How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Really Enjoy Malignant

My fraught history with horror and James Wan’s wacky new movie.

When I was around 12 years old, I spent the night at my friend’s house to go through a right of passage: seeing my first modern horror movie. The first three Friday the 13th movies were playing back to back on HBO, and we stretched our sleeping bags out in front of the TV to watch all of them. I remember being so proud of myself by the time the last one ended! I’d discovered that the movies weren’t nearly as scary as I’d been imagining from their reputation, and were in fact just goofy fun. I’d conquered my fears!

Then we turned out the lights, everyone went to sleep, and I experienced another right of passage: the first time I stayed awake until sunrise. Every time I glanced out a window, I saw Jason peeking in. Every time I closed my eyes, I pictured Jason crushing a guy’s skull with his bare hands, or slicing a guy in two while he was doing a handstand. It seemed like forever until everyone else woke up and I could grab my sleeping bag and nervously power-walk back to the safety of my own bedroom.

The reason I mention all of that is because it will never not be weird to me that there’s an entire genre of movie — an entire genre of entertainment — that I can experience and have absolutely no control over my reaction to it. It’s an unpredictable physical reaction to what’s usually an intellectual activity.

Now, I assure you that I’m not actually an alien, sent to Earth to learn to live like the hu-mans. I understand that for as long as there have been horror movies, they’ve been sold in terms of a physical reaction: “pulse-pounding,” “spine-tingling,” etc. I know that that physical reaction is a crucial part of the appeal for some people.

But man, what a drag, when you want to be the type of person who can casually watch horror movies or play horror video games. Or when the rest of the US seems to want to make Halloween happen earlier and earlier this year, and I’m inundated with footage from haunted house events and I’m left feeling like Jews must feel from November to January. Imagine if I couldn’t make it through romantic comedies without being overwhelmed with anxiety that I’d pass out!

Which is a real possibility. Certain scenes in Un Chien Andalou and Audition made me experience what felt like a gray-out: tunnel vision, ringing in my ears, and a light-headedness that left me unable to process what was happening. I can’t handle the sight of blood, either, fake or real. Both are something that I thought I could just man up and eventually get over it. But after 50 years and the past several years spent as a frequent guest in hospitals, I’ve seen a lot of blood and feel no closer to being able to mind-over-matter it. (I hope I never have to see a dialysis machine ever again; it’s such a perversion that they actually look like ICEE machines created by Satan).

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One Thing I Love About Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

There’s a ton of fantastic stuff packed into Shang-Chi, but my favorite was choosing an antagonist who’s In the Mood for Love

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was compelling enough to get me into a theater, which is good because Disney insisted on releasing it in theaters only, while we’re still in the midst of learning about the impact of the Delta variant. Good job, Disney! (Kudos to the Alamo Drafthouse in SF for requiring proof of vaccination on entrance, and of course having lots of space in between the seats).

Still, the movie was worth the effort and the trip, stuffed full — overstuffed, even — of different movie genres they wanted to absorb into the MCU. Why not combine 30 years of Hong Kong and Chinese cinema into one movie, and throw another Ant Man in, while they’re at it?

I thought it was excellent, and a little more focus, plus some more breathing room between sequences, would’ve made it perfect. As it is, you just have to settle for several fantastic action sequences, tons of CGI spectacle that somehow managed to be genuinely thrilling, and several of the most preternaturally charismatic performers the world’s biggest movie franchise can attract and afford.

Ever since I first saw her donkey-kicking fools on top of a speeding train in Supercop, Michelle Yeoh has been my favorite part of anything she’s in. Simu Liu is so handsome, ripped, adept at both action sequences and light comedy, and so effortlessly charming, that he might as well have been genetically engineered to lead an American mega-corporation’s attempt at creating a new kung fu franchise. In fact, there’s not a bad performance in the movie, which is remarkable considering that everyone has to shift constantly between action and comedy with little warning.

So it’s saying something that even with all of that going on, the performance that stood out to me as exceptional was Tony Leung’s as Shang-Chi’s father Wenwu.1Also I just saw on IMDB that he and I have the same birthday, which is rad.

It took the movie into a direction I hadn’t expected at all, making it feel more substantial than a super-hero blockbuster take on a kung fu movie. Explaining why would require spoiling some of the surprises of the movie, which would be a shame, since I was surprised that it even had the capacity to surprise me.

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Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: The Swedish Side-Eye

Continuing a theme for the week, I guess, with two songs from ABBA

If I’m sharing my odd pre-adolescent crushes with the internet, I should probably mention Benny Andersson. I was obsessed with ABBA as a kid, even by gay boy standards.

I’m not sure how exactly I first saw their videos — we didn’t get cable until after I’d “outgrown” them, so I guess it was Night Tracks? — but I was still impressionable enough that the one for “Take a Chance on Me” was hugely formative. One of my favorite songs being performed by a beardy man who dressed kind of like Han Solo? I was completely on board.

I’m also not sure exactly how obsession with ABBA became stereotyped as a gay thing. Obviously, the costumes were over the top, but it was the 1970s. There were plenty of glam pop and rock groups that were even more extravagant but weren’t publicly made up of straight couples. Still, the stereotype is pervasive enough that I know of multiple stores in predominantly gay neighborhoods catering to gay customers, called “Does Your Mother Know?” Which is a song that almost sounds more like Cheap Trick than ABBA.

It used to bug me that so many of the most common stereotypes applied to me; nobody likes being a basic bitch. But now there’s something kind of comforting about realizing you’ve got a common frame of reference with so many other people. As I’m looking through old videos, hearing songs that I’d completely forgotten about but somehow I can still sing along with every single word, it feels like I’ve had Agnetha Fältskog floating over my shoulder all this time, coming to me in times of trouble to whisper about good days and bad days.

Movie List Monday: Movies That Made Me Gay

Hollywood has a lot to answer for.

When I logged back into Letterboxd for the first time in a year, I was surprised by how many lists of LGBT movies there were on the site. Looking over the contents, I was reminded of the disconnect between what most people think of as “gay movies” vs what I think of.

I have to say I’ve been pretty unimpressed by mainstream movies I’ve seen about or targeted at gay people. Part of that is that I just don’t like romances unless they’re romantic comedies, and gay romances in movies are hardly ever allowed to be anything other than tragic. The rest is that the movies either target such a specific subsection of the “culture” that I have nothing to relate to, or else they’re so corny and amateurish that I wonder how they even got produced. I’ve heard Moonlight get universal praise, and some positive things about Call Me By Your Name, but I honestly can’t work up enough interest to see either one. And apart from that, it seems like any gay projects good enough for mainstream exposure are either 1) starring straight actors in a story about how much it sucks to be gay, or 2) aimed specifically and exclusively at the Jonathan Groff demographic.

So I took it as a challenge to come up with a list of what I think of when I hear the phrase “gay movie.” (And not the adult kind). It’s the mainstream movies that felt transgressive when I was watching them, because I felt sure that I was watching them in a way I wasn’t “supposed” to be. It felt weird and isolating when I was an adolescent, but as an adult, it makes me feel even more part of a kind of community: meeting dozens if not hundreds of other people who had exactly the same feeling of I must be the only person in the world with this weird crush growing up.

And I should mention before anyone gets the wrong idea: of course the title of this list is only half serious, and it’s offensive to suggest that something as complex and personal as orientation is arbitrary enough to be changed by watching a movie. Everyone knows that it actually requires the more long-term, repeated exposure of a TV series, like Buck Rogers in the 25th Century or CHiPs.

The Empire Strikes Back
My obsessive hero-worship of Han Solo as a 6-to-9 year old turned into something else when I got older. Han walking off the Millennium Falcon after landing on Cloud City was my Ursula Andress-in-Dr No moment.

The Man Who Would Be King
I didn’t even know about this movie until I was a freshman in college, and my roommate had the poster hanging on his wall. I was already a huge fan of Sean Connery’s after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but watching this one felt different. It made me a lifelong evangelist for the friendly mutton chops, for one thing, and I make sure to keep them in the rotation for myself. It was also a better vehicle for a confused young man with a secret crush than…

I don’t remember when I first saw this, but I do remember that I spent the entire time feeling like I was watching something I shouldn’t be. Sean Connery with a mustache and a long braid wearing what was essentially a diaper with bandolier straps and thigh high boots was funny, sure, but it was a nervous laughter on my part. “Heh that sure was ridiculous, huh? I think we should watch it again a few more times, though, to be sure.”

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
The scene with Bob Hoskins as Eddie Valiant alone in his apartment with Jessica Rabbit (the “Dabbling in watercolors, Eddie?” scene) is the quintessential example of something that made me feel like a total weirdo as a teenager, but once I got older, I met so many other guys who had the exact same reaction that it’s practically a right of passage. It’s probably still a weird crush for a 16-year-old boy to have, but at least it’s one I’m comfortable with now.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
It started with a spectacular musical number and then had Indiana Jones without a shirt for much of the rest of the movie. Come on.

Bull Durham
When I first saw this movie, I thought everybody in the cast must be the sexiest person who ever lived. I don’t think I’d ever seen a movie with so many grown-ups who were so unabashedly and insatiably horny before. I can pretty much guarantee that I’d hate it if I watched it now, but in high school, I had the poster on my wall and everything, and I may or may not have blown it kisses like Laverne and Shirley did with their Beatles stand-up in the opening credits.

The Ice Pirates
The most embarrassing entry on a list that includes Zardoz. Even as a teenager, I could tell that this movie was terrible, and I loved everything back then. But Robert Urich’s character was designed to be a pastiche of all the character types popular for movies in the early 1980s, which also happened to be a combination of everything that turned on a young gay nerd really into sci-fi and fantasy.

Big Trouble in Little China
I don’t even think this one is all that weird; I think it’d be weirder to leave the movie without having a huge crush on Jack Burton and Gracie Law. Seeing this and The Thing around the same time had me wondering if my last words on my death bed were going to be the same as Walt Disney’s.

Friday Night’s All Right for Looking at all Those Chickens

Just a grab bag of older funny videos this week

Some weeks you don’t have the energy for anything other than looking through old videos. None of these are recent, they’ve all been memed and re-memed and their creators have likely milked every last penny of virality out of them, but they still make me laugh every damn time. I miss Vine. Look at all those chickens!

Movie List Monday: Labor Day

A pro-Union list of movies for this Labor Day

As somebody who was growing up as anti-union backlash was giving way to decades of full-blown Reaganism, I feel like everybody in my generation had already started to take for granted all the benefits of the labor movement by the time we entered the workforce. And as somebody who’s spent most of his career working in the game industry — which desperately needs to be unionized, but is bafflingly resistant to it — I’ve never been a direct member of a union, but of course I’ve spent my entire professional career enjoying the benefits of unions. For instance:

9 to 5
I loved this movie as a kid, but I think the full weight of the feminist message was probably lost on me. Which is probably my mother’s fault, because I had no perception of a world in which women weren’t smart, independent-minded, and capable of anything they wanted to do as a career, so the movie was more or less preaching to the choir. But even if you’re having to work for a sexist jackass, the entire concept of the eight-hour day is thanks to unions.

8 1/2
This movie is about Federico Fellini’s frustrations making his ninth movie, with Marcello Mastroianni as a barely-fictionalized stand-in for Fellini, and the events of the movie refusing to distinguish between what’s really happening and what’s in Fellini’s imagination. I thought this was a masterpiece of post-modern cleverness back when I thought post-modern cleverness was the highest thing you could achieve. The title of this movie has nothing to do with the eight-hour work day, but it’s nice to be reminded that if you did work 8 1/2 hours, that extra 30 minutes could be considered overtime.

Another classic I likely never would’ve seen without film school, this one is Jean-Luc Godard making a show of his mockery of filmmaking, bourgeois urbanites, politics, activists, and maybe all of humanity? Maybe most known for its long sequence showing a never-ending traffic jam that gets more and more silly as it goes on… until reaching the cause of the traffic, a gruesome, fatal crash. That mentality carries throughout the film, combining violence, gore, and absurd humor. It’s a satire of western civilization but doesn’t make explicit that the only reason western civilization has the concept of a weekend as separate from the Sabbath is because of the work of labor unions.

Joe vs the Volcano
Even in the 1980s, when I had a much higher tolerance for on-the-nose earnestness, I felt like this movie was a little too much. But I didn’t really enjoy You’ve Got Mail, so this was a great celebration of how much I liked both Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. The story is an allegory for Hanks’s character breaking out of his dull existence and finding his spark in life, and the misery of his work environment made more of a lasting impression on me than anything else. “I’m losing my sole” was a pretty on-the-nose pun, but it’s still the first thing I think of whenever I start to suspect that my job is taking advantage of me.

Working Girl
Kind of similar to 9 to 5, but this one is more classist and a little less explicitly feminist because the evil boss is a woman (Sigourney Weaver playing a villain that I actually liked better than the hero). Of course, the larger undercurrent is that patriarchy works partly by pitting women against each other, as Weaver and Griffith are both fighting for Harrison Ford’s approval, so maybe it’s even more feminist? Anyway, this movie remains fascinating to me because I still have no idea how self-aware it is. It’s got some of the worst dialogue, even by 80s standards (“I am not a steak. You cannot order me.”), and a lecture I saw from the screenwriter suggested that he wasn’t interested in subtext or any kind of layers at all. But that last shot, showing one corner office in a sea of thousands and re-contextualizing the entire “victory” of the movie — I can’t tell if it’s actually as sardonic as the ending of The Graduate, or if I’m just reading too much into Mike Nichols’s directing credit. Anyway, the title is a double entendre comparing secretaries to prostitutes, in a way that manages to be insulting to both. The 80s were not kind to unions, but movies like this at least helped keep the idea alive that workers were as crucial to a business as executives.

Bring it On
Another weird movie with a baffling tone: simultaneously a predictable, fatuous teen movie, and a self-aware satire. It puts its cheerleading teens in a high school called “Meat Ranch” without comment. It’s directed by Peyton Reed of the increasingly good Ant-Man movies and a couple of fantastic episodes of The Mandalorian, so of course its self-awareness is intentional. I love any movie where different people on set at the same time each thought they were making something completely different. For several years, I had myself convinced that I couldn’t possibly be gay since I enjoyed a movie about sexy young female cheerleaders so much, which is a poignant story about the power of denial. The best character in this movie is Isis, played by an actress who always knows what she’s doing and is always in on the joke, Gabrielle Union.

Friday Night’s All Right For Keeping the Kids Out of the Pool

Friday link post featuring Adult Swim and long-term storage of renewable energy

This week was the 20th anniversary of the Adult Swim block on Cartoon Network, and this mini-retrospective by Kyle Anderson on does a pretty good job of concisely summing up why the combination of cheap TV programming and clever ad bumpers made such a huge impact on nerds of a certain age.

Or multiple certain ages, I guess. I’m having trouble coming to terms with the idea that I was 30 when Adult Swim debuted, because I could’ve sworn I watched it in college. Anyway, it’s a good opportunity to listen to the D-Code Mix of Mambo Gallego by Tito Puente and remember there’s no eating in the pool. What’s that guy eating? Is that pimento?

  • Dianna Cowren on her YouTube channel PhysicsGirl just finished a series about hydrogen fuel cell cars. It was sponsored by Toyota, so it’s definitely spun to be more positive of the potential of fuel cells than you’d tend to see otherwise, but it also does a good job of realistically assessing the downsides of hydrogen, why passenger vehicles may not see wide adoption over battery EVs, and why a combination of fuel cells (faster refueling, longer range) and BEVs (everything else) will be necessary to get wide-scale conversion to electric.
  • The parts of Cowren’s series that I thought were even more interesting were the episode about approaches towards storing renewable energy and different kinds of solar farms beyond the familiar photovoltaics. I was vaguely aware that solar and wind power needed some kind of storage solution to be available on demand, but I’d just assumed that massive batteries were the solution. That video explains some ingenious alternatives, such as using excess energy to pump water to a higher elevation, then using the water falling to power turbines when that energy is needed.
  • Lucas Pope is doing a devblog for his Playdate game Mars After Midnight, and last week’s entry “Working in One Bit” was a neat account of what’s involved in making art for a small one-bit display in 2021.
  • Another interesting project for Playdate that’s in the works: a framework for crank-scrollable comics called Panels, by Cadin Batrack.
  • Those two projects made me realize that I’ve been a little short-sighted about what exactly appeals to me about the Playdate: as somebody who still pines for his Mac Plus, I had been thinking of it as throwing back to a very specific kind of mid-to-late-80s nostalgia for the early Macintosh aesthetic. Instead, I think the actual appeal is broader: it feels like a direct expression of creativity from developer to audience. I got reminded of the wonderful and bizarre Comic Chat IRC client from Microsoft. Frankly, I never saw it actually work as well as its concept promised, but I’m still amazed by the fact that it existed at all. Not just that such an R&D project came out of Microsoft, but that they managed to get Jim Woodring to do the art!

Literacy 2021: Book 21: Slaughterhouse-Five

Kurt Vonnegut’s unstuck-in-genre masterpiece about the bombing of Dresden and also about human lifespans and our own perception of them

Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Vonnegut tries to recount his experiences as an American POW in Germany during the fire-bombing of Dresden by instead telling the story of Billy Pilgrim, a fellow POW and alien abductee who had become unstuck in time.

Filled with the kind of writing that turns ordinary people into fans of Kurt Vonnegut’s writing. Its description of watching a documentary about bombers in reverse is so poignant and wonderfully written, it should come pre-highlighted in every copy of the book. The first chapter is like a magician explaining exactly how he’s about to perform a trick, but then the trick still feels like magic. Its explanation of the seven people it takes to make a human baby was a wonderfully absurd surprise. Its description of PTSD in the form of a barbershop quartet is in a lot of ways a fantastic encapsulation of the entire book: comical and horrific at once, trying to make sense of something that makes no sense.

Vonnegut’s descriptions of Billy’s wife Valencia are the only ones in the book that struck me as cruel. So much of this book is familiar that I have the sinking suspicion I read it in college and forgot about it.

So It Goes
As a teenage insomniac, I was a huge fan of NBC News Overnight, the sardonic news show hosted by Linda Ellerbee that was later replaced by Late Night With David Letterman. Ellerbee always signed off with “And so it goes,” I’m assuming inspired by Slaughterhouse-Five (I haven’t read her memoir). At the time, I interpreted it as merely a cynical kind of self-awareness, a refusal to adopt the gravitas of other journalists who lent a sense of legitimacy to stories that were so often mired in nonsensical, repetitive, bullshit. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that Ellerbee’s presentation of the news, along with Letterman’s take on celebrity and the media, helped define my entire mindset up to and including my thirties. Now, though, I wish I had read Slaughterhouse-Five to fully understand the context of “so it goes” as Vonnegut actually used it: on the surface, it does read as an expression of cynical futility, but via its repetition — invoking it after every single mention of death — it also takes on a tone of reverence. No life is more or less important than any other, each one deserves to be noted and memorialized, instead of abstracted into an unimaginable number and especially not brushed aside as acceptable loss. It acknowledges that yes, death is inevitable, and constant, but that doesn’t make it any less meaningful.

A masterpiece of 20th century literature, any attempt to encapsulate it as simply “satire” or “anti-war” would diminish it. Its format — which could at first seem too flippant for the subject matter — is exactly what makes it perfect. Its mundane details stand out too vividly to be abstracted away or compartmentalized as they would be in a more traditional narrative that wants the reader to understand the deaths of over 140,000 humans in one night. It hops around memories of horror and the trauma of its aftermath, events that keep happening always, all at the same time. And which would seem fated to keep happening forever, much like events of World War II recounted by someone in the midst of the Vietnam War, read by someone during the end of a 20-year-long war in Afghanistan.

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Surfin’ to Space and Back

Surf Guitar and Outer Space are two great tastes that taste great together

Today’s theme for the Tune Two-Fer: Space Surf Guitar!

Although I’d heard examples of it previously, the first time I became aware of combining surf rock and sci-fi was on Space Mountain at Disneyland, when it debuted the soundtrack with Dick Dale doing a space surf version of Carnival of the Animals. It seemed like such a novelty, even though it made perfect sense: the “golden age” of surf music roughly coincided with the popularity of sci-fi B movies and TV series.

“Out of Limits” by The Marketts is the most obvious example I’ve heard; a frankly shameless surf guitar riff on the Twilight Zone theme.

I admit that I’d always just assumed that combining space and surf guitar was a novelty the Pixies invented, on Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde. In my defense, if you compare their cover of “Cecilia Ann” on Bossanova with the original by the Surftones, it does sound like the song had spent decades Earthbound until the Pixies added otherworldly organs and echoes.

The above links are from Apple Music; here are the Spotify versions, if that’s your thing:

No Tits for Target

Marveling at how many layers there are to being a pop star and how much you have to do to get any kind of message out these days

I swear I’m not trying to maximize my SEO or anything; I’ve just been really genuinely enjoying Halsey’s new album and all the overblown, ostentatious marketing about it.

When I saw the album cover on Apple Music — the singer posed as a queen on an elaborate throne of bent metal, wearing a crown, a relatively understated gown, and minimal make-up, with one breast exposed, looking to the side while holding a baby to face the viewer — I had the most geriatric response possible: “Well, good for her!”

But really, it’s such a good image and it says everything the album wants to say, perfectly and immediately: it’s about femininity, motherhood, and power. It fits in with the medieval aesthetic of the whole album and its associated IMAX movie, functioning perfectly as both marketing and as artist statement. It shouldn’t be controversial at all, and I was briefly happy to think that we’d all finally grown up enough to realize that it’s not controversial. That’s the end of that, and good for… oh no wait it can’t be that simple.

I was in Target yesterday, where there’s still a tiny section in which they try to sell music on physical media, and while I didn’t dare go into that section — it was full of darkness and mists, and the echoing cries of Ariana Grande — I did start wondering how the cover would be received when it was on display in the more prudish parts of the country. Won’t someone think of the children who have never been confronted with the sight of a woman’s breast?!

Sure enough, there’s a Target Exclusive Vinyl edition of the album, and its version of the cover is hilariously cautious, deftly pushing the baby up and over a skosh, so that its hand covers Halsey’s offending nipple.

I also found this article in Variety from July with a press statement (from Instagram, apparently) describing the cover as part of an attempt to get rid of the stigma around breastfeeding, and to dispel outdated notions of the Madonna/whore, in which a woman can be either motherly or sexual but not both. That’s giving wide exposure of a great message to a younger audience, and I’m all for it.

Except it’s undercut by the fact that the Variety article itself contains the censored version at the top and embeds the uncensored version via Instagram within the article. It’s a hypocritical double standard, just driving home that when marketing and artist statement are unable to peacefully co-exist, marketing is always going to win.

I’m still extremely thankful to that Variety article for exposing me to this fantastic video from Halsey’s team, unveiling the album artwork back in July at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It’s far too long at 13 minutes, most of which is dead time showing Halsey traipsing through the halls checking out depictions of the Madonna and other Renaissance Moms with an inscrutable expression somewhere between “I totally get it now” and “Holy hell I’ve got to pee again already it’s only been like five minutes being pregnant suuuuuuuhhhhhcccks.” They also look back to the camera occasionally, as if to say, “Do you get it yet?” Finally, they s l o w l y walk out to the lobby to reveal the main exhibit: a giant framed print of the cover, taller than they are. Halsey yanks off the covering and walks out of frame, as if to say, “Yeah, deal with it.”

I genuinely, unironically like the overblown audacity of the whole thing. And while I understand that it threatens to undermine Halsey’s own contributions to keep mentioning Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s work on this album, I don’t see it as a slight. It feels to me like a really successful collaboration. This video reminds me so much of the vibe of The Downward Spiral-era Nine Inch Nails videos: simultaneously silly and cool. (“Mr. Reznor, please stop throwing your microphone away. We’ve talked about this. They’re expensive, and you need it to buy your house. These microphones are what make your house hot.”) I don’t like it because it’s silly — although my favorite part of the Met unveiling video by far is that they committed to the silent “Oh hello, I didn’t see you there,” opening, which is hilarious — it’s laughably absurd, and it’s thoughtful and earnest and well executed, at the same time, without collapsing into one or the other no matter how many times I observe it.

The idea behind the cover simply isn’t controversial; technically it may be more revealing but it’s still 10,000 times less sexualized than, say Halsey’s video for “You should be sad.” Which is itself a case of getting sillier and sillier as the video progresses, to the point where they’re sprawled out naked as Lady Godiva on a white horse. (And I’d bet you anything that the part that caused the most grief wasn’t all the mostly-nude people grinding on each other, but that they say “fucking” in a non-sexual context). After all, it’s not exactly news that record companies are eager to show super-sexualized images of young women to sell music, but will freak out if the young women try to take control over their own sexuality or to say anything with it.

But it’s not a particularly deep idea, either; certainly not something that requires 13 minutes of starting blankly at paintings to get across. It would be a little hypocritical to accuse anybody of making such a big deal out of an exposed breast, when the artist themselves is literally unveiling it in a museum.

It’s all part of this gigantic marketing blitz driven by people who have decided that Halsey is going to be a super-star no matter what, dammit. Just looking for articles for Halsey’s own take on the album, this weekend, I’ve learned more about them than I know about most musicians I actively follow. It feels invasive and, inescapably, less than genuine. I realize that that’s just how the business is now, where you have to have an entire alternate persona and multi-media marketing blitz just to make a dent in the public consciousness.

It’s also made it near impossible for commercial success to coexist with earnest sentiment. I’m not a fan of St Vincent’s current album Daddy’s Home, but I realized recently that it’s not just a case of disliking a bunch of songs while looking forward to the next album in a year or two. It feels like I’m rejecting this entire new persona she’s built for herself, pounding us over the head with 1970s imagery and merchandise that says “Daddy.” (And I confess I totally bought one of the Daddy shirts because I thought it’d be funny, and therefore I am part of the problem). It feels like it’s getting harder and harder to find out what’s real at the core of any of it, or whether it’s all just commerce.

Maybe sometime this century, the US will be able to get over its prudishness and misogyny, and stop sending out messages to women like “we’ll pay to see you naked, and you should be ashamed for it.” I’m just skeptical that the positive change is going to come embedded in a multi-million dollar marketing campaign.