Sunday, November 19, 2017

Taylor Swift did something bad on "Reputation." So why does it feel so good?

Taylor Swift made a wise choice for most of 2017.  Following her being outed in 2016 by Kim Kardashian as at least having partially lied about not giving Kanye West permission to name-check her on "Famous," she laid low for the better part of this year, doing the best she could to stay out of the public eye.  It seemed like a perfect example of being able to read the room.  After all, people were sick of her in the wake witnessing her take a continuous stream of losses: her seemingly fake relationship with Tom Hiddleston, her embarrassing assumption that Nicki Minaj was attacking her on Twitter, and her public branding as a living snake emoji.  Even I, one of the biggest fans of her music, was starting to get awfully sick of her.  The only person whose approval rating was lower than hers this year was the frothing orange man she refuses to denounce.

Well, whatever the opposite of reading the room is, then that's her latest album Reputation.  She was completely on the wrong foot from the beginning, releasing the garish, unapologetic "Look What You Made Do" as a first single.  Any hope for a Taylor Swift who learned and grew from her time away was gone -- instead, she took all the wrong lessons away from it.  On Reputation, she steers straight into the skid of her heel status.  The Swift of old prided herself on being the underdog, but on this album she finally acknowledges that she's the biggest entity in the world.  She's the one who wields power on most of the songs, constantly breaking hearts, enacting revenge, and getting wild and drunk.  The titles are even given winking, antagonistic names like "I Did Something Bad," "Don't Blame Me" and "This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things."

Which is to say, this is probably the album that reflects Taylor Swift's personality the most -- the inner mean girl hiding under the "America's Sweetheart" veneer.  But somehow, Reputation feels like it's the most fake record in her discography.  The snake-adorned promotion, the Disney villain way she coos her lyrics, the self-righteous anger; it all just feels like empty posturing.  The trouble is she tries to have her cake and eat it too, playing the villain and the victim.  She puts on the evil witch persona, but then whines that "they're burning all the witches, even if you aren't one."  It makes the whole angle of the album feel muddled.

Sonically, this is a real hodgepodge too.  What's interesting about Taylor Swift's music is that it has always seemed to be just off-center of whatever landscape she was inhabiting.  Even her "big pop move" on 1989 sounded like the radio three decades ago as opposed to now.  This time around, she does take square aim at the mainstream pop music of today.  Many of the songs -- the stormy mid-tempo number "Don't Blame Me," for instance -- have that same mechanical churn as the rest of the Top 40 charts.  The result is something that feels a little less special than the rest of her music simply because, well, it sounds like you could hear it from anybody.

Of course, you can't do a complete survey of today's trends without tackling what is arguably the most popular genre of 2017: rap music.  So with little interest in whether it's a good idea or not, she takes on a cadence resembling rap on opener "...Ready For It?"  Even worse is that she subjects us to Ed Sheeran rapping a song later on "End Game."  Trap beats with skittering hi-hats and big snares litter the record, and Swift navigates them with all the swagger of a white girl jamming with her sorority friends in the car.  Needless to say, this album sounds like it has all the makings of a miscalculated disaster.

And yet...

Reputation is one of the most compelling listens of the year.  It's a fascinating carnival of sounds, ideas, and emotions, and even when a moment misses the mark, the songs as a whole land in the exact pleasure center of your brain that requires very little processing.  It speaks to her preternatural abilities that she's able to cannibalize all kinds of genres and spit out stainless steel melodies and hooks the way she does here.  The aforementioned "...Ready For It?" seems like a bad idea on paper, but in execution it's one of the best songs on the album, a lurching stadium-crunch banger that's endlessly catchy.

Then there are moments that find Swift truly in her element, where the album completely soars.  I'm thinking particularly about "Getaway Car," the clear highlight of the album.  It's an airy retro-pop song that sounds like it would fit right in on 1989, and it features all of the signifiers that make her style sparkle.  There's the proof that she can still turn a phrase with the best of them, as she sets the scene with the lines "The ties were black, the lies were white / In shades of grey in candlelight."  And she toys with the classic lovers-on-the-run framework in the chorus: "You were driving the getaway car / We were flying, but we never got far / Don't pretend it's such a mystery / Think about the place where you first met me."  That leads right back into her singing the words "riding in a getaway car," as if answering the last line in a circular manner.  It's clever songwriting all around.

There are so many more moments that make Reputation crackle: "Delicate," a lithe tropical breeze that finds her comfortably toying with a vocoder, is probably her most successful bit of genre tourism on the album.  On "Gorgeous," she sings "You should think about the consequence of you touching my hand in a darkened room," the kind of diamond-cut come-on she's been sharpening over the last decade of her career.  Then there's the way the emo theatricality of the "I Did Something Bad" chorus careens into that pitched-down demonic robot sputtering that she does afterward.  From the almost synesthetic detail of certain lyrics to all of the breathy ad-libs sprinkled everywhere, there are little nuggets that I like more and more with each listen.  Even a song like "Look What You Made Me Do" makes some kind of perverse sense if you play it while driving at just the right speed on the highway.

So much of the pop landscape is founded on an anonymity that drives the catchy tunes.  I can't say I know much about who The Chainsmokers really are after hearing a few of their songs, nor do I really get much of a distinct flavor from the music of someone like Katy Perry.  That's fine, conveying personality isn't the central goal of the genre.  But what has always added to Taylor Swift's music is that you can get a sense of her worldview through her songs, a clear psychology driving all of her work.  There's a moment on this album where she says "Love made me crazy / if it doesn't, you ain't doing it right."  That's a thesis that comes up over and over on her albums, the idea that "nothing safe is worth drive," as she once put it on "Treacherous."  Reputation plays host to all of Swift's favorite motifs, from her love of playing with archetypes and classic iconography -- "Burton to this Taylor," Bonnie & Clyde, parties from The Great Gatsby -- to the concept of finding a sanctuary, be it literal or figurative, in order to sustain love in the face of celebrity.  It makes this record serve not just as a new collection of songs, but a fascination expansion upon an existing universe.

In that sense, the thing that Reputation resembles most is, of all things, Kanye West's The Life of Pablo.  Like that album, it's a snapshot of an artist's headspace during a time of extreme turmoil.  West went through his trying time in a very public way while Swift retreated from hers, but both works reckon with alot of the same ideas.  And just as Pablo was greeted with an initial "this is a mess" reaction, only to be acknowledged later as having some pretty stirring musical ideas, the same is likely to happen with Reputation once the thinkpiece fog clears.

It's funny, then, that Kanye West and Taylor Swift have been embroiled in a decade-long feud, because they're the same artist in many ways.  Both are top-tier songwriters, the best and worst of both their work can be attributed to the fact that nobody can really say no to them, and they both may end up being destroyed by the psychic damage of fame.  And with Reputation, Taylor Swift has channeled all of that into an album that's weird and wild and worrisome.  But with all its evidence that she might have officially gone off the deep end, this is another worthwhile entry in a shimmering oeuvre.  Maybe her nemesis said it best: Name one genius that ain't crazy.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Favorites: October 2017

Favorites is a monthly feature that offers up quick thoughts on media, both new and old, that I've recently enjoyed.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
Netflix now puts out so many original films at this point that I've given up on trying to keep up with them almost completely, but I'll always make time for a new Noah Baumbach movie.  And you won't regret investing your time in The Meyerowitz Stories, which immediately ranks up there with his best work.  I tend to prefer Baumbach's collaborations with Greta Gerwig, but this feels like a synthesis of all that he's done before, both with and without her.  The terrain that Meyerowitz covers -- strained relationships amongst a prickly Jewish family in New York -- has been well-excavated, but this film spins itself in all manner of truthful and empathetic directions that justify its existence.  It's a modest film that feels so full -- you'll lose count of all of the dazzling threads, tiny motifs, amusing tossed-off moments, and poignant stuff of life.

Bully - Losing
Bully's debut album from a few years ago took me by complete surprise.  Unlike so many of their peers whose sound feels like a loving nod to 90s alternative rock through a modern lens, Feels Like sounded like it was genuinely unearthed from 1995, at once harsh and sugary sweet in the way so many records from that period were.  This time around, the band loses some of its overt hookiness for an album that's a little more jagged and introspective.  The result makes Losing less immediate than its predecessor, but its pleasures reveal themselves upon repeated listens.  Songs like "Kills to Be Resistant," "You Could Be Wrong," and "Hate and Control" can stand right along with the best tracks from their debut.

The War on Drugs - A Deeper Understanding
For the last few years, The War on Drugs have been my number one "I just don't get it" band.  I listened to Lost in the Dream a few times when everyone was freaking out over it in 2014, but I stood with Mark Kozelek when he dismissively called it "beer commercial rock."  The songs were solid, yet it felt like the band was being elevated by older critics who grew up on Dire Straits and similar influences.  What converted me was being able to see what makes them special with my own eyes in their KEXP performance a couple of months ago (their one around the time their previous album came out is also worth checking out).  In a live context, the space and subtlety of their sound truly shone, and it primed me to enjoy A Deeper Understanding.  I still may not be as high on The War on Drugs as everyone else, but this album has some of the most transcendent musical moments I've heard all year.

What I said up top about being unable to keep up with Netflix's release of original films goes tenfold for their television series, to the point where I might not be able to catch up with all of their newest offerings in time for end of the year list-making season.  I'm glad I decided to prioritize Mindhunter, whose first season I just finished and ended up loving.  The biggest draw of this show about two investigators in the 70s who led the charge in studying and classifying serial killers, is that the first and last two episodes of the series are directed by David Fincher.  He proves how much visual language can enhance a story as he brings an electrifying energy to the proceedings with his careful, precise arrangement of shots.  That kind of cinematic rhythm is needed, given that the show is entirely comprised of people in rooms having long, methodical conversations.  But it's not just a strong visual hand that's necessary for a show like this to work, so thankfully the writing (from a staff that contains Mad Men greats like Erin Levy and Carly Wray) is just as skillful and exacting.  Mindhunter is a show that's interested in the long game, where even elements that seem off in the beginning -- a flat female character here, a miscast lead there -- prove to be deliberate choices with intelligent motivation.  Even if you're not hooked by the first hour or two, stick with the show.  It's something that's ultimately rewarding enough to deserve the goodwill.

Prozac in My Apple Juice (Essay)
I'm a big fan of when writer/Youtuber Allison Raskin writes about mental health, and her Medium post for Wednesday Books was no different.  She's able to write her lifelong struggle with OCD with such wisdom and humor.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Favorites: September 2017

Favorites is a monthly feature that offers up quick thoughts on media, both new and old, that I've recently enjoyed.

I don't think Raw came to theaters in my area -- and if it did, it was only here for a week -- so I was finally able to catch this horror-meets-coming-of-age film on Blu-Ray this month.  Garance Miller is terrific as Justine, a girl who starts experiencing cannibalistic urges during her first year at a high-pressure veterinary school.  And while I don't necessarily think we needed another film where a monstrous transformation serves as a metaphor for coming of age, some assured direction from Julia Ducournau (making her debut) is more than enough to make it worthwhile.  Just don't watch it on a full stomach.

The National - Sleep Well Beast 
2017 has been branded as the return of mid-2000s indie rock, given that we've gotten new albums from stalwarts like Grizzly Bear, Fleet Foxes, Dirty Projectors, and The New Pornographers.  The National added to the deluge in September with the release of their seventh album, Sleep Well Beast, another set of perfectly cut jewels of songs.  Their previous album was a little more sedate, so I was worried that they would continue down that road, but Sleep Well is the most they've sounded like a rock band in while.  The guitars have been pushed to the front of the mix, the drums sound more propulsive than before, and they incorporate some electronic splashes to beef up their sound.  The result is their best album since Boxer came out 10 years ago.

The Good Wife
I finally finished my yearlong journey through all 156 episodes of The Good Wife, CBS' recently completed legal drama.  At its best (which I consider to be the show's fifth season), The Good Wife was just as thrilling as its prestige competitors on cable, offering surprisingly complex arcs and a deep world from which any corner could be pulled for conflict.  And though the creators' boasting about the high bar of difficulty they were required to clear at 22 episodes per season, the length of each season did allow for some risk-taking and experimentation that a shorter model wouldn't allow for.  Great network dramas are becoming rarer by the day, so it felt nice watch this show and remember what the format is capable of.  Don't let preconceived notions stop you from giving this a spin.

Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later
I loved First Day of Camp, the prequel to cult classic Wet Hot American Summer, when it came out a couple of years ago.  The gang came together again for a sequel this time with 10 Years Later, another season of gentle, goofy comedy antics and I couldn't be happier.  While not as top-to-bottom excellent as First Day of Camp, 10 Years Later has some big laughs in it that make the whole endeavor worth it.  I wouldn't mind little expansions on this world every few years until the end of time.

I Hate Everyone But You (Novel)
I've written before about my love of Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin's hilarious YouTube channel, so I would've supported their debut YA novel regardless.  But I Hate Everyone But You benefits from being genuinely enjoyable as well.  Told in epistolary form, the novel follows Ava and Gen, two best friends who go to two different colleges and must deal with the trials and tribulations of long-distance friendship.  It's a funny and emotional tale about the work it takes to maintain any meaningful relationship, which is a valuable lesson for a culture that prioritizes romantic pairings over everything else.  I managed to read it in only two sittings, that's how good it is.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Favorites: August 2017

Favorites is a monthly feature that offers up quick thoughts on media, both new and old, that I've recently enjoyed.

Kathryn Bigelow made her return to theaters this month with Detroit, her first film since 2012's Zero Dark Thirty.  Like her previous work, Detroit is another collaboration with screenwriter Mark Boal, and the two of them bring the same journalistic grittiness to this story about an instance of racially motivated police brutality at the titular city's Algiers hotel in 1967.  That style doesn't lend well to storytelling angles other than fly-on-the-wall observations, which has led to people questioning the benefit of showing such brutality.  However, I think that criticism comes from the mindset of people who are fully aware of the fact that things like this can happen.  For most of America though, this supremely crafted film is necessary and vital.

Amine - Good For You
It feels like now more than ever, all of the up-and-coming rappers sound similar, incorporating a mumbly flow over gooey bass-heavy beats from Metro Boomin or one of his many imitators.  There are some who aggressively go in a contrasting direction, opting for a traditionally bars heavy style that ends up feeling the same as everyone else is doing it too.  A rapper like Amine stands out then, simply by virtue of not sounding like either archetype.  That's not to say that he's wholly original -- his debut album Good For You recalls the bright, playful music of D.R.A.M. and Chance the Rapper -- but it's path unbeaten enough to feel fresh.  He's not the most skilled rapper, but that's almost besides the point.  The entire album is so fun and vibrant, it doesn't even need to be technically proficient.

milo - who told you to think??!!?!?!?!
Milo is another rapper who seems to exists on a completely different trend cycle, maybe even a different plane of reality altogether.  Nothing about his verbose, unconventional style should work in 2017.  He constantly quotes Nietzsche and name checks Nabokov, he rhymes "diaphanous gossamer" with "blasphemous philosopher," and he makes a call to "the last real MCs" at one point.  It's enough to make you recall the days of calculator rap, where underground rappers were overly concerned with how smart and authentic they sounded, but only came off as corny.  But despite that, his new album does work.  He's a gifted rapper, riding warm but sparse beats with an exacting precision.  And all of the philosophical talk is a gateway to some incisive observations about being black and the crushing weight of simply existing.  I was mostly unaware of milo beforehand, but this album has turned me into a total fan.

The Deuce
This series doesn't officially premiere until September 10th, but HBO put the pilot online early, so this is as good of a time as ever to get in some advance stumping for it.  For those not in the know, David Simon is one of the most reliable television creators out there.  The Wire is his unanimous magnum opus, but Treme, Generation Kill, and Show Me a Hero are all excellent across the board as well.  He's back, along with frequent collaborator George Pelecanos, for The Deuce, which tells the story of the birth of the porn industry in 1970s New York.  The pilot itself didn't get anywhere close to that though, instead providing a 90-minute introductory course into the ecosystem that existed beforehand.  Usually, it would be frustrating for a show to take so long before getting to the actual premise, but Simon and Pelecanos are two of the best world-builders in the game.  Together with gorgeous direction from Michelle McLaren, they've given us a heavily textured, fully detailed world already.  I'm beyond excited to see where they go from here.

Drama Chameleon: Won't the Real Taylor Swift Please Stand Up? (article)
Let's get this out of the way: I, one of the biggest Taylor Swift fans in the world, hate her new song.  It sucks, the video sucks, the album title and cover sucks, the whole album rollout sucks.  But I read this Stereogum article from Michael Nelson that recontextualizes this whole situation today and I loved it.  I'm not sure I agree with every point it makes, but it made me think.  So few thinkpieces these days actually do that.

John Early dancing
You may know actor/comedian John Early from his appearances on 30 Rock, Broad City, High Maintenance, Search Party, or Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.  But you should know him for his amazing videos posts on Twitter of himself dancing in public.  I don't know why he does it, but I watch them over and over and never stop laughing.  Here's one.  Here's another.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Logan Lucky is one of the most entertaining films of the year

It has become so hacky to review a work of art and tie it to today's political climate.  Every publication is littered with takes about how a piece of pop culture speaks to what's going on in the world, and everyone's getting a little sick of it.  But sometimes those connections just call out and beg you to write that take nobody wants to hear.  That's the feeling garnered from Logan Lucky, Steven Soderbergh's latest film about a pair of brothers who formulate a plan to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway during one of the biggest NASCAR races of the season.  The driving force behind this decision is when Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), a blue collar construction worker at the speedway, gets laid off for concealing an injury that deems him a risk on the job.  He quickly enlists his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), a veteran-turned-bartender who lost his hand during the Iraq War, into the plan.  It's hard not to think about post-election America with that setup, where these likely Trump voters are driven to desperation after getting screwed over by Republican ideals.  (The term "pre-existing condition" is even used as a reason for Jimmy's firing.)

It's an especially easy connection to make in a Soderbergh film, given that he's stretched his political filmmaking muscles before, in films that were secretly about the recession (Magic Mike) and not-so-secretly about the recession (The Girlfriend Experience).  And just because he has his eye turned to the opposition this time around doesn't mean he's gazing downward.  He's much too sly to resort to simple hick-gawking.  Throughout Logan Lucky, Deep South traditions like NASCAR races, child beauty pageants, county fairs, and John Denver songs are treated lovingly.  There is humor drawn from the character's bucolic idiosyncrasies, sure, but it's all done with a gentle, laconic vibe.  One could draw comparisons to the work of the Coen brothers, but Soderbergh's offbeat comedic style is one that's all his own.

If there's one thing to draw from Logan Lucky, it's Steven Soderbergh's singularity.  At all times, it feels like a film that only he could pull off successfully.  Watching this caper that's simultaneously peculiar and crowd-pleasing is a reminder that Soderbergh is one of the true master filmmakers.  His visual style doesn't just trade in beautiful images -- though this is one of the most gorgeous films of the year -- his choices always tell you more about the story, these characters and how they relate to one another.  Take the introduction of explosives expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), where his "thing of legend" status is emphasized through the decision to shoot him from behind for as long as possible.

The script is able to keep pace with the film's stylistic bravura too.  There's some question about whether first-time screenwriter Rebecca Blunt is an actual person or just one of Soderbergh's many pseudonyms, but whoever is responsible has crafted a classic caper.  The actual heist is constructed with Swiss watch precision, full of twists, obstacles, and a last-minute rug pull.  Yet it still finds space for quiet, odd little detours.  This willingness to stretch in all directions makes for some of the most memorable scenes of the year.  That ambling nature also almost becomes its undoing eventually, but the film is smart enough to end at the right time.

This is Steven Soderbergh's first film since his "retirement" a few years ago.  Nobody ever believed it was real or permanent, so it can hardly be considered a comeback.  Regardless of what we call it, it's still nice have him making films again, especially ones as entertaining and sneakily incisive as this one is.  With Logan Lucky, he's made the red state Ocean's Eleven that we didn't know we wanted or needed.