(Mostly) Shamelessly Punting: Harry Potter Edition

Two shamelessly punting posts in a row, you ask? Well, yes. I’m busy. It’s summer.

In this case, however, the problem was also practical: I feel like I ought to say something, given the intersection of popularity, acclaim and genre fiction that Harry Potter represents, but I have very little to say that’s actually interesting.

Harry Potter is, basically, the thing that happened right after I left the part of its audience that would’ve been altered significantly by its existence. I did not read Harry Potter when it came out  1, I read it four years later 2, and, given that my track record of prescience of any kind is pretty terrible, had absolutely no idea what it was beyond a popular YA fantasy series.

Obviously, it turned out to be epochal – one of those pop culture artifacts that divide the world into “before” and “after” for the people who come of age in its audience. And that’s pretty cool, and it’s been interesting to watch, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with any of that, it’s just that a few hundred words on how I am An Old and am not in the audience for this thing, and do not relate to it personally is…well, there’s no real way to do it and not come off like either a stubborn curmudgeon or someone with nothing to say who’s saying it anyway 3. Neither is a good look, and, frankly, neither is hard to find anywhere else – they’re only slightly less common than the posts by people talking about how it changed their lives.

Anyway, I like Harry Potter. I’ve read it more than once. I’ve seen the movies a bunch of times. I’m not a super-fan, and it emphatically did not change my life 4, but my life was definitely, and equally emphatically, changed by things that were, simply put, also not as good. Its lack of biographical impact is not a sign of its lack of impact, but rather of the biography in question.

All of which is to say: here are some tiny lists about Harry Potter, a thing about which I have many opinions, somewhat less conviction, a healthy appreciation for, and nothing particularly interesting or worthwhile to add to the conversation otherwise.

Oh, also, they’re top sevens, because there’s seven books. And also because I literally just posted a bunch of top 5’s last week, and there’s going to be another top 5 tomorrow. It breaks things up somewhat, y’know?

The Seven Primary Harry Potter Books in Order of Quality [^5]

  • Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
  • Harry Potter and the [Sorcerer’s|Philosopher’s] Stone
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

[^5]: This skips all of the non-main books, like The Tales of Beedle the Bard, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child


Seven of the Primary Harry Potter Movies in Order of Quality [^6]

  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
  • Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

[^6]: this leaves off not only Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but also the long, tortuous, wheel-spinning Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

Top 7 Non-Weasley Characters

  1. Neville Longbottom (the prophecy could’ve been about him, his parents aren’t dead so he has to see what happened to them, he wasn’t favored in any way by anyone and he still acts heroically anyway)
  2. Luna Lovegood (everybody things she’s crazy, she sees nargles, she knows her dad is actually crazy, and yet she goes along with everything anyway and behaves as heroically as Neville)
  3. Remus Lupin
  4. Hagrid
  5. Hermione Granger
  6. Minerva McGonagall
  7. Sybill Trelawney (she could actually really tell the future, guys. All of her predictions came true.)

Top 7 Weasleys

  1. Molly
  2. Fred
  3. George
  4. Ginny
  5. Arthur
  6. Ron
  7. Bill

Top 7 Worst Defense Against the Dark Arts Professors

As in this list goes from “worst teacher” to “least worst teacher”. Also note that we never see Merrythought “in action” as it were, so he’s not here.

  1. Dolores Umbridge
  2. Amycus Carrow (I mean, we don’t see this guy actively teach, but dude is a nasty piece of work, saved from the top spot only because, well, I don’t have to tell you why Dolores Umbridge is the worst)
  3. Quirinus Quirrell (I think the minimum qualification for the positions is probably “don’t host Voldemort inside your actual literal body.” That’s why he’s above Lockhart.)
  4. Gilderoy Lockhart
  5. Mad-Eye Moody (Yes, yes, he was never actually, technically, the teacher. That’s why he’s here, in the neutral position)
  6. Remus Lupin
  7. Severus Snape

Top 7 Magical Creatures

Ranked in order of coolness, not of helpfulness or likability or whatever.

  1. Dragons (obviously)
  2. Dementors
  3. Banker Goblins
  4. Centaurs
  5. Hippogriffs
  6. Books that chomp on your hands or whatever
  7. Phoenix

Top 7 Most Useful Applications of Magic in Harry Potter

Obviously this would never include flying broomsticks (a motorcycle with another dimension of movement, literally no safety features and that requires no license to operate is basically a mass-murder machine) or time turners (time turners can only lead to having to keep track of too much shit and we’d just be in serious time-travelling trouble).

  1. Floo Powder (much better than apparating, given how often Apparating goes wrong, and given the existence of splinching)
  2. Scourgify
  3. That clock Molly Weasley has that tells her where people are and how they’re doing
  4. The invisibility cloak
  5. Gillyweed
  6. Howlers (consider the satisfying effects of being able to send someone a letter that literally yells at them! So good!)
  7. Accio (admittedly this would be used for, like, my keys or my phone or whatever, but hey, it would still be super-useful)

  1.  when I would’ve been fourteen, and thus completely in the target age for the thing. This, incidentally, is the age my brother, who is very into it, was when he first encountered it. 
  2.  specifically, I read the first four books in more-or-less one gulp, in a hospital bed 
  3.  this latter being what I am specifically and exactly trying to avoid by not actually writing the thing that I am not technically writing by writing this thing. 
  4.  a life that, at seventeen, already included Dianna Wynne Jones and Hayao Miyazaki and Sandman and literally dozens of lesser, less-memorable fantasy works, and thus had too much history in the fish-out-of-water mythology-heavy fantasy field to be changed more than just enjoying a set of good books. 

Shamelessly Punting: Another Series of Tiny Lists

The 5 Most Recent Acting With a Capital A Performances I Have, Nonetheless, Managed to Get Something Out Of

Presented in reverse chronological order by most recent viewing of the film in question

  1. Elle Fanning, The Neon Demon
  2. Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
  3. Amy Adams, Arrival
  4. Sally Field, Steel Magnolias
  5. Patrick Stewart (although also Dafne Keen, honestly), Logan

The 5 Best Randy Newman Songs

In light of the fact that he has a new album coming out soon

  1. Sail Away
  2. I Think It’s Going to Rain Today
  3. Louisiana 1927
  4. Political Science
  5. Have You Seen My Baby?

The 5 Best Episodes of Atlanta


  1. (tie) “Value”/”B.A.N.” (nb: these two episodes also aired in this order)
  2. (tie) “Nobody Beats the Biebs”/”The Jacket”
  3. (tie) “Juneteenth”/”The Big Bang”
  4. (tie) “Streets On Lock”/”The Club”
  5. (tie) “The Streisand Effect”/”Go For Broke”

All rankings subject to change at any time. I already disagree deeply with myself that “Go For Broke” should be so criminally low. Maybe they should all be #1?

The 5 Best Things Turning 20 This Year

Seems like there’s an awful lot of things turning 20 this year, or else the ones that are are unusually prominent to me. Either way, I am Old.

  1. Elliott Smith – Either/Or
  2. Kelly Link, “Travels With Snow Queen”
  3. Starship Troopers
  4. Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
  5. King of the Hill

Please note that the Discworld book released in 1997 was Jingo, which is good but not my favorite. So that you don’t have to wonder.

The 5 Best Things to Put on Toast

I like toast. Also note that most of these can work in some kind of conjuction (i.e. peanut butter and jam, pimento cheese and jam, an egg and olive oil, an egg and butter, pimento cheese and an egg)

  1. Peanut Butter
  2. Butter
  3. Pimento Cheese
  4. An Egg
  5. Olive Oil

On Creators and Audiences, Part 3

So what we have in Part 1 and Part 2 of this piece are two different case studies in how a creator is treated by an interpreter. What these two stories have in common 1 is that the audience is  treated as a bloc (or even a block, honestly), and anticipated and scolded, rather than being treated as the other unit in the collaboration. A speaker cannot exist without a listener, an artistic endeavor cannot exist without an audience, and thus the audience’s act of interpretation is the final step in the thing’s existence 2. The assumption on the part of Michael Streeter (the interpreter of the Albee play) and the Marvel Executives (the controllers of the rights of Captain America) was assumptive of people’s reactions 3 – specifically their stated beliefs that it’s the audience’s job to wait for the racial slur (or the mention of hips), and it’s the audience who is meant to put up with the perceived Naziism or shut up.

The reason these assumptions are so bizarre is that in these two cases specifically, the underlying assumption appears to be not that these are things that are going to be consumed by people that are familiar with/enthusiastic for the material, but rather by a random selection of people. Someone that goes to see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is vanishingly unlikely to be just some schmo who bought one of the 35 seats in The Shoebox to see a play – it’s probably going to be someone with a relationship with/feelings about theatre, and, almost certainly, at least a passing familiarity with the work, not to mention the knowledge that the script did not get rewritten to include racial slurs. Someone that is currently buying Captain America monthly is someone who has actively decided to do so for any number of reasons, pretty much none of which is liable to be “I tripped, fell, landed in a comic book store, and decided to wave five bucks around until someone handed me an issue of something.” They are, therefore, someone with their own ideas about the character and the book in which he appears, and those ideas are going to come, inevitably and unavoidably, with feelings and a difference of opinion in at least some cases.

When the response is seriously addressed at all, it is addressed by other audience members, and generally in a way that expresses a disbelief that the person on the other side of the argument is even familiar with what they’re talking about at all – the idea being that a “casual” could have a response to something in and of itself without a deep familiarity with that thing 4, which is a way of intentionally diminishing the idea of an audience response. It is true that my experience with Captain America and Nick Spencer contributes to my reaction in a way that makes it different from the experience and reaction of someone with less or different experience. It’s also true that knowing about the way things were communicated in plays in 1962 will help unearth some things about Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf 5 , and the way that it communicates. Neither of those things interferes with the fact that someone who just now chose to buy a comic book or go to a play also has a reaction and has the ability to make that reaction plain, and that that reaction is no less valid for it coming from a place of unknowing 6. At the very least, there should be access to a panoply of people having variegated and stimulating reactions, and we the audience should be able to discuss those options without trying to first prove that the reactions are worth having in the first place. 

Ultimately, however, there were two that were decided upon as expressable, and this is sort of how it always boils down. In the examples to hand, the reactions that are echoically decided upon are that the Estate of Edward Albee is a bunch of racists vs. the idea all things must serve the creator and none should gainsay, or that Captain America should never be a Nazi and making him one is deeply insulting to the audience and creator vs. it’s a fun comic book and also obviously he isn’t. There is lots of space between these things, of course, but you’ll have a hard time finding anyone espousing them, especially the higher up the visibility chain you go. If the creators and interpreters are guilty of expecting the audience to behave in a predictable pattern and not allowing for human reaction among them, then the audience is also guilty of responding in a way that doesn’t always make it clear that they are having a human reaction. There’s room to agree with none or all of the positions above, plus positions not stated here at all, rather than just agreeing to add our drop to whichever bucket is the most like something we feel we should think (or think we should feel).

The thing is, this happens all the time. The forced-binary, hive-mind backlash/anti-backlash current has been a part of the discourse since lo the dawn of the comment section 7 , but it has really become a topic of discussion in the last couple of years. I chose these two examples because they are about things that are close enough to me that I feel I can speak on them in a reasonably-informed way, but I could’ve done this any month in the last, oh, 24 or so and gotten just about the same result. I could’ve done this 8 with Suicide Squad, or Lil Uzi Vert, or PewDiePie, or Girls, or Last Man Standing, or Taylor Swift (again), or Milo Yiannopoulis, or Chance the Rapper, or…you see what I mean. Some of them I am strongly against the creator, some of them I am strongly against the interpreter, some of them I am strongly against the product, and with at least two of them I am against all three 9.

Even leaving aside the specific examples that I didn’t write about, the relationship between creator and interpreter (in the form of distributors, professional organizations and award-granting bodies) has inflected the things that I’ve written about Kazuo Ishiguro and genre fiction, The Grammy Awards, the Academy Awards (twice!), and the entirety of a Considered Look at the Best-Selling Records of All Time. It will also come up (at least tangentially) in upcoming pieces about Harry Potter, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Hugo Awards 10. This stuff is everywhere, is what I’m saying, and I’m using these two model cases to stand in synecdochally for the whole general sort of mish-mash that is the relationship between purveyors, creators and audience in 2017.

The upshot, then, of this happening all the time (like all the time all the time) is that it is clear that the creators and the interpreters are simply not going to make room in their thing for the audience, so we are going to have to do it ourselves. The audience is the only group whose best interest is the audience, after all. The creator – whatever the medium, whatever the motivation – is serving the creator’s best interest 11. The interpreter is serving the interpreter’s interest – whether it’s the artistic motivation of the collaboration itself, or the money, or whatever. That means it’s up to us, the audience, to serve our own interest, and to make sure that our act of interpretation is an active one.

In these cases the audience did have their reaction – it happened where it always does, when everyone divvied up sides and chose their picket-line shouts. And that’s fine. It had its effects, and that’s probably good for the world. The audience is not to blame for the dumb shit that is done in the name of entertainment. It was, however, a little disappointing to see that the reactions in both cases were so atrophic and limited, and it probably does go some way to explaining why it’s so easy to dismiss, at least among the interpreters. Because while it’s true that Streeter has to go on to do another play and that Captain America is losing sales, it’s also true that we missed two opportunities to have a much more interesting argument here.

The place for the audience is at the end of the act of creation/interpretation/distribution/performance – the place of the responder is at the end of the text – but that is still a part of the chain, and the role of the audience is to help interpolate the work itself into whatever portion of the cultural discourse/memory/context that it’s going to take up. It’s weaving the tapestry of shared cultural and artistic experience by small degrees, and the discussion about the role/type/degree of reaction in that process is an important discussion.

Changing the discussion to one about, somehow, what creators are owed by people who are working with their materials (Spencer writing a Simon/Kirby character, Streeter producing an Albee play) and how that is, itself, modified by corporations that intercede or don’t on behalf of the originator or the interpreter (Disney/Marvel or the estate of Edward Albee) is completely obviating the fact that without an audience, none of that matters after the moment it exists. Obviously in both cases the audience spoke up, and that matters – Captain America’s sales are flagging, and although the tangible effect on Streeter and his work is much more nebulous, it certainly isn’t because of a lack of stated opinions (specifically the same two opinions stated over and over again) – but it spoke up in a very specific, proscribed way that, ultimately, is unlikely to benefit anyone except the people for whom no publicity is bad publicity (see above vis-a-vis the buckets and whatnot).

Ultimately, that’s what I’m doing here 12. That’s what the posts about the music industry, or awards shows, or aggregates of things that people like, or any of that kind of thing are about. That’s why the focus of this space has generally been on popularity, and specifically on the presentation and machinations thereof. Because the people that are in charge of shepherding the things that become extremely popular in the world have, as their goal and vocation, a set of things that does not require the audience to be anything in particular, merely present. Each audience, however, is composed of individuals whose reaction is their own, and a part of their lives, and are therefore worth considering, at least from the point of view of another audience member.

That’s why it’s important to consider things, and the most important thing to consider is the validity of your own reaction. It’s one thing to not know a bunch of stuff about the thing you’re reacting to – I would wager that the majority of things that anyone reacts to, in an artistic sense, are things they don’t know very much about – it’s another thing entirely not to know your own reaction. Consider why you’re reacting that way, and what it means, and where it comes from. It doesn’t take long – you can probably process your reaction to a thing in less time than it takes to experience the thing, for the most part 13. Remember that this act of interpretation – your response to the thing presented – is the final step in the existence of the thing artistically.

Otherwise you’re surrendering your role in the thing’s place in your own mind, let alone in the outside culture at large, to other people (who are also probably surrendering that thing’s position in their mind to other people) for the sake of the security that comes from agreement, rather than the security that comes from filing away your own thoughts on the matter yourself.

And if that means you think the estate of Edward Albee is racist, or that Nick Spencer is a Nazi sympathizer, or that Michael Streeter is a conceptual genius, or that comic book writers should be allowed to do whatever they want, that’s all fine. If you think everyone involved in the Albee case is a big dumb dummy and that that whole thing is more an embarrassment than an asset, culturally speaking, and that while Nick Spencer’s heart is in the right place it probably still isn’t a very good way to get his point across, especially as it involves a cosmic cube, which is almost always dumb 14, then that’s fine.  

The thing that’s important is that whatever we owe creators and interpreters/distributors, the thing that we owe ourselves is to not diminish our role in the thing, and instead of treating the argument itself as the thing, to treat our reaction as the point of discussion, and to take that seriously and, in so doing, to force the people that sell us these things to also take it seriously, which would go a very long way to avoid boondoggles like the ones we have here.

Obviously nobody expects anybody to meditate all day on something they experienced the day before, just to consider where your reaction comes from and what you know about the other reactions you’re hearing, and it should all come out fine. That way the next time Captain America is a Nazi, you’re free to agree with reason (the best way to agree!) rather than just joining the chant.

  1.  and in common with dozens of stories that happen in the entertainment media all the time. 
  2.  For more on this, see Jan Mukarovsky’s On Poetic Language, which is dense and also translated, but from which the sentence above is paraphrased pretty directly. For more on the idea, you can also see Norman Holland’s 5 Readers Reading, C.S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism, or, if you can find it, the work of David Miall. Most writing in the reader/response field focuses on the role of the critical response on the criticism rather than the place of the audience as the last part of the work, but the latter is the necessary extrapolation from the former, especially as outlined by Holland. The Lewis is there because it focuses on Paradise Lost, a book everyone has read, and is written by a popular-fiction writer, and so is less- (although not entirely non-) academic in tone and word. 
  3.  respectively that the audience for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was not going to expect what they saw when they saw WAOVW and that the readers of Captain America did not, in fact, have feelings for Captain America. 
  4.  This is cross-media, and happens all the time and all that (see following), but honestly theatre people and comic book people are both groups that are especially prone to this kind of exclusionary bar-setting weirdness. 
  5.  there is a major plot point that isn’t worth revealing here but that is worth pointing out goes alongside a heavily-coded (now, although it was more obvious then) set of references to Honey (the wife of Nick, the character who is canonically and proclamatorily Not Black) having had an abortion. 
  6.  the reaction is no less valid, but it is also up to the person reacting to the reaction – once again, the reader’s response is inextricable from the text itself – to decide how much weight and/or seriousness to give it. This never stops going deeper – every level of reaction comes with its own decisions and level of response, until the last person on Earth hears that Captain America is a Nazi. 
  7.  although the internet did not invent this thing – old reviews and journals and things are full of this kind of stuff – it did make it easier to contribute to, and meant that more people were doing it publicly. Which is also true of more-or-less 100% of the other stuff that happens on the internet; the internet is an enabler, not an inventor. 
  8.  admittedly with a different angle – those wouldn’t all (although some of them would be) be a creator/interpreter sort of story, but that is what made this set of pieces worth writing to me in the first place, and is very much why I’m doing this now instead of then. 
  9.  this is part of the other reason I didn’t do some of these things: I find it hard to have anything interesting to say when my real thoughts on the matter are “I hate basically everything about it and would be glad to see it gone,” it contributes very little, and frankly, if you need to see someone explain why he doesn’t like Milo Yiannaopoulos, there are a lot of people doing a better, more incisive and more entertaining job of that than I would’ve here. 
  10.  actually, the Hugo Awards is an even better model for the relationship between material, artist and audience, given its institutional behavior in the last couple of years. It’s come up before, and I’ll probably address it directly in a couple of months when they actually happen. 
  11.  I believe, generally speaking, that the act of creation is at its best when the creator doesn’t consider the audience at all. Creators can really only be assured of pleasing themselves, after all, and they have to live with it for a lot longer than I do – a bad work is a part of their life’s work, and it’s a part of my afternoon. I realize that I’m positing that a life is longer than an afternoon here. I hope you can bear with me. 
  12.  like, on this website. Not existentially. 
  13.  this is abetted by the fact that most people’s reaction to an overwhelming majority of things is “I neither like nor dislike this particularly”, which is a pretty easy reaction to parse. 
  14.  This sentence contains my actual editorial opinions on the matter, saved for the end here. 

On Creators and Audiences, Part 2

For the last year, Captain America has been either a Nazi, a cruelly-manipulated tool in the service of comical-book type entertainment, or a weird allegory. Possibly all three. Perhaps you’ve heard about it.

The comic-book-storytelling shenanigans that have brought Steve Rogers into this harsh, bizarre light are, as succinctly as possible, the following: Red Skull raised a little girl, who is actually a thing called a Cosmic Cube 1, so that he could indoctrinate her that she should believe that HYDRA is good, so she can dream up a reality where HYDRA takes over the world 2, and where Captain America is one of their leaders, which is, obviously, pretty much the precise opposite of what he is usually.  

The “Captain America is HYDRA now” reveal was a year ago, which means that the outrage started about a year ago, and the other denizens of the Marvel Earth found out about it much more recently, which means that the in-universe justification begins roughly now 3

To understand the outrage (and the aforementioned Nazi thing), there has to be a little bit more comic book talk. HYDRA was created, in opposition to Captain America, as a specifically Nazi-allied organization. In the several decades since, Marvel has moved away from its temporally-rooted origins, and made it a sort of mystically-oriented, super-ancient sect of people that want to take over the world 4. The movies, which are obviously much more recent, re-aligned HYDRA with its Nazi roots in Captain America: The First Avenger, in which it is more a splinter group than a direct outgrowth 5, and so the idea that HYDRA = Nazi is especially prominent to anyone whose ideas of their origins starts at or includes CA:TFA.

This, then, is outrageous because a group of worldwide supervillainy was specifically created by its Jewish creators to be a part of the story they were telling about their specifically anti-Nazi superhero, and to then take that same superhero and ally him, specifically and assuredly, with the Nazi-derived group, was taken by a large portion of the public as a deeply-insulting maneuver.

Captain America was created to be explicitly political (i.e. anti-Nazi), and it’s this portion of his origins that has, for the last dozen or so years, made him a useful stand-in for writers that want to use him allegorically 6, as he has been now. Nick Spencer, the current writer, has not been shy about using his platform in a monthly comic book to make all sorts of commentary on the political environment in which he is writing, using the language of anti-immigration and “disintegrating borders,” and weathering complaints that he’s turned Republicans into supervillains 7.

Spencer, then, is the first of the people involved to insist that everyone just needed to be patient. He’s also been very adamant that the events of Secret Empire 8 are going to have long-term ramifications, that they are going to be permanent, and that there’s definitely not going to be some reset button at the far end of the storyline. When the “Hail Hydra!” moment happened, we were assured that it was “just sort of an opening chapter,” and that he was permitted to write the story because when he pitched the idea to Marvel, he “was able to kind of explain the whole thing and put it all into context.” The implication here being, of course, that there is a context to put it all into, and that it was enough to satisfy the brass at Marvel, with Spencer specifically claiming the support of Tom Brevoort, the Executive Editor at Marvel and Senior VP of Publishing, who has long ties to Captain America and who is characterized by Spencer as being particularly protective of Captain America’s legacy.

While Brevoort spoke briefly in praise of Spencer, it seems there was still some backdoor damage control that was deemed necessary, with Editor-in-Cheif Axel Alonso giving a long-ish interview in conjunction with Spencer, where things were a bit more muddled. Spencer talked about taking his inspiration from current events – specifically in the rise of hate groups in national prominence, and what drives people to join them – and reiterating his position that “Lots of people keep asking if it’s a gimmick and guess it’ll be over soon, and [Spencer keeps] saying ‘nope, nope, nopers.” Truly, two “nopes” and a “nopers” is the highest of denial.

Alonso, then, also explained that this was a “point where the heroes have to rally…It’s all black and white, not shades of gray,” which is a super weird stance to take when, in fact, the whole point of the story is that anything can be co-opted or taken over, especially when a magic cube (which is actually a little girl raised by Red Skull) is able to rewrite all of time and space in Red Skull’s image 9) is involved. Alonso would also go on to be a part of a press statement issued through ABC News 10, in which they “politely ask you to allow the story to unfold before coming to any conclusion”, and also, and perhaps most tellingly, asking that readers “in the meantime, keep buying the book.”  

Now, seeing the public reaction to the events set in motion by Spencer and saying “these people should not be met, they should instead be shouted down and told to keep sending us money in the blind hope that we aren’t actually insulting their sensibilities” is pretty solidly on the side of overwhelming hubris. People that are upset over the allying of (what they know to be) Captain America with (what they know to be) a set of postmodern Nazis is the entirety of the problem and telling people “wait hold on it’s not really the problem because you haven’t read enough of the saga of the postmodern Nazis” is like telling a choking victim that they shouldn’t stop eating because they don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of the choking.

The things required to give Marvel the benefit of the doubt are either two- or three-fold: first, one has to be able to believe that Nick Spencer, the writer, is a person who can be trusted to not just turn heroes into Nazis willy-nilly 11. Two, one has to believe that Nick Spencer/Marvel’s editorial staff can be trusted to handle all of this in a way that isn’t ultimately demeaning to the audience and/or the characters that the audience is invested in, not to mention the spirit of the initial creators, who form a part of the crux of this one. The sort-of third (I leave it up to the reader to decide if it warrants inclusion as its own categorical point or not) is that one has to have a great deal of patience for the sort of “item of great power manipulates time and space to make things cuckoo crazy” comic storytelling that is, frankly, the kind of thing that turns people off of this kind of storytelling to begin with.

In the controversial would-be performance of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, we had a producer trying to create an opportunity by altering the form of the content in a way that ran counter to the interests of the original creator. In the controversial current storyline of Captain America we have a set of executives not exactly defending the creative impulse of one of their writers over the objections of an audience that is sensitive to the biographical realities of the original creators of the character (especially as concerns that character’s historical roots), in favor of protecting the sales of their properties in the most brute-force way possible, by literally trying to instruct the audience to just keep buying it, because the audience should value the opportunity to get to read new Captain America stories more than it values anything qualitative about those stories.

Even if that were not so, there would still be little to gain by insisting that the audience agree blindly when they don’t already know. Nobody that reads comics isn’t familiar with the idea that you have to keep reading them to see how the story ends, and while it’s true that there are a lot of people who are reading comics now to whom this alternate-reality nonsense isn’t as familiar as it is to others of us 12, it’s also the case that it’s not like it’s hard to figure out.  

So rather than this being a case of a creative complaining that the creator – who is onto exactly what he’s trying to do and is objecting to it specifically – is unwilling morally to do the thing he wants, this is an example of a corporation telling an audience that they cannot possibly understand the basics of the medium they are consuming the story in, and have to be instructed that “reading to the middle” is not the same as “reading to the end,” because obviously watching a superhero become a HYDRA agent isn’t the same as watching a superhero become a HYDRA agent and then….watching it some more.

Once again, I err on the side of letting the writer do his dumb thing, but lordy do I understand not actually wanting to read it. The best-case scenario is that this thing blows through, turns out to be something more interesting than Captain Americapilgrim’s Progress mit Exposions 13 , and gets adapted for film in a decade, but that’s because one of the key players in the story as written so far is the super-rad Taskmaster, who has never been represented on screen 14 (or at least not directly, he’s often speculated to be Grant Ward on Agents of SHIELD, but as of this writing that’s unconfirmed), and really should. His face is a skull! His superpower is that he can instantly learn how to do anything just by watching somebody do it once! He’s so cool!

In any event, it’s obvious that no audience is obligated to keep following these people down this dumb road – people drop in and out of comic books all the time. There are sort of over-arching things to say about the state of Marvel’s book sales and their executive response to this 15, but really you’ve got it all right there: a writer has done an audacious, upsetting thing, and people have become upset, and the executives have said “you’re not really upset, you just don’t have all of it yet, so give us your money.”

That’s the trade-off that Marvel has made – Spencer decided to tell the story with a decades-old character that people feel a great deal of personal investment toward, and Marvel elected to let him use this decades-old character that people feel a great deal of personal investment toward to tell his story that trades in on Captain America’s symbolic value in order to tell this story, and people, ostensibly the people for whom this story is being told, have reacted in part by saying “we do not accept this usage of this character that we feel a great deal of personal investment toward.” We yet again find ourselves in a situation where a trade-off was made, but the downside of that trade-off is considered unacknowledgable by people who were in a position only to choose or not choose to continue being a part of the agreement 16. All audience relationships are one-way and binary: they are either on or they are not on. And when the decision, which was made with the idea of there being an effect as a fully-known condition, is something that results in people – who have no control other than to stop reading the book – getting mad and not reading the book, then even if the creatives disagree, they probably shouldn’t act like it’s a surprise, or completely out of the purview of the audience in the first place.  

  1.  it’s a thing that warps reality to fit the mind of the person wielding it, and its entire history as an object of “dumb shit catalyst and/or generator” would take a really long time to explain, but this is not the first time one has turned up in a story and made a bunch of people mad, albeit not usually on this sort of scale. 
  2.  but also the Cosmic Cube/Little Girl, named Kobik (I do not name comic book characters, don’t blame me), came up with this world, but not a world where HYDRA ran shit without the internecine strife that causes most of the plot to come to fruition, because, seriously, I could just fill each of these footnotes with words about how dumb the cosmic cube stuff is and it still wouldn’t be enough words. 
  3.  which is also why I’m writing it now, and as a part of a series about creators, rightsholders, and their audiences, because it’s now inclusive of all three groups. 
  4.  It currently – although, again, using words like “currently” is made slippery by the timey-wimey nature of the whole thing – traces its roots back to The Order of the Spear, which is credited with repelling the first invasion of The Brood (which are basically Marvel’s version of the xenomorphs from the Alien movies with the serial numbers filed off), and which was the partner organization to The Order of the Shield, which would become, perhaps predictably, SHIELD. 
  5.  a development that the comics rolled with by once again retconning the whole thing and making it so that the HYDRA folks were basically press-ganged into their Nazi affiliation by circumstance. Or something. I’m a little fuzzy on how all of that worked. 
  6.  the current characterization of Captain America – as a sort of rebellious patriot idealist, that carries over into the movies and his depiction in the comics for all but the past year or so – was largely codified by Ed Brubaker in the first Civil War storyline. 
  7.  although one of the things that Captain America has always had in place was a healthy appreciation for immigrants, which makes perfect sense, given that some of his best friends are Asgardian/Atlantean/Wakandan/People from the Moon/etc. 
  8.  a title that the current storyline shares with a past storyline – the first Secret Empire was also allegorical, and was published immediately following the Watergate scandal. 
  9.  I mean, I get that it’s all allegorical or whatever, but the real-world parallelism is not really helped by all of the cosmic cube stuff. This is what kept me out of the Avengers continuity when I was a comic-book-reading lad. 
  10.  Which the eagle-eyed among you will notice is the news arm of Disney, the overcorporation that owns Marvel as well, which ties into the peculiar focus of the press release itself, to wit: it appears to be concerned that this storyline is going to cost them revenue.  
  11.  this is a point where, for whatever it’s worth, I have little problem – Spencer is pretty good about discussing publicly the near- (or actually-)fascistic nature of a lot of superhero stories, and grappling with them in an interesting way, and his work on Morning Glories especially belies that, whatever else he believes, he’s definitely not coming down on the side of HYDRA here.  
  12.  Nick Spencer and I are close to the same age, and so probably have many of the same formative Marvel stories in our heads, he just clearly felt differently than I did about some of them, but this sort of thing is pretty commonplace in Marveldom – all of time and space is rewritten with so much regularity that you start to think that all of time and space must be on a giant cosmic whiteboard. 
  13. that’s not exactly a fair joke. Editorially, the setup is as dumb as cosmic cube stuff always is, but as such things go it’s a firecracker of a story – it’s at least paced well, and doesn’t spend much time steepling it’s fingers and cackling maniacally about its evil plans, which is something that often plagues stories that have a cosmic cube in them. It’s not an unentertaining run of comics, all told, and it may even be the case that when it all shakes out it will seem like a less dire, less offensive bit of storytelling. 
  14.  Although if I may take some time at the end of this piece to pitch a thing: his finest hour is a run of Daredevil comics in which he and Tombstone (also a villain vacationing in Daredevil from the pages of Captain America) got into a murdering-people contest that Daredevil eventually caught onto and had to stop, and that would be super awesome to see guys. 
  15.  namely that sales might be down (it sort of depends on how you count/look at the numbers, and also with Marvel’s cockamamie publishing shenanigans), and also there is some dumb stuff that Marvel is on the record about w/r/t diversity, all of which is sort of happening as part of the backdrop for the specific case I’m talking about here. 
  16.  nobody has ever asked the readers if it would be ok if something like this happens, after all 

On Creators and Audiences, pt 1

So, nearly a year after he died, irascible ol’ grumpypants Edward Albee has found himself managing to make a bunch of people mad. Or at least his estate did.

Or, well, at least the public reaction to another individual’s reaction to the actions of his estate did.

Producer Michael Streeter intended to put on a version of Albee’s most famous play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at his 35-seat for-profit theatre, The Shoebox. The play has four characters 1, each of whom is traditionally white 2, and Streeter wanted to cast a black actor in the role of Nick. The Estate of Edward Albee who, by contract, retains approval over all casting decisions made in a commercial production of one of Albee’s plays, put the kibosh on the casting, and Streeter, in the time-honored tradition of the incensed, took to Facebook, proclaiming himself “furious and dumbfounded”.

A black Nick, you see, is something that Streeter believed would “add depth” to the show. Specifically, for these reasons:

The character is an up and comer. He is ambitious and tolerates a lot of abuse in order to get ahead. I see this as emblematic of African Americans in 1962, the time the play was written. The play is filled with invective from Martha and particularly George towards Nick. With each insult that happens in the play, the audience will wonder, ‘Are George and Martha going to go there re. racial slurs?’ There are lines that I think this casting gives resonance to, such as the fact that his (white) wife has ‘slim hips’ and when he says he’s ‘nobody’s houseboy’.

These reasons, as stated, are not without their problems 3, but are what we have in terms of Streeter’s intent, and seem like a reasonable expression of his goals.

This is what the Albee Estate said in response:

It is important to note that Mr. Albee wrote Nick as a Caucasian character, whose blonde hair and blue eyes are remarked on frequently in the play, even alluding to Nick’s likeness as that of an Aryan of Nazi racial ideology…Mr. Albee himself said on numerous occasions when approached with requests for nontraditional casting in productions of ‘Virginia Woolf’ that a mixed-race marriage between a Caucasian and an African-American would not have gone unacknowledged in conversations in that time and place and under the circumstances in which the play is expressly set by textual references in the 1960s.

So Streeter wants to make a production of the play that is actually about an interracial marriage, using Albee’s words about old unhappy people to make that comment, and the Estate objects (at least on paper) not because of the blackness itself, but because of the exact thing that the producer is trying to elicit in people. To wit: the expectation that his race 4 would be able to be converted into a different thing entirely, and that this would add depth to the character rather than simply changing the character to something fundamentally different is not shared by the people that grant the rights to perform the play 5 , which, from the point of view of The People That Handle Such Things (to wit: The Dramatists Guild, as far as I can tell), is the correct position 6, or at least the position they’re willing to defend.

The response in the non-theatrical community seems to be centered mainly on the loss of an opportunity for an actor of color, which is always a concern in the theatre – there are lots of people who aren’t casting in a race-conscious way, and jobs for POC are simply not as numerous as they ought to be. The thing here, however, could very well be something a little more than that.

A theatrical performance is a collaboration – between the director (who decides how it all goes together), the writer (who provides the raw material), and the onstage/backstage people that enact the combined vision. The focus here (since it never actually got produced) will have to be on the role of the director alongside the writer. The play itself is that collaboration 7, which means that if the director is doing something that runs counter to the expressed intention of the creator (in this case that the younger character be blonde and blue-eyed), then the play is, necessarily, completely different, as stated above.  Even if one of the collaborators is a static participant – this is the case in almost every production, as very rarely is the writer on-hand, especially in the case of something that’s already been performed and published, to collaborate dynamically – it’s still a collaboration, and still has to be treated as such, with the only real option for the static participant being to remove his contributions.

Like any collaboration, there’s inevitably a trade-off. In this case, Streeter was making his point 8 via the framework of a very famous piece of work. He was attempting to leverage the recognition of the name and title into his statement about black life in 1962. The risk there is that the people handling the affairs of the writer are really only risking this one performance, and, given Albee’s own iron-handed treatment of his work 9, there was always the possibility that they wouldn’t agree and it wouldn’t happen. Especially since their stated reasons are so specifically to avoid exactly what Streeter was setting out to do.

Streeter makes it apparent that his color-conscious casting is also kind of context blind when he includes in his letter to the Albee Estate the information that he successfully race-flipped some portion of the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar, which also sort of proves the point. While JCS was written in 1970 (and is, therefore, more recent than Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), the actual story of Jesus was first written down in something like 70 CE 10, and has been told, at rought count, six hundred trillion times in just about as many forms since then. It’s a story that is literally a part of the fundament of much of the country’s enculturation, and, at the very least, a story with which nearly every single person in Streeter’s audience would have been familiar, which was kind of the point of Weber making it a rock opera in the first place – it’s a malleable story that is familiar enough that you can do an awful lot with it before it bends out of shape.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is, and I hope I don’t ruffle too many feathers, neither as old, as well-known or as common as the story of Jesus, and it relies a bit more on the specific makeup of its cast 11, so it’s significantly less resistant to that kind of bending. 

Editorially (and as above), it’s absolutely the case that this decision could very well have come from a place that also denies black actors work in the theater. But there’s no denying that choosing a different goddamn play would have denied even fewer of them. Not to mention potentially some non-white playwrights, some non-dead playwrights, some non-already-rich playwrights, and a host of other people that could’ve benefited from finding, say, something that was more in-line with what you were trying to say about the black experience in 1962.

Furthermore, I’m not sure that I would have followed the same course of action as the Albee Estate myself. I would probably have come down on the side of letting the dude do his dumb thing and letting it exist for the world to see it, and let the dude that made it live with his notion that “slim-hipped” is going to be provocative, and that his audience is a set of people who he’s presuming are there expecting racial slurs. But it’s not up to me (I’m not Edward Albee, y’all!).

It is, actually, up to anyone else that makes a play. That’s how these things shake out. If the idea that the current handlers for Edward Albee’s work don’t want Nick to be black is something that takes you out of your ability to like Edward Albee’s work, then it’s time to stop putting on Edward Albee’s work. If enough people agree, that’ll be that. That said, it’s probably important to acknowledge that arguing that a playwright shouldn’t be allowed to exert any control over the production and presentation of his work 12 is kind of a terrible one, even if, in this case, it is kind of hard to swallow the putative reasons given.

Regardless of where one stands in the argument here, given that the authoritative body in charge sides with Albee, you’re pretty much left with the option to just…not perform the plays. It’s true that you won’t get the advantages of performing the play that people have heard of and getting the publicity you wanted for that in the first place, but it’s also true that, should your message be one that’s important, you can find the play that suits your needs and/or desires.

And, hey, if you want your audience to constantly worry that you’re going to use racial slurs in the dialogue, I bet you could figure that out, too. Although it probably won’t be tonight’s show at The Shoebox, Thom Pain (Based on Nothing), which is definitely a wonderful monologue show that will provoke thought in the audience, and which, frankly, is probably better in 2017 than Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

  1.  George, Martha, Nick and Honey. George is an academic whose career is heading toward the coast pretty quickly, while Nick’s wave at the university at which they work is rising. Martha is an old housewife, Honey a young housewife. George and Martha do not get along particularly well, and NIck and Honey (spoiler alert) also have problems. Or, well, at least one problem, such as it is. 
  2.  although in at least one instance – a 2002 production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival – Martha was played by a black woman. 
  3.  leaving aside the thing about hips, there’s still the fact that if you’re putting on a play and are, at any point, expecting the audience to have to ask each other about the upcoming racial slurs (which are not, in fact, there, or at least not without making script changes that would almost certainly not land him in cooler water with the Albee folks), then you are saying more about you than your audience. 
  4.  a matter of literal, actual text – his physical, blonde/blue-eyed, white, attributes are mentioned specifically and directly 
  5.  there is also some kerfuffle, which is well beyond my inclination to tease out, over the advertisement of the production before the license was granted (Streeter says it was a casting poster that got mistaken for a show-advertising poster, I see no reason not to believe him), as well as, as Streeter points out, some weirdness regarding it being Streeter’s fault for casting the show without permission to perform it, even though in order to get the license you have to submit the cast, which, presumably, means you have to cast the show in order get the license, which you can’t have until you cast the show. 
  6.  for his part, Streeter doesn’t seem apt to pursue retaliation, or arbitration, or court uh..itation, instead announcing that he was looking for another play to perform and moving on. 
  7.  or, if you want to harrow it even more finely, the play itself is the outward result of that collaboration, but the collaboration is the engine that runs the whole thing. 
  8.  which again, according to him, includes that invective spewed at a black person is going to turn into racial slurs and something about white women’s bodies vs. black women’s bodies vis a vis their hips, because that is also, apparently, important to Streeter 
  9.  the rule that the cast must be approved before the production can go on didn’t start with his estate, after all, and he shut people down on those grounds from coast to coast. 
  10.  the biblical gospels are not precisely-dated, so it could have been as early as 40 CE and as late as 150 CE. 
  11.  let’s also remember that even though everybody in JCS on the West End (although not in the movie!) was white , nobody in the actual Jesus story was. 
  12.  this argument is made two ways, once by wondering how it is that he even needed to ask permission, and again by ignoring the substance of the objection in favor of shouting down the idea of not wanting a black actor in a role. 

A Considered Look at the Best-Selling Records of All Time, Part 7

What makes an album a gajillion-seller is a combination of factors so incoherent that it’s more-or-less impossible to list or talk about them in any real sense as a class – each gajillion seller is different in its genesis. At a certain point, however, the primary force behind a record selling a bunch of copies is momentum. More copies sold means more chart presence which means more press presence means more people exposed to it means more people hearing it means more copies sold. These records have reached a point where they have a kind of gravity – they accrete sales at this point, rather than achieving them, planetary bodies around which other records orbit, touchpoints for people to find and recognize while they find other, more personal planets.

That said, many of the best-selling records of all time are not specifically good or bad. I’m not going to bat for most of them here, but there’s usually a reason. What that reason is is sometimes anybody’s guess (and sometimes it’s more a success in marketing and stuff than it is in actual music). So, in the interest of figuring it all out, I listened to them. All of them. Even when it was painful. Even when it was really painful.

So I bring you part 6 of this extensively-researched, closely-examined regarding of the biggest-selling records of all time 1Part 1 can be found here. Part 2 can be found here. Part 3 can be found here. Part 4 can be found here. Part 5 can be found here. Part 6 can be found here.

Shania Twain – The Woman in Me

WHAT IT IS:The first of the superstar Shania Twain records.

WHY IT’S HERE: This one’s follow-up, Come on Over, appeared several installments ago, and The Woman in Me set the table for that record: it’s basically the same, only just a little bit less. Less polished, less pop-oriented, but also somewhat (slightly) less terrible. Anyway, this was a big seller during the part of the country music boom that coincided with the lady pop singer boom.

AND…?: It is, it’s true, marginally less objectionable than Come On Over, although not in any way that’s easy to quantify or possible to list. It’s just kind of less bad all over. It’s still not at all good, though.

THE BEST SONG: “Any Man of Mine”.

Supertramp – Breakfast in America

WHAT IT IS: This one, I have to confess, brought me up short. It’s a Supertramp album, it’s true. And while Supertramp is a staple of classic rock radio, I would probably never have actually guessed that they sold enough to make this particular list. So what it is, I suppose, is the most genuinely surprising album here, at least in terms of “odds that I would have bet against it being here.” It did spawn an above-average number of radio staples 2, and some of them are quite huge. And Supertramp were extra-large at the time, having the then-rare quality of cross-Atlantic popularity – they were more popular in the U.S. than the U.K., but they were definitely plenty popular in the U.K.

WHY IT’S HERE: Down here at the bottom of the list 3, one of the things that it’s possible to be is an enormously popular band in and of your time 4, and basically nowhere else, and get here. There are dated, weirdly-specific records on this list all the way down, but down here in part 7, you can get there by being really huge for about eight months. So, actually, a record with a bunch of radio hits (as opposed to, say, two, see below) makes as much sense as anything else, but also demonstrates how much high-selling records used to sell.  

AND…?: Aw, it’s not so bad. I have genuinely no connection to it as music (and never really do where Supertramp is concerned), but it’s not unpleasant to listen to, and I do like “Goodbye Stranger.”

THE BEST SONG: “Goodbye Stranger”

Tracy Chapman – Tracy Chapman

WHAT IT IS: The best-selling record by a person from Cleveland. Depending on how you choose to define “folk music,” it’s also quite possibly the best-selling folk record of all time 5.

WHY IT’S HERE: If Supertramp’s record is a testament to the power of a bunch of radio hits to move units, Tracy Chapman is a testament to the power, ten or so years later, of exactly one giant radio hit to move units, along with one other, minor, hit. This is, perhaps even more than the bigger albums above, sort of emblematic of what was so weird about record sales in the nineties: Tracy Chapman arrived, had a compelling story, a great voice and a willingness to work in the right channels, and mainstream success was something that was within her reach because of the ability of the record-selling industry to, well, sell records. It wouldn’t have worked for her at any other time in history 6.

AND…?: I like this album just fine. It actually had two other singles 7 that are, I feel, kind of unjustly forgotten, and works pretty well front to back. It’s surprisngly un-dated, given that the lyrics are based almost entirely on the Bush-era politics of its genesis – the production is unfussy and uncluttered, and Tracy Chapman’s voice really is a hell of a thing.

THE BEST SONG: “Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution,” although I would be remiss if I didn’t link to Xiu Xiu’s gut-wrenching cover of “Fast Car”.

Usher – Confessions

WHAT IT IS: You know, there are not a lot of easy ways to explain Usher. He’s a giant pop star who’s sold millions of records and appeared in movies, and all sorts of the accoutrements of being a generally famous singer-dude, but he doesn’t really have a “thing,” other than that he’s got a really good voice and he can dance like crazy 8. Also this far down on the list I have said stuff about pop stars and, frankly, Usher is just one of ‘em. This is, honestly, probably how you’d also explain Supertramp, as well. With the additional note that Usher is the one of ‘em that owns part of the Cavaliers, and Supertramp is not. 

WHY IT’S HERE: This record is another one that made it in sort of in the middle of the record-selling industry collapse, and part of it is because with Confessions Usher made a sort of perfect storm of record-selling magic: he wrote catchy, memorable songs, danced on tv all the time, and also provided the press with a huge, easy-to-grab hook for writing about it – namely that the song was about the falling-apart of his relationship with Chili from TLC, and also his inability to not have sex with, well, everyone I guess? I mean, it sure seems like everyone.

AND…?: Most people who appear on this list only appear once, and that’s fine. Sometimes there’s a strong case for calling the best-selling album by an artist their best, and that’s fine too. In the case of Confessions, however, it’s pretty undeniable: this is the best Usher record  9. It’s a surprisingly musically-varied (at least for a mid-aught’s R&B record) set of songs, and also for a record that sounds so indelibly rooted in its time and place, most of it holds up pretty well.  

THE BEST SONG: The best song of Usher’s career, the thing that will allow him into Musical Heaven, the card he can play for the rest of his life that more-or-less guarantees that I will at least attempt to treat him with goodwill is, of course, the absolute masterpiece that is “Yeah!” 10. The exclamation point is part of the title, guys.

Various Artists – Flashdance: Original Soundtrack from the Motion Picture

WHAT IT IS: It’s a film soundtrack. Here at the end of this thing it becomes increasingly difficult to figure out new ways to explain why any given soundtrack did the deed, sales-wise. Honestly this is the last time I have to listen to a film soundtrack for this project and that fact alone is making me happy enough to almost like this garbage.

WHY IT’S HERE: This one had two big hits from it, and soundtracks were huge business, and, hell, why not add that it sounds like a parody of an eighties movie soundtrack 11 and also that it’s entirely possible that Michael Sembello bought, like, two million copies of this himself.

AND…?: I don’t want to belabor the point, but it’s terrible. Like, just awful. But it’s not even spectacularly bad – it’s just….bad. Boring, same-y, overproduced, overperformed terrible crap.

THE BEST SONG: Ummmmmmmm. Uh. The spaces between the songs are kind of nice. I noticed that one part of “Lady Lady Lady,” so I guess that’s the one? That one that has the part I kind of noticed a little bit, as far as I remember?

Whitney – Whitney

WHAT IT IS: Whitney’s second self-titled album 12\, and the source of most of her other enduring hits (i.e. the ones that weren’t on Whitney Houston, which appeared earlier in this series).

WHY IT’S HERE: for basically the same reason that Whitney Houston was here: the voice thing, the persona thing, the being a new and interesting face in pop music thing. She created the template that Mariah Carey would later come along to exploit 13, and this is sort of ground zero for that. 

AND…?: Her music is still formless and pretty devoid of distinguishing features outside of her voice – listening to this record makes it apparent that the voice is the thing with Whitney. The songs are pretty dumb, and even her voice wasn’t a known quantity at this point, so she doesn’t get the same kind of impressive songwriting she would get subsequently.

THE BEST SONG: “So Emotional”

And that nearly wraps it up! I have examined, considered and listened to every single album on the list. I’ll dip back into this pool one more time, to rank these albums from best to worst, and then it’ll be on to considering other things and talking about them! Stay tuned!

  1. according to Wikipedia 
  2.  although many of these songs are songs that I recognized from hearing them six thousand times, one of the things that remains true about Supertramp is they are capable of writing songs that I hear and internalize, and then do not in any way associate with the band Supertramp. Which is weird, to say the least. 
  3.  with the caveat that the bottom of this list is really only the floor on the very upper-most echelon of record sales. 
  4.  in fact, of the seven albums in this installment, one could make an argument for each of them – even if you wanted to establish a baseline based on the other items on the list – being extremely closely-tied to the time of its release. 
  5.  by which I mean: if you define “folk music” in a way that excludes Simon & Garfunkel. I spent several minutes just now as I was writing this trying to decide if I thought they were actually folk music or just some sort of trad-pop holdover thing, and I really don’t know where I come down on it. They don’t feel like folk music to me, but I genuinely do not know if that’s because I’m noticing something else, or just because I’m weird. 
  6.  maybe the late sixties, but compare to Richie Havens or Joni Mitchell (other socially conscious downer folkies that had massive success) , and note that they did not sell in these kinds of numbers at the time. 
  7.  The pleasingly-punctutated “Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution,” which is a better song than “Fast Car,” and “Baby Can I Hold You,” which is not a better song than “Fast Car” 
  8.  this is also leaving aside his ears, which are very noticeable, because this site does not stoop to that kind of appearance-based nonsense. 
  9.  more than that, I’m also comfortable saying that it is the only Usher record that’s any good as a record played end-to-end. 
  10.  Even if “Yeah!” is actually a pretty-good Usher song wrapped around an all-time great Ludacris feature. This is evidenced by an odd quirk of radio-programming around the time of this song’s release: there used to be pop music stations (NB: they may still exist, I don’t know, I don’t listen to the radio anymore) that would cut the rappers out of pop songs when they appeared – for reasons I probably do not have to explain, except to say: yes, your worst suspicions about it are 1,000% true – and this song was only a solid B, rather than the A++ it is in its natural habitat.   
  11.  genuinely if you told me that the soundtrack to Flashdance had been imagined in a board meeting somewhere where people decided to play a prank on the record-buying public by promising them an actual soundtrack and instead delivering a fake one that was indistinguishable from the real thing and that there was, as a result, a group of old people somewhere laughing that anyone ever listened to it, I would believe you. 
  12.  admittedly her first self-titled album was her full name, this one’s just her first name. I suppose that’s totally different. 
  13.  i.e. most talk is about the voice, if it isn’t furtive discussion of her body. Also even in her pre-drug days Whitney was kind of a weirdo, although she wasn’t anywhere near Mariah on that front. 

The Best Records of May 2017

Penguin Cafe – The Imperfect Sea (an extraordinarly unlikely set of circumstances – this is actually a band led by the son of the guy who originally operated under the Penguin Cafe name, for starters – doesn’t prevent this from being a wonderful, majestic record)

Bonnie Prince Billy – Best Troubador (another in Will Oldham’s hot streak of covers albums – see also last year’s Chivalrous Amoekons and, before that, 2013’s What the Brothers Sang — this one finds him inhabiting some of his favorite Merle Haggard songs, which are, of course, some of the best songs)

Aaron Dilloway – The Gag File (the erstwhile Wolf Eye and Cleveland-area resident makes another noise masterpiece)

(Sandy) Alex G – Rocket (It’s probably blasphemous to say that this record sounds like what I wish Sebadoh records sounded like, but it kind of does)

Underachievers – Renaissance (I think the Underachievers might be the most consistent act in hip-hop at the moment. They have gotten mentioned on this pretty much every time they’ve released something)