Wednesday, June 12, 2019

50 Years Later, Why Judy Garland and the Stonewall Riots Still Matter

This June marks 50 years, an entire half-century, since the death of beloved performer and icon Judy Garland. It also marks 50 years since the Stonewall riots—an uprising that occurred at the Stonewall Inn in Lower Manhattan, then an infamous underground gay bar, where a seemingly normal police raid occurred in the early hours of June 28, 1969. Since homosexuality was still illegal as well as considered deviant social behavior and a recognized mental illness at that time, police raids of known gay bars were routine and brutal. But this time was different; the patrons didn’t go quietly. In fact, they fought back, and they fought back hard—so hard that the night in question is now considered to have singlehandedly jumpstarted the modern gay rights movement that have brought us our contemporary battles for LGBTQ equality. The link between Judy Garland and the Stonewall riots may not seem clear to all readers, but it’s an important and controversial one—and a link that remains relevant and still matters today.

Although Judy Garland is best remembered for roles in a variety of MGM musicals throughout the 1930s and 1940s, most of her lifelong personal struggles began with the film studio. Even though Judy was always of a healthy weight, MGM always insisted she was too fat to be a star and her appearance and image was constantly manipulated by film executives, which significantly impacted her self-esteem (studio boss Louis B. Mayer infamously referred to her as his “little hunchback”). Diet pills, combined with amphetamines that the studio forced many of their young actors to take to fulfill nearly impossible work demands, is believed to have severely contributed to Garland’s lifelong struggle with drug addiction. In addition to being completely reliant on prescription medication, Garland was plagued by self-doubt into her adulthood, and despite groundbreaking professional success, she needed constant reassurance that she was talented and attractive—all of which is generally thought to have been caused by her early days at MGM.

Although Garland saw further professional success in her later years, including an Academy Award-nominated performance in the Warner Bros. remake of A Star is Born in 1954, record-breaking concert appearances, a successful run as a recording artist with Capitol Records, her own Emmy-nominated television variety show, and sporadic film appearances for the remainder of her career—it’s arguable that her dismissal from MGM in 1950 left her career tainted for the remainder of her life. Patriarchal interpretations of her unreliability and erratic behavior combined with her own lack of control with alcohol and substance abuse made it practically impossible for her to replicate the success she saw with MGM as a child and young adult, despite the fact that she always had numerous celebrity friends and supporters to come to her defense. Her struggles with drugs and alcohol let alone a list of failed marriages became legendary, paving the road for her multiple momentous comebacks. From the time she was a bankable star in countless MGM musicals, Garland had resonated with gay men. Her campy performances and musical numbers laid the groundwork, but it would be her personal and professional struggles that knocked her down more times than anyone could count that would make her a bonafide gay icon—and the fact that she kept standing back up after being knocked down resonated profoundly with an LGBT community which had no fundamental rights, were considered mentally ill, and driven underground. In the years before being openly gay was even remotely available, Judy Garland was already an icon and a symbol of strength and resilience for the gay community. She even inspired the term “Friend of Dorothy”—gay slang that dates back to World War II as a way for closeted homosexual men to identify each other without openly discussing sexual orientation. The term refers to Judy’s most iconic performance as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939), a character who has been critically and socially interpreted as being warmly accepting of those who are different.
Judy Garland as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939). The character became the inspiration for the gay slang "Friend of Dorothy," a term dating back to World War II as a way for gay men to secretly identify themselves. (Photo: MGM) 
Judy Garland was hardly the first ever gay icon—Marlene Dietrich had already summoned her own queer icon status in the 1930s for her androgynous costumes—but her popularity and appeal to alternative communities managed to impact mainstream popular culture in a way that Judy’s predecessors had not. The first time Garland was referred to as a gay icon in mainstream media was in Time magazine in 1967, which reviewed her concert series at the Palace Theatre in New York City that year. They noted that a “disproportionate part of her nightly claque seems to be homosexual” and that “[t]he boys in the tight trousers” would “roll their eyes, tear at their hair and practically levitate from their seats” during Garland’s performances. In a nutshell, Judy’s appeal with gay audiences boils down to her being a tragic figure, which not only resonates with gay men but they identify with it, too. “Homosexuals tend to identify with suffering,” wrote novelist William Goldman in an Esquire article also from 1967. “They are a persecuted group and they understand suffering. And so does Garland. She’s been through the fire and lived – all the drinking and divorcing, all the pills and all the men, all the poundage come and gone – brothers and sisters, she knows.” He also suggests that if gay men have one enemy, it’s growing older, and Judy Garland represents “youth, perennially, over the rainbow.” Garland enthusiast and superfan Scott Brogan, who has run the popular fan site The Judy Room since 1999, maintains that it was not only her value as a tragic figure whom gay fans could relate to but many are also captured by her enormous talent and performance ability. “Her highs were really high, and her lows were really low, and yes, she did have a tragic life in certain respects, but it comes back to her voice and her performances,” he said.

By 1969, Garland had reached a point of financial despondence—having been sufficiently incapable of managing her own finances, she kept a gruelling worldwide concert schedule as a result, which did not bode well with her decreasing health caused by her never-ending reliance on alcohol and prescription medication. That June, she was found dead of a barbiturate overdose at a rented home in London at age 47, and her funeral was held in New York City on June 27. Meanwhile, later that evening at the Stonewall Inn in Lower Manhattan, a series of LGBTQ individuals bravely resisted arrest, badgering, and torture at the hands of homophobic society, and the modern gay rights movement was born. It has long been suggested that Judy Garland’s death and funeral the day before had caused such a state of despair that the gay community finally found the strength to fight back—but whether this theory has any factual basis has long been called into question and become rather controversial among many LGBTQ historians. The “Judy myth,” as Perry Brass from
 Philadelphia Gay News puts it, is just that—a myth. “The Judy Garland myth, I’ve always felt, was the most pernicious of them all. Basically, it said that it took Garland’s death to make LGBT people angry enough to fight back. That was not true,” he wrote. “We had been fighting back all along; there were numerous instances of us doing so against huge odds … Power did not come from the streets then as we later felt, when gay groups joined other identity groups and seriously organized. What the Judy myth did was make many older, ‘bourgeois’ gay men, lesbians and their allies feel comfortable. If what happened at Stonewall was outside their comfort zone — and for many it was — they could feel all gooey and happy knowing the ‘girls’ were driven to this by some of the feelings they had: sadness over the death of Mickey Rooney’s girlfriend in those sweet 1930s musicals from their youth.” Gay Liberation Front founder Bob Kohler, who died in 2007, knew many of those who took part in the now-legendary riots that weekend, and he too angrily dismissed the Garland hypothesis, saying, “The street kids faced death every day. They had nothing to lose. And they couldn’t have cared less about Judy. We’re talking about kids who were fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. Judy Garland was the middle-aged darling of the middle-class gays. I get upset about this because it trivializes the whole thing.” Scholar and historian Mark Segal echoes that the myth trivializes the oppression their community was fighting against, calling it a “disturbing historical liberty” that is “downright insulting to the [LGBTQ] community.” Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, one of the few remaining Stonewall riot participators who is still alive, agrees that Garland’s death inspiring the riots is likely untrue, but laments that the theory has become so powerful and widely spread that it seems useless to continue trying debunking it. “There are people who connect [Garland’s funeral] to the narrative of Stonewall, and you’re not going to tell them it doesn’t connect, so let them have it,” he told The Washington Post in 2016. “It didn’t start the riot off, believe me.” He also suggests that the rioters would have most likely been apart of R&B and rock music scenes and would not have listened to the easy-listening showtunes of Judy Garland.

The Stonewall Inn, in Lower Manhattan's Greenwich Village, was the site of the legendary riots in the early hours of June 28, 1969 that would begin the modern gay rights movement. (Photo: CNN)
Although the overwhelming consensus is that Garland’s death itself most likely had very little to do with the riots that inspired the modern gay rights movement, many other historians and critics are not so quick to devalue the involvement of the icon’s death in the famous uprising. “I think that there were people there who were upset [by Garland’s death], but it was more than just one thing,” says Scott Brogan. “Sure, a lot of the street kids probably didn’t really care that much. But I think we shouldn’t count out the fact that Judy’s death did play a part. It wasn’t the only reason, of course, but there still were a lot of people there who were just … their nerves were shot.” In a now-deleted article commemorating the 40th anniversary of both the Stonewall riots and Garland’s death in 2009, culture critic Jeff Weinstein said that some of the imagination surrounding Judy’s death being the inspiration for the riots “seems credible,” since Garland’s life was also a battle cry for being free to love. “Yes, Judy was responsible for Stonewall, the way flowers are responsible for spring,” he wrote. “Of course, her life was a mess. Like opera counterpart Maria Callas, young Garland was an ugly-duckling diva left in the lurch by family and men. Employer MGM (and before that, maybe her mom) hooked her on drugs. Later, she was a time-bomb on the set – when she managed to show up.” He also states that he believed Judy possessed a rare quality that other performers lack, where she was able to perform in film or on stage as “Judy herself” and it is this authenticity that has allowed her to continue resonating. “I never could say exactly what that something is, but I’m convinced it’s close kin to the spirit of the brave and furious queens who taunted New York’s boys in blue with a kicking chorus line, to the tune of ‘It’s Howdy Doody Time’ … They also wore their hearts on their sleeves, whatever those sleeves were attached to. Just like Judy. Forty long years later, I remain grateful to them all. There’s still plenty of singing, and kicking, left for us to do.”

An overarching question that remains surrounding Judy Garland and the gay rights movement is not whether she still resonates, but whether her cultural impact and vast talent will be forgotten by future generations of gay men. When Jeff Weinstein compared Judy in
 The Wizard of Oz to American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert to a young gay friend, he had no idea who Garland or even Liza Minnelli were. In a New York Times article from 2012 questioning whether or not Judy’s raw talent and appeal will live on amongst gay men, Robert Leleux wrote that he “weeps for his people” when his thirty-something gay male friend says that he doesn’t consider himself a Garland fan and merely remarks that “she was good in The Wizard of Oz” (one of the most seen films in history). Leleux himself had been enchanted by Judy for his entire life. “Judy at Carnegie Hall was the soundtrack of my childhood,” he wrote. “As any fan can tell you, it’s Garland at her swaggering best: glamorous, triumphant and almost superhumanly resilient. It goes without saying that such resilience held enormous appeal for gay men.” When he asked his friend if Judy is still considered a gay idol, he commented that he doesn’t see what Judy Garland has to do with being gay anymore, but does describe the gay following surrounding contemporary female trainwrecks like Whitney Houston, Lindsay Lohan, or Britney Spears. “Some gay guys do seem to like that kind of thing,” he said. In response to questions about Rufus Wainwright’s 2006 recreation of Judy Garland’s Carnegie Hall album, his friend remarked, “If that’s what he wants to do, great. It’s just not my idea of being gay. Today gay can be anything.” Judy Garland might not resonate with all gay men, but it’s the fact that she was claimed as a gay icon during a tumultuous time in history when the gay community was beginning the fight for equality that has led to her status as not only a gay icon, but a pop culture icon. Today gay can be anything, but 50 years ago, it could not. For many, Judy felt like one of the only outlets where gay men could truly be and feel like themselves. She might not have had a single thing to do with the actions or the politics of the gay rights movement, but her omniscient presence was always there as a source of inspiration. Her impact is undeniable, and she will live on regardless—a biographical film starring Renée Zellweger as Garland, Judy, is set for release this fall.

Monday, June 10, 2019

The Best Songs and Albums of 2019 So Far

If you’re reading this, that means that 2019 is already half finished—I know, I
’m just as shocked as you are. Since half of the year has already pasted, that means we’ve already experienced half a year of new music, and since summer has arrived, new music is always a good thing to have in your pocket. So, in the vein of P!nk’s 2010 compilation album Greatest Hits…So Far!!!, here are my picks for some of the year’s best songs and albums…so far.


Avril Lavigne, Head Above Water

In what can only be described as one of her most emotionally intense offerings to date, Avril Lavigne returned earlier this year with her first album in nearly six years. Head Above Water deals with a lot of emotions lyrically—most of which were inspired by her battle with Lyme disease, which contributed to her absence from the limelight in recent years—as well as themes of heartbreak, overcoming emotional difficulties, and growing up. For those who have indeed grown up listening to Avril Lavigne, Head Above Water is a breath of fresh air. Full review here.

Betty Who, Betty

After parting ways with her previous label RCA last year (with whom she released her first two albums), Betty Who took the pop music world by storm with her third studio album and first record released independently, Betty. Reminiscent of Robyn and Carly Rae Jepsen, the album throws everyone’s expectations of her out the window in favor of a carefree, unapologetic approach that certainly resulted in one of this year’s most standout pop efforts.


In one of the most impressive debut albums in recent memory, Swedish singer/songwriter LÉON released her first full-length record after years of impeccably underrated EPs released under Columbia Records. Emotional but not melancholy, catchy and upbeat but free of gimmicky sounds, LÉON celebrates dancing your tears away with an indie pop meets soul sound reminiscent of Adele, Amy Winehouse, and Lana Del Rey, but still incredibly unique equipped with LÉON’s songwriting ability to punch you in the heart.
Ben Platt, Sing to Me Instead

Remember Benji from Pitch Perfect who won a Tony Award for his critically acclaimed run as the title character in the Broadway play Dear Evan Hansen? Well, since more than proving his vocal ability on the stage, Platt signed with Atlantic Records and released his debut studio album, Sing to Me Instead, an easy-listening ode to quieting the voices in our heads, finding love, fighting the fear of growing older, and learning to love life. Think Michael Bublé, but with a bit more of an emotional edge that packs a punch you don’t see coming.

Marina, Love + Fear

Marina, now without the Diamonds, returned with her fourth studio album whose general theme revolves around a psychological theory that love and fear are the only two human emotions, and we cannot feel them at the same time since they are opposites. Marina, however, proves very quickly that these emotions overlap almost constantly: love, fear, happiness, sadness, anxiety, depression, and so many others are explored throughout Love + Fear, two 8-track collections that form a set. Throughout a journey to feel like a real human being again after being in the spotlight for too long, Marina offers her own take on the experience of living life and what it truly means to be human. Full review here.

Olivia O’Brien, Was It Even Real?

I discovered Olivia O’Brien last year by chance when one of her music videos popped up in my recommended videos section on YouTube. I was instantly taken aback by the dark but honest tone of her lyrics—an artist who puts particular feelings into words that we often don’t want to say out loud. She’s said in interviews that she has suffered from depression since she was seven years old, and has used songwriting as an outlet for her feelings for as long as she can remember. Was It Even Real?, O’Brien’s full-length debut album, deals with themes of heartbreak, depression, anxiety, bad habits, self-destructive habits, and learning to love yourself—with some catchy bops about boy problems, too. It also just feels real, despite what the title suggests: the truth is, as much as we’re told we need to love ourselves first and let go of all negativity and bad habits and whatever else, we still find ourselves unable to let go because those things are hard. It also celebrates the reality of accepting our bad habits and our depression or anxiety, because fighting the feeling often gets you nowhere. Full review here.


“Don’t Feel Like Crying” – Sigrid

Sometimes you just don’t feel like crying, and sometimes you just have to dance! Sigrid puts this feeling into words in the last single released ahead of her debut studio album, Sucker Punch.

“Thief” – Alice Chater

In the vein of “Sweet But Psycho” by Ava Max, British pop singer Alice Chater provides her own attempt to break into the Top 40 with a new pop song whose sound and lyrics offers throwback vibes to the 2000s.

“Don’t Call Me Up” – Mabel

In what can only be described as the year’s biggest breakout pop song so far, Mabel is set to release her full-length debut album this summer and hopefully it will contain more contagious, sassy bops like this one.

“I’m So Tired…” – Lauv & Troye Sivan

A love song about hating love songs? With a music video released on Valentine’s Day? We are here for it.

“Love Me & Let Me Go” – Ashley Tisdale

A poignant love song about breaking up with your anxiety and separating yourself from it, released as the second single from Ashley Tisdale’s first album in ten years, Symptoms.

“Low Key” – Ally Brooke feat. Tyga

Fifth Harmony’s Ally Brooke proved with her debut single that we should low-key, low-key get to know her as a solo artist. We are hooked and listening intently for whatever comes next!

“Love Myself” – Olivia O’Brien

A power anthem about loving yourself and everything you see in the mirror wholeheartedly, even when that’s hard.

“Bad Habit” – Ben Platt

Sometimes we just have one of those days when we don’t want to come out, and we turn back to that bad habit. But Ben Platt is here to remind us that it’s okay, because he does that, too.

“Bloodline” – Ariana Grande

On the best song from her latest studio effort Thank U, Next, Ariana Grande sings about dismissing other people’s negativity and expectations, and loving who you are, as you are.

“The Feeling” – Victoria Duffield

In what is probably already the year’s most underrated jam from her new album Day Won, Victoria Duffield sings about when the feeling is just so strong and so happy, all you want to do is sing along.

“Dumb Blonde” – Avril Lavigne

If I may borrow a comment from YouTube… “this sounds like the song from the credits of a 2006 movie.” If we disregard the glib version featuring Nicki Minaj, which unfortunately is the only version available on streaming services, “Dumb Blonde” is Avril Lavigne’s most memorable single to date, sassily dismissing other people’s interpretations of her as well as anyone who has ever felt stereotyped.

“Last Hurrah” – Bebe Rexha

A short but sweet celebration of attempting to let go of bad habits, but then realizing that you’ll still be the same tomorrow if you don’t.

“You and I” – LÉON

An ode to both love and heartbreak, LÉON delivers a contagious lead single from her debut album, making clear why she’s definitely one to watch on this year’s indie pop scene.

Listen to my playlist on Spotify to hear some more of my picks for the best songs of 2019 so far! Be sure to give the playlist a follow as well, since I will be updating it regularly with more picks for the year’s best as they come at us!

Friday, May 24, 2019

With 'The Big Bang Theory' Over, What Does the Future Hold for the Television Sitcom?

Last week, The Big Bang Theory­—the highly-rated sitcom that first debuted on CBS in 2007—bid farewell after 12 long seasons. When the series first started, traditional half-hour sitcoms with laugh tracks, a multi-camera setup, and live studio audiences were starting to be considered a thing of the past. With the conclusion of Will & Grace and the debut of 30 Rock in 2006, a new breed of television comedy was introduced that dared to fly without a laugh track and with quirkier, oddly-tempered jokes that were almost always geared towards a particular sense of humor. Gone were the days, it seemed, when television sitcoms were produced to please all audiences with family friendly premises and characters—The OfficeEverybody Hates Chris, and later Parks & Recreation appeared to usher in a new era for the television comedy in the mid to late 2000s that let the audience come to the show, and not the other way around. But in September 2007, CBS premiered The Big Bang Theory and let it become a shining star for what was now apparently a form of television comedy from a bygone time.
In all seriousness, The Big Bang Theory was not the only remaining multi-camera sitcom with a  laugh track and audience-pleasing jokes in this postmodern era of television. If anything, while the other networks became committed to following and setting new trends, CBS remained more conservative and continued to put their faith in male-dominated, patriarchal procedurals and comedies. While NBC moved onto 30 Rock and Parks & Rec and ABC moved onto Modern Family and The Middle, CBS continued to give big budgets to traditional (and often male-dominated) television sitcoms—Two and a Half Men, How I Met Your MotherRules of EngagementMike & Molly, and The Big Bang Theory—to name only a few. In an era where the tastes and production of American television comedy was shifting, CBS stuck to what everybody already knew: a good, old-fashioned sitcom with a laugh track, zany but loveable characters, and an affinity for happy endings. And for awhile there, it worked—CBS was practically the only network that managed to continue to bring ratings to new, traditional sitcoms, and while other networks continued attempts to replicate multi-camera sitcoms with laugh tracks, not many stuck. The Big Bang Theory, however, managed to become either the most-watched or the second most-watched program on American television by its seventh season—an accomplishment difficult to achieve in a world that was already converting to streaming.
The series was not initially a huge success, commercially or critically. The Big Bang Theory had a modest debut in 2007, with mixed reactions from television critics and somewhat below average ratings. It was enough for them to survive the infamous writer’s strike of 2007–2008, and they returned in their Monday night timeslot either preceding or following Two and a Half Men for an additional two seasons. By season four, the series had grown enough in both ratings and popularity that CBS moved it to Thursdays at 8:00—which was once broadcast primetime television’s most coveted timeslot. For the next few years, it was television’s second highest-rated comedy, behind only ABC’s Modern Family. While that series might have been single-camera without a laugh track, both functioned as the past and present of the television sitcom molded together as one—a family comedy for modern times presented in mockumentary style, and an unapologetically geeky take on the Friends formula. The Big Bang Theory’s sixth season brought not only some of the highest-rated episodes of the series but some of the highest ratings by any primetime program in the 2010s—a 2013 episode, which brought over 20 million American viewers, was one of television’s highest-rated broadcasts since 2007. In 2014, CBS renewed the series for three additional years—an ambitious investment practically unheard of by our postmodern standards of television. By season seven, it was the second most-watched program in the United States, and took hold of the number one spot by season eleven. The Big Bang Theory came on and people watched—which became more and more extraordinary in an era where network television had become hopelessly usurped by Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video. Since 2010, it has been the single most-watched television program in Canada (aided by nightly reruns on CTV). Ratings continued to boom, and so the series continued—despite the fact that The Big Bang Theory died creatively multiple seasons before its ultimate conclusion.
It is undeniable that The Big Bang Theory’s success was made possible by the success of Friends in the ‘90s, and its continued popularity in reruns and on streaming services (one publication even claims that The Big Bang will leave behind a much greater legacy than Friends). Sheldon Cooper is basically Chandler Bing with a PhD and an inability to relate to others. And while a series about a group of science fiction-loving, Klingon-speaking geeks and their hot, blonde neighbor might not have immediately resonated back in 2007, The Big Bang Theory would eventually come to be embraced by the same audiences as a new and different version of the Friends premise—only with slightly more diversity and the same staunch heteronormativity. It didn’t matter if every audience member didn’t comprehend the scientific references to figures such as Richard Feynman or Marie Curie laced in a majority of the series’ episodes, because we understood the characters as social beings and related to them on that level. We understood everyone’s frustration and ultimate compromises with those relentlessly devoted to rules, routine, and insistence on imposing them on everyone else, and we cheered for Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Penny (Kaley Cuoco) just as we cheered for Ross (David Schwimmer) and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) in 1996. But where Friends excelled and The Big Bang Theory ultimately failed was that Friends knew where to draw the line and knew when there were no more stories to tell. Similarly, while Modern Family is scheduled to conclude after its eleventh season next year, there are still a few stories left to tell and loose ends to wrap up. The Big Bang Theory ran out of stories to tell after season eight. Maybe season nine, if I’m feeling generous. It definitely could have concluded after season ten. But then CBS renewed it for two more years, and we finally said goodbye after season twelve—the network and producers were allegedly interested in an additional two years, since Jim Parsons turned down a new $50 million deal in favor of ending the series.
The original cast of The Big Bang Theory, 2007 (Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS)

Rather than living in the shadow of FriendsThe Big Bang Theory almost feels like a contemporary version of Happy Days (which ran for eleven seasons on ABC between 1974 and 1984). Much like that series, The Big Bang Theory went through several different incarnations before finally landing on a formula that was concrete and didn’t need to change again—but by that point, it again felt like all of the stories were already told. Seasons eight through twelve of The Big Bang Theory feel as if Friends were to have continued on after everyone was married and had children. Perhaps if they had attempted to portray a unique and refreshing take on married life with all of the central characters now married (with the exception of Raj), it wouldn’t have felt like the series was stunted creatively and died a slow, agonizing death. Of course, it could have been much worse—once it achieved its status as an untouchable ratings monster, The Big Bang Theory could have become an outrageous fantasy with the characters winning the lottery and fighting terrorists on trains, in the vein of Roseanne. But just like CBS, the series stuck to what they knew, and it got boring. Fast. The writing for most episodes after season ten felt hopelessly uninspired, and honestly, can you blame them? Aside from Two and a Half Men—another CBS cash cow which also ran for twelve seasons under wildly different circumstances—can you name me another American television sitcom that ran for twelve seasons? Even Happy Days, and soon Modern Family, will have ran for eleven. And maybe if there was still life left in The Big Bang Theory with stories left to tell, twelve seasons wouldn’t have felt so long. But after Leonard and Penny were finally married, Sheldon reached sexual maturity with Amy, and Howard and Bernadette started a family, was there anything left that was worth telling? Not really. The series did conclude with Sheldon and Amy winning the Nobel Prize, something Sheldon had aspired to from the very first season, but even that felt like sugar on top of an already over-sweetened sundae. It was as if the series had become the sitcom equivalent of a police procedural that can easily run for close to twenty seasons, since the lives of the characters are not the central focus (not so coincidentally, those procedurals also tend to be CBS’s speciality). The Big Bang Theory ran for twelve seasons not because there were stories still left to tell, but because until the very last episode it was an unstoppable force of ratings for CBS in a world that had long since declared network TV dead in favor of streaming. And in the world of entertainment and certainly television, a cash cow trumps endless creativity every time.
Amid a series of nostalgic goodbyes, the end of The Big Bang Theory has also called the future of the multi-camera television sitcom into question. Apart from several new comedy pilots every year and short-lived sitcoms that quickly get thrown out, CBS still has Mom—another sitcom created by Chuck Lorre (who is also the man behind The Big Bang TheoryTwo and a Half Men, and several others)—presented in the traditional style of laugh track and studio audience, which has been renewed through its eighth season. They also have Man with a Plan—an uninspired modern retelling of The King of Queens or Everybody Loves Raymond starring Matt LeBlanc—entering its fourth season, and The Neighborhood, a somewhat socially conscious tale of an overly friendly white couple moving into a black neighborhood, which has been picked up for a second year. The other networks have their own fair shares of attempts at the television sitcom for the modern age, including successful revivals of Will & Grace and Roseanne (but not Murphy Brown, whose own revival received mixed to negative reviews and was cancelled by CBS after a single season). But the end of The Big Bang Theory has left many questioning if there will soon be another series to take its place, especially given that The Big Bang was a placeholder from a time when network television meant more than it does now. Does the traditional, multi-camera sitcom still have a place in a world captivated by creatively bold series like Veep or Schitt’s Creek?
Sitcoms, let alone drama series, produced by network television have also come to be all but ignored by the Primetime Emmy Awards, which are now dominated by programs produced by streaming services and HBO (while the single-camera Modern Family did well at the Emmys for its first few years, the last multi-camera sitcom to win Outstanding Comedy Series was Everybody Loves Raymond in 2005). But with classic twentieth century sitcoms like The Golden GirlsSeinfeld, and of course Friends still popular in reruns decades after their heydays, some remain optimistic that the classic, multi-camera sitcom that generations have grown up to could always make a comeback, as it’s done countless times before. “I still believe that shooting a show in front of an audience is a wonderful way to a tell a story,” says Chuck Lorre. “I don’t think the audience watches and counts cameras. They watch the show because they love the characters and it delivers on the comedy … If you have something worthwhile, I don’t think it matters whether it’s single-camera, four-camera, eighteen cameras, or a flip book. If it’s really good, it’s going to find an audience. Maybe that’s naive or overly optimistic. But I have to proceed on that basis.”

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Book Review: 'Finding Dorothy' by Elizabeth Letts

"Magic isn't things materializing out of nowhere. Magic is when a lot of people all believe in the same thing at the same time, and somehow we all escape ourselves a little bit and we meet up somewhere, and just for a moment, we taste the sublime."

I really enjoyed reading this. Finding Dorothy is a historical novel that fictionalizes the true history behind the inspiration for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz books, as told by the author's wife, Maud Baum. The story follows Maud throughout two different time periods; her youth and young adulthood when she meets and marries L. Frank Baum in the mid to late 1800s, and the production of The Wizard of Oz film adaption by MGM over the course of 1938 to 1939. After hearing about the film adaption of her late husband's beloved story, Maud decides to work her way into MGM in hopes that she will be able to see the script and recommend any necessary changes, especially surrounding the character of Dorothy. Her eye is also soon caught by a young Judy Garland, whose safety she fears for on the MGM lot given her outstanding talent but very young age. Maud's instinct to protect young Judy is driven by another young girl she knew who also didn't get a happy ending; a young girl we learn about throughout the novel.

Finding Dorothy is very entertaining for anyone who has grown up either watching The Wizard of Oz (one of the most seen films in history), or also reading the books on which the film was based. Maud's inclination to protect a character like Dorothy despite everyone's insistence that she's not real is very touching and heartwarming, given that a multitude of famous fictional characters are often based off of real people. The novel is also very well written and easy to get through; the kind of book you could sit down to only read a chapter or two and then end up reading a hundred pages. The chapters taking place in the present, 1938 and 1939, were the most interesting to me given that The Wizard of Oz film is very near and dear to my heart not only because I grew up watching it like everyone else, but because since growing up I have found new insight and comfort in what the story and the character of Dorothy representinnocence, a longing to belong somewhere, and a yearning to exist in someplace where there isn't any trouble and where people understand her. For me, and I'm sure for countless others, this is why the story of The Wizard of Oz continues to resonate, since these are themes that never go out of style. Elizabeth Letts does a very good job of capitalizing on these themes, especially surrounding the people on the movie set who grew up reading Baum's books.

The author also does an exceptional job at chipping away at the age-old link between Judy Garland and Dorothy; a link that scholars, critics, experts, and the actress herself have long since suggested that Garland and the character were impeccably similar in heart and spirit when the film was made. In a story about the origin story of one of fiction's most famous characters, Dorothy Gale—the girl who wanted to fly over the rainbow—the author wastes no time in pointing out that a young and vulnerable Judy Garland, who was hopelessly susceptible to the ruthless Hollywood studio system in place at that time, was just another Dorothy character looking for her rainbow and yearning for her happy ending (a happy ending which Garland claimed she herself never received). "What must the weight of so much expectation—of men, and their ambitions and desires—feel like on the shoulders of a lonely teenage girl?"

For me, the novel began to drag about halfway through, when it appeared as though the author was losing interest in fleshing out the details of the chapters taking place in the past: she quickly glosses over crucial events, does a lot of telling instead of showing, and it feels as though she definitely wanted to get back to the much more interesting storyline taking place in the present. The author explains her writing process and inspiration for Finding Dorothy in an afterword at the end, explaining that the entire novel is a fictional story based closely on the truth and that she poured over the diaries, journals, and letters of the real Baum family in order to properly construct a fiction that very well might have been close to the truth. She also explains that she did leave some things up to the imagination regarding Maud's youth and the origin story of Dorothy, writing that she didn't feel completely comfortable fictionalizing every aspect of the plot. I understand that, but after awhile the chapters taking place in the past were just a bore to get through. I believe she could have ended the story in the past once she started to not feel comfortable fictionalizing it further, and then focused solely on the production of the MGM film adaption since that was clearly a much more interesting storyline for both the author and the reader.

In any event, I really enjoyed Finding Dorothy. I think it would make a great movie, and could join the ranks of other films about the real-life origin stories of American literature classics, in the vein of Finding Neverland or Saving Mr. Banks. I think this story could even resonate more than those films, given that The Wizard of Oz movie is such a classic story beloved by countless generations whose popularity has even transcended that of the books on which the film was based. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that the film rights for Finding Dorothy get snapped up sometime soon, but until then, I'd recommend reading the book. 4/5 stars.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Carly Rae Jepsen Reminds Us That Pop Music Should Be Unapologetic on 'Dedicated' (Album Review)

Could anybody have ever predicted that Carly Rae Jepsen—the Canadian singer who initially appeared on 
Canadian Idol in 2007—would have become pop music’s biggest cult favorite? Three albums and dozens of singles later, Jepsen has returned with her fourth studio effort, Dedicated, an album in which she says she has finally learned how to “embrace her weirdness.”

After finishing in third place on Idol over a decade ago, Jepsen signed with Chad Kroeger’s 604 Records in Canada and recorded her folk-inspired debut album, Tug of War, released domestically in her native country in 2008. Her real breakthrough would arrive four years later in 2012, when she left her folksy side behind and went for straight up bubblegum pop on her single “Call Me Maybe”—which, with the help of Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez, was boosted to significant mainstream popularity and later became the highest-selling song of that year. Meanwhile, Jepsen was signed to a new joint record deal with Interscope and Scooter Braun’s label, Schoolboy Records, and released her second studio album and international debut, Kiss. After the significant mainstream success she enjoyed with “Call Me Maybe” and its accompanying bubblegum pop album, Jepsen returned with her third studio album in 2015, Emotion, whose dance and synthpop sound drew heavy inspiration from ‘80s music. Although the album was the subject of critical acclaim, it underperformed commercially worldwide, only seeing the moderate success of its lead single “I Really Like You,” another bubblegum offering. But in lieu of commercial success, Emotion reinvigorated Jepsen’s career as the pop singer we know her as today—instead of being at the top of charts or trying to create another “Call Me Maybe,” she is making her own style of pop still heavily influenced from bygone eras, which has undoubtedly given her a large gay following—which has been referred to as a “queer cult.” 

On her new studio album Dedicated—for which Jepsen says she wrote over 200 songs over the last two years and ended up narrowing it down to a final track listing of 15—she continues paving her own road. She’s stated that her goal was to make “chill disco,” and despite the EDM single “Now That I Found You” not appearing incredibly original at first, Jepsen manages to find new ways to create poignant sounds that sound both old and new with sometimes poetic lyrics offering new insights into typical romantic clichés often found in pop music. But this is what Carly Rae Jepsen represents in the current pop music landscape: that the genre’s purpose is no longer solely to sell records and top charts. Sometimes pop music is just about dancing, having fun, and accepting that the human spirit is something that never goes out of style.

If Jepsen crafted an album about the unpredictability of human emotions on Emotion, she proves that she is dedicated to that theme on Dedicated. I wouldn’t necessarily describe the album as disco, but it definitely accomplishes the “chill” vibe that she said she was going for. I feel as though only Carly Rae Jepsen could somehow make campiness chill, and create an album that screams camp while still being consistently mellow and without the hysterics found on Emotion (also, I must point out that Jepsen could have made any kind of album she wanted and I still would have been grateful to finally hear her voice with refreshing new production without the ‘80s synth vibes that infested both Emotion and its sequel, Emotion: Side B, from start to finish). Dedicated’s highlights appear hidden between the lines—she maintains her dreamy and lovestruck stance on “Julien” and “No Drug Like Me” before coming through on the disco influences on “Want You in My Room.” On “Too Much,” she sings about what it’s like to always go too far and feel too much—which feels as though it could be a sequel to any number of dance numbers from Emotion. “The Sound” functions as an excellent predecessor to quite possibly the album’s biggest highlight, “Automatically in Love,” which combines sounds reminiscent of Mariah Carey and Donna Summer to form an escapist pop sound that is undoubtedly, unapologetically Carly Rae Jepsen. “Feels Right,” a collaboration with Electric Guest, is an upbeat and catchy track reminiscent of Motown funk that indeed feels right on an album like Dedicated. The album nears a close with “Real Love,” a standout ballad combining new wave synths with EDM about following your heart. “Party For One” serves as Dedicated’s closing track, which was initially released as the album’s lead single last November but now only serves as a bonus track on the digital deluxe edition.

Some listeners who have failed to look between the lines still only know Jepsen as the “Call Me Maybe” girl, but Jepsen has spent the better part of almost a decade since then forging her own path as someone who subverts expectations—she might not represent what current popular music is today, but on a deeper level she represents what the genre has always been about: dancing your troubles away, accepting the inevitability of a broken heart, and the ever-changing nature of human emotions. In a world where pop culture craves pop songs that will resonate with everyone, Jepsen’s music focuses on a predictable theme we all can relate to, no matter what: feelings. Her songs also celebrate the intimacy and primacy of those intense emotions of forbidden desires and secret crushes, which has certainly contributed to her appeal and resonance among gay men. If anything, Dedicated proves that working with old sounds with an artist’s own twist does not speak to a lack of ambition on Jepsen’s part, but rather a passion for unique, unapologetic pop music. And it may not be the last we hear from the Dedicated era, since Jepsen says she may or may not release a compilation of B-sides and tracks that didn’t make the final cut, in the same vein as Emotion: Side B (which may include the title track “Dedicated,” which did not happen to make the final cut). Jepsen knows and embodies the fickle, feel-good pop music we know and love, whether we know it or not. “Sometimes you live with songs too much,” she says. “I just warn my manager, if we’re going to go with something, we should probably go with it soon, because God knows this girl changes her mind.”

Jeffrey’s favorites from Dedicated: “Julien,” “No Drug Like Me,” “Now That I Found You,” “Want You in My Room,” “Too Much,” “The Sound,” “Automatically in Love,” “Feels Right,” “Real Love,” and “Party For One”

Monday, May 6, 2019

Book Review: 'At Home in the World' by Joyce Maynard

"It is unfathomable to me, at eighteen, that some people actually grow up feeling reasonably content with themselves. It will be years before I understand some people go to bed every night with a sense of well-being that has nothing to do with winning prizes or publishing their stories."

At Home in the World is a memoir by writer and author Joyce Maynard, first published in 1998. My interest in reading it was peaked several years ago, after I had read and enjoyed two of Maynard's novels of fiction, Labor Day and After Her. And despite knowing Maynard as an author in the context of having read two of her books, I actually had no idea of her rich history as a writer, author, daughter, mother, and a woman trying to finally feel at home in the world.

The memoir mainly focuses on Maynard's eleven-month relationship with infamously reclusive author J.D. Salinger between 1972 and 1973, which began after New York Magazine published an essay she wrote about growing up as a young person in the socially and politically turbulent 1960s. But At Home in the World is more than that: it's a story of a young girl who, for the majority of her life, struggled to find a place where she felt at home. She details her upbringing with her mother, a writer, and her father, a university professor who was an unstable alcoholic. Essentially, Maynard describes how she seemed to follow every rule that she was supposed to and still ended up feeling dissatisfied once she grew up; something that is still relevant and resonates today. She describes how she met Salinger at such a formative time in her existence and had still yet to process her own writing career that began to bloom at such a young age. She wrote her first memoir following the success of her published essay, Looking Back: A Chronicle of Growing Up Old in the Sixties, despite still being too young to truly know or find her place in the world. Maynard also struggled with anxiety and an eating disorder as she tried to maintain different expectations and standards of perfection, all while becoming infatuated with a famous author who attempts to mold her into the woman and writer he wants to see.

Reading how Maynard describes the era in which she grew up, especially since she was an adult when she wrote this memoir and finds strength in her perceptions merely from the distance of time, was fascinating. It was interesting to see how past generations, especially ones who came of age in an era of shifting social norms, struggled just as much with feelings of anxiety as current generations do. Growing up is hard and being alive is hard, and Maynard always reminds us of that. For me, At Home in the World was less about her relationship and/or affair with J.D. Salinger and more a coming-of-age tale from a now-grown woman who refuses to lie to herself anymore. She admits that she was too young to have been given such a platform as a writer and journalist for multiple magazines and newspapers, including Seventeen and The New York Times. She admits she was infatuated with Salinger merely because he was such a highly respected author and, from the time she was a child, she craved approval anywhere she could get it. She admits that reading many of the pieces she published as a teenager and young adult make her uncomfortable now, because no eighteen-year-old should ever sound that sure of themselves. But she uses her affair with Salinger as a focal point for her own becoming, and how despite the fact that he was the one who grew bored with her and abandoned her, she was able to finally find her footing as a person in the world once he was out of her life. Years later, as an adult, Maynard visits him in person and demands an answer to one question: what was her purpose in his life? He doesn't really give her one, but what he does say is enough to confirm what she and the reader already know: maybe the whole world is full of liars and fakes and phonies, but it's better to be in it, than down here with you.

I find At Home in the World did drag in places where Maynard chose to focus a little too much about her immediate family by building up characters who don't really play hugely pivotal roles in the overall story she is telling, but I feel as though she had to establish who she is by telling us about her upbringing and her family as they were. But the memoir itself was crafted very strongly and will surely resonate if you have either read Maynard's books of fiction before, or you've ever struggled to feel at home in the world: I'm willing to bet every single human being will satisfy at least one of those. Maynard's storytelling is very raw, honest, and real; she writes of her own failings and shortcomings with such vulnerability and realism that you can't help but keep reading until the last page. 4/5 stars.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Album Review: Olivia O'Brien - 'Was It Even Real?'

Since she released her first solo singles in 2016, singer/songwriter Olivia O’Brien has sung about depression, failed and messy relationships, and drowning her sorrows in bad habits. She’s written songs about trust issues, feeling invisible, and learning to love herself as she is—all extremely important and valid life lessons that are essential to being human. It’s hard to believe she’s only 19 years old.
O’Brien first rose to fame after she was selected by rapper Gnash to record a song she had written, “I Hate U, I Love U,” as a duet. The song received significant popularity and reached number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart—so it didn’t take long for talented songwriter O’Brien to sign a deal with Island Records. After a few other collaborations and a series of standalone singles, she released her debut EP in 2017, It’s Not That Deep, featuring five tracks including “Empty,” “No Love,” “RIP,” and “Tequilawine”—the latter about mixing the two drinks to distract from a disgruntled crush. I remember a time when lyrics about drinking and alcohol were taboo for singers under legal drinking age in the United States, but clearly O’Brien has proved she has the songwriting ability and depth as an artist to not play by anyone’s pop music rules.
Over the last few years, a new generation of pop stars have been creating their own rules and trends (as most pop stars tend to do), but something unique about the likes of Camila Cabello, Bebe Rexha, and even Charlie Puth is that they’ve found great inspiration in writing and recording songs about the shallowness of Hollywood and Los Angeles and the empty, surface-level relationships they’ve found with the people there. Olivia O’Brien is most definitely a pioneer of this trend, who has not shied away from channeling such frustrations into her work. O’Brien, who has struggled with depression since she was a child, has no issue with including those relevant struggles in her music, either. “I Don’t Exist,” the second single from her full-length debut studio album Was It Even Real?, is partly inspired by the uptight people she’s encountered at Hollywood parties and clubs as well as articulating what it’s like to feel invisible in general—something that will surely resonate with misfits from all social standings. Another single from the album, “Love Myself”—released earlier this winter—is an ode and reminder to any and all that loving yourself has to come before anything else. The song, which serves as the album’s closing track, is reflective of O’Brien’s hope that people will start listening to the album when they’re feeling down and then feel uplifted by the time they reach the end. “It doesn’t have the same unattainable note that a lot of happier, confident songs have,” says O’Brien of the song. “I should love myself, but I don’t. I should treat myself better, but I don’t … So much other shit is like, ‘I already love myself. I’m confident. I’m great.’ This is more attainable. It starts with being easier on yourself. So many kids are depressed. I wanted to end on a high note.”
Was It Even Real? is an impressive debut that surely places O’Brien in a league of her own. She rants about relationships, feeling like she doesn’t exist, learning the same lessons over and over again, as well as some ballads, anthems, and bops about meaningless encounters and expecting too much from people, such as “We Lied to Each Other,” “Care Less More,” and “Just A Boy.” It also succeeds with acoustic guitars and heartfelt sounds rather than overproduction. Not one song on the album feels like it could be sung by another artist, which is already an achievement in itself. And unlike other pop stars of the moment who may capitalize on the emptiness of living in L.A. for one song here or there, O’Brien has managed to capture that feeling of both emptiness and depression on several different songs—and not one sounds the same as the last. Overall, she just hopes that her music will resonate and help others who’ve felt the same way. “I wrote this in a really dark place, and I hope I can help other people who may be in that same spot,” she says. “My idea was for you to listen to listen to the album when you’re feeling sad and by the end, you’ll feel better without even realizing it.” While her album’s title may have been inspired from questioning whether any of her relationships were real, O’Brien has proven that she definitely is.
Jeffrey’s favorites from Was It Even Real?: “I Don’t Exist,” “Inhibition (omw),” “Just Friends,” “We Lied to Each Other,” “Care Less More,” “Just A Boy,” “Call Me!!!,” and “Love Myself”