January 28, 2009

Chuck Amok

Has anyone else noticed that the writers of the TV series Chuck (Josh Schwartz, Chris Fedak, Matt Miller, and others) have been having a little fun this season naming the show’s characters? 

Chuck scripts are always sprinkled with obvious references and homages to pop culture favorites, including Chuck and Morgan dressing up as the sand worm from Dune for Halloween, the Buy More gang getting their Call of Duty 5 and Madden 09 on just after the real-life release of those games last year, and guest star Nicole Richie appearing as Sarah’s high school rival who starred in a TV commercial where she “ate a really messy cheeseburger” (an obvious allusion to Richie’s real-life former co-hort, Paris Hilton, and her infamous Carl’s Jr. ad -- check it out below.)

But things on Chuck have gone a step further this season. It seems many of the guest characters have been named after famous pop culture icons. Case in point:

Melinda Clarke guest starred as Soviet agent "Sasha Banacek". "Banacek" is a Polish name and a possible reference to the 1970’s TV series of the same name about a Polish-American detective played by George Peppard. 

In the previously mentioned episode with Nicole Richie, her character’s name is "Heather Chandler" -- the same as Winona Ryder’s nemesis, played by Kim Walker (below right), in the 1989 black comedy, Heathers

In the same episode, Heather’s husband is a geek named "Mark Ratner" -- same as the geek who crushes on Jennifer Jason Leigh in Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Jordana Brewster (The Fast and The Furious) just completed an arc as Chuck’s old girlfriend, "Jill Roberts", which is also the name of an upscale women’s boutique in Beverly Hills. 

Jill’s boss’ name is "Guy Lafleur" -- who was a Hall of Fame hockey player for the Montreal Canadiens in the 70’s and 80’s.

And a new regular joined the Chuck cast this season. Tony Hale plays the Buy More’s new efficiency expert "Emmett Milbarge", which seems to be a mash-up of Chevy Chase’s "Emmitt Fitz-Hume" and Dan Aykroyd’s "Austin Milbarge" characters from the 1985 comedy Spies Like Us

There’s more, but you get the idea. I guess it’s cool if the writers wanna have a little fun this way cause Chuck is still one of the liveliest shows on TV, with fun plots, lovable, charismatic leads in Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski, and a great ensemble of supporting actors.

January 20, 2009

Bring Back Wagon Train (No wait, I Mean Reunion)

There's a very old episode of The Simpsons (Season 2) where Marge rallies Springfield against the uber-violence in "Itchy & Scratchy". At one point, the townspeople protest outside the TV studio holding picket signs. ("Destroy the Violent People!" was a particular favorite.) Mo the bartender, however, uses the protest as a platform for his own personal agenda and carries a sign that reads, "Bring Back Wagon Train!"

With that in mind, I'll now use this blog in a similar way... Are you listening Fox Network?... Good, then bring back Reunion!

This 2005 series gave us the story of six friends who graduate from high school in 1986. They reunite twenty years later and we learn that one of the friends has been murdered, another is responsible, and a third is blackmailing the killer. As the mystery unravels, we follow the characters' individual stories, which unfold episode by episode, with each advancing us another year forward from 1986. It was a neat gimmick that provided a unique backdrop for the series as it explored typical night-time drama storylines -- sex, drugs, betrayal, child abduction, marital infidelity, spousal abuse, secret loves, political coverups, and more. I also remember the cool soundtrack, which featured cuts from artists like Rick Astley and The Smiths.

Among others, Reunion starred Sean Estes (Never Back Down) and Chyler Leigh, who recently joined the cast of Grey's Anatomy. The problem was, this show aired on Thursdays -- which at the time was one of TV's most competitive nights (Ugly Betty, Grey's Anatomy, CSI, et.al.) So Reunion routinely got crushed in the ratings. Fox then made things worse by pre-empting the show multiple times for the baseball playoffs and Reunion was canceled after 13 episodes (though only 9 aired.)
Hey News Corp execs, we need closure! So if you can't resurrect Reunion, at least tell us who the killer was.

Incidentally, what made me remember the show was that one of the female leads, Alexa Davalos (right), is currently starring in a new movie, Defiance, about four Russian brothers who, during WW II, build a forest camp and save hundreds of Jews from the Nazis.

January 19, 2009

Madonna Loves Obama!

President-elect Obama gets sworn in in just a few hours and the country is all excited. But not as excited as Madonna I'll bet. Caught her concert at Petco Park in San Diego back on election night and had such good seats I was able to snap the camera phone shot below. After opening the show proclaiming, “I am so fucking happy right now!” Madonna went on to repeatedly express her unbridled joy after Barack won (the word came in about an hour before she took the stage.) She even incorporated an Obama video tribute/political commercial into the production for this tour. 

Though most in the audience were just as pumped about Obama, the show itself was a curiousity.

After opening 90 minutes late (maybe she was watching the early returns) Madonna came on and proceeded to do a two-hour (on the nose) show that largely ignored the entirety of her early career. Here’s the recap:

To begin, I have to mention that Madonna is a physical stud. Absolutely buff. She sported multiple sleeveless outfits and you could see all the muscles in her very cut and vascular arms. 
I guess it shouldn't be that much of a surprise because for the whole two hours she sang (sometimes with the assistance of a lead backing track, but mostly live) while dancing her butt off.

As you’d expect, the set list included nearly all of the new album, Hard Candy, including nice performances of “4 Minutes”, “Miles Away”, and “Beat Goes On”. The only songs from the album she didn’t do were “Heartbeat”, “Dance 2Night” and “Incredible”. There was some very good production for “She’s Not Me” (where Madonna confronted a series of look-alike Madonna clones from the “Material Girl”, “Vogue”, and “Open Your Heart” videos) and also during her costume changes when there were some very nice video montages that incorporated portions of “Die Another Day”, “Jump” and “Rain”.

But the disappointment began to grow as the show progressed and Madonna failed to perform any of her biggest hits from the eighties. Yes, she did “Borderline” and “Into the Groove” early on, and La Isla Bonita about halfway through, but those were the only cuts from her first FOUR albums (counting Who’s That Girl) that she performed. No “Holiday” (even though the lyrics would’ve made it perfect for celebrating the Obama win) no “Lucky Star”, no “Everybody” (another perfect song to perform live.) Also conspicuously absent were “Like a Virgin”, “Material Girl”, and “Dress You Up”. 

There’s more… No “Crazy For You”, “Papa Don’t Preach”, “Open Your Heart” or “Live to Tell”.

I know this tour is to promote the new album, and I also know a lot of artists don’t feel like their early stuff is on par with their later material. Madonna herself has gone on record saying she doesn’t like some of her early records. But come on… how could she not do “Like a Virgin”?

And what about the stuff from the “middle-years”? There was no “Take a Bow” or “This Used To Be My Playground” (songs that could’ve served the dual purpose of slowing things down and letting her catch her breath while also showing off her voice.)

Throw in the more forgivable omissions of “Cherish”, “Who’s That Girl”, “Justify My Love”, and “I Love New York” and you see how Madonna could’ve easily done another hour of just hits.

So what songs were covered and what stood out? “Music”, of course, and there was a kind of Spanish production that began with “La Isla Bonita”, and led into some sort of odd fusion of Mexican and Eastern European fiddling/folk music/folk dancing that just didn’t quite work. “Express Yourself” was turned into an a cappella audience sing-along (and effectively ruined) but there was a very heartfelt and enjoyable rendition of “You Must Love Me”.

Surprisingly, she also did “Human Nature”, off the Erotica album, and that was a highlight. But “Like a Prayer” was merely average and she forgot the words (twice) to “Ray of Light”. On that number, and on a few other songs, Madonna also played (or more accurately, she strummed along on) guitar, including a pretty sweet Gibson SG. Unfortunately, she wasn’t amped up enough to really hear her, so what was the point?

I guess I have bad luck at Madonna shows. Last time I saw her, years ago at Giants Stadium, there was an effing monsoon. (Seriously, animals were lining up two by two.) Madonna slipped and fell at least twice then ultimately cut the show short -- and really, you couldn't even blame her.

But as for last week, at least I’ll have a cool story about where I was when Obama got elected.

January 15, 2009

VH1's "100 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs" Was a Noble but Flawed Attempt

Caught VH1's list of the 100 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs. (The channel has compiled similar lists for 80s songs, One Hit Wonders, and other categories.) I don’t know if there was an “expert” panel who made the selections and I’m not sure of the criteria VH1 used in choosing, but I have to say, this list wasn’t bad. For starters, I was glad to see there wasn’t an over-emphasis on recent songs and there was a good mix of cuts dating back to hip-hop’s early years in the late 70s.

By my count, 18 of the top 50 came from the first 10 years of hip-hop, or to be more accurate, the first ten years of “rap”. (The term "hip-hop" started off as a nonsense word many rappers used in their lyrics and didn't become the overarching preferred term for an entire genre of music until much later.) Twelve of the top 50 were from the last 10 years, and the remainder fell somewhere in the middle, so there was a good cross section of songs from every era.

The biggest criticism, however, would be that there were a lot of what I would call “marginal” songs that are severely lacking in the quality of their:

  • Music
  • Lyrics
  • Creativity in the use of samples 
  • The MC's flow and delivery 
  • Significance or lasting impact

Some of the songs that really didn’t measure up:

  • The Beastie Boys "Hold it Now Hit It" made the cut but not "Intergalactic" or even "Fight For Your Right".
  • The Fugees' "Killing Me Softly" made the list but does it even qualify as a hip-hop record? It’s pretty much just a remake of Roberta Flack’s Grammy-winning ballad.
  • If you said LL Cool J could only have one song make the list, wouldn’t you have picked "Mama Said Knock You Out" or "I'm Bad" instead of "Can’t Live Without My Radio"?
  • Sir Mixalot's novelty "Baby Got Back" ranked higher than Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock"... Insanity.

And here are a few more oversights:

  • "Rapture" – Blondie
    The musically diverse band recorded this cut in 1980 and its rap break served as the first time Top 40 radio ever paid a single bit of attention to anything remotely resembling hip-hop.
  • "Rock Box" – Run DMC
  • "King of Rock" – Run DMC
  • Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five
    The pioneering group made #3 with "The Message", but come on... nothing else by them? Not even "Freedom" or "White Lines"?
  • No sign of anything by Kid Rock
  • "The Adventures of Super Rhymes" – Jim Spicer
    One of rap’s most significant post "Rapper’s Delight" hits was an 11-minute marathon of flawless rap flow, and, proving he was no flash in the pan, Spicer also had hits with "Money (Dollar Bill Y'all)" and "The Bubble Bunch".
  • "What People Do For Money" – Divine Sounds
  • "You Must Learn" – Boogie Down Productions
  • "They Want EFX" – Das EFX
  • "Rockin' It" - Fearless Four
  • "The Real Slim Shady" – Eminem
    This was VH1’s biggest omission. Unique rap style, distinctive sound, impeccable flow, and one of hip-hop’s greatest records EVER.
  • "Keep Ya Head Up" – Tupac
  • "Ice Ice Baby" – Vanilla Ice
    Sure, it’s mocked today, but when it was first released, it was loved equally and played endlessly by kids, club deejays, and pop radio, leading to sales of well over 10 million copies.
  • "Express Yourself" – N.W.A.
  • "Doo Wop That Thing" – Lauryn Hill
  • "Buffalo Gals" - Malcolm McLaren

List of VH1's 100 Greatest Hip Hop Songs

January 8, 2009

Shout Out to... The Sorels!

Who are The Sorels? Only one of the greatest fictional groups in music history. More specifically, they’re an all-black quartet featured in Walter Hill’s 1984 cult classic Streets of Fire. In that film, Cody (Michael Pare’) rescues rock star Ellen Aim (a smokin’ Diane Lane) from her kidnappers and commandeers the Sorels’ tour bus. (They’re reluctant at first but after seeing Cody’s shotgun, they declare, “We’re very flexible. We’ll take you where you wanna go.”) At the end of the film, in appreciation, Ellen lets the Sorels open for her in concert, where they deliver this classic performance of “I Can Dream About You”.

Though the song was recorded for the soundtrack's commercial release by Dan Hartman, the Sorels were played by four young black actors who would each go on to achieve significant success on their own.

Prior to Streets of Fire, Stoney Jackson (who played lead singer "Bird" pictured below 2nd from the right) was already a fixture on TV, having been a regular on The White Shadow and guest star on M*A*S*H and other series. He went on to play parts on The Jeffersons and Trapper John M.D., then had a recurring role on 227 and did many other TV spots and film roles.

Robert Townsend (2nd from left) would become the writer, director and star of the critically acclaimed film Hollywood Shuffle, as well as The Five Heartbeats and Meteor Man, and he also directed and starred in the TV series The Parent ‘Hood.

Grand Bush (far right) was a TV veteran who had a role in Roots and had guested in everything from Good Times to The Incredible Hulk, to B.J. and the Bear. After Streets, he did Lethal Weapon and Lethal Weapon 2, Colors, had a memorable role as FBI agent Johnson (“We’re gonna need some more FBI guys”) in the original Die Hard and did episodes of Renegade and JAG.

And Mykelti Williamson (far left) played "Bird" (What is it with black guys in the 80s playing characters named “Bird”?) alongside Goldie Hawn in Wildcats, was a regular on Hill Street Blues, co-starred in hits like Heat, Con Air, Waiting to Exhale, and C.S.I. New York, but is probably most famous for his performance as Bubba in Forrest Gump.

January 6, 2009

Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!

Maureen McCormick ("Marcia" from The Brady Bunch) has a new autobiography in bookstores now. Here’s the Story (great title by the way) details McCormick’s battles with depression, an eating disorder, weight gain, and a lifetime trying to live up to the image of her perfect alter-ego. Among the startling revelations in her tell-all:

  • She had sex in a pool with TV brother and co-star Barry Williams.
  • Her mother and grandmother both suffered from syphilis, causing Maureen to have a decades-long fear that she too had the disease and that it would someday cause her insanity and eventual death.
  • She was drug addict who was once so coked up, she blew an interview with Steven Spielberg and a role in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Damn... Who knew America's most clean-cut TV family had so many real-life skeletons in their closet? Mike Brady was gay; Greg wanted to do his mom; Marcia was a druggie… What’ll we learn next? Maybe the family mutt "Tiger" was involved a dog-fighting ring? Or that guy who played Sam the Butcher once lost it during filming, went Sweeney Todd and tried to grind Alice into mincemeat?

Well anyway, we were seriously digging on Marcia during that last season of TBB and we still love her. 

January 1, 2009

Welcome to Pop Culture Fiend

Okay, this has been a long time coming…

I always imagined those would be the words I’d use to introduce this website once it finally got up and running. And now, as I take a look at it, no, it’s not exactly would I had in mind. But just the fact that this thing finally came to be realized (in any incarnation) comes as something of a happy surprise. So let’s get on with it…

What is this; who am I and what’s my mission?... Simple. To fight injustice, to right that which is wrong, and to serve all mankind!... [Cue the horns and drums.] Da-Nuhh… Da-Nuhh!!!!

No wait, that’s the mission of the Superfriends. 

But this is exactly what I'm talking about. That reference to the old Saturday morning cartoon series, now more than 30 years old, is recognized by so many. (On the other hand, if you didn’t recognize it, then you may quickly come to discover that this is not the blog for you.) But the point is this:

In America, over the last 25 years or so, the elements of our popular culture (more specifically, things including and related to movies, music, books, magazines, TV shows, celebrities, fashion, toys and games, advertising, etc.) have been elevated from being merely just an amalgamation of frivolous diversions and distractions that (entertaining though they may be) have little or no lasting significance. Instead, it is our popular culture that today is both reflecting and indeed shaping our society, as it underscores who we are and what we care about, while binding us together through common experiences and a shared appreciation.

Our American culture includes our societies’ collective sensibilities, mores, belief systems, and behaviors. Examining our popular culture; studying it, creates a window into the hearts and minds of the American people and allows us to see concrete examples of what these sensibilities, mores, and behaviors are and what we (en masse) have come to value, accept, appreciate and embrace.

Think I’m overstating things? Why then, is it our popular culture that continues to endure and permanently etch itself into our memories, even as other, seemingly more consequential things, pass away? Or more simply, why are movie quotes like, “Show me the money,” as easily recognized as “Ask not what your country can do for you…”? How is it that many of us know more lines from Caddyshack than bible verses? And why are events from the early 80s like Iran-Contra and the US invasion of Grenada (events that had not only national, but global implications and consequences) practically forgotten, while a lightweight motion picture comedy from the same era (Risky Business) is fondly remembered and parodied in a new TV commercial twenty-five years later?

Because people, it is the miscellanea of American popular culture that’s providing cohesion for us in this, the most diverse country on the planet. So many of us are of different races, religions, economic statuses... We live in vastly different geographies, have different political ideals, enjoy different cuisines and the list goes on and on. Because of this, any given American’s experience and sensibilities can be completely foreign to those of another. And yet we’re able to find common ground in our shared remembrance of a popular TV show, song lyric, music video, or kids' game. Or in our recognition of a funny movie scene, or a one-liner perfectly delivered by a stand-up comedian. Or in our mutual admiration (or disdain) for a particular celebrity.

Popular culture has now moved beyond trendiness, beyond the realm of the short-lived, and beyond the moment. It has ingrained itself in our society and now influences the way we communicate, how we act, and what we value. As evidenced by the aforementioned TV commercial (and dozens more like it) advertisers were some of the first to catch on to this fact and they now leverage pop culture to entice us into purchasing their products.

It’s a movement that’s likely to continue, as we continue to perpetuate our pop culture the same as we do our religious rituals, political history, family traditions, and the other things that make up our traditional culture. 

And through all of this, even as it is finally being taken seriously by academic types (many colleges now include it as part of their sociology, communications, or psychology curriculums) pop culture remains and will always be one thing… uniquely fun.