The 2015 Maxim Hot 100, Part 2

It’s time to finish out this list, working our way toward the proletariat top! For all the background and whatnot, see the previous entry.

50. Zooey Deschanel

The star of New Girl, recently-deposed stand-in for the concept of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl1.

Presence On The Actual Top One Hundred (POTATOH): yes

What Does it All Mean (WDIAM): The world seemed to really have turned on ol Zooey, especially circa that awful iPhone commercial. But the woman-ogling public has a short memory for annoyance.

1 Nathan Rabin has sworn off using the term because of its eventual misuse at the hands of the lazy. I have not, because I feel that it’s the correct term for the job, and will not allow the nattering nabobs of negativity to claim a term that is perfectly useful when not abused.

49. Alexandra Daddario
Still the most memorable part of True Detective, also in The Rock vs. a Giant Earthquake, coming soon to a theater near you.
POTATOH: NO.
WDIAM: I cannot explain what it means. It probably means that the people at Maxim aren’t interested in helping to promote The Rock Punches Shifting Tectonic Plates Right in the Face, but that’s not really an excuse.

48. Natalie Dormer
She was on The Tudors then she was on Game of Thrones. Clearly she’s working in a motif, here.
POTATOH: no
WDIAM: Early in this process, I wondered if there would be enough difference between the lists to justify pointing out the ones that weren’t on there. Then I assumed that I was blinded by my own preferences but no, this is just a really baffling set of decisions, I guess? Just baffling.

47. Shailene Woodley
She was in The I Can’t Believe I Have to Type This Stupid Title Again In Our Stars, White Bird in a Blizzard and the –Gent movies.
POTATOH: No
WDIAM: There may be an age gap thing happening? I don’t have hard demographic information about any of the things I’m about to type, but it makes sense as a theory, and this is a blog, not an academic journal, so bear with me. Natalie Dormer, Alexandra Daddario and Shailene Woodley are all predominantly in properties that have a younger-skewing, internet-borne audience, who are more likely to be among the internet voters (because of their overall higher internet use) than magazine readers. Thus, if there is a demographic appeal component of the magazine/readers’ choice component, Shailene (or Natalie or Alexandra or, reaching back a bit, Iggy Azalea or Suki Waterhouse2) is probably easier to cut, since the people that voted online are less likely to buy the print magazine in favor of whomever was included instead. Of course, the whole thing is made complicated by the fact that we’re talking about an advertiser-supported corporate idea of human attractiveness that includes actual people with aesthetic and/or sexual preferences, which are two things that are difficult to reconcile with each other.

2 this does not, you’ll notice, negate my earlier judgment w/r/t philistinehood and Emmy Rossum and Lizzy Caplan. Thank you.

46. Behati Prinsloo
Underwear model. Recently married Adam Levine.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: That Maxim endorses having terrible taste in spouses

45. Eva Mendes
Perennial Maxim Hot 100 presence.
POTATOH: No
WDIAM: More than almost any actress, Eva Mendes is either completely unable to read a script, or simply has an unerring eye for entertainingly terrible movies. She has been in some absolute bad-movie-night classics (Ghost Rider, The Spirit, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans3, The Women), and she usually comes off pretty well. Thus I feel like people remember her as being better than she actually is. Or, rather, than she might could be, but I don’t know, because I’ve only seen her in terrible movies (and Training Day), and everyone looks alright next to Samuel L. Jackson’s Octopus.

3 this writer would like to remind the audience that that is the actual punctuation in the title of this movie.

44. Jourdan Dunn
The first black British model to make the Forbes list of top-earning models.
POTATOH: quite
WDIAM: Being in a couple of Beyonce videos makes the Maxim-voting public really appreciate you.

43. Dianna Agron
The blonde girl from Glee
POTATOH: no
WDIAM: Between Dianna Agron and Allison Brie I think we’re learning that Maxim voters appreciate you more when your show dies, but you will receive no quarter from the editorial staff.

42. Dakota Johnson
Kate from Ben and Kate. Anastasia Steele from 50 Shades of Grey.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: that secretly, deep down, everybody wants to fuck Don Johnson.

41. Lily Aldridge
Sports Illustrated swimsuit model who is also an underwear model. Married to a King of Leon.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: That if you had told me in 2002 that one of the Kings of Leon would marry a successful swimsuit/underwear model I would have thought that the future you arrived from was a crazy place that made no sense. The fact that the future is a crazy place that makes no sense is cold comfort.

40. Beyonce
Oh come on. You know who Beyonce is.
POTATOH: no
WDIAM: That the Maxim offices are in danger of running afoul of the Beygency

39. Deutzen Kroes
Model.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: that people also turn up for ex-underwear models.
38. Emilia Clarke
Danaerys Stormborn of the House Targaryan, the First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of Meereen, Queen of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons
POTATOH: absolutely
WDIAM: Since most of her time as a visible presence is in character, there really must be something to this prominent-eyebrow thing.

37. Angelina Jolie
Activist, actress, apparent weirdo.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: Some things are just eternal.

36. Alice Eve
She was the biologist in Star Trek Into Darkness.
POTATOH: no
WDIAM: It means she was the gratuitously-undressing biologist in Star Trek Into Darkness
35. Rachel McAdams
Rachel McAdams is flawless. I hear her hair is insured for $10,000. I hear she does car commercials….in Japan. Her favorite movie is Varsity Blues. One time she met John Stamos on a plane…and he told her she was pretty. One time she punched me in the face. It was awesome.
POTATOH: no
WDIAM: How cool does Rachel McAdams look in the trailers for season 2 of True Detective? She looks so cool. I bet that’s what it means.

34. Rosie Huntington-Whitely
Victoria’s Secret model who replaced Megan Fox in a Transformers movie.
POTATOH: no
WDIAM: I have not run the numbers4, but RH-W went from not being on this list, to topping this list, to not being on this list in four years, which seems to me to be about the right time for a non-outlier. I may, in fact, do some research to see if that’s true. If it is, that seems just about right, and it seems even further to be exactly in line with what seems to make sense that she’d stick around in the public memory for a bit longer than that.

4 I am, actually, not a statistician.

33. Vanessa Hudgens
Formerly in High School Musical, now appearing in Gigi on Broadway
POTATOH: no
WDIAM: The love of former child stars on the part of Maxim voters is pretty well-established.

32. Kendall Jenner
Model. Reality show fixture.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: It takes some doing to untangle the public’s relationship with the Jenner/Kardashians. Kendall has grown up on tv, which is some points. She also looks like a Kardashian, which is obviously worth points, as at least one (and often more) has appeared on this list for the last several years continuously. She’s the most recent one to turn 18, which is weird, but probably a factor. Basically there is not time enough in the day to figure this out, except to say that she’s the Kardashian Jenner you can ogle in public without explanation.

31. Rihanna
Singer
POTATOH: no!
WDIAM: Maxim’s list of singers tilts somewhat toward the less-established (chart monsters Rihanna, Katy Perry, Beyonce and Nicki Minaj aren’t in there). I guess the idea is that younger readers are more interested in, say, Tinashe or Charli XCX, and maybe that’s true. It’s also probably a function of allotting a certain number of spaces to “singers.” I also wonder how much of the inclusion of Taylor Swift means keeping away from the higher-charting ladies to avoid pulling focus.

30. Lucy Hale
She won American Juniors. She’s on Pretty Little Liars.
POTATOH: no
WDIAM: I had completely forgotten about American Juniors! Also: I really liked the remake of The Bionic Woman, and I’m sad that it both lasted for, like, two seconds and also isn’t streaming anywhere.

29. Amanda Seyfried
She’s kinda psychic. It’s like she has a f….oh wait. I already did Mean Girls? Well, shit.
POTATOH: No
WDIAM: Between Lizzy, Rachel and Amanda, it means that Mean Girls was a long time ago, and that just can’t get any play for anybody in the Maxim offices.

28. Lana Del Rey
Singer who took her name from a car and not, as I had thought, a science fiction book publisher.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: It means that people who are telling us what’s attractive were apparently paying much closer attention to David Lynch’s masturbatory fantasies than I would’ve thought.

27. Victoria Justice
She was on Figure it Out as a contestant! She was born in Hollywood, Florida and moved to Hollywood, California! She’s on Nickelodeon5! Or was, anyway.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: It means, seriously, former child stars are big business. And there’s a higher concentration of them as we move further up the list, which is probably deeply unsettling, but I promise to stop thinking about it.

5 this is entirely me, I realize, but I have to look her up every time because I’m forever getting her and Jenette McCurdy mixed up in my head. They don’t even look remotely alike, I just can’t ever remember which is which.

26. Elsa Hosk
Swedish professional-basketball-player-turned-model.
POTATOH: no
WDIAM: that being a Scandinavian model/athlete will launch you almost into the top quartile among the masses, but buys you nothing with the editors.

25. Ashley Benson
She is another of the Pretty Little Liars. She was also a Spring Breaker with fellow list-appearers Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens.
POTATOH: no
WDIAM: Ashley Benson has worked a lot. She’s been in a ton of things. So what it means is probably that if you work a whole bunch, you’ll be in front of enough people that many of them will, by popular vote, declare you attractive.

24. Ariana Grande
Scream-singing former Nickelodeon star.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: that secretly, deep down, everybody wants to fuck a giant, walking, caterwauling ponytail

23. Irina Shayk
Another Sports Illustrated swimsuit model
POTATOH: no
WDIAM: She was pretty memorable in The Rock Punches Ancient Greece, which I believe was released in theaters under its working title, Hercules.

22. Alessandria Ambrosio
She hasn’t had plastic surgery since she was a kid and suffered a botched ear-pinning job6. That somehow did not deter her from being an underwear (and every other kind of) model.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

6 I was full-on not prepared to learn about the existence of ear-pinning surgery, let alone that it can also be botched. Jesus.

21. Amber Heard
Another bad-movie-night fixture (Drive Angry, 3 Days to Kill, Machete Kills), Amber Heard is equally into Ayn Rand and charity, which seems like it should be difficult to reconcile, but also seems to work for her.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: John Carpenter raved about her acting skills. I mean, that doesn’t say anything about her placement on this list, but that’s pretty impressive in and of itself. The real problem is that I can’t think of a single thing to say here. She’s pretty. Seems on the ball. Seems like she should be on this list. And indeed she is.

20. Miranda Kerr
Underwear model
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: As we get closer to the top, we find that the discrepancies between the two lists are represented by a bell-curve type situation: a bunch of adherence at the bottom (where the selections are due, probably, to recent prominence and publicity, which is a benefit to the memories of the voters and the magazine’s publishing goals) and a bunch at the top (where the consensus would dictate the most attractive women in both places would be). What it really means is that it’s difficult to form an argument against, really. Miranda Kerr, like Amber Heard, certainly seems to belong here.

19. Kristin Kreuk
CW stalwart and erstwhile Chun Li.
POTATOH: no
WDIAM: It means you can pretty much spend forever in the adoring arms of the CW audience.

18. Shay Mitchell
Yet another cast member of Pretty Little Liars
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: Everybody loves looking at the cast of Pretty Little Liars

17. Margot Robbie
She was on Neighbours, which apparently is required to spit forth a woman who makes these lists every few years. She was also in The Wolf of Wall Street, and is probably going to disappoint us all as Harley Quinn in the Suicide Squad movie. Well, she’s probably not going to disappoint anybody. She seems pretty good. But that movie, man. It’s going to suck.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: Neighbours. That thing is pretty much immortal.

16. Emma Stone
The internet’s girlfriend. In movies about mans (both Spider and Bird), very funny, raspy voice.
POTATOH: oui
WDIAM: That we can all agree: Emma Stone seems like a pretty cool lady. And it’s a pretty great voice, as far as those things go.

15. Kate Upton
Model/actress/app spokeswoman
POTATOH: no. This is genuinely surprising to me.
WDIAM: boobs

14. Nina Dobrev
Now she’s on The Vampire Diaries. Before, she was on Degrassi: The Next Generation, which means she started from the exact same bottom as Drake himself.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: that anybody, be they a Mia or a Jimmy, can make it to the top provided they start with a bunch of money, a television career, and a great smile6. Also that so many people watch The Vampire Diaries.

7 this is a feature shared by Drake (who never deploys his anymore) and Nina Dobrev (who probably often does, what with vampire shows running thick with exposed fangs), I have no idea if other Degrassi cast members possess it. Maybe that’s why they’re not as famous.

13. Jennifer Lawrence
The internet’s other girlfriend, albeit with some occasional backlash. Soon she’ll be neither Katniss Everdeen nor Raven Darkholme. She’ll probably still be working with David O. Russell, though.
POTATOH: but of course
WDIAM: There’s often a lady who is a critically and award-show acclaimed actress who also makes “hot ladies” lists, and Jennifer Lawrence is the current iteration. It’s like a hole that always needs to be filled. I realize I’m not saying anything new here, but sometimes the simplest explanation is the best one.

12. Scarlett Johansson
She’s Black Widow. Last year she was also Lucy. She was the creepy alien thing from Under the Skin.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: She’s everywhere, and also she looks exactly like Scarlett Johansson.

11. Mila Kunis
She was in Jupiter Ascending. She’s been the voice of Meg Griffin for a billion years.
POTATOH: no
WDIAM: That the editors of Maxim really have no use for you if you’re not actively promoting something new, apparently. Even if the voters think you belong way up at #11.

10. Katy Perry
She thinks you’re a firework.
POTATOH: no
WDIAM: if you are the sworn enemy of the cover person, you don’t even get to make the list.

9. Jessica Alba
The second actress on this list who has been cast as Sue Storm. Forbes just ran an article about how she’s made a ton of money selling organic products through her company, Honest. (Honest is the name of her company. I’m not assuring you of the truth value of that statement.)
POTATOH: no
WDIAM: That all the economic success in the world doesn’t help when it’s time to decide if you’re worthy of Maxim-approved hotness, no matter how many of the voters think otherwise.

8. Sara Sampaio
The first Portuguese Sports Illustrated swimsuit model.
POTATOH: no
WDIAM: That Maxim’s tolerance for swimsuit models apparently runs out well before their readers’.

7. Candice Swanepoel
Last year’s Maxim Hot 100 #1.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: That you can’t go from all to nothing in one year in the  Maxim offices. Also, that “Candice” still looks like it’s spelled wrong no matter what (see #61)

6. Miley Cyrus
Former child star, singer. Controversy magnet. Frequent subject of handwringing about kids these days etc.
POTATOH: no
WDIAM: That Maxim is uninterested in taking on two highly- (and hotly-) discussed pop singers in the same issue, which seems more-or-less fair, even though it’s weird that she’s not in there at all given that she’s #6 on the voting part. Although that’s also probably part of peoples’ weird insatiable appetite for former child stars.

5. Adriana Lima
She is a highly-successful and prominent model and not, as I had previously thought, a bean.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: That there are list-appearance benefits to being a Victoria’s Secret angel for thirteen frigging years. Seriously. That’s a long time to be a Victoria’s Secret angel. If she were a bean, it would be even more impressive, as I don’t think a bean has ever even appeared as an extra in Victoria’s Secret.

4. Emma Watson
She used to be Hermione Granger.
POTATOH: no
WDIAM: I don’t know if it’s a side-effect of deciding to publish the readers’ choice list separately, or if this was always the case, but if the popular vote can get you to #4 and you don’t appear on the editorial list at all, I feel pretty comfortable saying that the popular vote is entirely separate from whatever process Maxim uses to compile their editorial list. I would hazard the guess that part of the reason why they published the reader list separately is to free themselves from that kind of inclusion. Nevertheless, it seems pretty weird that the readers are saying “only three women do we like looking at more,” and the magazine is saying “eh, maybe more like a hundred”.

3. Selena Gomez
Taylor Swift associate, our third Spring Breaker, former child star, singer.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: I mean, look at that list of things up there. I don’t think, given all that, that she could be any more of a shoo-in. Even if she does have an on-again off-again relationship with Justin Bieber.

2. Emily Ratajkowski
Model featured in the “Blurred Lines” video, among other things.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: still boobs.

1. Taylor Swift
The only person selling records in 2015. Maxim editorial Hot 100 #1.
POTATOH: Obviously
WDIAM: that secretly, deep down, everybody wants to fuck a gazelle

And that does it for this year, folks. Tune in next year when I probably make a bunch of these same jokes again, because it’s hard enough thinking of one thing to say about some of these people, let alone more than that.

The 2015 Maxim Hot 100, Part 1

Folks, it’s that most wonderful time, when the Powers That Be over at Maxim magazine tell us what to drool over in the coming year! This feature has, inadvertently, become more interesting than it would have been in any other two-year stretch: a few months after the publication of last year’s Hot 100, Kate Lanphear was named Editor in Chief. So not only is this the first Hot 100 under a new editorial regime, it’s under a lady. I don’t know enough, necessarily, to speak to the editorial mien of Ms. Lanphear1, so I can’t speak to it. What her editorship has done, however, is something magical – she’s given us the actual reader results.

1 I’ve never actually been a Maxim reader. The Hot 100 is such a cockamamie spectacle that I’ve always read it but beyond that I think waiting rooms and the occasional Maxim-reading-friend/roommate are my primary exposure. Thus, I wouldn’t be able to tell a new editorial style from the old* I did, however, subscribe to its sister-publication (brother-publication? Actually, given the material, probably broseph-publication, the late, lamented Blender for nearly its entire run. RIP, Blender.
* although the Taylor Swift cover story that runs as the result of her #1 position is written by the great Roxanne Gay, and I can’t really imagine that would’ve been the case under very many previous Maxim editors, so kudos to Ms. Lanphear for that excellent decision.

The process transparency of the Maxim Hot 100 is pretty much nonexistent – there’s been public, online voting for a while now, with the implication that the people’s votes are the defining factor, and it’s a direct popularity contest2. This year, however, the readers’ choice list is a separate thing entirely. Interestingly, this happens the same year as a major format change in the list itself: they have done away with a strict 100-1 ranking of the women, instead subdividing them into categories and then picking a #1 from among them3. The categories are: “The Singers,” “The Actresses,” “The Models” and “The Ones to Watch,” which latter seems to me to be as open an acknowledgment that “sometimes we want to put things on there but you morons don’t pick them” as anything else.

2  the most visible evidence of this being Stephen Colbert successfully orchestrating a publicity campaign a couple of years ago to get him on the list, putting him at a perfectly-respectable 69**.
** stop snickering, you perverts.
3 this is what People magazine does with their Sexiest Man Alive, and it’s an interesting direction, or could be. It’s also less insulting to the people on the list – it makes it seem considerably less like a horse race – which is nice when you’re trying to write about the damn thing.

Whether this means that it was never a direct popularity contest (I’m inclined to believe that there was always some editorial shifting involved4), or that it only recently became an indirect process is beyond my ability to discover5, but what it does give us is an opportunity to examine the differences between popular opinion and editorial opinion, as seen through a lens made of corporately-guided ogling.

4 on the one hand, the direct selection by your voters is clearly going to serve the most vocal part of your audience. On the other hand, you exist to sell more magazines this month than you did last month, and this is your biggets issue of the year, so you’re going to want to maybe fiddle it around so that it doesn’t leave you with something less-marketable on your cover, which is the thing that sells the most issues.
5 The Maxim Hot 100 is not a matter of much study, and in fact no longer qualifies for its own Wikipedia page. Also, at the time of this writing, the Wikipedia page for Maxim itself, which lists Hot 100 winners, claims the winner to be someone named “Teweea Wepa”, as evidenced here.

So come with me, as we look at the actual Readers’ Choice Hot 100 (as we thought we were doing this whole time), compare it to the Editorial Choice Hot 100, and learn something about ourselves.

100. Teresa Palmer
She’s an Australian Actress. She was the lady from Warm Bodies, and has also been in many terrible movies.
Presence On The Actual Top One Hundred (POTATOHH)6: yes
What Does it All Mean (WDIAM): tall, blonde and Australian is the closest thing to a sure-thing this list has, except “former child star” or “disturbingly young underwear model.”

5 since there is no ranking on the Editorial (or, here, Actual, which makes a better acornym) Hot 100, there’s no way to compare place, so they’re either on it or they aren’t.

99. Jessica Hart
The swimsuit model, not the romance novelist.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: Either that the people’s appetite for swimsuit models is larger than that of the Maxim editorial staff, or that the editorial staff got confused, thought it was the romance novelist, and couldn’t think of a “hook” for her placement on the list, since “writer” isn’t one of their pre-designated categories.

98. Abbey Lee
Australian Model.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: that the editorial staff is seriously into blonde Australians, even if The People nearly leave them off.

97. FKA Twigs
R&B Singer who cheekily never changed her name from Twigs. Her squeeze is Robert Pattinson.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: Well, given that I thought most of the Pitchfork-set’s extremely slavering approval of her (not actually very interesting) music was based on her attractiveness, I reckon it says that I was, once again, absolutely correct. As usual.

96. Alicia Vikander
Swedish actress. She was in The Fifth Estate and Ex-Machina.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: Mostly that Alicia Vikander is more well-known than I thought, I guess.

95. Camilla Rowe
She’s a model. She was in that MGMT video from a couple of years ago.
POTATOH: Yes
WDIAM: So, a lot of the difficulty in this piece is figuring out what to say about, for example, a skinny blonde French-American model. Usually these are scattered through the list, and not all bunched up at the bottom (the remainder of the list is much less samey), so if it seems like this is going to be a repetitive slog, I assure you that won’t be the case forever. But what it does show is the editorial influence: assuming the 2015 readers’ results are representative (there’s no reason not to), this tells me that these women are voted onto the list, but not very aggressively, and that they are moved around by the magazine to either 1) inflate their profile to someone’s benefit or 2) break up what would, at this point, be a block of very similar-looking women (except FKA Twigs).

94. Isabel Lucas
Another Australian actress. She was in one of the Transformers movies and also the remake of Red Dawn.
POTATOH: Yes
WDIAM: Seriously, you’ll get up to the top of this list and start to have some sympathy for the list-editors, who move these people around. I’m starting to believe it’s for nothing more than their own entertainment purposes.

93. Andreea Diaconu
She’s one of two Romanian women who has ever been a Victoria’s Secret cover model. She and the other (Diana Moldovan) own vegetarian restaurants in Bucharest.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: Victoria’s Secret cover models have better market penetration (probably due to memory) than Sports Illustrated cover models.

92. Lara Stone
Absurdly successful fashion model. Like, ridiculously.
POTATOH: yep.
WDIAM: If you’re very visible for awhile (seriously, she was everywhere a few years ago), you can continue to make these lists even after you’ve withdrawn significantly from the public eye.

91. Imogen Poots
British actress, who is famous for existing? Or for Need for Speed? She was the younger version of Valerie, the lady that sends Evey (and, previously,  V) the note in V For Vendetta, but that was a long time ago, so clearly we’re not talking about that on this list of foxy ladies.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: I assure you it does not mean that grown ups laugh at this poor young woman’s last name, because that would be unprofessional, even if it is Poots.

90. Britt Robertson
Actress. On a side note: I would not have believed this woman was a legal adult if I hadn’t looked it up.
POTATOH: si
WDIAM: It means that it’s actually a shame that they stopped numbering these in the same year that they published the popular results, because this came out the same week that Tomorrowland opened to floptacular reviews, and it would’ve been a (probably) visible miscalculation, since she’d almost certainly be higher than 90. It could’ve been a good test balloon. Alas and alack.

89. Suki Waterhouse
She’s a model.
POTATOH: No
WDIAM: This is the first of the readers’ list to not make the editors’ list. I haven’t developed any hard theories here, but as I look at them, I tend to think that, for the readers, who have no real stake in this financially or otherwise, the women who are likely to end up higher are the women they remember6. Suki Waterhouse, then, is pretty distinctive-looking, but also doesn’t have anything she or the magazine is associated with in the promotional cycle.

6 if this strikes the reader as obvious, it may help to also know that the voter is presented with the Maxim-selected photographs of each of these women as part of the voting cycle, and that they seem to be pretty egregiously selected to point you in the direction of certain women and away from others, so women that stick out in the voter’s memory are the ones that can overcome the biases presented by the picture selection

88. Gugu Mbatha-Raw
She played Martha Jones’ sister on Doctor Who. She will also be playing someone named Plumette (a sexy lady plunger? Oh, I bet she’s the fucking feather duster that Lumiere is into) in the live-action Beauty and the Beast.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: People have a better memory for Larry Crowne than I would have thought.

87. Lea Seydoux
The new Bond girl, Lea Seydoux has managed to make herself a dual career as a Cesar-winning, highly-regarded French actress who, in America, stars in movies where everything explodes all the time.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: that if you’re statuesque and french-accented, and things regularly blow up behind you, the public will declare you worthy of ogling.

86. Nathalie Emmanuel
The cast of Game of Thrones figures prominently on both iterations of this list.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: I will say, if you’re picking people who are liable to become much more famous (as Maxim is doing with their “The Ones to Watch” category), you could do a lot worse than guessing Nathalie Emmanuel7. She played a computer hacker in a Fast and Furious movie, which means that in addition to all of her other talents, she also must have some kind of sense of humor. I wouldn’t be able to do it.

7 the same also holds true for Sophie Turner, who we’ll get to later and is in the same category on the editorial list

85. Lily James
This is the lady from Downton Abbey and the live-action Cinderella and not, as I had previously thought, Harry Potters’ parents.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: that secretly, deep down, everybody wants to fuck Cinderella.

84. Kacey Musgraves
Country singer of “Follow Your Arrow” and “Merry-Go-Round”.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: it probably doesn’t speak to a wealth of enthusiasm on the part of the public for arrow-based innuendo (i.e. “I’ve got an arrow she can follow”), which is kind of a shame.

83. Lizzy Caplan
Former star of Party Down, current star of Masters of Sex, perennial write-in candidate for this very list by this very writer.
POTATOH: No.
WDIAM: That the editorial staff of Maxim is made up of fucking Philistines, that’s what it means.

82. Tatiana Maslany
She’s in Orphan Black a bunch of times. So many Tatianas in Orphan Black.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: It’s simple math, really. She’s on the screen, like, eight times, which octuples her chances.

81. Lupita Nyong’o
She was in 12 Years a Slave, and she was the toast of awards season for her fashion sense that year. She will be in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. She’s also adapting the excellent Americanah to the screen, but that’s not likely to be why she’s on the Maxim Hot 100.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: That you can be as serious and consciously-motivated an actress as there is, and still be celebrated for your oglability by the folks at Maxim. It’s refreshingly free of hangups in that regard.

80. Isabeli Fontana
Victoria’s Secret model. Miss Universe judge.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: That “Italian-Brazilian Underwear Model” is a pretty popular type.

79. Rita Ora
Pop singer. She goes to awards shows a lot, and has featured on some hits.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: That even though it seems like it’s impossible to force-market a pop star into existence, if you just keep waving one around at awards shows and red carpets, eventually people will decide they like to look at her boobs. That’s a kind of success, right?

78. Jasmine Sanders
She’s a model. She’s currently dating Nick Cannon.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: That I am woefully underinformed about the world of models? That there may be a component of her career that googling did not yield? That people are really into Nick Cannon’s dating life?

77. Kaya Scodelario
She’s in The Maze Runner movies now. She was formerly on Skins.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: YA franchises are a valid ticket to the Hot 100. So is being a former teenage actress.

76. Emily DiDonato
She is not a pizza. I used to love Donato’s pizza. But she is not one of those. She is, instead, a model.
POTATOH: no
WDIAM: That Maxim is fickle, and even the swimsuit models who look a lot like Taylor Swift and that might, actually, be a pizza don’t get to make the editorial cut.

75. Charli XCX
She’s sooooooo fancy. She also doesn’t know either that you can’t drive from L.A. to Tokyo, or that planes don’t have fast lanes. Either way.
POTATOH: yep
WDIAM: Fanciness is an eminently desirable trait. And she’s got it. You already know.

74. Elizabeth Olsen
The non-twin Olsen sister. She played The Scarlet Witch, and does some Serious Acting.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: That there is something about any given Olsen that appeals to people deeply.

73. Gisele Bundchen
Supermodel. Married to a man that mishandles his balls.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: At this point, I think if a Maxim Hot 100 came out without Gisele in it, everyone would just assume it was a typographical error, so people vote her up to ensure that it happens.

72. Silje Norendal
Norwegian snowboarder.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: It means that Olympic athletes are taking a surprising number of spots on these lists, and the preponderance of athletes probably means something deeper about society8. It also means that a bunch of people never abandoned the nineties dream of Scandinavian women and “extreme” sports.

8 it could be that the need to commodify everything has increased the general tendency toward objectification (an object being, by necessity, a commodity in a capitalist model), or it could be that as we get fatter and lazier, we like to look at people that move themselves around for a living. Or it could be a cyclical thing that doesn’t mean anything as much as it does an increase in visibility of more people’s interests. I suppose it depends on how cynical you feel like being about the whole thing.

71. Jamie Chung
She started on The Real World, and now she’s Mulan. Truly, she has had a panoply of televisual experiences.
POTATOH: no
WDIAM: That Maxim is less forgiving of reality-television work than their readers, I guess

70. Felicity Jones
She’s a British actress that did a bunch of BBC period dramas and then was in The Theory of Everything.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: There are a lot of British acting-types who look very similar to one another, and I don’t know if this is a casting thing, a selection bias thing, or my own confirmation bias. In any event, Felicity Jones sure is of ‘em.

69. Maggie Grace
Some extremely stalker-ish googling shows that even though Maggie Grace and I are roughly the same age and lived in Worthington, Ohio at the same time, we did not attend the same elementary school. Now you people know the truth.
POTATOH: no
WDIAM: That the public is very Taken with her. Get it? Guys? Get it?

68. Hayley Williams
Lead singer of Paramore
POTATOH: Nope
WDIAM: That although redhead rock singers are a perennial favorite among the proletariat, they hold no water with the Maxim offices. Or at least this one doesn’t this year.

67. Rosamund Pike
She was the titular Gone Girl9. More importantly, she played Hedda Gabler onstage. How cool is that? That is so cool. That is just about the coolest.
POTATOH: no
WDIAM: The public has a long memory for former Bond girls, and also winning acting awards seems like it gives you a boost on this list.

9 Spoiler alert? Or something?

66. Alison Brie
Trudy Campbell and Annie Edison. It stands completely possible that she could go from doing two tv shows a year for the past several years to doing none, as Mad Men ended and the future of Community could be anything. I’m sure she’ll be fine.
POTATOH: nopers
WDIAM: That the end of Mad Men simply does not translate to a higher Maxim profile.

65. Bregje Heinen
She is a model and not, as I had thought, a chain of Cleveland-area grocery stores
POTATOH: no
WDIAM: That sometimes the people pay closer attention to models than I give them credit for? I genuinely don’t remember this woman even being nominated, although that doesn’t mean anything, because I’m pretty sure I don’t know who she is, so would be unlikely to recognize her. Big fan of the chain of Cleveland-area grocery stores, though.

64. Gal Gadot
She’s going to be Wonder Woman
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: America loves women that play Wonder Woman, pretty much unilaterally.

63. Evangeline Lily
Kate from Lost, Shoehornedindine the Elf from The Hobbit movies. She’s playing Hope Van Dyne10 in Ant-Man.
POTATOH: no
WDIAM: Given that neither Kate nor Shannon made the editorial list, the “Foxy Lady” currency of having been on Lost is officially spent with the people in the Maxim offices.

10 I’m not one to yell at my chickens before they hatch, but in the comics Hope Pym is Hank Pym’s daughter with Wasp, who is Janet Van Dyne. This seems like a weirdly-convoluted thing they’re doing here.

62. Kate Mara
She was on House of Cards until she caught a train. She was on the first season of American Horror Story. Soon she’ll be in The Fantastic Four reboot.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: that the only way SOME people can be pruriently appreciated is by taking a role that requires them to be FUCKING INVISIBLE.

61. Candice Patton
She’s on The Flash.
POTATOH: No
WDIAM: That the people love fast women (*rimshot*). Also, that I think no matter how you spell “Candice”, it looks like it’s spelled wrong.

60. Joan Smalls
She’s a very prominent model.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: That people recognize models. On another note, how often do you suppose her friends and loved ones say “you’re killing me, Smalls?” to her? I say that all the time and I don’t even know anyone named Smalls. If she doesn’t have anyone in her life to say that to her regularly, I volunteer for the position, or at least to send a dozen or so copies of The Sandlot into the right hands.

59. Emma Roberts
Another American Horror Story alum, Emma Roberts is the Elizabeth Olsen of the Robertses.
POTATOH: no
WDIAM: That, like Olsens, we always have room in our hearts (or, well, our somethings) for a Roberts

58. Anastasia Ashley
Surfer-turned-model
POTATOH: no
WDIAM: That, perhaps unsurprisingly, the intersection of swimsuit model and swimsuit athlete means more to the voting public than to the ivory-towered establishment. Patricians, man, I tell you.

57. Willa Holland
I am old. Here is how I know: I literally had no idea that Willa Holland, who I last saw playing Mischa Barton’s little sister on The O.C.11, was now a grown adult human who is also on Arrow, which I don’t watch. Huh.
POTATOH: no
WDIAM: That time moves inexorably forward for us all, even Kaitlin Cooper.

11 don’t call it that

56. Emmy Rossum
She’s on Shameless. She was once in Phantom of the Opera.
POTATOH: no
WDIAM: that in addition to being FUCKING PHILISTINES, the editors at Maxim are also FUCKING BLIND.

55. Iggy Azalea
The world’s first statuesque Australian rapper. Endorses Charli XCX’s fanciness, but it remains unclear whether she shares it, or whether she is ceding fanciness to be the rillest.
POTATOH: no, surprisingly
WDIAM: that the voting public is more into butts than the Maxim staff

54. Carrie Underwood
Former American Idol winner. Current country chart monster.
POTATOH: Nope
WDIAM: That these middle slots are the ones where the voters and the editors disagree the hardest.

53. Nicole Beharie
The lady from Sleepy Hollow. She was also in Shame.
POTATOH: no
WDIAM: Well, she’s forever associated with a naked Michael Fassbender. That can’t hurt, right?

52. Phoebe Tonkin
She’s Australian, and on The Vampire Diaries
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: That if I want to continue to have any kind of authoritative opinion here I’m going to need to occasionally watch The CW.

51. Lily Collins
She was Sandra Bullock’s daughter in The Blind Side, and also the lead in the non-starting film adaptation of The Mortal Instruments. She was also in that Taylor Lautner movie that happened in Pittsburgh. She is also Phil Collins’ daughter.
POTATOH: yes
WDIAM: We like famous people’s daughters. And strong eyebrows.

Come back later in the week for the top fifty!

The Major American Idol Contestants, Ranked

American Idol, guys! It’s only going to have one more season! Isn’t that sad? It always seemed pretty deathless, especially given the preponderance of competition-based reality shows that still exist in its wake. I guess death comes for us all one day.

The fifteenth season is clearly going to be a weird, creaky victory lap, bereft of the people that made the show good (Nigel Lythgoe hasn’t produced it in years, and obviously Simon Cowell has other priorities), and bereft of any of the joy of the middle seasons, so I’ve decided to rank every major contestant from the first fourteen seasons, so that when all this dumb crap starts airing you can be ready to “Remember When” right along with them. The definition of “major” that I’m using here is “I thought they were major,” and includes their time on or off the season. At least 3 people from each season were selected, but some seasons (season 5 is especially full of people that made it out into the world) have more. Also: some of them you may think were major aren’t here, because you’re wrong (or, alternately, there are a ton of these people that ended up on soap operas, and to include them all would involve me losing my goddamned mind).

60. Jason Castro – sometimes I wake up in the morning, remember that I never have to hear Jason Castro sing, or see his stupid rasta muppet head, ever again, and I am immediately happy)
59. Sam Woolf – it’s true that he’s not as bad as Jason Castro, but that’s only because it’s impossible to be as bad as Jason Castro. This dude had, hands-down, the worst song selections of anyone to appear on the program ever.
58. Phillip Phillips – there have been a whole bunch of terrible winners, but none so aggressively terrible as pee squared. He was the last of the run of WGWGs (White Guys With Guitars),  which stands as everlasting proof that things sometimes get worse before they get better.
57. Nick Fradiani – speaking of boring winners, you don’t know who this guy is. That’s because he won last year, when no one was watching. Trust me, this dude sucks too.
56. Justin Guarini – in a lot of ways, Justin Guarini was the template for most of what would eventually become truly terrible about American Idol. He had dumb hair, he had a blandly “nice” voice, he (in a common complaint I have about contestants) managed to always sound like he was singing along, rather than actually singing. He’s saved from being the worst for his hilariously lamentable job in From Justin to Kelly, which is such a bad movie classic that it’s worth praising how terrible he is therein. Which makes him better than Jason Castro by a country mile.
55. David Archuleta – Season 7 had the highs and the lows, man. There are a ton of contestants who really stuck out from that season. David Archuleta was the baby one who looked like he was on the verge of crying literally all the time.
54. Corey Clark – This is the dude that was so unhappy with his completely warranted low-ranking early finish that he claimed to have been having an affair with Paula, and that’s why they got him kicked off the show. It’s among the most depressing things anyone has ever done in public, but it got him a book deal I guess? Man, this dude just sucks on toast.
53. Phil Stacey – Chris Daughtry is just terrible. But even worse than Chris Daughtry is fake Chris Daughtry.
52. Chris Daughtry – Seriously, though. This dude was bad on the show, bad after the show, and he’s probably pretty terrible right now.
51. Diana DeGarmo – her first crime was not being Jennifer Hudson, which was unforgivable in the first place. Her second crime was getting proposed to by Ace Young, which is also terrible. She doesn’t fall super low because neither of these things are, technically, her fault.
50. Clay Aiken – The first runner-up to get more attention than the winner, Clay Aiken then made something of a career (I guess?) of kind of being around. Then he ran for public office. Yep.
49. David Cook – Look, I didn’t hate David Cook at the time. I mean, I kind of hated him, but I kind of hate most of these people. I apparently watched American Idol to enjoy my rage simmer. But after the fact, the major David Cook problem is that he was the first of the WGWGs (the run of winners that ended with Pee2 [that’s a squared symbol, not a footnote], see above), and that was a nightmare reign of terror that’s hard to get past.
48. Katrina Darrell – this is “bikini girl,” the dumbest promotional stunt AI managed until Quentin Alexander (see below). The trotting out of audition contestants as circus performers was its own kind of problem, but oh my god was this dumb. You’ll remember she eventually came back and roped Kara DioGuardi into a bikini-off and then oh my god this was all so dumb.
47. Kris Allen – I can’t even remember why he won. Like, I remember not liking him, and I’ve looked at some clips, but I honestly do not remember who he appealed to or why.
46. Danny Gokey – it’s sad that Danny Gokey’s wife is dead. Really sad. Not sad enough to warrant the amount of time spent on it, and not sad enough to make up for his awful fucking performances, and definitely not sad enough to propel him as far up the ladder as he got. But real sad, nevertheless.
45. Lee Dewyze – one of the middle WGWGs. I don’t remember a lot about Lee Dewyze, except that he was exactly like every dude that was winning around that time, and his song selection wasn’t as atrocious.
44. Scotty McCreery – No. Just no.
43. Ace Young – He proposed to Diana DeGarmo on the air, on a later season of the show than the one on which he appeared. It’s enough to put him on this list, but not enough for anything else about him to matter.
42. Melinda Doolittle – Smiled a lot. Didn’t do much else. Finished way too high.
41. Clark Beckham – It’s hard to say stuff about Clark Beckham. Clark Beckham was the thoroughly-dull runner-up of season 14.
40. Jessica Sanchez – She failed to win two reality competition shows (she was also on the first season of America’s Got Talent), but at least in AGT they had the reasonable thought to eliminate her much earlier. Blah.
39. Chris Golightly – Disqualified from season 9 for having a prior record deal. I never really cared about the controversy (which started in season 7 and bubbled under periodically throughout) over previous recording contracts, but Chris Golightly’s was especially dumb, as he was actually under his contract when he auditioned. The show played off his audition as a thing they decided, but I’m fairly certain he’s the first person to be eliminated from American Idol due to legal obligations to another company.
38. Taylor Hicks – I wish he had been eliminated for his legal obligation to not be so goddamned boring all the time. Unlike, say, Phillip Phillips, he wasn’t boring enough for it to be an active annoyance. Just boring enough to make me angry by winning. That bastard.
37. Jermaine Jones – Jermaine Jones was neither particularly good nor bad, but his elimination was the result of AI announcing, on network television, that he had not disclosed prior arrests and an outstanding warrant that was minor enough that the prosecutor they talked to in New Jersey (where the warrant was based) claimed it wasn’t worth pursuing. That is the most repugnant thing AI has ever done. On the other hand. Dude skipped out on an outstanding warrant. There are better ways to handle the delivery of that information, and he has my full sympathy, but also: if you’re running out a warrant, maybe doing so on television isn’t the best idea?
36. Bo Bice – Hurng durng durng DUUUUUUUUURGN DURNG durng durng HUUUUUURNG durng DURNG durng.
35. Caleb Johnson – this is the dude that called a bunch of his twitter fans “retards” a couple of years ago. That’s pretty bad, but also, the non-epithet portion of his tweet was pretty dead on: he was getting some terrible song suggestions from those people. Just don’t use that word, dude.
34. Candice Glover – for all that season 14 was bad, and season 13 wasn’t much better, season 12 is really the low point of the series, contestant wise. Entertainment-wise, most of the joy came in the form of the palpable hatred of Mariah Carey by Nicki Minaj. Nicki Minaj was a legitimately good judge, see, with a Simon-esque ability to tell people what they needed to work on to be a famous singerperson. Mariah Carey was like Paula Abdul, only less on the ball. Anyway, Candice Glover won season 12, which is completely inexplicable, but also hard to get worked up about.
33. Kree Harrison – The season 12 runner-up. She was a little bit better than Candice Glover, but only enough to make it clear that, in addition to season 12 being a dreadful bore, the voters were wrong again.  
32. Bucky Covington – I remember finding him mildly unpleasant, but lo these few years later, I’m finding it hard to muster much of a giveadarn for him. I don’t give a darn.
31. Vanessa Olivarez – if she had been on a later season, when instruments were allowed, we could have had us a genuine autoharpist. As it is, she wasn’t so she’s in the “blah and forgettable” middle of this pack.
30. Jena Irene – She is on this list because she was a runner-up. And, like, only two years ago. But there’s not a whole lot else to recommend her.
29. Colton Dixon – He arrived at the auditions (his third attempt) with his sister and his stupid haircut. I bet he still has both. I mean, it’s probably a different stupid haircut. But I bet it’s still stupid.
28. Crystal Bowersox – It’s probably fair to say that Crystal Bowersox is the most exciting resident of Port Clinton, Ohio, and comported herself as such on American Idol.
27. Lauren Alaina – They went back to the Kelly Clarkson well. The well was dry.
26. Brooke White – Brooke White loved two things: being super into Jesus and singing really boring songs. She impressed the hell out of Andrew Lloyd Webber, though.
25. James Durbin – the world didn’t exactly need a straight Adam Lambert, but we got one anyway. Thanks James Durbin!
24. Carly Smithson – she originated the “previous record contract” controversy, although in her case she wasn’t just some “signed and dropped” case – she had a whole thing – her record was heavily promoted by the label, and produced by Gregg Alexander (!!!). One of the songs would go on to be covered by Kelly Clarkson on her first record (Kelly’s record came out a couple of years after Carly’s). Anyway, she was fine. Her old stuff was a little better, I guess, but she was undeserving of the controversy and also left no doubts as to the validity of her failure to take off.
23. Ryan Starr – Ryan Starr was robbed. She should’ve runner-upped in the first season, and I do feel that even though Kelly Clarkson’s win was legitimate, that she didn’t runner-up because they needed a dude for their lamentably terrible beach movie. We can’t have a 19-Entertainment-branded lesbian beach movie, after all.
22. Ruben Studdard – On the one hand, it’s possible to feel bad for how Ruben Studdard failed to be pushed or promoted after his win. On the other hand what, exactly, were they supposed to promote? His girth? His completely neutral voice that never made anyone feel anything? I think he owns restaurants now, which I totally approve of. Good job, Ruben.
21. Alexis Cohen – It was hard to decide what to do with Alexis Cohen. It’s very sad that she’s dead, and the means of her passing (ran over, the driver was eventually investigated for and not charged with manslaughter) is undeniably tragic. That said, Alexis Cohen is better known as “glitter girl” due to her stage makeup. She auditioned twice. Once she exploded into a temper tantrum that included calling Simon Cowell a “bad word” (that’s actually what she called him, verbatim). She appeared the next year more composed and polite, and then still got angry when she didn’t make it. Here’s the thing: all of these people went some out of their way to be on television. It was important enough to them to shortcut their way into a “music” career that they were willing to sign up for this. So when I say that Alexis Cohen’s “performance” in the audition rounds was one of the funniest, I am not disrespecting a dead young girl, I am absolutely disrespecting somebody who was willing to do literally anything, including sign away the rights to their likeness and behavior, for a shot at something like fame. That, fundamentally, is the American Idol problem: all of these people have decided that working for it is not for them, that they’re going to try a shortcut, and sometimes it works. Mostly it doesn’t. People had a pretty good memory for Alexis Cohen, also. Who knows how it could have worked out? Constantine Maroulis managed it. So did William Hung. Still. She was a really vile and angry auditioner. That was pretty funny.
20. Michael Johns – Michael Johns, on the other hand, was pretty good, and he has also since passed. So he’s here, because he was better than Alexis Cohen, but no higher because he wasn’t a very good contestant. Shame he died, though.
19. David Hernandez – he was a male stripper in a pre-Magic Mike world. His only real sin was timing, frankly.
18. Haley Reinhardt – She was really good at selecting songs for her voice, which puts her in a striking minority of AI candidates.
17. Quentin Alexander – last season, he got scolded by Harry Connick Jr. for calling the show “wack.” Harry Connick Jr. said that was disrespectful. Quentin Alexander said he was misinterpreted. Either way: he was totally right, by season 14, AI absolutely was wack, and so he’s up here right under Sanjaya.
16. SanjayaSanjaya.
15. Kellie Pickler – She had a good voice, but American Idol spends a lot of its time as the Blonde Country Singer Factory, and that diminishes the accomplishment somewhat.
14. Constantine Maroulis – dumb competitor, inspiring soap opera actor, excellent The Soup drop-in character.
13. Kimberly Locke – Kimberly Locke was an unspectacular contestant. She had a fine voice, she didn’t win, fine. But she is responsible for my single favorite moment of post-American Idol work, which is on the VH1 reality show Celebrity Fit Club, when she freaks the actual fuck out when Dustin Diamond threatens to give her a dildo modelled off of his penis, which turned out not to actually be his penis, because his sex tape (the thing he was promoting by appearing on Celebrity Fit Club) featured a stunt penis, and the dildo was molded from that. Nevertheless, he threatened her with a dildo made from what he was then claiming was his penis, and she lost her shit, which is also what I would have done. It was such a weird moment that it brings me joy to this day.
12. Jordin Sparks – I don’t know, man. She’s a good singer, she did a fine job. I’m surprised she’s still in the public eye, but a lot of that probably has to do with her willingness to do makeup ads (She is very pretty. Probably sells a lot of makeup, I guess?). I just don’t know.
11. Elliot Yamin – Season 5 was an underrated season of American Idol, but that’s probably because the good performers were as dull as the bad performers. Elliot Yamin was as good a singer as Kellie Pickler, but didn’t spend his post-American Idol years annoying me, so he’s higher up on the list.
10. LaToya London – Also guilty of not being Jennifer Hudson, but, y’know, she was pretty good anyway.
9. William Hung – A lot of people used to watch American Idol for the audition rounds, for their trainwreck appeal. A great deal of that has to do with William Hung. His audition was probably responsible for the people at votefortheworst (who would have a pretty big effect on the voting in the coming few seasons) to turn their attention from Survivor to American Idol. It was definitely responsible for AI returning to the well of awful people. It was mean, and it seemed really bad, but he leaned into it. He always came back, and no other American Idol contestant can claim to have been on Arrested Development. So in a lot of more important ways, he won.
8. Carrie Underwood – I’m not what you’d call a Carrie Underwood fan, but she’s got a talent (specifically, she sings real loud), and is at least a pretty good performer. Plus she’s a vegan in Tennessee, which seems like a tough place to be a vegan, and she’s married to a hockey player. That’s pretty cool.
7. Curtis Finch, Jr – It’s possible that Curtis Finch, Jr. is graded on a curve, because he’s the last singer I felt particularly good about. Not enough gospel on American Idol for my tastes
6. Pia Toscano – Not everyone’s elimination is thought to be so unjust that even Tom Hanks feels he needs to express his disapproval. That’s how good Pia was.
5. Fantasia Barrino – There aren’t very many people that won that deserved it, but man, Fantasia is one of them. She, like most American Idol winners, disappeared quickly, but within the show she was just great.
4. Adam Lambert – I mean, his thing was always silly, right? But that’s what made it so perfect. The show danced around his homosexuality for reasons that I’m completely unable to figure out. They could’ve gone a long way on this dude’s back, and he had a great voice. He lost to Kris Allen. Kris Allen.
3. Katherine McPhee Smash was under-rated good fun. On American Idol, she was kind of a snooze (albeit a really attractive snooze). After the show, she turned out to be as competent as anybody at figuring out a career, mainly by not sucking at everything.
2. Jennifer Hudson – She didn’t win, and that would have been fine maybe, but she went home criminally early, and that was not fine. She wasn’t the best contestant on her year, but she’s at #2 because nobody else turned not winning into gold like she did.
1. Kelly Clarkson – I mean, really. This was never a question. She won before the producers figured the show out, even though I believe, as mentioned above, that they elevated Justin Guarini above Ryan Starr. Literally the only way she could have won this by a larger margin would have been if she had beaten Jason Castro.

BONUS LISTLET: Every judge ranked
12. Mariah Carey
11. The giant, prominent coca-cola cups that sat in front of the judges
10. Kara Dioguardi
9. Stephen Tyler
8. Ellen Degeneres
7. Jennifer Lopez
6. Keith Urban
5. Randy Jackson
4. Paula Abdul
3.Harry Connick, Jr.
2. Nicki Minaj
1. Simon Cowell

EXTRA-SUPER-BONUS LISTLET: Every host ranked
2. Ryan Seacrest
1. Brian Dunkleman (despite him being the superior judge, I still managed to spell both his names wrong on my first try. Still, though. He’s not Ryan Seacrest, that’s for sure.)


On Simon Pegg’s Recent Talkings

Here’s a rare occasion! Someone said something in public and I’d like to say a thing about it!

Yesterday, an interview with Simon Pegg from the Radio Times made the rounds, occasioning a “response” piece1 from the usually-admirable io9, which, in turn, made Simon Pegg feel the need to respond on his own blog.

1 It’s old news to complain about Gawker Media’s clickbait-y nonsense, but this post is a particularly bad piece of writing. The reason “response” is in quote marks is because it isn’t, actually, a response to any of the things Simone Pegg said, but merely a rote regurgitation of the exact same “geek stuff can be srs stuff” argument that people have been making for, oh, four hundred years* or so. I wouldn’t have mentioned but for Mr. Pegg’s response to the “response” making it germane to the issue at hand. Also, for god’s sake – do not read the comments.
* this argument more-or-less begins with Sir Phillip Sidney’s “The Defense of Poesy,” which was written sometime at the end of the sixteenth century, when people thought all fiction, or, indeed, all-non-reportative writing, was claptrap for children and impossible to be serious and distracting from real issues etc. etc. ad. inf.

The clarification/walking-back aside, the first thing to establish is that the response to this as though it was some kind of new idea for Mr. Pegg is pretty weird. Spaced is about how people that are unable to succeed in the way their parents did re-define themselves so that their interests form their identity instead of their career/family. More recently, and more importantly, The World’s End is about a dude who would literally rather see the world destroyed than stop living amid the obsessions he created as a young person. To pretend that Simon Pegg espousing this particular opinion – that an adultolescence is a problematic thing, and probably unsustainable – is a pretty dumb idea, as he’s been espousing it for twenty goddamn years. He was worrying about the tendency of geek culture toward prolonged adolescence while I was in my actual adolescence.

The reason that the argument he’s making2 is easy to muddle (or misinterpret outright) is that there are, for all purposes, two science fictions. Or, more finely, two ways of using the term. Science fiction as a genre signifier has all of the meaning as any other genre signifier. I’ve written (at length) about this in the past, but the short of it is: genre is useful as a way of linking things together, or creating a contextual framework, but as a means of judgment it’s simply not useful. Saying “I like science fiction” is the same as saying “I like the color blue.” It requires an additional step on the part of the interpreter to connect it to the fact that this is not free of context and that, say, being shot in the stomach with a blue bullet is not preferable to eating a red jellybean3. There’s good and bad, yes, but there’s also an enormous number of qualities within the generic distinction that don’t disqualify it for consideration under the umbrella of “science fiction.”

2 which has its own problems. Stay tuned!
3 although there are rarely blue jellybeans, so you see where this all gets a little wobbly.

The other way of using the term is, essentially, a marketing signifier. Science Fiction, the genre, includes a whole bunch of stuff, most of which is fiction that is meant to be centered around the way the world is changed with regards to the changes or extrapolations (or explanations or whatever) of whatever scientific principles or elements are on display4. As a marketing term, it’s got a vague set of connotations, starting with iconography and a recognizable visual identity, and often including the implication that it’s meant to be discussed, preferably online. This seems paradoxical, given that the thrust of Pegg’s argument (and much of this piece) is that the hugeness and obviousness of the sf movies we’re all being exposed to constantly obviates a lot of thought and close discussion. But the discussion is meant to happen before the film comes out. Because of cross-ownership5, there’s incentive to add information – “leaks”, trailers, press comments, whatever – to the discussion, because that makes the discussion flare up, and means that in order to keep up you’d better read the book/see the previous film/buy the t-shirt/pre-order your ticket/etc. In effect, in creating filmic properties that cater to the aforestated “geek” tastes, you pretty seamlessly convert that fanbase into a part of your own marketing machine. I am on the street team for, say, Guardians of the Galaxy, or the upcoming Childhood’s End6 tv show simply because I am part of the built-in audience for those things, and I’m interested in what they’re doing adaptationally, so I talk about them. It’s a trap there’s functionally no way out of, except in the sense that by ceding so much of their promotional power to the man on the street, they run the risk of it collapsing without them, and if all of the film marketing teams in the world suddenly dissolved tomorrow, the worst thing that would happen would be all of those empty cars on the highways7.

4 this is a clumsy definition, but for this argument, the definition has to be short enough to be includable at the beginning of that paragraph, but open enough to include Star Wars (which takes place in the past), superhero movies (which rarely give any kind of thought to even the robot/powersuit aspects of their story), and The World’s End, as well as things that you don’t have to stretch as far to throw in there.
5 remember, the two most successful film properties in the world, The Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Star Wars franchise, are owned by the same company, and Disney is no slouch when it comes to marketing their shit. It’s not an accident that the MCU took off the way it did post-Disney ownership.
6 I mean, this all gets pretty cynical, but when I was a kid the adaptations of geek properties included a story-faithful but action-deficient X-Men cartoon, a Spider-Man cartoon that was so bowdlerized that the NYPD carried “laser” guns (because they couldn’t show bullets) and all of Spider-Man’s fights consisted of long wrestling matches (because they couldn’t show him punching). Now I’m older, and there’s a fan-fucking-tastic Daredevil (ten-year-old me’s favorite superhero, the comic book I was probably reading while I watched the aforementioned X-Men adaptation) tv show, and Childhood’s Fucking End is coming to television**. So if this is what happens when the audience is not to Simon Pegg’s liking, I say we find out what pisses him off some more, and then see how much better it gets. Also, my interest in these things is kind of exactly the point that Simon Pegg is making, and also probably part of the reason I’m willing to point out that it’s not like I’ve stopped doing anything but watching Daredevil. It just isn’t like that, see.
** and The Man in the High Castle. And Foundation. But mostly Childhood’s End.
7 obviously this assumes some kind of rapture-style event, here.

So the marketing strategy takes over the genre term, but also appends the former-insult that describes the audience base: geekdom. It’s been a few years since there was much traction in pointing out that the “geeks” have taken over. It’s been even longer since the a priori assumption that geeks were, well, adultolescents who remained interested in the things from their youth because it meant still being attached to your childhood and, ergo, never having to grow up. This is at the root of the “if it’s got superheroes, it’s for kids” argument – i.e. “I read comic books when I was a kid because of the bright colors and simple plots, so anyone that reads them is incapable of getting anything out of them8”. This is, primarily, a weird negative definition of “adulthood” as “not childhood” and “serious” as “not capable of being unserious”9, which is so problematic as to be pretty easy to dismiss out of hand, except that, for whatever reason, people don’t. After all, “adulthood” already has a pretty airtight positive definition (being an adult by biology or social group consensus), as does “serious” (being something that is meant to be considered or taken at the value of itself, rather than for its reaction), so we don’t really have much reason to worry so much about what they aren’t. We don’t define pizzahood as “not being a taco”, after all, even though you absolutely can fold a pizza up and eat it like a taco. That doesn’t make it not a pizza, for reasons that are apparent to everyone that is familiar with both pizzas and tacos. We really shouldn’t define things by listing all of the things they aren’t10 That would take too much time, and never get us anywhere. Or, rather, it would get us chasing our own tails over what any given representative of pizza says about its relationship to tacos. The critics of geekdom-based entertainments see people folding their pizzas up like tacos and say “but we are beyond tacos, and we, as adults, eat pizzas, so this is clearly the wrong thing to be doing.” It’s still a pizza.

8 getting things out of them being an extremely important point that we’ll be coming back to in just a moment.
9 for the most well-known argument against this idea, you could go find C.S. Lewis’ “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” which also quotes 1 Corinthians in a way that people really enjoy. It’s often pretty sanctimonious, but the points are good.
10 although, for a variety of reasons, this is how we define any number of things in identity politics – “manliness” or any of its associated terms are the most obvious, as it’s rarely defined by what it is, but rather by either what it isn’t or what it should be, which is a positively insane way to run a railroad. This is also true for geekdom, about which you can read, well, anything at all written on the internet ever. ever.

If all that pizza/taco stuff sounds digressive and confusing, understand that that is exactly how all of this quibbling about genre distinctions and their relative worth looks to me. I know what science fiction is, I know what good work is, and I know what I like. The fact that the third and second coincide often enough with the first (that is, something I like is also good and is also science fiction) is why I’m a science fiction fan. It isn’t preclusive – I know when something something is science fiction and bad (almost all of it, because almost all of everything is bad), when something is science fiction and I don’t like it (even more than that which is bad, because I like bad thing sometimes), when something is bad and I like it (Independence Day, the X-Men’s X-Cutioner’s Song storyline), and when something is good but I don’t like it (the work of Jane Austen, Ringworld). I think the problem isn’t stagnation – people have liked big, spectacular stories for as long as people have liked stories – which is for about as long as people have been people11 – but rather a lack of consideration.

11 I know you probably had to read Beowulf or The Odyssey in school, but go back and read it again. Or The Epic of Gilgamesh. There’s monsters, there’s huge, pitched battles, there’s superhumans fighting against the odds, there’s an alarming amount of sex. These are some of the oldest stories we have, and they’re built entirely around big, loud action setpieces. Each of those also features actual literal monsters. “Genre” fiction is the default, not the newfangled exception.
In his response to io9, Pegg cites Baudrillard, and his belief that the entrenched power structure makes sure that people are exposed to escapist entertainment as a way of placating the masses. Baudrillard was many things, but a cranky paranoiac is definitely foremost among them. One of the good things to come with the developed and exposed conversations about geekdom-oriented things is that it is possible to be exposed to an enormous number of opinions, and an equally-enormous number of reasons to hold them. What seems to be the case, then, is not that there’s some shadow over-conspiracy keeping people quiet with bread and circuses, but rather that people like things they 1) know are “good”, 2) reward them for their own viewing experience and 3) are not that difficult to seek out.

I’m going to take the points in that order. The reason that so many remakes, sequels and adaptations are made is because there is less assumed financial risk – if people are familiar with the property, then the aforementioned word-of-mouth marketing will go a lot further than if there isn’t. This works in reverse, also: people are more likely to think “oh, hey, another Mad Max movie. I like the Mad Max movies, I will go see it” than “what is this Ex-Machina about, and why should I see it?”12, and thus the cycle continues. People go see things that are familiar, familiar things sell, so people continue to see them. The risk on the part of the studio for making it is low because the risk on the part of the people seeing them is low, because the people seeing them already know something about their quality. They’re going to spend their ten dollars on something they already feel confident is “good.”

12 this example, of course, does not need to contain the information that Mad Max: Fury Road is being roundly praised for its attention to social issues, or that Ex-Machina is not actually based on the comic book of the same name, but it’s only supported by those things.

Secondly, people like to be rewarded for their own viewing experience. They like to feel on top of the material13. This was accomplished several years ago by throwing constant references to things into movies and television shows (a trend that manifested itself most strongly in Family Guy and the Seltzer/Friedman oeuvre, but also genuinely good things like 30 Rock and Scrubs and The 40 Year Old Virgin, and also with a low-level constancy in pretty much everything), and anymore has been done by hanging big, crazy signposts over everything that’s meant to be a Dramatically Important Moment. Lighting cues, soundtrack cues, blocking decisions, everything is pointed at telling us which scenes are “light” and which are “heavy”. But because we (the audience in general) figure it out without being told, specifically, in the script, it counts as, I guess, “intuiting,” and we feel rewarded14. We got the reference, we know the backstory. We know what’s happening before the script tells us. We know how Katniss wins the Hunger Games, we figure out that Bella’s baby is some portion vampire (I think? I think we figure that out, right? That is what’s happening?), and on and on. The popularity of mysteries, of crime fiction, of thrillers, isn’t that we don’t know what’s happening, it’s that we have lots of opportunities to figure out what’s happening, and the 100% guaranteed assurance that, even if we don’t figure it out, we’ll be rewarded with the answer anyway. This means that lowest-common-denominator stories have no ambiguity. It also means, increasingly, that the main characters are ever actually imperilled by the story (with the exception of whichever peripheral character is clearly marked for death. This character can be spotted pretty easily by figuring out who has a biographical backstory, but whose character motivation is never explored, so that we care about them, and we know a little bit about what makes them tick, but never enough to humanize them to the point where we’d be traumatized, and thus put off finishing the series, by their death)14, that if something permanent does happen to affect the characters or their world, it won’t be in such a way that changes it into something you can’t still get behind, and that, whenever possible, the only times you’ll be called upon to have any feelings, they will be of the “triumphal and/or romantic” flavors. Maybe a bittersweet victory. Maybe.

13 this is pretty specifically and emphatically not true for some people – those people are neither the focus of this paragraph nor are they part of the problem here. I suspect Simon Pegg is one of the people for whom this is not true (and I know for a fact that I am another – I’d rather watch a bad movie that confuses me legitimately than a good movie that pats me on the head), and that it is also very hard to talk about this particular thing without sounding like a condescending dick, so if what follows comes off like someone going a long way to keep his feet off your toes, well, it is.
14 Joss Whedon’s greatest strength as a marketable writer is that he’s very, very good at providing action and moments within those kinds of brackets, in a way that is less obtrusive than most. That is why this is less obvious in, say, The Avengers movies than it is in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, which have lots of narrative strength, but “subtlety” is not among them***. He’s got a very strong sense of exactly how much of any given situation he has to set up in order for the ending to be safely assumed by the audience in a way that a) leaves no risk of ambiguity and b) makes sure the audience knows that it connected those two dots, and is thus rewarded. When it works, it’s Tony Stark’s speech to distract Loki until the Hulk shows up in the first Avengers movie, or Spike scolding Willow about her objections to Thanksgiving in Buffy. When it doesn’t work, it’s Spike laying out all of Buffy and Angel’s relationship for them or, most famously, it’s Storm telling Toad**** “you know what happens to a frog when it gets struck by lightning? The same thing as anything else”.
*** this is in no way to indicate that subtlety, in and of itself, is at all a good quality, or that Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies would have been any better had they been subtle. The best of them – and, indeed, the best superhero movie ever made – The Dark Knight works pretty much entirely because as the movie goes on, most of the subtext is stripped from the bones of the story, and at the end you’re left with the central conflict alone, as played out by two groups of people on boats – which is brilliant, and inventive, and deeply moving, but not subtle.
**** before he wrote the entire MCU, he wrote X-Men for Fox, remember.
15 this lack of character imperilment is a particular pet peeve of mine, and it goes well beyond sf. Literary fiction is actually the worst about this particular problem, which also gives the lie to the rest of this argument: peril is part of everyday life, and insisting that you can cut it out and still be telling the truth means that your work is no less a fantasy than Game of Thrones, in which, by the way, the characters are imperiled constantly.

The first and second are no real shakes – that’s been the case forever, even in Pegg’s idealized vision of the seventies. It’s the third one that has caused the economics of every aspect of the entertainment industry to shift, and, in this case, for the films to get bigger and more broadly-appealing. I’ve said this a lot in music posts, but here again: it used to be much more possible to market something into existence in a way that made people think there were fewer opportunities, or that the critical consensus was something other than a part of the marketing16. So it was easier to convince people to spend money on something that wasn’t specifically in their wheelhouse because it was easier to make them believe there wasn’t an alternative. Movies had the easiest time of this, since for the first seventy or so years of their existence, there basically wasn’t an alternative – you were stuck with not only what studios were making, but what your city was showing. As the options exploded outward, it became easier for people to find things that appealed directly to them. Now, the things that will get people to a theatre are the spectacle films – the films that are risk-free because you already know the source material inside and out, and that benefit from hugeness in display, in sound, in audience. Otherwise, you can stay home and watch something riskier, or something on television, or whatever, at home on your couch, because that’s what’s easy.

16 that latter is still something of a problem, but is so far out of the purview of this piece that I’m just going to skip right on by it on my way to the major point.

Geekdom has long been associated with obsession at the expense of personal interaction – that is, these people spend so much time finding and consuming the object of their obsession that they leave aside the socializing aspects that would make them more well-rounded people17. And for awhile, the effort required really took something: you had to buy issues of a comic book, and if they weren’t issues that were sold commonly, you had to go find them. You had to seek out the information about who was doing what by investing in a magazine, or figuring out which bulletin board systems/chat rooms/irc clients/listserv groups had the best information. Now, there’s Wikipedia, there’s Marvel Unlimited, there’s bookstores real and virtual full of trade paperbacks collecting this information and there’s an entire clickable internet out there ready to describe and judge it for you without you actually putting anything into it, so that you can gain the level of knowledge that would formerly have required obsession to get18. So you can, in your downtime, become an expert in something, and then also go and do whatever things you’re going to do otherwise. This is a good thing. This is unquestionably a good thing. This is people looking things up! This is people gathering information! This is people using that information as a way of, even in the most superficial way, analyzing the things they choose to entertain them! How cool is that? That is so cool!

17 the accuracy of this belief is a little weird. I have specifically avoided interaction to read books, go to shows, go to record stores and, even, occasionally, to watch a movie. In my formative, obsession-developing years, I was pretty much left with my obsessions because there wasn’t really the socializing option. There’s more than just the self-directed choice, is what I’m saying.
18 there are two things that make the “geekdom is cooldom” argument dumb – the first is that there will always be people who are not cool. That is obvious. The other thing is that there will always be people who are obsessives. And, as one of those people, let me tell you: it’s not any easier now than it has ever been to rein it in and not gush all over people that share your interests.

Here’s where Pegg (and, presumably, Baudrillard) see the problem: it’s now easy to like something that requires a little bit of backstory to know about. The properties are also extremely marketable (see above), due to their pre-existing reliance on iconography and graphic design. T-shirts, posters, action figures (which become increasingly less toy-focused and more collection-focused) all follow naturally. And since it is now easier than ever before to proclaim your “geekdom,” it is no longer about knowledge, but about consumption: whereas before you could tell who was into what by what they know, now you’re left with looking at how much money they’re spending19. This makes it look like the market itself has taken a conspiratorial, consciously-driven swipe at the consumer to keep him stuck on his couch and spending his money on dumb shit (this is the view that Baudrillard is ostensibly taking, albeit the most simplistic form of that view), when in actuality, the market isn’t a human brain, but rather a foxhound – the scent is strongest over here, so we go over here. The scent is strongest over there, so we go over there. It’s led by what people want, rather than leading people by what they want.  

19 podcast-advertising-juggernaut Loot Crate are perhaps the most insane manifestation of this idea. They’re a service whereby you send them a bunch of money, and they fill a box with….geek stuff. Nonspecific geek stuff. Just….a box of stuff for some money. This seems insane to me, and like something that is less fun than, say, buying an equal dollar amount of stuff I actually want, or setting a small pile of money on fire. But it’s also completely indicative of what I mean here.

The assumption of Baudrillard, and, by extension (and also by statement) of Pegg, and of lots and lots of other people, is that everyone would just agree with them if only they weren’t being lied to by the marketing conspiracy. This is a common fallacy, especially from geekdom outward – “if only people weren’t blocked from hearing about this thing, it would be super-huge” – and it assumes that the problem is those darned ad men and network suits, rather than having to admit that people just don’t cotton to the thing they like20. Thus: these people only want escapism and candy because that’s all their given,” rather than “these people are given an unhealthy amount of escapism and candy because that’s what they want”.

20 the 900-pound-gorilla of this attitude is Firefly. Firefly was, admittedly, fucked with by Fox pretty badly – it was poorly-promoted, dumped into a terrible time slot, and aired out of order. Nobody watched it. It picked up some popularity on DVD and discussion on the internet, and fans clamored so loudly that Fox relented and allowed a movie, Serenity, to be made, which they released with lots of marketing during a good week. Nobody went to see it. I’m not going to make the argument that Firefly is bad (it isn’t, even though I don’t much care for it), I’m just going to say: the attitude that people (and, seriously, if you’ve never seen it do some googling, it’s almost a parody of itself at this point) have that everyone would like the show if only Fox hadn’t kneecapped it is so beyond pervasive among the fanbase that it seems like it’s practically a requirement for liking the fucking show in the first place.

And it is unhealthy! To come back full circle to where Pegg’s argument is strongest: there are a lot of people that are amassing the knowledge, buying the t-shirts, and plopping down in front of the big, spectacular, obvious entertainment as a way of shutting down, rather than as a way of adding to the experiences of the day. The place where Baudrillard and I (and, I’m presuming, Simon Pegg) agree is that the damage done by marketing is not in the actual presentation of entertainment (which is sought based on the appetites of its audience), but in rather the creation and persistence of the idea that the working day is a thing that must be “recovered” from, and that anything that involves thought or analysis is “overthinking”, and therefore unsuitable for the escape that you’re entitled to because of how hard you work (be it professionally or whatever). The reason it’s easy for people to assume that there’s a conspiratorial force at work is because there is, just not where they think it is, and the reason that it’s easy for people to dismiss and belittle sf and superheroes and the whole lot as juvenile and unthinking is because that’s how most people consume them.

Thus we come, finally, to the problem. Geekdom itself is no more in the majority than it’s ever been – the things formerly associated with geekdom are. People’s interests are precisely the same as they have always been – spectacle, escapism, the illusion of depth without any emotional risk. That’s been the bulk of people’s interests for a very long time. The world would be better if people would take on more of the signifiers of “adult” interests – if they spent more time analyzing, thinking, considering, and learning about things, rather than amassing and quoting and memorizing trivia. But people are only going to get out of something what they put into it. Simon Pegg mentions, as the high points of the bygone era that he misses from when people watched all the “right” movies and thought all the “right” things about them, such undeniable luminaries as Taxi Driver, Bonnie and Clyde, and the French Connection. Leaving aside his implication that these are movies without spectacle, the question that he’s begging is: how many people that profess their love of Taxi Driver love it for its portrayal of someone whose hold on his own mental state slides away as he is exposed to what he sees as the sickness of the city he lives in? How many people love it because they like the mirror scene and know what people mean when they quote “you talkin’ to me?”. How many people, in your life, have you met that know anything about The French Connection other than it has a car chase in it? Hell, how many people have you ever seen use the term “moral ambiguity22” when they talk about Bonnie and Clyde? It’s the primary text of the film, beyond the bank-robbing and each-other-screwing.  They’re things that people see (and have seen, and did see, and will see), because they fulfill the 3 criteria above – they’re “good,” they’re rewarding, and they’re readily available – but often they’re still watched vacantly and uncritically.

22 this post is north of 5,000 words, so I cut a couple of paragraphs earlier about moral ambiguity, and about how it’s being played up as obviously as anything. That may make its way to your eyeballs in another form, but for right now let’s say: moral ambiguity is one of the major signifiers of “good” entertainment (c.f. Breaking Bad, The Bicycle Thief, Lolita, Hamlet) and has become so prevalent that it’s taken over for most of the other signifiers.

Calling sf juvenile, calling an obsession with that kind of story juvenile, is entirely backwards. The implication is that kids, with their unformed brains, simply can’t apply the same critical faculties to things to decide whether they’re good or not. That’s true. One needs a corpus to provide analysis. But people don’t take the time to analyze and develop their own opinions because 1) that sort of thing is overanalyzing, and is therefore frowned upon and 2) they’re worried about them being “wrong,” so they just borrow whatever opinion is prevalent in their social group (or publicly). This is where kids have everybody beat: they have to decide whether they like it or not, because they won’t develop the mechanisms to see themselves external to themselves (and in regards to their peer group) for a few more years, so the only thing they have is their own reaction. That means it’s uneducated, but at least it’s theirs. And if you don’t lose your ability to do that, if you remain driven by only that which interests you in the first place, for whatever reason, well, then that something is probably in a genre, and you’re probably an obsessive. That trait is one you get to keep forever. It’s not a problem, no matter what Simon Pegg says. If you haven’t found something that you’re obsessed with enough to track it down, or to ignore other things in its favor, then the problem lies with your comfort zone. Read more. Watch more things. Watch things without expecting them to make you happy. Read things without approbation or cajoling. Figure it out. Then figure out what’s like those things. Then go find those things. And sometimes those things will be big shiny movies full of robots and superheroes23, or whatever genre signifiers you want to plug in there, because there’s a reason so many people like them (whatsoever they might be). That’s what kids do, see. The ones that grow up to be thoughtful adults with concerns about how little other adults do that sort of thing.

23 or midcentury fashion, or stories about boats, or birds, or lamps, or guitars, or a language you don’t speak, or a part of the world that captures your fancy, or even mystery stories!

Philip Sidney (referenced back in FN1) tells the critics of poesy that it is not beyond real, or unreal, but rather that it “adds to the stock of available reality.” There are lots of advantages to allowing to add to the stock of available reality: you can try various situations out on your brain in a safe, unchallenging environment. You can see how things make you feel, you can hear languages, see interactions, see parts of the world. You can be exposed to the monolith of someone else’s ideas, and you can figure out how it fits within the schema of your own. But you have to do that.

The primary advantage, though, is that when somebody gives an interview and says “these adolescent entertainments are making us all permanent adolescents,” you can sort through all of the parts of the world, of other people, of ideas and their meaning, that are in your head, and you can say “no it doesn’t.” And that’s that. If you don’t ever give of yourself enough to let something actually into the reality in your own head, it’s not available to you. So don’t listen to Simon Pegg, he’s totally wrong.

But listen to him: he’s right. It’s good to consider things. It’s good to be challenged. What isn’t good is circling the wagons around the genre you’ve staked out as “yours” and waving your gun around at him. That’s exactly the kind of small-minded counter-intellectualism that makes people think of sf fans as children in the first place.


The 2015 Billboard Music Awards, Part 2

Part 1 was easy. It’s largely genre-based awards, there’s basically no way to quibble, it’s pretty transparent. Part 2 gets a little weirder. The categories are more nonspecific, and I can’t really figure out the methodology for assigning the winner. I’ll discuss the specific problems in the categories to which they apply, but suffice it to say there’s no real easy way to figure this one out. Luckily, it’s basically the same handful of people shuffled around from category to category1, so I’ll have lots of space to try to figure it out.

And out it shall be figured!

Top Streaming Song (Video)
I am surprised that “All About That Bass” is here in the video category and not in the audio category. I wonder i that means the number of video streams necessary is smaller? “Let it Go”’s music video is some part of the promotional juggernaut that is Frozen, so that’s no surprise at all. Taylor Swift is still basically a music-video artist2. Bobby Shmurda’s video took off virally (due to his absolute masterclass in non-dancing with the Shmoney Dance), and is probably (along with maybe “Shake it Off”) the only video I would have correctly guessed would be here.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Bobby Shmurda, “Hot Neighba”

Top Streaming Song (Audio)
The other reason, come to think of it, that Taylor Swift is all over the video category is because that’s the only way to stream her music at the moment, since she’s waging war against Spotify or whatever on behalf of the music industry. So she’s not here at all. Additionally, this list tells me that people are listening to “Fancy” and not watching the video3. That’s weird. “Fancy” has a good chorus. “Stay With Me” and “All of Me” are both love songs with “Me” in the title. I have even less to say about Tove Lo. So Hozier it is.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Hozier, “Take Me To Church”

Top Streaming Artist
Given how weirdly disconnected from the other streaming categories this seems, this must be a combination of video streaming and audio streaming4 in some way. There has been lots of ink spilled about this being pop music’s “year of the woman”5, and I guess this ostensible award for the way people actually listen to music would bear that out. That’s neat. I have a further methodological question, however: Nicki Minaj and Ariana Grande are both on this list, but Jessie J isn’t. So does their inclusion mean they had enough of their own juice to get on this list (and not either of the streaming lists) on the back of “Bang Bang,” vaulting past the song’s primary credited performer? Or is “Bang Bang” not figured at all? THESE ARE THE QUESTIONS THE PEOPLE WANT ANSWERS TO.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Nicki Minaj

Top Social Artist
In years past, this must have been a much easier category. Count twitter followers, count facebook fans (probably at one point count MySpace friends), count Instagram uh…grammas? call it a day. But do they now count tumbls? Is Reddit a social platform? Does YouTube count6? I’m going to guess not, and assume they just count followers for now. That’s probably the way that Beebz and SelGomz got on here. It’s a shame they don’t do anything with it. Taylor Swift is too famous not to be in this category more-or-less by default, and….well, Ariana Grande was on Nickoledeon? She has…a lot….of….hair? Maybe each of her hairs is a follower? Is she secretly really funny on Twitter or something? This is really weirding me out.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Miley Cyrus

Top Digital Song
This is online purchases, rather than streams. The fact that it’s so different from the streaming list isn’t surprising: the “buying digital” vs “streaming everything” group is precisely the generational gap that’s causing all of the sales problems in the first place. They represent two entirely different musical-consumption mindsets, and the streamers are clearly the idiots responsible for Iggy Azalea. This alone is almost enough to make me hate streaming music, in a staunch reversal of literally everything else I’ve ever said about it7. But it comes as no surprise that this list skews a bit older (it does surprise me how little resemblance it bears to either the streaming list or the radio play list). “Uptown Funk,” “Shake it Off,” and “Happy” are all songs I’m pretty chuffed about, although I believe in this case I have to point out that, as I’m a contributor to this chart, I should probably go with the one I literally picked to buy and have forever and ever.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Pharrell, “Happy”

Top Digital Songs Artist
This is pretty pointedly not a digital albums chart, which is how I figured out that Meghan Trainor’s record is ineligible because it’s an EP8, and here it is in this one. Aside from the unanswered attribution question (which in this category causes me to wonder if Sam Smith is here in part because of his work with Disclosure, or on his own record alone), this category is as dull as the artists represented therein. Well, it’s not as dull as Ed Sheeran. Nothing is as dull as Ed Sheeran.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Taylor Swift

Top Radio Song
The “All of Me”/”Happy”/”Stay With Me” triumverate is here, as always, but what’s interesting is that for all the column inches devoted to the woman-centricity of pop music, that hasn’t really affected the radio market. I’d like to pretend to know why that is, and I suspect that it has basically everything to do with the male-centric marketing focus of radio programmers (who, like everyone else in the record-selling industry, are getting older, and are thus less quick to respond to market changes), but I have no real way to find out for sure. But if Taylor Swift represents the efficacy of being able to find and connect with your audience in a shifting and socially-driven internet landscape, then Magic! represents nothing so much as the final test balloon for the absolute inability of a tone-deaf approach based on working all of the traditional channels9 to actually sell records (note how their presence on the airplay charts does not lead to their presence on the sales charts – that is a terrible ROI for airplay).

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Instead of declaring a winner, everyone gets to line up the members of Magic! and the promoters responsible for trying to make them happen, and then kick them each in the shins. That way we all win.

Top Radio Songs Artist
Oh hey! Maroon 5! I mean, I’m not excited about them, but the other nominees in this category are John Legend, Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift and Sam Smith. At least with Maroon 5 on this list I can scowl deeply and wonder what has gone wrong with people that this is a thing they listen to. I mean, I don’t actually hate them. They’re not Magic!. They’re fine. I have a hard time begrudging Maroon 5, even though I don’t like them. They sold out the good old-fashioned way, at least. I just feel like this shouldn’t represent some weird kind of best-case scenario. Well, almost-best-case.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Taylor Swift

Top Hot 100 Song
Is it the song that was on the Hot 100 for the longest, or the song that was on the Hot 100 that sold the most copies? While mathematically these are two different numbers, how much practical difference is there between the two? This category is different from the next category only in the presence of John Legend instead of Ariana Grande. I have almost nothing to say about John Legend. He seems like a great guy? He’s clearly really into his wife, that’s always something I like to see. I bet he and Chrissy would be fun to hang out with. I bet he listens to good records, too. Maybe he could bring Common along.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: A dinner date with John Legend and Chrissy Tiegen.

Top Hot 100 Artist
“Boom Clap” must not have been the hit I thought it was, since Charli has been working it for, what, a year now? And it’s not anywhere here. That’s a shame. Maybe sales of Sucker will pick up next year. Or maybe they won’t! Between her presence in the artist categories (and not the song categories), and the surprise social media category, I must assume that Ariana Grande has exceptionally devoted and vocal fans, and also that I have no idea why that surprises me. Anyway. Ariana Iggy Sam Taylor Meghan. Again.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Taylor Swift. Again.

Top Billboard 200 Album
Man, the only demo that really matters for album sales vs. streaming vs. download sales is clearly age. This is a crazy piece of data that’s embedded in these charts. Oh, the genre stuff still has the same demographic traits you’d expect it always to have, but the formats themselves seem to be pretty well divided generationally, almost exclusively (with the monolithic exception of Taylor Swift, who sells records to just about everyone). Also, I mentioned this in a couple of the categories last time, but novelty records, be their Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda,” or Lindsey Stirling, or whatever, are clearly a way to sell records. And so here is Pentatnoix, the a capella group that made a Christmas album. On the one hand, novelty has been a way to move records for literally as long as records have been made11, on the other hand it’s never been easier to listen to that kind of stuff without paying money for a whole record. This is a little muddied by the Pentatonix record being a Christmas record – people buy those, generally, and every few years there’s one that just takes off and becomes a sort of essential Christmas listening. Last year (and, because of the way these things work12, probably also next year) it was this thing. I confess that I’m so out of the radio play and/or Christmas music markets that I don’t think I’ve ever heard any of it, which I suppose also represents how inefficiently penetration is for the albums on the Billboard 200. Or how thoroughly I tune out Christmas music. Either/or.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Taylor Swift, 1989

Top Billboard 200 Artist
One Direction here in place of Maroon 5, but otherwise it’s the same as the last category. On the one hand, it seems precisely the wrong thing to do to give this award to One Direction because they lost their Zayn. On the other hand, I do this “on the one hand/on the other thing” way too much, so I’m not going to dignify it with another hand. Also: this is an album category, and I can’t get behind people that buy full One Direction albums. That’s just crazy.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Taylor Swift

Top Touring Artist
Man, Taylor Swift isn’t even in this category. How the hell am I supposed to choose one of these people? At least this category is as straightforward as it can be. These people toured and made the most money at it. Yay for them. Actually, musically these acts have all been responsible for songs that I have enjoyed. Some more than others, obviously, and it seems silly to have found myself at a point where I’m comparing The Rolling Stones and One Direction in terms of songs I like, but I suppose that’s the way of the world.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Lady Gaga

Top Duo/Group
A few entries ago, I made a joke about how hard it was to feel good about Maroon 5 almost being the best-case scenario for a category. Well, down here they aren’t almost the best-case scenario. Sigh.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Maroon 5

Top Female Artist
And at last we begin the home stretch – that long climb to the top, where we figure out who….well, actually these artist categories seem a little weird to me. I’m assuming they’re global – downloads, streaming, album sales, touring income, but the further you get down that path, and the more things you add to the list of possibilities, the more nebulous it all becomes. I’m sure it’s meant to look much more straightforward than that, and maybe the reason this often seems so counterintuitive is that it is much simpler than I’m making it. Either way, it sure seems, given the other categories, that Nicki Minaj should be here instead of Katy Perry, which must mean that tour dollars count differently (or, more accurately, more). But she isn’t, so….well, so nothing actually changes in terms of the rightful winner.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Taylor Swift

Top Male Artist
Actually, Justin Timberlake sneaking into this one despite only being present on the touring list is more proof that touring dollars are probably counted in, like, absolute tickets sold13 rather than it being weighted in some way, or counted as an average, or whatever. The only other nominee that has any particular touring presence is Drake, but it’s hard to tell how much he’d be up here anyway. Pharrell doesn’t tour much, I don’t know if Sam Smith doesn’t tour or just doesn’t tour yet. Ed Sheeran doesn’t tour in the same league14. The other thing this brings to mind is: these awards are dumb for a very good reason. While I understand that the commemoration of record sales is fine to do annually, the idea of taking into a performer’s entire “presence” in a year is a weird, quixotic thing to be doing, especially since all of these performers have already been nominated for a ton of these, because of the way the business works.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Pharrell

Top New Artist
I will say this: while I’m not interested in the music of any of these people in any meaningful way, they are at least an interesting batch of attempts to create an entertainment persona. They all come from different subgenres and different approaches, and have pretty different sounds. As sales have imploded, it has made the things that grab public attention by chance considerably more interesting, if not necessarily better15. That said, I’m still too cranky to choose from these people.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: whichever one offers to take it and go far away, never to return.

Top Artist
I mean, this category is already basically a summation of the awards show before it. Which of these people from the other top categories is toppest? It would seem to be a redundancy, but actually I think they should scrap the whole affair and just give out this one thing. Congratulations, you made the most money (or whatever). Because as it is, it’s more a testament to what kind of crazy floundering the record-selling industry is up to than it is to anyone’s actual sales figures or popularity.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Taylor Swift

So what have we learned here? We have learned that mathematically-figured awards shows are dull, that there’s a lot to say about the state of pop music, and that Ariana Grande sells way more stuff than I think she does. Also that song attribution is tricky. Tune in next year, when I might decide to do this again! Yay!

1 Once again I find myself thinking that if I just had more dedication to the Billboard Music Awards, I’d look, historically, at how often it was so thoroughly dominated by the same few people. On the one hand, the internet categories didn’t exist, so there wern’t as many permutations. And while it’s true that the record industry is in a slump, it’s been in slumps before, and there were still Billboard awards. Basically I suspect that it has always been the case that nine or ten people are nominated in various permutations for the “big” non-genre awards, because even when the record-selling industry is doing well, it’s still only a handful of people at the very top.
2 in fact, she’s famous and sells a bunch of records almost entirely through traditional marketing channels. For any of you that read the pieces I write about the state of the record-selling industry, this is the thing that makes it hard for me to believe the line: Taylor Swift sells all of her records through radio play (even if that radio play comes largely not from terrestrial radio), music videos (even if those videos are watched on YouTube rather than on television), and on frequent television appearances.
3 It’s worth saying, amid all of the frustrated complaints about how present her music is atmospherically, that Iggy Azalea, or whoever she’s found to help her in this regard, has an excellent set of visuals. Her music videos tend to be compelling (even if she’s taken probably one too many trips to the movie-reference well), and she’s got a pretty interesting relationship to fashion and the way she presents herself. She’s like an annoying Lady Gaga.
4 I mean, it seems like it couldn’t be anything else, but I also don’t know where they’re getting the numbers for streaming data in the first place. YouTube and Spotify provide play counts, but what other services are they counting? Vimeo? Pandora? Yahoo Music? Yahoo Video? Bottles of Yoo-Hoo Chocolate-Flavored Vomit Inducer?
5 of course, last year was often declared “year of the saxophone,” so I’m not sure how to take that.
6 especially given that the tangible evidence of the YouTube community is present in Lindsey Stirling’s nomination this year, or the chart presence of Tyler Ward, or even Taylor Swift.
7 actually, it says that people are more money-conscious about how they consume music, and that there’s not a bunch of people that hear “Fancy” and think “I want to be able to listen to this forever and ever”, but rather “oh, this is available in a form that is convenient for me, so I will consume it that way.”
8 and if you didn’t read that footnote in the last installment, that probably doesn’t make any sense. But of course I’ve buried the explanation here in a footnote again. The people that read the footnotes are feeling pretty smart right now.
9 it’s interesting to follow Magic! (and specifically their frontbro) in the same light as Meghan Trainor – both were songwriters who made a go of it as performers, but while Meghan Trainor at least figured out how to get her material out in a way that made it catch on and then made it to the radio, Magic! were shoved out like it was ten yeas earlier, and you could still force-market a band like that into existence. Maybe they were just an attempt to gather experimental data? It is also completely possible, although I’m rarely this optimistic, that Magic!’sa failure to catch on could, in fact, be because they absolutely suck on toast. That would be a nice world to live in.
a the punctuation situations this terrible group of subhumans force me into with their terrible band name are almost as bad as their music.
10 actually, it’s probably easier and requires fewer words to just describe Magic! as the worst-case scenario for what Maroon 5 could have turned into.
11 like, literally literally. The first records were sold as novelty items, with most of the people involved not even believing that they could be anything else.
12 to wit: Christmas records are big sellers for a month or so a year, so they tend to sell big for a few years in a row as people hear about them, then don’t buy them until the next time they’re reminded of them at Christmas.
13 what it makes me wonder is if it mattered so much in years past: Katy Perry (to use the most readily-available anecdotal example) sold something like 500,000 tickets, which is an astronomical number. When record sales aren’t in a slump, this seems like it’s an easy shortfall to overcome – 500,000 units is a gold record, and those happen all the time in boom times. So maybe it’s a side-effect of the decentralization/de-monolithization of record sales that touring units matter so much?
14 assuming Cleveland as a representative market, Katy Perry and Justin Timberlake play the Quicken Loans Arena, which is where the Cavs play, and Ed Sheeran plays the Wolstein Center, which is Cleveland State University’s auditorium. It’s a nice space, but it just doesn’t hold the same number of bodies. Although it’s further worth noting that while the two places aren’t in the same neighborhood numerically, they’re totally in the same neighborhood literally.
15 although it’s worth saying that they’re also not any worse: when record sales are doing well, things are much less interesting.


The 2015 Billboard Music Awards, Part 1

So I have never written about the Billboard Music Awards before! This is very exciting! The primary reason, however, is that the actual awarding of the…erm….awards is kind of anticlimactic. The Billboard Music Awards are achievement awards – the nominees are the five people that performed the best on the Billboard charts, and the winner is the best of those five. So, if you were dedicated (I am not dedicated) you could look it all up and figure out who the winner already is. On the one hand, that’s a kind of transparency I can get behind. On the other hand, we’re sort of already in the realm of bajillion-sellers, so even without doing much work you can get a general sense that, say, Taylor Swift is going to win a truckload of these things. It’s perhaps for this reason that the ceremony generally makes such a big deal out of its huge performances1, which is, in turn, what makes it such an elaborate and expensive awards show that wasn’t produced for television from 2007 to 2011.

Of course, this year I remembered that it isn’t about predicting the winners, but rather about assigning justice. That I have allowed my preference for not writing about this turgid, boring awards show get in the way of my sworn duty to tell you people what is right in the world. So I am here, upon the shores of the Billboard Awards2, to right the inevitable Billboard-assigned wrongs. Of course, I am still limiting myself to the people actually nominated, which means that instead of believing that the actual winner is the rightful winner, I’m going to choose one of the five bestsellers, which is kind of hamstringing. Oh, the lengths I go to for my readers.

You’re welcome.

Billboard Chart Achievement Award
So, this is the fan-voted award for, I guess, “achievements in charting”. The thing that makes this super-duper depressing is that the nominees are three blonde ladies that make pop music. That’s pretty disgusting. I suppose, ostensibly, there are quantum marketing differences between Iggy, Taylor and Meghan, but honestly? You’re not even trying, Billboard. Just call this thing the Fan Service/Excuse to Make People Feel Important award, and call it a day. I’m beginning to regret my decision to write about this nonsense and it’s only the first award.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Mrs. Coach’s hair, which is a better shade of blonde, more effective fan service, and generally less objectionable than this category in every way. It’s probably a better rapper than Iggy Azalea also.

Top Soundtrack
This category contains a surprising reversal! The Guardians of the Galaxy Soundtrack is great for the film its in, but is also specifically assembled by cherry-picking songs of a certain era and putting them together, and so seems like it’s cheating to nominate it for awards. The Fart in Our Cars is a terrible movie based on a terrible book that is also terrible, but the soundtrack is pretty tight.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Fart in Our Cars

Top Rock Album
The date of the 2015 Billboard Music Awards is May 16, 2015. The release date of Lorde’s Pure Heroine is September 27, 2013. I’m not the best at math, but that sure does seem like it’s twenty damn months. That is, for a pop record, pretty impressive longevity, especially as we’re in a place where the hype cycle turns albums around as quickly as it does. Unfortunately, it’s not even remotely a rock album. I guess my question is: what the hell is going on with these nominations? So far we’re 1 for 3 on “making sense.” That’s even worse than the People’s Choice Awards! Anyway, I can’t imagine a person who would be happy with the most recent AC/DC album. The Black Keys have just about completed their transormation into a lazy parody of The Black Keys. That leaves us with Coldplay and Hozier. That’s depressing, but not unworkable.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: They could probably share it? I really like the Coldplay video where he marches down the road in front of all those people, and I kind of like “Take Me To Church” in the pop music context. So a split decision!

Top Rock Song
You know, it’s the song categories that are always the easiest part of this thing. The rock song categories remain a depressing example of what pop music people mean when they say “rock.” Obviously, this is a fight that’s beyond lost. Much like the fight over giving awards to Paramore3, really. That said, I’m still going to fight it. Since Coldplay and Bastille hover on the very edge of actually being a definable rock band, that leaves Hozier or Fall Out Boy.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Honestly, the Hozier song is better. Maybe next time, FOB.

Top Rock Artist
This is almost the exact same category as “Top Rock Song,” except with the substitution of the still-not-a-rock-performer Lorde for the still-not-Coldplay Bastille. Thus, it falls basically the same way.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Hozier. Just because this one time I’m going to pretend to value consistency.

Top Rap Album
Say what you will about how dire this field is, at least everyone in it is a rapper. This puts it somewhat ahead of the Rock categories. There’s even a couple of good albums in here! They aren’t the Iggy Azalea album, of course. They’ll never be that. They’re also not latter-day Eminem records, which are as depressing as they are unnecessary4. I will suck a cock on the Golden Gate Bridge before J. Cole gets an award. So we’re left with Drake’s pretty-good if not exactly setting anything on fire If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, or Nicki Minaj’s overstuffed but often excellent The Pink Print.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Nicki Minaj, The Pink Print

Top Rap Song
TWO IGGY AZALEA SONGS. THIS HAS TO BE A JOKE. Obviously the Billboard Music Awards are to reward sales, and obviously Iggy Azalea has so many sales. So I am left with blaming the people. Stop buying Iggy Azalea songs. Thx. “Anaconda” is certainly the best novelty song of the year, but come on. “I Don’t With You” is, hands down, the best Big Sean song, which isn’t saying much5. Luckily for all of us, there’s Bobby Shmurda.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Bobby Shmurda, “Hot Neighba”

Top Rap Artist
So this is the second time that the “artist” category is the same but for one entry as the “album” category. Since this is based on sales – and presumably “artist” includes singles sales as well as album sales – I wonder how often this isn’t the case. It seems to me that having one of the best-selling albums would lead you up here. In this case, it’s even pretty easy to figure out how Rae Sremmurd got here over Eminem – Eminem is, at this point, more of a legacy artist, and none of his singles sold particularly well, even though there’s always going to be a bunch of people that buy Eminem albums6. Rae Sremmurd wouldn’t have made the singles list because they released two moderately-big singles (splitting the vote, essentially) from their debut album7, but together the singles were (with album sales) to put them in this list. Anyway, my feelings about J. Cole and Iggy Azalea are known. Drake’s album remains not as good as Nicki’s album. Nicki’s album had a set of terrible singles, even though the album tracks are good-to-great. So whatever the mathematical reason, I’m glad Rae Sremmurd are here.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Rae Sremmurd. Unlock the swag. The swag unlock.

Top R&B Album
Boy, any Michael Jackson album at all will sell a whole bunch of copies when nobody’s buying records, huh? It doesn’t even need to have any good songs (let alone hits) and here it is. Generally, after the horrorshow that the rest of the categories have been, I’m finding it hard to get too worked up over a category with some pretty-ok albums. I like GIRL, and I like Beyonce. It seems like I’ve been choosing between those two albums on awards show lists since forever.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Beyonce, Beyonce

Top R&B Song
I had no idea that Jeremih song was such a big seller. It’s honestly something of a surprise to see it here. I don’t know if it’s because my exposure to R&B radio is so low, or if I just don’t live in a Jeremih-heavy market, or what. That’s really the only surprise, here. On the one hand, “Happy” is still a pretty good song. On the other hand, “Talk Dirty” has a klezmer saxophone.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Jason Derulo (f 2 Chainz) – “Talk Dirty”

Top R&B Artist
The answer to the wonderings above w/r/t how often the album and artist sections are separated by one artist is, anecdotally, every time. This leaves me the opportunity to breeze on through the R&B categories like a quiet storm or something. I will note that I thought Trey Songz had songz that outsold that one Jeremih song. This is why one should do research before one makes that kind of assumption. Anyway.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Beyonce

Top Dance/Electronic Album
I skipped the Latin categories8, and here we come to the live-music behemoth that is the EDM charts. These are, generally, the people making the money in the current environment, but they aren’t really doing it through record sales, so it’s much more interesting. Skrillex is in the “established album sellers een without hits,” which surprises me, as his whole thing is only a few years old. Calvin Harris continues to sell records the further he gets from actually being a talented producer. Disclosure has a really savvy eye for collaborators, scoring big ol’ hits with a bunch of pop-star led productions with his name on them (this is somewhat different from waht Calvin Harris does, because Calvin Harris doesn’t put his name on stuff that is actually performed by another person9), so it’s hard to agree about how much credit he deserves. I cannot believe people are still falling for Lindsey Stirling’s thing. By process of elimination, that would seem to leave us with Avicii, but that’s even more depressing.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Maybe just give all these albums to Neil Cicierega and see what he does with them?

Top Dance/Electronic Song
This is sort of a master class in song attribution. Or, rather, it’s exactly whatever the opposite of a master class is: it would be pretty impossible to figure anything out from this list. “Summer” finds Calvin Harris providing his own vocals (ugh), Zedd, despite shepherding Ariana Grande to her least-bad song10, credits the latter with the song. Disclosure (as discussed) is top-billed over the person you’d actually recognize, and Clean Bandit seems to be the only one with split attribution that makes any sense. Oh, except DJ Snake & Lil Jon. That song’s attribution (an ampersand) makes perfect sense. Just like the song itself.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: DJ Snake & Lil Jon, “Turn Down for What”

Top Dance/Electronic Artist
Alright, having cleared the ground of talking about Calvin Harris, Disclosure and Avicii, I’m here now to address The Lindsey Stirling Thing. When Pink Floyd were recording the follow-up to Dark Side of the Moon (the album that would, eventually, become Wish You Were Here), they started a project called Household Objects, intending to make an entire record out of regular, non-inherently-musical things. At a certain point (I’m paraphrasing here) the band realized that going to herculean effort to make cardboard boxes sound like drums was not actually worth it, considering the drums were right there. In short: it was bad rock music to turn the boxes into drums, and bad experimental music to not let the boxes be boxes. Lindsey Stirling is a former reality show contestant that choreagraphs dance routines that she can perform while playing (generally) cover songs on her violin. The thing she does requires a very specific mechanical talent (dancing and playing the violin at the same time). All of that is fine. The music, however, is a Household Objects situation – the fact that it has to be within the scope of her violin playing (which is flashy, and fine, but if she wasn’t jumping around it wouldn’t be much of anything to notice) means that it’s poorly-served as dance music, and the fact that it’s covers of pop songs (and songs that sound like the covers of pop songs) means that it’s not really well-served as violin music either. The thing that Lindsey Stirling does show is an impressive ability to mobilize a bunch of different online outlets – she has parlayed her reality show fame into an extremely successful YouTube channel, she pops up on various lists of “people that this list says you should pay attention to”, and her gimmick is so easy to describe (and compelling-sounding) that she’s extremely easy to market both through direct channels and through word-of-mouth11. In that regard, it’s hard not to be impressed by her in the same way that it’s not hard to be impressed by, say, Lil Jon – any novelty act that can figure out a sustainable way to build it into a career of sorts is impressive, at least from a certain point of view. That said, Sharon Osbourne, when she was dismissed from America’s Got Talent suggested that she should be in a group, and I can’t help but think that would be a better use for her cardboard-boxes-as-drums jumping-and-violining routine.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Oh, right. There’s still a category here. Uh….The Clean Bandits, I guess?

Top Country Album
Country music moves through much slower cycles than the other categories in this here awards show, but it also tends to shift all at once. So it’s heartening to see some variation in the top-selling country albums, because it means my next few country music awards show writeups won’t be so bizarrely bereft of new things to say. Of course, there’s still Jason Aldean, Miranda Lambert and Luke Bryan to work through. I still have nothing new to say there. And it’s not like Garth Brooks (this particular album category’s catalog act) is anything like a new arrival. That said, Brantley Gilbert is….well, he’s also a snooze. But at least these are slightly different snoozes!

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Miranda Lambert, Platinum

Top Country Song
I reckon one could really analyze some numbers and figure out what the value of crossover airplay (or streaming play or whatever) is – Iggy Azalea is a crossover rapper that’s all over all the charts, which would establish some sort of ceiling, but the floor could come from Florida-Georgia Line, who have a little bit of pop crossover success, and mainly exist as “the current country band most pop music people know a song or two by”. That’s enough to get them two berths in this category. Neither of them is the winner, because I’ll be dead before they’re the winner of anything. Yuck. Leaving their two songs aside, Jason Aldean’s “Burnin’ it Down” and Luke Bryan’s “Play it Again” are neither one a bad song, just kind of blah. I like that Sam Hunt song, though.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Sam Hunt, “Leave the Night On”

Top Country Artist
My word, there are two differences between the album and artist lists on this one. This is really skewing my data. Yep.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Blake Shelton.  

1 this year will see Mariah Carey and Van Halena, among, like, six billion others, as well as the premiere of a music video by Current Record-Selling Industry Savior Taylor Swift.
a Proving that no one learned anything from AC/DC’s “performance” a couple of months ago at the Grammy’s
2 I am deeply uncomfortable with how much of that sentence rhymed.
3 actually, there was never a fight – people really don’t seem to care that Haley Williams took the label’s advice, fired her bandmates, tarted up her image, and immediately became The Replacement Avril Lavigneb. This baffles me, because Paramore was actually not a bad band before the purge. That song they had on the one Twilight soundtrack had a pretty killler chorus, and I think they might have even had a pretty good drummer? I don’t know. Anyway. Fight against this, people. “Ain’t it Fun” is roughly 1% as good as the Rocket from the Tombs song of the same name.
b or, you know, Lita Ford or Linda Ronstadt or whatever. You get the idea.
4 thought experiment time: is it more annoying that Iggy Azalea is basically claiming the same sort of legitimacy that Eminem actually earned just by walking up and shaking her ass at it, or that Eminem earned that legitimacy and then squandered it by turning into a warmed-lover rehash of himself?
5 it’s also possible that it’s the best E-40 song, which is saying slightly more.
6 a slightly older fanbase generally skews your sales to albums instead of singles
7 debut albums generally don’t sell as much as albums by established acts, with some exceptions. When the exceptions are present (this year’s include Iggy Azalea’s The New Classic and Lorde’s Pure Heroine), they are present generally because of sales over time (both of those albums are over a year old, the Rae Sremmurd album only came out a few months agoc)
c further muddying this water is Meghan Trainor, whose debut record is technically an EP, and so not present on album charts. I haven’t looked at the sales figures for it, but I’d imagine she’d be another exception if her record were permitted – half the songs sold somewhere in the neighborhood of a skrillion copies.
8 I don’t know anything about any of the nominees, and do not feel qualified to speak on them. I’ll skip the Christian categories for the same reason here soon
9 this distinction is nitpicky and weird in a pop music environment where who, exactly, the “performer” is is kind of a tricky thing to decide, but basically when Calvin Harris acts as someone’s producer, he is credited as the producer (or one of the producersd), and when Calvin Harris makes a song that someone else sings on, it happens under his name – Rihanna’s “We Found Love” is “featuring Calvin Harris,” Calvin Harris’ “Outside” is “featuring Ellie Goulding”.
d even this question gets murky in a hurry – see this Grammy’s “argument” vis a vis Beyonce’s deservedness, or the credits to any pop record, and you’ll see the difficulty of assigning credit to the “creator” of the song. This is why the whole thing gets simpler when you decide to focus on the performer, who’s actually responsible for what you’re generally responding to anyway.
10 and also proving that you can only hear a song at the gym so many times before you eventually acquiesce to not hating it
11 that is to say, “she’s like a hip-hop violinist that also dances” is both an easy way to put it and a tough thing to imagine without seeing. Someone more cynical than me would also point out that her choices of covers, which are always songs on the bottom-edge of mainstream, rewards people for knowing something “obscure” while also not actually challenging them to learn anything. But who could be that cynical?


A Streaming Pile of Truth: Pandora

So in between the newly-launched Tidal and the soon-to-be launched Whatever Apple is Doing for Streaming Radio These Days, I thought it would be useful to look at the remaining of the Players That Started This whole Thing, Pandora.

Pandora, at its launch, was a pretty impressive thing. The culmination of the Music Genome Project, it took an astronomical number of data points about the way people actually listened to music, and the way people actually described music, and fed a bunch of attributes into a database, then used the database to decide how it should play what to make your ears happiest. It was a fun toy that, over time, essentially became synonymous with radio-style internet streaming. The first two installments of this particular feature, about iTunes radio1 and Spotify radio, were about other styles of on-demand music playing trying to cover the Pandora market, for set-it-and-forget-it2 style radio play.

I haven’t used Pandora in quite some time, so their interface is somewhat different than it was when I was most familiar with it3. There’s the familiar (and industry-standard) “thumbs up”/”thumbs down” buttons, arranged on a scrolly-bar so that you can retroactively up/down something if you decide after it’s done that you like/didn’t like it. There’s a control bar at the top with the pause, skip forward, and volume controls. In what’s kind-of become its defining feature, Pandora’s weird deals with major labels have left users only able to skip a certain number of songs a month, lest it become a “play-on-demand” service.

\Largely left out of my writings here on label relationships with streaming services, Pandora actually has probably the most insane attempts to cripple it that I’m aware of. The fact that it continues to exist is a testament either to how little legal sense the major labels are making, or the amount of money that Pandora has in its legal defense fund4. That, coupled with the fact that it was basically the first high-profile radio service out of the gate, means that it’s had a bunch of things happen to it that, here with the vantage of both history and not being beholden to agree with them, make absolutely zero sense. Chief among them is the fear that Pandora can’t be trusted to just not play the namesake artist of the station when the skip button is pushed, but rather that people must only be able to skip a certain number of songs per month (I want to have been in the legal meeting that decided that was the correct and proper interval). There’s a real underwear gnomes situation going on there, and it looks even sillier now that play-on-demand services are in the offing.

Luckily, everything about Pandora is basically geared toward half-listening. The selection is pretty wide (I couldn’t find many artists that flat-out weren’t in their algorithm at all, outside of the usual digital-music holdouts). As such, it’s pretty hard not to be at least a little bit satisfied with it. The selection is good, and at this point it’s no longer weird to have songs associated by purely sonic attributes, except for popularity..

The effect of popularity on the radomization effect seems to be that songs with more “likes” tend to have more “likes” in common (this appears to be a new condition of the metric, although it may not be the case that it contributes necessarily as much as it seems to). As an example of what I mean, let’s take the (singular, non-scientific) example of this fact: every hip-hop station (The Underachievers, El-P, Busdriver) on my Pandora list plays Joey Bada$$. The possibilities here are: 1) my own liking of Joey Bada$$ (I do like Joey Bada$$) means that it plays everywhere, in which case why doesn’t El-P, who is my actual favorite, or clipping., who are much more similar to and associated with the artists that the stations are built around; 2)  Joey Bada$$ is the most “liked” rapper that is also the most “similar” to the artists on the stations, in which case I have no way of knowing that it’s true, because while I can see a list of sonic attributes that caused it to be played, and I can see the number of “likes,” I still have no idea how the two things are weighted (or, indeed, if one is actually programmatically weighted at all); 3) Joey Bada$$ has the most “likes”, which means that the “likes” are actually weighted over the sonic attributes to the point that Joey Bada$$ ends up everywhere. He didn’t end up on the Grouper, Merzbow, Tortoise, Mono or Don Caballero stations that were used in this test, so if 1) or 3) is the case then there does still appear to be some influence at play from 2). All of which is the long way of saying: the algorithm looks like it gives a lot of information out about itself, but is actually still pretty mysterious.

It does, however, allow for a certain degree of customization. In addition to the regular playback controls, each station comes with the option to “add an influence.” After a bit of futzing with it, it seemed to sort of semi-merge the “attributes,” although I was never really able to determine how much any other portion of the algorithm came into effect. Basically, any feature-usage in Pandora basically draws attention to its algorithm itself (which is, basically, what the radio is, or was: a snappy GUI for the Music Genome Project.) In addition to being able to add influences to any individual station, you can also just shuffle a couple (or all) of the stations together, yielding basically an even mix between the two extant stations. This seems to make the title artists from your stations play a bit more often than they would in the single-artist stations, especially over time, so if you really only want to hear The Starland Vocal Band, it’s probably best to make, like, eight Starland Vocal Band stations and just shuffle them together.

So what’s the final word? Well, there’s a reason that Pandora became something of an industry standard, and that’s that it’s intuitive, sometimes surprising, and easy enough to use that even if you wanted to go about having technical problems with it, I wouldn’t begin to be able to tell you how to do so. Nothing about it is obtrusive, and its greatest strength is that you can’t try to do anything with it that isn’t directly within its purview. “Shuffling” a bunch of stations together manages to create a pretty good mix, even though I never really figured out how “adding an influence” to a station works. Basically, it’s the thing you need if what you need exists in a browser and acts like a music player that you both do not need to pay attention to and have no control over.

Oh, and every time you close the tab its in that counts as a skip. I really, honestly cannot understand why any of that makes sense. But I suppose it keeps the lights on at Pandora, so that’s that.
1 which is not whatever this next thing Apple is launching in June is, and that thing is also not Beats Music. These are three different things that are all owned and operated by Apple. Sometimes I have no idea what these people are doing.
2 except-occasionally-clicking-a-thumb-button
3 it had been so long, in fact, that I had not only forgotten my password, but also which email address I used as my login. This resulted in it playing a song, then me getting my login data, then playing the next song on the same album*, which was kind of cool.
* Merzbow’s Sphere, if you’re interested
4 if anyone is happy about the existence of Spotify and their much-less-restrictive play-on-demand service, it’s got to be Pandora, who are immediately downgraded to (at least) public enemy #2, despite facing most of the same complaints over the course of their existence.