Hear ye, hear ye, Queen Bey. Your castle is showing some cracks.
Beyoncé is still working on her next album, but she recently dropped an anticipation-building "buzz track" on her website - "Bow Down" - that has some critics beseeching her highness to take her ego down a peg. The song is a jumbled whoosh of chopped and screwed beats over which Beyoncé pays tribute to her hometown of Houston - and to herself. "Bow down, [rhymes-with-witches]," she commands serf-like listeners over and over again.
This hasn't gone over well. The backlash has it that Beyoncé sounds cocky, arrogant, self-celebratory. So basically "Bow Down" sounds like every song that, say, her rapper husband has recorded (to great acclaim). Except Beyoncé has baby-making parts best suited for modesty and convents. Got it. Just wanted to make sure we're all on the same page.
First, take a listen:
Bear in mind that I'm no die-hard Beyoncé fan. I loved her in the Destiny's Child days ("Jumpin' Jumpin' = JAM), but her solo career? Meh. She's hugely talented, but has started to embody just how boring overstimulation can be. And that one National Anthem debacle aside, she tends to coast on toadying, too-generous reviews: like the boot-licking media afterglow of her sloppy, farcical Super Bowl halftime show. (There, I said it. You'll find my Twitter handle in the upper-right corner of your window; please use proper spelling in all death threats.)
But I have to defend Beyoncé over "Bow Down." For two reasons.FULL ENTRY
Just in case you missed her driving by your house wearing night vision goggles last night, which she wouldn't have done if you hadn't made her love you so much, Taylor Swift has popped up on the cover of the April issue of Vanity Fair. In her feature interview, Swift rebukes critics who say she is a serial dating crazy-pants who exploits all her ex-boyfriends by writing poison pen songs about them.
VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images
In fact, she thinks that criticism is somewhat sexist. I never thought I'd say this, but Taylor Swift has a point.
From Vanity Fair:
"For a female to write about her feelings," she said, "and then be portrayed as some clingy, insane, desperate girlfriend in need of making you marry her and have kids with her, I think that's taking something that potentially should be celebrated - a woman writing about her feelings in a confessional way - that's taking it and turning it and twisting it into something that is frankly a little sexist."
This is mostly true. So Taylor Swift has dated every boy with his driver's license: so what? We don't generally tsk-tsk young male celebrities when they jump from starlet to starlet. And so she writes about her relationships: so what? Isn't every song on the radio some variation on a theme of love, sex, making up or breaking up?
Swift was also miffed that other famous ladies don't have her back. She told Vanity Fair she did not appreciate it when Golden Globes hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler ribbed her about her relationships from the stage:
When we were discussing that moment at the Golden Globes, and mean girls in general, Swift just smiled and said, "You know, Katie Couric is one of my favorite people because she said to me she had heard a quote that she loved" - from former secretary of state Madeleine Albright - "that said, 'There's a special place in hell for women who don't help other women.'"
Did Taylor Swift just passive aggressively tell Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to go to hell? Because Taylor Swift just got way more interesting. I mean, I don't entirely agree with her choice of target. (Tina Fey quoting Penthouse Forum would still be a greater feminist statement than Taylor Swift quoting Katie Couric quoting Madeleine Albright.) But I appreciate the general sentiment about sisters sticking together.
But as soon as Swift earns some minor You Go, Girl bonus points, she loses them by saying stuff like this:FULL ENTRY
If, like me, you were out on Saturday night doing something way cool that definitely did not involve watching videos on the Internet (WINK FACE), you may have missed that Madonna showed up to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) Media Awards in New York City. She gave a two-minute speech honoring Anderson Cooper for his work as an out journalist. She preceded it with an eight-minute speech honoring herself for being the most awesomely supportive gay icon of all time, and if you dare disagree she will cut you with the Swiss Army knife hidden under the brim of her Smokey the Bear hat.
Oh yeah, that. Madonna was dressed as a Cub Scout to publicly repudiate the Boy Scouts of America’s increasingly maligned no-gays-allowed policy. It was the latest bold move in an ongoing war among singing stars for gay hearts, loyalties, and (enter cynicism) consumer dollars. In recent years the LGBT
demographic community has become a coveted prize for those peddling pop music. But when determining the difference between "support" and "exploitation," there's important evidence to consider: history. Unlike bush-league performers who warble paint-by-numbers Message Songs about being born this way like perfect fireworks or whatever, Madonna has been sticking up for the gay community since the days when it was a potential career-killer. That earns her a pass – and good faith in her sincerity – even when she pulls off gimmicky PR stunts that would seem patronizing coming from others.
Synopsis: Madonna tells off-color jokes, banters with audience, blasts Boy Scouts, plugs concert, says “love thy neighbor,” hates Internet, plugs concert, hates bullying, hates Russia, toots own horn, says “Not to toot my own horn,” winks a lot, plugs concert, delivers thinly-veiled death threat to Lady Gaga, plugs concert, flirts with Anderson Cooper. Fini.
Madonna’s appearance at the GLAAD awards earned a lot of pre-press, for obvious reasons. Madonna speaking at a gala of affluent gay power brokers is sort of like the Queen Mother making a transatlantic voyage to address the colonies. It’s a special moment.
But the announcement of her appearance elicited backlash from a contingent of Lady Gaga fans, AKA “Little Monsters,” AKA the online fan world’s equivalent of a fringe militia. Totally not trying to be funny, they petitioned GLAAD to rescind its invitation on the grounds that Madonna does not care about gay people and probably tried to give them AIDS. Sigh.
The original petition (since removed from the website where it was posted):
It has come to the attention to Little Monsters everywhere that you are letting Madonna give an award to Anderson Cooper. Not only is this an insult to a true gay rights activist like Lady Gaga, but it insults every gay man and woman on this planet.
Madonna is one of the major reasons for AIDS. Back in the 1980’s, she encouraged gay men to have unprotected sex. While she certainly didn’t start the disease, she and her lack of morals helped it spread.
Please rethink your choice of having Madonna as a presenter. If you don’t, we Little Monsters will strike back in a way you won’t like.
Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters
This letter is tragic. Not just because, ironically, it exhumes from the 1980s the homophobic insinuation that gay men’s sexual proclivities wrought the AIDS epidemic.
It’s tragic because it shows a lack of knowledge of pop music history. And in this case, pop music history is linked to political history. Lady Gaga arrived on the scene about half a decade after same-sex marriage did. (Massachusetts became the first state to allow it in 2004.) To suggest the bravery of her social justice contributions somehow surpasses that of Madonna, whose biography is drenched in gay culture, is to reveal oneself as an LGBT “activist” with no grasp of LGBT media history. And anyone with a supposed passion for something has a responsibility to understand its roots, whether that requires tracing back a music sample from a song or appreciating the sentiment behind a political statement.
Left: Madonna posted a photo from backstage at the GLAAD awards on her Instagram account. (And we know, Ms. Ciccone. We've seen the "Sex" book.)
So for those just joining the program, here's the super-condensed version of Madonna's connections to the gay world: Christopher Flynn, her ballet instructor and oft-cited mentor, immersed a teenage Madonna in the arts – and the gay discos of Detroit, where she honed her street moves and an attitude one MAC makeup shade away from that of a boa-whipping Motor City drag queen. At Flynn’s suggestion Madonna moved to NYC to become a professional dancer; she became a first-rate couch-surfer, living off popcorn and the kindness of strangers while she eked out a living through nude modeling and gigs with ragtag punk bands. She spent her days shacking up with edgy artists like good pal Keith Haring. She spent her nights at gay clubs, shopping her pop-dance demo tapes from DJ to DJ. Often in tow was her gay younger brother, Christopher, who eventually became her tour designer.
Madonna’s pavement pounding paid off, and she used her newfound notoriety to achieve greater visibility for the LGBT community that fostered her fame. At the height of ‘80s-era homophobia, she actually celebrated the effeminacies of her most flamboyant dancers in her music videos, live shows and movies: particularly her tour documentary Truth or Dare, which in typically histrionic fashion depicted her as a messianic mama rescuing gay crew, like stray cats, from familial abandonment and a cruel, hostile world. She specifically engaged queer people of color; “Vogue” was inspired by a dance movement derived from the African- and Latino-American gay club scene. And after watching friends like Haring and Flynn succumb to the epidemic, Madonna became an early and outspoken AIDS activist, using benefit concerts and television PSAs to educate about the disease and its stigma. Her Like a Prayer album came packaged with a fact sheet about AIDS and safe sex guidelines, and she used a pro-condom message to open her famous Sex book, which depicted her engaged with (and/or assisting) every combination of genders in various states of titillating tomfoolery.
The public outcry over Sex, her album Erotica and its accompanying MTV-banned music videos, all heavily influenced by the leather and fetish clubs of the NYC underground, marked the end of Madonna's most overtly sexual oeuvre. By extension, her more obvious tributes to gay culture grew tamer: think guest spots on Will & Grace and her painful "best pal comedy" with Rupert Everett, The Next Best Thing. No matter. The commitment was clear.
And that is why what's good for the goose isn't always good for the Gaga. It's sweet when younger pop stars stick up for gay rights, but in an age that requires little moxie to do so, it can also smack of condescension.
Madonna's recent appearance is not unimpugnable either. Like everything she does, it was mostly about herself. It's obvious she is as much interested in wresting back the gay icon crown from younger stars as she is in furthering any particular cause. As always, whether you find her unique brand of childlike narcissism to be more charming than offensive is a matter of taste.
And her speech about bullying and Boy Scouts sort of meandered between pro-gay bullet points strung together by blown kisses. It was heartfelt, but heavy-handed. Madonna knows that in the age of Twitter, subtlety doesn't work. "Express Yourself" needs to become "Born This Way."
By Madonna’s standards, Saturday's appearance was a touch... reductive. But hey, at least by now she’s earned the right to steal from her own catalogue.
Celebrity feuds are a bloodsport we love to cheer on. When they're between women, anyway. Between guys? Whatever, pass the chips. We have far less interest in watching two men tear each other down.
Exhibit A: the abbreviated argument between Kanye West and Justin Timberlake, already being put to bed just when things were starting to get good.
If you blinked and missed its humble beginnings, the spat started last month when Kanye dissed Justin at a London concert. "I got love for Hov, but I ain't [bleeping] with that 'Suit & Tie,'" said Kanye, referring to Timberlake's latest single-slash-1960s game show jingle.
Then, in a recent performance on Saturday Night Live, Justin changed a line in the song to spike one back in Kanye's direction. "My hit's so sick got rappers acting dramatic," he sang.
Break out the popcorn, it's about to go down!
Wrong. In the most boring backtrack ever, Justin appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon the other night, claiming temporary amnesia and sending Kanye a big, sloppy make-up smooch. This was the brief exchange.
Jimmy: "It felt like to me you changed one of the lyrics in 'Suit & Tie.'"
Justin: "Did it seem that way? I don't remember that."
More talking, more talking, more talking.
Justin: "You know, really everyone, keep calm. ... For the record, I absolutely love Kanye."
[Crickets.] That's it? That's the end of that?
I want my money back!
Look, let's be honest. Everyone loves a good celebrity feud. We even love the hyperbole of the word "feud." It's gratifyingly loaded with the notion of deep-rooted resentments. We imagine two celebrities, chomping hay in rocking chairs on the porches of their Beverly Hills estates, grumbling about that time twenty years ago when the other gave a side-eye on the red carpet or brought an irresponsible drunk to the dinner party at the Old Vanderpump Place.
It's fun to pretend rich people are miserable.
Plus, we get to pick sides. That's fun too. In a complicated world, there's something nice about the black-and-whiteness of declaring without reservation that you "ABSOLUTELY HATE!" or are "completely obsessed with" someone you have never met, not once. In certain settings, that would be pathological. When idling time by reading tabloids with a friend on a long T ride, it's a bonding experience.
So we declare our allegiance: Team Jennifer or Team Angelina. Team Nicki or Team Mariah. Team Madonna or Team Gaga. Notice something? Most of the high-profile feuds, those that really make gossip blogs run wild, are between women. I doubt that's because Hollywood is some utopian fraternity where men just always get along, all the time. I think it has more to do with the fact that we love to pit women against each other. To pretend that they are locked in some eternal competition over who is better and cooler and prettier, because heaven forbid we allow more than one at a time to be really successful at the same general kind of thing. That's just crazy. Soon they'll be wearing slacks and voting.
On the other hand, the minute a juicy feud between guys gets started, we're totally willing to let them bury the hatchet. ("Here, let me sharpen that," we say to women.)
Look at the reactions to the lame pretense of amnesty between Kanye and Justin.
Don't tell me we'd let two women get off the hook this easy. If Mariah Carey suddenly said she definitely didn't remember saying something about Nicki Minaj that she very definitely said on live TV two nights ago, no one would interpret her denial as an olive branch. We'd all make a "meow" sound and evaluate the effectiveness of her "shade." (Definition: artful sassing.) And when Madonna commended Lady Gaga's "good voice" on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in November, no one stopped the presses to throw in the morning headline, "Breaking! Madonna Actually Not Bitter, Horrible." No, they're women. We want to keep those catfights purring in the press.
Sure, sometimes famous guys "fight." They may even "beef." (Cause, you know, meat.) But these are typically short-lived conflicts over a parking space or an acting role. We read about it for a week and then, ho-hum, we move on, because no one wants to belittle Alec Baldwin by pretending that he's sitting at home throwing darts at a poster of Shia LaBeouf. But if Madonna never again mentioned Lady's Gaga name until the day she died, there would still be gossip that her evil, vein-y claws were found wrapped around a voodoo doll.
Chicks, man. They can't give it up. Or maybe that's just us.
Be forewarned: I talk during movies.
Not in the theater, of course. You won't hear me blabbing to my neighbor, answering a call on my cell phone, or yelling back to the screen ("Don't go in there!" "That's the wrong door!" "I loved you in Fried Green Tomatoes!") while in a public place. Heck, I choose my concession candy based partly on what can be unwrapped most quietly, without drawing undue attention to the box of food coloring and birdbath-sized cup of corn syrup sitting in my (rapidly expanding) lap.
My mother raised me right. You know, to feel appropriate levels of self-consciousness.
But at home? I'm a chatterbox. If you want to watch TV at my place, be prepared for ongoing audio commentary. I also tend to offer an opinion on every song on the radio, insert verbal footnotes when sharing the latest tabloid scandal, and read every celebrity tweet backwards to double-check for satanic messages. (Just kidding on that last one. Everything Chris Brown writes is horrible enough when read as intended.)
Why? Because entertainment isn't just - uh, entertainment. It's important stuff. Really. Everything we watch on television, listen to on an iPod, read on celebrity blogs and share on social media is (for better or worse) a reflection of the world that created it. Our society's values, priorities, prides, prejudices, greatest dreams and dirty little secrets are all encoded there: waiting to be discovered, and discussed. Sometimes you just need an equally pop culture-obsessed friend to help you unscramble the static and get the conversation started.
That, I hope, is where Media Remix comes in. Yeah, I want us to talk about the hallucinogenic eye candy in the latest Lady Gaga video, but I'm more interested in critiquing how she condescends to the gay community (ooh, how contrary!) than in discussing how super-chic her new Moldy Cheese dress is. Sure, I want to chat about last night's verdict on American Idol, but I'm also intrigued by the way those contrived contestant interviews and selective editing choices promoted certain American Values at the expense of others. And I'm totally happy to ride the current wave of '90s nostalgia by revisiting favorite movies, music, and pop culture moments from yesteryear. (Who can quote Kevin Williamson and Kevin Smith scripts like scripture? This guy right here, thank you very much.) But I want us to discuss all the interesting ways in which older stuff has influenced current entertainment, not revel in the newly retro just for the sake of it.
No matter what your favorite show, celebrity fixation, or political party, I bet you'll agree with me that media plays an important role in influencing how people think, feel, and act. After all, as a wise prophet once said, "Pop culture is the politics of the 21st century." Okay, that wasn't a prophet; it was a short-lived character in the slasher sequel Scream 3. But it's pretty brilliant, right?
If that made you roll your eyes, feel free to change the channel. But if it made you feel like talking, join me on the couch. I saved you a seat.
[Pictured: Author on the couch from Will & Grace. The set is now enshrined in a library at Emerson College, show creator Max Mutchnick's alma mater. Note: Objects in this photo may appear several years younger and thinner than they are.]