“I Love WandaVision”

Reviewing (or really, effusively gushing about) the first two episodes of the new MCU series WandaVision

Two warnings first: 1) This has spoilers for the first two episodes of WandaVision. 2) I’ve barely read any Marvel comics, so if you got here via a search, hoping for easter eggs and hidden comics references and storyline speculation, I’m no help. Luckily for you, there’s a metric shitton of that already online: ScreenCrush has a bunch and tries to speculate on future story developments, while Nerdist keeps it a little bit more to the comics references themselves.

As an only-partially-abashed fan of Disney, Star Wars, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve maybe been a little too much of an apologist for global media conglomerates. I feel like I’ve abandoned any claim to indie cred several times over, when I suggest that not all IP is bad, and that sometimes mega-budgeted corporate productions can result in fantastic experiences.

WandaVision makes me feel a little vindicated, because I’m skeptical you’d ever see something quite like it without ten years of blockbuster movies and a corporate-owned streaming service behind it.

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Kathy, I’m lost with some roly-poly little bat-faced girl

Someone who doesn’t know much about music or poetry attempts to do a deep-dive on why Paul Simon is a genius lyricist

For the past week, I’ve had “America” by Simon & Garfunkel going through my head. Even though it’s one of my favorite songs, it’s too sad for me to listen on repeat play, so I’ve never memorized it. As a result, I’ve been going around singing it to myself, but I’ve kept getting hung up at the same part.

It’s the best line of the song:

"Kathy, I'm lost," I said, though I knew she was sleeping.

The reason my brain keeps sticking on it is because the meter’s off. It repeats the same tune and general rhythm from two other parts of the song:

Let us be lovers, we'll marry our fortunes together
Toss me a cigarette, I think there's one in my raincoat

But there’s a syllable missing, which my brain keeps trying to fill up by changing it to “although I knew she was sleeping,” or “even though”, etc. This could be a perfect example of overthinking a piece of art until you’ve drained it of everything that made it sublime, but in this case, it gave me an even greater appreciation for it.

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Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Looking for America

Two songs about wanting America to live up to its promise

“America” is my favorite song by Simon & Garfunkel, but lately I’ve gotten a greater surge of emotion from listening to this cover by First Aid Kit, a duo of Swedish sisters born over twenty years after the song was first recorded. (This live version recorded in Stockholm that got a solo standing ovation from Paul Simon is also wonderful).

Simon’s genius lyrics take a bunch of highly-specific references and generalize them into a perfect expression of the hope and disillusionment of being an American in the late 60s. The cover resonates with me because it shows that the song is even more universal than that: it was never about a specific time or even a specific place, but about an ideal, and the perpetual sadness that comes from seeing that ideal remain unrealized.

Growing up in the Ronald Reagan-led, Newt Gingrich-fueled, jingoistic travesty of America that was the 1980s, I learned to reject American patriotism as the weak-minded arrogance of bigots and fools. So much of it seemed to be manifested in the laser shows at Stone Mountain. There were all the obvious signs of corruption and rot — the show’s climax traced the mountain’s carving of Confederate leaders and animated them riding off to glory, set to a medley of Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson singing “Dixie” and the Battle Hymn of the Republic. As the crowd around us hooted and hollered at the majesty of it all, my (white) friends and I could safely roll our eyes and mock it as gross and misguided but ultimately harmless. Virulent racists were dying out, I told myself, and the casual variety would flee back to their comfortable homes in the suburbs, where they weren’t reaching out to be part of a larger community, but at least they weren’t actively making things worse.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that the comically absurd rot — a Confederate War memorial? In 1985?! Ha ha! — was more or less a front for the more pervasive fear and greed that would get more and more entrenched over the next few decades. That was manifested in a song, too: Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” I always misinterpreted it as dumb but harmless, a shallow take on patriotism that was easily dismissed with an eye roll and a wanking gesture. But it’s jarring now to look back and see laid bare just how selfish and transactional it always was. It’s all pride, no responsibility. You’ve got to thank the troops, but only for giving me my freedom and my rights. It’s all my family, not my community. The only suggestion of “stand[ing] up next to you” is to fight to keep what belongs to us.

I can at least understand why people like Greenwood’s version, though: sometimes you do genuinely just want the bombast and pride and being able to shout “America, Fuck Yeah!” Anybody who believes that the whole idea of “the American experiment” is based on just an accident of where you were born — for good or for ill — is missing the entire point, which is that none of this works unless we all to agree believe in it. That requires some faith and some swagger. It’s not a refusal to acknowledge all the layers of disillusionment and injustice; it’s a refusal to drown in them.

There are few more powerful accusations of American denial than Langston Hughes’ poem “America never was America to me.” It was Hughes’ prescient warning from 1935 to any of us who in 2021 are tempted to say “This is not who we are.” As if greed, exploitation, insurrection, corruption, and bigotry were new, foreign things to the USA, and not manifest in every phase of our history. Except that’s not actually the title of the poem, even though I always mis-remember it as such. The actual title is “Let America Be America Again.” It’s not content to just reject the promise of America as a lie; it insists that we work together to make it true.

And because it can’t be said enough: we can’t work together without first rejecting the lie. There’s no unity without justice, and no justice without accountability.

So if you want the simple anthem with waving flags and cheering and middle-aged people on their feet dancing, Neil Diamond’s always had you covered. My parents took me to a Neil Diamond concert when I was a teenager, and I was a capital-C Chode about it because I thought I was too cool for it. Even though it was a huge deal to my mom. I wish I hadn’t been such a chump, because his performance that night (as always) was a show-stopper. And if I’m going to stand up and shout “America!”, I don’t want it to be all about selfishness or fighting to keep what’s mine. I want it to be about welcoming everyone who wants to share in the idea and work together to make something better than any single one of us.

Semi-New Song Sunday: Juanita Stein

New to me: highlights of Juanita Stein’s album “Snapshot,” which feels like a bunch of honest, acoustic songs, plussed up.

“Snapshot” by Juanita Stein is the first of her songs that I heard, and as far as I can tell, it’s a great introduction. The hook of her repeated vocal call/whistle keeps it feeling other-worldly, along with the echoing guitars. But at the same time, it feels honest and not-at-all overproduced; the ethereal flourishes just keep it in your attention and make it feel more substantial than “just” a singer with a guitar.

I can’t think of anything specific in my library that sounds quite like it, and yet it somehow reminds me of an act that I totally would have seen in Athens in the mid-1990s. The closest comparison I could make is possibly a less soporific version of The Sundays, who’d been more influenced by 1970s country-influenced rock?

I’ve listened to more of the album Snapshot, and it feels to me very much like a “slow burn” type of record. Nothing apart from the hoots in the title song stood out as distinctive at first. But then as time went on, I found myself catching bits and pieces of the songs running through my head, and coming back for another listen.

“Hey Mama” is an even stronger example of the just-enough aesthetic: Like the video, it’s spare, simple, and straightforward, but mixes in a bit of mystery to make it stand out in your mind afterward. I especially like the coda in this video, in which she makes it explicit how this is a complex song with an acoustic base.

I Have to Talk About Why I Love Taskmaster

My time starts now.

This week — in between bouts of overwhelming panic and anxiety, of course — I’ve been watching episodes of the British game show-like series “Taskmaster,” and it’s quickly become my new favorite thing.

I’d started to say that I’m late to the party, but that’s not really accurate. It’s more that I’ve checked into the party several times over the past few years, but it’s never seemed like something I’d be that interested in. There are plenty of clips available on YouTube — and if you ever watch any British game shows like “8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown” or “Would I Lie To You?,” YouTube will recommend them to you — but the clips don’t really get across what makes the show special.

The premise: each series assembles a cast of five comedians, actors, or presenters, from the same set of two dozen or so British celebrities that seem to appear on every single TV production in the UK. Over the course of ten episodes, Taskmaster Greg Davies assigns the contestants a series of tasks that they must carry out, under the supervision of his assistant, Little Alex Horne.1Who is the actual creator of the show and all of its tasks. Each episode, they assemble in a studio to watch a video recap of the tasks, and Davies awards points based on how well they succeeded.

Some example tasks: cheer up a depressive traffic warden within 20 minutes, destroy a cake as beautifully as possible, get into an elevator with a disguise kit and change your appearance as much as possible by the time it reaches the bottom floor, or make the best noise.

It’s a clever idea, but what elevates it to genius is the tone and the presentation. The whole thing has the aesthetic of a surreal spy series, reminiscent of The Avengers or The Prisoner. Most of the tasks are carried out in an odd cottage at an undisclosed location in England. Paintings and other artwork of the Taskmaster hang all over the house, sternly observing everything that happens within.

Tasks are assigned in plain white envelopes, sealed with a special Taskmaster wax seal, the instructions typed by Davies in the opening credits of each episode. The music played during the opening and ending credits2And performed by Alex Horne’s band has the feel of an early 60s spy series. The music played during the interstitials is a creepy few bars relying on a stringed instrument I can’t recognize, which somehow makes me think of John le Carré novel covers.

The tasks themselves are fun, like watching an escape room being played by people who are just naturally funny, even when they’re not being particularly clever. Mercifully, it seems that the contestants are either coached not to try to be deliberately funny, but instead just take the task as straightforward and let the humor come naturally and spontaneously.

Or possibly, the awkward bits of comedians trying to be funny are edited out, because the editing on this series is next-level perfect. Full of dry humor, understanding exactly when to cut to a reaction shot from Alex, understanding exactly the right quotes to include and when. The editing and direction seems to derive as much satisfaction in showing a clever success as it does a hilarious failure.

But the tasks themselves are only part of it, and watching just clips of those would be like watching just the movie segments of Mystery Science Theater 3000. You’d get the idea, but all the details that make the series magic would be lost. So much great stuff happens watching the contestants in the studio reacting to the video of their past selves, sometimes recorded months earlier. And of course, trying to justify themselves to the Taskmaster, who doesn’t hesitate to make judgments that vary from “that was shit, wasn’t it?” to “that was genuinely amazing.” Nobody’s taking it that seriously, but unlike other panel shows, they’re all taking it just seriously enough.

It’s that combination of sincerity and silliness that makes the magic of the show. Funny people taking absurd tasks as if they were absolutely straightforward and serious, and then getting together to laugh at themselves for it afterwards. Some of the clip compilations are pretty good, but if you’re like me and have tried watching before but couldn’t get into it, I recommend digging in to a whole episode.

Tuesday Tune Two-fer: You-know-where on my You-know-what

Two tunes from Georgia!

Since my home state of Georgia is in the news so much lately, both for the crucial Senate run-offs today against two of the most crassly, disgracefully, and blatantly corrupt and unqualified Republicans ever to run for public office; and because of a blatantly corrupt attempt to shake down the Secretary of State to subvert the democratic process and steal the Presidential election: today is two tunes from bands from Georgia.

Specifically, Athens, Georgia, which is where I went to college. First up is “McIntosh” by Chickasaw Mudd Puppies, who were one of my favorite bands while I was in college but never seemed to make much of an impression outside Athens (despite having Michael Stipe as a producer). I saw them perform twice at the Georgia Theater, and they were some of the most amazing concerts I’ve ever seen. One of the guys would play guitar, and the other sat in a rocking chair and would stomp on a box with a microphone under it. (They also had a drummer for their live shows).

Second is “Love Shack” by The B-52’s, since the first concert I saw in Athens was the band doing their Cosmic Thing tour. It’s definitely not my favorite song from the album — even before it got so overplayed — but it does mention the Atlanta Highway at the beginning. That’s the road out of Athens that I used to drive every weekend to my retail job in college, a frustratingly long, two-laned, tree-lined road that would pass places like Peanut’s Redneck Bar-be-que. There are several Athens references throughout Cosmic Thing, so being in town while there was so much hype around the band and the album was a neat feeling, like being at the center of something.

I was debating whether to include “Love Shack” or “The Rooster” by Outkast, which is my favorite song from Speakerboxxx, and which I like 99.9% as much as the more popular “Hey Ya” from The Love Below. But I felt like a poseur for naming it, because I didn’t even hear about Outkast until long after I’d already moved out of Georgia.

I hope everybody who’s eligible to vote in Georgia has already voted in the run-offs, or has a plan to before the polls close tonight! It’s crucial to get the corrupt Republicans out of the way before we can even start to make things better.

Tuesday Tune Two-fer: Next Year

Two songs hoping for a better next year

Until I did a search for year-end appropriate songs, I’d never heard of Two Door Cinema Club, or their song from 2013 “Next Year.”

It’s a pleasant song about making plans for later we can’t carry out today, which seems extremely appropriate for the long-awaited end of 2020. Most remarkable to me, though, is how much the beginning of the track reminds me of the Apple Loops-provided backbeat in my friend Graham’s legendary video “We Sing the Forest Electric.”

I’m hoping that in 2021, we all have more of the uninhibited forest dancing, and much less of the implied killing.

There’s also “Next Year” by the Foo Fighters, which had a video of the gang going to the moon and, impressively, choosing not to wear fat suits for comedic effect. I’m impressed they pulled it off! And I hope next year is better for everyone reading this, and even some of the people who aren’t.

Semi-New Song Sunday: Royal Blood

You really can’t go wrong with straightforward rock music from someone who knows how to write a good hook.

“Trouble’s Coming” by Royal Blood was another good choice by the YouTube algorithm, since it was exactly the kind of song I was in the mood to hear. Solid, straightforward, slickly-produced, rock music. It’s just a good song, kind of reminding me of the first time I heard the White Stripes, but without even their level of gimmickry and pretense.1Which some would call “showmanship,” and fair enough.

The thing I keep reading about Royal Blood is that they were making demos before their first album, and they surprised themselves by how big a sound they could achieve with just a bass and a drum set. Is that true, or the kind of thing record labels push in interviews to give a band a memorable hook? I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. It’s just good to see bands led by good-looking young men making catchy music finally able to get a break.

I need a hook to get me invested, though, and with Royal Blood it’s their video to “How Did We Get So Dark?” from 2017, which I love more than I can effectively describe. In case there were any doubt, it makes it clear that they’re having a ton of fun with all of this.

So Many Bobas, or, Why Frog Lady Is So Important To The Mandalorian

More speculation on how the new Boba Fett series fits into Disney+ Star Wars programming, and how The Mandalorian looks without Baby Yoda

(Image for this post was stolen from The Spruce website)

After the season finale of The Mandalorian, I was speculating that “The Book of Boba Fett” shown in the teaser was going to be the third season of the series, which would unexpectedly take on an anthology format, devoting each season or two to a story about another Mandalorian character. Also, I was enjoying the blissfully un-21st-century feeling of having no idea what was going to come next.

Turns out I was completely wrong in multiple ways. By Monday, they were putting Jon Favreau on Disney-owned morning programs to explain what was going down.1I’m not linking to the Good Morning America interview because it annoyed me as a Star Wars pedant. At least Favreau gave them explicit permission to call Grogu “Baby Yoda.” The Book of Boba Fett is a new, separate series, led by Robert Rodriguez, coming in December of 2021. After it’s complete, season three of The Mandalorian (which is currently in pre-production) will start.

I’m a little disappointed, because I liked the idea of an anthology series, but it sounds like good news overall:

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Tuesday Tune Two-fer: I’ll Be Woke for Christmas

If you don’t agree with me about these songs celebrating a season of peace and unity, you’re wrong and dumb. Merry Christmas!

This week’s theme is my favorite Christmas songs, which inadvertently turned into an additional theme of “needlessly controversial Christmas songs.” First is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside, which over the past decade in particular has turned into a perfect litmus test for judging whether someone knows what they’re talking about.

Short1-ish version: this song isn’t creepy; the worst you could say is that it’s “mad horny.” The “I’ve got to go home” part is mock-protesting to keep up appearances. Anyone saying that it’s got a tone of sexual assault is either being deliberately manipulative, or is just demonstrating they’ve got a simplistic and condescending notion of gender.

And yeah, it’s a hill I’m going to die on. If it were just a bunch of people misinterpreting the context of a song and spinning it into a simplistic message about the importance of consent, I’d just shrug and carry on. After all, the re-interpretations and re-makes come out every year but quickly disappear2Most hilarious are the versions that claim to be progressive by gender-swapping the parts, seemingly unaware that the song’s first appearance in a film does exactly that, back in 1949, while the originals live on. But it’s not harmless to call it “problematic” or worse, “rapey.” It perpetuates an idea that women are fragile and/or frigid, that people in the 50s were more uptight and less self-aware than we are today, and is generally prudish and sex-negative . Not to mention, it also says that people always mean exactly what they say and that context is irrelevant, which is gradually making the population more and more stupid.

For the record, my favorite version of the song is actually the scene from the movie Elf. (Better than the one with Leon Redbone on the album, even). Partly because I love Zooey Deschanel’s voice, but also because it’s a modern interpretation that plays around with the idea of romance and innocence/prudishness inherent in the song. Also, it makes the song unequivocally a Christmas song.

Another perennial favorite: “Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. Funnily enough, I was originally just going to include it with the note that it’s the most stirring Christmas song that contains the words “slut” and “faggot.” But I’m only just now discovering that the “official” version on The Pogues’ YouTube channel edits out “the f-word.”3I can’t actually tell what they changed it to; it sounds something like “haggis?”

I honestly don’t know how to feel about this one. On the one hand, I hate the word, I went back and forth on whether I would keep saying “the f-word” or type it out, and its use in the song has always made me uncomfortable. On the other hand, it’s supposed to make me uncomfortable. The Pogues were a punk band. The contrast between the song’s couple absolutely hating each other and falling for the magic of Christmas in New York, hate and love, hope and hopelessness, is the entire point of the song.

Whenever you see someone complaining about “political correctness” or mocking the “woke,” or whining about censorship online, 99.9999% of the time, it’s just someone going out their way to defend being arrogant, selfish, and thoughtless. It’s the equivalent of being churlish and insisting on either “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” as if that were a real thing to be upset about, instead of brazenly manipulated outrage. If you can make a minimum amount of harmless effort and make other people feel better, you’re an asshole for stamping your feet and refusing to do it.

Except again, this is a weird take. This version suggests that “cheap lousy faggot” is inexcusable, but somehow “old slut on junk” is acceptable. That suggests that individual words are somehow more powerful than the context and intent behind them. It’s also odd because it’s being changed after MacColl’s death, and I get the sense that she’d be better able to justify it than anyone speaking on the song’s behalf, even Shane MacGowan. Apparently there’s a long history of edits to the song, with attempts that seem more equitable in cutting out all the potentially offensive words, but as a result making it completely toothless.

My ultimate takeaway is that it all makes it easier to understand why Christmas songs are typically more about gifts and carols and snow, and less about adult couples being angry and horny.

My other favorite Christmas songs4A post that was supposed to have only two Christmas songs has magically stretched to include four songs! It’s a Hanukkah miracle! are “Christmas Wrapping” by the Waitresses (although even at my most stressed, I never agree with the “miss this one this year” sentiment) and “All I Want for Christmas is You” by Mariah Carey (yeah, I said it. If you don’t like it, you’re wrong). Merry Christmas, everybody!