The 2015 MTV Video Music Awards

Award shows are back! The long nightmare time of wandering the wilderness of no awards shows1 is coming to an end, and I am here to  declare all of the awards-granting bodies wrong, and myself correct. As usual.

1speaking of no award – the reason I didn’t write about the Hugos this year is because 1) I didn’t have a whole lot to say that wasn’t said better elsewhere – the sp/rp groups were dumb as hell, and wrong as hell, and it was really stupid, but also that’s pretty much the whole of my statement there and 2) it seemed like a weird time to write about them for the first time. So I’m writing about the World Fantasy Awards in November instead, stay tuned!

This year the nominations are, generally, the most boring slate in a long while. This is probably not indicative of anything! There are boring large budget and small budget videos alike, so it’s not like we’re looking at the dominance of, say, overblown spectacle pieces (although there are those!) or lazy, slapdash pieces (those as well!). Either I’m getting old, and the visual aspect of the whole thing has moved out of my demographic2, or all of the people involved with making music videos that got nominated simply have a different aesthetic that I find distasteful. Generally when confronted with a difference between my opinion and an enormous group of people’s (i.e. the creators of this year’s set of music videos) I assume I’m in the wrong, but this is an awards show we’re talking about, so I’m basically incapable of being wrong. You see my predicament.

2 this is, I’ll allow, possible, but it seems unlikely, given that I loved a ton of last year’s nominees and these things probably don’t happen in twelves months, but hey, who am I to not allow for the possibility.

Disappointing though they be, we have a job to do here, so onward to the nominees!

Song of the Summer
THERE ARE TWELVE NOMINEES IN THIS CATEGORY. TWELVE3. This one is also chosen by the people themselves! As usual with the people-selected VMA categories, it also feels like a random catch-all so that they can get, say, David Guetta’s name in promos, even though there isn’t really a whole lot of call to do so. Since this category is very difficult to make heads or tails of, I will use this space to confess that, in terms of their songs, I have spent the last few years conflating Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez. Unless I can literally see them singing it, I have absolutely no idea which is which.


3 that is literally one nominee for every week of summer.

Best Video With a Social Message
Well, by God, if one of the best videos in this category isn’t Wale. My disdain for this category is long-running and explained in previous VMA writeups4, so it is with some consternation that I admit: this is one of the better categories. “One Man Can Change the World” is a pretty good Big Sean song5, and the video is certainly a look at Detroit, but it also fails to ask the question: why is Natasha Bedingfield, clearly audible as the backing vocalist, not credited? Super weird, guys. Super weird. Anyway, Colbie Callait is convinced, in “Try” (co-written by Babyface) that y’all should be yourself. Just like she was in this category last year. And this video isn’t as good as that one. Jennifer Hudson has the timely advantage of making a video for “I Still Love You” that focuses on gay marriage, which is timely and uplifting. It’s not a very good video, and the song is dreck, but in terms of “social message”-ness, full marks. Rihanna’s “American Oxygen” is sort of the epitome of this category – clearly she’s sure she’s saying something, I just don’t share her belief, I guess? She’s saying….America. And parachutes. And also that we didn’t start the fire, it was always burnin’ since the world’s been turnin’. And that brings us back to the aforementioned Wale song.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Wale, “The White Shoes”

4 the short version: it feels disingenuous and self-congratulatory, especially coupled with the fact that it’s buried so deep in the nomination lists, and also with nominees that are carefully-chosen to reflect something indicative – in theory – of MTV, rather than of the songs themselves.
5 this, coupled with the also-pretty-good Wale song and the presence of a song written by Babyface (in 2015!) makes this not only one of the stronger categories, but also one of the most surprising.

Best Cinematography
Alt-J’s “Left Hand Free” is one of the best country music videos appended to a brit-rock song in recent memory, but I don’t think that’s because of the cinematography. Ed Sheeran’s video for “Don’t” is a video of two people dancing, and that’s not really the call for impressive camera work. “Bad Blood” has some pretty cool cinematography, in that it looks like a movie trailer, but also it looks like a movie trailer and gives me a headache. And so it comes to be that FKA Twigs is our winner, because that video is all one shot, and that’s pretty incredible.


Best Editing
If the rule of thumb for film editing is “if I don’t notice it, they did a good job,” then music videos are probably the hardest thing upon which to do a good job. That said, it’s an easy thing to just give the award to the most ambitious and call that even.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Taylor Swift, “Bad Blood”

Best Art Direction
OK, so I don’t always know about the radio, and it came as something of a surprise to see that the Snoop Dogg song that’s nominated here is called “So Many Pros”. On the one hand, that’s pretty clever substituting a shortened form of the word “prostitute”7, on the other hand, that’s really dumb. But it has nothing to do with the art direction of the video, which is fine I guess. “Bad Blood” doesn’t really have much going on in terms of Art Direction – “make it like an action movie” is a pretty straightforward idea. I will say that I like the videos for the Chemical Brothers’ “Go” and Jack White’s “Would You Fight For My Love?”, but they lose because basically the one thing that the video for “Where Are U Now” has going for it is the art direction, which is pretty cool.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Skrillex and Diplo f. Justin Bieber – “Where Are U Now?”

7. a thing that I know thanks to the David Mamet play Sexual Perversity in Chicago. Thanks, Mr. Mamet!

Best Visual Effects
Three of these videos had the same company (Gloria FX) in charge of their visual effects, so there’s that. While the art direction of “Where Are U Now” is great, the actual effects are pretty basic, so that’s not really it. “Bad Blood”, again, looks cool, but there isn’t really anything beyond “movie trailer” going on in the effects, and even then it’s not that impressive from an effects standpoint. “Telegraph Ave” continues Childish Gambino’s streak of having really cool videos for aggressively mediocre songs8. Tyler, the Creator’s “Fucking Young” is a slightly worse video for a slightly better song. But that FKA Twigs video is seriously cool-looking.


8 of course, most Childish Gambino songs are aggressively mediocre to begin with.

Best Choreography
I mean, the “Bad Blood” video has better fight choreography than it does visual effects, but it’s not even nominated here. Dumb. I like Beyonce’s non-dancer-y dancing as much as anybody, but 7/11 isn’t the best outing for it. I’m sure a lot of effort went into the “Don’t” video, but I’m equally sure that I still think it’s boring, and boring dancing isn’t good dancing. The dancing in Chet Faker’s “Gold” and Flying Lotus’ “Never Catch Me” are both pretty good, but it seems a shame not to give OK Go an award for the one thing they do consistently well.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: OK Go, “I Won’t Let You Down”

Best Direction
And here’s where it basically all falls apart. “Bad Blood” is not exactly an inspired piece of direction. I don’t think I even noticed anything in particular about the direction for Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” or Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”, and “Take Me To Church” is one of the most hackneyed video concepts in recent memory. So, by process of elimination…

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Childish Gambino, “Sober”

Best Collaboration
This is terrible! A terrible category! “See You Again” clearly relies heavily upon people having seen it put to its natural use in the Furious 7, which I absolutley have not, and therefore am immune to its charms. I liked “Uptown Funk” right up until the point when I was hearing it basically once an hour, and then got pretty sick of it, which doesn’t at all make the video (which isn’t very interesting or compelling) any better, except for Mark Ronson’s adorable on-camera awkwardness. Taylor Swift appended Kendrick to the single version of “Bad Blood,” and it didn’t help! Ariana Grande scream-sings her way into this twice, with the crazy-terrible “Love Me Harder”, which she did with the The Weeknd9, and the “Good for exactly, like twenty seconds of its run time total”10 “Bang Bang” which happened to Jessie J and Nicki Minaj as well.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Jessie J, Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj, “Bang Bang,” because at least it has one part (and, really, only that one part) that I like.

9 The Weeknd has, in the last year or so, undergone an excruciating transformation into a regular utility R&B singer dude, which is a job for which he’s surprisingly fit, but which meant a lot of really terrible disappointments, including the tragedy that is “Love Me Harder,” a song on which he sounds like a parody of himself.
10 specifically the part of the prechorus where they all go “AAAAAAAAAAH-Bang Bang into the ROOOOOOM”. And only that part.

Best Hip-Hop Video
And now we enter the portion of the show where I start to repeat myself. “Alright” is a perfectly good song, with a perfectly good video. That’s sort of the baseline of “good video,” however, as it’s not that good. I’m unsure what would make one think the “I Don’t Fuck With You” video was good. Football-player fetishists with a crush on Big Sean? People that like to see Kanye scowl? “See You Again” would probably have been better served by having a video that was just the end of Furious 7, given the reception of same. “Anaconda”’s video, like the song itself, was funny the first time, and then became less so with every subsequent exposure. That leaves us with the mighty Fetty Wap.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Fetty Wap, “Trap Queen”

Best Rock Video
Welp, commercial rock music continues to fuck that chicken. For about a year now, I’ve heard “Take Me To Church,” liked it more than the songs it was surrounded by contextually, and then been a little sad, because seriously? Let’s just move quietly past this one.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: A quiet, dignified death would probably be nice. Or at least the public execution of the song “Uma Thurman”. Ugh.

Best Pop Video
Do you reckon that the reason that Taylor Swift is nominated here for “Blank Space,” instead of “Bad Blood” like she is in every other category is a resistance to nominating rappers for “pop video”? I bet it is. That’s dumb. Although “Blank Space” is also the better song, so I’ll call that a push. I’ve already spoken of the diminishing returns of “Uptown Funk,” so I won’t spend any more time on it here. Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” is not a good song, so I won’t spend any more time on it here. Maroon 5 made a dumb video for “Sugar”. Beyonce made a very funny video for “7/11”.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: I think the “7/11” video is a little better than the (also funny) “Blank Space” video, but that opinion could change any day. For today it’s Beyonce, though.

Artist to Watch
Well, ruling out FKA Twigs, who has been an “Artist to Watch” for several years now, we’re left with three boring folk dudes (Vance Joy, James Bay and George Ezra11) and Fetty Wap. At least they made it easy.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Fetty Wap, “Trap Queen”

11 whose insufferable “Budapest” is saved from being the worst song nominated for a VMA this year by the existence of “Uma Thurman”

Best Female Video
Here’s “Blank Space” again, which is even weirder this time, since “Bad Blood” features, like, all the females in it12. Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” is a bad video for a bad song. NIcki Minaj’s “Anaconda” is a video of rapidly-diminishing returns for a song of rapidly-diminishing returns. SIa’s “Elastic Heart” video got a whole lot of attention, mainly as an outlet for people’s general distaste for Shia LaBeouf, but for all that isn’t, ultimately, a very interesting video. The “Blank Space” video is pretty funny. The “7/11” video is also pretty funny.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Beyonce, “7/11”

12 of course, the fact that it’s also an allegory for murdering another MTV-friendly female over a backup dancer dispute seems to make it a little less of a “female” video and more of a “deranged lunatic” video, so maybe the VMAs got this one right?

Best Male Video
I, for one, will be happy when I no longer have to figure out things to say about Ed Sheeran. Won’t that be nice? That’ll be nice. Hearing “Uptown Funk” is enough to annoy me pretty thoroughly, so I’m also looking forward to the end of this awards cycle, when I can stop writing about it (sigh). Kendrick’s “Alright” is still a fine song with a dull video. The Weeknd’s “Earned It”, even more than his part of “Love Me Harder”, sounds like The Weeknd doing his best The Weeknd impression. Nick Jonas’ “Chains” is the third-best song he was involved in this year13. This is one paltry category.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kendrick Lamar, “Alright”

13 after “Jealous” and Sage the Gemini’s “Good Thing”

Video of the Year
And, finally, we come to the big winner. Since this is an aggregate of the other categories, taking my response to each this far we end up with a run-off between “Bad Blood,” “7/11” and “Alright.” That seems like a reasonably good three-way tie, given that the best of those songs (“Alright”) has the worst video, the worst of these songs (“Bad Blood”) has the best video, and the most lukewarm of these songs (“7/11”) has the most lukewarm video.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Whoever, really. Nobody actually deserves it. Yeesh.

And there we have it folks! The most interesting part could very well be hat-related (I mean, you’ve got Sway and Pharrell and Mark Ronson, just saying).

The Second Annual Trainies, Part 2

Whatever there is to say about the Soylent guy

It’s time for part 2, in which we turn our attention away from such highfalutin pursuits as the foreign languages and books and whatnot, and toward considerably more famous pursuits.

Special Award for Achievements in Convincing the Public of a Blatant Untruth
Taylor Swift is a young, conventionally attractive millionaire with constant radio attention and an ability to literally make whatever she wants happen. When she removed her music from Spotify for not paying her enough money, it started a cultural conversation about digital streaming rights1. When she, as the aforementioned action’s seeming sequel, threatened to remove her music (the best-selling music in the world at present) from Apple’s new streaming service if they didn’t fix their plan to not pay anyone for ninety days, they acquiesced. Her records sell in enormous quantities. While there are certainly people that don’t like her, those people are diminished by the hordes of people waiting to defend this particular pop star. She’s moved into a rarified Prince/Michael Jackson/Madonna sphere, where she is, for whatever reason2, beyond a pop star, but instead the face of pop music itself. She has the distinction of being an “at least…” artist, a phenomenon that happens occasionally in pop music, where someone is spoken of even by their detractors with sentences like “at least she writers her own songs” or “at least she actually sings live” or “at least she doesn’t ho it up all over the place”. That sort of thing.

1 this makes me happy, as I love to write about that stuff, and it gave me an excuse. Thanks, Tay!
2 NB: I like pop music, and I like much of Taylor Swift’s. But my liking something rarely comes with public support, and her own PR teams’ ability to navigate it remains particularly baffling.

And so it remains contradictory to the point of being actively impressive that her team of public-image people have built all of this3 on a foundation of Taylor actually being the character she narrates from in her older songs – “Teardrops on My Guitar” (helpless dumped lady) or “You Belong to Me” (ignored ugly duckling), rather than the characters in “Picture to Burn4” (although clearly the narrator of “Picture to Burn” would grow up to write “Shake it Off,” and clearly this is a better look for Taylor) or, like, “Love Story” (which, for all of its weird gender-normative princess-fantasy nonsense, is at least a point of view that seems more in line with, y’know, the actual fact of Taylor Swift’s existence).

3 I’m sort of blaming her handlers, but there is a begged question in here, which is that of how much of her public image is informed by her song lyrics. It would probably be hard to posit Taylor as a Beyonce*-style Colossus of Rhodes when she’s singing about how mean her ex-boyfriends are or whatever.
* the former apotheosis/avatar of pop music, recently deposed by Ms. Swift
4 If anyone ever asks, “Picture to Burn” is still my favorite Taylor Swift song, and remains one of the only times in my time pounding on tables and shouting about records that I have said “this person is actually a talented songwriter who should become super-mega popular” and been correct. NB: at the time, she was merely only very popular, not super-mega popular. Anyway. It’s a legitimately great song that all of you probably don’t take seriously enough.

This is the only way to explain why when Taylor starts Twitter beef with people (her weird birthday message to Karlie Kloss, the Nicki Minaj/Katy Perry/Taylor Swift embroglio, any of the seemingly-constant bonnet-stuffing bees of her #girlsquad), the reaction is always that of people who are protecting a delicate flower. This extends even to the height of the misaimed Taylor Defense, the “Bad Blood” video, in which Taylor Swift spends an ungodly amount of money and enlists every friend she can come up with to make what is, essentially, a trailer for the science-fiction/action thriller that would, in the ideal world of her apparent fantasies, be a Katy Perry snuff film. The biggest pop star in the world is so angry at another pop star for having the gall to date a dude she used to date that she makes elaborate cinematic fantasies about sending other pop stars out to murder her, and the public comes at this from the position of “oh, Taylor has been wronged again.”

That’s quite an achievement.

Best Achievement in Needle-Threading by Another Team of Highly-Trained Publicity Representatives
Similar to Taylor Swift5, Tom Cruise is in the middle of a rehabilitation campaign – several high-profile pieces (here’s Vulture, here’s The Daily Show – more a soft-focus hero’s welcome than a defense per se, but thematically linked – and here’s Grantland’s Tom Cruise Week, to get you started), have all come out, in advance of the Mission Impossible film, positioning themselves as the champion of this much-maligned underdog, Tom Cruise. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it actually started happening after Live. Die. Repeat/Edge of Tomorrow, and is picking back up now as a result of the publicity tour for another movie. It has been met with some backlash, although none (at least, none that I could find) as high-profile as the seemingly sprung-up-organically defense pieces.

5 hell, for all I know it was inspired by Taylor Swift

What’s interesting about this is not that a rich, famous movie star is getting the “comeback” treatment as part of the publicity narrative of their film – that happens all the time – what’s making it interesting is the subtext. See, Tom Cruise has been a punchline for at least twenty years, and has been someone that a lot of people have found it impossible to take seriously (even while going to see his movies, which still generally make enormous amounts of money) for the last decade, since the Oprah/Couch incident, and there has been no need to “rehabilitate” his image, since he seems comfortable getting by on his considerable charisma and public-facing enthusiasm for whatever it is he’s talking about. So it’s not Tom Cruise that needs the rehabilitation, it’s Scientology.

It’s been a rough few years for Scientology – since Paul Haggis’ interview, which became Lawrence Wright’s book, which became the recent documentary, which seems to have become some sort of Rubicon for public tolerance of Scientology, the church has steadily become associated with being an extortive, abusive cult, founded by a pathological liar and egotist, and continued by a manipulative rage monster. John Travolta proved not to be up to the task of helping maintain the church’s image, and has essentially deflated as an actor/public personality6, and so the church’s public fortunes – which they have long tied to famous people as a specific strategy – pretty much rest on the shoulders of Mr. Cruise himself.

6 although I’d pencil in at least an attempt, in a decade or so, at a similar series of hagiographic “comeback” pieces in his favor, since this is actually something that happens for John Travolta, historically

So the church, who is providing all of Tom Cruise’s staff already, has something invested in keeping the perception of Tom Cruise as an eccentric, ebullient movie star, rather than an unsettling, vapid weirdo7. This has, ingeniously if insidiously, taken the form of reminding people how likable he can be on the screen, as a wag, or a scamp, or, in the case of Mission Impossible films, a dude that does his own stunts in spy movies that also make a lot of money. It’s setting the tone of the narrative to “remember how many of this guy’s movies you’ve seen?” rather than “so, that Scientology stuff is weird”8. And it’s all been done without it being apparent (except in the interviews, where it’s clear that one of the conditions for getting Tom Cruise on – a ratings boost for anyone, probably because people expect questions about Scientology or having to have burner cell phones smuggled to you to call divorce lawyers in secret to get out of a marriage – is agreeing not to ask about being sequestered from your fucking parents by your husband or, like, David Miscavige’s role in same), which makes it a real coup for the Tom Cruise/Scientology people, and a real marvel for everone else.

7 the secret to Tom Cruise’s success is, as far as I’m able to tell, a function of his ability to be believable as “Tom Cruise as _______”. That is: he’s incapable of disappearing into a role, but his ability to inhabit it on the surface is believable enough for a Tom-Cruise-ish action movie. The reason Tom Cruise’s best film role remains Magnolia is because that’s the only time anyone has had the presence of mind to take advantage of his ability to put on anyone’s skin without actually inhabiting them, and thus to play a meretricious asshole who’s unable to relate to the people around him. You may extrapolate what you wish from this couple of sentences w/r/t my opinion of Tom Cruise as a human being.
8 or perhaps, even more baffling, “so, your ex-wife had to literally escape from her marriage with you and have the court prevent you from talking about your bananapants religion to your daughter, why do you suppose that is?”.

It’s unclear whether it’s possible to turn around public opinion on Tom Cruise itself, but fighting this publicity war against the actual facts of the existence of Scientology by reminding people that they probably like a Tom Cruise movie is impressive, even if I don’t quite understand why.

Most Rewarding Movie that Requires a Basically-Unique Definition of the Word “Good”
So last year at this time, I came to praise Guardians of the Galaxy, an adventurous romp of a good time through a superheroic universe that remains my favorite thing that happened on a screen last year. Here we rejoin Chris Pratt’s career in the much-maligned Jurassic World, a movie that it’s nigh-impossible to actually talk about. See, all the stuff about the reductive gender roles, and the plot not actually making that much sense, and the weird holes in the continuity, and the extremely graphic and focused-upon death of a minor character who there was no reason to be that brutal to, is all true. The fact that the movie tries to have its cake – providing commentary on the original both textual and subtextual, winking knowingly at the audience about the movie’s place in the filmic ecosystem – and eat it too – presenting a po-faced story about chompy monsters eating personal assistants and bystanders and The Kingpin – is undeniable. But the movie succeeds (or, at least, succeeds with me and many of the people I’ve talked to about it) as a spectacle – a chompy, blood-drenched spectacle not unlike, say, a Godzilla movie, or a non-comic-publisher-affiliated superhero movie9 – in the way that it eats its cake. No aspect of the film – seriously, none – holds up to any kind of critical analysis. It requires not only having seen Jurassic Park but, in many sense, having seen it enough to be able to follow the subtextual story.

9 it actually has a bunch of the same problems as the second Avengers movie, which gets by mainly on the charisma of its stars rather than making any kind of linear sense, but Jurassic World has a way better fight scene at the end. Like, way better.

If this movie is remembered fondly at all, and I do hope that it is, it will be as a metatext (like Gremlin’s 2 or Babe: Pig in the City or the Crank movies) – it’s a movie about making movies, about the reliance on digital effects over practical, on spectacle over plot and character, and on impossible, impractical romance10 over the realities of actual real-life romance: the movie’s finest metatextual moment, and the point at which it winnows its audience down to a very specific set of Jurassic Park/comedy nerd fan, is the one where the audience surrogate – played by mainstream (but not too mainstream. Like, cool mainstream) comic actor Jake Johnson – is rejected by frequent comedy-crush and improv comedian Lauren Lapkus. There’s a good chance that doesn’t make sense to you reading this, and that’s fine: the point is, there are signs that Colin Trevorow knew that he couldn’t make a straightforward movie that would work as a sequel, so he didn’t: he made an assemblage of action-movie scenes, came up with some fantastic setpieces11, and made it satisfying as a confection, as well as leaving evidence in a postmodernist way that he knew that that was what he was doing.

10 Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt don’t magically have stuff in common other than being generally attractive people, plus I’m pretty sure they’re now both unemployed. That’s not the grounds for a romance
11 specifically the callback-y scene in the jungle with the Indominus Rex and the plexi-ball thing, and the scene of the Ceradactyls/Pteranadons/Flying Monsters attacking the visitors’ center

Thing is, nobody envied him the job – he had to take over on a movie that was started by Joe Johnston, of all people, and create something from more-or-less scratch, with huge studio involvement, under the brightest possible spotlight. Nobody could have done that. So he gets full marks for arguing that point – that nobody can make this work – and also for causing me to audibly gasp and then lapse into a pleasure coma from which I did not awake from the end for the last several minutes of the movie. Without giving anything away, there’s a big showdown (because of course there is), and the one kid, out of literal nowhere, says “we need more teeth,” and what follows is not only the greatest reference in the movie, but also the part that spoke directly and urgently to my inner ten-year-old12. Although the postmodern elements (which, as is most postmodern storytelling, are more clever than they are satisfying) never meet up with the action-candy moments (which are satisfying, but in a really unhealthy way – basically, nothing in this film is mentally nutritious), the presence of both of them means that the movie acts as its own appologia, which is at least worthy of a Trainie.

12 Jurassic Park came out when I was 10. It was the first movie I saw more than once in a movie theater, and remained my favorite movie until I saw Aliens a few years later.

The Howard Hughes Memorial Award for Howard Hughesing So Hard I Can’t Believe It’s Not Actually Howard Hughes
For the last few years, Soylent has kicked around certain corners of the internet as the solution to all that cumbersome “deciding” and “preparing” and “eating” that plagues a very specific stripe of hyper-efficiency-obsessed computerdude. Soylent, for those of you whose lives doesn’t carry you into the purview of its often-evangelical users, is a…substance….that’s meant to provide you with nutrition. You can make a bunch of it (the formula is open source, because of course it is), and then when it comes time to sustain your body, you can suck down this paste thing and go about your day of being super-efficient. It’s like a lifehack, if you’re completely insane!

Now, Soylent itself is a disgusting compromise, but if you are the sort of person who is choosing it over a life of convenience food, or the expense of constantly eating out, or whatever, I can at least understand the appeal. Rob Rhinehart, the product’s reluctantly-biological parent, is also the kind of quacking lunatic that would, well, come up with a food substitute paste formula and then name it Soylent. So I leave you all with this: a baffling blog post about the lifestyle of a man who clearly wishes, desperately, to be a robot, despite declaring his own distaste for robots. Marvel at the amount of time he spends describing food as “rotting.” Gasp when he describes how instead of doing laundry, he buys his clothes directly from Chinese manufacturers (yep.) and then donates them when they’re dirty. Read his Hughesian distaste for grocery stores (some research of the grocery stores near Mr. Rhinehart shows they are, in fact, just normal everyday grocery stores, not the rotting-matter-stuffed Skinner boxes he describes them as) and make weird confused sounds because – seriously – they’re grocery stores? In any event, just enjoy it all, and be happy that the world you live in isn’t actually this way.

The Second Annual Trainie Awards, Part 1

It’s that time of the year once again, fine feathered friends! Last year I declared that I was no longer content to offer the proper and balance-restoring commentary on every awards program, and decided to fill some of the gaping holes in the “awards granted to the deserving” category by not-actually-handing out any not-actual awards1. Obviously, it’s an honor just to be nominated, so I stand before you here today to announce: you all were!

1 the statuette, which doesn’t exist, looks like one of the train cars from the board game Ticket to Ride.

From a pool of “everything thing every single person did all year,” I winnowed the lists down to merely those things which I think I would like to write about here, because, frankly, that’s what awards-granting bodies do anyway. So, without further ado, here are some things which need awards!

The How Do You Mispronounce The Word “Chimp” Award for Making a Medium Annoying to Talk About for Several Months
Actually, this could have been a very different award. I am not an optimist, and when Serial – a financially-backed, high profile entry into podcasting – started up, I assumed that this would mark the end of the “anything goes” world of podcasting, and that it would stratify into, essentially, two things – the big, moneyed ones that became refuges for radio personalities, and the smaller ones that are a bit like what we have now, only people don’t consider them the “real thing”2. And things could be moving in that direction! The President has now been a podcast guest, after all, so certainly there’s going to be more attention. The economics of large-scale podcasting remain somewhat uncharted and weirdly foggy, and largely seem to show evidence in the ability of some podcasts (WTF, Comedy Bang! Bang!, The Nerdist) to spin off into televised versions of themselves3, so I guess the jury is still out on the long term deleterious effects – although there are simply not very many examples of a bunch of money flooding into a grassroots medium and it becoming more artistically interesting – but what it really has done is changed the ability of podcast-listeners to talk about it. I, like a lot of serious comedy fans, spend several hours a week listening to podcasts (certainly more time than I spend watching television, for example), and, prior to the advent of the podcastrosity that got so huge it launched podcasts about the podcast itself, that fact was difficult to explain without first explaining what a podcast was. Now the first question is “oh, like Serial?” Sigh. Yes, like Serial. Only they know how to say their sponsors’ names, there isn’t a murder, and they’re funny. Oh, and some of them are nearing an entire decade old and weren’t started with tens of thousands of dollars from a media outlet. But other than that, yes, exactly like Serial. You wankers.

2 Actually, I could still turn out to be right – it’s only been a few months, but I would imagine that one of the signs that I’m right will be some sort of metric for determining the popularity of podcasts, which doesn’t exist in any accurate form at this point
3 well, Maron, the television version of WTF is really only the televised version of the first fifteen minutes, when Marc talks about his cats and his lady problems.

Best Attempt to Curb Dissent by Banning Puns
There literally isn’t a thing to call this award that would be more insane than the existence of Chinese laws banning wordplay. Here’s an article summarizing the reasons why with lots of helpful links. One of the most entertaining things in the world are people who feel that any heterodox language usage is somehow contributing to a degradation of the language itself, if not also the culture the language is used as a part of, or possibly even the very idea of civilization itself. Generally when this attitude is expressed5 the subtext is that someone, in fact, very pointedly doesn’t have power over the speaker – the complaint is that someone is using the language in a way they wouldn’t. In this case, the Chinese government has decided that ads and the press can’t use puns anymore, because they’re damaging the Chinese cultural legacy and the sanctity of the language, which would be horrifying if Chinese ads and the press weren’t already a highly-scrubbed, highly-compromised version of themselves, thus rendering the whole thing kind of moot. As it is, it just makes pun-making a more attractive thing to do at home6, and it makes ads less noticeable. Thus is a blow struck, at least, for something slightly more good under the guise of something truly terrible. Not since Turkey banned (and then, a couple of years ago, re-legalized) “q” and “w” has there been such a weird attempt to control the way a constituency communicates.

5 by either silly handwringers, who worry that it’s evidence that the world is getting dumber and nobody will be able to communicate deeply, like they did at some unspecified, certainly-imaginary point in the past, or by tiresome pedants who clang on about how there are rules that must be followed, and all nonstandard usages or pronunciation declare you dumb and annoy said pedant and must be stopped, because some people believe their own self-importance is worth more than anyone else’s means of expression. This is the steroidal, government-backed Big Brother version of, say, worrying that kids who use slang are not only never going to use the language properly, but that they are somehow damaging the language for people who don’t use slang, as though the language was a couch that you could break by jumping on it.
6 True story about your humble narrator here: there are two groups of people in my life who believe, alternately, that I love puns to the exclusion of all other ways of conveying information, and that I hate puns so much they make me homicidal with rage. Since representatives of each group read this space, I feel it would be inappropriate to reveal my true feelings on the matter, and let you all wonder which side I actually come down on.

Best Achievement in the Meta Story Being Better Than the Story Itself
Go Set A Watchman was, at the very least, the publishing event of the year. It’s hard to think of a way in which it wouldn’t be the publishing event of the decade, and stands as, perhaps, an early frontrunner for the publishing event of the century. And the novel itself is, as far as I can tell7, a fine piece of work that was published unedited and is, as a result, probably in need of a new coat of paint and a polish. That’s fine! Lots of books make it out under-edited, and certainly the fact of GSAW’s existence is more important than the actuality of it. Especially since the fact of its existence is as infuriating as it is baffling. To top it all off, there’s absolutely no ability to tell which version (of the at least four) of the story of its publication is actually true.  

7 NB: I have not read it, and have no immediate plans to. I’ll probably get there eventually.

The book surfaced (or rather, re-surfaced) sometime after the death of Alice Lee, who had long managed Harper’s legacy and goings-on, which seems to raise some bells. Harper Lee herself is in an assisted-living facility, and while there’s no evidence of actual malfeasance, there is also a distinct lack of satisfying statements from Ms. Lee herself w/r/t her role in/part in/approval of the publication of the manuscript. There’s a photograph, presented as awareness of her involvement, that actually seems to harm the case more than help it – she certainly doesn’t look like she’s actively participating in much of anything at the time of the photo8. There are people prepared to argue that Go Set a Watchman was never meant to see the eyeballs of the reading public – supported by the decades-spanning repeated insistence on the part of Harper that there was, simply, no more material coming from her typewriter – and the death of Alice Lee presented an opportunity for money-hungry publishers and hangers-on. The counter-argument (including that of the publisher in question) is that she didn’t think the manuscript still existed, and was willing to allow it out, since it involved not doing anything she hadn’t already done, and was not, strictly speaking, a separate novel.

8 of course, sometimes that just happens in photographs. Seriously, this whole thing is just unanswered questions all the way down.

It is that last that creates its own set of problems. The book came out, and any questions about “should” or the right/wrong value of its existence became less important9 – after all, the book unquestionably exists, and even if its existence is the result of exploitation and/or chicanery, there’s no way to un-publish something in 2015. So we, the public, have to deal with its existence. Which we do by freaking the holy fuck out because Atticus Finch is presented as a flawed, racist character – damaged by his proximity to, in the world of the story at least, the worst that could be offered, and worried (as a lot of old people in the south were) about the growing cultural divide between the North and the South – a sentiment that, honestly, has a lot to say to readers of all kinds in the summer of 2015, which I think is probably a coincidence (it would’ve come out this summer no matter what), but turns out to be a pretty valuable coincidence. In any event, this created, in a bunch of readers, the need to figure which version of Atticus is the “real” one.

9 not, I hasten to add, unimportant, just less so – I would still like to know definitively that this was Harper Lee’s decision, or at least that she unqualifiedly approves of its existence, if only for my own conscience, but I’m also at a loss for coming up with a way to prevent the book from continuing to exist. If I did have ideas for how to stop things from being distributed among the public in 2015, I would be very, very rich and would be writing this blog from the top of my tower built entirely out of full whiskey barrels*, and also I still wouldn’t sell my secrets to record labels.

* I would also be rich enough to be able to afford some specialized craftsmen who could somehow monitor the levels in the whiskey bottles and replace them jenga-style when they were empty. I would be very rich, is what I’m saying.

By not being a sequel, GSAW is hard to iron out the continuity of – GSAW is actually the first version of the story that To Kill a Mockingbird would become, so does that mean that Atticus is revised down, and the idea that he’s a bitter old racist abandoned, or does it mean that Mockingbird is simply showing him through his daughter’s unclouded eyes as a flawless hero-type? The fact that there’s literally no way to answer this question, and that, even if there was, it wouldn’t matter anyway10 doesn’t distract the fact that from the time of its announcement – and its many, many questions about the circumstances of its existence, through the reaction on the part of a public that, by and large, isn’t used to dealing with complicated situations or characters in their reading11, the best story related to Go Set a Watchman has been the one that’s happened around it, rather than within it.

10 If you aren’t familiar with The Intentional Fallacy, that’s fine, but the upshot is that the intention of the author is unknowable, and therefore unimportant.
11 this statement isn’t cynicism, it’s enumerated from the available responses – which are myriad – that have made it out into public, in which an overwhelming majority seem to want a “good or bad” judgment to be handed down from on high.

A special nod, also, to the small, weird, clearly-insane people who tried, about a month or so ago, to float the idea that it’s all part of a trilogy, and that there was yet another unpublished part, thus combining several dumb things (a seeming obsession in the book-oriented parts of the internet with trilogies, a need to use drama to feed drama, an inability to content oneself with things as they are, and to try to make them more “interesting”). So a special mini-award to those people. Stop doing that, those people.

The Second Annual Mrs. Coach’s Hair Achievement Award for Continued Excellence in the Field of Mrs. Coach’s Hair
Mrs. Coach’s Hair.

That wraps it up for part 1. Tune in later in the week (or, hell, some unspecified point in the future, since I continually promise things in due time, only to find myself not updating the blog for an actual, literal month) for the second half of our exciting proceedings.