that album (his heart breaking falsetto, his capacity for neo-crooner spectral emotiveness) he takes to the next level on Evil Urges. And I love it. I’ve always held MMJ up as one of the true testaments to the next “phase” of rock music’s potential, and Evil Urges has confirmed my faith in this conviction.

So, what did you think of it? Please, feel free to disagree. I’m anxious to know your thoughts.

—Nick


Musical Insight #6: The Kids Are Not Alright

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It was Thanksgiving morning 2007. A gentle fire crackled in the corner as my brother, sister, and I relaxed on the couch in our pajamas and watched the Macy’s Parade. It was all very cozy and Rockwellian. Ah, there’s Tony Bennett singing “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” How sweet. Oh, and there’s Harry Connick Jr. crooning his version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” Delightful. And there’s three pre-pubescent teens dressed like new-new-wave emo brats pretending to play guitar while whining an auto-tuned version of some exceedingly lame ditty about the stresses of high school and taking the dog for a walk.

WTF?

“Oh god. Who is that?” I asked.

“I have no idea,” Erica said. “But ya know what would be really great? If the float they’re riding suddenly burst into flames and we got to see them running down the streets of Manhattan in a high-pitched panic with fire shooting out of their hair-sprayed heads.” Leave it to my sister to paint a delightful picture.

Sadly, there were no flames, and the float continued on its course unimpeded. No worries though. We figured life would go on as it always had and that this would be the last time we ever had to experience the torture of their wailing. Done and done. Little did we know how wrong we were, for those three little men turned out to be none other than the Jonas Brothers, and 2008 turned out to be nothing short of their ascension into the realm of pre-teen, boy band deification. If I had known back then how insane the Jo-Bro craze was to become, I probably would have driven up to New York that morning and lit the float on fire myself.

I won’t belabor the point, but the Jonas Brothers are evil. They are a virus that perpetually feeds on the hearts and minds of children everywhere, convincing them that the purpose of pop music is nothing more than to bring smiles to faces, flutters to hearts, and joyful tears to eyes. Their rebellion is false and their virtue a mere corporately sponsored caricature of banality. I fear for the future of our youth because of their ubiquity.

Look, I know you probably think I sound a little harsh here, but I’m actually being kinder than I would prefer, for the Jonas Brothers are the worst kind of assault against the sensibilities of young listeners, and a disastrous byproduct of the mass-media age in which we live. Like N*Sync before them (and The New Kids on the Block before them) the Jonas Brothers are pre-packaged, government sponsored rock, devoid of soul and meaning, designed to do nothing more than sell merchandise and push the bland indoctrinations of conformity masked as defiance. Our teenagers deserve better than this. They deserve rock music that begs them to question the assumptions of society and the platitudes of the authority around them. They deserve music that offends and upsets the order of things and causes parents to worry, if only just a little. They deserve rock that makes them feel genuinely alive, not heavily manicured pop garbage that fastens them permanently to a sinking ship of dutiful compliance.

But what the hell do I know. When I was 12 I was listening to Weird Al and Michael Jackson. Either way, my nieces and cousins are all getting a mix CD from their Uncle Nick this Christmas  loaded with the likes of Led Zeppelin, Sublime, and Dr. Dre.

How about we let Mr. Bill Hicks take us out on this one (and for those of you easily offended, you might want to think twice before pushing play)…

What I Learned From 2008: Part I

It’s December, and that can mean only two things: The inexplicable ubiquity of “Christmas Shoes” will once again force you to trot out that dusty old list of painless suicide possibilities, and an abusive onslaught of countdown lists will litter every magazine rack from here to Sarah Palin’s neighborhood Wall-mart. That being said, I’ve decided against bombarding you with my own tired lists (despite having an insatiable desire to crown the release of Weezer’s “Red” album as the most disappointing event of 2008). Instead, throughout the month of December, I will bring you a series titled “What I Learned From 2008,” with a different (semi)daily post highlighting one of this year’s most elucidating bits of, well, whatever. There’s no particular order to this exercise and the posts will inevitably vary in length and severity. But the point here is not to qualify. The point is to reflect. So, shall we?

Lesson Number One: Woody Allen Is Still Brilliant (and Britney Spears Is Only a Lipstick Pig)

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Whether these two assertions have anything to do with one another I am still not sure. But regardless of their probable mutual exclusivity they lead off the 2008 lesson series because they make me feel good. Really good.

First, the matter of Mr. Allen:

Praise be to Providence! Do you know how long I languished in perpetual fear that I had seen the last of the Woodman’s genius? Do you know how many nights I awoke in a cold sweat, shotgun to my head, thinking, “If he’s finished, shit, I might as well end it all right now!” It was hell I tell you. Hell! And it all began the morning after I saw Hollywood Ending in 2002.

I was a junior in college, impossibly enmeshed in film school, and desperate for any sign of life from a filmmaker I had come to regard as one of the greatest of our time. This picture, however, was not it, and everyone knew it. I walked into a coffee shop on Pine Street to meet my friend Sean Purtill for a morning cup of joe that day. He was smoking a cigarette and reading the most recent edition of the Philadelphia Weekly. When he saw me, he tossed the paper my way. “Did you read this yet?” He was referring to the review of Woody’s latest release.

What was he thinking? Of course I had read it! It was the first thing I did that morning. After rationalizing all night that what I had seen at the Ritz movie theatre wasn’t really that bad, I was fiending for confirmation from someone—anyone—that Woody wasn’t finished. Alas, every word of Sean Burns’s acerbic review only served to drive me deeper and deeper into a depression that lasted for weeks. Weeks! And my friend Sean took a strange delight in my misery.

If I may, an excerpt from Mr. Burns’s harsh missive:

“Right away you can tell something’s gone horribly wrong in Woody-ville, with all the characters shouting gigantic passages of repetitive exposition on top of one another and amateurishly fumbling with their lines. (I swear I caught a bit player glancing at a cue card.)…It’s also a grotesquely ugly picture, awash in harsh overhead lighting that makes the performers look like death warmed over. Naturally, this does little to dispel the ick factor inherent in the 66-year-old Allen’s painful penchant for casting love interests half his age.”

This review hung heavy over my head for six years. Six long years filled with the painful mediocrity of projects like Scoop, Anything Else, and (the almost decent) Melinda and Melinda. Even the hints of rediscovered genius that were evident in Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream couldn’t fully shake my melancholy. But just as I was beginning to go slowly into the night and surrender my hopes that Mr. Allen had anything else to offer me, he came up with Vicky Cristina Barcelona. And the heavens parted. And the angels sang. And Lazarus did the jig.

vicky_cristina_barcelona1Sure, Vicky Cristina Barcelona may not wind up in the sacred Allen cannon alongside such masterworks as Annie Hall or Hannah and Her Sisters…but it should. Not only is it one of Woody’s most cinematically rich and organic pictures to date, but it also marks a turning point in a career that many of his harshest critics have deemed, well, predictable. Yes, Allen fans will certainly find familiar themes here. Psychoanalytic ruminations on love and art, anxieties caused by creative impotence, and an almost mythic obsession with the feminine mystique all abound in the film, but what marks Vicky Cristina Barcelona as an undeniably inspired turn for the filmmaker is the context and tone of its execution. More than any other Allen film to grace the screen in the last decade, Vicky Cristina Barcelona heralds the dawning of a shifting world perspective for the filmmaker, and it’s a pleasure to behold

Allen’s cynical, cerebral edges finally seem to be softening, and at the center of his perpetually melting exterior is (would you believe it?) poetry. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a small, beautiful film that brings to mind gems like Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, with European bike rides through cozy villages and intimate close-ups on candlelit lovemaking, all of it tinged with both the bitter and the sweet; the comic and the tragic. And while this film doesn’t seek to completely destroy the filmmaker’s perpetual obsession with the seeming futility of love and life, it does seek to make the blow a little less terrifying.

It’s not so much overt optimism on Allen’s part as it is a surrender to that which makes life worth living, regardless of the pain or disappointment or futility. I think back to the final scene in Manhattan, wherein Allen narrates into a tape recorder a list things that give him a reason to continue living. Groucho Marx. Cezanne’s apples and pears. The second movement of the “Jupiter” symphony. Well, if I were making a similar list right now, Vicky Cristina Barcelona would probably fall somewhere between whiskey and mint chocolate chip ice cream. It’s Allen’s greatest achievement in over a decade, and it has given me a reason to keep on going.

And then there’s Britney Spears. See, the most significant difference between Woody and Britney (well, besides the obvious…glasses) is that I wanted Spears to fail. Her decline in recent years has actually helped me sleep. And now it seems 2008 is ending with her accession, and that really pisses me off.

My sister Erica often jokes that should she make it to the age of forty, Britney will inevitably wind up snorting cocaine off the ass of a dead homeless man lying face down in his own urine inside a Turnpike rest stop. Whenever she says this I have a tendency to nod my head and make the types of sounds one usually reserves for agreeing with preachers. “Mm hmm. You said it sister. Testify!” That’s how certain we were of Britney’s inevitable collapse. We had made it into our own little mini-religion. And every time Britney’s train wobbled on the tracks—like when she started getting fat or when she shaved her head or when she started throwing her baby out of moving cars—Erica and I bowed our heads in reverence and gave each other little sadistic high fives. Justice—at least our twisted version of it—was being served.

You can imagine the extent of our disappointment then when suddenly, almost imperceptibly, Britney started making a “come back.” No! This wasn’t supposed to happen. This was not part of the plan. This was not what God wanted. We were just getting ready for the cocaine and the homeless man’s ass, not the shedding of pounds and the reclamation of positive fame! It was all so unholy. And who asked for this supposed “comeback” anyway? Was the world really a less enjoyable place without Ms. Spears?

Regardless of the answers to those questions, Britney’s reemergence is still rather sad. Just take a look at the following video, which shows Britney performing live on England’s “X-Factor” (“American Idol” with accents). It was supposed to be her leather-Elvis show. It was supposed to usher in the new age of Britney. Instead, the entire thing is marred by a vaguely pathetic sense of pale nostalgia. Every hip thrust, every flip of the hair, every (so very awkward!) clomp across the stage in a pair of ridiculous black leather boots whispers: Remember how much fun this used to be? Remember when I was naughty and dangerous? Remember?

Yes, we do remember, and that’s precisely what makes this whole “comeback” episode so odious. I have no doubt that the last two years have been severely, well, fucked up for Spears, but instead of alluding to the ways in which that time changed her, she’s giving us the same old tired tripe that got her to insanity land in the first place (which was stale and unoriginal even before she got fat). Spears is doing nothing to reinvent herself or give us anything that remotely resembles a sense of personal reflection. And I guess in that I am glad, because eventually she’ll go insane. And my sister and I will rejoice.

Oh, One More Thing…

As a post script to the above sentiment, I’d like to share a video that was recently sent to me. It’s a dance routine done by Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell to Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” in 1940. As many of my friends know, I spend a lot of time lamenting the aesthetic decline of pop-culture and its fans. And just to be sure, I’m not talking about art here. I’m talking about pop-culture. There will always be great art, and there will always be great artists who toil away in perpetual obscurity. I get that. But I’m not talking about art. I’m talking about pop-culture.

I suppose the two are not always so disparate. Sometimes they collide. Take Shakespeare. During his time, The Bard was pop-culture at its best. Or how about the Beatles? See what I mean? But I digress. The point is, this number is incredible. Genius. American pop culture at a height of ingenuity and craft. No matter how much we swoon over the likes of Spears or Milee Cyrus or any other contemporary pop musical figure (Beyonce and her “All The Single Ladies” video probably notwithstanding…that’s actually pretty awesome), none of them will ever hold a candle to the brilliance of folks like Astaire and Powell. That’s not nostalgia or curmudgeonist history. It’s quantifiable fact. To quote Frank Sinatra (who narrates another version of this video): “Ya know, you can wait around and hope, but you’ll never see the likes of this again.” You said it Frank! Enjoy.