One Year, 50 Pop Cultures: #10 – 6
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 26, 2010
Over the next few weeks here at IITS (and if we’re not done by February 1st, feel free to cut off our RSS feed in whatever dramatic fashion you see fit), we’ll be counting down the 50 people, places and things that made pop culture a worthwhile place to be in 2009. Feel free to suggest, prognosticate and criticize in the comments section below or on our Twitter page, but fair warning–we still haven’t rented Gamer on DVD yet.
Here’s a secret about TV last year that nobody really wanted to talk about: The last season of Curb Your Enthusiasm kind of sucked. Tired, tired joke retreads, plots that made no sense, little to no character development or even advancement. But that fact will more or less be permanently lost to time by virtue of the few worthwhile episodes the season did produce–the ones, of course, which focused on the Seinfeld reunion. Larry David gave Seinfeld fans just about the greatest gift possible–a new Seinfeld episode, in essence, without all the insurmountable pressure and hype that would have followed an actual Seinfeld comeback. Even though we didn’t really get a full episode out of it, we got enough to feel like we really finally got to find out what happens to these characters ten years down the line–George inventing the iToilet, Elaine having a baby with Jerry donating the sperm, etc. The sheer pop culture joy in seeing Seinfeld and Wayne Knight doing their “Hello, Jerry,” “Hello….Newman” routine for the first time in over a decade just can’t be measured. Just as good, though, was seeing Seinfeld banter with Larry David within the confines of the show–the first time David has really conversed with someone who spoke the same language as him, with fascinating and occasionally surreal results. So yeah, the season was kind of a huge disappointment. Having said that, though, it was also one of the best things on TV this year.
It’s hard to think of another band whose career arc has unfolded quite like Phoenix’s started to last year. They had seemed content for most of the decade to truck quietly along as one of the more likable and underappreciated underground pop bands of the 00s–every couple of years, they’d come out with a nice new album that drew mild acclaim, spun off at least one highly above-average single, and then faded back into the ether. Naturally, I assumed that 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix would follow a similar path. But then it was like all of a sudden, people realized, hey, these guys have been pretty cool for a while now, I guess they’ve finally earned the right to be legitimately popular. Before you knew it, the band was playing on SNL, attracting raves on Pitchfork, and selling out New York gigs in a matter of minutes. Then some enterprising spirit decided to mash the joyously romping “Lisztomania” with a bunch of Brat Pack clips, and the powers that be at Cadillac picked the shimmering “1901” to soundtrack their newest spot, and Phoenix was officially the underground band of 2009. I’m still not quite sure why now for Phoenix, exactly–yeah, WAP is a very good album, but not THAT much very good-er than any of their previous releases–but just in terms of seeing a good band finally get their due, the French foursome ended up being the feel-good music story of the year.
I’ve mentioned it elsewhere, but it’s hard to properly stress just what a poor job the ads did of marketing Adventureland, which from the posters and previews looked more like a sequel to Dane Cook’s Employee of the Month than the thoughtful, touching cult-classic-to-be that it actually is. Like Garden State, but with leads and a soundtrack that don’t even remotely suck, Adventureland was maybe the best movie made about post-teen-angst (which, in my opinion, is a woefully underrepresented dramatic subject matter) since The Graduate. Everything about this movie was pretty much perfect, from Ryan Reynolds playing the sleazy park mechanic (and the depressing real-life version of the romantic loser type he’d perfected playing over the years), to the suddenly very overexposed pair of Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig playing the park’s eccentric but oddly understanding managers, somehow seeming admirably understated in their over-the-topness. But aside from the soundtrack–c’mon, the acoustic version of JAMC’s “A Taste of Cindy,” that’s just not fair–this was that rare ensemble comedy where the leads were still the best part, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart making for the most purely likable screen couple in recent young-adult memory. Even us blackhearts here at IITS were kind of rooting for those kids to find happiness, and you gotta trust that that’s really saying something. In the mainstream, Adventureland will no doubt go down as little more than an asterisk, “that other movie Kristen Stewart was in when Twilight was out,” but I have to believe that an entire generation of aspiring post-adolescent fuck-ups will permanently carry a special place for 80s indie chick Stewart, and for Advevntureland in general, in their hearts. Go Team Mottola.
I know, I know. It hurts me too. But there’s really no getting around it–Alex Rodriguez was the story of the 2009 baseball season. When the steroid allegations came out before the season started, it looked like the latest tribulation in A-Rod’s downward-spiraling career and public image–with all his injuries and tabloid dramas (Remember Madonna? That Joe Torre book?), things finally seemed to bottoming out for Rodriguez in that horrifically awkward press conference, which contained the most unconvincing dramatic pause in television history (not so much bad acting, but a bad imitation of bad acting). But after everyone in the media had their say on the matter (My personal favorite comment came from mimbo teammate Johnny Damon, who answered “Kill someone, probably,” when asked to elaborate on his point that there are worse things that A-Rod could have done), Rodriguez decided to use the mess as an opportunity to completely flip the script on his life. Not only did he do a 180 in personality–acting loose and free-wheeling instead of treating every game like a Greek tragedy–but he somehow reversed his rap sheet in player-type as well. Now, rather than putting up impressive statistical numbers and never coming through in the clutch, he put up underwhelming statistical numbers and only came through in the clutch. There was a one or two-month period where it seemed like the only hits A-Rod was getting were game-winning home runs, something Yankee fans claimed Rodriguez was simply not capable of. Watching him come through time and time again in big regular-season spots, and then again in the playoffs, where he eventually won the World Series as the Yankees’ best player–it never stopped being stunning, a total reversal of fortune as unforseen as any in the previous decade of sports . Now, if it turns out that Rodriguez actually does have a painting of himself as a centaur hanging in his house, Bronx natives probably couldn’t care less. And even as a an of the team that A-Rod played the biggest part in dispatching in last year’s World Series, I gotta give him his propers for that.
When I put “Sex on Fire” at #69 on my list last year, I would never have dreamed that Kings of Leon would be showing up again, and 60+ places higher, on my list the next year. It seemed like a fluke, an unexpected one-off that I’d remember fondly but probably wouldn’t think about again for a couple of years after its mainstream run was over. Then came “Use Somebody.” I don’t think I realized just how special the song was until I saw the Kings performing it at the MTV Movie Awards last year, and it was just spellbinding, a song that seemed to strike the same chord as Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” or Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” or any other number of songs that helped write our definition of the classic part of classic rock. Over half a year later and the song is still in the top 40, and still a must-listen whenever it comes on the radio (which, yeah, is still a lot). It’s hard to say exactly what makes the song so emotionally gripping, since the lyrics aren’t particularly great and the Kings themselves seem, by all indications, to be fairly asshole-ish. Maybe it was smart of them, then, to give the song an essentially wordless chorus, where after the “SOMMMEONE LIKE YOUU-UUUU!!!” trigger at the end of the verses, all the main hook is are the distant-sounding chants of the band’s back-up singers wailing “OHHH-WOOAHHH-OHHHH!!!” and “AHHH-AHHH-AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH” And it’s incredible. It’s just incredible. I can’t explain why, but it’s probably the same reason that “We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl” still occasionally sounds like the most profound statement ever. And if you have any doubt that the song will endure like those previously named, look at the list of artists who have covered the song (or part of it, at least), already: Nick Jonas. Bat for Lashes. Kelly Clarkson. Paramore (My favorite). Friendly Fires. Nickelback (with the fucking guitarist singing). Even a little bit by Justin Timberlake. You can disagree with a couple of those, but not all of them. Hail to the Kings, baby.
The List So Far (Readable in Chunks of Five Here):
49. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs
48. Milton Bradley
47. “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss ‘Em Goodbye”
46. The NBA’s “Where Will Amazing Happen This Year?” Campaign
45. “Need You Now”
44. Party Down
43. Cliff Lee
42. Mariah Carey vs. Eminem
41. Gathering of the Juggalos
38. Important Things with Demetri Martin
37. Asher Roth
36. The Beatles: Rock Band
35. Michelle Beadle
34. Mall Cops
33. Sons of Anarchy
31. Dos Equis’s “The Most Interesting Man in the World” Campaign
30. Joel McHale
27. Lil’ Wayne
26. AL Central Play-In Game
25. “It’s All About the Roosevelts, Baby”
24. “Day n Nite”
23. Michael Jordan’s Hall of Fame Speech
22. The Proposal Trailer
20. Kobe vs. LeBron
19. Christoph Waltz
17. Super Bowl XLIII
16. Jeremy Renner
15. “You Belong With Me” video
14. Breaking Bad
13. “Slap Chop”
12. Ron Artest
11. Michael Jackson
10. Seinfeld on Curb Your Enthusiasm
7. Alex Rodriguez
6. “Use Somebody”