Monday, January 26, 2015

"Birdman," Batman and Oscar by the Numbers

3 The number of Birdman stars who have appeared in superhero films. Michael Keaton was Batman twice; Edward Norton was The Incredible Hulk once; and Emma Stone appears in the current The Amazing Spider-Man series.

2 The number of actors who have gone from Batman to Oscar winner. If Michael Keaton nabs Best Actor, he will become the third former Batman to win an acting Oscar, following George Clooney and Christian Bale. The next Batman, Ben Affleck, already got his Oscar win (for co-writing Good Will Hunting and producing Argo) out of the way. Incidentally, Clooney also won an Oscar for producing Argo.

4 The number of other Batman-franchise headliners -- Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Nicole Kidman and Anne Hathaway -- who have gone on to win Oscars for non-Batman related roles. Tommy Lee Jones won his two years before Batman Forever.

1 The number of actors who have been nominated for a Batman role. That would also make Heath Ledger, Oscar's Best Supporting Actor for The Dark Knight, the lone Batman player to actually win for a Batman movie.

8 The number of actors to be nominated for films directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. They are 21 Grams' Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro, Babel's Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikcuchi, Biutiful's Javier Bardem, and Birdman's Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone.

3 The number of Iñárritu stars who have won Oscars after appearing in one of his films. They are Babel's Cate Blanchett (Best Actress for Blue Jasmine) and Brad Pitt (Best Picture for 12 Years a Slave), and 21 Grams' Melissa Leo (Best Supporting Actress for The Fighter).

4 The number of Iñárritu stars who won Oscars before appearing in one of his films. They are Javier Bardem (Best Supporting Actor for No Country for Old Men) and Benicio Del Toro (Best Supporting Actor for Traffic).

16 The number of years between Edward Norton's third Oscar nomination (Best Actor for American History X) and his third one (Best Supporting Actor for Birdman). Looks like Michael Keaton's isn't the only comeback here.

2 The number of 2015 Best Picture nominees in which Norton appears. He is also in the principal cast of The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is tied with Birdman for most nominations (9).

1 The number of other actors who appear in more than one Best Picture nominee. Tom Wilkinson appears in both The Grand Budapest Hotel and Selma.

0 The number of black actors in the principal cast of Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel. (The only black person I can recall even seeing in Birdman was the theater worker who tried to stop Riggin Thomson from entering the lobby in his underwear.) What? Did you not expect me to keep score?

5 The number of previous nominations for actors who appeared in Birdman. Edward Norton and Naomi Watts were nominated twice before, and Amy Ryan is a one-time nominee. In comparison, the cast of The Grand Budapest Hotel has 17 acting nods among them and three winners (F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody and Tilda Swinton).

19 The number of years between Edward Norton and Emma Stone, who share a steamy kissing scene in Birdman.

15 Number of years between Michael Keaton and Amy Ryan, who plays his ex-wife in Birdman.

30 Number of years between Keaton and Andrea Riseborough, who plays his girlfriend in Birdman.

2 Number of foreign actors who play Americans in Birdman. They are Australia's Naomi Watts and England's Riseborough.

7 The number of Oscar nominees who will appear in the forthcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. They are Amy Adams, Ben Affleck, Jesse Eisenberg, Laurence Fishburne, Holly Hunter, Jeremy Irons and Diane Lane. So much for superhero franchises not being respectable. Now with a film about the former star of one becoming a serious Best Picture contender, we may all live to see them become Oscar bait, too.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

11 Things I Loved About "Birdman"

Thank you, Birdman -- the movie, not the superhero. Frankly, he's kind of an annoying guy who, hopefully, will never see the light of opening day at the center of a summer-blockbuster franchise. (I'm still trying to wrap my head around the upcoming Ant-Man.) It's been a long time since a movie made me want to stand on my balcony and cheer. Yes, I finally have a balcony again, and no, unlike a certain movie character, I didn't leap from it.

I loved Birdman for a lot of the same reasons I loved Sideways, Before Sunset, Being Julia and The Artist. I'm a sucker for an engaging cinematic contemplation on second acts, getting older and legacy. Riggan Thomson, Michael Keaton's character, might have a couple of decades and 79,500 Twitter followers on me, and people actually know who he is when they pass him on the street, but I understand his dilemma perfectly. And having fallen in love with Raymond Carver's work after reading Where I'm Calling From in the '90s, his artistic inspiration makes sense, too.

My favorite things about Birdman:

1. Michael Keaton: He deserves all of the acclaim he's received for a performance that will hopefully launch a lengthier comeback than Mickey Rourke's after The Wrestler several years ago. There are hints of the funny cut-up I was raised on (the Michael Keaton of Night Shift and Mr. Mom) with a gravitas rarely seen when he wasn't wearing his Batman suit (the Michael Keaton of Clean and Sober and Pacific Heights). If Eddie Redmayne gets the Best Actor Oscar for impersonating Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, someone's going to choke on that stupid little naked gold man.

2. Edward Norton: This was something of a major comeback year for the talented Mr. Norton, who appeared in 2014's two most Oscar-nominated films, this and The Grand Budapest Hotel, a movie whose humor was too self-conscious to be funny and its characters too cartoonish to make me care. Was it me or was Edward channeling a little Adam Levine into Mike Shiner? Brilliance.

3. Emma Stone: She's finally delivered on the promise of her breakthrough in Easy A. That Best Supporting Actress nomination doesn't have even a whiff of coattails-riding Amy Adams. Totally deserved.

4. The one-take tactic: I thought this and the meta angle (a washed-up actor playing one, a difficult actor playing one) might be an overload of wink-wink and technique, but they weren't. In fact, unlike Boyhood, another B A-movie with an attention-grabbing hook that probably wouldn't be a contender without it, Birdman would still be laudable even without its attention-grabbing hooks. I was worried that a lack of cutting would make the movie as claustrophobic as a play set in a closet, but director Alejandro González Iñárritu managed the time- and place-shifting as cleverly as he did the multiple arcs in 21 Grams.

5. The jazz score: A nice touch, underscoring the improvisational, slightly Dadaist feel of the movie.

6. The setting: God, I miss New York City!

7-11. The screenplay: The story was compelling (from Bullets Over Broadway to Shakespeare in Love to Being Julia to Smash, how to launch a stage production never gets old) and so was the banter, which accounted for at least five memorable lines.

"The blood coming out of his ear was the most honest thing he's done so far." -- Riggan Thomson (Keaton) after one of his actors gets nailed in a head by a projectile light fixture.

"Do it again." -- Lesley (Naomi Watts), shifting from tentative to ravenous after Laura (Andrea Riseborough) kisses her

"I'd be afraid I couldn't get it up." -- Mike Shiner (Norton) to Sam Thomson (Stone) when she asks why he doesn't want to fool around with her

"I'd pull your eyes out of your head. I'd put them in my own skill and look around so that I could see the street the way I used to when I was your age." -- Mike Shiner to Sam Thomson when she asks what he'd do to her if he wasn't afraid to fool around with her.

"Sixty is the new thirty." -- Zach Galifianakis, in the Jonah Hill sidekick role and, for the first time ever, making me want to see more of him

Does that mean I'm still in my teens? Thank you, Birdman, for that, too. You reminded me that I'm getting ancient (as if I could actually forget) and made me feel young again at the same time.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

If "Selma" Had Gotten More Oscar Love, Would It Have Meant Hollywood Is Any Less Racist?

Numbers and Oscar nominations are so relative. Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie probably would have killed for just one this year (and they practically killed themselves gunning for it on the Oscar campaign trail), and here we are complaining that Selma got two. Make that just two. It is, after all, a quintessentially Oscar-bait movie: Important topic. Check. Excellent reviews. Check. Hallowed hero, historical angle, Oprah Winfrey's name in the credits. Check, check and check.

So where was the Oscar love?

I haven't yet seen Selma, so I can't really weigh in on why it was snubbed by the Academy this week (if you consider getting a Best Picture and Best Original Song nod but none for Best Actor and Best Director to be a true snub). There are the expected charges of persistent racism in Hollywood, and perhaps they're not off the mark. Maybe Oscar felt it was up enough with blacks after rewarding 12 Years a Slave and Lincoln with the Best Picture prize in 2013 and 2014, respectively, and celebrating The Help with four nominations in 2012.

There's also the possibility that releasing the movie on Christmas Day only and then pulling it from theaters until January 9 just to make it eligible for Oscar consideration worked against it. Had the movie been rolled out starting in October or November and given time to build a following, perhaps it could have been this year's 12 Years a Slave, which was released at the beginning of November in 2013. Or perhaps that would have given the customary backlash more time to develop, making it this year's The Butler.

We'll never know for sure. What we do know is this: The Academy has lousy timing. The Oscar nominations were announced on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday (January 15), right before the weekend when the United States honors the life of its only black national treasure with a public holiday.

Frankly, I don't know what took Hollywood so long to make a film about one of the most celebrated icons of the 20th century, a man who was to the U.S. what Nelson Mandela was to South Africa (and note that Morgan Freeman did secure a Best Actor nomination for playing Mandela in Invictus, a film that received considerably less critical acclaim than Selma). Wouldn't Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday have been the perfect time to acknowledge David Oyelowo for playing him and Ava DuVernay for directing an acclaimed move about him?

(Oyelowo, incidentally, is an excellent British actor who was previously worthy of an Oscar nod for playing the titular character's son in The Butler, which brings me to an interesting aside and perhaps fodder for a future blog post: Why have foreigners -- from Lincoln's Daniel Day-Lewis to 12 Years a Slave stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o and director Steve McQueen to Selma's Oyelowo and Tom Wilkinson -- recently been dominating films about quintessentially black American experiences?)

When I mentioned the racism angle to two of my colleagues at Ninemsn in Sydney, they were mortified by Oscar's oversight. It was interesting to see their reaction because, being Australian, they don't have the same history with racism that whites in the U.S. do. In fact, I don't know that the racism angle had even occurred to them until I suggested it. And once I did, once I mentioned the fact that Oscar only seems to care about performances by black actors if they are in films about race, their curiosity was piqued.

"Why do you think that is?" one of them asked.

It was a good question and one I'd actually been considering all day, ever since I read a comment on a message board saying that perhaps the snubbing of Selma was a good thing because it's time for Oscar to acknowledge that being black isn't just about race and racism. The way I interpreted it, the commenter was not saying that movies documenting the black struggle shouldn't continue to be made, but rather that it's time to recognize that the lives of black people don't completely revolve around struggle and being accepted by white people.

Mine certainly doesn't, and I couldn't agree more.

To answer my colleague's question, I blamed the collectivist mentality of many white people when it comes to the way they view minorities and even in the way many minorities view themselves. It's right there in statements/questions like "No Asians" and "I'm not attracted to black men" and "Is it true what they say about black men?", and "Black don't crack" and "Once you go black you never go back," and it's also in the way Hollywood casts minorities.

White people, white actors, are generally seen as individuals. A white man is a "man." A white actor is an "actor." A movie featuring a predominantly white cast is a "movie." Black people, black actors, on the other hand, are generally seen as belonging to a group. A black man is a "black man." A black actor is a "black actor." A movie featuring a predominantly black cast is a "black movie." A black person represents his or her entire race in a way that whites never do, making it harder to separate us from our skin color.

I've written before about Oscar's annoying habit of recognizing black actors primarily for playing "black" roles in "black" movies. With the exception of Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman, whose respective Oscar-winning roles in Training Day and Million Dollar Baby could conceivably have been played by white actors, every black actor who has won an Oscar since Whoopi Goldberg snagged hers for Ghost has won for playing a character in a movie where race was the dominant theme, the cast was mostly black, or the character was based on a real-life black person. The same goes for the overwhelming majority of black nominees since Hattie McDaniel became the first one for Gone with the Wind.

OK, so Jennifer Hudson's Oscar-winning performance in Dreamgirls could conceivably have been given by a white actress. Dreamgirls could just as easily have been based on a Bananarama-esque girl group as a Supremes-style trio. The cast was predominantly black, though, making it more or less a "black" movie. Why is it that black actors, especially Oscar-nominated ones, are so often relegated to those? Some 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, which ended segregation in the American public school system, Hollywood movies continue to be largely segregated.

So it's not entirely Oscar's fault that he seems to notice (or snub) black actors in mostly black movies. It's not as if he has much more to choose from. Then again, Oscar has become obsessed with recognizing actors for playing real-life people (nine of this year's acting nominees), further limiting the possibilities for black thespians and actors from other minority groups. It's not like Michael B. Jordan had a shot at Eddie Redmayne's role in The Theory of Everything.

But even when they're not hiring talent for biopics, Hollywood casting agents seem to stick to the theory that white people don't want to see black people on movie screens? The implication: They're not racist; they're just giving the masses what they want. I'm not buying that argument, but it's frustrating that one still has to be made in 2015.

I'm as tired of reading think pieces on why movies like Selma get so little Oscar love as I am of seeing movies like Selma being the only movies with black actors that are deemed worthy of Oscar recognition. When do black people get to star in the likes of Still Alice and Wild and Birdman and Boyhood? Black people get Alzheimer's. They go for long walks. They grow up from boys to men. American Sniper's Cory Hardrict aside, Selma is the only one of the eight Best Picture nominees to feature a black actor in its principal cast.

When do we get to regularly see black people in movies that don't feature all-black or mostly black casts? When do they get to be in Oscar-bait movies where the primary theme isn't race? Even if Selma had received as many Oscar nominations last week as Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel, these are questions I'd still be asking.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

On Snow Queens, Rejection and Preferences (Again): Is It True What They Say About This Black Man?

It's amazing to me what some people assume about you after they've read an interview with you and/or your blog and/or possibly even your book. (Thanks for reading, by the way.) As a journalist, I've spent half of my life dishing it out -- questioning, judging, assuming -- and now I finally understand what it feels like to be on the other side of the magnifying glass.

No, I still don't know how bad Jennifer Aniston has it, and I hope I never do, but I do know what it feels like to be ripped apart by complete strangers in print.

I know I bought this on myself. You don't write a book called Is It True What They Say About Black Men? and dwell on topics as inflammatory as race and racism and not expect to have to dodge some sticks and stones. That comes with the territory, and frankly, it's a small price to pay for starting a dialogue about important issues and possibly opening someone's mind to a point of view they hadn't previously considered.

Oh, but those incorrect assumptions! They get me every time.

One of the most infuriating ones is the one that pegs me as a "snow queen" because I write about my experiences with non-black men. Just because I write about one thing, or two things, doesn't mean I don't experience anything else. For the record, I have dated black men, but considering that my book focuses mostly on my years spent living in countries where there is a dearth of black men, would it not make sense that most of my recounted encounters, especially the ones in which the racial themes of my book figured, would be with non-black men?

Should I have included that one night in Bangkok with a black guy from Philadelphia and a white one from Australia to prove that my lust has no racial limitations? Or the black colleague I once pursued who rejected me because he already had a boyfriend (a white boyfriend, incidentally)? Or the black guy I once went out with in New York City whose ex was a closeted Z-list celebrity (and who stalked me for a month afterwards)? Or the one in Cape Town who had the softest lips ever?

Even if I had never dated a black man, that wouldn't mean a thing. As I pointed out in my recent interview with Queerty, it's not a lack of experience with a certain race that's racist. It's allowing that lack of experience to dictate your future experiences. It's not the fact that you've never been with somebody of a certain race but rather, making a preemptive strike against ever doing so. I've never done that, and I have never written a sentence, or uttered one, to suggest that I have.

Then there's the assumption that I criticize gay men who reject suitors based on color because I'm bitter. Several detractors have assumed it happens to me and therefore, I've launched a crusade against it. Like everyone else, I've been rejected countless times over the years. I've made my peace with it. I deal and move on.

That said, I have never been overtly rejected by a guy because of my race. I'm sure there have been plenty of guys who weren't into me for that very reason, but I've never had one of them say to me "I'm not attracted to black guys" or "I don't date black guys" or "I don't cross racial lines." Ever.

My arguments regarding race and attraction (or rather, lack thereof) are based entirely on observation and empathy. I certainly didn't include a chapter on anti-Asian racism because I've suffered under it. Despite what Rose McGowan thinks, there are gay men out there who can see beyond causes that affect them directly.

If anything, I've had my pick of men while living abroad, and I've devoted far more of my book and much of my writing to questioning that. So no, I'm not reacting to rejection but quite the opposite. I've said it before, and I don't mind saying it again: Just because a guy wants to have sex with me does not mean he's not racist. Too many white men (three) have called me the N word moments after trying to get into my pants for me to think there's racism only in color-based rejection that bruises one's ego.

The final thing I want to address at this moment isn't about assumptions but rather excuses. It's discouraging when gay men defend those "No Asians" profiles by saying guys have a right to want to cut to the chase and not waste anyone's time. In other words, expediency is everything. The feelings of other people? That's just collateral damage.

I'll never understand how gay men who spend their lives clamoring for fair and respectful treatment have no problem tossing sensitivity out the window in pursuit of a quickie. Who cares if someone gets hurt by reading "No blacks" or "No Asians" or even "No whites" (yes, it does happen, too, and I consider it to be just as racist as the others), as long as they get what they want?

Enough with the preferences argument. Been there, heard that -- over and over and over. It still sounds like hogwash. There's a difference between never having dated a certain race but being open to it in theory, and preferring one race over another but being open to all of them in theory, and lusting and loving behind a velvet rope. That's when you give in to this sort of pre-determined attraction and take the time to write "No blacks" or "No Asians" or "No whites" or whatever in your dating profile because it's too time-consuming to simply ignore the people who contact you whom you're not into.

Racism, like sexism, isn't just about hate. (You can be sexist and love women, racist and have minority friends.) It's about exclusion and sweeping generalization. It doesn't necessarily twirl its moustache. It doesn't make you bad, just human. Ignoring it and pretending that it's something that only influences other people is when the evil creeps in.

If there is a message I want to get across with my writing on the subject, it's this: When you look at people, stop seeing colors and ethnicities and nationalities and sexual preferences above everything else. Start seeing individuals first. Who knows? You might learn something about the world outside your bubble, and by extension, about yourself.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Why Will Just HAD to Endanger "WilSon" by Having Sex with Paul on "Days of Our Lives"

So it finally happened. For the first time since Will Horton and Sonny Kiriakis got together on Days of Our Lives after months of coming-out angst (courtesy of Will), "WilSon" is interesting again. Last week, Will cheated on Sonny with ex-baseball star Paul Narita, and while I wouldn't wish infidelity on any couple, this viewer couldn't be happier about this latest Days development.

Last year I wrote an article for the Advocate about why Will and Sonny might be the most important couple on TV (read it here), and at the time, I had no idea how quickly they would become one of the dullest. In fiction, happiness is a bore. Angst keeps us watching/reading/listening. In the world of soap couples, angst typically comes in the form of a life-threatening illness or a third party.

I figured Days would eventually throw a spanner in the works, but I was starting to wonder if Will and Sonny might end up living happily ever after indefinitely, as both are young and healthy, and for a while, both appeared to be the only gay men living in Salem. I didn't see how anything/anyone could possibly break them until cracks in their newlywed bliss slowly started to show. Ambition, distance and unanswered messages will do that to a couple.

Trouble in Will and Sonny's romantic paradise actually began brewing even before the arrival of Paul, a major-league baseball star who happens to be Sonny's ex. The show nicely set the stage for what was to come by slowly establishing friction in Will and Sonny's marriage almost from the moment Will decided to temporarily move to L.A. to write a screenplay based on the life of his mother, one Sami Brady. Out of sight, out of mind! Who didn't see that coming?

But I, for one, was totally taken off guard by the first twist: Paul, a mystery-man hospital patient who put the moves on every female who entered his orbit, planted a surprise kiss on Sonny. Then came the big reveal: He was once in a year-long relationship with Sonny, but things didn't work out because his career as a star pitcher in baseball's major league and his Japanese heritage kept him from publicly acknowledging either his sexuality or Sonny. Paul wanted to rekindle, but Sonny was hopelessly devoted to Will.

Ah, yes, Will, the guy who thinks it's perfectly OK to ignore his husband's calls and leave his messages unreturned because he's too busy to talk. (Memo to Will: We're only too busy to do the things we don't want to do.) I've hated the Will-is-suddenly-an-A-list-writer thing from the very beginning, but it's nice to see that unlikely development finally being put to good use.

As soon as Will moved back to Salem after being fired from the Hollywood gig, and his editor Zoe met with Paul to discuss Sonics doing a story on him, it was obvious that Will would be the interviewer. When his boss advised him to lose his wedding ring and keep his own marital status a secret while interviewing Paul, I thought it was only a plot device to keep Paul from knowing that Will is actually married to the one that got away from him.

But Days had far steamier plans. That Christopher Sean (the actor who plays Paul) sure is an excellent find. He's as convincing playing the womanizer as he is at making us believe he's a gay man (as much so as Chris Carmack, who's playing a similar story arc on Nashville). He's beautiful, he's sexy, and damn, he can really act. From the moment, he and Will met, it was obvious to me that Will would eventually drop trou for him. How could he not? Not only is Paul sex on a baseball bat, but the actor has mastered the art of soap seduction.

Yes, the character is kind of annoying. I hate the way he answers questions with questions, and I've yet to see any evidence that he's much of a deep thinker or even particularly interesting once you get him out of bed. (Although it might just be the non-sports-guy in me, his ball obsession -- pun intended -- is textbook lame.) But how could Will possibly resist his art of seduction?

Frankly, the biggest mystery is what Paul sees in Will. As played by Guy Wilson, who always sounds like he's holding back a sob, Will might be the most unlikable/infuriating character on Days right now (just a tad more tolerable than Robert Scott Wilson's violent, lovesick Ben), but this is just what his character needed.

I've never bought the show's attempt to sell this early twentysomething guy as a brilliant writer, but even if he is, he's a terrible journalist. No professional I know would ever allow a story subject to read the article before it goes to print and give him or her final approval of it. (Memo to Days's scribes: Check out the hatchet job that smarmy Rolling Stone writer recently did on Rayna James on Nashville to see how celeb journalism is really done.)

Oh, and they certainly would not jump into bed with said subject, even one as tantalizing as Paul. Derrick the hot gay bellboy is better at his job, and he keeps letting people into the rooms of hotel guests. Zoe would so fire Will if she found out about any of this, especially the story approval promise!

I hate Will more than ever now, but I love that he and not Sonny was the one to cheat. For one thing, it's a nice nod to his family's history. His grandmother cheated on his grandfather years before Will was born, permanently scarring his mom Sami. Then just a few years ago, Will walked in on Sami cheating on her then-husband, Rafe Hernandez, with EJ DiMera. That actually ended up being the main catalyst for Will's short-lived bitchy-bad-boy era, which kicked off his coming-out process.

Now with Will cheating on Sonny, it completes a kind of trifecta of marital infidelity -- grandmother, mother and grandson. It also brings some much-needed drama into a marriage that had quickly grown stale. The fact is that Will got married much too young, and considering how sexual men are, it makes even less sense for a gay man to marry the first man he has sex with than it is for a woman to do the same. Of course, at some point he's going to want to sample other goods. It might have been more realistic for him to meet "the other man" at a club or on Grindr, but this so much juicier.

I also love this cheating story because it's not a straight love triangle (not "straight" as in not-gay but "straight" as in traditional). The interloper doesn't realize that the cheating spouse is married, and the cheating spouse has no idea that the interloper and his now-cuckolded husband were once in love. Can romantic drama get any soapier? There are so many revelations to come! As storyline twists go, it's a daytime first, but then it's not really a scenario that could ever play out with a straight couple!

The only thing missing from this story is Sami Brady, whose portrayer, Alison Sweeney, left the show at the end of last year after her character moved to L.A. with Will's younger siblings when Hollywood stardom literally knocked on her door. When the truth comes out and shit starts to hit the fan, an important beat to play will be the idea that Will may have inherited an unfortunate legacy from his mom and grandmother.

Not having Sami physically be a part of the story will drain that angle of some of his power. I want her to be the one to support Will and help him put together the shattered pieces of his life, mostly because she loves him but also because she's been there.

Frankly, I want Sami back full-time. The show needs her. I'd rather watch her watching paint dry than sit through another scene of Abigail and Ben telling each other how wonderful the other is and making disgusting kissing noises. But even without Sami, this is such a promising storyline. It's the only one on Days right now that's not a chore to sit through due to the absence of Sami, EJ and Kristen DiMera.

After months of making me drowsy, Days if finally must-stay-awake-for TV again, and it's all because of three gay men (four if you count Derrick). I'll have more of them, please!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The First Mix Tape of the Year: 15 No. 15 Hits for 2015

Last year I had so much fun compiling a 2014 soundtrack of No. 14 hits I've decided to do it again for 2015, moving down one notch. It was considerably more challenging this time around than it was one year ago. I don't have any data to back-up my theory that No. 15 peakers are relatively rare in comparison to songs that top out at other Top 20 Billboard Hot 100 positions, but aside from the Sylvia hit, which came to mind almost instantly, I had to look up all of the others.

Here's to little 15 -- not the Depeche Mode Music for the Masses single, but the number, the chart peak and the year.

"Alfie" Dionne Warwick (1967) Doesn't this seem like it should have been a much bigger hit?


"Words" Bee Gees (1968) Do you think anyone at the time had any idea what a difference less than 10 years would make?


"Give It Up or Turnit a Loose" James Brown (1968) No, not the original version of the almost identically titled No. 15 En Vogue hit (bonus cut) from 24 years later, but an entirely different song.



"Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine (Part 1)" James Brown (1970) Here's the thing: For the most part, Brown wrote jams rather than songs, and when he found a groove that worked, boy did he stick with it. Classic as this one was, by this point in his career, his song titles were probably more original than the actual songs.


"Hot Pants Pt. 1 (She Got to Use What She Got to Get What She Wants)" (1971) That was three No. 15s for The Godfather of Soul in just four years, but my faith in my theory about the rarity of No. 15 hits remains unwavering. Neither Elton John nor Stevie Wonder nor Aretha Franklin nor Madonna nor Michael Jackson nor Diana Ross (with or without The Supremes) nor Paul McCartney (with or without The Beatles) nor Chicago (a band with three No. 14s), to name a number of random iconic acts with a boatload of Top 40 hits, ever had one that peaked at No. 15 on Billboard's Hot 100.


"I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do" ABBA (1975) A great classic in retrospect, but how unhip this must have sounded at the time.


"SOS" ABBA (1975) With a second consecutive No. 15, ABBA made scoring No. 15 hits look a lot easier than it was, too, but maybe a handful of acts just hogged the number. Five artists are responsible for all but four of the No. 15 hits on this 2015 soundtrack.


"Deja Vu" Dionne Warwick (1979) She's never really been officially known as the Queen of anything, but for a long while there, Dionne was the queen of class.


"Nobody" Sylvia (1982) It's the kind of song I'd probably hate if I were hearing it for the first time in 2015. It's the kind of song that Taylor Swift would have written and sung had she been around back then. It's the kind of song that I couldn't get enough of in 1982.


"Hold On" Santana (1982) I was too young to remember the initial chart runs of The Moody Blues, The Kinks and Santana, so gracias a Dios for the early '80s Top 40 chart revivals of those bands.

 
"Cuts Like a Knife" Bryan Adams (1983) If Bryan hadn't become so mired in overblown balladry during the latter part of his "star" period, tarnishing his rock & roll legacy, I wonder if maybe he, and not Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, would be getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.


"Dynamite" Jermaine Jackson (1984) Like "Let's Get Serious" and "Let Me Tickle Your Fancy," as good as anything his baby brother was doing that decade.


"One of the Living" Tina Turner (1985) Does anyone other than me remember the second hit single from the film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, in which Tina costarred as Aunty Entity? Rihanna would probably be laughed out of the industry if she made a movie move like that today, but the music that came out of it was undeniable. I even bought this 45 vinyl single!


"It's Only Love" Bryan Adams and Tina Turner (1986) Another Tina Turner No. 15 from Bryan's career-changing Reckless album. That no one seemed to give a second thought to the 20-year age difference between the two performers (She was 46; he was 26) is a testament to Tina's immense and ageless sex appeal.


"The Best" Tina Turner (1989) Tina's third No. 15 hit and despite its relatively lowly peak, maybe even more of a signature song than "What's Love Got to Do with It," her lone No. 1, from five years earlier.

Friday, January 2, 2015

A Shaky Grindr Beginning, Promising Ending

White Guy on Grindr: Sexy

Me: thanks:)

White Guy on Grindr: Ur welcome...

I have always wanted to hook up with a black guy

Me: I am so fucking sick of hearing that

White Guy on Grindr: Im being really honest, its a really big turn on for me

Sorry if i have annoyed u

Me: well, here is a tip: most black guys will be more receptive if u don't make race an issue, positive or negative. we want to be seen as individuals, not as our skin color. you know, like white guys are!

White Guy on Grindr: I get that

Seeing as i have blown my slim chance with u i will keep that in mind

He was right. He'd blown it. I was done. Why do people always think that "I was just being honest" is a suitable excuse for saying the wrong thing? We're all adults here. We should know by now that we don't have to say, or write, every single thought that pops into our head.

Would anyone expect a straight guy to get lucky after approaching a woman and saying, honestly, "I've always wanted to sleep with a woman with big breasts"? As a primary source of objectification, skin color is for black men, as breasts are for women, a sensitive spot. Approach them at your own risk.

Even if I were to meet up with White Guy on Grindr, I'd wonder if I was just the fulfillment of a long-time fantasy and nothing more. I've played that part too many times. I'm tired of being typecast as a piece of meat with eyes. It's time for a new role, one that can be played by a guy of any color.

While the conversation with White Guy on Grindr was over on my part, I did have to give him credit for not getting defensive like so many others have when I've objected to being downgraded from individual to skin color. The last one called me a nigger, which illustrated my point exactly.

I've been called that word by enough color-obsessed suitors (the last three people who used it on me were all previously hitting on me) to know that when it's all about color, "nigger" can too easily end up becoming the new "black."

None for me. I'm good, thanks.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

7 of My "Favorite" Things: From the Kinks to Queen

It's been awhile since "10 of My "Favorite Things: From ABBA to John Lennon," so here's a reminder what this is all about: These are my favorite songs by random favorite artists alphabetically organized by random favorite artist. Since picking favorites can be such an impossible task, I've made my criteria simple: Were I on my death bed with only five minutes to live, which song by each act would I want to hear?

Yeah, yeah, I know: Music would probably be the last thing on my mind. When my life has flashed before my eyes in the past, there's been no melody or beat (unless you count my heartbeat accelerating). But every key moment in life, including the inevitable death scene, deserves an awesome soundtrack.

The Kinks "Autumn Almanac" I spent decades swooning over "Tired of Waiting for You," before I discovered a trove of late '60s Kinks classics that were probably too British for the American Top 10. I may never again sit through "You Really Got Me" when instead I can listen to "Sunny Afternoon," "Till the End of the Day" and "Autumn Almanac," the archest of the bunch and a complete non-charter in the States. But then despite my general distaste for tea, draughts and royals, I've always been a staunch Anglophile who thinks the British invasion may have been the best thing ever to happen to American rock & roll.


Linda Ronstadt "You're No Good" Her only No. 1 single contains the best outro in the history of recorded music, and it's musical symbiosis at its finest. The rest of the song would be merely well-sung revivalist rock without that outro, which, in turn, wouldn't be nearly so stunning if the rest of the song didn't build up to it. The late Andrew Gold really earned his paycheck with this one.


The Moody Blues "Question" The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is such a joke. How could Joan Jett and the Blackhearts get in before The Moody Blues even score a measly nomination? The greatest, if not the biggest, Moody Blues hit (No. 21, 1970) kind of sounds like several songs playing at the same time, and somehow the band makes it work. That's the sort of musical genius that should get folks into the Hall at least in their first two and a half decades of eligibility.


Neil Diamond "Crackin' Rosie" The horn riff that kicks it off has always sounded to me like an announcement that morning has broken -- not the Cat Stevens song, the time of day…my favorite time of day. Though the lyrics are clearly set at the start of the evening (and Neil is actually singing about red red wine, the titular subject of another of his classic compositions and one of my least favorite ways to get a buzz), "Rosie" is so 6am euphoria. If I weren't such a morning person, maybe I'd be writing about "Love on the Rocks" here instead. I've been dying to do "Rosie" on a karaoke night for years. I'd better put that at the top of my bucket so list I can die listening to Neil singing about it in peace.


OMD "Souvenir" After they crank it on my death bed, they can play it on repeat at my funeral party.


Prince "Mountains" My friend Zena and I were recently talking about how much we love Parade, Prince's 1986 soundtrack for the film Under the Cherry Moon, which, incidentally, my mother bought me on vinyl for my birthday that year. I'd put it right up there with Sign o' the Times as his best long-form work. And this underrated single from it whose off-kilter production made the vinyl sound like it had been left out in the heat for too long? Unlike most of Prince's other '80s singles from "Little Red Corvette" on, I haven't heard it nearly enough. (Watch and listen here.)

Queen "Body Language" I'm not saying I love it more than "You're My Best Friend" or "A Kind of Magic" or "Under Pressure," but if I could only listen to one Queen track one more time before I croak... I've been addicted to that bass line (like a drug, like a drug, to quote Kylie Minogue, who once called an entire album -- her best one -- Body Language) since 1982. Look at me, I've got a case of "Body Language."

Friday, December 26, 2014

10 Reasons Why 1972-1974 Was the Greatest Era in Pop

Here's the thing about the early '70s: On paper, it wasn't all that.

For one thing, unlike other key music moments in time (the mid '50s and the birth of rock & roll, the mid '60s and the British invasion, the late '60s and the counterculture, the late '70s and the disco inferno, the '80s and new wave and rap, the early '90s and grunge), the early '70s offered nothing in the way of revolution.

There was no defining movement or sound or superstar. The Beatles had broken up. Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix had died. Yet, some of the most durable music emerged from the beginning of the decade, particularly between 1972 and 1974. I think that lack of a defining anything may have resulted in more variety. There was no blueprint for a hit in the early '70s because the biggest hits had so little in common.

It's almost like the early '70s was both a gathering place for the remnants of what had come before (notice the number of comebacks and the reemergence of the rockabilly sound, especially in 1974) and a breeding ground for what was still to come. Would disco have developed without the influence of Philly soul? Would new wave have existed without glam rockers like David Bowie and Roxy Music?

Of course, my great appreciation for 1972-1974 might simply be a matter of taste. Whatever the reason for it, here are 10 points to back it up.

1. The creative and commercial zeniths of some of the most distinguished artists of the modern recording era encompassed those three years. Among those early '70s peakers: Al Green, Barry White, The Carpenters, Cher, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Helen Reddy, Roberta Flack, The Sylistics, Three Dog Night, crossover-era Charlie Rich, Tom Johnston-era The Doobie Brothers and solo Ringo Starr. Interestingly, by the mid-'70s advent of disco, middle-of-the-road rock and easy listening (the latter of which would dominate 1975 via No. 1 singles by Barry Manilow, Frankie Valli, B.J. Thomas, Captain & Tennille, Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds and a spectacularly resurgent Neil Sedaka), they'd all experience a dramatic decline in chart fortunes from which most of them, with the exceptions of Flack, White and Cher, would never rebound.


2. Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Chicago were each churning out Top 10s with the dependability of the Rihannas, Katy Perrys and Taylor Swifts of today. I recently had a pop debate with a twentysomething colleague who was trying to convince me of the creative merit of Taylor Swift's current pop phase. He was unsuccessful. I might not be old enough to remember all of 1972 to 1974 firsthand, but I am old enough to recognize it as a time when a No. 1 Hot 100 hit could be so much more than ear candy and didn't have to be written and produced by committee. Wonder was 24, one year younger than Taylor Swift is now, when he went to No. 1 with the self-penned and self-produced "You Haven't Done Nothin'." It's hard to imagine such a blistering indictment of the political and social status quo topping the charts today, or anything as musically intricate as Chicago's "Call on Me" or Elton's "Bennie and the Jets" going anywhere near the Top 10.


3. Artpop No, not Lady Gaga's 2013 album, but rather the music of the period's cutting-edge movers and shakers. Lou Reed scored his only hit single (with 1972's "Walk on the Wild Side"). Todd Rundgren was peaking as a performer (with 1972's Something/Anything) and as a producer (of Badfinger and Grand Funk Railroad, among others). Genesis was starting to break. And although I've always associated Steely Dan with the late '70s in my head, SD actually belonged just as much, if not more, to 1972-1974. Hit pop has rarely defied categorization as brilliantly as 1972's "Do It Again," 1973's "Reelin' in the Years and 1974's "Rikki Don't Lose That Number."


4. It was the last time "black" music was pop music. During one week in 1972 (the Billboard week ending May 6), the Top 10 of the Hot 100 was 70 percent black, featuring Al Green, The Staple Singers, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, The Stylistics, Joe Tex and Roberta Flack. Wow. In fact, during 1972, one-half of the 22 Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 singles were by black acts. By the mid '70s, "black" pop had splintered off into soul, disco and funk, with R&B, rap, hip hop and their various permutations on the way. It's never sounded quite the same.


5. Speaking of "black" music, Philly soul and post-Motown male vocal quartets were peaking (and so was Motown's still-fighting Temptations, via "Papa Was a Rolling Stone"). It was the golden age of The Stylistics, The O'Jays, The Chi-Lites (who were No. 12 during the aforementioned week ending May 6, 1972 with the future No. 1"Oh Girl"), The Dramatics and The Spinners.


6. It was the peak of the singer-songwriter era. All four former Beatles (as well as frequent Fab Four cohort Billy Preston) enjoyed simultaneous success with self-written material. Meanwhile, Bill Withers, Carole King, Don McLean, Harry Chapin, Harry Nilsson, Jim Croce, John Denver, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Neil Young, Paul Simon, Loggins and Messina, Carly Simon and James Taylor were all writing timeless classics, singing them and scoring massive hits.


7. Kings of glam rock. Though I prefer T. Rex from 1970 to 1972, Marc Bolan and company's hits kept coming. Alongside them, Roxy Music, The Sweet and David Bowie helped carry the glam-rock banner from 1972 to 1974, their break-out years. Ironically, of those three, the one with the biggest hits (The Sweet) is the one that fewer people probably remember today.


8. The '60s British invasion was still alive and kicking. The Beatles may have been gone, but the band's four offshoot solo stars, along with The Rolling Stones, The Hollies, The Moody Blues and The Who, were still waving the Union Jack.


9. No era, possibly with the exception of 1983 to 1984, produced better one-hit-wonder hits in the U.S. A shortlist: Looking Glass's "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)," Stories' "Brother Louie," Blue Swede's "Hooked on a Feeling," Argent's "Hold Your Head Up," Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll (Part 2)," Sylvia's "Pillow Talk," David Essex's "Rock On" and Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells."


10. Comeback kings Pop hailed Neil Sedaka, Paul Anka, Bobby Vinton, Chuck Berry and Sammy Davis Jr.…again. The new hits weren't always worthy of their legend status, but they set the stage for the second and third acts that would become such a driving force of the future of pop. We wouldn't still be talking about Tina Turner and Cher without them.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

10 Things I Want That I Knew I Wouldn't Get for Christmas This Year...

...and probably wouldn't have even if I were one to do Christmas or gift exchanges.

1. A round-trip plane ticket to Ethiopia or Morocco -- one of them is next on my to-go-to list -- and a lifetime guarantee to be seated in Premium Economy or higher on every Qantas flight. Oh, and a lifetime guarantee to never have to fly any airline other than Qantas.

2. A dog.


3. The perfect man (see example above). Not perfect perfect -- just perfect for me: intelligent, funny, well-traveled, with a car (because I'm still afraid to drive on the left) and good looks that weren't labored over in the gym, at the salon, in the bathroom mirror or under the knife.

4. A box set (on mp3) of every Casey Kasem American Top 40 countdown from the '70s.

5. Unlimited WiFi for life.

6. A five-year rest from Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus and the Kardashians.

7. New diva albums that I've actually been waiting for, from Kate Bush, Sade, Shara Nelson, Everything But the Girl, Tracey Thorn solo, Billie Ray Martin and Shania Twain.


8. An invitation to the Oscars (and a nomination to go with it?).

9. My own personal driver like the one Big had on Sex and the City.

10. The one that got away.

Madonna "Addicted (The One That Got Away)"



On the bright side, I have my health, my words, my friends and thanks to one of them -- take a bow, Zena! -- enough Tend Skin to last me another few years abroad. Come to think of it, I couldn't seriously ask for anything more.