Wednesday, November 27, 2019

So Long, Farewell...

Lovely blog readers!

I'm excited to share that, after weeks of frustratingly hard work that may or may not have involved tears shed and tearing out my hair, I've started my very own website for all things pop culture, books, music, and everything in between -

This also means that, after 6 years, I've decided to say farewell to Living on Guilty Pleasures. In the immortal words of the Von Trapp children... so long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye...

In all seriousness, it's been very difficult for me to make the decision to say goodbye to this blog. I've put so much work and love into it over the last 6 years, not to mention that it's been the place where I've grown and found my voice as the writer I want to be. But more importantly, this blog was - for the longest time - the place where I would curl up with books, obsess over pop culture, and throw caution to the wind of what people thought. When I was younger, everyone I knew used to constantly ask me why I cared so much about pop culture and books, and I never really had an answer. I just knew that I was passionate about it and that it mattered to me, and so I started this blog - because on the Internet, nobody found it weird. They understood. So I blogged obsessively about The Young and the Restless, books, and TV for many years, never once thinking it might be something I would want to pursue professionally.

Anytime someone in real life would ask me about my blog, I would get so embarrassed and pretend it didn't exist. For so long I was still a fourteen-year-old boy who didn't fit in anywhere except in the worlds of daytime soap operas and sitcoms, and was so used to nobody else understanding. Even after I started writing about more popular subjects that more people were interested in, I was still so apprehensive to draw attention to my blog or my writing. Crippling self-doubt has always been my default setting. But recently I realized that writing and pop culture are two of the only things that set my soul on fire, and so I have to pursue them. It also means that I have to keep on growing, and move on from a writing space that I've outgrown.

Over 6 years, Living on Guilty Pleasures has amassed nearly 29,000 views, which is bananas-level crazy. But guess what? Having faith in myself and thinking that people will care about what I write is still hard and overwhelming. I'm truly a writer with imposter syndrome. But I also know that the worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt, so I try my best every day to give the finger to the voices in my head that tell me nobody cares.

If you're reading this, and if you've read this blog before, thank you so very much. It means more to me than you could ever know. I also hope you will continue to follow me and my writing on my new website, where I will continue sharing the same kind of content. I actually spent way too much time obsessing over details and staring at my computer screen well into the early hours of the morning, so please validate me by checking out my new website!

Thank you again for all the love and support over these last 6 years.


Sunday, November 10, 2019

8 Books About Judy Garland to Read After Seeing JUDY

Originally written and published by me for Book Riot.

Have you seen the new film Judy, a Judy Garland biopic starring Renée Zellweger as the iconic entertainer? If you haven’t, I’m not sure what you’re doing with your life. (Did I see it twice in the theatre in the same week? That’s a great question and the answer is yes.) The film will surely bring tears to the eyes of any Garland fan big or small, and it might also provoke interest in learning more about the tragedies, triumphs, and enormous talent that encapsulated Garland’s life and career. In the spirit of gaining more knowledge, here are eight books about Judy Garland to check out after seeing Judy.


Considered to be the most definitive Garland biography, Gerald Clarke spent years working on this book after believing previous biographies did not paint a complete picture of who Judy was. Reviewing recordings that Garland made in preparation for a memoir that never materialized, Clarke breaks the surface that other biographies do not and gives us a compelling inside look at Judy’s life, career, and struggles. Fun fact: Get Happy was optioned for a film by Harvey Weinstein in 2009 starring Anne Hathaway as Garland, but ultimately nothing came together.


Edited by Randy L. Schmidt, this volume encompasses every single interview Judy Garland ever gave—from before she was signed to MGM to the final months of her life—with some transcribed into print for the first time ever. Schmidt’s goal was to complete the memoir Judy never finished by weaving together everything she ever said, and the end result is heartbreaking as much as it is fascinating.


In this illuminating portrait of family life, Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft tells the story of growing up with her mother as best she can. If there was ever any doubt that Judy did her absolute best to put her kids first, it’s definitely debunked in Me and My Shadows. The memoir was later adapted into a television miniseries of the same name in 2001.


In this quirky and unique memoir, Susie Boyt speaks to anyone who has ever nursed an obsession that ends up informing and influencing much of their life. Boyt recounts her lifelong love of Garland and the specific reasons she came to resonate with her, linking them to the reasons the world at large resonated with Judy.


American musical icon Mel Tormé recounts his experiences working with Garland on her short-lived television variety show, The Judy Garland Show, and explains how even Judy’s undeniably large talents couldn’t save a show that was plagued from the start. As much as Tormé paints a clear picture of Judy’s troubles, he reminds us that there will only ever be one of her.


Published earlier this year, Elizabeth Letts’s historical novel fictionalizes the true events behind the inspiration for L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz books, and the making of its MGM film adaption that would become the most celebrated film in history—and launch one Judy Garland’s career. But it’s what’s left unsaid on the set of The Wizard of Oz that shows the multitudes of Judy’s vulnerability, which followed her into adulthood. Judy found Dorothy so that we could find Dorothy—even if the film studio wanted it the other way around.

Judy & Liza & Robert & Freddie & David & Sue & Me coverJUDY & LIZA & ROBERT & FREDDIE & DAVID & SUE & ME…A MEMOIR BY STEVIE PHILLIPS

In this memoir, talent manager Stevie Phillips speaks of her time working with Judy Garland towards the end of her life. It doesn’t read as the most dependable of narratives—that is, its intention screams money rather than purpose—but Phillips does offer some interesting anecdotes about Judy scarcely found elsewhere. But, unlike other memoirs, it seems as though Phillips loves the exposure Judy’s name gave her more than she loved Judy.


In 1954, A Star is Born was supposed to be Judy Garland’s monumental film comeback following her tumultuous dismissal from MGM in 1950. But complications during the production as well as a notoriously troubled release led the film to become a cult classic rather than an era-defining musical. Last year, Lorna Luft and Jeffrey Vance took a look back at the history, mishaps and all, of Judy’s A Star is Born—a must-read for all film buffs and Garland fans.
Check out some of my other writing for Book Riot here.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The 10 Best Halloween TV Episodes

The 10 Best Halloween TV Episodes

Halloween might be the time of year to decorate your lawn with pumpkins and ghouls, giving out candy to your neighborhood’s costume connoisseurs, or trying to figure out the most clever costume to wear to the office or to a party. But the best way to celebrate Halloween is through a good old Halloween episode of your favorite TV series. Besides, what would pop culture look like without It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown? Or Roseanne’s iconic Halloween episodes?
Bundle up and buckle up as we look back at 10 of the best Halloween TV episodes.
“Halloween” – Modern Family (2010)
(Photo: ABC)
“All I ask is that you leave me Halloween. Yeah, Halloween. I realize it is a crazy-ass holiday for a grown woman to care about this much, but it is my crazy-ass holiday. Mine.” And so kicked off the first ever Halloween on Modern Family, way back during season two in 2010. It also introduced us to how passionate Claire Dunphy (Julie Bowen) is about this holiday (by season four, no parents were allowing their children to trick-or-treat at the Dunphys’ house, since the previous year Claire almost caused a man a heart attack with a gruesome prank). She could definitely give Roseanne Conner a run for her money. Elsewhere, Gloria (Sofia Vergara) is made to feel insecure about her Columbian accent for the first time (“maybe she’s never been picked on for bein’ diff-er-ent”), and Claire offers her daughter $10 to go put on more clothes. All in all, a Halloween to remember.
“BOO!” – Roseanne (1989)
(Photo: ABC)
Any list of the best Halloween TV episodes would be incomplete without a mention of Roseanne, who certainly invented the Halloween episode as we know it. “BOO!” started it all back in 1989, during the series’ second season, when the Conners set up their house into the “tunnel of terror” to lead their trick-or-treaters through. Meanwhile, Becky (Lecy Goranson) almost doesn’t participate after she is uninvited to a Halloween party (“I hate Marci Michaelson!”) and we are introduced to Dan (John Goodman) and Roseanne’s (Roseanne Barr) twisted game of who is better at scaring the other. But we all know who the master will always be. Don’t miss my look back at the legacy of Roseanne’s Halloween episodes as this year marks 30 years since “BOO!” first aired on October 31, 1989.
“The One With the Halloween Party” – Friends (2001)
(Photo: NBC)
“Come on, who are we kidding? I’m Doody.” It took Friends until season eight to have a Halloween episode, which also happens to be one of the series’ strongest and funniest seasons. Sean Penn might be the most notable guest star that comes to mind, but we often forget about a young Emily Osment, who plays a little girl whom Rachel doesn’t have any candy or money left to give to. “Hey, can I write you a cheque?” Her name? Lelani Mayolanofavich.
“Now I Know, Don’t Be Scared” – Desperate Housewives (2007)
(Photo: ABC)
The first time Halloween came to Wisteria Lane was the year that Bob and Lee (Tuc Watkins and Kevin Rahm) moved onto the lane and threw a party—right after making an enemy out of the new president of the Homeowners’ Association, Katherine (Dana Delany). Meanwhile, Bree (Marcia Cross) was busy faking a pregnancy to hide her teenage daughter Danielle (Joy Lauren) getting knocked up—but Bree’s ruse is at risk when Danielle suddenly returns home from the convent they had sent her to. But things get even messier when Danielle shows up at the neighborhood Halloween party dressed as Bree…and soon goes into labor. Bree’s son Andrew (Shawn Pyfrom) is also forced to dress up as Cher, and Katherine comes as Marie Antoinette—“you came as a self-important queen who lost all her power! Isn’t that a bit on the nose?”
“Tricks and Treats” – Freaks and Geeks (1999)
(Photo: NBC)
Freaks and Geeks might have only had the one Halloween episode, but it’s one of the most memorable in TV history, and it aired 20 years ago tonight on October 30, 1999. Sam (John Francis Daley), Neal (Samm Levine), and Bill (Martin Starr)—the “geeks”—go out trick-or-treating and run into another altercation with their bully, Alan (Chauncey Leopardi). Meanwhile, although Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) had made plans to stay home and pass out candy with her mom (Becky Ann Baker), she decides to go out cruising around town with her new bunch of burnout friends, the “freaks.” But things get a little out of hand when Lindsay unknowingly eggs her brother… a classic example of the show’s groundbreaking attempt at portraying the plight of growing up and finding yourself against the awkward backdrop of high school.
“Orange Alert” – Parenthood (2010)
(Photo: NBC)
In this episode of the underrated NBC family drama, the Bravermans celebrate Halloween as Max (Max Burkholder), who has Asperger’s, decides he wants to go out trick-or-treating—despite his fears and aversions to it in the past. As the whole family heads out for a night of costume fun, Max faces his fears and enters a haunted house with his cousins, and Crosby (Dax Shepherd) proposes to Jasmine (Joy Bryant) and everything was good… even if just for a short while. Especially on Halloween, Parenthood did what Parenthood did best: remind us of the comforting warmth and support of your family. Also, can we talk about how cute Adam Braverman is in his baseball player costume?
“Boo! Humbug” – Will & Grace (1998)
(Photo: NBC)
Back in 1998, during Will & Grace’s first season, Will (Eric McCormack) and Grace (Debra Messing) thought they were above Halloween. It’s just a holiday for kids. But when their adult night of wine and a movie is interrupted by having to babysit to the kids of Harlan (Gary Grubbs), Will’s boss, they just might find out how to embrace their inner child and figure out that Halloween isn’t just for kids. Meanwhile, Jack (Sean Hayes) convinces Karen (Megan Mullally) to go downtown with him on Halloween in costume, during which an apprehensive Karen is warmly embraced by drag queens—leaving Jack feeling a little left out.
“The Middle-Earth Paradigm” – The Big Bang Theory (2007)
(Photo: CBS)
The Big Bang Theory also tried their hand at Halloween during their first season, when Penny (Kaley Cuoco) throws a Halloween party and invites her geeky, awkward new neighbors. They arrive at 7:05, apologizing for being late (the party started at 7:00—they are the first to arrive). Sheldon (Jim Parsons) dresses up as the Doppler Effect, even though nobody gets it, and Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Penny share their first kiss after her ex-boyfriend crashes her party and creates pandemonium.
“Halloween IV” – Roseanne (1992)
(Photo: ABC)
If “BOO!” created the gold standard for Halloween episodes in 1989, “Halloween IV”—from Roseanne’s fifth season—certainly proved they were in fact the Masters of Halloween. In this episode, Roseanne has lost her Halloween spirit after daughter Becky isn’t able to return home for the holiday. The Conners had also had a rough year financially after the foreclosure of Dan’s bike shop, so Rosie just wasn’t feeling it this year and doesn’t attend the Lodge Party. But what’s to happen when the Queen of Halloween doesn’t participate? Roseanne is visited by three ghosts: the Ghosts of Halloween Past, Present, and Future. After remembering how she’s always been good at Halloween, seeing how her friends are making fun of her at the party, and then seeing a future of turning into her mother if she doesn’t go all out on Halloween, Roseanne arrives at the Lodge Party—and gives everyone just the trick they’ve been waiting for. Happy Halloween! *insert Roseanne’s cackle here*
“It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” (1966)
(Photo: ABC)
No list of special Halloween episodes would be complete without the one that arguably started it all back in 1966—the first time Linus sat in the pumpkin patch and awaited the arrival of the Great Pumpkin. Everyone said he was crazy and that the Great Pumpkin didn’t exist—which may be true, as Linus is still waiting for him 53 years later—but he never gave up. Every year, he waits for the Great Pumpkin to rise out of that pumpkin patch. And 53 years later, we still tune in to hope this will be the year he finally arrives.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Tricks or Treats: Celebrating 30 Years of 'Roseanne' Halloween Episodes

Some families have Christmas, and others have Easter. 
Friends had Thanksgiving. But no TV family has ever done Halloween like the Conners. This week marks 30 years since the first Halloween episode of Roseanne aired back in 1989. And in the three decades since, nobody else has come close to touching the legacy of Halloween on Roseanne.
Other television series might have featured Halloween in the past, but Roseanne certainly invented the Halloween TV episode as we know it. In the 21st century, almost everyone has done Halloween—from Modern Family, to The Big Bang Theory, and even Desperate Housewives. But arguably none of that would have existed if it weren’t for the Conners’ elaborately planned spectacles at scaring each other on the spookiest day of the year. “For a while, they refused to let us have a Halloween episode, because they said the Bible Belt doesn't like Halloween, that they think it’s satanic, so they didn’t want it on ABC,” Roseanne Barr told Yahoo TV in 2014. “And we’re like, ‘Are you crazy? People trick-or-treat, you know. It’s a big holiday.’ They were very kind of fundamentalist about it, but you know, that was the first dragon we slayed on the Roseanne show.” And it certainly wouldn’t be the last. Barr also shared in the video commentary on the DVD release of the series’ Halloween episodes that the only reason she wanted to get into television was to break all the rules of television—and there’s no doubt she accomplished that and more, in the best and worst ways possible.
Roseanne’s first Halloween episode, “BOO!”, was the seventh episode of the series’ second season and first aired on October 31, 1989. It set the standard for a Halloween celebration like no other that would continue for every year the show was on the air. And while it might not have seemed unordinary for a family sitcom to celebrate Halloween, regardless of religious objections, Halloween on Roseanne became revolutionary because they did it like nobody else ever had—just like the rest of the show. The Conners were just like you, and not ashamed to show it. They were unabashedly unpolished. They were overweight junk food eaters. They belched and bellowed, and fought over the TV remote. They struggled to make ends meet and occasionally had their power shut off (John Goodman often joked that the Conners were poor because they spent all of their money on Halloween). Their kids fought with their parents, and vice versa. Nothing was ever solved into a happily ever after by the final commercial break—but there was always impeccable writing and Roseanne’s signature wit, brash sarcasm, and comedic timing to relieve the tension. It’s no surprise they brought all of that and more to their Halloween episodes, and in fact, it was on Halloween when Roseanne did what Roseanne did best: break the rules, and make us laugh about it.
Dan and Roseanne trying to outdo one another by scaring each other would become a staple of the Halloween episodes. John Pasquin, who directed every episode of Roseanne’s second season, remembered the couple’s “one-upsmanship” as his favorite part of the Halloween episodes, particularly from that first one from 1989. “This is the kind of thing that actually does go on in your household when you have a couple who is playful, just trying to get the better of your mate,” he said. “That was such a nice through-line, apart from all of the dressing up, and the makeup and the hair and all that stuff… a couple really just having fun and trumping each other.” In “BOO!”, Dan and Roseanne quip back and forth at who is “the master” at scaring the other. Although they both play a good game, it is Roseanne who emerges victorious—setting a precedent for every other aspect of the series—by faking a phone call with her mother in the episode’s final moments, saying they are coming to stay with them indefinitely. Dan’s immediate panic leads him to bow in gratitude at the prank. Roseanne, despite her faults, will always be the Master of Halloween.
Like any cultural text from decades ago, we might also argue some aspects of Roseanne’s Halloween celebrations have not, what we call, “aged well.” But on the other hand, considering the social context in which they originally aired—the American working-class in the Midwest, late eighties and the nineties—it was Roseanne’s daring social commentary that grew more ambitious as the show went on that propels the Halloween episodes to the forefront of why Roseanne, as a whole, was groundbreaking. A key example is “Trick or Treat,” the show’s second attempt at Halloween in its third season, that remains relevant in the social progression of American popular culture. The episode begins with Dan playing poker with his buddies at the Conners’ kitchen table, a common occurrence throughout the series. These poker games were often portrayals of stereotypical patriarch activity, the act of the male of the household “blowing off steam” or “doing a man thing.” In “Trick or Treat,” the less than classy Arnie (Tom Arnold) tells his friends a story about mail-order brides, and the rest of the men continue a conversation that can only be described, by our modern standards, as “locker room talk.” The talk grinds to a halt when Roseanne and Jackie enter the kitchen, with Dan redirecting the conversation into something about tools. But the icing on the cake comes a mere moments later, when DJ (Michael Fishman) enters the scene in his Halloween costume, as a witch with a broom. Roseanne and Jackie are enthusiastic, but Dan immediately sends him upstairs in a panic before his friends see him. “Two daughters aren’t enough for you?” he asks Roseanne. “Witches are girls.” Roseanne, as only she can, breaks the tension perfectly in the episode’s best line. “This is the nineties, Dan. Witches are women.” The women see no issue with DJ’s costume and when Roseanne questions Dan on why he had no issue with Darlene (Sara Gilbert) dressing up as a pirate three times, Dan dismisses that costume as “cute” and insists that if they let DJ go out as a witch, he will come home with a bloody nose. It’s such an impeccably perfect textbook example of toxic masculinity that the cultural criticism basically writes itself. “DJ, instead of a witch, you wanna dress up like Madonna?”
This was not the first time that toxic masculinity and heteronormative gender norms were explored on Roseanne, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. After Dan convinces DJ to ditch his broom in an attempt to rebrand him as a warlock, he can’t shake a sense of guilt from preventing his son from being who he wanted to be. The episode didn’t solve Dan’s masculine panic, and no episode ever does, but this was 1990, and it did at least allow space for some understanding and forgiveness. Dan even pretends that Roseanne is his husband when, in a turn of events, Jackie and Roseanne end up stranded at the Lobo Lounge on Halloween and Roseanne takes her male lumberjack disguise a little too far. It makes me think of the time I dressed up as a witch with a broom as a child, fourteen years after this episode aired, as well as my own doubts and whether I should call myself a warlock instead. But my parents embraced my costume idea without hesitation, as they always did, and reminds me how far we have come with dismantling gender norms and heteronormativity—and how far we still have left to go.
It might not seem like much today, but Roseanne made social commentary regarding gender roles and toxic masculinity a mainstay in American primetime television, in an era before Ellen was cancelled or Will & Grace premiered. “Trick or Treat” wasn’t even the only Halloween episode to address such topics—“Skeleton in the Closet,” from the seventh season, not only continued to push boundaries but if anything showcased how far Roseanne had also progressed since season three (it also featured Roseanne Barr’s personal favorite costume, when she dressed up as Prince). That year’s Halloween celebration revolved around Leon (Martin Mull)—Roseanne’s former boss and later business partner, and an openly gay character—throwing a Halloween party at the Lunch Box, Roseanne and Jackie’s business in which he had bought a stake. It prompted most of the episode’s subtext to revolve around gay people in an attempt to provide a “they’re just like us” narrative, which ultimately doesn’t hold up against the multitude of homophobic jokes. Roseanne Barr originally added gay characters in the form of Leon and Nancy (Sandra Bernhard) to the series in an effort for representation, since she had gay siblings, but the plight for gays and lesbians to be seen on Roseanne was often lost in the context of the homophobia necessary for them to even be there in the first place. Nonetheless, they were there, and any publicity is in fact good publicity when it comes to sparking a conversation. In other words, Dan’s prank on Roseanne that year in which everyone leaves clues to convince Roseanne that Jackie’s husband Fred (Michael O’Keefe) might be gay might not still be funny in our modern context, and might not have “aged well.” But in 1994—when Ellen still wasn’t out yet and Will & Grace still didn’t exist—it was something. It was something that said gay people exist, even if Roseanne often made a joke out of them.
It would be difficult to even discuss the possibility that some of Roseanne’s Halloween episodes haven’t “aged well” when the current popular opinion suggests that Roseanne—the sitcom or the person—has certainly not aged well, either. I’m pretty sure merely the word Roseanne is still polarizing, given her current penchant for racism that lost her a lot of fans during the 2016 U.S. election as well as the highly successful revival of Roseanne, which aired for 9 episodes in 2018 before being unceremoniously cancelled after Barr made racist comments about Valerie Jarrett on Twitter. But it would be difficult to argue that Roseanne is only polarizing and one of the most hated people on the planet in the present, when back in the early nineties, she was also polarizing and one of the most hated people on the planet. Back then, she was overweight, rejected femininity, and said what she wanted. It worked in her favor when what she did and said pushed boundaries and allowed room for representation, but when she began turning her unruliness towards racism and bigotry, it was for many—at the very least—jarring and horrifying.
Perhaps the saving grace to ensuring Roseanne’s legacy, and especially that of its Halloween episodes, will be The Conners, the spin-off series that ABC rebranded the revival as after its cancellation (the series premiere effectively killed off Roseanne from an opioid overdose). The spin-off will take its second stab at Halloween this year, with an episode that sees Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) learning that a local Chinese restaurant is closing and seeing an opportunity to reopen the Lunch Box without her late sister. The Conners has already amused fans with a blast from the past earlier this season with a guest appearance by Meagan Fay, who played Roseanne’s neighbor Kathy during Roseanne’s fourth season—and who Dan and Roseanne play a particularly gruesome Halloween prank on in “Trick Me Up, Trick Me Down.” Last year, The Conners tried their hand at a Halloween episode that saw Darlene’s son Mark (Ames McNamara) grappling with a costume ban at his school, and the episode also introduced guest star Matthew Broderick as Jackie’s boyfriend Peter. It certainly wasn’t the same without Rosie, but the spin-off will have a second chance this week not only with Jackie’s blast from the past but also when DJ’s daughter Mary (Jayden Ray) gets upset when someone assumes she is adopted based on the color of her skin. The episode will air Tuesday, October 29 on ABC. The Conners might not have Roseanne’s loud-mouthed wit or sarcasm (or, as of late, her racism) to break tension anymore, but the spin-off is still making excellent use of the social commentary, pushing of boundaries, and evidently celebrations of Halloween that Roseanne pioneered 30 years ago.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Tegan and Sara Have Returned to Their Roots in the Most Interesting Way Possible (Album Review: 'Hey, I'm Just Like You')

I would like to believe that even people who say they enjoyed high school would most probably not want to relive it. Insecurities come alive, friendships come and go, and most importantly, nobody knows who they are yet. Just the thought of going through that again makes me shudder. But Tegan and Sara—Canadian indie pop rock duo, twin sisters, and longtime LGBTQ advocates—are reclaiming that narrative and time in their lives as their own and turning the age-old clichés into unique melodies and poetic lyrics on their new studio album, Hey, I’m Just Like You, a collection of songs they originally wrote and recorded as teenagers that were purposely lost for years until the twins started digging through the past while writing their new memoir, High School.
At the time, Tegan and Sara had no confidence in the songs and remained convinced for decades thereafter that they would never see the light of day. That all changed earlier this year. Last spring, they began reworking and rewriting each track, keeping the “essence” of each song, and soon decided that these remastered recordings from their high school days would become their ninth studio album. As the duo put it, “This is the record we never could have made as teenagers, full of songs we never could have written as adults.” And that’s what makes it so wonderful.
In high school, the twins were not the queer icons we know and love today. Quite the opposite, in fact. According to Sara, they were “dirtbags” who were “stoned on acid, sneaking out, skipping school, lying to our parents,” and still very deep in the closet. It was their experimentation with drugs that led to a newfound understanding amongst the sisters that they had previously lost. As young kids, and as with most siblings, Tegan and Sara were inseparably close: they cried when they weren’t in the same elementary school class and their experiences and memories often felt interchangeable—in other words, there was no Tegan without Sara, and no Sara without Tegan.
Tegan and Sara, 2019 (Photo: Trevor Brady)
That all changed by the time they were teenagers in high school, when battle lines were drawn in the name of hormones, emotions, and the ever-present conflict of individual identity. But when they were on acid, they found a new type of love and admiration for each other, and it was this love and admiration that led to some of these songs being written—namely the title track “Hey, I’m Just Like You,” in which they realized many of their struggles were shared, and that together they could face the fact that they were both a little messed up and blue. It’s been over twenty years since Tegan and Sara were teenagers, but these emotions and feelings appear more poignant, heart wrenching, and relevant than ever on these songs which, in the words of Britney Spears, are remixed, reimagined, and still iconic—even though this is the first time they’ve been released.

Tegan and Sara began their career as indie rockers before venturing into synth-pop on their largely celebrated seventh studio album Heartthrob (2013). Their last studio album, 2016’s Love You to Death, was completely pop-focused and was described by The Guardian as a “commercial flop, a box-ticking exercise, with the band’s spirit lost under the sheen.” Other critics have also suggested that the duo was selling out during that era, despite the fact that they were merely exploring their penchant for different sounds and production values. Whatever the case, the twins have returned to their roots on Hey, I’m Just Like You in the most interesting way possible. They haven’t abandoned their newfound tendency for pop production, but they’ve also returned to the indie pop rock vibes found on their earlier records such as So JealousThe Con, or Sainthood.
The new album’s lead single, “I’ll Be Back Someday,” contains the production that embodies this throwback while also containing the catchy lyrics and melodies found in any other successful pop single. The duo are also exploring their sexuality in their lyrics in ways they never have before, in the form of the repressed feelings of closeted teenagers. “Hold My Breath Until I Die,” “Hello, I’m Right Here,” and “I Don’t Owe You Anything” all express the choked-down emotions of a teenager who has been knocked down by their desires and are not yet sure how to get back up. Hey, I’m Just Like You’s song titles are just melodramatic enough to work—since they are about high school, after all. “Don’t Believe the Things They Tell You (They Lie)” and “We Don’t Have Fun When We’re Together Anymore” are achingly reminiscent of all the awkwardness required in being a teenager, but also evoke such strong imagery that is scarcely found in other records of the same nature. “I Know I’m Not the Only One” functions as both an ode to knowing you’re not alone in your queer desires but also as an ode to merely being different—to not fitting in, to not wanting to fit in, and knowing deep in the cloud of self-doubt that other people who feel like you exist. Finally, the album’s closing track, “All I Have to Give the World is Me,” functions as the necessary dismissal of these youthful insecurities. It possesses the same relevant message that Judy Garland sang sixty years ago on “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”—that we are all enough as we are, and you’re going to have to take it or leave it.
Tegan and Sara in the music video for "I'll Be Back Someday" (Photo: Rolling Stone) 
Perhaps the strength in Hey, I’m Just Like You comes from the fact that the emotions expressed in these songs only come into focus later on in life—once we’ve gained perspective on the fact that we are all just like you: we all tend to struggle, we all tend to have our hearts broken, we all tend to feel too much. But as teenagers, we think we are in fact the only ones and that everything is the end of the world. And only by reworking and reimagining these songs all these years later have Tegan and Sara been able to chip away at the true meaning of the age-old anxieties of youth: that, on one level or another, we are all just like each other. But we will only figure this out later. Indeed, the twins were right to assume that this is an album they never could have made as teenagers, full of songs they never could have written as adults. Hey, I’m Just Like You emphasizes the importance of time capsules—of capturing our feelings during a specific period and locking them away for later. We never think they will become of any value, but we’re wrong. Or at least Tegan and Sara were wrong, because I can only hope these songs will bring strength and understanding to teenagers who aren’t strong enough yet, and to adults who haven’t confronted the past in a while. It’s worth it, and you’re worth it.

Jeffrey’s favorites from Hey, I’m Just Like You: “Hold My Breath Until I Die,” “Hey, I’m Just Like You,” “I’ll Be Back Someday,” “I Don’t Owe You Anything,” “I Know I’m Not the Only One,” “Please Help Me,” and “All I Have to Give the World is Me”

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Natasha Bedingfield Gets Political on Her First Album in 9 Years (Album Review: 'Roll with Me')

The year was 2004. “
These Words” was all over the radio, and you were enamored by the fact that British pop singer Natasha Bedingfield was indeed able to write a classic about writer’s block. “Unwritten” then followed—the title track from her debut studio album of the same name. The song would make its way into two teen movies in 2005, Ice Princess and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and became the theme song for the MTV reality series The Hills in 2006. Thereafter, the song reached number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, was the most-played song on U.S. radio that year, received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance (she lost to Christina Aguilera), and became the third highest-selling song by a female artist in 2006, behind only Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” and Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous.” Life was good.
Bedingfield’s follow-up album, Pocketful of Sunshine, was equally popular and saw the continued success of its title single, which also peaked at number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 3 on the Canadian Hot 100 in 2008. This song too made its way into several American television series and romantic comedies, including The Ugly Truth and Easy A. At the time, Bedingfield named it her favorite song, commending it for centering on embracing positivity and dancing your troubles away. It would be then that she would be typecast as “perky, sunshine, and empowerment,” and empowering tracks like “Unwritten” and “Pocketful of Sunshine” would be what would become expected from Bedingfield. This is nothing new—she accepted that long ago, but only now has she started using it to her advantage.
In 2010, Bedingfield returned with Strip Me, her third studio album. While seeing the moderate popularity of the impeccably underrated “Touch,” the album became somewhat of a commercial failure, charting in only three countries worldwide and barely reaching the top 100 of the Billboard 200 chart. Underrated is the only suitable word for Strip Me, an album where Bedingfield grew with her songwriting and production and showcased her ability to exist outside of white girl songs from the 2000s. In 2012, she spoke about how she had started work on a fourth album, tentatively titled The Next Chapter, working with producers such as RedOne and Dr. Luke and expressing plans to release the album internationally—given that Pocketful of Sunshine and Strip Me were both released in different versions in the U.S. and the U.K., often with different covers and track listings, something she described as jarring and “devastating” that she would turn her back on her native country to meet the demands of the American pop market. She said that, in a lot of ways—excluding “Unwritten” and “Pocketful of Sunshine”—most of her music “just didn’t translate” when it came to commercial success in different regions, especially the United States.
After that, Bedingfield took a break. She did a song with Lifehouse, contributed to Disney and charity soundtracks, and recorded some other under-the-radar collaborations. She toured with Band of Merrymakers, Night of the Proms, and Train. The Next Chapter was never heard from again. She knows most people think she vanished, and honestly, she’s fine with that. “It’s almost worse to be overexposed, or to be in someone’s life too much,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing for an artist – especially a songwriter – to withdraw for a bit and live a bit of life.” Then, in the summer of 2019—nearly nine years since her last album—Bedingfield released the song “Roller Skate” and later confirmed it was the first single from a new album. The record, Roll with Me, followed in late August, her first release under Universal and the independent label We Are Hear, an empowerment-focused company run by women.
Natasha Bedingfield for Billboard magazine, 2019 (Photo: Kenneth Cappello)

Roll with Me was produced entirely by Linda Perry, the renowned songwriter and producer behind a number of pop classics by P!nk, Christina Aguilera, and Gwen Stefani. The album marks the arrival of a new grown-up, politically aware Natasha Bedingfield. “It definitely touches on some deeper and more social issues,” Bedingfield told Variety. “As a pop singer, often you’re just entertaining people or singing things that are uplifting, and discouraged from being political. But having done this for so long with a microphone right in my face, I feel like I’ve earned the right to talk about stuff that really matters to the world — or to me. And, how can anyone with a heart write something that’s true without touching on some of those issues right now?”
Social and political climates aren’t the only thing that have informed Bedingfield’s new music. About two years ago, she and her husband of ten years welcomed a son, Solomon, and Bedingfield says motherhood ignited a flame in her to promote positivity and caring about our world. “It made me want to be more socially aware and less willing to ignore that stuff... I just feel like I had a new kind of courage,” she said of parenthood. Bedingfield had still been working in music and in studios for much of the last decade, working with names like Nick Carter and Bebe Rexha, but it wasn’t until recently that she decided it was time to revive her own recording career. Actually, it wasn’t until Linda Perry called that she realized she wanted to make another album. Struggling with finding her place and her footing as a woman over twenty-five in the male-dominated pop music industry, Bedingfield described herself as feeling “creatively stifled [on a] major label” in the earlier years of her career, and that Perry recognized this struggle for artistic control right away. She invited her to join We Are Hear, an offer which Perry described as a “no-brainer,” since she very much admires Bedingfield as an artist. “Natasha is a deep feeler,” Perry said. “She wants to have purpose — she needs to have purpose. Singing about rainbows and unicorns is not where she wants to shine. Her intentions are to heal not pacify.”
“Kids and guns, starting out so young” begins Roll with Me’s fourth track, “Hey Papa.” It’s a prime example of the socially and politically aware themes that the album explores. Bedingfield says the song’s title is in reference to the “metaphorical male figures” we’re often told to look for when things go wrong, “like dads or gods,” which brings to mind similar themes explored on the Black Eyed Peas’ “Where is the Love?” during the Bush administration. “Obviously the hero is me and you, but we’re looking to all these people outside ourselves during this weird time,” she explained. “[Y]ou turn on your phone and it’s like, ‘What bad thing happened while I was asleep?’” It begs the question, are Bedingfield’s classic earlier tunes—reminiscent of a simpler time—needed now more than ever? “When there’s prosperity and an amazing leader in charge and everyone’s jobs are doing well, people for some reason like to hear sadder songs,” Bedingfield said. “But then when there is bad news every morning and the world feels divided, we need music that takes us out of that place. It’s a reason to get out of bed. But also maybe people are more willing to own what they find pleasurable [now]. And be like, ‘Yeah, this is what I like!’ And celebrate it.”
Above all, Bedingfield knows the undying, timeless power of music, especially during difficult times. The album’s lead single, “Roller Skate,” is a unique earworm that indeed makes you want to get outside these concrete ceilings and roller skate all around London. Life might be oppressive, but music reminds us that we can exist outside of that. “So many tragedies happen before you even leave your own bed,” she said. “That’s when you really need music. Music helps you get out of the panic.” It might seem like Roll with Me is a departure from the earlier empowering, “lighthearted” Natasha Bedingfield, but it’s not. The album might not be game-changing in terms of sound or production, but it’s the lyrics and themes that again stand out the most. “Entertainment can be both — it can be entertaining and it can be about things that matter,” she explained. “There’s been a microphone in front of my face most of my life, and it’d be terrible if I didn’t say some stuff that really mattered.”
Natasha Bedingfield performing at the 12th Annual Super Girl Surf Pro in July 2019 (Photo: Getty Images)
Another particular highlight of the album is the female empowerment track “No Man I See,” which preaches that women should never let men convince them that they are not strong or that men are superior. It’s something that Bedingfield and multitudes of other female artists in the pop music industry have experienced, namely her former songwriting partner Bebe Rexha, who recently took to Instagram to discuss how a male record executive told her she was getting “too old” to dress provocatively at 29 years old (in response to which she released the empowering single “Not 20 Anymore”). Bedingfield says she’s experienced the exact same thing working in the music industry, stating that not until working in music did she know that 30 was supposed to be old. “That’s not even half your life,” she said. “When I turned 30, people would say stuff to my face, but I was like, ‘I feel great!’ I enjoy being experienced and I feel young because I’m always trying new things and feel like a beginner.”

Roll with Me 
also doesn’t shy away from experimenting with different sounds and influences, including reggae on “King of the World” and gospel on “Wishful Thinking.” Things also get melancholy as Bedingfield contemplates the future on “Where We Going Now,” and the lyrics continue to get political on “Can’t Look Away.” Since signing with an independent label, Bedingfield describes herself as “being in a good space,” and loved making an album with only one other person. “I feel like writing an album with one person and letting that person produce it, that’s given me a freedom because it’s let me explore a different side to myself,” she explained. “A producer is allowed to have a vision. Sometimes if you’ve had some hits, you end up chasing them and writing something that sounds like ‘you.’ Everyone expects it to sound like your other thing... your label does particularly. It’s freeing. Actually having constraints frees you.”  Bedingfield also described Linda Perry as being known for “taking people out of their comfort zones and bringing out a new side to them,” saying, “[S]he really took me to a different place and I felt a new kind of freedom having one producer do the whole album. She gets a vision for something and she’s pretty determined! Every musician who works with her ups their game.”

As if a new album and a new vision weren’t enough, Bedingfield also had the pleasure of re-recording her vocals for “Unwritten” for the theme song of 
The Hills reboot, with some help from Perry. As for the fact that she will probably be remembered best for “Unwritten” for the rest of her life? It doesn’t bother her. In fact, she sees it as she should see making an era-defining song: as an impeccable achievement. “I love that that song has surpassed me. When people sing that song, they’re not actually thinking about me, they’re thinking about something in their life, and a moment that that song represents for them, and I love that. The goal of every mum is for their kid to leave home, so ‘Unwritten’ is its own full-fledged human being right now! I did my job!”

Jeffrey’s favorites from Roll with Me: “Kick It,” “Roller Skate,” “Hey Papa,” “It Could Be Love,” “Where We Going Now,” “Can’t Look Away,” and “No Man I See”