Climbing Mount Barbenheimer

In which I do the thing!

The last weekend of July, what feels like an actual lifetime ago, two friends and I embarked on the double feature to top them all: Barbie and Oppenheimer. In that order. The only way to do it, really. You can’t watch three hours of devastation (mostly emotional, it should be noted) and then dive headfirst into a Lizzo/Kate McKinnon/fantastically nonbinary Michael Cera world. It’s just not healthy.

One movie paints a picture of an ordered utopia where everyone knows their part to play and believes their playing it perfectly will preserve the perfection of the world. The other movie is Barbie.

The association between Oppenheimer and its ‘girlie’ following—indeed, the audience for whom it may always have been intended—is by now well established by the cultural bastions. My two companions had, let’s say, rather a more visceral reaction to Cillian Murphy than I did (I like ‘em looking a little less malnourished), but I can’t say I minded a male-driven vehicle. In the sense of gender balance, it recalled the Golden Age Hollywood movies I’d grown up seeing. And his performance was no doubt worthy of one.

Barbie, meanwhile, was not the escapist fantasy I, and I think many others, expected. It’s got its share of thoughts of death, arguably more than Oppie does. It finds villains in unexpected places and continues to surprise us with their twists and turns. Whatever Ken’s redemption arc was going to be, I didn’t anticipate the seminal power ballad “I’m Just Ken” to occur before that arc had well and truly run its course; but he is for all intents and purposes still the Big Bad at the time of the fateful, impeccably choreographed beach fight.

That being said, the song, like “Shallow” before it, outlasts all contexts, and I patiently await next spring when Ryan Gosling brings the house down with it at the Oscars. I think it’s time for him to face that he’s a proper singer now. Just like it’s time for Daniel Craig to face that he may go down in history first as Benoit Blanc, and then as the secret agent guy.

Anyway, these films pair quite appropriately. “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” wouldn’t be out of place in Barbie, and it would have gotten an *intended* laugh out of me. And Margot Robbie’s line about how she would never wear heels if her feet were shaped “like this” (human, flat) is straight out of Florence Pugh’s Jean Tatlock’s playbook. If at any point I rewatch one, I may have to rewatch the other in close succession on principle. Something would feel missing otherwise.

Dedicated to Bernie, from whom I affectionately stole this post’s title—the kind of role model, in writing and in life, that I can’t believe I ever lived without.

Image: Warner Bros via SkyNews

Two Style(s) Pieces

Or, two doors into Harry’s house

I recently commemorated the end of Harry Styles’ Love On Tour with a review of his last music video from the Harry’s House record, for the song “Daylight.” It’s a follow-up of sorts to my review of “As It Was” last year, which had been the first video.

On the chance you haven’t heard this album, I really do recommend it. Harry doesn’t yet have a bad song to his name, and Harry’s House features several of my favorite moments of his discography to date. I console myself about not having been able to catch Love On Tour with the thought that there will (hopefully) be many, many future tours. He’s an artist we need.

Happy weekend reading/listening!

Image: from the “Daylight” video

Somebody Else’s Poem, for Megan Rapinoe

In which a classic becomes relevant again

When I heard the US had been eliminated from the Women’s World Cup the other day—and that Megan Rapinoe, who never misses a penalty, had in fact missed—I thought immediately of this poem by Ernest Thayer. It is a sports poem, if not a soccer/football one, and today happens to be the author’s 160th birthday. So I dedicate it to Rapinoe, who I believe is still arguably the greatest female footballer of our day. I can’t be the only one in need of a reminder every so often that even the perfect ones aren’t perfect.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land, the sun is shining bright,

The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;

And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,

But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.

Image: from People

Nothing is Scarier Than Getting What You Want

Or, “and we’re back!”

Hi there! Guess who has returned! I feel like that one line in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Well, prior to the past near-year I was somehow naïve enough to swear that I would never be one of Those Guys. You know, the guys who dedicate themselves to a blog and then are carried away by life and abandon the blog for (insert period of time). “I am Different!” I vowed before an adoring audience on St. Crispin’s Day. “I am Committed! I and my blog will not suffer this Fate! I will have a Work-Life Balance!!”

Then I got a boyfriend job, and everything changed.

The job was writing-heavy, so I pared down some of my related activities to throw myself into it. I learned a lot from it, arguably all that I could. I’m no longer in it, and my creative energy has been re-regulating its levels over the course of several weeks. What I’ve been capable of producing lately amounts to a lot of erotic fanfiction and the odd fragment of poetry or essay, so even this post is a step unto itself. (Some feelings and instincts I concurrently developed around social media will need their own sorting out. Baby steps.)

How dare I leave the indie internet for a dalliance with Full-Time Employment, I know. And, having done it once, I’m not foolish enough to promise the infidelity won’t happen again. In what form it will cross my path next remains to be seen. I’m hoping, when it does, I can include time for everything.

Meanwhile, I’ve got what I want. I’m…free. Free to go clubbing on weeknights and see my friends anytime I please and pick up where I left off in my reading list and travel to my heart’s desire (forthcoming) and shell out for good seats at concerts (also forthcoming!!) and write down my thoughts here as I’ve dearly missed doing.

There was a stretch earlier this year that had me dreaming of this kind of freedom. Now that it’s here, like everything we wish for, it’s a little frightening. But I’ve got a café seat, a green smoothie (guess I’m one of Those Girls too), and, as usual, a head full of ideas that are driving me insane.

Welcome back.

Image: taken by the author, behind the fountains at Märchenbrunnen in the Volkspark Friedrichshain

My Year in Song (2022)

Remember when I didn’t do this back in December but there’s no time like the present to think about the past?

January: “Bunny is a Rider,” Caroline Polachek

February: “Oye Como Va,” Santana

March: “Julien,” Carly Rae Jepsen

April: “You’re Gonna Make It,” Dope Saint Jude

May: “Company,” from Company

June: “The Game of Love,” Santana & Michelle Branch

July: “Blues My Naughty Baby Gave to Me,” John Denver

August: “I Hate Running,” Number One Popstar

September: “Biden,” Bo Burnham

October: “simple times,” Kacey Musgraves

November: “Peace Train,” Cat Stevens

December: “Desalento,” Chico Buarque

Album of My Year: a touch of the beat gets you up on your feet gets you out and then into the sun, Aly & AJ

Inspirations have I none…

All I have is my love of love, and love is not loving.

Today my beloved entrée to the land of concept albums, the record whose production quality still bears the standard, the galaxy’s greatest release by a metafictional band, turns 50. Similar to past honorary breakdowns (see here and here), I now break down The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Song I remember thinking and talking about first: “Five Years” (bit on the nose perhaps, but such is my life—and I’ll actually have the privilege to talk about it more in a little bit, stay tuned)

Song that is underrated: “It Ain’t Easy” (fun fact—it’s a cover! he did not write it!)

Song I’ve had great fun listening to of late: “Soul Love”

Song with probably my highest listen ratio: “Suffragette City”

Songs I love to play on ukulele: “Moonage Daydream,” “Star”

Song I love to play on piano: “Lady Stardust”

Song I plan to teach the children if ever again I sub for a music class: “Starman” (who cares about a LeSsOn pLaN, Sharon, this is Education)

Song I quote most often when singing in everyday life: “Star”

Song with the greatest instrumental breaks: “Moonage Daydream”

Song I would like to sing onstage in a formal recital context, with a gown and everything: “Rock & Roll Suicide”

Song with the best narrative arc: “Ziggy Stardust”

Song that I keep learning more about and getting proportionally more attached to: “Hang On to Yourself”

Song whose production I love most for some reason even though they’re all basically like that: ah what the hell, “Moonage Daydream” a third time (Great (Ken) Scott, that’s good work!)

Song with the most intelligent lyric: trick question, multiple tracks vie for this title, he’s so sharp (though even he couldn’t outdo himself—“Life on Mars?” is one of the smartest lyrics ever written, and that is not up for discussion)

Image: released on RCA, 16 June 1972

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Phone rings, door chimes, in comes COMPANY

Or, we loooooooooooooooooooooove… (13 measures later) youuuuuuuu!

Folks, you’ll be happy to hear your favorite lopsided Sondheim fan is branching out!

Last weekend I got together with a group of strangers to sing through the (still unbelievably) now-late composer’s 1970 breakout hit Company. Let me tell you, spending seven hours tops on a difficult score with people you didn’t know when you started teaches you to trust one another faster than any activity other than maybe whitewater rafting.

The weekend before, I glanced at my calendar and thought wow, that’s coming up, I should really start listening. I was familiar with several songs in isolation, including the one I’d volunteered for as a soloist (more on that in a bit), but not with the show as a whole. Bear in mind, in the intervening week I would get approved for a new German work visa, so I had more than my share of preoccupations. I wondered whether, in signing on for this ‘production’ way back when, I had inadvertently taken on more than I could handle. It was Sondheim, after all.

Luckily, as I was reminded upon a few plays through the original Broadway cast album and a few passes through the score, Sondheim is…Sondheim. If you know one of his shows, you can pretty easily predict his tendencies in another. And if I don’t sing a note of Into the Woods for another ten years it’ll be too soon, so suffice it to say your girl needed a change. Luckily, also, I have a very reliable ear and can get the gist of a song by imitating what I hear. Even still I sometimes doubt my sight-reading ability, but I never doubt my ear.

That’s not to say it’s effortless work—the ensemble opening of Company is more complex than that of Into the Woods in that the characters, instead of getting sections unto themselves, basically talk over one another when they aren’t singing in unison—but once you understand the schtick the composer is going for, you’ve locked down a solid 50% of the notes. (The other 50% are what casts spend months on end bashing down for any fully staged production.)

And I love, love, love this number. Matter of fact, I’m tacking it onto my long-ago list. “[I]s there a more exciting opening number than the title song?” asks the critic who reviewed the gender-swapped Broadway revival—which speaks volumes of the composition, as he was clearly no fan of the overall production. Come to think of it, there’s no reason the introduction to the show that arguably originated that now-classic detached ambivalence in musical theatre should sound so unabashedly exciting, and excited. The tonal signals Sondheim drops to clue us in to what’s coming—the ends of phrases transitioning from naturals to sharps before the major group theme (“Bobby, come on over for dinner”) appears—the relentless forward motion that is the combined effect of the tempo and the main melody—all these choices endeared it to me right away, and all of fourteen days later I can foresee it becoming a rooted, lasting fondness.

Honestly, I could well end up appreciating the orchestrational choices in this number even more than the vocal ones. Their countermelodies, and the way they layer independently of what the voices are doing, are outstanding. The cast album, might I add, has enough early-‘70s instrumental features to make me scream with delight. If JCS represented the heavier prog-rock trend of the era onstage, this was its comedic counterpart.

Back to the other numbers—I mean, if they aren’t just a joy. Some I had not known before diving into the soundtrack, “The Little Things You Do Together” being a prime example, which is far and away the one I sing most often around the house. And others have become, if not standards (ahem, “Being Alive”), then standard enough as to have been encountered by me in revues, concerts, and other non-diegetic contexts. “Another Hundred People” was more rousing than I remembered; perhaps the singer I’d heard way back when chose to play it as more of a downer. (That one and “Marry Me a Little,” I think, are the most indicative of where Sondheim would go especially with rhythm; there’s more than a hint of “A Very Nice Prince”/“On the Steps of the Palace” in there.) I was very happy to get to know “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” in more than just passing. I had no recollection of “Side by Side by Side,” though I’m sure I must have heard it. I could get through a whole month singing bits and pieces of that one.

And then there’s the number I was involved in most intensely, “Getting Married Today.” It focuses on one of the friend couples, Paul and Amy, who are about to get married after living together for years. Amy is having doubts, or not so much doubts as a complete nervous breakdown, which Sondheim dramatizes entirely in music.

I did not realize, in retrospect, what a famous number this is. Sure, it had made an impression on me as a youngster when, in a Sondheim revue, I saw a lady flitting across the stage in a wedding dress and spitting out words faster than I thought possible for a human; but then a lot of things, particularly theatre-related, made an impression on me, and I didn’t dwell on it long enough to consider that it might, for instance, hold a record for most words per minute in a musical number. That record has since been usurped by Hamilton’s “Guns and Ships” (you know, I’ll cede it to Daveed Diggs, he earned it), but still, people care a lot about this song.

I circled back to its libretto in Finishing the Hat, wherein it became a project to mentally read through the lyrics and determine the line breaks and count exactly how each verse led up to the ending refrain. The third verse especially struck me, with the caesura and enjambment of the lines “we’ll both of us be losing our identities—I telephoned / my analyst about it”—and the fact that it goes on to say “and he said to see him Monday, but by Monday I’ll be floating in the Hudson with the other garbage.” Such dark imagery, and passing by so quickly, and accentuated with literary devices. All reasons I took a shine to it; all reasons, when the time came to claim a number for this sing-through, I decided to go for it and learn it inside and out so as to turn around and perform it for a room full of fellow musical theatre geeks.

You guys, did you know it also requires singing? Cue me for a week, reciting the lyrics at speed, then trying to match them to the notes on the staff. Not for the faint of heart. Again, I relied largely on copying what I heard, which served me well in the end. To return to Into the Woods, knowing “Your Fault” as intimately as I do, I was reasonably confident in my ability to pull this off. And I did pull it off, but not because it was anything like “Your Fault.” It’s a whole nother ball game. Just the sort of challenge I wanted, after not having done anything remotely theatrical (in public anyway) for over two years.

Score-wise, it isn’t a long show: the numbers amount to about an hour of music. What goes on for the other hour and 50 minutes—if the run time of the new revival is to be followed—I can more or less guess. Well, hour and 35 minutes, excluding intermission. But since it’s a ‘concept’ musical (and has since come to be regarded as the first concept musical) with a book based on George Furth’s series of one-act plays about marital life and strife, I want to see the interim anyway. Sondheim remarked that the point of the show was to take the “upper-middle-class people with upper-middle-class problems” who typically attended the theatre for escapism and throw their mundane existences back in their faces, which I think is fantastic right now but expect I’ll come to resent deeply in my thirties.

I call Company his breakout hit because that’s how it’s generally seen, being the first show of his sole creation to make a big splash (how A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum didn’t do that, beats me). It cleaned up at the Tonys: Best Musical, Best Book, Best Lyrics and Best Score (the only instance of the two ever being divided—special dispensation). There was even a documentary of the original cast album recording sessions, made by none other than D. A. Pennebaker—aka Mr. Dont Look Back, another story of a Bobby whose attention everyone wants.

Documentary Stevie turns out to be another longhair who gripes about only writing lyrics on his first two projects. How degrading. Working with Leonard Bernstein and Jule Styne, being mentored by Oscar Hammerstein, who of course was “just a lyricist”…that must have been so hard for you.

And Sondheim himself wasn’t the only one lifted on the tide. Donna McKechnie’s career got a boost; she and the show’s choreographer, Michael Bennett, would go on to collaborate famously on A Chorus Line, which I am becoming more and more convinced is just the most thinly veiled work of nonfiction I’ve ever seen (nor am I going to ignore Marvin Hamlisch’s Sondheim-y cues). And, of course, Elaine Stritch, who I want to be when I grow up, and who was perfect in everything she did. No notes.

Anyway. The show is obviously incredibly influential, and being as attuned as I now am is like unlocking a new level of life where I get to notice all the little influences it exerts on our modern culture. As I noted after the fact, not long ago I didn’t know it, and now I don’t know who I’d be without it. In a week where I finally got a major aspect of my professional life sorted, this sing-through may still have been the highlight, if not simply a very close second. While it’s about a single guy with no single friends—or, as I see it, several married couples who are obsessed with their one single friend—the thrust is togetherness, which I got from the day in spades. Company makes good company out of any…company. Right.

P.S. I know I’m not supposed to apologize for my work and women shouldn’t diminish themselves and yada yada yada, but I feel compelled to note that I am aware of just how many parentheses there are in this text. If anything, the constant self-interruption exemplifies my current scattered mind. May is a packed month, and I won’t be here super often. I appreciate your being here now. ♥️

Image: the original cast, from Playbill

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It’s gonna be May!

Or, a multi-purpose song

Well, kids, it’s that time of year—the time when we whose formative understanding of music was indelibly shaped by *NSYNC (among other iconic boy bands) quote the central thesis of one of their hits to ring in first truly springlike month in the Northern Hemisphere. And I mean quote it exactly, so exactly that, although the phrase is “it’s gonna be me,” we pronounce “me” the way they do (or specifically the way Justin does), which makes it…May.

Side note: is *NSYNC the only band with an asterisk in its name? Actually, no; there was A*TEENS, that young prefab ABBA-type quartet, who were big around the same time. I still listen to “Upside Down.”

Now, I wasn’t quite old enough to be the target demographic for *NSYNC or their counterparts the Backstreet Boys. (Britney was something else entirely, and boy could I tell some stories about my class’s relationship to her.) So I was officially introduced to their catalogue several years late. In those days the natural favorite was “Bye Bye Bye”; it was certainly the one we all heard most often.

As an adult, though (term used very loosely), I may have come to cherish “It’s Gonna Be Me” even more. The bouncy production, the harpsichord punctuations, the silly beatboxing, the oh-so-satisfying first line (“you might’ve been hurt BABE”—gets me pumped every time), the build-up to that a cappella moment on the bridge. Not to mention, in the chorus, the chord on “love somebody” changes between minor and major with each repetition. What’s not to love?

The whole is more complex than I think we give it credit for because it seems on the surface like such a good mass-appeal pop song. It’s as if, on a meta level, the song itself is saying ‘you might overlook me now, but just you wait, you’re gonna realize how much you love me.’ What????

Anyway, you don’t need an excuse to listen to this masterpiece, but make sure to play it at least once for ritual purposes before the day is out. It brings good luck, you know.

Image: the album whence the song comes, released 21 March 2000 on Jive Records

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Introverts & Extroverts

Or, a soapbox

Well, not exactly; ‘soapbox’ suggests an energy that I don’t have at the moment. But I’ll do my best. *clears throat*

Hear ye, hear ye, people of the internet. I would like to join the chorus of voices imploring us to collectively adjust our assessment of the differences between introversion and extroversion. Voices like this one, which articulate the issue better than I ever could. Said assessment shows up in the world largely as a gross oversimplification of the ways in which both introversion and extroversion show up in the world.

I’m not saying it isn’t simple; ironically, it is a pretty basic concept, just in terms of its cause rather than its effect. That is to say, what makes someone an introvert or extrovert is the source of their energy, not how they manifest that energy.

We’ve been conditioned to equate introversion with shyness. These traits can go hand in hand, but they aren’t direct synonyms; nor are extroversion and gregariousness. If you’re an extrovert, you draw your energy from being around people, and thus can go for long spans of time without being alone; the presence of others is what pumps you up and keeps you going. If you’re an introvert, there are no barriers per se on your ability to (and enjoyment of) social interaction, except that you’ll ultimately need to recharge your battery with some alone time. Being an introvert does not mean you struggle to connect with others necessarily, and being an extrovert does not mean you are the life of the party and center of attention necessarily.

Human beings, we’ve often heard, are social animals. We cull important aspects of identity and belonging from our communities and relationships. We also have individual tendencies, and no two connections (interpersonal or intra-personal) look the same.

The dominant culture at this juncture in human history complicates things by naturally glamorizing the umbrella disposition which it calls extroversion: an outgoing nature, a loud voice, an attention-grabbing conversational presence. These are all equated with self-confidence, and presumed to be the only indicators of self-confidence. People in whom these qualities are more latent are encouraged to learn to adopt the signals of ‘extroversion’ and promised a more fulfilling, exciting life as a result. Think of every movie with a makeover: it’s not just a question of physical change, but the change in attitude that accompanies it, and that change more or less goes one way.

To be clear, I’m not against makeovers, even in movies. I love a good trying-on-clothes montage. It’s the convincing what we think is an introvert to reject those attributes in favor of those more consistent with what we think is an extrovert that rubs me the wrong way.

Along those lines, at the risk of coming across as some sort of denier, I don’t believe in the recently-proliferated category of ‘ambivert.’ No one, as far as I know, is truly equal parts introverted and extroverted: we all ultimately draw our energy from within or without. One of these is dominant. It might change over time, and we might identify as one or the other at different points in our growth and development, but one side will always take the foreground.

I’ve certainly become more extroverted as I’ve grown up, and still, at bottom, I remain an introvert. I enjoy a rich inner life and take a lot of comfort in spending time with myself; and yet I too have a limit on how long I can entertain myself. The past week or so, suffering through and coming out of a flu, reminded me of the poet Donald Hall’s distinction between solitude and loneliness. The scales tipped too far toward the latter, and the extroverted part of me is now hungry to right those scales.

A lot of writers, I think, are introverts, which perhaps predisposes us to self-expression through the form. It certainly isn’t a requisite personality trait. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. So, please, let’s stop wholesale praising extroversion and maligning introversion, because those ideas don’t mean what we’ve societally convinced ourselves they mean.

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A byte of midweek reading…

Or, flash nonfiction

Last week I published a short creative nonfiction piece in the Women* Writing Berlin Lab Magazine, something I’d been working on for a while that dealt with something from an even longer while ago. A lot of my recent work has confronted, examined, and/or come to terms with memory, of which this is only one example.

So, if you’re looking for a midweek pick-me-up, here’s “That’s My Story.” I guarantee it’ll take three minutes tops.