Friday, February 16, 2007

The Apprentice Finally Jumps The Shark

Wow, another show that was once prime water cooler material looks to be on the verge of biting the dust. The Mark Burnett/Donald Trump egofest, The Apprentice, is taking a ratings beating so far in this, its fifth season.
Now, scheduling could be a big part, as the Sunday night slot doesn’t seem well suited for a reality show like this one. I think it goes a bit beyond that though.

Trump seems to be going off the rails. First, he engages in the public feud with Rosie O’Donnell, as each celebrity ego was unable to simply let things go, engaging in a bitter battle via the media. It wouldn’t be crazy to imagine each one perpetuating the feud to pump up the hype for their respective shows.

Watching the current season, with all of the shakeups both he and Burnett implemented, seems to have thrown the show off balance. Gone are the viceroys we had come to enjoy: George, the loveable, crotchety old guy, and Carolyn, the icy businesswoman who saw through every wannabe who tried to feed corporate-speak bullshit to Trump and Co. when defending a lost task. These two seemed to keep teh show somewhat grounded, and more importantly kept Trump from being completely wacky. Gone was the New York scenery, as the show relocated to Los Angeles. Having the losing team each week sleep outside just strips any semblance of a business related experience out the window, and turns the show into some kind of second rate Survivor. Additionally, the tasks have become mundane to the point of being nothing more than a product placement as subtle as a hammer to the forehead.

Trump himself contradicts himself from week to week, sometimes within the same episode. He rails at one winning project manager turned viceroy (another lame “twist” introduced this season) for not being vocal enough in the boardroom. The next week, when another winning PM is in the chair, and knows what happened to the other guy, he calls her out for being a “hard ass” for simply doing what he apparently wanted.

The nadir might have been in the second episode. The winning team that week got the “reward” of visiting the Playboy mansion, and meeting Hugh Hefner. Forget the fact that the team consisted of six women, one gay man, and one straight guy. The sight of a gross octogenarian in a bathrobe, his three girlfriends, interacting with The Donald created a vortex of gross not seen since Playboy After Dark. The best part: Hef tried to impart his business acumen on the eager young professionals. Let’s see, Hef basically banked on the fact that young males would like to buy a magazine and see girl boobies. Genius! Pay attention kids, you might learn something.

It would not be at all surprising to see the show cancelled once this cycle ends, if not sooner. It seems to have run its course, and no amount of messing with the format can change that. Somehow, Trump will spin the failure as a positive event which he instigated, taking credit for pulling the plug while he was still on top or some such nonsense.

Of course, I’m still watching, but then again, I’m an idiot.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Why do people care about this?

Upon learning of the death this week of Anna Nicole Smith, after the news settled in, I found myself thinking of how the news must have reverberated around the halls of a place like, say, the offices at People magazine. I imagine it was something similar to The New York Times after JFK was shot. You know, “drop everything you’re working on and get on this story, stat!”

Smith was not unique in today’s culture of celebrity. By any stretch of the imagination, she didn’t have any particular talent. She was simply a small town girl who was “discovered” in a Wal-Mart or a strip club or some such place. Being physically well endowed, she was able to parlay that into a Playboy layout, etc. From that point on, her life took turns even the most desperate Hollywood screenwriter would find too strange for words. The marriage to the old geezer, the weight gain, the slurred speech laden public appearances, the pregnancy, the death of her son, etc. - all would be dismissed out of hand if pitched by a fledgling young writer. It would simply not be plausible.

Still, despite being a tabloid mainstay, the fact remains that she was not “talented”. She was a “celebrity”, which is a huge distinction. Deeper questions began to rattle around in my head, such as “Why did anyone care what went on in this person’s life?”

Why, indeed?

This culture of celebrity is relatively new, as far as I can tell. I can’t imagine people clamoring to know what Picasso did in his spare time, or writing about who Michelangelo was taking to the orgy. What is it that makes ordinary people care what famous people do when not performing? Is it the fact that you can’t go two steps without hearing or seeing infotainment? In the supermarket while checking out one is bombarded by several publications devoted entirely to the comings and goings of celebs. I’m embarrassed to say that when I’m stuck there I read them too. It’s either that or scan the candy selection and make an unnecessary purchase. If you’re able to avoid that mass of info, you go home, and thwack on the TV. Hmm...not safe here either, as entire channels (E!) are setup to report on this stuff like it’s real news. Dumbed down faux News programs like Inside Edition and Access Hollywood treat any red carpet as if it were a meeting amongst world leaders. What was Jennifer Lopez wearing? Tune in and see!

You keep changing channels, settling on your local news. Ah, some information about stuff and places that are actually relevant to you, right? Wrong – depending on with network which the channel is affiliated, you can expect some promos for an upcoming show, disguised as “news”. There was inevitably be a feature, usually called “people in the News” or something, which goes over the latest celeb stuff. Your favorite newspaper is not immune either, also sporting a section devoted to this information.

The way the word “people” is used sheds some light on this whole phenomenon, doesn’t it? When the magazine started, it purported to be about some ordinary folks like you and me, with celebrity stuff thrown in as well. It has come to mean something more along the lines of People…..who are nothing like you, make more money, live more lavishly, and are just more important and interesting that you could ever hope to be.

I’m not trying to sound like some elitist, really. I admit a casual passing interest in some of this “news”, but I don’t ever find myself seeking it out. There really is no need, as documented above – the “news” finds you (there is a Yakov Smirnoff joke in there somewhere). What I can’t understand is why people see the need to do that. Some theories, straight from the armchair psychologist, are below:

Okay, this one might make a little sense. Our lives are full of everyday drudgery and aren’t really that exciting, so why not look in and see what the so anointed celebrities are up to? Their big houses and party lifestyles are something we don’t necessarily aspire to, but love to hear about nonetheless. Still, when taking to the degree we see today, it's just ugly.

We feel like we know these people, even though we don’t. They come into our homes, ipods, etc. whenever we want. We want to find out as much about them as possible, like we would an actual friend. This starts to border on the creepy if you ask me – I loved Goodfellas, but I don't think Joe Pesci cares what I thought, nor do I feel like I know him. We only know what these people and their handlers want us to know (see, George Clooney was at the Save The Whales benefit – isn’t he a great guy?). When the story inevitably comes out about misdeeds we are shocked, shocked to find that these people aren’t who we thought they were! (O.J., many, many others) The really disturbing aspect is when a person with no discernible talent, like the aforementioned Anna Nicole, as well as Paris Hilton, become people of interest. Their talent is being famous, and it’s a chicken/egg thing after that.

Not sure if that is the right word or not, but….when the 24/7/365 celeb “news” culture reveals every little detail about someone’s personal life, it lends itself to humanizing the celebrity. When the bored housewife stuck in a bad marriage sees that even someone as beautiful, rich and famous as Jennifer Aniston can have martial problems with a beautiful, rich and famous husband like Brad Pitt, well, then she can feel that she and Jennifer aren’t really that different, are they? See, Jessica Simpson struggled with acne and a seemingly storybook marriage gone wrong, just like you! Poor Nick Lachey, he gave her his heart and got dumped!

Whatever the reason, it’s all a crock. The only time in my life where the whole celebrity worship machine seemed to grind to a halt was right after 9/11, which turned the focus back on real heroes, and the spirit of people helping each other. Celebs got involved, but downplayed the whole angle and actually used their notoriety in a positive way, to help raise money for relief. It didn’t take very long for things to return to normal. Caring about nothing important became one of the things mentioned that helped get America back to normal. Sigh.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go check out E!, they’re about to run a new special, 100 Biggest Fashion Faux pas on the Red Carpet, or something like that. I have some ideas about what will be #1, but I’ll probably kill myself before we get that far.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Classic Album Corner

Under The Big Black Sun

X burst on to the LA punk scene in 1980 with their raucous debut album, Los Angeles. The follow-up, 1981’s Wild Gift was a critical smash, but alas never received the nationwide airplay it deserved. Calling X a punk band seemed to be a bit of pigeonholing to me – they were at the core a rock band who played at faster tempos. For one thing, the songs of X had actual melodies, unlike much of the hardcore punk from that era. The vocal interplay between then husband and wife John Doe and Exene Cervenka was unlike any other band of the time. The fact that each record was produced by former Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek lent the group a bit of credibility in the “rock” world. (though it was funny to read a letter in Rolling Stone in ’81 or so which decried the current state of music, specifically mentioning a photo of Ray on stage with X that appeared in an earlier issue, which the writer described as “Ray Manzarek playing with some New Wave band”). Give me a break, writer, this band could “rock” circles around the dinosaur acts of the era like The Who, were were retiring, and corporate bland crap like Styx and Journey. (This will have to be an entirely different post, but I do not understand the current wave of nostalgia for Journey. They sucked then, and they suck now, and the passage of time has not changed anything, at least in my eyes. Who enjoys this passionless garbage?)

In early 1982, X made the leap and was signed to a major label, Elektra. This kind of step was often seen as selling out by the hardcore members of the punk scene, but for X it seemed to be the next logical step – they had accomplished everything possible on indie label Slash, and were ready for the big time. If they could garner wider acceptance without compromising their sound (always the most difficult thing for a band to do), everyone would be satisfied.

My first exposure to the group came in early September of 1982. I knew of the band, but no radio station on the East Coast was playing them, so had never actually heard any of their songs. While watching the Jerry Lewis telethon (hey, I was working the late shift, and not much else was on in those pre-cable days), I saw them be introduced by Mr. Lewis. I was thrown for a loop – this was what major labels forced bands to do? I can only imagine the reactions from many of the older folks in the audience and watching at home when Exene took the mic and began to sing. She was really the only member of the band who could be classified as having an odd appearance – the other male members of the band, Doe, Billy Zoom and DJ Bonebrake, looked like very straight arrow types. They performed “Blue Spark”, from their new major label debut record Under The Big Black Sun, and they killed. I was immediately hooked, and wanted to hear more. I ran out the very next day and bought the record. Really, I ran. I was not disappointed, as you can probably tell.

The record kicks off with a bang, as “The Hungry Wolf” launches with Zoom’s powerful lead guitar riff, backed by the steady pounding drums of Bonebrake, and we’re off and running. Doe and Cervenka share the vocals on just about every song, at various times singing with each other, against each other, or one behind the other. This was one of the things that made X’s sound so unique.

While death is a theme which permeates the record, it would be a mistake to assume that X was a dark band obsessed with goth images, etc. As the liner notes indicate, Exene’s sister Mary was killed the previous year in a car accident, and the songs which allude to her are more mournful than anything else. “Riding With Mary” is the most direct, playing off the same name as the Saint while sporting the couplet “The next time you see a statue of Mary/ Remember my sister was in a car”. “Come Back to Me” is a poignant, slow song performed solely by Cervenka, as one imagines it should have been. The rest of the record rocks as hard as ever, even their cover of an old Leadbelly tune “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes”, and grows on the listener with each play.

X followed in 1983 with More Fun In The New World, which also failed to reach the critical mass Elektra had hoped for, though a cover of “Breathless” got a little attention. The band later explored a return to Roots based rock, hooking up with Dave Alvin of the Blasters (eventually making him a member after Zoom’s departure).

To most hard core X fans, Under The Big Black Sun is not even their favorite record (Wild Gift usually get that distinction). For me, there was just the magic of one’s first exposure to a band that makes that particular record the one listened to and cherished the most.

The album was reissued in 2001, and is available on iTunes.
X (AllMusic)

For All 24 Fans

If you watch 24, then damn it, you will love this.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Does Anyone Remember The Laughter?

The evidence mounts each day that I am rapidly becoming an old fart. To wit, as I was driving home with my daughter the other day, the game of radio bingo unfolded. Most of the time, I’ll switch to the Top 40 station when she’s in the car with me, and even tough I’ll be subjected to garbage like Fergie (whom I absolutely cannot stand), they toss in enough Green Day and some Emo to keep me quiet. I dare say that Justin Timberlake, of all people, has grown on me. (Hey, c’mon, he did bring sexy back, after all). Good Lord, what is happening to me?!

On occasion, like during commercial breaks, we both start poking the presets. In my car, they range from one station which will play rock (older and newer) to a classic rock station which to my knowledge has no awareness that the 90’s even happened.

During one of these button surfing exchanges, we stumbled upon “Stairway to Heaven”, the Led Zeppelin classic. My daughter had never heard it. “Well, you’re in for a treat!” I said. Once she heard the song was over seven minutes, she bristled. In her world no song lasts that long. Also? When was it going to speed up?

Try this some time. Try explaining the significance of a song to someone who has never heard it before. It would be like my mother trying to convey just how big Benny Goodman was back in the day. I’d listen, but just wouldn’t understand what the fuss was about.

I told my daughter that this song, for whatever reason, is the most popular Zeppelin song of all, for reasons I still don’t understand. (Personally, it wouldn’t even be in my Top 20 if I were to rank all Zeppelin songs). I went on to explain that every time a radio station did one of the “Top 500 Songs of ALL TIME” countdowns, this always came in at #1. How it was played at every Middle School dance, and the kids went wild, even though dancing to it was virtually impossible. How every stupid boy would be able to air drum and air guitar every single moment of this song, while demonstrating the same on my steering wheel as we headed home. To frame Zeppelin, I had to mention that the guy playing the wailing guitar was the same guy who played on Puff Daddy’s “Come With Me”. To her credit, she didn’t roll her eyes and think me an idiot, at least not outwardly. I love that kid!

Someday, she’ll be in the car with her kid, and will have to explain the cultural significance of “Hips Don’t Lie” or "Fergalicious", and I can’t wait to hear how that conversation goes.