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.

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It’s Just a F$*#ing Bagel!

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Having lived in Los Angeles the past five years, I’ve inevitably met a handful of people who’ve relocated to the Golden Coast from back east. And while these people are absolutely lovely individuals and generally wonderful friends, they have some very strong opinions about California as compared to the east coast. Which, I can fully empathize with. I’m not an LA native and I completely share the frustration with Southern California traffic, unrelenting heat and having to hear half of cell phone conversations about the entertainment industry that are invariably shouted at near-foghorn volume. One line of commentary that I have zero amounts of patience for however is the snarky, unwavering zeal for east coast junk food. I’m sorry, but people from New York, Philadelphia and New Jersey are so self-righteous about their precious pizza and bagels and sandwiches it’s hard to believe they ever left them to begin with. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone say “This is the only place in LA that has decent pizza” or “This is NOT an Italian sub”, I’d probably have enough cash to keep a condo in Dubai.

Los Angeles seems to have a reputation for being a culinary wasteland, which I don’t personally find to be true. Sure, people here don’t seem to be as receptive to experimental or ultra haute-cuisine, and many people would probably be happy eating tire tread as long as it came with Israeli couscous and was served from a truck by a vaguely ethnic looking kid in their late teens that took payment from a Square card-reader attached to an iPad, but by George I think we have a lot to offer in the national food world. But nevermind “haute-cuisine”, we also happen to have gorgeous looking produce that’s in season virtually all year long. It might not be the absolute best produce in the world, but you can have it whenever you want! And biting into a ripe California avocado (which is how I eat them, I don’t know about you) is just one of the best things in life and let’s just all quietly acknowledge that. And as far as I remember, I’ve never been able to pick a juicy Meyer lemon from a tree while walking the streets of New York but maybe that’s just me.

So, when I hear people go on and on (and on) about how no one in California can make a good bagel because of our water or whatever, I kind of just want to push them over and go get a melon salad or something. Maybe it’s because I’ve never lived outside California, but to me — IT’S JUST A FUCKING BAGEL! I would strongly urge you to get over it. It’s round bread that people eat because it’s heartier than the granola bar at the craft service table. And to be clear, I’ve had New York bagels and New York pizza. This was more or less my reaction —

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I suppose the juggernaut of signature east coast food and beverage institutions would be the ubiquitous Dunkin’ Donuts. And again, am I missing something? Because I’ve had their coffee, I’ve had their donuts, and I’ve probably had more revelatory experiences at the DMV renewing the registration on my Nissan Versa. I suppose they captured the nuance of fried, doughy, frosted fat rings, but I wouldn’t exactly lose sleep if I never saw one again. And yet, when they launched the new LA debut of Dunkin Donuts, there was a hysterical frenzy and a line of 300 people. I guess people were craving the dull, sugary coffee somethin’ fierce!

I get it, nostalgia plays a large part in this. People from the east coast are used to their standardized comfort food that they’ve had since they were kids, which I don’t want to begrudge anybody. But could you please take off the taste-arbiter hat and accept that you’re in a new place now with new stuff to offer? Really, it’s not so bad!

The Unsung Nudes of ‘Orange is the New Black’

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As much as I’m sure we, collectively, would love to deny it, the American people are a shameless bunch of puritans when it comes to the brass tax and Standards and Practices on television and in the media. Which is why, perhaps, every time Janet Jackson “accidentally” flashes a nipple or Eva Longoria has a wardrobe malfunction on the red carpet, we latch onto it like jackals (not literally in the case of the nipple, obviously). I would seriously doubt that the majority of American citizens are disgusted, not in principle but on visceral reaction, to seeing a naked body. If they did, then I don’t think private fetish clubs and Hustler Magazine would be such thriving institutions in our National economy. But for us, Americans it seems, sex is only appropriate in the private sector, but is not meant for public consumption. Unless it’s a Budweiser commercial.

So, in cable television, where there is little to no enforcement of any Production Code vis a vis instances of nudity, how is it treated, artistically? Cable programming runs the gamut as far as “taste” goes, but in general it’s a safe bet that most shows on HBO or Showtime are going to feature a lot of naked bodies (by virtue of the fact that they, well, can). And taste in the presentation of nudity sometimes runs counter to exploitation. I would argue that HBO’s Girls is one of the more exploitative showcases of female nudity on television right now, though not necessarily in poor taste; Lena Dunham’s “fictional” alter ego Hannah Horvath is, as every media outlet has covered by now, constantly naked on the show. Notably, ONLY Hannah is consistently naked on the show. I personally couldn’t be more supportive of Lena Dunham taking her clothes off as much as she wants. I think even by the firestorm of jeerers that have rushed to criticize her for being “shameless” about her nudity, she has opened up an important dialog — “Why is this shameless? Because she’s not skinny? Because she’s a woman who’s not subjugated by her nakedness?” etc. But ultimately, in a sense, her bearing her body so frequently is actually hyper-exploitative. Her naked body has become such a talking point and public concern that it feels less and less artistically relevant to the show the more it’s featured. On one hand with Girls, a show thematically about Millennials who are kind of awful but do whatever they want and that’s okay because Jezebel said so, it’s fitting that Hannah’s nudity would be exploited as a way of making a political point. But for me, most of the time when Hannah is nude, the scene becomes about her nudity. Her naked body feels deliberately placed and designed to be remarked upon. If even by the way the shots are framed, her body dominates the shot. It’s a post-Third Wave Feminist “so, what?” moment when she tears off her top. It’s also a necessary one.pingpang21
Netflix’s original piece of programming, Orange is the New Black, tackles female nudity in a much more delicate way. Never have I seen a show where starkly naked female bodies have been so natural to the story that I genuinely forget they’re there. Being set entirely in a women’s minimum security prison, seeing ladies in the buff was pretty much inevitable. And it’s proven to be a pretty common occurrence amongst both seasons of the show. But there’s a sense that the nakedness is somehow sidestepping any kind of gratuitous exploitation. In a recent interview with Vulture, Lorraine Toussaint (Vee, on the show) talked about bearing it all on camera:
 
I don’t do that. I don’t want anyone looking at me going, “Oh my God, she’s so brave!” [Laughs.] Dear God. No. No. No. And then I thought, There’s no way around this. There’s no way this woman would be self-conscious. There’s no way. If I wore underwear, it would actually draw more attention to the moment. How do I do this as simply and as unselfconsciously as I’ve done the rest of Vee? Then I thought, Okay, we gotta do this.
 
This from a 54 year old woman says a lot. It bespeaks a dedication to authenticity on the show. The characters might be, at times, wildly exaggerated, but there’s never the sense that any one is compromised in the interest of being “TV Friendly”. Vee’s naked body is treated very tastefully in this scene. She is in bed with her surrogate son, reeling after an ethically questionable romp in the sack. But only a part of her body is shown. She’s under the sheets and her breasts are shown but are framed so that they’re either partially obscured by the angle of the shot or by the sheet itself. This is also the case when Taryn Manning’s character Pennsatucky is nude in bed in a scene from the previous season. Their bodies feel natural which I think is key. The scene informs the need for nudity and not the other way around.
 
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Taryn-Manning-nude-topless-Orange-Is-The-New-Black-s01e12-1 This question of being natural and authentic with respect to female nudity extends even in the characters’ level of comfort in their own body. By example, during season 2, the radical activist and generally annoying character of Brook Soso markedly decides not to shower in an act of protest. When she inevitably starts to smell, she is browbeaten by the guards and other inmates to bathe until she’s literally hauled into the shower by force. She screams and howls and literally breaks down crying when forced to strip down in the communal shower. What this ends up being is a character-revealing moment — while Soso is a headstrong, obstinate and unwavering zealot, she consistently finds the harsh realities of life catching up with her. She’s a young girl who’s been incarcerated for dedication to her political beliefs, but she’s also a young girl who, like many others, isn’t fully comfortable with her own body.  Even Taylor Schilling’s principle character Piper, during season 1, immediately hides her breasts when confronted in the shower by her then nemesis Pennsatucky. While other, more seasoned veterans of the institution are completely comfortable showing it all, there is an nod that body consciousness is a very real part of life for many young women. But even by making this point, the show avoids an “Afterschool Special” moralistic slant. Even Schilling herself has stated that she has had issues with her body in the past. But the characters on Orange is the New Black speak for themselves. Whatever timely cultural archetypes are represented on the show, they feel shaped by the characters’ specific story.
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bloody hell! That’s a naked woman!

While no one has an especially strong case for Orange is the New Black being a universally realistic sketch of modern prison life, the show maintains a strong respect for both its characters and its actors for the sake of telling a compelling story, nude or otherwise. I wouldn’t say this is an unprecedented concept, arguing that HBO’s Oz did the same thing some decades earlier for men, but in a world where naked women are either the subject of salacious fantasies or conservative backlash, it’s nice to see the female form, more or less, for what it is.

Literati in a Gay Fetish Bar, A (Fictional) Review

I struggle, from time to time, as many writers do, in finding a suitable location to focus on my work. And let me tell you right now, a gay dungeon bar is radically far from suitable I’ve come to find. Generally when I approach a new piece, I prefer my bedroom or perhaps a coffee shop to hash out this oeuvre du jour. And that often works fine. But lately I’ve noticed that these places don’t always give me inspiration for my work. They’re too insular, too innocuous, and frankly, too dull for me to produce original, visceral material.

The smells of brewing coffee or even unwashed sheets are part of an otherwise peripheral atmospheric milieu that I can overlook in concentrating on my writing. But the smells of leather dog collars and sweat-laden mesh harnesses are much harder to ignore. This was my experience at a lounge called The Falcon, at which I spent the afternoon earlier this week. How, pray tell, am I supposed to reach a literary epiphany when a male geriatric is being trussed up like a turkey and tickled with plumes five feet away while what sounds like a Siouxsie and the Banshees mash-up blares like a foghorn over the stereo system? I also find it fiercely difficult to articulate how emotionally unavailable my stepfather was as a child when a shirtless man named Sue continuously rubs against my shoulder while covered in baby oil and some sort of Turkish Musk essence.

After an hour or two of sitting by the bar, with the aid of some noise-cancelling headphones and a vodka gimlet that the bartender did not know how to make properly, I got into a bit of a groove and the synapses started to fire. All of a sudden I felt an outpouring of unearthed emotions about my staunchly rural upbringing and some of the more divisive members of my family. I felt raw but ebullient, for the first time in recent memory. But then, a sharp, reflected light hit my eye, completely derailing my diatribe about my very unremarkable fifth birthday party. I looked over and I saw a six-foot, chain-link spider web being wheeled out onto the stage, which was met with a roaring applause. A portly, bearded gentleman was browbeaten by whip-wielding young boys to climb onto it, which he did with little resistance for reasons that are still unclear to me. This spectacle was just not inspiring to my work.

I stepped out onto the patio with my computer, thinking some fresh air might help open my voice and get me back into a rhythm. But really, the sounds of snapping pool cues and stench of cigars did anything but. I sat beside a boisterous group of young men on what I assume was supposed to pass for a bench but closer resembled a two-by-four resting on two small crates. The chatter and sticky, unfinished wood didn’t aid in releasing anything from my innermost psyche but resentment. Someone named Principal Bill approached me and asked to spank me with a paddle for being naughty, which, needless to say, I declined. But Bill’s offer was absolutely not illuminating when I went on to later discuss my sister’s emotionally abusive boyfriend in the form of a limerick.

I soon came to the inevitable conclusion that this was absolutely not the place for me to be productive. I left in a bit of a huff, which was timely because I then checked my watch and realized that I needed to be home by six o’clock so my mother could use the car.

So, as a word of advise to my fellow writers, if you’re looking for a new space to work, do not choose one where the security guard mysteriously measures your inseam prior to entry. It is far from helpful.

Apparently Women and Jobs Just Don’t Work on TV

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Have you ever walked down the street, seen a young woman stroll by and thought: I bet she’s terrible at her job? Me neither. Then shouldn’t there be somewhere, theoretically, in the giant churning media machine that is modern television, a precedent for a gal to totally own the hell out of her position at work? One would think.

There seems to be an open dialog in American culture right now about how women fit in to the workforce. And the general consensus seems to be: not well enough. We’ve all heard the statistic that women consistently earn 77 cents on the dollar for doing the same job as men, which may or may not be entirely accurate, statistically. But whatever the exact figure, it seems to be an unceasing pattern that women earn less than men. But in the last few years, there seems to be more of a discourse on what it means socially for a modern woman to be employed with male coworkers (or employees). Pantene a few months back released an advertising campaign highlighting the fierce double standards for men and women in the business world. Every quality that makes a man good at his job, just reads as overly forceful and irritating when exhibited by a woman. So, under this generally compelling logic, women are not only paid less but very much less respected at work. Wonderful.

So then if this is the case in the real world, what is the fate of working women in the fictional world? I’m talking about Television. Without generalizing all TV shows, and speaking specifically about a select batch of TV comedies, there seems to be an undercurrent or an implication that women are fundamentally not cut out for the work force. As if their two X-chromosomes are pulling at them like a tug of war match inside their body, trying to hurl them somewhere safer and less competitive.

If you’ve ever watched The IT Crowd, you’ll realize two things right off the bat: it’s hilarious, and it’s a workplace comedy. In the first episode, Jen Barber arrives at Reynholm Industries ready for her first day at work, when she’s placed as manager of the IT Department because of a lie on her resume. Jen never fully gels in her position; constantly fumbling her duties as manager and becoming distracted by “women things.” An entire episode of the show is dedicated to Jen becoming obsessed with a pair of shoes (as all women do, obviously) that are the wrong size. She ends up mangling her feet and even chasing off the Japanese CEO who was a potential partner for the company after an irrational outburst (whoops!).

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In another episode, Jen suddenly gets her period and turns into a stark-raving maniac at work. She even goes so far as to let her womanness seep out into the office, infecting her male co-workers and reducing the staff to a bunch of weeping, emotional, dithering, incompetent irrational freaks (typical, right?). Jen’s status at the company also seems to be ever evolving because of her gender, but not in a good way. She eventually gets promoted to be the assistant to the head of the company, of course only because he wants to drug her with Rohypnol and have sex with her. This, needless to say, doesn’t work out. Another notable promotion finds Jen being accepted to be the new Entertainment Director at the company to an all-male group of business partners, but fails miserably at her new task because “she’s a woman…isn’t she?”. They men she is put in charge of entertaining were expecting strip clubs and drug binges but were instead taken to a performance of the Vagina Monologues, obviously. In the context of this show, however, Jen’s foibles could otherwise be considered exaggerated to the point of facilitating comedy, regardless of the implications. She’s merely a caricature, albeit a bit of a dated one.

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Typical woman’s time

Whether it’s about shoes, boys or otherwise, there seems to be a sense that women who work care too much about things that are not necessarily “work related” in the scope of TV. A feisty and somewhat scattered blond named Claire Dunphy is another one I follow on ABC’s Modern Family. Claire, for most of the series, is a stay-at-home mom, for lack of a better phrase. Her professional duties don’t extend beyond her household (more power to her), but in recent seasons she’s returned to the work-force. Since her two oldest children are entering adulthood, she decides to get a new gig. This consists of calling in a favor from her father who lands her a job at his company. In spite of the fact that Claire is college-educated, a proper job hunt was never on the table. Which, considering her lack of documented professional experience, is understandable. But when Claire starts her job, she instantly makes waves amongst the staff. She’s entering the game immediately with a disadvantage as she’s heralded as “the Boss’ daughter” who is obviously suspected of favoritism from Dad. But Claire’s misstep at this job is not that she’s the head honcho’s little girl, but that she makes a desperately concerted effort to make emotional connections with the other employees even though she holds a managerial position. On her first day, her father immediately criticizes her for bringing cookies for the staff, telling her it makes her look weak, which she disregards completely. Needless to say, she makes a fool of herself when she greets all her employees and gains absolutely no respect. She is more interested in being liked than fulfilling her duties as boss.

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The ONE person she is able to befriend, for whatever reason, is the strange and socially awkward, turtle-owning IT guy named Todd. When Claire reports her new friend to Jay, he tells her that Todd is going to be fired as soon as he can find his replacement. When Todd and Claire subsequently have lunch, he tells her about his plans to buy a house. Claire, not being able to hold her tongue on a professional level, tips him off that he shouldn’t consider buying anything because he may or may not have a chance of being fired. This of course causes a storm of problems, causing Todd to “trash the network” at the company, becoming a mess for Jay to clean up. At least there are still those cookies. The underlying problem here is that Claire’s only reference for a business approach is to use her mom-sensibility with employees. It’s not necessarily her job performance (which rarely even comes up), but her maternal, nurturing, sense of interpersonal protection (which is essential for raising kids) that is catastrophic for a person in management. And god knows, modern, intelligent women don’t have the capacity to separate the two.

This sense of conflation between a woman’s job and her role as a Mother comes up again and again, and always adversely for the woman, regardless of how proficient she is at her job . Elizabeth Lemon on 30 Rock, while in a position of authority and essentially good at what she does, often has a hard time at work. She is the head writer on a fictional show-within-the-show called TGS, and she’s consistently having to heard, corral, baby and nurture her entire staff to accomplish even the smallest task. But in spite of all her nurturing, her tough-love, and the sacrifices she makes for her job, she never seems to gain much respect from anyone she works with. She’s not the revered Patriarch, she’s the mommy. Her job responsibility very often extends into being emotionally supportive with her employees on a completely personal, non-professional level. But regardless of her efforts, everyone around her has no issues exploiting her generosity and defying her authority. Because everyone knows no matter how much you run amok, mommy will always be there for you. It’s as if Liz’ uterus is roaming around her body too fast to manage anyone. The only time Liz can foster even a scrap of respect is when she decides to take a leave of absence — when the “kids” are left to their own devices, they realize how much they need a Mommy and the extent that they’ve taken her for granted. When Liz inevitably returns to her post, she’s invariably left with a giant mess to clean up (which she does). It’s only when other people are left in charge that they see what Liz does for them. And while they come  to appreciate her, the next week everything reverts back to normal. Kids will do whatever they can get away with when Mom’s around.

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Liz’ very status as a “woman in charge” comes into question during an episode where the writers are discussing unfair treatment to employees for their race and gender. Her Producer Pete tells her, after reading her work file: “The only reason NBC picked up [Liz Lemon’s show] is because of the flak they got from women’s groups after airing the action drama Bitch Hunter”. There you have it! That makes sense! Why else would there be a woman in a position of authority at a major television studio even though they’re good at what they do?

But what Liz seems to struggle with most of all is finding a work-life balance. Her reoccurring mantra is to be a woman who can “have it all”, but having it all is something she flounders to achieve. Unlike her boss and mentor Jack Donaghy, Liz’ dedication to her job is deemed unhealthy by her coworkers. In the pilot episode, Jack himself reads her and refers to her as “over-scheduled and under-sexed”. While on the other side of the gender coin, there are several instances in the series where Jack spends the night at the office working and in the end is the hero who saves the day. Liz is just, to borrow from the Pantene ad, “selfish” when it comes to her loyalty to her work. Her personal relationships are secondary to her relationship to work, which causes anxiety in her life and is why Liz is characterized as being (amongst other things) uptight, controlling, stressed out and tired. But again, Jack Donaghy, who also consistently putting work first, is always canonized as a smooth, savvy businessman who knows what he wants and then takes it.

Now, these very much dramatized fictional stories are obviously a hyperbole on what the modern workplace is like. But television, unlike big business, isn’t shoved into major metropolitan areas where the culture is generally more pervasively liberal. EVERYONE in America watches television. It’s a BROADcast to the entire nation, so the stories on television have to be interesting and compelling to every walk of life in the United States to stay afloat. So, sadly, it would appear not every American is ready to watch stories about confident successful woman in the workplace, doing a good job on her own professional merits. But, to quote once again the Pantene ad, “don’t let labels hold you back”. If women persist in the boy’s club of American business, maybe more people will eventually want to see it.

American Horror Story Review – The Sharp, Downward-Sloping Arc of the Coven(ant?)

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Precious — “Yepp”

 

**SPOILER ALERT**

For all the gay dudes, girls, teens and frequent Tweeters who care, last night marked the much anticipated and, frankly, much needed end to the third Season of American Horror Story. This season was fraught with problems from the get-go and while the finale was a generally satisfying wrap-up, I’m not sure how it bodes for any future seasons of the show.

My biggest issue with Coven was that it simply wasn’t scary. Sure, the stories on AHS have always had camp and sassy broads and some almost laughably preposterous plot twists, but the glue that held the indulgent and chaotic fragments of the show together was the fact that it was always really fucking scary. This season just felt like TBS bought the rights to the show and decided to make a cooky sitcom about witches. Don’t get me wrong, I very well could have started a Twitter account just dedicated to amazing one-liners that Jessica Lange dished out (“Don’t make me drop a house on you”) but all the camp this time around veered more into “eyeroll” territory than anything else. When Kathy Bates’ severed head showed up, I think we can all agree she was just pure comic relief. Even the visuals of the show this season didn’t lend to “horror”. I think the Director of Photography just thought if they threw in a massive amount of Dutch angles and fisheye lenses and shots that were literally just upside down that it would simulate an aura of suspense, but all it did was create for a really jarring look.

I think also because, from what I can gather, the production schedule was so staunchly tight that a lot of the writing just didn’t have enough time to be ironed out. I remember reading interviews from the cast only a number of months before the show was supposed to premier saying that they didn’t know anything about the story. So I think the ‘world’ of Coven was really undefined. The rules of the show were never finessed. Characters were constantly dying and coming back to life and then dying again and then resurrecting an 80 year old spirit and then just having eternal life and it was all so off the cuff. This is why I think there was a feeling that nothing really had any consequence. It was hard to stay grounded and invest in the story when you know that in the next episode someone could just throw a pumice stone into a bonfire and undo whatever they did last week.

So, back to last night’s finale. I appreciated the sense of expectation and suspense they carved into this episode: Who will be the next Supreme? There was lacking this season a sense of a driving mystery to the story. And I’m certainly not going to say no to a musical number by Stevie Nicks to kick things off. The bulk of the episode was dedicated to the 4 remaining young witches performing the 7 Wonders, testing of course to see which would complete the tasks and become the next Supreme. Which, while generally fun to watch, seemed suspiciously easy for all those girls to perform. Last I checked no one’s been able to transmutate before but at the drop of a hat are able to transport all over the place like they’re in The Incredibles. So of course Misty dies right away because she’s the cutest and I love her and why couldn’t it have been Emma Roberts’ smug, overacted ass? Then Zoe gets the ax in a really bizarre transmutation accident (but then gets brought back to life later so it’s cool). THEN, with a surge of gusto after a pep-talk, Cordelia is in the running and she totally owns those seven wonders. Then the blond zombie slave boy kills Madison (Emma Roberts) but no one brings her back to life because she’s awful. And there you have it, Cordelia is the next Supreme (Huzzah!). And if that wasn’t enough, she miraculously gets her eyeballs back and a coat of lip gloss so she’s winning all over the place.

However, then that sly but kind of fabulous bitch Fiona comes back, revealing she’s 100% NOT dead. She and Cordelia have a surprisingly heartfelt and honest moment where Fiona lets her guard down and confesses that she always resented Cordelia because she was a walking reminder of her own mortality. Fiona FINALLY lets go, as her life force is quickly ebbing away from her with the rising of the new Supreme, and descends into what she’s always feared — death. This is where the show pulls out the best moment of the episode: Fiona wakes up in some strange after-life where she realizes she will live in a cyclical eternity with the Axman drinking bourbon by the bucket and grilling catfish in some little rural cabin (Ew! #SoNotFionasStyle #Wheresthefabulousness?). Then the Cajun, Rastafari Lucifer has a good cackle at her expense and that’s the end of Fiona. She got what she deserved I suppose!

So, the academy gets an ass load of press and opens its doors to a whole new generation of witches and Cordelia is happier than hell as the new Supreme. The End.

I certainly didn’t hate the finale. It had moments of being fun and silly and, for the first time in AHS history, logically wrapped up a story. But there was only so much they could do given the way the season had gone. I’m still a little miffed that my episode 1 prediction of Nan becoming the new, ambiguously autistic Supreme didn’t come true AT ALL, but I’ll let that go. I will stay hopeful that Coven was just a small, underwhelming blip from being such a rushed effort and not a giant blight for the series. Especially considering the next season has a 1950 setting and Jessica Lange speaking German which sounds amazing. We’ll have to wait and see.

Until then, I’ll just watch the new batch of House of Cards episodes over and over to tide me over.

On Cloudz Nein

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The “Nein” reference in the title was just for the rhyme and not because this guy looks like he might be a member of the Third Reich.

I’m terribly remiss. Having just written a comprehensive list recapping my favorite music of the year, becoming the foremost music review of 2013 in some circles (my own), I had a stark realization that there was one album I’d forgotten. A band called Majical Cloudz put out a record earlier this year called Impersonator, which, for lack of a more original phrase, was in fact majical. This group crafts songs that are extraordinarily basic, musically. But the simplicity is what’s really artful about their songs. Each deep, bass-heavy organ chord smacks you in the gut if you’re not careful.

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But as elegantly stripped down as their arrangements are, the emotional brunt of Majical Cloudz comes from Devon Welsh’s vocals. Welsh’s voice just has this beautiful dichotomy of someone who seems remarkably steady and approachable but still wrought with some dark, secret past. His voice carries the songs, but yet he deftly resists going too baroque during his singing. Welsh keeps everything grounded and intact without drifting too far into the “cloudz”. I actually was able to see Majical Cloudz perform live this year and it was a rather refreshing. Welsh has such a charming and naturally funny schtick on stage. It’s certainly off beat but it was clear that the band was not self-righteous or self-important in any way, even with the “serious” nature of their music . And the same goes for their lyrical content; The words could very easily have crossed over to the territory of mawkish, ornate or flowery but Majical Cloudz keep everything grounded and intact for the sake of creating an immediate, relatable story. I know “immediacy” is a buzz word that I keep flinging around, but it really does apply in this case. Welsh has much more tact and discretion than someone like, say, Florence and the Machine who has a band as a sloppy excuse to make songs when those songs are so overpowered and strong-armed by her vocals. The vocals in Majical Cloudz still respect the music even if Welsh’s singing is certainly the focus and the strongest point.

Majical Cloudz have made one of the best albums of the year. They’re able to make music that’s fiercely emotional while still sounding effortless, un-pretentious and downright pretty. Hat’s off, gentlemen!