Tag Archives: breaking bad

The Dearth of the Cool: Bunheads, by Amy Sherman-Palladino/ABC Family (2012-13)

by Carl Wilson

bunheads2

Let’s just say it: The TV series Bunheads, which returned from a five-month hiatus this week, is not cool. Its creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s previous series, Gilmore Girls, also was not cool. They are frantic and twee, tell not show, lacking all restraint. Unconventional but not transgressively. Awkward about sex. Oblivious about race. Bunheads is on ABC Family for god’s sake, though there isn’t a traditional family anywhere in it.

It’s not a comedy the way 30 Rock is a comedy nor a drama the way Breaking Bad is a drama, nor even a comedy the way Breaking Bad is a comedy, all self-aware and taut and a hundred paces ahead. In the schoolyard smoking area that is smart TV today, it’s not invited. In a way it’s an evolutionary holdover from the stage between network TV and post-Sopranos cable.

That was also the era of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I think it’s significant that both Sherman-Palladino and Buffy’s creator Joss Whedon were once staff writers on Roseanne. They’re carrying on Roseanne Barr’s project of exploring what role feminism can play in making popular art.

(By the way, did you ever see Whedon’s 2006 speech accepting an award from feminist group Equality Now? Worth the time.)

Roseanne’s was a more realized populism because Barr thought more deeply about class than her younger middle-class protégés would. But their shows strive for populism in a way sophisticated cable shows aren’t trying to do – they don’t seem interested, and they don’t need to be because that’s not their economic model. Those shows need to be cool because cool is what excites the tastemaker, social-media-savvy, dinner-party-going audiences they sell to networks, advertisers and aspiring fellow cable subscribers.

Watching Bunheads can be a reminder that cool takes its own toll.

Sutton Foster’s Michelle, the central character of Bunheads, is a lot like Lauren Graham’s Lorelai, the lead of Gilmore Girls: a witty, mouthy, knockout brunette who at some point has fallen from grace. Lorelai had a daughter born when she was 16; Michelle was a serious dancer whose fuckups reduced her to Vegas showgirl. Ducking out of the life script liberated them to be their own inventions. But as each series opens the women are reaching ages when it’s more difficult to slide by on charm, when what they’ve sacrificed for their originality, whether in income or intimacy, is becoming more painfully clear. It’s like what Elizabeth Wurtzel was addressing in her now-infamous New York Magazine verbal purge, without the crippling entitlement and spotlight syndrome. (Or at least with less.)

Sherman-Palladino’s (henceforth AS-P’s) way to make this very specific kind of dilemma more universally accessible is to surround it generationally: The core of Gilmore Girls was the love triangle between Lorelai, her estranged parents and her daughter Rory. On Bunheads, the triangle is more oblique: Without spoiling too much, in the opening episode she precipitously gains a husband, who is then excised from the narrative as efficiently as the parents in a children’s adventure story. Michelle is left in possession of his California homestead, inhabited by his mother (Kelly Bishop, who also played Lorelai’s mom) and the dance studio where she teaches ballet to apparently every teen girl in town who isn’t a cheerleader (and a few boys).

Thrust upon Michelle, then, are a mother figure and a bunch of surrogate daughters, as she becomes their teacher too. Her quest, just like Lorelai’s, becomes to adapt herself to these mature relationships and burdens without losing her unique spark. As a safety zone for working all that out comedically, on each series AS-P exiles her characters to a Shakespearian “green world” (as Northrop Frye put it) in the form of a quaintly eccentric imaginary small town. The laboriously quirky townie characters are her most gratingly uncool creations, but it’s also a sitcom-populist device that goes back to Andy Griffith’s Mayberry – with the difference that her quirk-arcadias are more or less female-dominated, less matriarchies than perhaps sorarchies. The difference is that by the time we met Lorelai she was a firmly established, beloved figure of Stars Hollow, Conn., while Michelle is, literally, a stranger in Paradise, Calif.

Even more than Gilmore Girls, where Lorelai and Rory’s respective romances took up space from the start, Bunheads is gunning for high score on the Bechdel Test: It features almost no one but women, who do almost nothing but talk to each other, about almost anything other than men. About work, their pasts, ethics, real estate, money, food and most of all about dance. About the pain and strain it extracts. About what’s worth doing for it, and about what would be dumb to do. It stands not so much for art as for geekily driven self-realization: Only one girl shows clear dance-career potential, and it distances her from those for whom the gratification is shorter-term, though it gives her a special link to her ex-pro teachers.

The young cast make credible student dancers although I suspect they’re all sneakily more expert, and for a show about ballet there’s a decent range of body and character types. Like Lorelai’s, a lot of Michelle’s jokes have to do with her gluttony, which in both cases would require superhuman metabolisms but is a lot more refreshing in this context than bulimia – Bishop’s matriarchs are left to do the shuddering and criticizing (though her character here is way less uptight, way more post-hippie west coast than Emily Gilmore).

When they are not talking they’re often dancing, but the dance sequences are held back from becoming production numbers, kept just amateurish enough, a casualness that actually makes them better. Even in this bigger setpiece, for instance:

Compared with Glee or Smash, this seems partly a choice to be female instead of camp. Not that it’s not campy, but it ain’t drag. In fact the way AS-P’s shows skirt queerness can be disconcerting; maybe here is the downside of populism. But perhaps it’s also a way of keeping the eye on girlhood and womanhood, insisting they’re complex enough in themselves, without being distracted by something shinier and “more interesting” – even if that means excluding certain experiences of girlhood and womanhood. AS-P’s shows are vulnerable to a lot of the same criticisms that were directed at Girls last year, with fewer aesthetic outs. (Though what they do have is age diversity.)

None of this means you would like and should watch Bunheads. If it weren’t for my general weaknesses for faux-screwball-comedy pacing and teen (especially teen girl) drama I might not watch it, either. The first season has just resumed after five months’ hiatus and it may well be too geeky to make it to a second. There’s no question that Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Homeland and many of the other post-Sopranos, post-Arrested Development shows that we’ve been lucky to watch in the past decade have greater dramatic and comic scope, have deeper existential, psychological and philosophical strains, and are more compelling viewing.

But their aims and their economics dictate that they will lean to the dark, the odd, the sexually outré, the violent, the startling. That leaves a lot out, or at least relegates many of the perplexities of life to subplots and subtexts, or to allegory at best. (I exempt Girls and Louis here, though not altogether.)

Many of those plotlines particularly shortchange women, despite their creators’ best intentions – or at least reduce the feminist point to “and the women get fucked over,” all too literally. Think of Joan on Mad Men last season.

Before Bunheads, I might have guessed that Sherman-Palladino would attempt to join the lionized “better than the movies” TV crowd. Maybe she’s not up to it, or maybe she didn’t like what it would have demanded.

Instead she’s kept the lamplight burning in her fantasy town with its mirrored room where girls take up and trade positions, mangled toes concealed, bleeding and keeping on smiling, with the idea that perhaps something in this move, or the next, will be a clue to what they need. Perhaps a grace not learned and submitted to but earned and commanded. A grace the new wave of TV, in many ways, has yet to know.

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Filed under carl wilson, comedy, dance, TV/video

Tea With Chris: Missed Connections

Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Thursday. Here are a few of our favourite things from the Internet this week:

Carl: The Canadian-music Polaris Prize shortlist was announced this week, and in synchronicity, Sam Sutherland has written an “oral history” of the Polaris, featuring interviews with founders, jurors and past winners. I think it includes anecdotes and reflections that are interesting and funny to non-insiders. I apologize in advance if I am wrong. But it’s good to be keeping some sort of record. (Leonard, sorry you didn’t make the shortlist.)

This is a tough (as in painful to read, but also strong) and complicated essay that goes places you don’t expect.

(On a lighter tangent from the topic, do you think Louis C.K.’s character really wanted to fuck the handsome Cuban lifeguard on his show last week or just appropriate his authenticity?)

In memory of Kitty Wells.

And in memory of Gus Fring, whom we don’t have to kick around any more on this season of Breaking Bad, here is the same actor, Giancarlo Esposito, as a camp counsellor on Sesame Street in 1982. (Dark thought: Was Big Bird the first pollo in Los Pollos Hermanos?)

Chris: “m4w: I burned your documents and in your identification photo you looked so sad”

There are different connections being made in Le1f’s music video for “Wut,” such as ’90s R&B choreography to Dragon Ball Z imagery, and Pikachu to…sexy lethargy? You should really grab his Dark York mixtape.

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Filed under carl wilson, chris randle, linkblogging, margaux williamson

Ten-plus Cultural Experiences I’m Still Thinking About Now that 2011’s Done with Us

by Carl Wilson

 [With trademark untimeliness, Back to the World is presenting a series of belated, cross-genre, year-end lists, as we did last year, and again loosely on the model of Greil Marcus’s long-running Real Life Rock Top Ten. Margaux posted last week and Chris will post soon. Once again I’ve confined myself to topics I haven’t written about at length here before, or in my year-end chatter in the Slate Music Club (and accompanying Spotify playlist).]

1. Marcus Boon, In Praise of Copying (out, late 2010; read, early 2011)

 The Toronto-based writer, musician and scholar Marcus Boon’s generous intervention (that’s a full, free PDF) over one of the issues of our time (cf SOPA) seemed to echo everywhere – as far out as the viral reproduction of revolutionary courage through Arab countries, and the call-and-response of the “human microphone” of Occupy Wall Street and its own hashtag-breeding copycats.

What I found so moving, even given the book’s digressive wander through a potentially infinite subject (and the foolhardiness of trying to control infinitudes) was its restoration of copying’s many sensual and spiritual connotations in what has been much too abstract and legalistic a debate. The back-and-forth weave and warp of repetition and difference is a pervasive leitmotif of existence, and not just the human. Boon’s treatment is elusive, with no definitive answers, but that means it will reward repeated re-reading, never just a copy of the first time.

2. The sex scenes in Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce (March, 2011)

 

There was a lot of debate about what Haynes, one of my favourite American film directors, did in his HBO mini-series with the template of the 1940s melodrama starring, of course, Joan Crawford: Had he evacuated the original film’s queerness, its camp, and left only a portrait of a status-and-materialism-driven woman who brings ruin, reinstating the misogyny of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel? Yes and no. Yes, he was bringing back the sting of the novel’s more radical anti-capitalism. But he was also taking the mini-series’ extra time to push the viewer’s nose far deeper into the mortification (social death, social stiffening) Kate Winslet’s Mildred endures when all the guarantees of the social contract are pulled out from under her by economic-cycle brutality and masculine bad faith, and the contradictions she helplessly generates (chiefly in her daughter, almost earning Evan Rachel Wood’s scenery-masticating performance) in the course of trying to maintain vestiges of her expectations within that outcaste position.

But Haynes also grants Winslet’s Mildred a grace Crawford’s could never taste – full-blown, full-grown sensual gratification, in her leggy, languorous love scenes with Guy Pearce as aristocratic reprobate Monty Beragon, the real sex object of the piece. Granted, the plot ensures this is in many ways another trap, but between them the actors and Haynes refuse that old morality’s to overpower the commandments of skin and light on skin, the manifesto for being and perseverance that an intimate bodily encounter can’t utter but can proclaim. It enacts what camp once did but no longer can: victory within defeat, not just despite but also because of loss, in its unapologetic ensnarement with entropy and other ultimate unfairnesses, against which desire still demands, “Live all you can.”

By making that so vivid, and driven by the will of the “unrespectable” woman, Haynes discredited his own tragedy, asking why a male film figure like George Clooney or Clark Gable (whom Pearce’s Monty directly recalls) can give that same kind of vicarious pleasure and get at best lightly slapped, while Mildred Pierce has to be dragged through the shoals. In this, though the rest isn’t perfect, Haynes really made a melodrama to end all melodrama.

3. WTF with Marc Maron interviewing Bryan Cranston (June 10); Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul on Breaking Bad (all year)

 

If you measured by the number of hours spent on it in the year, you would conclude my most cherished art form is not music, literature, live performance or even TV, but the podcast. Check my iTunes: I’m currently subscribed to about 65, though the majority are really radio shows, not native to the pod. And the majority of those aren’t mwhusic but talk. Perhaps it’s that I live alone and am comforted by the chatter during cleaning, cooking, trying to go to sleep and other routines (I wish I were better with silence). But it’s also because non-broadcast radio lets people take liberties with talk – that most eternally human of media – that feel fresh and exciting without being consciously experimental and avant. There’s no better example, title down, than Marc Maron’s What the Fuck?! I came to it a little late, compelled by its backstory: A veteran, never breakout comedian who’s struggled with personal demons gets new career success and satisfaction by sitting down with people in his field in his garage and asking them frank, patient questions of craft, d but also how their own flaws and hauntings have affected their stories – empathetically sounding their barriers and/or divulging his admiring but frustrated puzzlement at how they surpass them.

The editions that draw hype tend to be confronting, sensational – a showdown with a hack, an uncomfortable discussion with a friend, a comedy writer confessing an attempted suicide. But I love the quieter talks he has with people about their growth. One of my favourites was with Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston, and not just because he’s an actor whose work left me wide-eyed over the past several years (as it clearly did Maron). Cranston is at once enormously garrulous and open about his route to his ambitions (he tells stories with theatrical gusto) and humble (not showbiz humble, but humble) and grateful for the improbable fact that his journeyman dues-paying led to an artistic and career jackpot. I listened in early summer and have thought about it at least weekly since.

  

 Bryan Cranston, out of character … and in.

For several months, that was partly because a highlight of each week was the fourth season of Breaking Bad, the best drama on television since The Wire, even better if only because it had the previous show to go by (just as The Wire had The Sopranos). Unlike those two, it isn’t a big ensemble piece. Supporting players are super, but this is a show about two people, Cranston’s Walter White and his protégé (considering how terribly he’s protected, that’s exactly the wrong word): Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman. I have nothing original to add to the accolades: Beyond character and cinematic weave, what’s remarkable is its arc in which a good man becomes very far from good, at first for circumstantial reasons and then for deeply rooted ones, and the audience has to test how far our sympathies can extend, even as we vicariously participate in the rot.

The season finale is the obvious standout, featuring both one of the most ingenious murder scenes ever committed to film or video and an ending many viewers might find it hard to get past (and not just for its dangling plot threads). But three weeks earlier, there was an atypical episode, in which the focus shifted from Walter to Jesse for nearly the whole hour and forced the younger man to find unexpected strengths. It mattered because the question has become whether anyone in this saga will walk away alive with something like an intact soul, and there’s really only one hope left. Here we begin to see that a story that seemed to be about one person and his themes and issues might really be a story about someone and something else. As always: The story of the parents turns into the story of the children, which then turns out to be the story of their children, and the next, and so on. If it doesn’t, that’s when there’s real trouble. (Attention, anyone who compared Occupy Wall Street to Woodstock.)

4. The consolations of comedy: Party Down on Netflix, “Adults in Autumn” (Chris Locke, Kathleen Phillips, Nick Flanagan, 
Rebecca Kohler, 
Jon McCurley, 
Tom Henry
, Glenn Macaulay) at Double Double Land (November), Louis CK at the Sony Centre (October) and Louie, Maria Bamford at Comedy Bar (January), Parks & Recreation, Community, the Comedy Bang Bang podcast …

Along with having become a podcast nerd – and abetted by it – what really struck me in 2011 is that over the past several years I was becoming a comedy nerd. I’m now usually more enthusiastic to go see people say funny things than to hear a concert, or to listen to or watch comedy on my computer than to listen to music. I follow local comics, especially the way-underpublicized Kathleen Phillips, as avidly as I used to follow bands, even here in the greatest musickest citiest of them all-est. I am still puzzling. Perhaps it’s just that a change is as good as a rest, as they say: The comedy nodes in my brain may be less worn-down than the music nodes. Or perhaps there really is more fresh happening in comedy than in music (in Toronto specifically or in general?), or more likely that whatever was new a half-decade ago or more to true comedy nerds finally has become obvious and available to us rabble. (The fact that I still don’t love the Best Show on WFMU is the clinching evidence, right?)

Or as Woody Allen would say, maybe I just needed the eggs. A lot of us had a grim year.

And speaking of eggs, I agree completely with Margaux about the Louie duckling-in-Afghanistan episode.

5. Have Not Been the Same by Michael Barclay, Ian A.D. Jack and Jason Schneider: reissue (June), panel (Soundscapes, Toronto, July) and CD (November)

Have I gotten this far without having to declare any conflicts of interest? No matter, plenty more to come.

Even in this supposedly retromanic age of eternal re-re-return, the bubbles of cultural history with local habitations but no names can easily pop away and leave only stains on the barroom floors. A decade ago, three Canadian music writers, one of them my friend Michael Barclay, tried to guard against that by writing a history of the Canadian music world (mostly indie division) from the mid-‘80s to the mid-‘90s, Have Not Been the Same: The Can-Rock Renaissance. It was a fairly thankless task in 2001, when those scenes were waninh, fractured and with little apparent trace, though since the book mentioned dozens upon dozens of people it sold well enough. Perceptively, though, they later realized the Canadian successes of recent years lent their subject renewed relevance – and that made it incomplete as history. So they undertook many more interviews, updated the individual stories and overall tale with a new introduction and conclusion and brought the book back this year. They held launch concerts and discussions – including a panel at Soundscapes record shop in Toronto with Julie Doiron (ex-Eric’s Trip, current-Julie Doiron), Don Pyle (ex-Shadowy Men, ex-Phono Comb, many more, current Trouble in the Camera Club) and Alison Outhit (ex-Rebecca West, ex-Halifax Pop Explosion, current FACTOR) that was one of the most worthwhile discussions of how musicians and music live and that life has changed I’ve experienced in ages, even (I think) without nostalgia.

Michael’s also curated a companion soundtrack, possibly the first of many, with more recent Can-Rockers playing gems from the book’s era. Which coverers and coverees you like best likely will depend on your own faves: For me, there’s something especially poignant about the Hidden Cameras coaxing out the gentleness of Mecca Normal’s “Throw Silver,” or Richard Reed Parry (of Arcade Fire) and Little Scream slipping into the steamy ether of Mary Margaret O’Hara’s “When You Know Why You’re Happy.” Maps overlaid, outlines of one sunken continent shimmering around the contours of one newer-risen. Lenses, focusing other lenses, or a more vibrant blur.

6. Stand-In (1937) with Leslie Howard, Humphrey Bogart and Joan Blondell, on Turner Classic Movies (August 24)

Not at all new, of course, but new to me when I stumbled upon it on TV in the summer. It’s a bundle of this-but-that: A screwball, Hollywood-skewers-Hollywood comedy that bridges Bogart’s tough-guy and leading-man days, with Busby Berkeley star Joan Blondell (the excuse for its airing, in an evening featuring her) being cutesy-charming but also the brains of the outfit, Leslie Howard stiff and patrician-blinkered but then melting and gaining his senses, and the whole thing ending with a ridiculous/stirring Hollywood labour uprising that gives away its Depression-to-New Deal moment, hard to imagine in many other eras. Apparently the original was more radical still – censored were “a speech about the stifling of competition in the industry and the crushing of independent companies by the majors; and … a speech by Atterbury at the end, in which he says he is going to start a Senate investigation of the motion picture business.”

Here’s a link to the whole movie, as long as it lasts:

It probably stuck with me because the broadcast just preceded the #Occupy moment, but anything mainstream-American that talks explicitly of economic justice without patting itself on the back until its spine breaks (like recent supposed treatments of the financial crisis), frankly, is memorable on its own.

7. The Citizens’ Filibuster (July 28)

Another classic movie came to mind in Toronto a month earlier, on the night of July 28: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. We mentioned it and pictured it here at the time, but too briefly: The bizarre, nearly-24-hour session of citizen testimony – or, as it became known, the “citizens’ filibuster” – against Rob Ford’s attempt to slash budgets was, just as Torontoist says, one of the truly heroic moments of the year, here or anywhere: Our local mini-Newt’s attempt to force closure became the opposite, a populist force to pry the oyster of debate back open, which led to this month’s still-surprising turnabout, in which Ford’s agenda was, for the time being, trounced.

Culturally, whether you were at City Hall or following it on the simulcast and especially social media, it was incredible civic theatre, in which vivid characters (none more heart-tugging than the one below, but some others close) displayed the eloquence and, more significantly, the expertise of so-called ordinary people who normally aren’t even allowed to pick up the marbles in the political game. It’s a contrast to the ugly pro-death-penalty and anti-immigrant ovations of selected attendees at Republican primary debates, for instance. Don’t let those things kill your faith in humanity. The corpse of that faith is what the vultures feed upon.

8. DJs Debate Club at the Henhouse (March 6)

This entry’s a tad more self-indulgent: For the past few years, the Henhouse on Dundas West in Toronto has been the place that I and a few close friends have gone to get our cheap beers on and make like Jonathan Richman, except in a post-Will-Munro-polymorphic Third Place. Our hosts Katie Ritchie, Jenny Smyth and Vanessa Dunn made us more than welcome, and last spring invited me and pal Michael McManus (yes, the last of the Brunnen-G) to DJ one night under our Henhouse nickname, Debate Club (for our propensity to jawbone loudly about politics till closing time).

On the theme of #occupy-precursors that runs through this list, Michael decided we should intercut tracks of famous political speeches between tracks. It would have been a big hit if it had been six months later. Instead we eventually abandoned poor Mario Savio when cooler (but sweatier) heads prevailed and taught us girls just wanna have Robyn. I hadn’t DJ’d since the last time I supplied Wavelength with an iPod playlist, and had forgotten what a rush it is to play music very, very loud, like conjuring worlds, and sex, and astral projection. (Thanks also to Jacob Zimmer, Small Wooden Shoe and Dancemakers for letting me do it again at a fundraiser in December.)

The Henhouse has changed hands now, sadly for its denizens, end of an era. Ladies, you regularly made a room a festival and a roundup of strays into a small community, as best a bar can do. You’ll be missed, but I’m excited to see what you all do next.

9. Misha Glouberman’s Negotiation Class (winter/spring)

Along with assuming the role of author (along with our comrade Sheila Heti) of The Chairs are Where the People Go (about which I really recommend this Los Angeles Review of Books podcast, along with LARB in general), B2TW associate Misha embarked on another new venture this year: An experienced teacher of many forms of improvisation and facilitator of conferences and events, he began this year giving a class in negotiation and communication born of both his innate inclinations to and his concerted studies of  reason, compromise and low-bullshit ways for people to have difficult conversations.

I took the pilot-workshop version of it last winter, with mostly Misha’s friends in it, at a time that I was navigating some crucial personal and professional transitions; some parts worked out and some didn’t, but I’d been given new tools to break down what was happening and address it with, most of all, relative fearlessness. That’s what much of Misha’s work is about: how to cope with the fear that human exchange sparks, which causes us to act protectively in ways that read as irrational to the very people we want most to understand, and find productive alternatives. Generosity, he shows, is a more winning position – not #winning, but in the sense that there’s usually less substantial conflict than meets the eye. (The urge to win, itself, might be an evolutionary catch-22.) He’s teaching a short, intensive version of the course again next month at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

10. Quite Interesting (QI) with Alan Davies, Bill Bailey, Rob Brydon, Jimmy Carr and Stephen Fry (Sept., 2007)

Back to humour again: This is from a few years ago but I first saw it because over Vietnamese dinner Misha brought up the BBC quiz/chat/comedy show QI, hosted by Stephen Fry, so I spent an afternoon watching clips. And then I hit this, which (beginning at 0:22), makes me laugh helplessly and forgive Britain all its sins. I like to watch it any time I feel overwhelmed, with no straight lines to follow. Or maybe I’ll do it ritually every year, as a colonial amusement, the way northern Europeans watch Dinner for One.

PLUS

Melancholia, especially Charlotte Rampling as the archetypical Bad Mother, and Earth as the even more archetypical Bad Mother; Kirsten Dunst at the Cannes press conference for Melancholia; the BBC series Sherlock, the other BBC series The Hour, and the other (much less smart about Britain, class and war, but still absurdly entertaining) BBC series Downton Abbey; Christian Marclay’s The Clock at Paula Cooper and Alexander McQueen’s “Savage Beauty” at the Met (the two art shows I most regret missing) and “Alexander McQueen” (the song by Tomboyfriend); Ryan Trecartin’s “Any Ever” in Queens (the show I’m gladdest I didn’t miss); the Doug Loves Movies podcast and the (for me, unplayable) Leonard Maltin Game (throughout “Two Oceans 11”); the Slate Culture Gabfest (especially being on an episode, which was a thrill); The Ex with Brass Unbound at Lee’s Palace in May; two concert/tour movies about Canadian artists that I didn’t expect to like but that each made me cry, watching them in immediate sequence, Look at What the Light Did Now (Feist) and We’re the Weakerthans, We’re from Winnipeg (Weakerthans); the saving of Saint Mark’s Bookshop; the Smee jokes in Pat Thornton’s third 24-hour standup marathon at Comedy Bar; Tim Hecker’s pipe-organ concert at the Music Gallery; poems by Michael Robbins and D.A. Powell; John Hawkes and Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene; Sandro Perri’s CD launch concerts at the Tranzac in November; Ty Segall at the Wrongbar in NXNE (June); Jeff Mangum at Trinity Saint Paul’s church in Toronto, Aug. 12; discovering this early-1980s scene from a Ron Mann art film featuring Jim Carroll and Jack Layton improbably together, both RIP, #occupymemory; as an epigraph to the year, these lines from “Hindsight,” by Richard Buckner: “Stricken as we stood/ Broken as we made/ Time for make-believe/ Stealing, when we should/ What we couldn’t give away.”

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“I Need a Dollar” by Aloe Blacc (2010) and “Busking” by Aloe Blacc (2006)

by Carl Wilson

Los Angeles rappa-ternt-sanga Aloe Blacc has been garnering millions of plaudits and YouTube hits (if perhaps not dollars) since spring for his verymuchremixed recession lament, “I Need a Dollar.”

The song got its boost on the shoulders of an HBO series called How to Make It in America that, like a few other of the channel’s other recent recession-conscious productions, seems to stumble over the gap between the subject and the channel’s, shall we say, coastal-elite sensibilities (“from the producers of Entourage,” ’nuff said). The best recession-informed work of art on TV I know is Breaking Bad, from comparative upstart AMC.

You could make parallel criticisms of Aloe Blacc’s take on neo-soul: He’s the well-educated offspring of Panamanian immigrants and the layoff that inspired his popular mini-beggar’s-opera was from a job as a consultant with Ernst & Young. Which is definitely part of the financial downturn’s story, but not quite the blue-collar, Bobby Womack tale that his song calls to mind. More important (because using biographical details to call a song phony is always a sucker’s move) is that musically, as many have noted, the track gets walloped by the comparisons it’s just strong enough to bring up, whether that’s Womack, Curtis Mayfield, Bill Withers or Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On.

Nevertheless, social-realist songs about money are still scarce enough in the Richie Rich fantascape of contemporary hip-hop and R&B that I’ll take its anthem-of-2010 status gladly.

In a couple of interviews Blacc talks about the stylistic genesis of “Need a Dollar” in listening to field recordings of chain-gang music. That’s what inspired the “woah-oh” bits of the arrangement, the call-and-response. To NPR he also added: “The song, to me, feels like kind of a community song, something that you would sing with a group of friends. And each verse would be sung by a different person about their particular issue or problem or reason why they need a dollar, you know?”

So the tune comes by its ultra-remixability organically, and versions that add rapping (a form that has passing verses around in its DNA) feel more satisfying than the original, enough so that it’s funny he didn’t think to do it in the first place – since Blacc’s also been an MC since his start in 1990s rap duo Emanon.

But that field-recording impulse is more simply and delightfully realized in an oddball track from Blacc’s previous album, Shine Through.

I’ve been thinking lately about whether and how the current vogue for mixing fiction and documentary expresses itself in music, and “Busking” goes pretty far in the direction of audio vérité. Enough so that I can’t quite tell if this video is actually the record of the song’s creation and don’t even want the illusion shattered. (I know he’s said that he used to walk around at the time with a recorder to capture song ideas on the fly.) In lieu of a bass line you’ve got the hum of traffic and pressure hoses, and instead of a snare break you’ve got a bus-stop sneeze.

But more than those elements, I love its seemingly almost-involuntary, OCD weave of internal monologue and melody, which feels like pulling open the lid on the deepest wellspring of song. I don’t know about you, but occasionally, when I’m feeling lonely, fretful, a little desperate, I’ve comforted myself by taking whatever set of thoughts is looping unstoppably through my brain and singing them to myself: “Gotta make that phone call, don’t wanna make that phone call, it’s a terrible phone call…” or even just, “I’m freaking freaking out today, can’t make that freaking out go ‘way.”

Blacc here applies that formula to what is no doubt the very frustrating situation of dependency on Los Angeles public transit – a recessionary audio-film without all the hoopla of beats and horns and all the more effective in suggesting scarcity.

Of course, low production values in music are just as often the domain of the privileged (who unintentionally make a show of that privilege exactly by discarding its trappings and going “lo-fi”), while polish testifies to the aspiration to accrue more privilege (which isn’t an ignoble goal at all). The standard object of a field recording, after all, is someone or something of exotic or anthropological interest. Still, the gutsy sonic imagination of “Busking” (with the pun in the title that both recalls and makes fun of hip-hop bragging – hey hey, he’s the Bus King) presents alternatives to the old escapism-versus-protest-song duality when it comes to portraying hard times in music just by lending a little extra meaning to the phrase “economy of means.”

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Filed under carl wilson, music, TV/video