25th Anniversary: ‘Jagged Little Pill’ — A New Perspective

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Like a lot of older Millennials, I can remember the first time I heard Alanis Morissette. I was in eighth grade, and her debut music video in the U.S., “You Oughta Know”, began making the rounds on TV. I didn’t think much of it, but her second single, “Hand in My Pocket”, arrived months later and I became hooked like the 33 million fans worldwide who’d buy her blockbuster album, “Jagged Little Pill”, in 1995 onwards.

It wasn’t just that I was a fan; she literally introduced me to music—and at that pivotal age, it was momentous. Like many teenagers, my musical taste would be crucial in informing my identity. Aided by Alanis’ music, I discovered the genre she was ostensibly part of—alternative rock—and I was in love.

I remained a fan of Alanis in the subsequent years, still fondly playing her first and second albums regularly, well into my thirties. A quarter of a century later, however, I unexpectedly found myself coming full circle to the minority of outliers whom I recalled initially rebuked the phenomenon of her music, perplexingly.

Something had shifted my sensibilities. Now the instrumentation, style, and concept of her music simply struck me as… inauthentic. They seemed preconceived, affected, and a little silly. It wasn’t that there wasn’t true talent involved; it’s that the music was less about art than it was about entertainment. On that level, yes: the music was certainly catchy—enough for me to listen repeatedly for decades. I would never tire of her music in some sense, but I began to realize: maybe she wasn’t such an authentic artist, but again: just an entertainer with a phenomenal gimmick.

These were the accusations from her critics, twenty-five years ago upon the release of “Jagged Little Pill”. They had baffled me then, in their reservations against a surely indelible and spectacular artist—but now I understood where they were coming from.

I remember hearing people flatly say her music was “whiny” and an outlet for complaining—rather than profound and cathartic, as millions of fans attested. Her most famous critics declared her hackneyed and contrived; I could hear it in the instrumentation now—often, it sounded more like an imitation of rock music than actual  rock music, if that makes sense. It was too slick and mannered for its own good. A sophisticated ear is a tall order for a fourteen year old; what was my excuse for the last twenty years? Maybe when I listened to her music between then and now, it was clouded by my own nostalgic attachment to it.

Morissette’s credibility was always suspect from the start: prior to “Jagged Little Pill”, she’d released two strictly dance-pop albums that were indicative of their time: the early 1990s. Her about-face with “Pill” as an alternative rock singer was suspiciously convenient, a few years later at the peak of the grunge phenomenon. That she collaborated with veteran music producer Glen Ballard—who was accomplished but best known for polished pop rather than rock music—only perpetuated doubts of Alanis’ “rock” status. Honestly, this theoretical calculation on her part wouldn’t have bugged me, except that she didn’t pull it off artistically after all.

It’s telling that Morissette never repeated her success with “Pill”—commercially or artistically, ever again. Not that an artist should replicate their style or subject repeatedly, but she never attained the same relevance even on a strictly esoteric or artistic level. Her follow-up album came the closest, but even now it suffers from a similar quality as its behemoth predecessor: inhabiting a dubious sonic limbo between art and entertainment. In fact, all of her subsequent albums shared this trait. That was no accident.

It’s no wonder that no matter how beloved and entrenched “Jagged Little Pill” is in popular culture, it rarely if ever landed on any of those contentious, retrospective “Best of” lists from presumably serious music critics. Those dissertations always lent themselves to debate, which is why their unanimous omission of this album is all the more telling: and rarely debated!

Don’t get me wrong—I still think Alanis Morissette’s music has merit, but her music is tantamount to a blockbuster movie: it may become a beloved fixture in popular culture, but it’s not necessarily the finest example of its medium. In many ways, it’s no less valuable for bearing this quality, and there’s no shame in liking it. I will always have a place in my heart for her brand of music, just like I do with other fun pop music, blockbuster films, or cheesy TV shows. They all serve a purpose. Twenty-five years later, I may have changed, but I can still laud this landmark album for its most consistent quality: a pivotal moment in pop culture—for me, and the millions of fans that made it one of the biggest albums of all time.

Not Happily Ever After: Why the Disney Renaissance Ended…

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With the recent slate of Disney films being released to theaters, it could be mistaken that we’re in the 1990s again. In the past two years, Disney has released live action remakes of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Next year Mulan will follow suit. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is officially in the works now too. All of these films are based on blockbuster animated features from Disney that premiered in the 1990s.

They were part of the illustrious era of animated feature films known as the Disney Renaissance—from 1989 to 1999. And frankly, it’s easy to see why these films still seem to be relevant—chronologically and culturally: the generation that grew up with these films, mostly Millennials born between the early 1980s through the mid 1990s, have yet to reach age forty at most—and barely finished college at the least. They’re also a notoriously nostalgic group, like most Americans—but with an even more ubiquitous platform to perpetuate it—on social media and the Web.

They grew up with the Disney Renaissance and have ostensibly kept the relevance of its animated features alive—literally two decades after its official end. With at least half of the films from the era slated for reinterpretation as major live action films, their enduring grasp on popular culture is unquestionable.

As a member of this generation and a bona fide Disney buff, I cant attest that the memory of these films are indeed as vivid and fresh today as they were when I was at the target age for their appeal. They are touchstones of my childhood, imbuing me with a sense of wonder and a worldview that I still hold onto to this day.

Nonetheless, the Disney Renaissance did have a clear beginning and end. It veritably ceased to produce more new films to augment its original run, after 1999. As any Disney fan or even a casual observer will recall, subsequent animated features from Disney experienced a steep drop in popularity for nearly a decade afterwards, in spite of a continual output of releases then.

As a fan with unrelenting exposure to these animated films, I have arrived at a conclusion as to why the phenomenon of the Disney Renaissance drew to a close at the end of the last century.

My theory is rooted in the catalyst that started the Disney Renaissance and made it popular in the first place. Kick-starting the era in 1989, The Little Mermaid was the first fairy tale that the Disney studio had worked on in thirty years. This was largely why it was a resounding success, because it returned to the formula that had worked so well for Disney in the past: a fairy tale musical, centered on a princess. Disney had erroneously abandoned this formula for nearly two decades prior to this, and suffered commercially and artistically with audiences.

Per hindsight, however, I believe the rediscovery of this Disney formula during the Renaissance era would also become its own undoing. If the era had one fault, it was that literally every film adhered to the formula, stringently, with the exception of The Rescuers Down Under, an early entry to the era that proved to be a commercial misfire, tellingly. Every other animated feature between 1989 and 1999 consisted of: a beautiful or outcast protagonist—usually orphaned by one or both parents, amusing sidekicks, romantic interest, colorful villain, an epic setting, and a roster of songs that covered the requisite themes of life goals, romantic love, and villainy. This is not to dispel the considerable diversity of creative and technical achievement of the era—producing some of the most ingenious, memorable and astonishing feats of song, visual, and characters—not to mention an unprecedented level of representation for the first time from Disney (lead characters of different ethnicities: Aladdin, Pocahontas, Mulan).

Nonetheless it’s quite revealing to see that, when compared to previous eras of Disney animated features, no other era could be accused of the same homogeneity: the Golden Age, from 1937 to 1942, only had two films that featured romantic love, only one princess, and two clear musicals. The Silver Age had several films without romantic love or a musical format as well. These two eras are arguably the biggest rivals of the Renaissance, in popularity and artistic achievement. Both reached a demise for their own disparate reasons—economical downturn after 1942 due to World War II, and the death of Walt Disney in 1966, respectively.

The theory of redundancy during the Disney Renaissance had also possibly begun to take shape as early as the mid-way point of its run: after four stellar blockbusters from the studio, things suddenly slowed down with the release of Pocahontas in 1995. Widely viewed as the first critical let down of the era, things didn’t immediately return to form in 1996 or 1997 either, with the releases of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules. Both films failed to draw audiences back after the misstep of Pocahontas. Something was amiss.

Audiences were being drawn elsewhere too: computer animation. This is perhaps the most commonly held theory of why the Disney Renaissance came to an end: towards the end of the 1990s, a new medium was dawning—usurping traditional, hand-drawn (2-D) animation that Disney was known for. With the release of Toy Story in 1995, a resounding success not just for being the first major computer-animated feature but a true triumph of story, audiences found a new outlet for family-friendly films that appealed to all ages. A slew of computer-animated (or CGI) films followed in gradual succession for the rest of the decade and beyond, none of which followed the renowned Disney formula—and often to critical and commercial success, surpassing even Disney. If the Disney Renaissance proved that animated features could appeal to all ages, CGI animated films proved that they didn’t have to be based on classic, existing literature—opening the doors for innovations in story that just happened to be married to a very innovative technology, now coming to its own at the end of the twentieth century.

Although I agree that CGI certainly disrupted Disney’s momentum in the latter half of the 1990s—particularly since CGI animated features have ostensibly remained more popular with audiences and critics alike, and 2-D animation has never come back into vogue since—I still stand by my theory that it was more of content than just medium. Also, the onslaught of CGI feature-length films actually occurred rather slowly, and did not immediately crowd the market that 2-D Disney animated features dominated: after Toy Story was first released in 1995, the next CGI films were Antz and A Bug’s Life, both premiering in 1998. That left three full years in between, which subsequently saw the release of three Disney animated features to vigorously fill the void to maintain their stronghold on audiences—yet they didn’t. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, and Mulan were released by Disney during this period and though not critical or commercial failures, were far less renowned than their predecessors from the Disney Renaissance. Again, a malaise seemed to have settled with audiences, which could be read as a reflection of the medium’s output. Audiences surely weren’t just holding off for the next great CGI film, after only having witnessed the medium’s sole initial output in 1995. The average moviegoer had no idea how the CGI medium would eventually fare, though it was clearly a technological advancement. (It wasn’t until 2001, that the medium exploded with simultaneous releases of multiple CGI animated films, cementing it as a mainstay in cinema).

It was apparent that audiences had simply grown tired of the Disney formula, and so the business changed after 1999, just as it did after the Silver Age in 1967—when the studio entered a prior era of commercial and critical malaise, following the death of Walt Disney.

With that, it’s also helpful to understand what followed the Disney Renaissance: from 2000 to 2008, the Post Renaissance era indeed echoed the era that followed the Silver Age—the Bronze Age of 1970-1988, when the studio struggled to redefine its identity to audiences then too. The resulting films in the new millennium would reflect these efforts, striking into new territories such as Science Fiction, original stories not based on classic tales, even the CGI medium as well—which would be a portent of the studio’s eventual direction. Most of the films from this era didn’t quite resonate enough with audiences to turn them into classics.

The Revival era followed in 2009, with yet another rediscovery of the formula—with Tangled cementing Disney’s return to the zeitgeist, followed by Frozen. Both were clearly fairy-tale musicals centered on a princess, but married to the new CGI medium now, which Disney has converted to indefinitely to fit with the times. Aside from the new look, these films are quite similar to the Renaissance formula. Audiences responded and propelled these films into the public conscience as they did in the Renaissance era, hence the new namesake.

But if these new films from the Revival are following the same virtual formula as the Renaissance, why did the Renaissance cease in the first place? Shouldn’t it have endured, unabated, by sheer demand?

Again: we just needed a break. As a lifelong Disney fan, with the benefit of hindsight, I couldn’t fathom a Disney Renaissance-style film being released by the studio every year for the next two decades after Tarzan, the last of that era, in 1999. On some level, I would enjoy it purely as a diehard fan, but it would almost become campy—a parody of itself if you will. As much as audiences loved the Disney Renaissance, we can also sense artistic malaise. The formula had gotten monotonous and stale—again, already by the midway point of its era—and audiences clearly reacted with their wallets.

Does that mean that the Revival era is doomed to repeat history? Surprisingly, it may be averting this fate because: although it certainly has resuscitated the Disney formula, there’s one telling factor that separates it from the Disney Renaissance—it’s not following the formula for every new film. To their credit and maybe by calculation, they’re not just doing princess stories or fairy tales exclusively. Maybe that’s part of its success: Big Hero 6 and Zootopia are some of the titles that are as divergent from fairy tales and princesses as you can get. Both met with clear commercial and critical acclaim—unlike the misfires of previous eras that also strayed from the formula.

Whether they realize it or not, perhaps this is what audiences need. We will always love and adore princesses and fairy tales, but there needs to be variety. There’s nothing wrong with having a studio trademark (family-friendly films, music, artistic visuals), but the trademark can be broad and expand. Art is about change, pushing boundaries, and expanding possibilities. Sure, we do like some degree of familiarity—all art has a core familiarity: a movie has a beginning, middle and end; music has notes and instruments, verses and choruses. But along with familiarity we need variety.

Perhaps Disney has a new, unprecedented confidence and competency that is allowing them to achieve something they weren’t quite able to do in the past: successfully tell classic stories and original new stories, concurrently. Disney may have failed at pursuing either one at various times in the past, not because either one was theoretically bad—but because they just weren’t truly creating something exceptional. As mentioned, they were going through the motions after a certain point during the Disney Renaissance, settling into a creative ennui—or alternately, striking into new territory with dubious artistic vision, during the Post Renaissance for example. But if a story is truly told well, it can potentially succeed. Audiences will respond to something special even if it defies current trends, as they did when The Little Mermaid reignited this medium that had virtually gone defunct for nearly two decades, kick-starting the Disney Renaissance in 1989.

Will Disney get it right this time? We can only wait and see.

Any long-running institution is going to experience inevitable peaks and valleys in relevance and vitality—hence the different eras of Disney feature animation that exist in the first place. I am resigned to the eventual fate of the storied Disney Renaissance of my youth, because to borrow a platitude: good things can’t last forever. Sitcoms come to an end. Book and film franchises end—and can even be revived again after a certain period of absence (sound familiar?). The much-beloved Disney Renaissance is all the more revered because it wasn’t permanent and was limited in duration. It lends it a rarity that further incites gratitude and veneration. It was beautifully fleeting, as all life is.

It’s almost as if the beginning and ending of each era was inevitable—because like all art, Disney feature animation is an evolving medium. The studio is learning their craft in real time, and we get to watch it unfold onscreen.

 

Nobody Walks in L.A.

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L.A. has the worst pedestrians in the world—because we’re not used to them. It’s bad enough that it takes forever to drive a relatively short distance in this town due to traffic, but when you need to drive through an intersection and a person dares to walk across it first? It’s enough to make you curse the existence of humanity.

Sometimes it’s truly a test: on more than one occasion, I’ve been delayed by the truly physically impaired. Of course I empathize and wait patiently on those occasions, but those moments feel tailored to test the utmost limits of my character. It’s like halting an epic sneeze or cutting off a bowel movement midstream: the absolute urge to purge and the terror of following through with such a deplorable act calls for your every last nerve to reverse the impossible.

On one such occasion, I had to make a left turn from a moderately busy lane; a slew of cars rolled through in the opposite direction, deterring me. My receptors were already piqued because this traffic was a tad unusual for this area given it was an early Saturday evening. I scanned my target intersection, and saw two young men idling by on skateboards. They cleared before the train of cars did. Impatient, I began to eyeball the nearest traffic light up ahead that could clip this parade to my left. Then I saw it:

A disheveled, middle-aged man ambled arduously forward towards my designated cross street—on crutches. What’s more—in my periphery, I caught an aberration on one of his legs—yes, his right leg was amputated around the knee. Immediately, my mind jumped to do the math: at his laborious pace and with the yellow light imminent up ahead, he would reach the intersection just as the cars on my left cleared.

I wasn’t in a rush. I wasn’t even angry at him. I was just resolutely amused that this was happening. It felt so indicative of this city. Here I was, driving a car that still functioned well past its purported expectancy, with takeout on my passenger seat—no plans for the night, half a mile from home—and normally I would’ve flipped out at this pedestrian who dared to cross a public street in direct tandem to me turning into it, except that in this scenario the perpetrator was possibly a transient with clear physical limitations and little to no means by the looks of his tattered appearance.

If I had flipped the switch into full selfish pig mode at that very moment, even just privately in the confines of my car—I knew it still would’ve been a sin, in the eyes of my conscience and whatever god may exist. I could see an audience of my fellow human beings at that very moment as well, sneering and groaning at me if I were to recall the story on stage or if they were privy to it via a hidden surveillance camera—satisfied in their smugness that I was more terrible than they were, convinced that they would’ve felt nothing but angelic compassion in my position.

I drove home and lamented it all: the feckless logistics of this town, the cruel irony of fate, the snide hypocrisy of humans and my own presumptions about them—and my inability to resist being affected by all of this.

Interpersonal Skills: I can’t deal with people.

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I’ve come to the conclusion: I can’t deal with people.

Although by my mid-thirties I know life is a constant learning experience and that we can traverse the entire continuum of allegiances and viewpoints, I have gleaned from my social experiences thus far that I’m just not good at interpersonal skills.

First off, I’m poor at asserting myself. When faced with a scenario where a simple expression of my needs would suffice, I am often drowned out by the myriad connotations of the situation: who is involved, how much I love/fear/loathe/need them, what words or actions spurred the need to assert myself—and how it affects me emotionally.

Beyond that, I seem to lack the same interests, motives or needs that many people exhibit in socializing: I don’t crave status, dominance, or social gain through who I associate with.

As any experienced person knows, there are tacit “games” that people play with one another—through physical action, comments, rejection—to assert their needs and agenda in regards to others.

I’m not interested.

I’m not interested.

I can’t deal with people judging others based on what they look like, who they hang out with, what job they have.

I can’t deal with people who aggressively label me—thinking they “know me” but they really don’t, and when I inevitably prove them wrong they get mad at me, of course, because they’re upset that the world doesn’t fit their perception of it.

I can’t deal with people who put others down in order to build themselves up. I can’t deal with people who gleefully abuse others for this purpose—who have no qualms making an innocent human being miserable.

I can’t deal with people using others for personal gain, including those they had considered their friends and closest colleagues.

I don’t want to trade barbs with people, because on an instinctual level I don’t want to sink to that level. It disgusts and unnerves me to see myself behave that way. For many people, if I can’t do that—then I am simply a target for their deplorable behavior, and therefore I must avoid them for my own safety and self-respect.

Consequently, even if I possessed the fortitude to assert myself more effectively—my general distaste in our social mores and behaviors could possibly thwart me from ever engaging. I don’t want to correct people’s behavior towards me—not just because I’m incompetent, but because it offends and repulses me that I have to display certain traits to attain it.

It sounds like a cop-out, and in a way—it is. After all, life is all about doing things we don’t want to but are essential as a means to a healthy life that truly benefits us. Each day, we awake, wash and dress ourselves—that in of itself is a requisite for a healthy existence. The vast majority of us must work at an occupation to earn resources that will acquire us more resources.

Interpersonal skills are not as tangible as our bodies, food, water, and a roof over our heads—but they are just as vital for the social animal that we are.

This is where I clash. My principles seem to be at odds with the rudimentary mechanics of socializing.

It’s a shame, because what I lack in grit I make up for in other virtues: as a friend, I’ve been told that I’m fun, open-minded, tolerant, and unconventional. I challenge the norms of society for the greater good of seeing the world anew. I am loyal, kind, generous, and gracious. I am accepting and thoughtful most of the time. I am engaging, but also capable of great independence. I have clearly defined interests and opinions that define me and can serve others.

Look, I’m also not perfect either and can even be guilty of unsavory behavior towards others, but for the most part I believe in a higher state of coexistence. And this is another hindrance to my interactions with others.

At the risk of sounding hopelessly naïve or oblivious, I believe in a world where we tolerate our differences instead of persecuting each other for them. I believe in treating each other with decency and minimal respect, even if we differ in lifestyle, views or appearances. I believe in equality—that we are all inherently valuable therefore the need for stringent hierarchy or status is irrelevant. I believe that as long as a person is not harming anyone, they should be accepted as they are—not persecuted because of someone else’s expectations or ideology. I know this isn’t plausible in our world, but that is my core approach to life, and informs how I view and interact with others.

This is the reason why I feel separate from most people, and different.

I’ve realized this is the reason why I am often confounded when people invariably end up being… human.

It’s all too common for people, including those we’d entrusted ourselves, to lash out at one another—because of differing temperaments, beliefs, expectations, ideology, and needs.

At this age, I’ve experienced the disappointment of so-called “friends” who display less than stellar traits towards me, and handle me in a way that directly opposes basic decency and humanity.

I’ve only been able to count on a small handful of friends who haven’t eventually turned on me yet—and of that minority, many of them are simply not visible enough in my daily life to risk offending me.

This, I feel must be the resolution to my anomalous condition: to seek out and zero in on the rare peoples who will not see me as a target for their foibles and dire needs.

When I find such a commodity, I must treasure them and keep them in my life—because they will be my principal social outlet, because it appears that I am not capable of much more than that.

Will I ever find such rare exceptions? That’s the question.

City of Broken Dreams

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I volunteer at the local gay center occasionally. It’s located in the heart of Hollywood—on Santa Monica Boulevard, just off of Highland. If you go a bit further north on Highland, you’ll hit Hollywood Boulevard next to the Kodak Theater where they used to hold the Academy Awards.

I don’t live too far away, geographically, but as with everything in L.A. it’s cultural disparity that separates us, not distance. Driving up from my nondescript, low-key neighborhood of West L.A. adjacent to Beverlywood, I’m essentially wading into the gritty, smoggy, unfamiliar waters of Hollywood when I venture there. More discerning people would have ardent reservations even going there, barring an absolute emergency or valid necessity. Geographic prejudice is just one of the many charming traits of Angelenos you’ll discover here. I’m certain many of them take gleeful pride in it, much as they would a fine set of hair or an official job title.

One Monday morning, I gamely made the commute to do some filing for an upcoming event at the Gay Center. It was pleasant—getting out of my routine to help out with a good cause, while brushing shoulders with people I otherwise would never encounter on my own. The free pizza and cookies were just a bonus.

Halfway into my shift, I had to move my car to avoid parking regulations. Walking amidst the nearby adjacent residential neighborhood, I got into my vehicle and circled around onto Highland Avenue and parked, then trekked back to the Center. This unremarkable act evoked volumes to the intensity of this city and its continuing unfamiliarity to me.

Within such close proximity to the Gay Center, several of its constituents were milling about in surplus: an African American transgender woman strutted down Highland Avenue, bemoaning the heat under her breath. A pair of young gay men, stylishly dressed, sauntered northward on the street. A lone gay man in his late thirties to early forties, glanced at me curiously as I reached the crosswalk.

The street glowed under the unseasonable heat for late October—all concrete, metal, and glass—cars and casually dressed denizens moving forward with purpose. Businesses held shelter like virtue.

Back at the Center, a middle-aged man and woman danced and frolicked to music from a boombox while a small, hairy dog looked onward at their side. Their diligence seemed to equate with rehearsing for an imminent performance in the future. They paid me no mind, and I didn’t with them.

It was at that moment that I tied everything together. I realized that I no longer possessed a sense of wonder that is synonymous with youth. Not too long ago, I would have been tickled with simple amusement at the sight of this quirky couple and their canine cohort. I would have mused over their arbitrary efforts and location—the myriad possibilities of their intentions and origins.

I would have felt joy at watching the nearby city streets emitting their own special music, new to my ears as a visitor. The pedestrians and storefronts would have told stories that I knew would continue on without my witness—the mystery of it all intriguing me.

I would’ve felt this like a child on a Saturday morning: plain reverence at the beauty of life and all it had to offer on one special day. Now? I’d woken up on a new day, and didn’t recognize what I saw in the mirror anymore. Or I did—I looked just like the hardened cynics who had scoffed at me whenever I expressed unmitigated wonder in this city.

I realized: there was no sense of wonder for me anymore, because there was nothing new for me to see in this city. I knew the end of each story now, or rather: I knew where I belonged in the context of each one. I knew what to expect. I’d been trying in vain to make a connection in this fractured city, to no avail. What did that tell me?

Without ambiguity, there is no need to be curious anymore. This is why people settle down and stop exploring. It isn’t necessarily a choice. It’s an acceptance of who you are and how you are received in this world. I was just holding out on it for much longer than most.

Do the Oscars Matter Anymore?

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It’s that time of year again: when people come together to talk about what some famous actresses wore—who wore it best—oh, and which film won Best Picture. Probably something artsy and serious. Sometimes it’s deserved—a film of true excellence and craftsmanship in writing, acting, and directing. But usually it’s just a film that you may or may not have seen. (I don’t know about you, but I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve decided all serious dramas will be relegated to DVD viewing—‘cause, you know: why do I need to see talking faces on a big screen?) Also, movie prices are astronomical, so—okay, I see it: I’m part of the cycle and why Hollywood is nickel and diming every potential film that passes through their gates in the hopes of production. No wonder they’re settling for the bottom line so often—a “sure” thing (read: sequel, prequel, or remake of something that did legitimate business once). But I digress.

Anyway, it’s the Oscars again. And of second most importance, it is 2017. I make a point of the year because frankly, I don’t believe the Oscars are nor have been the same for a long time now.

I often wonder what my younger doppelganger today would think of this Hollywood pastime now. What do young, budding (okay, and gay!) dreamers like me today think of this rapidly declining tradition of awarding the “Best” in Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences?

Cut to: me in the early 1990s. Maybe because things often look better in retrospect or I just didn’t know any better because I was a kid, but: the Oscars felt like they meant something back then. The five, count ‘em, just five nominated films for Best Picture (more on the topic of that category being expanded to ten nominations later) really felt like they earned that coveted spot. Each film that was nominated felt special, and it was usually a tight race that was more or less about merit and not just politicking by studios and adhering to social trends of the day.

Culturally, budding gay—I mean, budding dreamers of all stripes only had a few outlets to view their favorite stars back then: People magazine, and “Entertainment Tonight”. Which meant we were primed and hungry to see all these stars convene on one epic night—a smorgasbord of glamour, glitz, and at least to an idealistic kid like me back then: talent!

The Oscars have been cheekily dubbed “The Superbowl for Women”—in terms of annual cultural impact and significance. But unlike the actual Superbowl, the Oscars have been morphing and changing notably, and gradually eclipsed by other smaller Superbowls in the past two decades.

In the age of Twitter, TMZ, and the E! Channel, we can literally follow our favorite stars online 24/7 to see what they ate for breakfast or what color their kids’ poop is; spy on them as they exit an airport terminal via shaky video footage, or consume their daily lives in a craftily executed weekly reality TV show.

With these enlightening options that we’ve been blessed with through technical progress, the mystery of what it means to be rich and famous and talented has become rote and accessible in ways never before imaginable.

I have a feeling my teenage doppelganger today would view the Oscars the same way I viewed silent films or drive-in movie theaters when I was a teen in the 1990s.

Perhaps in response to this changing culture (read: poorer ratings for the telecast—undoubtedly due to the Academy’s penchant for nominating “serious” films that don’t do much business at the box office)—the category for Best Picture was expanded to include up to ten nominees, in 2009. The Academy claimed this was a throwback to the early years in the 1930s and ‘40s, where there were up to ten nominees per year—but many cynical observers assumed it was a blatant attempt to nab more viewers for the annual show. The quip “Are there even ten films worthy of being nominated every year?” hit the web quicker than you could say ‘Action!’. Incidentally, the Oscars suffered its lowest TV ratings ever the previous year, so read into the subsequent change however way you want.

As I alluded to earlier, I could relate to the criticism on the merit of today’s films—let alone their worthiness of being nominated for such an honor. In our current cinematic climate, I think the cap of five nominees is/should’ve been more relevant than ever—an elite prestige worth striving for, artistically.

Nearly a decade later, the expansion of nominees hasn’t made a mark on me as an Oscar viewer or a movie fan. If anything, it makes it harder for me to remember what films were nominated each year—but that could be more of a reflection on my waning interest for the show altogether.

In 2016, the Academy was confronted with yet another issue—this time one of moral. The lack of diverse nominees that year spurred a boycott by many African-American artists and viewers, who claimed a racial bias against them. Although I understood the greater issue of diversity, as a minority myself even I had reservations about the campaign. Was the Academy biased, or were there simply no quality films that year that starred African-Americans (or other ethnic groups)? If it was the latter, for instance—the issue wasn’t the Academy, but the movie industry itself.

Nonetheless, in true form, the Academy reacted swiftly with their image in mind—claiming they would add a significant amount of women and people of color to their voting bloc. The validity of this gesture aside, the consequence of this detrimental publicity also left a viewer like me wondering how sincere future nominations would be. As well intentioned as the campaign was to shed light on the Oscars’ lack of diversity, the fallout could be that they might overcompensate and recognize films (not people, mind you) of lesser merit to meet political correctness.

This shifting of objectives and influences only aided the rapidly declining relevance of the Oscars in my eyes. It was not about simply awarding the best films anymore—but a commercial and social experiment gone awry.

But this was nothing new overall: the Oscars have always been about more than just the merit of moviemaking, of course.

I turned eighteen when the world entered a new millennium in 2000, and the year “American Beauty” won against a highly publicized award campaign for its chief rival nominee that year, “The Cider House Rules”. Maybe because I’d technically became an adult and therefore achieved full enlightenment at last, but the fact that a movie studio launched a publicity campaign to swarm voters to choose their film was not lost on me. Apparently, voters don’t just go into hibernation and pick winners, then emerge back into the real world alive and rejuvenated by the purity of their choices.

The validity of their choices has often been debated for other reasons as well: awarding an actor or director for their current, less stellar work simply to acknowledge their greater body of work is another common longstanding ploy.

That being said, it’s safe to say that the curtain has finally gone down on my love affair with the Oscars. Honestly, the last few years I’ve been less and less drawn to the extravaganza. As late as 2013, I still recall having a few vestiges of excitement that I’d had in my youth—feeling like I was witnessing something greater than myself. But the past two years and on the eve of this year, it’s dawned on me now that the heyday of the show has long joined the past. It doesn’t detract from the merit of truly good movies, but that’s the thing: good movies and the Oscars are not the same thing, and they haven’t been for a long time.

So it’s that time of year again—when people come together to talk about what some famous actresses wore—and who wore it best. Oh, and which film won Best Picture. Exactly. That’s all it is.

 

 

La La Land: The Story of Us (Review)

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They say there are no new stories to tell, and nothing new under the sun—that phrase itself is a cliché, see. Yet we still need these tales, for ineffable and primal reasons. Why? Well, it’s ineffable—so sometimes it’s beyond words.

“La La Land” is one of the most familiar stories in the modern canon: girl has a dream of stardom and pursues it in spite of demoralizing setbacks. On top of that, it’s a love story between a girl and a boy—and the boy also has the same dream, essentially. This sandwich of familiarity is enough to send any quasi-cynic running for shade—and I don’t mean for cover. But oddly, many of us are still on board with this setup; so much so, that this film has become the breakout hit of the year: Oscar bait and pop cultural force. And for good reason: for many, it’s simply our story.

The film opens with an inventive musical nod to one of the hallmarks of the city of stars: L.A. traffic. In a gridlock on a steep highway overpass, passengers do the most natural thing in a musical: break into song and dance—jumping on top of their vehicles, courting each other out of their cars, and dancing on the concrete lane with unmitigated reverie, proclaiming in the song’s title how it’s “Another Day of Sun”. For a person who’s lived in Los Angeles longer than I care to divulge, this scene blew straight passed my jaded antennae and bowled me over with its unabashed whimsy. Instead of scoffing at the absurdity of it all, I wanted to join in.

At the song’s end, we meet Mia, played by pixie-ish but quirky Emma Stone. Mia is an aspiring thespian who heeded her childhood calling to tinsel town to realize her dreams of becoming a star—but mostly to tell stories through her craft, like every bleeding-heart artist on Earth. Although Mia is certainly likable, the film is less about character than plot and ideals. Stone is competent as always, but you guessed it: does not add a new wrinkle to this careworn archetype. She does add another notch to her increasingly impressive repertoire, proving that Hollywood may not be so shallow after all: in one scene, after a humiliating audition, Mia zips through a hall of Stone-lookalikes that are also vying for the part. In the elevator, flanked by two of these clones, she is clearly the least statuesque and nubile.

This doesn’t stop her from catching the eye of another aspiring artist, Sebastian—a somewhat aging (by Hollywood standards—read: thirties) jazz pianist played by the still smoldering and chiseled Ryan Gosling. He has the slightly more original dream of the two by default: to simply open up a jazz club, which is a feat because it’s a jazz club and this is the twenty-first century.

In a subdued, if not entirely original setup, Mia is drawn into a nondescript nightclub by the chords of a pensive tune that she hears Sebastian playing inside. This melody becomes a smartly recurring musical motif throughout the film. It’s there that she spies Sebastian, but thankfully it’s not love at first sight for either party. They meet again shortly after through serendipity (he’s a keyboardist at a Hollywood party that she attends), and the inevitable develops between these two passionate artists—cue: excoriating debates on the merits of their crafts and the plausibility of their dreams to secure them, and—romantic love. They inspire each other and cheer each other on, unsurprisingly.

These scenes are padded by more musical numbers—less grandiose in overall production, but still charming and catchy—particularly the lovely, haunting theme of the film, “City of Stars”. These numbers also continue to pay winning tribute to more L.A. trademarks and locales like the Griffith Observatory, beach piers and the Watts Towers. The film does lose its musical momentum in the second half of its story, which will not go unnoticed by musical connoisseurs. For novices like me, it’s the best of both worlds: I enjoyed the songs far more than I’d expected from a traditional film musical, but I was just as happy to be saddled with plain plot and character in the interim, however uneven.

I won’t disclose too much of the remaining plot, because it’s no trouble guessing for a proverbial tale as this anyway: the story reaches its emotional apex when Mia can’t bear another humiliating failure, and hits the sore spot many viewers who bought into this story for personal reasons, fear most—pondering that she may not be destined for greatness after all.

Nonetheless, the ensuing conclusion is probably what you’d expect for both aspiring artists in a film like this. And with that, this is the reason why these familiar stories still work: we need to be reminded that things are possible. It’s not cliché; it’s human—which one came first? (Well, frankly the human—but one thing informs the other). Notably, the movie does handle the love story between Mia and Sebastian with less hackneyed results, and I will leave that utterly out of this review for the viewer to discover on their own.

“La La Land” is nothing new, but it’s a tale we’ll never grow tired of because (many of us) will always care about the things it cares about.

Pop Culture and Me: a Forbidden Love Affair

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No one expects me to like pop culture. I believe two key factors play into this: my race, and my lack of style. I’m not going to change either one. Or the unyielding fact that I’ve always been quite enamored by pop culture.

Okay, my race I can’t change. But could I change my style so that it translates into a media-savvy hipster? Or at the very least, someone who looks like they watch TV?

How does that work? Should I wear “Walking Dead” t-shirts? Get a “Breaking Bad” Tattoo? Wear everything I see from Forever 21 to prove that I’m just like everyone else?

The funny thing about being misunderstood is that although we loathe it, we secretly enjoy it too—because it proves that there’s more to us than meets the eye.

I suppose there are some people out there who are happy being simple and straightforward—easily “read”, or as the kids call it these days: basic. See, I am hip enough to know that.

For the rest of us, we instinctively feel that that translates to being shallow, which is generally seen as a pejorative term unless you’re a reality star. Check. I know what constitutes a reality show star.

The truth is, I do play a role in my own conundrum too. It’s my lack of desire to assimilate on some levels that distances me from my peers, which fosters animosity and misunderstanding. But if I’m not interested in jumping on the latest bandwagon, that’s my right too. And being an individual does not preclude an awareness of what’s current in popular culture.

It’s not all bad either, to be fair. When I mentioned something about the Golden Globes one year (yes, I’m even an awards show junkie), a friend innocently remarked: “Wow, I thought you’d be—too cool to watch something like that.” Aww, ain’t that sweet? So maybe there is a contingent out there that isn’t attacking my character when assuming things about me. They’re simply deeming me to be more enlightened than I actually am, which is flattering—and less insulting.

But alas, I can succumb to frivolity as much as the next person. Who doesn’t enjoy the latest celebrity news? It’s like a large order of McDonald’s French fries: not good for you, but you’re not interested in being a saint. You’re allowed an indulgence once in a while. How utterly boring would it be if we only did things that were ethically “good” and enriching for us? If that were the case, there’d be no decent TV shows, movies, or music. We’d all be wearing white robes and chanting scriptures and talking about nothing more provocative than the weather.

So there you have it. The unremarkable reason why a person like me can enjoy the latest Adele album or the Oscars is just that: it’s human nature. Sometimes the simplest answer is the hardest one for people to see or accept. Apparently.

Why do people love the 80s?!?! (Try the 90s!)

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America’s unnatural love of all things 1980s is like society’s reverence towards pregnant women: you can’t really counter it without sounding like a complete monster. But since I’m already an inherent outcast twice removed, I guess I’ll be the brave soul to take a stab at it (the ‘80s).

They say trends come in twenty-year cycles. I was born in the 80s, and I remember as a preteen, being glad when all the saccharine gaudiness of the decade vanished by the early 1990’s. Little did I know that it would all come skipping back in an even more mannered, pretentious form—ten years later when I was in my TWENTIES, in the ‘00s.

By 2003, you couldn’t surf the web without coming across an article that proclaimed: “Check out your favorite redheaded ‘80s celebrities HERE!” or hear a song that didn’t sample a classic ‘80s synth-pop ballad, or have a conversation with an adult girl who didn’t squeal: “Ohhh, I LOVE the ‘80s!” Basically, it was like crack in the ‘80s: integral to the social scene.

If you can’t guess by now, I have highly objective reasons why I don’t like the ‘80s. I came of age in the decade that succeeded it: the ‘90s. When I say “come of age”, I mean the (first) era of maturing in one’s life—your teen years.

Nothing is as great (or bad) as when you are a teenager. If I came of age during the 1890s, no doubt I would be sitting here clamoring about how great churning butter was, and how kids these days are missing out on savoring fermented cow milk you procured with your own two hands. So I’m aware that I suffer from a little bias.

For me, I feel sorry that kids today didn’t grow up with angry, forlorn, edgy alternative-rock singers who managed to somehow be both dangerous and mainstream in this perfect window of time known as the 1990s. It was a truly magical time. I mean, MTV not only PLAYED music videos for significant chunks of time, they actually focused on music from earnest, serious artists. Music hadn’t been this socially aware and provocative since the ‘60s!

TV and movies vastly improved in my eyes too. Gone were the days where a movie focused solely on a nuclear family going on vacation, or a kid taking a day off from school. Movies with higher concepts were in vogue now: the term “indie” exploded, with all its subversive and innovative connotations. Disney rode a triumphant wave of Renaissance for the first half of the decade. Summer blockbusters pushed their art to new, exhilarating heights with movies like “Jurassic Park” and “Forrest Gump” setting records.

TV shows delved into darker and more progressive parts of the cultural psyche, with shows like “The Simpsons”, “Seinfeld”, “The X-Files” and “Roseanne” (although some of them debuted in the late ‘80s, they came into their prime in the ‘90s). Shows didn’t have to pander to the ideal family unit anymore. They could push the boundaries of what we found funny or intriguing, and succeed.

Look, I get the objective reasons why people love the penultimate decade of the twentieth century: it was simple. Sweet. Goofy. Over-the-top. Everything my fellow gay men love, which is why all gay men have some voluminous playlist somewhere that is nothing but ‘80s, ‘80s, ‘80s—as well as the perfect ‘80s getup outfit, should they have the divine fortune of crossing paths with an ‘80s-themed party. The ‘80s is like your kooky, fun, and slightly frivolous aunt. Whereas the ‘90s is your cooler but more sedate and socially conscious uncle. It’s kind of obvious who you’d rather party with.

But this is why I don’t like the ‘80s: I don’t like things that are simple, sweet, and over-the-top. It’s not my style. I’m the jerk that likes things to be ironic, dark, and brooding, hence: I will always identify with the Gen-X-dominated ‘90s. And hence: why most gay men have a convenient blind spot for this decade altogether. Seriously—can you imagine a gay man squealing about the ‘90s? ….? Only if they were forced to go to a ‘90s-themed party; they’d be squealing about their “other obligations that night”’—to get out of it. No gay man wants to be reminded of a classic Tarantino movie. It’s way too heavy, and our lives are already heavy enough. The same can be said for society at large, truly.

But the ‘90s are innocent as well, compared to the subsequent decade(s) that follow it. For one: during that decade, “social media” only went so far as logging into AOL via your phone cord, selecting a terrible login name, and signing into a god-awful chat room with other strangers. We had virtually no digital footprint, and honestly: many minds and lives were saved because of it. Terrorism was not truly a household word until the tragic events that ignited it on a fateful day in New York City, the following decade. We didn’t have such a politically divisive country due to a polarizing president yet. And a recession, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the 1930s, hadn’t yet imploded.

So if you want something innocent, fun, but with a little more edge and a smidgen of self-important angst, why not make a pit stop in the decade before the ‘80s (if you’re going backwards in time)? You can geek out to Ace of Base, camp it up to the Spice Girls—but you can also show your gritty, “street cred” side by wearing baggy gangsta pants or grungy thrift-store plaid. The ‘90s had its perks too, ya’ know.

Thankfully, it is the 2010’s now—well over twenty years since my favorite decade started its rotation under the sun. It’s finally getting more of the “respect” I always knew it deserved. Too bad it takes twenty years for some people to arrive to the party—but better late than never.