Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Book Review: 'Little Monsters' by Kara Thomas


"But that's the problem with letting someone slowly chip away at your walls—when you let too much of yourself out, there's no way to get it back."

I tend to have very emotional reactions to books—I like to think of it as I either loved or hated it, and more times than not, most books I read fall somewhere in between those extremes. That is also to say that sometimes, even if I don't find myself wholeheartedly enjoying a book, if it's good enough for me to at least read the entire thing without wanting to abandon it after 50 pages, I feel the need to give it a minimum of 3 stars out of 5. I feel like 1 and 2-star ratings are reserved for books that I felt were especially bad, or I really disliked and/or hated them for specific reasons. So even if I think a book is weak/bad/stupid as I'm reading it, if it's at least good enough for me to get through the whole thing, it's most probably going to get a minimum of 3 stars from me. Little Monsters fits this rule of mine perfectly.

Little Monsters is a YA thriller that follows three teenage girls and what turns out to be an incredibly twisted and dangerous friendship. Our narrator, Kacey, enters the secluded town of Broken Falls, Wisconsin as the lonely, mysterious new girl. She had grown up with her unstable mother and as the result of an increasingly toxic environment, Kacey moves in with her father whom she had never met, his wife Ashley, her son Andrew, and Kacey's half-sister Lauren. She befriends Jade and Bailey, two tight buddies who let Kacey into their circle and invite her to everything. However, one night, Bailey goes missing after a party, and Kacey finds herself stuck in a web of lies, drama, and scandal surrounding Bailey's disappearance. Soon, Kacey learns her mistake in trusting the people around her, including the people she had called her closest supporters.

While the author does a good job at painting an intimate portrait of a small town with a vast cast of characters, the characters and plot themselves have very little depth. The entire story reminded me of a twisted soap opera plot, honestly: super twisty and entertaining at times, but overall, rather outlandish, forced, and shallow. There weren't any evil twins or major reconstructive surgeries to look like someone else in Little Monsters, but it pretty much felt like the YA thriller novel equivalent of that. The entire climax of the story felt like it was just to reinforce the idea that teenage girls take out their deep-rooted anxieties about their world on themselves and their friends, but offers nothing to destigmatize such discussions. The resolution to the mystery also revolves around the stereotype of every teenage girl being boy-obsessed and being practically willing to kill each other over it, which was pretty eye-roll worthy. Honestly, I read a 1-star of review of Little Monsters by one of my Goodreads friends and pretty much agreed with everything they wrote
—but like I said, I did find myself enjoying reading the book and I was able to actually finish it, so I couldn't bring myself to give it 1 or 2 stars. I didn't hate it THAT much. You can tell the author put time into the plot and making sure it made at least some sense, but at the same time, it felt like she just got lazy by the end and started explaining too much about the resolution of the story to the reader (show don't tell).

But the weakest point of Little Monsters is the characters: their actions make virtually no sense. For example, Kacey thinks she has anger issues hidden inside herself because she grew up with an unstable mother but all she does is get a little justifiably angry a few times, so that felt forced. Not to mention Kacey's entire backstory was just an afterthought: she moved to a new town with a new family with the father she had never met, and I think Kacey and her dad have a total of maybe three interactions throughout the entire book. Most of Kacey's parental interactions are with her stepmother Ashley, which felt like a strange creative decision. Not to mention pretty much all of the characters then come across as unlikeable because the motives for their actions seem shallow, forced, or not entirely explained. Overall, Little Monsters was pretty easy to read and fairly entertaining given that it's a thriller/mystery, but there are so many blaring problems with the plot and characters that are kind of hard to overlook. But I did enjoy reading it. I would recommend to anyone who likes simple YA books with a bit of mystery and twists thrown in. 3/5 stars.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Downfall of Les Moonves and the Future of CBS


In the 1970s and 1980s, CBS was home to some of the best remembered and most groundbreaking programs on television—All in the FamilyThe Mary Tyler Moore ShowRhodaMaudeDesigning WomenMurder, She WroteMurphy Brown and countless others, many of which were female-driven with female lead stars. But since the mid-1990s, things have taken a turn—when Les Moonves took over as president of CBS Entertainment in 1995, the network’s approach to programming has shifted largely to male-driven procedurals and misogynistic comedies, a vision still present on the network today. So is it any surprise that the executive stepped down from his position this week amid a flood of sexual misconduct allegations? I think not.
Since the 2000s, CBS has undeniably had a reputation of being the more fiscally and culturally conservative network. In the early years of the decade, the Nielsen ratings were dominated by procedural cop shows that fought crime and gave viewers a taste of the disturbing instances of society with a new case this week. Television in the 2000s would have been unrecognizable without mentioning the CSI franchise, which at its height encompassed three weekly police procedurals in different American cities (Las Vegas, Miami, and New York) and initially served mostly as competition for the endearing popularity of NBC’s Law & Order franchise. But the success CBS saw with weekly procedural dramas in the 2000s would go unmatched, and CSI was only the beginning: before long, other procedurals like NCISWithout a TraceCold CaseNumb3rs, Criminal MindsGhost Whisperer, and The Mentalist were booming in ratings and popularity. For the longest time, it seemed no one complained about the rise of procedurals on CBS, since they were popular and profitable. Sure, many were arguably male-driven, but they still had female supporting characters and a select few with female leads. But the vision for women that these programs presented was hardly liberating, much less inviting: somewhere between the empowering and feministic visions of Mary Tyler Moore and Designing Women, the main focus of CBS’ programming quickly shifted to hot-shot male FBI detectives with cool sunglasses with the female characters left to be either their sidekicks, or a vaginal swab in the CSI lab from the hooker who was killed.
While I wish we could say the misogyny on CBS in the last 20 years was limited to cop shows, it’s pretty clear that the network applied a certain vision that praised men and limited women to all of its programming, especially sitcoms. While arguably any sitcom can have its funny or loveable moments, there is literally no denying that Everybody Loves Raymond or The King of Queens (who both began their runs on CBS in the mid ‘90s) rely on inherently misogynistic gender norms to sell their appeal. Sure, the family sitcom reached its peak throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s and that is no doubt what ensured Raymond and Queens’ success, but in comparison to the family sitcoms that CBS associated themselves with a mere 25 years earlier (All in the FamilyOne Day at a Time, Good Times, or The Jeffersons), Everybody Loves Raymond and The King of Queens pushed little to no boundaries and instead reinforced aging gender norms for the white heterosexual family. It should then come as no surprise that CBS was home to Two and a Half Men, which—as strong as it was for some years—was deeply misogynistic to even the most casual viewer. Still, the series ran for 12 seasons and even survived the erratic behavior and heavily publicized firing of its lead star, Charlie Sheen, in 2011. Time and time again, CBS has relied on inherently misogynistic, heteronormative values hidden behind strong writing to sell their comedies—How I Met Your MotherRules of EngagementGary UnmarriedMike & Molly, and even The Big Bang Theory (the show has been on for almost 12 years and Penny has never been given a last name. Don’t tell me that’s a liberating female role.) Even female-driven CBS sitcoms like The New Adventures of Old Christine2 Broke Girls, or Mom have spent an awful lot of time painting women in a negative light. And, in recent years, viewers and critics have begun to take notice of the lack of diversity in CBS programming, both for women and ethnic minorities. Decades after Mary Tyler MooreRhodaMaudeDesigning Women, and Murphy Brown called CBS home and broke down walls for women on television, their network has been reduced to male-driven procedurals and misogynistic family sitcoms. And it seems that Les Moonves is partly to blame.
Les Moonves became president of CBS Entertainment in July 1995 and quickly worked his way up the ladder, later serving as the president of Viacom and was referred to by some as the most powerful man in television…until this week. On September 9, 2018, Moonves resigned as president of CBS amid growing allegations of sexual misconduct by countless employees, both cast and crew members (the irony in this, of course, is that Moonves previously pledged support and donated money to the Time’s Up and Me Too movements). The accusations against Moonves were first brought to light by Ronan Farrow in The New Yorker in July, where he interviewed several women who accused him of assault. Among them are actress Illeana Douglas, known for appearing on HBO’s Six Feet Under, who worked with Moonves on a CBS sitcom pilot called Queens in the late ‘90s. After he allegedly assaulted her and demanded that she keep quiet, Douglas was replaced on Queens, dropped by her management (they said she had caused them to “burn their bridges” with CBS), and was ultimately blocked by Moonves when she tried to take him to court.
Six women told their stories of being harassed or assaulted by Moonves in The New Yorker, some of which asked to remain anonymous. But perhaps one of the most interesting perspectives on the growing case against Les Moonves comes from writer and producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, creator of Designing Women, who wrote a piece for The Hollywood Reporter detailing her experiences with the TV mogul and reminds everyone that not all harassment is sexual. In the article, Thomason revealed that Moonves kept her shows off the air for up to seven years and while she makes clear that she was never sexually assaulted or harassed by him, that doesn’t mean she was never targeted. In 1992, Thomason was given the largest writing and producing contract in the history of CBS, for $50 million, “involving five new series with hefty penalties for each pilot not picked up.” She described Designing Women as her “flagship show” on CBS and by 1990 she had already seen further success with another sitcom on the network, Evening Shade. Thomason recalls how former CBS executives gave her and her producers “carte blanche” to tackle any subject regardless how controversial, including sexual harassment, pornography, and domestic violence. She described the feeling as exhilarating, but it all quickly grinded to a halt when Moonves took over in 1995. He voiced his dislike of the approach of Thomason’s programming, but because she was still under contract, she continued trying to win him over to no avail. Her two other CBS sitcoms, Hearts Afire and Women of the House, were cancelled and practically forgotten, and Thomason says she would not work again for seven years as Moonves seemingly blocked her from getting other gigs. “Over the years, even when an actress managed to get one of my scripts through an agent, the deal would immediately be killed,” she wrote. “It was like a personal vendetta and I will never know why. Was it because I was championing the New South? Or an admittedly aggressive, feminist agenda? Or both? […] When I finally realized he was never going to put a show of mine on the air, I left. It was never really about the money anyway, I just wanted to work. People asked me for years, ‘Where have you been? What happened to you?’ Les Moonves happened to me.”
Thomason also describes walking through the halls of CBS one day years later, noticing that the portraits of iconic women like Mary Tyler Moore, Rhoda, Maude, Murphy Brown, and the Designing Women were gone from the walls. She doesn’t know why they’re gone and won’t ask, but all she knows is that “the likes of them have rarely been seen on that network again. Thanks to Les Moonves, I can only guess they all became vaginal swabs in crime labs on CSI Amarillo.” The writer and producer also doesn’t shy away from bringing other stories into her own, writing that Moonves’ motto when he first took over CBS was “why would I wanna cast ’em if I don’t wanna f*ck ’em?” as well as an especially interesting tidbit regarding an encounter with a particular actress who goes nameless, but the implications are pretty clear. Thomason writes: “Soon, I would hear how he had invited a famous actress to lunch in the CBS dining room. Coming off the cancellation of her iconic detective show, the star began pitching a new one. He informed her that she was too old to be on his network. She began to cry and stood up to go. He stood up too, taking her by the shoulders and telling her, ‘I can’t let you leave like this.’ She reacted, suddenly touched. Then he shoved his tongue down her throat. I know this happened because the star is the person who told me.” Some have theorized that it could have been one of the actresses from Cagney & Lacey, the delightful female-driven police procedural from the ‘80s, but I think this may be referring to Angela Lansbury (CBS cancelled Murder, She Wrote in 1996 after 12 seasons, which would have been one season after Moonves took over the network).
Despite growing evidence of abuse and misconduct against Les Moonves, we can perhaps take comfort in the fact that he is now no longer president of CBS, and this very well might usher in a new era for the network. With these new allegations brought to light that reminds us of the shift in programming on CBS since the ‘90s, I can only imagine how much the creators and producers of series like The Good Wife had to fight to keep it on the air, given how much it was rooted in feminism and politics, and how much of a departure The Good Wife was from the rest of CBS’ programming at the time. But if we take a closer look, perhaps the downfall of Les Moonves had already been written in the stars: while CBS does continue to rely heavily on its primetime procedurals, the criticism it has faced regarding the lack of diversity in its programming has led to some changes, slowly but surely, over the course of the last few years. While there are currently only two programs on the network with female lead stars (Madam Secretary and Mom), the revival of Murphy Brown later this month is sure to bring some much-needed comedic and cultural chutzpah to an otherwise bland network lacking in diversity and representation. Much like the ill-fated Roseanne reboot from earlier this year, the new Murphy Brown will find iconic characters who broke down walls in a previous generation in a new era of social issues and journalism, and it will be interesting to see the results (hopefully with less racist remarks than the aforementioned ABC sitcom reboot). The revival will be joined by a new sitcom called The Neighborhood starring Cedric the Entertainer and Max Greenfield, which satirizes gentrification and racial norms (two things CBS practically hasn’t touched since All in the Family or The Jeffersons). Progress takes time, and perhaps with a problematic president of entertainment now gone, CBS can continue inching closer to more culturally relevant programming as it once had.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Album Review: Ariana Grande - 'Sweetener'


Regardless of any backlash that may ensue, pushing boundaries is arguably one of the best things an artist can do, especially in our current era of music—where music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music have given rise to independent artists releasing single after single who will probably never make an album. But for those of us who still rely on our favorite pop singers to deliver new studio albums that will both satisfy and inspire listeners while also strengthening the artistry of the artist, Ariana Grande does just that on Sweetener. For the most part.
Even prior to the events of May 2017 in Manchester, England, Ariana Grande was well-loved among mainstream music critics who constantly called her a young Mariah Carey and among her fiercely loyal fanbase, who undoubtedly have a strong LGBT presence. I’ve never been a huge Grande fan—in fact, ask anyone who knew me well between 2014 and 2016 and they’ll tell you I more than disliked her—but I think what bothered me more than her tendency to sing so high only dogs can hear (as is the same reason I’ve never loved Mariah Carey) combined with her apparent inability to enunciate her lyrics was the fact that she quickly became a pop star who was lauded an icon before she had even done anything iconic, most likely thanks to her largely gay fanbase, in the same vein as other gay icons who will be defended until death do they part. And I take no issue with that concept, as I do it myself, but in my honest opinion I have never found Ariana Grande to be an artist who pushed boundaries that hadn’t already been pushed, or an artist who made profound public statements or endorsements that other artists hadn’t done a thousand times before her. Around 2016, when Grande released her third studio album Dangerous Woman, I decided to stop being such a snob with what I listened to and started giving her music an honest attempt, and I liked her new material much more than her previous material that had turned me off in the past. Branching out from the pop-EDM singles that had made her radio famous in 2014, Grande found a somewhat unique sound and an image that fit her well with Dangerous Woman, proving (at least to me) that she was capable of finding her sound in a pop music market flooded by generic EDM. Also, I think my homosexual membership card would be revoked if I didn’t at least like some of Dangerous Woman (I mean, c’mon, find me someone who doesn’t love “Into You” because I want to yell at them).
In the midst of her Dangerous Woman Tour, an Islamist terrorist detonated a bomb as people were leaving her concert in Manchester, killing 23 and injuring more than 100, several of which were children. It’s no secret that the terrorist attack affected Grande in a grave way, shown most recently when she broke down in tears during a promotional interview for Sweetener with Beats 1 Radio. Pharrell Williams, who worked with Grande on most of the new album, alluded to the fact that her record label and even the industry started viewing Ariana and her new work differently after the bombing, suggesting it now gives her another artistic edge that others lack. And when it comes down to it, very few other contemporary music artists have dealt with people being killed by a terrorist attack at their concert, and you could even say very few other artists are as sensitive and down-to-earth as Grande is. At the end of the day, having an emotional meltdown while discussing the fact that 23 innocent people died at one of her concerts proves that she is a human being capable of genuine human emotion, which can only strengthen an artist’s connection with fans and the public’s opinion of her. But does it strengthen her music?
On her latest studio effort Sweetener, released last Friday, Grande collaborated largely with Pharrell Williams, who produced 6 of the album’s 15 tracks. But whether or not Williams does good work here doesn’t seem to be the issue; last November, he told the Los Angeles Times that the things that Grande has to say on her next album are “pretty next-level.” But most notably, Grande’s manager Scooter Braun set the stage for her next album when he told Variety that it was time for her to have her song. “She has such an extraordinary voice and it’s time for her to sing the songs that define her,” he said. “Whitney, Mariah, Adele … when they sing, that’s their song. Ariana has big vocal moments; it’s time for her song.” One would think that Grande had found her sound or her song on Dangerous Woman with songs like the title track (which had actually been offered to Rihanna first), or “Greedy,” “Into You,” or “Side to Side.” But as Ariana reminds us on Sweetener, R&B has always been her game, and as much as the Mariah Carey comparisons very quickly grow tiresome, she is following in her footsteps by doing her best to stay in the parameters of contemporary R&B. We remember when Grande burst on the pop scene in 2014 with huge hits like “Problem,” “Break Free,” and “Love Me Harder,” but we very easily forget that she made clear she was an R&B artist on her debut studio album Yours Truly in 2013, which saw contributions from producers like Babyface who helped solidify Grande as perhaps the only contemporary to an artist like Mariah, with the high notes to prove it. We may have lost sight of it on parts of My Everything (her second studio album from 2014), but aside from the dance-pop moments on Dangerous Woman, it was also very R&B heavy. So the proposition from her manager that it was time for Grande to “have her song” could only suggest it was time for her to grow as an artist—something that, arguably, can only be done by pushing boundaries.
In the months leading up to Sweetener’s release, it seemed to me that Grande seemed unfocused in her new era of music, releasing the strong lead single “No Tears Left to Cry” in April only to then release her latest collaboration with Nicki Minaj in June, “The Light Is Coming,” which is just…no. Offbeat rap, electropop beats, and the same chorus repeated five thousand times? No. Grande’s upcoming fourth studio album was also perhaps overshadowed by her public relationship and then fast engagement to comedian and Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson, and the promotion quickly shifted from her new music to her new relationship (most of which was certainly not her fault or her choosing, I’m sure). The second official single followed soon after, “God is a Woman,” which gave me back a little faith that the album wasn’t going to be complete trash but also that it was clearly going to explore multiple different sounds. As far as pushing boundaries on Sweetener, Grande proves that she can thrive regardless of sound or production. Pharrell Williams’ tracks, while interestingly mixed, are highly experimental and do not provide any of the album’s standout moments. Sweetener’s strongest moments come from Grande’s previous collaborators Max Martin and Ilya, who produced the strong “No Tears Left to Cry” and the contagiously catchy “Breathin.” But the album’s highest achievement, it seems, is what Scooter Braun said it was time for Ariana to have—her song—and she more than finds that on “God is a Woman.” The track fits Grande’s voice perfectly and embodies her R&B artistry perhaps more than any single she has ever released. As far as “having her song” goes, she has it on Sweetener (perhaps more than once; despite the shifts in production, all tracks on the album fit Grande’s voice quite well), knowing that sometimes the best things can come out of experimenting with new things and also proving she’s not shy of it, either. I wouldn’t say the experimental sound is imaginative or revolutionary, but it’s enough to give Grande her moment, and satisfy even the tamest of Ariana fans.
Jeffrey’s favorite tracks from Sweetener“No Tears Left to Cry,” “God is a Woman,” “Breathin,” “Everytime,” and “Goodnight n Go”

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Book Review: 'Cinderella Ate My Daughter' by Peggy Orenstein

This book was interesting on many levels, despite many things that the author glosses over. Cinderella Ate My Daughter takes a look at how the rise of "Girl Power" in the 1990s (also known as third-wave feminism) has sexualized girlhood at an alarming albeit not surprising rate. Somewhere in the '90s and '00s, the author examines how the pursuit of physical perfection among girls has suddenly become female empowerment and something that will make them strong, despite being a concept that is literally an oxymoron and, obviously, very problematic. By taking a look at Disney princesses (old and new), Bratz dolls and Disney Channel, Peggy Orenstein poses an important question: playing princess is just make-believe and all girls grow out of it, or do they?

I first became interested in Peggy Orenstein after I had to read an article she wrote for the New York Times called "What's Wrong with Cinderella?" for a class about two years ago, and I finally decided to get around to reading the book that she eventually expanded that article into. The article takes a look at how the rise of "girlie-girl culture" has found new ground in the 2000s, reminding us that prior to the 1980s, girls and boys' toys weren't always so gendered into pink and blue; it was merely another marketing strategy that proved widely successful. In Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Orenstein talks to the marketing executive behind the idea of creating a brand of Disney Princess merchandise, Andy Mooney, who claims that they were "just giving girls what they wanted." But time and time again, Orenstein points out that the line between desire and coercion, especially when it comes to young girls and princesses, is very easily blurred. For example, Disney Princess merchandise is all fun and games until you realize it's only the conventional princesses like Cinderella, Belle, Aurora, and Ariel who get top billing - strong and badass princesses like Pocahontas or Mulan often take the backseat (and, notice that if Mulan does appear on princess merch, she's often wearing the Chinese formal wear that makes her miserable in the movie and not her warrior gear, which helps her save an entire country). Another example is that the popularity of Barbie dolls transitioned quickly into the Bratz dolls in the 2000s, which essentially promoted provocative clothing as a way for young girls to appear strong (this idea can very easily be found in a variety of other merchandise marketed towards young girls as well). Orenstein even reminds us that, when she first arrived on the scene, Britney Spears was marketed to girls no older than six - and was always dressed in clothing that can be described as nothing short of skanky. But the real question is, are these girls any stronger than the Cinderella from 1950 who essentially represents the patriarchal oppression of all women? Orenstein also draws our attention to the rise of princess culture on Disney Channel who, beginning in the early 2000s, started to market a different kind of Disney princess. It arguably began with Hilary Duff on Lizzie McGuire, who was a relatively normal preteen girl who dealt with the everyday embarrassments of middle school. But Hilary Duff would later appear in a theatrical film based off the series where she sang that "what dreams are made of" is becoming a pop star...and the dream only bloomed from there. By 2006, Disney debuted the one and only Hannah Montana, which sealed the deal for promoting to young girls that the ultimate dream was getting famous. Even when the premise of a Disney Channel series didn't involve ordinary girls becoming famous, I can still recall an unusual amount of time dedicated to proving that Disney teen stars like Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato were "just like you - but living the dream." But what dream exactly? The pressures of stardom at a young age? Growing up too fast? Life in the fast lane is hard but no matter what, it's worth it? Sounds like Hannah Montana, Camp Rock and Sonny with a Chance could have benefited form listening to the song "Lucky" by Britney Spears - if there's nothing missing in her life, why DO these tears fall at night?

While Cinderella Ate My Daughter is a really interesting read, one can't help but notice that Orenstein consistently and blatantly ignores things that don't fit her argument or her thesis, not to mention the fact that she can never really decide where she stands on things like whether or not princesses are a bad influence for her daughter. For example, she spends an entire chapter talking about the Disney Channel culture of promoting to young girls that getting famous is what everyone should aspire to and that's a very valid and interesting point, especially to those like me who also grew up watching Hannah Montana, Camp Rock and Sonny with a Chance (except I was a boy so these ideas don't really apply to me, unless you think they're what made me gay). However, Orenstein blatantly ignores That's So Raven, which was on at roughly the same time as Lizzie McGuire and Hannah Montana, and was a series that had a beautiful star with curves who wasn't afraid to embrace them not to mention not afraid to shine a light on various issues such as body image and racism, but there's no mention of that. There's also the issue that Orenstein is basically examining girlie-girl culture among middle and upper class families, given that there's no way in hell all families would be able to afford to buy their daughters American Girl dolls, but again, no mention or acknowledgment of that. There were also chapters that don't bring much to the cultural conversation whatsoever, like when she examines Internet culture among young girls (yeah, we know it's dangerous, you're not the first one to tell us that, Peggy). The same thing applies to the statistics and secondhand experiences she uses as examples and proof throughout the book - they don't really add any new understanding to the subject at all. One key example of this is when she examines baby beauty pageants, and follows a family whose daughter has been in pageants for years and she's only six. Beauty pageant culture is a whole other story, and while she does make a lot of very valid points about it, it doesn't really add anything to her own discussion about girlie-girl culture. But I did appreciate the watered-down feminist criticism she brings to the neighborhood moms whom she asked about their opinions towards young girls and princesses, as well as her own conflicted views towards whether or not her own daughter should be allowed to like princesses (that, to me, seems like a whole other issue on it's own, because banning a girl from liking princesses seems counterproductive). And her conflicted views are real, because it's hard to pick a side in the mainstream culture we live in. I just thought Orenstein might have actually picked a side by the end of the book, but no. Overall, an interesting book that I would recommend to anyone who likes feminism and has a daughter, or for anyone who grew up loving Disney princesses and still gives it way too much thought (like me). 4/5 stars.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Shania Twain's Comeback Makes Her the Ultimate Symbol of Strength


I fondly recall a time when the world, let alone myself, could not get enough of Shania Twain. Not only was she a gifted vocalist from the very beginning, but almost immediately became a crossover star (conquering the worlds of country, pop, and rock music) and skyrocketed to the top of music charts worldwide. Three of her albums have been certified diamond in the United States (having each sold over 10 million copies), with her third studio album Come On Over becoming the best-selling album by any female artist in any genre in history which, as anyone can figure, is a pretty big deal. Having been born a late ‘90s child, I arrived on the scene right in the middle of Shania Mania and fell deeply in love with her music from a young age. Deeply in love doesn’t even justify it. I was obsessed. I knew all the words to every song and never stopped singing. But as I grew, Shania didn’t follow me: the hits stayed with us, but Twain held back. I never would have guessed that I would have been above legal drinking age before I heard new Shania Twain music again.
Raised in Timmins, Ontario, Shania Twain (born Eilleen) endured a notoriously rough childhood. Her mother and biological father divorced when she was two, and her mother remarried to Jerry Twain, who adopted Shania and her sisters, Jill and Carrie Ann. The household also included their younger half-brother Mark as well as Jerry’s nephew Darryl, whom the family took in. The family’s struggles seemed never-ending: their parents earned very little money, food was very often scarce, and their household was riddled with domestic violence at the hands of their father. Shania was scared to confide to anyone outside of her family about their poverty, fearing the children might be separated. Around 1979, at age 14, Shania insisted that her mother pack up the car with the kids while Jerry was at work, and they drove over 400 miles to a homeless shelter in Toronto for assistance. While her mother would return to Jerry in Timmins two years later, the abuse and poverty never withered. Shania pursued singing and songwriting from an early age, often describing it as her only escape from a world where she experienced too much too young. Her mother would even encourage her daughter’s talents, often spending money the family didn’t have on talent competitions or lessons (which only intensified her father’s abuse), appearing on The Tommy Hunter Show on CBC when she was 13 and performing in bars in Timmins for money as early as 8. She left home after high school and began performing in several bands, but when her parents were both killed in a car accident in 1987, Shania was left as the only person to care for her remaining younger siblings. She returned home and moved her family to Huntsville, Ontario, where she earned a living performing at the Deerhurst Resort. It was there that she found a manager and assembled a demo to send to record labels, gaining the attention of Mercury Nashville Records with whom she would sign in the early ‘90s.
Twain on her debut concert tour, the Come On Over Tour, circa 1998
Twain’s self-titled debut studio album, released in 1993, didn’t meet sales expectations and saw little success on the charts, and it didn’t help that several of the album’s tracks had already been released by other artists. Twain later expressed disappointment with her first album, revealing that she had very little creative control and expressed frustration over not being able to showcase her songwriting ability. As she and her management worked tirelessly to promote the underperforming album, Twain met Robert John “Mutt” Lange, a record producer who, at the time, was only known for producing rock songs. They developed a fast connection; not only did they begin working together immediately but they were married in December 1993, six months after first meeting. Record executives were weary of the material they started making, fearing it would deviate too far away from the Nashville sound of their label. Twain’s second studio album The Woman in Me (1995), written entirely by her and Lange, quickly became Shania’s breakthrough: selling over 20 million copies worldwide, the album saw the widespread success of now iconic singles such as “Any Man of Mine,” “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under,” and “(If You’re Not In It For Love) I’m Outta Here.” The Woman in Me also brought Twain countless accolades, most notably the Grammy Award for Best Country Album, and solidified what we now know to be true: Shania was here to stay. While the album explored pop undertones, it would be her follow-up album Come On Over (1997) that would redefine our contemporary definition of pop crossover star, with the album becoming the highest-selling album by any female act in all of history, and the best-selling country album of all-time. Produced and written entirely again by Lange and Twain, Come On Over generated a massive 12 singles released over three years (you surely know them all: “You’re Still the One,” “From This Moment On,” “That Don’t Impress Me Much,” and “Man! I Feel Like a Woman,” among others), and launched Shania to the top of the world (literally). Twain didn’t tour for The Woman in Me, leading to the launch of the Come On Over Tour as her debut concert tour, which sold out worldwide and was one of the highest-grossing concert tours of the decade. By the late ‘90s, you could not discuss country music nor pop music without Shania Twain’s name coming up at least once: she was a country/pop crossover icon and a global superstar. Thus, the phrase: Shania Mania was in full swing.
Twain on her Up! Tour, circa 2003 
Five years would pass before Twain’s next album, Up!, would appear. Released in 2002 and once again produced and written entirely by Twain and her husband, they recorded three versions of the album, color coded: pop (red version), country (green version), and world (blue version). Up! excelled because it combined the successful elements from both The Woman in Me and Come On Over: up-tempo crossover songs with a gentle mix of down to earth and honest country ballads. The album is 19 songs long (an extraordinary length for a country or a pop album, both then and now), and after the conclusion of her Up! Tour in 2004, Twain confirmed that she would take a well-deserved break from making music and, at the time, announced her retirement from performing, citing a weakened singing voice. It marked the beginning of her indefinite hiatus from music: in her autobiography, she wrote that she pushed herself too hard during the Come On Over and Up! eras, being unaccustomed to the rigors and demands of stardom, which caused her singing voice to be severely affected after a certain point. Twain and Lange retired to a quiet life at their home in Switzerland with their son, Eja (pronounced Asia, who was born in 2001), which was a nice existence for Twain, but she felt her husband growing increasingly distant from her (tracing it back to her last tour), and in 2008, she discovered Lange’s affair with his assistant and her best friend, Marie-Anne Thiebaud. Still suffering from the weakened singing voice that caused her to retire from performing years prior, the pain of her husband’s affair led her to fall into a depression that only worsened her vocal condition. “I lost control of my voice and by 2008 I couldn’t project – I couldn’t even call out to the dog,” she said later. “I saw dozens of voice specialists but no one could help me. I initially put it down to exhaustion, thinking, ‘I’m a mother, I’m on the road, I’ve been doing this nonstop for all these years – who wouldn’t be tired?’ But I wasn’t physically tired of the lifestyle, I just couldn’t sing. It was like a part of me had died. I was grieving for the loss of the one thing I really enjoyed. The way I expressed myself was gone. It was devastating.” In 2009, Twain released a letter to her fans, citing personal pains as the reason for her lack of musical output, and a spokesperson from her label later commented that a new album from the singer was “nowhere in sight.” Regardless of the fact that she wasn’t performing or releasing music, Shania had re-entered the pop cultural conversation not only as a victim of heartbreak and betrayal, but as someone whom everyone knew was strong enough to eventually come out clean on the other side.
Twain during her Las Vegas residency show, Shania: Still the One 
Twain returned to the limelight in 2011, publishing her autobiography From This Moment On, marrying the ex-husband of her best friend, and revealing that she had a vocal condition called dysphonia (which she also attributes to a previous battle with Lyme disease), and at one point, she believed she would never sing again. In her autobiography, Twain attributes the severe depression she experienced not only to the breakdown of her marriage, but to unresolved issues she had from the domestic violence and extreme poverty she experienced in her childhood (she recently alluded to being a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of her father), the death of her parents, stress from stardom, and then her ultimate divorce. Twain said the divorce caused her to lose her voice, literally and figuratively, and re-open wounds she had never fully healed. “I started peeling back the layers of pain I was in and all the other griefs and disappointments and challenges came to the surface,” she said. “And I thought: ‘I’ve been through worse and it’s time to put it all into perspective.’ When my parents died, I experienced a much deeper grief than even the betrayal. I was just out of myself. When you add shock to grief, it does crazy things to your mind. And that really helped me through – this was not nearly as bad as my parents dying. I survived that and I don’t want to give this so much credit.” She chronicled her vocal rehabilitation on the OWN miniseries Why Not? with Shania Twain, and released her first single in 6 years, “Today Is Your Day,” which she wrote to cheer herself up. By 2012, Shania was ready to return to the concert stage in a Las Vegas residency show, Shania: Still the One, which ran until 2014 for a total of 105 shows. For many, it appeared as though Twain’s time as a recording artist had come to an end, and she was living out her final glory days in Vegas and later on what was billed as her farewell tour in 2015, the North American Rock This Country Tour. But loyal fans (such as myself) held out hope that this wasn’t all Shania had left for us—she teased about writing new material on social media for ages—and in 2017, fifteen years since her last studio release, a new album from Shania Twain finally became a reality: Now.
Twain on Lip Sync Battle in June 2018 
While the urge to jump for joy was rightly justified, there were important things to acknowledge on Shania’s road to releasing new music. Not only had she finally recovered her voice after years of vocal issues, but several key factors in what catapulted the Shania Twain the world fell in love with to worldwide superstardom were now gone. Not only had she dealt with a multitude of vocal issues, but she had to learn and accept that she was never going to be able to sing like she used to. “I’ve had to accept that my voice will never be the same again. I will never sing my old hits like I used to,” she said. “I’ve had to relearn how to use my voice. When I sing a powerful note, it’s in a different place. It wasn’t until Vegas that I thought about a real comeback. It would have been comfortable to stick with old material, but I had something to say.” As if that wasn’t enough, one key difference in the Shania Twain of today is the absence of her longtime producer—her cheating ex-husband, Mutt Lange. What is important to note is that Lange practically invented the Shania Twain that would go on to sell 75 million albums worldwide and become the highest-selling country music artist of all-time. Before Twain collaborated with Lange, she was just a talented young girl with a label that didn’t know how to use her. Mutt Lange played a large part in Shania’s evolution as an artist, and Now is the first of her albums to not be produced by him since her practically unknown and forgotten 1993 debut album. “Mutt was incredible with the feel and groove of a song,” she wrote in her autobiography, “and my challenge was to write lyrics and melody to his phrasing. As much as I loved Mutt as my husband, it’s possible I admired him even more for the unique way his musical mind worked. It was as though the only person who really had the whole thing in his head all at one time was Mutt.” Still, Twain persevered—she accepted the fact that her voice wasn’t what it once was, found herself some new producers to collaborate with, and wrote her new album entirely by herself. “My new songs are the most personal I have ever shared,” she said. “I’ve written about feeling unappreciated in my marriage and about fighting back against pain. I’ve done my fair share of self-pitying and that’s in there, too. Writing has helped me come to terms with things emotionally. The album is about going from feeling lost to found, from feeling sad to happy. I have learned how vulnerable I can be.” She also acknowledged the anxiety of returning to the music landscape after so long, saying that she had to be emotionally, physically and psychologically prepared: “My biggest fear wasn’t being exposed, it was my voice. I can get away with more when I perform because I can improvise. An album is a bigger commitment because people can analyse it. I had to be sure I was ready.”
Not only was there the pressure of returning to music after fifteen years, but there was the fact that, at one time, Shania Twain was one of the biggest stars in the world, both on the charts and in people’s hearts. No doubt that people would be watching and listening, but she was now having to find her footing in a different aspect of the pop music landscape. Any other pop star who had fifteen years between albums would surely not survive, just based on the politics that demand constant output to keep up with a fickle, youth-obsessed industry. But Shania isn’t just any pop star—she’s Shania freaking Twain, and the popularity of her tours prior to the release of Now let alone her ridiculously endearing greatest hits gave her a different angle to play: nostalgia. But for her loyal fans, the release of a new studio album after so long was nothing short of extraordinary, regardless of the album’s overall quality.
Twain during the Shania Now Tour, 2018 
Now was released to mixed reviews, which I can’t say are completely unjustified. As much we can acknowledge that the release of a new album after so long and after enduring more than her fair share of personal and professional pains is transcendent on paper, what our ears hear isn’t always as easy to fall in love with, at least at first. But one thing among critics remained clear: Shania Twain’s artistry did not live and die with Mutt Lange. Not only did she write the album entirely by herself, she co-produced every track on Now, proving that she can still hold her own without her longtime producer and husband who once helped her revolutionize country and pop music. While many applauded her long-awaited return to music, the recurring complaint was Twain’s vocals: the Los Angeles Times said she sounded “flat and robotic” in the up-tempo songs, The Wall Street Journal (who praised the album overall) criticized Twain’s “singing in a somewhat lower register,” and The Guardian wrote that the album is a “strong comeback that plays to Twain’s strengths, but it could have done with some more of her feisty, Brad Pitt-skewering self, and fewer inspirational metaphors.” But that’s just the thing—the feisty, Brad Pitt-skewering Shania is a thing of the past, and despite that being a known fact, listeners (myself included) couldn’t help but go into the new album with those tunes in mind, because it’s really all we’ve ever known of her. Twain told Rolling Stone that she told anyone involved to forget about all her previous material while making Now, saying she didn’t want it to be related to her ex-husband’s productions. “I wanted a more organic approach,” she said. “I was reflecting on the darkness.” The resulting material introduced a new Shania Twain who had been through enough hell that she was ready to sing about it, but also with enough upbeat pop-influenced tracks to balance it all out, because that’s what Shania has always done best. Now also generated its fair share of positive reviews that capitalized on how big a deal her first album in fifteen years was; Pitchfork stated that Twain’s return to public life and performance is “the foundation of one of this decade’s most remarkable comeback stories,” reminding everyone that as much as Shania Twain doesn’t have anything left to prove, Now embodies the power of creative risks when a masterclass songwriter is left to her own devices.
Shania Now Tour, 2018
As far as my relationship with Now goes, I was underwhelmed by the album at first, merely because it introduced me to a Shania Twain that I had never experienced, and there were a few lackluster moments. But that didn’t stop me from listening to the album over and over again, even when I wasn’t really in the mood, because the novelty of having a new Shania Twain album after so long just never seemed to wear off. And, in listening a few thousand more times, I began to like more than a few tracks, even if I could still acknowledge that, vocally, Shania isn’t what she used to be. But deep down I knew the quality of the album didn’t matter, because a global icon such as herself truly doesn’t have anything left to prove. The fact that the album even got made and was released at all is the miracle here, and in some backwards way, I think that’s what made me fall in love with it. The following winter after Now came out, I was going through a rough patch with anxiety and depression, and listening to music even when I didn’t feel like it was practically the only thing that got me through it. Since I was young, Shania Twain’s music has always cheered me up in some way, even when I didn’t feel like it. After making my way through all of the old stuff, I listened to Now from start to finish one more time, and it resonated with me in new ways I didn’t understand at the time. I was weary of songs like “Poor Me” and “Who’s Gonna Be Your Girl” when the album came out, but now they were calming me down. Shania singing “life’s about joy, life’s about pain, it’s all about forgiving, and the will to walk away” was suddenly making me feel better when I had pretty much convinced myself that wasn’t possible. Listening to the album didn’t solve my problems, but it sure made them a hell of a lot easier to face. It was only when I saw Twain on her latest arena tour in support of Now, the Shania Now Tour, did I realize that I had listened to songs like “I’m Alright” an embarrassing amount of times. Seeing Shania back in full swing was nothing short of a religious experience for me, given that there was a time where I never thought I would get to see her performing new songs. The Now Tour may have shown a lack of commitment towards her previously announced retirement (listen to more on that here), but it showed Twain is living proof that an artist can fall down and lose everything (what goes Up! must come down, after all) and come back again and again with the vocals, costumes, and performance ability to prove it. I think it took myself going through my own darkness to finally experience the darker, somber, and more emotional material on Now the way Shania intended it, and for that I’m grateful. Going from singing “That Don’t Impress Me Much” at the top of my lungs from the backseat as a child to having her darker, more somber material help me through a tough time as an adult truly feels like a full-circle moment in my evolution as a person. I love and admire Shania Twain very much, and she will always be The One.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Book Review: 'Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear...and Why' by Sady Doyle

"Trainwrecks are myths, yes. They are our monsters: cultural monsters, who embody the tensions of our moment or our expectations of women, and deeply personal monsters, who embody the parts of ourselves we are most afraid of. But there is another thing to note about all this: we are all, each and every one of us, our own worst monsters. And we all yearn, despite this fact, to be loved."

I really, really enjoyed reading this book. Trainwreck takes a look at how our society and culture spends an outrageous amount of time calling women "crazy" or "unhinged" just for expressing human emotions, even at the expense of their own popularity or, worse, their careers. The author creates a compelling feminist argument throughout the entire book that stands up no matter where she draws your attention: famous men can be violent alcoholics, abuse their loved ones, or suffer from multitudes of mental illness and the impact of their work can still draws more focus than their personal life, but women who experience even the slightest of personal struggles are publicly remembered better for being a trainwreck than for being a gifted singer, actress, artist, etc. Thus, the double standard. Society has spent most of history demonizing and mocking women in ways men will rarely experience. Sady Doyle also does an excellent job of literally proving that the trainwreck phenomenon has been around for as long as women have existed, and traces and relates historical female figures like Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Bronte, and Billie Holiday to "problematic" female stars better known in our contemporary conscious, such as Britney Spears, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, Paris Hilton, and Miley Cyrus. Doyle also shows that, for as long as women have existed, they have been pushing the boundaries of what it means to behave, and it's amusing that quite literally nothing has changed in our current popular culture.

I thought Trainwreck was a really interesting reading experience not only because I'm interested in feminist issues and how history has treated women, but also because it presents a relatable and relevant topic question in relation to our current society and culture: why are there women that we "love to hate" and not men? Why do we hate that girl's music without even listening to it? Why do we hate that girl just based on how she acts in interviews? What I take from Trainwreck is that the answer to all of these questions is quite simple: misogyny. Even the most liberal and feminist of people have famous female figures that they dislike and that's valid, but on a deeper level, they dislike them for reasons that a misogynist society and culture instills in them. You hate Miley Cyrus because she has acted like a prostitute in public, says outrageously stupid things in interviews for attention, and invented an inappropriate dance move that has become quite endearing in the pop culture of today. And all of that is valid, to a certain extent. On a deeper level, what did you expect her to do? From the time she was a child (or underage teenager, in other words), the media has harassed her about showing her sexuality and basically instilled that it was the most interesting thing about her, so the only logical solution, it would seem, would be to give them what they want and be what they say she is. "For every theft of naked photos, she gets aggressively more naked; for every complaint about her bad behavior, she gets more ill-behaved […] [It’s] not so much an attempt to ‘provoke’ our outrage, but the only logical response to the outrage that has always surrounded her […] A victim turns into a perpetrator; a naked body that people were willing to commit theft to see becomes unsightly and shameful the moment it’s exposed consensually. Sexually pure or sexual predator, uncorrupted virgin or corrupting whore, godly or Godzilla: these are the options. Thus trainwrecks are made." If the only options in the misogynistic media are incredibly limiting, what is one to do?

On the topic of media, Doyle also makes the important case for the fact that trainwrecks are a business, specifically an entertainment business, that profits on how many mouse-clicks we can get in the span of a minute, and these narratives are made and created for a consumer culture that can not only love you one minute and hate you the next, but are written in a way for them to get people to connect with them by any means necessary. So if that means compromising a women's integrity for the sake of making her look insane just to sell a trashy tabloid magazine, then so be it. That also means playing to an angle of angering up the dark undercurrents of our society and culture and the secret but real fears hidden within. The best example Doyle uses is Britney Spears, whom she references countless times, and even confesses that she herself hated her when she first arrived on the music scene, because her image was the embodiment of everything she hated in other girls (e.g. qualities she didn't have), and therefore this plays into a system of having girls tearing down other girls because they get to be pretty and have attention, when everyday girls don't have that and are even swayed away from wanting that, because it might get them raped. The media plays to everyday women's fears that are in fact against them and riddled with misogyny. "It’s easy to look at these women and see what they did wrong, tally up their sins and errors: insensitive, provocative, promiscuous, off-the-wagon, crazy. It’s easy to tell yourself, this is not my story. But I’d wager good, hard money that, if you got the chance to speak to any of these women, they’d tell you that these are not their stories, either." The trainwreck narrative gets even more messy and intrusive when things like addiction or mental illness are involved, and that only reinforces the misogynistic angle that the media plays to just based on the deeply instilled values in our society and culture. Take Courtney Love or Amy Winehouse, both talented women who were torn apart because they struggled with mental illness. Kurt Cobain is remembered best for being loved for his struggles because that somehow gave him an edge or made him cooler, but his wife became a horror story and a punchline for having similar struggles, including her husband's suicide. Amy Winehouse was a punchline too, and is remembered more for how she conducted herself in public while struggling with addiction and an eating disorder than she is for her immense talent. I know this sounds very "that's what they want you to think, you're just another victim of the system," but it's true. The following passage, to me, confirms Doyle's entire thesis throughout Trainwreck:

"We need public hysterics because the idea of the ‘madwoman’ is intimately connected to our ideas of womanhood in general […] Women who cry, women who laugh. Women who like sex, women who don’t like sex. Drunk, old, poor, queer. Every woman has something wrong with her, if you go looking for it. And while mental illness and addiction violate every rule that a ‘nice’ woman is supposed to live by—rendering her disobedient, abrasive, emotional, ugly—they confirm everything that misogynists suspect women to be at heart."
So the answer to the question why do we love to hate famous women may seem more complicated than it is in our contemporary popular culture, where we like to think we are beyond certain misogynistic institutions, but this is not one of them. Women "we love to hate" is the result of a misogynistic media, culture, and society, and that's just that on that. We take perfectly normal women who become famous and try to tear them down for various reasons, but the main one being to prove that she's just another woman who's a failure because she's a woman, because she had a breakdown in public or experienced some sort of negative emotion during a difficult time. "Breakups, you see, lead to sadness, and also to anger. And, instead of admitting that women feel unpleasant emotions when they're in unpleasant situations, we have a tendency to label any public display as bitter, vindictive, obsessive, pathetic, desperate, or yes, ‘crazy.’" Another interesting tidbit that Doyle brings about is how we memorialize and love women who were trainwrecks after they've died, calling them "underappreciated" or other adjectives of this nature. The reason for this is that once a "problematic" female figure has died, we no longer have to care about how they conduct themselves and therefore we can shed the layer of misogynistic attacking and love them for who they were (never mind the fact that how the media treated some famous women actually played a part in their deaths, like Amy Winehouse). And realistically speaking, the categorically "right" thing to do when a celebrity dies obviously wouldn't be to continue mocking or demonizing them (that's fine when they're alive, but society knows it's wrong when they're dead), but it's interesting how quickly the narrative flips when they do die. "Death seals the deal, for trainwrecks. It grants them their glamour. It makes them, not worthy of attention—they always have that; it’s our primary weapon against them—but worthy of love. And that love, I would submit, is half nostalgia and half relief. It’s the care we give, once we’re not being asked to care any more." The only other solution for some trainwrecks, as Doyle points out, is to disappear and live the rest of their lives in shame and fear for the direction their careers took. Again, the options are incredibly limiting for women who are trainwrecks; women who will be mocked and demonized no matter what. To quote the madwoman in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," what is one to do? What is one to do but go crazy when they're oppressed? What is one to do but become the violent, crazy figure they've always said they were? Ask Taylor Swift how that's working out for her. She made an entire album off of "becoming who they say you are" last year and sales for her current world tour are through the roof.

The recurring complaint among other reviews of Trainwreck seems to be that Doyle doesn't really rise above the description of trainwreck women in her book, and should have spent more time describing how we should be celebrating women and perhaps listing new ways we could start doing that more in our contemporary popular culture. But Doyle does make a compelling point near the end of Trainwreck that these reviewers appear to have glossed over: despite being teared down by society, despite being branded bad role models when they really didn't do anything wrong, despite the fact that they might be the most hated women on the planet, the trainwrecks are. They exist more than anyone else on the planet, just by standing out and being themselves. In an era where it is becoming incredibly more and more avant-garde just to be yourself, the trainwrecks become icons. Perhaps this is why oppressed or marginalized groups, like the LGBT community, identify so strongly with "problematic" female figures, because despite being branded a trainwreck, they just keep doing their shit to the best of their abilities and that, in itself, is inspiring. "The trainwreck is alive. And for a woman to be fully alive is revolutionary." I highly recommend Trainwreck to anyone who loves pop culture or feminism, or to anyone who ponders the garbage that goes on in our modern society and culture. 5/5 stars.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Book Review: 'Boy Erased' by Garrard Conley

"I came to therapy thinking that my sexuality didn’t matter, but it turned out that every part of my personality was intimately connected. Cutting one piece damaged the rest."

This book had been on my TBR since 2016 and I never got to it despite always being very interested, so when I heard it was being adapted into a movie starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe and Troye Sivan that's due out this fall, I knew I had to get on it, since I'm predicting Boy Erased will start popping up on podiums at bookstores and libraries once the movie comes out.

Boy Erased is Garrard Conley's deeply compassionate yet deeply disturbing memoir of dealing with his homosexuality in an ultra-religious and Christian fundamentalist town and family in Arkansas, right in the middle of the Bible Belt. He writes about how, after he was outed to his parents in college, he was given the choice of either attending mandatory ex-gay conversion therapy, or lose emotional and financial support from his family. He also writes about and examines his father, a Baptist pastor, and disappointing his family and church as a whole. Though he tells his story in a consistent personal narrative style, Conley also indirectly addresses the intolerant and repressive environments that countless LGBTQ youth have had to endure, specifically those raised in the deeply religious and socially conservative American South.

There are many things to enjoy about Boy Erased, mainly the point of view that Conley expresses throughout his storyline and emotionally painful journey with conversion therapy. One who has endured such pain at the hands of people so riddled with homophobia that they mask it with religion and call it love might be angry for the rest of their lives, but Conley expresses such neutral love and understanding to the influences he grew up with, without sacrificing the severity of what they put him through to "convert" him to heterosexuality. Instead of stooping to their level, he humanizes them and paints a vivid picture of their perspective, as well as his own perspective therein. It isn't so hard to perceive the fact that Conley willingly participated in "ex-gay" conversion therapy at first, given that he had been raised his entire life on morals and values that vehemently rejected anything but conservative gender roles and heterosexuality, not to mention such an extreme religious presence in his life from his father and their church. But still, Conley attempts to understand the people who rejected his identity without minimizing his own pain or the deeply disturbing and dark emotions that were instilled in him by bigots from the time he was a child. The fact that he could find it within himself and his writing to understand people who rejected him so deeply and tried to turn him into something he's not is quite extraordinary. I gained a deeper sense of empathy towards people who grow up in deeply religious households, as well as the people who raise them. What I also quite enjoy is the fact that Conley humanizes those who rejected him instead of romanticizing them - something a lot of writers tend to do in memoirs without realizing it and it takes away from the compelling nature of their narrative (example: The Glass Castle).

Another thing that Boy Erased brought to light, at least for me, was the harsh realities of ultra-religious households in Christian fundamentalist communities. I have of course heard of all kinds of Christians having such internalized homophobia that they say they can't support their family members' alternate sexualities since it apparently conflicts with their faith, but this is all taken to a higher level of rejection and interference in Christian fundamentalist areas. As a fairly non-religious gay person, I admittedly tend to roll my eyes at people who place such a large part of their identities and beings into their religion, only because I know from my point of view that even the most liberal and welcoming religions don't have a place for people such as myself (the gays). I do believe in God, but I also have atheist tendencies - I believe in a higher power, but I don't think God and Jesus are responsible for everything from the green leaves on the trees to the heavens, the earth, and human beings. All of this to say, while I have most definitely observed intense religious people in both fiction and real life who reject the simplest of things because they go against their faith, reading Boy Erased showed me that I am fairly uneducated when it comes to Christian fundamentalists in the Bible Belt of the Southern United States. It's pretty much a cliché in contemporary popular culture that people in the American South are deeply religious and think Harry Potter is satanic, but only once you apply that perspective to a young man struggling with being something other than heterosexual do you realize the lengths that Christian fundamentalists will go to make sure people in their community satisfy their definitions of decent human beings. And as Conley writes of the many things wrong with conversion therapy, as much as you can't pray the gay away, you can't eliminate one part of yourself without damaging the rest. Every part of yourself is connected, and to think that it is more acceptable to damage yourself trying to "convert" to another sexuality than to be loved and accepted for who you are is even more baffling than I thought. Several times while reading Boy Erased, I thought to myself that not only does "ex-gay" conversion therapy sound like a cult, Christian fundamentalism sounds like a cult (Conley even details recurring nightmares he had as a child from the intense religious beliefs instilled in him), and I was so happy to see that even Conley compared both conversion therapy and the religious tendencies in his town to that of a cult towards the end of the book (spoiler).

If I had one complaint about Boy Erased, it would be that the narrative jumped around a little too much, but I also understand that he would not have been able to tell his story of enduring conversion therapy without painting a picture of growing up with conflicted sexual feelings, so that didn't bother me too much. I did, however, find the prose to be a bit too lyrical and heavy on the metaphor for my taste - I'm all for lyrical writing, especially in memoirs and biographies, but you can tell that Conley recreated his story with a novelist's flair (I'm sure he is one hell of a fiction writer), and it seemed a bit like he was trying too hard to be fancy with his words at times where he just could have told what happened without deep metaphors or lyrical prose. Boy Erased is still very well written, but I just think that its subject matter was already heavy enough that the author didn't need to go so hard with lyrical writing because it made it even harder to read at times. Once I finished the book, I was left with a bittersweet feeling; happy that Conley survived conversion therapy somewhat intact (there are much worse horror stories in that department), but also sad for the possible relationships ruined by internalized homophobia as well as the fact that he was met with such rejection by people who are supposed to love him exactly as he is. Overall, I definitely recommend reading Boy Erased regardless of the difficult parts, because it is a story that needed to be told and I'm glad Conley found it within himself to put it down on paper. 4/5 stars.