Twin Peaks Bad Dale

With the season finales of “Fargo” and “Better Call Saul” behind us, the prestige TV season is almost over.  There’s really only “Twin Peaks” to keep us going until next spring, when the Emmy-bait shows return.

This also means we have a short respite from highly stylized violence deployed in the pursuit of art.  Unfortunately, it will be a very short respite, because “Game of Thrones” is right on the horizon, and “The Walking Dead” will be back soon after that.

For decades, television violence has been one of the most hotly debated issues among academics, family groups, lawmakers, and critics, with most of the debate revolving around the impact of violence on children.

The rule of thumb is that conservatives are more worried about sex on TV and that liberals are concerned with violence.  And I have to admit that I am among those who think that a teenager is more likely to be influenced by watching their peers having sex than by people shooting each other.

Having said that, I’ll leave the debate about TV’s influence on kids until another time.  I’m more interested now in the impact of violence on adults, specifically the violence that appears on the most highly honored and respected television shows.

Any list of great shows from the Golden Age of Television would include some of the most violent ones — not just the previously cited “Game of Thrones” and “Fargo” but also “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad,” “Homeland,” “The Leftovers,” “Dexter,” “Justified,” “True Detective” and “The Americans.”

A comparison between the original “Twin Peaks” and its sequel illustrates how our tolerance or even craving for violence has grown in the past three decades.  The first “Twin Peaks” was plenty scary and psychologically disturbing through good writing, haunting music, original storytelling, and eerie production values, but there was little in the way of obvious blood and guts.

Even accounting for the fact that the first “Twin Peaks” was shown on broadcast television (ABC) and the new one is on Showtime, the new version is markedly more grisly, with disembodied corpses or gruesome murders in almost every episode.   In one recent episode a dwarf brutally stabbed two women to death with an ice pick, and a drugged-up teenage driver ran over a small child in front of his mother.  These scenes effectively illustrated the depravity of modern life — but boy, they were tough to watch.

Part of the problem with evaluating television violence is that there are qualitative but hard-to-quantify differences between different types of violence.  When I was growing up, the adults used to worry that the face slaps and head bonks of “The Three Stooges” encouraged violence. And there was rarely a Western or crime show that didn’t begin or end without someone being shot dead.  But those violent acts were relatively bloodless and not particularly disturbing.  Even today, there are shows with plenty of gunplay that don’t make you question whether life is worth living.

But one of the features of prestige TV is beautiful and powerful visual direction, with each scene composed like a masterpiece.  When someone on these shows gets killed (or even beaten up), the director’s talent is on full display.  For example, one murder on “Fargo” involved a guy getting stabbed in the neck as he was retrieving a carton of milk from the refrigerator. The resulting image was a stream of bright red blood pooling with the white milk – a beautiful but disturbing contrast between life and death.

On prestige TV, violence is supposed to be disturbing — it’s not to be taken lightly.  If a couple of bad guys are kicking a woman on the ground, each thud makes you feel sick to your stomach, as it should (see following video for proof of that).

Further, the more the show aspires to real art, the more the innocent suffer and the more random life feels.  This is one of the differences between prestige and traditional TV.  Most TV viewers prefer unchallenging shows where emotions are not ripped raw and where evil is punished.  That’s not always the case on the artier shows. Sometimes the good guys end up dead and the bad guys walk free.

Look, I like shows that challenge my assumptions and make me think about the bigger issues as much as the next guy, but the over-reliance on violence as an emotional intensifier seems a bit lazy after a while.

Here’s where shows like “Mad Men,” “Six Feet Under,” and “Friday Night Lights” really differentiated themselves.  Almost all of the drama we experience in our own lives is free of physical violence.  We are subjected to plenty of EMOTIONAL violence, but most of us don’t get shot, stabbed or garroted even once in our lives — never mind with the frequency it happens on TV.

So give us a break, prestige TV artists-of-the-first-rank.  Find a way to get our blood racing without showing someone else’s blood flowing.

Advertisements

people using Twitter

Like a lot of people, I’m beginning to suffer from Twitter-fatigue and wondering whether I should just dump the whole thing.  Oh, for the old days, when the biggest complaint about Twitter was that too many people were tweeting about what they ate for breakfast.  Now it’s worse, with too many people tweeting about what they were THINKING at breakfast.

Twitter hasn’t really reached its full potential as an enhancer and promoter of television either.  There was a time when I thought TV and Twitter would become inextricably linked in a kind of call and response mechanism, with people actively engaged in Twitter conversations about what they were watching on TV.

That’s not to say that Twitter and television are unconnected.  It’s just that Twitter needs TV a lot more than TV needs Twitter.  During primetime, for example, I’d bet that at least half of all tweets concern something that’s on television, whether it’s a TV show, sporting event or news development.  And of course a huge amount of Twitter activity consists of retweets of TV content, including late night skits, sports highlights, snippets from news shows, or memes from reality shows.

Twitter’s got a couple of problems when it comes to establishing TV-related connections.  First, it’s not as popular as you’d think.  Every reporter is on Twitter and seems to think everyone else is too, but less than a third of Americans have Twitter accounts and most of them are not very active.

Then there’s the problem that so much of TV is time-shifted.  You can’t be in community with other fans of a TV show if you’re watching it at a different time.

But the real problem with Twitter is that it’s so hard to find the tweets you want to see or to have your own tweets seen by the people you want to see them.  For all of Twitter’s efforts to manage this, the newsfeed is still a gush of unrelated content that frequently has little to do with your interest at the moment.

Here’s an illustrative story: last November 2 as Game Seven of the Cubs/Indians World Series reached its breathtaking climax, I posted on Facebook “Baseball is the greatest game,” and immediately got 20 “likes.” I was astonished that so many people were still watching the game at 11:00 p.m. and that so many had Facebook open at the same time. I posted something similar on Twitter but the tweet went into a void.  Did anyone see it?  Who knows?  All I know is that if I want a warm and fuzzy feeling, I go to Facebook.

There are four main categories of Twitter users.  First there are the actual newsmakers: the president, the pope, Katy Perry (100 million followers!) and other movie stars, politicians, basketball power forwards, etc.  They have tens of millions of followers but hardly follow anyone back.  For these folks Twitter is a great way to get their message out unfiltered.

A second major category are brands, including TV networks and specific programs, who use Twitter as a trendy form of marketing. Some networks are better at tweeting than others, but I’m not sure how much it really matters. One traditional video promo on a primetime show will have far more reach than any single tweet, no matter how well crafted.  The exception to this – a big one – is when a show tweets out vital content. “Carpool Karaoke,” for example, has been seen by far more people on social media than on “The Late Late Show With James Cordon” itself.

A third category of important Twitter users are the wordsmiths – comedians who make jokes, reporters who tweet all day long about the news, and other professional kibitzers.  Myself, I follow quite a few television critics.  Theoretically they could have an impact on what shows I will watch but their Twitter accounts are so mired in politics that they’ve lost a lot of credibility.

The biggest category of Twitter users is the hoi polloi – the millions of users who have one or two hundred followers and tweet occasionally or rarely – and who are the ultimate target for the other three categories of tweeters.

As a Twitter user firmly in this last category, I worry that I might be wasting a lot of my time.  I get a lot more of my new from NYT and WSJ news alerts than I do from Twitter; I’m annoyed by half the tweets I read; I don’t even know a third of the people who are following me; and among the followers I do know, only a handful seem to be reading my tweets.  And I’m just not learning very much about TV via Twitter.

I don’t want to get rid of Twitter altogether, because it’s still a good way to kill time when I’m standing in a slow-moving line, but maybe I should emulate the advice of those closet organizing gurus and stop following people who don’t give me joy.  Time for a full Twitter audit before I ditch the whole thing.

 

 

In the most recent “Wonder Woman” movie, the main character is never called “Wonder Woman.”  She’s “Diana.”   I hope that’s not a spoiler and if you’re worried about major plot points being spoiled, don’t read on.

  • Feminist critics almost ruined this movie.  Why does everything need to be analyzed through the lens of identity politics?  Feminist critics were falling all over themselves about how affirming it was to finally have a female super hero movie.  Some wrote about being emotional when they brought their daughters to a movie where could finally see themselves empowered, etc etc.  This same kind of P.C. nonsense went on with the all-female remake of “Ghostbusters,” which turned out to be pretty mediocre despite the politically correct good reviews.  To be honest, I don’t understand what these women are talking about.  There was a Wonder Woman TV show in the 1970’s that taught an earlier generation of women that they too could have super powers.  And didn’t we previously go through the excitement about female action heroes with Lara Croft?  How many “firsts” do we need to have on the same topic? And yes, the director is a woman but the writers are men and Warner Bros. itself is run by men. In any event, there is nothing particularly feminist about the “Wonder Woman” story except that the main character happens to be a self-assertive female.  So is Sarah Palin.

Wonder-Woman-Diana-with-Tiara

  • Wow Gal Gadot is beautiful.  (Am I being sexist to comment on the physical attractions of said feminist protagonist?)  She’s a former Miss Israel and she has an ever-so-slightly exotic look that makes her stand out from run-of-the-mill movie stars.  Hilariously, the Commentariat is so desperate to claim Wonder Woman as a feminist icon that they’re arguing that “Wonder Woman” does not invite the “male gaze.” One writer went so far as to claim that she is depicted as a real woman because her thighs “jiggled.”  I kid you not.  Read it here.  I didn’t notice if her thighs jiggled but I did notice that every bit of hair below her eyebrows has been removed.  She also completely transformed her body with an extensive exercise regime and crazy diet that no average woman could maintain.  If they were trying to avoid my male gaze they failed.
  • As a kid, I always thought the Amazons lived in the Brazilian rain forest; now I find out they live on some Mediterranean island paradise where the women spend all their time training in the arts of war — but the arts of war as they existed in 400 B.C.  For some reason, technology has not advanced on Themyscira over the last 2500 years so the ladies are still training with bows and arrows, javelins, swords and shields.  This leaves them at a bit of a disadvantage when World War I Germans show up with guns.  Eventually all the Germans are massacred, but not before killing a few Amazons, who are apparently not as indestructible as they seem. (Historical note: by 1918 the German Navy was completely decimated so would not have been in position to send a destroyer to search for an escaped spy.  Also by the way, Steve Trevor must be piloting the world’s slowest airplane if it can’t outrun a destroyer.)
  • Just how old is Diana?  When we first see her, she’s a little girl, supposedly created by Zeus before he died — for argument’s sake, let’s say that was in 400 B.C.  We then see her grow up and trained by her aunt.  Maybe she was ten years old at the beginning of the movie and then she was about 30 when Steve Trevor shows up?  But somehow during those 20 years the timeline changes from 400 BC to 1918 AD.  Apparently she stops aging at the moment of peak beauty because she looks the same in the movie’s prologue, set in 2017.  So is she really 30 or 2300 years old?  There’s no indication that time is moving in a different dimension.  In fact, when the Germans arrive she has only that very day learned how to use her full powers — by crossing her wrists — so we don’t get the idea that she’s been training for centuries (and how boring would that be — even for a warrior princess?)

WonderWomanFilmSet.jpg.990x0_q80_crop-smart

  • Has there ever been more perfect casting than Robin Wright (aka Claire Underwood) in the role of Diana’s hard-ass, militaristic aunt (see photo below)? I’d like to see her use dress up like General Antiope on “House of Cards” and punch out a few weaselly Congressmen.

wonderwoman Robin Wright

  • If I were doing PR for the Germans I would scream bloody murder about this movie. They don’t call them Huns, but they might as well.  No one today could get away with depicting an entire race of people (except for perhaps the Germans) as this malevolent.  This is even more over-the-top than the propaganda of World War I.  I fully expected them to twirl their mustaches as they went about killing innocent people and poisoning whole villages.
  • By the way, the movie’s runner-up villain, General Ludendorff, was a real general (see photo below and read more about him here). By the end of the real war, he was essentially running the German war effort.  He was kind of a bad guy but not the monster seen in the movie (for example, he never killed a room full of generals who were negotiating the Armistice.)  He died of liver cancer in 1937, not from a sword to the gut in 1918.Erich_Ludendorff-LoC_featured
  • There are no sex scenes in the movie but plenty of funny innuendo.  When Diana comes upon a naked Steve Trevor taking a bath she asks if he is average for a man and he hilariously replies, as would most men, that he is “above average.”  When she then asks “what is THAT?”  he’s nonplussed until he realizes she’s referring to his watch.  When he tells her he uses it to tell time and organize his day she says, “You let that little thing tell you what to do?” Hah.  Later when they’re in a boat headed to London she asks if they will sleep together, which leads to an amusing discussion in which he prudishly says that only married people should sleep together and then fumbles when she asks if he’s never slept with anyone.  And all the time this was going on, the nerd inside me kept wondering who was going to steer the boat if they’re both sleeping.

Steve trevor naked

  • Poor doomed Steve Trevor.  It’s not really a spoiler that he dies — the only question was when and how.  After all, the movie begins in in the year 2017, with Diana looking at a photo of him from 1918.  He’s mortal so would not be alive today unless she gave him some god-like DNA, which would defeat the whole point of her falling in love with a mortal.  Speaking of which, Wonder Woman lives in Paris and works for Batman?
  • I don’t know if the filmmakers were deliberately trying to introduce Christian themes into the movie but they seemed pretty obvious:  a) Zeus/God creates man, gives him free will and he proceeds to sin; b) Diana, created through a form of immaculate conception, is given to mankind to defeat evil; c) she is tempted by the evil one, who shows her a vision of paradise in which the two of them will reign together; d) there is an explicit discussion of undeserved grace, in which the sinful humans are given an opportunity to redeem themselves; e) love is offered as the only power to defeat evil; f) There’s a measure of forgiveness (when Diana is encouraged to kill the evil chemist she does not); g) at the end of the battle Diana descends with her arms spread wide in an obvious crucifixion pose (see photo below).  There’s too much violence in this movie for it to be a Christian movie, and Jesus obviously never used a sword to kill anyone, but you have to wonder what the writers were up to.  (Here’s a longer discussion of the movie’s call-backs to the New Testament.)wonder women jesus
  • Having said all this, I think this might be the greatest superhero movie ever made.  It avoids the worst aspects of the genre, which is consequence-free violence.  In too many movies the good and bad guys fight it out in the middle of a city and destroy half of it, killing an untold number of by-standers.  In “Wonder Woman,” the consequences of violence are evident and not fun — the injuries and loss are real.  Plus the story does grapple with the complications of good and evil, including our own complicity as flawed beings.  I also appreciate setting the film in World War I, which is the most consequential event in the last 500 years and the moment at which modern civilization came unhinged in a spasm of completely unnecessary war and violence.  Millions of people killed for nothing after a century of European peace; and then after the war was over the seeds were sown for another even more destructive conflagration.  So there’s a feeling of weightiness and real consequence to the setting.  And finally, the story makes sense, which is not always the case with superhero movies.  (And did I mention that Gal Gadot is gorgeous?)
  • Here are my reservations about the movie: the climactic battle scene between Diana and Ares, with explosions and a lot of tossed-about machinery, is too long and too conventional, and it undercuts the care that has been taken to make her seem approachable and semi-human.  Also, what’s the real take-away with Ares, the God of War?  Zeus put him in the Phantom Zone or some other place, from which escaped to start World War I; and then once he dies the war ends.  OK, but what about all the wars before and after World War I.  I think we did just fine in the war department without him.

Bottom line: great movie, great heroine, doesn’t stretch reality too far, a few funky plot points.

sports-politics-web

It’s been a tough spring for ESPN.  They laid off 100 anchors, reporters, analysts and production staffers.  Then The Walt Disney Company announced that operating income at its media division suffered a 3 percent decline because of ESPN’s declining subscriber base and higher programming costs.

And to add insult to injury, the former ESPN analyst Jason Whitlock published a widely discussed op-ed in the Wall Street Journal arguing that ESPN has lost its mojo because it succumbed to political correctness and started to lean left.

This confluence of events spotlighted an ongoing debate about whether ESPN has become a liberal network, with most of the mainstream media averring that, no, it certainly is not, and the Right acerbically responding that left-leaning reporters wouldn’t recognize media bias if a “Resistance” poster fell on their head.  (For what it’s worth, Sporting News reported that 60 percent of TV sports fans believe that ESPN lean left, compared to only three percent who believe it leans right.)

The debate over ESPN is just the latest in a series of episodes demonstrating the increasing politicalization of sports.  There was San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand during the national anthem.  There was the berating of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for having a “Make America Great Again” hat in his locker.   There was the refusal of some New England Patriots players to go to the White House and be honored by President Trump.  Before that there was the support of the Black Lives Matter movement by many of the NBA’s most prominent players.

When we’re talking about politics in sport, it’s important to point out that we’re not talking about politics as it was understood for the first two hundred years of the Republic.   For centuries the important political questions concerned the distribution of the nation’s wealth – who gets what. But politics today is increasingly defined as identity politics, or the respect paid to people who consider themselves part of vulnerable population, which is essentially everyone who’s not a straight white male.

Consider the case against ESPN – it has nothing to do with interest politics like healthcare reform, international trade, or infrastructure spending, and everything to do with identity.  Among the bill of particulars: they gave a heroism award to Caitlin Jenner for publicly transitioning to female; they played up Michael Sam as the first openly gay player drafted by the NFL; they fired Curt Schilling for tweeting (rather crudely) in favor of North Carolina’s “bathroom” law.

The same is true in sports in general.  No one in sports gets in trouble for having opinions about the budget deficit or taxes (although I’m sure that athletes definitely have opinions about taxes since they are among the most highly compensated people in America).  No, where players and commentators trip up is by addressing issues of gender, race and sexuality.

Sportswriters and social media enforcers make life tough for athletes, who are in no position to navigate the complicated world of identity politics.  Many commentators yearn for the golden age of sports activism in the 1960s, when Muhammad Ali protested the Vietnam War and African American Olympic runners raised their fists in “Black Power” solutes when receiving their medals.

According to this narrative, Michael Jordan is a corporate lackey because he declined to take political stands, allegedly remarking that “Republicans buy sneakers too” (although has denied this and there is no proof that he ever did say it.)  This is another example of the extra burden that is put on African Americans that white athletes easily avoid. No one ever gives Larry Bird a hard time for not popping off about Indiana rural poverty.

When commentators say they want athletes to speak out more, what they are really saying is that they want them to articulate positions that they, the commentators, support.  They falsely assume that everyone will conform to stereotypes: that all African Americans are democrats or all women are feminists.  Yet Caitlyn Jenner is a vocal Republican and Charles Barkley spoke approvingly of Jeb Bush and Chris Christie.  There were no media accolades when former tennis great Margaret Court spoke out against gay marriage.  If every athlete honestly started offering political opinions I can promise you the media would be appalled at what they heard.

Count me among those sports fans who prefer to root for my teams as a mild form of escapism.  If politics permeates every other aspect of our lives, is it too much to ask for a couple of hours where I can commune with my fellow sports fans regardless of their political opinions?

What’s particularly surprising about this issue is that many sports writers think it’s a good idea for athletes, teams and leagues to voice opinions that alienate their core audience: older white men.  What a good business model!  And for what?  The chances that I will change my mind on an issue because of something a basketball player says are about as likely that I will do so after a Facebook friend post a snide meme.    I can unfollow over-opinionated friend on Facebook, just as I can change the channel whenever an athlete gets under my skin in an interview. Please guys, save the politics for the ballot box.

 

 

 

summer_playlist_redonline.co.uk__landscape

Here comes summer. And here comes the debate about the “song of the summer.”  As in, what song will everyone be singing when they’re driving around in the car, googling the location of the nearest Dairy Queen? Every year there are predictions and this year I’ll go out on a limb and place my money on Drake’s “Passionfruit.”

A great summer song needs one of two things:  either exuberance and a zest for life, especially if it’s even tangentially connected to sun or water, or an overt nostalgia for summers past.

Except for Christmas, no season generates the kind of nostalgia that summer does, and it’s all based on the same principle — a yearning for a simpler more innocent time of life, where everything seemed new with limitless possibility.  And I have to admit, there is nothing like that last day of school when the entire summer stretches on indefinitely.  I’d like to say I spent my summers at the swimmin’ hole, riding on Ferris Wheels, or writing poems to my first love, but I was more likely to be inside watching game shows on TV (on a perfectly good day!!!) or moping about being bored.

Nevertheless, like everyone else I have an idealized view of summer and here are the songs that remind me of the summers I may or may not have actually experienced.

15. Saturday in the Park

The band Chicago is more or less disdained now by rock aficionados because of their heavy reliance on horns.  Nevertheless I was a big fan and actually went to see them in concert at the old Boston Garden.  “Saturday in the Park” was inspired by a visit to Central Park by the band’s lead vocalist Robert Lamm on July 4, 1971 (actually a Sunday, btw), who saw steel drum players, singers, dancers, and jugglers all having a great time, which translated into: “People dancing, people laughing/A man selling ice cream/Singing Italian songs.” Yep, that sounds like summer.

14. The Age of Aquarius/Let The Sun Shine

The Fifth Dimension’s “The Age of Aquarius/Let The Sun Shine” is by no means a classic summer song but I am using the blogger’s privilege to include it in this list.  In 1969, when I was 15 (!!) I spent the summer building swimming pools for my father’s company, which meant a lot of physical labor outside with the radio on.  We listened to WRKO, Boston’s Top-40 radio station so I heard the same songs day after day.  Looking at the Billboard list for that summer is like stepping into a time capsule.  The apocalyptic “In the Year 2525” was a huge hit, as was Henry Mancini’s “Love Theme for Romeo and Juliet.” But in between those two extremes is “The Age of Aquarius,” a commercialized version of the anthem from “Hair.” Whenever I hear this song I remember wielding a shovel all summer and am grateful I went to college.

13. Summer Nights

I’m not really a fan of “Grease,” which makes “West Side Story” look like a serious anthropological study of 50’s teen alienation.  The song “Summer Nights,” though, cleverly combines insights on the differences between men and women while articulating the yearning for hot-weather romantic passion.  Olivia Newton John and John Travolta narrate their version of their summer romance, and in her story he was sweet and caring, while in his version she was hot and randy.   One thing they agree on, however, is “Summer fling don’t mean a thing/But, uh oh, those summer nights.”

12. Schools Out

If you ever wondered whether “This is Spinal Tap” was a parody or actual documentary all you need to do is watch Alice Cooper videos to see that “Spinal Tap” actually didn’t go far enough.  “School’s Out” seemingly celebrates the last day of school, but is actually a profoundly anti-social song (“School’s out forever/My school’s been blown to pieces”).  Aww, who takes that seriously?  Of course now Alice Cooper portrays himself as your basic bourgeois grampa, telling Terri Gross on “Fresh Air” that it was all an act.  Whatever, the song is fun and joyous as long as you don’t think too hard about it.

11. Party in the USA

Clarification Warning: The inclusion of this song does not constitute an endorsement of Miley Cyrus, twerking, celebrity rehab or anything else connected with Miley-drama.  The song isn’t really even about summer — it’s about hearing a song and partying, two essential elements of summer.  Plus in the video she’s wearing a tank-top and short-shorts and dancing in a pick-up truck.  What could be more summery than that?

10. 4th of July Asbury Park (Sandy)

About half the songs in the Springsteen oeuvre are summer songs at heart, even when they’re ostensibly about closing factories and ruined futures.  That’s because they are drenched in nostalgia and yearning.  “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” which is about as nostalgic as it gets, paints a vivid word picture of an amusement park, with boardwalks, arcades, fireworks, tilt-a-whirls — the whole nine yards. The main attraction, though, is Sandy, the boss’s daughter, and the narrator’s throat-tightening, teen longing is palpable.

9.  Summer of 69

Another classic nostalgia song, reminiscing about young love, drive-ins, porches, etc, etc. during that great summer of 1969.  Or as it makes clear in no-nonsense terms, “Those were the best days of my life.”  The song turns me off a bit because it commercializes nostalgia so explicitly — and yet, it definitely pushes enough buttons to make it on the list.

8. Summertime (Kenny Chesney)

Summer songs constitute a whole sub-genre of country music, which makes sense because people always imagine they spend their summers out in the country instead of in the air-conditioned offices where they really are.  Kenny Chesney is the king of giving the people what they want — as his sold-out mega-concerts attest — and in “Summertime” what he offers is perpetual late-teenagery at the waterhole where the boys’ hearts “skip a beat” as the girls “shimmy out of their old cut-offs.” Kind of makes me wish, sometimes, that I’d grown up a yokel.

7. Walking on Sunshine

For sheer exuberance nothing quite matches “Walking on Sunshine.”  And since it’s got sunshine in the title we’ll classify it as a summer song, although the official video, which shows the band walking along the Thames on a winter day, makes clear this was about the last thing on their minds.

6. Hot Fun in the Summertime

Sly and the Family Stone performed at Woodstock in 1969 and released “Hot Fun In the Summertime” soon thereafter.  The slow, soulful melody takes the banal lyrics (“I cloud nine when I want to/Out of school, yeah/County fair in the country sun/And everything, it’s true, ooh, yeah”) and turns them into one of the coolest songs ever.  A lot of summer songs are frantic in their pursuit of fun but “Hot Fun in the Summertime” is a good reminder that a good deal of summer is about conserving your energy in the heat.

5. California Gurls

Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” is a clear take-off of the Beach Boys song, except that tells the story from the female perspective, as in, “damn right we’re hot.” It’s a song that invites the male gaze and finds power in overt female sexuality.  Why, the girls have sex on the beach and don’t mind getting sand in their stilettos. And this was Hillary Clinton’s ambassador to the girls of America!  Yet there’s no denying that the beat is infectious and joyful and a lot of fun to sing in the car.

4. California Girls

It’s hard to think of a Beach Boys song that doesn’t bring to mind summer (except for, perversely, “Surf’s Up,” a weird psychedelic song).  California Girls is not my favorite Beach Boys record but it’s the one that’s most overtly about summer.  I doubt that in 2017 they could get away with referring to bikini-clad women as “Dolls by a palm tree in the sand,” although Katy Perry might consider it a compliment.  In any event, it’s about being happy at the beach, in the sun, and contemplating female beauty.  Now that’s summer!

3. Summer Breeze

What I love about this song is its ordinariness.  It’s not straining after hackneyed images of manufactured fun; instead it’s rejoicing in the quiet day-to-day existence of summer.  The windows are open and the kitchen curtains are blowing and you can hear music from the neighbor next door.  And that great climax: “And I come home/from a hard day’s work/and you’re waiting there/not a care in the world.” As a kid I always thought that is what a perfect marriage would be, and you know what?  It is.

2. Dancing in the Streets

Written by Marvin Gaye and released in 1964, “Dancing in the Streets,” has an optimism that wouldn’t be seen again in pop music for decades.  The song calls for all the people of the world to come together and dance, and before the Sixties went completely haywire with war, riots and multiple assassinations, that seemed possible.  This song is also a good reminder that summer also happens in the cities and is not just a rural phenomenon.

1.  Call Me Maybe

When you talk about songs of the summer, this has got to be number one of all time.  The song is not explicitly about summer except that the participants are scantily clad and have sex on their minds. No, what makes it a summer song is that it played all summer long, worming its way into the deepest part of our cortex.  Released in 2012 just when social media was coming into its own, it became a huge ubiquitous hit, pouring out the radio all summer, and then, through YouTube parodies, out of Facebook pages and Twitter feeds.   Those video parodies took on a life of their own, starting with the Harvard baseball team (see below).  This soon became a strange form of homoerotic male bonding (see more below).  That wouldn’t have happened in the halcyon summer of 1969 but it was still a lot of fun.

 

 

 

 

File photo of Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News  in Pasadena

Last summer I recounted the time that Roger Ailes tried to get me fired from Nielsen, claiming I had leaked Fox Business News’ bad ratings to The New York Times.

But that wasn’t the first time I had run across Ailes and his modus operandi.  An earlier encounter was almost as revealing of the Ailes ideology of enemies, revenge and hate.

In the mid-1990s, I worked for a PR agency that did a lot of work for NBC, which came to us with those in the business called an “executive transition” assignment. Ailes, then the head of CNBC, had expressed his displeasure with the way things were going. Among other grievances, “America’s Talking,” the cable network he created for NBC, had been taken from his control and changed into MSNBC through a partnership with Microsoft.  He’d indicated that he planned to leave CNBC at some undetermined time in the future. But NBC didn’t want to wait until he jumped.  They were going to push first.

So we created a PR plan announcing that Ailes had resigned and that Bill Bolster, the head of NBC’s New York affiliate, was taking his place.  On January 7, 1996, NBC informed Ailes he was resigning that day, and the day after that we made the announcement.

As executive transitions go, this was pretty benign.  NBC said very nice things about Ailes, and the media played it as we wanted: that this was his decision, which was mostly true.

Ailes, of course, was quickly hired by Rupert Murdoch to create Fox News, a competing cable channel, proving that NBC had been right to force the issue when it did.

So everyone should have been happy, right?

Apparently not, because someone started planting negative stories about the new CNBC management in the New York tabloids — personally nasty stories about the new executives and how much everyone at CNBC hated them.  Whenever Ailes hired someone new away from the CNBC newsroom, this would be the occasion for another negative story. Reporters soon told us that Ailes’ PR guy was behind these stories.

There was really no strategic reason for this vindictive campaign against CNBC.  Ailes gained nothing from it other than revenge. The new Fox News was not going to be competing against a financial news network like CNBC.  It was just nastiness for its own sake.

Ailes went on to create the juggernaut of Fox News and changed American politics forever (it’s also worth mentioning that CNBC itself became an immensely more profitable asset after Ailes left).  You have to wonder, though, the extent to which Ailes’ rage powered his success — and whether it actually was a good thing for the political causes he supported.

The day Ailes died, Ross Douthart tweeted that there were two eras in conservative journalism: the William F Buckley era and the Roger Ailes era.   Buckley’s form of journalism was rooted in intelligent argument, wit, and sunniness.  The Buckley approach to politics reached its climax with the Reagan presidency.  Reagan was considered by his opponents to be an amiable dunce, but he was actually a man of ideas and a Buckley acolyte.

By contrast, Ailes began his career advising Richard Nixon and ended up as a consultant to Donald Trump.  What these three had in common was a burning resentment at real and perceived slights.  They passionately hated anyone who dissed them, starting with the political and media elites.

The Buckley era resulted in the most successful implementation of conservative ideas in a century. And the Ailes approach?  The New York Times’ Bret Stephens made a good point about Ailes and Fox: that they were really in the business of hating the Left, not in pushing conservative causes. Ailes-style candidates gave us one disgraced presidency that resulted in a huge expansion of government, and another presidency on its way to disgrace and the potential destruction of the Republican Party.  That’s some legacy.

Here’s the thing. Ailes was a genius to recognize there was a huge audience for a news network that was not dominated by the liberal elite.  For the Right, Fox news coverage actually was “fair and balanced,” for a change.

But a lot of conservatives can’t stand to watch Fox, with its nastiness, conspiracy theories, anti-intellectualism and endless grievances.  Liberals sometimes conflate conservatism with populism, but they are two entirely different things.  Fox’s goal was to generate huge ratings by stoking resentment, decidedly not a conservative approach.

So when Ailes launched his vengeful campaign against his successors at CNBC in 1996, none of us could understand why he couldn’t just move on.  Little did we know that he was in the process of constructing a network explicitly dedicated to not moving on – to being perpetually outraged.  And maybe it made business sense to keep his audience of older white men in a state of fury.  But let’s not pretend he was successfully making the country more conservative.

prom_dates

When some Nineteenth Century Harvard genius had the bright idea to schedule a “promenade” for the upcoming graduating, he had no idea that it would eventually evolve into a bacchanal for high school juniors and seniors featuring limousine vomiting, lost virginity, floral abuse, ruffled tuxedos, untold hurt feelings, and incalculable charges on already stretched credit cards.

Like many rituals of the middle and lower classes, the prom began its existence as an exclusive, somewhat snobby display by the One-Percenters.  Most historical research suggests that it evolved from dress-up Ivy League dance that eventually filtered down to the masses.  Based on no historical evidence whatsoever, I also believe that the early high school prom was also inspired by the “coming out” traditions of High Society in which rich parents would present their daughters for inspection by their friends, neighbors and eligible bachelors.  In other words, the early prom was actually a poor man’s debutante ball.

For about 50 years the American prom was a relatively innocent affair: a fancy, heavily chaperoned dance in the high school gym.  And as rites of passage go, this seems fairly benign and a little sweet.  And there was a certain logic to the original proms: until the 1960s, young adults wanted to be actual adults — they yearned to grow up and enjoy the freedom and excitement of being  independent contributing members of society.  Wearing a first formal dress or first tuxedo really was a sign that they had crossed the line into adulthood.

But just as they ruined so many other aspects of American culture, the Baby Boomers ruined the prom.  Baby Boomers famously worshiped youth, not adulthood.  They didn’t want to grow up, get a job, and go out in the world.  They wanted to prolong adolescence.  So the prom morphed from a rite of passage into a costume party, with participants dressing up as adults without actually planning to be adults anytime soon.

At the same time, post-war affluence meant that a simple dance in the gym was no longer good enough.  The prom moved to restaurants, country clubs, and other event spaces and the price of admission rose correspondingly.

When I came of age in the 1970s, the prom was on its way out.  I didn’t go to the prom — none of my friends did either.  It was not even a consideration.  The prom?  What a joke.  I was hardly a radical cultural revolutionary, but the prom reeked of corniness, wastefulness and affectation.  It was such an inconsequential event in our eyes that my friends and I didn’t even bother to arrange a counter-event to demonstrate our anti-prom solidarity.  I don’t remember what I did that night — probably just stayed home and watched The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

img_0977.jpg

This is an actual picture from my high school yearbook!

Having said that, I was surprised when I later looked in my high school yearbook and saw that the prom had been fairly well-attended, not only by the well-to-do kids but by a bunch of ordinary schmos in powder blue tuxedos and frilly shirts who really should have known better.

I went off to college fully expecting that the prom would die out completely in the next few years, especially after the movie “Carrie” exposed its deep social pathology.

What I didn’t foresee was that Ronald Reagan would be elected president in 1980 and that a lot of cultural events that seemed helplessly retrograde in the Seventies would be resurrected with a patina of traditional American values.    Just ten years after “Carrie,” the prom would be transformed back into a delightfully romantic event in John Hughes’ “Pretty in Pink” (1986).

Traditional values?  An homage to a more innocent time? As a young enthusiastic Reaganite, I was, for the first time in my life, suddenly OK with the prom.  And I didn’t really think about it again until my own son was old enough to attend his own prom.

Remembering how much my friends and I had disdained the prom in the 1970s, I was surprised to discover that hardly anyone was against the prom now.  If my son had opted out he would have been branded a social misfit, and worse, would have betrayed his social group by failing to offer himself up as an acceptable date for one of his female friends. Should some poor girl go dateless because he didn’t see the point of it?  How selfish would that be?

I was also surprised to find out that from the perspective of most of the guys, the prom is not that much fun.  So if it’s not fun, why does it still exist?  it persists because there are powerful forces arrayed behind it.  In terms of who wants the prom to exist, here is the ranking from “most in favor of the prom” to “least in favor of the prom”:

  1. The girls’ mothers
  2. Girls
  3. Dress shops and tux rental businesses
  4. Florists
  5. Limo drivers
  6. The boys’ mothers
  7. Venue owners and caterers
  8. Fathers of either gender
  9. Boys
  10. School administrators and chaperones

The worst thing about the modern prom is the sheer scale of it.  It’s not just a dance any more, it’s an industry.  The most insidious recent development is the advent of the promposal,” in which the inviter (usually the guy, even in supposedly enlightened 2017!) has to come up with an elaborate stage-managed invitation that’s supposed to be even more original and creative than a marriage proposal. And it needs to be social media-worthy.

Once the dates have been sorted out, the credit card gets a work out.  Which leads to my second objection to the prom: the cost.  I try not to be too judgy on how other people spend their money, but the the cash outlay for show-off ceremonies like the prom, weddings, bah mitzvahs, sweet sixteen parties, even funerals, always rubs me the wrong way.  The ticket to the prom in the town where I live is now up to $85 a person, and what you get for that doesn’t even include a band — just a DJ.  But the ticket is just the start of the expense — there’s the tux rental, the new dress, the flowers, and the hair appointment. Needless to say, the hair is so important that 90% of the girls get their mothers to call them in sick to school that day so they can go to a hairdresser instead of wasting time in classes.

Then there’s the cost of the transportation.  Because no one actually drives themselves to the prom.  You need a limo, or better still, a party bus, to drive you and your friends from the photo location to the event.

The aforementioned photo location is actually the most important part of the whole prom process.  In the old days, the photos would be taken when the guy would arrive at his date’s house to pick her up.  Usually his parents would come with him and then both sets of parents would snap photos of the happy couple in her living room.  The process now is that the parents drive their own kid to a central location where five to ten other couples are meeting for photos.  This is the backyard of the richest family in the group, a country club, maybe the beach, or a park.  All the kids line up one one part of the yard and then their parents line up opposite them for an orgy of photography, trying as many permutations as possible: all the girls, then all the boys, then everyone with their date and then groups of best friends in small groups, etc, etc..  When the parents have had their fill and have all mused on how it doesn’t really seem that long ago that they brought this kid home from the hospital, then the dates pile into the limo or bus.

The limo and party bus came into fashion because it was once generally understood that there’d be a certain amount of out-of-sight drinking at the prom and parents wanted to make sure their kids got home in one piece.  That’s not so much the case anymore – after too many vomit-splashed proms, high schools started breathalyzing, so now you can’t even get through the prom doors without proving your sobriety.

prom bus

No, the real point of the limos and party buses is to make the night that much more special — like Cinderella and her coach.   But also, let’s face it, the party bus enforces a certain exclusivity.  If you’re not tight with a group of friends large enough to support a bus, you’re out of it.  Sorry!

As for the event itself, it’s kind of a letdown after the photos and the ride in the bus.   My guess, not having seen the polling data, is that the girls have a more intense experience, either positive or negative, than the guys, who see it as one more ritual that must be endured.

Here’s an indication of how kids really feel about the prom — the doors have to be locked to prevent them from leaving early because God knows what kind of shenanigans they’d get into if they were allowed to sneak out after an hour, which totally would happen, $85 ticket or not.  If they really loved eating buffet and standing around listening to a DJ in formal wear, the school administrators wouldn’t need to guard the doors.

The doors are unlocked 15 minutes before the official end of the prom and five minutes later the venue is empty.  Time for the after-parties!  More often than not, this involves drinking and a co-ed sleepover at someone’s house and if you’re a parent you can only pray the the host’s parents have the good sense to keep an eye on things.

afterprom

In the end, most kids survive the prom.  Maybe there are some hurt feelings over the being asked/being rejected element; or maybe there are some hangovers and rueful memories.  And maybe there are some people who who actually don’t look back on it with chagrin.  All I know for sure is that as I parent of an only child, I’m glad I only had to go through this twice (when my son was a junior and then as a senior). I’d hate to have a parcel of kids and go through it more six or seven times.

So for all those seniors and juniors heading out in your limos tonight — keep expectations low, relax and go with the flow, and stay sober enough to remember all the craziest parts so you’ll have a good story to tell forty years from now.