Entertainment | The Atlantic
Why Saturday Night Live Is Actually Going Live
March 27th, 2017, 01:21 PM

In its 42 seasons, Saturday Night Live has been hosted by politicians and world leaders, has spun off countless films and television shows, and has served as America’s flagship sketch-comedy series. There’s one thing it hasn’t done, though—aired live for the entire country. For all these years, SNL has been live at 11:30 p.m. Eastern and 10:30 p.m. Central Time, then showed on tape delay for viewers in the Mountain and West time zones. That’s because the later time slot has been of paramount importance to the show’s longevity and ratings success. But for its final April and May episodes this season, SNL will be live for all American viewers.

This season of SNL has been a ratings powerhouse, beating every network offering except for The Big Bang Theory in the “key demo” (viewers aged 18-49) as its political satire and guest appearances by Alec Baldwin and Melissa McCarthy have captured the public’s attention. That kind of viewership is especially impressive considering audiences today tend to be happier binging shows online later or catching up on their DVRs. SNL is that rare non-sports, non-news broadcast show that works better if you actually watch it live, especially now that social media freely “spoils” the best laughs for viewers on the West Coast. So why not grant that experience to viewers across the U.S., even though it means some will have to tune in earlier?

Of course, for most of SNL’s long history, it didn’t really matter that California viewers saw the show more than an hour after the live broadcast had ended, since word couldn’t spread that quickly. But in an era of Twitter and Facebook, it’s been amazing to see how quickly the online reaction to a sketch can calcify within minutes of its airing. There was already a backlash to the initial David S. Pumpkins backlash brewing by the time the sketch reached the West Coast. Meanwhile, the shock of realizing McCarthy had dropped by unannounced to play Sean Spicer was half of the fun—fun that much of the country didn’t get to enjoy.

This is not to say that all SNL viewers are on their phones on a Saturday night—but more are every season, and the sacred 11:30 p.m. time slot has increasingly become less important. This may be hard to believe now, but when SNL premiered in 1975, Saturday was one of the biggest ratings bonanzas on the TV schedule—that’s when hits like The Jeffersons, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Starsky and Hutch, All in the Family, and S.W.A.T. aired. But over the years, it’s become devoid of proper programming, leaving the 8:30 p.m. prime-time slot (where SNL will air in the Western time zone) wide open.

Traditionally, shows that air later have been associated with more irreverent and risqué humor; SNL has always had that “late-night” branding, and has been more willing to push the envelope on NBC’s content restrictions. Airing at 8:30 p.m. Pacific Time (9:30 p.m. Mountain Time) may dilute that idea, but it’s quite old-fashioned for a TV show to have any kind of identity associated with its time slot. Many Americans watch “late-night” clips at their office desks during workplace hours now, and “adult” HBO classics like The Wire or Oz are available to stream at the touch of a button.

SNL’s experiment is a smart one—the only question now is if it’ll be permanent. The show only has five episodes left this year, and the final four will broadcast live around the country. They’ll be hosted by Jimmy Fallon (April 15), Chris Pine (May 6), Melissa McCarthy (May 13), and Dwayne Johnson (May 20), though for some reason the April 8 episode hosted by Louis C.K. will follow the old format. The time shift could be a temporary gimmick, but it probably shouldn’t be. If the solid ratings hold despite this change, the 43rd season of the show may be the first for which Saturday Night Live is true to its name.

The Soul of Big Little Lies Is in Its Music
March 27th, 2017, 01:21 PM

The latest Big Little Lies episode begins like a lot of Big Little Lies scenes do: with an Apple device being used to cue up a song. This time, the song is the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” and the occasion is an impromptu living-room party of gradeschoolers and parents. Viewers see Ziggy Chapman (Iain Armitage) and Chloe MacKenzie (Darby Camp) grooving around while Chloe’s parents Madeline and Ed (Reese Witherspoon and Adam Scott) film them and then get in on the dancing themselves; we hear an iconic bassline and wah-wah guitar building excitement and tension.

But that same song plays as the camera cuts to Ziggy’s mom Jane (Shailene Woodley), who’s been pulled over by police for speeding, her mind racing after her having visited a man she thought might have raped her. As the episode progresses, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” recurs again and again. That’s because Ziggy has become obsessed with it, watching the Temptations on an iPad while on the way to school and practicing a dance routine when at home. But presumably there’s also an artistic reason the show keeps playing this tune: It helps illustrate Jane’s inner agitation.

HBO’s stylish miniseries of mansion porn and murder is shaped by music on a few fascinating levels. Within its tony setting of Monterey, California, characters are constantly plugging in earbuds, practicing choreography, humming in the car, dabbling on the piano, and recommending tunes to one another. For viewers, song plays the traditional TV role of manipulating emotions (with a mysterious mood for each episode set through the title sequence’s snippet of Michael Kiwanuka’s 10-minute soul-rock song “Cold Little Heart”). But music seems to be doing something bigger, too: serving as a thematic tell, a grand metaphor for how volatile forces underlie placid exteriors.

The director Jean-Marc Vallée and the music supervisor Sue Jacobs have hit on a novel approach to TV music. There’s no composer for Big Little Lies, and it has no orchestral score. Instead, pop songs—rock, soul, R&B, tending toward classic-radio picks—intrude consistently. And a large percentage of this music is, in one way or another, diegetic: When the audience hears a song, that often means someone in the show is hearing it, too. But once a track has been introduced into this world by a character, Vallée freely cuts to characters elsewhere in the world for striking tonal juxtapositions.

With this approach, most characters end up becoming associated with one or two theme songs. Sometimes it’s a simple thematic match: the fatherless Ziggy getting down to “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” his deeply scarred mom singing along to Martha Wainwright’s “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole,” the abused Celeste (Nicole Kidman) listening to Irma Thomas’s ballad of painful love, “Straight From the Heart.But in other cases, characters will use music to influence others. For example, Chloe plays Leon Bridges’s “River” a lot, but she does it to foster affection—between her parents, or Ziggy and his schoolyard maybe-rival Amabella (Ivy George).

Chloe herself is the otherworldly, beyond-her-years spiritual DJ of Big Little Lies. In the show’s very first scenes, she announces that she wants to one day be the head of a record label, and she guesses correctly that Ziggy is named for a David Bowie character. Later, she counsels her dad to pick an obscure Elvis Presley tune to perform at the upcoming fundraising gala. The biographical source of her expertise isn’t yet clear—maybe it won’t ever be. But her love of music seems like a beacon of simple, positive passion in a show otherwise defined by darker, more complex desires. Her personality and Ziggy’s name are signs of a matchup between the power of music and the nature of childhood.

For adults, the relationship with music isn’t always so pure. In an uproarious dinner party scene from Sunday night’s episode, Madeline misidentifies the Sade tune that her ex-husband’s new, worldly wife Bonnie has cued up, asking “Is this Adele?” The faux pas suggests that taste is yet another status signifier in a community obsessed with them. Madeline does care about music, though—not for its coolness factor but for its ability to be an outlet for thwarted ambitions, as seen in her push to mount Avenue Q. Meanwhile, the entire Monterey village is revving up for the aforementioned fundraiser. The theme is Audrey Hepburn and Elvis Presley, arts-and-culture icons leveraged for social climbing and—as we know because of the show’s flash-forward framing device—murder.

Six out of seven episodes in, the message of Big Little Lies seems to be that savage forces shape even the most mannered people and places. Idyllic marriages and unassuming individuals hide violent or sexual secrets; cute kids in well-tended classrooms inflict bruises out of sight. Pop music is often thought of as a social force and a cultural glue, but many of these headphone-encased characters seem to have profoundly solitary relationships with their songs—relationships that remind you of how the history of pop music is a history of primal screams, whether of lust or anger or ecstasy. As the show’s music supervisor Jacobs explained to Vulture, “Big Little Lies is dark and has a very dark story at its core. Yet on the surface, it all looks so beautiful.”

Big Little Lies’s music also matters for demonstrating a special approach to small-screen storytelling. As television has increasingly allowed for high-gloss yet experimental art, it has developed a relationship with music that once only movies had. If there’s to be another John Williams or Hans Zimmer, it may well be someone like Ramin Djawadi, the scorer of HBO’s Game of Thrones and Westworld. Yet Big Little Lies brings some prestige back to the recognizable-pop-playlist tradition most associated with The OC. Though you can sing along with most of the songs here, what matters—as with the show’s characters—is that which can be felt but not said.

When the Cliffhanger Takes Its Sweet Time
March 27th, 2017, 01:21 PM

“Somebody’s Dead.” That’s the title of the first episode of Big Little Lies, the limited series, starring Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Shailene Woodley, currently running on Sunday evenings on HBO. The title, for a show that is exceptionally subtle—especially in its depiction of the dramas and mundanities that shape its central women’s lives—is exceptionally unsubtle. But it’s also appropriate: Somebody, on this show, is dead. Somebody has been, indeed, murrrrrrdered. And we won’t find out who—and whodunnit—until, it seems, the very last episode of the series’s seven-episode run.

Big Little Lies isn’t alone in posing a pivotal question at its outset and then waiting a long—a teasingly, tantalizingly long—time before revealing the answer. Riverdale, the teen drama nearing the end of its first season on the CW, also uses its first episode to set up a murder mystery that will remain mysterious long after that episode concludes, thus ensuring that the soaptastic show features, underneath it all, some simmering moral tension. Missing Richard Simmons, the controversial podcast that just concluded its six-episode arc, teased several different theories, from the mundane to the tragic, as to why Simmons has disappeared from public life. This Is Us, the mega-popular NBC family drama, recently wrapped up its first season not by answering the question it had heavily hinted it would answer, in its season finale—how one key character comes to die—but instead by pivoting to answer other ones.

What’s the opposite of a cliffhanger? Tension, suspense, mysteries presented and then left deliciously unsolved—this is all the longstanding stuff of televised dramas, ported over from serialized novels and soap operas to guide the plots of shows that have their own literary aspirations. Cliffhangers themselves (the term arose from Thomas Hardy and his preference for unsubtle plot twists) are time-honored narrative devices, and when executed well they have proven extremely effective at sustaining audience interest and attention and frustration. Dickens used cliffhangers. So did Dallas. So have many, many shows, of the past both distant and recent. (Who just got shot on Designated Survivor? Did Jesse really do it? Where is Alicia going? Is Jon Snow dead?)

Shows like Big Little Lies, though, are offering another spin on that age-old storytelling trick: The suspense they create, rather than finding satisfaction in the next episode or season, stretches over time. Their cliffhangers involve not so much people hanging off mountains as they involve people simply hanging out. They are in no rush. Their mysteries dangle, languorously. Tension is created, and then, instead of being satisfied, it … extends, episode after episode, building and heightening. In 2015, my colleague David Sims noted that “America’s patience for long TV layovers, it seems, has significantly waned.” These shows are adapting accordingly. During a time when shows are watched not just episodically, but also, often, in one binge-happy burst, the classic cliffhanger—the stuff of J.R.’s shooting and Captain Picard’s Borg-napping—is undergoing a very particular kind of permutation. It’s building tension and drama via suspense that is, itself, suspended.

It’s a twist that has been long in the making. Extended cliffhangers (cliffstayers? cliffhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaangers?) have animated some of the most narratively powerful works of television of recent years; they have helped to heighten the tension in shows like Breaking Bad (how low will Walt go?) and Serial (did he do it?) and Quantico (did she do it?) and True Detective (who did it?) and Lost (who are they? where are they?) and, in general, pretty much any sitcom that has ever featured, simmering just below its surface, some will-they-or-won’t-they sexual tension.

What’s especially notable about the recent shows that are employing the device, though, is that they’re locating the tension in one (unanswered) question. They’re operating in direct opposition to the way traditional cliffhangers were primarily used: between installments, between episodes, between seasons, in the interstitial spaces that might otherwise find a story’s momentum stalling. Big Little Lies and Riverdale and This Is Us and all the rest are taking the specific narrative logic of “Who shot J.R.?” and flipping it: The tension here exists not necessarily to capture audience interest over a show’s hiatus (although, certainly, there’s a little of that, too), but much more to infuse the content of the show at large with a lurking mystery. Things simmer rather than boil. The cliffhanger is less about one shocking event with one central question, and more about a central mystery that insinuates itself over an entire season (and, sometimes, an entire series).

It’s a strategy that allows, at its best, for extremely nuanced storytelling. Big Little Lies is compelling for many reasons, but one of them is that death dances all around the show’s picturesque edges. “Somebody’s Dead” is an episode title that doubles as a backdrop to the show’s shots of crashing waves and looming cliffs. The idyll is made monstrous, from the very beginning; the tension comes in knowing that the monstrosity won’t come to its full conclusion until the show does. Who’s dead? Why are they dead? You must, dear viewer, wait and see.

In all that, you could also read the anti-cliffhanger cliffhanger as a kind of meta-narrative gesture of respect to a show’s audiences—both despite and because of the way the device teases them. In a 2012 New Yorker essay, the television critic Emily Nussbaum, discussing the cinematic and soap-operatic origins of the televised cliffhanger, argued that cliffhangers are much more than easy tension-ginners. They are also devices that lay bare, she suggested, the relationship between the producer of a show and the consumer. “Primal and unashamedly manipulative,” Nussbaum wrote, “cliffhangers are the signature gambit of serial storytelling. They expose the intimacy between writer’s room and fan base, auteur and recapper—a relationship that can take seasons to develop, years marked by incidents of betrayal, contentment, and, occasionally, by a kind of ecstasy.”

Cliffhangers’ inverses do something similar, but for opposite reasons. They acknowledge the viewers, and the intimacy of the creator/consumer relationship; they also, however, toy with it. The writers of Riverdale have anticipated that fans will mine the clues they provide to try to figure out for themselves, ahead of time, who killed Jason. The writers of This Is Us know that keeping mum about that key death will stoke, in their viewers, the same kind of delicious agony Breaking Bad audiences felt when Jesse, shaking and shocked at himself, aimed that gun at Gale. The creators understand that, in a world of time-shifting and binge-watching, classic cliffhangers still have their place; they also understand, however, the power of extending that ecstasy. They understand, as well, that sometimes the only thing more compelling than a mystery solved is a mystery that—aaaaaaaaaaaaah—simply refuses to be.

PBS's To Walk Invisible Finds Fire in the Lives of the Bronte Sisters
March 27th, 2017, 01:21 PM

When it comes to the Brontë sisters, questions—and mythology—abound. How did three relatively sheltered women, the daughters of a priest living in rural Yorkshire, write some of the most passionate and proto-feminist novels of the 19th century? To Walk Invisible, a two-hour drama airing on PBS on Sunday, touches on the fascinating contradictions of the Brontës, focusing on the three-year period when the sisters determined to publish their writing as a means of self-preservation. Aware of how they would be judged as women entering a man’s realm, they elected to use gender-neutral pseudonyms, so they could, as Charlotte explained in a letter, “walk invisible.”

To Walk Invisible is written and directed by Sally Wainwright, the creative force behind the BBC’s Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley. Like Happy Valley, a gritty drama about a forceful female police sergeant that’s developed an ardent American fanbase on Netflix, it draws much of its mood from the sullen bleakness of the Yorkshire landscape, suggesting a hostile, imposing environment that fosters strength in some and despair in others. In both dramas, Wainwright explores women forced to endure familial hardship: In the Brontë family, the burden is their brother, Branwell, whose descent into alcohol and drug addiction coincides with—and possibly spurs—the literary success of his sisters.

To Walk Invisible, though, takes a more abstract, fragmented approach. In the opening scene, the four surviving Brontë siblings are literally seen as children with fiery halos burning over their heads to represent their creative potential. They conjure live characters from a box of toy soldiers and engage in fierce, screamed games in their family home. Then, abruptly, the action shifts to the middle of the 19th century, where Branwell (Adam Nagaitis) has returned in disgrace from a teaching job after having an affair with his employer’s wife. As the sisters deal with his self-destructive behavior, and with their father’s (Jonathan Pryce) increasing frailty, Charlotte (Finn Atkins) discovers poems written by Emily (Chloe Pirrie), and decides publishing their work is the only way of securing the family’s future.

The drama’s undeniable strength is its three female leads: Pirrie, Atkins, and Charlie Murphy as Anne Brontë, who find great depth in their three different characters, and their complex bonds. Pirrie’s Emily is ferocious and mercurial, running the household with a matter-of-fact steeliness that belies moments of profound compassion for her siblings. “When a man writes something, it’s what he’s written that’s judged,” she says acidly, while the three sisters are considering their pen names. “When a woman writes something, it’s her that’s judged.” Murphy’s Anne is a peacemaker and Emily’s confidante, who nevertheless breaks with her sister when their integrity is questioned. Atkins’s Charlotte is quiet and reserved, but also the most ambitious of the three. When her publisher doubts that she’s really the Currer Bell who wrote Jane Eyre, she fires back, “What makes you doubt it Mr. Smith? My accent? My gender? My size?”

Wainwright draws compelling drama out of the sisters finding their literary talents, like superheroes discovering their powers for the first time. When Charlotte rifles through Emily’s possessions to find her hidden poems, the music swells and her face alters perceivably as she reads them, overcome with emotion. There’s comedy, too, when Charlotte confesses to her father that she’s written a book, and he assumes it’s another homemade manuscript in her “tiny little writing,” rather than the colossal success Jane Eyre had become—a book so powerful critics were calling its author “complicit in revolutions across Europe.”

That the sisters are so intriguing is what makes To Walk Invisible’s heavy focus on Branwell so frustrating. Clearly, Wainwright wanted to draw parallels between the era of the Brontës and modern-day Yorkshire, still rife with drug and alcohol abuse that devastates communities. Nagaitis allows Branwell flashes of sympathy, but he is, from a beginning, a lost cause, enabled by his father as he terrorizes his household. His violent and self-pitying decline spurs his sisters’ desire for self-determination, but it also distracts from their more remarkable story. There are fleeting hints of the thwarted romance for Charlotte that inspired Mr. Rochester, and of the village gossip that sparked Wuthering Heights, but Branwell ultimately receives more attention than any of the sisters individually, even as his path is, tragically, the most predictable.

But To Walk Invisible succeeds by humanizing the Brontës to an unprecedented extent, hinting at how their isolated and turbulent home life might have nurtured a capacity for creativity and imagination that resounded in all three women. Shot against the wild backdrop of the Yorkshire moors, it’s a strikingly different kind of costume drama. In the drama’s strange conclusion, Wainwright jumps forward in time to the modern-day Brontë Parsonage Museum, a clumsy but well-intentioned reminder of how powerful these sisters’ legacy would become.

Chuck Berry and Drake: The Week in Pop-Culture Writing
March 25th, 2017, 01:21 PM

Chuck Berry Was the Sound of 20th Century America
Stephen Thomas Erlewine | Pitchfork
Chuck will be a coda to a career that's already legend, but it may also confirm a simple truth about Chuck Berry’s art: He didn’t change his music but he did adapt with the times. He wound up documenting his era and, in turn, created the idealized version of 20th century America, from coast to shining coast. He captured all the gilded glory of the terrain, the inventions, and the people while also hinting at the darkness that lies within these borders.”

Dave Chappelle’s Intimate New Netflix Specials Are Brilliant
Justin Tinsley | The Undefeated
“Race is a constant in both The Age of Spin and Deep in the Heart of Texas—the sun in Chappelle’s comedic solar system. For three decades now, the gravitational pull of his views on racism, sexism, and bigotry have morphed crowds of fans into cult-like congregations, and comedic bits into mandatory gospels.”

How Dancehall-Inflected Is Drake’s Album More Life, Really?
Eddie “Stats” Houghton | The Fader
“At the heart of the question of ownership is the question of what’s been invested. Drake surely has not paid down quite the same stakes in having ‘chunes for your headtop’ or getting ‘blem’ as a youth in Kingston (or London). But even if he talks about what he does have at stake in ways that self-consciously reference the waves of pan-Caribbean immigrants that have actually given his hometown ‘more life,’ it doesn’t make his experience—a reimagined and more rootless connection to blackness—any less valid.”

The NBA’s Secret Addiction
Baxter Holmes | ESPN
“No matter how you slice it, it's hard to swallow: The NBA is covered in experts, obsessed with peak performance—and still this pillar of grade-school cafeteria lunches is the staple snack of the league. An exorbitantly wealthy microclique, backed by an army of personal chefs, swears by a sandwich whose standard ingredients boast a street value of roughly 69 cents.”

Female Trouble
Tausif Noor | The Los Angeles Review of Books
“[Mary] Gaitskill and [Ottessa] Moshfegh’s characters aren’t friends in the traditional sense, but that’s because they aren’t characters that invite the typical one-dimensional feelings of empathy or pity. In this way, they illustrate perfectly a feature of the human condition that is often overlooked: that of self-interest, and the way self-interest manifests between and among people. The characters deftly sidestep the conundrum of ‘likeability’ that women (and women authors) the world over have been subjected to care about. Rather, they occupy a world from which they feel uniquely disjunctured, but by which they are continually buffeted.”

Missing Richard Simmons and the Queasiness of Deep-Dive Entertainment Journalism
Sarah Larson | The New Yorker
Missing Richard Simmons, like Serial and the documentary Making a Murderer, has raised serious questions about the ethics of deep-dive entertainment journalism that investigates current real-life mysteries. When millions of people tune in to shows that expose the minutiae of real lives of real people in something like real time, the subjects’ day-to-day lives can change dramatically, and forever, through no intention of their own. Simmons caught a bit of heat, but the genre is burgeoning, and will continue to.”

Why Porn PR Is Rarely About the Porn
Lux Alptraum | The Verge
“These days, sites like Pornhub make splashy announcements about shooting porn in space or plowing streets overrun with snow, only to largely abandon these efforts as soon as the earned media value has run out. For many people— especially beleaguered members of the press exhausted by press releases announcing things like Pornub-branded lube, Pornhub promoting the cause of pet sterilization awareness, and a service nobody wants that involves texting emoji to receive porn—porn promotion doesn’t do much to challenge the adult industry’s reputation as a seedy business with a primary focus on immediate gratification.”

Wandering New Orleans After Seeing It From the Stage
Dessa | The New York Times Magazine
“No place wears gravity as beautifully as New Orleans. Spanish moss, tinsel and strands of colored beads drape over trees, street signs, statues, people—anything and anyone not fast enough to escape ornamentation. Gold ribbons are tied to handlebars, braided into horses’ manes and woven through the filigree iron balconies that stand like sheets of weaponized lace. The unrelenting abundance doesn’t even feel man-made—decorations pile on themselves like lichen, or like snow.”

The Price of Neverland
Molly Lambert | MTV News
“For [Michael] Jackson, idealizing the myth of the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up was tied to the feeling that he had been robbed of a normal childhood when his stage father pushed him and his siblings into performing as a way to escape crushing poverty. That they succeeded so spectacularly allowed Jackson money and power with which to approximate an idyllic, carefree childhood world of climbing trees and spending hours playing aimlessly—experiences he'd never had as a child whose free hours were spent rehearsing.”

Kendrick Lamar Will Battle Until the Apocalypse
March 24th, 2017, 01:21 PM

“The Heart Part 4,” the song Kendrick Lamar posted online Thursday night, sounds like a preview for two things. One is the acclaimed Compton rapper’s fourth album, whose release date may or may not be tipped in the final line “Y’all got till April the 7th to get ya’ll shit together.” The other is the apocalypse.

“The whole world goin’ mad / Bodies is adding up, market’s about to crash,” Lamar raps. After listing some signs of civilizational decline including “whites that do the dab,” Lamar mentions Donald Trump (“a chump”), Russia (“y’all up to somethin’”), and “electorial votes” (“look like memorial votes”). Things are seeming sketchy, but Lamar counsels, “Tell 'em that God comin'.”

God is always coming in Lamar’s songs. His first two albums, Section.80 and Good Kid, M.A.A.D City were grounded in narratives about surviving gangs and drugs and police scrutiny in Compton, then 2015’s jazz opus To Pimp a Butterfly and last year’s EP-sized untitled.unmastered saw him exploring more allegorical realms. But throughout the phases of his career, catastrophe has loomed. 2010’s one-off “The Heart Part 1”—which today’s track is a sequel to—invoked the Mayans’ prophecy about the year 2012. To Pimp a Butterfly closed with a recording of Tupac predicting a brutal race war.

The specter of Revelations informs a lot of Lamar’s music, including the traits on display in the thrilling, unpredictable “The Heart Part 4.” There’s the frantic energy ever-present in his voice, the way the beat and flow repeatedly mutates as if there isn’t enough time to fit in all of his ideas, and the continual focus on reconciling his material success with his suspicion that wealth, the hip-hop world, and America itself is touched by the devil. That final tension has increasingly come to the fore in his work, including on this song.

“The Heart Part 4” is widely being talked about as a nettle of subliminal thorns against other rappers, prime among them Drake, whose latest release Lamar now threatens to overshadow. “Don’t tell a lie on me / and I won’t tell the truth on you,” Lamar sings in the chorus, interpolating James Brown. Two verses and one beat switch-up in, he starts describing an unnamed rapper who (ironically, perhaps) is “tiptoeing” around Lamar’s name, begging forgiveness in private after seeming to throw shade in public. The boasts here are excellent, with a fun countdown (“One, two, three, four, five / I am the greatest rapper alive”), insinuations of messianic status, and a mention of the “difference between accomplishments and astonishments.”

Longtime fans will realize that these ego-driven, rap-world mind games were exactly the sort of thing he warned against in “The Heart Part 2”: “We used to beefing over turf, fuck beefing over a verse / Niggas dying, motherfuck a double entendre.” Yet Lamar’s work is so exciting in part because he barrels headlong into contradiction, indulging the earthly and then describing the spiritual toll he pays for doing so. “I ain’t sanctified enough to say that I won’t shoot ya,” he raps today, which is to say that until the world ends he can’t help but battle.

The Atlantic’s Week in Culture
March 24th, 2017, 01:21 PM

Don’t Miss

The Enduring Legacy of the Pocahontas MythGregory D. Smithers delves into the history of misperceptions of the Native American icon, which continue to shape the cultural image of indigenous peoples today.


James A. Finley / AP

Music

Remembering Chuck BerryDavid A. Graham looks back on the career of the rock ’n’ roll pioneer, who died at the age of 90.

More Life Is Another Smart Career Swerve for DrakeSpencer Kornhaber parses the significance of why the Toronto rapper’s new music is called a “playlist” rather than an “album.”

Kendrick Lamar Will Battle Until the ApocalypseSpencer Kornhaber unpacks the Compton rapper’s newest song  “The Heart Part 4,” which hints at a fourth album and also takes aim at rivals.

Drake’s Playful More Life and the Limits of AmbitionSpencer Kornhaber listens to the rapper’s latest, globe-spanning project.

The Timely Comforts of Craig Finn’s We All Want the Same ThingsSpencer Kornhaber reviews the Hold Steady singer’s new album.


ABC

Television

Sympathy for the Con ManEmily Harnett examines the evolution of the trickster figure in American pop culture from the 1840s to contemporary TV shows and movies.


Jaap Buitendijk / TriStar / Sony

Film

T2 Trainspotting: Older, Scarcely WiserChristopher Orr revels in the nostalgia of the new sequel to Danny Boyle’s 1996 cult classic.

Netflix Believes in the Power of ThumbsDavid Sims weighs in on the streaming service’s new ratings method, which ditches the five-star system.

‘It’s a Homecoming Film’: Danny Boyle on T2 TrainspottingChristopher Orr chats with the English director about his new movie, the original cult classic, and Brexit.

Daniel Clowes on Creating Wilson and Translating Him to ScreenDavid Sims talks to the legendary cartoonist about turning one of his most irascible protagonists into someone who could be the hero of his own film.

Power Rangers Is Exactly as Silly as It’s Supposed to BeDavid Sims notes that the big-budget reboot of the ’90s kids TV show never takes itself too seriously.

Life Is a Fun and Scary Creature Feature in SpaceDavid Sims watches the new horror film from Daniel Espinosa starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, and Ryan Reynolds.


Doug McLean

Books

When a Writer’s Great Freedom Lies in ConstraintJoe Fassler talks to the memoirist Melissa Febos about an Annie Dillard story that helped refocus her life after overcoming addiction.


AP

Podcasts

The Ethical Minefield of Missing Richard SimmonsSophie Gilbert considers the dangerous intrusiveness of the hit new podcast.


Nomad Soul / Igor Lateci / Shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Media

Selling What They PreachMegan Garber analyzes a trend in brands like Amazon and Starbucks that are making claims not just about what people should buy, but about what people should be.


EA Games / BioWare

Video Games

Mass Effect: Andromeda Is More About Choice Than StoryDavid Sims plays the latest entry in the beloved video-game series.


Rich Pedroncelli / AP

Sports

March Madness, Plus Future NBA StardomRobert O’Connell explains how the men's NCAA tournament offers the broader public an early look at likely professional draftees.

Life Is a Fun and Scary Creature Feature in Space
March 24th, 2017, 01:21 PM

Any reasonable creature feature worth its bones should have, on balance, about half a dozen scenes where a character makes a patently illogical decision. Just discovered a new form of ancient alien life? Give it some zaps with a cattle prod, just to see what happens. Now you’re fighting an alien enemy in an enclosed space station? Break out the flamethrower! Running low on fuel? Definitely vent everything you have left in an effort to startle the creature, even when it doesn’t work the first three times. If the film is scary and chaotic enough, every bad choice will act as a link in a chain, building to a satisfying crescendo of mayhem that the audience has secretly been rooting for all along. Life isn’t perfect—you probably won’t remember it after three months—but it does exactly that.

Daniel Espinosa’s horror film is set in space and has some ostensible sci-fi trappings, as it’s centered around humans’ first encounter with prehistoric Martian life. But the movie might as well take place in an underground cavern or a fantasy dungeon, since its two-fold premise is fairly universal: The heroes are trapped in a gilded tomb from which they may not escape, and the monster they’ve awakened is stuck in there with them. Life is gross, full of startling jumps, and is well-performed by its nicely stacked ensemble. In other words, if you’re looking for a competent Alien knock-off or just a way to kill a couple hours, you could do far worse.

Set on the International Space Station, Life sees an appropriately global cast retrieve a probe from Mars that contains special samples from the planet. British scientist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) revives the frozen, microscopic organism, which gets named “Calvin,” an appropriately stern, theological namesake for mankind’s first extraterrestrial encounter (though Calvin quickly turns out to be more of a cartoonish mischief-maker). At first, Calvin seems friendly enough—even though he grows quickly, he resembles little more than a translucent muscle, a gooey bit of tissue for Hugh to prod with his lab tools.

But as you might have already guessed from the film’s R rating and the amount of f-bombs being dropped (mostly by the energetic Ryan Reynolds, who plays the crew member Roy Adams), this isn’t an E.T.-esque, family-friendly film. After a lab accident seems to drive Calvin back into hibernation, Hugh tries to wake him up with electric shocks; Calvin responds by growing in size again, wrapping his shiny tentacle body around Hugh’s hand, and crushing it. It’s at this point that the dominoes start falling—that the level-headed crew starts panicking in their efforts to save their friends and contain the threat—and Espinosa kicks the action into a high gear he never shifts down from.

The rest of the cast includes Jake Gyllenhaal, as the ISS’s twitchy pilot David Jordan; Rebecca Ferguson (so luminous in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation) as the “quarantine specialist” Miranda North; and the great Japanese star Hiroyuki Sanada as the composed scientist Sho Kendo. Sanada is a familiar face for the “doomed space mission” movie—he was the stoic captain of Danny Boyle’s severely underrated drama Sunshine—and he brings appropriate gravitas to a film that’s otherwise heavily reliant on its heroes screaming in pain and distress as Calvin continues to grow and impose his strangling terror all over the space station.

As a threat, Calvin is even less complex than the skittering face-hugger in that great work of sci-fi horror Alien (to which Espinosa is clearly indebted). Even as Calvin becomes larger, he remains a slippery tendril who creates havoc merely by squeezing his targets (and, if he’s feeling really ambitious, jumping down their throats). Given that, it’s impressive just how much inventive, gory fun Espinosa and his screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (both of whom worked on Zombieland and Deadpool) have with Calvin. As the action proceeds, the plot switches from “How do we kill this thing?” to “How do we make sure it never touches Earth’s surface?”

Even as the characters continue to make silly, human mistakes in their efforts to keep Calvin from getting bigger and invading new parts of the station (spoiler: He keeps doing both), it’s hard not to sympathize. Gyllenhaal, slightly slumming it in serious-B-movie territory, is particularly suited, giving Jordan that haunted-weirdo vibe the actor so specializes in. He makes Jordan’s near-suicidal efforts to keep Calvin from crashing the ISS onto Earth feel strangely personal, rather than abstractly noble. All in all, Life is exactly what you’d expect—a bit of nasty, energetic horror that ends on a darkly satisfying note—but that’s an increasingly rare quality for a big-budget studio film these days.

The Timely Comforts of Craig Finn's We All Want the Same Things
March 24th, 2017, 01:21 PM

When Craig Finn returned from college in Boston to Minneapolis in 1994, he developed a very particular preoccupation. “I just remember thinking the whole trick of this is going to be, ‘I can’t get a DUI,’” the Hold Steady singer recently told Steven Hyden for Uproxx, adding that he realized that the guys he saw riding bikes around town weren’t necessarily doing so “for exercise.” He sings about this period in his new song “Preludes,” in which he recalls, “I got stuck in a snowbank / I was too drunk to drive to Edina.”

As a cheerful rock arrangement laden with flutes swirls around him, he adds, “Right there is proof of my faith that God watches us.”

The miracle of crashing into a snowbank is exactly the kind of miracle Finn talks about throughout We All Want the Same Things, his third solo album since his rambunctious lit-rock band made him an indie star in the mid-2000s. We All Want the Same Things is an album about comfort—the comfort of grace in tough times, and the comfort that broken people can provide to each other. As always, Finn blurts out proper names, drug references, and working-class signifiers, but the raise-your-beer choruses that made him famous are nowhere to be found, replaced by stories that are unusually compact, gentle, and fable-like. Bolstered by the producer Josh Kaufman’s shimmering arrangements that blend chamber pop and Joshua Tree-era U2, the short, elegant album contains some of Finn’s best work since 2008’s Stay Positive.

The autobiographical “Preludes” is an anomaly on the album and in Finn’s catalogue; mostly, he sticks to invented characters. Usually it’s a boy and girl—or rather, now, a man and a woman, years older than the “hoodrats” who populated the Hold Steady’s early albums. The opener “Jester & June” arrives with a galloping-and-shaking beat and seems to tell one of Finn’s typical tales of scoring sketchy substances from sketchy characters (“the creepy kid at the car wash,” “the guy with the Dracula cape”)—but then it’s revealed that what we’re hearing is decidedly in the past tense. Jester and June are just called Justin and Jane now. As Finn’s narrators reminisce about their rowdy youths, the drums drop out and a guitar figure twinkles: a classic pop-punk pre-chorus stretched to something longer and dreamier. The old days may have been dangerous, but the memory of them clearly provides warmth in the now.

Seeking warmth in a wintery now is the mission throughout We Want the Same Things. For the midtempo piano rocker “Ninety Bucks,” he sings from the perspective of a woman planning to go back to school to finally complete her medical-assistant training. But since the semester doesn’t start till the fall, she’ll keep getting high a little longer with someone named Nathan, who she repeatedly calls her “only friend.” The Hold Steady’s Tad Kubler adds in a dissonant guitar solo late in the song, but otherwise the vibe is upbeat and playful. “The question is whether Nathan really is her only friend,” Finn writes in the press notes, but really all that matters is what she feels is true.

A similar story—“a relationship based on convenience,” per Finn—keeps getting told throughout We All Want the Same Thing, with varying degrees of ache, comedy, and uplift. There’s a beautifully cresting wave of krautrock and woodwinds for “Birds Trapped in the Airport,” where one likely junkie thanks another for companionship even if both may not be long for this earth. The very good bar-room shuffler “Rescue Blues” describes a guy in debt striking up a secret codependency with a woman enjoying her dead husband’s accident insurance payout; though he knows his “stupid tavern friends” would laugh at him taking advantage of her widescreen TV, Finn’s narrator insists that there’s something “pure” to the situation. The materialist gender dynamic of that song is flipped on the even-prettier, Cranberries-esque “Tangletown,” where a waitress and a rich divorcee both seem to be getting something useful from hook-ups that other people might call transactional.

The starkest and most stunning version of this sort of narrative comes on “God in Chicago,” where Finn’s risky decision to use spoken-word succeeds thanks to his poetic concision and a note of exhaustion in his voice. The characters are a dead guy’s sister and his college-dropout friend; they take a trip to sell off the deceased’s stash of drugs and end up sparking a connection. The escape into bliss with another person amid grief is like the aforementioned drunken crash into a snowbank—it evokes the divine. “I felt God in the buildings,” Finn says. “The light from the skyscrapers showing up in the river.” Happily-ever-after doesn’t come, but happy in the moment is no small thing.

The album’s unifying title and the fact that Finn has long been a chronicler of the Midwestern white working class might lead to some expectations that this effort would have political dimensions under Donald Trump—and it does, sort of. He’s said that the people in his songs probably vote differently than he does but that he wants to show the inherent human experience both sides have in common. And throughout these tales, personal struggles occasionally suggest a broader kind of struggle. During one musical outpouring of exuberance, Finn sings of “birds trapped in the airport / And the boats in the bath / All the guns in the movies / The premonitions of crashes.” It’s one person’s post-traumatic stress, but it could be a whole society’s.

A similar metaphor is at work on the closing track “Be Honest,” in which the main character’s body is described over warm piano keys and a slow beat as “an outpost for ideas that didn’t work / A nation failed and broken.” In the album’s final moments, Finn completes the work of stitching together a large narrative and a much smaller one: “If revolution is really coming then we all need to be well / So maybe it’s just best if we both take care of ourselves.” He’s naming one of the things the “we” of the album title all want: peace even amid turmoil.

T2 Trainspotting: Older, Scarcely Wiser
March 24th, 2017, 01:21 PM

The last time we saw Mark Renton, in 1996’s Trainspotting, he was “choosing life.” He was going to be “just like us.”

Well, maybe not just like us. He had, after all, stolen £16,000 that he and his three best mates had scored in a heroin deal. But apart from that minor bit of drug-related larceny and personal betrayal, he was going straight. Maybe.

A lot has happened since then. For starters, the actor who played Renton, Ewan McGregor, has gotten to play, and then ceased to play, Obi-Wan Kenobi. More to the point, McGregor has returned to play Renton again in T2 Trainspotting, the director Danny Boyle’s follow-up to his breakthrough film. After a two-decade stint in Amsterdam, Renton has come back to Edinburgh to face the friends he ripped off all those years earlier. And now he’s being pursued by the Terminator-1000, a shapeshifting robot made of liquid … .

No wait, sorry. Wrong T2. In fact, Renton is being menaced by a far more frightening and implacable killer, Francis Begbie (Robert Carlyle). The most violent and irascible of Renton’s old mates, Begbie has been serving a prison sentence for murder. But after being denied parole once again (“They think I’m one o’ those cunts from the Bible gonna fucking live forever?” he declares with customary eloquence), he contrives to release himself on his own recognizance.

Renton’s other old mates are up to their usual mischief as well: Spud (Ewen Bremner) is still a junkie, now buying smack from kids half his age; and Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) having shifted from heroin to coke, is running small-time, prostitution-and-blackmail cons with a Bulgarian woman, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) whom he—but no one else, including her—considers to be his girlfriend.

Unlike the original Trainspotting, which was largely episodic and held together principally by McGregor’s brilliant voiceover, T2 has the rudiments of a plot: Sick Boy and Veronika are trying to scam a government loan in order to turn the wretched pub he inherited from his aunt into a cutting-edge “sauna” (i.e., brothel), and various of the other mates wander into and out of the scheme. As before, there is an “opportunity” followed by a “betrayal”—a sequence Boyle says mirrors his own troubled history with star McGregor.

There are countless witty callbacks to the first film: an updated yet familiar soundtrack (featuring a remix of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life,” made iconic by Trainspotting’s opening sequence), a Renton grin into the windshield of a car he’s just fallen off, and a cunning cameo by Kelly Macdonald. Sick Boy’s pellet rifle makes a reappearance, as does Renton’s boyhood train-car wallpaper. We get a glimpse of what is almost certainly the second-worst toilet in Scotland (although there’s a far better bathroom-stall scene yet to come). And inevitably, Renton offers a variation on his “choose life” speech, though one more appropriate to where he finds himself at age 46: “choose unfulfilled promise … choose never learning from your mistakes … choose disappointment.”

And there is, of course, plenty of history for the lads to work through, beginning with the fact of Renton’s having stolen all that cash last time around. There are remembrances, too, of those who didn’t make it: their friend Tommy, Sick Boy’s infant daughter. There’s even a quiet nod to David Bowie.

But time waits for no one, least of all a bunch of punk kids. Edinburgh is put to much greater use than in the first film—in which the boys spent most of their time locked away in heroin-space—and the city has grown up even if they haven’t, now full of students and Eastern Europeans. (A sharp gag has Renton met at the airport by kilt-wearing Slovenian girls announcing, “Welcome to Scotland.”) As elsewhere, though, the widening schism between cosmopolitans and non-cosmopolitans is in clear evidence. Perhaps the movie’s best scene takes place in a Glasgow pub full of angry, anti-Catholic nationalists or, as the film describes them with uncanny timeliness, “the folks that have been abandoned by the political class.”

But mostly Boyle is content to wind his characters up and let them bounce off one another. And thank goodness. Befitting the age of its protagonists, T2 lacks the urgent, anarchic energy of its predecessor. But Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge have lost none of their eye for style or ear for dialogue. And the cast inhabits their long-ago roles as if they’d never taken them off. The result is a film nowhere near as revelatory as Trainspotting, but in some ways more satisfying, the proper closing of a tale that had been left open-ended.

“You’re a tourist in your own youth,” Sick Boy tells Renton at one point in the film. T2 Trainspotting offers compelling proof that there are far worse things to be.

March Madness, Plus Future NBA Stardom
March 24th, 2017, 01:21 PM

March Madness gets a charge from its immediacy. The NCAA basketball tournament, now rounding through the second of three weekends, is a single-elimination event, so every game means everything. A win signals survival—for a few more days—and a loss brings the end not only of a season but also of certain college careers. The stakes couldn’t be higher, nor could the outcomes be starker.

So that’s one reason to watch: to pin your hopes to a favorite team or a labored-over bracket and wish for the best. The tournament holds a secondary appeal, though, for fans with an eye to the longer-term: It shepherds future NBA draftees into the national spotlight. Since the league instituted a rule in 2005 raising its minimum age threshold to 19, almost every big-name American prospect spends at least a year in the college ranks. March doesn’t mean all that much, generally, to their ultimate outlook—professional scouts have pored over countless hours of game film by the time the tournament comes around—but it gives the larger public an introduction. It’s essentially a crash course in the stars to come.

This March’s crop of talent is better than most. Notably absent is Markelle Fultz, a dynamo point guard for the University of Washington and the presumptive first overall pick in the upcoming draft; his team failed to land a Madness invite. But the other principals of what has been called one of the best and deepest NBA draft classes in recent memory have been out in force. Arizona's 7-foot, sweet-shooting center Lauri Markkanen spent his first weekend on the national stage draining three-pointers before the Wildcats lost to Xavier Thursday night. Kansas’s versatile Josh Jackson has blocked shots, thrown down dunks, and sent deft passes to every corner of the court. Even as the heavily favored Duke fell to South Carolina in the second round, its freshman star Jayson Tatum scored 15 points and held onto his can’t-miss status; he officially declared for the draft days later.

NBA forecasting gives March a helpful B-story, and Friday evening that plotline figures to come to a head. The Sweet 16 matchup between UCLA and Kentucky will feature three players considered possible top-10 picks and two more who will likely be selected in the first round of June’s draft. UCLA’s kid wizard Lonzo Ball, who will likely be the second pick after Fultz, is the headliner, but he’s joined on the marquee by Kentucky guards Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox, the former a dead-eye shooter, the latter maybe the fastest player in all of college basketball.

These stars have already made their imprint on the tournament. In the final minute of Kentucky’s second-round victory over Wichita State last Sunday, Monk blocked a pivotal shot, and as time ran out, his fellow freshman Edrice “Bam” Adebayo blocked another one. UCLA beat Cincinnati later that night largely thanks to Ball’s team-leading 18 points and 9 assists; the 19-year-old played a come-from-behind second half with the opportunistic calm of an NBA veteran. “He has a great feel for the game,” UCLA head coach Steve Alford said of Ball after the game. “Not good. Great.”

That’s the type of praise that was once given to heady seniors, not soon-to-split freshmen, and it highlights a shift in college basketball that not all fans welcome. The sport is increasingly a stopover, at least at its highest levels—a spot for future millionaires to touch down for one requisite season. The college stints of Ball and Monk will, someday soon, likely seem like little more than footnotes to their NBA careers.

One of the joys of the tournament, though, is that experience still has its say. Kansas’s Frank Mason guides the Jayhawks as a senior and the likely national player of the year; Gonzaga’s top-seeded team is full of third- and fourth-year players. Come next weekend’s Final Four, there will still be plenty of fodder for the soft-toned pregame stories TV networks adore, highlighting the dutiful growths of freshman backups into upperclassmen leaders.

In the meantime, March Madness’s middle section has a prognosticatory thrill. Casual observers might not be familiar with all the youngsters in Friday’s UCLA-Kentucky showdown, but they’ll quickly learn, as Fox does 100-meter dashes up the sideline and Ball bends space with crosscourt passes. A couple of the featured players could soon join the likes of Stephen Curry and LeBron James and become household names. And the tournament, so treasured as an event unto itself, will also have been for them a sort of start, the moment when they first stopped in to say hello.

Selling What They Preach
March 24th, 2017, 01:21 PM

A recent ad for the InterContinental hotel brand, a lush video set in London, features an interview with Kathryn Sargent, the first woman master tailor to open her own shop on Savile Row. “The whole experience of making a beautiful garment for someone,” Sargent tells the camera, as she expertly marks a piece of wool, “empathy is at the heart of that.” The video is titled, for YouTube purposes, “Stories of the InterContinental® Life Presents: Empathy—A Bespoke Connection”; it is accompanied by the “Rewards of Empathy” episode of InterContinental’s podcast, which features another discussion with Sargent and culminates in, as the episode’s notes put it, “a chat with a pair of philosophy experts about the rewards of empathy in our daily lives.”

Hotelier, atelier, the Rewards of Empathy—you could, certainly, question whether an observation about suits makes full sense as an observation about society. But that, of course, would miss the point. “Empathy” has been ported over from psychology and moral philosophy to become an ethic of the moment not because of its literal meaning (strictly, the experience of—and the ability to experience—the feelings of others), but because of its broader connotations, in a time so anxious about civility, and inequality, and inclusivity, and ethno-nationalism: To invoke “empathy” is to insist that the stuff of human connection will triumph over the stuff of everything else.

Which is probably why it is being used, so commonly, to sell stuff—and why InterContinental has a good deal of company in its attempt to reap the Rewards of Empathy. Apple concluded a recent ad with a call to “open your heart to everyone.” Starbucks capped its “Year of Good” TV spot—a commercial that quantifies all the social good the company did over the year 2016, from the hiring of 8,000 veterans to the funding of more than 300,000 ethically sourced farms—with an entreaty to “Be Good to Each Other.” Amazon touted the human-connective capabilities of its vast warehouse (and the religious pragmatism of kneepads) by featuring a priest and an imam playing out a wordless, piano-tracked version of a modern-day O. Henry story. Hyatt featured scenes of people initially divided, suspicious of each other, until, as the tempo of “What the World Needs Now Is Love” crescendos, they come together, joyously, as the tagline “For a World of Understanding” pops up onscreen.

It’s a sentiment shared by another recent ad, one whose voiceover insists to its viewers, “We can be one. And all it takes is the willingness to dare.” It was an ad for Cadillac.

* * *

Heady promises, warm feelings, better things for better living—it’s on the one hand the extremely typical stuff of ads, so longstanding an element of commercial messaging that we can safely assume that Neanderthals, once they realized they could rent out space in their caves, spread the news about Lairbnb via grunted renditions of “We Are the World.” But when InterContinental summons the InterPersonal to sell its hotel rooms (or when Cadillac summons the same to sell cars; or when Expedia airs ads celebrating the aiding of refugees; or when Honey Maid, maker of graham crackers, airs spots promoting cross-cultural understanding; or when Panera, the fast-casual purveyor of Bacon Turkey Bravo® Sandwiches, adopts as its tagline, “Food as It Should Be”), what is being invoked is not merely blithe aspiration, cultural ideals fit to be transformed into corporate profits. The ads are, instead, profoundly political. And they are explicitly moral. They are making claims not just about what we should buy, but about what we should be.

And so, this moment of anxiety and creativity and cultural fracturing and political engagement and political apathy has brought a slight plot twist to the long and winding story of American advertising: It has gone and grown a conscience. The commercials that are ascendant at the moment are selling not just what ads so long have—power, prestige, beauty, glamour, sex—but also, more broadly, a vision of how those things can serve society. They are substituting claims about what is desirable for claims about what is right. They using their particular bully pulpit to moralize and sermonize and offer up, in the end, that most American of reassurances: that a better world can be achieved, because a better world can be bought.

* * *

The global ad firm J. Walter Thompson recently conducted research into Americans’ attitudes toward commercial brands that take stances on political issues. In a cross-generational group of respondents, 88 percent agreed with the firm’s proposition that corporations have the power to influence social change; 78 percent of them agreed that companies “should take action to address the important issues facing society.” And Millennials were particularly pro-action. As Lucie Greene, the worldwide director of the Innovation Group at JWT, summed things up to me: “In these times, actually, it’s becoming more important for brands to take a point of view.” Not just because brands have the power to effect change, but because people want them—expect them—to use it.

It’s an insight on display in ads that conclude with entreaties to “open your heart to everyone”; it’s also on display in the spate of recent commercials that have functioned as overt (if also sometimes covert) political advocacy. During the 2017 Super Bowl, Airbnb aired a spot—and an accompanying hashtag—featuring a series of different faces flashing onscreen as a background to text that read: “No matter who you are … no matter where you’re from … who you love … or who you worship … we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept.” That ad aired on TV around the same time as the Budweiser commercial that celebrates immigration. And the 84 Lumber ad that (maybe?) did the same. And the Audible ad that features Zachary Quinto reading a line from Nineteen Eighty-Four: “If he were allowed contact with foreigners … the sealed world in which he lives would be broken.”

The spots are subtle in their messaging; they operate with enough ambiguity to allow for a kind of plausible deniability. (“We all belong” is both stridently argumentative and, seen in another way, entirely meaningless.) But the ads are doing what JWT’s research suggested brands should do, to win converts: They’re taking a stand, and an expressly political one. It’s hard not to interpret the Amazon ad featuring the priest and the imam, wordless though it may be, the way The Daily Beast did: as “a total repudiation of Trumpism.” It’s hard not to read something similar into Samsung’s Super Bowl ad for its virtual-reality technology—the one that aired VR footage of Donald Trump’s inauguration followed immediately by footage of the women’s march on Washington. And the Expedia spot that follows a woman around the world, as she aids refugees? The company arranged the ad’s premiere, tellingly, to drop during CNN’s coverage of the new president’s inauguration.

This is a moment of pervasive political awareness in American life: Politics, and more specifically political conversation, are infusing pop culture, and high culture, and commercial culture. During a time that finds late-night variety show hosts doubling as advocacy journalists and sitcoms airing episodes that grapple explicitly with Donald Trump’s presidency, it’s perhaps unsurprising that self-consciously commercial messages would follow suit. JWT’s report hints at a broader truth: To be relevant in America, right now—whether you are an artist or a journalist or a copywriter at Wieden+Kennedy—will often demand explicit engagement with American politics. In that sense, it makes sense that commercial messages are putting the “ad” in “advocacy.” Of course the CEO of a fast-casual bakery chain sees fit to declare, “If you share our values and share that philosophy, then yeah, come on in.” Of course a Starbucks ad, starring a Marine veteran who is now employed as a barista, culminates with the reminder not just to “Be good to each other,” but also to “Be 🇺🇸  to each other.”

* * *

It is a truth universally acknowledged, and then silkscreened onto a t-shirt you can buy on Amazon: Everything—politics, protest, feminism, the ephemeral warmth of interpersonal connection—will get commercialized, in the end. We buy the products; we are the products; that those two facts are intimately bound up in each other is part of the agreement American culture has made with its unique kind of capitalism. Brands will be #brands, and all that; Starbucks serving extra shots of empathy along with its caramel macchiatos is in one way simply another extension of the #brand-being.

It’s notable, though, that morality-via-marketing is trending during a time that has also brought “fake news” and “alternative facts” and general epistemic panic to the minds of many Americans. Public faith in “the media” and its institutions is, at the moment, extremely low, in some part expressly because that media and its institutions have engaged in the kind of subtle sermonizing these ads are now engaging in. And companies, at the same time, are more powerful than ever: Facebook has more users than the most populous country in the world. Its CEO has recently been talking like a presidential contender. “It used to be that brands, by definition, tried to play it safe, or be apolitical,” JWT’s Lucie Greene told me. Now, she said, “we’re looking to brands to be some sort of port in the storm.”

We used to look to other things to anchor us as the world churned. And we still, to some extent, do. But what does it say about us—the “us” that the commercials assure us we still can be, together—that brands are now helping to fill that role? What are we to make of ads that engage in the kind of discourse once reserved for pulpits and art and books and op-ed pages? When marketers act as arbiters—of goodness, of rightness, of us-ness—does that suggest something profoundly optimistic, or profoundly cynical, about what it means, at this moment, to be 🇺🇸  to each other?

Here’s a case for optimism: You could see such commercials as responses to a situation that finds Americans more politically empowered than they have ever been before. Susan Strasser, a historian of American consumer culture, told me that while, on the one hand, today’s expressly political ads have a long precedent in the U.S.—see Kellogg’s co-optation of Roosevelt’s Square Deal in 1913—they are also, at the same time, very much of their time. They take for granted the fact that today’s citizens can make their voices heard not just at the voting booth, and not just at the protest march, but also on social media. People can easily, and instantly, become part of a movement or a boycott. (As Strasser pointed out, “We’re all pretty quick to say, right now, ‘Yes, we’re going to Nordstrom,’ and ‘No, we’re not doing Uber.’”) So while brands can shape public opinion, in the way #brands have always shaped public opinion, they are also shaped by it. Producer and consumer describes an economic reality; it also describes an economic tautology.

That mutuality—the expectations people have for companies not just to sell us things, but to sell us ourselves—helps to explain the new trendiness of ethical sourcing, and fair trade, and the rise of the b-corp, and Chipotle’s decision to print literature on its burrito bags. It also helps to explain why empathy itself has become so popular of late, as a commercial ethic as well as a moral one—a fitting corollary to authenticity and inclusivity and other aspirations that are helping to shape the culture of the moment.

Empathy is with us not just in ads, but also in subtler ways, through snack bars announcing, “nice to meet you, we’re KIND®”; and social scientists researching whether reading fiction can engender empathy; and socially conscious coders spending time in “empathy bootcamps”; and Mark Zuckerberg vowing to go on an empathy tour of the country—the 2017 version of a “listening tour”—following criticisms of fake news’s complicity in the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Michael Schur, the creator and showrunner of the NBC sitcom The Good Place, told The Times that he wanted the series to explore how to live one’s life in a “self-sacrificing, empathetic way.” An episode of the new podcast Missing Richard Simmons featured a long meditation on the connections between empathy and therapy, attempting to coin the term “empathist” in the process. The American Girl franchise recently released the WellieWishers, a collection of dolls distinguished visually by their wearing of rain boots, but rhetorically by the fact that they are, as the company’s website puts it, “a sweet and silly group of girls who each have the same big, bright wish: to be a good friend.”

* * *

It’s become something of a cliché to compare this American moment, fraught and fractured as it is, with the 1960s. Some of the chaos of those years, in the United States, arose from television and the particular kind of empathy it enforced: Here, for the first time, were scenes of war, moving and real, brought to people’s living rooms. Here, too, were grave injustices and the protests against them, rendered in sound and image rather than text alone.

And here, at the same time, were companies grappling with how to sell things both through and in spite of TV, during a time that found many Americans deeply yearning to transcend their desire for things themselves. While the counterculture of the American ’60s seemed to be defiant of American commercial culture of that time, the journalist Thomas Frank has argued, the two were in fact deeply intertwined—so deeply, Frank writes in his 1998 book The Conquest of Cool, that the counterculture gave rise to “a new species of hip consumerism, a perpetual motion machine in which disgust with the falseness, shoddiness, and everyday oppressions of consumer society could be enlisted to drive the ever-accelerating wheels of consumption.”

It was during this time that Volkswagen, automaker of Nazi Germany, was cannily rebranded with ’60s-friendly insouciance through a series of ad campaigns that emphasized irony, and knowingness, and a wink-nudge approach to car-buying. It was during this time, as well, that Avis ran ad copy reading, “They’ll probably never run this ad.” And that Chivas Regal breezily informed potential customers, as they browsed the pages of Life magazine, “Don’t bother to read this ad.” It was a time in which the real-life Don Drapers of war-weary America—jaded, canny, hungry—realized they could harness the era’s widespread mistrust of consumerism to encourage, yes, rampant consumption.

So that’s the more cynical read on the ads of today, messages that smarm and tug on heartstrings and generally put the “sell” in the celebration of human connection. You could read Apple and Amazon and Airbnb and their ilk as being engaged, just as their predecessors were, in a kind of purposeful collusion. You could place them on the through line that gave American TV audiences of the 1960s footage of hand-clasping hippies singing upon a hilltop, their thirsts quenched by Coca-Cola, and, later, that gave viewers of the 1980s spots that invoked Orwellian philosophy to sell personal computers, and, later, that found “Benetton ads” serving as shorthand for a world desperate to see itself reflected in its commercial media. You could group them, too, with the recent Campbell’s ads starring a toddler and two doting fathers (hashtag: #realreallife), and Kohl’s ads using an interracial, same-sex couple as their models, and Mattel ads featuring a boy playing with a Barbie doll, and Oreo, master of social media, making waves (and gaining fans, even those who don’t enjoy chocolate or “creme”) with its “pride cookie.” You could see them all as progressive messages that share a convenient conviction: that the right side of history can often double as the more lucrative side of history.

And you could read the ads as reflections not just of their cultural moment, but also of their technological one. While the counterculture of the ’60s came about in part because of technology—the television, that cool medium that became so very heated—the 2017 version of that era’s love-ins and be-ins has arisen in part, perhaps, because of our own technological revolution: the one that has come by way of the internet and its communications platforms. Blogger and Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Snapchat and the like are technologies of, yes, empathy. They have given people unprecedented access to each others’ inner lives. They have meant that a country that was recently bowling alone is now also bowling with everyone, at once. Companies understand that. And they are using that understanding to do what companies always will: to make profits.

So, yes. Here is kindness, commodified. Here is that old standby of the classic ad campaign, the clever tagline—“Tastes great, less filling”; “Takes a licking and keeps on ticking”; “Breakfast of champions”; “Don’t bother to read this ad”—replaced with more broad-minded entreaties toward empathy. Here is the logic of “Just Do It,” transformed from a vaguely libertarian message into a vaguely liberal one: “We All Belong.” And here are marketers recognizing that, while a diamond may be forever, even more enduring is the ineffable human connection that has allowed hunks of carbon to be invested with romantic allure in the first place. Love isn’t just “what makes a Subaru, a Subaru.” It’s also a mechanism through which advertising can exert its influence.

In 1951, the ever-prescient Marshall McLuhan released The Mechanical Bride, a collection of essays about the increasingly powerful advertising industry, grouping it with the increasingly powerful news media. The subtitle of his book was Folklore of Industrial Man. And it was, of course, a fitting one. Ads are the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves. They are nakedly self-interested, which is also to say extremely honest. So when InterContinental insists that buying a hotel room doubles as an endorsement of empathy, that is revealing—not just about the brand, but about the rest of us. Just as it’s revealing when so many other commercials make the same rhetorical move. If the broad cultural struggle of the 1960s was the preservation of the individual against the threats of conformity, the struggle of the current moment is, perhaps, the preservation of community against the threats of individualism. Ayn Rand is all around. Selfishness tempts and taunts. Empathy is the easy and obvious solution—the moral rebuke—to that. And Hyatt, after all, is completely correct: What the world needs now, as always, is love, sweet love. The question is what it says about that world, and its current occupants, that a hotel brand is the voice trying to remind us of that.

The Ethical Minefield of Missing Richard Simmons
March 23rd, 2017, 01:21 PM

Richard Simmons, by his own account, and by the accounts of his brother, his manager, his publicist, and officers in the Los Angeles Police Department, is fine. The former home-fitness guru and television personality is not being held hostage by his housekeeper, nor is he suffering from debilitating depressive episodes. But he does want to be left alone, to live quietly and privately, out of the public eye. Which makes the conclusion of the podcast Missing Richard Simmons—which released its final episode early on Monday—so perplexing. “I can’t say that Richard feels better as a result of the podcast,” Simmons’s manager, Michael Catalano told the podcast’s host, Dan Taberski. “Perhaps you do. I think you’ve really created more worry and speculation.”

This heightened focus on a subject who’s repeatedly expressed a desire for privacy is an odd thing for someone who describes himself as a personal friend of Simmons, as Taberski does, to initiate. It also speaks to the wobbly lines defining exactly what Missing Richard Simmons is: part documentary series, part gossip column, part intervention from a purportedly concerned acquaintance, all done in the most excruciatingly public way possible. Taberski, a producer who previously worked on The Daily Show, doesn’t seem to think of himself as a journalist, but he undertook journalistic work in investigating why Simmons might have decided to recede from public life, interviewing family, friends, and hardcore fans over the course of several months. He ambushed Simmons’s brother at his home in New Orleans. He showed up uninvited at Simmons’s own house, asking to see him, and was turned away. (“I’m creepy. I’m a creepy friend,” he confessed during the stunt.)

Taberski did all this seemingly without wondering what effect it might have on his subject to be thrust back into the public eye, three years after he deliberately withdrew from it. He rehashed questions about Simmons’s sexuality, his mental health, and the rumor that he was transitioning from male to female. He weighed his subject’s desire for privacy with his own desire for information and closure, and decided that the latter was more important.

Only Simmons can ultimately conclude whether this makes Taberski a bad friend. The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics, though, offers fairly definitive proof that he’s broken numerous reportorial rules. The six episodes of Missing Richard Simmons are instructive in that sense, showing someone unused to reporting grappling with allegations and counterallegations, trying to shape a story that keeps changing in real time. They demonstrate how quickly media has evolved—how virtually anyone with a cellphone can become a broadcaster of news, or a filmmaker, or a reporter. But they also prove that figuring out how to minimize harm along the way is a lot more complex.

* * *

Missing Richard Simmons sets its own tone right away. Taberski, not much of an exercise guy by his own admission, recalls how he grew up watching Simmons goof around on TV, sampling interviews Simmons did with David Letterman and Ellen DeGeneres. In adulthood, after learning that anyone could exercise with Simmons at his “rickety one-room studio” in Beverly Hills, Taberski pays $12 for a class, where things take a strange turn. “In less than 30 minutes,” he recounts, “I find myself bare chested, surrounded by step-clapping, middle-aged women, as Richard wipes the sweat off my torso with my t-shirt, and then shoves it down his shorts. The entire class is 90 minutes of that.”

Taberski is an engaging and absorbing storyteller, conveying a sense of Simmons’s manic and all-encompassing charisma, as well as his documented eccentricities. He recalls how he and Simmons became friendly, and how they had dinner at his house, where they seriously discussed Taberski making a documentary about him. Then, in less than four minutes, he gets to the point. On February 15th, 2014, Simmons didn’t show up to class. This happened again the next day, and the next, until after months of his not showing up and not responding to messages from his numerous devotees, it became clear that he wasn’t coming back.

“Three years ago to the day, Richard Simmons completely and inexplicably stopped being Richard Simmons, and I want to find out why,” Taberski says—as clear a mission statement as he’ll offer. His primary motivation, he explains, is that getting to know Simmons only stoked his existing fascination with him. Plus, he adds, there’s the fact that people are worried about him.

As framed, it certainly seems like a remarkable story. What could compel one of the most outgoing personalities in American media to abruptly become a recluse? While Simmons isn’t the first celebrity to shun the spotlight, the suddenness of his shift—from courting the cameras to wanting to be alone—was striking. Then, there are the more salacious allegations that have swirled around Simmons since they were reported in a Daily News story in 2016—claims from his former masseuse, a Brazilian artist named Mauro Oliveira, that Simmons is being held as a virtual hostage by his controlling housekeeper, Teresa Reveles.

There is, however, still the question of consent. Simmons, up until the last three years, was indisputably a public figure, but all his actions since have indicated his desire to be a private citizen. “Just because Richard Simmons was a flamboyant and bold public figure, doesn’t mean he needs to remain that way throughout the entirety of his life,” Katy Culver, the director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told me. “If ... he just decided enough was enough and he wanted to retreat, that’s a decision he gets to make; that’s not a decision a podcast author gets to make for him.”

Taberski states that he was pitching Simmons on a documentary project about his life. Simmons, presumably, either declined to be part of such a project, or stopped responding to queries about it. And then Taberski went ahead with it anyway. “I had decided to start shooting it as a documentary project, shooting it myself,” he told Vogue’s Julia Felsenthal. “I was just too curious and there were too many people who were worried about him. I met with the people at First Look Media who produced Spotlight, Citizenfour. They said, oh, this is a podcast.”

But does it also qualify as journalism? Culver thinks it doesn’t matter. “I try to avoid putting that label on things,” she told me. “I’m a big fan of the argument that we’re in this time where there should be an ethics of public communication, not just an ethics of journalism … All of us have the means to publish, so we all have the responsibility that goes along with that.” Regardless, though, listening to Missing Richard Simmons made Culver uncomfortable, so much so that she chose not to listen beyond the first episode. “I felt that, through listening, I was maybe contributing to something that should not be happening the way it was happening,” she said. (We’ve reached out to the producers of Missing Richard Simmons for comment, and will update if they have a response.)

Culver cites the way Taberski plays up the mystery of it all, and his emphasis on the more titillating aspects of the story. In the second episode, he goes into detail about Simmons’s mental fragility, his habit of frequently bursting into tears and baring his soul in class with alarming abandon. He teases a charge of elder abuse against Simmons reported to the LAPD, which he explores more in the third episode, an in-depth catalog of Oliveira’s allegations against Reveles. In that episode, Taberski states plainly that Simmons has never discussed his sexuality in public, and that he also isn’t going to do so, but he precedes the statement by clarifying that Oliveira was Simmons’s masseuse, and he follows it by emphasizing that their relationship was “bigger than just employer/employee. They were close. They hung out. My husband Jay and I went on a double date with them once. They traveled together for pleasure.” The implication is clear.

Taberski replicates this dance throughout the six episodes: raising a provocative subject, implying that it’s unethical to delve into it, and then basically doing so anyway. In the fifth episode, he rehashes rumors reported by The National Enquirer that Simmons is transitioning, while also stating that he doesn’t believe them. The option of simply not reporting them in the first place doesn’t appear to occur to him. Ditto summarizing the rumors that Simmons is suffering from severe depression, or may have gained all the weight he so famously lost. Even Simmons’s 2016 phone call to The Today Show, prompted by the Daily News story, and during which Simmons assures Savannah Guthrie that he’s happy and healthy and just doing what he wants to do, as he’s always done, doesn’t convince Taberski to leave him alone. “Look, Richard Simmons should spend his time any way he wants,” Taberski says. “I really believe that. But all he has to do is say goodbye. Why won’t he give that to people?”

* * *

This is, to my mind, one of the most troubling aspects of the podcast. Taberski, by his own admission, is using it to try to force some kind of response from Simmons—a final goodbye for his thousands of devoted fans, who’ve come to rely on him for their own mental equilibrium. In the fifth episode, Taberski teases some kind of stunt, possibly involving throwing an item over a wall of Simmons’s house, or a confrontation with Reveles. But it never happens. “A lot of people thought we were joking when we said we didn’t know how Missing Richard Simmons was going to end,” Taberski says. But, in the end, “a lot of stuff ... got the boot,” including the aforementioned dramatic intervention, and a reveal about Oliveira that had previously been teased. Taberski doesn’t explain why, beyond saying that he wanted to be “true to the story, and where it went.”

And where it went was, after all that, where it started. Simmons is, as his manager and his brother have both assured Taberski, doing fine. He simply wants to not be Richard Simmons the personality anymore—wearer of spandex, shrieker of show tunes, emotional supporter of countless Americans. Taberski seems tentatively convinced, but has no regrets. He offers no substantial explanation for why he changed his mind about whether Oliveira’s allegations were trustworthy (the Daily News story, for the record, notes that in 2015, long after Oliveira had last seen Simmons, Oliveira asked Simmons’s accountant for money, and was declined). Nor is there specific walkback on Oliveira’s allegations against Reveles, which included that she practiced witchcraft and exercised mind control over Simmons, although Taberski does own that, “Based on all this information, I believe that Teresa Reveles is just doing her job.”

In the last episode, too, the lines between entertainment and reporting get even more blurred. Hollywood has long perpetuated the idea that dramatic, stalkerish gestures will inevitably earn a happy ending, as my colleague Megan Garber has written. For six weeks the public got to see Taberski test this theory, as he collected account after account from Simmons’s devotees, all of whom missed him dearly. “Richard really digs a grand gesture,” he says. “Foolish or not, this podcast was my grand gesture to Richard. And I was hoping it would be impossible to ignore.” In other words, the podcast was intended to provoke a public reaction from Simmons: to shake him out of his solitude.

Again and again, Taberski expressed his belief that Simmons owed all his friends a proper goodbye; that, having given them so much of himself for so long, it was churlish of him to just leave without warning. “What if the person who spent a decade saving your life told you that they want you to pretend it never happened? I think that’s how some people feel,” Taberski asked Simmons’s manager, Michael Catalano. “I don’t think he’s asking any of them to pretend it never happened,” Catalano countered. “I think he’s just asking them to understand that it no longer is. And to please respect it.”

It was a totally predictable conclusion. But missing from all the debate over who was owed what was any acknowledgment of Simmons’s desire to be left alone in the first place. Now, a precedent has been set. Missing Richard Simmons was, during its short lifespan, the #1 most downloaded podcast on iTunes. This week, Richard Simmons is on the cover of People. The most intimate details of his life have been rehashed all over again to a bigger audience than Taberski or Simmons could have ever imagined. Countless news articles—including, yes, this one—are analyzing the contents of the podcast’s six episodes, and thus perpetuating the ongoing media focus on Simmons.

In the final episode, Taberski indulged in a minute amount of soul-searching. “If he is fine,” he wondered, “what does that make me? The guy who just can’t get himself to believe it?” His focus, once again, was misdirected.

Power Rangers Is Exactly as Silly as It’s Supposed to Be
March 23rd, 2017, 01:21 PM

It’s hard to say what’s more indicative of Hollywood’s franchise-happy, nostalgia-centric present—the fact that there’s a new Power Rangers movie in theaters with a budget of over $100 million, or the fact that it’s pretty good. It seems that studios long ago hit rock bottom in their efforts to mine every marginally beloved piece of pop culture from a certain generation’s childhood to make new reboots and sequels. Nonetheless, they kept digging, and the latest result is Power Rangers—a bizarre mish-mash of teen drama, kitschy sci-fi action, and a heap of winking throwbacks for children of the ’90s. It sounds like a holy mess, but incredibly, it succeeds, on the back of some extremely self-aware charm.

The 1993 children’s TV series Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was itself a bizarre mish-mash. It cut together action scenes from a Japanese TV series (the long-running Super Sentai, in which costumed heroes fought strange monsters and giant robots) with footage of American actors playing high-school students. It was a huge success pitched right at second-graders—a violent, pleasantly tacky blend of genres and visual aesthetics designed to sell toys. In 2017, this is what amounts to a beloved pop cultural property; with every comic book and children’s toy line already franchised to the gills, there are only so many options left to fling at viewers in this hyper-extended summer season.

Happily, this new Power Rangers seems delighted by the ridiculousness of the work it’s adapting. Though there’s some effort to move beyond the Saved by the Bell approach of the original show and pump in a grittier teen vibe (think Riverdale, or a sillier Friday Night Lights), this is still a movie that opens on a scene set in the Cretaceous period, where a nude and blue-skinned alien called Zordon (Bryan Cranston) summons a meteor to strike the earth to wipe out his nemesis Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks). The dinosaurs, it seems, were unintended collateral damage.

Sixty-five million years later, ne’er-do-well quarterback Jason Scott (Dacre Montgomery, who looks like a generic drugstore version of Zac Efron) gets sent to detention for stealing a cow and totaling his car in the sleepy seaside town of Angel Grove, California. This sets into motion a Breakfast Club-style chain of events where five mismatched kids become fast friends and discover some mysterious glowing coins buried in a nearby mountain that can turn them into alien super-soldiers. As you do.

But don’t stress the details too much—Power Rangers doesn’t want you to, after all. It’s mostly going for “high-school buddy comedy,” crossed with some mildly psychedelic sci-fi nonsense. Jason’s new friends are Kimberly (Naomi Scott), a former cool girl now on the outs from her cheerleader friends after a cyber-bullying scandal; Billy (RJ Cyler), an autistic boy who’s good with gadgets; Trini (the singer Becky G), an outsider who hints that she’s questioning her sexuality; and Zack (Ludi Lin), an aggressively enthusiastic Chinese American bro who’s not afraid to brag about how much he loves his mother.

Every line of dialogue ranges between clumsily heartfelt and nakedly absurd; the performances are all likeable, though only Cyler’s could be called truly proficient. The others make up for it with sheer enthusiasm, which Power Rangers has in spades. Going in, I feared this film would feel blandly competent—that it would be a brand exercise with too much money behind it to embrace its forebear’s lovable weirdness. Not so. Though some of the movie’s oddest moments feel inadvertent—like the suddenness with which it lurches between angsty conversations about revenge porn and chase sequences involving robotic mastodons—Power Rangers always remembers not to take itself seriously.

How could it, when its plot concerns a 65-million-year-old alien diva trying to dig up an ancient crystal that’s buried below a Krispy Kreme? Any time Power Rangers threatens to get too earnest, Banks shows up babbling straight at the camera about gold, in a performance that functions as a delightfully campy homage to the ’90s show. Cranston, honoring his years of work as a voice actor on the show, is a little more routine as the Rangers’ mentor Zordon, barking orders at them from behind a spaceship viewscreen.

The film eventually descends into mediocre, CGI-dependent action, but it takes more than an hour for it to be “morphin’ time.” Eventually, the heroes don their brightly colored armor and jump into their dinosaur-themed robots to save the day (and, yes, one of their key battles takes place in an unremarkable quarry, as was tradition on the show). Still, most of Power Rangers is a winning and cartoonish coming-of-age tale about supermodel-pretty misfit kids bonding in the belly of an alien spaceship. In other words, it’s a March blockbuster that understands just how silly it needs to be. Power Rangers might be destined for the failed franchise heap, or it might be the beginning of an interminable saga. But at least it remembers where it came from.

Drake's Playful More Life and the Limits of Ambition
March 22nd, 2017, 01:21 PM

The title of Drake’s More Life comes from a Jamaican encouragement, and a lot of listeners might take it as a carpe diem or live long and prosper or another zap of inspiration. But you could read the phrase more darkly—as a reference to the drag of mortality, as a gripe at another day on this rock. Someone might sigh “more life” around big birthdays, or after big achievements. That thing your whole life has been leading up to has happened. Now what? Just more life.

Drake turned 30 in October, during the period when his album Views was fulfilling every prophecy he’d made for himself. His long-desired No. 1 hit? Views gave him it. Becoming the biggest name in music? Views sold more than any album last year. The 81-minute release also drew an unprecedented amount of criticism to him—for indulgence, for sameness, for petulance. What’s more life after that? Laws of gravity and fame would suggest a likely answer: descent.

But Drake greatest talent is in scrambling pre-expected narratives on the way to achieving the only thing he cares about: his own validation. And so now comes a “playlist”—you can say “album”—to keep the buzz of success going while he charts a new longterm plan. A surprising profusion of disparate sounds across 22 new songs, More Life can be read as a brainstorming of future directions, a cleaning of house or, most plausibly, just a victory celebration. Spent, he indulges a travel kick, brings some friends together, hits play, and then just mingles—though with a palpable sense of unease.

More Life teems with voices other than his own, making for a medley of accents, tones, and delivery styles from across the continents. The women, including Australia’s Nai Palm and Sweden’s Snoh Aalegra, often sound sped up and higher than human (save for a sample of his maybe-ex Jennifer Lopez that is slowed down, sinisterly). Meanwhile the men, many hailing from the UK grime scene, are close-up, raw, and deeper-voiced than Drake. Sometimes the guest vocals are seasoning and sometimes they are entree: The rising R&B singer Sampha showcases his wounded coo for an entire track; Atlanta’s amorphous Young Thug raps on two songs, each time modulating his delivery for genuine novelty.

But the album’s star element is the production, which—like the vocals—has been selected with a fashion designer’s sense for contrast and likeness. On a clutch of intoxicating dance songs, patient grooves play out with a sense of eternity, whether with denuded strings on “Passionfruit,” rubbery house bass on “Get It Together,” or reggae-dusted drum skitters on “Blem.” For the straight-ahead rap songs, Drake’s beatmakers build momentum with little innovations: a sound like a psychedelic zipper-pull on the sublime “Sacrifices”; a slow-rolling storm of syncopation and synth washes on “Can’t Have Everything.”

If I’m making it sound like Drake has receded a bit on his own album, he has. But when he does make his presence known, it’s with typical calculation and finesse (two traits he explicitly brags about here). There’s a new, laconic flow on “Sacrifices,” a sense of fly-off-the-handles chaos beneath his words on the opener “Free Smoke,” and precision and purpose while dressing down rivals on “Do Not Disturb” and “Lose You.” The oh-so-gentle singer persona the masses met on “Hotline Bling” recurs on the dancier songs—“Passionfruit” in particular is as soft as sorbetas well as on the oddly lumpy Kanye West collaboration “Glow.”

But there’s a nagging disconnect between More Life’s vibrant sound and Drake’s typically sour subject matter, even if the playlist does have him doing the age-appropriate thing of taking stock of his years so far and wondering what’s next. “Free Smoke” is among the better started-from-the-bottom narratives he’s provided, packed with sharp details like the fact that he needed hand sanitizer to count the cash at his early gigs. “Lose You” is a landmark of score settling, with Drake stating the goal that will define his career henceforth: “We got it, now we just gotta keep it.” He mentions his own exhaustion multiple times across the album; he makes clear he’s not satisfied; he closes by saying he’s taking a year off.

What’s fascinating is that Drake seems dimly aware that “keeping it”—it being his place at the top of the heap—might involve shifting his approach. At one point, Drake raps, “Better attitude, we’ll see where it gets me.” Later, his mom leaves a voicemail saying she doesn’t like his recent “negative tone” and advising: “When they go low, we go high.” But it’s not clear whether we’re supposed to scoff given More Life’s other content. A line like “I could never have a kid then be out here still kiddin’ around,” seemingly aimed at Meek Mill or one of the other rappers-slash-dads who’ve come for him, is not going high when they go low. Nor are the standard-issue airings of disappointment toward women and grim congratulation for his own self-making.

Drake has spun the story of his own rise again, again, again over the years, and each time he’s given the impression that the only thing that drives him is the impulse to win. Sometimes he’ll mention the need to pay his mom’s bills; other times, he’ll bring in a sense of lifting up his community in Toronto. But as he’s grown more famous and more powerful, those causes have still never been the main one—“My life is centered ‘round competition and currency,” he says in More Life’s final moments. Even love has gotten edged out in the name of ambition: He raps that he’s spending too much time at the studio to be a “Romeo,” and then wonders, “Who knows where I end up when that shit gets old? / Maybe it never gets old and that’s just how it goes.”

Grabbing cleverly from an array of international styles with an ear for fun, as he’s done here, is a way to renew his appeal in a moment when it seemed he’d have to stall out. Writers like Brittany Spanos at Rolling Stone have smartly suggested the project is “redefining the borders of blackness in pop” by drawing from across the African diaspora—yet if that’s the driving idea, Drake doesn’t ever quite say it. It might help him to do so. The mission to keep beating the world seems unsustainable without, well, a bigger mission that transforms the prove-yourself hunger of Drake’s 20s into something more solid.

Then again, he’s defied the logic of career arcs before. Perhaps more life for Drake means the music gets more exciting while the man at the middle just scowls, his success being the least satisfying kind: existing only for its own sake.

Daniel Clowes on Creating Wilson and Translating Him to Screen
March 22nd, 2017, 01:21 PM

Daniel Clowes’s 2010 graphic novel Wilson was a masterful joining of two of its creator’s greatest talents—his blunt, savagely funny humor and his ability to elicit sympathy for the most outwardly miserable characters. Wilson is told in single-page vignettes, following its protagonist through his seemingly dead-end life as he strikes up irritating conversations with strangers, struggles to connect with various estranged family members (including a father, wife, and daughter), and dotes on his dog, the only creature on Earth he doesn’t have an embittered rant readied for.

Wilson might seem like an odd choice for a film adaptation because of its punchline-heavy narrative and intentionally choppy approach to storytelling (huge chunks of time often pass in between each page). But Clowes, who hasn’t written a film since 2006’s Art School Confidential (which was directed by Terry Zwigoff, who also made Ghost World in 2001 with Clowes), has returned to Hollywood with his irascible anti-hero, this time collaborating with the director Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins). As played by Woody Harrelson, the on-screen Wilson is a little more playful and charismatic than the character might seem on the page. But Wilson, which opens in theaters Friday, is still a singularly acidic work that tries to capture the dark humor, the misdirected passions, and the deep frustrations of Clowes’s character.

I spoke with Clowes about how he first created Wilson, then translated him to the screen, all while trying to steer clear of the actual filmmaking process itself. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.


David Sims: Was there any reason that you stayed away from films for a few years, or is it just because of how the business works, that it can take forever to get a project going?

Daniel Clowes: Certainly, that’s always true. I can’t imagine a project where I’d go, “I’ve got an idea!” and 18 months later there it is. But also, writing movies is like my hobby. It’s not like I’m constantly cranking them out and making deals—I haven’t even been to L.A. in 10 years. I told my agent, “I don’t want to take a meeting, I don’t wanna meet with anybody, I only want to work with someone who already knows who I am and likes me.” I don’t want to convince anybody.

Sims: What was the original conception of the character of Wilson in the comic?What was the spark that created him?

Clowes: It’s one of the few characters I can find the origin story for. My dad, much like Wilson in the book, was dying of lung cancer. He was in the hospital, and I was flying to Chicago and just sitting next to him in that vain hope that we’d have this final epiphany, that he would tell me, you know, the secrets that he’d never told me, offer me something that would be profound. I had imagined that moment since I was like, five years old. (Laughs.) “Maybe when the pressure’s on, he’ll finally crack his shell!” He was just a very old-fashioned Midwestern guy who didn’t share his feelings in any way. So it was that kind of tension, and it was so maddening. Then I realized at a certain point that he was on a different level—he’d moved on to the higher level of the video game, and I wouldn’t get what I wanted.

So I was sitting there with nothing to do, and I thought it disrespectful somehow to check my email while he’s there, so I thought I’d draw little comics. So I bought a notebook and started drawing little stick-figure comics, and this character Wilson just emerged, without any bidding or thought at all. He started as a sort of id character of myself, and then took on a life of his own. It’s one of those things that emerges, and you don’t stop it when it happens. I went home, threw away the thing I was working on at the time, and just started drawing comic strips with Wilson. He’s one of the few characters that just does his own thing, and I don’t have to think about it. He’s just there.

Sims: That’s interesting, given how old-fashioned he is in presentation—in that he always ends with a one-liner.

Clowes: Yes. Even though some of them are tragedies rather than regular punchlines, but yes. I wanted him to have the feel of a lost comic strip. My very original conception of it was that I would present it as a collection of an obscure comic strip that ran from the ’50s to the ’70s, with pieces missing. I wanted to have these huge gaps where all of a sudden, the next strip you see him in completely different circumstances, and you have no idea how he got there. Then that seemed a little too cute for the way the character was, and I couldn’t come up with a uniform style to draw him in. I kept changing the way I was drawing him, and at a certain point I realized that was the answer. But just the fact that he has a single name and an unexplained life, he’s very much like a comic-strip character.

Sims: And that he announces his feelings, which is such a classic idea from the funnies—obviously you think of Peanuts first—that idea that everyone just says what they think to each other, and that that’s part of the joke. That Lucy is calling everyone a blockhead, and that it doesn’t need to be implied, she just yells it to their face.

Clowes: Right, because you only have a limited amount of space! It’s funny, because when I was starting to write the script, I found that most of the strips are just Wilson yelling out to the world, just talking to himself. And I thought, even if you show that in his own apartment, he’s just going to seem demented. When an actual human being is doing that, it’s not going to read. There’s something about the language of comics where you just accept that; it’s just a stage trick, almost. Where characters speak in a stage voice, and you accept that nobody can hear it.

Sims: When I heard the movie was getting made, I was surprised, because I had read the book, and it wasn’t something that immediately presented itself as a movie to me. Obviously it has a narrative, but it’s less narratively focused. It’s more vignette-y, and it’s extroverted in a strange way. So what was the challenge in changing it up for a screenplay?

Clowes: I felt—and a lot of people said exactly what you said—that I had a story that I liked. I spent a lot of time working out this narrative that doesn’t seem like a narrative, but had a certain something underpinning it and was the right length for a movie. I had a character that I knew would speak back to me from the page without my having to force it. Those are the two main things you hope for when you’re starting to write a movie. But the movie has so many speaking parts, because I had to devise all these characters for him to talk to, rather than to speak at a street sign. So it was a matter of coming up with all these scenarios and sounding boards, but also giving them their moment—letting all these actors have two-minute moments where they can be a real living character on the screen.

Sims: Did you ever have an actor for Wilson in mind? Was Woody Harrelson a serendipitous thing, or was he someone you could picture as Wilson? Wilson has such a defined look.

Clowes: He does, but he’s also sort of nebulous. (Laughs.) It’s really tough. There are obvious people that were suggested early on that you could imagine—people like Paul Giamatti, guys who have sort of played similar characters. But it was always like their persona was just enough, but not quite who Wilson was. Too affected in a weird way, so they were just them, rather than Wilson, somehow. I never had any good ideas. I couldn’t even think of someone from history, like Walter Matthau or somebody. So one day I get a call, and they say they’re thinking of asking Woody Harrelson. And I thought, “He’s such a likable guy,” it literally never popped into my head. And then early on when they started working on the film, they asked, “How old is Wilson?” And I said I wanted him to be exactly my age, because I wanted him to have all the same references I had. I was born in 1961, and I looked Harrelson up on IMDB, and he was born in 1961. That’s the kismet factor right there. Though he’s in better shape than I am.

Sims: There is a friendliness to him, and he is a little friendlier as Wilson than perhaps I imagined, but he found his own take on it. Did you advise him at all?

Clowes: No. I turned in the script, and I told everybody, “I want to go to the premiere, and see it with everyone else.” I wanted to have the experience of seeing this film, because with the other two films I worked on [Ghost World and Art School Confidential], I could never watch either of them. Even to this day, I can’t watch them without getting lost and remembering where I was on the set in every moment. So I had no input.

Sims: It’s interesting because Woody’s a Southerner, and I think of Wilson as so Midwestern, partly because of how disruptive he is to that area’s gentle manners. So many of the scenes in the movie are him behaving oddly simply because he’s talking to someone who he has no reason to talk to.

Clowes: Yeah, I wanted Wilson to live in a nice world, where everything is as nice as it could be in a regular American city. So that his anguish wasn’t about his environment. I didn’t want him living in a dying Rust Belt town or anything; I didn’t want it to be a comment on anything beyond his own self.

Sims: It could take place at any time, except I guess people have smartphones.

Clowes: When I wrote it I was living in Oakland, and it was right when Oakland started to become a tech satellite city after San Francisco got all filled up. So we were seeing a lot of that, moving from an old dowdy working-class town to a trendy doughnut-shop place.

Sims: It’s always the fancy fringe item that sends that up the best.

Clowes: Yeah, the thing we didn’t know we needed! Now all those stores are going out of business, of course. And I liked the idea that Wilson would go away for two or three years, then he’d come back, and how confusing that’d be. How the mom-and-pop video store would turn into a weird pita place.

Drawn and Quarterly Press

Sims: The other thing I think about with Wilson in terms of his humanity, and his lack of humanity, is his devotion to his dog and to animals in general. Is that a trope you’ve observed over the years, how the way we interact with animals can be so drastically different from the way we interact with people?

Clowes: That’s all based on my own experience with my dog. (Laughs.) That was the stuff in the book that I wrote without even thinking about it; it’s all based off my own life. My dog now is 16 years old. I’m so deeply attached to the dog in a way that I almost feel I’ve never been attached to a person, except close family. There’s a real poignancy to it, and a sadness. There’s that moment where the dog-sitter says “Oh, you must get stopped on the street all the time with this cute dog,” and he’s like, “Yeah, but I’m a human being. I can do math and all this other stuff and nobody seems to notice.”

Sims: So how did you feel when you saw the movie, if you stuck by your guns and just went to the premiere?

Clowes: It was overwhelmingly weird. I was hoping for that thing where I’d be like, “I’m just going to sit and watch a movie!” And I couldn’t take myself out of the weirdness of, “Wait, that’s that scene! Where’s that other scene I wrote!” The first time, I was just thrown by the weirdness. I’ve now seen it three times, and really liked it much better each time. You get into the rhythm of it, and I love to see all the actors, to see Laura Dern play a character [Wilson’s estranged wife] that in the book is so introspective and doesn’t offer much, to see her make that a character who’s really something.

Sims: In the book, the point is that Wilson’s projected everything onto her; you can’t even tell if what he’s saying about her is true.

Clowes: Right, and in the very first meeting, I was like, “That’s not going to work in a movie, we can’t have this character that we just don’t care about, we’ve gotta give that character some life.” That was one of the hardest things to bring out—to create someone who would plausibly have ended up with Wilson.

Sims: That speaks to the ending, not to get into the particulars, but it’s a little more hopeful—did you want to be pointing toward something?

Clowes: I wrote something that was closer to the ending of the book, and it didn’t resonate. I’ve seen this with every movie I’ve been involved with in every way, that the ending requires just endless hours in the editing room, trying to get that moment right. It’s almost never what you imagine when you’re writing it. So that was how it came to be—it’s very hard to do that kind of ending that’s downbeat and hopeful at the same moment, but I think he [the director Craig Johnson] kind of got it. There’s just a nod to the fact that his hopefulness is a kind of acceptance of who he is, and that’s sad in a way.  

Netflix Believes in the Power of Thumbs
March 21st, 2017, 01:21 PM

What’s the difference between rating a movie you just watched out of five stars, versus giving it a thumbs-up or thumbs-down? Most people might not see too much of a distinction—but Netflix does. According to the streaming service, you give a star rating to impress other people; it’s a way of channeling your inner critic. But delivering a simple yes-or-no verdict with your thumb? That’s brutal honesty, though and through. This strange reasoning is apparently why the company is moving to revamp its current star-based rating system: Moving forward, viewers will be encouraged to rate titles they do or don’t enjoy by harnessing the simple, gladiatorial power of the thumb.

For years, Netflix’s algorithm depended on viewers submitting star ratings. This helped the streaming service learn which genres and performers subscribers enjoyed so the company could offer hyper-specific recommendations. That’s partly how you get those disturbingly insightful category tabs suggested to you: Genres like “Campy Independent Crime Comedies” or “Mind-bending French-Language Dramas” are prompted by the site’s algorithm mining your ratings history. But in recent years, Netflix has stopped trusting the billions and billions of star ratings it has collected from subscribers.

“Five stars feels very yesterday,” Netflix’s Vice President of Product Todd Yellin said at a press briefing last week, even though the company once boasted that more than half its members had rated at least 50 titles on the site, giving it reams of data that it could use to stay ahead of competitors. With a star rating, Yellin said, viewers are effectively telling the world what they thought of a title and giving the overall experience a quantitative grade. But with a thumb, Yellin argues, you’re reflecting on your own enjoyment to yourself. In other words, it’s less performative.

“What’s more powerful: You telling me you would give five stars to the documentary about unrest in the Ukraine; that you’d give three stars to the latest Adam Sandler movie; or that you’d watch the Adam Sandler movie 10 times more frequently,” Yellin said. “What you do versus what you say you like are different things.” Of course, Netflix also gathers plenty of data on what you do—your viewing history is hugely important to the resulting algorithms. But the thumbs reflect that history far better, according to Yellin.

This approach might sound like some sort of reverse snobbery, encouraging viewers to embrace their guilty pleasures rather than build out a collection of works they’d consider “important” or “critically acclaimed.” But this change stems from a real challenge the company faces as it beefs up its library of original content. The Netflix database isn’t the easiest to browse (especially when viewed on a TV screen), and it isn’t designed to give the viewer an endless, alphabetized list of options to sift through. “We’re spending many billions of dollars on the titles we’re producing and licensing, and with these big catalogs, that just adds a challenge,” Yellin said. “Bubbling up the stuff people actually want to watch is super important.”

When Netflix was a haven for cineastes, the star rating made more sense. There were tons of classic and arthouse film titles lurking in its library, and devoted movie nerds (some of whom are already migrating their Netflix ratings to other star-friendly sites like Letterboxd) could input as much data as possible to help find exciting new things to watch. But Netflix has moved away from a vast catalog of films over the years, partly because of the growing cost of acquiring the streaming rights to other companies’ movies.

Instead, it’s now financing and acquiring its own original movies, to go with its ever-growing selection of television shows, documentaries, and comedy specials. Its subscriber base has exploded far beyond that more obsessive film-nerd core to encompass more casual viewers, and according to Yellin, thumbs-up ratings are much more appealing to this new group. When Netflix piloted the thumb system for some users, it saw a 200 percent increase in ratings logged. What once was Uber is becoming Tinder—swipe left if you weren’t thrilled, right if you’d like to see more.

The thumbs will go hand-in-hand with a “percent match” system that suggests titles to you based on how much it thinks you’ll like it, similar to the “compatibility” rating offered on OKCupid and other dating sites. Such a system sounds like it could be limiting, basically funneling viewers into specific genres and viewing patterns rather than trying to broaden their horizons. But Netflix is trying to give users the most satisfying experience in the quickest way possible, not improve the art of cinema.

Perhaps that’s why some movie-lovers were wringing their hands over the loss of star ratings. Eric Kohn at Indiewire worried that the company, which looks like it will play a huge part in the future of moviemaking, is too interested in “giving the audience exactly what it wants,” rather than offering “surprising new experiences.” It’s an extension of the Rotten/Fresh rating system employed at Rotten Tomatoes, he noted—a swift critical judgment that can be a little too binary.

As the CEO of the Alamo Drafthouse, Tim League, added in an Indiewire editorial, “Netflix is in the business of growing a global customer base by being the best value proposition subscription content platform ... Cinemas are in the business of offering an incredible, immersive experience that you simply cannot duplicate at home.” Netflix alone won’t decide the fate of the filmmaking, and a night unwinding on the couch remains very different from a night out at the movies. The former demands something more comforting and familiar; the second, a little more critical rigor. The noble thumb and the worthy star can still coexist—just not on Netflix.

The Enduring Legacy of the Pocahontas Myth
March 21st, 2017, 01:21 PM

On March 21, 1617, a 21-year-old woman from Virginia’s Pamunkey tribe died at Gravesend, England. She went by many names—Matoaka, Amonute, and, at her passing, Rebecca—but she’s best remembered today as Pocahontas. Her death was unexpected: Pocahontas had arrived in England the previous June and spent months touring the country, celebrated by the press as an “Indian princess.” Pocahontas’s tale of trans-Atlantic travel, her marriage to the Englishman John Rolfe, and her alleged conversion to Christianity became part of a compelling cultural narrative that helped promote white colonial interests, especially in the Virginia Company.

Despite the brevity of her life and the mystery surrounding the cause of her death, Pocahontas remains one of the most recognizable Native icons in American culture today. Hollywood movies have portrayed her as royalty—or as Smith referred to her in his 1616 letter to Queen Anne, “Lady Pocahontas”—whose dramatic act of self-sacrifice saved the lives of Smith and the settlers at Virginia’s Jamestown colony. This story of romantic heroism—the stuff of legend—has defined Pocahontas’s image for centuries. Crucially, these early 17th-century descriptions of the young Pamunkey woman established a cultural template for European and white American representations of Native Americans. Whether Pocahontas, or Lewis and Clark’s faithful guide Sacagawea, or the quintessential sidekick Tonto, indigenous people have appeared in a variety of cultural productions as mere props in the larger drama of colonialism in North America.

Today, Native portrayals in Hollywood continue to be mediated largely by non-Native writers and filmmakers to widely varying effect, in shows such as Fargo, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Longmire and in films like The Revenant, The Ridiculous Six, and The Lone Ranger. But things have begun to change. Over the past generation, Native American creators have found ways to tell their own stories, often by going the independent-cinema route and organizing their own film festivals, including the upcoming Pocahontas Reframed Film Festival in November. And as the festival’s title indicates, almost any Native effort to reclaim the cultural image of America’s indigenous peoples must grapple with the 400-year-old legacy of the stubborn Pocahontas myth.

* * *

Many Americans would likely claim familiarity with the life of Pocahontas, despite the absence of evidence to back up some of the more popular details of her tale. For starters, it’s not clear that Pocahontas ever met Smith, much less saved his life. During the 17th century, Pocahontas was a common name among the Pamunkey, the largest and most powerful community in the once-mighty Powhatan chiefdom. Smith himself didn’t mention Pocahontas in his initial accounts of the Powhatan Indians. Not until Pocahontas’s tour of England did Smith begin romanticizing his encounter with her, which he later elaborated on in his 1624 book, The Generall Historie of Virginia. In this book, Smith, whose credibility has been debated by historians almost from the start, planted the seed of a legend that continues to thrive.

Pocahontas saving the life of Captain John Smith by the New England Chromo. Lith. Co. circa 1870. Library of Congress.
Pocahontas at the court of King James by the artist Richard Rummels. 1907. Library of Congress

While Pocahontas did marry the Virginia colonist Rolfe and gave birth to a son, Thomas, there’s no archival evidence that she ever converted to Christianity or was baptized. If Pocahontas did express an interest in Christian values, those expressions were more likely examples of her acting as a diplomat for her people and trying to bind the English to trade networks dominated by the Powhatan—contrary to the pure enlightenment narrative peddled by the British press at the time.

Pocahontas’s diplomatic engagement with the English came at a time of widespread mistrust and violence in Anglo-Indian relations, something Pocahontas experienced firsthand when the English abducted her in 1613. For the early English settlers, too, the Jamestown colony was a site of privation and extraordinary brutality. The English needed all the help they could get if the colony hoped to not only survive but also to grow its population and financial investments. And so for the Virginia Company, a joint-venture company that founded Jamestown, Pocahontas became the perfect marketing tool.

Her tale became so compelling, in fact, that for a short time in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Pocahontas’s Pamunkey descendants used her legend as a means of asserting their Native identity. The Pamunkey Players acting troupe, for example, recreated the story of Pocahontas saving John Smith at the 1907 Jamestown Exposition. In 1928, Pamunkey Chief George M. Cook spoke wistfully about Smith being “rescued by little Snow Feather, better known as Pocahontas.” But by the latter half of the 20th century, the tribe recognized that it had unreflectively embraced a historical narrative popularized by colonizers. As Robert Gray, the tribe’s current chief, recently told me, the Pamunkey eventually acknowledged that they’d gone too far in perpetuating the Pocahontas myth and finally put it “back in the attic.”

* * *

Less interested in dispensing with the myth were American film studios, which embraced Pocahontas starting in the earliest days of Hollywood. During the silent era, movies such as Pocahontas (1910) and Pocahontas and John Smith (1924) featured the “Indian princess” saving and falling in love with the first Englishman she met. Such films portrayed the English settlers in a heroic light while using white actors in “red face” to represent Native characters, similar to how white performers wore “blackface” and “yellowface” to play African American and Asian roles.

During the Cold War, much of the Western genre and adventure films like Captain John Smith and Pocahontas (1953) reinforced images of Native American simplicity and savagery. But few movies in more recent decades have done as much to perpetuate Native American stereotypes than Disney’s animated Pocahontas (1995). Like its sequel Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World (1998), Pocahontas is a glib rewriting of a much more complicated reality, notably transforming a child who would have been between 9 and 12 years of age into a Barbie-like object of sexual desire. It’s a fantastical tale in which Pocahontas sings and talks with the flora and fauna and falls more deeply in love with Smith before saving him from death at the hands of Powhatan warriors. A similar narrative (minus the singing and animal sidekicks) drives Terrence Malick’s acclaimed 2005 film, The New World, suggesting such revisionism still has a place in Hollywood in this century.

A still from Disney’s 1995 animated film Pocahontas. Disney

With so few well-known, realistic images of Native people available today, Pocahontas remains stuck as a symbol—whether as an agent of peace or an object of mockery. President Donald Trump, for example, has continued to refer to Senator Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas” in reference to her claims of Cherokee ancestry, with some Native American groups noting his slur-like usage of the name. As the historian Kathleen DuVal told me, the Pocahontas myth has been used by Americans “to justify English (and later U.S.) conquest of Virginia and North America.” The consequences of that conquest remain evident today, most recently in the thwarted tribal efforts to halt the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline through sacred land in the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Reflecting on the shadow of colonialism in the lives of Native Americans, the Cheyenne and Arapaho filmmaker Chris Eyre told me, “Pocahontas is alive at Standing Rock.”

Given that fewer than 1 percent of Hollywood films feature Native characters—to say nothing of behind-the-camera hiring—it’s no surprise that the singular image of Pocahontas both dominates and endures. Artists like Eyre, who’s among the organizers of the Pocahontas Reframed Film Festival, have been working to fix this vacuum of meaningful Native portrayals in American culture. Another festival organizer, the Cree actor and filmmaker Georgina Lightning, told me she saw virtually no indigenous role models in movies or on TV during her childhood, with Natives so often shown in “leather and feathers.” Her 2008 film Older Than America, which tackled the legacy of boarding schools in Native communities, joins other powerful examples of indigenous storytelling—including 2001’s critically and commercially successful epic drama Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner and the Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond’s 2009 documentary Reel Injun.

In the face of Hollywood inaction, festivals like Pocahontas Reframed can do a lot to combat the relative invisibility of indigenous peoples. Joining older efforts such as San Francisco’s American Indian Film Festival, Pocahontas Reframed will show Native short and feature-length projects, as well as documentaries; fittingly, it will take place in Richmond, Virginia, near Pocahontas’s birthplace. As the Pamunkey tribe’s chief Gray told me, the event is a singular opportunity for Native filmmakers to “tell our own story” to the world. Eyre, whose films such as Smoke Signals (1998) and Skins (2002) have used all-Native casts and crews, also said he hopes the works screened at Pocahontas Reframed will help weaken Hollywood’s current monopoly on Native American representation. For her part, Lightning said she wants the festival to ultimately become “the Oscars of Indian Country.”

Pocahontas, meanwhile, is being celebrated—and remembered—much differently across the Atlantic in the English town where she was laid to rest. Throughout 2017, Gravesend is hosting a series of events that frames her story in a Disney-esque, romantic light. “Pocahontas was a remarkable young woman, who set out, on a small craft, across storm-tossed seas to promote how despite differences, we can live, function, and adapt for that cause of peace through unity,” said Jordan Meade, a councilor in the borough of Gravesham. Native American media have criticized the commemoration for continuing to promote historical inaccuracies. That such a stark divide continues to exist after 400 years suggests there’s still work to be done before Pocahontas can be the most famous figure in Native American history without also being the most misunderstood.

When a Writer’s Great Freedom Lies in Constraint
March 21st, 2017, 01:21 PM

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, George Saunders, Emma Donoghue, Michael Chabon, and more.


Doug McLean

Artistic freedom, paradoxically, relies on the presence of constraints. Expression somehow flourishes when it has rules, norms, and conventions to push against—or as William Wordsworth once wrote of the sonnet’s rigid form, “the prison into which we doom ourselves / no prison is.” But Melissa Febos, the author of Abandon Me, takes this a step further. Her entire working ethos is about willingly, even willfully, imposing limits—and not just on the page. In a conversation for this series, Febos explored how an essay by Annie Dillard inspires her to pursue only one thing, deeply, at a time, and why she’ll always choose to restrict the total number of choices in her life.

A desire for single-mindedness powers Febos’s artistic pursuits, but she knows that very impulse—to be not just preoccupied, but obsessed and consumed—can be destructive, too, as we discussed. That’s a central concern of Abandon Me, a memoir in eight connected essays. The book starts by exploring her relationship to an absent father—“abandon,” as in left. But it’s also about another sense of the verb—“abandon,” to give oneself recklessly and completely. From heroin addiction to romantic infatuation, the book considers forces powerful enough to inspire utter devotion, and the way that posture can both destroy and redeem.

Melissa Febos is the author of Whip Smart, and her essays have appeared in publications like Tin House, Granta, and the New York Times. She’s on the board of directors for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and teaches writing at Monmouth University and the Institute of American Indian Arts. She lives in Brooklyn, and spoke to me by phone.


Melissa Febos: A few weeks ago, I got a tattoo for the first time in years. It’s something I feel prompted to do when something really important happens, or there’s something that I want make sure I’ll never forget. This time, it’s a single line of text along my back. It’s from Annie Dillard’s essay “Living Like Weasels”: yielding at every moment for the perfect freedom of the single necessity.

When I first read the essay, years ago, I’d recently retired from both heroin addiction and working as a professional dominatrix. I’d become a graduate student, and was finally putting all my eggs in the basket of being a writer. This line in particular just rang like a gong all through me, and kept ringing for days and days afterward. I memorized it instantly; at regular intervals it would just float to the surface of my consciousness, unbidden. I have taught the essay in every single creative writing class since then, and the passage still moves me every time:

We can live any way we want. People take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, even a silence by choice. The thing is to stalk your calling in the certain skilled and subtle way to locate the most tender and live spot, and plug in to that post. This is yielding, not fighting. A weasel doesn’t attack anything. A weasel lives as he’s meant to, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of the single necessity.

Dillard looks to the weasel for a way to let go of our lesser needs and preoccupations, to simplify our process of decision-making, and in turn to simplify our lives. A weasel, after all, is always the platonic ideal of a weasel. Everything it does is loyal to its highest natural concern—whether it’s surviving, or killing something, or making a burrow, everything a weasel does is a perfect expression of its weasel nature. Dillard’s saying that we, too, can choose a life like that. We can live in accordance with the thing that feels truest—what she calls plugging into “the most tender and live spot.” The line “yielding in every moment to a single necessity,” might sound like being in bondage to something. But I’ve found there can be great freedom in constraint.

Dillard seems to be talking about writing in the essay, and I relate to that. Writing and making art is most often my single necessity—I think you have to make it your single necessity if you want to be any good at it, or be fulfilled by it. But this attitude is a good way to approach anything that matters, and I don’t think a person has to choose just one thing. Loving, or activism, or simply being awake to my own experiences as a human being: I aspire to do these things as if they are what that matter most to me.  

When I was younger, I mistook complication for sophistication, or intellectualism, or deepness, or profundity. But simplicity is a very sophisticated way to live, if you can manage it. I learned this most clearly as I recovered from heroin addiction, because I only needed to do one thing, just one, to survive that experience: and that was to stop. To not take heroin. It was so hard, in part because it required letting go of all the unnecessary, complicated, rationalizing ways that I had managed to maintain doing it. I had to let go of all that and just accept this one simple thing, and it was the thing that would save my life.

It was the hardest thing I ever did, and nothing about my life would be possible if I hadn’t done it. But it was a very clear lesson that, although simplifying the way you live is incredibly difficult, there’s so much freedom on the other side of it. Since then, I’ve replicated that experience in many other ways, especially in my writing life. The challenge is to bring a singular focus to everything I do, and to give as much of myself to it as I can. I've never regretted it.

So much of the way I’ve learned to survive is about relocating my energies into preoccupations that are less and less likely to kill me. Because addiction, actually, was a similar impulse. It, too, meant yielding at every moment to one necessity—though it was the opposite of freedom. Still, all of that reaching and pushing, I think, was an effort to find a boundary, to find where the end was, so that I could just stop. The difference is agency, is choice. If I can take the incredible fervor with which I pursued heroin, or my former lover, and if I can direct that kind of passion and fixate on something that can fulfill me, it becomes an immense kind of power.

My life, and certainly my work, is fixated on that experience of abandoning myself. The new book I’ve just published is about a love affair that I treated in the same way, where I just collapsed all my other concerns into this one place, and just ran at it as hard as I could despite its total lack of qualification to meet that insatiable need. Destructive as it was, that abandonment of self really taught me something about giving myself to something. It’s not a question of forbidding ourselves from doing that. It’s about selecting necessities worthy of yielding to.

If there’s a thesis to what I’ve learned in life, it’s that pursuits that appear self-destructive or self-sabotaging are, at their core, often misguided quests to find comfort, or wholeness, or healing. Drug addicts get this reputation for being self-destructive and out of control, but the use of substances in an addictive way is more like a failed attempt at control. Addiction is an attempt to manage your own feelings and everything else inside you. I don’t want to quash that impulse. I just want to take, for its object, something that can actually meet that need.

Writing has become that for me. Aside from reading, it’s the only thing that I can remember having been obsessed with as far back as my memory goes. I’ve never wanted to build my life around anything else. I think I discovered it very young, because I was an obsessive—I would even say addictive—reader as a kid. I found that narratives, and stories, and the words of other people helped me make sense of my own experience very early on. And I trusted books, I trusted language, more than anything else. By the time I started thinking about what I was going to do with my life, it already felt like a forgone conclusion, because that was the thing I’d already invested so much in, the thing I’d believed in and enjoyed for so long.

Writing has become so integrated into all other aspects of my life that it’s become inextricable. It is the way that I connect with other people. It’s the way that I think. It’s the way that I transform myself. It’s the way that I make sense of everything. Not that it’s easy. Writing can be harrowing. But it is simple, and I want to choose simple over easy.

Giving yourself completely to writing doesn’t require having all the free time in the world. Just the opposite. One of the most important lessons that I try to teach my students is not to be precious about your process. I have worn away any preciousness about where I write, or when I write, or for how long I write because I live in New York City, and I’m a college professor. I work a lot, and I’m in motion a lot. And I have to be comfortable pulling out my notebook or my computer on the subway, or in a café, or in a cafeteria, and just working for 20 minutes if that’s all I have. Because if I wait for the muse to get comfortable, I may never write again. I’ve learned that the more important thing is to just sit and do it. When I do that, I can summon her.

We can’t be romantic about our practice, because it is hard work that requires time and sacrifice. The beauty isn’t in the way that we sit down to do it. The beauty will be in the thing that we create, whenever and however we can force ourselves to buckle down and start. For me, that means carrying a notebook everywhere and writing down any surge of anything in me—a thought, a memory, a worry. Sometimes, those things turn into essays. Sometimes they don’t. But it’s how I keep track of things, and how I make sure that, when something important happens, I’ll be ready for it.

I think that’s why I love nonfiction. Fiction is so much harder for me, I think, because of the great wealth of possibility. You can do anything in the world of your fiction—and that immobilizes me. I freeze up with all of that possibility. Whereas non-fiction gives a hunk of material, but it’s finite. I can’t invent. I can't fabricate. I have to use what happened, or my memory of what happened, find a way to arrange it, to mold it and manipulate it so that it clicks into a certain form that can communicate something to another person. I am always wanting to solve that puzzle.

Our first-world lives are so marked by this glut of choice. We spend so much time deciding between television programs, or breakfast cereals, or dating apps. We could spend our entire lives deliberating over superfluous decisions. I think it’s easy to forget that we have a choice—we can just opt out of a lot of that, and we won’t miss it.  Think if we took all the energy we spend wondering what other people are thinking about us, or deciding what to eat or not to eat, or worrying about money—if we just could consolidate that energy and relocate it, use it on some task that we really believe in. On our artwork, on our activism, on our parenting, on loving people as fully as we can. Oh my god, we should all hope for such economy of energy. We could do so much. We could solve so much.

In Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, Franny’s obsessed with this book, The Way of a Pilgrim. It’s about a pilgrim who’s obsessed with reciting an incessant prayer. The theory is that if you repeat a prayer enough, it moves into your body and into your consciousness—it syncopates with your pulse, and with your organs, and with your blood. By aligning your whole will with the prayer, you manage to merge with something divine. I think that is a process like what Dillard describes, of yielding in every moment to a single necessity. That necessity, and the way you reorganize your life to meet it, becomes a part of you. It becomes a lens through which you see the world, and all the other choices you make grow out of that one choice.

‘It’s a Homecoming Film’: Danny Boyle on T2 Trainspotting
March 21st, 2017, 01:21 PM

This Friday will mark the release of one of the more unusual sequels of recent years, T2 Trainspotting, Danny Boyle’s follow-up to the 1996 film that largely put him on the map as a director. That film, based loosely on the novel by Irvine Welsh, was a giddily stylish picaresque about a group of twentysomething friends scoring heroin at every opportunity in Edinburgh. A full 20 years later, the fellows have now slowed down (and sobered up) some with age. T2 reunites the principal cast of Ewan McGregor (Renton), Ewen Bremner (Spud), Jonny Lee Miller (Sick Boy), and Robert Carlyle (Begbie) and is written, like its predecessor, by John Hodge. (Kelly Macdonald, who made her debut in the earlier movie, has a sharp cameo.)

Trainspotting fans will recall that it ended with Renton absconding with £16,000 that he and the others had made in a drug deal (though he left £4,000 behind for Spud). Now, after all these years, he’s returned to Edinburgh to face the friends he betrayed. I’ll have a review on Friday (short version: it’s good!), but in the meantime I had a chance to sit down with Boyle to discuss the old film, the new film, his own personal betrayals, and the future of Scotland. This interview has been edited for length and clarity—and to avoid spoilers.


Christopher Orr: So the original film had a somewhat open-ended conclusion. Renton was leaving town with his stolen lucre and promising to “choose life.” But it was not at all clear what that would mean in practice. T2 has a more conventional structure, with a beginning, middle, and an end. I’m wondering, did you always plan to end the original Trainspotting that way? And how did it inform the structure of the second film?

Danny Boyle: It was interesting. The “choose life” speech in the first film was originally in the middle of the film when we wrote it. And we moved it to the beginning and the end.

Orr: I can’t even imagine the film without that speech at the opening and close.

Boyle: I can’t remember now how it worked in the middle. Anyway, it’s interesting that you say T2 has a more conventional structure, because it does. One of the most fearful things about the first film was that there wasn’t really a plot in a conventional sense. They basically just drifted in and out of drugs in a series of episodes. The book was like that, too—a series of short stories, really.

I remember people being very worried that we didn’t have a structure in the first one. But we had a voiceover. And because of the linguistic brilliance of the original book, John Hodge, the screenwriter, took flight and was released as a writer into this delicious voiceover, which basically compensated you for the fact there wasn’t really a plot.

The big decision with T2 was that we were not going to have a voiceover, because in a way that would have been too easy. It would feel like, “Oh, here we go again.” But in fact Renton comes back a hollow man. He has no voice, really. So with no voiceover, there is more of a conventional plot.

Orr: I was struck by how much the film, especially in the final act, reminded me of your first movie, Shallow Grave. There’s a quick, funny reference to that movie with a shot of some shovels. But more than that, you have these people who know each other quite well, you have a pot of money again, and you have the strong possibility of homicide lingering in the air. Finally, you have that line that’s repeated a few times in the film: “First, there’s an opportunity. Then, there’s a betrayal.” It’s a reference to the end of Trainspotting, of course. But it could almost have been the tag line for Shallow Grave.

Boyle: Obviously, it was fun to have the shovels and hint that there was going to be a shallow grave dug in the woods and they were going to be buried in it. But no, we weren’t really thinking of the movie more generally. But I have to say that on a meta level—and there are meta levels that emerge and you can’t really deny them—I fell out with Ewan McGregor, and I felt that we’d betrayed him, because we offered him a part and never delivered on it.

Orr: This was The Beach, right? [Boyle had implied he’d give the lead role to McGregor, who’d starred in his first three movies, then cast Leonardo DiCaprio instead.]

Boyle: Right. And Andrew [Macdonald, who produced Boyle’s early films] and I sort of betrayed each other as well, just over business stuff. So when “opportunity” and “betrayal” come up, there’s a kind of meta level to it. The characters can’t really be representative of anything else because they’re so particular. But actually they are—they’re sort of us living out our personal history of betrayal through them. And it liberated us from worrying about the film being a sequel. We were writing about our own personal loss and our own personal betrayals. Even talking about it feels stupid, but it’s there.

Orr: You’ve described the new film as being about “how badly men age.” That reminded me of Anthony Burgess and A Clockwork Orange

Boyle: Yes!

Orr: …but for Burgess they age out of it and come out on the other side. But you don’t think men come out on the other side. You think that they just dig deeper and deeper into their male problems.

Boyle: It’s very hard to deny that. For men, there’s something about your twenties that is so powerful. It’s the time when you feel that you have power, and that you are someone. You can point to so many examples of it, of men still behaving like they’re in their twenties. Women around the world roll their eyes. You can feel them collectively roll their eyes.

Orr: At the same time, the movie has at least a hint of optimism in the scenes of Begbie with his father and with his son—the idea that Begbie may be a deranged psycho but he’s still better than his wino father, and his college-bound son will be a better man still. So even if men within their own lives can’t acquire the knowledge they need, do you think there can be improvement generation to generation?

Boyle: Yes, I do. I am an optimist. And Begbie does achieve some enlightenment. It’s not enough to save him personally, but it is enough to give you hope that the kid will escape the pattern of his father and his father’s father. That’s a particular concern in working-class communities, especially in post-industrial ones. The pattern of following your father was acceptable when the jobs were there, and of course now it’s not. There’s nothing there.

Orr: That’s a good segue to one of the most enjoyable scenes in the new film, in which Renton and Sick Boy find themselves in a bar full of angry, anti-Catholic nationalists obsessed with the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. And there’s a line, “These are the folks that have been abandoned by the political class.” Now that line obviously has a certain resonance post-Brexit and Donald Trump. I know it was written before those events, but as you were making the film, did you feel this kind of sentiment was coming to a head?

Boyle: Yes. That working-class, Protestant culture is very much compromised by the political class now. The sectarianism in Scotland—and it’s really only in Glasgow, and that scene was set in Glasgow—is a byproduct of the Northern Ireland malaise. In Northern Ireland it’s expressed in the structure of society. In Glasgow, it’s called “90-minute sectarianism,” because it’s mostly expressed through the football clubs.

It’s one of the things that emerges from, again, post-industrial malaise. Begbie has a speech later in which he says, “What do I get? What do I fucking get? I’m not smart, like you cunts.” Smart people get everything: What’s left for the working man? So, it’s not meant to be a political film, obviously. But it’s there. And the deepest irony is that we were filming when the Brexit vote happened. And we woke up expecting to narrowly remain in the EU….

Orr: I’m familiar with an experience like that one.

Boyle: But Scotland voted overwhelmingly to stay in. And the consequence of that is that Scotland will leave the United Kingdom. It will take two years or longer but they will leave. I can absolutely guarantee it. With this provocation of “we’re going to retreat back into a little England with Scotland attached”—the Scots will always pick Europe over England. Ironically, the Englanders who dreamed of the old days and of Britain as an isolated kingdom away from Europe, they will have broken up the United Kingdom and reduced England even further.

Orr: Speaking of Scotland, I felt like Edinburgh—and not just Edinburgh, but the surrounding country, too—was much more of a character in this film than in the original. Was that a conscious decision?

Boyle: For sure. Because it’s a homecoming film. it’s inevitable that place will play a bigger part in it. What is he coming home to? In the first film, there is a famous scene on Princes Street where they’re running away from the store detectives. But otherwise they’re just locked away in their world, their interior world of drug addiction and scamming and scheming. You barely see any of the outside world. But now Edinburgh has changed; it’s a much younger city than it ever was. Up to a quarter of the population are students, so the place is full of young people.

Orr: Without giving details away, while Renton was the narrator of the first film, the narrator of the second film, in a certain sense, is ultimately Spud. Do you think this makes the film more or less optimistic?

Boyle: The first one is more exuberant, and it feels more optimistic because it has that energy that has to do with their ages. And it’s also self-destructive and reckless and chaotic and carefree. But that energy is attractive. This film is a bit more considered, and the hope in it is a bit more considered, too.

Orr: So, optimistic but within a much more constrained set of expectations? When the first movie ends anything seems possible. Renton’s got £12,000 in a bag, and he’s young….

Boyle: So we worked it out, this money that Renton stole and that they all go on about. We worked it out and it would pay for a packet of cigarettes a day over those 20 years. That’s all it amounts to. It’s nothing.

Orr: Last question. Among the nice little cameos in the film is Sick Boy’s pellet gun, which Renton had used to shoot the pit bull in the first movie. Where had it been all these years?

Boyle: They just store props of films, and stuff got kept, mostly by the costume designers. We found lots of costumes as well, and so some of the kids that run around are actually wearing costumes that Renton and Sick Boy wore in the first film.

You look at the shirts they wore, and you think “How did they fit in them? They’re like baby shirts.” It’d be hard to find a better way to capture the passage of time.

More Life Is Another Smart Career Swerve for Drake
March 20th, 2017, 01:21 PM

The playbook for pop stardom keeps adding chapters in the internet age, with the surprise album, the visual album, the retail mixtape, the hit-containing deluxe edition, and the album-in-progress all representing new answers to the once-settled question of how best to package and release new music. Now Drake has offered up another categorical mindbender, calling his latest release, More Life, a “playlist,” despite the fact it’s made up of new songs whose primary author, by iTunes designation, is Drake.

Many write-ups are putting “playlist” in scarequotes—“It’s just an album, dude,” as The Ringer puts it—because on a technical level, calling More Life a playlist creates a distinction without a difference. But for Drake himself, the new term seems to signal a special sensibility, and the Toronto rapper’s influential career has shown that Drake’s evolving sensibilities—especially as they relate to maintaining cultural relevance—are worth understanding.

More Life follows 2016’s Views, a hugely popular album that earned an Album of the Year Grammy nomination after breaking chart records and producing Drake’s first No. 1 single (“One Dance”). The album had been hyped since 2014, looming as Drake’s great forthcoming opus even while he enjoyed success from his mixtape If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, his Future team-up What a Time to Be Alive, and the one-off hit “Hotline Bling.” When Views finally arrived, its cover had Drake sitting at the top of Toronto’s CN Tower, an image fitting the sense of culmination that surrounded it.

More Life is a stealthier, less-weighted project. Its release date was announced only a day in advance; it dropped on a Saturday night rather than the industry-standard music-delivery time of Friday morning; there aren’t physical copies. And rather than presenting itself as a comprehensive reckoning with Drake’s place in life and in his career, it’s framed as a sign of generosity, a bonus, another helping—“more chune for your head tops” Drake says in a sample that recurs throughout these songs like a radio-station bumper tag.

The focus here is on Drake as curator and kingpin, bringing together a diverse set of sounds from around the globe in tracks structured to deliver all-enveloping vibes rather than the suspense and release of pop hits. The producer Nineteen85 explained to Billboard that Drake has “so many good ideas that he just wants to put out without making it a big ordeal” and that he calls More Life a playlist “because he has a bunch of people in a space, hanging out…. He’s so aware of what everybody else is doing musically that he likes to introduce new music and new artists to the rest of the world.”

The ostensibly humbler ambitions of More Life allow Drake to pull some moves that might draw flack on another album. “Jorja Interlude” samples a song he released six years ago; “Get It Together” mostly just refurbishes a 2010 tune from the South African producer Black Coffee with new vocals. In some tracks, Drake barely appears at all. Observers know there’s nothing new about Drake’s self-referentiality or him swiping from music scenes less familiar to wide North American audiences—but here, the playlist conceit makes it so that the sharing of eclectic influences feels like the point. Already, the artists featured here have seen big boosts in their own streaming counts thanks to Drake listeners becoming intrigued by what they hear on More Life.

The format and somewhat muted promo also has the side effect of encouraging lowered expectations—which More Life can thrillingly clear. Critics and fans have been registering delight since Saturday, luxuriating in the glistening grooves of songs like “Passionfruit,” admiring the strong guest-starring turns like the ones from the rising UK singer Jorja Smith and from rap shapeshifter Young Thug, and picking apart Drake’s studiously crafted boasts on tracks like “Free Smoke” and “Can’t Have Everything.” The album is dense and bustling, but also laid back and chill-oriented—a balance that surely took a lot of work by Drake and his OVO team to pull off.

With 22 songs and an 81-minute runtime, More Life is just as voluminous as Views, and it’ll take time to sort through all the music—I’ll likely have a fuller review later on. But what’s already clear is that More Life is another savvy career move from a man who, along with Beyonce, is the era’s genius of redefining pop stardom. The lyrics throughout the tracklist make clear that Drake is preoccupied with the question of how to maintain the hot streak he’s enjoyed since 2009, and the final verse on More Life’s final song has Drake saying he’s going to take the summer off and will “be back in 2018 to give you the summary.” Until then, this leftfield yet satisfying release—however you classify it—should keep Drake in plenty of people’s playlists.

Mass Effect: Andromeda Is More About Choice Than Story
March 20th, 2017, 01:21 PM

Arguably the biggest contribution in recent years to the space-opera genre—that heady mix of sci-fi, fantasy adventure, and careful plotting that defines works like Star Wars and Doctor Who—has come from a video-game series: Mass Effect. With three titles released in 2007, 2010, and 2012, Mass Effect stood out for its close attention to world-building, complex storytelling, and customizability, allowing players’ choices to shape every narrative arc. The (multiple) endings of Mass Effect 3 were so controversial that the studio BioWare created an “extended cut” to try and mollify a vocally outraged subset of fans.

For better or worse, Mass Effect 3 ended the grand saga of Commander Shepherd and his loyal friends, leaving behind a beloved galaxy of alien races, intricate backstories, and storytelling possibilities. As Shepherd, the hero of the first three games, you were a military commander waging war against ancient celestial beings. But the game’s greatest moments often came in its less epic side-plots, which could range from detective mysteries to the kind of allegories on racism and class stratification one might associate with Star Trek. Five years later, there’s finally a new title in the series, Mass Effect: Andromeda, which offers the chance to play around in the same world—but without the frequently overwhelming storyline of the original games.

This move ends up being a surprisingly mixed bag. Andromeda appears to respond to some of the criticisms aimed at the earlier series: It’s much more open-world, concentrating on the exploration of other planets rather than a military campaign against a specific threat. It’s moved the setting to a new galaxy to shake up the established politics of the earlier games. And the possibilities for customization are practically limitless—every conversation you have can branch in several different directions, while every item, weapon, and piece of armor you own can be crafted, enhanced, and broken into pieces according to your whims.

If the earlier Mass Effect games were fantasy epics, Andromeda is more like a Western: Players are focused on the difficulties of life as a pioneer, living far from civilization, meeting unfamiliar friends and foes, and trying to create a habitable future. Set in between the first and second Mass Effect games (thus avoiding any controversy over that series’s ending), Andromeda focuses on Ryder, a “Pathfinder” sent on a deep-space colonization mission to another galaxy. As is typical for Mass Effect, you can pick your character’s first name, gender, and face. As the game progresses, you can embark on romantic partnerships, alliances, and certain stories.

The main difference is that, in earlier games, these options ended up guiding you toward inevitable confrontations. As Commander Shepherd, your job was to earn your team’s trust (by completing specific missions with them) and then send them out into battle. As Ryder in Andromeda, you still have the option of building a team of dependable companions (there’s a whole cast of characters for you to meet and stock your ship with), but your job is more amorphous—you visit hostile planets, terraform them so they can support life, and then pick which stories you pursue from there.

So, much of Andromeda’s suspense revolves around the conversations you have, the political choices you make, and the places you travel to. It’s staggeringly ambitious, but also painfully slow and detail-oriented at times, even though the game has also tried to diversify the combat systems of the earlier Mass Effects. (Andromeda makes battles against alien villains more chaotic and open, whereas the earlier games’ action sequences were straightforwardly on rails.) Andromeda will probably appeal to a smaller audience, one more enthusiastic about Mass Effect’s promise of customizable narratives than about its cinematic approach to sci-fi storytelling.

This emphasis on choice appears to be en vogue for some of the big-budget, open-world games of the moment. Ever since Grand Theft Auto III invented the format of the “sandbox” game that players can explore freely, game developers have promised more, more, more. Open-ended phenomenon games like Minecraft and No Man’s Sky put stock in randomness, allowing each player to experience unique worlds and build infinitely varied items to tackle them. Huge-scale RPGs like Skyrim, The Witcher 3, and Fallout 4 have central narratives that players can just decide to ignore, since there’s so much else to do on the periphery. Fallout 4, ostensibly a post-apocalyptic action game, literally lets you build your own city from the ground up.

Andromeda offers similar scale, but it’s almost hard to evaluate how well the pieces fit together. The opening hours of the game are a long, drawn-out tutorial that sees you explore and terraform a planet while doing battle with a hostile alien race. It’s a slog to get through, especially for an experienced Mass Effect player. But once the tutorial is over, the game becomes much more familiar and exciting, letting the player decide whether to focus on exploration, politics, action, or a mix of the three. Quests are more drawn-out and intricate; rather than taking place in some specific level, they can be spread out across an entire planet.

This industry trend toward ever more expansive gameplay calls to mind efforts by film and TV studios to get audiences on board for the long haul—whether via binge-friendly seasons or a whole universe of interconnected movies. In some ways, this approach offers the potential for real creative freedom. But as with some of the more bloated streaming shows, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the new Mass Effect game is a time investment so massive, that once you’ve made it, you need to stick around regardless of continued interest. Playing Andromeda is likely to eat up many hours of my life. But I’m still not sure it’ll be worth it.

Sympathy for the Con Man
March 20th, 2017, 01:21 PM

In New York City in 1849, a man named William Thompson stole a gold watch just by asking for it. Strolling down a busy Broadway, Thompson approached a stranger with a strange question: “Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?” Eager to prove his good faith, the stranger handed his watch over. Tomorrow came; Thompson did not. As far as street crimes go, it was a funny and largely forgettable one. Thompson himself has been largely forgotten, but he nonetheless retains the unique distinction of being the first so-called confidence man—named for “using the word confidence in his swindle,” as the scholar Johannes Dietrich Bergmann wrote in his landmark 1969 article on the origins of the phrase.

There’s a little of Thompson in every con man, whether real or fiction. Swindlers, grifters, and tricksters are everywhere in American literature and folklore, from Davy Crockett to the likes of Jay Gatsby and Augie March. Thompson himself was a probable inspiration for the inscrutable scammer in Herman Melville’s novel The Confidence Man. Now, another cast of cons appears in The Catch, Sneaky Pete, and The Imposters, all new or newish dramas on TV this year. These characters are all ultra savvy and ultra contemporary; in two cases, they’re ultra rich. But they speak to the same hopes and fears that turned Thompson into a newspaper fascination in the middle of the 19th century. The con artist was born in the same years as America’s expanding middle class, and just as the myth of self-made man was taking flight. And the contradictions of the swindler—on TV and elsewhere—are the contradictions of the myth of American self-making itself.

Sneaky Pete, which premiered on Amazon in the fall and was recently renewed for a second season, stars Giovanni Ribisi as Marius, a card shark and high-stakes grifter reduced to a more desperate swindle after a stint in prison. He’s not long out of jail before his previous mark, a gambling impresario played by Bryan Cranston, kidnaps his brother for a hefty ransom. So Marius poses as his cellmate, Pete, and pays a visit to Pete’s loving and long-estranged grandparents with the hopes of an easy score. But Pete’s family, of course, happens to run a bail-bond business, and Pete’s grandmother, played with a watchful warmth by Margo Martindale, has some extralegal schemes of her own. Marius, who started out trying to take their money, ends up trying to save Pete’s family from themselves and quickly becomes an unusual thing on television: a crook with compunction.

Both ABC’s The Catch and Bravo’s Imposters feature similar characters. The Catch, which recently returned for its second-season premiere, stars Mireille Enos as Alice, a private detective in Los Angeles who discovers that her cosmopolitan fiancé, Christopher, played by Peter Krause, is an international grifter who’s emptied her—and her business’s—savings account. As Alice hunts him down, a regretful Christopher (a.k.a. Benjamin Jones) tries to undo the damage, and con his way out of his own con. Imposters has a similar premise, with Inbar Lavi playing a crook named Maddie who courts a series of both men and women to separate them from their savings. She’s a flintier, funnier antihero than Christopher/Benjamin or Pete, but ultimately just as divided. It’s not long before she, too, has feelings for a would-be mark, and the grift gets less glamorous.

These cons all share a heavy conscience, but the shows themselves are refreshingly lightweight. They’re swift and soapy, and take obvious pleasure in the procedural flair of the schemes themselves—the deftly picked pocket, the improvised lie. Tonally, these series call to mind new and old caper classics like American Hustle, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Catch Me If You Can, and, most notably, The Sting, referenced specifically in Sneaky Pete. But what made those earlier films so enjoyable to watch was the fun that everyone seemed to be having in them. Think of Amy Adam’s delightfully put-on posh accent in the opening scenes of American Hustle, or The Sting, scored, tellingly, with the familiar piano refrain of “The Entertainer.” Catch Me If You Can saw confidence tricks as a kind of felonious job fair, with Leonardo Dicraprio’s character trying on a number of teen-dream careers for size: pilot, lawyer, doctor. Those movies occasionally explored the moral fallout of scamming, but they also documented the joys of self-invention—of revising your past and devising your future.

The cons of caper films, in other words, so often come across as buoyant enterprisers, cut from the same cloth as the American ideal of the self-made man. That ideal, like the confidence artist himself, came of age in the middle of the 19th century. Thompson carried out his famous watch-pocketing in 1849, as the industrializing cities swelled with young transplants from rural populations. Advice manuals with titles like Young Man’s Guide and Young Man’s Friend all cautioned carpetbaggers against the moral perils of city-living—gambling, drinking, assorted forms of dissipation.

But what brought men to the city, as the scholar Karen Halttunen writes in Confidence Men and Painted Women, wasn’t the promise of city vices. It was the broad promise of the “middle class,” denoting not a mid-way point between the rich and the poor but, precisely, the freedom to be either. Every American, or so the thinking went, could fashion himself into a person of his choosing, whether a drunken gambler or a quintessential man-on-the-make. This new ethic of success propelled the nascent industrial economies, leading some to believe, like the missionary Calvin Colton, that America had become a “country of self-made men.”

That optimism drew on many aspects of the American heritage: Calvinist morality; Benjamin Franklin’s maxims for self-improvement; Thomas Jefferson’s theories of a natural elite; Ralph Waldo Emerson’s case for self-reliance. It also lent the con artist a mythic, keenly American quality. Not long after Thompson’s theft, a letter writer to Boston’s Evening Transcript declared swindlers “indigenous characters […] in our courts and cities.” Ten years later, a pamphlet titled Tricks and Traps would claim con men as “a class peculiar to the West, found operating more or less extensively in every city.” By the 1850s, the very word “Yankee” was a near-synonym for confidence tricks: It connoted the figure of the Yankee peddler, an itinerant scammer hustling his way across the country.

Perhaps no one is more equipped to embody the American ideal of self-determination than the con—the figure who, through sheer imagination, becomes any person of his choosing. At his most benign, he incarnates the “discriminating irreverence” that Mark Twain described as “the creator and protector of human liberty,” and which buoys many of his own grifter characters. But the same qualities that make for a uniquely American hero also make for a uniquely American menace. In the wake of the Thompson craze, an anonymous satirist in the New York Herald compared Thompson’s shenanigans with those of New York’s burgeoning financial elite:

Those palazzos, with all their costly furniture, and all their splendid equipages, have been the product of the same genius [as Thompson]. His has been employed on a small scale in Broadway. Theirs has been employed in Wall Street. That’s all the difference. He has obtained half a dozen watches. They have pocketed millions of dollars. He is a swindler. They are exemplars of honesty. He is a rogue. They are financiers.

This writer wasn’t merely disparaging New York’s rich as common crooks. The point—a radical one for the time—was that crooks would always be common in corporate America. That is, if confidence tricks were the stuff of petty criminals, then they were also essential strategies in a market economy increasingly based on capitalist speculation.

This claim may have been barnstorming provocation in the 19th century, but today, that observation seems starkly prescient. A con man can be many things, but he has always been a fact of free enterprise: His genius is in exploiting the boldness that capitalist venture demands. While first espoused in the writing of Benjamin Franklin, confidence tricks have remained essential in advice literature for the corporate world, most notably in Dale Carnegie’s bestselling self-help book for business people, How To Win Friends and Influence People. Franklin may be America’s best known self-made man, but so, after a fashion, is the imprisoned fraudster Bernie Madoff, whose misdeeds have already been enshrined in a TV miniseries—and both men have been described as cons. That’s because the con is as ambivalent as the success ethic itself, which extends its promise to Emersonian self-cultivators and duplicitous schemers alike.

As that promise has waned, the word “con” has attached itself more firmly to the financial class. It has become common, in recent decades, for Wall Street’s critics to equate corporate mendacity with confidence tricks. In his 2011 book Confidence Men, the journalist Ron Suskind characterizes the events that led up to 2008’s global financial crisis as a “confidence game constructed between New York and Washington.” So, too, does Christine S. Richard compare Wall Street tactics to confidence games in her book on the “activist investor” Bill Acker, 2012’s aptly titled Confidence Game. The Wall Street swindler has become a cinematic archetype of his own, from Michael Douglas’s iconic turn as the id of ’80s wealth culture in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street to Adam McKay’s explanatory comedy-drama on the housing bubble, The Big Short. In public life, the word “con” now appears more often in association with Wall Street scions than small-time hustlers.

Perhaps that fact can’t help but modify, on some level, how Americans appreciate the con in caper stories. It’s difficult, now, to watch an adolescent Leonardo DiCaprio burn happily through millions of dollars of other people’s money in Catch Me If You Can without thinking of his later character, Jordan Belfort, doing the same thing less adorably in The Wolf of Wall Street. At a time when the reach of such misbehavior can plausibly extend into public coffers and public offices, spectacles of stolen wealth might not be as sympathetic as they used to be.

Which could be one reason the new cons on TV are at such pains to be likable. Marius on Sneaky Pete longs to belong to an average American family, even as he threatens to send an average American family into bankruptcy. Christopher/Benjamin in The Catch and Maddie in Imposters want relationships built on trust rather than on skilled deception. These shows balance the romance of the con with the receipts of its cost: broken hearts and empty bank accounts. And what drives these charlatans isn’t confidence, in fact, but a moral sensibility, and a belated desire for atonement.

The idea of a contrite con is, of course, a soothing fantasy—and a curiously apolitical one. These new swindler shows unfold in a nostalgic world where cons are still crafty self-starters rather than corporate villains, and where the stakes of a deception are still relatively small. They offer no explicit comment on any real-life crises and have little interest in tracing the morphologies of wealth and power. But there’s a grim statement nonetheless in their chronicles of fraudsters redeemed. If the only thing that can stop a confidence man, after all, is conscience, what’s to stop the confidence man without one?

Remembering Chuck Berry
March 19th, 2017, 01:21 PM

The greatest artists offer a reflection for a nation to see itself and its time, and Chuck Berry, a beautician by trade, knew a thing or two about holding up a mirror for a customer. His most famous song, “Johnny B. Goode,” is a classic story of the American dream: A poor, uneducated boy from the sticks uses his ability to make a guitar ring like a bell to make good—or so the listener is left to assume, though Berry left the ending notably ambiguous.

But Berry, unlike his protagonist, didn’t grow up in log-cabin rural squalor—he was a middle-class African American from segregated urban St. Louis. It is another of his compositions, using nearly the same opening riff—and when you write a lick that good, why not reuse it?—that demonstrates Berry’s ability to depict post-war America so convincingly.

The singer in “Promised Land” is, like the guitar-slinging Goode, a young man on the make. Starting off from home in Norfolk, Virginia, in a Greyhound, the singer wants to make it to California to make his name. The song is an atlas of America—great cities like New Orleans and Atlanta crop up, but so do smaller ones like Rock Hill, South Carolina, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Like his contemporaries the Beat Poets, the singer is determined to travel, but unlike them he does not have the tendency toward (nor, perhaps, the privilege of) shiftlessness. When the 'hound breaks down in Alabama, he hops a train—but he’s riding in style, not jumping a freight like Neal Cassady. Family members in Houston buy him a silk suit and an airplane ticket, and by the time he reaches California, he’s tucking into a T-bone steak on a jet airplane. With each new, fancier mode of transportation—bus, then train, then airliner—his horizons grow in tandem with a nation whose own future seemed limitless. (Berry was also closely attuned to that essential 1950s American preoccupation, the automobile, obsessively cataloging makes and models in other tunes.)

The road trip is a classic American trope, but Berry makes it his own, and his era’s own; when before the 1960s could a young black man in the American South have set out so confidently on his journey? The trip ends successfully, though when the singer reaches his destination, he is jubilant but still has to call collect:

Los Angeles, give me Norfolk, Virginia,
Tidewater four-10-O-nine
Tell the folks back home this is the promised land callin’
And the poor boy’s on the line.

“Promised Land” captures the romance of the road, upward mobility, conspicuous consumption, and a touch of Jay Gatsby vulnerability, and it does so in a fully realized narrative. And it does all that in two minutes and 24 seconds.

Berry was rightly, if belatedly, celebrated as an inventor of rock ’n’ roll, or at least as good a candidate as any other single individual. People have been declaring rock dead for decades now, and if that is so, then the singer, guitarist, and songwriter may have outlasted his own creation, dying Saturday at age 90. Berry was a total package—a fierce guitarist, a powerful singer, a great songwriter. He even had a claim on creating the rock ’n’ roll move, projecting raw sexual power before Elvis got anywhere near the Ed Sullivan Show, duckwalking across stages before Angus Young was even in short pants, and busting moves like Jagger avant la lettre.

Berry was for years underrated as the father of rock ’n’ roll, the victim of a racist epidemic of whitewashing from which his reputation only began to recover in the last decades of his life. As Jack Hamilton writes, “Even in the late 1960s, the exceptional nature of [Jimi] Hendrix’s race confirmed a view of rock music that was quickly rendering blackness definitively other, so much so that at the time of his death, the idea of a black man playing electric lead guitar was literally remarkable—‘alien’—in a way that would have been inconceivable for Chuck Berry only a short while earlier.”

The simplest formula for rock ’n’ roll is straightforward: A fusion of black blues and rhythm blues with hillbilly creates something new. As is often the case in music history, the people who got richest and got the most credit for that fusion tended to be white—thus Presley was the one crowned the King. Berry was marginalized and cast as a link to the rhythm and blues tradition, rather than the father who sired the fusion himself.

But that was false. Berry was the product of cosmopolitan St. Louis, where he heard plenty of vernacular music of all types. As a young man he could croon sweet music like Nat King Cole, play the blues like Muddy Waters, or pick a country tune. “Curiosity provoked me to lay a lot of our country stuff on our predominantly black audience,” he wrote in his autobiography. “After they laughed at me a few times, they began requesting the hillbilly stuff and enjoyed dancing to it.” Berry’s first single, “Maybellene,” released in 1955, was a rewrite of an old Western swing number by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Two years later, he recorded “Deep Feeling,” an instrumental on pedal-steel guitar.

Berry’s audiences may have been predominantly black when he started mixing country in with the blues, but they didn’t stay that way. His music became hugely popular among white teenagers, including one Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minnesota. “When I first heard Chuck Berry, I didn’t consider that he was black. I thought he was a white hillbilly,” the Minnesotan claimed years later, and while Bob Dylan is not always a reliable narrator, his comments in 2015 highlight how Berry’s appeal crossed the boundaries of color. It even crossed the boundary of interstellar space, as part of a golden record placed aboard the Voyager space probe in 1977. (Steve Martin joked on Saturday Night Live that the first four words aliens would communicate to earth would be, “Send more Chuck Berry.”)

This line-crossing had a limit, of course. Berry could sell millions of records to white listeners, but his frank display of black male sexuality still represented a provocation to the white-supremacist order. Berry delighted in this rebellion, and portrayed it in song. The less said of “My Ding-a-Ling” the better, but take the opening verse of “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” in which an apparently African American man is sprung from jail by his paramour, the wife of a powerful white man:

Arrested on charges of unemployment,
he was sitting in the witness stand
The judge's wife called up the district attorney
She said, “Free that brown-eyed man,
You want your job, you better free that brown-eyed man.”

In 1959, Berry was charged with violating the Mann Act, which forbids taking a minor across state lines for immoral purposes, and which was frequently employed to target prominent black men on dubious charges. Berry appealed the charges, alleging racism on the judge’s part. His appeal was successful, though he was convicted again after a retrial. By the time he finished serving his time, the music he created had become the biggest game in the world, leaving him behind even as others got rich playing his songs. (Berry later faced some other legal troubles, including a tax-evasion conviction; he also settled a lawsuit alleging he had spied on women in the bathroom of a restaurant he owned using hidden cameras.)

As a guitarist, Berry’s claim as an original was clearest. “Rocket 88” preceded “Maybellene” by several years, and Elvis Presley’s “That’s Alright Mama” a year sooner, but Berry invented the sound of rock ’n’ roll guitar. You won’t find much more than the three chords that form the basis of blues and country in Berry’s oeuvre, and you won’t miss the others. Playing on semi-hollow-body Gibson guitars, Berry created a sound that drew on Charlie Christian’s clean swing, Muddy Waters’s overdrive, and T-Bone Walker’s two-string bends. The result was a sound that was unmistakably bluesy, but just as clearly not the blues, lending itself to punchy, concise solos that remain the foundation of rock guitar.

The proof of Berry’s influence comes in the array of artists who covered his songs, with the Beatles’ rendition of “Roll Over Beethoven” leading the list. Also on it: The Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, and the Beach Boys, who lifted the melody of “Surfin’ USA” from “Sweet Little Sixteen.”

But putting too much emphasis on Berry as progenitor is fraught, because it risks relegating him to the dusty corners of the musical pantheon, more revered than listened to. Committing such an error would overlook not only Berry’s guitar playing and singing, but also his astonishing lyrical genius, matched in American music only by Dylan.

That genius included the ability to turn a novel phrase. Who had ever said, as Berry did in “Maybellene,” “As I was motorvatin’ over the hill”? And yet who could misunderstand the neologism, or improve on it? “Roll Over Beethoven” is so familiar that its witty turns of phrase are easily overlooked. There are seamlessly integrated allusions to both Carl Perkins and Mother Goose (“Don’t you step on my blue suede shoes/Hey diddle diddle, I am playin’ my fiddle”), the audacious step of not only mentioning Tchaikovsky in a pop song but fitting his name into the rhyme scheme, and this matchless verse:

I got the rockin’ pneumonia,
I need a shot of rhythm and blues
I caught the rollin’ arthritis
Sittin’ down at a rhythm review

When the song was released in 1956, the idea that an African American hairdresser-turned-guitar-slinger from St. Louis could announce the toppling of Ludwig van Beethoven must have seemed impudently absurd; just a decade later, a quartet of young Englishmen who got famous playing Berry covers could claim with straight faces that they were bigger than Jesus.

Berry wasn’t just a wit; he was a raconteur who could compress a short story into just a few verses, complete with characterization, exposition, and plot. The skill is on display in “Promised Land,” spanning the entire North American continent, and “Johnny B. Goode,” where an indelible character springs from just three verses. A somewhat lesser-known song, 1970’s “Tulane,” shows Berry’s storytelling talent. The chorus is a gem in its own right, proving that with the aid of a funky triplet feel, a resourceful songwriter can write nearly endless choruses where every line begins with “go.”

As for the verses, the setup is simple: Johnny and Tulane open up a novelty store as a front for selling drugs, but eventually they’re caught. What makes the song work is an ingenious device: Tulane’s flight from the police, and his attempts to clean up the situation, are narrated by Johnny, his arrested co-conspirator, as a set of instructions:

Go by your father’s house and tell him, “Business is slow,”
And see if he will loan us something, soon as you hit the door
Put the cat out in the hall and rumple up the room
Go by Doctor Keller and tell him you swallowed some perfume
Tell him we need him quick ’cause he may have to testify
That you’ve been sick all day, and that’s a perfect alibi

The song is told in the knowing voice of a man acquainted with the small-time crime (a teenaged Berry was sent to reformatory for armed robbery) and, as a result, somewhat jaundiced about the criminal-justice system (“We gotta get a lawyer in the clique of politics”).

By the time “Tulane” came out, Berry’s star had faded. He continued to record and tour regularly, but he’d become effectively an oldies act. It was only in the 1980s that, despite his occasional legal troubles, Berry began to receive the acknowledgment he deserved. In 1979, he performed at the White House; in 1984, he received a Grammy for lifetime achievement, and two years later he was in the first class of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (At least three fellow members of Berry’s class had covered his songs.)

Berry continued to perform well into his eighties, keeping a standing date at Blueberry Hill in St. Louis for almost twenty years. On his 90th birthday in October, Berry announced plans to release Chuck, his first record since 1979. Recording is reportedly finished, though no release date has been set. Berry, however, will not be around to see it. His chariot has swung low and taxied to the terminal zone, and the poor boy is in the promised land.

Kristen Stewart and Cowboy Music: The Week in Pop-Culture Writing
March 19th, 2017, 01:21 PM

How to Look at Kristen Stewart
Josephine Livingstone | The New Republic
“The problem with this type of characterization is that it defines Stewart’s magic through a gendered absence. Stewart refuses to give herself over to the audience, these critics say, and so she is mysterious and effective through a logic of subtraction. This mysterious woman is a little Dream Girl-ish, if not outright Manic Pixie. How nice to have a leading lady who plays hard to get. But we don’t have to see Stewart this way.”

The Not-So-Secret Life of Terrence Malick
Eric Benson | The Texas Monthly
“That a certain segment of the internet would be so hungry for even a fleeting glimpse of Malick is not surprising. The director is as famous for his closely guarded privacy as his output. He has not given an on-the-record interview in nearly four decades. From 1978, when Paramount released Malick’s second film, the Panhandle-set Days of Heaven, until 1998, when his World War II epic, The Thin Red Line, premiered, Malick more or less vanished.”

Rachel Cusk’s Many Selves
Heidi Julavits | The Cut
“She will not go back to writing fiction the way she used to write it. Fate, she said, is the fundamental engine of narrative, and women are particularly vulnerable to the fake security it promises. When we spoke about irrational systems of prediction—psychics and horoscopes (Transit begins with an astrologer)—she said that people consult these systems because they believe in a happy ending. ‘You would never consult the runes otherwise,’ she said. ‘That comes from a feminine lack of control with destiny and willful self-deception about what happiness actually is and what the good outcome actually is.’”

The Roots of Cowboy Music
Carvell Wallace | MTV News
“I had an image of cowboy poets as something very close to how I saw myself. Not culturally, but spiritually. People who find beauty in the simplest things. People who like to wander. People who become overwhelmed with feeling and need to write it out. People who feel most safe where there is nothing to contain them. People who like to be alone.”

The Fate of the Critic in the Clickbait Age
Alex Ross | The New Yorker
“The trouble is, once you accept the proposition that popularity corresponds to value, the game is over for the performing arts. There is no longer any justification for giving space to classical music, jazz, dance, or any other artistic activity that fails to ignite mass enthusiasm. In a cultural-Darwinist world where only the buzziest survive, the arts section would consist solely of superhero-movie reviews, TV-show recaps, and instant-reaction think pieces about pop superstars. Never mind that such entities hardly need the publicity, having achieved market saturation through social media.”

The Video-Game Industry Has a Diversity Problem
Chella Ramanan | The Guardian
“So how can things change? A key element is going to be challenging the dominant culture by attracting more young women and people of color into the industry. But that’s easier said than done. Industry insiders argue that they just don’t have the candidates coming through at the recruitment stage, due to a lack of women studying computer science or other tech subjects at graduate level.”

Why the Whitney’s Humanist, Pro-Diversity Biennial Is a Revelation
Roberta Smith | The New York Times
“Some of the breathtaking openness and diversity of contemporary art is evident in this show’s participants and its range of media—from painting, which is plentiful and mostly but not entirely figurative, to digital and virtual-reality art. Nearly half are female, and half nonwhite; its demographics argue that not only do black lives matter (along with Hispanic, Asian, Muslim, and immigrant lives), they are essential to our quality of life—physical, emotional, cultural, linguistic, economic, educational, environmental.”

Trans Women Shouldn’t Have to Constantly Defend Their Womanhood
Morgan M Page | BuzzFeed
“The specter of male privilege has long since been a way to deny trans women’s womanhood and basic humanity. Invoking male privilege is often meant to imply that trans women don’t know what it is like to live as ‘real’ women—that we have not suffered the way other women have suffered, that we have not been disenfranchised by patriarchy because of our genders, and that our early experiences allow us access to forms of social power which influence how we move through the world even after we transition.”