Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Book Review: 'Bad Feminist' by Roxane Gay

"When you can't find someone to follow, you have to find a way to lead by example."

Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist had been on my TBR list on Goodreads for over three years, and a physical copy of the book sat on my TBR pile for nearly two. As a self-described feminist who has enjoyed a wide variety of other feminist essay collections that have cited Bad Feminist as inspiration, I was very interested - I just never made the time to get to it; something else would always get in the way. And all I have to say about it now that I've finally read it is: what a problematic, convoluted mess.

I think a large majority of self-described feminists identify at least in some part with the definition of "bad feminist" that Gay describes in the book's introduction. Feminism isn't easy, especially when we still live in a very male-dominated and misogynistic society and culture where misogyny is very much ingrained into our psyches. In other words, I feel like even the most diehard of feminists have experienced some sort of internalized misogyny in everyday life. That being said, I'm still not entirely sure what Gay's goal was with Bad Feminist - was it to point out how problematic our society and culture still is when it comes to feminism, was it about how she herself is indeed a bad feminist, or was it a book of contradicted rants about how everyone else is a bad feminist and she wants some sort of medal for pointing it out? For me, I believe, it is the latter. I really did not enjoy Gay's prose. She strikes me as someone who thinks hating popular things makes her a more interesting person. And I get it, the vast majority of popular things are misogynistic and anti-feminist. I GET IT. But, for the most part, that doesn't seem to be what Gay is pointing out. Bad Feminist is full of contradictions to the point that it made my head spin.

The thing that bothered me the most was that Gay constantly points out that she is not the target audience for the pieces of fiction or media that she has chosen to pick on. She rants relentlessly about the HBO television series Girls and how it's a very non-intersectional view on women in their twenties (in other words, it doesn't consider the perspectives of people in that age category outside of privileged white women). And that is more than completely fair. Girls was at times a very problematic series for those reasons and more. But she just continues to go on and on about things that clearly weren't made for her. I get it, these things are problematic regardless of who they're made for. Believe me, I get it. But she nitpicks at the smallest things and even does additional research to back up why these things bother her.

To top it off, she rants about her issues with the films The Help and Django Unchained and doesn't even really describe what she thinks is wrong with those films, except for stating her opinion that she thinks white people who loved The Help were "longing for a better time." I know that recent period drama films like The Help have come to be viewed as though they were made from liberal white guilt of how black people were treated back then, and I get that it's frustrating for black people to often have their struggles exploited and watered down by big budget Hollywood films. But you know what? It's better than nothing. Filmmakers who put the time and money into making films like those are at least trying to understand and sympathize with the struggles that minorities like African Americans have gone through, often at the hands of white people. The end results may not be perfect, but it's something. At least they're trying. It's better than nothing. I would like to know what exactly Gay does enjoy watching, because she seems to find fault with everything - even things that we could say were in fact "made for her," like Tyler Perry films or series on BET. And, again, I get it. Even things that are made for you are not perfect. Nothing is perfect. But I know for a fact that people are trying, and we have to put our faith in that as "bad feminists," something Roxane Gay clearly does not do.

As much as I believe Bad Feminist was fairly well written, I don't think it knows whether it wants to be an essay collection or a memoir. The first few chapters read as though they have nothing to do with what Gay just so eloquently described in her introduction. They are interesting and well written, sure, but what do they have to do with being a bad feminist? This is something I've come to dislike in a majority of recent essay collections that are published and sold under a certain premise - being a bad feminist, for example - and then include way too many personal anecdotes that have nothing to do with what you promised us in your introduction. This was my main problem with Heather Havrilesky's What If This Were Enough? and I got similar vibes while reading Bad Feminist. If you are going to include personal anecdotes in an essay collection, you have to at least make sure they tie in with what you are writing about. Otherwise, save it for your autobiography. And based on how special Roxane Gay feels she is for pointing out everyone else's flaws in Bad Feminist, I can only assume a similar autobiography is forthcoming. 2/5 stars.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Book Review: 'Like a Love Story' by Abdi Nazemian

"I am somewhere else now. I exist only inside my own anxiety, imagining what my mother will say if she finds out who I am. But the violence around me pulls me back to this moment."

For about a year now, I've been met with the growing suspicion that I'm starting to outgrow most of the YA genre. For some reason, I once believed that I would never outgrow YA because most of the titles I picked to read always resonated so profoundly with me (but then again, I also once believed that I would never outgrow anything, which just isn't realistic). I also know there's a stigma around adults reading YA books since they are not the targeted age category, and I do not intend to imply that only YA is only suitable for sixteen-year-olds. Read whatever you want, no matter how old you are. But for me, I can no longer shake the feeling that YA isn't really the genre for me anymore. Even when a new title comes out that sounds different or groundbreaking, I can barely get through any of them without silently saying to myself, "Okay, calm down, you're sixteen. Wait until you get real problems." I guess I'm just in a different space now that I'm in my twenties and now that I've been able to let go of a lot of the different anxieties associated with youth. That being said, I still can't help myself when I come across a new YA title on Goodreads that sounds like something I will love. I'm just more inclined to request it from the library now rather than spending money on it (read my essay for Book Riot about why you owe it to yourself to abandon books you're not enjoying for more on that!)

In New York City in 1989, the world is complicated place for three teenagers. Iranian immigrant Reza knows he's gay, but is deeply conflicted by his cultural values and images in the media of gay men dying from AIDS. Judy is an aspiring fashion designer who doesn't fit in anywhere except with her Uncle Stephen, who is sick. And Art, Judy's best friend, is their school's only out and proud teen who rebels against his conservative parents and attempts to capture the AIDS crisis through his photographs. Like a Love Story brings these three lost souls together in a story that celebrates activism, loving who you are, and dancing to Madonna.

I really loved how Like a Love Story focuses on the AIDS crisis and I appreciate how a number of reviews have called it a groundbreaking and masterful portrayal of something we still struggle to find the language to talk about over thirty years later. It doesn't personally rank as my favorite YA book to tackle AIDS (that would certainly be Carol Rifka Brunt's Tell the Wolves I'm Home), but I'm still happy to have found another open and honest portrayal of the realities of the crisis in the YA genre. Above all I appreciate how personal this story feels for the author, as you can tell in a number of queer YA novels written by men (such as Angelo Surmelis' The Dangerous Art of Blending In). I especially appreciated how such a personal and honest narrative was written by a queer man of color, considering that right before reading Like a Love Story I read Sarah Henstra's We Contain Multitudes, another queer YA novel that was problematic in its attempts to tackle homophobia, which was written by a straight, cis white woman. It was definitely refreshing to have topics such as AIDS, homophobia, racism, and cultural values written about by someone who has most likely experienced such things in real life. The author writes in such a palatable, straightforward way that still gives space for all the feelings that come with loss and love.

What I loved most about Like a Love Story was how it's exactly that - a love story, and a queer love story. The romance between Reza and Art didn't feel too forced or rushed like the majority of queer romances between boys in YA, and their love was ignited by a passion for activism, a love of art, and a love of love. It was also wonderful to read the perspective of a queer boy of color attempting to come to terms with his sexuality, based on his cultural values and the homophobic beliefs instilled in him by nature, as well as his coming out process. Another thing I loved about Like a Love Story was how it really reminded me of my love for Madonna? I say that as if it were something that is easily forgotten, but I often forget the impact that Madonna had in the '80s, especially in the LGBTQ community. Everything about her, her music, and her image was so inspiring and empowering for queer people then and now, and it made me grateful for the fact that I got to grow up to a lot of her music and that I got to start the process of finding myself and loving myself through her music. I actually went and listened to The Immaculate Collection after finishing this book, and danced my little heart out.

The only thing I didn't really like about Like a Love Story - and I can't really tell if this was a legitimate flaw or just me being snobby because I've outgrown most of YA - was Judy. I just found her to be really annoying and unlikable. I appreciated the perspective and representation of an unapologetically fat girl in a queer love story, but the chapters told from her perspective really pissed me off and brought down the party. I loved her Uncle Stephen and the short anecdotes told from his perspective, but I hated Judy. Maybe it's just me. But I probably would have enjoyed the book more as a whole if she wasn't in it. Then again, would it really have been a love story set in the '80s if a boy coming out as gay to his fake girlfriend didn't cause the girlfriend to become a melodramatic bitch who makes someone's coming out process all about them? I'm doubtful, honestly. Overall, definitely a new LGBTQ entry to the YA genre that is not to be missed. It's titles like these that make me not want to leave the genre behind forever. 4/5 stars.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Mabel Goes Low on 'High Expectations' (Album Review)

When English singer/songwriter Mabel—who has been described by many as the next Dua Lipa—released her single “Don’t Call Me Up” earlier this year, I was totally prepared to jump on the bandwagon. On that track in particular, her vocals soar, the glossy production makes you want to dance, and the lyrics that celebrate dismissing negativity makes you want to shout them at the top of your lungs. Her sassy lyrics and attitude left me eagerly waiting for more, since the world needs more sassy but bold bops like that. I often forget that highly anticipating something often leads to the opposite of what you want. Prior to the release of her full-length debut album High Expectations, Mabel had given us that and more. But what she ended up doing was reminding us that sometimes the end result will be better when we in fact lower our expectations.

High Expectations arrives just as Mabel’s latest single “Mad Love” has been reaching the Top 10, and “Don’t Call Me Up” continues to climb the charts nearly eight months after its release (and rightfully so). The Dua Lipa comparisons should be taken as nothing but a compliment, since—if we discount Ed Sheeran—Lipa has been one of the only British pop singers to generate an international following in the last few years. “Don’t Call Me Up” could easily be the sassy and bold cousin to the equally fun-loving “New Rules.” High Expectations was clearly crafted to follow the success of the former, since it is flooded with overly glitzy production and auto-tuned hooks. And everyone knows I have nothing against auto-tuned hooks, but in this case, most of the songs sound incredibly overproduced and impersonal. The album also definitely falls more on the R&B side, but it’s also not unique enough to not be considered a pop album—in a strange way that makes High Expectations hard to classify.

Nothing on High Expectations jumps out quite in the way “Don’t Call Me Up” still does whenever you hear it on the radio, which is most definitely the album’s biggest disappointment. But that’s also not to say the album contains pleasurable filler, either: if the inability to come up with another hit single that resonates the same way “Don’t Call Me Up” does is the album’s biggest disappointment, its biggest failure is its inability to establish Mabel with any sort of personality. There’s a lot of catchy overproduction on songs like “Bad Behaviour” and “We Don’t Say…” that makes tracks like those stand out, merely because they’re earworms, but other songs like “FML,” “Selfish Love,” “Trouble,” and “Put Your Name on It” don’t offer anything fresh or original in any sense of the word.

Been there, done that doesn’t even feel like the appropriate phrase, since it feels like most of the lyrics and production on High Expectations are so unoriginal that there isn’t any adjective or phrase to accurately describe it. Even “OK (Anxiety Anthem),” the album’s most personal offering whose lyrics contain the mantra that it’s OK to not be OK, also comes across as unoriginal and impersonal when a multitude of current pop singers are also crafting poignant ballads and bops about the ups and downs of mental health in our modern times—and Mabel’s attempt feels rather glib. In the Spotify age of music where it is simultaneously very easy and very difficult to make an impact in pop music, a sense of personality and originality are the base requirements. And Mabel delivers none of that on her debut studio album. Alexis Petridis from The Guardian put it best: “There’s a weird disjunction between [Mabel’s] lyrics, which are big on telling you what a caution-to-the-winds handful she is, and the music that supports them, which sticks pretty fast to the well-made pop-R&B playbook: ‘I’m not a people pleaser,’ she sings on ‘Bad Behaviour,’ over a backing that’s clearly intent on pleasing as many people as possible.”

Even though Mabel received songwriting credit on every song on High Expectations, it still feels as though she may have another shot at establishing herself with a more unique personality and a sense of originality in the future. As much as there are many artists who deliver critically acclaimed and era-defining debut studio albums, there are also many others who need an album or two before they find their footing. Shania Twain’s debut studio album from 1993 flopped horrendously and is largely forgotten in comparison to her second album, the indeed era-defining The Woman in Me. There may still be space and time for Mabel to mimic a similar transition, where she can rise above the overproduction and unoriginality of her debut album that feels as though it was crafted for the purpose of “selling out” (as many debut albums by women are made to do). The near future may seem secure for Mabel, as any number of tracks from High Expectations could be released as singles. But only time will tell if she has the ability to transcend selling out and playing the game, since it is those artists who come to be remembered in the long term.

Jeffrey’s favorites from High Expectations: “Bad Behaviour,” “Don’t Call Me Up,” “We Don’t Say…,” and “Mad Love”

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Book Review: 'Daisy Jones & The Six' by Taylor Jenkins Reid

"Women will crush you, you know? I suppose everybody hurts everybody, but women always seem to get back up, you ever notice that? Women are always still standing."

No one is more surprised than me that I loved Daisy Jones & The Six. But in order to understand why I was surprised that I loved it, I must first explain some of the beef that I've had with Taylor Jenkins Reid in the past. So, about three years ago, I decided I was going to buy a copy of Reid's novel Maybe in Another Life after reading the premise and thinking that it sounded like a really good idea for a cute contemporary fiction novel. Right? Wrong. I hated it. It was awful. The writing was terrible and the characters were even worse. It had no depth and felt like a Danielle Steel-type book that you find in a pharmacy (no shade if you like that sort of thing - it's just definitely not my thing). This was also back in the days when I couldn't allow myself to abandon a book even if I hated it, so I forced myself to read the entirety of a book I could not stand (which, looking back, is completely my own fault). But still! I was upset. I spent money on a book I thought I was going to love and I hated it so much. I ended up giving away my copy in a bag of books I gave to a friend. It's nothing personal against Taylor Jenkins Reid herself but I spent money on her and her book was bad! It's a bookworm's prerogative to hold a grudge when that happens! Anyway, so a few months after that whole incident, Reid's next novel The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo came out and it felt like everyone I knew who read books was over the moon for it. I became vehemently against reading it despite the praise and recommendations because I was still pissed over Maybe in Another Life, but ultimately, I gave into the peer pressure and ended up checking it out from the library a few months after the craze died down. As much as everyone on my Goodreads feed was in love with it, I was not. It was definitely better than the last book of hers I read, but I didn't find it to be the original and compelling novel that everyone made it out to be. Reid's writing style definitely left something to be desired for me. It again felt too much like a Danielle Steel-type book with little depth and originality. Especially since Evelyn Hugo was supposed to be this insightful look into the career of a fictional star, I really didn't find it all that special.

So then, this year, when Reid's latest novel Daisy Jones & The Six hit shelves and, again, it felt like everyone and their mother was rushing out to buy a copy (it also helped that Reese Witherspoon both picked it for her book club and had also optioned the screen rights for it before it had even come out). I, again, watched the craze from afar and figured I would do the same thing I did with Evelyn Hugo: wait until the craze dies down and find it at the library, since Daisy Jones actually did interest me more than Evelyn Hugo and I actually hadn't received as many bombarding recommendations. Daisy Jones follows in the footsteps of Evelyn Hugo in that it's also the story of the life and career of a fictional star, or in this case the story of the lives and career of a legendary seventies rock band. Daisy Jones is told in interview format for a new biography about the band, wherein it almost reads like a script for a documentary. But what struck me most about the narrative style was that it grabbed me almost instantly and didn't let go until the last page. As much as Evelyn Hugo was reminiscent of the real-life stories of Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor and that was also an interesting premise for me given I enjoy the stories of tragic female figures, Daisy Jones ended up being even more interesting for me given that I am even more consumed with the lives of recording artists and their legacies. If I may quote a blurb from another author on the back cover, "Filled with passion, complexity, and fascinating detail, Daisy Jones & The Six felt so real, I had to remind myself that it was fiction." And that's exactly how it felt reading it. Sometimes the details about this band that doesn't even exist were so consuming and gripping that I often forgot it wasn't real. I definitely enjoyed that aspect of it since that's very much my cup of tea; analyzing and reading about the lives of others whose careers interest or inspire me.

What also strikes me about Daisy Jones in comparison to Evelyn Hugo is that the majority of the same people who gave high ratings and rave reviews to the latter were more likely to give mixed and negative reviews to the former. Reviews of Evelyn Hugo praised the writing style, its originality, and feminist themes, but those same reviewers tended to criticize Daisy Jones' interview format, called it predictable and not all that insightful, and said they very quickly grew bored with it in comparison to Evelyn Hugo. As far as writing style goes, I think it's safe to assume that I am not Taylor Jenkins Reid's biggest fan. However, since she was writing entirely in the voices of her characters in Daisy Jones, leaving no room for a narrator or anyone outside of the characters giving testimonies, I think I enjoyed Reid's writing style in this book over her others that I've read since it allowed less room for the shallow writing I've found in her other books. I also find it interesting how all of the reviews that commended Evelyn Hugo for being a groundbreaking feminist story were not as quick to claim the same thing with Daisy Jones, which in comparison was a much more original story and offered more feminist insight into an era rarely fictionalized by other authors. Old Hollywood and the studio system, as portrayed in Evelyn Hugo, has been fictionalized by countless other authors and Taylor Jenkins Reid didn't even do a good job at it. But she did do a really good job at the gender expectations of the seventies music industry in Daisy Jones. I especially enjoyed the contrast that the men of The Six faced virtually no struggles or limitations when they started their band, having complete creative freedom and control since they were men, but Daisy Jones was immediately typecast by her record label and forced to record things they knew would sell without looking at her own songwriting. Gender power dynamics like this still exist today in most of Hollywood and beyond, but it was much more prevalent in the seventies and I enjoyed the subtle ways in which Reid acknowledges that throughout. "That's how it was back then. I was just supposed to be the inspiration for some man's great idea. Well, fuck that."

Despite the fact that the ending of the story was a bit predictable, I was still excited to read until the end and learn all of the sorted details to the demise of this legendary, iconic (and fictional) band. I also understand why some readers grew tired and bored with the interview style, since it does almost read like a neverending script and I will admit my eyes got tired after awhile. Some also criticized how Daisy Jones attempted to tackle numerous different issues without really centering on any of them, but to me it read as if all of the things that took place (coming of age in a male-dominated industry, sexism, drugs and rock 'n' roll, and the band's relational dynamics) were being tackled simultaneously because all that and more actually took place. Except they didn't. I keep forgetting this is fictional! I also understand why others said they got bored with it since, in the second half of the book, it does feel like not that much happens. But it still felt eventful and interesting to me since all of the action was taking place retroactively through the stories of those who were there. Like I said, Daisy Jones & The Six grabbed me from the first page and didn't let go until the last. I still have to remind myself that these people don't exist, because they felt so real. I'm excited to see what Reese Witherspoon and Taylor Jenkins Reid concoct for the screen adaption of Daisy Jones, since I think it could translate very well into a television series. 5/5 stars.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

12 Underrated Movies to Watch This Summer

In the mood to crank up the AC, ignore civilization, and watch a good movie during your time off this summer? Never fear! As much as it’s fun to go see movies in the theatre, sometimes nothing beats staying home, microwaving popcorn, and watching a movie from your couch—whether it’s old or new. If that’s what you’re looking for, here are 12 underrated movies you should watch this summer.

He’s Just Not That Into You

Quite possibly the most underrated romantic comedy ever made, He’s Just Not That Into You follows a large ensemble cast including Ginnifer Goodwin, Jennifer Aniston, Ben Affleck, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Connelly, Scarlett Johansson, and Drew Barrymore in a poignant look into the life of modern dating: are you the exception, or the rule?

Uptown Girls

Starring Brittany Murphy and Dakota Fanning as an unlikely pair of rich girl out of money forced to take a job as a nanny for a spoiled, uptight young girl, Uptown Girls asks all two very important questions: what does it mean to grow up, and what does it mean to be family?

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Isolation, bitterness, and literary humor. What’s not to love? In an Academy Award-nominated performance as biographer-turned-literary forger Lee Israel, Melissa McCarthy delivers some of the most intense and best work of her career in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a dark but heartwarming look into what it means to lose and what it means to be fulfilled.

The Edge of Seventeen

All hail future EGOT winner, her majesty Hailee Steinfeld, in a charming and relevant teen comedy film like no other. Co-starring Kyra Sedgwick, Woody Harrelson, and Haley Lu Richardson, The Edge of Seventeen reminds us all that we’re only young once—is it over yet? Now available to stream on Netflix Canada.

Hello, My Name is Doris

Who are you when you’ve spent most of your life being ignored and catering to others? In what can only be described as Sally Field’s most underrated and loveable role to date, Hello, My Name is Doris teaches us that we’re never too old to try something new, and we’re never too old to go after what we want—because we’re worth it. Currently streaming on Netflix Canada.

Goodbye Christopher Robin

Ever wondered how Winnie-the-Pooh really came to be? In the vein of Finding Neverland or Saving Mr. Banks, Goodbye Christopher Robins offers an insightful look into the lives of A.A. Milne and his son—the world they created together, and how everything fell apart when they shared it with the rest of the world. The amount of sadness and dysfunction that ended up creating one of the happiest and most beloved children’s stories of all-time is remarkable, but Goodbye Christopher Robin nonetheless delivers a compelling and powerful narrative behind probably the most famous children’s books of our time.

How to Make an American Quilt

In one of the most celebrated women’s narratives of the ‘90s, based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Whitney Otto, How to Make an American Quilt weaves together its own quilt of what it meant to be a woman in the twentieth century—the dreams that were put together by imagination, stomped on by expectation, and suffocated by limitation. But no matter how old you get, you never forget what it’s like to be young and indecisive with the whole rest of your life laid out in front of you—and stories like those never go out of style. Featuring an ensemble cast with Winona Ryder, Anne Bancroft, Dermot Mulroney, and Maya Angelou, How to Make an American Quilt teaches us how to make a narrative that binds us all: there are no rules you can follow, you have to go by instinct, and you have to be brave.

A Star is Born (1954)

As much as we’ve rightfully celebrated the subsequent remakes of this film classic starring Barbra Streisand and Lady Gaga, it feels as though the original remake of A Star is Born—and the most significant—has been somewhat lost to history. The 1954 version, starring Judy Garland and James Mason, offers a colorful journey to the past to the Golden Age of Hollywood and what it took to be a star—sometimes sacrificing who we are and who we love in the process. All versions of A Star is Born have their merits, but Judy’s version will always be my favorite.

Revolutionary Road

I recently saw this movie for the first time and I’m mad at myself for not watching it sooner. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in their second onscreen pairing since Titanic (they also reunite with Kathy Bates, who co-stars), Revolutionary Road is a powerful look into the world of 1950s conformity: the desire to conform, the anxiety of complacence, and the yearning to—and the cost of—breaking free. “If being crazy means living life as if it matters, then I don’t care if we’re completely insane.”


Director Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction) delivers a steamy erotic thriller like only he can. Starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane, Unfaithful asks us to question the root of lust and desire: can we be in love with one person forever, but still come to crave the touch of someone else? One of my all-time favorite movies.

Mona Lisa Smile

It might not be Julia Roberts’ best role, but Mona Lisa Smile still offers an insightful look into the traditional but restrictive values of ‘50s womanhood, and how one teacher can always make a world of difference. Co-starring Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mona Lisa Smile asks us to remember that there is always more out there for us, if only we have the courage to look. Now streaming on Netflix Canada.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

In this simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? looks into the life and work of Fred Rogers: his passion for children, his enthusiasm with emotions, and his love of television—and how he managed to bring them all together to create a legacy that no other public figure has come close to matching. In preparation for the Mister Rogers biopic hitting theatres later this year (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood starring Tom Hanks), Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a required watch. PSA: don’t watch unless you are in the mood to sob until your eyes swell shut. Available to stream on Netflix Canada.

Which underrated movies do you have to recommend?

Thursday, July 18, 2019

7 Albums That Have Saved Me From Myself

Originally posted on my other blog  It's Not That Deep, where I discuss mental health, navigating adulthood, and growing up.

Songs can be incredibly prophetic, like subconscious warnings or messages to myself, but I often don't know what I'm trying to say till years later. Or a prediction comes true and I couldn't do anything to stop it, so it seems like a kind of useless magic. As if the song is somehow speaking through me in its own language. And I am a conduit but totally oblivious to its wisdom.
—Florence Welch

Music and I share a very complicated relationship. I’ve always loved listening to music just as much as the next person, and the music I listened to growing up definitely helped shape me as a person. But a part of me has also always been afraid of music and what it does to me. With me and music—and with me and a lot of other things—it’s all or nothing. Blast the song as loud as you can or don’t play it at all. Sing along to every word at the top of your lungs or don’t sing it at all—it’s always been the way I’ve enjoyed music the most. But at the same time, music has had a tendency to overstimulate me to the point of me becoming scared of listening to music. Scared of listening to upbeat, catchy songs during the week when it might stick in my head to the point of not being able to sleep at night. Scared of the feeling I get from listening to a song that’s just so good that I immediately begin to wonder how long the feeling will last. I’ve often listened to the same songs on repeat in hopes that it will solve all my problems and make everything okay, to the point where I’ve heard the songs so many times I never want to hear them again. It’s like I hear a song I like and my brain’s immediate reaction is, “Let’s cling to the happy feeling this song gives us because it rids us of uncertainty and listen to nothing but this until we literally hate it.”

It’s only been within the last few years that I’ve really discovered the upsides and downsides to the power that music has over me. In the past, when I was just a student with no other real-life responsibilities, I didn’t listen to music as much because I thought that it was often toxic for me since it had a history of overstimulating me to the point of not being able to sleep at night. Once I tried to let go of those rituals in order to simply allow myself to listen to music whenever I wanted, it was then that I truly discovered the miracle (and sometimes, the curse) of music. When I was younger I would generally only listen to the same few artists and whatever new catchy pop song that I liked on the radio. It was only once I removed the previous limits I had set for myself when listening to music did I really realize that, if you look hard enough, there is a song, album, or an even entire artist for every emotion. Sometimes that forms a connection so strong that you can feel as though the artist is singing about you directly, especially when you are feeling down and that song or album helped you feel better or better understand your emotions.

As a result, throughout my lengthy journey with depression and anxiety over the last few years, a variety of music that was often new to me at the time, since I hadn’t bothered to look into it in the past, became the soundtrack to my struggles. As much as it helped me, it doesn’t mean that it didn’t also have a tendency to plague me, since music does still tend to overstimulate me. I do still tend to cling to certain songs that make me feel a certain way in hopes that I can maintain that feeling forever, to the point of it being unhealthy. But I know my new limits with music much better now, and they are much healthier than they were during a time when I was convinced listening to music was a pleasure I didn’t deserve and my indulgence in listening to music that Tuesday was what made the train late. I know and understand the power that music holds over me much better now, and with that knowledge I can now both know where to draw the line, and also use it to my advantage. That’s where the idea for my playlist of mental health songs came from. Over the course of about two years of forming overly emotional connections and dependencies on certain songs, I decided to turn that into something positive and create almost a scrapbook of feelings, both past and present, in hopes that those feelings through songs may also help somebody else. Looking back, there have been a few albums in particular that I believe have saved me from myself, and I’m sure going forward there will be many more. I also believe that certain things like books, movies, and music have a habit of coming into our lives when we need them most and when we are least expecting them to, so I thought I would share some of those albums in hopes that, again, those feelings through songs may resonate with and help somebody else in need.

Taylor Swift, Red

During the days where I could only allow myself to listen to music that I knew wouldn’t overstimulate me too much, I would turn to slow, mellow, and calming songs—the complete opposite of upbeat earworms. Listening to this kind of music would also often make me feel sad when I thought I wasn’t sad; a warning sign I missed back then. During a period of deep depression, I felt that there was very little music that matched the noise inside my head. When I was feeling down, I didn’t want to hear happy songs because it felt like I was forcing myself to feel something that I was not. Similarly, I didn’t always want to hear sad songs because sometimes it only made me feel worse and I wasn’t ready to confront my feelings. I needed something in the middle. One day I turned to Taylor Swift’s Red album, since I knew it was mostly mellow and calm songs that wouldn’t overstimulate me, and it ended up being everything I needed and more. I didn’t necessarily relate to the lyrics of heartache and breakups, but the level of emotion and confession in the songs—in the vein of confronting how you feel—was exactly what I needed to hear. I listened to the album start to finish, over and over again. It didn’t solve my problems, but it made me feel so much better even if for just a short while.

Shania Twain, Now

I grew up listening to Shania Twain. She was the first artist I ever loved. Listening to her old albums, even with the catchy and upbeat songs, is always calming and therapeutic for me since it brings back such fond memories of being young and singing from the backseat or listening to her Greatest Hits CD on my Discman player. I never would have guessed that I would have been well above legal drinking age by the time I got to hear new Shania Twain music again, when she released her latest album Now in 2017. At first, I wasn’t a huge fan of it. Sure, her vocals have changed and sure, it was never going to be the same as her old stuff. But I didn’t comprehend the number of sad ballads about the breakdown of her marriage, losing her voice, and the ensuing depression she battled. I didn’t understand those emotions because I believed I’d never felt them myself. Flashforward a few months later when I was really going through it with my mental health, and I again needed something else to quiet the voices in my head. After making my way through all of her old albums and the feeling of nostalgia failing to make me feel whole again, I decided to listen to Now another time and it was as if I was hearing it for the first time, since I understood it so much better now. Twain said that she had told the producers of the album to forget and ignore all of her old material, saying she wanted a more “organic approach” and that she was “reflecting on the darkness.” I think it took me going through my own darkness to understand and appreciate the approach she was going for. It made me love and admire Shania Twain so much more than I already did for going through hell and back and still managing to stand up again, keep breathing, and keep going. Now will always have a special place in my heart.

Kesha, Rainbow

Not to sound too dramatic or anything but I think Rainbow has singlehandedly saved my life on more than one occasion. I wasn’t a huge fan of Kesha back in the days of Ke$ha. I liked the catchy singles, but her music didn’t give me enough to form a long-lasting connection with her as an artist. Of course, we would soon learn there was a reason for that when Kesha filed a still ongoing lawsuit against her former producer, Dr. Luke, in 2014 alleging physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. While a judge denied her motion to be released from her recording contract that obliged her to work with the man she accused of abuse, Kesha was able to finish work on the album she had been working on for several years and managed to release it through her label in 2017. Rainbow chronicles everything from her battles with depression, to not letting the bastards get you down, to learning how to let go. It has been the soundtrack to way too many of my breakdowns and reminds me that if Kesha can get through all that, then I can get through this.
Britney Spears, Glory

During a particular period of high anxiety (and probably my first experience with high anxiety) and depressive episodes, listening to Britney Spears was one of the only things that sparked joy for me, in anything. Her album 
Glory had just come out a few months before, and a few months before that I had just gotten my driver’s license and it opened up a whole new world of adult responsibilities that I wasn’t emotionally mature enough to handle yet. Listening to Glory whenever I drove made everything seem easier and distracted me from whatever else was going on in my head at that time, too. Nothing about the songs or lyrics on the album have to do with anxiety or mental health necessarily, but listening to the same album over and over again felt familiar and made me feel comforted and rid me of feelings of uncertainty, at least for a little while.

Alessia Cara, The Pains of Growing

This album has also definitely saved my life on a number of occasions. Or not even that it saved my life, just the fact that it came into existence at the very moment I needed it the most always feels so special. I became a big fan of Alessia Cara about a year before The Pains of Growing came out, listening to her first album Know-It-All backwards and forwards. I felt such an instant connection with her music and her as an artist, since her lyrics and her personality just make me feel understood and appreciated, especially in terms of being an anxious introvert. So many times in my life I’ve been told I just have to get over parts of my introverted personality for the sake of living in this world and listening to Alessia Cara reminds me that the world is hard for other people, too. That’s what The Pains of Growing is all about for me. It puts such particular feelings into words that are so often invalidated or not even discussed at all. Growing up is hard! Getting over yourself is hard! Being an adult human being is hard! Being a human is hard! These are all realities everyone seems to know, but it still helps when we say it out loud and treat it like something that can be embraced and celebrated.

Olivia O’Brien, Was It Even Real?

Was It Even Real? might have only come out just over a month ago, but it’s already helped me in profound ways. I discovered Olivia O’Brien last year by chance when one of her music videos popped up in my recommended videos section on YouTube. I was instantly taken aback by the dark but honest tone of her lyrics—another artist who puts particular feelings into words that we often don’t want to say out loud. I listened to her first EP, It’s Not That Deep (which may or may not have ended up being the inspiration for the name of this blog…don’t call any copyright lawyers on me), which led me to form a connection with her as an artist. She’s said in interviews that she has suffered from depression since she was seven years old, and has used songwriting as an outlet for her feelings for as long as she can remember. Was It Even Real?, O’Brien’s full-length debut album, deals with themes of heartbreak, depression, anxiety, bad habits, self-destructive habits, and learning to love yourself—with some catchy bops about boy problems, too. It also just feels real, despite what the title suggests: the truth is, as much as we’re told we need to love ourselves first and let go of all negativity and bad habits and whatever else, we still find ourselves unable to let go because those things are hard. It also celebrates the reality of accepting our bad habits and our depression or anxiety because fighting the feeling often gets you nowhere. From where I stand now with my own mental health, the album has reminded me that all of these things are important, even if they’re hard.

Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour

For me, Golden Hour was one of those albums that took several listens and some time to grow on me before it took its full effect. I listened to it when it came out last year since it came highly recommended, even though I’m not a huge country person, and I only liked a few songs. This year, after it won Album of the Year at the Grammys, I decided to give it another listen and it took awhile for it to grow on me. Like I said, a lot of the time, certain things come into our lives when we need it most and when we are least expecting it—books, movies, music, and others. I think that sometimes it takes going through a certain experience or suddenly being at the mercy of a certain emotion to appreciate a particular book, movie, or album the way in which it may have been intended. Earlier this year, while working through some things and making some realizations for myself, mental health-wise, I think I finally heard Golden Hour the way in which it was intended. You can tell a wide range of emotions went into this album, and it probably takes feeling a wide range of emotions to understand it the most. In the time since, when I have found myself feeling too much (a.k.a. pretty much all the time), Golden Hour helps bring me back down to earth. It reminds me that I’m holding too tight to my umbrella again, because there’s always been a rainbow hanging over my head.

If you could see what I see, you’d be blinded by the colors
Yellow, red, and orange and green, and at least a million others
So tie up your bow, take off your coat, and take a look around
‘Cause the sky is finally open, the rain and wind stopped blowin’
But you’re stuck out in the same old storm again
You hold tight to your umbrella, darlin’ I’m just tryin’ to tell ya
That there’s always been a rainbow hangin’ over your head 

—Kacey Musgraves, “Rainbow

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Book Review: 'Celebrity Detox' by Rosie O'Donnell

"That's the thing about fame. It's a dangerous game, because fame, the drug, can sneak up on you in increments. You don't notice the increments, that you're increasing the dosage until you're so far away from ever making eye contact with another human being and being 'real,' that you don't even know you're not 'real' anymore."

I decided to check out Rosie O'Donnell's memoir Celebrity Detox, first published in 2007, from the library after reading and thoroughly enjoying Ladies Who Punch, a book looking at the history and inside stories from the set of the long-running daytime talk show The View. I decided I wanted to read Rosie's memoir that came out a few months after the end of her infamously controversial one-season run as the moderator on The View not only because Celebrity Detox was mentioned and quoted several times in Ladies Who Punch, but it led me to realize that I actually didn't know all that much about Rosie O'Donnell, other than what everybody knows about Rosie O'Donnell. And I have to say, I enjoyed reading Celebrity Detox much more than I expected to.

The ratings for Celebrity Detox are fairly low on Goodreads, with most reviews only coming in around 3 stars. Celebrity memoirs like these tend to have low ratings for one of two reasons: a) It's actually just plain bad because not all celebrities have a flair for writing, no matter how popular they are, or b) It's actually not that bad of a book at all, but people are snobs and only rate it 2 or 3 stars because they saw reading it as a "guilty pleasure" and "just cannot bring themselves to rate it any higher than that." Celebrity Detox is most definitely a case of the latter. It might be very stylistically messy and jump all over the place in terms of narrative and how exactly the stories she tells pertain to the overall theme of fame being a drug she was addicted to, but it was still an insightful and eye-opening reading experience. I never really watched The Rosie O'Donnell Show when it was on TV, and I didn't really watch The View when she was on it either (other than the episode everybody has seen, where she and Elisabeth Hasselbeck aired out all of the dirty laundry in their friendship from behind the scenes in front of a national television audience in May 2007). But I do remember Rosie being a bankable household name in the late '90s and early '00s, and then she suddenly disappeared from the limelight. I was recently watching an episode of Will & Grace from 2002 with my parents where Rosie guest stars and my dad looked up and said, "Whatever happened to her?" Clearly a lot happened to Rosie O'Donnell, and we just weren't paying attention.

In Celebrity Detox, O'Donnell writes of how she grew up thinking that becoming famous one day would automatically solve all of her problems: a perception and a dream that a lot of different celebrities have admitted to having. But Rosie soon found that being famous was not only incredibly overwhelming, but she was losing herself and who she was by continuing to be the Rose O'Donnell that the world came to love. She was losing contact with her family and her children, and from what she writes, this was the primary factor in her decision to say enough and end her syndicated daytime talk show after six seasons in 2002. But she also paints a picture of fame as a drug, one that she became heavily addicted to without even realizing it. She had initially written a different version of Celebrity Detox that she had intended to publish sometime after ending her talk show, but decided against it because she felt the time wasn't right. As a result, she includes passages from the original draft of the book as well as different blog posts, all of which read as incomplete fragments, from her time out of the spotlight between 2002 and 2006. She also writes about how, when Barbara Walters asked her to join The View as the new moderator for their tenth season, she was willing to do anything Walters asked her to do because she viewed her as a mother figure whom she wanted to please, bringing up unresolved issues from her relationship with her own mother who died when she was a child. She agreed to join The View despite not knowing if she would be able to return to the spotlight and fame after "detoxing" from it for four years prior. What she ended up realizing what she couldn't handle was merely being a part of something without being in the driver's seat or in control. When she did The Rosie O'Donnell Show, it was syndicated and she thus did not have to meet the demands of any specific network. On The View, however, she had to fit the mold of what ABC wanted, and Rosie is very unapologetic when it comes to not fitting in to a specific mold.

It's fascinating to think that, looking back, Rosie O'Donnell was not the right fit for The View at all, especially regarding the numerous controversies that ensued while she was there the first time. But at the same time, The View would not be what it is today if it weren't for Rosie. She is frequently credited with making the show more news-oriented and less strictly centered on "women's topics," as well as making political debates a mainstay in the Hot Topics segment. As difficult as it was for her to last in the environment that was The View, and as difficult as I'm sure she was to work with, she helped breathe new life into a show that has now been on the air for nearly 22 years. Not to mention the fact that, despite how much she was demonized in the media for what she said about Donald Trump on The View back in 2006, everything she said about the future president was true; she was just the only one with the balls to say it. Similarly, when Rosie returned to The View for a brief five-month run between 2014 and 2015, everything she said about Bill Cosby was true. But in the pre-Me Too and Time's Up era of 2014, all of her fellow co-hosts wanted to see more "proof" before they could conclude Cosby was a predator and that his accusers were telling the truth. Is Rosie O'Donnell actually a fortune teller? I'd believe it.

Overall, I enjoyed reading Celebrity Detox and it helped me relate to a celebrity and pop culture figure who I hadn't previously taken much time to get to know. I related to Rosie's plight of being a control freak by nature and trying her hardest to just go with the flow on The View, but that's so damn hard when you know something can be better and how will you let yourself sleep at night if you don't put your version of your all into something? Sometimes, it's not worth it. But how else will you know if you don't try? If you're a fan of The View who has also checked out Ladies Who Punch, I would definitely recommend reading Celebrity Detox if you already haven't. 4/5 stars.