Wednesday, December 11, 2013

My True Story Email Chance at Super Stardom

Hi Ethan-

I hope this note finds you well. My name is Ariel ______ and I am a Talent Producer on the NBC television show The Voice. I came across your youtube channel and was hoping to chat with you about auditioning for us if it's something that interests you? We will be having invite only industry auditions (these are not open calls) in various cities over the next few months.  I would love to discuss the opportunity and process with you further, my contact details are below. 

*If you'd like to verify the legitimacy of this e-mail please feel free to visit and follow the steps to contact the casting team. 

Hope to hear from you soon!


Ariel ______
Talent Producer | The Voice

*The Voice does not permit companies or individuals to charge or take money from any potential auditioners, misrepresent yourself or organization as an employee or affiliate of The Voice, advertise, use The Voice logo or hold auditions without approval of The Voice.  Thank you.*

Hi Ariel,

This is something that interests me tremendously! However, I am not the Ethan Thompson you are looking for. I am Ethan Thompson the guy who is a professor of media studies, not Ethan Thompson the guy who sings. 

Actually, I do a mean karaoke version of No Sleep Till Brooklyn, but I doubt that will get me far on The Voice. I will say, though, that I have seen a terrible rap video by Ethan Thompson the guy who sings, and I think my skills trump his, so if he makes it on The Voice, I will happily appear to battle him.

Unfortunately, Ethan Thompson the guy who sings does not do a good job of proofreading how he writes his email address, and he did indeed put MY address in one of his videos. I am not sure what his correct address is. 

Believe it or not, I actually teach classes in television studies and I have a new book called How to Watch Television. My students and social media peeps have enjoyed this episode tremendously, as have my wife and kids, who are all big fans of The Voice. 

If you really need an Ethan Thompson, I'll be glad to try out. But I think you probably want the other guy... I also have an 8 year old aspiring pop star who would love a shot, so keep us in mind.

Dr. Ethan Thompson
Associate Professor
Dept. of Communication & Media
Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi

Hi Ethan,

Such a great e-mail from you! I do apologize for the error but we are thankful for the support of your family, friends, and students!  If we're still on the air by the time your daughter is 15, feel free to get in touch ;-)

All the best,

Monday, December 09, 2013

Room 237 and Fair Use

While iced in this past weekend in the DFW area, I watched the documentary film Room 237, which is about several different theories about what Kubrick's The Shining is "really" about. As a whole, the film is a testament to Kubrick's artistic aura and the auteur theory. The readings all are grounded in the notion that every single thing we see (or don't see) was a conscious manipulation on the part of Kubrick to convey something deeper than the surface horror story.

I was disappointed that I never got to see any of the faces of the people spinning these yarns. However, I was immediately taken by the film's visual approach, which is overwhelmingly to use clips not just from the Shining, but other Kubrick films, and other films with Jack Nicholson, in conjunction with audio from the interviews.

I was happy to find out that (according to my cursory research) all these clips were claimed (rightfully) as Fair Use. Not surprising, given how astoundingly expensive it would otherwise be to license the material--much as it would have been to license the Beatles and Jay-Z samples for Dangermouse's Grey Album. Considering how much promotion Room 237 got, and how easily available it is on Netflix, this seems to bode well. Here's an article from last September, prior to the film's release.

If I find out they did end up paying licensing fees, I'll (sadly) post that.

Also, I'm still trying to make time to watch Los Angeles Plays Itself, a monumental Fair Use documentary consisting of Hollywood representations of LA that is on YouTube. (below)

Friday, December 06, 2013

How to watch SOML or other not very good TV

Last night I got into a little trouble for saying a TV show was bad, when I didn't say that all. I said it was not very good. Which was actually a compliment. I was talking about NBC's Sound of Music Live, which I was watching at my sister's house in Dallas with the rest of the family, after an eight hour drive which ended in freezing rain. Here's what I tweeted:

I support liveness therefore I support #TheSoundofMusicLive. Plus, TV is not supposed to be very good.

This statement was in reaction to a flurry of tweets from others about what was bad about the show. I wouldn't necessarily disagree with any of those. My point was that this was the kind of TV event that wasn't about quality and whether, say, Carrie Underwood can act. It was about watching something as it happened, and allowing for multiple pleasures for the audience simultaneously assembled. For me, it was reveling in a what seemed a desperate and nostalgic gesture of pure TV on a number of levels. 

A country singer/star and American Idol winner at the center of what is most famous as a film musical but seen by most people on TV, with Anna Paquin's vampire husband as Baron Von Trapp? This wasn't just about mocking the performance. I was genuinely impressed by the live staging. Yes, it might have seemed less awkward with a studio audience, but I can't imagine how they could have done that with so many sets and camera setups. I haven't read anything about the making of it, but I'm sure there were many cameras and stages.

Anyway, the bigger point I was making was that TV isn't supposed to very good if you look at it too closely. Right now, this was "pure TV" (aside from the production end of things) in that it was best experienced live with others, in a state of semi-distraction. Better if those around you have something at stake in liking Carrie Underwood. This being America, liking the Sound of Music, or at least knowing it through osmosis, is a given. Go make a drink or a sandwich and don't push pause. Just listen. You know the story already, anyway. What's the point of making fun of it? 

Am I reading against the grain of my own ironic sensibility these days? Every now and then.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Beastie Boys and Fair Use

I can't believe I've never before read the judgment in the ad parody case of Annie Liebowitz vs. the Naked Gun. It took an ad satirizing the Beastie Boys song "Girls" to do it. But I'm going to make it required reading in my Advertising Criticism class, and use the current Beasties vs. Goldie Blox "case" as an example for thinking about copyright and parody in advertising.

Here's the offending commercial (assuming it hasn't been taken down from this "unofficial" post). Seems to me to be a very transformative use of "Girls" and that it does transform it via satire. Worth remembering "Girls" came out in 1986 and the Beastie Boys of that era had dicks on stage and girls in cages. They were not the "enlightened" Beasties of Free Tibet, etc. So while that song (and other stuff on Licensed to Ill) might read satirically now, wasn't then.

Here's a really good article about the debate, with links to court judgments in parody cases, from Andy Baio. Also links to coverage of the fight in Hollywood Reporter.

The best part is reading the Liebowitz finding. Looking at this image, isn't it clear that the world is a better place with such parodies, even in the service of advertising?

As the GoldieBlox vs. Beasties Boys thing plays out, I think it's interesting that GoldieBlox is essentially in danger of offending what I assume is the very audience it is courting: "Slumpies"--the socially liberal, urban minded professionals advertisers love, and that have in some cases fueled more progressive media representations because they're the people advertisers most want. But they also love the Beastie Boys. And you don't want to go against the wishes of the Beastie Boys, especially Adam Yauch.

12 Years a Slave, Time, Catharsis

Last week I saw 12 Years a Slave and I’ve been thinking about the film and my reactions to it since. I haven’t spent much time reading what has been written about it, aside from recognizing its high critical metascores (which got me in the theatre in the first place) and a blog or two encouraging me to see it in the theatre, lest I never get the nerve to watch it through on DVD or Netflix. One of the things that I have read about the film, and therefore expected, was the profound emotional impact it can have on viewers, of the knocking-the-wind-out-of you sort.

It didn’t do that to me. It was an emotionally powerful and aesthetically successful film, no doubt, and I don’t really have anything I would fault it for. It just didn’t devastate me the way it has others, and I wonder why that might be. Maybe it’s because I’ve been acquainted with the specificities of the depravities of slavery since my college years, from reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin as an undergrad to various texts in African-American Studies classes as a grad student. I also think—maybe—that people outside the south are caught off guard by the film in a way they hadn’t expected, and this I think is a central formal and thematic success of the film. What I mean is, it is one thing to acknowledge and assume as a given in a general moral sense the evil and wretchedness of slavery. It is another thing to be acquainted with the specificities of the everyday acts of human depravity that were part and parcel of slavery. By this I mean the tearing apart of families, rape, torture, murder—the things that 12 Years a Slave rightfully portrays as everyday occurrences. It is yet another thing entirely to recognize that you bear some moral responsibility for such acts as indirectly benefiting from them or looking away from them as not affecting you—whether in the historical past or the present. The film isn’t so much about the evils of slavery, as it is about how looking the other way from something one believes is wrong isn’t good enough.

That’s one way I think the film is especially interesting, serving as a sort of necessary, catharsis-free companion piece to Django Unchained (a film I liked and think might be Tarantino’s best). So here’s where I could go and read everything that has been written about 12 Years a Slave and not write what I think about it. But I won’t because this is blogging. In Django, you witness casual brutalities of the most grotesque sort. But there is comic catharsis (the KKK hilariously arguing about how they can’t see out the eyeholes of their hoods!) and violent catharsis, again and again, it being a Tarantino film. Which goes for the comic catharsis as well, I guess. These relieve feelings of rage, shame, disgust, etc.
In 12 Years a Slave, there is no violent revenge. You know all along he will get back to his family. The suspense lies in anticipating what the next humiliating or horrifying act he will witness or have inflicted upon him will be. That builds and builds until you are just hoping not-of-the-south-and-maybe-therefore-abolitionist Brad Pitt will follow through and get word to the right people who will get Solomon out. The intertitles tell you he lost his legal cases against the people responsible for his kidnapping. So no nonviolent revenge, either. No catharsis.

The formal style of 12 Years a Slave is not very presentational—none of the showy camera or editing work you’d expect from, say, Tarantino. But there is one scene when it is formally deliberate (and the one I’m sure others have and will write about! Probably will end up in a class or two as well!). About midway into the film Solomon fights with an abusive overseer/laborer played by Paul Dano, who quickly enlists his pals to lynch him, putting a noose around his neck and beginning to hoist him on a tree branch. They are stopped by a higher authority (the overseer’s overseer?) who assesses Solomon as property more valuable than Dano’s shame. So the lynching is stopped, but Solomon is left precariously almost hanging, balancing on his toes in the mud. This goes on for minutes (in a single wide shot) until other slaves starting coming out of hiding and go back to work. The sense of the events unfolding in real time, without editing compressing anything, really contributes to a sense of witness.
Another way in which the film effectively represents the pervasiveness of the everyday evils of slavery is Solomon happening upon the hanging of two slaves just after he has cut through some trees, presumably to attempt to run away. The sense that there is the threat of violent death (or at least violent abuse) at anytime, that it is just below the surface makes the thought of any respite, much less escape, improbable.

This is one of the ways I think the film interestingly plays with screen/story time. The title announces “12 years” but scenes like the two above provide intense representation of moments or incidents—there are no montages of time passing. Another scene (the one I expect to be in the Oscar clip) occurs at a funeral. Solomon stares at the grave while others sing, we watch his face as he slowly gives way to the emotion and joins in the singing—there is some catharsis there for him, maybe. Or maybe instead it is gathering determination to survive.

When Solomon is finally rescued, my sense was that a number of years had past since the previous scene when we had just seen him. But it didn’t really matter whether I was right or wrong. He has lost track of time, too, I believe mentioning at some point that he has been gone several years. When he is reunited with his family, the aging of his children and especially the birth of a grandchild finally indicates the real passage of time. This is when the weight of the arbitrariness of the boundaries that have done this sinks in, too. North/South, Free/Slave, Friend/Kidnapper, Black/White, Slave Owner/Tolerant of Slavery, Doing something/Not doing something. One passes into the other without knowing.

The final intertitles underscore a sense of the arbitrariness of power and justice, history and memory. Solomon is free, but they tell us he loses his court cases against those who kidnapped and sold him into slavery because he lacks the legal rights to testify against them. He writes his book and becomes a popular speaker in the abolitionist movement. Then no one knows what happens to him, how he died or when.

So no closure there, either.
Michael Williams is in 12 Years a Slave, but he doesn't get to do anything Omar-like.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Mixtape Chronicles: Pu Pu Platter (1991/1992)

When I was in my room growing up, MTV was on about 90% of the time. In my elementary school years, I had an RCA tape recorder that I kept nearby to record from the mono speaker on my Panasonic TV. I still remember the satisfaction of finally capturing After the Fire's version of "Der Kommisar" after hours of waiting with my fingers poised on the record and play buttons. Sometime in high school, I bought a converter box from some long-forgotten, poor man's Sharper Image that allowed me to finally get MTV in stereo by connecting the coaxial cable to my Sony CD/Tape player. This also ushered in a new era of recording off MTV. (Kids, this is what one did when one couldn't instantly download albums, and instead waited three weeks between shipments from the Columbia House record club.)

As an example of the fruit of that labor, I offer for your pleasure and consternation the Pu Pu Platter mixtape, which consists of about 80% late 1991, early 1992 MTV's 120 Minutes, with a little local FM rock and oldies thrown in.

Some interesting tidbits here include excerpts from a Pauly Shore show on MTV, which was a kind of forerunner to mundane reality TV shows. Pauly would just hang out with a celebrity or someone he knew in Hollywood, make some inane conversation, then introduce a video. Also included, a shout-out from Hairclub for Men president (and client) Sy Sperling. The bad thing about these kinds of mixtapes, though, is you might record something you decided you didn't like, but unless you immediately rewound, you were stuck with it. Like the Rush excerpt here, a band I will forever associate with Dungeons and Dragons, a game I have never played.

This tape must have been started in late 1991, since one side begins with "Smells Like Teen Spirit" which I would definitely have owned by 1992 when I decided to record "Dance the Night Away" over it, as well as "Bohemian Rhapsody" which swept the country in the wake of Wayne's World mania in the spring of that year. For the record, I think the combination here of Nirvana, Queen, and Sy Sperling captures the spirit of the pre-Clinton 1990s perfectly.

SIDE A: Moo Goo Gai Pan
1. Mudhoney: Good Enough
2. Ned's Atomic Dustbin: Grey Cell Green
3. (Partial) Rush: Some song about traveling in the time of the prophets on a road to redemption.
4. Canned Heat: On the Road Again
5. Erasure: Love to Hate You
6. Billy Bragg: You Woke Up My Neighbourhood
7. (Partial) Red Hot Chili Peppers: Give it Away
8. Neil Young: Hey Hey My My (Live)
9. Red Hot Chili Peppers: Under the Bridge
10. (Partial) Joe Walsh: Walk Away
11. (Partial) Queen: Bohemian Rhapsody

SIDE A(?): Yu Shung Chicken
12. Van Halen: Dance the Night Away
13. (Partial) Nirvana: Smells Like Teen Spirit
14. (Very Brief) REM: Losing My Religion (from Unplugged)
15. Pauly Shore Interlude with Skatemaster Tate
16. U2: The Fly
17. Some Ozzy song intro, and greetings from Sy Sperling!
18. The Farm: Groovy Train
19. Pauly Shore Again
20. The Dylans: Planet Love
21. Smashing Pumpkins: Siva (followed by the voice of Dave Kendall)
22. (Partial) Swervedriver: Rave Down
23. Lush: De-Luxe

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Frijoles Quemados - Mixtape 1990

During 1990-1991, my junior year of high school, I was enrolled in a highly selective Spanish III class populated by the school's best and brightest. Mind you, my high school only had 100 or so students, so by "best and brightest" I mean "me and my friends."

There were only five or six of us in the class, and we did some creative projects to flex our Spanish skills, the best of which was "Frijoles Quemados"--a mixtape using a multitrack mixer, an RCA tape player, my Sony CD/tape player, and a music class-grade turntable. Plus, a microphone for some select voiceover DJ-ing. The plan was to make this tape and override the building's PA system by simply attaching it to the speaker wires in the ceiling. We did a test run at lunch one day and this worked. But I don't think we ever unleashed the full beauty of "Frijoles Quemados" upon the hallowed halls of Port Aransas High School.

But now it is time to bring "Frijoles Quemados" to a much broader audience.

Some things will quickly become apparent. Number 1: We put a lot more effort into the opening half of the tape, mixing together various songs, outtakes from speeches, and comedy albums. Then we just pretty much started playing songs. Number 2: This was the early 1990s, and we really liked Jane's Addiction. Number 3: This was the early 1990s, and a couple among us--I'm not naming names, really liked the recently released Roger Waters' "The Wall" album recorded live at what had until very recently been the Berlin Wall. Like I said, these people know who they are. Hey, the rest of us bear responsibility for "I Saw Your Mommy (and Your Mommy's Dead)" by Suicidal Tendencies.

What else is here? "Little GTO," Ministry, U2, some words from MLK and JFK, Jesus and Mary Chain, Cheech & Chong, Monty Python, Jimi Hendrix, Public Enemy, Grover, Winston Churchill. And some more Jane's Addiction. And Bryan Adams and Cyndi Lauper singing Pink Floyd songs. And a couple of voiceovers from our teacher Leif and (unfortunately) just one of us student-types Mack.

This tape was digitized from a cassette that I have towed from Port Aransas to Austin to Los Angeles and back again. It's spent most of those years in an attic or garage and it doesn't sound great but it has survived the heat and bugs to reach the digital age. (BTW, despite their popularity that year, there is no Billy Ray Cyrus or Marky Mark on this mix.)

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Fun with Media History: TV Teepee

From Radio Age, July 1955:

"Two years ago the Chief, whose legal name is Stanly Myiow, collected enough wampum to buy his RCA Victor television set, a twenty-inch model called the "Shelby". The flickerin gmagic of the white man provided good entertainment for White Eagle, his wife and five daughters as they watched the programs from CBMT and CBFT, Montreal."

To have your own fun with media history, visit

Thursday, May 09, 2013

How to Watch Television page up at NYU Press

NYU Press has a terrific page up on my upcoming book, which was co-edited with Jason Mittell and features 40 original essays from an amazing group of writers/scholars. It should be out this September!

from the site:

"We all have opinions about the television shows we watch, but television criticism is about much more than simply evaluating the merits of a particular show and deeming it ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Rather, criticism uses the close examination of a television program to explore that program’s cultural significance, creative strategies, and its place in a broader social context.
How to Watch Television brings together forty original essays from today’s leading scholars on television culture, writing about the programs they care (and think) the most about. Each essay focuses on a particular television show, demonstrating one way to read the program and, through it, our media culture. The essays model how to practice media criticism in accessible language, providing critical insights through analysis—suggesting a way of looking at TV that students and interested viewers might emulate. The contributors discuss a wide range of television programs past and present, covering many formats and genres, spanning fiction and non-fiction, broadcast and cable, providing a broad representation of the programs that are likely to be covered in a media studies course. While the book primarily focuses on American television, important programs with international origins and transnational circulation are also covered.

Addressing television series from the medium’s earliest days to contemporary online transformations of television, How to Watch Television is designed to engender classroom discussion among 
television critics of all backgrounds."

Thursday, February 21, 2013

My life at the turn of the millenium, as told by the cards carried in my wallet.