One Year, 100 Pop Cultures: #60 – 51
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 19, 2009
You know we couldn’t let 2008 pass here at IITS without some sort of commemorative list, and over the next few weeks, we’ll be counting down the 100 people, places and things that made pop culture an inhabitable space over the last 365 days. Music, movies, TV, commercials, sports, previews, internets, current events…anything and everything that made the year what it was. Ten at a time for as long as it takes, and hopefully we can move into an ‘09 mindstate by Groundhog Day at the latest.
In a TV season where, once again, there were no decent breakout shows (and really no breakout shows at all, save The Mentalist), we can thank True Blood for at least making a good faith run at it. Created by Six Feet Under mastermind Alan Ball, the show was refreshingly different from the procedurals and single-dad sitcoms currently plaguing the airwaves, and without drawing attention to it at all times (like, say, the now-cancelled Pushing Daisies). You gotta love a show that not only has a unique premise, but fleshes it out with all the necessary details for a compelling fictional universe, from the fictional town to the alcohol and drugs to the inevitable political mess that comes from living in a world in which vampires exist and are presumably tolerated as citizens. And if you don’t buy that, or you don’t find Anna Paquinn’s southern accent and manners particularly adorable, there was always lots of sex–hot, freaky, occasionally downright demonic sex (though would you expect any less from an HBO show about vampires?) Don’t tell me how it ends though, I still have about five episodes to go.
If you had asked me what the chances of Guns n Roses actually releasing Chinese Democracy in my lfietime were in, say, 2003, I would’ve ranked it slightly below Brian Wilson releasing a full-length, officially sanctioned version of Smile or The Simpsons actually coming out with a feature-length movie. But I guess dreams have just been coming true left and right these days, and thanks to a friendly push from the world’s greatest soft drink, Axl Rose actually unleashed their third LP (or fourth, or fourth and a half) on the public in 2008. Of course, in the 17 years since the Use Your Illusions set, Axl became a complete nutcase, pissed off just about everyone who once considered themself a GnR fan, and got left in the dust by hard rock in general, so after all the skepticism and bad jokes were put to rest about Chinese Democracy, we were forced to acknowledge the fact that not all that many people were still interested in hearing what a Guns n Roses album sounded like in 2008, and the album only made #3 on the charts. Thanks to Dr. Pepper, then, not only for antagonising Axl enough to get him to release the album, but actually following thorugh with their promise of a free Dr. P for anyone who downloaded a coupon from their website–ensuring that the album’s release made a beautiful day for everyone, for one reason or another. Oh, and the album? Not so bad, really.
Animated junk-food mascots don’t tend to go through Dylanesque career reinventions every year, so when they do–especially this dramatically–it tends to be fairly memorable. I’m not sure why the Cheetos makers decided that they wanted to go after a more mature demographic, but considering that even when I was eight I thought Chester Cheetah to be just a little bit too much, it was perhaps a wise move on their part. And I suppose that the principles of subversion and rambunctioness that existed in the kiddie ads are still there, merely transposed from youthful rebellion to workplace vengeance. In any event, Chester became one of TV’s most compelling advertising icons in 2008–grizzled, wise, possibly blind (but with a penetrating non-stare) and almost definitely pure evil (when I visited with my Great Uncle Marty the other day, I realized the resemblence between Ches and himself was positively uncanny, minus the pure evil part). It’s hard to really gauge how successful the Orange Underground movement was, and the fact that I don’t see the commercials much on TV anymore makes me think the coked-out attention whore Chester might once again not be far off, but it certainly was fun while it lasted. Actual snack still sucks, of course.
When the Atlanta Hawks crashed the Eastern Conference playoffs with a 37-45 record, few expected them to be much more than some starry-eyed young’ns just happy to be the last ones in (“Check out the playoffs logo they put on the floor!” Josh Childress remarks to Josh Smith in the classic Garbage Time All-Stars Eastern Conference review). But not only did the Hawks show up, they threatened to end the eventual champs’ playoff run before it even got off the ground, taking the series to seven games when few even dared to suggest that the Dirty Birds could hold off a Celtics sweep. Not to mention that over the course of a mere three home games, the Hawks’ cast went from being a bunch of second-class citizens to some of the most compelling characters in the East, and the Phillips Arena crowds went from being virtually non-existent to being a home court RAWKUS enough to make the Oracle Arena crazies look like, uh, wherever it is that the Bobcats are playing these days. Of course the C’s made it clear who the superior team was with a humiliating game seven blowout, but those three games in Atlanta made for some of the most exciting, dramatic and downright shocking basketball–even spilling over into a quality regular season rivalry, as the two games the teams have played thusfar this season have been similarly invigorating. We can only hope these guys meet up again with the Celtics in the ’09 Semis–alley-oops, blocked shots and on-court jawing for all.
’08 was truly a banner year for vampires, but even moreso for the women who loved them. Twilight was very, very far from being a great movie, and that had a whole lot to do with the makeup (Peter Facinelli looked like he was supposed to be a ghost or something), the script (the science lab scenes between Bella and Edward being particularly LOL-worthy) and most of the acting (has there ever been a group of supporting classmates more tokeny or cringeworthy?) But it was all buoyed, and lifted to something very close to watchable status, by the performance of Kristen Stewart. Having been a remarkably mature actress since she co-starred in Panic Room at the age of 12, Stewart was little less than stunning in Twilight, eschewing the histrionics that would’ve been more than excusable for such a shamelessly over-the-top franchsie, in favor of a much more restrained, suubtle performance that made the character seem dangerously close to…soulful. Especially when compared to her ridiculous co-star–I weep for the female youth of today that will be fawning over this creepy-looking hack well into adolescence–Stewart was a revelation, every facial expression and vocal tic speaking volumes more than you’d think the script and direction should allow. Here’s hoping she doesn’t have to do movies like this into her 20s.
Following up a first-ballot hall-of-famer like “Dick in a Box” was an extremely unenviable task. Bravo, then, to the Lonely Island folks (Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer) for not resting on their laurels, trading in the 90s ballad sound and guest Timberlake contributions of DiaB for a modern synth’n’b beat and some video cameos by Molly Shannon and Jamie-Lynn Sigler for “Jizz in My Pants.” Bravo to them as well for remembering the golden rule of musical pastiche–it only works if your song is as insanely catchy and instantly memorable as those in the style you’re parodying. “Jizz” is that indeed, its percolating synth-hook and oft-repeated titular four-word chorus easily sticking in your head, even before the end of the first time through. It’s a pretty good faux-Timbaland beat, too, even including that obligatory Timbo part at the end where they sing the bridge to the tune of the musical hook, and while I’m not sure why they decided to sing the thing in a British accent (“The Way I Are” by way of “West End Girls,” anyone?), the classic lines still come at a very respectable pace (the rapid-jizz part in the middle being my favorite, especially the “When Bruce Willis was dead / At the end of Sixth Sense” line pictured above). It’s not as funny as “Dick in a Box”–what could be–but it certainly makes me look forward to the 2010 installment.
Beijing saw its share of eye-opening stars over the course of its eventful olympic ceremonies–Usain Bolt, Shawn Johnson, Kerri and Misty-May, and that slightly retarded-looking guy that won a bunch of gold medals and ate a lot, among many others. But for my money, the whole thing peaked on the first night. Zhang Yimou orchestrated a blend of art, technology and community so impressive and so visually arresting that I can’t imagine how London didn’t just dump their 2012 bid right then and there (live performance from the Kaiser Chiefs as their ace on in the hole, perhaps?) So many parts of it seemed so unlikely–the precision, the choreography, the unbelievable amount of time and energy (and $$$$$) that had to have goneinto it that you believed it must have been green-screened or something, until the bit ended and the dozens/hundreds/thousand of Chinese citizens poked their heads out from under their little art pieces. Climaxing with the appropriately grandiose torch-lighting at the end, the final bearer running sideways along the perimeter of the Beijing National Stadium, the whole thing was absolutely transfixing. Of course, I still ended up missing about half of it, checking Yahoo! Sports updates of a Pirates-Phils game that had gone into extra innings (the Pirates ended up winning in 12, I think). Oh well, I’m sure Beijing’ll get them again in 68 years or so.
I’ve watched four or five episodes of Gossip Girl, and they all had something in common–there wasn’t a single scene that took place in a school building in any of them. For all I know there isn’t one in the entire series, and if so, I doubt too many of its fans have even noticed. The brilliant idea of Gossip Girl seems to be to make teenagers watch a show about teenagers who never acknowledge the fact that they are, indeed, teenagers. No one goes to school, no one plays on the football team or has a shitty garage band, no one worries about zits or their parents walking in on them masturbating or anything like that–instead, it’s spoiled kids playing dress-up as high society adults. Yet it’s still an unquestionably youth-oriented universe, almost creating the illusion that the kids are running the show, and that their parents are just getting in the way. That’s why the ad campaign for the new season of Gossip Girl, featuring vaguely scandalous-looking scenes accompanied with quotes of parental moral outrage, is so brilliant. They appeal to the sense of the teens and pre-teens watching this show that watching Gossip Girl is a veritable act of revolution against their parents’ world of authority, while allowing them to feel that they are entitled to the world of fast fashion and sexual politics that the show promises them. Meanwhile, the adults that view the show with one eye over their shoulder to make sure no one sees them get to feel even sneakier for watching a show they should know better than to watch. Everyone wins, except for the cast of the new 90210.
2008 could have and possibly should have been the year where, after finally releasing the follow-up to an album that spun off four #1 singles, Usher stepped up to solidify his reputation as the biggest R&B star of the 00s. But after the mediocre “Love in This Club” and its lack of even a half-decent follow-up, his rep was more or less up for grabs. Ne-Yo, proclaiming ’08 the Year of the Gentleman, was undoubtedly one of the strongest contenders for heir apparent status. He first showed up on one of the more underappreciated hits of the early summer, singing the hook to Plies’ “Bust it Baby (Pt. 2),” and then demonstrated his increasing triple-threat skills with the fantastic “Closer,” proving once again that every great Michael Jackson acolyte eventually needs to star in a black-and-white video, dancing by his lonesome. But the real slam dunk was “Miss Independent,” stealing the idea of Webbie’s “Independent” (“I like a chick that can split the bill and has her own apartment”) and actually putting a good song underneath it, with a gleefully rubbery beat, a brilliant, shimmering synth hook and one of the most exuberant choruses heard in any recent love song (much less one that rhymes the phrases “And her bills are paid on time / That’s the girl that’s on my mind”). Stop hanging out with The Game, though, Ne–that one’s not doing either of you any favors.
Ah, memories. On the morning of December 28th, Eagles fans were convinced that they were going to go into the off-season with their enduring memory of 2008 being Reggie Brown falling just inches shy of the goal line as time expired against the Washington Redskins, a loss that put them at 8-6-1 and appeared to doom their season to just-shy status. The Eagles needed an extremely unlikely set of circumstances–a Bears loss to the Texans, a Buccaneers loss to the Raiders, and then an Eagle victory against the Cowboys–to be able to whiff the post-season, and most conservative estimates put ’em at between 5 and 10% of making it happen. But then an overachieving Texans team thumped the Bears, third-string Raider running back Michael Bush torched the Bucs (in their own building, no less),a nd all of a sudden, Philly was looking at a win-and-in against their most hated rivals at the Linc. Not only did they manage that, they positively shamed America’s Team, forcing lord knows how many turnovers against a crumbling-from-the-inside Dallas, and knocking Tony Romo around so badly that he collapsed in the shower after the game ended. It was a beautiful day for Eagles fans, and an almost as good one for fans of football and schadenfraude in general. The Eagles didn’t make that Super Bowl run fans and pundits soon thought them capable of, and blew it in appropriately gut-punching fashion, but when I think back on the ’08 season, this’ll be the game that sticks out in my memory. God, I hope so at least.