Monday, November 19, 2018

Album Review: Little Mix - 'LM5'

On their fifth studio effort, Little Mix—the British girl group that initially rose to fame on The X Factor in the UK in 2011—assumed a bigger role in the production, introduced even more empowering themes to their music, and are arguably more lyrically sophisticated than they have ever been. They even left their longtime label, Syco Music (owned by Simon Cowell), in favor of signing a new deal with the UK division of RCA Records. But as a result, their new album LM5 lacks their signature dance-pop tunes that was generally needed to bring it all together. Whether or not that’s necessarily a bad thing remains to be seen.

Girl groups tend to endure a notorious amount of criticism and pressure that other bands don’t experience—they’re often called insipid, fabricated, and even inauthentic, since their music is generally crafted to meet the demands of the pop music market (the same market that also tends to then tear the groups apart for the sake of promising solo careers…see also: Fifth Harmony, Danity Kane, the Pussycat Dolls). But thus far, Little Mix have seemed to survive the bureaucratic nonsense that plagues most girl groups. Seven years and five albums later, they’ve kept doing their thing and letting their music speak for them. It also bears mentioning that most of their popularity stems from their label and fanbase in the UK, rather than North America, which may mean they’ve been able to keep their noses out of the pressures of the American pop music industry. Whatever the case, Little Mix have not only managed to break the mold as far as girl groups go but also reclaim the narrative through their string of empowering, feminist pop songs—“Salute,” “Black Magic,” “OMG,” “Shout Out to My Ex,” “Power,” and “Is Your Love Enough?”, to name a few—and on their latest studio album LM5 (named after the code name given to the project by fans on social media), themes of feminism and women empowering women have only grown tougher and stronger. What the album lacks in comparison to their previous studio efforts, however, is the catchy dance-pop tunes and production to tie it together that listeners had come to enjoy. Come for the girl power, stay for the catchy songs.

The decision to step away and “mature” beyond the catchy dance-pop sound of their previous songs and albums can perhaps be described as an honest attempt to grow past what some critics have referred to as the “Disney-fied pop” that we’ve come to expect from Little Mix. But I believe that while the sounds of Little Mix’s previous albums may have been influenced by other pop albums of the period, the group still managed to make their songs more unique than any other pop songs on the scene right now. In other words, no one can make a Little Mix song like Little Mix. On LM5, the girls are very clearly trying their best to adopt a more mature sound and leave behind the bubblegum dance-pop of “Shout Out to My Ex,” “Touch,” and “Black Magic,” but what they haven’t left behind are their empowering, feminist lyrics. They remind us on “Strip” that it’s what’s underneath that’s important, and the importance of making yourself feel sexy and confident on “Joan of Arc.” Lyrically speaking, the group has reached their peak on LM5—“Monster in Me,” “Told You So,” and “The Cure” all showcase this very well, as well as reminding us that Little Mix can always nail upbeat bangers just as well as emotional ballads. However, rather than showcasing their unique ability to craft safe but catchy dance-pop songs with strong feminist themes like they did on their fourth studio album Glory Days (2016), Little Mix definitely take more risks on LM5, both in production and structure—from the trap vibes on “Joan of Arc” and “Wasabi” to the Latin influences on “Woman Like Me” and “American Boy,” the album is clearly telling us that these girls are ready to break out of their comfort zone and show us what else they can do, all while intensifying the empowering feminist themes and lyrics.

Overall, LM5 shows definite growth for the group, both in lyrics and production, and further proves they’re ready to mature to something new with the structural risks they’ve taken. It lacks the glitzy but empowering dance-pop songs that some fans have come to love and expect from the group (myself somewhat included), but Little Mix proves with this latest album that they’re ready to explore what else they want to make. It may miss the mark in a few areas, but also marks a musical and professional milestone for the group.

Jeffrey’s favorites from LM5: “Woman Like Me,” “Monster in Me,” “Told You So,” “The Cure,” “Forget You Not,” and “Only You” (with Cheat Codes)

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Book Review: 'In Pieces' by Sally Field

"I was the one who had kept me safe. All of me, including the parts I found unlovable: They had protected me, had steered me outside of my fears, pushing me towards things I didn't feel capable of doing."

In Pieces is the powerful new memoir by the one and only Sally Field, who chronicles her life from her tumultuous upbringing, to the early days of her acting career, to the breakthroughs that would define her as the icon and powerhouse we know and love today. I loved Sally Field before I read her book, but now my love has turned to admiration, as she is a true inspiration in every sense of the word.

The first chapters of In Pieces deal with her early life as a child, growing up with divorced parents in an era where that was not a socially understood way of life, with a distant father who didn't know how to be around her. Field's mother, whom she referred to as "Baa" for her entire life, was an actress when she was young, as was her stepfather Jock Mahoney, an actor and stuntsman known for his appearances in westerns. Field shared complicated relationships with her mother and stepfather; her mother was often emotionally distant, and her stepfather (whom she called "Jocko") both sexually and psychologically abused her from the time she was a child until she was a teenager and learned to fight back.

Field began attending actors' workshops after high school where she was noticed by a friend of her stepfather's who worked for Screen Gems. Having virtually no acting experience, they cast her in the lead role on the television sitcom Gidget in 1965. The series, while popular with young kids, was cancelled after a single season. Thereafter, Screen Gems offered her the lead role on another sitcom called The Flying Nun, which Field initially turned down, but after her stepfather and other men in her life convinced her that she might never work again if she didn't take what she could get, she ultimately did three seasons as Sister Bertrille, the flying nun. She recalls being frequently stressed and overworked on The Flying Nun, and quickly grew tired of the immature and insipid scripts. Field also notes that it was The Flying Nun where she quickly became typecast as just a "girl next door" actress who did cutesy television comedies and found it incredibly difficult to prove herself and hold her own as an actress thereafter. She recalls several television films where she first had the chance to display her skills as a dramatic actress in the early 1970s, and worked with Lee Strasberg of the Actors' Studio in New York for several years to further develop her acting skills. It was there that she learned her ability to channel her own emotion and past experiences into her characters, which is a trait we remember Sally Field best for today in films like Steel Magnolias or as Nora Walker on the television drama Brothers & Sisters.

Still, Field struggled to find her footing in a male-dominated industry and prove she had something more to offer than her immature girl-next-door sitcom roles, but was also forced to appear in a final television sitcom with Screen Gems when no other offers had come in by 1973, The Girl With Something Extra, which was also cancelled after one season (and for which Field was incredibly grateful). The turning point in her career would be when she was cast as the title character on the television miniseries Sybil in 1976, a woman with multiple personality disorder, which her co-stars rallied for her to be cast in after her remarkable audition. Her true breakthrough, however, would be in the film Norma Rae in 1978, for which she was widely acclaimed and received the Academy Award for Best Actress, among countless other accolades. During this time, Field describes her relationship with Burt Reynolds, which was often unhealthy and damaging, and actually quite reminiscent of the manipulative relationship she shared with her stepfather as a child.

The overall theme of In Pieces seems to be linking Field's struggle to find her creative calling as an actress and the emotion and trauma in her personal life, which she ultimately channeled into her work. Another fact that becomes clear quite quickly is that Sally Field is a true movie star - despite good working experiences, it's evident that she feels stifled by television. Or, in other words, getting too comfortable doing the same thing over and over again for too long. She clearly values what goes into film acting more than television, which is probably why her list of film credits goes on and on. But it's also noteworthy that Sally Field is best remembered in our popular culture today for both her film and television roles, all of which are memorable because Field has always possessed the unmistakable ability of a true actress and star.

In Pieces is also an emotional journey of healing wounds from long ago, especially in regard to Field's relationship with her mother and her sister. The book doesn't ever lose sight of the fact that it's not only about Field's career or her life as an actress, it's about her life and all that has encompassed it. The end result is incredibly moving and powerful, and I recommend to any fan large or small of the beloved actress and icon. 5/5 stars.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Hit Me Up, Baby: 20 Years of Britney Spears and "...Baby One More Time"

DUN DUN DUN. 20 years ago today, three low piano notes introduced the world to a girl named Britney Spears—and pop music was never the same again. “…Baby One More Time,” her debut single, would reach number one in every country it charted it and become the best-selling single of 1999 in the UK, as well as one of the highest-selling singles in history. The now iconic music video brought in floods of controversy, as did Spears’ overall image, and before anyone could blink, Britney was a bonafide pop star and household name—and the face of cultural anxieties surrounding the behavior of young girls.
Some pop songs are just so catchy that they become ingrained in our popular culture as well as our brains, and their instant popularity often distracts from their technical brilliance. To this day, it still astounds me that “…Baby One More Time” was Britney Spears’ debut single. Her very FIRST song. As far as debut singles go, it’s truly a triumph in every sense of the word—the kind of song you can’t help but pay attention to, even if you don’t like it, a feat very few other pop artists have achieved since then. In fact, it’s hard to come up with another pop singer who made such an impact with their first song, and then managed to maintain such a successful career in pop music thereafter. The catchiness of “…Baby One More Time” still sounds revolutionary and different today that it comes as no surprise why it was so popular at the time—and perhaps why it was so controversial.
Despite everything, it must be said that the lyrics of “…Baby One More Time” are more risqué and subversive than any song a teen pop star had associated themselves with up until that point—the track’s title was originally “Hit Me Baby (One More Time)” and had been offered to numerous other artists including 90’s girl group TLC, who turned it down almost immediately as they believed the title and lyrics would suggest and condone domestic violence. In fact, Britney Spears didn’t even expect her music to be so popular or revolutionary at the time—after a short-lived run on the 1990s revival of The Mickey Mouse Club, she struggled for several years to establish a career as a pop singer and eventually signed with Jive Records in 1997. She originally said she envisioned her music sounding like that of Sheryl Crow, “but younger more adult contemporary.” That quickly changed when her label appointed her to work with Swedish pop music producer Max Martin, to which Spears said it “made more sense to go pop, because I can dance to it—it’s more me.” But, unfortunately, the pop music that Spears was about to release would never be perceived as so simple and innocent that all people were going to want to do was dance. It’s a wonder if Max Martin and his team could predict what kind of impact their work with Britney would have. She recorded her entire debut album with them in Sweden between March and June 1998 and the first song was released in October, “…Baby One More Time,” renamed after Jive executives believed the title would indeed suggest domestic violence. Martin explained years later than when writing the song he believed “hit me” to be slang for “call me,” but North American pop music listeners are, unfortunately, not that innocent. But it was the single’s music video that premiered on MTV in November 1998 that would propel the song and Spears to instant controversy.
Filmed in the high school that served as Rydell High in Grease, the “…Baby One More Time” music video wasn’t originally intended for controversy. Initially, the plan was to have Spears in a cartoon setting to attract the attention of young children, but Britney was immediately uninterested—she instead proposed a new idea for a music video that would take place in a school. She described it as “just a fun video” that teenagers could relate to: “You know, being in school, they’re bored, they want to get out of school. Then we go out, and then there’s a lot of dancing.” With Spears dressed in a Catholic school girl outfit (already venturing into risqué territory, given its erotic undertones), every single item of clothing worn in the video came from K-Mart and the most expensive piece was $17, but it was another seemingly meaningless fashion choice that would seal the video’s fate—Spears decided that she and her backup dancers would tie up their shirts, thus exposing her midriff. Parent associations were quickly outraged at the decision to show the midriff of a 16-year-old girl in a music video, to which Spears famously responded: “Me showing my belly? I’m from the South; you’re stupid if you don’t wear a sports bra [when you] go to dance class, you’re going to be sweating your butt off.” But the real controversy wasn’t really about what Spears was wearing or the video, but rather the issue of cultural ambivalence regarding taboo behaviors surrounding young girls.

“Me showing my belly? I'm from the South; you're stupid if you don't wear a sports bra [when you] go to dance class, you're going to be sweating your butt off.” —Britney Spears

Infamously blurring the lines between unsexual child and hypersexualized adult, Britney’s image in the early years of her career was the constant subject of discussion and debate—she’s even been said to have the most famous midriff in history countless times. Wesley Yang, in his essay “Inside the Box” in n+1 in 2009, compared the music video to that of “Girlschool” by heavy metal band Britny Fox since they both featured “a classroom full of Catholic schoolgirls gyrating to the beat in defiance of a stern teacher” though ultimately observes, “But that was a sexist video by a horrible hair metal band that exploited women. Britney Spears was something else—an inflection point in the culture.” Parents started forbidding their young girls from listening to Britney Spears, since she was the one who was being shamed for her image as a pop star—textbook Freudian psychology even dictates that after appearing provocatively in popular culture she would have somehow rightly opened herself up to being shamed, just by acting in a way that is “forbidden” to others. But whether she realized it or not, Britney Spears was redefining notions of what was taboo and what was not for the millennial teenager. People did not so much hate Spears for the way she acted as a teen but hate the behavior in which she indulged that was somehow taught to be forbidden to young girls. Thus, Spears merely becomes the scapegoat for cultural anxieties and taboo behaviors surrounding young girls. It seems that any sort of censoring or manipulation of the song or music video is just putting a bandage on a cultural issue—one that criticizes young girls for how they act—and it would have perhaps been more productive to discuss why the music video bothered the public, rather than criticize Britney Spears for it.
Britney continued to push provocative boundaries despite the theme of hypersexualized child being at the forefront of her early career, from the double meaning of “I’m not that innocent” on Oops!... I Did It Again and more on her Britney and In the Zone albums. Whether or not it was intentional, what they say is true—any publicity is good publicity, and the controversy would work wonders for Spears and her career, not to mention her remarkable performance and vocal ability that she still maintains today, and catapult her to the forefront of almost every pop cultural conversation—where she would remain, for better or for worse, for the better part of the next decade. Largely notorious personal struggles, all of which were heavily publicized, sent her career off the deep end by 2007—but Brit has since picked herself up and kept going like any true star would. The way the media treated her for years is arguably the reason Spears has become more reserved and less animated in public appearances for the last several years, but when the right moment comes along, her natural charisma and genuinely charming personality—the ones we met back in 1998 on “…Baby One More Time”—still shine through.
If we consider other hit pop songs with killer hooks, like Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head,” Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” or even Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” a lot of them aren’t very lyrically sophisticated whatsoever, yet they still stick in your head and you can’t help but pay attention. “…Baby One More Time” is the love child of a high-quality pop song with an irreplaceable hook that sealed the deal, and a young girl beaming with genuine talent. Purists or fans of “real music” may still scoff at pop songs like these ones, calling them generic or inauthentic or useless, but songs that are reliant on often nonsensical choruses are the ones that are going to stick, whether we like it or not. It just happens, and in my experience, life truly gets a hell of a lot better when you just let it happen. 20 years later, Britney Spears and “…Baby One More Time” reminds us that it’s practically impossible for something to be game-changing without breaking a few rules. Not only did Britney redefine notions of what it means for young girls to behave, but she also reminds us time and time again of the magic of a pop song that you just can’t get out of your head.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Judy Garland and the Film That Got Away

There have now been four versions of A Star is Born, but none have captured the power of such an immense talent like the 1954 film, starring one Miss Judy Garland. Tragedy is a running theme throughout all versions of the film—but Judy’s version was tragic in more ways than one. And only when the film was revived, three decades later, did it finally begin to be recognized as the heroic and risky endeavor it was.
Before Streisand and Gaga, A Star is Born was supposed to be Judy Garland’s monumental film comeback. Released from her contract with MGM after fifteen years just a few years prior, toppled with a series of notorious personal struggles and erratic behavior that her industry created and didn’t know how to treat, Garland needed a vehicle to drive her back to the top more than anyone. Judy and her new husband, Sid Luft, formed their own production company, Transcona Enterprises, and partnered with Warner Bros. to remake the 1937 film, originally starring Janet Gaynor and Frederic March. But rather than showcase her talent and profound vocal range, the 1954 version would be better remembered for its troubling release—and the beginning of the end for Judy.
Judy Garland—born Frances Ethel Gumm in Grand Rapids, Minnesota in 1922—was practically a star from the moment she was born. Her parents owned a vaudeville movie theatre, where she made her stage debut with her older sisters at the age of two and a half. She grew up performing in an act with her family, known as the Gumm Sisters where she held the nickname Baby, accompanied by her mother on piano. By 1935, the family group had withered and Baby—now renamed Judy Garland—was signed to a film contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). The studio famously signed her without a screen test (which was practically unheard of at the time) but would then struggle to find the right place for her for years to follow. At thirteen, she was too old to be considered a child star, but too young for adult roles. While she was paired with Mickey Rooney in a series of successful “backyard musicals” in the late 1930s, Judy’s charm failed to shine through when she compared to fellow MGM star Deanna Durbin, with whom she would star in the 1936 musical short Every Sunday. As a result, Garland came to be known as the ugly duckling on the MGM lot (studio boss Louis B. Mayer even used to refer to her as his “little hunchback”), causing her physical appearance to constantly be manipulated by film executives. To make matters worse, even though Judy was always of a healthy weight, the studio was convinced she was too fat to be a star and not only was she put on diet pills, but her food intake was consistently monitored—at one point she was only ever served soup and a plate of lettuce, and her food was often confiscated if she tried to eat more. Diet pills, combined with amphetamines that the studio forced many of their young actors to take to fulfill nearly impossible work demands, is believed to have severely contributed to Garland’s lifelong struggle with drug addiction. In addition to being completely reliant on prescription medication, Garland was plagued by self-doubt into her adulthood, and despite groundbreaking professional success, she needed constant reassurance that she was talented and attractive—all of which is generally thought to have been caused by her early days at MGM.
Garland as Esther Smith in Meet Me in St. Louis, 1944 (Source: TCM)
Despite issues behind the scenes, Judy would enjoy great success in numerous MGM films, appearing in over two dozen films for the studio in fifteen years. She is perhaps best remembered in our contemporary conscious as the girl who wanted to fly over the rainbow; a young Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Other notable films for MGM include Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Harvey Girls (1946), Easter Parade (1948), and Summer Stock (1950). During this time, she met and married director Vincente Minnelli and had her first daughter, Liza, in 1946. Things quickly started to go downhill thereafter—she suffered a nervous breakdown and made her first suicide attempt during production of The Pirate in 1947 and spent time in a private sanitarium. While she had recovered enough to perform well in Easter Parade with Fred Astaire and In the Good Old Summertime with Van Johnson, she was fired from another production and conducted a stint in a hospital in Boston, where she was weaned off the medication she heavily relied on. She returned to Hollywood heavier and healthier in 1949, where she was cast opposite Gene Kelly in Summer Stock—but the studio demanded she lose weight again, causing her familiar pattern with diet pills and amphetamines to resurface. Summer Stock, which would prove to be her final film with MGM, took six months to complete: Garland would often show up late or not at all, worsening tension with MGM executives. The film proved to be largely successful, but the studio lost $80,000 due to production delays caused by Judy. Although she was cast in the film Royal Wedding with Fred Astaire in 1950, her now notorious unreliability caused her to be fired early in the production. After this latest dismissal, Garland was said to have slightly grazed her neck with a piece of broken glass, but the media reported that a despondent Judy had slashed her throat. In September 1950, after fifteen years, MGM and Judy Garland parted ways.
Garland’s second daughter, Lorna Luft, writes in the new book A Star is Born: Judy Garland the Film That Got Away that her mother never really wanted to die when she attempted suicide—they were merely pleas for attention and literal cries for help. “Mama’s suicide attempts were last resort methods to gain attention and release anxiety,” Luft says. “I believe she felt trapped, misunderstood, and was making a desperate plea for understanding.” But just as inexplicably as her childhood stardom began, Hollywood’s perception of Judy Garland was quickly changing. “Without MGM resources to shield her … she was now a deeply troubled celebrity,” writes Luft. “She had endured electroshock therapy and various hospitalizations. After fifteen years and twenty-nine movies, Mama was suddenly unemployable in the movie business at age twenty-eight, running low on funds, and running on old friends to see her through. Emotionally, physically, and financially, my mother was spent.” Following a series of nervous guest appearances on Bing Crosby’s radio show just a few months later, Garland quickly saw renewed success on the stage, beginning a concert tour throughout Europe and North America with an appearance at the Palace Theatre in New York City in October 1951 breaking records for the venue. After divorcing Vincente Minnelli and quickly remarrying to Sid Luft, a film industry figure, in 1952, Judy needed a real comeback—one that would prove that she had the talent and strength to lift herself back up to the top after falling down so low. Together, Luft and Garland formed Transcona Enterprises, their own production company, and partnered with Warner Bros. to produce a musical remake of A Star is Born. Studio head Jack Warner was willing to take a gamble on Judy, giving her more creative control than she had ever had on a film, and Sid Luft promised to make her feel safe during production. And as Lorna points out, her father was a natural gambler, and in his eyes, “Mama’s motion picture comeback was a long shot horse than just might finish in the money.”
Garland and James Mason as Vicki Lester and Norman Maine during production of A Star is Born (Source: Warner Bros.)
Directed by George Cukor, whom Garland had worked with during her early days at MGM, A Star is Born was more than just Judy’s motion picture comeback—the plot, music, and dialogue hit remarkably close to home, which made the film enormously personal for her. Out of its many musical numbers, among those best remembered are “The Man That Got Away,” which became one of Judy’s signature adult songs, and the iconic “Born in a Trunk” medley, which runs for over fourteen minutes and is even included in its entirety on the soundtrack—but was criticized by studio executives for running too long and was labelled a distraction that was out of key with the rest of the film. Regardless, A Star is Born quickly became more than just a musical film starring Judy Garland—it was very much a showcase for Judy’s indescribable talent first, and a musical film second. “Hers is the only solo voice heard in the picture,” Lorna Luft writes, “making it a virtual one-woman concert held together by a dramatic narrative.” It should then come as no surprise that Time magazine famously referred to Garland’s A Star is Born as “just about the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history.” Judy stars as Esther Blodgett, a chorus girl and aspiring singer with a band. Garland and Sid Luft had wanted Cary Grant to play the male lead and Warner Bros. had offered it to Marlon Brando, but it ultimately went to British actor James Mason, who co-starred as Norman Maine, a former matinee idol whose career is quickly on the decline. Seeing a star quality in Esther, he offers to help make her just that—a star—believing she possesses “that little something extra.” Later renamed Vicki Lester by a Hollywood film studio, Esther’s relationship with Norman grows, as does her career—and as does his dependence on alcohol. As much as displaying her transcendent vocal ability, A Star is Born also displays Garland’s profound ability as a dramatic actress, during which it becomes clear that the plot of the film hit very much close to home for Judy. Referring to one standout scene where Esther expresses her fears towards Norman’s addictions, Luft writes that the screenwriters knew these kinds of dialogue would speak to Garland on several different emotional levels, especially regarding her own failures and drug dependency. “Cukor allowed Judy Garland the performer to be fully herself, thus creating such a moment of intensity and raw emotion that is heartbreaking to watch,” she says. “This release of unfiltered pain, probably more than any other scene in the film, confirmed Mama’s gifts as not only a singer and dancer, but as one of the great dramatic talents of her time as well.” Cukor also recalled asking Judy to dig into her own personal experiences that closely aligned with the film’s story, saying she would never realize what an effect her talent and abilities had, and would then break the serious moment with a joke in her signature sense of humor.

“The picture had to be the greatest... it could be merely very good. I had too much at stake... I had to prove things.” —Judy Garland

Garland as Vicki Lester accepting her Academy Award in A Star is Born (Source: Warner Bros.)
Judy retained many of her unreliable work habits that had plagued her on the MGM lot but always managed to show up and get the day’s work done as best she could, as she really believed in the star vehicle that was A Star is Born. James Mason recalled working with Garland in his autobiography and defended her infamous unreliability, writing, “Judy was not always reliable, in fact there were some days when she would not really be fighting fit until after the lunch break … If the film went over budget only a very small fraction of the overage was due to Judy’s erratic time table … Judy was by no means a temperamental star. ‘Temperamental star’ is usually a euphemism for selfish and bad tempered, and a temperamental star of this sort can be a real time-waster. I have worked with some. And they are more rampant now than they used to be. But this was not Judy.” Although Warner work logs indicate that Garland often left the set early or didn’t show up at all, Luft writes that when she was on her game, she was a prepared professional. “She was also lightning fast—one rehearsal and she was ready to roll,” she says. “One reading of a page and her lines were committed to memory. Her photographic memory was extraordinary.” Initially budgeted at $3 million, the final cost for A Star is Born ended up twice that figure, making the film the most expensive ever shot in Hollywood at that time—and for which Warner Bros. largely blamed Judy for delaying production with her eccentricities. A Star is Born, running 181 minutes, had its world premiere in Hollywood on September 29, 1954, where it was an undisputed mass success. The initial reviews were ecstatic. Time wrote, “An expert vaudeville performance was to be expected from Judy; to find her a dramatic actress, as well, is the real surprise,” and said the film was a “stunning comeback.” In a more mixed review, the Los Angeles Times described Garland’s performance as “overstressed,” and “potentially a target for strong critical resistance,” presumably because the film was considered too long and “overburdened” with trying to prove itself, and they felt its emotional scenes were forced. But still, they admitted that the musical “put a brilliantly shining crown upon the dark-tressed head of Judy Garland … Here was her super-picture.” Critics could not deny the film’s grandeur. Luft writes that her mother was thrilled by the overwhelmingly positive reception. “Because her reputation had been somewhat tarnished by her later years at MGM, she was particularly gratified that her peers, the critics, and the industry as a whole now embraced her and A Star is Born. She had cut her losses, started fresh at a new studio (with a new husband-producer in her corner), and had succeeded on a grand scale … It must have been one of the most rewarding periods in Mama’s career.” But the recurring complaint was the film’s length—181 minutes of Judy Garland’s talent proved to be too much for some, and as early as a month after the film’s premiere, theatre owners were complaining that they could only screen the film a limited amount of times a day due to its length. “They had wanted a box-office-friendly blockbuster that they could unreel four times a day,” writes Luft. “Jack Warner heard the grumblings, but was not inclined to axe thirty minutes out of a picture in which he was personally invested, a film of which he was truly proud. But at the Warner offices in New York City … the word was ‘cut!’” Thus, A Star is Born was infamously gutted down to 154 minutes—cutting out several crucial scenes—and the trimmed film was sent back to Warner Bros., where they were said to have been destroyed, and the 181-minute original version that opened to immense acclaim was never seen in its entirety again. “It’s insanity thinking about it now,” says Luft. “No projectionist would take a pair of scissors to a Spielberg movie. The entire job was botched. They did surgery on a healthy patient without anesthesia, removing major organs and expecting the patient to survive.”

“It's insanity thinking about it now. No projectionist would take a pair of scissors to a Spielberg movie. The entire job was botched. They did surgery on a healthy patient without anesthesia, removing major organs and expecting the patient to survive.” —Lorna Luft

Garland was absolutely devastated by what had been done to A Star is Born—Liza Minnelli, then eight years old, recalls the night that her mother found out about the cuts and came up to her room where she said in uncontrollable in tears, “They just don’t care.” Luft says it only got worse from there. “Suddenly, lawsuits were threatened and pursued against my father, in separate actions by Harry and Jack Warner, each claiming my father had wrangled loans from them in the course of making the picture,” she writes. “The dollar amounts were negligible to the mogul brothers, but the point seemed to be the shaming of Sid Luft, whom they had both come to personally loathe … Dad had gambled once too often with the big guys, and lost again.” Despite the critical praise of the initial version as well as a multitude of Judy’s celebrity friends spreading word of mouth, the butchered version of A Star is Born was a financial failure. “The fallout was more than just a disappointment or an economical loss,” Luft says. “It was personal failure for Judy Garland—one from which her film stardom would never fully recover.”
In hair and makeup during production, 1953 (Source: TCM)
Despite Warner Bros. not mounting much of an Oscar campaign for Garland or A Star is Born, the film managed to receive six Academy Award nominations in 1955. Judy had brought home a Juvenile Oscar for her work in The Wizard of Oz years prior, but she craved a real Oscar win—one that would confirm to the film industry that she was the star everyone knew her to be, but also to herself. On the evening of March 28, 1955, the night of the 28th Academy Awards, Garland went into premature labor with her third child, Joseph Luft. NBC sent a film crew to her hospital room to televise Judy’s acceptance speech, as during the leadup to the Oscars that year, she had generally been expected to win for Best Actress. That was tragically not the case, as the award went to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl. In a 1957 article published in McCall’s, Garland recounted that Oscar night experience, saying the technicians attached wires under her bedsheets and caused a panic among the nurses. When she didn’t win, she stated she didn’t even have time to be disappointed. “I was fascinated by the reactions of the men,” she said. “They got mad at me for losing and started lugging all their stuff out of the room. They didn’t even say goodnight.” Grace Kelly had only been working in Hollywood for four years at that point, as opposed to Garland’s two decades. Groucho Marx famously referred to her loss as “the biggest robbery since Brinks.” Judy’s close friend Lauren Bacall was with her in the hospital that Monday night, and wrote later that she was gracious in defeat, saying her baby boy was much more important. Bacall recalled, “The big night came and we were all gathered around our sets praying—and Judy lost. She carried it off beautifully, saying her son, Joey, was more important than any Oscar could be, but she was deeply disappointed—and hurt. It confirmed her belief that the industry was against her. She knew it was then or never. Instinctively, all her friends knew the same. Judy wasn’t like any other performer. There was so much emotion involved in her career—in her life—it was always all or nothing. And though she put on a hell of a front, this was one more slap in the face. She was bitter about it, and, for that matter, all closest to her were.”
Garland in a production still from A Star is Born that would later be used as the cover for her 1956 studio album Judy with Capitol Records (Source: TCM)
A Star is Born may have marked the beginning of the end of Judy’s film career, but every cloud has its silver lining—the success of the soundtrack led to Garland signing a recording contract with Capitol Records, with whom she would release eight studio albums in the years following. Her dependency on prescription medication grew stronger, and her marriage to Sid Luft quickly grew weaker. She aimed her focus on her recording career and concert appearances thereafter, with two performances at Carnegie Hall in April 1961 hailed by Variety as “the greatest night in show business history.” The live album Judy at Carnegie Hall saw large success and made Garland the first woman in history to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. Around that time, new management promised to revive her acting career: she played a victim of Nazi persecution in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), for which she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Known for being unable to sufficiently manage her own finances and on the verge of bankruptcy, Garland hosted her own variety series on CBS, The Judy Garland Show (1963–1964), which served as a new showcase for Judy’s talent but was plagued by production and format issues from the beginning and was cancelled after one season. Despite prominent offers in the years after, Judy’s final film was I Could Go on Singing in 1963. Due to her unstable financial situation, Garland maintained a gruelling concert schedule and never stopped performing for the remainder of her life and career—she died of a barbiturate overdose in June 1969, at the age of 47.
By the 1970s, Luft recalls that Judy’s version of A Star is Born had become a cult classic rather than the monumental film event it was intended to be. “[It] was kept alive in a butchered form as late-night television programming and remembered fondly by those lucky few who had seen and remembered the film in its original full-length version,” she says. But the late 1970s and early 1980s also marked an evolving concern for the state of Hollywood classics—cable television and the advent of home video began generating a greater interest in older films. Ronald Haver, at the time head of the Film Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), thought he might have a chance to rescue one of his favorite films, A Star is Born starring Judy Garland, believing that the original 181-minute version of the film might still be out there somewhere. Another catalyst for reviving Judy’s A Star is Born was the success of the second remake with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. Haver, along with representatives from the Academy of Motion Picture Art and Science, acquired the approval of George Cukor to attempt to reconstruct the 1954 version of the film that had been so carelessly destroyed. An apprentice editor at Warner Bros. discovered and located the complete 181-minute monaural soundtrack in the studio sound library but unfortunately, not all of the camera footage to accompany it. They were, however, able to recover and reconstruct one entire scene with both sound and picture—the proposal with Vicki Lester singing “Here’s What I’m Here For” and the microphone pickup of Norman and Vicki’s intimate conversation. Over twenty minutes of camera footage otherwise remained missing. Still dedicated to reconstructing the film, Haver ultimately used the complete 181-minute soundtrack that had survived supplemented by still photographs from the film to recreate what had been lost. The reconstructed version of A Star is Born premiered in 1983, running 176 minutes, and was reborn not only to new audiences but to a new generation who could now experience Judy Garland’s finest work in the closest form possible to the original. Sadly, director George Cukor died of heart failure two days before the first screening. The reconstructed version was then seen as a tribute to him and as a case study in the importance of preservation. Haver chronicled his journey rebuilding the film in the book A Star is Born: The Making of the 1954 Movie and Its 1983 Restoration, published in 1988.
It can only be described as a tragedy that Judy Garland did not get to experience the same amount of widespread, commercial praise and acceptance that both Barbra Streisand and now Lady Gaga have experienced with their own versions of A Star is Born. Contemporary tributes to Judy still remain prevalent, and one can only hope that her talent and true star quality will never be forgotten. Gaga is also no stranger to Judy’s power. “Judy Garland is by far my favorite actress of all time,” she told Vogue this month. “I used to watch her in A Star is Born, and it’s devastating. She’s so real, so right there. Her eyes would get glassy, and you could just see the passion and the emotion and hear the grit in her voice.” Lorna Luft is happy about where her mother’s version of A Star is Born remains now. “Today, my mother’s film is readily available for anyone who wishes to see it in a version as close to the original version as possible,” she says. “Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester in A Star is Born is earnest, innocent, and appealing, yet displays a strong inner quality that allows her to persevere.”

Thursday, October 18, 2018

'The Conners' Without Roseanne: The Kids Are Going to Be Alright

May the record reflect that I stand corrected.
Ever since the abrupt cancellation of the Roseanne reboot earlier this year, whose premiere drew the most ratings on network television in four years, the topic of the cast continuing the revival in the form of a spin-off called The Conners was somewhat controversial. While the decision to dismiss Roseanne Barr from the series was (almost) not disputed as the right thing to do on ABC’s part, the decision to cancel the revival altogether after she tweeted unspeakably racist remarks about former White House advisor Valerie Jarrett was met with mixed reviews. Many didn’t see why the rest of the cast and crew should have to suffer for their co-star’s bigotry, while others (myself included) only had limited sympathy for the remaining cast members given that they knew Roseanne was a wildcard when they signed on for the reboot (not to mention that you had to have been living under a rock to not know Roseanne had become appallingly and unapologetically racist in the last few years). Lest we forget, we ventured into the Roseanne revival earlier this year with winces and grimaces, hoping that Barr wouldn’t blow it for everyone from the first episode. At least she had the common courtesy to wait until the first season had wrapped to get the show cancelled.
The decision to rebrand and continue the revival without Barr in the form of The Conners wasn’t unexpected, but still seemed somewhat like a moot point at first—as much as it was great to see the same cast in the same iconic living room back on television over two decades later with strong writing and performances like always, it felt like people were losing sight of the fact what it was to begin with—a revival; a continuation of something from the past. And as much as it was unfortunate that Barr had to ruin it for everyone with her big mouth, it still seemed somewhat irrelevant make a continuation of a continuation…without the lead star. She may be crass, bigoted, and racist, but how exactly were they going to continue Roseanne without Roseanne? And if they were to continue, wouldn’t they just end up trying too hard to prove that they can do it without her, like when Two and a Half Men fired and replaced Charlie Sheen? All valid questions that now appear irrelevant, since The Conners proved with one episode that the kids are going to be alright.
Production of The Conners following Roseanne’s cancellation in May seemed to commence rather silently, with nothing more but a premiere date set for the fall television season. And perhaps it was better that way—while the media storm surrounding Roseanne’s racist remarks and Roseanne’s cancellation reminded us all of the comedian’s frequently controversial behavior, it made us lose sight of the fact that the remaining cast members have and always have had something of their own to bring to the table, and now is their chance to shine. Roseanne is a great actress and a funny and groundbreaking character in her own way, but as she slowly but surely became drunk with creative power on the original series, Roseanne hardly had a chance to be about anyone but Roseanne after awhile. Things appeared to have changed for the better in some regard in that department on the revival this spring, where the scenes and dialogue quickly made it clear that Roseanne had ceased to be the moral centre of the series—now a grandmother, the matriarchal role she held on the original series appeared more minimized and passed onto Darlene (Sara Gilbert) or Jackie (Laurie Metcalf). Perhaps this was ABC’s doing; a way of trying to ensure the least amount of controversy by attempting to give Roseanne a dimmer spotlight, but that we’ll never know. All we can know now is that Roseanne and Roseanne are gone, and we now have Jackie, Darlene, Dan (John Goodman), Becky (Lecy Goranson), and DJ (Michael Fishman) as well as their future generation to have their real moment in the sun on The Conners.
A crucial element in order for The Conners to move forward was for Barr to agree to having no creative or financial ties to the series, which John Goodman remarked was a big deal in order for the spin-off to have a chance. All of the cast members acknowledged a presence of awkwardness on the first day of production in August, but they soon came to realize what the continuation was all about: a deep-rooted love for their longtime characters, and the realization that they had more stories to tell with them in this day and age. “There was the feeling of not wanting it to go away until we were ready,” says Goodman. “There was a debt owed to this fictional family. We’ll figure out how to get through this, the family will, everybody will. We want to finish telling this story.” Sara Gilbert, who assumed a producer title when the series first returned this spring, is equally as optimistic about continuing as The Conners. “Any sadness that we feel over what we’ve lost we’re hopefully channeling in an honest way into the show,” she says. “And our show has always been able to deal with heavy topics, particularly for a sitcom. It’s been kind of built into the mix.”
The series premiere of The Conners immediately appears different from other “revamped” television programs in the past where remaining cast members have had to deal with continuing without a main star—there is definitely no immediate change in dynamic like on Two and a Half Men, and the death of the main character clearly had more time to be planned out, unlike 8 Simple Rules. The episode effectively kills off Roseanne; initially believed to have died of a heart attack, the remaining family members soon learn from an autopsy report that she died of an opioid overdose. Darlene and Becky discover pain pills in her bedroom prescribed to another woman (Mary Steenburgen) whom Dan begins blaming for his wife’s death, but everyone ultimately accepts Roseanne was struggling with addiction. For a continuation of a continuation of a sitcom that broke down walls in the ‘90s for discussing heavy issues previously taboo for comedic television, The Conners has proven rather quickly that they aren’t about to shy away from sharing what else they had in store when Roseanne returned earlier this year. The episode also includes important and heartwarming scenes between Dan and his gender-fluid grandson Mark (Ames McNamara), and I’m really excited to see where that (and the rest of The Conners) is going.
At once a controversial media discussion and now a true revival where peace appears restored, The Conners very well might be a turning point in network television, just as the original Roseanne was two decades ago. We may have spoken too soon for Roseanne’s return, but here’s hoping The Conners sees a very different fate.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Book Review: 'Falling With Wings, A Mother's Story' by Dianna De La Garza

"Looking back, I'm not proud of some of the choices I made or the chances I took, but growing up doesn't come with a handbook. Learning to navigate the boundaries of my own limits, professionally, socially, and emotionally, was a bit like walking a tightrope. Sometimes I could balance the risks and rewards, and sometimes I tumbled in free fall, hoping to survive. By God's grace, I did. But that didn't mean my path was easy."

I might be a bit biased when it comes to this book and this story, but I still found it to be incredibly honest and very interesting to read. Falling With Wings is the memoir of Dianna De La Garza, Demi Lovato's mother. I'm biased because I know and love Demi Lovato like the air we breathe, which is why I wanted to read her mom's memoir in the first place. But my interest was also peaked by the snapshots of memories Dianna shared in Demi's YouTube documentary from last year, Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated. That documentary was ultimately Demi's story, so her mother only got to share what pertained to her daughter's life. But it turns out Dianna De La Garza has had quite the storied life herself, and it's certainly no mystery how her daughters ended up with a multitude of struggles as young adults, given that their mother didn't admit or deal with her own load of struggles until much later in life.

Falling With Wings is split into multiple parts that chronicle Dianna's entire life up until the present, starting from her upbringing in Texas. I was worried that I might get bored with some of her anecdotes before she started discussing Demi and her children, but that was not the case whatsoever. The stories and anecdotes she shares in those chapters are brief but effective, and really set the stage for events that will take place much later in the book. She explains how her parents had many children very young and were very conservative and very religious, so much so that Dianna was not allowed to wear pants (only skirts for girls) and absolutely no makeup. Discovering she had a gift for singing (her family even sang in a gospel group at their church for several years), she wanted to accept an gig to perform with Six Flags amusement parks and when her parents refused (mostly because it would mean she would have to miss church), she left home as a teenager to pursue her dream. It led to years of unresolved tension with her parents and Dianna explained in quite a prophetic ending to one chapter that if she ever had a child who wanted to pursue a dream, she would do anything and everything to help them achieve it.

Dianna tried for years to make it as a country music artist, performing in bands and as an opening act for a few big names for many years, but nothing seemed to fully materialize. Around this time she met Patrick Lovato, whom she would quickly marry only to later realize how unstable he was, but the leap from relationship to marriage doesn't seem all that unexpected given how unstable Dianna had been for most of her lifeother than rebelling against her parents and leaving home, she developed anorexia at a young age to gain a sense of control in her strict upbringing. She then began drinking heavily as a young adult and experimenting with drugs (including cocaine), but says that she could somehow draw the line where Patrick could not. She does also acknowledge that while she never craved alcohol, she could never just stop at one when she did drink. The marriage between Dianna and Patrick was anything but calm—he could never hold down a job, and they constantly moved back and forth from Texas and New Mexico. Their first daughter Dallas arrived in 1988, followed by Demi in 1992. The marriage had long turned abusive by the time Demi arrived, and she even recounts one incident where Patrick slammed her hand in a door causing her to permanently lose part of her finger. Dianna was eventually able to escape the marriage with her daughters, but he still remained in and out of their lives for several years thereafter. She later met and remarried to Eddie De La Garza and had a third daughter, Madison, in 2001.

Part of what I find to be so honest and fulfilling about Falling With Wings is that Dianna never fails to acknowledge her shortcomings—she knows she dropped the ball and she knows she wasn't perfect. She was in fact so obsessed with being perfect that it altered her own well-being for too long and she didn't know how to properly ask for help. She acknowledges that because she didn't even know how to accept her own struggles, such as her eating disorder or her depression, she didn't know to pick up the warning signs in her own daughters or to think that she might be passing her own struggles onto her children. It also becomes very clear very fast that, like most "stage moms," Dianna's endless hard work into getting her children to become stars and be famous was obviously an indirect way for her to deal with her own depression, most probably caused by unresolved issues in her childhood and abusive first marriage. She says that she always told her kids that she wasn't forcing them to go to auditions or attend acting and vocal lessons and that they could stop anytime, but I don't believe that is entirely true—as much as striving for stardom became a coping mechanism for Dianna and her issues (she even admits that she thought her kids becoming stars would lead to a "fairy tale life" where all her problems would be solved), it clearly became a coping mechanism for her kids as well, since striving for stardom distracted them from their own unresolved issues from ages way too young.

But one thing Dianna never once thought would happen was that when Demi finally made her breakthrough with Disney Channel in 2008, their problems would only intensify and become harder to manage. Once Demi had become a full-blown teen star in high demand, the direction of her career was quickly taken out of Dianna's hands and into the hands of a management team, something she came to heavily regret but ultimately could no longer control. She even thought that hiring a life coach would be the end of everyone's problems when Demi had been discovered to have been cutting herself. Denial became a blissful place for Dianna to reside and it only made her rude awakening worse once Demi broke down in 2010, leaving her tour with the Jonas Brothers to enter treatment for physical and emotional issues. Even then, Dianna still couldn't acknowledge her own struggles and held up a fake smile for her daughter until April 2011, when everything came to a head. Still heavily depressed, anxious, and addicted to Xanax, Dianna entered treatment herself and finally learned to discuss issues that had plagued her for most of her life, and the last few chapters of the book are dedicated to her own recovery. It almost seems as though the story told throughout Falling With Wings comes full circle by the end, given that it doesn't seem hard to understand that Dianna didn't know how to help her own daughters when she was 48 years old when she learned how to discuss her own. It's also hardly surprising that she clearly wasn't kept up to date with Demi's circumstances by that point, given that she had completely surrendered herself to her own recovery. It becomes clear that she had obviously removed herself from her daughter's recovery based on a very blaring error towards the end of the book, when she recalls Demi's intervention. She says it was "a few days into 2014," which is very wrong—the intervention in question would have taken place a few days into 2012, given the timeline of when Demi got sober the first time. It could have just been a simple typo that wasn't noticed, but I think she really couldn't recall the right year and it symbolizes how much she wasn't able to focus on her daughter's struggles anymore because she was too caught up in her own—which seems to be the overarching theme of Falling With Wings.

Overall a very interesting and powerful read that will open the eyes of any Demi Lovato fan or anyone who has ever followed a child star. I can only commend Dianna De La Garza for finding a way to share her story with the world in such an open and honest way. 5/5 stars.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Conundrum of Supporting Kim Petras and Kesha, Without Supporting Dr. Luke

If you’re a fan of pop music who uses Spotify or scrolls through Twitter, chances are that you’ve heard of Kim Petras. The 26-year-old budding pop star, who hails from Germany, has been rising to fame on her own over the last year through a series of catchy pop singles released independently on music streaming services, without an official record label. She’s not the only aspiring singer/songwriter to start taking advantage of Spotify and Apple Music to find an audience without a label and she surely won’t be the last, but Kim Petras seems to have what Old Hollywood might have called that “little something extra” … Not to mention she’s transgender and has already been working with one of the most infamous pop music producers in the industry today: Dr. Luke.
Petras, who is managed by Britney Spears’ longtime manager Larry Rudolph, came to prominence in Europe as a teenager not for winning a reality competition series like the typical North American star, but for being the youngest person on record to undergo gender-reassignment surgery. She had dreams of being a pop star from a young age and after transitioning from Tim to Kim Petras, she tried her best to make it happen in Germany, but ultimately found that the brand of English pop she wanted to make wasn’t going to happen for her there. At age 19, she dropped everything and moved to Los Angeles, where she says she wrote over 600 songs while couch-surfing her way through the city. While she has always been open and proud about being a transgender woman, she has said that she doesn’t want it to define who she is as an artist. “It was my goal to try and not make that the leading point of my career,” says Petras. “That I’m transgender doesn’t really say anything about me as a person, but I’m a great songwriter, that says a lot about me.” And in our digital contemporary world, she seemed to find it easier than ever to make that dream a reality: she released her debut single independently across streaming platforms in 2017, “I Don’t Want It At All,” which topped Spotify’s Global Viral 50 chart and has all the faux glitz, glamour, and diva-ness you’d want to find in a good pop song. Somewhat reminiscent of cheesy ‘80s pop combined with a make-believe Paris Hilton image (she even makes an appearance in the song’s music video) makes Kim Petras’ songs the pop music equivalent of a sugar rush—so catchy you can’t help but fall in love. Her best song yet is undoubtedly “Heart to Break,” which is everything you’d ever want from a great pop song, and whose music video has over 3 million views on YouTube.
Kim Petras’ undeniably campy, gay sound and image almost immediately drew her to LGBTQ audiences, who love a good pop banger and would love nothing more than to support a trans pop star on the brink of true stardom. But what has made supporting Petras and her music incredibly hard for some, it seems, is the fact that almost all her music to date has been produced by Dr. Luke, the infamous pop producer who was taken to court by pop singer Kesha on claims of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, in a still ongoing lawsuit that has lasted more than four years. In the early 2010s, Dr. Luke’s name was on almost all of the biggest pop hits of the moment—not only Kesha’s “TiK ToK” (and all of her other songs) but Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” and “Teenage Dream,” as well as “Party in the U.S.A.” by Miley Cyrus, “Primadonna” and “How to Be a Heartbreaker” by Marina and the Diamonds, and countless Britney Spears songs. Now, we listen to these songs and think of how much they practically defined an era, but what makes it a bit disturbing in retrospect is the fact that the man who produced them has been accused of abusing women. Dr. Luke’s list of other production and songwriting credits goes on, from Pink to Avril Lavigne, from Kelly Clarkson to Jennifer Lopez, and everyone in between. In the wake of Kesha’s landmark lawsuit against the esteemed producer, where a judge denied her motion to be released from the recording contract that obliged her to work with Dr. Luke in 2016, several artists came out in support of her and the cause (#FreeKesha), which predated the Time’s Up and Me Too movements by nearly two years. The case also led to some artists speaking out about their past experiences with Dr. Luke, namely Pink and Kelly Clarkson, both of whom stated he was not a good person: Pink severed ties with him after she learned only after she had recorded and released “U + Ur Hand” as a single from her album I’m Not Dead that the song’s production bared a striking resemblance to that of “4ever” by The Veronicas, also produced by Dr. Luke, and discovered he had a habit of doing this with artists. Clarkson had decided she would never work with him again after “Since U Been Gone” in 2004, but when her label forced her to work with him for her album All I Ever Wanted in 2009, she chose to forfeit songwriting credit on the lead single “My Life Would Suck Without You” as she did not want her name appearing next to his. Bad blood between Dr. Luke and Katy Perry has since been rumored as well, and Demi Lovato said she had worked with him on a track for her album Confident and when she refused to make the song the album’s lead single, he would not let the song appear on the album. Pink, Avril Lavigne, and Taio Cruz have since signed affidavits for Kesha’s lawsuit against him, stating they chose to stop working with him on their own merits prior to Kesha’s accusations.
As much as LGBTQ audiences have pledged nothing but support for Kesha in her battle against the man who she says abused her and held her back in the industry, it then becomes quite a conundrum to support a fellow queer artist like Kim Petras—who has already started performing at Pride parades, gay bars, and appeared in an H&M ad, all of which help normalize her identity as a trans woman—but how can we reconcile our desire to embrace Petras as a talented trans artist who makes great pop bangers when the person who is helping her make those bangers is the person whom another female artist has openly accused of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse? A dime for Kim Petras becomes a dime for Dr. Luke. Personally, I don’t believe that straight up boycotting Petras’ music will accomplish as much as people think, given that Dr. Luke still stands to benefit from it regardless as well as the fact that it then becomes a matter of you depriving yourself of good pop music you know you’ll most likely enjoy. But it becomes even more difficult to justify supporting Petras when she openly and warmly admits to enjoying her collaborations with Luke (and word on the street is she was the one who sought him out, not vice versa), stating, “I’m a big fan of his, and we write music very well together. So, yeah, it was a really good experience. I would like my fans to know that I wouldn’t work with somebody I believe to be an abuser of women, definitely not.” And thus, the controversy ensued, given that if Petras doesn’t believe Dr. Luke to be an abuser of women, that essentially means she believes Kesha to be a liar.
But the issue at hand doesn’t seem to simply fall on Kim Petras—especially if you consider Dr. Luke’s angle in the matter. Since Kesha’s ongoing lawsuit, Luke’s position as a producer of bonafide number-one pop hits started to dwindle, for what I can only describe as obvious reasons. While he has worked on several tracks since then, his last batch of number-one singles was in 2013, which saw the mass success of Katy Perry’s “Roar” and Pitbull and Kesha’s “Timber.” Since Dr. Luke has attached his name to that of Kim Petras, critics and listeners have been pondering the question of whether making Petras his new protégé will pave the way for a comeback and even redemption for the disgraced producer. But this was before the rise of the Time’s Up and Me Too movements in Hollywood, which still tend to capitalize largely on the film and television industries. This was also before the rise of the concept of celebrities being “cancelled” for associating themselves with or aligning with the views of figures who are viewed as “problematic.” But this was not as huge a concept prior to the downfalls of Harvey Weinstein or Les Moonves, who stepped down and “disappeared” following their scandals. Dr. Luke never left the public eye, never stepped down from his position as CEO of his label (Sony had to remove him), and never stopped pleading his innocence in court and the media. He has kept working as a producer and songwriter on a smaller scale, not to mention the fact that Kim Petras currently releases music independently, without an official label: the perfect arrangement for Luke to hide his creations behind. And as Spencer Kornhaber writes in The Atlantic, “Lately he’s ramped up his efforts on both fronts—the legal and the artistic—in ways that underscore why the music industry, out of all the entertainment industries, seems to have a special inability to litigate questions of misconduct.”
In an era of Time’s Up and Me Too, in an era where the hashtag #BelieveWomen has to circulate because we are still questioning women when they accuse men of something terrible, in an era of Trump’s America, pop listeners are becoming more and more aware of the level of fabrication in the genre. Learning that the man who produced most of the number-one hits of the early 2010s was accused of raping and abusing one of those artists is one thing, but when we then pledge support for that artist and love her strength and perseverance even more, how can we live with ourselves when we want to support Kim Petras, the new pop girl who happens to be trans—pushing more boundaries for the LGBTQ community—who then makes problematic statements about working with abusers and believing abusers and not women? Pop music tends to override the listener’s intellect and that’s part of why we love it, but we now have to be cognisant of it—we can no longer only focus on the girl in the studio who is slaying the vocals. We now have to focus on them just as much as the men behind the boards who are making just as much profit. We have to extend our outrage for men that abuse women to everywhere it happens, including the music industry. We didn’t let Harvey Weinstein get away with it, and we shouldn’t let Dr. Luke get away with it, either. Kim Petras is a talented girl, so can she do better? Only if we hold her, her collaborator, and ourselves responsible.