August 29, 2013

Jumping on the Miley Train

Everybody's talking about Miley Cyrus at the VMAs. I finally watched the entire segment last night, and I was seriously under-outraged. She's in a skimpy outfit, she's dancing around freely (which I loved, actually), and then for a few seconds she grinds on Robin Thicke. Big deal. If she were (a) a backup dancer, (b) Lady Gaga, or (c) really anyone other than Miley, it would have passed with hardly a raised eyebrow.

This is the problem with women and pop culture. We so quickly put a value on them, a certain identity, and then sit there and fling feces at them (sorry, I've been watching a lot of Big Band Theory with Amy Farrah-Fowler's monkey tests). We encourage the display of sexuality, and then criticize if it's not done just so: in just the right measure, just the right level of class or lewdness, just the right age even (because God forbid you try to be sexual one day past your expiration date *coughMADONNAcough*). Maybe we're hardest on the Britneys and Mileys because we knew them as teenagers. Everyone thinks Miley is rebelling against her Hannah Montana years, but, jeez, that was years ago. She's past it in her own mind; it's only us who won't get over it.

Frankly, I like Miley the more I see of her. She's not afraid to chop off her hair, dance around like a banshee, have fun with fashion (I especially liked her initial costume in the segment, very Bjorkish). She's not a drug addict or alcoholic. And she's navigating her young adult years in the spotlight of a very judgmental culture. I hope she had a blast at the VMAs.

August 23, 2013


That the Courtyard Hounds' song "Meet You in the Spring" is the most perfectly constructed song of the 2010s.

August 15, 2013

The Difference between a High Voice and a Stupid Voice

I'm a huge fan of the reality competition show So You Think You Can Dance. (Terrible title, but great show.) The talent is unbelievable, and it's the only place on TV to see contemporary dance with innovative choreographers.

One of the many pluses of the show is the judging panel. Unlike so many of the American Idol judges over the years, the SYTYCD judges actually seem to enjoy the art form they're judging. And they have all been dancers and know their stuff. They're kind, insightful, and have a real sense of enthusiasm about what they're doing.

The first judge is Nigel Lythgoe, who is the executive producer of the show. In early years he was more cutting than he is now; I like how he has eased up and enjoys even the amateurs during the audition process. He tends to focus more on the dancers' personalities and chemistry, which I don't always like; it's subjective and sometimes he's criticizing something that the dancers don't have much control over. But again, he's improving in this regard, making fewer remarks about the girls' sex appeal and complaining less about the guys dancing with their shirts off.

The third judge is always a guest judge. Usually it's someone in the biz, like the delightful Adam Shankman or Debbie Allen. This season they've had some guest judges who don't have a lot to add, people like Christina Applegate or Anna Kendrick who are mainly known as actors. Every once in a while the third judge is someone who isn't primarily known for dance but has a strong and informed point of view, like Lady Gaga.

But the second judge is my favorite: Mary Murphy. She's a former ballroom dancer and always has interesting things to say. She usually references particular steps or moves during the performance, points out technical things like the lines of a dancer's toes or how someone holds their wrist, and gives the viewer an appreciation of what is particularly difficult in a routine, which is helpful for those of us without a dance background (e.g., "That was an unbelievably fast samba," "You have to have such strength to make that turn and then go directly into that lift"). She's generally the only judge whose comments I listen to in full (I DVR the show, so I fast forward a bit through the other judges' comments).

So I was momentarily shocked to read Entertainment Weekly's blurb for the show in their What to Watch section:  "The top 10 are paired with all-stars. Mary Murphy continues to be paired with a tenuous grip on reality." I say "momentarily shocked" because, although the comment has no basis in the reality of the show, it's typical of the trouble women have in pop culture. Mary Murphy is in her 50s, which means that she's in that tricky spot where she's just old enough for people to rag on her looks (she's quite pretty but not taut like a twenty-year-old) but not old enough to be outside the realm of physical evaluation or comparison altogether. She's also sometimes loud (she likes to put good dancers on the "hot tamale train" complete with loud woo-woo). And she occasionally weeps when she finds a routine moving.

Unfortunately, all of these things put her at risk for dismissal in our culture. When EW says she has a "tenuous grip on reality," it's clearly likening her to Paula Abdul, another reality competition judge of a certain age who shares several traits with Mary Murphy. But Paula Abdul really does blather on as a judge; Mary doesn't. No matter; the feminine aspects of her demeanor—the enthusiasm, the high-pitched woo-woos, the tears, maybe even her makeup and slightly sagging skin—act as a cloak, making it impossible for some viewers to perceive her actual words.

Zooey Deschanel recently wrote something that's become a kind of rallying cry for women interested in this sort of thing. It's like a mini feminist manifesto for the twenty-first century: "Don’t let someone steal your tenderness. Don’t allow the coldness and fear of others to tarnish your perfectly vulnerable beating heart. Nothing is more powerful than allowing yourself to truly be affected by things." She's talking about the continual devaluing of the feminine in our culture, and we have to keep talking about it. Until we stop mistaking enthusiasm for ditziness, a high-pitched voice for a stupid voice, emotion for irrationality, women will never get their due as performers, workers, or fans.  

August 12, 2013

Beach Novels

My brother is looking for some novels for his upcoming beach vacation. I tend to like mystery and crime novels for the beach, and most of these fit that category:

1. Gone Girl, or anything by Gillian Flynn. Flynn is the American Stieg Larsson: endlessly fascinating and readable. Gone Girl, a novel about a missing wife, has been the It Book of the past year, but all three of her novels are great.

2. Faithful Place, by Tana French. A Dublin police officer goes back to his old neighborhood and abrasive family to investigate a long-ago crime. French has written four crime novels, two of which are among my favorites of all time, and two of which were just okay for me. This one is five star.

3. Headhunters, or anything by Jo Nesbo. I've never read a Nesbo novel I didn't think was great, but this one is the most juicy combination of crime, mystery, irony, and humor. Perfection.

4. Where'd You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple. Another missing person scenario but completely different. Not a crime novel, just the story of an eccentric woman and her daughter, who tries to track her down by sifting through her old emails. Fun, smart, and with something to say.

5. American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld. This is the wild card. Not really a beach read but such a good novel that I can't exclude it. A fictionalized imagining of the life of Laura Bush, it's not an exercise in novelty but a great psychological novel that is really memorable.

August 6, 2013

The Bridegroom Wore Plaid

If you've ever toyed with the idea of reading a romance novel, I have a great starter book for you: The Bridegroom Wore Plaid, by Grace Burrowes. It's a big, juicy read about a Scottish family in the Victorian era with a title in hand but less in the way of cold, hard cash; a visiting English family with an excess of daughters; and a corrupt patriarch whose perfidy simmers below the surface.

It's a romance novel, so it's not really a family saga; not as character or plot driven as, say, The Thorn Birds or The Forsyte Saga. But it has all the best features of a romance novel—characters you're rooting for, interesting dilemmas, witty dialogue, lots of sex—and almost none of the worst features. The characters are not dumb: the protagonists become aware of the villain's true nature gradually and realistically. The heroine is not overly conflicted: she doesn't dither about her attraction to the hero, who is supposed to be courting elsewhere. The hero doesn't boomerang between hot passion and cold retreat. There are no stupid misunderstandings or overly complicated backstories (just interesting ones). Instead there are just people experiencing each other, learning things about themselves, and dealing with the complications that arise with kindness and care, trying to balance their responsibilities to others with their responsibilities to themselves.

I'm not sure if a guy would like even the best of romance novels. They are ultimately feminine fantasies, and it's hard to see a guy relating to the sex scenes, which are heavily, let's say, gynocentric. There's lots of worshipping of the beautiful male body, but even more male adoration of the female body—all of which has a basis in reality but might be straining credulity in its intensity. It would be interesting to know. It's possible that guys might be able to relate more to the kind of contemporary erotica of Cara McKenna's Willing Victim or After Hours, whose erotic heroes tend to be construction workers and medical assistants rather than lairds and barons.

Normally I'd include an image of the cover of a book I'm recommending, but the cover of The Bridegroom Wore Plaid is just too cheesy. Maybe someday the graphic design of romance novels will catch up to the increasing sophisticated writing within.