Monthly Archives: June 2010

EarCandy #1: Chromeo & Janelle Monae

Music making me happy these days:

{CHROMEO}

Thanks to Mike over at PopBlerd for re-introducing me to Chromeo, via this crazy-good new track “Don’t Turn the Lights On,” from their upcoming album Business Casual. Part of me is sorta stuck in 1980s pop/r&b–they do say you’re always connected to the music of your youth–but I love when a band or artist can take that studio-slick 80s aesthetic and make it a modern moment like this.

{JANELLE MONAE}

First confession: I was first interested in the Janelle Monae album ArchAndroid because of my own intellectual (and academic) interest in the whole “black body as monster/alien/other” idea. Then I listened to it, and the music blew me away. It’s an eclectic mix, blending funk riffs, hiphop beats, smooth soul, folk pop, psychadelic sounds: it’s really like nothing you heard of late, and smartly rendered, with style and the kind on individualistic bravado that so many artists talk about but rarely put forth. This is one of those new artist albums where you can clearly hear the influences, but you don’t feel like the artist is burdened by them or so beholden to them that she gets lost in the sauce. No, Janelle Monae mixes up her influences–Stevie? Nona Hendryx? Arthur Lee? OutKast? Prince? Stevie Nicks?–and creates an enticing and endlessly listenable stew of her own. I can’t say I’ve followed closely the quasi-mythology of the album’s storyline, part of a larger project Monae began on her first EP, but the music still astonishes, and until I understand the “story” better, I can still say that so far, it’s my favorite new album this year…Two of my fave tracks are here:

“Say You’ll Go”

“Neon Valley Street”

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The SPB Q: Alisa Valdes

{I first discovered the work of Alisa Valdes back in 2003 when her first novel The Dirty Girls Social Club was published (under her then name Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez) to wide acclaim and fanfare, with some critics calling her the “Latina Terry McMillan” because of her funny and raw and smart depictions of female friends doing their tours of duty in the battles of the sexes. I came very close to interviewing her when the book came out, but never got around to it as the book’s release coincided with my first retirement from journalism. I re-discovered her work when I returned to Brown and took a course on Latino fiction and memoir, and fell in love again with Lauren and Usnavys and the rest of the great characters who populated the bestseller and made it a crowd-pleasing, page-turning favorite–and made it a subject of a friend’s dissertation on “chica lit” and American culture. Valdes’s work includes five other novels (including Dirty Girls sequel Dirty Girls on Top and YA novel Haters) and The Three Kings (coming in November). I never got a chance to interview her, but we have become pals on the Internet, and I look forward to her move East in the fall to teach at her alma mater, Boston’s Berklee College of Music. So until I get to experience her wit and style in person, and I get to tell her how much I love her stuff (and how much her work has influenced my novel coming out next fall!) I give you Alisa’s SPB Q…enjoy!}

Name: Alisa Lynn Valdes (formerly Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez)

Hometown: Albuquerque, NM

Zodiac sign: Pisces

Favorite book: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Favorite author: Charles Dickens and Dean Koontz. I had to include at least two authors, because, really, what writer has only one favorite author? I think Koontz is the best writer working in the English language right now. He is an artist, a social commentator, an entertainer and a superb craftsman, all at once. Dickens was the Koontz of his time. Both writers root their work in a profound search for justice and compassion, and do not shy away from the darker side of human nature. I love them.

Favorite movie: Billy Elliott. This is the ultimate underdog movie, and weaves together social commentary on class, gender, and stereotyping. A brilliant, beautiful film.

Favorite song: Too many to name just one! I have musical ADHD. When I love a song, I listen to it constantly for weeks, then I can’t stand it and never listen to it again. This, incidentally, appears also to be how I approach my love life.

Fictional character you wish you had created: Mrs. Havisham. ’nuff said.

Career High: Seeing my first novel on a shelf in a bookstore for the first time.

Life High: The birth of my son, seeing his tiny hands for the first time, watching him open his eyes. Truly life-changing beauty.

You’re on a desert island and can only have 5 CDs/books/ or DVDs shipped in to you. What are they? Something by Berlioz; something by Jose Marti; something by Dickens; something by Eminem; Every season of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Your favorite quote: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Albert Einstein

Guilty pleasure: Disney Channel and Jake T. Austin. I am 26 years older than Jake, decades older than most of his fans, but I nonetheless admire him as an actor and human being; an old soul.

{If you wanna check out Alisa’s website/blog, click here.}

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Driving Miss Redgrave…right to the Tonys…

Talk about two theater giants sharing their gifts with the world…Two of my favorite actors, James Earl Jones, who in the past 5 years has done On Golden Pond and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof on Broadway, and Vanessa Redgrave, who just did Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking a coupla seasons back, will bring Driving Miss Daisy to Broadway this fall.

Interestingly, I feel like the role of Miss Daisy might have have been better suited to Vanessa’s sister, Lynn, who, sadly, passed away earlier this year.  That said, I’d see Vanessa Redgrave—and James Earl Jones—in anything, so…count me in.

Click here for the story.

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Your Cheatin’ Heart or, TV’s Dirty (Middle-Aged) White Dudes

PRE-SCRIPT: Last year I wrote up a little thing about an odd trend I’d noticed on TV of late: Why does it seem like all the leading men characters on the “quality” TV shows that I love to watch, especially on cable, are all cheating on their wives?I dug it out in honor of tonight’s premiere of one of my favorites, Rescue Me, which details the day-to-day lives of a bunch of NYC firefighters and the loves and losses they incur as they try—not so hard, it sometimes seems—to grow up. This piece was written around the time I discovered the first season of Mad Men, which details the day-to-day lives of a bunch of NYC ad execs (in the 1960s) and the loves and losses they incur as they try—not so hard, it sometimes seems—to grow up. Since writing this, I’ve discovered a coupla more shows I’d add to the list: Showtime’s Californication, with David Duchovny as a sexaholically stumbling once-famous writer finding new life in the sunny climes of LA, and Breaking Bad, in which the excellently morose  and cancer-stricken Bryan Cranston marries himself to the drug trade as he sees his life ending before him. I titled the piece “Dirty White Boys” mostly because one rarely gets to see black middle-aged men suffer the slings and arrows of their failed dreams and hopeless home-lives–brothers rarely get to be more complex than Jesse L. Martin’s gambling detective on Law & Order a few seasons back—and you know how deep they got into back-story on that show.

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I recently spent a coupla days glued to my computer, amazed at the style and grace and novelistic tension that was the first season of AMC’s buzzy, award-winning show Mad Men. Loved everything about it: the men in their “grey flannel” suits living lives of quiet desperation to the swell of that swinging early 60s soundtrack; all the cigarette smoke and martinis and Manhattans; the knowing nods to how things have changed (pregnant women smoking and cocktailing; no child seats in the Buicks) and how they haven’t (straight white dudes still run damn near everything—well, except the country, haha!). I really loved the idea of, essentially, casting a Gregory Peck with sex appeal opposite a Grace Kelly as the rich, bored, frustrated suburban housewife Kelly might have become had she not bucked the Main Line Philly trend and went to Hollywood, then married a Monaco prince. Okay, not really Peck and Kelly, but Jon Hamm and January Jones are so on-target good as Don and Betty Draper—the repressed post-50s icons that they do play—that sometimes the show feels like a Douglas Sirk melodrama if it’d been co-written by John Cheever and Lillian Hellman.

But all that said, among his other transgressions, Draper’s cheating on his wife. Just like Tony Soprano did (and being that all these TV anti-heroes are pretty much just the cathode-ray Hi-Def Sons of Tony, it makes perfect sense, I guess). Just like Vic Mackey did on The Shield, and Jimmy McNulty did on The Wire, and Tommy Gavin on Rescue Me and Sean McNamara on Nip/Tuck. Has infidelity become the default “fatal flaw” for all the middle-aged TV heroes these days? And if so, why? Is it because rogue dudes make for more interesting viewing (and screwing)? Are these the proto-typical guys who other most guys wanna be and every woman wants fuck? Or are all the writers and creators of these shows lost in some post-Updikean literary netherworld where they think the push-and-pull passions of cheating spouses somehow rises their characters to the level of art? Perhaps it’s some blue-stated gay Hollywood agenda to prove that heterosexual love can be as wobbly, insincere, and unstable as the Religious Right (and others) claim homo love to be to prevent the desired stamp of “marriage”? I don’t know what the answer is. And I’m not trying to judge or anything but I do find it curious that almost any time I turn on the telly, I’m bombarded with the boxer-dropping shenanigans of middle-aged white dudes who positively love their wives and children to bits, but also can’t seem to get enough new pussy on the side. (And maybe I should add middle-class to that description? Interestingly, the most faithful guys I’ve seen on TV lately are a ragtag bunch of low-down motorcycle thugs on Sons of Anarchy, who may be surrounded by strippers and biker broads, but almost always go home to the Main Molls at home. Or is this just middle-class TV writers patronizing to the salt-of-the-earthisms that the working classes do so well?) Maybe the answer is to give myself over to Big Love, which I haven’t seen since the first episode bored me to tears a coupla years ago—is it still even on? At least that character got to marry all his potential mistresses. Or I’ll just have to watch Desperate Housewives, where the husbands are pretty boring and disposable, but at least they sleep in their own beds most of the time.

The only TV hero I watch consistently who’s not cheating on his wife—though he is pretty dirty (did anyone catch him basically jerking of on his best friend’s couch earlier this season?)—is not doing it because he doesn’t actually have a wife (anymore), and that’s Dr. House, the irascibly sarcastic misanthrope who also manages to make a living as a world-class diagnostician, who frequents hookers and pops (popped?) pills with a vengeance. Then again, I guess if he was still with his wife—who was played by the luminous Sela Ward, who I love, but is also, it sometimes seems, one of TV’s most cheated-on women—he’d have reason to cheat. It was her decision to allow the surgery that basically crippled him. Here’s to love…

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POSTSCRIPT: Please, if you haven’t already, please check out a new show on TNT (because They Know Drama) called Men of a Certain Age, not only because Ray Romano smartly puts a sad, comic spin on the crises of middle-aged American guys that feels thoroughly true and felt and considered, he was also brilliant enough to show that this is not the sole domain of white dudes who don’t have the knees to shoot hoops like they used to, that black men can be some fucked-up, father-hating, sad sacks too. Andre Braugher, TV’s reigning Important Black Actor these days (and deservedly so), is so good as the put-upon Owen Thoreau, you sometimes have to close your eyes so as not to see the drawn, blank look in his eyes that speaks to a life of bad mistakes and thwarted desire, of a guy struggling to make emotional ends meet somewhere in the middle of life. It’s sublime work. Check it out. The sad dirty dudes don’t always have to be white. Langston Hughes’s crystal stairs and raisins in the sun resonate as strongly as Updike’s running Rabbit—and hit you as squarely in the gut.

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New PRINCE Album? Yeah, if you use Pounds & Euros…!

According to Rolling Stone, Prince, who was just awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from BET the other night, is prepping a “funk and new-wave heavy” new record—which will only come out in Germany. And another one—which will come out in European newspapers, a la the Planet Earth CD back in 2007. Hope these songs are better than  “Hot Summer,” the cutesy birthday track he put out a few weeks ago…click here to hear that…

Interesting news, nonetheless, and the site lists the tracks and players…click here for the story. Below, just cause I love this song, is the video for “Raspberry Beret.”

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The Return of The SPB Q: JUNOT DIAZ

{Last year I started a blog feature known as The SPB Q. I think I started it because I’d recently stopped doing journalism and started to focus on more academic pursuits (I was teaching writing and popular culture at Brown and prepping for graduate school). One of the reasons I’d become a journalist, though, was because I liked to talk to people. I liked finding out what made them, for lack of a better word this morning, tick. So I devised The SPB Q, a questionnaire for people I thought were doing good work in their fields, who were breaking new ground, who loved what they did. I started off with friends: Jody Watley was wonderful enough to do the first one, and writer and media friends like Lloyd Boston , Cheo Hodari Coker, and Junot Diaz all found time to provide some intel about themselves. So, to re-launch SCOTT TOPICS™ and to re-launch The SPB Q, I’m re-running Junot’s Q. Every week from now on, there’ll be someone new, often I’ll be featuring young academics, sometimes you’ll catch a celeb or athlete or playwright. But whoever it is, be ready to find out if you share some of the cultural tastes of the Qers. It’s fun. And maybe you wanna recommend someone do The Q? Feel free to send emails or leave comments…}

It’s Tuesday, so it’s time for The SPB Q…This week’s guest is Junot Diaz, one of my favorite writers….

I first met Junot back in 1996, a little before the publication of Drown, the collection of short stories that put him on the literary map. At the time, we shared an agent, so I’d heard about some crazy good Dominican kat who’s words flew off the page like hiphop beats. Right before we met he’d published one of Drown’s stories, “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie” in The New Yorker, and to put it plainly, I thought it was so good, I actually didn’t want to meet the kat who could conjure language like that. He would only end up being an ass and make me feel even worse for not being as good a writer as I thought I was. Then we met. And he was this mad friendly, smart, humble, joke-cracking dude who just happened to make words into thought-provoking music. When homeboy won the Pulitzer Prize for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I couldn’t stop smiling, I was that happy for him, for writers of color, for the world that would now be even more knowledgeable about his work. Homeboy’s teaching at MIT now, but he took some time out to fill out The Q.

Name: Junot Diaz

Hometown: Santo Domingo

Zodiac sign: Capricorn Monkey

Favorite book: Poison River by Beto Hernández

Favorite author: Samuel R. Delany

Fictional character you wish you could have created: Nexus by Steve Rude and Mike Barron

Favorite movie: Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru

Favorite song: “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” by Public Enemy

Favorite word: deguabinao

Career High: Winning the Pulitzer in front of my mother and my two year old nephew, in New Jersey where all this writing shit began.

Life High: Traveling back to the Dominican Republic after a 20-year absence and not feeling completely like a jerk.

You’re on a desert island and can only have 5 books shipped in to you. What are they?: Nothing distorts sensibility quite like scarcity but here you are–

AKIRA by Katsuhiro Otomo
THE LORD OF THE RINGS by JRR Tolkien
LILITH’S BROOD by Octavia E. Butler
CEREMONY by Leslie Marmon Silko
THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS by Arundhati Roy

Your favorite quote:  Who hasn’t asked himself, am I a monster or is this what it means to be human? –Clarice Lispector

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The ORIGINAL True Blood Tara

After reading my earlier blog post about the True Blood character  Tara Thornton, a friend dug up this clip of the actress Brook Kerr, originally cast to play the role. It’s clear from the video below that Kerr took a slightly different approach to the part. As someone says in the comments section of the video, this actress doesn’t have enough “attitude.”

Hmm, yes, “attitude.” I fear the current Tara practically oozes “attitude,” and I fear that’s it’s what I like least about her and also makes me wonder if I was right in my earlier blog. Maybe Rutina Wesley’s being directed to be the way she is—especially considering that in the Sookie Stackhouse novels, the character Tara is a white woman.

Attitude is the one trait I actually DON’T need in those sistas I talked about loving so much earlier. “Attitude,” in fact, is one of the worst cliches ever you could ask a black actress to play, in my opinion. Partly because it’s so stereotypical and partly because it rarely ever plays on screen the way real, signifying, clever “black girl attitude” plays in real life. (As an aside: if you wanna see “black girl attitude” played with finesse, charm, and subtlety? Watch Regina King’s shaded, underrated performance in John Singleton’s Poetic Justice. Netflix it tonight.)

So how does the original Tara work for you? Watch below:

****And by the way, here’s a cute interview with Rutina Wesley, where she sorta addresses the casting change: click here.

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