Saturday, July 21, 2018

Book Review: 'My Mother Was Nuts' by Penny Marshall

I feel like a better title for Penny Marshall's memoir would have been Shit Happens, but I'm sure her publisher would have said no.

I wanted to read My Mother Was Nuts because I grew up watching Penny Marshall on Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley as well as watching several of the movies she directed thereafter. Generally, when I read a celebrity's memoir, it's because I have an interest in what they have to say based on how much I like or love them. I like Penny Marshall enough from watching her on TV and the movies she's directed, but this is a celebrity memoir that we can definitely say is...problematic.

Above all, I enjoyed the early parts of her memoir the most as she details her childhood growing up in The Bronx neighborhood of New York. Was her mother nuts? Maybe a little. But no more nuts than any other mothers like hers in the '40s and '50s, I'm sure. The book started to go downhill for me after the chapters detailing her pregnancy in her early 20s, where she forced herself to marry the father because that's just what you had to do back then, but thereafter she seems really hard on herself because they ended up divorcing and she chose to let the father raise her daughter, Tracy, and it seems fake and for show. As a matter of fact, the vast of majority of My Mother Was Nuts seems fake and for show. Example: she feels the need to insert pointless and boring anecdotes about how she was good friends with several of the original cast members of Saturday Night Live and then devotes entire chapters to times she hosted the series or memories she has with the cast members, and it all just reads very inauthentic. Marshall's ego bridges the gap between any sightings of genuine emotion in this memoir.

The parts I was most interested in reading were the chapters about Laverne & Shirley, more specifically Marshall's take on what went down regarding Cindy Williams leaving the series at the beginning of its eighth season, leaving Marshall to carry on Laverne & Shirley without Shirley. But before you get to those chapters, Marshall outlines how she broke into television: her brother, Garry Marshall (producer, director, screenwriter and creator of both Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley) advocated for her. That's it. She is pretty open about the fact that her brother helped her out in Hollywood, getting roles for her or convincing people he knew to give her roles or basically creating roles for her, such as Laverne DeFazio. Marshall acknowledges that her brother paved the road for her in every way, but then goes and doesn't even acknowledge her privilege when talking about how show business worked differently for others. Case in point: she begins one of the Laverne & Shirley chapters reminding everyone that she and Cindy Williams were always close friends and got along, but Williams always thought the writers and producers favored Marshall and Laverne over Williams and Shirley, simply because Marshall's brother created the series. Marshall dictates how wrong she was about that, and that the real issue was her manager who was constantly counting the laughs between the jokes of Laverne and Shirley and would always make Williams insecure. Marshall writes that she too had insecurities, but she didn't have a manager whispering them in her ear every day. I'm not defending Williams or her manager but, UM, you didn't need a manager because your brother got everything for you. Take a step down from the high horse, Penny.

I actually ended up skipping several chapters because, after a certain point, I could no longer deal with most of Marshall's insipid and pointless anecdotes about things that aren't really interesting to read about and only contribute to my opinion that My Mother Was Nuts was written for show. I just wanted to read Marshall's take on what happened when Cindy Williams left Laverne & Shirley, which was pretty interesting. Williams married Bill Hudson (Goldie Hawn's ex-husband) and then when she became pregnant, she started making outlandish demands from Paramount and the producers regarding time off and her salary. Eventually, they had reached a deal, but after the first two episodes of the series' eighth season were filmed, Williams had quit. Marshall tried to contact her just to talk about it, but Bill Hudson (now acting as her manager) never let her speak to Williams, and this would be the case for several years to follow. Marshall was especially hurt when Williams went to TV Guide and said that Marshall had basically pushed her out the door so that she could finally have the show to herself. Years later, when Marshall had heard that Williams and Hudson had divorced, she contacted her and they talked about the circumstances leading up to her departure from Laverne & Shirley for the first time since it happened. As Marshall writes, Williams remained unapologetic for quitting like she did and leaving Marshall to carry the show on her own, as well as her belief that Marshall had always wanted the show for herself. Marshall asserted once again how wrong she was, but that they "agreed to disagree," because that's what old friends do. Okay then. I don't believe you both ran down the street after that holding hands and counting rainbows, but you do you.

The rest of My Mother Was Nuts deals with Marshall's accounts of her progression into directing movies, which is where it definitely becomes clear that she is a snob. This woman has never heard of the word modest, I'm sure. It's almost as if the film studios she worked for all those years had never let her speak her mind and now all of a sudden she's choosing to "set the record straight" with a bunch of stories and rants that nobody asked for or cares about. She even tries to take credit for Whitney Houston being fairly well to work with on The Preacher's Wife and that she didn't believe any of the things she told people like Oprah Winfrey or Diane Sawyer about her drug use. Penny darling, it's not your business or your job but thank you for filling the remainder of your word quota for this book with things that don't concern you. I was actually looking forward to seeing what she had to say about directing Riding in Cars with Boys, given that she dealt with a similar situation having gotten pregnant and married out of obligation. But all she does is talk about how Drew Barrymore wasn't her first choice for the lead role and she kept making "demands" and the movie didn't turn out perfect, but whaddaya gonna do? Someone needed to take the keyboard away from Penny Marshall at this point. She even has to insert a sentence about how Anne Hathaway read for the lead in Riding in Cars with Boys but she was too young, so she recommended him to her brother Garry for The Princess Diaries and "he said thank you to me." Bitch, do you want a medal? Do you want credit for Anne Hathaway's breakthrough role? STOP TALKING.

I enjoyed the parts about her childhood and her take on both the good times and the drama on Laverne & Shirley, but this is not an exceptional memoir, it's someone who no longer has the microphone in her hands and feels the need to prove something to people who don't care. 3/5 stars.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Book Reviews: 'The Broken Girls' by Simone St. James and 'Genuine Fraud' by E. Lockhart

1. The Broken Girls, by Simone St. James
I really enjoyed this one, and I think it's because I haven't read a good mystery novel in a really long time. The Broken Girls isn't a thriller, it's a mystery, and it's very well done. The book takes place within the past and the present: Vermont, 1950 (past) and Vermont, 2014 (present). In the small town of Barrons, Vermont in 1950, there is an infamous boarding school for the girls that no one wants; the troublemakers, the illegitimate, the too smart for their own good. It's called Idlewild Hall. And there are rumors that the boarding school is haunted. Four roommates bond over their whispered fears, their budding friendship blossoming - until one of them mysteriously disappears. In Barrons in 2014, journalist Fiona Sheridan cannot stop revisiting the events surrounding her older sister's death. Twenty years ago, her body was found lying in the overgrown fields near the ruins of Idlewild Hall. And though her sister's boyfriend was tried and convicted of murder, Fiona can't shake the suspicion that something was never right about the case. When Fiona discovers that Idlewild Hall is being restored by an anonymous benefactor, she decides to write a story about it. But a shocking discovery during the renovations will link the loss of her sister to secrets that were meant to stay hidden in the past - and a voice that won't be silenced. One thing I didn't expect from The Broken Girls is how deep it went with certain themes, one of them being societal expectations and demands for young girls in past centuries as well as women simply lost to history...because they were women. Only once you are reading along as Fiona is discovering more and more things that were swept under the rug from the events that took place at Idlewild Hall in the fall of 1950 do you really realize the reality of how girls and women were treated back then, especially those who were born "illegitimately" and then never treated as if they were worth it for the rest of their lives. It really makes you think about how if no one cared back then what happened to girls no one wanted, would anyone have ever cared if Fiona hadn't started piecing this together 64 years later? It also made a part of me happy that we have long since abandoned certain social norms from past time periods. Although I really enjoyed The Broken Girls, there were parts that I could have done without - mostly the ghosts and the hauntings, but also the storyline surrounding Fiona's sister Deb's death wasn't resolved as satisfactorily as I would have liked, given how much time we spend reading about Fiona's obsession with her sister's murder. However, I still really enjoyed it and will recommend to anyone who likes a good mystery, because above all, The Broken Girls is a good mystery. 4/5 stars.

2. Genuine Fraud, by E. Lockhart:
Since it came out last year, Genuine Fraud has been subject to significantly mixed reviews, and it's pretty understandable given the popularity and outstanding quality of E. Lockhart's last book, We Were Liars. I was immediately interested in Genuine Fraud just based on the premise as well as the fact that it sounded like it could possibly be similar to We Were Liars (which I LOVED) so I was intrigued right from the start. 
Imogen is a runaway heiress, an orphan, a cook, and a cheat. Jule is a fighter, a social chameleon, and an athlete. An intense friendship. A disappearance. A murder, or maybe two. A bad romance, or maybe three. Blunt objects, disguises, blood, and chocolate. The American dream, superheroes, spies, and villains. A girl who refuses to give people what they want from her. A girl who refuses to be the person she once was. I won't say Genuine Fraud is bad, but it's not amazing - actually, it's a mess. The plot is all over the place but also really fast-paced, so you have no time to figure out what's going on. Which is fine. I'm all for fast-paced thrillers that have unreliable narrators and screw with your head until everything finally comes into focus. That's exactly what We Were Liars is all about. But Genuine Fraud is a tad unrealistic at times and rather undeveloped in parts (it's only 264 pages); that is, way too much telling from the author rather than showing. Not to mention that the story is told backwards - again, not a negative given that a ton of other thrillers have done similar things with their timelines - but the timeline in Genuine Fraud jumps around so much and it's not so much confusing as it is exhausting, because you can tell early on there isn't going to be some mind-blowing reveal at the end like in We Were Liars. Also, there is a total lack of suspense in a book whose premise pretty much promises suspense, and there isn't much of a mystery to solve in the story either. For such a short book, it's pretty boring. But on the plus side, I found the characters were really strong, the book was otherwise really well written (aside from the tendency to tell too much instead of showing), and I liked the interesting social commentary of roles for girls and women. 3/5 stars.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Book Review: 'Big Little Lies' by Liane Moriarty

"Parents do tend to judge each other. I don't know why. Maybe because none of us really know what we're doing? And I guess that can sometimes lead to conflict. Just not normally on this sort of scale."

Here’s the thing, chicken wing. For the most part, I enjoyed reading Big Little Lies. It does have strong female characters and deal with some important and relevant themes in today’s world of parenting and adulthood, but I feel like the fact that this book was adapted into a critically acclaimed and overhyped HBO series with big-name stars has made us lose sight of what Big Little Lies is: it’s pulpy, it’s frothy, and it’s shallow, and it was intended that way.

I was first turned onto Liane Moriarty’s books about three years ago, when I read What Alice Forgot and loved it. I also enjoyed The Hypnotist’s Love Story, but eventually I made my way to The Husband’s Secret and started to get bored: her books almost always deal with slow-moving domestic plots with strong characters, but she started to be a bit of a hit-or-miss author for me when her slow-moving plots started to have unsatisfying and/or anticlimactic conclusions. But I never gave it too much thought, since Moriarty’s books have more or less always been quick and easy chick lit, with just enough substance but not so much that we can consider them “deep.”

Big Little Lies is fine and enjoyable. It deals with relatable characters in relatable domestic situations, and hits the nail on the head in terms of close-knit cliques of moms in elementary schools and schoolyard scandals. But it’s shallow, it’s frothy, and not in any way groundbreaking. And that’s fine. Not every book has to carry the weight of the world and make us see things in a new light or push any boundaries. But I think the fact that this book was adapted into such a high-powered HBO series with some really big actors, directors and producers has made us lose sight of the fact that this was most probably written and intended in the same vein as Moriarty’s other books: quick and relatable domestic stories that are just relatable and relevant enough to not be seen as too shallow or glib. But having an overhyped adaption of a story that isn’t all that special to begin with seems to have shined a light on the bare truth: Big Little Lies is more than a little cliché, and where it fails is that its shallow and frothy nature kind of takes away from the heavy and socially relevant issues it attempts to tackle and de-stigmatize, such as domestic violence (a particular storyline which, despite being such an important issue, I felt should have been more compelling and lacked a certain amount of depth). 

I don’t mean to bash the book in any way. I really did enjoy a lot of it. I wish I could just turn off my critical brain while reading and enjoy froth for froth’s sake. It also just goes to show that I clearly had much more tolerance for froth when I read What Alice Forgot and The Hypnotist’s Love Story years ago. Big Little Lies is very well written, and Moriarty really does hit the nail on the head with a lot of its central themes. You can very easily detect the well thought out structure of the plot and how each character is well-rounded and serves a purpose. There’s an interesting (but not amazingly clever) twist at the end, and everything resolves itself very tidily and satisfyingly. If anything, Big Little Lies is a great template for writing books that will sell, if you ever need a good example. I just think the hype surrounding its cable TV adaption has made people lose touch with what the book really is by design: something to enjoy, but not something to expect too much from. 3/5 stars.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Book Review: 'Room' by Emma Donoghue

I avoided this book for a very long time, and after finding a copy of it at the library (despite it not even being on my TBR), I decided it was time to give it a shot.

I avoided Room for a very simple reason: I just thought it would be too real. Real-life kidnapping cases have always interested me. I've followed the story of Jaycee Dugard's rescue after 18 years in captivity (during which she bore two children with her captor), and the three girls in Cleveland who were rescued in 2013 after 11 years in a madman's house. It wasn't that I thought Room would get it wrong or anything; I just didn't think I could bring myself to read something fictional about a situation that has appeared several times in the news over the last decade, and given the fact that I followed those real stories very closely, I just didn't think I could handle reading about the same thing in fiction. But then I remembered that I heard Room is narrated from the 5-year-old boy's perspective, so I thought that might make it a bit easier. And it did, but it still shattered my heart into a thousand pieces.

Room is told through the perspective of 5-year-old Jack, whose entire world is a space called Room, where he lives with Ma. Ma, unwilling to disappoint Jack with a life she cannot give him, allows Jack to believe that the rest of the world exists only on television. Ma tries her best to keep Jack healthy and happy via both physical and mental exercises, keeping a healthy diet, limiting television time, and strict body and oral hygiene (sacrificing her own hygiene as a result). The only other person Jack has ever seen is "Old Nick," who visits Room at night while Jack sleeps hidden in a wardrobe. Old Nick brings them food and necessities. Jack is unaware that Old Nick kidnapped Ma when she was 19 years old and has kept her imprisoned for the past seven years. Old Nick regularly rapes Ma; Jack is the product of one such sexual assault. At the beginning of the book, Jack has turned five, and Ma soon learns that Old Nick has become unemployed and is danger of losing his home to foreclosure. Fearing for their lives, Ma decides that Jack is old enough to learn the truth, and explains that everything on television is in fact real and exists outside Room, as well as the fact that Old Nick kidnapped her and he now needs to help them escape.

The perspective of Room is so important to everything that takes place, and it honestly makes the book so much more readable and enjoyable, because it takes the severity out of Jack and Ma's situation (even though you don't want it to). Ask yourself; what's really severe to a 5-year-old, let alone a 5-year-old who thinks Room is the entire world? As the story progresses, you can see the immediate culture shock and differences between Ma and Jack, even before they attempt their escape: Ma has done her best to protect her child despite the most unspeakable circumstances, but it has gotten to a point where sticking their heads in the sand for the sake of childhood isn't helping anyone anymore. You can also tell very easily that things have gotten out of hands in other ways, such as the way that Ma is slowly losing herself after being locked up and abused in Room for so long, but for Jack, Room is a happy place where he has spent his entire life with his mother, and Ma is horribly upset and can no longer bring herself to listen to Jack romanticize a place where she has suffered for seven long years. Not to mention that Ma struggles deeply with depression as a result of her situation, often having what Jack perceives as days where she's "Gone" (stays unresponsive and asleep in bed all day long). Reading Room really reminded me of what it is like to be 5 years old: so blissfully innocent and full of love, and the perspective is written so strongly that I must tip my hat to Emma Donoghue (this must not have been easy to write in any way, shape or form). I'm sure there are many different interpretations and analyses of what the main themes are in this book, but the only important one to me is the strong bond and relationship a mother and child can share. It reminded me so nostalgically of what it was like to be a young child and have such a deep connection with an adult around you, and Jack and Ma's dangerous situation only intensified their bond and connection: to quote a young Dakota Fanning from I Am Sam, "All you need is love." The fact that the tabloids and general public in the story chose to gawk and criticize how Ma raised her child in an unthinkable and heartbreaking situation only reinforces that; who are we to dictate and criticize how people should act in unthinkably bad situations? The public always needs something to talk about, even at the expense of other people's privacy and feelings.

After finishing Room, I of course watched the film adaption, starring Brie Larson in the role of Ma and Jacob Tremblay in the role of Jack. Usually, when I watch a book's film adaption right after finishing the book, I am more critical and don't end up enjoying the movie as much, because the story is still so fresh in my mind and I nitpick little details that didn't translate from the page to the screen. Conversely, when I read a book that is adapted into a movie that comes out a certain amount of time after I've read it, the story in the book is less fresh and I end up enjoying the movie because I don't feel the need to nitpick little details. Room is officially the first book/movie to break that rule of mine. While I did find myself immediately recognizing differences (I'm always going to do that, regardless of how long it's been), Room the movie can almost stand a
lone from Room the book. In other words, it's not one of those movies where you won't understand its full effect if you haven't read the book. The story was built for the screen in a really illuminating way, and is actually a rare case of the movie filling in some blanks and question marks from the book: after all, the book is narrated entirely from the perspective of a 5-year-old boy who has never left a space called Room. While it does offer a new and unique perspective that serves the story better than if Ma had narrated, I was still intrigued to know how an adult would perceive Room as opposed to a child who has only ever known this space as his entire world. It only reminds how absolutely heartbreaking the story is, but somehow heartbreaking in a good way. Love is truly all we need. 5/5 stars.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Book Review: 'I Stop Somewhere' by T.E. Carter

"There's that nursery rhyme. You know it? All about what makes a girl. We're sugar and spice and everything nice, but that sounds like a cookie recipe. It doesn't sound like the composition of a person."

This book hit me like a ton of bricks. I Stop Somewhere is one of the most powerful books I've ever read. I'm actually struggling to come up with the title of another book that's just as powerful as this one, so it might actually be the most powerful book I've ever read.

Ellie Frias disappeared long before she vanished. Tormented throughout middle school, Ellie begins her freshman year with a new look: she doesn't need to be popular; she just needs to blend in with the wallpaper. But when the unthinkable happens, Ellie finds herself trapped after a brutal assault. She wasn't the first victim, and now she watches it happen again and again. She tries to hold on to her happier memories in order to get past the cold days, waiting for someone to find her. The problem is, no one searches for a girl they never noticed in the first place.

It's been quite awhile since I've read a YA book that is written in such a distinct style as I Stop Somewhere. Not to mention the writing is SO strong. It's SO well written, it blew me away. It's hard to believe this is the author's debut novel. I actually found myself stopping after certain paragraphs saying, "Damn. That's powerful." It's definitely not the first YA book to touch on the ugly parts of teenage girldom, let alone the first book at how hard it is to be a girl. But I Stop Somewhere is just written so naturally that I believe anyone could pick up this book and understand the bullshit that our society forces females to go through. This book has been promoted as tackling rape culture, misogyny, privilege, class and wealth and it's definitely about all of those things - there is absolutely no question. There's also no question that there have been and will be a lot more of books about those things given the rise of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. But I Stop Somewhere especially stands out, in my opinion, as the intricate portrait of a girl's mind. The book moves between the past and present, with Ellie telling the story in both tenses. She is not perfect, and at times the story asks the reader to question whether or not Ellie is actually a victim - and that's what I Stop Somewhere is truly about when it comes down to it. It's about how our society, still unfortunately very male-dominated, decides for girls and women whether or not they were violated. It's not up to the girls. Some are not believed, but even those who are believed are forced to plead their case as to why they believe or think why they were violated. We can't just take their word for it. It's truly, inexplicably awful, but oh so important to remember, and I Stop Somewhere does a remarkable job at it.

Ellie is a flawed character and narrator, but that's what makes her perfect. It is her perspective and recounting of events, a female one, that we need to hear, because (at the risk of sounding too much like a social justice warrior) men are not trustworthy. They just aren't. Men aren't raised in the same world as women. Through Ellie, the author looks at a number of things, bigger than rape culture and misogyny: s
he explores the way society treats girls and puts their personality and lifestyle on trial in rape cases. She explores how easily we dismiss their bodies as things to be taken, cast aside, or consumed as desired. Just as in some old nursery rhyme, it seems as though women were historically designed to be "sugar and spice and everything nice," and as objects for men. Wasn't it Simone de Beauvoir who said, many years ago, in her book The Second Sex that what are women but an object of desire? I know we cast away certain feminist approaches that deal with these issues too harshly or "the wrong way" but these issues are reality. They are. Really and truly. And if you can't bring even part of yourself to understand that, you're probably a man.

I Stop Somewhere is not to be missed. Raw, emotional, powerful, important, and real. Please go read it, and don't skip the author's note at the end. Highly, highly, HIGHLY recommend. 5/5 stars.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Paula Abdul Was Almost the Pop Princess of Her Era: Celebrating 30 Years of 'Forever Your Girl'

In the popular culture of today, Paula Abdul is remembered for her tenure as the zany but kind-hearted judge on American Idol for its first eight seasons, a highly respected choreographer from the music video era, and the dance-pop hits she scored in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s before disappearing from the pop music landscape. Last week marked the 30th anniversary of her debut studio album that launched her into pop stardom as the original pop princess (some say she was almost the Britney Spears of her era)—Forever Your Girl. Feel old yet?
Paula Abdul choreographing with Janet Jackson, early 1980s
Abdul’s Miss America personality and dance moves propelled the album to record-breaking success—at the time, it was the most successful debut album of all-time, and the first time an artist had scored 4 number-one hits from a debut album on the Billboard Hot 100. Abdul started her career as the head choreographer for the Laker Girls before making her first breakthrough when she was discovered by the Jacksons (she would then choreograph Janet’s “Nasty” and “Control” music videos) before becoming a highly sought after dancer and choreographer at the height of the music video era. Before long, she was signed to the newly formed Virgin Records by Jeff Ayeroff, who had worked in marketing at A&M Records with Janet. “She said, ‘I can sing, you know. I want to do an album,’” Ayeroff recalled later. “Here's someone with a personality and she's gorgeous, and she can dance. If she can sing, she could be a star.” But, not surprisingly, Abdul finding her footing as a pop star was never that simple.
Abdul in the music video for "Forever Your Girl," 1989
As much as we remember Paula Abdul’s greatest hits with a nostalgic grin, remembering all the words and where we were when those songs were popular, we cannot deny that she is not as well remembered as her peers, Janet Jackson and Madonna. Pop stars tend to be best remembered for being either transgressive, era-defining stars or nostalgic one-hit wonders. Abdul landed somewhere between those two extremes—she had the performance power and a high-powered label to back her up, but that wasn’t enough for her to survive the pop star formula. Unlike Janet or Madonna, she was never interested in pushing boundaries, generating controversy or using her songs as a form of autobiography, and historically, female pop stars haven’t been taken seriously when they just want to sing and dance (see also: La Toya Jackson, Vanessa Williams, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Lindsay Lohan, Miranda Cosgrove, etc.) To make matters worse, several producers, critics and label executives recall that, despite her amount of number-one hits, Abdul’s vocal ability was not extraordinary—producers Babyface and L.A. Reid recall that it took an unusually long time to record her vocal for Forever Your Girl’s lead single, “Knocked Out”—and looking back, Abdul’s discography is a nostalgic nod to a particular era in pop that lived and died in the late ‘80s (in a so-corny-it’s-good kind of way), but pop listeners identify with this kind of recording artist who only wants to sing and dance with little other depth. Why do you think more than one Paula Abdul hit has been used as a lip sync song on RuPaul’s Drag Race? Cheesy pop has its own place in people’s hearts, and for a while there, Abdul made up for what she lacked in vocals or uniqueness with performance ability and the dance moves to prove it.
Abdul in the music video for "Straight Up," 1988
Despite the significant commercial success she achieved with Forever Your Girl, critics started calling Abdul merely a Janet Jackson knockoff or wannabe, and the fact that she had worked with and choreographed Jackson right before breaking into the music industry as a solo artist didn’t help her case. While her producers worked hard at building her own persona with songs like the title track (which drew inspiration from Madonna’s “Borderline”), it was Abdul who sought out the songs that she would be best remembered for, such as “Cold Hearted” and, most importantly, “Straight Up.” Abdul recalled the first time she heard the “Straight Up” demo, saying there was something “crazy good” about it that she just had to hear it again. The track would become Abdul’s most iconic and signature song (the music video is one of my all-time favorites), but it turns out she had to fight her record executives to include it on the album, most of whom thought it was garbage. Today, its sound is distinctly ’80s and just as catchy and fun now as it was then, making it hard to understand why anyone at the record company might have found the song laughable. The overtly campy and cliché lyrical content was most probably what turned people off, but it was those very campy and cliché lyrics for which Abdul would be remembered best for, which could retroactively make us think of her as a try-hard wannabe who didn’t survive the industry, or a talented girl in her own right who did what she thought sounded right for the time and just wanted to sing and dance, ignoring the necessity of pop star politics.
Forever Your Girl didn’t succeed because of the label pushing it or Abdul—it succeeded by relying on good old-fashioned radio play, and the album sold 7 million copies in the United States alone. Paula Abdul was officially a pop star and became controversial in her own way, being taken to court by singer Yvette Marine, who sued the Virgin label in 1991 alleging that it was her vocals that were used on Abdul’s final single from Forever Your Girl, “Opposites Attract.” The lawsuit led to the widespread discussion of singers and their labels lying about vocals (still a decade away from the advent of auto-tune)—Abdul was branded the latest lip sync scandal, which didn’t help the case for her already criticized vocal ability. The court case made headlines just in time for her second studio album, Spellbound, which eventually hit number one (setting a record at the time for the lowest-selling album to do so), and brought Abdul two additional number-one singles: “Rush, Rush” and “The Promise of a New Day.” But the album also started to shine a new light on Abdul as both a recording artist and performer, since she was starting to leave the bubblegum pop sound and image from Forever Your Girl behind.
Abdul during her Under My Spell Tour, circa 1991
With her second album and era, Abdul was trying her hand at more adult and socially conscious themes, mimicking the success Janet saw with Rhythm Nation. But it didn’t fit Abdul’s image, whatever it was at that point (a cross between dance-pop princess and Janet-level dancer and performer, maybe). Critics immediately pounced on her performance of “Vibeology” at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards, criticizing her “unflattering” outfit and her supposedly shaky attempt at live vocals. Abdul would later recall the performance and outfit on her 2007 reality series Hey Paula, saying her bedazzled leotard made her look fat and nearly ended her career. That comment alone makes what came next in Paula Abdul’s career not shocking in the least: after Spellbound, she took time off to recover from her high-profile divorce from Emilio Estevez—and seek treatment for bulimia. She stated years later that she first developed the eating disorder as a teenager and it only intensified once she became a star, feeling an overwhelming need to stay thin: “I thought, ‘God I’m not perfect. I’m going to disappoint people.’ That’s what I thought. It became a living hell for me. I wanted to get help. I wanted to be free from weighing myself on the scales. Whether I was sticking my head in the toilet or exercising for hours a day, I was spitting out the food – and the feelings.”
Abdul re-emerged with a third studio album in 1995, Head Over Heels—four years since her last album, but it might as well have been fourteen years. The album became her lowest-selling release, peaking at only number 18 on the Billboard 200 chart in the United States (a significant drop when your last albums both hit number one), which left Abdul surrounded by the reality that her audience had withered and her label wasn’t about to give her the time to find a new one. It’s a shame, really; several tracks on Head Over Heels delivered strong vocals and a matured sound, most notably “My Love is For Real,” an upbeat ‘90s R&B-pop tune that sounds like Vanessa Williams meets Janet Jackson, but still more unique than most tracks found on Spellbound. But the break in between her second and third albums, combined with her apparent inability to compete with the groundbreaking success of artists like Janet and Madonna, was too much for Abdul to survive the pop music game, and Head Over Heels would be her final studio album. Gemma Corfield, former Virgin Records A&R vice president who worked closely with Abdul her entire career, said “she wasn’t as cutting edge … a lot of hipper artists had come up in between. You have to change with the times to stay current, and maybe she wasn’t current; obviously she wasn’t. Her kids, her fans had gone on to the next thing.” In 1997, Abdul co-wrote a song called “Spinning Around” with record producer and composer Kara DioGuardi (who she would later appear with on the judging panel of American Idol in 2009) which was originally intended to be her comeback single from a new album, but the plan never materialized and the song was later given to Kylie Minogue.
Abdul with Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson as part of the original judging panel of American Idol, 2008
Abdul saw renewed success as one of the original judges on American Idol in the 2000s, where she became the television personality and pop culture figure for which we generally remember her best today. She continued to be the subject of controversy on Idol: in 2005, she was accused of having an affair with season two contestant Corey Clark and coaching him on how to succeed in the competition. There were also reports of erratic behavior on set leading to widespread rumors of drug use, which she generally laughed off in interviews. But even though her success as a recording artist seemed short-lived, it appears as though she was popular enough to get herself a fan bigger than them all, who was actually more of a stalker—Paula Goodspeed, who was such a huge fan of Abdul from a young age that she legally changed her name to Paula at age 16 and modeled her career aspirations off of her. She became known to the public in 2006 when she auditioned for the fifth season of Idol, but Abdul was already well aware of the woman—and the producers insisted that she be allowed to audition for the series for the drama that it may have ensued (despite how visibly spooked and uncomfortable Abdul looked when she was in the same room as Goodspeed). The woman would later commit suicide outside of Abdul’s home in Los Angeles in 2008, reportedly sending flowers to Abdul prior to her death. If Paula Abdul’s place in contemporary popular culture hadn’t yet been solidified with her short-lived success as a pop star who was “just here for the music” (as she sang in her last original song of the same name in 2009), her role as a television personality rumored to be on drugs with a crazy stalker who would commit suicide outside of her home would definitely do the trick. And regardless of the controversies, Abdul’s hits continue to resonate with listeners for a variety of reasons, not to mention her role as mentor on the judging panels of reality competition shows that would allow other pop singers to find the same success, such as Jennifer Lopez and most recently Katy Perry. In addition to Idol, Abdul has since appeared as a judge on the first season of the American X Factor, two seasons of So You Think You Can Dance, and the short-lived Live to Dance (where she was also executive producer). As Corfield put: “She’s done well and made a career for herself, so she’s got the last laugh, probably.”
30 years later, Forever Your Girl is still an enjoyable dance-pop album whose sound nostalgically brings the listener back to that era of pop music, reminding us that just about anyone can make a good pop song or two with the dance moves to bring it together and a label to back you up. Even if the music may sound dated in many ways, the title definitely aged well given the high quality of the album and the ultimate length of her music career: with a list of hits that are still fun to listen to and a pop career that wouldn’t last long, Paula Abdul truly does remain forever our girl.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Has Christina Aguilera Finally Found Herself? (Album Review: 'Liberation')

It’s been six years, but the new album that Christina Aguilera has been promising for years has finally arrived. Liberation is the title, but the question is whether or not Aguilera, one of the strongest vocalists of her generation, has finally found the right path for her outstanding ability. Through all the hits and misses, “Xtina” has always made herself unique by never playing it safe.
Six years isn’t unheard of between albums—P!nk and Kesha both returned after five years with strong new albums last year, for example—but at a time when pop music requires near constant output from its stars, such a lengthy break may not come heavily recommended. Artists like Rihanna, Selena Gomez and Ariana Grande have ushered in a new era of pop where singers are never truly off the grid musically: even if they’re “taking their time” with their own new music, they are attaching themselves to other people’s singles in the form of features, tracks that are usually catchy and club-friendly that will perform well on charts and thereby keeping their name and their brand relevant while they work on getting that new album out. But even Christina Aguilera’s peers, arguably Beyoncé, Britney Spears or even Lady Gaga, have never taken such a long break between albums with little other musical activity. As if that wasn’t enough pressure, Aguilera has had to deal with an extra dose given that her last two albums, Bionic (2010) and Lotus (2012), were critical and commercial stink bombs, falling flat and leaving her without a clearly defined musical identity in this current era of pop music. But we must recall—Aguilera has always struggled to define her musical identity as well as with the ever-shifting demands of mainstream pop.
Aguilera and Britney Spears at the VMAs in 2000 (Photo Credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)
One thing that’s inarguable is that Aguilera has coasted through the last wave of mainstream pop music, needing to attach herself to something that would keep her relevant despite her underperforming albums. Her first attempt was Burlesque, a musical film co-starring Cher that received mixed reviews from critics and was somewhat of a disappointment at the box office, but the one that would stick was her gig as a coach on NBC’s The Voice, where she found her place in contemporary pop music and culture. It was also the gig that would make Aguilera seem “likeable” again—as she had come to gain a reputation as less than that in years past. Anyone who followed pop music in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s recall the endlessly unfair comparisons between Xtina and Britney Spears—but one thing that is quickly forgotten is how ambivalent Aguilera was to her pop stardom in those days, never keeping up with Spears’ quick output. Despite achieving all-around success with her self-titled debut album in ’99, which generated hits such as “Genie in a Bottle,” “What A Girl Wants” and “Come On Over Baby (All I Want Is You),” Aguilera was weary of the album and her place in pop music, stating that wasn’t who she wanted to be as an artist. At the time, she told the press that she was “so over” the album and wanted to explore other creative paths, citing women like Etta James as inspirations. Right from the beginning, Aguilera had trouble bridging the gap between her desire to stay true to who she wanted to be as an artist and who the pop music landscape demanded she be. She never adhered to established pop music cycles, and always seemed conflicted about her musical identity. As early as 2000, critics pounced: the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (her hometown paper) pointed out that “what a girl wants — and desperately, it seems — is to leave her Mouseketeering teenybopper image far behind and position herself as a womanly R&B diva when, in fact, she's better suited to the sticky kids' stuff.”
Aguilera, Britney Spears and Madonna perform the opening act at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards (Photo Credit: Kevin Kane/WireImage)
While Britney was busy finding new uses for her baby voice with chart-topping singles, provocative music videos and sold-out world tours, Aguilera worked hard on developing her own style in what would become her finest moment and peak in pop culture and music, Stripped (2002): her second mainstream album (and fourth overall). The Stripped era was most probably Aguilera’s most significant moment of pop cultural relevance: she took creative control and left behind whatever teen pop image she had, exploring adult themes like self-respect and female sexuality. It led to a spot next to Britney as they kissed Madonna at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards, in what was perceived as a major moment of pop baton-passing. But Xtina seemed immediately unimpressed with being slotted into a place alongside Britney and Madonna in mainstream stadium pop and spoke openly about her frustrations with the award show kiss in a way that the public perceived as “unlikeable.” In an infamous interview after the VMAs, Aguilera blasted artists like Britney, Madonna and even Beyoncé, saying Britney and Madonna were not artists, “they're just performers — fake and superficial, like the entire event,” and said people like Britney and Beyoncé were “desperate to come across as sweet, good little girls, but then you see them in photo shoots that are extremely sexual — tight little booty shorts, and not much else. So why do they try to be virginal in interviews?” Refusing to play by conventional pop star rules is only a girl’s friend until she starts bashing other stars—and the word “unlikeable” sealed Xtina’s fate for several years thereafter.
Aguilera returned with another album four years later in 2006—a long break even then when her so-called peers had new albums every other season—Back to Basics, which called upon her true musical inspirations like Etta James, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Otis Redding. While its lead single “Ain’t No Other Man” performed well on the charts, the album’s retro vibe pulled Aguilera out of the contemporary pop music conversation and landscape and simultaneously failed to establish her in the adult contemporary pop conversation (which has since embraced pop singers like P!nk), since she was caught between the world of Britney-era teen pop and the desperation to establish herself as something unique in the world of grown-up pop music. By this point, it seemed like Christina Aguilera was too talented for her own good—unimpressed with the game the other pop stars were playing, but still struggling to define herself outside of it. Another four years passed before her next album would surface, 2010’s Bionic, and by then, Xtina was both ahead and tragically behind the times—experimenting with electropop futurism at a time when electropop was just starting to dominate music charts. No longer in the shadow of Britney, Aguilera was now being compared to Lady Gaga, and it was clear who was winning that conversation (spoiler alert: not Xtina). Other artists had since come to occupy the space that Aguilera occupied in the 2000s, and she was now struggling to keep up. She found her footing again on The Voice in 2011, featuring on Maroon 5’s hit single “Moves Like Jagger” and then recording what would be her next album just two years after her last, 2012’s Lotus, which is arguably Aguilera’s most commercially focused album. She collaborated with Max Martin for the first time (who has worked with the biggest names in contemporary pop music), and was finally trying her hand at the pop music game she had for so long refused to play. Reviews were mixed, the sound generic, and the numbers even worse—Lotus flopped even harder than Bionic.
Since then, Aguilera took time off to spend with her family and began teasing her next album as early as 2014. In 2015, her manager Irving Azoff reignited the callous Britney vs. Xtina debate when he described what Aguilera had been working on in a podcast interview, saying: “Christina’s not peaked yet. She’s in the prime of her career, will tour the world. We’re not ready to sit down in Vegas [implying a diss towards Britney, who found success with a Las Vegas residency show from 2013 to 2017]. She’s about to finish her record … and the record’s amazing.” In 2016, Aguilera said of her new album (which she had initially promised would be out by the end of that year): “It is a body of work that is timeless.” Thereafter, fans began anticipating a comeback album and era with a Stripped­-level of musical reinvention, and after nearly four years of talk and six years since her last studio release, Xtina confirmed in May with the release of a new single called “Accelerate” that her eighth studio album, Liberation, would follow in June.
Xtina for Billboard in 2018 (Photo Credit: Luke Gilford)
Considering the creative and commercial failures that were Bionic and Lotus, it only made sense that Xtina would do what Xtina does best with her next studio effort—take her time, even if it means sacrificing the spot she once held in the pop music conversation. On Liberation, Aguilera returns to her R&B-influenced roots, conjuring a vibe that is simultaneously reminiscent of the R&B that Rihanna has popularized in recent years while also bringing to mind, on a lesser scale, the hip hop sound that catapulted Fergie to mainstream success as a solo artist. As far as lead singles go, “Accelerate” is weak—which led many to question whether or not the album would truly be her comeback. And whether or not Liberation is a comeback album is truly the question to consider while listening: if we compare it to her previous studio efforts, it definitely stands out as something worthwhile and authentic, rather than experimental or commercially focused. But if we compare it to her peak level of relevance and success that she found nearly sixteen years ago on Stripped, we meet a woman who sounds like she has come into her own, regardless of what the terribly restrictive and constraining confines of the pop music landscape have projected onto her. In one sense, Aguilera came into her own years ago on both Stripped and Back to Basics, but in terms of finding her footing as an artist in an ever-shifting and youth-obsessed industry, Xtina truly does seem liberated once again on an album named Liberation. The sixth track “Fall In Line” is undoubtedly a highlight—not just because of her outstanding collaboration with Demi Lovato (the two strongest vocalists of their respective generations collaborated on one track; how did the universe not implode?) but because of the lyrics that make the listener recall fondly the issues she explored on Stripped in songs like “Fighter” and “Beautiful,” reminding young girls that the bullshit women face in society might just be “the way it is,” but girls and women can always fight back because not everyone is made to fall in line. The R&B focus of the album works, since mainstream sounds aren’t her strong suit (we saw how that worked out on Lotus). “Accelerate” is a weak lead single, but on another level, it is the only song on the album that could probably fill the shoes of a lead single, given its club-friendly hip hop vibe. “Sick of Sittin’” succeeds as a somewhat protest song, but what really stands out on Liberation are the ballad tracks—“Deserve,” “Maria,” “Twice” and “Masochist” are songs that really bring the listener back to the originally liberated Xtina on Stripped, which means all the fan predictions were true: Aguilera took her time yet again and returned to her roots on her latest album, and is the closet she has ever been to zeroing in on the right path for her immense talent.
One of the weaker elements of Liberation, however, is its tendency to over-rely on its features from other artists—despite Xtina’s standout moments, there are a few too many guest appearances—and I would have preferred if Aguilera had remained solo on a few of the songs where she has others accompanying her. I only say this since Xtina sounds stronger than she has in years, and I wanted to hear more of HER killing it, even if some of the features work with the rest of the album. The Aguilera on Liberation reminds listeners of the kind of artist she told us she wanted to be all those years ago—even if the road to maintaining success became messy thereafter, Xtina’s vocal and pop cultural impact speaks for itself: she has been cited as an inspiration by further generations of Disney-bred stars, such as Lovato and Selena Gomez, both of whom cited Aguilera and Stripped as inspirations for their last two studio albums. After all, we must remember: Christina Aguilera has never fallen in line—not with the rules of pop music, or being average when it comes to her voice—and on Liberation, she reminds us of who she is and always has been, just beneath the surface and with the range to prove it.
Jeffrey’s favorite tracks from Liberation: “Fall In Line,” “Deserve,” “Twice,” “Masochist,” “Unless It’s With You,” and “Maria”