Monthly Archives: August 2010

SPB guest blogs at Sounding Out today…

Hey you guys, I am honored and excited to be the guest blogger over at Sounding Out, a cool blog that, to use their words, “provides an outlet for ruminations on the role of sound and listening in our contemporary culture”…they’re a bunch of smart and savvy academics doing some interesting and surprising work. Check it out if you get a minute…My piece, called “The Noise You Make Should Be Your Own,” is all about how the noise we make defines who we are and often describes our joy, pain, and shame. Hope you like it. Go to Sounding Out here!

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The SCOTT TOPICS™ Mailbag: Why TV is Good (for me, at least)

“Why do you watch so much TV? And how? I’d think you’d wanna read books more than watch TV!” ~ H.J., Trenton

I love books. I wouldn’t be a grad student now if I didn’t. But I watch TV too, and love it, because TV, as ABC told peeps in  network ad campaign a few years ago, is good. Maybe not always good for you—which I suspect you believe this, which is why you ask this question—but definitely good. See, there are a few things you should know about me:

  • I love movies. Growing up, I was borderline obsessive about movies. And movie stars. And directors. And movie trivia, and history.
  • I love narrative, and characters. Which you can probably tell from a lot of the posts I’ve written right here at the blog.
  • I love BIG narrative, sprawling, long, grand storytelling.
  • My favorite flicks are, maybe, The Godfather (I/II), All About Eve, Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, Tootsie, Claudine and Titanic. And at the risk of sounding like an old, cliche-ridden fuddy-duddy…they don’t make em like that anymore.

As for movies, somewhere around when I dropped out of college, back in 1990, movies started, in my opinion, to get pretty bad. Special effects were on the rise; characterization was on the wane. Even a lot of the so-called high-brow “indie” flicks that I was supposed to like, being, you know, “middle class” and “educated” (haha), didn’t engage me beyond the hipster cred they were supposed to endow upon me. Going to the movies started to feel like an expensive bore, a reason to go on dates or stay in the general pop culture conversation rather than the transcendent experience movie-going had been for me as a teenager.

That was around the time I started to see how smart many TV shows actually were in comparison. Shows like Law & Order, L.A. Law, thirtysomething (and even sitcoms like Roseanne and Seinfeld) just felt like richer viewing experiences that welcomed (and blossomed with) repeated viewings that exposed nuances beyond the surface appeal. A season of Knots Landing felt like a sexy page-turning thriller. The X-Files was spookier than any sci-fi crap coming down the movie pike, with better stories. And as good as those shows were, we weren’t even close to the next so-called Golden Age of TV that would start in the late 90s and continue right up to today, with its almost novelistic attention to texture and character and detail that absorbs you right in. You could tell something was going on in TV when many movie and theater writers, stars like Aaron Sorkin, started to gravitate to TV, and not just for the money, but because they could stretch out and tell an interesting, long-form story that allowed them time to develop characters and deal with mature themes—the sorta themes you weren’t going to find in the typical thrill-ride cineplex offering that had to appeal to everyone (but especially little boys) to feel like a success. Even the so-called prestige Hollywood pic seemed to be dumber than usual (this would be  a good place to call out American Beauty again, but I’ve beaten up on that poor horse so much I’m starting to feel sorry for it.)

Once HBO decided to devote itself to narrative dramas and sitcoms, the gig for movies, as far as I was concerned, was up. Even if HBO positioned itself as TV for people who didn’t really watch TV—it wasn’t TV, remember, it was, ahem, HBO—it was, nonetheless the place to go for narrative genius, for sophisticated storytelling, for flawed, dynamic characters. A place where you didn’t feel stupid getting involved in the action. A place that gave birth to Showtime’s beauts like the criminally-underrated and underexposed Brotherhood, and TNT knowing drama as they do now with The Closer and other good shows.

So, there you go. I watch TV because, on the real? Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, Weeds, Rescue Me, The Good Wife, Louie, Modern Family, Vampire Diaries, Dexter—as well as dearly-departed shows like The Wire, The Shield, The Gilmore Girls and The Sopranos—make movie writing and acting look like bad high school plays that only want to suck your brain as dry as your wallet. Even the bowlderdized rerun episodes of Sex and the City are smarter and funnier than any of the chick-flick movies made in the few years since the show became such a cultural touchstone (and that’s including the movies based on the actual show!) And frankly, other than perhaps the Avatar-scale visual grandness you can only get in the movie house, TV shows just look better than movies these days. (I think there’s a conspiracy in Hollywood to make actresses look as bad as possible—compare Kyra Sedwick on The Closer or Regina King on Southland vs the Sex and the City gals of late!—perhaps to get them all to retire so that the execs can only greenlight boy-films by boys for boys who aren’t all that interested in girls yet?)

And oh yeh, as for how I do it? DVR is a wonderful thing, baby. (And I must give a shout-out to Moms Bryant, for introducing me not only to literature but also to the greatness that was I Love Lucy, The Twilight Zone, and TheHoneymooners , TV classics all.)

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The SPB Q (Grad Chapter): Salamishah Tillet

“You can mark Du Bois as an important founding father and Anna Julia Cooper as a founding mother of those who used intellectual work to create social change and to do really interesting artistic or literary work alongside or as part of their political mission.” ~ Salamishah Tillet, 2009

{I met Salamishah Tillet, assistant professor in English at the University of Pennsylvania, on a dare. Basically, I dared myself to email all the graduates of Harvard’s Am Civ program who now had tenure (or tenure-track jobs) to find out whatever I could about their experience in the graduate program I planned on attending. Chatting on the phone with Salamishah that first night was like talking to an old friend who just wanted to look out. She gave me the highs and the lows, the good and the bad, and even told me where I might find some good food while chilling in Cambridge for a few years.

Of course, just meeting her, I didn’t know I was talking to the very model of a real public intellectual. Salamishah has really dug deep to examine not just the intellectual intricacies of African American cultural work, as she does in her writing and teaching about black feminist theory, African-American literature, popular music, and film, but has also used her own personal experience to create a celebrated body of work that goes directly to the community. She is the writer and producer of Story of a Rape Survivor (SOARS), an award-winning multimedia performance that tells the story of her own effort to reclaim her body, sexuality, and self-esteem after being sexual assaulted in college (see trailer below). With her sister, Scheherazade Tillet, Salamishah co-founded A Long Walk Home, non-profit that uses art therapy and the visual and performing arts to end sexual violence. She is also the development director of Girl/Friends, an art-based, sexual violence prevention summer institute for adolescent girls who have been impacted by violence in the Chicago-area, and in 2006, she served as an associate producer for Aishah Shahidah Simmons’s groundbreaking documentary, “NO!” and is featured in the Cambridge Documentary’s award winning film Rape Is… Also in 2006, Ebony Magazine named her one of America’s top 30 Black leaders under 30 years old.

Salamishah’s scholarly work straddles many areas as well: she is the co-editor of the forthcoming The Day that Martin Died: Music, Memory, and Martin Luther King, Jr. She recently co-edited a special issue on Ethiopia for the journal Callaloo, where she’s an associate editor, and her book Peculiar Memories: Slavery and the Post-Civil Rights Imagination (forthcoming from Duke University Press) examines how contemporary African-American artists and intellectuals re-imagine slavery as a metaphor for post-Civil Rights citizenship and political desire. Currently, this music-lover (who wrote liner notes for John Legend and The Roots’ Wake Up!), is working on a book on Nina Simone.

I was hoping that I’d be able to chill with her in Philly when I head down there for a conference at Penn in September, so we could chat some more about music and TV and all sorts of other good stuff, but no go: homegirl is spending the 2010-2011 school year serving her Woodrow Wilson Career Enhancement Fellowship at the Center of African American Studies at Princeton University.

I’m happy that Salamishah found time to do the SPB Q. She’s been a real inspiration to me as a scholar, a Harvard Am Civ grad, and a new friend. Hope you enjoy her Q!}

Name: Salamishah Margaret Tillet

Hometown: Boston, MA; Port of Spain, Trinidad; Orange, NJ

School/Year: B.A., University of Pennsylvania (1996); M.A.T., Brown University (1997); A.M, Harvard University (2002); Ph.D. Harvard University (2007)

Dissertation Title: “Peculiar Memories: Slavery and the American Cultural Imagination”

Favorite book: Toni Morrison, Beloved

Favorite author: Toni Morrison

Favorite movie: Eve’s Bayou, dir. Kasi Lemmons starring Jurnee Smollett, Lynn Whitfield, and Samuel Jackson

Favorite song: Nina Simone, “Lilac Wine”

Academic text that most influences your work: Henry Louis Gates, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (1988)

Academic who most influences your work: I think in threes: Farah Griffin, Michael Eric Dyson, and Edward Said

Academic High: Organizing two conferences with my academic partner in crime, the brilliant Dagmawi Woubshet: first, our “The Future of African-American Studies” graduate student conference at Harvard University in December 2000; second, was the Callaloo “(Black) Movements: Poetics and Praxis” conference at Addis Ababa University in July 2010.

Life High: The moment I realized that I had the strength to love and the courage to be loved by my life partner.

You’re on a desert island and can only have 5 CDs/books/ or DVDs shipped into you. What are they?

Your favorite quote: “…I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Guilty pleasure: I’m quite guilty: Eating dark chocolate without remorse, watching every episode in the Law & Order franchise, and scheduling my entire Sunday around football.

Attention SCOTT TOPICS™ readers: As SOARS celebrates its 10th anniversary and Girl/Friends turns a year-old (and as they kick off their national “Got Consent?” campaign) all of Salamishah’s great public service work has been rewarded with a nomination for her and her sister as Glamour Magazine’s Woman of the Year. They need your votes! Click here at GLAMOUR to cast a vote for the Tillet sisters! Voting ends on Monday, August 30, so go now…

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#94 … SPB’s Top 100 Records

#94 November Spawned a Monster, Morrissey

One of the first singles released by former Smiths frontman Morrissey, this song made me crazy confused the first time I ever heard it, sitting in a café in Soho back in 1990. I couldn’t tell it if it was more of Mozz’s stone-faced allegorizing or a straight-forward story of a love and monstrosity. Closer listens revealed that the galvanic track narrates a sad but ultimately heroic tale of a disabled child that’s meant, in typical Morrissey form, to push buttons, raise questions, disturb and endear. Switching from narrating the tale to actually embodying the “monster” in the title, Morrissey draws pictures of such beauty and sadness, against a swirling guitar-driven beat, that you can’t help but get wrapped up it. I’ve always been interested in the ways in which some bodies get constructed as “monstrous,” as outcast beings that ultimately comment on the “humanity” we all purportedly share. Leave it to Morrissey to envelop a pop song in such heady, thoughtful themes—he is, after all the man who wrote the greatest love song of the 1980s and cast it as a virtual suicide pact. This might not be the single to introduce non-Morrissey fans to the genius of one of England’s (and pop’s) most gifted songwriter/performers, but if you have the stomach for pop songs steeped in the grandly- and gothically-rendered allure of (and intersection of) sorrow and irony, you can’t do better than this ultimately glorious piece of music.

You can hear it here:

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#95 … SPB’s Top 100 Records

#95

“Rock the Boat” The Hues Corporation 1974

I love a good metaphor. I love when a lyricist can take an image and imbue with levels of meaning beyond the words of that clever couplet that initially catches your ear. Some songs, however, work a metaphor so hard (First Choice’s “Dr Love”?) you wonder if perhaps the songwriters might be playing a joke on you. This is one of those songs—only thing is this: the melody is so grand and hummable that you can almost ignore the “our love is like a ship on the ocean/we’ve been sailing with a cargo full of love and devotion” thing and just take the ride.  It’s also so amazingly sung, in that early 70s pop/r&b style of lead vocal harmonizing, that the sound sorta carries you along on its discofied rhythms so effortlessly that you’re singing along no matter how ridiculous the words sound coming out of your mouth. I think I first started to love this record when I really clocked Hubert Ann Kelley’s fabulous adlibs: “So I’d like to know where you got the notion,” she sings, elongating “notion” into a multi-syllabic vocal lifeboat. It’s like she’s holding onto the groove for dear life as she rises a tone above her co-stars while the song fades toward its end. There’s something so free-ing and soulful about her vocals you sorta wonder why she doesn’t sing the solo parts.  I guess they had their reasons. I’m just glad the record exists; it gave my little sister Tami and I a song to sing when we did shows for the family back in the day.

You can hear it here:

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TV Round-up: Big Brother, True Blood, Mad Men

Big Brother 12's Brendon and Rachel

All this love. All this pain. All my TV shows, or at least a bunch of them, have these characters suffering the slings and arrows of love affairs dying or being broken up or just coming to sad, centuries-old ends. On True Blood, Eric’s revenge murder has broken the thousand-year relationship between Russell, the Vampire King of Mississippi and his consort Talbot. On Big Brother, the houseguests evicted Rachel, the Vegas barmaid/chemist who made fire-engine red hair extensions famous, breaking up her alliance with swim coach/physicist Brendon, and temporarily putting a halt on their blossoming affair, by far the fastest-starting showmance in the history of my TV viewing. And on Mad Men, Don Draper’s not ending a love affair, but he’s learning a lesson about using women and the emotional fall-out of taking them for granted.

The thing is this, though: Why does the end of a vampire love affair resonate more strongly for me than the one between the “real people” on Big Brother? Why did I feel more moved by Russell’s howl of pain and fury than I did Rachel’s tears and Brendon’s pouts? Might it have something to do with the fact that, apparently, competitive reality shows and the showmances that drive them have run their course with me? From day one of this new season of Big Brother—the first season I’ve closely followed in about two years—I knew I wasn’t going to get too emotionally involved with this cast of characters. Why? Because there was something too knowing about each of them, too ready-for-the camera without being ready, it seemed, for the world. Is this what’s happened to society since the advent of reality tv? Have we created a nation of wannabe stars with personalities that seem dipped in acid and lizard spit? I don’t mean to be mean—or maybe I was just raised with a certain amount of decorum and politeness—but these people don’t seem merely dumb, they’re so cavalier about the feelings of others that they all seem like they’ve forsaken their humanity in the pursuit of half a million bucks. The things these people say about each other! The love affairs that begin three days into captivity! The breathless rushes to judgments and alliance-building, based on nothing more than shared commitments to clichéd notions of heteronormative masculinity!

I’m beginning to think this season of Big Brother might be the last one I can watch with any dignity. I find myself thinking the worst things about these people, wondering how they even function in the real world when they seem like such babies and monsters on TV. You know something’s very wrong when even the queer guy, Ragan (who seems like he might a cool dude), is one of the biggest dupes in the cast. Then again, perhaps he’s just laying the groundwork for a career in Internet porn like one of the last queer guys to appear on BB, so blind trust might be a quality he’s trying to cultivate before a national audience. (And I have a question about Ragan: what sorta PhD has 300 grand in student loans to pay back? Wow.) I will say this, however: the truly creepiest moment on Big Brother this season (and clearly, there have been many) was when CBS took a camera to Brendon’s ex-fiancee‘s house, where she detailed how she’d dropped him, calling him all kinds of names as she “watched” an episode with her family. If he was such a bad guy that you killed the engagement, why appear on his reality show to bad-mouth him—and let your mother add to the dissing? It felt so exploitative and nasty I couldn’t pull my eyes from the screen to finish my bowl of pasta. Apparently one doesn’t have to get “cast” on a reality show these days to show your true wannabe colors. Sometimes the easiest thing to say is, “No.” I think.

As for Mr. Don Draper: poor thing’s about to lose his best friend to cancer just as he seems to be swirling around the bowl in a mucous-y blend of whiskey and hooker hook-ups. I’m glad he’s away from Betty, but what has he gained in the process? An ugly apartment in the Village? I’m hoping this season of Mad Men gives Don a real good professional challenge to overcome, because his personal life is getting increasingly hard to watch, almost as bad as poor Joan and her Vietnam-bound hubby.  (Side note: Can’t the casting directors of these shows start finding some new actors for parts? Maybe I just watch too much TV—quite possible, at least until school starts!—but seeing Sam Page as Joan’s husband so soon after seeing him play Bree’s dead husband’s long-lost son on Desperate Housewives starts to confuse me after a while; I keep mistaking back-stories and mixing up character motivations.) Hmmm, now that I think about it, yes, I’m probably watching too much TV. But hell, at least it beats going to the movies for inception, I mean, “entertainment.”

Vive l’amour! Vive le Television! (I’m not being pretentious, I just have all this French in my brain as I’m studying to pass a language exam in two weeks. Pray for a brotha.)

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Threesome From Hell?: Rolling Stone’s True(ly) Blood(y) Cover…

Later today I’m posting a TV piece, mainly about True Blood, Big Brother and Mad Men. But I just had to post this cover shot from the new issue of Rolling Stone magazine. What do you make of it? You can go to RollingStone.com to get more info about it (and more pics, too…)

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