Saturday, December 24, 2011

My Favorite Music 2011

I find it nigh impossible to write about music, and although I don't suffer from the misconception that anyone in the rest of the world cares what my favorite music was this year, the truth is I love reading other people's lists. It means I should spend time with something, it means the chance of--sniff--sharing. So in the spirit of sharing, not narcissism, I offer my favorite music of 2011. BTW, it's friggin hard narrowing down a list to something manageable. With limited exceptions, the order below is arbitrary.

1. Cut Copy – Zonoscope. 

Push comes to shove, my favorite band. As should be apparent from most of these albums, I’m a sucker for the dancey electronic stuff, and these guys seem like the U2s of it. That is, I can imagine this stuff filling arenas and not just clubs or bedrooms. Listened to this more than anything else this year, I’m sure. They’re the (my) INXS of the 2010s--forget the U2 comparison. I'd never seen the video below before, but it looks sort of like if David Lynch ripped his own Obsession ads off in order to make one for Nike.

2. Little Dragon - Ritual Union.

Really solid album through and through. Gotta kinda smooth, funky Prince feel but cold--they're Swedish, after all. Great guest appearance on SBTRKT record, too. As the video below proves, they do this stuff live. Nice fashion sense as well.

3. Tycho - Dive.

Discovered late this fall, but I feel confident in keeping it on my list. This is the sort of intricate electronic music you can listen to as closely (or not) as you like, and hear lots going on. Really listenable, but stays fresh--fresher, in my opinion than Washed Out. Which I do like.

4. Shabazz Palaces - Black Up. 

I've always thought Digable Planets were underrated, particularly their Blowout Comb album. This is a comback of sorts. Again, actually interesting to listen to--as opposed to, say Watch the Throne. Which has its undeniable charms, so long as you don't care to listen closely or hope to hear anything new. was on my list...but push come to shove, I think I've heard it before. Not this. Enough talk about Watch the Throne. Stream Black Up in its entirety below.

5. Ford & Lopatin - Channel Pressure. 

80s inflected electronic. Just listen.

6. SBTRKT - SBTRKT & Step in Shadows. 

It's pronounced "subtract". Once I could wrap my head around that, quickly fell for this fast DJ, eletronic stuff. Maybe it's the mask, but I often think of Soul II Soul when I listen to this.

7. Metronomy - The English Riviera. 

Did you catch that album title? I like it. Watch and listen to the video below. You will know within 5-10 seconds whether you like this band.

8. The War on Drugs - Slave Ambient. 

Rock-n-roll 2011. The lead singer’s voice has got a weird Dylan thing going on every now and then. Come to think of it, I think I hear Marshall Crenshaw in his voice. Marshall Crenshaw? WTF? They sound lots better on the album than in this clip.


9. Peter, Bjorn & John – Gimme Some. 

There’s no “Young Folks” on this album, but such a song only comes around once in the lifetime of about a thousand bands. I think this is their best overall album—the most consistently pleasing, at least.

10. Phantogram - Eyelid Movies. 

Again, electronicky rock that doesn't get old. Check out "Running from the Cops."


Atlas Sound – Parallax. Came out too late and listened to too little to put on the list. But Bradford Cox will always have a spot somewhere on my year-end list.
Black Keys - El Camino. Just doing my part to continue the Black Key’s media blitz and adding some rock to my list. This is an instant pleaser. You don’t like the Black Keys? What’s wrong with you?
Gus Gus – Arabian Horse. The Icelandic electronic act that just keeps going. Put this on and go about your business. You’ll feel better about whatever it is you’re doing.
Wugazi. Has this DJ marketed a “This is not a Wu-Tang Clan/Fugazi shirt?” Because he should. Get this album: it’s free and it’s great.
Washed Out – Within and Without. Previous album put me to sleep. Not so this one.
Beastie Boys. When this first came out, I listened to it a whole, whole lot. Not so much since then. But I still think it’s their best since Ill Communication. And more so than anything else, this one probably falls victim to the Woody Allen syndrome on end-of-year lists.
Foster the People. Horrendous performance on SNL. Dude should not try to dance or be a rock star. But I like the album, not just the one track that got them on SNL and the radio play. Really stupid lyrics, most of the time.
Also, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Cults, New Division.
Someone I can appreciate but that just didn’t make the top ten: James Blake.
Someone I just don’t like: Bon Iver.
Stuff I’m immediately going to listen to after looking at all the other lists: Kendrick Lamar – Section.80, Wild Flag – Wild Flag.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

News & Pepper Spray Class Outline

Today I decide to make use of our shortened Thanksgiving week and do the job that I'm supposed to do. That is, teach media criticism. It's late in the semester. Some things have gotten put off or lost in the shuffle. For my television criticism class, that's been discussion of the news. One reason I don't typically dwell on news in television criticism is that it's an area I know gets attention elsewhere in the curriculum. Aside from that, outside of the field of Television Studies, for many in academia, TV criticism = news criticism. There's plenty else to talk about, and I usually do.

This kind of thinking has allowed me to not dedicate too much of my time to a subject which greatly frustrates me: Fox News. And yet, it must be dealt with. What I did today was use the Occupy Davis Pepper Spray incident as an opportunity to examine how news entertainment mediates events and renders them meaningful in particular ways. I started with my typical lecture material on the history of the news going back to the Camel/Plymouth News Caravan in the 1950s. I have a DVD which includes one 15-minute broadcast. This shows the sponsored format of the news, the reliance on library film footage, and also the role of the media in defining/speaking to the nation. It concludes with a great promo for NBC bringing an atomic test in the Nevada desert to audiences...arms race as TV event. Below is a different episode, but pretty much the same deal.

I'll skip over the rest of the lecture on the rising stature of TV news, from making up for the Quiz Shows, to "loss leader" status, to the Vietnam War and the post-Watergate investigative journalism mania. Cue Network. Bottom line, 80s and 90s news is just another profit-generating entity. Thus, news must be entertaining. Here we discuss Hallin's strategies to make the news entertaining. Must students grasp right away Character, Conflict, Dramatic Structure, Images/Graphics, the News Family, and then the fun one, Populism. Actually, they tend to get that one, too, but it does require a bit more teasing. We talk about "man in the street" type interviews and the celebration of common wisdom, but today we added a bit more nefarious version to the mix. That is, the rampant anti-intellectual hypocrisy of Fox & Friends (which my colleague Jeff Jones is currently writing about as not so much "news family" as "high school clique").

We watched the following clip from the Daily Show, in which Stewart "outs" Carlson's intellectual cred in the face of her claims she doesn't understand such mind-boggling concepts as "double-dip inflation" and "czar". This is about the halfway point of the following clip.

Kitchen Cops, that ain't. Interesting conversation about populist performances by political candidates followed: for example, George W. Bush clearing brush. Then we watched this clip from O'Reilly Factor with Megyn Kelly talking about how pepper spray is one of the basic food groups. Basically. I decided to show this clip prior to the unedited YouTube footage of the Occupy Davis incident, because it really shows some aggressive meaning-making going on.

Where to start? That must be watered down pepper spray? I'm disgusted again and I can't finish this post. If it meant I could subsequently vomit on Megyn Kelly and Bill O'Reilly, I might take a hefty dousing myself. No questioning of ethics. O'Reilly pisses me off not by just saying we can't Monday morning quarterback the police, but asserting we can't tell what's going on. Yes, we can. We don't need this explained. It's self evident. Also: notice how the clip edits together Davis footage with that from Berkeley, which does show protesters physically clashing with police. This helps lend credence to the suggestion we can't "know" how the protesters were behaving or whether the police action was warranted. Bullshit. Seriously. Can't revisit.

Then there is the complete 8 1/2 minute clip. I showed this and asked how understanding of the event changes when seeing the entire thing. Thank goodness the BoingBoing article that featured this clip (or was it a Facebook post) that said to watch the whole thing. Otherwise, I might have given up. It truly is a revelation.

My students' reaction was immediate and echoed my own. While they may have started with the question in their heads of whether the actions were somehow warranted, by the end what is impressive is how they have taken power. Watch footage of protests on television, and who wants to be a part of that? Here you see a crowd of protesters in control, effectively shaming the police. It stands as an inspiring piece of television, as well as a disgraceful document of nonchalant abuse of power.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

More Derelict Modern at Camp K Photos

See the related blog post.

Derelict Modern at Camp K

Last weekend I visited Camp Karankawa, the Boy Scout Camp on Lake Corpus Christi, for the first time in 24 years. When I was in Boy Scouts, we spent a week there each summer earning merit badges, doing "KP" duty, trying to stay hydrated, and occasionally shooting 22s. Also, lots of carefully timed troop shouts to win the scout spirit award. Camp K hasn't changed much in those years at all, save the recent marvelous addition of two first-rate restroom and shower facilities that have replaced the two-seater pit toilets in each site. For the record, I will definitely take Camp K for one weekend in November in my thirties over Camp K for a week in June in any of my preteen years.

Nothing much has changed over the years at Camp K, and that led to a revelation. While walking the camp to plan a hike for the cub scouts, I came to this group of cottages that have housed the camp counselors for many years. I was struck by their modern style. More to the point, I was struck by how similar these structures were to the "Surfhouse" design that my friend and architect Mark Meyer designed in consultation with me and my wife. Kid #3 came along and that house didn't get built. But compare the camp cabins and this one elevation.

Mark and I both attended Camp K during some formative years, and while Mark has gone on to a career in architecture, I also remain a fan of architecture and in particular modern design. Was Mark channeling memories of Camp K when he designed the Surfhouse? Aside from the shed style of our house, one of its distinctive characteristics was the clerestory, very much like the screened area on the camp cabins. I decided to take some pictures to send to Mark.

The cabins only had screen doors, and as I approached to check out the interior, I caught a glimpse of a familiar form inside. There it was, a Saarinen armchair like the one sitting in my current living room. Well, a little worse for the wear of the hand-me-down life at Camp K. A woodpecker was stuck inside the cabin, and when I came in to take photos, he unfortunately started desperately flying into the screen to escape. I took a few quick shots and left to check the other cabins. To my surprise, three of the other cabins also had these Saarinen arm chairs in different upholstery. How long have these chairs been sitting out at Camp K? I never served as a camp counselor (one week a year was enough for me). But I tried to remember back to my year as a senior patrol leader. Had these chairs been in the office then? Surely Camp K didn't go straight to Knoll to outfit its counselors' cabins. No, it's pretty clear these cabins were just the end of the line for the chairs. They probably started out at the scout executives offices, then made it to the office at Camp K, then the counselors cabins, if I had to guess.

What about the design of the cabins themselves? I haven't begun to investigate. I'm just glad Camp K hasn't torn them down yet. Actually, despite their decrepit shape, someone visiting for the weekend was apparently staying in one during my visit, as I saw a scout shirt and bag inside.

Also, maybe some of us were positively inspired by these cabins without knowing it. On the other hand, how many camp counselors were turned off from modern design forever after their time at Camp K? I'd be interested to hear what sleeping in one of these during June and July was like. How effective was that screen clerestory? And what about those chairs? Trust me, they were pretty much in the "wouldn't pick up on the side of the road" shape.

How many were turned off by modern design because they lived with one of those stinky things for a summer? Still, I have to believe there's some good design samaritan out there seeing to it that these chairs haven't yet been tossed, and the cabins not yet bulldozed. I have met the camp ranger and it is not him.

Then again, I've seen that despite the new restrooms, the other structures at Camp Karankawa are pretty much as they were in 1987. Probably just a matter of time before these are gone. For now, these chairs live out their final days in unexpectedly appropriate structures.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Beavis & Butthead: the Resurrection

It was not Beavis and Butthead, but Bill and Ted who once said there was something strange afoot at the Circle K. I'm enjoying the return of Beavis and Butthead on MTV, mostly because Mike Judge is in fine form and the guys are as funny as ever. I'm also enjoying weird juxtapositions watching the show and visiting the website. Something strange is afoot at the Circle K. Bringing Beavis and Butthead back has revealed some weird wrinkles and ruptures in the MTV audience. Consider the framegrab below, which suggests viewers of Beavis and Butthead both expected to actually have the ability to score, and be in the market for a Cadillac. The Trojan sponsorship also extends to the TV show...this is not the result of my own web surfing trail of data, in other words.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Long Way Across the Weminuche

The following six videos document six days of backpacking across the Weminuche Wilderness in Colorado along the Continental Divide Trail. Ninety some odd miles in six days. Not necessarily a recommended pace, but a once in a lifetime experience, nonetheless. Stay tuned for a narrative describing the trip. For now, the videos.

Day one:

Day two:

Day three:

Day four:

Day five:

Day six:

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

There is no "off" position on the Jackass Switch (and I mean that as respectfully as possible)

Yesterday I talked for about 20 minutes with a reporter from who was working on a story about the possible implications of the car-crash-death of Jackass cast member Ryan Dunn for TV comedy. The first thing I said on the phone was that I wanted to be careful not to sound glib about his death and its possible repercussions—mostly because I didn’t imagine it would have any.
Unfortunately, when the piece was published, my thoughts were whittled down to “Jackass is forever going to be the show with the guy who died” and that’s it. I don’t know if that reads glib, but it certainly reads as useless to me. I understand that’s the nature of interviews—less gets published then spoken, naturally. But unfortunately that also tends to be the nature of journalistic quoting of academics; that is, reinforcing whatever preconceptions the writer has brought to the piece, rather than offering a more expansive view or different perspective.
I’m not so interested in bitching about this (like I said, nature/reality of journalism) as I feel like putting down some of my thoughts about celebrity, reality TV, comedy, etc. that emerged from my conversation with the writer.
The truth is I hadn’t really thought much of this until a reporter was interested in talking to me. The whole event seems mundane, and on the one hand this is maybe because Dunn was probably on one of the lowest rungs of celebrity. I don’t mean that as a dig; on the contrary. His celebrity was of the reality TV variety, and I think what is interesting here is how this particular case of celebrity death is different from the past, and therefore ordinary.
The real undercurrent of concern here wasn’t about the decline of outrageous or obnoxious comedy or audience taste broadly, but the value of the Jackass franchise in particular. What might make it an interesting case for how a franchise weathers controversy is because the Jackass franchise isn’t based in one media, but multiplatform: TV, movies, DVD, live performance, Twitter feeds, online video. Dunn’s death (and rhetoric of its aftermath) played out across those platforms, and so did Dunn’s life as Jackass performer. Dunn’s tweeting of a photo of himself drinking the same night didn’t just suggest this was a case of drunk driving, but also showed how “performing Jackass” wasn’t just about making movies or a TV show, but performing a lifestyle of such stunts that could be documented and distributed via new media at any time.
Dunn’s apparent notorious Twitter partying photo before the crash didn’t just evidence drunk driving, but was one of the attractions. Roger Ebert’s “Friends don’t let jackasses drink and drive” tweet and Bam Margera’s response became another part of the spectacle. Sorry, but I can’t seriously contemplate whether or not what Ebert said was “wrong”—I’m too busy imagining Bam Margera trying to punch him out.
Another thing that came to mind is how totally ubiquitous “Jackassery” is as entertainment now. I find that much of the pleasures of Tosh.0 lie in physical abuse or public humiliation being suffered by people who seem like they deserve it, by virtue of them sharing that misfortune with the public. Nevermind that maybe it isn’t them who decided to share it. In some parallel universe where video of Dunn’s crash existed and Comedy Central was only slightly more adventurous, I imagine it would make the ultimate Tosh.0 clip.
I have to wonder if Tosh.0 has really taken the place of Jackass, or if maybe it just creates a little more ironic distance from Jackassery so that it can be enjoyed. I’ll admit it: Dunn’s death in a drunk driving crash, in his Porsche, just seems such a down-market Jager-bomb way to go. Maybe I would have been more moved (and do I mean entertained?) if it had been a Corvette or 1983 Trans Am.
Personally, I harbor a deep fear that beneath it all, I am just one of those people in the audience of the fart movie in Idiocracy. That bothers me more than my feelings about the death of Ryan Dunn. Sorry. I just don’t quite know the appropriate response to events that spawn headlines like “Bam Margera Rips Roger Ebert for ‘Jackass’ Tweet.”

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Best Riot Photo Ever

Something about this photo from the Vancouver post-hockey-game-loss-riot moves me. The whole event maybe embodies how close to the edge we all are, everywhere, at every moment, of just going completely ape shit. And then there's this hipster fellow on the left. His hair, socks, shorts--clearly he has maxed out his hipster fashion cred to the point of meaninglessness. And in Vancouver.

This photo comes from an LA Times slideshow which you can find here.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

SNL Goes to Harvard via The Land of Gorch

 This week I made a trip to Harvard for a symposium on television satire and puppets. Yes, puppets. While this might be the sort of scholarly thing that causes slack-jawed yahoo governor and tea party types crazy, I want to point out that although TAMUCC bought my plane ticket, most of the support came from a researcher from Holland who was the happy recipient of a $500K grant to study such things. She just got another $1 million grant to work on analog culture in contemporary media culture. Europeans know how to treat their academic types.

Last Gasps in The Land of Gorch from ethan thompson on Vimeo.

My paper was about the first year of Saturday Night Live, during which the Muppets had a regular skit. The characters were from "The Land of Gorch" and the skits were uniformly and irredeemably unfunny. But so was a lot of stuff on SNL (then called NBC's Saturday Night). The Muppet characters were gone after a year, when Henson went on to create The Muppet Show. Have a look at their final appearance here, with Lily Tomlin. Note that it's Tomlin, and not the Muppets, that blows the punchline.

One my last day I wandered around Harvard a little, and went to the Harvard Bookstore hoping to find one of my TV books. Turns out, there are not too many TV books to find in the Harvard Bookstore. Cinema (like so many other places) gets its own section, but not TV. The battle still must be fought! When I wandered down into the used books-basement, I managed to find a couple of TV books, mysteriously put in the "Social Sciences" section. More interesting to me were the various images, ads, art, graffiti taped to the book shelves in the area. This was a history of those who labored in the book store over the years, and from what I see, they seemed to have some excess creative/intellectual energy to burn off in the midst of the high culture and serious academic stuff that made the shelves, because the expressive graffiti was mostly pop culture ephemera stuff.

What caught my eye was an ad for NBC's Saturday Night with George Carlin. This is the same ad from TV Guide the week of SNL's premiere in October 75 that I had used in my presentation. So there was George Carlin, manning the shelves for 35 years. Look closely at the picture above and you can see that the Muppets are also listed on the bill, along with Andy Kaufman and Billy Crystal. Crystal's appearance was cut. He thinks it set his career back a few years, but if you've seen Crystal's later "first appearance", they were doing us all a favor.

Anyway, you can see Carlin is now strangling the Mona Lisa. C-3P0 and R2D2 are hanging out below. On another column in the basement, someone had long ago pasted the cover of Horace Newcomb's TV: the Most Popular Art.

To be fair, I also found a picture of a TV smashed in--there's one of those in every hipster-bookstore crowd in my imagination.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Rowlf on The Jimmy Dean Show

Rowlf the Dog on the Jimmy Dean Show. First consistent network Muppet presence.

Sam and Friends: Visual Thinking

This is one of the more famous Muppet sketches, "Visual Thinking," from the original Henson show, "Sam and Friends." Consider the square vs. hip thinking. Also, this is an interesting analogue to Ernie Kovacs video tricks.

Friday, February 18, 2011

SCMS Abstract: Comment Comedy

It's getting down to SCMS crunch-time. Gotta write that paper I'm presenting in a couple of weeks. Here's the abstract.

TITLE: From Flame Wars to Web Redemption: Tosh.0, Comment Comedy, and Participatory Humiliation

In the summer of 2010, Daniel Tosh pulled off a Comedy Central coup: his show, Tosh.0, was drawing more viewers than the cable network’s cornerstone, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. True, Tosh only put one new episode on the air each week to Stewart’s “daily”, but in the land of basic cable comedy, this seemed a significant milestone. The show had more than doubled its viewership from the previous, premiere summer, and Daniel Tosh was, in the words of The New York Times, “indisputably the television comedian of the moment.” Most surprisingly, Tosh had done it all on a clip show featuring online videos that many people had already seen.
Rather than breathing new life into a traditional television format like the talk show or sitcom, Tosh and the producers of the show had fashioned this successful television comedy from an online media model of participatory culture. In each episode, Tosh was essentially doing the same thing that anonymous viewers all over the world had been doing for at least the last five years: commenting on YouTube videos of individuals humiliating themselves in an infinite number of ways. True, making snarky comments about television on television isn’t exactly ground-breaking. Clip shows like Talk Soup (and other non-Kardashian programming on E!) essentially edit entire genres of TV into “Greatest Hits” packages along with sniping comments about famous and not-so-famous hosts, stars, and guests. Beavis and Butthead’s video rants were symptomatic not just of pubescent hormones, but dissatisfaction with the MTV-media ferment of the 1990s. Even Bob Saget on America’s Funniest Home Videos wasn’t above a gentle jibe at Dad, Junior, or Rover.
But all that took place (and the format of the clip show was essentially set) before two key developments: 1) YouTube and 2) the expansion of online commenting beyond isolated conversations on fan message boards to the common convergent media practice it has become. Comments posted by individuals (who used to be considered viewers/consumers) now provide a legitimate draw in their own right, especially for those who enjoy taking pleasure in the pain and failures of others. The participatory culture of comically commenting on “failures” can target everything from a lousy episode of an expensively produced TV show, showcased on an official web site, to a low-res, mobile phone-shot clip of backyard wrestling, to a badly produced, early 1990s hip-hop video. Whether actually commenting on the footage, or laughing at other people’s comments, there are abundant opportunities to participate in the culture of humiliation comedy without actually being the person shooting the video or--heaven forbid--its subject.
This paper will discuss this development of “comment comedy” in participatory media culture, as well as the specific strategies that Tosh.O has used to turn those activities into television content. Included will be consideration of Daniel Tosh’s willingness to humiliate himself, and how that humiliation may be used to create a masculine identity privileged to engage in “politically incorrect” comic commentary.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Shocking Ben Stiller Revelation

I found this paperback at a library book sale last weekend. Its cover provides compelling evidence that Ben Stiller is a time-traveling leftist agitator.

Absurd, you say? Is it any more absurd than Glenn Beck's conspiracy theories about a coming Pan-Islamic Caliphate? I personally find the Onion New Network's coverage of the ongoing attempts to save mankind from Suri Cruise's impending fate as transglobal overlord more plausible.

Need evidence? Just try to find some clips of their coverage for a blog post like I just did. Someone out there, maybe from the future, doesn't want you to know the truth about the Suri menace.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Column in Antenna: Historical Comedies Now

I just published a new column in the Antenna blog at Madison. It's light on socially significant TV and high on TV pleasure. Here's the first paragraph.

America Needs Historical Comedies Now

One day this January, ABC picked up four new TV pilots: a crime procedural set in the nineteenth century with Edgar Allan Poe as detective-protagonist; a “sexy soap” set at iconic airline Pan Am in the 1960s; and two multicamera comedies. The post reporting the pick-ups on Deadline Hollywood said that one of the comedies, Work It, had a “Bosom Buddies vibe to it.” The description of the other, Lost and Found, said it was about a party girl whose life is “turned upside down when the conservative 18 year old son she gave up for adoption shows up on her doorstep,” suggesting another early-80s sitcom icon, Alex Keaton. In both cases, the comedies intertextually reference the TV past, but they don’t go so far as actually setting themselves in it. While I am all for multicamera comedies, the juxtaposition of the period dramas and contemporary comedies is worth thinking about.

Read more here...