Friday, December 28, 2012

Playback 2012: 12 Great Music Videos

English rapper Plan B, aka Ben Drew.
His video for "ill Manors" made my list of 2012's greatest videos. 

Lots of people are proud of the fact that they can name the first music video to air on MTV back in 1981 -- "Video Killed the Radio Star" by The Buggles. What few people know is that the song went to number one in 16 countries, excluding the United States, in 1979. And airing on the network still couldn't rescue The Buggles from one-hit-wonder status.

Conceived primarily as a marketing device to promote sales, the music video has been around in some form or another since the 1960s. MTV, and later VH1, provided the outlet for the medium to flourish and suddenly every artist and band needed a video. When those networks abandoned music videos for reality-based programming, the Internet proved to be an even more perfect fit. Launched in 2005, YouTube has made viewing music videos fast and easy. Proof? Justin Bieber's "Baby" video has been viewed over 800 million times! (Feel free to weep for humanity). Can't find the video you're looking for on YouTube? It's probably on VEVO or Dailymotion.

So, what makes a great music video? We could debate this for an entire lost weekend. For me, it starts with a good song. Sometimes the artist/band is mesmerizing enough to hold my attention without a lot of bells and whistles. Then again, I love it when they come up with an unexpectedly clever or witty concept. But I can really appreciate a superbly choreographed and edited performance, too.  And finally, there are those rare music videos that transcend whatever's fashionable at the moment and introduces or advances a new aesthetic. Here are 12 of the videos I watched repeatedly in 2012. It's a diverse collection, selected for many different reasons, and I believe they're all truly great. Your reactions may vary, of course. Comments welcome.

"Gangnam Style" - PSY. Let's get things started with the video that finally surpassed Justin Bieber's "Baby" as the most-watched of all time on YouTube. Yes, "Gangnam Style" has over a billion views as I write this.  Psy is a South Korean songwriter/rapper/dancer/producer whose international hit refers to the affluent Gangnam district of Seoul. The video -- a satire of the lifestyle there -- is bursting with energy, comically brilliant ideas and zany dancing.

"Call Me Maybe" - The U.S. Marines Lip-dub Version. Carly Rae Jepsen's ubiquitous sugar-rush pop hit had a sweet little video that depicted her swooning over the boy next door, who looks like an Abercrombie & Fitch model and turns out to be -- spoiler alert! -- gay. The song inspired literally hundreds of spoofs, parodies and feel-good lip dub videos that you can find all over YouTube. The best, to me, is this one put together by a bunch of U.S. Marines stationed in Afghanistan. Confession: I'm a sucker for this kind of video. Some folks can't seem to appreciate watching military personnel cutting up and having fun, but I wholeheartedly approve of something this harmless, especially if it keeps them sane over there.

"Express Yourself" - Diplo (featuring Nicky Da B). Diplo is a Philadelphia-based DJ, producer and songwriter. Nicky Da B comes from the world of bounce rappers, a cultural creation emerging from New Orleans. Their musical collaboration is hyperactive, edgy and funky. The video is an intoxicating mash-up of rapping and ass-shaking on the streets of New Orleans. I'm serious about the ass-shaking.

"Losing You" - Solange. Solange Knowles is the younger sister of Beyonce. Feel free to make your comparisons. I believe she successfully emerges from her big sister's shadow with "Losing You," a terrific mixed-mood dance dirge. The video was shot in a section of Cape Town, South Africa, and features locals as well as Les Sapeurs (Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People), a group of men from the Congo who make and model colorful handmade suits. The captivating mixture of splendid fashion, unusual location and Solange's impossibly long legs is a fascinating juxtaposition to the lyrics.

"My Country" - tUne-yArDs. Tune-Yards (stylized as tUnE-yArDs) is the brainchild of New Englander Merrill Garbus, a woman with an extraordinarily versatile voice, described by the New York Times as "somewhere between Aretha Franklin and Yoko Ono. At times it's a roar, and at times it's coy, but her ability to modulate it shows off a rhythmic and artistic intelligence that echoes Bjork, and even to a degree M.I.A." The video for "My Country" features the kids of Brightworks School and San Francisco Rock Project, a non-profit dedicated to providing musical education for young musicians 7-18 in California's Bay Area. About the only thing that could upstage Garbus' show-stopping vocals are a mob of dancing, face-painted kids making goofy faces.

"The Full Retard" - El-P. If the title alone doesn't offend you, something in the clip probably will. Here we have Brooklyn rapper El-P teaming up with a demented, murderous, drug-addicted squirrel puppet. There's a crime spree. And debauchery. Yeah, the puppet goes to some dark, fucked up places. It's a bangin' song and a hilarious video (once you accept it as a parody of a million bad rap videos and terrible badass movies). It's totally NSFW (not safe for work). Seriously.

"How Deep is Your Love" - The Rapture. They're a New York-based post-punk revival indie band
that mixes a lot of genres. "How Deep is Your Love" is NOT a cover of the old Bee Gees hit, but rather a terrific gospel-disco number that really finds its groove about forty seconds in. The video is a loving ode to African-American church ladies. Vocalist Luke Jenner has been miniaturized and inserted into their Sunday rituals. It's sublime and ridiculous.

"Want it Back" - Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra. Alternative rockers Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra have a dark, but energetic sound. Palmer's voice is distinctive and memorable. So's this video, a beautiful stop-motion animation piece that features the song's lyrics written on a variety of surfaces, including Palmer's naked body. Taking three days to shoot and featuring the skills of tattoo-graffiti artist Curran James, this is one of the most visually arresting videos of the year. (So let's be clear: This is uncensored and NSFW.)

"Borrow and Bomb" / "I Got News For You" - OFF! Formed in 2009, OFF! is a hardcore punk band featuring members of other bands like Circle Jerks, Black Flag and Burning Brides. They specialize in aggressive songs that kick ass even if they only last about a minute. This video is a clever, lampoon of those local TV shows that were so prevalent back in the day. Divided into two parts, the first features Kids in the Hall alumni Dave Foley as the befuddled host of Teen Talk with special guests OFF! Then the whole thing switches to a workout program called Electracize that's hosted by a sweaty bear in a tank top and leg warmers. Even if you don't like punk, the video's aesthetic is genuinely hilarious. (And Canadian Dave Foley is one of that country's national treasures.)

"National Anthem" - Lana Del Rey. Singer/songwriter (and fashion model) Lana Del Rey uploaded some of her music to a YouTube channel in 2011, got discovered, and signed a recording contract. Her first album hit big, got positive reviews and led to a January 2012 appearance as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. Her music is chilly, torchy and a little hip hoppy. She can get away with this line: Money is the anthem of success, so put on mascara and your party dress. This seven minute video for "National Anthem," is undeniably brazen and self-indulgent, featuring Del Rey as some kind of Marilyn Monroe/Jackie Kennedy hybrid married to a "president" played by rapper ASAP Rocky. A spin on the romantic myth of the Kennedy presidency unfolds in stunningly hypnotic Super-8 photography. And you'll know from the first minute where it's all headed -- a can't-look-away re-enactment of the JFK assassination that either embodies bad taste or transcends it, depending on who you are.

"iLL Manors" - Plan B. At 28, British rapper Ben Drew, AKA Plan B, wrote and directed the film ill Manors, then produced a soundtrack album for it as well. NPR said Plan B's burning scorn for society on the title track "is a bitterly articulate howl of underclass rage." It's one of the best songs of the year -- that no one in America seems to have heard. But then, it's protest music, a fairly elusive genre in the U.S. The video is a riveting, dizzying, seamlessly edited combination of scenes from the 2011 London riots and staged carnage. It's immersive, feeling more like a documentary than a music video.


"Let's Have a Kiki" - Scissor Sisters. First they recorded the best novelty dance track of 2012, then they put together an inspired, gloriously low-budget "instructional" video treatment to bring us all up to speed.

And if you'd like to see any of my 13 honorable mentions below, click on a title to take you to the video.

"Wut" - Le1f. The openly gay rapper recorded dance floor gold, then infused the video with his wicked sense of humor, hilarious fashion sense and moves. 

"Time to Dance" - The Shoes. This French dance/pop duo released a smashing remix of their 2011 hit and made it the soundtrack for a jarring eight-minute video that answers the question, "What if Jake Gyllenhaal was a deeply disturbed, chain-smoking gym rat with a propensity for killing hipsters?" Beware. You may never look at his earnest, puppy dog face the same way again. 

"Wandering Sailor" - Kingship. The song is a pretty solid retro-rocker with a great vocal. For the video, this Brooklyn-based duo (Paul Leschen and Chris Hall) delivered a highly-stylized, kitschy-sexy homage to the little-seen 1982 foreign film Querelle. You might have problems with the ending; I didn't. 

"Tightrope" - Walk the Moon.  These Ohio indie pop-rockers know how to write an infectious tune that makes you want to sing along. The video is jubilant, goofy and insanely cute. It's simply impossible to hate a video that represents fire with red-painted spirit fingers.

"Wildest Moments - Jessie Ware. One of my favorite discoveries in 2012, this lovely English singer/songwriter makes evocative electro-soul. The video keeps things minimal. It's just Ware, impeccably styled and placed against a blank background, slowly rotating in a circle for the camera as she sings. Not every video  -- or artist -- needs explosions, choreography, lasers or an impenetrable plot to sell a song. 

"Just Breathe" - Willie Nelson. Nelson, with his nasal voice and relaxed, jazzy singing style, can't simply be categorized as a country artist. He transcends the genre. Married four times, Nelson has fathered seven children, including Lukas, who duets with him on this Pearl jam cover. Lukas sounds eerily like his father and their collaboration is remarkably tender and raw. Their performance is served extraordinarily well by the no-frills video treatment.

"Her Fantasy" - Matthew Dear. Let me state my bias up front: I think Matthew Dear is brilliant. (And kinda quietly sexy.) I defy you not to move to his music. "Her Fantasy" is luscious synth-pop-dance perfection. The trippy video features a quirky cast of characters from a dance floor in an alternate universe -- where no one dances.

"Hold Me Back" - Rick Ross. Controversial rapper Rick Ross usually makes videos filled with bling, booty and badass posturing. You'll still find some of that in the stripped-down black and white clip for "Hold Me Back," but what sets this one apart is location - it was shot in the decaying Calliope Housing Projects of New Orleans.  Ross is sweaty, bare chested, angry and surrounded by real people - the kind that generally make mainstream white audiences very nervous. It feels a lot more genuine than his other videos. And Ross uses the word nigga about 45 times. I didn't count how many times he used the slang term for vagina. So you've been warned.

"The Descent" -  Bob Mould. The video for alternative rocker Bob Mould's song depicts the topical tale of an aging man who gets laid off from his corporate job. He leaves that world and the city behind, embracing a different kind of life altogether. I think most of us have had fleeting moments where we considered doing exactly what he does here. Even better, that's Bob Mould himself playing the corporate cast off. He's utterly convincing (and one pretty hot daddy.) The song is great, too - a chunky, powerful slab of guitar rock.

"Somebody" - Jukebox the Ghost. Shiny, happy indie pop. Clever video with swell choreography. Resistance is futile.

"Candy" - Robbie Williams. English singer/songwriter Robbie Williams has been around since the early '90s, first as part of the the boy band Take That, then emerging as a solo artist in the 2000s. He's the best-selling British solo artist of all time in the United Kingdom, but inexplicably ignored in the U.S. Here, he's some kind of sexy guardian angel-boyfriend having a particularly crazy day that includes getting set on fire and run over by cars. The song? Pure, unapologetic pop.

"How" - Regina Spektor. Born in the Soviet Union, singer-songwriter Regina Spektor came to America at the age of 9 -- during the period of Perestroika, when Soviet citizens were permitted to emigrate. As an adult, she eventually wound up in New York City and became involved in what's been called the anti-folk scene. Anti-folk has been described as a musical genre that takes the earnestness of politically-charged 1960s folk music and subverts it. It sounds a little more raw or experimental, and even mocks the seriousness and pretension of the established mainstream music scene. You get all that in Spektor's piano-driven break-up balled "How." The quirky video shifts between serious and loopy imagery that feels deliberately designed to keep you from settling into the sadness of the lyrics.

"The Diplomat" - Pig Destroyer. They're a grindcore band from Richmond, Virginia. "The Diplomat" is a better-than-average example of the genre, and the video is colorful, garish, cartoonish, violent and, most interestingly, brilliant social commentary. 

This is my last post of 2012. I'd like to thank the people who followed this blog faithfully and gave me lots of positive feedback. I'll be back in 2013, but I'm flirting with ideas for changing the format. Stay tuned.


Friday, December 14, 2012

Playback 2012: 8 Regrettable Music Videos

Before 2012 is over, I'll be doing a blog about my favorite music videos of the year. But this week's blog is all about the most regrettable music videos I saw.

Madonna is crying black tears because she made my list of 2012's most regrettable music videos.

Now, honestly, I could not have possibly seen every music video released in the past year even though I subscribe to a bunch of YouTube music channels and scour various websites on a daily basis for new clips. By my own estimate, I watched well over a thousand of them in the past year. Yes, literally thousands are made every year, but these are the ones that had me cringing and rolling my eyes. Or just wondering, What the fuck?!? So here they are, the eight most regrettable music videos of 2012... in my very subjective, personal and biased opinion. Your reactions may vary, of course. Comments welcome.

Here's my list, in no particular order...

Taylor Swift - "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together." Maybe you know her remarkable story already. She started out country in 2006, did the pop crossover thing in 2008 and has subsequently sold over 26 million albums and 70 million digital downloads. She has six Grammy Awards and reviews of her work have been strong -- Rolling Stone once described her as "a songwriting savant with an intuitive gift for verse-chorus-bridge architecture." This year, at the age of 22 (Jesus Christ, she's only 22!), Swift released her fourth album, Red. It went to number one as did the first single, "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together." I think it's supposed to be some kind of girl-power break-up anthem, except that she sounds barely agitated, not angry. It literally makes me yearn for Alanis Morissette, someone who could write and deliver lyrics that made you believe her ex-boyfriend was a real bastard. So the last thing Swift's song needed was a corny video where she jumps around in her pajamas and is surrounded by musicians dressed in animal costumes... for some reason. The whole thing feels like it's been designed to pander to a fan base who needs Taylor Swift to remain perpetually sixteen.

Jason Aldean - "Take a Little Ride." Aldean hit it big in 2010 with an album called My Kinda Party, featuring a power ballad duet with Kelly Clarkson ("Don't You Wanna Stay"), the satisfying "Dirt Road Anthem," and a bunch of other radio-ready songs about drinking, raising hell and screwed-up relationships. He sells it all convincingly enough with his authentic rural Georgia nasal twang and winning (if familiar) formula. Then came "Take a Little Ride" last summer, a song that feels like it was written specifically for a truck commercial. To drive the point home for advertising agencies, the video treatment illustrates just exactly how easy it would be for them to turn Aldean's song into a truck commercial... by essentially making a freakin' truck commercial. And don't get me started on how Aldean's stylist dressed him in a pair of jeans with holes at both knees. I've hated that look since 1990 when Whitney Houston did it in her video for "I'm Your Baby Tonight." What do they want us to believe, that these celebrities spend all day on their knees?

Crystal Castles - "Plague." They are a Canadian electronic experimental duo that specializes in lo-fidelity melancholic homemade productions. "Plague" has a gothy, ominous vibe that may or may not get under your skin. I kinda dig it. The accompanying clip, however, looks like lost footage from some late '70s Brian DePalma horror movie. A woman flails violently and helplessly in a subway station, seemingly the victim of demonic possession. It's mesmerizing and disturbing. Then, at 1:54, the video switches away to a ballet studio for thirty seconds of weirdness before shifting back to crazy subway lady. Finally, after three minutes and twenty-five seconds you will have to decide if all this means something or if Crystal Castles is just fucking with us. (Hint: It's the latter.)

High on Fire - "Fertile Green." They're a stoner metal band from Oakland, California. Yes, stoner metal is an actual subgenre that combines elements of traditional heavy metal, psychedelic rock, blues rock, acid rock and doom metal. It emerged from California in the early 1990s. It's loud. The trio known as High on Fire has been around since 1998 and their website suggests that they don't release albums, they unleash them. They also characterize their sound as "punishing." To prepare you for the experience of watching their "Fertile Green" clip, the band provides some exposition: The video follows the story of Balteazeen, the Christ Twin, who sacrificed himself to give Jesus life. Forever hunted, he roams the slaughterhouse of Time, searching for answers to the riddle of his own existence...

And how does one gain access to the "slaughterhouse of Time?" Through the vagina-like opening of a giant rock formation that's shaped like the female body. Of course.

Madonna - "Girl Gone Wild." I know. People are going to hate me for this. But I am prepared to make my case. Madonna released her twelfth studio album, MDNA, in 2012. Reviews were mixed. Now, I don't own any Madonna albums, though I have downloaded a handful of her digital singles. She's capable of making really fine dance/pop music. Frankly, Madonna has nothing to prove; she's the best-selling female recording artist of all time. But every single from MDNA felt generic or cliched. Worse, you can feel her pouring a lot of desperate energy into sounding 23 instead of 53. And that's what I found so disappointing about the video for "Girl Gone Wild." The whole thing feels like a frenzied, futile attempt to make us think it's 1992, when she was at her most controversial, releasing the Erotica album and her coffee table book of softcore pornographic photographs, Sex.

Die Antwoord - "I Fink U Freeky." Die Antwoord is a South African electronic-rap-rave band whose music is boisterous, vulgar and a little bit brilliant. I like them. I almost didn't include this one on the list because there are, in fact, things I admire about their video for "I Fink U Freeky." It's not easy to create something genuinely creepy, gross and unsettling, but they've done it here using rats, snakes and people with scary teeth. The question is why would you make this video? So it earned a place on the list for simply being the only music video in 2012 that made me truly wonder... what the hell is wrong with these people?

Justin Bieber - "Beauty and A Beat." Every generation has its teen idols -- celebrities who are widely idolized by teenagers. Especially teenage girls. Frank Sinatra is generally regarded as the first one, selling a lot of records back in the 1940s, then reinventing himself as a serious actor and musician in the 1950s. Teen idols are often deliberately cultivated to be as bland and non-threatening as possible. They have fresh, wholesome faces (think Ricky Nelson or David Cassidy) and appear safe, approachable. Frequently, there's something almost asexual about them, too. And that brings us to the stunningly successful worldwide phenomenon known as Justin Bieber. His songs are hooky, Auto-tuned candy corn that you'll either love or dismiss without reservation as garbage. His autumn single, "Beauty and A Beat," caught my interest solely because it's a collaboration with Nicki Minaj, a controversial, unapologetically foulmouthed rapper-singer-songwriter who is everything Justin Bieber is not. The video begins with this fake allegation:

In October of 2012 three hours of personal footage was stolen from musician Justin Bieber. The following footage was illegally uploaded by an anonymous blogger. 

There are actually human beings on the planet who believed those statements to be true. That's comical but beside the point. This video looks like his handlers' maladroit and woefully over-the-top attempt to edge Bieber towards a more mature audience. The way to undermine that edging is by starting out with that bit of stolen footage nonsense and then shooting the video in a waterpark filled with dancers, some of whom are skilled at synchronized swimming and a few that get dangerously close to working stripper poles. The song is unremarkable, notable only for it's dubstep breakdown featuring Nicki Minaj, who is allowed to use the word "bitches" in her verse, but eschews her usual rapid-fire obscenities. She dutifully appears in the video, rapping away and mock-swooning over a suddenly hormonal and gyrating Bieber. My eyes! My eyes! It's not just the most unsuccessful coupling of the year; it's the most ridiculous.

David Lynch - "Crazy Clown Time." Filmmaker David Lynch has given the world Twin Peaks, The Elephant Man, Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, among other things. His unique cinematic style has been dubbed "Lynchian," and his work is violent, disturbing, mystifying and weird. Often at the same time. I'm not sure anyone has been clamoring for music by Lynch, but he made some over the last few years anyway. His latest effort is an album entitled Crazy Clown Time, and not surprisingly he directed a video for the title track. That's Lynch singing the simple, fragmented lyrics in some kind of modulated falsetto. The images are a hallucinatory but literal translation of the words -- which are all about a bunch of people losing their shit at a backyard party. It's seven interminable minutes of pointlessness that were no doubt interpreted as unconditional brillance by his ardent fans. The best I can say about it? There's no clown in the whole damn thing.

Look for my ten favorite videos of 2012 before the end of the year.

Peace out,

Friday, December 7, 2012

The (There's No War on) Christmas Special 2012

Welcome to this special Christmas edition of my blog. I'm old enough to remember when the only time you heard the word gay was when people sang Christmas carols. Don we now our gay apparel, for instance (from "Deck the Halls"). Or, make the Yuletide gay (from "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"). Funny how that word evolved to become a label for someone's sexual orientation.

Icon. If I had to pick a favorite character from all the Christmas specials I've seen in my life, it would be Hermey the Misfit Elf from 1964's Rankin/Bass stop-motion animation classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Why? Well, lots of reasons. He had the balls to quit Santa's workshop when the other elves ridiculed him about his dreams of becoming a dentist. He befriended fellow outcast Rudolph and accepted his glowing schnoz. He fought the Abominable Snowman, rendering him harmless by pulling out all of his teeth. He realized his dream of becoming a dentist and ultimately opened a practice at the North Pole. And he had one of the most iconic hairstyles in TV history.

Hermey the Misfit Elf and Rudolf.
Sure, that bright-red-nose business is impressive and cool, but Hermey's hair is just as wondrous.  

Brew. Looking for a seasonal ale? Every year since 1975 San Francisco's Anchor Brewing has created one. Available from early November through mid-January, it's a rich, dark spiced ale. The recipe is tweaked from year to year, as is the label, which always features a different tree. I've had this year's creation and it's delicious.

Oreo. I told you about Nabisco's Candy Corn Oreo in October. Their latest holiday-themed limited-edition cookie is the Gingerbread Oreo. It's the company's Golden Oreo with a filling of gingerbread-favored creme. It was described online by one reviewer as, "Not disgusting at all!" I'm told you can find them at Walmart.

Clarity. The Daily Show's Jon Stewart expertly undermines Fox News' annual -- and increasingly ridiculous and desperate -- insistence that there's a War on Christmas.

Tunes. Lots of diversity among holiday releases this year...

Pentatonix - "Carol of the Bells." Pentatonix is an a cappella group of five vocalists -- Scott Hoying, Kirstie Maldonado, Mitch Grassi, Avi Kaplan and Kevin Olusola -- who won the third season of NBC's The Sing Off in late 2011. They've developed a devoted following since then, covering popular songs by other artists, giving live performances and creating their own YouTube channel, of course. One of the most amazing things about them, aside from their tight harmonies and incredible arrangements, is the stunning vocal percussion and bass done by Kevin Olusola. It's called "beatboxing," which involves producing drum beats, rhythm and other musical sounds using one's mouth, lips, tongue and voice. Here's "Carol of the Bells" from PTXmas, their holiday EP. You can find it on iTunes.

The Killers ft. Ryan Pardey - "I Feel It In My Bones." The Killers (who easily get my vote for one of the most attractive bands on the planet) have released seven Christmas-themed songs and music videos over the years.

Some of their Christmas songs have been serious ("Boots"), some seriously goofy ("Don't Shoot Me, Santa"). "I Feel It In My Bones" is somewhat of a sequel to "Don't Shoot Me, Santa," which featured a comically demented, vengeful St. Nick. He's back, and he still needs therapy.  (Side note: All proceeds from their Christmas songs go to the Product Red campaign, which funds African AIDS charities.)

Father Tiger - "On Christmas Day." According to their Facebook page, Father Tiger "is a modern indie synthpop duo with a love of vintage analog synthesizers and everything mid-century modern." I just discovered them recently and I'm totally digging this holiday effort, a charming, synthpop hipster carol and video. (Also, the actor bear they chose for their star is mighty easy on the eyes.)

Olivia Newton-John & John Travolta - "I Think You Might Like It." Thirty-four years after starring together in Grease, they've reunited to record an album of holiday classics called This Christmas.

Why is Travolta's name first? We all know who the real singer is here.
And what's in Travolta's cup? Hot gay chocolate?

"I Think You Might Like It" is an original song written for the album by Newton-John's longtime collaborator, John Farrar.  He wrote "You're the One That I Want," her duet with Travolta in Grease. This song is old-fashioned and relentlessly cheerful and that's okay. But the video... the video. As one of my Facebook friends said when he saw it, "Oh, dear." First, the good news... Olivia looks fantastic. You're probably going to say she's had work done. Whatever. I don't care. It's good work. She's 64. Cut her some slack. The bad news... the video is awe-inspiring, must-see kitsch primarily due to the insanely ridiculous presence of Travolta. If you think his hair on the album photo above looks like it was drawn on his head with a Sharpie, wait until you see the preposterously jet-black real thing coupled with the most unfortunate goatee in the history of celebrity facial hair. Consider that at some point prior to shooting this, 58-year-old Travolta must have looked in a mirror and liked what he saw. The only possible explanation for this is that his stylist hates him. And hypnotized him. Okay, back to the video. There's a special guest appearance by Travolta's family, and somebody else's family and some soldiers, all of whom are apparently just fine with his new cartoon head. There's Travolta's private jet and references to It's a Wonderful Life, in case you forgot that it's a Christmas song, and then there are several completely unnecessary homages to Grease. Of course. And there's dancing -- line dancing. Remarkably, Newton-John rises above all of this. She really is a Teflon icon.

Comfort and joy,

Friday, November 30, 2012

A Fruitcake, Another Military Lip Dub & OraQuick, Among Other Things

HIV/AIDS. The World Health Organization established World AIDS Day in 1988 and it's been observed on December 1st ever since. It's been more than 30 years since the first cases of AIDS were reported in the United States. HIV is still a reality for more than a million Americans, including me; I've lived with the virus for nineteen and a half years now.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly one in every five people living with HIV in the U.S. doesn't even know it. And that's a big part of the reason why there are about 50,000 new infections every year. For decades you basically had two options when it came to HIV testing: ask your doctor to give you the test or find an organization or clinic that provided the service. For years a debate raged over whether or not it was a good idea to make test kits available for consumers on drugstore shelves. In July of this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finally approved an in-home test and it became available at retailers nationwide and online last October. It's called OraQuick and it's the same test that's been used by health care providers for over a decade already. The single-use test is administered with an oral swab and gives results in 20 to 40 minutes.

How does it work? By detecting antibodies to HIV-1 and HIV-2 in oral fluid.

How accurate is OraQuick? Not 100%. In trials, it detected HIV in those carrying the virus 92% of the time; it was 99.9% accurate in ruling out HIV in patients who are not carrying the virus.

What does that mean? According to the FDA, it means the test could miss 1 in 12 HIV-infected people who use it, but would incorrectly identify only one patient as having HIV in 5,000 HIV-negative people tested.

What causes an inaccurate reading? If a person takes the test too close to the moment of infection rather than after three to six months (which experts say is the approximate time HIV takes to appear in the human body).

How much does it cost? Approximately $40. (In contrast, a home pregnancy test is less than $20.)

Home testing could be a game-changer. It's no stretch to imagine one particular unadvertised use for OraQuick -- to screen potential sexual partners.

Check out the OraQuick how-to video below...

Stigma.  One of the worst things about living with HIV is the stigma. People always be judgin'...

Yup, that sums it up for me. Thanks to The Stigma Project for this graphic.

Clean. Pet peeve alert. Over the years I've seen my fair share of personal ads on gay dating/hook up and chat sites. Nothing turns me off more quickly than those guys who insist that they are "clean" and DDF (drug and disease-free). And it's always punctuated with UB2 (meaning, obviously, you be, too). It's simply impossible not to draw the conclusion that Mr. Clean thinks people with HIV are dirty. He obviously doesn't care how it looks or sounds and he's probably just too lazy or ignorant to say something a lot less obnoxious and dismissive, like, I am HIV-negative and I am only interested in dating someone of the same status. That, frankly, would be honest and direct -- something I could appreciate -- and it doesn't make those of us living with HIV feel like filthy lepers. Worse, my experience of these guys who say they're clean is that they are sexually active but claiming to be HIV-negative based on a test result from some point in their not-too-recent history, like 2003. And they're always insulted if you ask them if they've been screened for any other sexually transmitted diseases, like herpes, gonorrhea, syphilis, HPV, Hepatitis A or B and chlamydia. Their unfamiliarity with the real risks of sex is often breathtaking. So, ultimately, when a man describes himself as "clean," it translates as not very bright and kind of a dick.

I just happened to stumble across a YouTube video that addresses this subject astutely and with wit. Here's the description: A random hookup between two gay robots who met online leads to a conversation on sexual activity and risk. (Warning, it's not safe for work.)

OMG. Here it is, the very last lip dub parody of Carly Rae Jepsen's worldwide hit single "Call Me Maybe" for 2012. Maybe. This was made by a bunch of U.S. military guys stationed in Afghanistan. It's a tribute to the Miami Dolphins Cheerleaders. I'm a sucker for these military lip dubs and this one is populated by some seriously sexy dudes with a pretty good sense of humor about the whole endeavor. (My favorite moments are 0:47 and 1:53. Swoon.) Enjoy.

Fraudcasting. Let's check in again with former Fox News host Glenn Beck, the paranoid, prone-to-tears, prevaricator who was fired from the network last year because of declining ratings and a lack of advertiser support... instead of being fired for the fact that he's an unhinged, lying human fruitcake. Don't worry, he's landed on his feet. Beck started a subscription-based internet streaming/satellite TV network called TheBlaze. According to The Wall Street Journal, the network has topped 300,000 subscriptions as of September 2012. He typically delivers the crazy from a set designed to look like the Oval Office of the White House, but in this clip he just needs the biggest blackboard in the history of mankind and a box of colored chalk to tell us what's wrong with the world... sort of.  I'll give him this much, his handwriting is admirable.

Tunes. Lots of new music is getting released just in time to stuff those stockings (or your iPods). Have a look/listen...

MIKA - "Underwater." Earlier this year, to no one's surprise, British singer/songwriter MIKA announced that he was gay after years of refusing to label himself. "Underwater" is from his latest album, The Origin of Love, and it's a sweet love song that's been given a gorgeous video treatment. & Britney Spears - "Scream & Shout." Here's a collaboration I'd be willing to bet no one wanted. But it exists, so I might as well show it to you. Ms. Spears is here mostly to remind everyone that she is, in fact, "Britney, bitch." And's lyrics are as banal as usual. By the time he proclaims "It goes on and on" around the 3 minute mark, you'll probably agree with him.

Turbonegro - "I Got a Knife." They're a Norwegian rock band that describes their sound as "deathpunk." Don't let that scare you. The sound is lean, mean, gruff and no-nonsense. However, they've deliberately cultivated a goofy, tongue-in-cheek image for their stage performances and videos.

Turbonegro. That's lead singer Tony Sylvester front and center with the tattooed belly.

"I Got a Knife" is an ode to their favorite sharp object. And this is my favorite video of the week. Because these guys are such cut ups.

Peace out,

Friday, October 26, 2012

My Halloween Special 2012

Welcome to the Halloween edition of my blog...

Well, it's a gay blog... what were you expecting? Casper?

History. Halloween's origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1st. This day marked the end of summer and the harvest as well as the beginning of the dark, cold winter. Celts believed that on the night before the new year (October 31st), the boundary between the worlds of the living and dead became blurred and the spirits of the dead returned to Earth.

During the Samhain celebration, costumed Celts built huge sacred bonfires and burned crops and animals as sacrifices to Celtic deities. When the celebrations were over, they returned home and lit their hearths with logs from the sacred bonfires. They believed this would help protect them during the coming winter.

By 43 A.D., the Roman Empire had conquered the majority of Celtic territory and co-opted their festivals and celebrations. As centuries passed, the influence of Christianity spread into Celtic lands, gradually blending with or supplanting older Celtic rites and rituals to create church-sanctioned holidays. Exit spirits of the dead, enter saints and martyrs. Goodbye Samhain, hello All Saints Day and All Hallows Eve, which would eventually be called Halloween. The origin of hallow is the Middle English word halowen; hallow is defined by Merriam-Webster as meaning "to make holy or set aside for holy use."

Halloween was not widely celebrated in the U.S. until the second half of the 19th century when European immigrants flooded America and revived the holiday. It started with costumes, ghost stories and going house to house asking for money or food. By the late 1800's, there was an attempt to scrub away the supernatural or religious overtones and turn Halloween into a holiday about celebrating the season with wholesome parties for adults and kids. Ultimately, the 1950s baby boom redirected Halloween into a holiday for the young -- and the supernatural trappings made a comeback. Going door to door for money or food evolved into the "new" American tradition of trick-or-treating.

Monster Tutorial.

This is a vampire...

A still from the 1922 German Expressionist silent horror classic Nosferatu.
Max Schreck starred as the nosferatu, a Romanian word synonymous with vampire.
Not a vampire...

Robert Pattinson as vampire Edward Cullen in the Twilight film franchise.
Great hair, killer jawline and freakishly pale. But not scary; just bad boyfriend material. 
This is a zombie...

A photo from AMC's wildly popular zombie apocalypse saga The Walking Dead.  

Arguably the original zombie...

According to the New Testament, Jesus Christ rose from the dead three days after crucifixion.
He hung out with lots of people for forty days before his ascension to Heaven.

If you believe that scenario, it sort of makes him the best and most benign zombie ever.

Not a zombie, but...

Gay porn star Francois Sagat in makeup for his starring role in 2009's gay porn epic L.A. Zombie.
What happens when gay porn and the zombie horror genre collide? You get L.A. Zombie, the creation of Canadian filmmaker Bruce LaBruce, an artist who specializes in art porn features. Here's the flick's synopsis, according to Wikipedia: A homeless schizophrenic (Francois Sagat) thinks he's an alien zombie sent to Earth. Roaming the streets of Los angeles, he tries to bring the dead back to life by engaging in homosexual sex. Did I mention it's hardcore? L.A. Zombie played a lot of international film festivals in 2010, where is was typically deemed too controversial for second screenings, but was sometimes shown illegally anyway. Subsequently, an uncut DVD version with 40 additional minutes of footage was released for sale. Here's the trailer...

A real monster... 

Ann Coulter. She wants us to believe she's merely a conservative political pundit who tells it like it is. No. Uh uh. At best, she's the most obnoxious drag queen in history. At worst, she's a modern-day Medusa, the hideous Greek monster with venomous snakes for hair. I'm going with the latter. Obviously, she's had a semi-successful, hair-taming makeover that eliminated her one special ability -- the power to turn onlookers into stone with her gaze. Today, she's simply an insane troll, making a living as a professional outrageous remark-maker. For instance, she recently called the President of the United States a retard on Twitter. For more of her, um, wisdom, go here.

It takes an extraordinary shampoo and conditioner to make her snake-hair do that.
Not coming to a theater near you, thankfully.

My First Halloween Costume. Casper the Friendly Ghost. I remember it well. The mask had "wide-vision eye-holes" and the costume was "flame retarded." See for yourself.

Okay, I'm calling it. Casper is gay. Really, it couldn't be more obvious.

The First Movie That Ever Scared Me. Black Sunday (1960). As a little kid. I turned on the television and found this gem of Italian horror cinema from celebrated director Mario Bava. Today, viewers will likely be distracted by the overacting and dubbing, but this story of a witch accidentally resurrected from death was brilliantly photographed and quite a shocker for 1960s audiences. Check out the original theatrical trailer.

Candy Corn Oreo. Yes, for a limited time, this product exists. It's sold exclusively at Target.

There's a strange amount of excitement about this on the Internet, with all kinds of people doing taste tests. These things are artificially flavored, naturally. It says so right there on the bag. Can you describe the flavor of candy corn? No, "sweet" is not a flavor. The only way to describe the taste of candy corn is sugary. But the Internet has spoken: Oreo Candy Corn cookie filling tastes like vanilla cake frosting.

The folks at mega-snack manufacturer Nabisco know a winning formula:
sugar + holiday theme = success

My Horror Movie Recommendations. We all know that the term "scary movie" is wildly subjective. Some of us like vampires and zombies; others prefer haunted houses, demonic kids or supernatural mutants. For the purposes of this list, I've divided things up into five categories of horror: comedy, camp, cult, chillers and classics. So, if you're planning a movie night to celebrate Halloween, consider one of these...

Comedy. For those who like to see familiar horror movie tropes played for laughs...

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966). The late, great Don Knotts stars as a newspaper typesetter in a small Kansas town. He wants to be a reporter, so the editor gives him an assignment:  spend the night in a creepy -- and allegedly haunted -- old mansion on the 20th anniversary of its former occupants' murder and suicide. Knotts was in top form here, gently tweaking the beloved Barney Fife character he'd played on The Andy Griffith Show for five seasons before this film was made. He's surrounded by a crackling cast of pros, too. It's essentially a big-screen sitcom, but it still makes me chuckle today.

Shaun of the Dead (2004). If any horror genre is ripe for satire, it's zombie movies. With Shaun of the Dead, mission accomplished.  Actor/writer Simon Pegg stars as Shaun, "a man who decides to turn his moribund life around by winning back his ex-girlfriend, reconciling his relationship with his mother, and dealing with an entire community that has returned from the dead to eat the living." It's a bit like watching your favorite sitcom characters having their lives interrupted by persistent flesh-eaters. Very British, quite brilliant.

A comedy/horror alternative... for something scary with a wicked satirical edge, check out The Howling (1981), a werewolf movie with fun creature effects (state-of-the-art for its time), a surprisingly good script and a nice performance by Dee Wallace (the mom in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial).

Camp. The filmmakers thought they'd made a serious movie. Audiences, not so much. Examples:

The Swarm (1978). After the phenomenal successes of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, Warner Bros. let producer/director Irwin "Master of Disaster" Allen make a movie about African killer bees attacking Texas. The result? Embarrassing special effects, unintentionally hilarious dialogue and abominable performances from an all-star cast boasting literally no fewer than six Oscar winners, including Henry Fonda and Michael Caine. Seriously, it's like no one ever got a second take for any scene. The whole thing transcends awful to become utterly fabulous camp. It's hard to believe this got made fifteen years after Hitchcock's The Birds and three years after Spielberg's Jaws, two films with the genuine cinematic panache to convince you that nature has a mean streak. 

The Sentinel (1977). After the successes of Warner Bros.' The Exorcist and 20th Century Fox's The Omen, the powers-that-be at Universal Pictures decided it was time to make their own shocker with religious overtones. So they chose the story of a neurotic, suicidal fashion model who moves into a Brooklyn apartment building that is literally the gateway to hell, guarded by a blind priest. The star, Cristina Raines, gives one of the worst performances you'll ever see, and that's saying something, given that the rest of the cast is either hammy or arch. After 70 minutes, you get one of the most unpleasant movie climaxes in history, controversial in its day because the director chose to use real people with disfiguring diseases to represent the denizens of hell. Rather than being horrifying, as the director intended, you just kind of feel sorry for them... because they've quite obviously been cast in a really bad horror movie based on their appearance.

A camp/horror alternative... 1972's Blacula, about an 18th century African prince named Mamuwalde who is turned into a vampire by Count Dracula, locked in a coffin for two hundred years, then unwittingly released by two gay interior decorators. This was one of the more successful entries in a film genre that came to be known as blaxploitation. It's too absurd to be offensive.

Cult. These movies may not have connected with mainstream audiences upon initial release, but they've developed a devoted fan base over time.

Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987). Although it was marketed as a sequel to 1981's The Evil Dead, it's essentially a reboot of the same story. The original was an effectively gory, darkly humorous low-budget nightmare; this one is hyper-kinetic, surreal and gory good fun. The set-up: a couple's romantic getaway to a remote cabin in the woods is ruined after they play a tape recording left by the previous occupant, an archeology professor. Unfortunately, the tape recording contains an incantation that awakens, you guessed it, a bunch of evil-dead-demon-spirit things. It's directed by Sam Raimi, the guy who would eventually helm the Spider-Man trilogy starring Tobey Maguire.

Hellraiser (1987). Based on a book by celebrated fantasy/horror author Clive Barker, this is the story of a globe-trotting pervert who buys an antique puzzle box, fools around with it and ends up opening the door to a hellish alternate universe. He's hideously killed, accidentally (and grotesquely) resurrected, then chased by a trio of godawful sado-masochistic demons. I found this movie so unsettling, I've never been able to watch it again. Seriously. I skipped all the sequels, too.

A cult/horror alternative... Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971). Psychologically fragile Jessica has just been released from a mental hospital. Her husband thinks it would be a good idea to relocate her to an isolated Victorian farmhouse in rural Connecticut and start a quiet new life. Weird stuff happens... but how much of it is in Jessica's head? Quirky movie with a terrific idiosyncratic performance from the lead; the supernatural elements will leave you scratching your head.

Chillers. Sometimes all you need is a creepy old dwelling, a foreboding atmosphere and a good story.

The Orphanage (2007). Director Guillermo Del Toro is widely known for films like Hellboy and the Oscar-winning Pan's Labyrinth, but in 2007 he produced The Orphanage, one of my favorite horror films of the last decade. The story: twenty-five years after leaving an orphanage on the Spanish coast, a woman returns there with her family and a plan to turn the dilapidated institution into a home for disabled children. One problem: it's haunted. This is a Spanish-language film with English subtitles, but don't let that discourage you from seeing it. This is the rare horror movie that's beautifully conceived, well-acted, gripping, eerie, frightening and even poignant.

The Changeling (1980). Celebrated, if not particularly successful when it was first released, this is a compelling ghost story that delivers subtle chills. A widowed composer moves into a dreary old mansion that appears to be haunted by the ghost of a child. Bringing considerable gravitas to the situation is legendary actor George C. Scott, who becomes obsessed with finding out what the ghost is trying to tell him.

A chiller/horror alternative... okay, this one doesn't involve a haunted building with a devastating secret, but it does have the next best thing: a creepy, evil kid. Orphan (2009) is a thriller about a couple who decide to adopt after the wife's miscarriage. They get a little girl named Esther, whose angelic persona turns nasty and brutal very quickly. It's wickedly entertaining (for those not easily offended or upset) and it has a genuinely twisted plot twist.

Classics. Let's be honest, many old horror movies just aren't scary anymore -- tastes change, techniques improve and audiences move on. But some films, when put in context and viewed with an open mind, still have the power to frighten you in the moment, leave you with a lingering dread, or even disrupt your sleep for a night or two. Here's a list of ten American films, in no particular order that I'd encourage you to see. They've earned their space on any list of classics.

The Haunting (1963). Incredibly, this is the movie director Robert Wise made between West Side Story and The Sound of Music. A paranormal investigator recruits an eclectic little group to experience the spirit life of an old mansion.  (Skip the terrible 1999 remake.)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). This remake of the excellent 1956 film of the same name is a terrific sci-fi/horror mash-up about aliens duplicating humans in San Francisco.

Night of the Living Dead (1968). The original low-budget, black and white zombie apocalypse movie that started it all. The recently dead are coming back to life and eating everybody; radiation may be involved, though writer/director George Romero is rather indifferent about that. Controversial in its day, it remains gruesome and shocking; even some of the stinging social commentary survives.

Carrie (1976). A very satisfying adaptation of Stephen King's novel about relentlessly taunted high-school outcast Carrie -- who discovers her telekinetic powers just in time for prom night. Director Brian DePalma embraces the lurid material, applies a mesmerizing visual style and takes it right over the top where it belongs. Sissy Spacek (as Carrie) and Piper Laurie (as her demented fundamentalist Christian mom) are splendid in their Oscar-nominated roles. (Be afraid: there's a new version coming in 2013.)

The Omen (1976). To truly appreciate this switched-at-birth movie about a couple that brings home the infant antichrist, you just need to go with the preposterous premise and enjoy what the stellar cast and ingenious filmmakers have to offer. The 2006 remake failed, probably because it was unable to improve on the original's inspired setpieces, unforgettable musical score or sheer verve.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Five kids in a van run out of gas in the wrong part of Texas. The rest is right there in the title. It's grisly and brutal and more of an endurance test than a film. Still, you can't deny the craft involved here or the fact that this is one of the most influential movies ever made.

The Exorcist (1973). If you weren't alive when this first hit theaters, it's nearly impossible to describe the frenzy surrounding this controversial blockbuster. It's the story of a little girl possessed by a demon, or demons. And whether you believe in that sort of thing or not, here's a movie that takes the possibility of it happening very seriously. What makes it so successful, beyond the extraordinary sound design and effects, is that it has the power to make you review/question your own beliefs.

Alien (1979). The idea here is brilliant. Take the most horrific creature imaginable and introduce it as shockingly as possible on board a spaceship with a small crew. Then let the games begin. Sure, it has a sci-fi feel since it takes place centuries in the future and in outer space, but the spaceship is more like a dark, cold and scary old haunted house.

Psycho (1960). The grandfather of all slasher movies still happens to be the best. A restless secretary (Janet Leigh, in one of her very finest performances) embarks on an impromptu road trip, takes the wrong exit and ends up at the Bates Motel, the worst (and most iconic) lodging in America. This is director Alfred Hitchcock at his best, working in black and white and determined to freak you the hell out forever.

Rosemary's Baby (1968). This brilliant adaptation of Ira Levin's novel still feels fresh almost 45 years later, and it just might be my all-time favorite horror film. Mia Farrow is naive, optimistic Rosemary; John Cassavetes is her hungry-for-success actor husband. They move into a Gothic Revival New York City apartment building with eccentric, meddlesome neighbors who appear to be harmless -- at first. Rosemary's desire for a child becomes part of a satanic conspiracy. Simultaneously celebrated and reviled director Roman Polanski draws out terrific performances (especially from Ruth Gordon, in an Oscar-winning role) and creates a vivid, macabre film that expertly mixes paranoia, absurdity and dread.

Puking Pumpkins. They're all the rage. I don't know why.

Tunes. Can a music video be scary? Take a look at "Dead Film Star" from Team Ghost and decide for yourself.

Peace out,

Friday, August 31, 2012

Labor Daze Poolside Music Mix 2012

Labor Day. It's the one day of the year when we celebrate the world's most famous gay laborer, the Construction Worker from the Village People.

Okay... it's really the American federal holiday that celebrates the economic and social contributions of all workers. Observed the first Monday of September, it also tends to symbolize the end of summer for most Americans. So it's a good excuse for a three-day weekend of travel, barbecues, parties, parades, picnics, back-to-school shopping sprees and TV marathons. Oh, and it used to be considered the last day of the year when it was fashionable to wear white. Or seersucker.

How did Labor Day happen? It was proposed by labor union leaders back in 1882 and some sources say it was inspired by labor festivals that were already happening in Canada. Oregon was the first state to make it official in 1887, but it didn't become a federal holiday until 1894 following what is known as the Pullman Strike, a nationwide conflict between labor unions and railroads. Low wages, sixteen-hour workdays, outbreaks of violence, and the U.S. Marshals. You get the picture. Legislation for the holiday was pushed through Congress and signed by President Grover Cleveland in six days as a conciliatory gesture to labor unions. That would never happen today.

Anyway, if you're lucky enough to find yourself chilling poolside with someone you like or love, here are a dozen musical selections I hope you'll consider adding to the mix. There are some familiar artists here, but also a few happy discoveries I've made over the last five or six years. Enjoy...

Matt Alber - "Monarch." A dreamy, soulful, expertly crafted song.

k. d. lang - "Summerfling." Like a nostalgic ocean wave.

Poolside - "Do You Believe?" It's called "day time disco."

Washed Out - "Amor Fati." Wistful, idiosyncratic electronica.

Jason Aldean - "Dirt Road Anthem."A satisfying marriage of country and rap.


Fountains of Wayne - "The Summer Place." Musically bright, lyrically dark, and just right.

Emeli Sande - "Heaven." Soul/pop perfection.

Azari & III - "Manic." Funk for a new generation.

Jukebox the Ghost - "Somebody." Shiny, happy indie pop.

Wild Flag - "Romance." Infectious distaff rock.

Trevor Hall - "Brand New Day." An irresistibly upbeat spiritual groove.

Friendly Fires - "Kiss of Life." Buoyant, joyful tribalicious pop.

And a couple of random Internet dudes. In masks. Because why not?

Don't you wonder what's behind that mask?
Well... someone's very excited about the water slide... 

Peace out,