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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…

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One Year, 100 Pop Cultures: #20 – 11

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 29, 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.


The unlikeliest extended comeback of the 21st century somehow continued to gain momentum through 2008, as Neil Patrick Harris continued to play the same sort of stock character that he’d been developing since his comeback five years earlier, but started to diversify the mediums in which it was presented. There was the movie (Harold and Kumar Escape from Gunatanamo Bay, where he reprised the role that re-started it all) and the TV show (another solid year’s work on the most consistent sitcom on TV, How I Met Your Mother), both of which were to be expected. In ’08, though, NPH also started popping up in commercials as well, his chuckle-worthy “I used to be a doctor for pretend” ads for Old Spice helping the deoderant get some love earlier on our list. More pressingly, though, he graduated into the viral video market as well, as he got the title role in Joss Whedon’s well-worth-the-streaming mini-scifimusicom web series, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (Named Time Magazine’s #15 invention of 2008!) Aother year or so on this level, and Neil Patrick will officially cease to be “that Doogie Howser guy”–instead, Doogie Howser M.D. will become “that show that Neil Patrick Harris was on before he got really big.”


The extended stay of “With You” near the top of the charts at the beginning of the year had me worried for young Chris–the song was all right but unexemplary, the undecooked, post-“Irreplaceable” Stargate number disappointing after making his name on unabashed club crossovers like “Run It!” and “Kiss Kiss.” But in fact, this turned out to be Chris’s best year thusfar, proving with the glistening, panoramic smash “Forever” that he can carry a huge (and huge-sounding) hit all on his lonesome–one that forecasted the majority of the rest of the synth-heavy and dancefloor-friendly R&B hits that were to come in 2008. And then he started spreading the wealth–singing the hooks for Lil’ Mama’s “Shawty Get Loose” and Ludacris’s “What Them Girls Like,” providing a ready and willing duet partner for Jordin Sparks on “No Air,” and even getting to do a guest verse on David Banner’s cruelly underrated “Get Like Me.” Of course, Chris’s greatest contribution to pop music in 2008 might’ve been with his pen, not his voice, as he handed off one of the best and biggest hits of the year to his girlfriend. But more on that to come in the top ten…


Season four was where Weeds went from being a fun show that benefited greatly from a lack of summertime competition to something fairly close to a must-watch. The season started off on tricky ground–a relocation out of Agrestic, where the suburban satire was getting real tired anyway, and a dump of cast members like Mahelia, Conrad, and (for most of the season anyway) Dean and Sanjay, as Nancy moved out of dealing and into trafficking. It was a risk that ended up paying off, as Guillermo more than picked up Conrad’s slack, Albert Brooks had a fantastic early-season run as the unsentimental patriarch of the Botwin clan, and corrupt political figure Esteban made things really interesting towards the end. But more importantly, season four got to the core of what it’s become clear that Weeds is really about: A world in which just about everything is a compromise of some sort, and in which nobody that should know the answers (parents, businesspeople, authority figures) has any more of an idea about what to do than anybody else (kids, criminals, general social miscreants). It also contained maybe the most heart-rending scene to appear on TV in 2008, when Nancy, in the season finale, drives to meet Esteban, knowing she very well might not come back, and orders a birthday gift basket for Silas, with a personalized card. That Mary Louise-Parker’s attempt to put four seasons’ worth of pride, guilt, shame and love into a greeting card message for her son couldn’t get her an Emmy…well, at least Bryan Cranston left happy.


When I first heard Snoop Dogg’s “Sensual Seduction” at the end of 2007, I thought “How cute, he stole the T-Pain AutoTune gimmick!” Never in my wildest dreams would I have guessed that one year later, “Sensual Seduction” would no longer sound gimmicky, but rather, just like what pop music sounded like in 2008. Who could have possibly seen this coming? Who listened to “I’m in Luv (Wit a Stripper)” and thought to themselves “This guy right here, he’s gonna be the future of Top 40.” But in 2008, not only was Snoop biting his AutoTune style, so was Chris Brown, Kanye West, Lil’ Wayne, and just about anyone else that could be considered a trendsetter or tastemaker in modern R&B or Hip-Hop. Of course, it’s not like Faheem Rasheed Najm just sat back and watched his minions do his bidding in 2008, as the man still managed to find his way to eight top 40 hits in ’08–five guest appearances (Lil’ Mama’s “Shawty Get Loose,” Ludacris’s “One More Drink,” Lil’ Wayne’s “Got Money,” 2 Pistols’ “She Got It” and Rick Ross’s “The Boss”) and three of his own (“Can’t Believe It,” “Freeze” and “Chopped N Skrewed”), making sure you never forgot who the pitch-perfect OG was. T-Pain’s takeover of the pop charts might have been a hostile one to some, but I, for one, welcome our new dreadlocked robot overlord.


He ain’t pretty no more. Mickey Rourke’s second life has made it unbelievably hard to believe there was ever a time when this guy could’ve starred in an erotic drama with Kim Bassinger, but hey, he wasn’t ever going to get much Oscar buzz for movies lilke Angel Heart. And as anyone who saw his initial rebirth in Sin City as a square-jawed, scar-ridden gladiator could have predicted, Randy “The Ram” Robinson was the part that Rourke was (eventually) born to play. Some of it might’ve been a little contrived–the scenes with his estranged daughter and his hardass boss especially–but Rourke always made it feel natural, dripping with such humanity in every scene that previously iconic ring warriors–Palance, Stallone, DeNiro–seem like positive lightweights by comparison. The match scenes were the movie’s highlights, of course–hilarious, riveting and extremely gruesome courtside-views of a primarily degrading but still bizarrely balletic and dignified practice (with the “USE HIS LEG!” chants being the unsung movie quote of the year). Just as good, though, are his courtship scenes with the still-stunning Marisa Tomei, especially watching the two wax nostalgic to the sound of Ratt’s “Round and Round,” concluding simultaneously “That Cobain pussy had to go and ruin everything…The 90s sucked.”


Wow, talk about an idea that was ahead of its time. Depending on how you look at it, the Microsoft SeinGate ads were either a colossal waste of time and money (Seinfeld don’t come cheap these days) or the most innovative short films since the days of Derek Jarman, and no surprise, but count me in the latter camp. The main thing I still don’t get about these ads is why Microsoft had enough faith in the general public to think that they’d embrace a series of ads in which two extremely famous people banter about shower shoes, swap inside jokes and tangentially allude they’re supposed to be endorsing only when and if they felt like doing so. Nevertheless, the abstraction of these ads waas practically mind-expanding, and the intricacies of some of the exchanges (the look on Seinfeld’s face after Gates’s “Leather” still slays me every time) were immaculate in their orchestration. Most surprising was the chemistry between the two–apparently occupying the same rarefied social and (relative) economic strata makes for great comedic timing. Of course, it couldn’t last, and the series was junked in favor of a bunch of the feel-good, all-inclusive, highly safe “I’m a PC” ads. Cute, Microsoft, but no churro.


In 2008, Kobe tried to make the people love him, and it very nearly worked. Four years after his infamous rape trial, as well as his last trip to the finals, he had finally stopped hounding management and trying to fight his way out of LA, largely thanks to the emergence of Andrew Bynum and the arrival of Pau Gasol–the first decent running mates he’d had since Caron Butler got shipped out for Kwame Brown. As a real team finally started to come together around Bryant, he could finally cool his jets a little, passing the ball more, saying all the right things about teamwork and post-season goals to the media, and actually managing to smile semi-sincerely on occasion. He was rewarded with his first-ever MVP, a consensus deeming of Greatest Player on the Planet status, and a trip to the finals for his efforts. But rather than capturing his first Shaq-less title and bringing himself into Greatest of All-Time discussions, Kobe largely floundered in the playoffs, eventually letting cracks seep through his new team-oriented, family-friendly persona (the expression on his face as Pau Gasol failed to react properly to one of his leading, no-look passes was among the season’s most indelible moments) and getting shut down in the humiliating, deciding game six. Personally, I think maybe it’s for the best–it’s Kobe’s always-looming dark side that makes him an infintely more fascinating presence than a physically superior, Student Body President type like LeBron, and it’d be a shame to see that part of him be completely sublimated.


How many times do I need to say it? Best show on television.


As a college student living in Brooklyn, M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes”–maybe the biggest New York hipster party anthem since Peaches’ “Fuck the Pain Away”–seemed like it was fairly unavoidable in 2007. And then came 2008. Pineapple Express got the ball rolling, its action-packed but obviously cult-friendly backdrop providing the perfect launching pad for the song towards more mainstream commercial fortunes, and I was overjoyed to start hearing the song on pop radio and seeing the single creep up the top 40 (eventually peaking in the top five). But “Paper Planes” turned out to be the gift that just kept giving in ’08, also appearing (in DFA remix form) in Hancock and (in both remix and original form) in Slumdog Millionaire, as well as providing the chorus hook for the would-be posse cut “Swagga Like Us,” making the basis one of the year’s most undeniable beats (and adding yet another credit to the 2008 resumes of at least a couple individuals on this list). It’s unlikely that M.I.A. will ever reach this kind of crossover success again in the States–though somehow, I doubt that she’s sweating it too much either way–but her legacy as a one-hit wonder will indeed go down as a proud, and rather fruitful one.


There was no shortage of heroes to be found on the 2008 Phillies–Cole Hamels for his playoff prowess, Brad Lidge for his ridiculous save streak, Ryan Howard for his 48 homers, Jimmy Rollins for his last-minute, season-saving defense, and Chase Utley for his all-star first-half and opportune post-series cursing, to name just a few. But no one meant more to me on this team than Jamie Moyer, the sure-handed 45/46-year-old who flummoxed young lineups and provided the steadiness the team needed when Brett Myers decided to suck for the summer and the Phils’ offense never felt like spotting Hamels more than a couple runs per game. Meanwhile, he became the oldest player in the league, notched a victory against the last team he needed to have one win over every club in the bigs, got mocked in The Onion (“Jamie Moyer Change-Up Arrives at Home Plate After Long Journey“) and was responsible for the funniest moment of the whole season, when he knocked over umpire Randy Marsh while hauling his way to second base (he would eventually score, just the 20th run of his 20-year career). When the Phils got the series–their first in 28 years–no one seemed to deserve it more than Philly-native Jamie, who was not only the team’s only player who was a fan of the Phils during their last Series, but one of the few who was out of diapers by that point. Some may balk at the two-year deal the Phils gave Grampy Moyer at the end of the season, but I just know he’s gonna make it till 50. He better, too, for his sake–Jamie’s got seven kids to put through college.

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One Year, 100 Pop Cultures: #30-21

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 26, 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.


The fact that it took so little time to get used to Manny being a Dodger–despite his near-decade, two world series rings and countless classic moments with the Red Sox–proves what I’m sure has always been obvious: Manny Ramirez is the one player in the MLB bigger than any whole team. Baseball isn’t a sport that’s supposed to be swayable by the presence of any one individual, as evidenced by the Yankees’ supermarket sweepstakes this summer, since unlike the other major sports, no one except maybe the starting pitcher is involved with even half of the game’s plays (and even he usually only effects 1/5 of the games). Yet it seemed like Manny single-handedly changed the course of the L.A. season, arriving there when the Dodgers seemed like a post-season afterthought, and slugging them into the playoffs, through to the NLCS (though admittedly, a Diamondback collapse in what was otherwise already the weakest division in recent sports memory probably had something to do with that as well). Regardless of team, Manny remained Manny in 2008, whether hi-fiving a fan in the middle of a play and collapsing awkwardly on a fly ball while on the Sox or choosing the number 99 and pranking reporters with fake translations of Angel Berroa’s post-game interview on the Dodgers. Dunno where he’ll end up next, but wherever it is, it’s guaranteed to be the place to be.


When I first heard about John McCain nominating some nutty Alaskan chick as his Vice President, I was thrilled, at least until I was forced to consider the possibility that the two of them might actually win, which left me somewhat conflicted–as a politician, Sarah Palin was very likely unqualified to be one misplaced bottle of pills away from being the leader of the free world, but as a pop culutre phenomenon, I truly could not have asked for more. So imagine my sigh of relief when McCain fell, and Palin with him, allowing me to forever appreciate the trainwreck interviews, the near-fascistic skeletons in her closet, the terrible catchphrases, the moon-faced kids and dear lord those glasses, as the laughable trifles of the historical footnote she had become. And meanwhile, let us salute Ms. Fey for taking the time out of her busy 30 Rock schedule to cement the Palin phenomenon with maybe the biggest slam dunk of 2008–the part that Tina was, indisputably, born to play. Fey’s Palin impression was so unbelievably natural and inevitable that when I picture the two in my head, I often forget which is supposed to be which. Of course, people will watch these sketches twenty-five years from now and not know what the fuck is going on–and for that, perhaps, we should be the most thankful of all.


The remarkable thing about Mad Men, as far as I’m concerned, is that it’s become the consensus Greatest Show on Television with maybe only three likeable characters on the entire show, four tops. Think about previous GSTs–if you had to choose a favorite character on The Sopranos or, I dunno, Hill Street Blues, you’d have to think about it for a little while, wouldn’t you? There’d be at least a dozen characters in each that you’d have to choose from. Meanwhile, in Mad Men, all there really is is Peggy, who’s perky and naive enough to be vaguely relateable, Joan, who’s hott enough to get away with just about anything, and Roger, whose rogueish behavior occasionally comes off as charming. But then there’s Don Draper, undoubtedly the most fascinating character on TV right now, elevating his unexemplary supporting cast like Jay-Z on “Can I Get A…” and making the show a must-watch, almost singlehandedly. Don got to stretch out a whole lot this year, as straying from sipering wife Betty one too many times gets him cast out, allowing him a lost weekend (weekday?) out on the West Coast in almost complete sexual freedom before deciding that he might be a little more comfortable back with the wife and kids after all. Ultimately, it was almost a little disappointing to see Don go crawling back home–you feel like his character’s at his best getting into new and increasingly weird experiences. Doubtless, though, he’ll be back to his old ways of wandering not too far into 2009.


While you weren’t looking, a chubby R&B superproducer/singer/songwriter released this decade’s Purple Rain. OK, well, maybe not quite–Love/Hate might not have the commercial clout of that album, and no one song might be as stunning as “When Doves Cry” or the title track–but The-Dream’s debut full-length is the closest thing I’ve heard in recent years to the consistency, fluency and diveristy of Prince’s masterwork. Not to mention that the thing kind of sounds like the Purple One as well, especially with the 80s’ funked-out produciton of songs like “Fast Car” and “Playin’ With Her Hair” (sez TD: “The bar needs to be raised… It’s like the 80s; it’s musical. I’m doing the ‘Umbrella’ routine to this whole album. All of my records are singles…very 80’s, very Prince, sensual, sexy stuff…”) But even if you’re not too interested in delving into the LP, you probably heard Nash’s imprint in pop music in 2008 anyway, whether through his breathtaking solo hits “Falsetto” and “I Luv Your Girl,” his stellar production on Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” or Mary J. Blige’s “Just Fine,” or even his hook providing on Gym Class Heroes’ “Cookie Jar,” coming very close to making the song bearable. Follow-up Love vs. Money comes out in under two months, so don’t sleep on the dude too much longer.


“I’m Fucking Matt Damon” was all well and good–a clever little gag funnier than most things Sarah Silverman has been responsible for in recent years, although somewhat lacking in urgency if you’re part of the 99.9% of the population that has never watched a single episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live. But Kimmel upstaged her all over the place with the response video (and who, besides Kimmel, still takes the time to make response videos in the year 2008?)–not necessarily because his video was funnier, but because he had way, way more famous people in his. In fact, “I’m Fucking Ben Affleck” arguably had the greatest assemblage of celebrities to be found anywhere in 2008, including most major award shows. The range is what’s really impressive–cameos can be found not just from legends like Harrison Ford and Huey Lewis, but contemporary pop culture blips like Christopher Mintz-McLovin-Plasse and Macy Gray, as well as how the fuck did they get on the guest list? contributors like Dicky Barrett of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Dominic Monaghan of LOST. And if all that wasn’t enough, there are even two instant-punchline providers in the form of Lance Bass and Josh Groban. With all this star power on display, you couldn’t really help but wonder if there wasn’t some real cause that could’ve used the endorsement of all these celebs, instead of just a fake revenge video for a fake birthday prank on a show that nobody watches.


It’s my opinion that all basketball fans secretly believe that somehow, somewhere, in some time, there exists a player that can make every single shot he takes. Stephen Curry, obviously, is not that player. But he does have moments where he seems just close enough to being that player, so that in re-enforces our belief that such a baller at least is humanly possible—and realistically, that’s just about all we can ask for. It’s not just that he makes so many of his shots, or that so many of his shots seem like they should be unmakeable–it’s how when he puts the ball in the basket, he seems to put it in the exact center of the basket, a stroke powerful enough to almost make you forget that Steph is so baby-faced and small of physical stature that he makes Brandon Roy look like Greg Oden. Back in March, I was drugged out on my couch for pretty much the entirety of the last spring break of my college experience after getting my wisdom teeth out. I desperately needed a subplot to follow in the NCAA tournament, and tenth-seeded Davison—with their small fry of a star—were more than happy to oblige. Powered by the little jump-shooter that could, they made it all the way to the Elite Eight, where he brought his team from behind to down by two with a half-minute to go, and with seconds remaining on the clock…passed off to teammate Brad Richards, who put up the brick to end all bricks. Anti-climactic,  but in a way, it’s somewhat comforting to know that Steph hasn’t peaked yet, that he still has plenty of mountains to climb in his career. Here’s hoping he gets picked up as possible LeBron-bait for the New York Knicks, as I continue to watch him get as close as he possibly can—and likely, as close as anyone will–to being the perfect shooter over the next decade or two. (Paraphrased from my Sports4President blurb).


Though being blazed out of my mind at the time might have had something to do with it, I can’t remember ever laughing harder than I did at the series premiere of Metalocalypse–everything about the show seemed perfect and hilarious. But as the season progressed, things grew less novel, and I wondered if the show would have the legs to ascend to the first tier of the Adult Swim hierarchy. Season Two, most of which I made the mistake of watching unconsecutively, did what I thought the show would be too lazy to do–to lay just enough ongoing arcs in the season’s subplots sot hat it could keep the show interesting when the jokes weren’t particularly funny, and to have it all culminate in one of the most badass half-hours of television ever to be aired before 2:00 in the morning. “Black Fire Upon Us,” a.k.a. “Dethrelease Pts. 1 & 2,” was everything the show had promised–epic (the final fight scenes were like a Phantom Menace that didn’t suck), brutal (the death toll was high even by Metalocalypse standards, where entire countries get wiped out on occasion) and most important, completely hysterical (climaxing with the two classic lines “I did it. (Sob) I sucked my own dick. I can die now” and “All the hots ones is crazy…and the ugly ones too.”). Good thing, too, because I think Squidbillies just might have hit its ceiling.


Good thing I wasn’t around in the 70s, I suppose–my parents saw Man on Wire, and they were largely unimpressed because they already knew how it would end. Me, I was riveted the entire time–the movie was about a hundred times more riveting than the exceedingly overrated Bank Job, and without even being entirely in english. Really, I’m not sure if there was any movie in 2008 that I enjoyed as much as Man on Wire, documentary or otherwise. Philippe Petit was absolutely delightful in all his interviews, the editing brilliantly juggled the interview clips with archival footage and impressively uncheesy recreations of the World Trade Center setup, and the presentations of the wire walks themselves were every bit as magical as the build ups led you to believe they would be. The movie even contained one of the most dramatically tricky scenes of the year, when Petit talks about sleeping with a new groupie immediately after being released by the cops, much to the chagrin of his supportive girlfriend back home–a scene too joyful with lust and life to be the guilt-ridden confession it would be in most movies. And that was Man on Wire in general–a movie too fun and life-affirming for you to even think about the fact that those towers aren’t there to walk across anymore.


How often does a story fulfil its own potential as well as this one did? When Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett jumped ship (or, uh, were kicked-off-ship) from their respective failing franchises to lend Paul Pierce a hand with his dismal unit, many predicted and more hoped that Boston’s new Big Three would get the Celtics their first title in two decades, and restore honor and class to the most legendary franchise in the NBA. And you know what they did? They got the Celtics their first title in two decades, while restoring honor and class to the most legendary franchise in the NBA. Not only that, but they did so by going through their greatest historic rival (more on that later), and even forged a couple new mini-rivalries for themselves (Hawks, Cavs) sure to repeat themselves in several playoff series to come. But aside from doing all this shit for their city and for the NBA, the Big Three were often just fun to watch in their own right, whether it was KG clapping in Jose Calderon’s face, Paul Pierce flashing “menacing gestures” at the Hawks, or Ray-Ray looking like he might have a nervous breakdown every time he missed a couple threes in a row against the Cavs. Plus, we got a couple of instant-classic SportsCenter commercials out of it, as well as the sight of Glen “Big Baby” Davis weeping on the bench after getting berated by Garnett, proof that this really is a team of some sort of destiny.

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One Year, 100 Pop Cultures: #40 – 31

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 22, 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.


It’s entirely possible that best baseball game I watched in all of 2008 was the one that wasn’t even supposed to mean anything–the 15-inning showdown that was the 2008 All-Star Game. When remembering the All-Star break this year, most people fixated on Josh Hamilton’s Herculean performance in the Home Run Derby (which was arguably the second-most overrated story in sports this year, and he ended up losing anyway), but give me the early-inning dominance of Cliff Lee and Ben Sheets, Aaron Cook pitching out of a bases-loaded jam in extra innings, and Dan Uggla doing everything in his power to submarine his own team (his three strikeouts and just as many errors earning him the all-too-rare Golden Sombrero). Every inning I prayed the NL could hang one measley run on the board so that Brad Lidge could come in to shut the door like he did all season in the bottom of the inning–naturally, after warming up and then cooling down for abotu twelve hours straight, he was totally useless by the time Clint Hurdle had no choice but to throw him out there, giving possibly his worst effort of the season to date and earning the L. Nonetheless, for those who claim that the All-Star Game is nothing but a meaningless exhibition and shouldn’t hold sway over anything, the ridiculous intensity of this game was a pretty solid counter-argument.


To me, the comeback of LOST in 2008 was only slightly less surprising than that of Darius Rucker–I had long since left it for dead, bored with the compounding mysteries, the irritating supporting cast and the disbelief-suspending flashbacks. To that end, the fourth season of LOST took the all-too-rare  measure of isolating its issues and dealing with them. It answered some questions, although certainly not too many, and stopped creating pointless new mysteries. It eliminated some annoying minor characters (like Ben’s simpering daughter) and brought in an all-star cast of That Guys (Ken Leung, Jeff Fahey, Jeremy Davies) for added support. But most importantly, it replaced the ridiculous flashbacks with tantalizing flash-fowards, in which we got to see Hurley plagued by ghosts of the past, Sayid re-embrace his more mercenarial qualities, Ben turning out to actually be kind of bad-ass, and Jack blast a copy of Doolittle while driving drunk. It’s really true that you don’t realize how much you miss LOST when it’s not on, but now that it’s back, it’s good to know that the show is in the best form it’s had for years.


He’s become such an integral part of the team since joining the Suns a year ago that it’s hard to remember how mindblowing a trade Phoenix shipping Shawn Marion ot Miami to bring in the Big Cactus was when it happened. We didn’t have a clue how Shaq was supposed to fit in to a team that had heretofore played at a pace it seemed like the out-of-shape 36-year-old wouldn’t even have been able to endure for an entire quarter, but boy were we excited to find out–especially after his high-octane debut performance against the Lakers that February (which, as it always does, ended up with the Suns losing). Of course, that was only the jumping-off point for what was an extremely evenful year for O’Neal, including his unforgettable dive into the court-level seats at the US Airways center (and his team’s petrified response when he looked like he was going to attempt a repeat performance a few games later), his “Welcome to the NBA” flagrant on Pistons up-and-comer Rodney Stuckey, and his ongoing and often hilarious feud with notorious Shaq-Haqqer Gregg Popovich. Best of all, of course, was the rap freestyle he (unkowingly) released dissing a certain ex-teammate of his after his team’s collapse in the finals, including such classic lines as “I love ’em, don’t leave ’em / Got a vasectomy, now I can’t breed ’em” and “I’m a horse / Kobe rat me out, that’s why I’m gettin’ divorced,” and featuring the immortal refrain “KOBE, TELL ME HOW MY ASS TASTE?!?” Good to have you back, big guy.


I heard they broke up. Did they break up? The Wikipedia page doesn’t say anything. They didn’t really break up, did they?


A few years ago, Jay-Z’s power was so great that he could break a new artist just by taking on a sort of curatory role on one of their singles, and now that baton has been passed to Kanye. His guest verse on “American Boy” is fairly rote, but by appearing on the song at all, it gave americans an excuse to listen to a song that by any right should’ve been a megahit anyway. Estelle, known to US interneters only through her UK rap hit “1980” from a few years prior, burned up the international charts with “American Boy” in late ’07, but it took till nearly this summer for the song to crash on American shores, but it was well worth the wait–a breezy, catchy tune centered around a classic concept (Ask the Beach Boys, Steve Miller or Huey Lewis and the News–listing a bunch of locations = guaranteed chartbuster), with classy production, and–of course–a classy black-and-white video. Unsurprisingly, Estelle’s follow-up (the underrated “No Substitute Love”) went absolutely nowhere in the States, and Estelle seems to be on the fast track to “that chick from the Kanye video” status. Still, she can look back fondly on a run that netted her a whole bunch of Grammy nods, more lame parodies (“Canadian Boy,” yikes) and even a bizarre organ cover that gets played during Lakers games.


Clint Eastwood is practically guaranteed a Best Actor nod for his performance in 2008’s Gran Torino, but while I’m sure that Clint is highly deserving of some sort of commemoration for his star performance (as well as his direction, production, and even his musical contribution), I’m also fairly certain that an Oscar nomination isn’t it. Frankly, I tip my hat to anyone who can manage to take Gran Torino seriously enough to ponder the movie’s Oscar worthiness, or the sociological implications of the story, or the significance the role plays in Clint’s career arc. Personally, I’m too busy cringing over the Hmong cast’s horrific supporting performances (I wondered why it seemed like nobody in the movie could act, until I found out that most of the cast consisted of non-actors–makes sense), and doubling over with laughter at Clint’s Grumpiest Old Men performance. Watching the Man With No Name hurl every racial epiphet in the book at anyone within earshot and seethe with pure malice at the insolence of all who besot him with their presence (especially the scene where his kid tries to suggest he join a rest home, and he growls like a mountain lion that hasn’t been fed in three weeks) made for the most essential comedic viewing of 2008. The movie saves the best for last, though, as the credit sequence includes the unparallelled sound of Clint crooning the titutlar theme song (over music by son Jake!), which really must be heard to be believed.


It started out innocuous enough, until they became the four words–eight if you count the “It’s c-c-c-catchin’ on!!“–that got stuck in your head worse than a Roxette song. Subway had never been much of a powerhouse on the commercial front before , and in fact, their most prominent campaigns (if you don’t count the fake-spot in Happy Gilmore) all featured the supremely grating Jared Fogle, who had been palling it up recently with dorky sports stars like Michael Strahan and Ryan Howard. But true to their promise, the “FIVE DOLLAR FOOT-LOOOONG!!!” jingle quickly began to c-c-c-catch on the general public, until the commercials had no choice but to update the second part of the song (“It’s g-g-g-growin’ stroong!!!“) The song’s juggernaut-like gathering of momentum was increasingly belied by the ads, which started to feature a Godzilla-ish monster, and then showed random citizens catching the song’s fever, “Walk Like an Egyptian”-style, demonstrating that the show could only be resisted for so long. But truth told, the song had an ominous feel to it form the get go–sez composer Jimmy Harned: “”The chord structure does imply something dark […] On the word long, [the guitar part] goes down from a C to an A-flat, which is kind of a weird place. It’s definitely not a poppy, happy place.”


One of the more unexpected success stories of 2008, MGMT converged on the alt-rock landscape as a bunch of nutty, smelly kids that didn’t understand why Bonnaroo couldn’t last the whole year. Luckily, they had a couple really, really good songs to go with the super-psychedelic videos, the ridiculous album title and the narcotic-baiting band name. “Time to Pretend” came first, and was one of the best breakout singles in recent memory, its bubbling intro giving way to that stunning synth hook and a tune so panoramic and visceral that it was destined to be used to prop up shows like 90210 and movies like SexDrive to make them seem about a hundred times more exciting than they actually were. “Electric Feel” was even better, falling into a little funky-falsetto subgenre with Spoon’s “I Turn My Camera On” and My Morning Jacket’s “Evil Urges” that proves that indie bands discovering Prince can never be anything but a good thing. And now “Kids,” whose riff is so simple and addictive that it makes the previous two seem subtle and intimate by comparison, is actually crossing over to modern rock radio. The fact that none of the other songs on Oracular Spectacular even pass for listenable doesn’t give me great hope that we’ll be seeing these guys on many lists to come, but damned if ’08 wasn’t improved immeasurably by the existence of those three.


I remember the first time I saw Kenny George–a Sportscenter highlight of UNC-Asheville against lord knows who, where neither of the teams involved interested me enough to quite turn my head fully to watch. But out of the corner of my eye, I could see a man moving down the court that was clearly unlike all the others–Kenny George, the hugest man to have ever lived. Truth told, he was only 7’7″, 7’8″, not that much taller than Yao Ming. But combined with a stocky build and some freakishly long arms, he looked like a normal human being that simply had his top-right hand corner clicked and dragged to about 133%. His physique turned out to be as much of a curse as a gift, as it meant he was unable to get up and down the court at the same speed as everyone else, and meant he couldn’t play the minutes of a star player. Still, it was a joy to watch clips of UNC-Asheville devising the perfect in-bounds play–just throwing up to Kenny under the basket (well out of the reach of any other player on the court), who with his incredible wingspan didn’t even have to jump to dunk the ball (largely contributing to his NCAA-leading 70.6 FG%). Regrettably, 2008 looks like the only year the world will blessed with the sight of such moments, as George had his foot partly amputated after suffering a staph infection.


Amidst all-time low ratings and perpetually sagging credibility, the Grammys reached a new apex with their awarding of the Album of the Year at the 2008 ceremonies. Most thought the award would go to oene of the night’s previous winners, Kanye West or Amy Winehouse. Some feared it would go to the Foo Fighters. Many were surprised that Vince Gill had even released an album that year. But no one seriously thought that the statue would go to Herbie Hancock’s Joni Mitchell covers album, whose very concept sounded like a bad joke and whose nomination screamed Lifetime Achievement like Meryl Streep getting an Oscar nod for Music of the Heart. In fact, no one seemed to expect a win less than Herbie himself, as when he was indeed called as the winner, his look was that of a student who had zoned off in the middle of class and was now getting called on to give his opinion on the symbolism of The Scarlet Letter, a mixture of surprise and panic that made it pretty clear that Herb hadn’t exactly been practicing his acceptance speech. So hilariously damaging was Hancock’s win to the Grammys’ already precarious situation that they had no choice but to actually nominate some good shit for Album of the Year this year, including Lil’ Wayne, Coldplay, Radiohead and even Ne-Yo. But don’t worry–they still stuffed Alison Krauss and Robert Plant as a sleeper in there, just in case the Grammy Powers That Be decide they don’t want to return to any sort of relevancy just yet.

Posted in One Year 100 Pop Cultures | 6 Comments »

One Year, 100 Pop Cultures: #50 – 41

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 21, 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.


OK, so maybe the record didn’t mean all that much—statistically speaking, Francisco Rodriguez didn’t even have one of his best years on the mound, and lord knows Bobby Thigpen’s historic season didn’t exactly usher in an oncoming period of dominance for him. Still, K-Rod’s quest for glory with the all-time single-season saves record made for one of the more intriguing subplots of this MLB season, especially for those of us still up and looking for something exciting to watch at 1:00 AM on the East Coast. His fast-motion windup, sprawling delivery, and nutso post-save exhortations have never been anything short of riveting, and with the shining beacon of 57 (also his jersey number, as fate would have it) pointing the way, he became more exciting than ever. Best closer in the game? Probably not. Most entertaining? Undoubtedly. (Copied from my blurb).


I’m done fighting it. Through my high school years I would have sworn to you that Coldplay were the definition of all that was evil in rock music–derivative, passionless hacks that stole the tunes and credit of bands that were far more deserving to be as globe-conquering as they would soon become. But gradually, more and more of their songs came to be undeniable to me–first the smothering mountaintop-majesty of “Yellow,” then the creepingly solemn singalong of “The Scientist,” and the shimmering immaculateness of “Talk,” until eventually I had to begrudgingly admit that Coldplay was not entirely worthless. And while there are still a number of piddlingly mediocre songs I’ll (hopefully) never bow to (“Trouble,” “In My Place,” the deplorable “Fix You”), Coldplay hit me with four more good ‘uns in ’08 (“Viva La Vida,” “Lost!,” “Violet Hill” and “Lovers of Japan”)–the biggest of which (the iPod-endorsed #1 hit “Vida”) arguably being the worst of the bunch. It’ll be extremely interesting to me to see whether time treats Coldplay as the decade’s U2 or merely its Tears for Fears, but at least now I won’t cry bloody murder at them being compared to either.


42 times–I counted. That’s how often the word “womanizer” is mentioned throughout the course of Britney Spears’s #1 hit of the same name (her first since “Baby One More Time,” if you can believe it), even though it feels like that number should be at least twice as high. Brit taught us all a valuable lesson about the power of repetition this year, drilling the song’s (admittedly ridiculous) point home with the brute force of a jackhammer, and giving us no choice but to listen up. And even though that Schaeffel-ish beat was used in 2008 by everybody from Katy Perry to Fall Out Boy, nobody used it quite as bluntly as producers The Oustyders, who surrounded it with enough zooming synths, disorienting vocal filters and blaring alarm sounds to make the song the aural equivalent of biting into a Guatemalan insanity pepper. Throw in the fact that she looked as good in the video as she has since maybe her “Sometimes” period–with a healthy dose of sidal nudity to boot–and it’d be one of the all-time great comeback singles if she hadn’t fucked it up by trying it with “Gimme More” two years earlier, with significantly lesser/skankier results.


I’m sorry, but doesn’t Sean Penn have an Oscar already? Of course, the win, for 2002’s laughably overrated Mystic River, was a highly undeserved one, but he still came down with the statue, no? Well, I guess he must have lost it, or swapped it for Dodgers NLCS tickets or something, because his performance as Harvey Milk in Milk is quite possibly the most Oscar-baiting performance in history. Run down the checklist with me:

  • Real life figure (+5 AA points)
  • Story relevant to today (+2 AA points)
  • Weird hair style (+3 AA points)
  • Uncharacteristic voice/accent (+3 AA points)
  • Gives a whole bunch of dramatic speeches (+5 AA points)
  • Cries (+2 AA points)
  • Plays heavily against type (+10 AA points)
  • Dies at the end (+4 AA points)
  • Didn’t gain or lose any significant amount of weight (-25 AA points)

OK, well, ignoring that last one anyway, the performance is nothing less than a firm elbow to the nose of Academy voters, a positive force of nature guaranteed to net some Oscar hardware. And yet, unlike 95% of performances that fit these qualifications, Penn doesn’t suck. As a matter of fact, he’s absolutely perfect–a compelling, delightful, complicated and solidly inspirational performance, one that carries the movie’s occasional cringeworthiness and relatively weak supporting cast like LeBron James carried the ’07 Cavaliers. If he doesn’t come away with his second statue, it’ll only be because–as Bill Simmons and Cousin Sal noted in their latest podcast (see: #89)–he’ll be going against two similarly Academy-titillating performances, one of which is still to come on this list…


Anybody else starting to feel old? The first time it really dawned on me that I wasn’t going to be a part of youth culture forever was when High School Musical somehow became one of the biggest phenomenons of the entire decade without me having any clue what the fuck it was. And now, with the ascent of the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus to the highest levels of the pop stratosphere, I really had no choice but to throw up my hands, buy a couple sweaters and start practicing my “Kids these days…” muttering. Helping me to get over the transition period, however, is the fact that in 2008, Miley, the Jonases and various other teens in their orbit were responsible for some of the most irresistible pop singles of the year. The Jonases came through with both the sticky-sweet “Lovebug” and the Maroon Five-aping “Burning Up” (even though the latter raises obvious questions about what kind of torture the subject of the song must be causing the Promise Ring-wearers), while Miley upped the ante with chart-burner “See You Again” and the surprisingly mature (and Natalie Imbruglia-esque) “7 Things”. Best of all, though, might’ve been Metro Station (who met on the set of Hannah Montana), pitching in with the instant slumber party anthem “Shake It” and the “Ocean Avenue” of 2008, “Seventeen Forever.” Hey, the kids might be all right after all.


In the first round of the 2008 NBA playoffs, the Dallas Mavericks were crushed by the New Orleans Hornets in five extremely unexciting games. And that’s when Josh Howard’s season really began. Midway through their playoff trouncing, Howard admitted on radio to being a pot smoker, a somewhat unsolicited confession that nonetheless drew more attention than he had for his entire underwhelming regular season. As the buzz (sic) from that died down in the off-season, Howard got busted for attempting 3 Fast 3 Furious in a 95 mph race on the mean streets of Winston-Salem. And for his final act of the summer, he was caught on a YouTube video refusing to sing the Star Spangled Banner, offering the immortal explanation, “I don’t even celebrate that shit. I’m black. Obama. Obama all that shit.” When the regular season finally rolled around again, Howard scored 15 points in the first quarter of their home debut, as if to say, “That’s right, motherfuckers–I still play basketball, too.” Sidelined recently with a sprained ankle, we can only hope he’s spending his time on the bench plotting his future extracurricular activities—next time, I’m guessing cow tipping is gonna be somehow involved. (Copied from my Sports4President blurb).


If we’re lucky, every year has one song that’s so unexpectedly good that you can’t help hesitating to admit it to yourself or anyone else. Given how Panic! At the Disco had broken through just a few years earlier on what is a surefire lock for the Ten Worst Singles of the Decade, and given how I had spent much time around then badmouthing them for doing so, I was a bit reluctant to give myself over to the joys of their neo-psych-pop mini-gem “Nine in the Afternoon,” until I talked about it with my friends and realized that they all quietly felt as confused and conflicted as I did. Of course, once the song showed up on Rock Band 2, it was a done deal–the song was officially the perkiest, most unrestrainedly joyous rock song of 2008 (even though the sudden shifts in time-signature make it a bitch to sing). And as if the song itself wasn’t enough, “Nine in the Afternoon” also performed the double duty of completely failing to cross over to the pop charts–the kids, they care not for the Zombies–dooming the band to what seems rather likely to be eventual one-hit wonder status, which seems only fair as retribution considering their past crimes against humanity. Goody goody gumdrops.


You gotta give it up for NBC–they really threw their weight behind My Own Worst Enemy, shilling for it with endless promo spots during their Olympics coverage, alongside ads for the ill-fated and downright despicable Kath & Kim. While it continues to amaze me that a network can so unreservedly give their support to a show that no human being could possibly take seriously (could they?) I’m certainly not complaining–these commercials promised My Own Worst Enemy to be an easy contender for Biggest Flop in TV History. I mean, c’mon–the symbolism the light and dark wardrobes, the unbelievably hokey narration (“Meet Edward…“), the fact that it starred CHRISTIAN FUCKING SLATER, or the fact that CHRISTIAN FUCKING SLATER WAS WALKING AWAY FROM A FUCKING BUILDING AS IT FUCKING EXPLODED. I was counting the days until the premiere, even considering Liveblogging it here on IITS. Then it somehow scored a 61 on Metacritic (A 61? Really?) and I completely lost interest. If you’ve ever seen an episode, let me know if it turned out, because I don’t think I could stand the heartbreak if I watched it and it ended up being decent.


The scary thing is that 2008 could probably be considered a down year for Kanye. He didn’t have any chart-topping singles, he didn’t make any bold pronouncements about himself or the future music (or both), he didn’t even piss anybody off on live TV. Still, even in a phone-in year, he managed to guest star on three top twenty hits (a couple of which you’ll hear from later on), perform the closing number at the VMAs, fuck up a paparazzi, start work on his own clothing line, and put together the package tour of the summer. Oh yeah, there was also 808s and Heartbreaks, an album which, while heavily flawed, showed how like Prince or Stevie Wonder before him, Kanye could always spread enough brilliance over his more experimental albums to make the cringeworthy moments bearable. “Love Lockdown” was great and all–unlike “Stronger,” it got better with repeated listens–but the real prize on the album is “Paranoid,” which is probably the most stunning thing that I heard in 2008 (and could very well be showing up on this thing next year if it blows up like it should).


Those four words: “Foreword by Gilbert Arenas”–were more or less guaranteed to make this any fan of sports and crackpot sociology’s obligatory Holiday stocking stuffer. But Agent Zero’s intro–in which he unashamedly cops to creating his around-the-back pre-free throw ritual so kids would copy him on the playground like they copied Rip Hamilton’s cross-dribble–was just one of of the many pleasures to be found in this tome, the hard cover debut of oft-inspired b-ball bloggers Free Darko. The book features bursting-off-the-page graphics illustrating how Rasheed Wallace plays better after getting a technical foul and diagramming the myriad meanings of Amar’e Stoudemire’s dozens of tattoos, which split page space with delicate prose poring over the grand significance of Kevin Garnett phasing out his low-post game in favor of the fadeaway jumper or what Tracy McGrady’s reliance on a good night’s sleep has to do with his inability to get out of the first round of the playoffs. Occasionally it stretches it a bit–I dunno if Ron Artest’s mood swings can really be tied to the waxing and waning of the moon, or if Gerald Wallace and Leandro Barbosa really deserve entire chapters devoted to them–but any book that features chapters called “Tim Duncan: American Gothic” and “LeBron James: Inland Empire,” as well as a player-by-player breakdown of the atrocity exhibition that was the 2000 NBA Draft, is guaranteed to be essential reading.

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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.

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One Year, 100 Pop Cultures: #70 – 61

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 16, 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.


A couple of my friends and I saw a showing recently of Of All the Things, a doc about forgotten songwriter/producer Dennis Lambert, the man behind such beloved classics as Tavares’s “It Only Takes a Minute,” Starship’s “We Built This City” and Player’s “Baby Come Back.” There was a Q&A with Dennis himself afterwards, and the only thing I could think to ask him about was the use of one of his defining anthems in the recent series of Swiffer ads, in which a lonely and dejected mop tries to re-court a customer lost to the lure of the Swiff, with “Baby Come Back” blaring in the background. They were all so ridiculous and cheesy (“You have a telegram from a Mr….Mop?”), but they were utterly irresistible, even more so the more ambitious they got (like when the mop enlists a mariachi band to play the song)–not to mention that the Player song itself is always revelatory in any context. After years of enduring their Devo-aping “Swiff It” series, I never would’ve thought that a Swiffer ad campaign could win my heart, but I was very happy in 2008 to be proven wrong.

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One Year, 100 Pop Cultures: #80-71

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 13, 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.


During a time when a certain athletic prima donna had left Milwaukee sports in a period of complete crisis, CC Sabathia put the entire city on his back, pitching one half of a sure Cy Young campaign to propel the Brewers into the playoffs for the first time in 26 years. Putting every ounce of his nearly 300-pound frame into 17 starts with the Brewers after his trade from the Indians in July, CC absolutely killed it for the last three months of the season–11-2, with a 1.65 ERA and a 5:1 K/BB ratio–making every start of his a must-see, right up until he lost his nerve pitching to Brett Myers in front of an insane Citizens’ Bank Park crowd in Game 2 of the NLDS. He’s with the Yankees now, which is a shame, but an inevitable one, since New York might now be the only city that can hold him–figuratively or semi-literally.

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One Year, 100 Pop Cultures: #90-81

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 11, 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 sport as absurdly over-dramatic as the NFL, I find the lack of true one-on-one rivalries to be somewhat disheartening. Teams share plenty of bad blood, but how come T.O. and Chad Johnson never directed any of their mouthing at the other? When was the last time Devin Hester challenged Josh Cribbs to a 100-yard dash? And why the fuck do Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, the dynastic rivals of the NFL in the 00s, seem to actually like each other? Kudos then, to Philip Rivers and Jay Cutler for being young, brash, and immature enough not to censor their true feelings towards each other. Their jawing might’ve started in ’07, but ’08 took it to new heights, as Cutler’s Broncos stole an early-season game away from the Chargers thanks to a super-controversial ref mishap (enjoy your 15 minutes Ed Hochuli, or don’t I guess), but Rivers’s Chargers got revenge by stealing back the division on a Week-17 throttling, with plenty of “I don’t like him, he doesn’t like me” hype leading in to both. Personally, I prefer Cutler, with his canon arm, shaggy hair and saturday-morning-stoner demeanor, but the important thing is that everyone choose sides one way or the other before the two pussy out and “mature” into irrelevancy.

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One Year, 100 Pop Cultures: #100 – 91

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 8, 2009

Hm, apparently my introductory post to this project got fucked up even more than I realized last night, but suffice to say, 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 I can move into an ’09 mindstate by Groundhog Day at the latest. Jumping in head first:

I was watching some of this on New Year’s Eve when my roommate had some friends visiting, and naturally, it was only a matter of time before it started: “Y’know, when they started, it was I Love the 70s and 80s, and now it’s about, like, yesterday.” I don’ t even try to fight it anymore, instead joining in with a comment that I was looking forward to I Love the Future (don’t count out the possibility, by the way). But whenever I try to watch some god-awful countdown Top 40 countdown on E! or Bravo and shudder too much to make it out of the 40s, I’m reminded that there’s still no channel out there that can put together a pop culture retrospective like VH1. And even if some of it was a little pointless (“OMG, I remember iPods too!) and some of it was a little ridiculous (did anyone ever give a fuck about Sharon Stone’s husband getting bit by a Komodo dragon?), and some of it was just kind of depressing (put a little effort into those shuffle picks, Moby!), there’s still barely anything I looked forward to on TV more this year.

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