6 Songs in A STAR IS BORN That Are Better Than “Shallow”

In which I do not exactly go off the deep end

So I rewatched the latest iteration of A Star is Born, mostly because I had bought it on iTunes in order to watch it the first time and wanted to get my money’s worth. To my pleasant surprise, I took a greater liking to it the second time around. I think I had a better appreciation for Bradley Cooper’s directorial choices (I dug a lot of the camera angles and cutaways), plus a better sense of how the music fit into, and told, the story.

Moreover, I was able to identify one of my major issues with the film, which is that “Shallow”—for all its understandable appeal and real-life drama—is far from the soundtrack’s strongest moment. Here follows my attempt to put it into perspective.

“La Vie en Rose”

Okay, this is kind of cheating since it isn’t original to the film, but Gaga’s delivery is even more powerful than I remembered. She maneuvers both her voice and her body with such grace through what must be a pretty unforgiving environment, acoustically and spatially speaking. It’s a more plausible situation than “Shallow.” And she just kills it.

“Maybe It’s Time”

This is one of the few times we get to hear Cooper sing on his own and give us a sense of his character’s style of music. (The opening number, “Black Eyes,” sounds awesome, but we don’t hear a long enough portion of it to really consider it.) A simple, understated melody, with a lyric that comments nicely on the fickle nature of fame within the context of the plot.

“Always Remember Us This Way”

Possibly the musical high point of the film, or at least the first one. I’m not a big fan of the four-chords-per-measure piano song—I think it’s certainly overused in today’s pop sphere—but the songwriter(s) made it work here. A great moment for Gaga individually, a great onstage moment involving other musicians as well. The melody holds your ear.

“Look What I Found”

The energy of this song makes it a real standout. If you listen to the full version on the soundtrack album, it is informed with enough soul and stomp to be an instant pick-me-up. There’s something more than a little Carole King about it, and that ain’t a complaint.

“Why Did You Do That?”

This is my jam. If somewhere over the course of the film you’ve forgotten that Gaga’s first foray into the mainstream consisted of good old dance pop, this one brings back that feeling in spades and reminds you of her genius for the genre. I find it so much fun. And watching her character perform it on Saturday Night Live is also a lot of fun.

“I’ll Never Love Again”

The film ends on another musical high point. This ballad feels more old-fashioned, with more ties to music history, than its fellow ballads, and that only does it a service. I love the melodic arc. Within the context of the film, Gaga and Cooper are poignantly united in it without ever singing it jointly. He writes it and unveils it to her, she interprets it in front of a crowd; two different yet equally legitimate forms of ownership.

Image: hey girl I took that unfinished song you half-drunkenly sang to me less than 24 hours ago and arranged the whole thing for my band, isn’t that impressive, please date me

Youthful Optimism?

In which I wonder who makes the future

Hey all.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately—no doubt since the murder of George Floyd late last spring, renewed this week after Derek Chauvin was convicted of that murder on three charges, and while my home country happens to be in the midst of possibly its worst mass-shooting spree ever—about how, why, and when we hold the belief that we can effect institutional change.

Obviously it begins with a lot of people angry enough to be spurred to action. As recently as my early twenties, I didn’t consider myself very angry. I knew I had anger inside of me, and that it flared up at certain breaking points. But really expressing anger was for other people. Granted, I have led a fortunate life; the things I do have to be angry about are not related to social systems, because those social systems by and large have not failed me, in fact have been designed to support me. I might not have felt I had ‘earned’ anger.

Give it a few years and I’ve recognized and acknowledged my anger: at things that have happened to me personally, at things that happen to my loved ones and communities, at things that happen (and have long been happening) to people I would otherwise know nothing of. This anger is there regardless of whether I ‘earned’ it, and so I’m learning not only to embrace it but to channel it productively and constructively. Fortunately again, positive examples abound, set by organizers, activists, and people who are simply more informed than I am about being the change they want to see in the world.

Some people, like Bernie Sanders and the late John Lewis, have defined themselves across generations by this kind of work. Others—the majority—belong to younger demographics. Which got me inquiring into the nature of the supposed optimism of youth.

Has every generation of young people to ever live believed that a new world is theirs for the making, only to have that belief beaten out of them as years go by? Or does the extraordinary momentum going today—the momentum that (among other things) pressured the trial of Derek Chauvin into happening at all—stand a chance of sticking and succeeding that previous movements did not stand?

In the perhaps vain hope of arriving at an educated decision on the matter, I looked to the past. The time of revolt, if not revolution, in which we live has been compared more than once to the late Sixties, in terms of both the problems being exposed and the public’s manner of protesting these norms. Now, I suppose I know a fair amount about the Sixties from a cultural and artistic standpoint (much of which was a direct response to political and social movements) through simple independent study over the course of years. And yet, however long it’s been, it’s been nowhere near enough. A newsletter I subscribe to just detailed the covert operations of COINTELPRO, a program I had never even heard of. This new information filled in some important blanks around the relationship between the FBI and many central civil rights leaders. To repeat, I had not heard of it until now.

One significant advantage we have over the organizers of that era is the internet and the sheer ease with which it can disseminate information. I’ll be the first to tell you how much I loved school; but I have learned more about some of the most basic and longstanding social inequities from these newsletters and Twitter threads than from any history class. Knowledge truly is power—and, in an age where the media (which already need enough reform) are under excessive scrutiny or outright attack, the more everyday people can attain the knowledge themselves the better. We must diagnose these issues before we can set about fixing them and creating structures that prevent them in the future.

Looking back, I guess the ‘spirit of the Sixties’ wasn’t sufficient. The momentous charge and motion of a period (in)famous for its engagement and activism couldn’t repair the systems whose brokenness haunts us to this day. This time of year we celebrate Earth Day, a holiday founded by those people in that era. They certainly didn’t seem to be lacking in optimism. Did they simply lack the resources—resources which we now possess? Or are we doomed to a similar fate? Have we just not lived long enough to know that this is the way revolutions work…or don’t work?

Some people I know who were born and coming to consciousness in that era currently despair of ever shifting public opinion (on gun-control legislation, for example). I’m not sure whether they are expressing a realism which I would do well to adopt—after all, they saw a movement flow and ebb and flow again, they must know more than I—or a pessimism which I and my generation can disprove by making lasting change. I’m not sure if we’re just delusional or if we truly have the power.

Growing up I would talk to people about what I believed would be key components of a better, fairer, more equitable and peaceful world, only to be met with a resistance not of ideology but of complacent realism. The formula went like this:

Me: It really should be this way.

Person: But that’s not the way it is.

No shit, it’s not. I was envisioning the way it could be. I wasn’t convinced that the way it was was the way it had to stay. That said, I had no practical means of demonstrating—much less realizing—the meager vision I cherished. Come to find out, in more recent times, that not only do so many people share my vision, but they have the logistics, skills, and guts to make that vision a viable reality. We have, collectively, taken strides that might not have seemed possible even a few years ago. Maybe we can continue to gather, disseminate, and use the instruments at our disposal as a meaningful follow-up to optimism. Maybe this time, we’ll be lucky.

Happy Birthday, Selena

In which I reflect on a life I learned a lot about just in time

CW: gun violence

This is just to say that Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, the intersectional voice of an underrepresented generation, would have turned fifty years old today.

While, as the “Queen of Tejano Music,” she might not be thought of in the same category as other pop icons due to the specificity of her genre, her impact puts her on a level with some of those icons, and her story combines eerily familiar elements.

  • She and her siblings, brother A.B. and sister Suzette, began touring their act at a young age—Selena herself was only ten—under the direction-cum-management of (guess who) their dad. One day someone has got to do a comprehensive story on the dads of music history; they shaped their kids’ lives, whether they were absent or way way too present.
  • She was a Texas native who died in her early twenties, just as she was cementing her reputation as independent artist, industry fixture, and role model for countless musicians inside or outside Latinx communities.
  • She was shot by a fan—in fact, the president of her fan club (and former manager of her boutique).

Netflix recently released Selena: The Series, a limited bio-series about her life and career (only one season up currently, but a second is pending), and, having next to no knowledge of either, I was curious. I quickly got invested in the narrative surrounding the whole family: they obviously cared for one another deeply but didn’t always understand one another’s ways of caring.

As kids growing up in a Mexican-American community, the band played English-language material until their father Abraham decided they would make better inroads by switching to Spanish. This put extra pressure on both Selena, who sang the songs, and A.B., who wrote them, since their household was not bilingual. Up to that point their parents had been concerned about strategic assimilation, and language was a casualty of that. I understood.

All the more impressive, then, that Selena went on to win Female Vocalist of the Year at nine consecutive Tejano Music Awards starting in her teens. That someone who wasn’t even a native speaker created such a platform for Spanish-language pop music—that she was able to garner an adulatory fanbase from the people who used to ignore her—really gives a proper sense of how beloved she was and still is.

Not only that, her mother Marcella had Cherokee ancestry as well. A mainstream artist of Indigenous heritage (and with Indigenous features) is rarely seen even today.

Her identity grew more and more distant from that of the band as she embarked on a wildly successful solo career, even though they continued to back her on tour and A.B. became her producer. She also developed a romance with her new guitarist, Chris Pérez, a relationship to which her overprotective father was initially opposed; but they eventually married and Chris was accepted into the family.

In 1994 Selena realized her long-held dream of branching out into fashion design. Her boutique line, Selena Etc., was managed by friend and fan Yolanda Saldívar. That year’s album, Amor Prohibido, was a bestseller and made the Tejano genre truly viable in the US pop market for the first time. Selena was still promoting that album in March 1995 when she discovered apparent embezzlement from the fan club and boutique, confronted Yolanda on it, and received a mortal wound in the shoulder.

Fans lined up for miles to mourn her and view her casket in the following days. She was buried in Corpus Christi, TX. Her death was an international event. So many people who had never seen themselves represented in popular music had very literally considered her their voice. A couple generations of artists now—not least among them Jennifer Lopez, who portrayed her in the 1997 biopic—cite her as a primary influence. As a young woman both in and beyond the music business, she broke barriers and challenged the people who would control her, forging her own path and using her newfound privilege to pursue opportunities she had once despaired of ever being available to her.

Hers is a flame worth tending. Or, better yet, a flower.

Update: I am told that today is the International Day of Voice—the celebration coincides in a way that I think must be more than coincidental.

Image: from a 1994 performance on the Johnny Canales Show, a media vehicle that propelled her to stardom

A #PoetryMonth Plug

In which I do a touch of self-promotion

Well, it isn’t all promotion of the self! It’s a (pretty) early glimpse of an anthology of poems by contemporary women writers from around the world, published by the very industrious team at Moon Tide Press. I just so happen to be featured with a poem titled “The Helen Shoot.”

You can order the book here—with any luck through smaller independent vendors soon as well—and/or contribute to the IndieGogo campaign here, which funds the further printing and distribution of copies.

It’s an honor to be included on such a diverse and potent spectrum of experiences and expressions. Yet another reminder of the power of the poem.

Happy weekend, all. Keep reading!

Image: copyright Moon Tide Press, 2021 (find them on Twitter and Instagram @moontidepress)

It’s Poetry Month…

In which I remind you to spend some time at rhyme and verse

…as established by the Academy of American Poets in April 1996. Quarter-century, baby!

It’s also Easter weekend, hence this tidbit from the vault of a respected multi-hyphenate forebear.

So make room for a poem or several in the next twenty-eight days—they don’t take long, and you’ve definitely got the time.

Image: cartoon by David Rowles, 2019

The Wilsonian Institute

In which some old, old feelings meet new context

Maybe it was the gummi bears.

When I sat down with a bag of Haribo Goldbären to Love & Mercy, the biopic covering (in)famous periods in the life of Brian Wilson and the career of The Beach Boys, I thought about how this piece of work had eluded me for almost seven years until my family absolutely insisted I see it. And it may have been the childlike choice of snack, or the memories it evoked of my own growing-up with an equally musical sibling and some dark nights of the soul, that made sure the film hit me as hard as possible. Like, walloped me.

It was the kind of pain you don’t feel at first; there was an initial surface sadness, but the real ache set in over a couple days and has stayed. An ache for the suffering I saw depicted and for a lot more besides. An ache tinted with rage. I’ll explain as I go.

I don’t even usually cry at movies. In fact, I take issue with the supposedly tear-jerking elements in a lot of movies (don’t get me started on The Fault in Our Stars). But this was a different beast.

First off, I was once again reminded of that phrase from Ecclesiastes that I’ve always held true—to everything there is a season—by a current of events that had borne me to this emotional moment. A mere forty-eight hours before my movie night, I’d had a phone conversation with a friend who shares my interest in the theories and practices of mental health. She and I often parse the philosophies we’ve picked up, the benefits and drawbacks of therapy, and so on. This talk was particularly intimate. We both cried. I marveled at my luck to have such a stable, patient, and healing influence in my life. I very nearly called my mom afterward to declare that her once socially-maladjusted daughter had ‘made it.’

My watch history was also on trend. Between this film, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, and the historical drama The Danish Girl, I had inadvertently crafted a syllabus of multigenerational mental-illness studies. These protagonists—only one of whom is fictional, and even then semi-autobiographical—perceive themselves to be psychologically divergent or disturbed, and have that self-image affirmed by certain external forces. They battle disbelief, gaslighting, neglect, and even a simple unfamiliarity with what they are and what they need. They win out, but almost necessarily at great personal cost.

If nothing else, this blog has been known to platform the intersection of music and mental health. Which doesn’t hurt.

While there is much I could say about Love & Mercy itself, I’m more interested in talking about the broader picture it paints regarding both this individual and the wider problems he encounters. If I tried to say everything I want to about both, we’d be here all day. Basically, we observe Brian in two different stages: younger, creating Pet Sounds with his highly insular family (plus a coterie of confused and probably exhausted session musicians) and still trying to please his unreasonably threatened dad; and several years on, finding new love with Melinda Ledbetter but having swapped out his dad for the equally controlling yet uniquely horrible Dr. Eugene Landy. Landy has misdiagnosed his patient with schizophrenia—he actually suffers from schizoaffective disorder, which incorporates key aspects of bipolar disorder—and severely over-medicated him.

Relationships with authority/parental figures are complicated, as real-life Brian has demonstrated. Nothing is entirely forgiven or entirely resolved. The film makes it seem a little more cut-and-dry than I think it was, because films do that. From whatever angle you look, there’s a whole lot to unpack.

I started from a personal place, because that’s the only place I can start. Even if I’ve never experienced symptoms of either of the above disorders (voices, dissociative episodes, identity-based illusions), I can understand why the people who had watched me grow up might think of me when they saw this. I’ve always been more neurotypical than neurodivergent, but with enough anxieties of an intense enough pitch to feel set apart. In my childhood these anxieties manifested externally in matters of friendship and acceptance and internally in patterns of extreme perfectionism; and, facing these demons in a school environment that lacked the resources to handle them, I suffered. I could tell you some things that teachers and classmates said to me. But this isn’t really the place.

I’ll also note that one’s parent need not be a deadbeat like Brian’s for one to be obsessively interested in impressing them.

As I grew and appeared to mellow out (and practiced crafts that responded to these insecurities, such as music, theatre, and writing), I took the criticism leveled at me throughout my earlier years and internalized it. I learned to cherish a destructive narrative that I was broken. That—having once been high-maintenance from a physical standpoint, when I was so small that I could not possibly have fended for myself—I was now high-maintenance from an emotional standpoint, struggling with seemingly basic interactions and juggling my own and others’ disproportionate expectations in social situations. I thought no friend or romantic partner would have reason to stick around for the long haul, after my charms wore off and they witnessed the less palatable parts of me, parts for which I could not forgive myself. I told myself these things up until quite recently, and I have been in some form of therapy pretty regularly since I was ten.

All that said, there has never been a pharmaceutical component to my therapy, nor have I ever been diagnosed with a clinical condition. I know many people, from friends and acquaintances to favorite podcasters, who do live with conditions that necessitate medication, and who sometimes fear that these medications (often depressants) will kill their creative spark. They believe, to speak in very reductive terms, that their illness breeds their genius, and that feeling balanced or regulated or ‘okay’ will inhibit their artistic productivity. The crazy informs the work. Art is pain, and pain is art. Right?

More on that in a minute.

On a brighter literal note, I did discover that I know Pet Sounds as if the sheet music were in front of me. (Sheet music? For a Brian Wilson composition? LOL, you fool.) Over something like a decade and a half of listening, having been given it for Christmas at an age when my music-appreciation brain was more Hilary Duff than Harry James, I’ve absorbed the placement of each instrument and voice with a level of accuracy that it took this film to highlight. Not that I could even name all the instruments there—session drummer Hal Blaine plays finger cymbals at one point??—but I could tell you the pitch they’re playing!

Talking about Pet Sounds is, to some degree, like giving a shout-out to the sun. I return to it with ever-intensifying interest to the point where its innovation-yet-accessibility and complexity-yet-simplicity honestly fucking enrages me (in a good way). Its atmosphere is so exuberant, one of such chiaroscuro, that it’s all the more jarring to juxtapose against the pain its creator was only just beginning to contend with. It goes to show that you never can tell what’s happening beneath the surface.

Which brings me to my other overarching point: the myth of the tortured genius.

Nowadays the term ‘genius’ may be applied too liberally for its own good (let me call out my dad for his sneering at Lin-Manuel Miranda’s MacArthur Genius Grant). But Brian, I think, possesses an incontrovertible genius. His ability to conceive and arrange amazingly layered music without so much as writing it down really has made him a modern-day Mozart. Or Tchaikovsky. And Pet Sounds is at the center of the discussion, for nowhere (except “Good Vibrations”) is that genius on more complete display.

Ironically, at the time the record celebrated its half-centennial a few years ago, I was in Salzburg visiting the homestead of the actual Mozart. Thankfully Brian has stayed with us longer than Wolfie.

Although the compositional process isn’t portrayed in the film, we know that Brian sought lyric-writing assistance from an adman named Tony Asher; it’s his words we hear on songs like “God Only Knows,” in addition to contributions from regular lyricist and irritating cousin Mike Love. Asher would later remark that his impression of Brian was of “the single most irresponsible human being [he’d] ever seen,” with his house in disarray and other indicators we’ve been taught to attribute to those types. Brilliant people aren’t good at ‘normal’ things, and so they neglect them. Right?

Asher also referred to himself as the mouthpiece through which the ideas of Brian Wilson found voice. In other words, it may be his text, but they’re Brian’s thoughts. What wrecks me about the album from a textual standpoint, though, is that its lyrics (“That’s Not Me,” “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” etc.) suggest a writer who has already had a reckoning with himself—when in fact the writer’s big reckoning was just around the corner. How comforting to know that you can feel yourself at rock bottom with the worst still yet to come. *eye twitch*

I identify with Brian’s fixational nature. He allegedly listened to the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” a hundred times a day upon its release, trying to puzzle out Phil Spector’s production technique. (Is Brian Wilson a classic culture slut? My theory is proven!!) My inner circle, if that’s the term, knows when I’m into something because it’ll be all I talk about for a while. I once delivered a kitchen-table lecture on the Beatles and was asked, good-naturedly but in these words exactly, to shut up.

Oh, and I identify with him on two further points: 1) the at-least-occasional wearing of glasses; 2) the decided lack of cheekbone definition. Soft-faced nearsighted artists of the world, unite!

When a brilliant person gets into the ‘zone’ like that, they need to be left alone to follow their latest thread of greatness. Think of 1945’s Rhapsody in Blue, in which Robert Alda’s George Gershwin has two relationships which end because the women believe they are only standing in the way of his full potential (not because maybe his sexuality doesn’t accommodate them, but that’s another story). Against this standard, a girl can’t help but feel that she had better have something to show for her kitchen-table rambling, had better transform it into evidence of her own brilliance, or else she doesn’t deserve to take up that space in the world. Right?

If these scenarios strike you as increasingly irrational, there’s a reason. I have been mulling over how to express my views on these subjects for several weeks now, and I fear the presentation is no less jumbled out here than it is in my head. All of this is to say that Brian’s story infuriates me on behalf of everyone who has ever been told what to feel, how to feel it, or that their feelings are illegitimate. It also drives home to me the idea that we as a society glorify the myth of the tortured genius to the extent that we reject concrete forms of help in the hopes of shooting for that abstract glory. While awareness of mental health and illness is widespread in a way it was not fifty years ago, we have a long way to go in terms of how our systems—medicine, finance, the workplace—address and treat it.

Oh God, now I have to go listen to the album again. In spite of everything else, it makes me bizarrely happy.

Image: Vox—either poor Al grew a few inches or (my guess is) they made him stand on a box

Some Dr. Seuss You Can Still Read

In which I bypass Mulberry Street for roads less traveled

In honor of World Poetry Day, and in light of recent news, some thoughts on an arguably perfect poet/notoriously imperfect human:

A few of Theodor Geisel’s more unscrupulous renderings are officially cancelled as of this year (and rightly so). Contrary to what some would have us believe, we need not chuck the entire catalogue. There’s no shortage of material with which to replace the less tasteful stuff. Here are six recommendations off the top of my daisy-head.

The Butter Battle Book

This isn’t one of my favorite Dr. Seuss stories; it’s one of my favorite stories, full stop. For starters, it’s the most effective anti-war treatise I’ve ever read, depicting a trivial lifestyle preference (which, unlike a physical characteristic, is a choice, though no less arbitrary) as grounds for violence. All English teachers should use it in their lesson plans on allegory. Plus it’s a poignant portrait of generational conflict, and who among us cannot relate to that?

The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins

This one is prose, actually, but I don’t care. I will fight for it until you chop my head off. I’ve never heard anyone talk about it, I’m not sure how many people even remember it—nonetheless it figured prominently among my formative reading experiences. Besides, a truly great poet knows how to cross forms.

Daisy-Head Mayzie

The Doc might have got a bit carried away with the whole Mayzie business, but anyway: here we have another character so named (this one human, as opposed to the more famous bird) who finds a daisy sprouting out of her head one morning. Like Bartholomew Cubbins, it toys with the magical-realism genre. It also taught me the phrase “goodness to Betsy,” wherever that came from.

Yertle the Turtle

Alarmingly, somehow only getting more relevant. Actually, an excellent example of holding someone accountable—as everyone should be held from time to time—without bluntly cancelling them. Though Yertle’s exploits probably merit cancellation, maybe in the form of expulsion from the island. He should be grateful to have been merely removed from his post.

The Lorax

Um, obviously??? If nothing else, this pandemic has had us all living like Once-lers. Get into your Thneed and leave me alone.

Cattus Petasatus (The Cat in the Hat in Latin)

Yes, it still rhymes. To paraphrase Parks & Recreation: treat yo’self to a dead-language education!

As the Cat himself articulates, “It is fun to have fun, but you have to know how.” Let’s have some good responsible fun by giving our Seuss library a refresher.

Happy day of the world poets! We all owe something to this one.

Image: The Butter Battle Book, published 12 January 1984 (wow that year is a little too on the nose if you ask me)


In which I do just that

*CW: addiction*

This is a story of the tightest rhythm section ever. And possibly the most successful married pop act ever. One of them is French Catholic, which I get; the other is from Kentucky and spent his youth in the KY/OH/western-PA area, which I get. Their joint life began in New England, which I really get.

I had eyes on this book from the day it was published: it entered my orbit tangibly as a Christmas present from my dad. To be fair, any book having to do with Talking Heads is going to pique my interest, but this one was more momentous than most. I read the multi-chapter sample before my copy arrived, hungry for as much as I could get.

Let the record show that I am intensely partial to the union of Christopher Frantz and Martina Weymouth. I love their love. Not as much as my own parents’, that’s like the law or something—anyway, my parents loved the Heads from the jump, so call it genetic. Reading about them felt akin to rooting for a favorite TV couple. If they weren’t gonna make it, none of us would.

But they did.

I went in knowing that Chris and I had at least one major commonality: we thought Tina was just the coolest. But where I’ve long held the opinion that Chris struck gold with Tina, it didn’t take many pages for me to see that Tina struck gold too. Chris is a person of the highest order, trying to get along with people and stay true to himself. He seems quite early on to have absorbed the philosophy of respecting everyone and whatever place they occupy in the world: the sheer number of RISD friends and acquaintances he names, not to mention the artists he mingled with upon moving to New York, impressed me, as did the affection with which he speaks of them. Clearly some of them have stayed in his orbit to this day. Even the ones with whom he had personal or professional differences he took pains to be cordial to. As much as the book is a love letter to Tina, it’s also in some ways a love letter to everyone he’s ever worked with.

And the more Chris talks about others, the better the picture you get of him. He wanted to succeed in his craft, but he never allowed ambition to corrupt him. He liked to have fun, but not mean-spirited, destructive, exploitative fun, just high times (literally) with nice people. He was quick to bestow the benefit of the doubt. He is a Good Guy. Those are hard to come by, especially in the music industry.

And he knows his reputation—he remembers being evaluated by the New York Dolls’ frontman, shortly after Talking Heads became a CBGB attraction, as too nice to have a shot at making it big. Did he ever prove that guy wrong! Turns out you can, in fact, have it all.

Now, I’ve been a serious Heads fan for only about three years: while they rapidly ascended the ranks of my favorite groups, they’ve still got some ‘setting’ to do. Ergo I learned a lot about their history that I hadn’t known or thought to know. I was aware of the collaborative effort that went into early songs like “Artists Only” and “Psycho Killer”; but Chris was more of a lyricist in those days than I ever realized. But then, no one can be blamed for believing David was the sole writer, because he billed himself as such.

Chris approaches his descriptions of David with sensitivity and caution. There’s some unresolved stuff there. I’ve concluded that if there were ever a performer whose stage ‘persona’ was their genuine personality, it’s David Byrne. He really is—or was, in the Heads era—that jittery, paranoid, awkward guy. He could just express it onstage in a way that he couldn’t offstage. Most of the time he had trouble making direct eye contact. It seems he did a lot of things that people didn’t understand, but Chris treats him with compassion and also acknowledges his substantial creative contributions.

The couple’s relationship with David of course dated back to RISD, and I guess this account finally laid to rest any notion I cherished that it was the three of them against the world. Because it wasn’t. Theirs was not a tight-knit friendship. Even once Jerry Harrison joined, it was never Chris-Tina-David-Jerry against the world. They would work together, more or less frequently, and then go off to their separate lives. It says all the more of their skill and dedication that they reached such heights, but maybe I cling too tightly to the idea that anyone at that level must be willing to do anything for their bandmates.

You do get a sense of just how huge they became. One thing that I believe distinguished the Heads from their new-wave/punk-adjacent compatriots and propelled them to Big Success is that they embraced dance music. In contrast to the anti-disco reaction among many of their fellow groups, they were interested in disco. They didn’t limit their range of influences. As a result, they had a tendency toward irresistible grooves (a series of jam sessions generated the songs on Fear of Music) which appealed to a cross-section of audiences and made for a fantastic live show. Speaking in Tongues, which appeared in 1983 and featured very prominently on the Stop Making Sense tour, wouldn’t be out of place in any club. It’s a bop and a half.

Chris and Tina were directly responsible for much of this wide-ranging embrace. I had no idea how their side project Tom Tom Club came together, and then I come to find out there’s a reason for that. It’s essentially a non-story. They were hanging around Compass Point Studios in Nassau with its founder, Chris Blackwell—who was a friend of Brian Eno’s, who had produced the Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food and Fear of Music—and decided to make a record with the ‘session cats’ they had befriended through a mutual enthusiasm for a swath of styles. Hip-hop, for instance. These two suburban white kids got in on the ground floor as fans of the hip-hop movement and suddenly found themselves doing “Genius of Love,” now one of the most sampled tracks of all time.

Before they knew it, the side thing they’d started out of boredom while waiting for David and Eno to finish a solo record had a gold record of its own. Ta-da.

(A friend of mine who is a few years older told me that she once saw Tom Tom Club in London. They were awesome, because of course they were. I was gobsmacked. “You saw Chris and Tina? iN pErSoN?”)

Oh, and while it’s still a missed opportunity that they didn’t call the group ChrisTina, I now understand both the immediate inspiration for the name—the house they rented in Nassau—and the ethos behind it. It wasn’t about them, it was about the collective.

All of this artistic productivity notwithstanding, Chris struggled with a cocaine habit. Which surprised me a little but not that much—the amount of coke available to musicians in the ‘80s was bottomless. But he had it under control until just after Stop Making Sense, at which point Tina told him to shape up or ship out. And he chose the former. This must have taken considerable strength and willpower on his part, though he credits his wife entirely.

As a storyteller, he doesn’t romanticize the hard parts. He shares the gritty details of the first loft he, Tina, and David shared on the Bowery’s Chrystie Street without going all La Bohème. It wasn’t a ramshackle aesthetic for struggling artists—it was a dump in an often frightening neighborhood, and they were all relieved when they got to move out. No wonder 77 sounds so nervous, if it was largely conceived and written in a place where a stray bullet once shattered the window while they were watching TV.

Time and again I was struck by the narrative thread of Chris’s loyalty. He isn’t bragging, it’s just self-evident. He stuck by people even who didn’t always stick by him, from fellow musicians to producers to friends. Most of all, he stuck by his woman. His constant refrain is some variation of “and then I looked over to the side of the stage and Tina was playing so well and she was so gorgeous,” and it made me smile every time. A lot of partners claim to be best friends, but Chris and Tina actually are best friends. Their bond is exceptional.

I think it’s rare and difficult to combine multiple types of closeness and collaboration into one relationship. On the flip side of that coin, these two demonstrate that this sort of love can come into anyone’s life under the right circumstances. And that you can attract it if you keep loving yourself and loving what you do.

While touring Europe as the Ramones’ opening act (and there are a lot of priceless anecdotes about the Ramones), they played a gig in Geneva which Chris recalls thusly: “The audience was pleasantly challenged to figure us out.” This may be the single most succinct summary of what Talking Heads were. Their music is joyful, and accessible enough, but not without making your brain work a little to earn it. Judging by Remain in Love, that’s how their creative process was too. I thank all four of them for bringing this element into pop music, and thank Chris specifically for putting it on paper.

I’m perpetually drawn to the Heads’ origin story—it’s one of the best in the biz, academic and nerdy and wonderful. The connection between Chris and Tina was a major catalyst for it. They were, are, and will always be a couple of art-school weirdos. A reader can tell it would have been a legendary love story no matter what path it took. I’m just glad so much of the evidence is on vinyl.

Dedicated to Kathryn, Jonathan, Alan, Hannah, and all the other cool kids.

Who Was Leni Riefenstahl Really?

In which I step out onto a limb

So I’m trying something a little different this International Women’s Day. I thought I’d explore the life of a woman who came from the country I am living in and learning about. And, since women are such marvelously nuanced creatures, I chose a woman who wielded unusual creative control in her time—and whose influence was of highly controversial origins. Besides, I only heard of her in grad school, and I’ve wondered about her ever since.

Helena “Leni” Riefenstahl was the great propaganda filmmaker of the Third Reich. Not even the great female filmmaker; the filmmaker, period. Although she had obvious Nazi ties and was friendly with Hitler, the extent of her knowledge of the party’s activities and goals has always been contested, both by herself during her lifetime and by subsequent historians.

She didn’t start out with the objective of working in film. As a young girl she studied dance at the Grimm-Reiter School in Berlin—which her mother had enrolled her in without her father’s knowledge or permission—and, by her early twenties, was performing around the continent with a company led by Max Reinhardt (and funded by a Jewish producer). She threw herself so wholly into the show that she injured her knee and jeopardized her career…which was apparently okay, because she had seen movie posters and was already thinking of making a transition.

After that she went to the cinema nonstop and also attended every film festival she could get to. In the mid-1920s she met director Arnold Fanck and persuaded him to cast her in his next project. They went on to make several movies together, the one that put her on the map internationally being The White Hell of Pitz Palu (1929); and little by little she absorbed the lessons he offered in directing and editing.

Her directorial debut came in 1932 with Das blaue Licht (“The Blue Light”), now considered a landmark film of the Weimar Republic. Although the Venice Film Festival awarded it the Silver Medal, it was not a huge critical or commercial success at the time, inspiring her grudge against the largely Jewish body of film critics. Still, the film made enough of an impression to earn her an invitation to Hollywood, which she rejected thanks to a boyfriend who had no intention of leaving Germany.

Part of me breathes a sigh of relief, however uneasy, that she turned Hollywood down. Even given that most of the industry giants were Jews, antisemitism ran rampant—looking at you, Walt Disney—and I wonder how Riefenstahl’s presence could have impacted the situation. (Years later, when she toured the States, Disney showed her his latest work-in-progress, Fantasia. Now forget what I just said.)

Anyway, she wasn’t losing out, because the film had also caught Hitler’s attention. Riefenstahl had heard his early speeches and was floored by his oratory gifts, so she jumped at the chance to meet with him. Evidently he thought her character in Das blaue Licht embodied the ideal German Aryan woman and sought to collaborate with her on more such films. The first was Der Sieg des Glaubens (“Victory of Faith”), which chronicled a 1933 rally at Nuremberg; most copies of the film appear to have been destroyed on Hitler’s orders after the murders of many of the depicted officials, also on Hitler’s orders, on the Night of the Long Knives.

But the following year Riefenstahl essentially repeated the project, even in the same city. The result, Triumph des Willens (“Trimph of the Will”), is often called the greatest propaganda film ever made. The sight of over a million Germans rallying around Hitler among an aesthetically appealing arrangement of flags is chillingly impressive. Riefenstahl had also begun work on a private project, Tiefland (“Lowland”), and was growing uncomfortable associating her art with the Nazi Party. She made Triumph on the condition that her professional relationship with Hitler would end thereafter.

Still, even on her independent film, she used concentration-camp inmates, most of whom were Romani, as extras, after which they were sent to Auschwitz. And then she did make another Nazi film, a 28-minute short entitled Tag der Freiheit (“Day of Freedom”). She was demonstrating where her interests, and loyalties, lay.

Her film about the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Olympia, was ostensibly commissioned by the International Olympic Committee but received covert funding from the Nazi Party. The panoramic, aerial, and other as-yet-unconventional shots she featured quickly gained traction and popularity. That the famous footage of Jesse Owens belongs to this film, and to her creative eye, is a good example of what makes her such a bizarre, troubling, fascinating figure.

As her voice and opinions were sought, she had more and more opportunity to comment on Hitler—and praised and defended him consistently. She embarked on her aforementioned American tour and was received warmly by luminaries including the man I seem to encounter at every turn these days, Henry Ford. She allegedly rebuffed the advances of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s right-hand lowlife. She was Influential.

During the war she went to Poland as a correspondent and was unable to pursue many feature-length projects. In the early part of the 1940s she finished Tiefland, allowing the aforementioned atrocities to be committed against her extras. The film did not premiere until 1954, by which time—having been labeled a Nazi sympathizer as opposed to a party member—she was effectively blacklisted by the film industry. But it was really the public who blacklisted her; various production companies would have been willing to take on her proposed projects if the market had not cast its judgment on her. And could you possibly blame the market?

She later referred to her meeting with Hitler as “the biggest catastrophe of my life,” even if it was too little too late to save her film career. Still, she enjoyed a second career as a photographer, first in Africa among the Nuba tribes and then at the 1972 and 1976 Olympics for the International Olympic Committee. She even survived a helicopter crash in 2000. She died near her home in Bavaria in 2003, aged one hundred and one.

Many aspects of her work continue to be highly regarded for their ingenuity and innovation. The question we face in hindsight is whether one can be both a feminist and a fascist. If anyone appears to have tried to strike that unbelievable balance, it was Leni Riefenstahl. Though in a position of power, she represented the dark dichotomy of everyday attitudes toward the rise of the Nazis—a philosophy of acceptance without open endorsement. There was work to do, and she was prepared to look the other way most of the time in order to do it.

Here’s to the women with talent in our lives. May they learn how to use it.

Image: from the Archiv Reichelt und Brockmann

In Defense of the Kids Who Had the Nerve to Audition

In which, for once, inclusivity supersedes quality

We all—of a certain age, anyhow—remember the scene in High School Musical where a procession of hopefuls audition for the winter musicale. They sing an excerpt from “What I’ve Been Looking For” accompanied by its composer, accident-prone musical genius Kelsi Nielsen, who is to East High what Cole Porter was to Yale (albeit she could do with a good arranger). It’s played for laughs, as the students demonstrate either no talent or a style of talent incongruous to the demands of the material.

Here’s the thing: had I been in Ms. Darbus’ shoes, I would have cast all of those kids. And let me tell you why.

  • Do you know how difficult it is to get teenagers to sing publicly in the same place where they spend most of their time with people who might judge them for it? This turnout is impressive.
  • They’re into it. Even the ones who are a little off-key or off-rhythm are too passionate to be self-conscious. Which translates pricelessly to the stage—and gives you the entire rehearsal process to either help them improve or fashion their roles in ways that play to whatever strengths they do have.
  • Oh sure, poke fun at that operatic sound, but Cyndra was the most technically proficient singer of the bunch. She could be the vocal coach or something. Even if you don’t cast her, put her on crew.
  • And put that dancer in charge of choreography. Just be sure to clear the stage so he doesn’t crash into anything.
  • I’ve seen a few high-school auditions. The ratio of talent and teachability in this group is pretty darn high.
  • They, unlike a certain Basketball Boy and Science Nerd, had the guts to formally audition, and as such deserve some kind of reward.
  • You need an ensemble!!!

God knows I empathize with the standards Ms. Darbus upholds for her theater, but let’s be realistic here. It’s an educational setting. Give the kids a chance. Don’t crush their dreams, that’s what the real world is for.

Image: from Twitter—except those last two squares don’t count!