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.

Throwback Christmas: Santa and Me Through the Years

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Thoughts on "Boyhood": Does Its Intriguing Creative Hook Make It a Great Film?

Courtesy of The New York Times
Boyhood is one strange beast of a movie. I've never seen film critics so unanimous in their praise of one film, while the public seems to be unanimously divided. Love it or hate it? I'm going with neither. After having a night to sleep on it and a morning to mull it over, I'd place my feelings for Boyhood somewhere in the middle, definitely a little farther to the left, closer to the L word.

I wouldn't say it's overrated because that would imply that I didn't like it. I did like it, and it's easy to understand why it's inspired such a critical lovefest. I just can't count myself among its breathless admirers.

The Oscar buzz couldn't have happened to a more deserving director, though. Richard Linklater is one of the best directors working today, and it's about time he got his due. The Best Director Oscar is his to lose...and he won't. I'm in awe of how he managed to keep the cast together during what was essentially a 12-year shoot while keeping his artistic vision intact, making the finished product look seamless from beginning to end. It's like Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight as one movie without the decade-long gaps.

The way Linklater crosses indie attitude with mainstream conventions reminds me of Alexander Payne (the sequences with the God-fearing gun-toting grandparents were like something straight out of Nebraska, my favorite film of 2013) -- and he's got excellent taste in music! I loved the part near the beginning where the intro to The Hives' "Hate to Say I Told You So" plays on a loop. I think Linklater's directorial efforts with Before Sunset and Before Midnight were just as deserving of Oscar buzz as Boyhood, but better late than never.

That also goes for Patricia Arquette, the presumed Best Supporting Actress frontrunner. Despite her Emmy for her TV work on Medium, she's been woefully underrated and undervalued since her initial burst of early '90s success. Hopefully, the truckload of critics prizes will result in more interesting film work for the future star of TV's CSI: Cyber.

Let's start with a Boyhood 2, perhaps, that doesn't so closely reflect the title. I'm actually secretly hoping that Linklater filmed another movie where we get to see what's going on with her character when she isn't onscreen in Boyhood. I loved the subtle way that Linklater telegraphs the abusiveness of her second and third husbands (Never trust a guy who tells you all of his war stories before your first date) and hints at the possibility of abuse at her first husband's hands while ultimately showing him to be a flawed but pretty fantastic guy. More, please.

And then there's Ethan Hawke (as said first husband), another great undersung actor, one who has never been held in the same critical regard as peers like Matt Damon, Matthew McConaughey and Jude Law. I think his is the best performance in Boyhood, despite it being perhaps the trickiest one. Mason Sr. is undependable, a frequently absent dad, but Hawke actually makes me sort of wish my own dad, who was far from undependable or absent, had been more like him.

The one-on-one scenes with Mason Sr. and Mason Jr. are among the film's best. It's a bit cliche to say this about a great performance, but Hawke really doesn't seem to be acting at all. He simply is Mason Sr. I'd actually say that for all of the principal cast and the characters they play. That might be the biggest creative benefit of filming one movie over the course of a dozen years. The actors live with their characters for so long that at some point, the two almost become one.

Here, however, is my million-dollar question: Are Boyhood's rapturous reviewers so enthralled by the film because of the way in which it was made? After all, who shoots a movie over the course of 12 years, allowing the characters and the actors portraying them to age naturally? It's a pretty revolutionary idea in this particular medium, and as one of my friends pointed out, it made the characters seems more like a real family.

But anyone who has ever turned on a TV well knows, TV shows have been doing this for many decades. So we watched the Bradys and the Huxtables and the Keatons age naturally over the course of years rather than two hours and 45 minutes, but in reality, it's really not such an original and mesmerizing storytelling device that, well, storytelling can be thrown completely out the window.

And that's where Boyhood, for me, falters. I have nothing against the vignette style of storytelling. But if you are going to demand nearly three hours of my attention and not offer a defined storyline, you at least need to give me an interesting central character to give a damn about. Sadly, that wouldn't be Mason Jr. I wanted him to resent his mother for exposing him to such abusive stepfathers or become the class clown to hide his sadness or the class bully to hide his fear, anything to make him worth three hours of my attention.

Another friend suggested that it's Mason's very ordinariness that makes Boyhood great. Gimmicky kids, after all, have been done to death. But a protagonist, even an underage one, need not be gimmicky to be interesting. While I was watching Boyhood, I kept thinking of the TV series Weeds, imagining Mary Louise-Parker in a more minor role (a la Patricia Arquette in Boyhood) and her second son in the central role. I would have loved the series so much more.

Mason, alas, is no Shane Botwin. Though he's nicely played by Ellar Coltrane, Mason just isn't a vivid enough character to justify spending nearly three hours mostly on him. And while I appreciate my friend's take on what made Boyhood great for her, I can't cosign. Ordinary simply has no place in entertainment. Yes, Mason is a realistic character, like a kid we'd meet in everyday life. Would that have been enough to keep the movie's breathless fans invested had Boyhood been filmed in the usual three or so months and had different lookalike actors been used to portray Mason at different ages?

We turn to TV and movies to see extraordinary people doing extraordinary things, and in the absence of extraordinary, they've got to be interesting. If I want "slice of life," I don't have to go to the cinema to get it. We're surrounded by ordinary every day of our lives. Does it become artistic, or great, just because it's tied to a cool concept? (P.S. See Payne's Nebraska for "slice of life" elevated by two interesting yet non-flashy leading characters.)

Don't get me wrong: I think Boyhood is a good movie. I just wish its extraordinariness didn't depend so much on the 12 years that the cast and crew spent making it.

You'll Never Guess Which Hits Were Their Biggest!

I have theory (yes, another one): The more hits a classic act has had, the more likely the biggest one is to be something totally unexpected.

Take one of the greatest hitmakers of all time. "Hey Jude" spent more weeks (9) at No. 1 than any other Beatles single, but is it anyone's favorite Beatles song? Does anyone consider "Hey Jude" synonymous with the band? The Beatles racked up a number of signature early, mid- and late-period songs, and I wouldn't list "Hey Jude" among them.

Now consider ex-Beatle Paul McCartney. His longest-running post-Beatles No. 1 wasn't "Band on the Run" or "Silly Love Songs" or any of his other '70s radio staples. It was "Ebony and Ivory," his 1982 duet with Stevie Wonder that ruled Billboard's Hot 100 for seven weeks, which is as long at the top as the No. 1 runs of Wonder's "Superstition," "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," "You Haven't Done Nothin'," "I Wish" and "Sir Duke" combined.

Here are 11 other superstars with surprise biggest hits.

Bob Marley Believe it or not, not one of the reggae icon's iconic singles ever made it into the U.S. Top 40. Not "No Woman, No Cry," "One Love" or "Is This Love," all of which were Top 10 UK hits. Marley's only Hot 100 entry ever was "Roots, Rock, Reggae," which peaked at No. 51 in 1976 and despite its lack of Marley classic status, ranks among his finest work.

Bee Gees "Staying Alive" was the trio's disco signature, but "Night Fever" spent five more weeks at No. 1. Eight weeks on top isn't such a big deal these days, but in the '70s, it was virtually unheard of.

Depeche Mode Quick, name a DM song! Chances are you cited "Just Can't Get Enough" (which didn't even chart in the U.S.) or "People Are People" (No. 13), not the band's lone U.S. Top 10, "Enjoy the Silence," which climbed to No. 8 in 1990.

Donna Fargo She went down in history for "The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.," but "Funny Face" brought the '70s country superstar her greatest chart success. While both hit No. 1 on the country side, Fargo's signature song peaked at No. 11 on the Hot 100, six rungs below the peak Top 10 spot of "Funny Face."

Duran Duran If you lived through the '80s, you definitely remember the band's two U.S. No. 1's ("The Reflex" and "A View to a Kill"), but you'd be forgiven for thinking that "Hungry Like the Wolf" (No. 3) or the non-U.S.-charting "Girls on Film" were bigger. I still can't believe they weren't.

Elton John Even if you don't count "Candle in the Wind 1997," which was a monster by association (with Princess Diana's untimely death), the Elton single that spent the most weeks at No. 1 in the U.S. wasn't either of the two arguably most associated with him, neither of which even went Top 5: "Your Song" (No. 8) and "Rocket Man" (No. 6). It was -- surprise! -- "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," his duet with Kiki Dee that spent four weeks at the Hot 100 summit in 1976 and was the No. 2 Billboard single of that year. Curiously, though Elton is most highly regarded for slower, more contemplative '70s songs like "Daniel," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and "Tiny Dancer," with the exception of his cover of The Beatles "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," his No. 1 '70s hits ("Crocodile Rock," "Bennie and the Jets," "Philadelphia Freedom," "Island Girl" and "Don't Go Breaking My Heart") were all uptempo.

Fleetwood Mac "Dreams" was the band's only U.S. chart-topper, but it's not even the most highly regarded Stevie Nicks-penned FM song, an honor that would more likely go to "Rihannon" (No. 11), "Sara" (No. 7) or the non-single "Landslide."

Gordon Lightfoot It was going to be toss-up between him and John Lennon, but since I vividly remember "(Just Like) Starting Over" being massive in the aftermath of Lennon's 1980 death, I can believe it was bigger than "Imagine" (No. 3). I'm surprised "Whatever Gets You thru the Night" and not Lennon's solo signature wasn't his other No. 1, but "Starting Over" makes that a moot point in this post. Which brings me to Gordon Lightfoot. "Sundown," the singer-songwriter's only U.S. No. 1, is a fantastic song, but am I the only one who would have expected "If You Could Read My Mind," which was resurrected as a '90s dance hit by Stars on 54, to have been bigger?

Janet Jackson I remember "That's the Way Love Goes" being huge in 1993, eight-weeks-at-No.-1 huge. But is it the first song anyone thinks about when they think about Miss Jackson-if-you're-nasty?

Madonna "Holiday" never made the Top 10 on Billboard's Hot 100; "Material Girl" stalled in the runner-up slot; and "Into the Groove" was never even a U.S. single. The Madonna song that spent one more week at the top than "Like A Virgin" (seven) was a now-all-but-forgotten ballad written by Babyface. When is the last time you heard "Take a Bow" (not the Rihanna No. 1 of the same title)?

Van Morrison The fantastic "Domino" (No. 9, 1970) bested his signature "Brown Eyed Girl" by one notch. Who said Americans have poor taste in music? Well, I did, but "Domino" is proof that they occasionally get it right.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

5 Random Thoughts I Had After Watching "Still Alice"

1. Have you ever gotten so drunk at a party that you couldn't remember your address to give to the taxi driver on your way home? If Julianne Moore hasn't, she must know exactly how it feels. While watching her performance as a college professor struggling with a rare form of Alzheimer's that unexpectedly strikes otherwise vibrant and healthy 50-year-olds, I kept having flashbacks to my own bout of alcohol-induced amnesia. Yeah, that's right: "bout." It's only happened once!

I never stopped appreciating Julianne Moore as an actress, but it's been forever since I've loved her (circa 1999's Magnolia, to be completely honest). Still Alice reminds me of why I first fell for her (circa 1992's The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, her second film) and why I first adored her in the first place (circa 1995's Safe). In some ways, Alice is Julianne coming full circle from Safe, playing another woman in the grips of a mystery illness. Once again, she nails that what-the-f**k-is-happening-to-me mix of fear and disbelief that accompanies gradually and inexplicably finding your health slipping away.

2. As someone whose personal and public identity is also closely tied to words and being able to use them well (Julianne's Alice character, Alice Howland, is a celebrated cognitive psychologist), I related to her situation in a way that made watching the movie more uncomfortable than it otherwise might have been. Initially pegging those strange symptoms as a brain tumor is exactly the conclusion I would have jumped to.

Perhaps that's why I found Alice so likable, though neither Julianne nor the script bend over backwards to make her so. It's interesting that for her, the greatest tragedy of the disease isn't losing touch with her loved ones but losing her mind. It's the less sentimental approach, but that Julianne managed to keep me perhaps even more invested in what was happening to Alice while periodically checking to make sure my own memory was still intact says as much about her acting skill as it does about where my own priorities lie.

3. It's easy to draw comparisons to Away from Her, the 2006 film in which Julie Christie played a woman losing her grip to Alzheimer's. Julie scored her fourth Best Actress Oscar nomination for that movie, and it's almost a foregone conclusion that Still Alice will earn Julianne her third in that category. (It'll bring her nomination total to five overall.)

But there's a big difference between the two movies. Despite Julie's Best Actress status, Away focused mostly on the husband's point of view, to the film's detriment. Yes, it must be painful to not only slowly lose your wife to Alzheimer's but to also lose her to a fellow patient in a care facility. Still, you don't cast an actress like Julie Christie as the tortured lead in a film and then ask the audience to spend most of the movie focusing on someone else's agony. I believe that cost her the Oscar.

Sorry, Marion Cotillard, but Julie should have won. You may have been great in La vie en rose, but I have a problem with people winning Oscars for musical biopics in which they lip sync. (Sorry, Jamie Foxx. If What's Love Got to Do With It's Angela Bassett had lose to The Piano's Holly Hunter, you should have been congratulating Hotel Rwanda's Don Cheadle on Oscar night 2005.) On the plus side, Marion, I think you should be in the running this year for The Immigrant (but probably won't be as Oscar seems to be over you since that one-night stand), right alongside Julianne and Wild's Reese Witherspoon. She won her biopic Oscar the way God intended, by also singing the part of June Carter Cash in Walk the Line.

4. I wish the movie had looked more closely at Alice's marriage to John (Alec Baldwin), who kind of seems like an afterthought. It glosses over the fact that John, though supportive and loving, treats his wife's declining faculties mostly as an inconvenience. Maybe Alice meant to have a word with him about that but forget to. He was no what's-his-name from Amour!

Elsewhere, the strained family dynamics -- did sisters Anna (Kate Bosworth) and Lydia (Kristen Stewart) hate each other or what? -- made me glad that I never see most of my immediate kin. It's strange how so many of us force ourselves to be around people we really don't like just because we share a bloodline, a bloodline which, as Still Alice makes abundantly clear, could potentially kill you. I'd rather spend Christmas solo, thank you.

5. Kristen Stewart is blossoming into such an effective actress. She's come a long way since On the Road a couple of years ago, now holding her own with the great Julianne Moore. It would have been so easy for her to overplay the petulant in Alice's youngest daughter, but Kristen actually makes her the most likable of the three children.

Maybe that's the benefit of her having more screen time than Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish, but even at her brattiest, railing against Alice for reading her journal, Kristen lets us see flickers of Lydia's compassion, like she's just holding back the rage. That's a tough balancing act to pull off when the scenery must have been so tempting (chomp chomp).

Clearly Kristen learned a thing or two from the woman playing her mom. If she keeps it up, we might soon be seeing her name in the Oscar conversation. Why should Jennifer Lawrence keep getting all the twentysomething love?

Saturday, December 20, 2014

7 New Things I've Learned About Sydney-siders Since Becoming One

1. They're all about their beaches. Sydney, we have a problem. First off, forget that American surfer aphorism. Life is not a beach. As someone who has never been a beach person, I can honestly say Sydney's celebrated shores have absolutely nothing to do with why I'm here.

Don't get me wrong: I love living near the ocean. But just knowing that it's there is enough for me. I don't actually have to splash around in it to appreciate it. And I can't think of anything I'd rather do less than bake under the hot sun. It's not like I ever look at a piece of meat sizzling in the oven and go, "Lucky!"

Though I live just one block away from Circular Quay, where the Sydney Opera House sits, and I take twice weekly runs along the water (and around the Botanical Garden), I've yet to step foot on a proper beach since moving here two months ago. In this beach-obsessed culture that gets me as many sideways glances as my American accent. It seems every time anyone tells me what they're doing, what they want to be doing or what they're going to be doing, a beach is involved. Sometimes I get so bored by the predictable script that I find myself daydreaming about life in a landlocked town. Oh, Jerusalem, where are you when I need you?

I've actually had people ask me why I live in Sydney if I'm not a beach person, as if there couldn't possibly be any other reason to live here. This makes me kind of sad, not because of what it says about Sydney, but because of what it says about those people. Life isn't a beach, and by making Sydney all about its sand and surf, they're shortchanging the city they're trying to sell.

The beach obsession is particularly curious because during my year in Cape Town, a city with some of the most spectacular beaches I've ever seen, the only people who talked about them were tourists. Locals always seemed to be busy doing other things. Ditto Melburnians. Sure St. Kilda is a bay beach, nowhere near the spectacle level of Sydney's water works, but I love Melbourne partly because I could go months there without any of my friends ever mentioning the beach.

2. They've got Christmas cheer to spare. This is my ninth Christmas living outside of the U.S. and my seventh non-consecutive one in the Southern Hemisphere. I'm as into Christmas as I'm into beaches, and it's even harder to get into the holiday spirit when the sun is shining and you're wearing shorts. In Bangkok, it was easier to ignore Christmas altogether because it's barely acknowledged there. That was one of the benefits of living in a Buddhist culture.

Buenos Aires is largely Catholic, but Christmas there is more about family traditions than carols and gifts. Everything went eerily silent on Christmas Eve while families bonded, and as soon as midnight struck, it was off to the clubs. BA business as usual had returned.

I spent but one Christmas in Cape Town, and since I can't recall anything about it, I'm assuming the holiday itself must have been pretty under the radar. Perhaps the country was still mourning the death of Nelson Mandela, who had passed only weeks earlier.

Sydney, though, is a completely different Christmas story. The holidays haven't made such a big splash anywhere I lived since New York City. There are Christmas decorations all over town, a Christmas tree on Martin's Place (the Aussie version of the Rockefeller Center tree), and I swear Christmas is the only thing anyone can talk about. Christmas at the beach (of course)! Woo hoo!

The excitement seems to be less about gift-giving than planning the perfect Christmas getaway. It's summer, after all, and there's no better time to get to Bali -- if insane travel crowds are your thing. The spirit hasn't been contagious in my direction, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't find the Aussie Christmas enthusiasm incredibly endearing. No Scrooges here -- and that can't possibly be a bad thing!

3. They're serious about their costume parties. Apparently, themed costume Christmas office parties are the thing here, with numerous "Christmas" stores in Sydney's CBD dedicated to the attire. That's why when I suited up as Captain America for my first Australian Christmas office party this past week, I was able to walk the 10 minutes from my apartment to the party venue alongside Catwoman, a mermaid and a magician and get shouts of appreciation but not a single strange look. That never would have happened in NYC, and I love Australia even more for it.

4. They're not big dancers. One of my colleagues asked me how office holiday parties in the U.S. are different, and the first thing that came to my mind after the costume thing was the dancing…or lack thereof. There was a little of it at Bar 100, but it was mostly a small group who created an impromptu dancing space underneath the DJ platform.

It was a lot different from all those People magazine Christmas parties I used to go to where the dance floor was the center of the action after the sit-down dinner. (Oh, no sit-down dinner the other night either.) There was always a proper dance floor, and by the end of the night it was pretty much filled with colleagues you never expected to see under the strobelight.

Bar 100 didn't have a dance floor (though it did have a short red carpet at the entrance), but come to think of it, I don't think I've even seen a dance floor anywhere since I arrived in Sydney.

5. Their sidewalk etiquette needs work. My friend Zena recently pointed out while visiting me in Sydney that she's never been in a city with more confusing sidewalk social norms…as in, there doesn't appear to be any. Do you walk on the left? Do you walk on the right? Nobody really seems to know. It doesn't help that everyone is too busy texting or talking on their phones to pay attention to where they're going or whom they're about to bump into. Walking through the CDB during weekday business hours might possibly be the most unpleasant part of living here.

6. They're hot and cold on their own stars. Apparently, the U.S. appreciates Aussie performers more than Australia does. They all flock to the U.S. to succeed, leaving TV presenters and reality stars to pick up the slack at home. Those are the real Australian celebrities, which I quickly learned while watching the action on the red carpet at the ARIAS a few weeks ago. One pair of MTV presenters went from being snapped on the red carpet to being banished to the other side of the rope to take their interviewing spot among the rest of the lowly press.

In perhaps the most shocking twist of the evening, when Guy Sebastian -- who is actually a bonafide celebrity Aussie entertainer -- showed up, the hoopla was cut short by the arrival of One Direction from the UK. Guy was quickly whisked off the red carpet, never to be seen again. The message: Who cares about their own when there's a superstar British boy band in the house? When Katy Perry (who along with 1D was the only act there with a substantial international following) finally showed up, she waltzed past the entire Aussie press without a word. She couldn't have been bothered. Kylie Minogue never would have done such a heinous thing, but then, I hear Aussies don't care much about Kylie these days. Who needs her when they've got all those reality stars to obsess over?

7. They're a lot more innocent than I thought. I learned more about Sydney-siders during Monday's so-called "Sydney siege" and its aftermath than during any other 48-hour period. One can't underplay the tragedy of any hostage situation that results in the loss of two lives (I refuse to consider the death of the gunman a "loss"). Although my Facebook news feed appeared to be more interested in D'Angelo's surprise album release (one person who clearly hadn't been paying attention to the news actually wrote "How can anyone talk about anything other than D'Angelo today?" as his status update), I was touched by the outpouring of grief among my fellow adopted countrymen, if not by the apparent indifference of many of my fellow Americans...at least online.

As someone who lived through September 11 in New York City, I found some of the sensationalist news coverage (Sydney was not under siege; there was an isolated hostage situation in a CBD cafe) and the public hysteria it spawned to be perplexing. Clear heads were not prevailing. An American friend who was here at the time put it perfectly: "Some commentator on Channel 7 just said it was like Independence Day, which is really quaint, I guess, since we both know what that's actually like."


For all of that hysteria, I was surprised to walk past Martin's Place that evening while the hostages were still captive and see scant police activity and no sign that a potentially deadly situation was in progress just meters away. For a few moments, until I went home and checked the news, I actually thought the "Sydney siege" was over. Sadly, it wasn't.

In the aftermath of those tragic murders, I was convinced that Sydney and Sydney-siders would never be the same. As someone whose city has been under attack (on September 11) and who has been attacked by an intruder in my own home, I am well aware of how one incident can change everything. Of all the headlines and commentary that I read and heard in the days after the stand-off, one statement rang particularly true: Australia has lost its innocence.

God help us all.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Sizing Up "Black Men": What Happens When the Story Is About Me?

For more years than I care to admit, I've been sticking my nose into other people's business. As a journalist, that's what I'm paid to do.

But what happens when the tables are turned and I find myself on the other side of the microscope lens? Now that I'm an author promoting Is It True What They Say About Black Men?, my first book, I'm getting to see how all of those celebrities I've spent decades interviewing have felt. Being interviewed and then reading my responses in print is not unlike hearing my voice on a tape recorder and being reminded each time that what I hear in my head and what I put out into the world are two very different things.

It's a slightly nerve-wracking source of anxiety (What if I sound even more ridiculous on the page than I do in my head?), but it's a welcome one. If I'm being interviewed about my book, it means that there are people out there who not only want to read it, but a few who want to talk about it and write about it, too. I don't think there's any greater gift a writer can receive -- unless they're counting royalties, of course, but this is a labor of love not the bottom line.

Last year I wrote a freelance article on the business side of Rihanna's brand for the South African magazine Destiny Man. A few months ago, after I sent my editor on that story a copy of my book, he asked if he could interview me for a Q&A feature in the magazine. It appears in the December issue, and there is also an excerpt from my book on the website. Click here to read the full Q&A.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Thoughts on Part 1 of the First Season of 'How to Get Away with Murder'

Annalise Keating is maddening. How does she frustrate me? Let me count the ways…

1. She's grumpy. She spends much of each episode of the ABC series How to Get Away with Murder in a foul mood.

2. She's a hypocrite. She blasts her white husband for screwing a white girl when she was doing the same with a hunky chocolate brother.

3. She's crooked. She not above breaking the rules -- and the law -- for the sake of winning a case, or saving her husband's ass, or her students', or her own.

4. She's a queen of artifice. For all her brutal candor, she's a bit of a fake. She's all steely armor, hiding behind a mask and under a wig that hides her fierce natural hair.

Annalise Keating might very well be the most infuriating woman who can be called the heroine of her own TV show right now.

But Annalise Keating, a defense attorney and law professor who's never encountered a rule she wouldn't bend, is played by Oscar-nominated actress Viola Davis, which means it's impossible not to watch her. I can't take my eyes off her. I'd probably still be into How to Get Away with Murder if it was just one hour of tight shots of Viola's face.

The one scene that will probably secure her Emmy nomination next year is the one at the end of the fourth episode in which she removes her wig, pulls out her false eyelashes and wipes off all her make-up so that she's staring into the mirror, stark naked from the neck up. She then turns to her husband, and in a tone that's a mix of weary and threatening, she asks, "Why is your penis on a dead girl's phone?"

It's a shocking scene and not just because of the penis question. It's reminiscent of the sequence in the 1992 film Damage in which Miranda Richardson stands in front of Jeremy Irons totally nude and asks why she wasn't enough for him. Why did he have to have an affair with their son's girlfriend (Juliette Binoche), leading to the son's death? Miranda wouldn't have scored her Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination without that one climactic scene, but Viola is lucky enough to have so many other riveting moments besides the one with the penis question.

She's naturally the main reason to watch How to Get Away with Murder. I keep wondering what the show would have been like had its creator Shonda Rimes hired another actress to take the role. There's so much loaded subtext in that penis scene -- what it says about masks, vulnerability and black female beauty. I can't imagine anyone other than Viola playing it so note-perfectly.

I also can't imagine anyone other than Viola playing Annalise so perfectly. If I close my eyes, I can picture someone like Alfre Woodward filling in for Viola in pretty much any of Viola's big-screen roles and doing each one justice. But I couldn't see anyone else, not even Alfre, pulling off Annalise. What if the character had been white? Would Annalise have worked so well, as a comeback vehicle for, say, Oscar winner Geena Davis? My answer: only if the show's other ingredients were stronger… a lot stronger.

The cracks in Murder show when its MVP isn't onscreen. The supporting cast that plays Annalise's students is capable enough, but aside from Connor, the gay student who has never met a guy he wouldn't screw to secure evidence, the characters are all fairly vanilla, straight out of Felicity.

That's not a color call. The two black students are the plainest ones of all. I love the hint of sexual-ish tension between Annalise and Wes (Alfred Enoch, overdoing the wide-eyed in his character's innocent and tilting his head too awkwardly), but that has everything to do with Viola. She could create sexual sparks with a chalk board.

I've found myself more involved in each case of the week than I am in the murder mystery that's the season-long story thread and the show's main hook. The fallout from that particular murder -- actually, the two murders -- is far more interesting than the whodunit aspect. I kind of haven't cared who killed either of the victims or why. I've been sticking around to watch Viola -- I mean, Annalise -- react to the latest bit of damning evidence against her husband, and to see what sexual/social taboo Connor (Jack Falahee, growing on me more each episode) can shutter next.

My favorite scene of the entire series so far was probably the episode-nine showdown between Annalise and her husband Sam (Tom Verica, a good actor who can convincingly switch from staid and stand-up to calculating and creepy to vile and dangerous in a matter of moments). When Sam tells Annalise that she was always just a piece of ass to him, it speaks some uncomfortable and unfortunate truths about the nature of many interracial relationships. Cheers to the script for actually going there rather than white-washing things.

Cheers to Rimes for creating such vibrant, riveting and complex portraits of both black female sexuality and gay male sexuality. Television hasn't offered nearly enough of either. Some might argue that Connor is a dangerously negative representation of gay male sexuality, but anyone who lives in the real world or has logged on to Grindr realizes that his behavior, though exaggerated, is hardly unfathomable. If a female character can use sex to get what she wants, why can't a gay man play the femme fatale role for once?

When the show returns after the winter break, I'll be tuning in not to find out what happens next. I'll be tuning in to see what Viola does next, to see whom Connor screws next, and to see if they ever let Annalise permanently lose that wig so that Viola can be the beautiful natural black woman she was born to be onscreen. I love the show for at least giving us glimpses of her.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Reflections on Throwback/Coming-Out Thursday with Ty Herndon and Billy Gilman

It's been such a gay week. In some ways, it feels like my career suddenly came full circle, and it had everything to do with Thursday's coming-out announcements of two retro country stars, Ty Herndon and Billy Gilman.

I'll get to why in a moment, but first, let me just say, what perfect timing! A day or two before Ty and Billy both came out, I turned in my latest Huffington Post essay. Title: "Why I Hope One Direction's Harry Styles Is Really Straight."

Also, there's the gay-country-singer-with-a-bratty-but-(surprisingly) talented- wife storyline on the ABC nighttime soap Nashville. It's currently my favorite arc on the show, and it's the most timely one, too, with the reality-TV angle and all. Too bad it's spent most of each episode on the backburner this season.

It's such a perfect cautionary tale about the dangers of being gay in country music. It hurts my soul that the first music l genre I ever loved, one that has been a part of my life for as long as I've been able to mangle a tune, doesn't have much use for me or my kind.

The reason why Ty's and Billy's coming outs make me feel as if my career has come full circle, though, has nothing to do with a fictional prime-time character or homophobia in country music. It has everything to do with how both Ty and Billy factored into my career at key stages in it.

One of the most memorable stories I worked on during my early years as a staff reporter at People magazine was the one we did on Ty Herndon's arrest for allegedly soliciting sex from a male undercover cop. At the time, I remember wishing that the implications of the story might be true. I so wanted Ty to just come out already.

It had nothing to do with political or social concerns. I was in my early 20s at the time, and when it came to sexuality, I didn't really think much about the world outside my bedroom. Not yet. I wanted Ty to be gay because I secretly fantasized about going to Nashville to interview him, falling in love and living happily ever after with one of the hunkiest guys on the country charts. It seems pretty silly now that I look back on it, but I've always had a weakness for that slow southern style, and it's not like country music was overflowing with eye-candy bachelors who were eligible for me.

While I firmly believe we all should have complete control over when we come out, and yes, better late than never, I'm going to hold my applause for Ty -- or keep it muted. It's disappointing that he had to wait until age 52 to publicly declare himself "an out, proud and happy gay man."

It's a shame that he had to go through two marriages to women. It's too bad he had to spend as much time as he did living behind a curtain, though from what I've read, he's been pretty much out in his private life for a while. He says he realized that he had an important story to share five years ago, so why did it take him five years to share it?

I'd be more likely to extol his courage if he were still in his commercial heyday and therefore was risking a hot career by publicly coming out. As it is, Ty's chart peak is nearly two decades behind him. So when he made his announcement, ironically enough, in People magazine, my old alma mater (like I said, full circle), I was more impressed by how great he looks than by his belated coming out. Sadly, I still don't have a shot with him. He's taken.

I never had any designs on Billy Gilman. After all, I met him when I was an editor at Teen People, and he was only 12. I'll never forget the time he visited the Teen People offices with his publicist and mom. He was such a sweet, chatty tween. Before he treated my colleagues and me to a live performance of his then-hit "One Voice," he spent some time hanging out with the entertainment department.

Two things about Billy stand out in my mind to this day. First of all, he was obsessed with the movie Arthur, which I found pretty odd for a 12 year old. Dudley Moore was never a tween sensation, and the movie was released nearly a decade before Billy was born. I was surprised he didn't belt out the chorus from "Arthur's Theme" right then and there.

The second thing that stood out was how he took an immediate and particular liking to me. At the end of the visit, he even invited me to a Broadway performance of Reba McEntire in Annie Get Your Gun that he was going to that evening. I politely declined because as nice a kid as he was, I wasn't really interested in socializing with a 12 year old. When he left, my colleagues joked that the little boy had asked me out.

I think we were all pretty sure Billy would turn out to be gay. I'm not saying that Billy knew he was gay back then, or suggesting that he secretly wanted me. What I am saying is that he must have known a kindred spirit when he saw one.

Although Billy credited Ty Herndon with giving him the courage to come out, I love that he did it a quarter of a century earlier, so to speak. I also love that like a true post-millennial, he didn't release a public statement through his publicist but rather came out via a YouTube video. I also love that he referred to his boyfriend of five months as his "partner."

I know. That's so 26. But it confirms something else I suspected when he was 12. I always had a feeling he'd grow up to be a great guy and an unjaded romantic. Welcome to the party, Billy.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

10 of My "Favorite" Things: ABBA to John Lennon

What's your favorite song by [insert popular band/singer] here?

As ice-breaking music-related questions go, I actually like that one more than my long-time standard: What are your Top 3 favorite bands/singers of all-time. For one thing, I tend to find the specifics of someone's taste (favorite songs, movies, cities, etc.) to be far more revealing than more general preferences (favorite singers, actors, countries, etc.).

An example: When I recently posed my Top 3 question to someone, his inclusion of Prince didn't say nearly as much about him as when he later named Purple Rain as his all-time favorite movie. His cool cred suddenly skyrocketed.

For another thing, as long as you stick to popular artists with massive discographies, everyone is likely to have an opinion.

Or so it seems every time my Facebook friend Dan J Kroll poses another "$2.99/gallon KROLLSTION" (that's Kroll + question). His latest one was Lionel Richie themed. To make things more interesting, Dan allowed Richie songs, tunes by his old band, The Commodores, and Richie compositions for other artists, like Kenny Rogers' No. 1 smash "Lady".

My picks: "Zoom" (The Commodores), "Love Will Conquer All" (solo) and "We Are the World" (songwriting -- but mainly for the Ray Charles parts). Had I been able to pick from songs that Richie produced but didn't write, Rogers' "I Don't Need You" would have been my one and only choice. I may not love it quite as much as I do "Lucille" or "Love Or Something Like It," but at this very moment, I'd rather listen to "I Don't Need You" than anything Richie ever wrote or sang, with or without The Commodores.

Inspired by the Lionel Richie-themed KROLLSTION, I've decided to do a mix-tape blog post featuring my favorite songs by 10 of my favorite bands/singers, A to J.

How can I possibly choose one song when there are so many great ones by each act? I think of it this way: If I were on my death bed, and I was told that I could hear one song only by each act before I die, which track would it be? A morbid thought, yes, but at least I'd kick the bucket with a kick-ass soundtrack.

ABBA: "When All Is Said and Done" On a different day, it very well could be "Waterloo" or "Take a Chance on Me" or "Voulez-Vous". But on most days, it would be ABBA's final U.S. Top 40 hit, possibly because it's one of the group's few singles that haven't been overplayed to death in the various ABBA revivals over the decades.

Billy Joel: "The Longest Time" We all know Joel is an excellent songwriter, but for me, this is the one song that proves without a doubt what an amazing singer he was during his peak years. And he performed it entirely a cappella. Those impossibly high notes at the end still give me the goose-bumpy chills.

Chicago: "Old Days" Chicago doesn't get enough credit for being musically daring. Aside from probably Three Dog Night, I can't think of another band from Chicago's creative-peak era (1969's "Questions 67 and 68" to 1976's "If You Leave Me Now," which kicked off the band's still-musically remarkable but considerably more predictable era of Peter Cetera-sung mellow ballads) that offered so many singles that were so distinct and un-cookie-cutter. "Old Days" might not be the best one, but it's the one most likely to make me press "repeat" because its ever-changing mood always makes me think I've missed something. As the clip below shows, even a band as great as Chicago and a singer as skilled as Cetera struggled to recreate the complex and intricate sound of the single live.

Depeche Mode: "Barrel of a Gun" Normally I would have gone with David Bowie (and "Sound and Vision," of course) or, like a recent KROLLSTION, Donna Summer (and "The Wanderer" or "Lucky") for "D," but I was just raving about "Barrel" to my friend Dov (speaking of D's) on a straight tequila night. The video is everything, one of my all-time favorites, and it's a large part of why I've never been able to get enough of this song for more than 17 years. Still, even without the odd clip, this still would deserve a spot in the band's pantheon of greatness.

Electric Light Orchestra: "Telephone Line" I'm a sucker for a fairly mainstream band going Top 10 with a strange-as-fuck-song. Will someone please tell me when ELO, The Moody Blues and The Steve Miller Band will finally get nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We're already onto '90s acts like Green Day and these seminal bands from the '60s to the '80s have yet to score even a measly nomination.

Fleetwood Mac: "Tusk" See above. Though Christine McVie has always been my favorite FM vocalist ("Think About You" would probably be No. 2), and Stevie Nicks my favorite FM solo act, Lindsey Buckingham actually sang/wrote more of my favorite FM songs. Honorable Lindsey-sung/penned mentions: "The Chain," "Walk a Thin Line," "Empire State" and "Big Love".

Grace Jones: "My Jamaican Guy" Too bad I didn't know this song back when I was a kid and certain people would erroneously peg me as being from Jamaica and mean it as an insult. Now Jones's classic makes me prouder to be a Caribbean queen than Billy Ocean ever did.

Hall and Oates: "Sara Smile" As huge a fan as I am of Daryl Hall and John Oates in the '80s, nothing they did that decade -- not "One on One," not "Say It Isn't So," not "Out of Touch" -- can touch the sublime timelessness of the duo's breakthrough hit from 1976.

INXS: "Heaven Sent" At a mere 3:18, proof that size doesn't always matter. Sometimes the best things come in unusually short packages.

John Lennon: "#9 Dream" Look, I'll probably never live this down, but Lennon was never my favorite solo Beatle. That honor would go to Paul McCartney. Lennon wasn't even my second favorite. That honor would go to George Harrison. And neither McCartney nor Harrison nor Lennon recorded what is my favorite solo-Beatle single. That honor would go to Ringo Starr, whose "Photograph" I'd rather listen to over and over and over than any Beatles song I can think of. But in a solo career that wowed me intermittently and, from "Just Like Starting Over" to "Nobody Told Me," consistently (albeit posthumously), "#9 Dream" probably would always be the last Lennon song I'd want to hear. Doesn't it actually sound like something Harrison would have done around the same time?