Rave & Faves: The Best of 2018

2018 inspired pointed responses to the political and social unrest of the last few years. Artists as varied as Barbra Streisand (Walls) and Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman) addressed the tenor of the current moment in their unique creative vernacular.  Others, such as Rumaan Alam and Uzodinma Iweala, have employed the written word to probe uncertainty and tension around identity, especially race, ethnicity and nation, and their intersections. Pose blazed a trail forward in TV exploring the lives of gender non-confirming people with skill and authenticity and employing trans performers to do so. Oakland, California is the setting and context for my favorite films of the year. Check out my faves from the past year:

 

MUSIC

 

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Anthem (Madeleine Peyroux)

Peyroux and her bandmates create an endearing and highly varied suite of original songs with a few interpretations (“Last Night When We Were Young”). With an undercurrent of melancholy. Covering politics (“The Brand New Deal”) and romance (“Honey Party”) with equal passion this is an enchanting and highly listenable album elegantly produced.

 

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Don’t You Feel My Leg: The Naughty Bawdy Blues of Blue Lu Barker (Maria Muldaur)

Muldaur explores the underexplored legacy of singer and composer Blue “Lu” Barker on this continually surprising set of humorous, sensuous and earthy Southern blues. Muldaur and her bandmates perform with an infectious energy and enthusiasm.

 

Caution (Mariah Carey)

A tight, flowing mosaic of mid-tempo songs and ballads produced in a sleek laidback R&B production style. Beneath the grooves are emotionally intense, often dark themes, with an accessible yet personal quality. Carey’s subtlest and most seductive recording.

 

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Some of that Sunshine (Karrin Allyson)

Jazz vocalist and pianist Karrin Allyson wears her composing hat on this vibrant set of original tunes. She covers various themes within the desire and love lost realm and closes with the potent political tune “The Big Discount.”

 

Holly (Holly Cole)

A brisk and easygoing set of mostly swing standards highlighted by energetic duets with trombonist-vocalist Wycliffe Gordon and the original “We’ve Got a World that Swings.”

 

Another Time Another Place (Jennifer Warnes)

Jennifer Warnes is an accomplished interpreter who takes her time between recordings; her last album was 2001’s The Well. Her newest is a delightfully straightforward and understated collection of ballads highlighted by a contemporary version of the standard “I See Your Face Before Me” and the Crescent City homage “I Am the Big Easy.”  

 

The Window (Cecile McLorin Salvant)

Cecile McLorin Salvant and pianist Sullivan Fortner mine the emotional and melodic riches on an eclectic set of blues, chansons, pop and jazz ballads delivered in a highly dramatic style.

 

Walls (Barbra Streisand)

A lush collection of thematic ballads attuned to Streisand’s anxieties about the current political moment, tempered by an undercurrent of optimism. Streisand’s voice is as assured as ever and is bathed in rich, orchestrations with the epic emotionalism of film scores.

 

America’s Child (Shemekia Copeland)

Blues vocalist Shemekia Copeland explores the soul of America on this eclectic set of topical tunes. Songs like “Americans,” “Would you Take My Blood?” and “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” are thoughtful but spirited statements about the value of living in a diverse and inclusive society.

 

 

Books about MUSIC

 

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What Will Be: American Music and Cold War Identity (Oxford University Press, 2017)

Phillip M. Gentry

 

Musicologist Philip M. Gentry’s What Will I Be: American Music and Cold War Identity is an insightful, original and highly readable argument about the role of musical performances on record, in concerts and on film, on the process of forming an identity in the post-World War II era. Gentry opens by laying out the post-World War II genesis of “identity” as a concept focused on understanding of the self in relation to others and to time. He explores different aspects of identity formation through intricate readings that include the alternative black masculinity performed by doo-wop groups, notably the pioneering R&B group The Orioles; the constructions of whiteness that emerge from the musical performances of 50s pop icons Rosemary Clooney and Patti Page and in Doris Day’s musical film performances; contested notions of Asian-American identity gleaned through performances associated with San Francisco’s Forbidden City nightclub; gay male identity in relation to the iconic performances of John Cage’s famous 4’33” score. Scholars and intellectually engaged readers of popular music studies, postwar U.S. culture, performance studies and/or area studies will find much to ponder in this unusually well-crafted and efficient scholarly study.

 

 

Beyond MUSIC media favorites

 

Fiction

 

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That Kind of Mother: A Novel (HarperCollins, 2018)

Rumaan Alam

 

Rumaan Alam’s second novel That Kind of Mother explores the complexities and limitations of good intentions through the lens of cross-racial adoption.  Alam offers a sympathetic portrait of Rebecca a white, relatively privileged mother with an Ivy League pedigree in poetry, who is married to a British diplomat. They reside in the tony Bethesda, Maryland community circa the mid-1980s. Rebecca loves the possibility of becoming a mother and longs to fulfill her professional ambitions. Her vocational desires temper the excitement of her pregnancy until she meets a skilled and sympathetic black wet nurse Priscilla in the hospital during delivery. Hiring Priscilla as her nanny frees her to write but also stimulates a genuine but awkwardly expressed curiosity about her life and experience. Rebecca wants to know Priscilla’s story but struggles to do so without being obtrusive or condescending.  Alam represents her interest in Priscilla’s life as genuine yet insufficient for masking her insular existence. Cosseted by a privileged life, she has very little insight about many social realities beyond her culturally homogenous world.

            After Priscilla’s unexpected death Rebecca takes care of Priscilla’s son Andrew informally with the blessing of Priscilla’s daughter Cheryl who births a newborn around the same period. Rebecca adopts Andrew with a mixed response from her husband and family, and his needs lead Rebecca to traverse a series of experiences she never anticipated. Rebecca attempts to treat Cheryl, her husband Ian, and daughter Ivy as family, inviting them over for holiday dinners. Within this friendly context they gently prompt Rebecca to remember Andrew is a black male child. Alam places readers in a variety of intricate scenes, that address seemingly mundane concerns issues like winter skin care to classroom bias to police harassment, where Rebecca (and well-intentioned readers) must go beyond “innocence” and “ignorance” toward understanding the sobering realities necessary to raise her adoptive son in a hostile world credibly for his survival. Alam, who is an American of Bangladeshi descent, has spoken candidly about he and his white husband’s experiences raising their two black adoptive sons. He has clearly been transformed, and through That Kind of Mother Alam has crafted an illuminating array of insights regarding the intimate contexts in which the power of race emerges.

 

Honorable mentions: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (Algonquin Books, 2018); Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala (HarperCollins, 2018)

 

Essay Collection

 

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How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (Houghton Mifflin & Harcourt, 2018)

Alexander Chee

 

Novelist and essayist Alexander Chee has many fascinating stories to tell in his engrossing collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. Any aspiring writer contemplating enrolling in an MFA program and hoping to traverse the world of publishing will find bountiful wisdom and insight. Chee who is a gay man of Korean and White American descent, first gained fame for his novel Edinburgh.

How to Write maps out different elements of his life as a son, lover, artist and activist, in compelling detail. Some of his most memorable essays address his role as an AIDS activist and witness to state sanctioned violence toward queer protestors in the late 1980s; the emotional fallout from his father’s accidental death and the aftermath involving his estate; the mentoring he received from writer Annie Dillard; and perhaps, most memorably an eloquent defense of the important of writers in the post 9/11 world. There are other quirkier destinations ranging from his time serving as a cater-waiter for William F. Buckley Jr. and his wife Pat (“Mrs. B”) to his love of Tarot card reading. Though every essay many not be of interest to every reader the collection balances the intimate and the global with finesse.

 

Honorable mention: Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist discovers her Superpower by Brittney Cooper (Macmillan, 2018)

 

 

Music on TV

 

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Pose

 

FXX’s summer 2018 series Pose places viewers in the heart of New York’s drag ball scene circa the late 1980s. One of the unheralded stars of the show is a fabulous soundtrack that interweaves some of the best pop, dance and R&B music of the 1980s, including the Mary Jane Girls, Expose, Force MDs, among others to accompany the tightly choregraphed ball struts and to underline the drama. Pose which I wrote about in July’s blog also garnered Golden Globe and Critic’s Choice nominations for Best Drama series and Best Actor for Billy Porter and made several top 10 TV series lists including the American Film Institute (AFI) and the New York Times, among others.

 

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Seasons 3 and 4 (so far!)

 

CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend began its fourth and final season this fall. As one of the few series to feature original music in each episode Crazy Ex is a unique series. Season Three delved more deeply into issues of mental health than most series would dare and did so with ample humor, intelligence and musicality. Season Four has begun promisingly with loving send-ups of New Jack Swing (“Don’t be a Lawyer”), “inspirational” songs, beach party movie music, and musicals (“The Group Mind Has Decided You’re in Love”). Check out these gems below:

 

 

Music on Film

 

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Bohemian Rhapsody

 

Though I find Bohemian Rhapsody missed opportunity dragged down by formulas and clichés, Rami Malek’s performance is a thrilling interpretation of Freddie Mercury’s immense physical presence and flair. Further, within the confines of the film the soundtrack employs their music effectively to illustrate their range as composers and performers. Incidentally, the film’s soundtrack (which is mostly greatest hits with a few live clips) has been a major album seller this fall and reignited interest in Queen’s vast catalog.

 

 

Notable Films (Based on what I have seen so far. Films are listed in order of preference):

 

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Sorry to Bother You (Directed by Boots Riley)

Dizzying and delightfully surreal Oakland based meditation on money, authenticity, art and love with the most inspired plot twist in years.

 

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Blindspotting (Directed by Daveed Diggs)

A hip-hop fueled buddy movie with provocative insights about race and gentrification in Oakland.

 

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Can you ever forgive me? (Directed by Marielle Heller)

Surly anti-heroes, brilliantly portrayed by Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, con New York’s early 1990s literary trade (temporarily) without a trace of sentimentality.

 

Three Identical Strangers (Directed by Tim Wardle)

A seemingly upbeat chronicle of three twins separated at birth challenges you to reconsider everything you think you know and becomes a fascinating detective story.

 

BlacKkKlansman (Directed by Spike Lee)

Spike Lee employs elements from Ron Stallworth’s autobiography chronicling his experiences as a black cop who integrates Colorado Springs’s police force in the 1970s as a catalyst for a broader look at racial identity then and now.

 

The Wife (Directed by Björn Runge)

Glenn Close unravels in a tense trickle in her role as a thankless wife living in the shadows of her husband, a feted author who receives the Nobel Prize in Literature in this adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s novel.

 

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Directed by Morgan Neville)

A straightforward yet compelling look at a very layered public figure (Fred Rogers, aka Mr. Rogers) whose innovations redefined the way television spoke to children and expanded the notion of education.

 

Leave No Trace (Directed by Debra Granik)

An admirably lean and engaging depiction of a traumatized war veteran attempting to shelter his teenaged daughter from the world without realizing she is readier for it than him.

 

Notable Film performances (in alphabetical order):

Armie Hammer (Sorry to Bother You)

Ben Foster (Leave No Trace)

Daveed Diggs (Blindspotting)

Glenn Close (The Wife)

Lady Gaga (A Star is Born)

*Lakeith Stanfield (Sorry to Bother You)

Letitia Wright (Black Panther)

Lucas Hedges (Boy Erased)

Maura Tierney (Beautiful Boy)

*Melissa McCarthy (Can you ever forgive me?)

Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther)

Rafael Casal (Blindspotting)

Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody)

Richard E. Grant (Can you ever forgive me?)

Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace)

Topher Grace (BlacKkKlansman)

 

(*= My favorite film performances of the year)

 

Notable musician deaths (A selective list):

 

Aretha Franklin’s signature ‘60s songs “Respect,” “Think” and “Dr. Feelgood” helped secure her status as the “Queen of Soul,” though she had a broad stylistic range.

Aretha Franklin’s signature ‘60s songs “Respect,” “Think” and “Dr. Feelgood” helped secure her status as the “Queen of Soul,” though she had a broad stylistic range.

Charles Aznavour: Cabaret vocalist, songwriter and actor

Marty Balin (Jefferson Starship): Rock vocalist and songwriter

Bob Dorough: Jazz vocalist and composer

Bob Dorough wrote jazz classics like “Devil May Care” and the songs for the TV series  Schoolhouse Rock .

Bob Dorough wrote jazz classics like “Devil May Care” and the songs for the TV series Schoolhouse Rock.

Dennis Edwards (Temptations): Vocalist

Aretha Franklin: Vocalist, writer, songwriter and actress

Hugh Masekela: Vocalist, writer, and activist

Hugh Masekela was born in South Africa and was notable for his music and his anti-apartheid activism.

Hugh Masekela was born in South Africa and was notable for his music and his anti-apartheid activism.

Dolores O’Riordan (The Cranberries): Rock vocalist and songwriter

Yvonne Staples (The Staple Singers): R&B and gospel vocalist

Nancy Wilson: Vocalist, actress and radio and talk show host

Nancy Wilson was one of the most versatile voices in American popular music achieving success in the pop, jazz and R&B fields.

Nancy Wilson was one of the most versatile voices in American popular music achieving success in the pop, jazz and R&B fields.

COPYRIGHT © 2018 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

















 

The stories behind the art: Notes on Pose

27 years ago, filmmaker Jeannie Livingston’s documentary Paris Is Burning propelled New York’s drag ball scene from a clandestine pleasure for those in the know to a feast for broader public consumption. In addition to winning acclaim for Livingston, the film garnered attention from journalists and academics who looked toward the scene as a hip trend warranting analysis. Overlapping the film was Madonna’s hit “Vogue” (video and song) a commercialized take on the intricate choreography of the scene tailored for MTV and top 40 radio.

 

FX's summer series  Pose  offers a radical representation of Black and Latinx trans and queer lives.

FX's summer series Pose offers a radical representation of Black and Latinx trans and queer lives.

Though audiences in the Americas have long enjoyed watching the bodies of Black and Latinx male entertainers in motion, the queer context of the ball culture, notably the danger of being openly queer and the alternative family offered by ball houses, was central. The abject economic circumstances for most ball participants was a visible yet strangely underdeveloped aspect of Paris. These deficiencies coupled with a lack of analysis toward many of the men’s (mostly) unironic aspirations to secure the social stability of white affluence did not go unnoticed. Cultural critic bell hooks’s 1992 essay “Is Paris Burning?” (in Black Looks: Race and Representation) was one of the more incisive critiques of the film’s limitations, many of which I share.

Though many gender theorists and performance studies folks rightfully lauded the brilliant performativity of the ball culture. And were astute in their praise for the highly cultivated parodic elements embodied in the aesthetic of “realness” the larger dangers of poverty, violence, disease and self-loathing in the film have always stuck with me long beyond quaint academic observations, however thoughtful they might be.

In 2006, German filmmaker Wolfgang Busch’s documentary How Do I Look, further documented the New York and Philadelphia ball scenes, including several performers from Paris. Whereas the performers in Paris often emulated tropes of style drawn from the very white worlds of Dynasty and Ralph Lauren commercials, Look showed something else. Notably, the scene matured from the mix of irony, envy and aspiration integral to Paris to a more independent and eclectic set of influences. The performances in Look are no less stunning than Paris, and more importantly, reflected an embrace of Black and Latinx urban aesthetics. Though the desire for mainstream acceptance, wealth and fame endure in the American psyche, one gets the sense that the scene’s participants shifted from pressing their fingertips against the sleek windows of Bloomingdales to get a glimpse of nice but unattainable objects to opening their own store. A more innovative and internal cultural sense of expression emerges in the film.

In this sense the summer 2018 FX series Pose offers a kind of narrative correction to some of Paris’s flaws while hinting toward the future documented in Look. Set in New York circa 1987, the series mixes melodrama, performance film, and elements of dramatic realism to thrust its audience in the center of the scene. While there are plenty of delightfully over the top costumes and dazzling choreography at the ball scenes, it’s the richness beyond the red walls of the runway that give the series its bite.

The series creators provide a firsthand look at how a family’s disapproval and violent rejection of their effeminate son Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) who loves to dance leads him to homelessness in the streets of New York, before the generous new house mother Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) takes him in and helps him get an education. The series also depicts the susceptibility of queer young people to selling drugs and engaging in various forms of sex work including prostitution and dancing for peep shows. Though the depictions are a bit sanitized and viewers are mostly sheltered from some of the seedier elements of these activities (at least, thus far) there is a refreshing attempt to provide a fuller context.

Actress Mj Rodriguez is one of several trans performers cast as central characters on  Pose .

Actress Mj Rodriguez is one of several trans performers cast as central characters on Pose.

The HIV/AIDS crisis, including anxieties about testing, medical discrimination toward patients and the toll of watching one’s generation perish from the virus impacts multiple characters profoundly. Another notable element is the show’s critique of different forms of normalcy. Though several characters embody the aspirational element of Paris’s interviewees the characters have multiple scenes where they acknowledge white privilege, racism and transphobia including several protestant scenes in a tony white gay bar, and a surprising exchange between a central character and a white lover. The fragility of the nouveau riche life for several white characters with working class backgrounds, and the predilection of closeted wealthy men for queer erotic exoticism is also depicted gamely. The show has a liminal element that acknowledges the pervasive desire for mainstream acceptance balanced with an appreciation of the structures, mores and cultural scenes the characters have created for themselves.

Pose has been renewed for a second season which should provide more opportunities to refine and develop the series. For example, there is a range of acting experience on display ranging from some stiff interpretations of dialogue to the virtuoso talents of Tony-winning actor Billy Porter (as Pray Tell) whose MCing of the balls is hilariously shady and whose offstage navigations of various life challenges are a marvel. There are many touches of TV movie style melodrama that result in some awkward dialogue and a few too many plot contrivances.   

The notion that Black and Latinx queer and transpeople matter remains a radical idea in the U.S. and on television.  

Still, Pose is easily one of scripted television’s most promising debuts. The series is a complex mosaic of characters and subplots. It goes beyond novelty and humanizes the characters beyond the ballroom floor. The notion that Black and Latinx queer and transpeople matter remains a radical idea in the U.S. and on television.  The casting of trans actresses Rodriguez, Indya Moore (Angel) and Dominique Jackson (Elektra) as lead characters is a milestone for the series as is the involvement of trans directors and writers, such as Janet Mock. These impactful behind-the scenes decisions, and the series’ narrative choices place the balls in context and amplify your ability to understand why the balls matter and to embrace their creativity. Fans of ‘80’s fashion will revel in some of the brilliant choreography and costuming showcased in the ball scenes, as will fans of ‘80s dance pop and R&B (Check out this Spotify playlist: https://open.spotify.com/user/g0u1d1e1/playlist/7a9qNUw7ojPCuPPrKm9VlZ?si=or8LwWrPRPyUUgs1Kn3lLA). Viewers will be entertained and enlightened, and most importantly compelled to value fuller representations of people whose lives have been obscured for too long.

 

 

COPYRIGHT © 2018 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.