One Year, 100 Pop Cultures: #10 – 1
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on February 2, 2009
One day before Groundhog Day!
Hardcore fans probably saw this one coming, but I had never been completely sold on Weezer Mk. II. The Green Album had broken my heart so callously back in 2001, and it took almost until 2008 for me to even realize that that album was pretty OK. Listening to The Red Album, though, it all finally makes sense, and now even universally-acknowledged classics like Pinkerton and Blue seem like warmups for the album that Rivers Cuomo had always really wanted to make. “Pork and Beans” was the (relatively) big hit, with its winking vereses, huge chorus hook and YouTube love letter of a video, and though it’ll be the enduring memory that most have of the Weez in ’08, it wouldn’t even crack my top ten of theirs for the year. Give me the post-meltdown Brian Wilson dementia of “Dreamin’,” the inexplicable, stream-of-consciousness swagger of “Troublemaker,” the impressively sweet, simple and downright democratic “Thought I Knew,” even the gloriously shambolic throwback of a b-side, “Miss Sweeney.” And of course, give me the ungodly behemoth that is “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived,” a song that will likely never be fully and properly appreciated by me, anyone reading this blog, or even by Weezer themselves–and to think: the video is still to come. 2009 is just getting started.
We’ve become so desensitized and used to the repeated atrocities of the major award shows (take a look at the run of ’00-’05 Best Picture winners: Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, Return of the King, Million Dollar Baby, Crash) that when they actually get a couple things right, it can be a pretty special thing. I spent the months leading up to the 2008 Oscars trying to convince others–and myself, really–that there was no way a movie as weird as No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood had a chance of winning Best Picture. Either Juno would sneak in as a sentimental favorite, Atonement would pack enough prestige to be the voters’ safe choice, or there would be a write-in campaign to give it to The Bucket List–just about anything made more sense to me than those two movies winning. Not only did No Country end up taking home top honors, though, a whole slew of legitimately deserving and cool nominees emerged victorious–Daniel Day-Lewis getting Best Actor for Blood, Tilda Swinton with Best Supporting Actress for Michael Clayton (though handsome sister-in-arms Cate Blanchett would’ve been even better for I’m Not There), even The Bourne Ultimatum seeing some love in the underrated Best Editing category, among others. But for me, the real high point was the one pictured above–Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova winning in one of the most historically preposterous Oscar categories for their gorgeous song “Falling Slowly”–lending the ceremonies enough temporary cred to make a Benjamin Button clean sweep this year semi-forgivable.
There was arguably no viewing on TV this year as essential as Vince Offer’s star-making turn as pitchman for ShamWOW!, the absorbent shammy-like towel that will, allegedly, have you saying WOW every time. It’s hard to say what in Vince’s admittedly prolific background–from making critically derided indie parody movies to suing the Farrelly Brothers over stealing his ideas to joining the church of scientology (and then suing them for besmirching his good name)–made him such a mastercraftsman in the late-night shithawking industry, but he was nothing short of a revelation in 2008. If you’ve seen the thing once, you can probably quote any number of the classic catchphrases that Offer spewed, dropping truthbombs like Ron Artest (“Made in Germany, you know the Germans always make good stuff,” “This lasts ten years. This lasts A WEEK. I don’t know, it sells itself!” “You’re gonna spend $20 a month on paper towels anyway. You’re throwing your money away!“) But more than what he promised, it was the sarcastic enthusiasm he brought to the job (“We’re gonna do this in real time!” “You following me, camera guy?“) that so brilliantly reflected the ambivalence that so much of its bored/stoned/easily amused late-night contingent brings towards the medium. And hey, friends of IITS have attested to the genius of the product itself, so you know what to get us for our site’s two-year anniversary…
Robert Downey, Jr. had started to mount quite the impressive comeback as early as 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, then steadily gaining momentum through Good Night and Good Luck, A Scanner Darkly and Zodiac. A true breakout was inevitable, and in 2008, RDJ provided, and then some. This was the year that Downey proved he belonged in that rather rarefied group of actors that simply has the power to make bad movies good. This is different from the ability to make bad movies watchable–like, say, Al Pacino–or the ability to make any decent movie better–like, say, J.T. Walsh. Rather, Downey can step into a movie that doesn’t have all that much going for it–sketchy script, flat direction, mediocre supporting cast–and make it a must-see. Iron Man bowled over most critics and made money enough to guarantee about seven sequels, but fact of the matter is that a large portion of the movie was flat-out bad, and with any other actor playing Tony Starks, the movie becomes about as successful as House starring Michael Keaton in the title role. Similarly, Tropic Thunder had two big strikes against it from the get with the supremely unfunny Ben Stiller and the now completely worthless Jack Black in two of the biggest roles, but Downey’s pitch-perfect (and Oscar nominated!) turn as method-blackfacer Kirk Lazarus more than shifted the balance back towards the funny. It’s almost scary to think about what would happen if he actually starred in a couple decent blockbusters some year.
It’s been touch-and-go for almost four years, but now there’s no doubt–Rihanna is here to stay. Every year since her 2005 breakthrough, she’s gotten more and more undeniable, until the mega-success of “Umbrella” in 2007 made you wonder how she could possibly climb any higher. The answer? Well, showing up on three #1 singles–in a year where you don’t even release an album–is a pretty good start. “Disturbia,” a summer jam candidate written by boyfriend (and our #19) Chris Brown was probably the best of the bunch, although also the weirdest, a fairly unclassifiable anthem of paranoia and confusion (with a Floria Sigismondi-esque video to match), which showed that Rihanna had reached the level of making audience expectations conform to her creativity, and not the other way around. Her appearance on T.I.’s smash “Live Your Life” was equally significant, demonstarting (along with the Maroon 5 duet “If I Never See Your Face Again” and the JT cameo in “Rehab”) that she could hang with any of the country’s biggest stars. But for me, the most important single Rihanna released in ’08 was “Take a Bow,” a fairly by-the-book kiss-off song that could’ve easily been “Irreplaceable” redux, but contained enough little production touches and vocal tics to make the song memorable in its own right. One of the most important skills that all the biggest pop icons of the MTV era share–Madonna, Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey–is the ability to make even their phone-in songs compelling, and now I think it’s officially time that we start including Rihanna in their ranks.
There were issues to be had with the fifth and final season of The Wire, certainly. The serial killer arc was often totally ridiculous, the newspaper scenes felt too much like David Simon’s personal axe grinding, maybe a couple big death scenes were a little undwhelming. But whatever your personal beefs were with the fifth season, you really had to set them aside for the season (and series) finale, an episode that might not have been quite perfect itself, but contained so many stunning moments, and did such a perfect job of encapsulating and reminding you of everything that made The Wire the most brilliant and moving show on television. Michael stepping into Omar’s shoes. Landsman eulogizing a sheepish McNutly at the Wire cop bar. Slim Charles interrupting Cheese’s long-awaited ascent-to-the-throne speech with a much-deserved bullet to the head. Marlo attempting the straight life for all of fifteen minutes before sprinting back to the streets. Levy pinching Herc’s two-timing cheeks and pronouncing him as mishpacha. And, of course, the final montage of McNulty looking over the city landscape, and begrudgingly conceding, it’ll do. Season five will undoubtedly go down as the worst season in The Wire history, and deservedly so, but its lows were never all that low, and they were all more than made up for by our last 90 minutes in Bodymore, Murdaland.
Baller in the House. Not only is Barack Obama possibly the first Oval Office resident to be able to hang with Jay and Beyonce, or the first to quote Sam Cooke in his acceptance speech, or the first to reference WWE catchphrases in his campaign, he was also perhaps the best athlete and biggest sports enthusiast to rule over our country since Calvin “The Cremator” Coolidge. Besides all the times he proved his one-on-one prowess to whoever was lucky enough to get schooled by him, he also talked fantasy football with the guys from ESPN, sent out much-appreciated props to the White Sox in the middle of CubMania, and most importantly, gave hope to an increasingly impatient nation of college football fans by voicing his support for a playoff system in the BCS. For the first time in eight years, and possibly a whole lot longer, our country’s sports fanatics–democrat, republican or modern whig–can rest easy at night, knowing the leader of the free world has their best interests at heart. Plus, look at the alternative—John McCain, best known for his appearances at Phoenix Suns games, thinking to himself “Hm, this team is interesting, but they would be better served by slowing down and focusing around Amare, the team leader.” (Largely stolen from my Sports4president Blurb)
In 2008, pop music was Wayne’s World, pure and simple. Tha Carter III, more anticipated by many than even Chinese Democracy, set the stage by doing the near-unthinkable, selling a million in its first week, which is basically the equivalent of going quintuple-platinum in seven days at the beginning of this millennium. And then all of a sudden, Weezy was everywhere. Usher’s “Love in This Club Pt. II,” Lloyd’s “Girls Around the World,” T-Pain’s “Can’t Believe It,” Kevin Rudolf’s “Let it Rock,” The Game’s “My Life,” Akon’s “I’m So Paid,” Wyclef Jean’s “The Sweetest Girl,” and posse cut “Swagga Like Us”–all benefited from Mr. Carter’s guest appearances (and in the case of Rudolf, might owe his entire career from this point forward to getting the martian’s seal of approval). He was on so many other hits in ’08 that you can almost forget the fact that he was responsible for four delectable smashes of his own–the ice-cold “Lollipop,” the mind and spine-melting “A Milli,” the crowd-pleasing “Got Money” and the hilariously smooth “Mrs. Officer.” He rapped, he sang, he played the guitar (poorly), he monologued (poorer), he debated Skip Bayless on ESPN2’s First and Ten (yikes). OK, maybe Weezy should stick to what he does best for the time being, but for what he does do best, nobody did better in 2008.
Nothing I can say about this that hasn’t been said already, but for the hell of it, let’s state the incredibly obvious: The biggest blockbuster of the decade, and the second-biggest movie ever released, was one creepy, fucked-up, awesome flick. Not that it was perfect–in fact, I still think that Batman Begins was a better movie on the whole, with a better ending and a much stronger central protagonist–but it’s unbelievably rare that a movie gets just about everyone feeling so damn good about the state of pop culture in our country, and if there was anyone that didn’t think that The Dark Knight was a gigantic step in the right direction, they certainly weren’t brave enough to voice their dissent in any of my social circles. Of course, TDK was destined to be forever linked with the tragic death of Heath Ledger months before the movie’s release, the star’s untimely demise inevitably tied to the psychological demons necessary for one to confront in order to properly play a character as deeply maniacal as the Joker. And while it would be crass to suggest that Ledger’s performance was in some way “worth it,” it’s impossible to deny that his turn was one of the most transfixing in all of movie history, his (utterly unrecognizable) presence commanding every second of every frame in which he appeared, and setting him on the fast track to Academy glory even without the boon of it being a posthumous credit. We might not see a performance or a movie that unites high and low culture for a long time to come–and we might never see a superhero movie of any sort again that my mother would willingly watch and even sort of enjoy.
For someone who spent an all-too-large chunk of his existence begrudging pro sports for never unfolding as brilliantly or dramatically as it did in the movies, imagine my surprise to get a 2008 Super Bowl that was basically the Star Wars of football games–a mixed up, low-confidence kid with issues of living up to his family leading a group of loveable underdogs in a dramatic charge against the evil empire, climaxing in a one-in-a-million shot that allows them to emerge victorious. As great as that sounds on paper, it was even better to watch in reality, especially with the excitement of three close Giants victories (and a hell of a regular-season capper that foreshadowed the final battle) leading up to the
big showdown. I’ve since re-watched a couple games from the Philly World Series win and am amazed at how much I’ve already forgotten about how they unfolded, but I remember almost every moment from that final Giants drive. Jacobs bulling through on a fourth-and-one. Samuel letting the game-sealing pick graze off his fingers. Smith converting on third and long into the red zone. And, naturally, the play pictured above–I always wondered if I would witness one of these permanent highlight reel moments in my lifetime, and doubted that it would strike me as such at the time, but the Helmet Catch (or the Great Escape, or the Scramble and the Catch) was every bit as stunning as the experts would proclaim it to be shortly afterwards. Then there was the floater to Plaxico in the end zone, burning Pats corner Ellis Hobbs, which was practically an afterthought at that point, but still nearly caused me to black out in excitement. For days, weeks afterwards, nothing could compare to the memory of the game, and while it’s rough to have the high point of a year in its first month, any time you can get a reminder of just how good pop culture can make you feel, you try not to take it too much for granted. Meanwhile, tonight we saw a new Super Bowl, one of nearly as many twists and turns as ’08’s. How will its rank compare on our ’09 list? Guess you’ll have to stay tuned for another year to find out…