I’m running a race in this tomorrow morning! Ho ho ho, etc.
I wrote a review of Britney's new album for Radio.com -
Thanks to Jill Mapes for the opportunity. I like this album a little better than most, but it’s mediocre at best. Two bonus points:
1) There’s an alternate universe version of this review that focuses more on how Britney’s attempts to convey lyrical personality ultimately compromised her defining characteristic, namely her innovativeness and position at the pop vanguard. Her run from Blackout through Femme Fatale found her pushing the genre forward and, with the help of her collaborators, playing with sounds and trends that had yet to truly blossom. Britney Jean is the album where she slides from the “early adopter” portion of the innovation curve down to the “early/late majority”.
2) I’m sure a few people will read this and think to themselves, “this guy is reading way, way too much into Brit’s basic-ass platitudes about love and fun and not knowing what she’s got ‘til it’s gone and chillin’.” And they are probably right! But when it comes to pop, and especially someone like Brit who’s been a flag-bearer for the “it’s not real music” crowd since she dropped her first single, I would much rather err on the side of good faith and assigning excessive artistic intent. When it comes to Britney Jean being her “most personal album ever,” I tried to listen to the album waiting to hear otherwise rather than demanding she prove it.
Anyway, I hope you like the review — thanks for reading!
Anonymous asked: new britney album, is good?
Yes, I think so. I won’t say any more because I’m writing a piece about Britney Jean for someone, it’ll run next week — stay tuned!
About once every two weeks, I open a picture or a short video from someone I have never met. I assume the images and video are coming from somewhere in the continental United States (Tennessee? Tennessee seems right), but I can’t verify this assumption. A bowl being packed in the back of a well-lit classroom, an impressive array of rifles hanging against a wall, a dog fetching a ball by orange sodium glow, a late November mustache in full bloom: these are pieces of my one-sided relationship with a Snapchatter who goes by dan3420.
I wonder what Dan thinks of me, what kind of man I am to him. There are three steps to Snapchat: concept, execution, and delivery. I think of a picture that’ll make people laugh or relay some information, I get the lighting right and draw the caption and accompaniment, I select recipients who will derive some pleasure from the picture. Dan is defining a version of me with every new picture I receive: someone who would appreciate the boldness of getting high (or preparing to) in class, someone who would look upon a huge cache of guns with a smirk or rolled eyes or a bit of awe. Dan doesn’t know that I’m opening his messages from behind a university desk or before bed somewhere in southern Ontario, where the snow is already here to stay. He doesn’t know that I’m thinking a lot about growing older with grace. He doesn’t know I just bought new boots and a real coffee maker, one that cost more than $20. I’m transformed in the instant between “sending” and “delivered” from his Jamieson into the true Jamieson, and I wonder what’s changing.
Looking again at those terms — sending, delivered, opened — it’s clear there’s another layer to my relationship with Dan. Snapchat includes a basic form of read receipts: you can tell when someone has opened a picture you’ve sent. I’ve opened everything Dan has ever sent me. Does he think I’m scared of sending pictures back, or too busy? Does it make sense given my imagined character that I would sit there silently, digesting his life and never returning the favour? Does he think about me sitting in my desk chair or behind the counter somewhere, opening the app and taking him in and folding him away once in a while? Am I compromising our friendship with my failure to reciprocate?
It’s too late to go back, much too late to send him a picture of my quizzical face with “Wrong snapchat? Lol” typed and hung above my head. The very idea of it makes me uncomfortable. Calling a wrong number or sending an email to the wrong address invites a correction that’s clinical, precise, faceless: “Sorry, I think you have the wrong number” is all it takes. Snapchat demands more. You feel compelled to send a picture of your face — I suppose you could send something blackened by your hand covering the lens, or a random outdoor scene, but aren’t those options in their own way just as revealing? Where are you, and what are you trying to hide? — and this vaults the accidental conversation to a new, unwanted level of intimacy. Of course, I’ve opened dozens of Dan’s pictures, and so we’ve long since rocketed past “unwanted intimacy”. I’ll continue to bear his Snapchats like a secret until he stops sending them, and with each new picture I’ll wonder what he’s thinking on the other side of the glass.
James Franco and Seth Rogen put out a video called "Bound 3" today, an extended riff on Kanye’s video for "Bound 2" that features Franco as Kanye (too much flannel, wacky arms, face half-obscured by shadow) and Rogen as Kim Kardashian (naked motorcycling, nuzzling, sexy faces). I spent five minutes watching this video at work this morning and promptly forgot about it, but other people sure haven’t: the Twitter crowd’s been tossing it back and forth all day, debating whether or not the video merits serious criticism (sure? who cares) and whether or not it’s racist (not my place to comment) and whether or not it’s homophobic (aha!) I give maybe a tenth of a fuck about this, but you’d be surprised how tiring it gets watching dozens of separate groups of straight people arguing over whether or not some dumbfuck Funny or Die fodder offends gay people, and so I’m taking five minutes to play Better Ask a Gay Person re: “Bound 3”. So, the question: as a gay person, did this video bother me?
It did not!
I thought it was pretty funny, and at no point did I feel like Franco and Rogen were using “it’s two BOYS kissing on a motorcycle instead of a boy and a girl! and one of them is fat and hairy! eww! lol” as a cheap, malicious gag. I thought they were lampooning the hyper-sincerity and schlockiness of Kanye’s original video, not trying to score giggles by replacing a contemporary female sexual icon with a schlubby male Canadian stoner.
I’m sure you’d get a different answer if you asked a different gay person, because we’re not a monolith that just sits on the Internet monitoring social media channels and waiting to get offended by whatever bits of pop culture are floating to the surface that day. But perhaps the problem is that no one’s asking. If there’s a plea anywhere in here, it’s for those of us watching, listening, and commenting to remember that endlessly tossing isms and phobias around without involving any of the groups being affected by said isms and phobias can cause greater suffering than the item invoking comment in the first place.
Anonymous asked: Prism or Artpop?
ARTPOP, and it’s not close. If you had a chance to read the FAQ I wrote about Gaga and the album’s release, you already know I’m really fond of ARTPOP, but I’m happy to go into a little more detail here. In short, I think it might be the best pop album released this year, depending on how you want to classify Sky Ferreira’s Night Time, My Time. Let me give you three reasons to love ARTPOP:
1) It’s a really, really funny record. Gaga pulled double duty on SNL last night and spent most of the show trying to convince people she’s in on the joke after a miserably handled promotional campaign, but there’s humour to spare right there within the album: silly voices, brilliantly stupid lyrics, giggly asides. There’s the absurd tour of the solar system on “Venus,” complete with astro-Gaga squeaking “URANUS / don’t you know my ass is famous?” There’s Gaga leaning over the bar on “Sexxx Dreams,” spilling her drink and spilling the beans to a girlfriend: “I can’t believe I’m telling you this, but I’ve had a couple drinks and ohmigod…” There’s all of “Donatella,” a mediocre Zedd production that blew up Tumblr about five seconds after it leaked. And don’t forget “Mary Jane Holland,” a dud that’s worth it to hear Gaga sneering over spiralling waves of laser synths: “I know that Mom and Dad think I’m a mess / but it’s alright because / I am rich as piss.”
But merely calling ARTPOP funny is a disservice, because it’s also pretty clever, and there’s a difference between the two. One thing I’d change about the FAQ if I had the chance was making it seem like Gaga doesn’t understand the contradiction in nakedly pursuing high-art credibility when her entire discography (especially her insane run of videos c. 2009) took pop music as “art” to the masses, because of course she does. When she sings, “my ARTPOP could mean anything” on the title track, she’s saying it means nothing in the same breath, and the rest of the album is really just her fucking around with weird, silly sounds and fusing genres together and taking the piss and it totally works. She also plays with ideas about sex, gender, and agency in really creative ways all over the album, voicing men and demanding control and telling you to do what u want with her body: “G.U.Y.,” “Sexxx Dreams,” “Do What U Want,” and “Gypsy” all do this well, among others.
2) Gaga is an incredible singer. This simple fact tends to get lost when we’re talking about her music but seriously, holy crap: she’s working with an absolute cannon. Part of the research for that FAQ feature involved going back and listening to The Fame and The Fame Monster a few times, and the difference between those releases and Born This Way and ARTPOP in terms of the quality and prominence of her vocal parts is staggering. She’s capable on the former pair, delivering hooks and simple melodies without much character or force; it’s not really until Born This Way that she lets loose, whether she’s sneering and stomping through power ballads or pretending to be an icy dominatrix or putting on weird accents over German club tracks or summoning Shania Twain c. 1997. ARTPOP is more of the same: hammy, emotive, very powerful performances. Take “Venus,” for instance, where she moves from this airy, retro-futuristic take straight from the astral plane to a chorus that’s as huge as any of her other hits, delivered with palpable authority. (I love the way she tears up the line, “Goddess of love, please take me to your leader!” She spits it out like poison.) “Manicure,” “Do What U Want,” “Dope,” and “Gypsy” are all more of the same. Last night’s SNL appearance really gave her an opportunity to show off those chops: half her sketches were designed to have her singing by the end, and her voice sounded strong even when R. Kelly was carrying her around and doing sex pushups on top of her.
3) The album has the best songs of her career. ARTPOP's highlights fuse the bombast and stylistic breadth of Born This Way with the strict structure and hooks of the dance-pop that shot Gaga to stardom in the first place: the hard-edged Prince-isms of “Sexxx Dreams,” the sharp industrial synths of “Swine,” the Robyn-esque chug of “Do What U Want”. (The synth tones on this record are consistently awesome.) “Gypsy” is basically “Don’t Stop Believin’” written with gay clubs in mind. Gaga spends ARTPOP throwing all kinds of paint at the wall, and when it sticks the result is the most compelling music she’s ever written, pop that moves with abandon and panache.
I find Gaga c. 2013 really endearing, which has probably helped me to get a little more mileage with ARTPOP than your average listener. She wants to be a legend so badly! She has these grand ideas about pop music and aesthetics and style and wants nothing more than to realize them, and I love that ambition. She and Kanye really do make a neat, compelling pair, and I think ARTPOP's commercial performance is going to mirror that of Yeezus: #1 with relatively low sales given her stature, a handful of singles that under-perform. I also happen to love both albums.
So, returning to your original question: definitely ARTPOP, it’s one of my favourite 2013 albums, it’ll probably make an appearance in my year-end top 10, I hope I effectively justified that level of affection above.
Anonymous asked: Why do you think there seems to be an unusually number of gay men in the music writing industry? (Not that it's a bad thing, but I do find it interesting.
It’s definitely an interesting question — I’ll try to answer it in terms of my own experience. I started writing about music because it was a way to grapple with emotions and feelings I wasn’t ready to share with other people. I could take songs and albums and turn them into conduits for lust and heartache and anger, earning the satisfaction of expression while still protecting myself. It made sense for me to turn to writing during that intermediate stage, where I had figured out my sexuality and was starting to engage with it but hadn’t quite found the courage to crack myself open. I don’t think it’s a tremendous leap to claim that many gay men are familiar with this stage, and that many of them find expression through art, and that a percentage of these men are writing about music.
In addition to the emotional component that led me to writing, I relished the opportunity to engage in an enthusiastic dialogue about music I loved without having to worry about appearances or guilt. It’s really easy to lose perspective when safe inside the Internet’s poptimist quasi-utopia, but most of us live in places where Drake fandom is grounds for misogynistic sneers and jeers, never mind other artists that read much more “feminine” to casual observers. The music writing bubble is a relatively progressive, safe space where anyone can talk about and love pop music without fear of abuse or ostracization, and I suppose that safety holds a great deal of appeal for gay music fans — it did for me, anyway.
You asked about the music writing “industry,” which to me implies skill and/or prominence, so I’ll offer a brief thought about that too. Is there anything about the experience of gay men that renders them uniquely equipped to succeed as music writers? I think anyone would be hard pressed to make this argument. Even if sexuality does exert a mild effect on the success of music writers, its weight as a variable surely pales in comparison to that of gender or race or wealth or location. With that said, I think I derive a good deal of my strength as a writer and critic from my experience as a gay man: some sensitivity, an open mind, a willingness to dive into my visceral emotional responses to pieces of music even when it’s uncomfortable. But I’m sure any writer would tell you the same thing — that their worth as a writer is born from their hard-earned wisdom, regardless of sexuality or any other trait — so I guess this answer doesn’t hold much water at all.
I’m posting this question (which I edited ever so slightly to make it appropriate for the live blog) because I get about 200 of these emails/tweets every day. Number one: I can tell you my motivations are: I’m a reporter. I’m reporting the news. If the mayor smoking crack isn’t news, I’m not sure what is. Are my superiors encouraging me to “dig up dirt?” My editors encourage me to do my job and do it professionally. Which is what I’m doing. Am I trying to make a name for myself? I have got this question a lot. Often from men. And I can tell you: I’m sorry if you’d prefer I sat around and reported on bake sales. And yes - the Toronto Star will survive and continue to thrive because we do excellent work and because our readers want to know what’s happening in their city and have their own opinions challenged. —
Robyn Doolittle, Toronto Star reporter. She rules.
The question she’s referring to: "What is your true motivation for your Rob Ford obsession? Are you doing it out of an altruistic concern for what you perceive to be the welfare of the city and the integrity of the Office of The Mayor, or, are your superiors pressuring you to come up with more and more dirt on him in an effort to increase sales of the print edition and drive more people to the webpage? Is it self-aggrandizement and a personal ambition to try to eventually make a name for yourself as an independent writer and sell books? Also, with (the challenges of the newspaper industry) do you think The Toronto Star will survive?"
(pulled from this live chat)
I wrote an FAQ feature about Lady Gaga and ARTPOP for Radio.com -
Here’s another new piece up today covering Mother Monster, her rise to power, and the grand vision motivating the very strange, very strong ARTPOP.