No hesitating, not at all

It’s inevitable to compare Mariah Carey’s “Touch My Body” and Timbaland featuring Justin Timberlake’s “4 Minutes” (yes, an intentional mistake, calm down); when two women break two different Elvis records it deserves mention, no? Where Carey still manages a commitment to brain-free sultriness no matter how many keyboards and triple-tracked harmonies blow up her skirt and stimulate an overstimulated cooter, Madonna jumps hither and thither, a frenzy of elbows and hips and something that looks like hair, kinetics without erotics. Since she long ago shed human skin (Justin coos “Ma-DON-na” in the voice of Robin Williams’ queen in The Birdcage as if to remind us of how long she’s been a mere icon), all she can rely on is a barely pliant self-reflexiveness, which either reminds her to submit to the beat like a good dance diva (Confessions On A Dancefloor) where before she used to ram against it with that blowtorch squeak, or make herself into a subject worth celebrating, worth the adulation.

I like “4 Minutes” ok, but it’s definitely in the second tier of her singles. The chorus is a graduate class in pop craftsmanship, and for young Justin an internship in iconicity — don’t think that for all the nimble two-stepping and well-deployed squeals he isn’t keeping a sharp eye on the boss, hoping to break her own 36-Top-Tens streak after he’s become an event instead of a person. Mariah, meanwhile, has shown little interest in celebrating herself; she likes mirrors, sure, but she uses them to find her private parts, thanks (Stephen Thomas Erlewine has a nice line in his review of E=MC2: “she’s not about longevity, she’s about being permanently transient”). Mouthing gibberish about roads to heaven and good intentions, Madonna halfway convinces that “Sorry” and “Hung Up” weren’t the real “4 Minutes,” i.e. felt statements about what pop’s supposed to feel like when you’re under the illusion that the whole world is dancing with you. Instead, this “4 Minutes” sounds like what pop does to you if you stick around long enough. We’ll dance if we want to, and we left our friends behind years ago.


I love libraries — I visit my university branch every day. I grew up in them. But this Sullivan post is just, well…:

The hush of the reading rooms, the turn-on of a great book, the spasm of what you thought was an original thought, which lasts about as long as a male orgasm: it’s better than porn.

The best comment on the campaign season, and the problem of political reporting, inspired by the flapdoodle “controversy” (as Matt Lauer sternly warned us this morning) over guns and church:

…But it matters in a completely self-referential way, it matters only because it matters, not because it means anything about Obama, or illuminates anything about his potential presidency. It’s a hollow scandal. Those housing plans, by contrast, don’t “matter” in a way that convinces the media to cover them, or to relentlessly hound McCain about the inadequacy of his proposal. They don’t “matter,” but they are meaningful. And this is why I don’t like writing about the campaign. It’s full of hollow scandals and ignored travesties. But you have to cover the hollow scandals, because they’re are blown up until they’re definitional in the campaign. And that leaves me writing about high-profile non-events in a way that helps cement their importance, even if I’m writing to deride their legitimacy.

If you’re ever interested in really getting to the bottom of what’s wrong with political journalism, incidentally, spend some time thinking about the fact that most of its leading practitioners came up through campaign reporting, and writing about verbal gaffes and off-the-cuff comments is what they trained to do. The tone of political journalism is set by people who are thrilled — on a professional level — that Obama said this thing, and now we can cover this story.

I’m back

After nine hours, four airports, and mild motion sickness, I’m back in 80-degree weather (and a possible cold front!). It was great to see friends and colleagues in Seattle, as usual, and, while EMP Pop Conference itself was good not great, I particularly enjoyed these three papers, as well as presentations by Todd and Tal. The decision to include more papers by academics injected an unwholesome amount of pedagogical oratory and jargon into several promising ideas (I never want to hear about “praxis,” “teleological,” and “heteronormative valences” in my presence again). In my experience, academics care little about audience reactions because the lecture format isn’t particularly kind to the reception of ideas; it’s just irrelevant. Also, academics have been taught to expunge their presentations of opinions, so their relation to the material they’re presenting is often mystifying, often reflected in neutered prose. Pop music promises a utopian notion of community, and some of the presentations betrayed purely ascetic experiences that often clashed with the inchoate nature of the songs under discussion.

Struck by how irrepressible new single “Eyes Wide Open” was for a group of fiftysomething survivors a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been revisiting The B-52’s catalogue. The only one I don’t own is the death-tinged Bounding Off The Satellites (though “Ain’t It A Shame” and “Summer of Love” are wonderful). The eponymous debut still sounds unearthly – the work of misfits who’ve learned to assemble their identities from rubbish and grade Z sci-fi films (with Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson’s harmonies and Ricky Wilson’s guitar as the paint and plaster, respectively) in as painstaking a fashion as the Pet Shop Boys would later do from Italo disco, Derek Jarman, and Armani. To the same end too: the Athens combo’s psychosexual urges needed a Day-Glo carapace to render them less threatening. When “Dance This Mess Around” and the Party Mix version of “Give Me Back My Man” parted the curtains for a bit, the results were a little freaky; to these ears the 1981 remix of “Give Me Back My Man” reaches Joy Division levels of hysteria, without the release.

But Cosmic Thing deserves a mention. I’ve listened to it most in the last week, despite an Amazon screwup that resulted in my receiving a cassette instead of a CD copy. Even today it seems underrated, which is easier to fathom after you’ve turned the radio dial upon hearing “Love Shack” and “Roam” for the fourth time in two hours. Why had it taken radio and MTV so long to embrace them? Their sensibilities fit the format to a degree that even Simon and his Le Bon Bons on a yacht couldn’t match. I remember a lot of warmth when the album became a double platinum Top Ten hit (Duran Duran’s 1993 comeback inspired similar aw’s, only without much rockcrit love) Cosmic Thing shows a band reconstituting itself for one of those back-to-basics moves which rarely do anyone except promoters of summer tours any credit, except that in The B-52’s case their devotion to frivolity had only deepened, protecting them from charges of “self-parody” – compare this album to Steel Wheels, the Rolling Stones’ own back-to-basics self-parodic move. The effort of creating a South that doesn’t exist (the trilogy of “Dry Country,” “Junebug,” and “Bushfire”) inspires the girls and guys to color a Technicolor fantasia as bold and bright as Gone With The Wind on “. The girls have never harmonized to such thrilling effect as they do on “Deadbeat Club,” in which they surpass the Roches in their dedication to sheer vocal awesomeness. To his credit, Keith Strickland doesn’t mimic Wilson’s tunings; his rhythm riffage on “Roam” and “Channel Z” is elastic enough to give Nile Rodgers lumbago (how delicious that Rodgers produced half the album). The band even pull off a terrific instrumental closer. Anthony is right!

If anyone’s heard Funscale, let me know.

A not entirely successful mix of film noir and agitprop, No Way Out is nevertheless one of the most interesting and least commented on films by All About Eve director-screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz. In his film debut, Sidney Poitier showed how the plaster saint he would become in the 1960’s began the canonization process, playing a doctor from a bourgeois black family (with Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis!) who had the misfortune of seeing the brother of vicious thug Richard Widmark die in his care. Widmark vows revenge.

It’s churlish and probably tacky to criticize Mankiewicz for creating exactly what he envisioned, especially since what we see onscreen in 2007 still startles — the casual manner, for example, in which Poitier lays a hand on Linda Darnell’s shoulder; think of the famous case a few years later in which a Southern black boy was almost beaten to death (his eyeball dangled from its socket, according to LBJ biographer Robert Caro) because he was seen talking to a white girl. Milton R. Krasner’s unfussy black and white framing only sharpens the social and racial divide between the two characters (and actors). Even in 1950 Poitier’s eyes registered the faint boredom with the role, balked at the limitations imposed on him, and Mankiewicz, perhaps aware that he’s gone as far as he could with this daring subject matter, obliges by imposing those limitations. The best scenes show the Mankiewicz who just won directing and screenwriting Oscars for A Letter to Three Wives: a relaxed, beautiful, brief exchange between Darnell and the fiery Amanda Randolph (playing a housekeeper); and a sustained scene between Poitier’s most committed advocate at the hospital and the hospital administrator that gives both actors the kind of juicy dialogue often confused for “literate” and “elegant” yet imposes subtlety on a film committed to a strenuous abandonment of it (at its worst, Mankiewicz’s work suggests the Christopher Walken character in the Fatboy Slim video — the besuited shill, so delighted with being naughty for once that he can’t stop his pirouettes).

But by all means rent the film or catch it on TCM, where it will probably play (if it hasn’t already) as part of its Richard Widmark appraisal. As anyone who reads this blog or my published work, I’m most attracted to artists working in genres or forms in which they’re least comfortable. Speaking of Widmark, his villain isn’t as indelible as Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death; in moments he seems to be auditioning for James Cagney’s role in White Heat, all pre-Method paroxysms (Dave Kehr wrote a nice line about Widmark’s acting generally in his obit). Reportedly he apologized to Poitier years later for hurling words common enough in Birmingham, Memphis, and Atlanta but he never lets the audience off the hook; from his lips “sambo,” “nigger,” and “coon” sound particularly repellent. I wish James Baldwin had written about No Way Out suitable for The Devil Finds Work, his collection of film writing.