Category Archives: pop culture

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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Maybe Not Quite The Worst Album of All Time: A Short Review of Lulu (2011)

Hi, folks! You may have noticed that I have not been around the blogging world as of late; the primary reason for this is because I am finishing my Master’s thesis and have not had much time to blog about anything important. Continuing this trend, here is a short review of one of the most polarizing albums of the year, the Lou Reed and Metallica collaboration Lulu. It is available as a two-disc album as well as a (rather perplexing) $120 special edition box set.

First, a disclaimer: I did not have high expectations for this album at all. Since I am probably one of the comparatively few people who still follows Lou Reed’s current output (un-ironically, I swear) and who also really, really liked 2003’s The Raven (because where the hell else are you going to get Lou Reed and Antony Hegarty collaborating on anything, and both Steve Buscemi and Willem Dafoe READING SELECTIONS FROM EDGAR ALLEN POE’S WORKS[!] on one record?), I was eager to at least give this collaboration a chance. I suspected that it would either be the best record of the year (HA), or the worst.

(The jury is still out on whether the album art is the worst of all time, however.)

There are a lot of things to pick at here: the ramrod guitar-bass-drum combo rockers that go on for six minutes; James Hetfield’s unfortunate backing vocals in many of the songs, which seem to signal that he is trying too hard; the creepiness of hearing a man who is nearing 70 years of age say, with apparent seriousness, “I am your little girl” (that would be from “Mistress Dread”; I know it’s a concept album, but come on); the fact  every song on the first disc could have been cut by a minute or so without any detrimental effect to the overall flow of the album.

However, there are a couple of songs that are at least listenable, if not great. “Iced Honey” is a fairly catchy, if somewhat standard, rock song. “Little Dog” is not terrible, either, save for the mention of the titular dog’s penis for no apparent reason. The album’s final track, “Junior Dad” is twenty minutes long and, strangely, is probably the best track on the album. Its length–and its interesting instrumental work–distinguish it from most of Lulu, if only because it is not (for the most part) yet another six-minute hard rock track that prominently features Lou Reed’s poetry read in a monotone and James Hetfield’s awkward backing vocals in all the wrong places. One wonders whether Lulu would still be a spectacular failure if Metallica and Reed had taken things in a more “Junior Dad”-esque direction. I think it would be a much better album if this were the case, but despite the album’s failures, I cannot call Lulu the worst album of all time.

No, my pick for the worst album of all time is still Pat Boone’s In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy, which is an odd, somewhat overproduced collection of metal and rock covers from the conservative Christian crooner. It’s sort of like an alternate-universe version of the oeuvre of Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine, except Boone is — as far as I can tell — totally serious, whereas Richard Cheese and LAtM works really well because the audience is in on the joke. It seems that Reed and the members of Metallica are serious about Lulu also, but at least Lulu has a few things going for it (even if one of those things is TWENTY MINUTES LONG). You can tell that Reed and Metallica enjoyed making this record — even if the end result never quite comes together as a coherent concept album, or reaches the level of transcendent godawfulness that many of us expected. Maybe it’s one of those records where you either get it or you don’t. I, for the most part, don’t.

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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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Songs: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “And No More Shall We Part” (2001)

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “And No More Shall We Part” (lyrics). I believe the above performance is from a French television show.

I am starting a new Tumblr/blog series for 2011! It is about songs that have somehow impacted my life, and why. I was going to write about entire albums, and then I realized that that would become a huge undertaking that I would end up never finishing. So: an intermittent series on songs, because many songs are bite-sized, aurally speaking, and manageable enough for me to write about and not feel like I’m giving other things (other tracks on an album, for example) short shrift.

I’ve been trying to write about this song, and what it means to me, for the past couple of days and have been mostly coming up blank. No More Shall We Part was the first Nick Cave & TBS album I bought, around early 2006 or so, after an internet friend, Sarah, had included “Do You Love Me (Part 1)” (which, strangely, is not on that album!) on a mix some years before, and I kept pressing the back button each time the track would end. I can’t remember the reason why I bought this album first; it may have been the first result on Amazon when I typed in “nick cave and the bad seeds,” or it may have had the highest rating on iTunes or something.

The “real” reason, though, is not important. Nick Cave’s music–despite the weird, sometimes off-putting reliance on the women-as-goddesses-or-evil-temptresses trope of some of his work (or, in the case of most of 1995’s Murder Ballads, as victims of homicide by men)–has meant a lot to me, and continues to. No More Shall We Part is my favorite album of his and the Bad Seeds.

I first heard this album–and this song, which was the one that really grabbed me–during a particularly difficult time in my life. Out of nowhere, I had started experiencing moderate to severe chronic pain and fatigue to go with it, and I had no idea what to do. None of the doctors I saw could figure out what was wrong with me. When I was tired or in too much pain to do very much (which was often), I would rest and listen to music. “And No More Shall We Part” was one of the songs that I listened to constantly; almost without fail, whenever I played it, I’d listen to it at least three or four times because it was just that affecting.

I don’t believe in God. Nick Cave, however, does, and is not shy about expressing this in his lyrics. “And No More Shall We Part” contains many references to God; though this specific aspect of the song did not grab me, something about the way he sings it absolutely did.

Lord, stay by me
Don’t go down
I’ll never be free
If I’m not free now

Lord, stay by me
Don’t go down
I never was free
What are you talking about?

I didn’t believe in God, then. I needed something, however, to get me through the worst of the pain, to remind me that I was going to be okay even if the doctors–if most people around me, to an extent–couldn’t see what was going on in my body. It’s hard to put into words, but Cave’s voice was that hand reaching through my headphones, assuring me that I would be okay, even if I felt alone and scared and hopeless and bad for having health problems–and, ultimately, even if I couldn’t see any answers on the immediate horizon.

[Originally posted on my Tumblr]

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