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Mixed Emotions: The Pop Conundrum of the Black Eyed Peas

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on February 27, 2010

Over the last year or so, two questions have been pressing on me, and inspired by this week’s new #1 on the Hot 100, it seems as good a time as any to ask them out loud:

1. How much better would the Black Eyed Peas be if they were only Fergie and Will.i.am, cutting out the two useless rabble-rousers?
2. How much better would the Black Eyed Peas seem if they had never been considered to be a rap group?

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Posted in 10 Years 100 Songs (00s), Mixed Emotions | 3 Comments »

Mixed Emotions: “The Betrayal” (i.e. The Backwards Seinfeld Episode)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on May 21, 2008

“Still don’t know what that means…”

Without a doubt, “The Betrayal” is one of my all-time favorite Seinfeld episodes, a top tenner for certain. It’s got plenty of hilarious Frustrated George moments, especially as he calls out for reparations from Jerry in the form of sex with Elaine (“That doesn’t punish me, it punishes Elaine,” Jerry points out in his most characteristically condescending tone, “And cruelly, I might add”). It’s got one of the great one-off Seinfelders with Kramer’s friend-cum-death-wisher FDR (Franklin Deleanor Romanosky). It’s got some of the all-time classic Newman quotes, goading Kramer that he wasn’t invited to his all-Postal Employee birthday party because his invite must’ve gotten “lost in the mail!” and explaining an inside tip to his birthday-wish-supermodel-girlfriend about Zip Codes (“They’re meaningless!“) It’s even got Sue-Ellen Mischky, the braless wonder, and the all-time last appearance of Susan, supplying George with his hysterically meaningless catchphrase-to-be.

But my emotions about this episode remain mixed, for one simple reason: I don’t really get why it has to be backwards. It’s a fascinating gimmick, sure, especially in the pre-Memento era, but according to Wikipedia, it’s not a unique one, as Sci-Fi series like Red Dwarf, Voyager and The X-Files have all attempted the “Backwards Episode” before. The explanation for the creative choice would most likely be tied to the fact that the episode is titled after and I suppose roughly themed after the Harold Pinter play “The Betrayal,” with Sue-Ellen’s fiancee even being named after the playwright. And sure, there are a couple decent reverse chronology-jokes, like Elaine being Schnapped three seconds before we see her confessing to Jerry her previous Scnhapps-spill to George, and of course the episode’s final/first scene, in which Kramer’s general mooching tendencies are explained by a too-inviting Jerry upon first moving across the hall to the big man.

But really, minus this closing/opening scene, would the episode seem at all weird or out of place if it were put back in the correct order? If you think about it, it’s basically just like every other Seinfeld episode, and some jokes that would’ve been good if they were found at the end of the 22 minutes (Nina explaining she knew about George’s faux-heightening all along, Elaine’s acrimonious re-split with Sue-Ellen) just don’t make sense at the episode’s beginning. And unlike in Memento, in which the character’s amnesia was thematically echoed by the fragmented, constantly re-starting backwards chronology, there aren’t really any such themes to be found in this slight (albeit not particularly so by Seinfeld standards) episode for it to be seen as anything but a gimmick.

There are two defenses I will consider for the ep’s backwardness, one of which is intentional and one of which is circumstancially coincidental. The intentional one, and one which comes pretty close to justifying the ep’s backwardness on its own, is that of Kramer’s lollipop, pictured above. It’s never really explained why he has it in the first place–I guess he acquired it at FDR’s birthday party, though I’ve never been at a party in New York cool enough to give out giant lollipops. Watching the thing start out as having been nearly licked down to the nub at Kramer’s second confrontation with FDR, and watching it inconspicuously grow back to full size as the episode regresses is one of the episode’s greatest and most subtle triumphs.

And the second thing which nearly justifies this creative gambit to me, and a benefit that I don’t see how the episode’s creators could possibly have predicted, is the way it ends up commenting on the way people like me that mostly know Seinfeld through watching the reruns watch the show. I’d wager that of all the Seinfeld episodes I’ve seen, I’ve maybe seen about a quarter all the way through at any one point. Instead, I’d tune it at 6:47 and catch the last thirteen minutes, then catch the ten minutes before that about a year later, and maybe three years after that, I’d finally see the opening scene. “The Betrayal” was no exception to this, and consequently, I essentially saw the episode like it was any other TV show–maybe one of the only Seinfeld episodes where I first saw the beginning, then the middle, and then the end. Freaky.

In any event, I’m sure the Pinter play doesn’t have an exchange nearly as hilarious as when Kramer and Newman negotiate their birthday-wish bartering (“Your next…fifty birthday wishes.” “48!” “49!” “Done!“)

Posted in Mixed Emotions | 2 Comments »

Mixed Emotions: Weezer – “Pork & Beans”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 16, 2008

You hate for the kids to think that you lost your cool

It ain’t easy beeing Weez. Not to say that it’s particularly hard–God forbid we should all be enormously rich beloved rock stars with Elisha Cuthbert on speed dial–but their fans always seem to be grouchy about something. You can’t please all the people all the time, and nobody knows that better than Weezer. Make Believe was a decided commercial succes but was met with mixed reviews at best, and likewise, lead single “Beverly Hills” marked their biggest hit in a decade, while being utterly reviled by much of the W faithful. Previous album Maladroit was met with lukewarm reviews but spawned no hits and has since been dismissed by much of the band’s fanbase as insubstantial. You’d have to go back to 2001’s Green for a Weez album that was both commercially and critically successful, you’d have to go back to Pinkerton for a Weez album that the entire fan base could get behind, and you’d probably have to go all the way back to the Blue album for the last Weezer album to be an unqualified, across-the-board success. I think it’s safe to say Weezer are due for a crowd-pleaser.

Unsurprising, then, that everything about the W’s upcoming 2008 album should scream back to basics. They’ve got the monochromatic album cover (already being semi-coloquially referred to as “The Red Album”), they’ve got Jacknife Lee, producer of R.E.M.’s “FINE YOU WANTED A RETURN TO FORM ALBUM HERE TAKE IT” effort Accelerate, behind the decks, and now they’ve got lead single “Pork & Beans”. Debuted on KRoq earlier this week, “Pork & Beans” is unmistakably old-school Weezer–listen to a single second of that chorus, and you’ll probably catch yourself thinking thoughts like “hm, I wonder when they’re releasing the CD single?” and “hey, maybe Matt Pinfield will debut the video for this on 120 Minutes this Sunday!” The multi-tracked vocals, the chugging drums and bass, that one-channel guitar crunch…there’s just no sound that’s quite parallel to it, and if it doesn’t make you smile at least a little bit, then you’ve probably never smiled at Weezer before, and the odds of you having smiled at anything ever in your life are not particularly high either.

So, good news, right? Time for Weezer to reclaim Band Everyone Loves Always status? Time to start counting down the days to Red‘s release? Time to punch yourself in the face for not admitting that “We Are All on Drugs” was the best song ever? Well, maybe that last part, but pity poor Weezer, ‘coz I’m just not quite ready to concede those first two. It’s catchy, sure–my head is so full of music and trivia that it usually takes me about a half-dozen listens to remember how any song goes, but I was singing this one to myself for an hour after listening to it the first time. Even in their darkest hours, though, catchiness has never been an issue for the Weez–you may love “Beverly Hills” and “Hash Pipe,” or you might have immolated your Rivers Cuomo action figures because they disgusted you so much, but you damn sure know how them choruses go. What really forms the disconnect between 90s-era Weezer isn’t the hooks, it isn’t the production–it’s the lyrics. And we might still have a problem them.

First things first–titling your lead single “Pork & Beans” is just straight up perverse, and not only in the way that it sounds like a sexual innuendo (which for all I know it actually is). It’s silly because it’s just not a title that a hit song can weather–it’s way too unspecific to the song, the mental image isn’t one you associate with any aspect of popular music, and it comes from maybe the weakest line in the song (“I’ll eat my candy with the pork and beans”–meant to be a statement of individuality and control over your destiny, I suppose, but much more logical as a total non sequitur). I mean, I guess Weezer has a history in this respect–“El Scorcho,” “Hash Pipe” and “Dope Nose” aren’t exactly top 40-ready titles either–but this one seems particularly weak and tossed off to me.

This would be a forgivable offense, and even arguably a good joke, if the rest of the lyrics weren’t so lame as well. I mean, more Weezer contemplating whether they should be concerned about being cool and popular and just deciding “well, fuck it, I’ll do what I want”? Didn’t they already do that in “Beverly Hills” (and wasn’t that kind of redundant to begin with?) Yes, Rivers, I understand that the kids are fickle these days, but proving that you know who Timbaland is while subsequently insisting that you don’t need to know who Timbaland is doesn’t make you sound either hip or lovably un-hip, it just makes you sound old. Legitimately secure people people shouldn’t have to sing about how legitimately secure they are, right? Can’t Weezer just sing about stuff anymore?

I’m probably making it sound like I dislike this song more than I do–really, it is pretty catchy, and if the rest of the album is this tuneful and well-produced, it bodes for a highly listenable Red at the very least. But the thing with Return to Form albums is that they’re never quite as satisfying as it should be, since all they end up doing is emphasizing how long and far it’s been since the band was there the first time around–you can never really repeat the past, especially not once you’ve graduated from Harvard, gone to cellibacy and back, and adopted Rick Rubin as your personal swami. But let’s hope some of the surprises Weezer have promised to have up their sleeve–“longer songs, non-traditional song forms, different people writing and singing, instrument switching, TR-80s, synths, Southern Rap, and Baroque counterpoint” among them–keep things a little new and interesting. I’m not ready for Weezer to be officially Old quite yet.

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Mixed Emotions: “Before He Cheats”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on February 13, 2008

Louisville Slugger sales: Up 247%

At my weekly karaoke bar outing with fellow College Bowlers / Empty Orchestera Vocalists, a trend has started to emerge: every single week, a different drunk, blonde girl tries her hand at Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats.” At first I was heavily in favor of this trend–always cool to me to see a new-ish song emerge as a future classic, and it was a welcome change of pace from the still great but fairly tired “Since U Been Gone.” But with every week, the song becomes less and less novel, and it becomes more and more likely to soon join the ranks of the karaoke damned.

Consequently, the song has really sort of gotten under my skin, until I have become forced to sort of analyze the deeper implications of Carrie Underwood’s revenge fantasy. Now ever since Gloria Gaynor claimed her survivor status after a bad break-up in 1979, female-sung pop music has become less and less content with such a passive response to male deviance, and have started taking action. Kelis declared I Am Woman, Hear Me Yell Like a Motherfucker (and even organized an army to her cause), Blu Cantrell let her credit cards do the talking, and Lily Allen arguably got the most creative, having his toilet clogged and then feeding him laxatives (woof). Clearly, Carrie has invented no new phenomenon.

Even stacked up against those, though, something about “Before He Cheats” remains kind of unsettling. Maybe it’s because it’s Carrie “All-American Girl” Underwood, the American Idol herself, doing the smashing–what part of Jesus Taking the Wheel is this, exactly? Maybe it’s of the specificity of the whole thing–in a song that could’ve just said “I fucked up his car” and moved on to bigger and better revenge tactics, Carrie instead goes to town, keying the car’s side, carving her name into the leather seats, and taking a Louisville Slugger (not just any bat would do the trick) to both headlights. Clearly, she’s thought this out in advance. Hell, maybe it’s just because of the possibility of it being Tony “Mr. Nice Guy” Romo’s ride getting the shit kicked out of it.

But what I think really sort of weirds me out about this song is the implied double standard of the thing. Sure, when some chick is belting it out while hammered at a Girls’ Night Out, it sounds relatively harmless, a statement of empowerment for the supposedly fairer sex not being content to take emotional abuse lying down–fair enough. But imagine if it was some dude wailing on his guitar about the way he took a bat to his ex-girlfriend’s car. Somehow, I don’t think “Maybe next time she’ll think before he cheats” would be seen as quite so empowering.

And that’s why it blew my mind to find out that, in fact, the song had started out as “Before She Cheats,” as penned by the decidedly male songwriters Chris Tompkins and Josh Kear. However, the two wisely realized that taken from a male perspective, it would’ve sounded insecure, sexist and more than a little creepy–in other words, it’d be a Nickelback song. But Carrie, hearing the song and realizing its potential, took her magic scissors to it, changed a couple “she”s to “he”s, and voila, a career-solidifying hit with the third longest run in Billboard chart history. And with a nice girl like Carrie behind the mic instead of a scumbag like hm, Chad Kroeger perhaps, who could possibly believe there was anything morally questionable about the song?

The more I think about it, though, the more I realize that “Before He Cheats” isn’t just the story of a spurned woman sticking up for herself, it’s a tale of an extremely bitter girlfriend slipping into near-psychosis. The entire structuring of the song’s verses involves Carrie contemplating a bunch of “Right now, he’s probably…” scenarios involving her (possibly ex?) boyfriend, and seemingly basing her violence on those indiscretions. But the fact is, nowhere in the song is it said that Carrie actually knows that he’s doing any of this stuff right now–frankly, all of it could be in her head. Taking it a step further, Carrie never even describes how she caught him cheating in the first place, so how do we even know that he cheated on her in the first place? The “Cheats” protagonist could very well just be a mentally unstable woman acting out of jealousy and paranoia.

You could say that it’s sexist to make such assumptions about the song, but once again, imagine if this was a badly-shaven dude in a dirty t-shirt and jeans singing it instead of Carrie–who would possibly think that this was the story of a clear-thinking, morally justifiable protagonist then? It’s even highly possible that Carrie realized this and meant “Before He Cheats” to be interpreted as such, and that it’s more of a character study than a personal statement of intent. I’d choose to give her the benefit of the doubt on that.

Somehow, though, I don’t think the girls sending this song to the karaoke rafters quite see it that way.

Posted in Mixed Emotions | 6 Comments »

Mixed Emotions / TV O.D. : Aliens in America

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on November 9, 2007

What’s so funny ’bout peace love and foreign exchaaaaange students

It’s kind of hard to view this new TV season as anything but a disappointment. A lot of it is my own fault, admittedly–following the playoffs forced me to put my TV watching on hold for a few weeks, and consequently, there were some pretty good-ish shows (Life, Dirty Sexy Money, uh, Carpoolers) that I didn’t stick with beyond the first couple weeks, so I’ll never really know if they ended up getting better or anything (and by never, I mean at least not until I marathon ’em at the end of the season). But it wasn’t just me–a lot of the shows advertized as being the brightest of the bunch just didn’t pan out for me. Pushing Daisies had potential but was too largely intolerable to keep up with, Chuck had Adam Baldwin and some nifty production values but not much else, and Reaper just downright sucked. Even Cavemen wasn’t the thought-devoid oasis of unintentional comedy I had hoped.

In fact, the only new TV show I’ve been keeping up with is Aliens in America. While other shows have been falling by the wayside, the new CW comedy about a misfit teen trying to fit in, whose struggle is compounded by the arrival of an even less cool Pakistani exchange studnet as his housemate, has won a relatively safe place in my weekly rotation. Yet despite this vote of Torrenting confidence, my feelings about the show remain extremely conflicted–to the point where I couldn’t even necessarily say with confidence that it’s even that good of a show.

Six episodes in, the key word with Aliens in America is still potential. You can see it, feel it, sense it around the corner with Aliens–the possibility of things to come, the seeds of a great show in the making. It’s in the show’s subtle visual gags, like the high school’s staircase-designated hierarchy (the cool girls at the top, everyone else in descending coolness from there). It’s in the characters of protagonist Justin Tolchuck’s family–the mom who not-so-discreetly tries to vicariously relive her youth through her kids, the more popular younger sister who pretends like Justin isn’t there (quite literally, as she explains in one of the show’s more hilarious bits), and the aloof Dad who is slowly proving himself one of the most endearing TV dads since Sandy Cohen. And it’s even in the film’s narration, which while occasionally weak in content, is at least delivered in a loose, unpretentious manner that stands in stark contrast to the horrifically preachy and/or overbearing narration of most recent TV shows.

But so much of the show still just sucks. The show gets what it feels like to be an outcast pretty well, but when it comes to the popular kids, they don’t seem to have much of a clue, and consequently, almost every character outside of the principal family feels like a caricature. The plots are ridiculous, and to date, have all more or less followed the same plot–Justin does something insensitive to an oversensitive Raja, they fight, Justin realizes that Raja was right about everything, they make up. And the theme song–a mere chorus snippet of some mediocre sounding cover of the Costello/Lowe classic “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding”–is unforgivably pointless.

Worst of all, though, is the show’s still utterly incredulous central premise. Raja is just a really annoying and not terribly funny dude, and the parts of Justin’s plots that involve him just seem to distract from the aspects of the show that are actually funny. The show would be so much better without him, except that without him, there wouldn’t really be mcuh of a show–it’d just be another confessions of a true teenage loser-type TV show, which would last probably even fewer episodes than the show likely will with Raja and that hook of a central premise in it. Frankly, I’m not even sure how to sovle this issue–my only hope is that as Raja gets acclimated to American culture, his character adapts a little, becomes less preachy and less grating, and it just becomes a story of two mismatched kids trying to survive High School, without the whole culture clash aspect.

I’m really hoping it works it out somehow, because even though it’s just potential at the moment, that’s really more than it seems like most shows are able to boast for this season. Also, the show only runs something like 19:40–which should piss me off, but it just makes me like it more for some reason. Frees up more time to watch VH1Classic and catch up on S3 of Philadelphia.

Posted in Mixed Emotions, TV O.D. | 1 Comment »

Mixed Emotions: Duran Duran f/ Timbaland & Justin Timberlake – “Night Runner”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 16, 2007

Talk to me, Simon


My excitement over the prospect of Duran Duran teaming up with Timbaland for their new album is well covered on this blog, and that excitement has little faded over the last few months. Despite some of Timbaland’s friskier attempts on solo album Shock Value to bridge the rap-rock divide turning out a little half-cocked (to be fair, collaborating with The Hives and She Wants Revenge is never really a great idea), Duran Duran have always been far more of a pop band, and given the critical and commercial success of that blue-eyed-funk-y Maroon 5 single, it seemed like Timbaland would be just the man to throw the unfortunate has-beens back in the spotlight they still so richly deserve.

And for all I know, he still might be. Comeback single “Night Runner,” which leaked in an unfortunately poor-quality rip via a stream on the Entertainment Weekly site, is definitely the fucking jam, no question. It’s the exact kind of fortune-reverser of a groove that revitalized Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake’s careers and gave people a reason to give a shit who D.O.E. and Keri Hilson are, the sort of shiny, breathy, sweat-soaked beat-rocker that Timbo has become Hitman #1 crafting these last few years. For all I know, it’ll give Duran Duran their first legitimate hit in over a decade, and I sincerely hope it does.

But as a Duran Duran single, it’s hard to view this as anything but a flop. Talking about “purity” with a band as crassly commercial as Duran Duran immediately verges on the hypocritical, but in any of the countless skins they’ve adopted in the past 25 years–new wave, disco, soul, adult contemporary, techno-pop, even a couple questionable stabs at hip-hop–however ill-advised, I could still feel Duran Duran’s presence behind the song. But even half a minute through “Night Runner,” it’s abundantly clear–this isn’t really Duran Duran featuring Timbaland, it’s Timbaland featuring Duran Duran.

And really, it’s just Timbaland featuring Guest Artist. It’s hard to tell, especially on such low quality an MP3, where Simon Le Bon ends and where Justin Timberlake begins on this track, but if you had told me that this was just one of the tracks on FutureSex/LoveSounds that I had somehow yet to hear, I’d probably have believed you. Le Bon’s vocal lacks any of the wailing urgency that made his singing on their dozen or so 80s classics so inimitable (and believe me, I’ve tried), his potential for stunning histrionics wasted in the song’s low whispers. As for the rest of the band–it’s sort of hard to hear where they even fit in to this track. How bored are Roger and John gonna be playing this song live?

Some people weren’t too thrilled with it, but I thought “Earth Intruders,” the Bjork / Timbo collab from earlier this year, was an awesome, hugely inventive single, and a perfect example of two entirely unique artists mind-melding to come up with something that’s not only totally new, but still bears the thumbprints of both artists. “Night Runner” just sounds like Duran Duran showing up at Timbaland’s doorstep with a pouty look and their hands out, and while it’s probably the best single the band’s put out in a decade or so, it’s definitely not what I was hoping for.

Oh, also, the song might actually be called “Nite Runner,” not “Night”–the Wikipedia entry lists it as the latter, but google has far more hits for the former. So don’t give me shit if it turns out to be the other one.

Posted in Mixed Emotions | 7 Comments »

Mixed Emotions: Reality Bites

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 20, 2007

And I thought what I felt was simple…

Take a look at that poster up there. Normally, I try to avoid posting movie poster pics for my blog, because I usually think actual screenshots from the flick are more memorable and more revealing, but in the case of Reality Bites, the poster really says it all. Ben Stiller is staring at Winona Ryder, deeply in love, while Ethan Hawke is doing a too cool quarter turn away from Ryder, pretending not to notice her presence. And Winona, she’s too busy trying to deal with her emotions to look at either of them. In the background, words like “jobs,” “relationships,” “credit cards,” and most tellingly, “movie poster” hang around, while the tagline–“A comedy about love in the 90s”–drives the point home, just in case.

So there you have it–Reality Bites in 500 pixels or less. Stiller loves Ryder and isn’t afraid to show it, Hawke loves Ryder and is deathly afraid to show it, and Ryder doesn’t have a clue what to do about either guy. Meanwhile, everything else going around in the movie is trying hard–real, real hard–to be the definitive portrait of a generation, to show exactly how every member of it feels about things like jobs, relationships and credit cards. And as for that tagline, well, the first five words of it are basically redundant–“The 90s” would’ve worked just fine as a tagline, teaser, or even a plot summary of Reality Bites.

To put it reductively, Reality Bites is a bad movie. The characters are all roundly dislikable in one way or another, the direction is light and fluffy most of the flick but turns deathly over-serious at all the wrong moments, the soundtrack is largely terrible (with a few key exceptions, which I’ll get to later), the dialogue is contrived and absolutely nothing about the movie feels genuine, including the characters’ supposed distaste for genuineness. Really, even The Cable Guy was a step up for Ben Stiller.

However, that’s not to say that it’s not interesting. Despite my distaste for just about everything about Reality Bites, I watch it just about whenever I see it on TV (including on Bravo last night, the obvious inspiration for this blog entry)–I can think of few movies offhand that I find quite as fasincating. The two main themes of the movie–the love triangle between Stiller, Ryder and Hawke, and the summation of the Gen X experience–are utterly ridiculous, and impossible to take seriously, yet I think it’d take me a senior thesis-length essay to properly explain way (but I’ll see if I can’t do it with a few thousand less words anyway).

The central love story of Reality Bites seems to be more at odds with itself than any movie since Andie and Blaine ultimately ended up leaving Duckie holding the bag at the end of Pretty in Pink. Essentially, the beautiful, confused Lelaina Pierce (Ryder) has herself a choice between two sutiors, Michael (Stiller) and Troy (Hawke). Michael is an up-and-coming exec at a hip, youth and music-oriented TV station (NO IT’S NOT MTV WHY WOULD YOU THINK THAT) who meets Lelaina when she causes a car accident in between the two. Instantly enchanted, he courts Lelaina for the rest of the movie, making out with her to Peter Frampton and eventually taking her video project (about her friends and youth in general in the 90s, more on that later) to the brass at Non-MTV, who love it and want to buy it immediately. He believes in her, he calls her from the road, he forgives her for breaking his Dr. Zaius doll and spends much of the movie apologizing for stuff that he never really did wrong. Michael is what you would coloquially refer to as a nice guy.

Troy is not a nice guy. In fact, you could probably count the amount of things that Troy does over the course of Reality Bites that would even register him as human on one hand, even if you were Mordecai “Three-Fingered” Brown. He shows no apparent romantic interest in Laine until she starts to date Michael, at which point he decides its finally time to make his big move (after she gets fired from her John Mahoney-hosted talk show, for maximum vulnerability potential). When she rejects him, he immediately switches into “I Can’t” mode, shutting out her sincere pleas for friendship and generally just pouting a lot. Then, once things aren’t going so well with Michael, he’s back in to rescue her, but abandons her the morning after. But then when Michael shows up to win her back…you get the idea.

The best (or at least, most memorable) scene in Reality Bites is when Troy is waiting up for Laine after her Frampton makeout with Michael, and she demands to know why he’s suddenly acting so jealous. He gets up from his seat, walks over to her, puts his hand on her cheek, and says with total brown-eyed sincerity: “I am really in love with you.” And for a second, Laine just melts–her eyes drop, her lips quiver, and her previously indignant and pissed-off attitude instantly vanishes. With that one line, you can tell that Troy is, at the absolute most, two moves away from the boudoir. But then his straight face cracks into a smile, and he bursts the bubble: “Is that what you want to hear? Is it? Well…don’t flatter yourself.” It’s a greater act of cruelty from one human being to another than anything I saw in Schindler’s List (well, arguably anyway), especially because from her one-second reaction, it was clear that in fact that was exactly what Laine wanted to hear. But rather than save both of them a lot of time and effort by sinking the pink right then and there, Troy opts for the more immediately self-satisfying taunt approach instead. Like I said, Troy is not a nice guy.

The choice between these two individuals would for most people seem like an easy one, even despite the fact that Michael looks like Ben Stiller and Troy looks like Ethan Hawke. But ultimately, despite having spent the last two hours making her feel as much like shit as humanly possible, it’s Troy who wins out for Lelaina’s heart in the end, without her even giving Michael so much as a goodbye. She realizes her love for Troy to the strains of U2’s “All I Want is You,” he shows up at her doorstep, and the deal is sealed–a happy ending, supposedly.

But the most ridiculous thing about the ending is that despite it being frustrating, illogical and just inately wrong, it’s actually the only way the movie could’ve ended. There’s no way Lelaina could’ve ended up with Michael, because the whole movie it’s obvious that she doesn’t give a damn about him, and that’s because he gives way too much of a damn about her. The entire movie, Laine is fucking things up for Michael–causing him to crash his car, breaking his Dr. Zaius doll, storming out of the Non-MTV meeting after he stuck his neck out for her, and of course, eventually cheating on him with Troy–and most of the time, it’s Michael who ends up apologizing. He loves her enough to let her walk all over him and not ask why, and that’s not something Laine can respect or really even understand. It’s Troy that knows how to put her in her place, and that’s what she responds to (something that Michael could never understand, as evidenced the Non-MTV flick of his shown halfway through the credits with a mock-Troy spurning a mock-Laine because she doesn’t understand his music)

Pretty black stuff, but Chuck Klosterman had another theory about the ending (from Sex, Drugs & Cocoa Puffs), one which ties into the movie’s other main theme–that the ending of Laine ending up with Troy was a quintessentially 90s way of appoaching love. Gen Xers, sez Klosterman, were the first generation to be brought up to think that they could do it differently–differently than their parents did, different from the normal way of doing things, and different from what was expected of them. They were willing to risk their future on a life that wasn’t safe or predictable. And so, Laine ends up with Troy–far from safe, not the predictable option, someone who might very well destroy her in the end, but someone for whom she genuinely cares and for whom she’s willing to take a chance. I’m also positive that the fact that Troy shows up at her doorstep sans goatee for the first time in the movie has something to do with this, but I’m not sure exactly what yet.

Solid point, and it especially makes sense because every single other thing about the film basically exists for the sole purpose of making the official Gen X spokesmovie. Reality Bites might be the first movie ever made to actively attempt to sum up a generation–some movies have done it incidentally, probably, but no other flick had tried quite so hard. Even Singles, another quintessentially 90s romantic comedy, one even set in the definitively 90s location of grunge-era Seattle, felt more like a movie that just happened to strike in the right place at the right time. Reality Bites was made with the absolute intention of people being able to point it out to their kids ten or twenty years down the line and say “That movie–THAT is what the 90s were like

And, strangely and sadly enough, it basically succeeded. Watching it today, Reality Bites looks more dated than Sixteen Candles and Teen Wolf combined. The clothes, the facial hair, the coffee shops, the television–there’s barely an image in this movie that isn’t explicitly reminding you of when it was filmed. Then there’s the script, splattered with 90s dialogue (even the title, yikes), the appropriately cutesy 70s nostalgia that was so pervasive in the 90s, and of course, the soudntrack–just look at some of the artists: Julianna Hatfield, Me Phi Me, Big Mountain–would these guys even have existed without Reality Bites? Hard to say.

And then there’s the performances. The thing that most grounds this movie in 1994 for me is that with the possible exception of Winona Ryder, none of these actors would ever play characters like the ones they play in Reality Bites again. This is the only movie I can think of with Ethan Hawke where he’s even slightly unlikeable, let alone the embodiement of pure evil–yeah, maybe his character was kind of ambiguous in Tape, and maybe he turned out to actually be a murderer in Taking Lives (my god why did I see that movie), but even if those movies, he just generally seems like such an amicable, sympathetic guy. Meanwhile, Janeane Garofalo gets to play the slut sidekick, instead of the homely girl jealous of the slut sidekick that she would subsequently (and far more logically) get cast as for the remainder of the decade. Ben Stiller plays a pressured, not very bright, well-meaning guy, whereas for the rest of his career he’d play pressured, moderately bright, well-meaning guys. And Steve Zahn–he’s actually quiet for most of the movie. It feels like an alternate film universe, one in which John Lovitz might play a mild-mannered physics teacher if he showed up.

It’s ironic how a movie as obviously inorganic as Reality Bites could end up feeling so definitive. Partly it’s because I don’t think Stiller succeeded quite in the way he meant to–I doubt he quite meant for the movie to call attention to its generation-definining quite as often as it did, he probably just assumed people would make the connection on their own without even necessarily realizing it. But what Stiller probably doesn’t understand is that the movie obviously wanting people to realize what an epochal moment in popular culture it was is possibly what gives the movie it’s greatest legacy–Reality Bites was the beginning of instant-nostalgia culture, the first movie to reflect on its own standing in PC history as it was being made. It’s a self-consciousness that simply wouldn’t have been possible the previous decade, and one that predates the InstaPC of VH1 shows like Best Week Ever and I Love the _______s by a decade itself.

Few movies have been made that are more artificial than Reality Bites, and it’s an artifice that screams at you for the whole movie. Yet it was that artifice itself that made Reality Bites so fascinating, that artifice that keeps me and plenty of other 90s survivors coming back to the movie, despite our better judgement. Classic movie? Definitely not. Important movie? Yeah, probably. At the very least, I don’t see any 00s filmmakers trying to canonize Gen Y so succinctly. Or maybe they already have, and we just won’t notice until ten years from now. Here’s hoping.

(Also, because I’d feel extremely fucking remiss if I went a whole blog entry on Reality Bites without once mentioning Lisa Loeb’s “Stay (I Missed You),” just gotta say–best song ever, why the fuck does the movie hold it until the second half of the end credits?)

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Mixed Emotions: Say Anything’s “Wow, I Can Get Sexual Too”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 25, 2007

Even The Good Dr. occasionally has trouble making up his mind

A friend of mine gave me a copy of Say Anything’s …Is a Real Boy about four years ago for me to review for Stylus if I liked it, even though I was pretty sure (from the name and my then current anti-emo inclinations) I would hate it, which of course I did. In retrospect, I’d probably still hate it if I heard it today, but I probably should give it props for predicting the success of Fall Out Boy and Panic! At the Disco in its sprawling, overwrought nature and self-loathing but narcissistic lyrics. In any event, despite my friend’s assurances that they were gonna be big, I was fairly convinced that they were too ridiculous to ever get seriously popular.

I was sort of right. VH1 tried pimping their awful “Alive With the Glory of Love” for a while, but it peaked at a scant #28 on the Modern Rock chart.I appeared vindicated, however, I recently caught the video for their new single “Wow, I Can Get Sexual Too” and now I’m thinking of changing my tune. The song’s almost as overwrought as Is a Real Boy, and if at all possible, it’s even more ridiculous, but like their emo brothers in arms Fall Out Boy and The Academy Is, Say Anything have taken the sure path to mainstream success–disco.

It’s bizarre that 2007 is shaping up like this, but emo bands are going disco left and right. For whatever reason, these guys are doing away with their music’s punk roots and embracing their inner hi-hat. Not to say that “Wow, i Can Get Sexual Too” sounds like The Village People or anything, but it does sound a whole lot like Phoenix, which is weird enough to begin with–in fact I can’t really listen to the sleek groove of “Sexual” without being reminded of “Long Distance Call.” It’s definitely a good thing, but a decidedly disarming one.

Say Anything definitely do not take Phoenix’s lead when it comes to lyrics, though–the song seems almost pandering to its core audience, doing everything but namechecking MySpace (“And for eternity I lay in bed / in my boxers, half stoned / with the pillow under my head / I’d be chatting on the interweb”). And the song’s chorus consists of the kind of despicable lyric that makes so many people hate emoers with a passion–“I called her on the phone and she touched herself / she touched herself / she touched herself.” I’m amazed that MTV deems it playable, but I guess if Panic! At the Disco is possible than just about anything is.

Still, that groove. It’s a bold pop move in a year already full of ’em, and it’s one extremely emphasized in the song’s equally star-reaching video, which is equal parts “Drop it Like It’s Hot,” “Rock Your Body” and “I Write Sins Not Tragedies.” It’s surreal to see a genre once so associated with introspection and shyness become so extroverted all of a sudden, these videos have more in common now with Limp Bizkit and Blink-182 then Dashboard Confessional or Taking Back Sunday. Henry Winkler even makes an appearance for no particular reason, giving viewers the pleasure of seeing The Fonz lip synch “she touched herself” repeatedly. Strange times for certain.

It’s one of those songs that’s unbelievably frustrating, because as soon as you decide that you definitely like it, a cringe-worthy lyric comes around to make you second guess yourself, and every time you decide that it’s actually not that great, you get sucked back into the groove and think maybe it’s not so bad after all. I’m still not sure exactly where I stand, but I’m pretty sure that my initial prediction will eventually be proven wrong–I really can’t see any way that this song won’t get utterly massive.

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