Teachers’ ‘Snap Judgment’ and the Unpierceable Argument Against Female Leaders

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SHAME? SHAME?

Imagine you’re reading this last Saturday, when this specific discussion of local LA weather was relevant.

It’s a gloomy day, here. Los Angeles is in the throes of a late-winter storm, and the wind is howling. Gusts are whipping dead palm fronds into the streets and windows are rattling in their jambs. The local news says it’ll be the worst of the season, and perhaps the year. According to the weather report, we should be expecting sunny skies in three or four days, but in the meantime, there’s not much to do but hunker down, take a breather, and watch the weather dredge up all the debris. This may be a long-winded metaphor — so to speak — but what can we learn from the brunt of a sudden storm, on a global level, if not a local one? Our maiden ship of western democracy is riding a rough wave suddenly, and its bow is facing a steep tilt. A a lot of us find ourselves sliding pretty far backwards on the deck, but many others have spent eight years girding themselves for this moment, grasping the railing with every ounce of strength they’ve got. Okay, last over-the-top analogy, I promise, but you know what I mean.

A year-or-so ago it seemed like “the right side of history” was drawn pretty far to the left, embracing a new-ish age sloping towards a feminist agenda (equality, I guess), and the promise of the first-ever female American president. As far as the “coastal elites” knew, the lot of Americans were perfectly okay with this. And with one blow to the head of liberal America, we now find ourselves disoriented, bewildered, and trying to shake out a very loud ringing in our ears. But barring the loss of Hillary Clinton, what have we learned from her campaign?

TV Land’s Teachers, an often laugh-out-loud funny and surprisingly shrewd sophomore-season sitcom, took aim at just that very topic. One of its principal characters, the bawdy, sexually voracious Chelsea Snap (Katy Colloton), decides — in small-if-not-large-part for attention — to run against the stalwart Brent (Ryan Hansen) for School Council. Inspired by Brent’s previous lack of leadership, Chelsea’s rag-tag group of female colleagues buck up her confidence, poising her with a proper stance on the ‘issues,’ and rendering her as a new face for change. But when Chelsea falls into a one-off tryst with her competitor, at his incitement, all of a sudden her colorful house of cards gets demolished with a stiff, rebuking wind. Once a salacious d**k-pic surfaces on her phone during a bake sale, all the mothers in the school system gasp, shriek and hitch their wagons elsewhere. The conductor of this steam train of judgement is Mrs. Chan, the buttoned-up conservative mommy blogger and “president of the parent group, ‘2,000 Moms’.” Under her word, it becomes a pandemonium for Chelsea, with her colleagues leveraging their student base to make construction paper-rockets to cover up all the d**k drawings defacing her campaign posters, etc.

But with all the indignant leers and hatred suddenly being heaved at Chelsea, Brent’s reputation — though he explicitly takes credit for the d**k-pic and outs their sexual relationship — remains utterly unsullied. Mrs. Chan goes so far as to chastise Chelsea for “distracting Brent from doing his job,” while his tan, exposed-tooth smile goes on winning the heart of any parent in sight. But as Chelsea’s colleague and goof-around gal pal AJ (Cate Freedman) starts a grassroots campaign in the ladies’ bathroom, spouting unfounded rumors about Brent having herpes, etc., an interesting premise comes to the fore. From speaking with “the janitors, the crossing guards, the lunch ladies,” etc., AJ gleans that, amidst all the loud slut-shaming going on at the school, there’s a whole silent wave of people nesting in the woodwork that support Chelsea, but are reticent to voice it for fear of being shamed themselves.

There is, in the context of this TV episode and, I’d argue, the real world, a difference between the popular narrative and the majority opinion. Though Donald Trump — to ground the notion in real life — misses absolutely zero opportunities to unzip his fly and wave his electoral win to the masses, the louder fact might distract Americans from the more valuable fact, that more people supported Hillary than not. And when Chelsea sticks to her guns, honing her positions on the ‘issues,’ she wins. However, the discrimination towards Chelsea, by nature of what discrimination is — emotionally-driven presupposition and projection — has no real rooting in any code of ethics, and so, most importantly, is utterly unreceptive to counterargument. What Chelsea learns is that any self-declaration of good character that runs contrary to her opponents’ criticisms of her only fuels and validates their hateful feelings. So, what’s the point? The basis of the double-standard is ultimately irrelevant, if it’s an opinion that still holds such popular ground, even if it’s not necessarily the majority.

If there’s one thing that’s become clear from Donald Trump’s presidential win, it’s that conservatives are sick and tired of being told what to do, and what’s permissible to say. Liberal political correctness, at the suggestion of Bill Maher, among others, is a bit off the rails. Speaking from rather recent personal experience, people form other parts of the world, that aren’t held to quite so rigorous a standard of political correctness, think Americans are overly touchy, overly offended, and overly apologetic. I reserve any judgment on this one way or the other, but with Republicans essentially holding a right-only block party in both houses of Congress, however unfounded their hatred of the liberal agenda may be, it’s absolutely necessary to take stock of the popular narrative, if for no other reason than assess what hurdles are teed up to be jumped over. A pervasive message, even if it’s a minority view, can have some legs to it as long as enough people hear it.

Operating on a plane of thinking angled so diametrically opposite to reality, the cupboard of  alt-right, Twitter-obsessed, ‘Magic R‘-waving, conservative extremists and “patriotic” nutbags have carved out such a deep crater of partisanship, that there’s simply no shout from sea level that’s loud enough to reach them. So, the first step in combatting this level of delusion is to NOT TAKE THEIR FUCKING BAIT. Think about it like this: when you’re in a spat with a friend or a spouse, the name-calling and stone-throwing, while sometimes illuminating, won’t quell the fight. It’s when one side makes one conciliatory gesture that the other’s side feels respite from attacks to their ego. And when an ego is waxed, the space is cleared for provocative thought to settle. Our politics are so trussed by our egos, and the nature of partisanship so closely aligned with our pride, that sometimes a level of decorum can prove more effective in making voices heard. Unless of course the fight is on a policy-level, in which case squabbling shouldn’t even be an issue, but here we are.

“…I know it’s not really important, like which department stores are selling Ivanka’s panty liners, but…”

-Bill Maher

So what is there to learn here? In the final scene of ‘Snap Judgment,’ Chelsea basks in the pride of her victory, and just after her declaration of joy “to have defeated sexism,” a (male) passerby on the street gives her the parting words of, “Hey, you won…smile.” This is a marathon, not a sprint, honey. But remember this, Chelsea (and the rest of us alike): Just because you hear the voice of opposition constantly, doesn’t mean you’re in the minority. And just because your character is under attack, doesn’t meant you have to feed the trolls. Hold your head up, work closely with the people you trust, and focus on  the issues. And focus on the issues. And for god’s sake, focus on the issues, would ya?

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The 2017 Women’s Marches: A Visual Argument From a Party Losing its Voice

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So, where are we? I’d imagine a lot of you — me, we, us — are a little bewildered watching the orange-colored sediment and detritus settle after November’s veritable shitstorm of an election. But in October, say, we were lumbering towards the horizon under the false notion that on November 9th, regardless of the outcome, the nightmare that was the campaign trail would be over. And that would be the relief that we were questing for. But here we are in the dawn of a new Presidential Administration, and a new year, peering towards — what appears to be — a dim, ashy future ahead, realizing that the slog is only just beginning. And to that end, again, where are we? The United States has officially been demoted to a ‘Flawed Democracy,’ from the erstwhile pedigree of ‘FULL Democracy.’ And with the fracas and strife that now score our daily lives, it’s a ripe opportunity to stop, breathe, take a look around and reassess what you thought you knew about your countrymen. It may not quite be the America you thought you knew out there. And to wade against a stormy tide of the opposition while holding your convictions — crudely scrawled in pencil on a sheet of soggy fax paper — above water is not an easy thing to sustain without patience and grit.

But let’s all remember that, like the ebb and flow of the tide, political progress works in a system of moves and countermoves. In 2017, after 8 years under Barack Obama, we’re very naturally poised to pivot and overhaul Washington. This would be the time to redden things up. But there’s a new force at play in all this. Our President, Donald J. Trump, who has built his political image at an angle that slices right through the very grain that our country’s government has been embedded in for years, inflated by his “movement” of white, blue-collar supporters, misprizes the most tried countermoves that we have readied in our pockets: Logic and facts.

In the early days of his Presidency, Mr. Tr*mp has actually held surprisingly fast his campaign bullet points in signing his first round of executive orders. As clumsy as the execution may be — not to suggest that invoicing Mexico for a $15 billion border wall is clumsy — the action items that jettisoned him off his Trojan Horse campaign float and into the Oval Office weren’t as hollow as some of us had thought. Trump has laid a fast-drying mortar for a brick wall facing Muslim immigrants, he’s motioned to repeal Obamacare, but above all else, the campaign policy he’s been absolutely unwavering on is his complete and utter disregard for the truth. Luckily, President Trump and his illustrious staff have been quite judicious about airing their light and lumpy versions of the truth that stack against that of the mainstream (accredited) media. But as Trump’s brand of unrelenting, hawkish lying is becoming almost normalized by, well, the utter lack-of-anything-else, the spirit of his administration becomes a bit more familiar.

In an effort to connect a few dots: Aggressive nationalism, a thin-skinned, ego-driven leader, a culture of distrust around fact-tested media, and a blind dedication to squashing opposition…this isn’t an unprecedented formula. We are being inducted into the reign of a dictator. The facts certainly don’t point otherwise. And while the contradictions of Trump’s presidency are bordering on trite at this point, as he re-fills, overflows and farts into the “swamp” in Washington, perhaps the biggest concern we should all be mindful of going forward is his apparent instinct to gaslight the American people. Trust and honor are the crux of a democratic state, and what Mr. Trump is doing, perniciously, is indoctrinating his subjects with such a steady, confident stream of falsehoods that their entire ethical code is re-molded and re-aligned to abide the-person-who’s-always-standing-in-front-of-you-telling-you-what’s-happening. Even Trump’s morally-bankrupt, mascara-dripping spokes-Hydra, Kellyanne Conway, has told the people that Trump’s words are basically incidental, and shouldn’t be treated as gospel. So as the thoughtful, diplomatic voice of our Commander in Chief becomes obsolete to his violent, unchecked whims, the conscientious wing of the American public (Democrats) have to adopt a somewhat new tack in combating an American autocrat.

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As they’ve recently been branded by Steve Bannon, the silver-haired troll that waddled up to the White House and left a snail-trail from the Pit of Despair or wherever he came from, the media are now the “Opposition Party” to the Trump administration. And if that’s the line in the sand that he and his cabinet-members are going to draw, then the left (and their apolitical ilk) will have to lean into a part in “the resistance.” And with the staggering turnout of the women’s marches, if for no other reason than to embolden the downtrodden swaths of liberals and remind them that they (we) are in the majority, it’s now the time, if ever there was one, that the “tolerant” left to be as visible as humanly possible in their opposition to autocracy. Because the “tolerance” of the Democratic party, contrary to what every GOP representative, pundit, and commentator seems to envision, does not — NOT — entail sitting idle, knitting hats (well, not JUST that) and letting a wave of conservative extremism wash over the American ideals of religious freedom. The tolerant left is operating under the silly little notion that all Americans — black, brown, gay, transgender, muslim, etc. — deserve the same basic civil rights as any other American.

The tacit notion those on the right hold that “coastal elites” have become, by virtue of their agenda, out of touch with “real America,” is not an entirely untrue one, though it’s a huge misdirect. Liberal voters had become out of touch–not with core American ideals, but with their compatriots, the sheer volume or voters in small towns, and the dormant force of their opposition.  The popular view in coastal, urban cities (“liberal enclaves”) over the past few years was that the GOP was, from the introduction of the tea party, among other things, fractured, and eroding from the inside. But as conservative Americans were, more or less, waiting in the wings during the ‘horror’ of Obama’s presidency, a perfect storm of Americans who were fed up with the direction of their country formed, mobilized, and cast a sizable stone in retaliation. And here we are, with a fiercely Republican administration in the White House, a supermajority of Republicans in Congress, and a soon-to-be top-heavy Republican-majority Supreme Court. And political language is becoming louder and louder about overturning Roe v. Wade, and repealing [any measure instated by Liberals]. It’s a warpath of not only cultural reinvention (regression), but of ethical and constitutional obstruction. Democrats are in the throes of a veritable red menace swimming to the surface of the water to tip their left-leaning boat.

We’ve built an absolutely incredible nation under a two-party system, and the volleying flow of majority/minority opinion is part of what keeps our nation great. We live in a place designed to synthesize the radially different ideas of radically different individuals that all have the same equal right to their opinions. The sweet spot in the middle of the two parties will always be the eye of democracy, so long as the core American ideals, laid out in the Constitution, is upheld. But the Trump administration is a wrench in the gears of American democracy.

As Trump scrawls hatch marks over each word of the Constitutional Amendments, one by one, and holes are systematically poked in the fabric of our democracy with every rebuked voice of opposition, and with Senate Republicans keeping maddeningly quiet through the whole thing, the burden befalls the Democrats to unify. After an enduring era of political-correctness and a didactic culture of mandated equality — Mark Ruffalo telling rural Wyoming about proper gender pronouns, etc. — liberals have become complacent in blue hegemony as an nationally-accepted form. Which is fine, up until recently they were on the right side of history. But there were voices that, for some time, had not been heard, and not had representation in high office. So when a New York-born “billionaire,” who’d built a career by pulling himself up by his daddy’s silver bootstraps, swaggers onto the scene giving unfiltered, unfettered voice to the Americans that simply didn’t want to share a bathroom with a transgendered person, or didn’t enjoy applying for a loan with an African-American bank clerk, a “New America” was born.

It could be argued — by me, for one — that the conceits of Trump’s campaign were horribly misguided and short-sighted. He can make a splashy headline with every domestic company brought back to US production, but circa 150 new factory jobs is completely insignificant in the scheme of a national economy that naturally produces hundreds of thousands of new jobs each year. And scapegoating undocumented immigrants for stealing (white) American jobs is simply unrealistic. Meanwhile, of course, the Mexican border wall is both preposterous and unnecessary. But, again, when Trump, the ultimate salesman and conman, is at the helm of a ship whose cargo holds a den of sycophantic yes-men, the White House can spin the living hell out of any national global crisis with the delicate turn of his self-promoting rhetoric. And his support base, who are un-fucking-capable of wavering on their allegiance, will corroborate any incendiary attack on the media that besmirches his oh-so presidential image. Again, this is the most dangerous face of his presidential game dice, which he rolls far too often, and far too carelessly. His not only wielding but brandishing of “alternative facts” is a heavy breath blowing up the bubble of false national security. And one day — ‘when’ and ‘at whose expense’ still TBD — it’s going to pop. Sowing the level of distrust that he has around the mainstream media, simply because it’s unflattering, does not a trustworthy president make.

And so, what tools are left for us, the native villagers, against a bloated, straw-haired Gulliver, when our voices are apparently too strident to be heard? What the women’s marches taught us is not just that there are a LOT of Americans who are not going to let Trump’s bigoted nationalism stand, but also that while woes of dissent are rebuffed, they are strong enough to form a crack in his foundation. If the voice of reason can’t echo loud enough to reach him, then the American majority needs to show President Trump, and his supporters, that what he’s doing is not normal. It’s not acceptable. It’s unlawful. It’s unconstitutional. And, mostly, it’s just un-American. It seems quite clear that the vulnerable reactor core in this loosely-suited Death Star is that delicate little ego he hides under all that bronzer.

While many take to social media to indiscriminately share phony Pizzagate articles and Daily Wire fake-news pieces to their choir of nitwits, whose minds are so befogged by paranoia and seeds of institutional distrust, the rest need to defend not just what they believe in, which I think should go without saying, but defend the integrity of American democracy. If the power we’re accustomed to wielding with tested facts is dwindling, favoring instead what’s “in our hearts,” which of course is impossible to codify, then the sheer power of people-en-masse need to be more visible, and more regularly so. Our President can claim that the New York Times is “failing,” which of course it isn’t, but he needs to see, not just hear, that his support base is not the majority of America. And that chunk of the population are not okay with being lied to as a matter of course. And for, above all else, a businessman, a visual reminder that the citizens and cities tipping the majority away from him are **cough cough** the ones that most notably stimulate the national economy, may also remind him that the Fed has an economic bottom line to protect too.

On the other hand, though, as well-and-good great as it is that liberally-minded folks are showing up to the Democratic-party-party in droves, the messaging of their countermovement, not unlike liberals’ voice in Congress for the past some-odd years, begs for refinement. While the nuance of people’s beliefs and characters are wonderful, these are desperate, dire times. We’re beyond a point of squabbling. Democrats need to confer, unify, and mobilize like their lives depend on it (because for many, they do). A united-colors-of-Benetton-rainbow-colored-technicolor-acceptance-blanket is cute, don’t get me wrong, but pragmatism is paramount going forward. God bless Democratic Senators for having a strategy in blocking Trump’s dreadful nominations, but again, the reign of sovereign equality is at risk of being totally dismantled. And Trump’s America is only fueling Brexit-supporting Nationalists across the pond that harken a movement of mass-secession. An armchair-approach to liberal unity is not going to cut the mustard.

As next-to-impossible as it is to go about daily life while King Joffrey unravels the very rug that our country is embroidered in, ultimately, Donald Trump is not a supreme overlord. He’s just not. There are checks and balances in place for this very reason; to keep an unfit man-child from waging WWIII because Mariska Hargitay’s Facebook fan page has more likes. But the task force to tug on the opposite end of his rope is that firm-but-tolerant left. It’s not an issue of partisanship, however, it’s an issue of civil rights. Ursula can steal Ariel’s voice in that glowing conch shell, but Ariel still has lots of fish friends and lots of mermaid sisters to show up for her cause. Okay, that’s a terrible analogy, but do let this tyrannic wave empower you and to remind you what you believe in, and why it’s important, and remember that it’s your civic duty to show up — figuratively and physically — to remind this that we are a living, breathing presence that is not going away. We’re just getting started.

Where are the People Between the Partisanship?

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I have to say, and I don’t think I’m alone here, that November 9th, 2016, truly, TRULY can’t come soon enough. In late-October — three-or-so weeks off from election day — it’s hard to pay your DWP bill without being browbeaten into thinking about the two major-party nominees, let alone watch or read any news coverage without missing it. Which, sure, in a democratic state, I’d say that’s more or less de rigueur. But when the discourse around our party nominees is a sloppy, low-blowing melee, wherein our subjects’ reputations have become so soggy from sex scandals, slut-shaming, and security-breaching, where is the space for real, tried-and-true American Politics?

We’re in a two-party system. No way around that. And fatigue from all the petty barb-trading by Donald and Hillary (mostly Donald, LBH) is not a new thing, or an original sentiment. But on a core level, there’s the notion that when you stand with your chosen candidate, you’re beholden to that alliance. They’re your candidate, and attacks to their reputation or their character are indirectly (or directly) an attack on you, by virtue of your choices. So, with our two emissaries marching towards Capitol Hill with our personal wish-lists in-hand, hypothetically, do we (Americans) have the proper capacity to educate ourselves on the nuance of what they really believe in, and are we properly pragmatic in aligning with the right candidate to begin with?

The United States — America, for the less politically-correct among us — being predicated on the idea of personal freedom, freedom of expression, and non-hegemonic religious acceptance, cultivates the unfortunate byproduct of entitlement. What we want and what we believe, regardless of reason or motivation, is sacred. So there’s no real way to standardize what merit any one person has for their convictions. One individual might vet a candidate on their policy and experience, and come to an educated, “rational” decision. Another candidate may look at Hillary (say), see she’s a woman, and divert their faith to ‘the other person’ because they don’t like a woman in charge. Is one more or less valid than the other? I don’t know who’s at liberty to make that call. And this all roots back to the fundamental problem that, politics is just a Federally-sanctioned language to discuss and justify emotionally-driven decisions. Because, if emotions had no part to play in it, I’m sorry, Hillary wouldn’t be so pervasively hated–Sure, her reputation may not be squeaky-clean, but for crying out loud, how did she inherit the “crooked” moniker? And if you bring up the email scandal one more time — that was Federally investigated and cleared, mind you —  I may disintegrate into white sand. Let’s be honest: huge swaths of people vehemently oppose Hillary because she’s a woman. BECAUSE SHE’S A WOMAN.

But Donald trump has built a campaign on fear, paranoia, and hatred. These, unless I’m mistaken, are emotional concepts. And I seriously doubt, for example, this woman is read on the teachings of Islam in motivating her bigotry (I could be wrong). I don’t know for a fact that this woman’s a Trump supporter, but I seriously doubt she’s live-tweeting about Lena Dunham/American Ferrera’s killer intro patter at the DNC. Folks’ political affiliations are in part (at the very least) an emotional decision.

SO, in 2016, when the headlines about Donald Trump are virtually never about his policies or professional wherewithal (assuming that’s a thing) — based instead around his generally cantankerous (awful) personality and sexual subterfuge — how are we supposed to maintain integrity when discussing the election? We’re tasked instead with defending the character of our chosen representative, which is very much an imperfect science. Their dirty laundry is on trial, not their ideas. And, perhaps worst of all, because the discourse is floating at some top-level-yet-lowest-common-denominator realm, none of the fine-print of their plans are under a microscope. It’s a pumped-up pissing contest, not a meeting of the mind(s).

Partisanship under this two-party system has always been an issue, but what this particular election dredges up is just how hopelessly bogged down we are in bonding to one of the two available poles of those two parties based on their personality. You’re with her, or you’re with him. And never the twain can meet. But people, who are arguably emotionally-driven beings, have so much more capacity for thought beyond “he’s right” or “she’s right.” But, to hammer this idea down, where are the people between the partisanship? Because running a country is a President’s job. Appointing a president is our job. And regrettably, it’s become clear that the American people don’t have the right tools to do their jobs. Because when political campaigns appeal to such base emotions, and when BOTH of our only two candidates are so horrendously unpopular, what functionality of American Democracy remains? The democratic process becomes merely procedural.

And if the notion of emotionally-driven voters seems like a stretch, it should be evident in the fact that Donald Trump is absolutely fucking incapable of tanking his campaign — his dreadful, clumsy, inept little campaign — and still maintains his loyal fanbase. Trump speaks to his supporters on such a base, emotional level, that only pieces of information that his followers need to solidify their support is that–

  1. He’s not a politician (he has no experience)
  2. He speaks his mind (he’s crass and unfettered)
  3. He’s not beholden to any Super PACS (His self-interests are paramount)
  4. He’s a man (He’s not a woman)

And because he’s been able (allowed) to normalize bigotry, xenophobia, and bonafide ignorance, there’s no obligation to civilize the process of his election. Decorum is no longer a requisite, it’s an option. And logic and reason is only marginally relevant here.

So, without being able to codify the intellectual process behind voting, and with political fortitude being tantamount to any gut/irrational impulse on paper, what tools are left for a democratic population to mobilize their collective/majority ideals?

It may have taken a painful, embarrassing, and disgraceful election cycle to make clear just how flawed our democratic process is, but it may take something even more radical to actually improve the system. And, with two candidates so bereft of radical, fresh ideas, we may be stuck for a while. If only people were allowed to, for lack of a better expression, think for themselves. I think us Americans are capable of way more.

Anna Rose Holmer’s ‘The Fits,’ Gendered Merchandising, and “Collective Girlhood”

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I don’t remember the first time I saw Cinderella, myself (the “good” version, the Disney animated version, the version that will — for better or for worse — be the stalwart ambassador for the original seventeenth century French text). But I do remember it as a redemptive tale; an empowering story of one woman’s pursuits for due recognition and respect, against the tide of other, vindictive women threatened by her beauty. Wikipedia characterizes the story as “embodying a myth-element of unjust oppression/triumphant reward,” which, for all intents and purposes, is correct. And that sounds perfectly wonderful. But in the fifty-some-odd years since the film’s release, with the second and third waves of feminism having crashed ashore in the meantime, the conventional canon of princess stories and fairy tales has ebbed away from the cultural zeitgeist and is, for lack of a better analogy, sitting semi-irrelevantly in some murky tide pool a stone’s-throw-or-so away. A movie like Frozen, a Princess story that was successful in virtually every sense of the word, danced around the tropes, but taught young girls a modern premise in a classical costume: young women don’t need men to be happy, that fear of their own power is the enemy, and that — to lean into a new argument altogether — ladies, against any impulses otherwise, need to stick together.

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“Okay ladies, now let’s get in formation” mandates Beyoncé, the Gen Y successor to Gloria Steinem (just kidding lol), in her very much hit “song,” Formation. A message of solidarity amongst strong women? Sure, that’s something I think we can all get behind. BUT, does brandishing the the notion of  women-banding-together undermine the confidence or salience of a young woman as an individual?

Our cultural ideals about women, and the idea that they — if you can believe it — actually shape young girls’ capacity for success at young age, has auspiciously become an open dialog in the past few years; don’t call her bossy, don’t just tell her she’s pretty, just let her do her own thing and figure it out herself. Hurrah hurrah, as far as I’m concerned. Girls can be heroes too, lest anyone has forgotten. But there is an opposing force in all this: during one of my recent binge-a-thons of Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra, and the spectacular volume of advertisements that inevitably go along with it, a motif began to emerge in the very gendered marketing of children’s toys.

After the hours of Sturm und Drang trying to figure out how to disable Skylanders Superchargers ads, I eventually waved my white flag and relegated myself to be marketed to. And to my surprise, there was a perniciously coded theme in the way these products are exhibited, or rather, in the way they’re divided between girls and boys.

As Lego has illustrated in this very much girl-free ad, “You’re going to need a bigger imagination” when it comes to their using their interactive products. And, most notably, not only is it a product angled towards boys, the ad itself features but one intrepid boy, which we’ll get to shortly. But the general premise is that with Legos, anything is possible. You just have to learn to use the tools you’re given and apply your ingenuity and creativity to make a successful product and experience.

And the forward-thinking minds at Crayola have brought us another — really fucking cool, honestly — harness of innovation with their Easy Animation Studio. Where, again, young kids (boys, here) can take basic raw materials and make dynamic pieces of home-spun animation to (according to the ad, anyway) share and post online. So in essence, Crayola is selling a product that guides creative, male youngsters in generating public-facing pieces of their own resourceful craftship for online consumption. And while this particular ad features a two-boy lineup, it’s important to note that — at explicit mention — the product is designed primarily for use by an individual.

Finally, the modern, stylish, tablet-controlled world of Anki Overdrive racing cars make quite plain that a spirit of healthy competition is fun, celebrated by your contemporaries, and a natural impulse of the male gender. Because, as we’d all imagine, the second a girl gets her hands on one of those things, some sludgy mound of Sephora goop would drip onto the controls and short out the controlling tablet (gross, etc.).

Innovation, creativity, public awareness, competition and individual drive are ideals that, empirically, are the meat and potatoes of successful adults under the American ideal. So why, WHY, is this concept being sold to young kids as a gendered idea?  To turn — rather sharply — to the female side of these campaigns, there’s one subtle through-line that troublingly connects the slate of merchandise of 2016 for ladies. As you’ll eventually notice from, say, this oddly disturbing My Little Pony ad, girls’ toys are always — seriously, always — featured as being enjoyed by small groups of young girls. Whether it be some miraculously modern interactive new toy like a plastic device that makes head bands or the apparently-still-a-thing Barbie Malibu Beach House that retails for a cool $100, the ads pointed towards girls echo one message very loudly: young girls are the most happy and successful when they’re getting along with groups of other like-minded girls.

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Is that the real world over yonder?

Further to the “Collective Girlhood” of the experiences in these ads, the social interaction of these girls is, starkly, a performative endeavor. Products for girls are largely cosmetic and designed to be regarded, decorated, but seldom interfaced with outside the realms or make-believe and role play. This is not a new idea, or anything that hasn’t been discussed ad nauseam, but stacked specifically against that of the boys’ products, and given the scope of available technology in 2016, why are the tools, messages and products offered towards young girls so…the-same-as-they’ve-always-been?

To roll back to the y-chromosome side of the scale, we’ve seen that boys’ merchandise is marketed to boys as individuals. This is instilling the notion that when boys grow into adults, they need only their own individual grit, drive and passion to unlock the success they desire. Whereas girls are left to aspire to, I don’t know, finding the cutest romper to rock at their husband’s office mixer.

In The Fits, Anna Rose Holmer’s stunning debut film (go see it yesterday, if you haven’t already), a young girl follows her peers into a bizarre, dark, and oddly thought-provoking moment of personal discovery. Ostensibly a bit of a tomboy, Toni (the movie’s lead and vanguard) initially spends most of her time training in the boxing ring with her brother after school. Beguiled by the neighboring girls’ dance troupe, she joins her fellow female classmates and invests her time instead to practicing their routines, and discovering her body in the process.

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Toni and the other unseasoned underclassmen recruits are, understandably, pretty unwieldy with their bodies on the outset given their tender age, and given the rigor of the style of dance they’re practicing. But, and this is what makes the film so head-cockingly interesting, the story stays the course on Toni’s journey. While the film is about a young girl trying to fit in among her peers, nothing ever becomes about the behind-the-scenes mudslinging, or about the pressures of how vicious tween girls are. It stays honed on Toni’s pursuits, her assiduous push against the limitations of her own body, and, yes, her general rumination on how she fits in amongst other girls in her age bracket. But as Holmer has said herself, Toni is for the most part, “self-isolating” in her journey.

When the older girls in the troupe start having sudden, seemingly epileptic episodes, one by one, with no rhyme, reason, or explanation (OMG get the double-meaning with “FITS??”), the color of the story suddenly becomes darkened by fear, anxiety and anticipation. But as this mysterious seizure epidemic sweeps through each of the girls in the group, generally oldest to youngest, Toni realizes from their accounts that the “fits” aren’t necessarily a bad thing. One of the girls reports to feeling very serene during her experience with the fits. And suddenly, Toni actually wishes to get her own time at bat. And when she — inevitably  — does, it sweeps her into wave of nirvana, with surges of fantasy, ecstasy, exaltation (you get it). Toni is in fact so exalted by her experience that she physically levitates, to the astonished shock of her classmates. The film ends with this blissed-out moment of enlightenment.

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Holmer on the set of The Fits

Beyond that, though, the plot/premise/allegory of the film is left pretty spaciously to interpretation. All of the boxes of the “Collective Girlhood” experience can be checked here — a young girl shaped by her desire to fit in, pursuits of performative hobbies, and ensemble characters — but what this film focalizes extends beyond the notion of girls’ inherent or conditioned gregariousness, because Toni’s journey is a personal one, a unique one, that’s set against the backdrop of peers. Her “self-isolating” odyssey is an inward-looking one, exemplified by how tightly the film follows her, both narratively and photographically. But what Toni does gain from her collective experience (assuming for now that “the fits” are rooted at least in part in the ills of puberty) is a sense of awareness and acceptance of her body, and of her womanhood, in the coming of age of it all. It’s a story about fostering an individual awakening in a collaborative context.

And this collaborative sense echoes in the filmmaking process itself, as Holmer has told Vogue:

One of the amazing things about this process has just been about defining our style of leadership, and filmmaking. When you get that chance to run a set, how are you going to run it?

The beauty of what collaboration can achieve—that’s been the most profound experience for me as a director. Embracing the collaborative aspect of filmmaking elevates the craft to a place that as an individual artist you can’t access. It’s very powerful that so many people on our team call it “my film,” “our film.” That makes me the most proud.

So, in watching Toni’s “collective” coming of age, thinking about collaboration as a pervasively female practice, and looking at The Fits as among the most well-received films of the year while being helmed by a first-time female director in an industry with such a talked-about dearth of female directors, I think it’s safe to say there’s something we can learn here. In a near-future that’s looking to be dominated by emerging entrepreneurship, crowdsourcing, and ever-proliferating technology that makes remote collaboration more viable, maybe we can take a cue from the T-shirt and assume the future really is female. Perhaps the ruthless, dog-eat-dog quest for a one-captain ship is being outmoded, and perhaps Cinderella’s beauty-shaming evil Step Sisters have had time to change their tune in support of their ilk.

Anna Rose Holmer is well on her way to joining a new age of filmmaking auteurs, but she certainly didn’t do it alone.

2015: The Women that Made a Hopeless Year in Music

 

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Right?

In a time when Beyoncé is the the most influential feminist icon for youngsters — because she Instagrammed a selfie without brushing her hair first once or whatever — and a nearly-post-Obama world where ‘Change’ and ‘Hope’ proved less dramatic and life-changing than we all thought, it’s understandable that Americans, and specifically American women, are a bit disenchanted with the prospect of what the future holds. And, in an era that’s saturated with messages exalting 201[x] as “An important time for women in [comedy, entertainment, politics, etc.],” you have to look around and say — “is it, though?” Sure, roles for women in movies are nominally more available, but they still fall victim to the widely male-dominated corporate structure that governs them. And the Reese Witherspoons of the world are having to spearhead their own Production Companies to create a richer presence of women in media (God bless her, I think). Increased awareness may portend, but not necessary aid in actualizing immediate change. And because cultural ideals tend to trickle down through the arts, it’s not hard to read between the lines of where female songwriters were in 2015; the ladies of our decade’s midpoint seem to be in an unrelenting state of, “whatever…”

Like some Sondheimian Act II moment of disillusionment, sometimes there comes a time when the thing you’re most fantasizing about becomes a reality and you’re left with the thought, “now what?” We have a black president, but perhaps the most volatile relationship ever between law enforcement and the African American community. The discourse around #blacklivesmatter might usher us into a whole new era of peaceful race-relations, who knows, but de facto, when does it really end? “You say I’m free now, that battle is over, and feminism’s over, and socialism’s over, yeah, I can consume what I want now…What are we taking care of?” sings Jenny Hval, a high-ranker on this list (oh, right, this is a list, I’ll get to that in a bit), and it casts a pretty telling net on the theme of this year’s music about/by women; Bjork just wants love and respect, Lana Del Rey just wants to get High by the Beach, Grimes just wants you to let her go and Courtney Barnett just wants to Sit and Think. This year, I’m only sticking with the gals who were putting out music in this “best of 2015” list. So, without further exposition, see below this guy’s favorite “over it” female-driven releases of 2015 —

1. Lana Del Rey, “Honeymoon”

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Lana is the queen of not giving a shit, so her first-place spot on this list is almost a forgone conclusion, but barring her very obvious and immediate style, miss Del Rey has really released a wonderful record in Honeymoon. From the chilling swell of strings at the top of the titular opening track, she sets a surprisingly unnerving tone. While she croons herself stupid fetishizing some abstract but commanding bad-boy figure, you expect to ease into a lush, romanticized soundscape backing the melancholy love letter, but instead you get a hauntingly sparse peppering of tremolos that are fidget-inspiring in their dissonance against the words. In the past, Lana’s persona has always been immature and superficial, but accidentally compelling in its earnestness…a skin I’m not arguing she’s shed. BUT, with Honeymoon, the happy accident feels a little more calculated, more genuine, and more meaningful. While she still dips in and out between confessional yet disaffected ballads and “I heart boys” pop songs, the album ends and synthesizes with the judiciously covered “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” It may not be the most musically interesting iteration, but the premise of the song echoes much louder having followed the entire rest of the album. Lana wants us to know that she is to be taken seriously, and that she may just be a punchline to a hefty percentage of the world, but she feels very deeply and that those feelings are just as sacred as anyone else’s. Because, “god knows [she] tried” in this life. And in this record, much more than others, she is just over it all. All that’s left to do is get High by the Beach and resign yourself to “sinking into the sand.”

2. Jenny Hval, “Apocalypse, girl”

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The album art a little bit says it all with this one. The Norwegian singer-songwriter slash avant-garde pop star, Jenny Hval, has upped her game this time around by being totally fucking done with just about everything. When she tells us, “Some days I feel like my body is a cushion held up by thin wires and I can see myself from above holding wires in my hands,” it seems that Jenny is just trying to get this often-spoken-word statement off her chest before she collapses of exhaustion. And while some of her censure of “subcultural loneliness,” among other things, teeters on the pretentious, like a teenager who just discovered Radiohead for the first time, Hval doesn’t waver for a second in her slow head shake to modern times, and the oddness and conviction eventually wins out, because Apocalypse, girl ends up being a beautiful, effective downer.

3. Susanne Sundfør, “Ten Love Songs”

susanne-sundforSpeaking of Norwegians, Susanne Sundfør, sneaking criminally under the radar this year, put out an out-of-nowhere smash collection, Ten Love Songs, which told the story of a loud clack of heartbreak, followed by an ebbing and flowing of violence and tearful resignation that inevitably goes along with a broken heart. “This must be paradise, ’cause I am numb,” she sings in “Accelerate,” maybe the strongest track, and with remarkable poise and sonic invention, Sundfør takes you along with her through the emotional ringer as she deals with the ever-dispiriting world of modern love. Every “Love Song” on this thing sound radically different than the last, with an impressively wide range of influences and styles, but the most impressive thing about her is that she folds way too many ingredients into one, rich batter that still tastes really, really good when consumed as one. Borrowing from top-40 hits to Philip Glass, Sundfør crafts a damn fine pop record. And maybe the last song, “Insects,” ends on an eerily hopeful — albeit precarious as shit — note, it’s safe to say that in the pursuit of happiness, she is hyper-aware that times are as tough and bleak as ever.

4. Grimes, “Art Angels”

grimes-art-angels-album-stream-listenGrimes has only somewhat been on my radar until Art Angels, which, needless to say, is really fucking good. Spurned by, what I have to imagine is just about everyone, Boucher (Grimes’ name IRL) heaves one long sigh towards every staunch male label-exec or overzealous fan in Art Angels, all while maintaining a respect for herself. She’ll “never be your dream girl,” and she really couldn’t care less. The world is oppressively stupid, and it deserves a stern dressing down in especially stupid moments. BUT, this voice of disapproval is still dressed up in a pink wig and a short dress, with its impossibly high-pitched pop vocals and dance-floor-viable melodies and beats…it’s as if to say, “Fine, who cares, I’ll do my dance for you, but I’m getting the last laugh.” It’s a deliciously smart “fuck you” and it works on every level.

5. Carter Burwell, “Carol (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)”

PrintOk, I’m not insane. I’m aware this is a score written by a man for a film directed by another man that’s only about women, but this collection slides into the list very nicely if you ask me. Todd Haynes’ incredible, delicate film, Carol, which is perhaps the best film released this year, is about women being denied the privilege to live freely in the 1950s. Carol and Therese are furtive lovers in a much more politically and sexually stuffy time, who are persecuted at every turn for their relationship. **SPOILER ALERT** Ultimately Carol, after her sexual “misconduct” is revealed and then faces actual legal repercussions, and rather than sustain a loveless marriage with her husband per the agreement with the lawyers, says, “you’ve won” when she relinquishes custody of her daughter to the man. She’s just done. Conceptually, it’s not exactly a bridge too far from the world we live in. Musically, Burwell has crafted a harrowing soundtrack that borrows — steals — from Philip Glass’ canon, again, in creating its emotional world. He weaves the bleak right in with the wonder and excitement of new love in his music, and it’s highly emotive (a massive understatement). In the end, metaphorically and literally, the only way that these two women can continue to love one another is by exchanging sly glances across a crowded room. The world they live in is often unmitigated bullshit, but at least they’re not alone in it.

6. Bjork, “Vulnicura”

1035x1035-mi0003828436What’s left to be said about Bjork, given her enduring and widely-discussed career in music? Well, for one thing, after a string of pretty unmemorable releases, she’s BACK with one of her best  records, maybe ever. Following a breakup with Matthew Barney, Bjork took some time to heal, and recorded Vulnicura. What’s most refreshing about the record, is that while it’s essentially a “breakup” record, 9/10 times it skates over the anger that’s inevitably involved in the process of actually breaking up with someone. She’s certainly comfortable being vulnerable, and she certainly leaves nothing out, but she maturely shrugs at the futility in trying to make sense of it all. “Maybe he will come out of this loving me//Maybe he won’t//I’m not taming no animal.” Bjork, I imagine, has been through this before, and knows that a tantrum isn’t going to help anyone. It’s sad, it’s traumatic, it’s awful and it’s painful, but you have to deal with it. Because, of course, life is pain. She’s past getting angry about it.

7. Courtney Barnett, “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

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Courtney, who?

…is what I was saying a few months ago. Hailing from down under, Barnett leaps — or staggers, more accurately — into the music world with the 2015 debut. With an alt-prog-whatever-rock swagger Courtney leads a clumsy yet self-aware romp through a young girl’s existential crisis, letting all the fucked-upped-ness in at once, trying to wade her way through it without tipping over. She may not know exactly what’s going on, but she knows it’s kinda lame. But kick in that distortion peddle and we can try to figure it out together, it may be kinda fun. Barnett makes good rock and roll, even if she’ll ultimately disappoint you if you put her on a pedestal.

 

The Best BEST Music of 2014, According To Me

I know what most of you are thinking. Or at least I think I do. Because, for me personally, mid-December always knocks my life off-kilter in reminding me how many nights I was probably idly watching reruns of In Living Color and blithely feeling the year race by like a freight train. So, if you’re like me, you’re probably thinking, “I can’t believe 2014 is nearly over,” to which I would respond with an empathetic “I know right?” But the best part of the year’s end, besides the collective sigh of relief the nation heaves in anticipation of a week-ish-long break from work and school, is being able to catalog your favorite media to prove how culturally relevant you were for the past twelve months. And this fella did just that!

2014, while not without if even rife with political and environmental fiascos, was a pretty explosive year, musically. A lot of the staid, gloomy seriousness of 2013 seems to have burst, giving way to a more colorful, yet vigorously intense catalog of record releases. And while the spooky ambient-ness of it all is completely in my wheelhouse, I welcome the wild yet personal side that a lot of musicians this year seemed to give us.

With releases like Beyoncé, which technically came out December of last year to be fair, 1989, Pom Pom and Ultraviolence, amongst others, there was a sense that a lot of artists were hacking into a deeper understanding of themselves. A “back to basics” of songwriting that proved pretty interesting. So, without any further bloated broad generalizations, let’s see what releases really kept this guy occupied in 2014.

Liars Mess1. Liars — Mess

Sometimes, music doesn’t have to be especially personal or cerebral to effect you, so long as it provides a visceral, toe-tappin’ rhythm that makes you want to sweat and do poppers in a trashy beer-and-wine-only bar. And with the above rigamarole about how personal the music of 2014 was out of the way, even I have to admit that the pounding of the opening bars of “Mask Maker,” Mess‘ first track, was enough to sell this listener. Hard. While conceptually Mess was essentially pretty simple, it did absolutely everything I wish Liars had done with their previous release, WIXIW, and with the utmost confidence and spunk. As the band further experiments with electronic music, they’ve ditched the pared down, “let’s take Xanax and do some graphic design” side of it and really pushed it to the nth degree here. And with fairly basic (I’m assuming analogue) equipment, Liars have created an incredibly rich, layered, colorful and downright listenable album here. There’s a sense that every single creative impulse was explored indiscriminately in this record, and in a way that does produce a few rough edges, but the end result is a messy (duh), crazy and often spooky good time.

Run the Jewels 22. Run the Jewels — Run the Jewels 2

Before a few months ago, I had never heard of Run the Jewels, El-P, or even Killer Mike. So when I fist listened to Run the Jewels 2, in the most unadulterated away, I was f**king blown away. My first thought was, “this is what hip-hop should have been about all along.” What makes this record so amazing, besides the hypnotic beats and arrangements, is the sense that these eleven tracks have a purpose. Run the Jewels aren’t just exploiting a lifestyle or swaggering with a gratuitous attitude, there’s a point, a thrust and a meaning to these songs. These boys don’t have time to waste making “another hip hop record,” they have a point of view and they want to share it. And like Liars, Run the Jewels are able to take simple musical raw materials and make it sound BIG. When Run the Jewels 2 wraps up with  the staggering “Angel Duster”, it feels like you went on a journey and back. And you feel like a better informed citizen because of it.

Ultraviolence3. Lana Del Rey — Ultraviolence

Feel free to roll your eyes at this one. I know Lana is an extremely polarizing figure, but I can’t help but admit that I really drank the Kool-Aid when it comes to her. While it’s been argued that Lana is seemingly ungenuine in her hyper-effected, stylized character(s) she embodies, a point I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with, I would also argue that the persona she’s rendered for herself is so specific and so compelling, that being genuine is almost beside the point. Musically, I think Lana is able to take very very simple structures (which is apparently a theme in my tastes) and make songs that are just plain beautiful and emotive. While her breakout record, Born to Die, featured some genuinely stupid songs nestled amongst really wonderful hits, Ultraviolence really refines her style, largely I think because of Dan Auerbach’s (Black Keys frontman) influence. Her catalog may be ceaselessly moody and often depressing, but her point of view is beautiful, haunting, and even a little moving. Lana herself may be a bit of a caricature sometimes, but one that’s pretty well done.

852b16_ee7cb6b665064613b09e20915e96aab0.png_srz_660_660_75_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_png_srz4. FKA Twigs — LP1

“When I trust you, we can do it with the lights on” may have been my favorite line of any song in 2014. FKA Twigs seemed to pop up a bit out of nowhere earlier this year, sneaking under the radar (at least my own) before exploding onto the scene with this delicate yet dynamic collection. The spooky, trip-hoppy R&B game really made great strides in the past year or two, so not only is FKA Twigs incredibly talented but also very timely. What’s remarkable about LP1 is not just how effortlessly its songs hang on her every intimate whisper, but how subtly creative the music is. Any female singer/songwriter can lay a beat and a few synth chords, but FKA Twigs is able to find very interesting details and nooks within her melodies to decorate, and I dig it. This is music you feel, not music you listen to.

alvvays5. Alvvays — Alvvays

Awwww, remember 2009/10 when adorable, lo-fi indiepop held the reins of independent music? Good times. While there’ll always be a market for cute, three-chord guitar pop, not many have been doing especially well lately (barring, say, Veronica Falls). And then some Canadians decided to go all Slumberland on our asses and release this fantastic eponymous album, Alvvays. This is a group of people who understand that there’s really no need to reinvent the wheel to make something great. The songs here have some of the tastiest hooks and swoon-worthy melodies around, but all with a hidden vulnerability lying beneath. Alvvays didn’t break new grounds in music-making, but brought a refreshing realness to indie rock, with a simple, honest, and lovely statement of an album. And with great replay value, this gem really shines bright amongst its other, more generic counterparts.

a3330461814_106. Have A Nice Life — The Unnatural World

Never has so much doom and gloom felt so tastefully contained. The music that unfurls between the haze and static on The Unnatural World is actually pretty beautiful. And there were some very judicious choices in the production that kept this album from ever feeling bloated, chaotic or inaccessible. Generally, this one is just a pretty good time for a band of its genre.

1402334636spt7. The Soft Pink Truth — Why Do The Heathens Rage?

If someone had asked me if I was interested in hearing a collection of tongue-in-cheek, house covers of old metal songs, I’d come back with a resounding “f**k yes!” Why Do The Heathens Rage? has a pretty sweet elevator pitch. And every alt-queer music nerd in the country has subsequently let out a squeal of ecstasy after first contact with it, I’m assuming. The genre bending of it all here feels very well-realized and fresh, and quite frankly, lends to a really fun record. There may be gullies of silliness here, with very subtle Michael Sembello/Rihanna samples, but the end result of this project, helmed by Matmos member Drew Daniel, is a party.

CST102cover_hires8. Carla Bozulich — Boy

Carla Bozulich, the whiskey-soaked, LA-based musician, produced a really powerful album in 2014: Boy. Using what sounds like rusty, almost off-tuned interments, she crafted a vexing, soulful tribute to Patti Smith (unofficially, obviously). The poetic rhythm and immediateness of Bozulich’s voice, paired with her raw disregard for status quo, leaves us with an intense, stark but oddly refreshing piece of work. Like taking a bath in mud. However unpleasant the music on Boy has the ability to be, it’s nothing if not effective. When finished with this album, you’re still dripping with it for days after. And it’s pretty remarkable.

Ariel_Pink-pom_pom-album-2014-artwork9.  Ariel Pink – Pom Pom 

Oh, Ariel. Up to your old hijinx again, I see. Having ditched the “…’s Haunted Graffiti,” Mr. Pink has gone back to his roots on Pom Pom. Without the tiresome hitch of, you know, other people, he has curated a celebration of life, and being weird, and being yourself, and feeling like that’s okay. And frankly, as far far as I’m concerned, that is okay. You won’t find anything Shakespearean about Pom Pom, but what you will find is a dude with his own language and who has a great time speaking it. If you keep expectations low, you might just have a blast getting lost in the translation.

a1842438464_1010. Ben Frost – A U R O R A

It’s hard sometimes to breathe new life into ambient music, which by nature has very little going on (ostensibly). But with Ben Frost’s album, A U R O R A, there’s a stark sense that he’s brought something new to the table. Ben Frost’s DIY-sounding songwriting really works to create hyper-evocative music. With beats that sound like they’re being banged on sidewalk pavement, and instrumentation that sounds sharp, dangerous and industrial, the effect of it all is cinematic in scope. Like wandering around a dimly-lit construction site during a rainstorm. Where a cyborg is chasing you, maybe?

clark-90011. Clark — Clark

As winter approaches, and pummels the west coast with rain and hail and thunder, Clark has given us the perfect album for Winter. It’s expansive, immersive and suits a stormy day like nothing else in 2014.

broke-with-expensive-taste12. Azealia Banks — Broke With Expensive Taste

With what is apparently her first full-length release, Azealia Banks has delivered a surprisingly largely understated, rhythmic package with Broke with Expensive Taste. Not only does she showcase the breadth of her songwriting styles, but also really shows off her singing chops. And the whole thing is damn sleek and sexy.

sbr117-pharmakon-1440_1024x102413. Pharmakon — Bestial Burden

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been forced to sit through a blond woman screaming for 45 minutes I’d be able to…kidding. Pharmakon fascinates me. Her music and artistic persona somehow wickedly intense but still very listenable. She makes doom pretty chill.

actress-ghettoville-sleeve14. Actress – Ghettoville

Actress, who I know very little about, have made total art gallery-opening music with Ghettoville in the absolute best way possible.

758aa8b26a19fe0d852d30086b8a2324-1000x1000x115. Banks — Goddess

“Beggin For Thread”? Beggin for more Banks is more like it. This other LA-based seductress didn’t shatter any previous expectations in the genre, but made some really sexy, catchy, moody songs in Goddess. It didn’t subvert, but it worked.

Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett’s New “Cheek to Cheek” Effort is Fine, if Not Unmemorable

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Lady Gaga is many things, and many words come to mind when attempting to describe her. Lately, the word or quality that I would most closely associate with her career would be “frustrating”. As appealing as she can be, there’s so much about her reputation that I simply don’t buy. Firstly, I do not buy into the notion that Lady Gaga is avant-garde. Those who label her as such apparently were in an extended coma during the late 90s when Madonna and Bjork were coloring and expanding the image of the modern pop star in exactly the same way. Secondly, I see no angle that would bring me to the conclusion that Lady Gaga is revolutionizing pop music itself. Lest we forget, her career is as a musician. No amount of beef entrails sewn into a pantsuit is going to change the fact that her songs are standard, essentially unsophisticated radio hits. But whichever way you slice it, Lady Gaga is a massive phenomenon that will likely be around for while, no matter how many times I have to roll my eyes before I admit it.

So, in 2014, when Lady Gaga’s cultural footprint is as deep as ever, how could she think to reinvent her career in a new, surprising way? If your first inclination was: “record a jazz album with Tony Bennett”…then you’d be absolutely right. Her latest effort, Cheek to Cheek, is a collection of jazz covers, sung with Bennett, ranging in source material from lounge music to to jazz to musical theater. Ok, yes, we get it; this is definitely a different direction for Gaga. But gimmick aside, how is the music? And more importantly, how is her singing?

The most noticeable problem with the album, which is exemplified in the opening track, “Anything Goes”, is that Gaga clearly put very little thought into what any of these songs are actually about. “Anything Goes,” the title track from Cole Porter’s 1934 musical, is a cheeky, sexy, naughty little number (for the era, anyway) about how “times have changed” and that, of course, “anything goes” in the rowdy, prurient modern world. Gaga’s rendition is bafflingly off the mark. Her phrasing is jarring and all over the place. Every time her vocals kick in between instrumental breaks, it sounds like she’s singing a different song. Notably on this track, she’s also straining to sing outside her natural range. It’s hard to embrace the bawdy double entendre of the lyrics when you’re teetering on head-voice the entire time. As with most of what she does, much of this music just ultimately feels superficial. It’s designed to inspire a fundamental effect rather than to be moving in any authentic way. Her teased-out wig on the album’s cover should have been the first tip off.

Some songs, however, actually seem to suit Gaga pretty well. The title track is the perfect mix of the material and Gaga’s personality, and is one of the few times where she and Bennett sound like they are actually singing a duet. Other tracks (like “Anything Goes”) feel like the two were recording on different planets let alone in the same room. Unfortunately for the two singers, who are both undeniably talented, none of the eleven tracks are ever going to be great because the arrangements just do not pop. There are flurries of interesting instrumentation, but overall the music never lays foot outside the category of “background music.”

But this project, at least on Gaga’s part, seems to be a concerted effort to remind the world, “oh, right, she can actually sing too,” of which it does a decent job. Lady Gaga has a good voice. She doesn’t have a great voice, and probably not one memorable enough to carry a career on without her colorful public persona, but generally her actual chops as a singer don’t disappoint. Again, the issue is how she interprets the songs and the way she sings them. The tenor of each rendition seems to be “I’m a jazz singer right now, I should sing like I think jazz singers sing.” Sometimes this works better than others.

One stand out track here is their interpretation of Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy”. After the notable cover version by David Bowie for the “Moulin Rouge” soundtrack, this iteration is still able to breathe new life into the song. However affected her performance may be, Gaga actually nails the soft, breathy, mysterious qualities of the song. And she is a great compliment to Bennett here.

So, she did it. She surprised us all. And the end product is definitely not awful. But the surprise lies mostly in its concept, musically there’s nothing outstanding here. This album is not unlike Lady Gaga herself – once you cut through the novelty of it all, there’s not a ton that’s that terribly interesting underneath.