Tag Archives: pop culture

Yule gift guide, part 3: Things to Read

Today’s (VERY LATE) gift guide installment features books, glorious books! Not all of these were released in 2012, but they are all worth a look for your bibliophile giftees–or for yourself, if in the new year you’ve found that you need stuff to read.

Above: Selections from the following list.

Above: Selections from the following list.

Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman: I read this huge honker in a couple of sittings. Yes, it’s that interesting. Good for anyone who loves non-fiction, is not a Scientologist, and/or is thinking of majoring in Religious Studies.

A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres: More religion! Except this time, the subject is Jonestown. Journalist Julia Scheeres gets past all of the “OMG drinking the Kool-Aid” sensationalism surrounding the group’s mass murder/suicide, and in the process uncovers a fascinating story of people searching for meaning and peace–a search which ultimately led them to extremely dark places.

Sex & Disability, edited by Robert McRuer and Anna Mollow: I reviewed this one for Bitch over the summer, but the quality of this volume is so good that I have no problem recommending at the drop of a hat (or drawers, really). Good for people who are into cultural studies, queer theory and studies, and/or (of course!) disability theory.

In the Peanut Gallery With Mystery Science Theater 3000, edited by Robert G. Weiner and Shelley E. Barba: Yes, it’s an academic anthology on MST3K. No, it’s not boring or tedious at all. This is a good one for media studies junkies, and/or people who have managed to sit through the very early KTMA episodes of the show.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson: This was one of the funniest books that I read in 2012. The weird cover featuring a little taxidermied mouse dressed in a period costume is just the beginning–if you want to read anecdotes featuring a bathtub full of baby racoons, young Jenny accidentally running into a fresh animal carcass, and awkwardness at a weekend bloggers’ meetup, this is the book for you.

Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries by Jon Ronson: Probably my favorite book of 2012, and certainly one of the most impeccably reported. This volume of British journalist Ronson’s collects many of his strangest and most compelling pieces, among them an interview with Insane Clown Posse (which can also be read herecontent warning for graphic descriptions of violence), a report from a week-long cruise for fans of infamously brusque psychic Sylvia Browne, and an amazing investigation of predatory credit card companies in the UK. The balance of “serious” journalism here with Ronson’s more humorous pieces is excellent, and I highly recommend Lost at Sea if you are a fan of British humor, investigative reporting, or nonfiction writing.

Non-Stop Inertia by Ivor Southwood: Those of you who are underemployed, or who are currently experiencing the purgatory of a stream of low-paid temp jobs, are sure to find much of what Southwood says about labor, capitalism, and the exploitation of young workers familiar–and, most likely, spot-on. I know I did!

All of Us or None: Social Justice Posters of the San Francisco Bay Area by Lincoln Cushing: A beautifully designed art(istic) history of the Bay Area’s famous (or infamous) reputation as a hotbed for anti-oppression movements does not disappoint. The posters included here are not just presented coffee table book-style, however–the text that describes each poster and its significance is enlightening, informative, and interesting to read. Anyone who says that history is “boring” should take a look at this book.

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Quick update: My work, elsewhere

Hi, readers! I know I’ve been neglecting ye olde blog (and hopefully I will start to do better on the whole “updating it regularly” thing soon!), but I wanted to draw your attention to a couple of things in which I have been involved lately:

Last week, I wrote a guest post for Tiger Beatdown on Lars von Trier’s 2009 film Antichrist, and how it relates to the pop cultural depiction (or lack thereof) of depression and pain, women and emotion, plus the unintended backlash that the expectation of “strong lady characters” has wrought. Go and join the discussion if you feel so inclined. Content warning for discussions of some graphic violence that the film depicts.

s.e. smith and I recently wrote an article (on disability culture on the internets and online feminism, naturally) for the latest print issue of Bitch Magazine, which is currently available for purchase or download. I also did the illustrations, which is kind of (read: EXTREMELY) exciting for me. We were interviewed at length by Kjerstin for the Bitch Radio podcast as well. Hooray!

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Rating Holiday Albums Based on the Covers, part 2

This feature has been divided into two posts, since the first one was getting a bit long. You can view part one here. So, continuing with making silly comments about holiday albums! I know, Christmas was yesterday, but why not keep the momentum going?

Cover of Jewel's album "Joy: A Holiday Collection," which depicts the singer in some sort of heavily-edited, blue/gray tinted winter wonderland.This is your blue-grey toned Photoshop filter on “Unrecognizable” mode.

Cover of Bette Midler's album "Cool Yule," which depicts Midler standing happily in a snowy environment; she wears a white dress and a very large hat that appears to be made from red flowers.I’m totally coveting her hat. The rest of it (including the weird font), not so much.

Cover of James Taylor's album "James Taylor at Christmas," which depicts Taylor standing in front of a plain wall while dressed in warm clothing and holding a wrapped box.James Taylor looks quite nicely dressed up for Winter. Too bad he seems to be standing indoors, in front of a wall made of feces.

Cover of Hilary Duff's holiday album, which depicts the singer standing outside and next to a large sleigh while smiling happily. A wrapped gift floats above her head.There are times when words and/or speech disappear for me, and this is one of those times. Also, I can’t help but notice how there is a present directly above HiDu’s head. I don’t think she’ll be quite as happy when it falls from the sky. Is she able to make gifts levitate magically? This remains unexplained.

Cover of LeAnn Rimes' album "What a Wonderful World," which depicts a photograph of the singer surrounded by holiday trimmings.I had no idea that Glamor Shots was still around.

Cover of Bright Eyes' holiday album, which shows a black-and-white photograph of two horses in the snow, with a sleigh behind them. The photograph is placed on an off-white background.This is Bright Eyes’ Christmas contribution, which is so morose-looking that I now have an incredible urge to buy it.

Cover of Dolly Parton's album "Home For Christmas," which depicts Parton, dressed in white, sitting in a sled in a snowy outdoor environment.I want to buy this one, too, but for different reasons. Dolly Parton, you are my favorite implant-sporting woman.

Cover of Il Divo's album "The Christmas Collection," which depicts four young men in suits gathered around a table. They appear to be enjoying some alcohol.The International Male Catalog presents: CHRISTMAS!

Cover of Celine Dion's album "These Are Special Times," which features a sepia-toned portrait of Dion holding a small gift up to her face. She appears to be inhaling it.Christmas is the biggest sepia season of the year! Is there a reason why Celine appears to be smelling this package?

Cover of Charlotte Church's album "Dream a Dream," which features a likeness of the singer done in what appears to be oil painting.Thomas Kinkade’s first-ever celebrity portrait session goes tragically, terribly wrong.

Cover of Josh Groban's album "Noel," which depicts Groban smiling slightly at the camera while surrounded by gold-toned holiday lights.Someone got a little excited with the Photoshop on this one. Is it just me, or does Josh Groban look like he’s all, “I’M STEALING YOUR SOOOOOOUL” instead of smiling coyly?

Cover of Kenny Chesney's album "All I Want For Christmas...Is a Real Good Tan," which depicts Chesney sitting on a beach while wearing a red tank shirt, khakis, and a Santa hat.All I want for Christmas is for album cover designers to stop using computer graphics for nefarious purposes, such as putting little Santa hats on cover photos.

Cover of "NOW! That's What I Call Christmas Volume 3," which depicts the obxnious NOW! music series logo in a snowy environment.There are three of these?

Cover of Billy Gilman's album "Classic Christmas," which depicts a young blond boy sitting in snow and making a snowball while smiling at the camera.Billy Gilman: I, TOO, AM STEALING YOUR SOOOOOOUL.

Cover of the Victoria's Secret holiday compilation, which depicts a thin woman dressed in hot pink underwear, high heels and a Santa hat toting a large sack of gifts into the frame. She looks very happy.Merry Christmas! You get…I kind of don’t know what is going on here.

Cover of Brad Paisley's album "Christmas," which depicts an electric guitar festooned with holiday lights. There is a white cowboy hat perched atop the headstock.No, that’s not phallic at all.

Cover of KT Tunstall's album "Holiday Collection," which depicts the singer standing outdoors and smiling. The image has been edited to include a yellow ribbon on top of the photograph.I hope whomever designed this was severely reprimanded, both for making the normally lovely KT Tunstall look jaundiced, and for sticking her in a short-sleeved top OUT IN THE MIDDLE OF A FUCKING TUNDRA (or implying it, using the magic of cut n’paste). And then having the audacity to slap a bow onto such an atrocity.

I hope all of you who celebrate the holidays had a lovely time, and in case you didn’t get what you want this year, take heart: a Justin Bieber holiday album can’t be far behind.

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Rating Holiday Albums Based on the Covers, part 1 (UPDATED)

A couple of years ago, I posted a bunch of images of holiday album covers on my Livejournal and attempted to make humorous comments about said images. Like obnoxious Salvation Army bell-ringers (and yes, that organization really is obnoxious, although I suppose one could just go with “noxious”) and insulting advertisements that pressure us–even in horrible economic times–to SPEND SPEND SPEND in order to show people that we really love them, holiday albums seem to be one of the more irritating (or hilarious) mainstays of the winter season in North America. There are many reasons as to why I find the holiday season ridiculous. This is just one of them. So, without further ado, I present “Rating Holiday Albums Based on the Covers,” now updated to include some holiday-themed albums released since mid-2008.

I got most of these images from music communities on Livejournal, because people on these communities seem to love holiday music. Good for them (also good for me, since I get to make a post like this).

Portions of the original post have been edited substantially, mostly to re-do repetitive jokes and fix some language and grammar issues.

Onward!

Cover of 98 Degrees' album "This Christmas," depicting four young men standing in front of a festive red background.

Could anything be less appealing than what looks like a J. Crew ad in record form? Let’s not forget to tell Nick Lachey to stay out of it.Cover of Aimee Mann's album "One More Drifter in the Snow," which depicts a white woman sitting on a plastic reindeer in an outdoor environment.I kind of love this one. Probably because of the plastic reindeer and also the font used.

Cover of The Carpenters' "Christmas Portrait," depicting an illustrated image of Santa Claus paiting a portrait of Richard and Karen Carpenter as an elf holds a paint pallette.

AHHHHHHH!!

Cover of Jessica Simpson's album "Rejoyce: The Christmas Album," which depicts a tan white woman with blond hair staring at the camera in front of a red background.

It’s beginning to look a lot like spray tan. . .oh, I mean Christmas.

Cover of Christina Aguilera's "My Kind of Christmas," depicting the singer standing in front of a plain wall while wearing a black crop top. The image is sepia-toned.

I don’t think the sepia tone nor the tank top that C. Ag is sporting here are particularly winter-appropriate.

Cover of Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers' album "Once Upon a Christmas," which depicts Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers smiling while surrounded by a large Christmas wreath. They stand next to a reindeer with large antlers.

Based upon the cover alone, I must listen to this album at some point. God, this is a brilliant album cover. It’s so deliriously terrible.

Cover of Mannheim Steamroller's album "Christmas," which shows a painting of a decorated, soft-focus holiday tree in dim light.

This looks like one of those bizarre ads that the Bradford Exchange puts on the back of Parade Magazine every Sunday.

Cover of Mannhein Steamroller's album "Christmas in the Aire," which depicts a snow-covered fir tree in an outdoor environment.

It’s the first Christmas tree ever constructed solely from bat dung!

Cover of Billy Idol's album "Happy Holidays: A Very Special Christmas," which depicts a be-suited Billy Idol singing into a microphone and pointing at something out-of-frame.

God, Billy Idol looks more like a skeevy lounge singer than ever before. I wonder if someone can talk him into doing a Christmas album with Scott Weiland. [Edit: I got my wish, sort of! See below.]

Cover of Aly and AJ's "Acoustic Hearts of Winter," which depicts two blond women relaxing in a wintry environment.

Somehow, I am reminded of the White Witch from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.

Cover of Girls Aloud's album "Chemistry," which depicts four women in a kitchen environment wrapping gifts, placing a gift beneath a large tree, eating a cookie from a cookie sheet, and preparing a turkey, respectively.I am pretty sure that there is a Gender Studies dissertation just WAITING to be written about this cover.

Cover of Jackie Evancho's album "Heavenly Christmas," depicting a young blond girl wearing a festive dress sitting beneath what appears to be a large wreath.

No 11-year old with whom I have ever come into contact has had posture this good. Maybe Jackie Evancho is just that bad-ass, though.

Cover of Mariah Carey's second (!!) Christmas album, which depicts Carey sitting in an outdoor environment amongst holiday decorations while wearing a red dress with white fur trim.

If Mariah Carey’s album covers were as interesting and polished as her voice is, her second (!) holiday album would not be on this list. C’est la vie.

Cover of Tori Amos's album "Midwinter Graces," depicting Amos floating in the sky while wearing a long sleeveless dress.

Call me a Tori Amos fandom Luddite, but I vastly prefer the album covers of hers that prominently feature things like mud, firearms, and dead chickens rather than someone getting over-enthusiastic about CG. Check some of the inner booklet art, too:

Image of Tori Amos, wearing some kind of very shiny red dress with a huge circular collar, leaning over a sleeping angel while hoisting a lantern

Tori’s outfit looks like something that you would see in an early-1980s David Cronenberg film, and I think this is a major improvement over the cover of Midwinter Graces for that exact reason.

Cover of Scott Weiland's album "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year," depicting Weiland standing in front of a dark background while smiling and wearing a collared shirt, tie, vest and fedora.

WEILAND, WHAT HAPPENED HERE. YOU LOOK LIKE YOU JUST STEPPED OUT OF A BANANA REPUBLIC HOLIDAY AD. HONESTLY.

Part two will be posted soon. Until then, feel free to post your favorite (or least favorite) holiday album covers in the comments.

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Music Monday: Cover songs!

I find cover songs, on the whole, super-interesting; many of them are slices of various musicians and bands at their worst or most outright bizarre (see Nickelback’s cover of “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” by Elton John) or their best (see below). Love ‘em or hate ‘em, covers seem to be a perennially-discussed topic amongst fans of music and popular culture. There is even a website devoted to covers.

This post collects just a few of my favorites, because a post of all of my favorite covers would be entirely too long. Lyrics for each song are linked via the song title.

Garbage did an absolutely stunning version of “Candy Says,” originally by the Velvet Underground, a while back:

Next up is Tori Amos, about whom I should probably just write a whole blog entry because she is so prolific with cover songs (TAKE NOTE, me). Anyway, she covered a bunch of songs written by men about women for her 2001 album Strange Little Girls, but two of the arguably best tracks from those recording sessions did not actually make it onto the album.

After All” (David Bowie):

Only Women Bleed” (Alice Cooper):

This doesn’t mean that Strange Little Girls was a bad album, however. Check out her piano and voice cover of Joe Jackson’s “Real Men” — a searing indictment of traditional masculinity that is still pretty damn relevant in the present moment, even though it was recorded in the early 1980s:

Covers have also been a unique part of Tori’s live shows. I would be remiss not to include her absolutely gorgeous organ-and-voice version of Prince’s “Purple Rain,” recorded in 1996:

Then there’s her version of Radiohead’s “Karma Police,” performed on tour in 2005:

Speaking of Radiohead covers, roots/Americana musician Gillian Welch has been known to cover “Black Star” in concert; in many ways, her version surpasses the original:

Again surpassing the original (which may equal blasphemy to some Dylan fans, I know): Nina Simone sings Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’“:

I am including Antony and the Johnsons’ b-sided take on Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” because it is so radically different from the original song (check those string arrangements), but still awesome:

Patti Smith’s album Twelve is a collection of covers; if you’ve ever wanted to hear Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” interpreted as a folk tune WITH BANJO, this is an album worth picking up:

And lastly, recently-departed R.E.M. once recorded an amazing cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale.” Michael Stipe’s quiet falsetto is, in many ways, an intense counterpoint to original VU vocalist Nico’s monotone:

Feel free, as always, to link your favorites in the comments.

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Blast From the Past: The Secret (and how much I loathe it)

[Introductory note: This was originally published on my old blog on March 10, 2007; because I am nothing if not a complete and total buzzkill, I think it's worth re-archiving here, particularly since "new age" thought has a pretty strong foothold in Western--and particularly North American--culture. This sort of magical thinking still has a strong grip in many folks' consciousness, even given the recent economic downturn; maybe I'm just naive, but I find the fact that some people can still be all ~*POSITIVE THINKING*~ and/or YOU GET BACK WHAT YOU PUT OUT even amidst widespread economic chaos and a brutal job market extremely surprising, and pretty sad.

Then again, realistic thinking has never been America's strong suit, particularly amongst the privileged classes. The following post has been slightly edited for clarity. I have since written quite a bit on "positive thinking" as a means of social control, mostly at FWD: The Negative Side of Positive Thinking; Book Review: Bright-Sided; Just. For more information about precisely how harmful "positive thinking" can be when taken to the extreme, I highly recommend this blog post by Dr. David Gorski at Science-Based Medicine, which covers the Kim Tinkham case in detail (content warning for discussion of cancer).]

I just watched the latest and supposedly “greatest” in the self-help/marketing peoples’ insecurities back to them market, The Secret.

I sort of want that 90 minutes back. Now, before people start jumping on me and calling me negative, skeptical, bitchy, et cetera, let me assure you: I am, indeed, all three of those things. I tried to watch The Secret with an open mind. I really, truly did. But, I have to say, besides some of the stuff about visualization*–which I have thought of as a powerful tool for a while, and, at times, it has absolutely worked for me–I simply was unable to get on The Secret bandwagon.

I don’t know what it was that made me so hostile to the entire thing. Was it the overproduced “dramatic” re-enactments, some of which look very familiar to even a casual viewer of the History Channel? Was it “Dr.” Joe Vitale, Metaphysician,** who contends that ALL of the bad circumstances in your life come to you because of, well, you and your horrible, horrible negative thoughts? Was it Lisa Nichols, who was one of four women interviewed (out of 16-17 people) and one of two people of color interviewed? (She seemed to be the most sincere out of all of the “Teachers” interviewed, which endeared her to me quite a bit.) Was it the many shots of people from Other Lands, smiling and laughing, and getting fawned over by the “Teachers” due to their “natural” ability to Make Do With What They Have? Was it the completely oxymoronic focus on using The Secret to gain material things, money and houses (focused on after the many shots of our friends from other lands)? Was it the bizarre assumption that everyone watching the video wants the same damn things? Eeeek!

Then I reread this fantastic article, which outlines some of the problems with The Secret, and how Oprah, unfortunately, has basically adopted it as her credo and is trying to get her viewers to do the same. If it works for her, great. However, one thing that has bothered me about Oprah’s unquestioning acceptance of The Secret is this: It reinforces the great American trope of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. AKA: If Oprah/some disadvantaged person has become successful, then you can, too! All you have to do is think positive thoughts!

There is, of course, a lot more to it than that. I’m all for thinking good thoughts, but it is the denial of reality and various systems of oppression that make this position worse. Racism, for example, is one thing that is consistently denied as to its very existence. I have news for you, folks: Racism still very much exists. I can certainly create a non-racist America in my own mind (and let me tell you, it is awesome), but to see it in front of me is going to take some major societal changes. And it’s the same with sexism. And homophobia. And ableism, and classism, and all of that other fun stuff. “Creating your own reality” only goes so far–eventually, you will run into a structure that is bigger than you, and oftentimes, these structures are oppressive and hurtful to many people. I’m sorry if that sounds “negative,” but it is true for a lot of us. Not many people can conveniently ignore these structures in order to “think positive.”

Bad things are going to happen. Bad feelings happen. That is part of life. One of the Noble Truths of Buddhism, after all, says that life is full of suffering. Of course it is, even though it is also full of Great Things. To deny this is to deny an actual, authentic life. And I have to say, I feel sorry for anyone who shies away from feeling the full spectrum of emotions because they think that “negative thoughts will attract bad things,” (one of the claims espoused in The Secret). Yes, negative thoughts suck. They make us feel bad. But trying to be aggressively “happy” is not only potentially dangerous, it’s Pollyanna-esque and annoying.

[*Visualization, however, is one tool that I really, really like, mostly because it forces me to use my imagination and is quite fun. It's nothing new, however; various self-help gurus have been promoting this tool for years. Even if it doesn't work, it's still fun, and, unlike some of the professional bullies who harangue you for an hour and a half in The Secret, it (most likely) won't make you feel bad about yourself.]

**I kid you not; this was listed as his actual professional title during the video. When I grow up, I wanna be a Metaphysician!

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Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter: A short introduction

[Description: Black and white image of musicians Jesse Sykes and Phil Wandscher.] (Image courtesy of jessesykes.com)

So, as probably evidenced by the existence of this tag on my Tumblr, I am a huge fan of the alt-country band Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter. I have seen them perform live several times (five or six, by now? I’ve stopped keeping track, truth be told); I’ve also met Jesse several times, and she seems like a pretty awesome lady who also makes amazing music (that sound you’re hearing would be my fangirlish squeal; my friend and occasional concert buddy Amy can attest to the intensity of my squeeage).

The band’s current lineup consists of Jesse Sykes (lead vocals/guitar), Phil Wandscher (guitar/vocals), Bill Herzog (bass/vocals), and Eric Eagle (drums/vocals). Headquartered in Seattle, Washington, the Sweet Hereafter’s musical style is distinguished by layers of eerie (yet catchy!) melody ensconced in drifting wisps of sound that seems — at least from a metaphorical standpoint —¬† akin in some ways to the layer of misty fog that is a near-constant in the Pacific Northwest.

From a less metaphorical standpoint, however, the music of Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter is country — or, more accurately, alt-country — for people who wish that country music was less poppy. If you’ve ever wanted to hear more late ’60s- early ’70s psychedelia influence in alt-country music, you will probably find something to appreciate in this band’s oeuvre. Or perhaps you’re one of those folks who would listen to more acid-rock/psychedelic material, but you tend to enjoy great musicianship and vocal skills in addition to seemingly endless guitar solos. Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter are a perfectly down-tempo combo of psychedelic rock, alt-country (complete with nicely utilized slide guitars), and atmospheric chill-out music. To some, this may appear to be (or sound like) an odd formula, but in the hands of these talented musicians, it is a successful one; they consistently manage to merge the otherworldly and dream-like with the down-home, and the results are usually spectacular.

Okay, onto the actual music! The selection of their stuff available on YouTube is decent (many of the songs I wanted to include here were not on YouTube); accordingly, I’ve limited the songs posted here to high-quality live performances and audio-only tracks. Lyrics for most of these songs are available at Always On the Run.

From Reckless Burning (2002):

The title track:

Lonely Still:

Doralee  (solo performance circa 2009, for French webzine Le Cargo):

From Oh, My Girl (2004):

Title track:

The Dreaming Dead (which you may have heard on HBO’s True Blood):

Grow a New Heart (Note: It’s hard for me to pick a favorite of theirs, but this one is consistently near the top of the list!):

From Like, Love, Lust and the Open Halls of the Soul (2007):

LLL (live at the No Depression Festival, 2009):

The Air is Thin (official video):

Spectral Beings:

Station Grey (live in Amsterdam, 2008):

From the Gentleness of Nothing EP (2007):

Be it Me or Be it None (also for Le Cargo sessions):

Gentleness of Nothing (peculiar pleasure):

And one non-album track, “The Sinking Belle” with BORIS and Sunn0))):

The band’s latest album, Marble Son, is currently out in Europe and France, and is due to be released on July 26 in North America. One of the tracks from the forthcoming release, entitled “Ceiling’s High,” is below:

If you’d like some mp3s to download instead of waiting for all of these YouTube videos to load, the band’s now-former label, Barsuk, has a couple of songs available for free, as does the live music website Daytrotter.com; their official website also has a few songs available for streaming (click “Listen” on the menu at left).

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Music review: Charlotte Martin’s “Dancing on Needles” (2011)

[Description: Cover of Charlotte Martin's album Dancing on Needles, which depicts Martin, shown in profile, in some sort of woodsy outdoor environment. She appears to be looking up at something out-of-frame.]

Charlotte Martin: Dancing on Needles (1 Feb 2011); Test-Drive Records (available via iTunes, Amazon, and through the artist’s website)

When I first started hearing about Charlotte Martin’s album Dancing on Needles in some preliminary press coverage last year, I was both excited to hear the album and more than a bit skeptical when it came to the tone of some of the coverage. Some of this coverage focused on the fact that Martin’s new record had been inspired by her battle with severe chronic nerve pain, and the apparent “happy ending” to her story; as someone with chronic pain, it seems to me that this type of narrative is often trotted out in order to reassure the audience that the subject is “better now”–even though that’s not the way it works out for most folks with chronic pain. For many of us who deal with chronic pain issues, there is no “ending,” happy or not; chronic pain is, by its very definition, unending. Oddly, many narratives of disability in popular culture propose an end or accord some sort of “inspirational” power to a disabling health condition, often meant to reassure many nondisabled folks’ existing attitudes about disability.

Popular culture, at least in the United States, tends to engage with disability in ways that are both extremely limited and highly specific. There are a number of well-worn tropes about disability and ability that popular culture drags out time and time again, namely: Disability is always tragic and awful. Illness and/or disability can be turned into a 100% positive “opportunity” to discover what’s really important in life, or to teach the person with the disability or illness–and the nondisabled people around them–a crucial life lesson that they never would have learned if not for their illness/disability. Disabled people are freakish, abnormal, scary, and are thus not deserving of basic human treatment; they deserve only pity, charity, or to be gawked at. They are constantly angry about their lot in life (think of House, for example–even with all of the complexities that make him such an interesting character). They are just jealous of people who are normal because they themselves are not normal. People with disabilities can “overcome” their limitations, but only by doing amazing things that, above all, serve to inspire nondisabled people (what’s up, Supercrip)!

Dancing on Needles, thankfully, does none of the above. If you’re looking for a completely inspirational record, or one with easy answers, you may want to look elsewhere.

Charlotte Martin has made quite a few albums. I have heard almost all of them (exception: Piano Trees, which apparently was a tour-exclusive album and one that I haven’t been able to track down). They are all spectacular in their own ways, but this one might be my favorite, and not just because many of the songs are about dealing with chronic pain and the uncertainties that it poses. The entire album is a complex, layered work about dealing with chronic pain and its uncertainties. We have all seen works of art about disability that rely on one or more of the tropes and narratives listed above. To which I say, YAWN, because most of the aforementioned tropes and themes get excruciatingly boring after a while (not to mention overused), and then you have a lot of people thinking that those tropes are the only ways to engage with disability/ability in creative work, simply because those are the stories that have been used so often. Dancing on Needles does not fit into any of those narratives quite so easily, at least not with lyrics such as:

My reflection is a woman I do not know/Thunderclouding ’cause she hasn’t got far to go/I haven’t got far to go (from “Any Minute Now”)

Or:

Great ideas/God, we had great ideas/Didn’t know this could happen to me/Struggling/To see the meaning in all of the meaningless/I wasted when I had you here (from “Life Vest”)

Of course, there are multiple ways to interpret the album’s lyrics, including those excerpted above, but since the album has been described repeatedly in articles and press materials as being inspired, in part, by Charlotte’s recent experiences with chronic pain, I’d be pretty surprised if at least some of the lyrics did not refer to it at all. Even if the lyrics are not straightforwardly about chronic pain throughout, all of the songs on this album add up to an incredibly interesting, rewarding record that seems, more generally, to be about life changes and the uncertainties that they pose. I’d argue (mostly from personal experience!) that chronic pain, and living with pain, can be and often is a major life change. Learning to live with pain entails some sort of change, usually; Dancing on Needles is a stunning example of how great art, and great music, can spring from tremendous life changes.

Musically, it is also a great pop album. I hope that this will not be the only pop record that features a first-person experience of disabling chronic pain as one of its main themes. Of course, it’s probably not going to completely revolutionize pop music and that genre’s treatment of disability, because it is one album. The important thing is that this album is a starting point, and one that has set the bar pretty high at that.

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5 Ridiculous Big Pharma Ads

I have an ongoing peeve that relates to medication and social attitudes surrounding it: often, for some people on various sides of the political spectrum, trashing Big Pharma translates into trashing people who use prescription medications at all, for a variety of health conditions — especially for chronic conditions, both of the mental health and physical varieties. As a woman with multiple disabilities — a few of which require me to be on medications manufactured by Big Pharma (OOOOOH, SCARY) — I am not, how shall I put it, too excited about this. It’s really nice that stereotypical Extremely Naive Hippie Liberals and Rugged, Anti-Government Bootstrapping Conservatives can, theoretically, bond over how much they mutually hate those of us who take medications for legitimate medical reasons — but even those of us who, normally, would like and/or encourage all of this talk about “building alliances across the [political] aisle” have limits.

In short, there are a lot of things for which you can take Big Pharma to task without also treating the people who depend on these medications like total shit. One of these things is advertising and direct-to-consumer marketing, at which Big Pharma seems to be really quite good! And by “good,” I mean totally ridiculous. Let’s take a look at five different ad campaigns that should never have left a pitch meeting, much less been made with gargantuan budgets, professional actors, and voice-overs that calmly inform the viewer/listener of possible side effects.

5. Cialis: Yes, the one with the make-out music in the background and the couple sitting side-by-side in the bathtubs out in a meadow or something. Why is it so difficult for these folks to find a tub big enough to fit them both?

4. Uloric: Granted, this one may not be as ridiculous as some of the others on this list, but the visual of a dude carrying around a giant beaker of green liquid (which looks suspiciously like it should be in some sort of fancy alcoholic drink that costs upwards of $7) is pretty bizarre, as is the voice-over that helpfully informs viewers that side-effects may include flare-ups of the very condition that Uloric is used to treat. This might be the entire point of the ad, though; since Uloric is a medication intended to help with Gout symptoms, wouldn’t it be more accurate to have the guy wear shoes to which giant beakers are attached? Perhaps we could see a live-action depiction of the 16th-century drawing included in the Wikipedia article on Gout, instead of a guy with a big beaker of neon-green energy drink? That would be awesome, and might get the Gout-is-horribly-painful-and-this-medication-could-help message across in a way that actually makes sense.

3. Lyrica: Every time I see this one, I want to yell at the TV, particularly when the one featuring the classy middle-aged lady who bakes bread has somehow made its hellish way into my precious rerun of Dirty Jobs or another show that I don’t like to admit to enjoying. The actress in this ad pronounces “Fibromyalgia” like it’s a seasonal root vegetable or something (like “FYE-bro-MY-al-GEE-AH”) and all I can do is give the television my most hateful death glare. Oh, and even better is when she says that “My doctor diagnosed it as FYE-bro-MY-al-GEE-AH muscle pain,” and I want to scream, “Lady, IF YOU KNEW what fibro was actually like, you would not be saying that. You would probably be in too much pain on some days to do very much.” Or baking loaves of crusty bread en masse, for that matter. As someone who’s dealt with fibro for the past few years of my life, I only wish I had enough energy to bake many loaves of bread, like the woman in this commercial. Sweet, delicious carbs might help my pain, or at least give me something to focus on other than constant pain and fatigue.

2. Cymbalta: My personal favorite moment is when a kid runs up to hug the woman (presumably a relative?) and the camera focuses on her face, and she just looks so sad that the explanation just has to be terrible acting (or depression, according to the good folks at Eli Lilly). Depression’s symptoms are much, much more complex than walking around looking like the emoticon for sadface [ :-(], but you wouldn’t know it by watching this commercial. I think someone should make a parody of ads like this, except that some other person approaches the woman, tells her to “Snap out of it,” and then the woman gives that person the finger–or, more accurately, gives them the :-| face, because that is what certain aspects of depression make you feel like doing. You’re not only sad all of the time, but often you feel too hopeless to respond to people’s asshattery when they feel the need to comment on your depression and/or tell you that you Just Need To Buck Up.

1. Viagra (“Viva Viagra” spot): Truly the stuff of nightmares. The first time I saw this ad, I was awake at 3 or 4 AM due to pain (go figure, right?) and thought I was hallucinating when the opening chords of “Viva Las Vegas” started up in the opening seconds of this ad. I was, at first, confused as to what that particular song had to do with a medication used to treat erectile dysfunction. And then four middle-aged dudes–one playing a guitar–appeared on the screen and started to sing “VIVA VIAGRA!” to the tune of a song that most people associate with Elvis Presley, or any buddy comedy that has some sort of drunken Vegas montage. If you’re sure that this one won’t give you nightmares, I urge you to find it on YouTube, because it must be seen to be believed. Unfortunately, it’s been replaced in recent months with 30 seconds of yet another middle-aged white dude driving a car around in the dark. The penis = car association makes more sense than hanging out with your best buds and singing about Viagra, I suppose, particularly if you know anything about psychoanalysis.

Readers, what are your least favorite Big Pharma ads, and why? Short descriptions (and links to videos, if you have them) can be helpful for people who may have not seen the ads; please include them, if possible, so that we may all share in the unintentional hilarity.

[Originally posted at FWD]

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