Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Vampire Weeknd

Two tangentially-related tunes to prove that I do sometimes listen to music made within the last decade

When I was younger, I imagined that at some point in my 40s or 50s, a switch would flip, and I’d suddenly find myself too old to listen to any new music. I’d turn into a cartoonish version of the elderly, complaining about all the profanity and the screeching and the caterwauling and how the youths didn’t appreciate the good, mellow, old-fashioned music I listened to, like the Pixies.

Turns out my prediction was half right. As I’ve settled into middle age, I do almost always retreat to the safety of my turn-of-the-millennium college radio music. But the reason isn’t that contemporary stuff is too intense for me, but that it’s so boring. There’s so rarely any hook to it; it feels like instead of getting more daring or experimental, it’s mostly just over-produced and predictable.

At our house in Oakland, there were frequently some teenagers who’d park their car nearby and blast their music while they were doing whatever teenagers do — probably involving drugs and premarital sex! — and I was often right on the verge of being the stereotypical geriatric white man storming out of the house, demanding that they turn it down. But I’d be yelling, “Turn that racket down! It’s too vacuous!” I’m in the enviable position of having virtually every new song available to me on demand whenever I want, and I’m most often saying, “Nah, I’m good.”

But I do often make an effort! Sometimes it pays off, and sometimes it doesn’t.

I think Olivia Rodrigo is the real deal, for instance. It’s very much pop music, accessible enough for superstardom and Apple tie-ins. But on top of the hook required for a pop hit, there’s such a great combination of influences and styles that it all feels really interesting.

My favorite by far is “Vampire.” The album version starts out as a breathy piano ballad, which could quickly turn into the kind of maudlin showcase for a pop star trying to show off their range as a Real Musician. But then it starts to throw in all kinds of stuff that give it depth, not just gloss. The end result feels like an extremely media-savvy artist who knows how to navigate an industry in the 2020s and get 93 million views on YouTube, but never at the expense of making it feel anything less than sincere. (And as it turns out, the stripped down piano ballad version is pretty good, too).

The Weeknd is more towards the other end of the scale for me. Most of his stuff is inoffensive, but there’s rarely any hook that I can get into. Apart from “Can’t Feel My Face” and “Blinding Lights,” I can’t really tell his songs apart from each other, and those I recognize only because they were played constantly.

But the other thing I didn’t predict back in my teens and twenties was what would be required to be a superstar in the 21st century. It can’t be just about the music; it has to be a full-on media blitz. And while there’s not a lot for me in The Weeknd’s music, I respect the hell out of what he does with the overall presentation.

Until Universal Hollywood Horror Nights made a house themed to his music, I had no idea that “Blinding Lights” was part of a whole horror-themed concept album, with a series of interconnected videos about fame, image, self-image, and the evils of Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Part of that is the video for “Too Late,” which has a pair of plastic surgery-obsessed women finding The Weeknd’s decapitated head in the middle of the road and then taking it home to have sex with it. (And not to tell them their business, but completely unnecessarily murdering a stripper to attach to Mr Weeknd’s head. Even though the things they were doing didn’t even require him to have a body. So wasteful).

The music doesn’t really grab me, but that video was one of the few things in modern pop music that was genuinely able to shock middle-aged me. Are they even allowed to show that kind of thing?!

One Thing I Love About Every Episode of Poker Face (part 1)

Poker Face is so clever that every episode has at least one thing I love

It’s probably inaccurate to say that I’ve been “surprised” by Poker Face, since I knew I was predisposed to love it based on Rian Johnson’s involvement alone. But I have been a little surprised by how much it’s been surpassing my expectations.

I’ve got to acknowledge that I haven’t seen that much of Columbo, and I don’t remember that much about the episodes that I have seen, apart from the most basic premise (you know the murderer(s) from the start) and Peter Falk’s performance. But a huge part of what makes Poker Face feel so novel and so clever is how it’s all about manipulating the audience’s expectations and sympathies, and how it is constantly re-contextualizing what you’ve seen so far. It seems like they took the stuff I loved about Glass Onion and then spent an entire season’s worth of television exploring all the different ways you could change up or expand on the concepts.

For the first time in a very long time, I’ve been loving a series so much that I desperately wish I could write scripts for it. Are spec scripts still a thing? Do I have to resort to fan fiction?

I’ve already written about the first episode, twice, but I’ll try to keep things more focused this time. And this will only be the first part, because we’ve still only seen the first five episodes at this point. Lots of spoilers throughout; assume that you shouldn’t read any of these until you’ve watched episodes 1-5.

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Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Rock and Roll Hall of Presidents

Two tangentially-related tunes for Presidents Day

Look: there are a lot of Tuesdays in a year. They can’t all be winners.

This Monday was Presidents Day in the United States, a great reminder to Americans of how it’s an office of importance that should theoretically still be respectable. And how the whole idea of “anyone could grow up to be President of the United States” is supposed to be wholesome and aspirational, not an ominous warning of a terrible design flaw.

First this week is “Ana Ng” from the They Might Be Giants album Lincoln. It’s always unsettling watching old TMBG videos, because 1988 John Flansburgh looks eerily like 1988 me. (Or maybe vice versa).

I can’t choose a favorite song off of Lincoln, but it’s probably a toss-up between “Ana Ng” and “Mr. Me.” An edited version of the latter was used as the closing theme music for an animated cartoon block on a local station in Atlanta, so I kind of just assumed it came from somewhere in Cartoonland. It was a surprise to hear it years later, popping up out of nowhere on a CD I’d bought after getting really into Flood. But it tracks, seeing as how they’ve always been at least a little bit cartoon-adjacent, making weird music for nerds and the children of nerds.

Here’s a fun fact: did you know that Martha Wash’s last name is actually Wash? I always assumed she’d shortened it from “Washington,” but no. So that’s why you’re saved from having “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” as the second song this week.

Instead, it’s “Concrete and Clay,” my favorite song from the soundtrack to Rushmore. Consider it an upgrade; that’s like Washington and three whole other presidents. It’s nice to remember how impressive Rushmore was when it first came out; it seemed to come out of nowhere, full of self-confidence and a surprising amount of sincerity. Now I’m getting nostalgic for the late 1990s.

The Uncanny Z-Axis

Furthering the case for comics in 3D

Last week I saw a post from Ron Brinkmann’s Digital Composting blog about viewing comic books on the Vision Pro. Using the iPad version of Apple’s Books app1Which I admit I kind of forgot existed, he experimented with both The Sandman, spreading multiple pages into a panorama across his space; and an older issue of Detective Comics, which could be displayed like a museum piece, letting him get close enough to see the half-tone printing in full detail.

Static pages wouldn’t require any effort from comics publishers or artists. It’d give you the opportunity to turn a comic into a kind of museum exhibition, walking around the layouts and seeing them unbound by the restrictions of a page or a screen. It’s basically a no-brainer.

And because it’s a straightforward idea with no real downsides, I filed it away as “would be nice, but probably will never happen.” Or gain enough traction for anyone to pay attention to it, at least. The Marvel Unlimited app doesn’t show up as a compatible iPad app on the Vision Pro, for instance. And ever since Amazon acquired Comixology, it’s been nothing but repeated demonstrations of how we can’t have nice things.

So if it were just publishers and comics creators saying, “Okay, sure, you can look at PDFs on your headset. Knock yourselves out, nerds,” I’d be inclined to think of it just as the most niche of niche applications. But the more I think about what could happen if publishers and creators made a real effort to adapt comics to 3D, the more I think it could be one of those rare cases where minimal investment results in a big win for everyone.

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    Which I admit I kind of forgot existed

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: King Cake

Two tangentially-related tunes to let the good times roll

(King Cake photo by Caitlin Bensel for Southern Living)

Today is Fat Tuesday! As a protestant who’s to this day never once visited New Orleans, I can’t claim to be an expert, but I have got to respect any holiday that so prominently features religious desserts.

In honor of that, here’s a song by Elvis Presley, who’s The King to most, but never meant shit to me except as a karaoke song. I have to say I can do a pretty good rendition of “(You’re the) Devil In Disguise”. (That’s a painfully on-the-nose animated video that’s “official” or whatever, but of course the best animated video to that song is in Lilo and Stitch).

Tangentially related: I was a big fan of the band Cake back in the late 1990s, which is when it was most appropriate to be a big fan of the band Cake. I let my fandom lapse since then, but back when they hit it big with “The Distance,” I felt squarely in their target audience of hipsters and aspiring hipsters. I’ve never had a bucket hat, and I’ve only sporadically had a goatee, but I still thought each record was like finding a special surprise.

One Hundred Twenty-Eight Gigabytes of Solitude

I TOLD you not to bother me while I’m jacked into the Matrix! (Thoughts about isolation and VR headsets)

As a chronicler of the hottest tech trends and their impact on our society, I have to warn you that Apple has released a device that threatens to rip apart our social fabric as we know it, forcing humans to keep their eyes locked on screens instead of engaging in meaningful contact. They did this in 2007, and it was called the iPhone.

I was initially pleased to see that reaction to Apple’s Vision Pro wasn’t just concentrating on technical specs and feature comparisons, and instead seemed to have more high-minded thoughts about the social impact of technology, the future of computing platforms, etc.

But I’d been optimistically assuming that those conversations would be based on a realistic look at the technology we have today, and how we use it. Not on some late-1990s screenwriter’s notion of jacking into cyberspace.

I’m not objecting to the notion that technology is isolating. I just object to the claim that the problem is somehow unique to a head-mounted display, or that it’s significantly more ominous than what we’ve got now, or what we’ve had forever. It’s a social problem, not (strictly) a technology one.

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My Passthrough Era

I have an absolute ton of barely-organized thoughts about the Vision Pro after using it for a couple of days

Well, the good news is that nobody has to listen to my constant debating whether I should get a Vision Pro headset anymore. The bad news, of course, is that now I’m going to be constantly talking about what it’s like to use the Vision Pro headset.

By the time I’d ordered one, it wasn’t scheduled to arrive until the end of February. But as early as the day after launch, I heard that there were plenty of opportunities to make a same-day order, or even to just walk in and buy one. I’m not sure whether that means demand for the device was overstated, or whether Apple had anticipated the rush of early adopters, and I don’t think that it actually matters that much. I doubt that anyone realistically expected this to be flying off the shelves, and anyone outside of Apple who declares this a flop or a hit within the first year and a half (at the earliest) is being foolish.

So far I’ve only used it for about 10 or so hours, and only half of that with the correct lenses (see below). And my early impressions (spoiler) don’t differ all that much from the non-Verge reviews that I’ve seen so far. The stuff that it does well is amazing, it’s easy to imagine1And, obviously, probably much harder to implement all the ways that future versions are going to improve on it, and it really does feel like the start of a new platform, instead of just a failed experiment. With the emphasis on start of a new platform; it’s still absurd to call this a “developer kit,” but it’s also not yet something that will be useful to more than a fairly niche audience.

For context, if you’re stumbling onto this post somehow: I’ve used the Oculus Rift 2, the HTC Vive, the HTC Vive Focus, PSVR, the Quest, and the Quest 2. And I’ve worked on a couple of VR and AR projects. This is my “first few hours impressions” post. (There are many like it, but this one is mine).

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    And, obviously, probably much harder to implement

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Old Man Atmospheric River

Two tangentially-related tunes for life in sunny Los Angeles

I almost forgot it was Tuesday, what with everything going on this week. At Spectre Collie HQ, I’ve been preoccupied with furniture and with VR headsets and, like everybody else in Los Angeles:

Rain, and lots of it. Revolver is my favorite Beatles album, and it’s only a modern convention that “Rain” is included on it, since we don’t really do singles in the 21st century. It fits, though. I honestly can’t say whether I like the song for its own merits, or just because I know that one of my best friends was named after it.

When you live in a desert, unusual amounts of rain mean one thing:

Twisting. No, wait: Floods. We’ve been relatively fortunate that for us, the storm’s been little more than a nuisance. I’ve been staying off the roads, though, since the last time a big rain storm hit, it was causing flooding all over the San Fernando Valley. It’s kind of surreal to be driving through (beautiful downtown) Burbank like everything’s normal, and suddenly finding yourself driving through foot-deep ponds in the middle of an intersection. That was enough to convince me to stay at home if possible.

It’s also surreal to see the LA River actually filled with water. I’d always assumed that calling it the “LA River,” was Los Angeles being sardonic or something, since it’s just an impossibly huge concrete canal going through the city and occasionally being used for film or music video shoots. Ignorant of LA history, I wasn’t aware that it’s an actual river, paved only because of catastrophic floods in the 1930s.

Anyway: Flood isn’t my favorite They Might Be Giants album (that’s Lincoln), and “Twisting” isn’t my favorite song from Flood (that’s “Minimum Wage”). But it’s been a while since I’ve heard it, and it’s a highlight, even if I don’t know anybody named after it.

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Shut Up And (Watch Someone) Dance

Phoning it in this week, because I just like Margaret Qualley

I’m kind of phoning it in this week, because I’ve already mentioned tons of times how much I love the Kenzo World ad directed by Spike Jonze and starting Margaret Qualley.

The song is called “Mutant Brain” by Sam i and Ape Drums, if for some reason you want to hear it without that amazing choreography.

Qualley is phenomenal in it, and I instantly became a huge fan. Granted, it’s impossible for Spike Jonze to make a bad music video, but I think part of that is that he chooses the right people to work with. In particular: actors and musicians who are game for whatever wild idea he’s come up with, and will be willing to bring all their talents to it. Especially if, like Christopher Walken, they can dance.

I haven’t seen The Leftovers or Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, but I was pleasantly surprised to see Margaret Qualley show up in a rather small and weird part in Poor Things. It didn’t seem like it required someone at her level of career success, so I’m assuming that she just thought it was a weird, neat idea and wanted to be part of it. (And if that’s not the case, I’d rather not know otherwise).

She also stars in a recent video for the song “Tiny Moves” by Bleachers. I’ve got to admit I’m all but completely indifferent to the song, since Bleachers has always struck me as so inoffensive that there’s nothing I can latch onto. But it’s just nice to see someone so comfortable in front of a camera bringing that charisma, along with dance training and familiarity with a ton of different styles of choreography, to a love song. I like the story behind it, too: Qualley has said that she wanted to make it as a wedding gift for Jack Antonoff after they got married last year.

Just Fine (Another Thing I Like About Poker Face)

Product placement, or establishing character and mission statement through the use of brand recognition? It doesn’t matter!

I realize that it often seems like my blog posts are written by a LLM using the prompt “write about this in the style of a pretentious nerd under the influence of Ambien,” but I swear that isn’t the case. Even though, when writing about Poker Face, I did hallucinate an Agatha Christie story called Murder on the Nile.

I also evidently ignored years of teachers stressing the importance of making outlines, because I started trying to make a few observations that quickly got away from me. One of them was about how much I like Rian Johnson’s assertion of ethics and morality in his works (that I’ve seen, of course): he doesn’t seem to care much for anti-heroes or ethical ambiguity, much less outright nihilism. He makes his values abundantly clear, but without ever being so didactic that it overwhelms the entertainment.

The other was that there’s such an economy and efficiency to the first episode of Poker Face, where it reads as casual and funny on first watch, but you quickly realize that there’s hardly a single moment in the entire show that doesn’t serve a purpose.

A great example of both: in the scene between Charlie and Sterling, Jr, where he’s setting up not just their relationship but the premise of the entire series, he starts the scene by offering her a drink. When she asks what her choices are, he seems surprised by the question. They’re in the owner’s suite at the top of a casino; she can have whatever she wants. Shortly after, we see her with Heineken in a can. Later in the episode, a bartender who knows her offers her favorite, and it’s a Coors Light. (She chooses coffee instead, which has its own repercussions).

There’s so much packed into that. The question immediately puts Sterling on the defensive, which we soon learn is key to his whole character: he’s in charge of this whole place and can have anything he wants; why is she acting like his options are limited? She’s immediately found a way to change up the power dynamic, choosing to serve herself. And the thing she chooses, out of presumably a wall’s worth of expensive liquor, is a canned beer slightly fancier than the canned beer she normally drinks.

That last part is important, because it’s the core idea of the entire scene that follows. The beer, and more explicitly, the conversation that follows, are all about establishing her character as someone who genuinely appreciates the value of having enough.

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One Thing I Love About Poker Face

Poker Face is really nostalgic for 1970s detective shows, but it isn’t content to be stuck in the past

It was a foregone conclusion that I was going to at least like Poker Face — I love Rian Johnson’s murder mysteries; Natasha Lyonne’s got a “presence” that makes you eager to like everything she does; it’s a revival of the Columbo-style mystery; and it’s got a long list of guest appearances from actors I like a lot, and also Adrian Brody1To be fair, he has to play a reprehensible sleazebag in the first episode, and he sells it so well, it’s as if it comes naturally to him.. But I never got around to watching it until my ticket to Halloween Horror Nights got me a subscription to Peacock as a bonus.

(There’s no real point to that detail; it’s just a signifier of what life was like in 2023, where streaming networks and synergy within huge multimedia companies means I have to go to a theme park to watch a show I’m interested in).

I finally watched the first episode tonight, and it nails everything I expected it to. The opening titles alone were enough to set the tone, even if they hadn’t been set on top of shots of a casino seemingly stuck in a perpetual state of mid-to-late-70s-ness. It’s a perfect setting for a series concept that itself seems to be stuck halfway in the past.

The main character suggests a call back to Jim Rockford — mostly in her sense of humor in the face of being constantly targeted by bad guys and misfortune — and of course, the format calls back to Columbo. But calling it just an homage would be selling it short. You could make a very, very good pastiche of 1970s detective series. Or you could take the premise of “the audience knows the killer(s) from the start,” and experiment with it in loads of interesting ways. Poker Face does both, breaking down its inspirations into their component parts, and then using them to make something new.

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    To be fair, he has to play a reprehensible sleazebag in the first episode, and he sells it so well, it’s as if it comes naturally to him.

The Design of Everyday Obsolete Things

In honor of the Mac’s anniversary, a new appreciation for things that have outlived their usefulness

Two things that I do a lot on this blog (and elsewhere on the internet): reminiscing about getting my first Mac, and desperately trying to justify expensive purchases. With the Macintosh’s 40th anniversary, and last week’s pre-orders for the Apple Vision Pro, I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few days doing both.

A few days ago, I replied to a Mastodon post in honor of the Mac’s anniversary, listing my first Mac, my favorite Mac, and so on. For my favorite, I picked my current one, a 14″ M3 MacBook Pro. And I chose it without hesitation, which kind of surprised me.

The introduction of the M1 got Apple back on track, and they’re once again on a streak where every new Mac is the best computer I’ve ever owned. This one has everything I want, and it’s powerful enough to run docked but light enough to take just about anywhere I’d need a computer. The screen, keyboard, trackpad, and speakers have gone through enough revisions to be just about perfect. And — the best part after being burned, literally, by the last few Intel models — it runs cool and silent.

But my favorite? When the classic Mac is so innately appealing that just seeing a photo of one has me back on eBay looking to get a used one in good working condition? When there’ve been so many unique designs that instantly provoke nostalgia for the exact time in your life when you had it? I like this computer for its functionality, and for the fact that the design has been iterated to the point that it does exactly what it needs to without drawing any attention to itself. But in 10 years or so, I’m unlikely to have many fond memories of this (space) black slab itself.

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