Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Happy Birthday, Marc Bolan!: T. Rex's 5 Greatest Hits

Live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse -- and a legacy of immortal music. Marc Bolan, who put both the "T." and the "Rex" in T. Rex, did all of the above. His short and winding road ended in a car accident at age 29 on September 16, 1977, ironically, exactly one month after the premature passing of one of his idols, Elvis Presley, and two weeks before his own 30th birthday.

Had Bolan lived, he would be 67 today. It's hard to imagine him being the same age as David Bowie and Elton John, though they were all contemporaries, because his early passing has rendered him forever young. Thankfully, his music, for the most part, has aged better than he might have. Here are five of his greatest moments.

(Note: Sorry, I didn't forget "Get It On," T. Rex's best-known song and the band's only U.S. hit. It's never been a favorite of mine, not even when Power Station remade it in 1985 and took it to No. 9 in the U.S., one notch higher than T. Rex did in 1971. Personally, I've always preferred its Electric Warrior soundalike, "The Motivator.")

"Ride a White Swan" (1970) If an electric Kool-Aid acid trip had rhythm, it probably would be dancing to T. Rex's breakthrough single, which went to No. 2 in the UK.

"Hot Love" (1970) When in doubt, throw in a "la la la la la la la" chorus. As shallow as pop gets, which frankly, was sort of the entire point of T. Rex.

"Mambo Sun" (1971) From the first moments of Electric Warrior's opening cut, I knew the album was going to change my life. Some two decades after I heard it for the first time, it remains one of my favorite albums of the '70s, second perhaps only to (or quite possibly tied with) Joni Mitchell's Blue, which was released almost exactly three months earlier.

"Planet Queen" (1971) Like the previous three songs, a bridge between the atmospheric acoustic folk-pop of Tyrannosaurus Rex (as the band was known in the late '60s) and the brash electric glam rock of T. Rex's imperial early '70s phase, and that's exactly where I prefer my T. Rex. When his voice goes up an octave at 1:46, it still slays me every single time.

"20th Century Boy" (1973) Where would Love and Rocket's "Kundalini Express" have gone without this, Bolan's final Top 3 UK single? That it still sounds like the height of modernity in the next century says a lot about Bolan's songwriting prowess, T. Rex's performing chops and Tony Visconti's unparalleled-in-the-'70s production. What would T. Rex and Bowie, for whom Visconti produced such seminal '70s records (including the aforementioned Electric Warrior), as well as '70s rock & roll have been without him. If you've heard latter-day T. Rex, you already know. In other words, hail Visconti, too!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Q: Is It True What They Say About Shallow Men? A: Yes. They're Still Everywhere!

Are they maddening? You bet. But it's nice to know that the title of my forthcoming book, Is It True What They Say About Black Men? (November 4, Amazon), is still relevant after eight years of hearing variations on that particular theme for great cities, even in Cape Town, a place where black men are not exactly a rarity. Sigh.

Apparently, gay online etiquette in Sydney hasn't changed much in the three years since I first did the online-dating thing there (via Manhunt, pre-Grindr). When I spent two days there two weeks ago, not one of the dozens of guys who talked to me on Grindr mentioned the color of my skin or the size of my thing. (My beloved Melbourne, sadly, has much more in common with Cape Town than a certain aura.) In fact, most of them seemed to be just as interested (or pretended to be) in why I was there (to interview for a job, which I've since been offered and accepted). I'm definitely looking forward to some more of that.

But for now, there's Cape Town, always good for some racially charged unintentional humor, like the routine (the first one below) offered this morning by an unnamed 22 year old who was cute enough to get what he wanted with resorting to such foolishness. Or perhaps that's exactly why he thought he could get away with it.

And so on and so on and so on...

Friday, September 26, 2014

Another Hollywood Blackout?: How Not to Write an Oscar Story

"Will This Be the Whitest Oscars in Almost 2 Decades?"

That's the question posed by Kyle Buchanan in the title of a September 25 article on New York magazine's Vulture website. I was immediately intrigued, flashing back to "Hollywood Blackout," a People magazine cover story from 1996. This should be good, I thought, diving right in.

After reading the story, I wanted to give it a new title, a declarative statement instead of a question: "Gold Derby Thinks the Next Oscars Will Be the Whitest One in Almost Two Decades." That's a completely different piece, and unfortunately, it's the one Buchanan wrote.

Race is an inflammatory enough issue, so it feels somewhat careless and lazy to base an entire racially charged premise solely on the opinions of a panel of 17 Oscar "experts." So the Academy's next acting line-up will be the whitest one in years because Gold Derby says so? Well, what does the writer think? Doesn't Vulture have its own Oscar expert who can prognosticate on his own or at least come up with an Oscar theory that relies on more than just Gold Derby votes. If so, he might have noted that last year's "groundbreaking" Oscars also featured a Latino Best Director winner (Mexican Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity).

Whether or not he qualifies as an Oscar expert, Buchanan clearly knows his 2014 movies, and he mentions a number of possible contenders featuring actors of color. (Selma, for one, feels as Oscar bait as anything cited by a plurality of Gold Derby pundits.) Then he proceeds to dismiss them because they contradict what the Gold Derby voters predicted. It's like writing an article on how all the critics loved/hated the season premiere of Nashville and then pointing out that you felt the opposite but what you think doesn't really matter.

What may not matter is what Gold Derby thinks. The Oscar-movie season is just beginning, and there's still plenty of time for frontrunners to shift and dark horses to emerge. Let's talk in December when the Golden Globe nominations are announced.

If we want to talk racism in Hollywood now, the actual story might be in Buchanan's kicker: "In 2011, actors like Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Demian Bichir were nominated for Oscars, an honor that's supposed to portend big things to come in this industry. Three years later, all of them are doing TV." It's something I started to touch on last December (here), and I thought about it the other day when I saw Spencer struggling to make us laugh in an episode of Mom. I said to myself, What is she even doing here?

This is a story that someone has needed to tell for years (ever since Mo'Nique pretty much disappeared after winning Best Supporting Actress for Precious), and it's particularly relevant as we kick off the 2014-15 TV season. But then, it's also a piece that would require original thought and not just a recap of the predictions of 17 other people. I wouldn't expect anything less from a racially charged premise.

Enough Covers Albums! -- and 9 Other Things I'm So Over Right Now

They've been done, folks. To death. Yesterday my brother emailed me to say that he was looking forward to reading my thoughts on Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga's new collaborative effort, Cheek to Cheek. That was almost enough encouragement to get me to check out an album I'd been planning on ignoring, but I just don't think I can go there yet again.

I've had it with the Great American Songbook. When Linda Ronstadt first tackled it back in 1983 with What's New, kicking off a trilogy of standards albums and one of the dominant pop trends of the last 30 years, it was a welcome platinum-bound novelty. No rock superstar had ever shared top billing with as high-brow an act as The Nelson Riddle Orchestra. Ronstadt infused new life into musty old standards that many of us had never heard, making them sound like toddlers bursting with energy.

A billion trips to that playground later, those songs that we've now spent so many years learning and singing could use a long nap. And frankly, like other people's children, some of them aren't as wonderful as the people who keep reviving them seem to think they are. "Lush Life" and "Nature Boy" (both of which are featured on Cheek to Cheek, of course) may deserve their iconic status, but is a trifle like "Let's Face the Music and Dance" (also on Cheek to Cheek) a classic because it's such a stellar song or because we've heard it so many times that it's permanently stuck in our heads?

The track list of Nostalgia, Annie Lennox's second album of covers, which is due October 21, displays better taste, if not a considerably more adventurous spirit, which is odd, considering that Lennox and Gaga both so boldly embraced gender- and sexuality-bending iconoclasm in their respective heydays. But despite the presence of "Strange Fruit" (already definitively covered by Sting in the 1980s) and "Summertime" (which Fantasia Barrino probably should have had the final word on after she performed it twice during American Idol's third season), this was a much better idea 19 and a half years ago when Lennox released Medusa, her first album of covers.

Other-people's-songs fatigue hadn't yet kicked in, and although "No More I Love You's" aside, there were few surprises in Medusa's song selection, Lennox, for the most part, improved on her source material. I recently heard The Clash's "Train in Vain," and it actually sounded kind of odd to me because I missed the religious fervor that Medusa brought to it, the gospel according to Annie Lennox. (You've got to hand it to her for having the balls to take The Clash to church!) Sweet dreams were made of this -- her glissando vocal approach to Neil Young's "Don't Let It Bring You Down" -- and I once spent an entire Sunday afternoon crying over her take on Paul Simon's "Something So Right."

I haven't listened to anything on Nostalgia yet, so I can't comment on the quality of its contents, but if I wanted more nostalgia from Lennox, whose previous two solo releases -- a hits compilation and a Christmas collection -- were brimming with musical memories, I could have put on "Something So Right" and remembered how it made me feel that afternoon in May of 1995 and what was going on in my life at the time. (I'd recently broken up with my second boyfriend, and he'd just left my apartment after dropping off my 26th-birthday present, a Donny Hathaway CD.) Or I can listen to any of her solo albums, or the work she did with Dave Stewart as one-half of Eurythmics. I've been waiting five years for new non-seasonal solo music from Lennox -- technically, seven and a half, if you consider that her last two new non-Christmas songs, 2009's "Shining Light" and "Pattern of My Life," were old songs, Ash and Keane covers, respectively -- the least she could have done is given us something, well, new.

I'm sure Lennox will sound great singing "God Bless the Child," but if Cape Town, the city Lennox and I both call home at the moment, has been so inspiring for me, why hasn't it done the same for her musically?

1. Bitch slapping It was entertaining back in the '80s when Alexis and Krystle used to do it on Dynasty -- especially to each other -- because it was a rare treat. Now, frankly, I'd rather watch the ladies who punch use words to cut each other down, or failing to come up with suitably bitchy ones on the spot, bean each other with wine glasses. (Thank you, Real Housewives of New York's Ramona Singer, for having the guts to change it up a little.)

Days of Our Lives, I'm mostly talking to you! A few months ago, when Abigail Deveraux smacked her cousin Nick Fallon for daring to verbally sully her honor, he taunted her some more, suggesting that it must have been the first time she'd ever hit anyone. Actually, it was the second time: Abigail, the former recipient of a bitch slap, courtesy of Carrie Brady for trying to steal Carrie's husband, and the sassy little thing who once choked Chloe Lane in the middle of the town square, had previously smacked her boyfriend Cameron for some minor verbal offense that I can no longer remember.

Almost as if she's been wanting to prove the now-deceased Nick Fallon wrong, in the last several months, Abigail has bitch slapped no less than four major characters: EJ DiMera, Eve Donovan, Sami Brady and Chad DiMera. Perhaps her palm action would have carried a little more weight if everyone watching didn't know full well that each recipient of her hand probably could have wiped the Horton Town Square with Abigail's blonde hair with one palm tied behind their back. Memo to Abigail: Next time you want to prove how tough you are, try words, but preferably not ones as hokey as...

2. "Lets make a clean break" Do people say this in real life? Everyone says it on TV, but I've never actually heard an actual person say it. Or maybe it's just that everybody I know is fully aware of the unfortunate fact that break-ups are always messy, no matter how final and supposedly "clean" you make the break.

3. "Let's make a fresh start" On the flip side of the break-up cliche is the getting-back-together one. Sadly, an elephant never forgets, and neither do people, as anyone who has ever had an ancient crime thrown in their face after committing a new one already knows.

4. "I just want you to be happy." Or put less passive-aggressively, I don't approve of what you're doing, but hey, it's your life. Oh, how generous. It's even less believable when exes say it to each other. Nobody actually wants an ex to be happy right after the break-up. Suffering shows you really cared.

5. Smoking in public, inside and out I'm tired of not being able to enjoy a meal al fresco on a beautiful day without having to beg at least one fellow patron not to position his or her cigarette so that the smoke doesn't blow directly into my face. If you're going to slowly kill yourself by sucking on those things, at least have the courtesy to do it in the privacy of your own stinky home.

6. Loud music in restaurants and gyms Do you go out to eat to enjoy good food and excellent conversation, or to listen to a blaring soundtrack that prevents you from being able to actually hear the latter? There's a difference between creating ambiance and making noise, a line that's crossed well before you get to 5 on the volume meter. As for when I'm working out, I don't need the roar of the gym's dreadful mix tapes drowning out the music on my iPod that actually motivates me to keep going.

7. The impossible to decipher CAPTCHA I see the point: Websites need to be able to differentiate between humans and computers, but if the average human can't read the CAPTCHA text, well, then what's the point?

8. Automated answering systems Of course, companies have no problem using computers to do what it would be far more expedient to have humans do, like answering the phone. Even after you've spent minutes following the prompts, typing in your account number and waiting to speak to a human being, the human being still almost always asks you to repeat your account number. So I repeat: Well, then what's the point?

9. Auto correct It occurs to me that I spend so much time correcting auto correct (In what world does H-E... automatically lead to "Heuristic"?), that I'd be better off just typing out every word myself. You know, sort of like what I'm doing right now.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Soul of the '70s: Black Was Particularly Beautiful Back Then

For a moment, forget what I've already written about R&B in the '80s and the '90s. I still stand by every word of it, but these days, for me, retro-retro is the new black, at least when it comes to American music created by and for black people (and anyone else who gets it, for despite its general Afrocentric-ness, soul is color blind). My point? Well, this: The golden age of soul was the 1970s, especially the years including 1971 to 1974.

There was such diversity then, so much color, so many pop hits. Yes, pop hits. "Crossing over" wasn't yet the black commercial aspiration it would become in the '80s and '90s because most soul hits became pop hits, too, almost seemingly by default. (Indeed, Joe Simon's 1975 single "Turning Point" was the first soul No. 1 since 1955 not to even graze Billboard's Hot 100.) And unlike the latter part of the decade, or the '80s, or today, it wasn't all (or mostly) about disco, or Michael Jackson, or rap/hip hop, respectively.

Sadly, since my focus growing up was mostly on country and radio pop, '70s soul doesn't have the same nostalgia value for me. It's not tied to my childhood the way country music and '70s lite-rock are. I discovered many a '70s soul classic years later, with a new old wave of modest Hot 100 soul hits recently making it into my mp3 collection after I heard them for the first time on vintage episodes of Casey Kasem's American Top 40. Considering how much attention and affection Casey offered R&B artists while counting down the hits, I have a feeling he had as soft a spot for '70s soul then as I do now.

Here are 8 things I've learned from listening to Casey's countdowns while consulting Wikipedia for background information on various black acts who made the Top 40 in the '70s.

1.) High-profile ladies of '70s soul were fewer and farther between than high-profile soul men, and with only a handful of exceptions (see "The Superstars" below), they rarely enjoyed sustained chart success.

2.) Girl groups, so dominant in the '60s, were basically a dying breed in the '70s (The Supremes was the only girl group from the '60s to enjoy any significant chart success in the next decade) and with a few exceptions (Bananarama and Klymaxx being two notable '80s additions to the ones listed below) would remain so until the late '80s when the female girl group was resurrected with the emergence of the Latin freestyle movement that spawned, among others, Expose, The Cover Girls, Sweet Sensation and Seduction. With the exception of The Pointer Sisters, the ones who did hit the Top 40 on Billboard's Hot 100 during the '70s didn't do so often, and by the early '80s, continuing and building on a mid-to-late-'70s trend begun by A Taste of Honey, Chic, Odyssey, Rufus, Rose Royce, The Sylvers and Peaches & Herb, gender-non-specific duos and groups like Yarbrough and Peoples, René & Angela, Debarge, Midnight Star, One Way, Skyy, The S.O.S. Band and Starpoint had become the R&B norm.

3.) Meanwhile, male groups were fruitful and multiplied. Unlike their distaff counterparts, they often produced multiple big hits and sometimes functioned as traditional bands, writing their own material and playing their own instruments. There wouldn't be a similarly self-contained black girl group until Klymaxx in the '80s.

4.) The ladies of '70s soul are more likely to still be alive than '70s soul men. RIP, Al Wilson, Barry White, Billy Preston, Bobby Womack, Curtis Mayfield, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Isaac Hayes, James Brown, Joe Tex, Johnnie Taylor, Lou Rawls, Luther Ingram, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Teddy Pendergrass, Tyrone Davis, etc.

5.) Black acts dominated Billboard's Hot 100 far more in the early '70s than they did as the decade progressed, which would continue to be the case until the rise of Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie and Prince in the early '80s and later Billy Ocean. By then, though, crossover status would be relegated mostly to the biggest stars (which included Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson by decade's end) singing the glossiest pop-inflected material, with a number of No. 1 R&B hits not even bothering to hit Billboard's Hot 100. Black artists wouldn't re-emerge as consistent Top 40 mainstays until the mass mainstreaming of rap in the '00s.

6.) Had it not been for the rise and rise of disco in the mid to late'70s, black artists would have been virtually non-existent in the upper echelons of Billboard's Hot 100 after the apex of the golden age of soul.

7.) In the last few years of the '70s, after many of the big stars of the early '70s had cooled (including Al Green, Roberta Flack, Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin), black acts in the Top 40 were mostly riding the disco wave, with several male comeback kids from earlier in the decade and from the previous one (Marvin Gaye, Johnnie Taylor and Joe Tex) scoring exactly one disco smash. Stevie Wonder may have been the '70s' only soul superstar who never succumbed to the urge to get down, boogie oogie oogie.

8.) The battle of the sexes in R&B is a far more even match today than it was in the '70s. In fact, I'd give women the edge now. The only black male chart superstars who don't rap who have emerged since the end of the '80s are Usher and R. Kelly. Meanwhile, on the distaff side, we've had Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys, Beyoncé, Rihanna and, for shorter stints, Brandy, Monica and Ashanti. It doesn't quite make up for the gender inequality of the '70s (see the list below), but it's a start.

Soul Men of the '70s

The Superstars:

  • Al Green
  • Barry White
  • Marvin Gaye
  • Stevie Wonder

Legends and Semi-Legends with a String of Modest Chart Hits Punctuated by One to Several Smashes:

  • Bill Withers
  • Billy Preston
  • Bobby Womack
  • Curtis Mayfield
  • Isaac Hayes
  • Lou Rawls
  • Joe Tex
  • Joe Simon
  • Johnnie Taylor
  • Lou Rawls
  • Tyrone Davis

In and Out -- The One-Big-Hit Wonders:

  • Al Wilson
  • Carl Douglas
  • Billy Paul
  • Luther Ingram

Boy Bands:

  • The Brothers Johnson
  • The Chi-Lites
  • The Commodores
  • The Dramatics
  • Earth, Wind & Fire
  • Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes
  • The Isley Brothers
  • The Jackson 5
  • Kool & The Gang
  • LTD
  • The Manhattans
  • The Moments
  • The O'Jays
  • Parliament-Funkadelic
  • Raydio
  • Rufus (minus Chaka Khan)
  • Tavares
  • The Spinners
  • The Stylistics
  • Tower of Power
  • The Trammps
  • War
  • The Whispers

'60s Survivors:

  • The Four Tops
  • James Brown
  • Johnny Mathis
  • The Miracles/Smokey Robinson
  • Sly Stone
  • The Temptations (and David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks)

The Next Generation:

  • Jeffrey Osborne
  • Michael Jackson
  • Prince
  • Rick James
  • Teddy Pendergrass

The Ladies of '70s Soul

The Superstars:

  • Aretha Franklin
  • Chaka Khan
  • Diana Ross
  • Gladys Knight
  • Roberta Flack

One- and Two-Pop-Hit Wonders:

  • Betty Wright
  • Candi Staton
  • Dorothy Moore
  • Freda Payne
  • Gloria Gaynor
  • Jean Knight
  • Maxine Nightingale
  • Millie Jackson
  • Minnie Ripperton
  • Shirley Brown
  • Thelma Houston

Girl Groups:

  • The Emotions
  • Honey Cone
  • LaBelle
  • Love Unlimited
  • The Pointer Sisters
  • Sister Sledge
  • The Supremes
  • The Three Degrees

In a League of Her Own

  • Mavis Staples of The Staple Singers

'60s Survivor

  • Dionne Warwick

The Next Generation

  • Deniece Williams
  • Natalie Cole

10 Undersung '70s Hits By Black Acts That Everyone Should Know

The Supremes "Nathan Jones" (1971) That I spent so long knowing only Bananarama's 1988 cover, despite the Top 20 Hot 100 status of The Supremes' original rendition, is proof of how underrated The Supremes' first couple of post-Diana Ross years were.

Joe Tex "I Gotcha" (1972) It's a testament to the mainstream acceptance of black artists during the early '70s that a song this "black," with nary a hint of obvious pop appeal, would make it all the way to No. 2 on the Hot 100.

Love Unlimited "Walkin' in the Rain with the One I Love" (1972) Doesn't Barry White sound like he sort of couldn't care less when Glodean says, "I've got something to tell you," and he answers "What?" during the spoken interlude? Where was the profundo basso passion that he'd bring to "I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby" and his ensuing string of solo hits, beginning the following year?

Luther Ingram "I'll Be Your Shelter (In Time of Storm)" (1972) A common pop sentiment (Taylor Dayne took it all the way to No. 4 in 1990) that never gets old.

The Chi-Lites "Stoned Out of My Mind" (1973) Another natural high (despite its relatively lowly No. 30 Hot 100 peak) from the soul genre that gave us Ray Charles's 1966 No. 1 R&B hit "Let's Go Get Stoned" and The Stylistics' 1972 No. 10 pop single "I'm Stone in Love with You."

Tyrone Davis "There It Is" (1973) While his contemporaries were shouting from the rooftops in that declarative soul style that's cultivated over the course of years of Sunday morning church services, Davis took a distinctively more laid-back Saturday-love approach. I wouldn't be surprised if he recorded his best material while soaking in a bathtub in the recording studio at the end of the week.

The Stylistics "Rockin' Roll Baby" (1973) Like the aforementioned Chi-Lites single, a radical departure, um, stylistically, and a modest hit that in terms of greatness, still ranks right up there with the group's classics.

The Moments "Look at Me (I'm in Love)" (1975) As lush and classy as anything in the Great American Songbook, it almost sounds like Nat King Cole risen from the grave.

Joe Simon "Get Down, Get Down (Get on the Floor)" (1975) Just as funk and Philly soul were giving way to the new sound of black (and gay and young and, well, white) America, Simon had the nerve to score his only pop Top 10 with a dance song that had absolutely nothing to do with disco.

Gloria Gaynor, "Reach Out I'll Be There" (1975) It's a shame about the beyond dreadful "I Will Survive." Although the song has certainly lived up to its title, it unfortunately overshadowed the best of Gloria Gaynor, namely her back-to-back 1974/1975 singles, "Never Can Say Goodbye," which hit No. 9 in the U.S. and No. 2 in the UK, and this Four Tops cover, which the Brits wisely sent to No. 14. (Once again displaying inferior taste in music, the Yanks lifted it only as high as No. 60.)

Sunday, September 21, 2014

How They Got Over: 10 Hitmakers That Survived "Flop" Albums (Can Lady Gaga Do It, Too?)

"Don't call it a comeback." -- LL Cool J, "Mama Said Knock You Out"

Alas, popular music is all about the comeback. Look at Tina Turner, Cher, The Kinks, Heart, Natalie Cole and the artists formerly known as Jefferson Airplane (then Jefferson Starship, then simply Starship), all of whom have made at least one spectacular comeback over the course of their U.S. chart careers. Of course, for every stunning comeback, there's a recording act that falls victim to the dreaded Mommie Dearest effect: One false move (or scandal, or public gaffe, or non-hit), and their careers never quite recover, as was the case with Faye Dunaway in the decades after she turned Joan Crawford from a fellow Oscar winner into a camp classic in the 1981 Razzie-anointed biopic that gives the made-up (by me) effect its name.

In 2004, the effect began to affect Janet Jackson, whose chart powers were never the same after "Nipplegate" at Super Bowl XXXVIII. Is Lady Gaga the latest pop victim of the Mommie Dearest effect for daring to release an album (2013's Artpop) that had the nerve not to cross the one-million mark in U.S. sales? I'd be surprised if Cheek to Cheek, Gaga's Tony Bennett collaboration that comes out in the U.S. on Tuesday, is her comeback or if it even outsells Britney Spears' 2013 mega-flop Britney Jean, but if doesn't, it probably wasn't intended to. Bennett has won over the kids before, but is anyone really expecting an 88-year-old icon to help Gaga sell The Great American Songbook to her under-30 "Little Monsters"? Betty White, he is not.

A day or two ago, I came across a think piece titled "Has Gaga Lost the Gays?" on Advocate.com. My first thought: Has she? I'm on the fence about that one. Yes, her last album, Artpop, under-performed on the charts, but can we blame a lack of interest among the general music-downloading public on a lack of interest among gay men?

It has been suggested (last year by Advocate.com's Neal Broverman, for one) that the era of the gay diva might be over, but the continued popularity of Beyoncé among gay men, despite everything about her image and her music being so blatantly heterosexual, would suggest otherwise. Gay audiences have always been somewhat two-sided when it comes to picking musical divas. On one side, they're suckers for the underdog, the ugly duckling who becomes a swan when she's onstage (the Judy Garlands, the Liza Minnellis, the Barbra Streisands). On the other, they're all about the beauty, the glamour, the fabulous Diana Ross-ness of it all. Beyoncé is like a modern-day Ross with stronger pipes. She's the aspirational diva. She may not stand for anything important (except how to leave a girl group in the dust and become a breakout solo superstar -- sound familiar?), but we're blinded by her sparkle. Maybe it can rub off on us.

Gaga's gay appeal, though, has never quite fallen into either diva camp. In fact, I don't think she's ever been really regarded as a conventional diva. At her peak, she always felt more like a movement (similar to the once-a-decade rise of boy bands and rock & roll in pop), and not just with gay men. Every movement has an expiration date. Gaga's stratospheric ascent was destined to plateau and then curve downward, with or without a gay following behind her.

If we blame her current career trajectory, even in part, on a lack of interest among gay men, can we say that they've abandoned her completely, or that they won't return to her "Little Monsters" fold? History has proven that no fan base is more loyal than gay men. Whoever came up with the saying "Nobody loves you when you're down and out" couldn't possibly have been considering us. Once you're a gay icon, you're pretty much set for life. If you're smart and talented, like Cyndi Lauper, whose gay iconhood actually came after her rising star began to slip, you can even transition from a Grammy winner into an Emmy and Tony winner decades later.

As for Gaga, I think it might be too early for think pieces on why she's over. From what I can tell, she simply released an album that didn't connect with the masses the way her previous work did, and now she's coasting with Bennett while plotting her next official move. (Remember, pre-Beyoncé, Miss Carter failed to set the world ablaze with 4, prompting similar "Is Beyoncé Over?" trains of thought onto which we all started jumping.) The aforementioned Starship sang it best during one of its comeback phases: "It's not over till it's over" -- especially if you wait three years between the flop and the follow-up. Here are 10 under-performing albums that predate Artpop and back up Starship.

Desperado, The Eagles (1973) Although it would eventually go mutli-platinum and spawn a rock classic in the title track (thanks, in part, to Linda Ronstadt's remake, which appeared on Don't Cry Now some five months later), the sophomore Eagles album slumped at the time of its release. It just missed the Top 40 (reaching No. 41), and its highest charting single was "Outlaw Man," which peaked at No. 59 on Billboard's Hot 100, making Desperado the only '70s Eagles album not to give the band at least one Top 10 single. (The next four would produce at least one No. 1 apiece.)

Livin' on the Faultline, The Doobie Brothers (1977) The Doobie's '70s run can be divided into two distinct parts: pre- and post- Michael McDonald. Had the band called it a decade after Faultine's commercial drop-off and 1978's Grammy-winning Minute By Minute (featuring Record and Song of the Year "What a Fool Believes" and the Top 20 title track) hadn't happened, would anyone even care about Michael McDonald and/or the '70s Doobies 2.0 today? Fun fact: Carly Simon would score a No. 6 hit the following year with "You Belong to Me," which she co-wrote with McDonald for Faultline, while "What a Fool Believes," which McDonald co-wrote with Kenny Loggins (who, interestingly enough, wanted to work with him after hearing Faultline), initially appeared on the latter's 1978 album Nightwatch.

Talking Back to the Night, Steve Winwood (1982) The Top 10 success of "While You See a Chance" from 1980's Arc of a Diver must have seemed like a one-off fluke when Winwood's follow-up album peaked at No. 28 on Billboard's Top 200 album chart and failed to produce another Top 40 single, but Winwood was destined for better and much bigger. In fact, after his comeback commenced with 1986's Grammy-winning Back in the High Life album, a remix of a Night track called "Valerie" became a Top 10 single.

Hearts and Bones, Paul Simon (1983) And then, three years later, there was Graceland, which beat Winwood's Back in the High Life for the Album of the Year Grammy and made Simon matter again.

Liberty, Duran Duran (1990) Honestly, despite the greatness that was Duran Duran in the 1980s, I was kind of surprised that the band's hit streak lasted as long as it did, which made the 1993 comeback all the more spectacular and unexpected.

Glitter/Charmbracelet, Mariah Carey (2001/2002) Count me among those who didn't see 2005's The Emancipation of Mimi and "We Belong Together" coming.

American Life, Madonna (2003) Though it topped Billboard's Top 200 album chart, it remains Madonna's second-lowest-selling studio album in the U.S. (after 2012's MDNA) and the only one in her entire discography that didn't produce at least one Top 10 single.

Try This, Pink (2003) Sandwiched between 2001's Missundaztood and 2006's aptly titled I'm Not Dead was this, Pink's best album and the only one that failed to sell one million copies in the U.S. or produce a Top 10 -- or Top 40! -- single.

Folklore, Nelly Furtado (2003) Does anyone even remember that there was an album between 2000's Whoa, Nelly! and 2006's Loose?

My December, Kelly Clarkson (2007) You know you've got a problem album when the head of your record label (Clive Davis) disowns it, but the first American Idol rebounded nicely and went on to score one No. 1 single apiece from each of her two studio follow-ups.

10 More Temporary Pop Setbacks
Here, My Dear, Marvin Gaye (1978)
Playing for Keeps/Where's the Party?, Eddie Money (1980/1983)
Get Closer, Linda Ronstadt (1982)
Madness, Money & Music, Sheena Easton (1982)
Gone Troppo, George Harrison (1982)
Beauty Stab, ABC (1983)
Hysteria, Human League (1984)
In Flight, Linda Perry (1996)
Return of Saturn, No Doubt (2000)

Friday, September 19, 2014

Am I Transphobic?: My History With Transgender Women and Effeminate Men

Want to join me as I stumble through another particularly messy topic that I spent a lot time chickening out of covering? Now that I've faced the uncomfortable and potentially inflammatory (again), I still haven't approached anything resembling clarity regarding transgenderism and me, but I think I might be coming up closer.

The question posed in the title is one I'd been putting off answering for months. It first popped into my head when Jared Leto won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in February for playing a transgender woman in Dallas Buyer's Club, immediately making transgenderism a long-overdue topic du jour. But I wasn't ready yet: I considered it for about 30 minutes, and then I put it on the backburner. (Click here to read the rest of the article.)

Thoughts on Qantas In-Flight Entertainment from Johannesburg to Sydney and Back Again

What would any long-haul Qantas flight be without white wine, hot chocolate and in-flight entertainment?

I loved the general themes of the Angelina Jolie-headlined retelling/retooling of Sleeping Beauty: Romantic love is not the only true love. Maternal love reigns supreme. Sisters are doing it for themselves. Loving well, not getting even, is the best revenge. And love, not hate, will conquer all. Plus, Jolie is almost always watchable, even when her movies aren't. But the whole thing is so cartoonish (I almost think it would have worked better as an Enchanted-style mix of live action and traditional animation), and I couldn't figure out whether the camp was intentional.

Also, it was clearly created as a 3D spectacle, so my aisle seat in coach on Qantas flight 64 probably wasn't the ideal viewing space. I could see distracting evidence of the 3D effects on the miniature screen. It was like watching a sleeping beauty who fell into her deep slumber before she had a chance to wash off her make-up.

Having recently completed a marathon viewing of several seasons of Weeds (1 to 3 and 8), some of them nearly a decade belatedly, I'm not sure if I am up for another dysfunctional-family comedy-drama from Showtime. I wasn't bored watching the two season 4 episodes of Shameless, and I love Emmy Rossum's gritty side, but will someone please explain to me why a couple who is having trouble conceiving would even consider having the husband screw the wife's mother so that they could possibly be the proud parents of the wife's sibling?

The Immigrant
Love her and leave her has never applied more than it does to Marion Cotillard and Oscar after she won Best Actress in 2008 for La Vie en Rose. If Cotillard were Jennifer Lawrence and she gave the performance she gives in The Immigrant, she would be a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination. Speaking Polish no doubt boosted Meryl Streep's Oscar appeal in Sophie's Choice, and as far as I could tell, Cotillard pulled it off masterfully as The Immigrant's titular character caught between two cousins (Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner) and, like Sophie, having to make a difficult choice. She does tortured and conflicted so effortlessly, fooling you into thinking she's not even acting. But I'm fully prepared for the Academy to overlook her yet again.

The Normal Heart
Julia Roberts made me cry. Matt Bomer broke my heart. Alfred Molina made me look forward to seeing his work as John Lithgow's lover in Love Is Strange. Jim Parsons made me wonder if he's only capable of doing variations on The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon Cooper. Taylor Kitsch made me wish he'd send me a message on Grindr, which had everything to do with how the actor looks and nothing to do with how he acted here, which, frankly, was somewhat generically. (In his defense, he was playing the dime-a-dozen closeted "straight-acting" gay hunk.) Finn Wittrock, whom I've loved since he was Tad Martin's long-lost son on All My Children, confirmed my long-held suspicion that daytime soaps were just the beginning for him.

Meanwhile, Mark Ruffalo, an engaging actor of whom I'm quite fond and the human crux for which The Normal Heart beats, impressed me because he's sexy even when he isn't trying to be. For the most part, though, his performance didn't move me. His fake weeping as he watched his lover succumb to AIDS didn't help. Tears -- actual tears -- may not be enough to save starving children, but they are needed to really sell a dying-too-young scene. See Oscar nominee Bruce Davison in Longtime Companion to see how the living side should nail it.

My biggest problem with Ruffalo's Emmy-nominated performance in The Normal Heart was how mannered and self-conscious it seemed. He lacked the natural quality of other straight actors who have played gay in leading film roles in recent years (Sean Penn in Milk, Colin Firth in A Single Man), perhaps because Ruffalo's character, Ned Weeks, was pretty much a stand-in for Larry Kramer and Ruffalo played it that way. Ruffalo appeared to be trying too hard to capture Kramer specifics instead of just embodying the fighting spirit of the real-life activist and the film's screenwriter, on whose play the movie is based, and letting Ned be his own man.

I bought Ned's anger and righteous indignation, which, like villainy, are not the hardest things to sell from an acting standpoint, but because of all the anger and righteous indignation, when Ruffalo's Ned should have been making me feel, I mostly didn't. After a while, the performance became exhausting for me to watch. Ned was one of the good guys, but his compassion was too angular. (So was Julia Roberts', but it worked better for her satellite character.) His moral compass needed a little less hard edge and little more soft vulnerability in scenes where he wasn't caring for his dying lover (Bomer). During the one in which Ned slammed the milk against the wall, Ruffalo was doing all of the capital-A acting, but I couldn't take my eyes off of Bomer's quiet, helpless response.

5 Things I Realized While Watching The Other Woman
1. As a daytime soap fanatic, I love a good catfight, but there is something so engaging about women working together to vanquish a common enemy (in this case a serially cheating spouse). The First Wives Club this trio of other women were not, but then who is.

2. Cameron Diaz is a Hollywood rarity, an actress who made it largely on the strength of her physical appearance (not that she didn't eventually prove her acting chops) but seems to be allowing herself to age normally. She doesn't look freakishly twentysomething, or like she's trying to be. She looks like a fortyish woman who is still smoking hot.

3. Leslie Mann is every bit Melissa McCartney's comedic equal, and I wish she were better known as that than as Judd Apatow's wife who occasionally appears in his films. Though the spoils weren't all that great, she stole The Other Woman from a top-billed Diaz and made it mostly her movie.

4. At sixtysomething, Don Johnson is still Miami hot.

5. Why aren't more people talking about Taylor Kinney? I've caught glimpses of him in the glimpses I've seen of Chicago Fire, which I'd glimpsed mostly to catch a glimpse of Jesse Spencer. I might be tuning in for more in the future.

Surviving Jack
Admiring Christopher Meloni's physical gifts could only preoccupy me for so long before I started to realize how not funny Surviving Jack was. (No offense to Meloni, who nicely sent up his hunkdom on Veep last season.) I'd never heard of the Fox sitcom until it showed up among the in-flight entertainment options, and after the very first scene, I knew it couldn't possibly still be around. (Indeed, Fox axed it on my birthday this year after only a few episodes had aired.) Memo to future comedy writers who want to create something about the spiteful side of parenthood: Do it with a little bit of love. (See Damon Wayans comically toeing the line between parental affection and contempt in My Wife and Kids.) Being nasty is not inherently being funny.

The Millers
I love the cast, but during the four back-to-back episodes I watched, I couldn't stop wishing they were on a better show. If I ever sit through it again, it'll definitely be for Margo Martindale, who basically does here what she did last year in August: Osage County only more broadly. I'd gladly watch her watching paint dry because she'd no doubt find a way to crack me up while doing it.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

More Thoughts on Ray and Janay Rice, the NFL, Public Opinion and the Failure of Our Legal System

Some of the responses to my previous post on Ray and Janay Rice got me thinking -- again. Valid dissenting points have been made, but my biggest concern remains the sincerity of a public that has cast its collective self in the role of judge, jury and executioner. (I have no doubt that if they could, they'd sentence Rice to death by blows to the head.) Is it all about getting justice for victims of domestic abuse and fighting what is a global epidemic (and not one that's just contained to football husbands and wives), or is it all about punishing a football hero and a sports culture that had it coming?

Let's look at the four main arguments I've heard/read that have been made in favor of exacting revenge -- I mean, punishment -- that will last for the rest of Rice's life.

The Role Model Argument

Are football players role models? I'll give them that. When football players sign on for the NFL, are they signing on to be role models? I'll give them that, too. But who isn't a role model? Everyone is a role model to someone. Do we now start gauging the severity of crimes on to whom and to how many you are considered to be a role model?

I know that football is pivotal to the American way, but I believe many people overvalue its importance to all Americans. I'd never heard of Ray Rice until last week. Surely there must be millions of non-football fans who were as clueless as I was, and some who still are. If you think about it, the influence of pop stars is far more pervasive than that of sports stars. Should we hold them up to the same personal-professional standards?

I mentioned Chris Brown in my previous post, but let's go back farther. Last year I watched an episode of TV One's documentary series Unsung on the late R&B singer Tammi Terrell. Perhaps the most revealing thing in the episode was Terrell's abusive relationships with James Brown and then-Temptations singer David Ruffin. In fact, there was some speculation that a severe beating by Ruffin may have exacerbated the brain tumor that eventually killed Terrell in 1970 at age 24.

I haven't been able to listen to James Brown since without thinking about how he treated Terrell, and I briefly considered never again listening to his music, but what would have been the point? Should Brown, one of the most popular entertainers of the time, the black Elvis and a role model to many (then and now, nearly a decade after his death), have been banned from recording and touring after he beat the crap out of Terrell following one of his shows? Think of all the iconic music the world would have missed: "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "I Got You," "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" and pretty much everything Brown did from 1964 on.

No, I'm not saying that great music is more important than the welfare of young women. But those who are aware of the tempestuousness of Brown and Terrell's relationship probably wouldn't want to erase those classics from the rock and soul canon any more than contemporary R&B recording artists were ready to stop lining up to collaborate with Chris Brown after he assaulted Rihanna. It should be up to the legal system, not a loud and vengeful public, to determine if and how domestic abusers get to resume their careers, regardless of what those careers might be.

But yeah, I get it: The NFL reserves the right to do just that in the contracts its players sign. Alright then. However, constantly calling out Rice's professional/celebrity status makes it seem as if that's why the public deems the abuse to be so bad. If we heard about a plumber doing what he did, and even saw video of it, would everyone be as up in arms over it, demanding that he never again unclog a drain, or that a lawyer who slugs his wife be disbarred in every state for life, or do they want the NFL to permanently dump Rice (on top of his already being fired by the Baltimore Ravens) only because he no longer deserves a lucrative football gig? Is there a hierarchy of abuse that depends on what you do for a living and how public a profile you have? Does the abuser's being a well-known role model to a lot of people somehow make it worse for the abused? Isn't she supposed to be the focus?

And what does the fact that football players are on the pedestals we put them on say about us? It's not just the NFL's fault that they are overpaid and in a position to get away with murder, figuratively speaking, of course.

The "The Video Shows Just How Terrible the Assault Was" Argument

The second video should not have been grounds for increasing Rice's punishment, and it wouldn't have been if the prosecution had done its job. A friend of mine argued that it was the second video that showed just how aggressive the attack was. Now let me get this straight. We see a first video of a man dragging an unconscious body out of an elevator, and we already know that he had punched her off-screen. Does it really take seeing the second video to know that the attack was brutal? Of course, it was brutal.

Do her shoes falling off her feet make it somehow worse? Are we once again creating a hierarchy of abuse, but this time basing it on our feelings about the footage? Was abuse less serious an offense in the days before TMZ when we didn't all have access to such private moments in people's lives? In becoming voyeurs, we've also anointed ourselves as a sort of supreme court, responsible for doling out punishments to everyone who is caught acting badly on video or on tape because a crime is so much worse when we see it and hear it than when we just know that it happened? Tell that to the women who are beaten every day in the privacy of their own homes by men whose names nobody knows.

It's not important whether the NFL had access to this footage or not. What's important is that the prosecuting attorney must have, and still Rice got off with a slap on the wrist. Why aren't we demanding retroactive justice from the law? Because it's so much more dramatic, a much bigger statement, to hit Rice where it really counts: in his bank account? Who is this helping again?

The Let's-Protect-Women-from-the-Macho-Football-Star Argument

Yes, football players can be assholes. Yes, they sometimes degrade women. But is that a malady that is so unique to football players? What about the way Hollywood treats women? The music industry? Men in general. I would be more supportive of this argument if it seemed to come more from a place of genuinely wanting to look out for women and less from a place of wanting to knock football players down a few pegs. The primary focus during this entire controversy has been on Ray Rice when it actually should have been on his then-fiancee Janay Rice (nee Palmer).

Does anyone know the names of the two men who tortured Matthew Shepard and left him to die in 1998. Regardless of whether the crime was motivated by Shepard's sexuality, as the victim, he was always central to the story. In death, he became a martyr, an enduring symbol of the ongoing gay-rights movement, though in life, he hadn't made any notable contributions to it. If Twitter had existed back then, "#MatthewShepard" would have been trending for weeks.

We may be more desensitized to violence against women than we are to gay men being brutalized to death, but that's no reason to make the victim of domestic abuse a secondary player, an afterthought, in a case that should be all about her. Many people probably still don't even know the name Janay Rice, which as far as I can tell, never trended on Twitter. Or do the specifics about her (other than that she married Rice anyway) not matter because she isn't Rihanna?

So don't tell me this is all about looking out for the best interest of Janay Rice and women like her. It's about Ray Rice's celebrity, our need to be indignant about something (in the social media age, having a voice has become a birthright and being appalled a national pastime), and our need to put a rich and famous jock in his place.

The Marijuana Argument

There's also the idea that domestic abuse is a far more serious offense than smoking marijuana, and the punishment doled out by the NFL should reflect that. I think that, once again, this is something that needs to be taken up with the legal system, which treats drug offenses far more seriously than domestic abuse.

A friend made an interesting suggestion to me: The law actually has inadvertent firing power. If district attorneys were forced to prosecute offenders to the full extent of the law, especially when there is irrefutable video proof, that would kill two birds with one stone. If people charged and convicted of domestic abuse were in jail where they belong, then they would be unable to show up for work -- whether their job is in the NFL or at the local deli -- and ultimately they would end up being fired, without employers having to overstep their authority or rely on way too arbitrary personal-conduct clauses.

But the question would remain: How do we help Janay and other women like her by preventing future incidents of domestic abuse? Or is punishing Rice the only thing that matters?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Public Punishment for Private Sin: Would Banning Ray Rice from the NFL Help Anyone?

I'm sports dumb, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. Two letters aside, I can barely tell the difference between the NFL and the NBA. One week ago, I'd never heard of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, and I still have no idea what a running back even does for a living.

Frankly, I hope it won't be long before I'll never again have to read Rice's still-trending name or see his face. I don't know which is worse: the way he knocked out his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, with one blow to the head in that elevator in Atlantic City's Revel Casino Hotel last February 15, or how he callously mistreated her unconscious body afterwards, as if she were a human-sized rag doll.

Why Palmer married him anyway is beyond me. I'm not one of those people who believes wondering what she was thinking is tantamount to blaming the victim. At some point, we all have to answer for our choices. That said, she's not the first woman to stay with a man who physically abused her, and that she did doesn't make her a bad person, or even a stupid one. This is ultimately between the now-Rices.

Remember the old saying: "To err is human, to forgive, divine"? Well, that applies to both parties in domestic-abuse disputes, too. Maybe Rice apologized profusely, promising never to let it happen again. If he did, it's possible that he actually meant it. While I find his actions to be reprehensible, I have nothing to say about the man himself. It's neither my place nor any of my business.

It probably shouldn't be the National Football League's either, but a personal-conduct policy erasing the line that separates "private" from "professional" gives the NFL the power to play judge and jury and impose punishment for something Rice did off-the-clock. The policy is apparently meant to keep in check those feelings of entitlement, unaccountability and invincibility that the NFL bestows upon players in the first place. Following the incident, Rice was charged with felony aggravated assault and received a two-game suspension. But after TMZ ran footage of the punch on September 8 (the site had previously run video of the aftermath in February), under the pressure of mounting public criticism for not being tough enough, the Ravens fired Rice, and the league suspended him indefinitely. Pending what exactly? That's unclear to me. Maybe until his name stops trending, and the NFL can quietly reinstate him without too much uproar.

Ray Rice is not the first sports star to face the public flogging squad, and coming only months after Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was banned for life by the NBA for privately making racist remarks, he's just the latest high-profile person to be publicly and professionally censured for things said and done in private. I'm not so comfortable with this development in a post-tabloid era when someone is always watching and possibly recording. How far into players' private lives can the NFL go to pinpoint "personal conduct" offenses? Will marital infidelity or getting into a fist fight with your brother in the backyard while a recording app on some bystander's smart phone happens to be turned on eventually be grounds for dismissal?

While NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell recently implemented a new uniform punishment system for domestic violence (a six-game suspension for first offenders, a lifetime ban afterwards), there's been frustrating inconsistency in how we've responded to the transgressions of our non-sports stars. The list of actors and musicians who have committed domestic abuse is long. It's just as much of a problem in Hollywood as it is in the NFL, yet it's rarely addressed. I wonder, though, how lifetime bans would go over in entertainment.

What if Chris Brown had been permanently blacklisted by record labels and tour sponsors after physically assaulting then-girlfriend Rihanna in 2009? If Solange Knowles had an endorsement deal to lose, would we have demanded it be rescinded after her own elevator altercation with Jay-Z? Of course, violence inflicted by women against men is rarely taken seriously, especially if social media gets a few good memes out of it. I'm pretty certain that if Jay-Z had fought back, his career would be as done as Chris Brown's seemed to be in the months after he beat up Rihanna.

Imagine "Proud Mary" still being primarily a Creedence Clearwater Revival song (for a banned Ike Turner wouldn't have been able to record an iconic 1971 remake with Tina Turner), or Josh Brolin, who was arrested in 2004 for a domestic assault incident with then-wife Diane Lane, still being best known for the 1996 film Flirting with Disaster. How far back in our celebrities' pasts would we go to demand retroactive retribution for personal-conduct offenses? Should Justin Bieber have been dropped by his record label after the leaking of an old video in which he told a "nigger" joke?

Is getting caught on video the key? It seems as if Ray Rice is being punished less for knocking out his wife than because the punch was caught on tape that went public. If someone had privately sent the video to Commissioner Goodell rather than having it broadcast so publicly on TMZ, would Rice's punishment have been as severe? A law enforcement officer claims to have done just that five months ago, prompting the NFL to do nothing.

If the NFL had been able to keep the entire incident secret, perhaps there never would have been a day of reckoning for Rice. The NFL is now doing a lot of grandstanding, but the fact that the league's powers that be initially gave Rice little more than a wrist slap suggests that the more severe penalty imposed after video of the punch went public is more about PR than any sincere commitment to fighting domestic violence.

And what about the public's vociferous intervention? I could understand it if Rice were an elected public official who owed it to his constituents to walk the straight and narrow, lest his actions reflect poorly on the government. Sports stars fall into a tricky gray area, though. They're in the public eye and well known by a large number of people, but they remain private citizens. Should any guy who hits his wife or girlfriend lose his job, especially if it's caught on video, or is domestic violence somehow worse when it's committed by a rich sports star who may or may not think he's above the law?

Does the mass obsession with taking away Rice's livelihood by banning him from the NFL for life stem from a collective desire to prevent future episodes of domestic violence, or is it mostly a punitive thing, extracting vengeance for a woman who doesn't seem to want any and in the process, prolonging and compounding her suffering? The logic seems to be that it's up to the NFL to make Rice pay because he did a terrible thing and wasn't punished severely enough by New Jersey prosecutors, who agreed to dismiss the charges if Rice completed a year-long rehabilitation program. The legal system should be held more accountable for letting so many domestic abusers walk. Even if a victim refuses to press charges, video proof should make full prosecution mandatory since a crime was clearly committed.

I'm as poorly versed in law as I am in sports, but as far as I know, the NFL is acting within its legal rights by imposing an indefinite ban on Rice. While I believe he should be at the mercy of a tougher legal system and not the NFL, I honestly don't care if he never gets to play again. But I'd rather see the Rices undergoing intensive therapy than see him out of work. The latter wouldn't solve anything (certainly not violent impulses), nor would it fix the legal system, which has failed yet again.

I get the knee-jerk reactions to the videos. I'm appalled and outraged, too. But we shouldn't be blinded by our fury, becoming so obsessed with damning and punishing that we forget about rehabilitating and healing. We've done judgment. Why not try compassion? If not for Ray Rice, for his wife and for all the women who continue to live in fear and danger. Lifetime bans might make us feel better and make the NFL look good, but ultimately, they do nothing for the victims of domestic abuse.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Do Gay Men Really Have Terrible Taste in Music?

Oh, Rufus Wainwright, why did you have to go there? An offhand comment by the Canadian singer-songwriter during a recent interview made headlines and inspired my latest piece in HuffPost Gay Voices.

When it comes to musical taste, the only steadfast rule is that there's no accounting for it. Why Iggy Azalea and not Azealia Banks? Why Beyoncé and not Solange (her "Losing You" trumps everything on Beyoncé combined), or Kelly Rowland, for that matter? Why do some countries gravitate toward certain singers and songs, sending them to the top of the pops, while other countries ignore them altogether? (Poor Robbie Williams, still not an American success story.) And what does Robyn have to do for America to get her again? (Click here to read the rest of the story.)

Saturday, September 6, 2014

How Computers Mangled the Art of Writing

My friends have gotten me all wrong over the years. Many of them seem to assume that I sit around like their stern 7th-grade English teacher, with my figurative red-ink pen in hand, inspecting and then ripping apart every sentence in every email that everyone sends to me. I can't tell you how many emails I've received followed by emails apologizing for typos, misspellings, grammatical and punctuation errors, and global warming, as if those were things for which one has apologize. I've even had people tell me they refrain from sending me emails altogether for fear of what I might do with them on the privacy of my own laptop.

Well, newsflash, folks: I'm only human, and I know you all are, too. I'm the king of typos, and I'm fairly unapologetic about it. I don't have a personal copy editor to proofread every single word I write before pressing send. And why would I want one? In this not-so-golden age of emailing and texting, written communication could use evidence of humanity, now that we don't rely on handwriting to impart it. (Why do you think we're always having to "Type the letters in the box" on certain websites? To prove we're not monkeys!)

To this day, I have no idea what the signatures of the last few guys I dated even looked like, which is kind of pathetic, and not just because you can tell a lot about someone from their penmanship. I wonder how things would have worked out if our last few tense email/text conversations had gone down on paper instead, if there had been several crossed out words alongside lapses in good spelling and punctuation, indicating someone who was searching for the right words, the right way to verbally express his emotions, someone who was being human. I may not want to sit through a book or a professional email that's riddled with typos, but when someone is writing to me on a personal and intimate level, I expect imperfection. It makes them seem more sincere and less douchey.

I'm not saying I'm cool with illiteracy or egregious grammatical blunders -- like double negatives, and lack of subject-verb agreement and linking verbs -- but there's no need to proofread every missive to perfection. Typos and other assorted literary blemishes (within reason) can make emails seem more authentic, more real, more honest, more vulnerable -- all qualities I look for in someone with whom I'd want to regularly exchange them.

I once had a new Argentine ex send me a post-mortem email that was so perfectly constructed I was certain someone else had written it for him. While his English was by no means perfect, he was majoring in English at university with the intention of one day teaching it at a college level, so it's not as if we regularly had communication breakdowns due to any language barrier. I'm not sure why he felt he needed a ghost writer to edit all of the personality out of the last email he ever sent to me, but the prose was so arch and stilted in its perfection that I didn't buy it when he ended with "I'll always love you."

So, relax, people. Feel free to send me emails written with a human touch. I promise I'll read them without critiquing spelling, punctuation or grammar (as long as the latter doesn't make you sound like you dropped out of school after sixth grade). Confusing "you're" and "your," "it's" and "its," and "an" and "and" may produce speed-reading bumps, but they rarely stop me dead in my tracks. Everybody makes mistakes. That's what makes humanity beautiful.

Anyway, I'll probably be too busy rolling my eyes at all of the annoying deliberate touches -- the smiley faces, the incessant exclamation points, the LOLs -- to even notice the stuff that you don't do on purpose. I blame computers, not the educational system, for the way we now mangle the written word. Back in the good-old letter-writing days, did anyone use a colon followed by a parenthesis to indicate that what was just written was written with a smile, occasionally replacing the colon with a semicolon in order to wink? If you have to announce the joke after telling it, hasn't it already fallen flat?

A few years before smart phones and texting made all those annoying communication devices epidemic, my friend Mara and I were already laughing at, not with, people for using punctuation emoticons, which are right up there with XXXs and OOOs in the realm of pointlessness. Perhaps we overdid it a little, too, deeming guys unsuitable dating material for piling on smiley and winky faces, but our distaste was in the right place. Now, before you accuse me of contradicting what I just wrote, we never criticized them for anything I've already given a free pass. We slammed them for ending too many perfectly fine sentences with " :)," " ;)," and so on. To these eyes, and presumably to Mara's, they had a way of draining all of the gravitas out of a potential suitor and giving him the whiff of frivolity.

If you have to constantly end sentences with ":)" to let people know that you wrote them with a smile, perhaps you should adjust your overall tone so that your sunny disposition is clear. We may not have the benefit of facial expressions to guide us with written communication, but that's exactly why we have words. And what does ":/" and ":S" even mean?

There's also something off-puttingly glib about too many emoticons, or using them in lieu of actual sentences. A simple ":(" in response to a passionate email from me set the stage for the break-up with one of my exes, and he wasn't even an emoticon-er, which had been one of his assets. One or two well-placed emoticons I can handle, but when nearly every sentence ends with one, they can begin to seem a little phony. When what comes before it isn't exactly sunshine and rainbows, a smiley face can come across as being passive-aggressive, too, like you could't resist being kind of testy and bitchy, but you didn't have the guts not to try to soften the blow.

(For the record, I have less of an issue with simple graphic emoticons, possibly because I see them as much as an aesthetic device as a communication accessory. And they have the power to perk up boring IM conversations. But one per email, please.)

Exclamation points serve a completely different purpose. They're supposed to indicate enthusiasm, and I, for one, love it when an email begins with "Jeremy!" But life is not a Shania Twain song title. Nobody but possibly the world's most annoying person delivers every single line with breathless glee when speaking. So why end every written sentence with an exclamation mark -- or five? It only make the one that came after my name seem less special, less honest. I might assume it has nothing to do with me, and the person doing way too much exclaiming just wants to be liked by everyone.

To be honest, though, I'd take too many exclamation points to an overabundance of LOLs. My love/hate relationship with acronyms (currently set to hate) has been documented (here), so I won't use this space to rage against the machines for making them so commonplace, instead focusing on what is perhaps the most overused acronym of all time: LOL.

I love to laugh out loud as much as the next cut-up, but not everything is a laughing matter, and if everything is to someone, then how funny can any of it actually be. I don't know which is more off-putting, when "LOL" is in response to something I've written, or something the person using it has written. When it's the latter, it's the equivalent of laughing at your own jokes, which is something that most socially aware people would avoid doing in real life.

Would we actually laugh out loud if the sentence for which we're using it were uttered orally? Has anyone ever actually rolled on the floor laughing (ROTFL) or laughed his or her fucking ass off (LMFAO)? Most people are simply not that funny, and too many LOLs can feel patronizing, dismissive and, yes, phony. I prefer a sparingly used "hahaha" (just one "ha" is bordering on ridicule), or just tell me how funny I am. (Remember the episode of Scrubs where Zach Braff criticized Mandy Moore for always saying "That's funny" but never laughing?)

Sometimes when I'm sighing over yet another "LOL," I start longing for the good old days when people not only wrote letters but they wrote letters that didn't have to fall back on emoticons and acronyms to communicate what words are perfectly capable of relaying. (On the plus side, though, kids today are learning the English keyboard at an earlier age, which makes typing class and typing teachers -- never the nicest ones of the bunch -- pretty much obsolete.)

Did Teddy Roosevelt use emoticons and acronyms in his handwritten love letters to his first wife, Alice, when he was courting her? I think we can assume that he didn't, but had he done so, at least he would have had a good excuse. Quills and dip-it-in-ink fountain pens must have been horrendous to maneuver, especially when you had as much to say as the 26th U.S. President did!!! (TR was not exactly known for his understatement, but I suspect that when expressing his feelings to Alice, he did with love, not a ton of exclamation points and "<3.")

People were able to communicate just fine without the use of backspace, delete, cut and paste and auto correct. Sometimes it meant crumpling up a page and starting over, but it was usually worth it in the end. Those letters that are read in voice over during documentaries about events that happened centuries ago, always sound as eloquent as any perfectly constructed email. I'll bet there were plenty of typos in them, but not one single emoticon or "LOL."

So the next time you're considering whether to write to me and you decide not to for fear of being graded, reconsider. I'd really love to hear from you. I promise I'll shut up my inner editor, if you just let your words -- poorly spelled, misplaced and badly punctuated as they may or may not be -- and not modern communication flourishes do your talking for you.