Outlander’s day of reckoning

THIS face. ©Starz
THIS face. ©Starz

Ever since I first read Outlander, I’ve wondered how the book’s notorious spanking scene in Chapter 22 (“Reckonings”) could be brought to life, should any filmmaker be brave (or foolish) enough to take it on. How would this scene, in which a husband in 1743 Scotland applies heavy-handed discipline to his modern-thinking wife (she, is, after all, a time traveler from 1945 England), play out on screen? Would it be cut entirely? Or would the filmmakers risk the show losing viewers and becoming a social media outrage du jour? Would Outlander be slapped with the scarlet letter “P” for “problematic” — the new word used to shame entertainment that doesn’t adhere to a strict and ever-widening list of “appropriateness”?

If you’ve read my previous Outlander pieces, you know that I have no problem with That Scene. When I first encountered the scene in the first book of Diana Gabaldon’s much-loved series, I weighed my feminist convictions against my weakness for well-written, big, sexy historical yarns and, well, guilty pleasure won. Individual responses to the scene will differ and, you know what? That’s OK. We’re not all wired up the same.

But I’m just going to throw this out there: Nobody ever seems to get riled up about all the other spankings in the novel Outlander. And there is a lot of spanking, and talking about spanking, and Jamie remembering past spankings he’s received, going on in the book (so far, none of this has made it to TV).  In Dragonfly in Amber (Book 2) and Voyager (Book 3), Jamie is forever being asked to administer spankings (to his surrogate son and his nephew), or is volunteering to take disciplinary whippings to spare the men in his charge. (Interestingly, in Dragonfly, Claire asks him to beat her, but he refuses. I won’t spoil the book for those who haven’t gotten there yet by saying more.) There is a kinky pulse thumping through the novels’ historical romance/fantasy/bodice-ripping heart, and maybe that’s the dirty little secret of why so many women love them.

The other reason might be Jamie himself. Boyish, courageous and built like a ginger Adonis, Jamie is not just a sympathetic romantic hero, he’s an unabashed object of fetishization, as you’ll presumably see as the TV series goes along. (And if you want to talk “problematic,” just wait.) The normally courtly and sweet Jamie spanking Claire is the scene that gets all the attention; some readers are turned on by it, some see it as violence against women. But in the grand scheme of all things Outlander, Jamie is the victim, the one who suffers gruesome physical abuse in the books, not just once, but over and over. Even I have to admit, it’s weird. The irresistible quirky pull of the novels, though, lies in how fluidly Jamie and Claire keep swapping roles as the “damsel in distress” figure and the hero, and how they take turns rescuing one another.

Now, on to Episode 9, called “The Reckoning,” which aired last Saturday. The spanking scene remained, more or less as was written in the book. We saw the set-up in Episode 8, in the first half of this season; Claire ignores Jamie’s order to wait for him in the woods while he and his highlanders go off in pursuit of the one man who might be able to clear Jamie’s name as an outlaw wanted for murder. One bit of dialogue from the book was left out of Episode 8, however  — Jamie warning Claire that if she strayed from her hiding place, he would “tan your bare arse wi’ my sword belt.” I wish that line had stayed; it prepared viewers unfamiliar with the book for what was ahead, rather than having the spanking scene come out of nowhere. I think it would have also signaled to the Outlander uninitiated that the upcoming scene was not intended to be consensual sex-play.

Anyway, Claire, who hasn’t accepted the strictures placed on women in 18th century society and is subservient to no man, least of all her husband, wanders off towards the standing stones that might take her back to her own time, and is captured by Redcoats. She’s taken to Fort William, to Commander Black Jack Randall, Jamie’s old torturer and enemy, and that’s where Episode 8 ends.

Episode 9, which premiered after a months-long promo campaign, opens not with Jamie and his men busting in and rescuing Claire from Randall’s attempted rape, but with an interesting change in narrative perspective from Claire’s voice to Jamie’s. We’ve been seeing the action through Claire’s sensibilities all along, which is also how the book is structured. But in changing this episode to Jamie’s story, the material from Chapter 22 becomes his meditation on what it means to be a man. The first scene of the episode echoes Claire’s opening narration from the first episode of the series (“It’s funny the things you remember …”), except it’s Jamie saying those words, over a visual of him pensively skimming rocks in a stream. Then there’s a flashback  to the rescue at Fort William, and a ferocious verbal battle between Jamie and Claire after they’ve gotten well away.

Jamie and Claire’s fight scene lifts whole passages of dialogue from the book, and actors Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe generate astounding heat as their characters tear into each other with almost palpable anger. Jamie tells her that, as his wife, she must do as he says, and Claire screams back, her face contorted in magnificent contempt, “Your wife! Your wife! You don’t care a thing about me! I’m just your property! … As long as I’m there to warm your bed, you don’t care what I think or how I feel! That’s all a wife is to you — something to stick your cock into when you feel the urge!”

Of course, Claire has succinctly described the societal norm for husbands and wives in Jamie’s time, one which the naive Jamie (he’s four years younger than Claire) has never questioned before. When he sees Claire’s contempt, he suddenly sinks down on a rock in confusion and frustration. It’s all there in the book, but on film, it becomes an even more powerful moment; it contextualizes the spanking scene, when it comes, as Jamie’s last stand, his attempt to regain his sense of self according to the ideas of manhood as he’s internalized them. She put the men in danger and if Jamie doesn’t make her pay for it, he loses their respect.

As for the spanking scene … In the book, we’re inside Claire’s head, and her narrative voice flits between shock, guilt, humiliation and anger (“Whatever the justice of the situation — and I had to admit that at least some of it lay on his side — my sense of amour-propre was deeply offended at the thought of being beaten, by whomever, and for whatever reason. I felt deeply betrayed by the man I depended on as friend, protector and lover …”). On TV, Balfe expresses all of those feelings in her face, but it’s not the same as hearing her say them. This is the one point where I wish this episode didn’t have a flip in narrative voice.

I’m still not feeling the sprightly jig that strikes up on the soundtrack at the moment Claire twigs that Jamie is serious. I first thought the lively music was what turns the scene a bit too Kiss Me Kate, but then I watched the scene with the sound off and it looks the same, so the lightness must come from the way the scene is choreographed. Jamie’s facial expressions are not menacing, they’re more sheepish, pleading, comically exasperated — why won’t she let him do his duty? Claire fights back hard (in the book, she first agrees to her punishment, but on screen, there is no acquiescence), and there’s a nicely-timed kick upside the head, but eventually, the brawl ends with Jamie the victor, and the strap comes down.

Props to the TV team for not copping out and doing something dumb like coyly placing the spanking off camera. And props for allowing Jamie his believable gleam of sexual arousal at the end (“I said I would have to punish you. I didn’t say I wouldn’t enjoy it”). But the tone of the scene is undeniably lighter than in the book, and I’m not sure that playing it for comedy helps make the whole regressive “wives as infantile property” stuff more palatable. Adapting this scene was always going to be a no-win situation. And so it was.

The real meat of the episode, though, is Jamie and Claire’s reconciliation that comes a few frosty days later, after they’ve reached Jamie’s clan home, Castle Leoch. Claire has refused to sleep with Jamie since the spanking, leaving him more confused over the remorse he’s feeling. Wasn’t he simply doing his duty as a man?  In the episode, Jamie has an epiphany when he sees Colum McKenzie, who is the leader of the clan and his uncle, bend on a point of honor in order to keep peace within the clan. Jamie tells Claire that he punished her because that’s what he’s been taught a man should do, “but for you and me, maybe it has to go a different way.” He kneels and swears an oath on his knife (a serious thing for a highlander) that he will never beat her again. When she’s slow to forgive him, he sorrowfully asks her if she wants to live apart. Balfe has another outstandingly transparent moment here, when her conflicting emotions are all there on her face. “I feel that’s what I should want,” she says. But after a long pause, she adds, “But I don’t.”

“I feel that’s what I should want … but I don’t.” That line gorgeously sums up the conflict between what Claire knows should be her appropriate response in accordance with the social norms of her time, and what she really, viscerally wants, which is, to be with Jamie. It also nicely parallels Jamie’s realization that he doesn’t have to live in a prison of rigid cultural expectations. (Apply it to our own times, if you’re so inclined.) This is the moment when the balance of power in Outlander evens out;  Jamie realizes that Claire is making him into a new kind of man, and it intrigues him, and Claire realizes that, in her fantastic trek through time, she has met her sexual, spiritual equal. They make up, they get naked and have a long, stunningly naturalistic bout of lovemaking (rapidly becoming the show’s specialty) that mirrors the spanking brawl in its acrobatic carnality.

But not before Claire straddles Jamie, holds his knife to his throat and tells him that if he ever raises a hand to her again, she’ll cut out his heart and have it for breakfast.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

(Not) Record Store Day 2015

 

Desi and Marnie in happier days (Photo © HBO)
Desi and Marnie in happier times (Photo © HBO)

 

(FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE — APRIL 1) Record Store Day is April 18, 2015, and this year’s celebration of independent music sellers promises to be the best ever. Why? Because Record Store Day 2015 Ambassador Dave Grohl is included FREE with every purchase!  At last, you won’t have to endure the wait for Dave’s TV appearances, which can sometimes occur hours apart!  The inexhaustible Foo Fighters frontman will come to your house, wherever you are, and do whatever you want! He’ll organize your vinyl collection so the rare stuff is placed in just the right spot for your friends to notice your awesome taste –not too near to the top, where it looks like you’re trying too hard, but not buried in the back of the crate, either. He’ll clean out your garage. He’ll drive Grandma to the foot doctor. He’ll even DJ at your daughter’s bat mitzvah. And he’ll do it all with a big toothy smile, because that’s the way he rolls! And best of all, he won’t leave!  You can hint, you can plead, you can even call the cops, but how much do you wanna bet the cops end up jamming with him? His energy is THAT infectious!

Here are some late additions not really to the totally fake list of Record Store Day 2015 special releases, as of April 1 get it?:

Various Artists, Saturday Afternoon at the Guitar Center. An exclusive compilation of live performances by the best unsigned musicians around!  Tracks include some of the guitar solo from “Ain’t Talkin’ ’bout Love” by the retired firefighter down the street; the opening notes of “Stairway to Heaven” by the guy who gives guitar lessons at the Senior Center; something that might be “Master of Puppets,” it’s hard to tell, by the scary Peterson kid; a three-year-old having a tantrum on the floor while her brother pounds on a djembe;  the intro to “Crazy Train” by that weird guy over there in the Slayer T-shirt; and the chords to “Heart of Gold” by your mom. Each album comes with a commemorative extended warranty and a ukulele.

U2, Songs of Innocence (Deluxe Version with 10 Bonus Tracks). FREE to anyone who visits a local independent music seller on Record Store Day! You don’t even have to buy anything to receive this exclusive gift from the legendary Irish rockers;  just cross the threshold of a record store and it’s yours! Seriously, you will not be allowed to leave the premises until you’ve accepted your copy. Too busy to stop by? No worries! We’ll find you! We have your Apple accounts! We know where you live! Slainte!

Various Artists, Lost in Greenpoint: The Songs of Desi and Marnie.  Producer T Bone Burnett and a host of roots-ish superstars celebrate the short-lived but influential Brooklyn duo whose sound defined modern American folk music with an indie edge. Or were they more, like, “She & Him” with actual romance? You decide! Guided by newly discovered demos recorded during the duo’s heyday in the early-2015’s, Lost in Greenpoint is a vision of what might have been if Desi hadn’t disappeared right before the couple’s big record company showcase. Features Desi and Marnie’s timeless words and music performed by Mumford and Sons (“Song for Marcus Garvey”), Bon Iver (“Oaxaca Blues”),  the Decemberists (“Rattlesnake Cowgirl”), Of Monsters and Men (“Kokopelli Shelly”) and First Aid Kit (“Whoa, Wow, Wonderful”), among others, as well as a bonus track (“Close Up”) by 12-time Grammy-winning solo artist Marnie herself. (Desi, who now fronts a Lumineers cover band, refused to participate in the project, citing “negative energy”. Plus, he’s just a big douche.) This exclusive Record Store Day release features passionate liner notes by the mayor of New York City, Ray Ploshansky.

The Estate of Marvin Gaye, You’ve Been Served: The Lawsuit Album. Includes remixes, greatest hits and unreleased cease and desist orders against Prince, Usher, Justin Timberlake and the estate of Michael Jackson.

Bruce Springsteen, The First Seven Albums: The Remastered Remasters of the Remasters. Are you a Springsteen fan in your 40s who wishes you were born 10 years earlier? Are you an older fan who dreams of going back to your youth, when life still sucked, but not as much as it sucks now? Well, this Record Store Day, you can finally purchase Greetings from Asbury Park (1973) through Born in the USA (1984) in a vinyl format that faithfully reproduces the experience of listening to the Boss’s seminal albums of the ’70s and ’80s — just as if it were the ’70s and ’80s! All seven albums are re-released on crap-quality floppy vinyl distressed with pops and skips. Authentic smudges of Clearasil, burger grease and human tears adorn the covers, poignant reminders of that time Bruce helped get you through some really heavy shit. Super-collectible random copies feature the name of an older sibling scrawled in ballpoint pen on the top left back corner.

Record Store Day wouldn’t be complete without these exclusive singles and reissues!

  •  50 Cent featuring Ringo Starr (“Hey Kanye, I Have a Beatle Too!” b/w “Octopus’s Garden”)
  • George Ezra featuring Dave Matthews and a screaming goat (the folk classic “Wimoweh” b/w a cover of Focus’s “Hocus Pocus”)
  • The 20th anniversary reissue of Bryan Adams’ “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?,” the Oscar nominated theme song to the Johnny Depp-Marlon Brando classic Don Juan DeMarco. The limited edition single features Adams’ original track on one side and a newly discovered version by Depp (with Brando on bongos) on the other.
  • The 20th anniversary reissue of “Peaches” by The Presidents of the United States of America, b/w the dub step remix. Pressed on cannabis-resin vinyl.

Do you miss those classic all-star charity releases of the ’80s? Well, this year’s Record Store Day includes TWO exciting new supergroup projects for a good cause! Jay Z, Beyonce, Kanye West, Madonna, Jack White and many others join forces under the banner of Artists United Against Spotify for an exclusive single! “Do They Know It’s Christmas (and There Ain’t No Santa Claus)?” b/w “I’m Just a Water Bill” aims to raise money for impoverished millionaire music-makers while also teaching them basic life skills. Available in two limited-edition vinyl formats: 200 gram pressing ($20) and paper plate with grooves drawn on it in Magic Marker ($10).  Meanwhile, Dick Aid features Eminem, Robin Thicke, Chris Brown, Adam Levine and more in an all-star benefit for victims of feminism. This special four-and-a-half-inch single features the Dick Aid anthem “We Own the World” b/w a Diplo remix of “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?” All proceeds will be donated to the Bill Cosby Defense Fund.

(Record Store Day is April 18, 2015 — for real. You can find the complete list of actual RSD 2015 releases here.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

Saturday Night Live is not dead

The original Not Ready for Prime Time Players
The original Not Ready for Prime Time Players

It feels like we’ve been celebrating the Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary for approximately 40 years now, but the biggest bang is yet to come with a four-hour live reunion/tribute show this Sunday night. I’m not sure why we’re doing all of this commemorating now, when the actual 40th anniversary of the debut of SNL is not until Oct. 11. But if it gets Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman back on TV, if only for one night, that’s OK with me.

There have already been so many SNL anniversary pieces and listicles written that one more would be superfluous. But I do have something to toss into the mix. Let me tell you what it was like to watch the debut of SNL on Oct. 11, 1975, as an 18-year-old college freshman.

It’s simple: Before SNL, there was nothing.

The three networks didn’t program in late-night on Saturday nights; old movies aired locally in that spot. And there were no off-mainstream humor shows aimed at baby boomers running in prime time. (Although Home Box Office existed, there was no real cable programming yet.) The closest we came to having a comedy show of our own was the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which managed to air for three seasons on CBS, despite being under constant threat of censorship and cancellation for its drug references and anti-Vietnam War sentiments. But that was nearly eight years before, and I, for one, had been too young to really get it. Oh, George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Robert Klein were around, performing their boundary-breaking stand-up on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, but none of them had a weekly gig.

The only place to regularly see weird, surreal, sometimes transgressive counterculture comedy was my local PBS station, which aired reruns of Monty Python’s Flying Circus from the BBC. Monty Python was a revelation for me;  it was the first time I fell in thrall to comedians the way I was in thrall to rock stars. Maybe it was their British accents.

Anyway, this was how I got my comedy fill in high school: Python, variety shows like The Carol Burnett Show and Sonny and Cher, Johnny Carson. And then something magical happened. On Oct. 11, 1975, at 11:30 p.m., my boyfriend and I sat down in front of the TV to do what we always did on Saturday nights: make out. But Saturday Night Live wouldn’t let us. The cold open was a very Pythonesque skit in which a foreign man in a hat with earflaps and an overcoat receives an English lesson from a teacher who makes him repeat such phrases as, “I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines,” and “I’m afraid we are out of badgers. Would you accept a wolverine in its place?”  The foreign man was played with deadpan innocence by pudgy, impish John Belushi, the teacher by the very unsettling, Ichabod Crane-like Michael O’Donaghue. We were hooked, even before we saw the bee sketch, the “Show Us Your Guns” commercial and Andy Kaufman miming the Mighty Mouse theme song.

Without the assistance of the Internet, without Twitter, without the massive media delivery and consumption machinery we now have in place, Saturday Night Live became an overnight happening, TV’s first cult hit. I had never seen Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Laraine Newman, Jane Curtin, Chevy Chase or Garrett Morris before, but it was as if I’d known them, loved them, all my life. In the manner of the shaggy-haired and fearless Monty Python, the Not Ready for Prime Time Players had the aura of rock stars, and indeed, it wouldn’t be long before their posters were hanging on every dorm room wall.

To be an SNL fan in those first weeks was like being a member of a club that bestowed instant coolness.  SNL was ours. It was a ritual on campus, a show that was on late at night, that was funny whether you were stoned or straight, that aired some very outrageous, strange things. Everybody was talking about it: Who would the guest host be? Who would the musical guest be?  Will they do the Samurai skit again?  We all started dropping SNL catch phrases into conversation, like spies communicating in code: “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not”; “Never mind!”; “Cheeseburgie!” I remember watching a comedy night put on by theater students in which every other skit was a blatant knock-off of bits from SNL. But who could blame them? We all had SNL on the brain. We were all besotted. SNL was Must-See TV, years before NBC rolled out that advertising slogan.

SNL in that first season was topical, daring and unreservedly silly. Then, as now, it relied heavily on advertising, TV and movie spoofs and recurring characters, but with more of an edge than similar spoofs on Carol Burnett, say. And then, as now, it could also be juvenile, annoyingly self-referential and self-indulgent. After 12:30, it was sometimes painfully flat. We endured its flaws, because the cool thing, the thing that lit us up, was the anarchy of it all;  watching it was like watching a circus knife-throwing act — there was always the possibility of carnage. (In fact, real blood was shed in a Samurai sketch in 1976 when Belushi accidentally slashed host Buck Henry in the forehead live on camera.) The first three years of SNL represented the changing of the TV comedy guard;  suddenly, Johnny Carson, once the epitome of hip, was looking very square. And, for better or worse, the change spilled over into movies, as Belushi departed to make National Lampoon’s Animal House in 1978, which launched a new genre of youth-pitched (or as the media called them, “gross-out”) comedies.

By 1980, all of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players had left the show for feature films or network sitcoms;  creator/producer Lorne Michaels went with them, and the show was in disarray. I still watched with my boyfriend (soon-to-be-husband), but it often seemed more like holding a deathbed vigil than true enjoyment. SNL had been eclipsed in our hearts by the Canadian sketch comedy series SCTV (with John Candy, Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, et al), which NBC had picked up and slotted at 1 a.m. after SNL to create a hip comedy block. By 1982, when Belushi died of a drug overdose like the rock star he was, those early, stunning seasons of SNL felt very far away, a mind-blowing dream dissolving into the light of day.

I never thought SNL would make it to its 10th anniversary, let alone still be on the air now, as much a pillar of NBC’s broadcast week as The Today Show and The Tonight Show. I’ve sworn it off over the years, but I always come back. Part of what keeps pulling me in is Lorne Michaels’ damnably canny eye for talent; Tina Fey would have been enough, but Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler, Kristin Wiig, Kate McKinnon … I would have been a fool to miss all that. But mostly, I’m an SNL lifer because, despite cast changes, lost seasons and played-out characters flogged into the ground, there is still nothing as exciting as watching comic actors and writers at the top of their game nailing it on live TV.

It’s strange — as old as I get and as young as the cast members remain, SNL still makes me laugh. Does this mean that SNL is woefully old school?  Well, it does have a comedy formula, from which it never fundamentally deviates. For instance, the misunderstanding-based news commentaries of Emily Litella live on today in the addled commentaries of Drunk Uncle. The marginally talented but lovable Sweeney Sisters have morphed into the inept yet lovable Ex-Porn Stars.

Yet, this old, formulaic show blows up Twitter every Saturday night, as viewers decades younger than me have a virtual, communal watch (or hate watch, as it may be). Which tells me that SNL‘s formula transcends the chronological age of its audience and pitches its comedy-music spectacle to the youthful smart-aleck inside us all. Even now, some part of me is still 18, with a chill of anticipation down my spine for whatever madness may come, whenever I hear the words, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”

(The first episode ever of Saturday Night Live will be shown in the SNL time slot, 11:30 p.m., Feb. 14.)

(And, in case you were wondering, this gets my vote for the greatest SNL skit of all time, Chevy Chase and guest host Richard Pryor in “Word Association.” Warning: It contains the N-word.)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

In the rotation: January

The Rails
The Rails (Kami Thompson, James Walbourne)

 

What I’ve been listening to this month:

The Rails, Fair Warning (Island). I was a latecomer to this debut album, which was released last May but didn’t hit my radar until I saw the married British folk duo’s opening set for Chrissie Hynde in December. The Rails are — no overstatement — Brit-folk royalty: Kami Thompson is the youngest daughter of Richard and Linda Thompson. I guess that makes her husband, James Walbourne, the Kate Middleton commoner in this mix, but his solid journeyman bio includes stints in Son Volt, the Pernice Brothers and the Pretenders. At any rate, the Rails echo the timeless Richard and Linda dynamic — man, woman, existential gloom, romantic doom, a fondness for murder ballads  — without imitating it.

For one thing, they pay a lot of meticulous attention to close harmony, where Thompson’s parents’ never really did;  in the Rails’ hands, a song like the traditional Irish ballad “Bonnie Portmore” becomes a shimmering lost Everly Brothers tune. For another, Linda largely interpreted Richard’s lyrics, but Kami and James are a songwriting team. I’m not sure which one of them is responsible for the lyrics on the the title track of Fair Warning, on which Kami sings lead, but she had me at the song’s opening lines: “I’ll be OK soon, there’s a bottle in my hand.”  On stage, Kami is a figure of elegant self-containment, and that apartness comes through on the song’s depiction of loneliness, depression and self-destructiveness. Her gorgeous voice, low, dark and clear, is enough to rip your heart out

Enter Walbourne, singing lead on roiling songs about seafaring rowdies and breaking out of borstal, to brighten the mood. He’s a deft guitarist in the Richard Thompson flashing-fingers mode, and his voice has a little bit of Glenn Tilbrook lightness in it. Walbourne draws out Thompson’s playfulness on “Younger” (about the insurmountable two-year age difference between them) and the final track, “Habit,” which shimmies along like an old-time music hall soft-shoe, the happy couple in lovey-dovey harmony until the masochism of Kami’s sweetly crooned final verse brings you up short: “You got me in the habit of missing you/ Your evil-hearted ways draw me closer still/ Tie me up, teach me to be good …”  The Rails are full of surprises.

Charli XCX, SUCKER (Atlantic). The bratty punk-pop of “Break the Rules” and “London Queen” and the masturbation-positive message of “Body of My Own”(“I can do it better when I’m all alone”) are fun, but hardly original; those songs’ antecedents are ’80s Joan Jett and Cyndi Lauper. Charli XCX’s real strength is her ability to articulate the emotional anarchy of young womanhood without giving any ground to self-doubt or regret. The massive hit “I Love It,” which she wrote but gave to Icona Pop, is a one-girl riot set to music. While Charli might never top that song’s bonfire chorus (“I threw your shit into a bag and pushed it down the stairs/ I crashed my car into the bridge/ I don’t care, I love it!”), the title track of SUCKER comes awfully close.

This stomping, assertive flip-off of a pop track is an all-purpose comeback to rejection and false-face suck-uppery. Consider the poison arrow of sarcasm in her perfectly snarled reading of the lines, “Oh dear god, do you get me now, do you get me now, oh do you? Wow, you’re awesome.” That’s Johnny Rotten meets the Dowager Countess right there, and I pity the fool who underestimated this electro-pop prodigy enough to have inspired those lines.  Look, you can be 16, you can be 30, you can be an old lady like me, it doesn’t matter, there will always come a point in your life when someone will deeply wrong you, or mansplain to you, or damn your accomplishments with faint praise. At those moments, let Charli be your guide. Toss your snarly mane of hair back (even if it’s imaginary hair, go ahead and toss it), plant a platform wedge on their throat (metaphorically, or not) and shout, from the diaphragm, “Fuck you, sucker!”  A note of caution: On the physical CD of SUCKER, the title track is censored, so that all the “fucks” are bleeped out. But all the swear words on the other tracks are left in. What the fuck?

Sia, “Chandelier” and “Elastic Heart” videos. Ignore the misreading of the “Elastic Heart” video as pedophiliac by some Twitter idiots. These video interpretations are powerful, beautiful, haunting; they enhance the impact of the primal emotions and the wild, sometimes ugly behavior laid down in the lyrics. In the video for “Chandelier,” a wrenching confessional about Sia’s alcoholism, 12-year-old dancer Maddie Ziegler stands in for the singer in a platinum wig and a flesh-colored leotard. The girl literally bounces off the walls of a depressing, grungy apartment in choreography by Ryan Heffington that startlingly mixes tribal moves, ballet, disturbing facial tics (mouth stretched wide to mouth lyrics, fingers popping open one eyelid) and jerking arm and leg motions. Ziegler looks like a doll in the process of breaking apart. Does she represent Sia’s inner self under the influence? Is she a manifestation of her soul, struggling to save itself?  It’s open to interpretation.

In “Elastic Heart,” Ziegler returns, her leotard now covered in dirt, to engage in a savage cage fight/dance with an older male, played by a leotarded Shia LeBoeuf. There is nothing sexual in their contact. This is a difficult relationship, maybe father-daughter, maybe a battle between aspects of Sia’s self, in which neither side finds triumph or peace. It’s shattering to watch, but it’s hard to look away.

Last year, Sia performed “Chandelier” on Ellen with her back to the audience and Ziegler dancing front and center. For her performances of “Chandelier” and “Elastic Heart” on the January 17 Saturday Night Live, Sia’s face was covered by a black veil that jutted out like a visor from under her platinum bangs. On “Elastic Heart,” she stood sideways at the microphone, away from the audience, while Ziegler and an older female dancer, both in flesh-colored leotards and Sia wigs, danced-fought around her. The presence of the older female dancer made the warring-selves interpretation much clearer than it is in the LeBeouf video. “Chandelier” was a letdown, though; still veiled, Sia faced the audience, but with a male mime by her side doing a sad clown routine. Seriously, nobody needs to see a mime doing a sad clown routine.

Predictably, Sia’s veiled face launched a thousand Tweets, with complaints like “distraction,” “gimmick” and “Lady Gaga copycat” tossed into the ether. But I’m fine with Sia performing behind a veil or with her back turned while ceding the spotlight to her dancers; it’s a staging that’s almost Samuel Beckett-like in its deliberate confounding of viewers’ expectations about the relationship between performer and audience. By not commanding our attention on her face, Sia is giving us a rare thing in this age where style is everything — the freedom to really focus on her words and voice and to meditate on the painful, ambiguous visions the dancers conjure.

Franz Ferdinand, Live at the Roundhouse, London 2014 (concertlive.uk) Why isn’t this cool and clever Glasgow quartet more appreciated as one of the finest bands working today? I saw their buoyant show when it hit Oakland last year and my mind was blown (also my eardrums, thanks guys) by the sheer number of perfect, thoughtfully-constructed, singable, danceable songs they’ve recorded in their 10-year+ career. I mean, I could listen to “Take Me Out” every day and not tire of its grandly dramatic intro and cunning riff, but there’s so much more. There’s “Michael,” and “Dark of the Matinee,” and “Walk Away,” and “Do You Want To,” and “Can’t Stop Feeling,” and “Bullet” and on and on and on, all of it built to last. Am I the only one who thinks that, in terms of songwriting mastery, they’re the Beatles of their day? Probably. But, yeah. I bought this official boot to confirm my memory that Franz Ferdinand was one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen (non-Springsteen division). It did not disappoint.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

On grief and “Seinfeld”: A Festivus story

My dad and me, channelling Morty Seinfeld and Elaine, 1990. ©Joyce Millman
My dad and me, channelling Morty Seinfeld and Elaine, 1990.
©Joyce Millman

 

Ever since my father died in July, I’ve been watching Seinfeld reruns every night. Oh, I’ve seen the whole series before, nine seasons’ worth, top to bottom. This is different. This viewing feels like compulsion, borders on ritual. Perhaps I’ve discovered a new stage of grief, the one where Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer appear to you in a flickering vision and whisk you away to a land of familiar punchlines, where only happy memories dwell. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Seinfeld has always resonated with me;  it was the first TV show that reflected the particular brand of middle-class Jewish nuttiness from which I sprang. I always thought my family was unique in this respect, until I saw Jerry’s (fictionalized) parents, Morty and Helen Seinfeld, and George’s parents, Frank and Estelle Costanza. It’s true that Costanza isn’t a Jewish surname, but, come on, I know these people. I was raised by these people. The yelling as the default level of speech, the “why me?” melodrama, the obsession with getting a deal — I’m sure I’m related to the Seinfelds, the Costanzas and their creators, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, somewhere in our family trees. How else could the tone of the show’s humor be so closely aligned with the tone of my father’s humor, equal parts sarcastic, warped and silly? My dad was the one who introduced me to Allen Sherman, Nichols and May and the Three Stooges at an early age. I was glad to repay the debt in 1990 when I, Miss Big Shot TV Critic, told him, “You have to watch Jerry Seinfeld’s new show!”

As much as I loved Seinfeld, my dad loved Seinfeld (and David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm) even more. In our weekly cross-country phone calls, we spent more time rehashing Seinfeld episodes than we did talking about real life. Real life, deep soul baring, was awkward. Humor was our preferred mode of communication. It’s possible that we both had an identification with Seinfeld that verged on over-the-top. But who could blame us, when the show hit so close to home?

My father was a perfect blend of Morty Seinfeld and Frank Costanza. Like Morty, he had been in the garment business, was happy to shlep around on the bus rather than pay for a taxi, and he could have been Morty’s wardrobe double in his old man jeans, short sleeved plaid shirts and windbreaker jackets. Like Frank, there were a lot of dismissive “ughs” for dramatic effect, and Frank and Estelle’s bickering over the trivialities of life was an exaggerated version of my parents’ (more affectionate) jousting. I give you this exchange between Frank and Estelle from “The Puffy Shirt” (1993), which I watched the other night:

ESTELLE: Georgie … Georgie, would you like some Jell-O?

FRANK: (Voice rising) Why’d you put the bananas in there?

ESTELLE: (Yelling) George likes the bananas!

FRANK: (Yelling) So let him have bananas on the side!

Welcome to my world, circa 1972.

Perhaps sensing a kindred spirit, my dad was absolutely cuckoo for Jerry Stiller, who played Frank. His eccentric line readings and barrel-chested weirdness sent my dad into fits of laughter, and, mind you, that laugh was high-pitched and uncontrollable once it started. It’s part of family lore that you couldn’t risk going to see a funny movie with Jerry Millman because his spasmodic cackling was going to get you thrown out of the theater.

My father and I were in agreement that the Festivus episode (“The Strike,” 1997) was Frank Costanza’s finest (half)hour. This was the episode where it became clear that Frank was a raving lunatic. His irritably declaimed tenets of the holiday he’d devised as an alternative to Christmas commercialism are seared into my brain: “A Festivus for the rest of us!”; an aluminum pole instead of a tree (“It requires no decorating. I find tinsel distracting”); the traditional Airing of Grievances (“I got a lotta problems with you people. And now you’re gonna hear about it!”).  The fact that Festivus falls on Dec. 23 — my sister’s birthday — made it seem even more like this was our own personal holiday, proof that Seinfeld was speaking directly to us.

For the past three years, I watched reruns of the Festivus episode on Direct TV on the JetBlue flight back to Boston for Christmas. On each of those visits back, there was less and less of the robust, jovial dad I knew. My siblings and I fell back on familial black humor and a Seinfeld-reference-laden shorthand to draw him out. We could always get a laugh out of him with an exclamation of “It’s a Festivus miracle!” or of Frank’s bellowed meditation mantra, “Serenity now!” How deeply is Seinfeld embedded in our family psyche?  The night before my father’s funeral, my brother and sister and I got into a giggle fit talking about the episode where Kramer was giving carriage tours of New York with a flatulent horse called Rusty.

It’s strange. I was numb or stoic (not sure which) at my father’s funeral. I do know that I was relieved, given all he and my mother had been through in the past two years. But it’s only now, in this holiday season, that the heavy fog of sadness is descending on me, hard. I know that watching Seinfeld reruns every night is the equivalent of curling up in the fetal position, but I don’t care, because it brings me bittersweetly close to my dad. Festivus will never be the same without him.

 

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

 

 

The eternal Chrissie Hynde

Courtesy of chrissiehynde.com
Courtesy of chrissiehynde.com

Chrissie Hynde took the stage of San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium on Dec. 2 to a recording of Sam Cooke singing “The Great Pretender.” Glittering in a silver mesh riding jacket, with knee-high boots of an animal-friendly material sprayed over skin-tight jeans, she stood with the white spotlight lending a silver sheen to her hair and bouncing off her dangling metallic earrings. She looked like a goddess poised to throw bolts of lightning.

At 63, Hynde is as commanding a presence as she was on the Pretenders’ first U.S. tour in 1980, all sharp angles and feline grace. She still sashays rather than charges around a stage, she still spits out the lyrics to “Precious” and “Tattooed Love Boys” with a fine-honed contempt that could cut through glass. Throughout her career, she has made tough music about love, sex, rape, abuse, addiction, infidelity, birth, motherhood and mortality. But it’s shot through with a deep vein of tenderness, carried in the dusky beauty of her voice. The shivery vibrato, the way she plays with drama and intimacy, with words sometimes spit like nails, sometimes teased like taffy — nobody sounds like Chrissie Hynde.

At the Masonic, Hynde’s vibrato remained as supple as ever, as she led a new band — called Will Travel, though it featured the guitarist and bassist from the 2008 version of the Pretenders —  through a 100-minute set. The song list was heavy on tracks from her first solo album, Stockholm (2014)as well as a liberal dose of Pretenders’ songs with the emphasis on their first album. But this didn’t feel like an oldies show;  it felt like an artist embracing her past while announcing her intention to not fade away. The Stockholm tracks sounded as bright and current as they do on the CD. Produced by Swedish indie pop musician Bjorn Yttling, Stockholm is a gorgeous showcase for Hynde’s voice, and her Scandinavian collaborators force her out of her comfort zone where melodies and song structure are concerned. She sounds vivacious and dance-floor ready, but still wholly Chrissie, on “Sweet Nuthin,'” “You or No One” and the single “Dark Sunglasses,” all of which she performed at the Masonic.

Speaking of being wholly Chrissie, Hynde is still walking the walk when it comes to her animal rights stance. A PETA table was set up in the Masonic lobby, and notices on the concession areas informed patrons that no meat was being served by request of the artist. There were also numerous signs asking audience members not to use cell phone cameras during the show and to be “in the moment” and not “behind the screen.” Amen to that.  She interrupted a song to scold a camera- wielding audience member who was in defiance of the signs and, oh, how I adore her “don’t fuck with me” face, which always was and ever will be a majestic thing to behold.

But her edgiest move of the night was the surprising (or not) inclusion of the obscure, enigmatic ballad “977,” from Last of the Independents (1994).  Hynde sings “977” with great empathy (both on the record and live) from the perspective of a woman abused by (or maybe engaged in a BDSM relationship with) a male partner. The lyrics equate the violence with intimacy and love (“he hit me with his belt/but his tears were all I felt”). It wasn’t exactly a safe choice, especially as the third song of the night; perhaps it was meant as her take on the current high-profile domestic violence and sexual assault cases in the news. Then again, during “977” I flashed back to that 1980 Pretenders show, and how Chrissie introduced “Tattooed Love Boys” with a remark to the effect of, “This is for all the women who’ve ever been beaten up twice by the same guy.” Maybe the empathetic, un-ironic way she sings “977” comes from a deep place indeed.

By the end of the handful of slow-burning rare and new numbers that opened the show, Hynde had shed her sparkly jacket, picked up her sparkly guitar, and teased the attentive audience (“Scared you, didn’t I? It gets better.”), before launching into “Talk of the Town,” prompting the first stage-rush of the evening.

I can’t remember ever seeing Hynde so chatty and playful. At one point, with the audience on its feet for one of many outpourings of love, Hynde said, “Now, you’re just embarrassing me,” but when, a beat later, a guy yelled out, “You’re beautiful!,” she responded, “All right, keep going.” She and guitarist James Walbourne (who also played a lovely opening set with wife Kami Thompson as the folk duo The Rails) pulled a fast one before “Down the Wrong Way” from Stockholm, when they led us to believe that Bay Area resident Neil Young, who plays signature fuzzed-out guitar on the track, was about to make a surprise appearance. Hynde and Walbourne looked into the wings and called, “Neil?,” before ‘fessing up that Mr. Young was, in fact, not in the house. (In his stead, Walbourne looked like he was having a great time going all psycho on the whammy bar.)

Chrissie even mellowed on those camera phone admonishments near the end of the show, thanking the audience for (mostly) cooperating and then calling out with a smile, “Take one now!” After two encores, Hynde still seemed reluctant to call it a night, returning for a tour premiere of the Pretenders’ beautiful, yearning Christmas song, “2000 Miles.” (A Bjorn Yttling-produced re-recording of the song is set for release next week.)

It was an excellent show, a revitalizing one. But I also found it unexpectedly moving, and I suspect that I’m not the only woman of a certain age who felt that way. Thirty-four years ago, we watched Hynde stand on stage, bangs in her kohl-rimmed eyes, saying “Thank you, girls!” after every song (as opposed to calling the audience “guys”); we watched how her male bandmates deferred to her authority. In that moment, it felt like rock and roll belonged to us girls, truly belonged to us, in a way that it hadn’t before. I felt that way again, seeing Chrissie all these years later, so clearly comfortable in her own middle-aged skin. Still rocking that eyeliner, her lean arms bare beneath a man’s suit-vest, she prowled the lip of the stage in that panther’s glide of hers and crouched over her guitar, throwing lightning with her bare hands.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

Just some guys talking about Bruce

albumbox

Below is a promo video for the forthcoming boxed set of Bruce Springsteen’s first seven albums, which have been remastered on vinyl from the original analog tapes. In the video, a select group of Springsteen’s “most loyal” fans (that’s the wording the official Springsteen website used to introduce the video today) get a sneak preview of the remastered albums and share their thoughts.  Let’s watch, shall we?

Notice something missing?  To recap, the participants who are filmed discussing the new boxed set are, with one exception, middle-aged white guys. There is one younger African American guy and one young white guy who proclaims himself a “vinyl snob”. There is a blonde woman who is quickly seen in one of the first pan shots, but we never see her again and her opinion is not included. There is an older blonde woman in the background when some of the guys are talking, but she never speaks. Oh, and there’s a reflection of a woman passerby in the window of the record shop in the first shot of the storefront where the listening session takes place. Probably on her way to the nail salon down the street.

Look, I don’t know what happened when this focus group was created. Maybe the women spoke, but were edited out for one reason or another. Maybe an attempt was made to invite more women, but everyone had other commitments. Maybe the guys never got the memo that they were each supposed to bring a female Bruce friend. Maybe it’s a truth universally acknowledged that only guys can hear the subtleties of remastered sound quality.

All I know is, if you told me that this was an SNL Video Short spoofing Springsteen’s perceived fan base, I’d believe you. Actually, I’m still hoping it is. Just drop Bobby Moynihan as Chris Christie in there, maybe Taran Killam in a “Born in the U.S.A.” bandanna — boom, instant classic.

I have spent 36 years trying to explain to non-fans how wrong their stereotypical view of Springsteen’s music and his fan base is — the Boss isn’t just for (now, old) white guys, honest!  But, hey, if official marketing material is going to reinforce that stereotype, why should I bother?

The irony is, Springsteen himself has long ago put the image of the E Street Band as a boys’ club to rest. The band has women in it, and their voices were an integral element of the 2012-14 tour. The audience has women in it, now more than ever. And think about these classic lyrics: “So Mary climb in, it’s a town full of losers, we’re pulling out of here to win”; “Come on Wendy, tramps like us, baby, we were born to run.” The Boss never excluded women from the journey, the rock and roll adventure. Which makes our exclusion from this promo all the more glaring. We are in this conversation, whether we’re invited or not.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014