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What the World Needs Now: More Brits Making Videos in New York

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 25, 2009

The cliche about New Yorkers is that they don’t ever actually bother to see the city they live in until their friends and family come to visit them. For me at least, it’s extremely true–I mean, it wasn’t like I was going to hang out at the Liberty Bell and eat at Geno’s every day when I grew up in Philly either, but having lived here for nearly a half-decade, whenever I look at the New York sections of various travel guides, it’s still pretty disheartening to see the amount of stuff I haven’t done. I mean, it’s always there, right? It’s true with most things in life that when you have all the time in the world to do something, you’re pretty well guaranteed to never actually do it. You need the fresh eyes and legs of an outside visitor–someone for whom everything about the city seems new and exciting, and for whom the amount of time to really soak it up the way it was meant to be experienced is extremely finite.

New York seems like it was probably a pretty exciting place in the early-mid 80s, especially in terms of music. Punk had more or less crested in the city, and now dance where was it was at–the early days of  electro and hip-hop. Of course, if you were actually living here at the time, you probably took it entirely for granted–maybe you went to a gig or block party here and there, or occasionally stopped and watched some b-boys on the street, or saw Wild Style in theaters, but ultimately, you likely neglected to take the effort to really appreciate the scene. This, as with so many other things, is why we needed our friends across the pond to help us out. For some reason, it seems that just about every British artist that visited New York from the years 1981-1983 had to make a video that acted like a travelogue for the area’s underground scene. Whether things were just that exciting in the Big Apple, or that stagnant in the UK, all these guys acted like annoying friends who can’t stop raving about how amazing their last vacation was. Yet, they might have made the best documents of that time and place of them all. Examples:

  • The Clash – “This is Radio Clash.” The Clash’s intense love affair with the city of New York in the early 80s had a profound effect on not just their recorded output (hip-hop and funk-influenced singles like “Radio Clash,” “The Magnificent Seven” and “Rock the Casbah”) but on their live shows (an ill-fated attempt to cross boundaries by bringing Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five along on a European tour) and, of course, their music videos. Here they parade up and down the city, as well as monitoring it from a Man Who Fell to Earth-style surveilance room, and note the graffiti-tagged trains, breakdancing and police violence contained therein. New York would also be the setting for the live clip heavily circulated on MTV for “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” as the band rocks out a surprisingly grateful Shea Stadium, also taking the time out to take a top-down cruise of the city while a mohawk’d Joe Strummer takes pictures with his camera.
  • New Order – “Confusion.” Temporarily bored with making the best synth-pop records their own country would ever hear, New Order teamed up with Afrika Bambaataa producer and electro pioneer Arthur Baker (who surely ranks a close #2 to Rick Rubin for most disheveled-looking, long-haired white dude to have a profound influence on 80s hip-hop) in 1983 to make a New York club anthem of sorts. “Confusion” is one of the group’s lesser-remembered 80s singles, but it’s stayed a favorite of mine over the years, and the video is perhaps the most vivid of the Brits Visit New York genre. The group splits footage of themselves playing (and Baker tooling in the studio) with slice of life stuff in apartments and pizza parlors and the requisite club scenes. The thing I love about this video is that its always moving–both in its cinematography and in its action, whether its Baker gradually prepping the record for public consumption, the band cabbing it around, the ladies taking the subway to the club, or the dancers getting down when they’re actually there. The actual going out is always the most exciting part of going out anyway.
  • Malcolm McLaren – “Buffalo Girls.” I’ve been practically obsessed with “Buffalo Girls” recently–admittedly silly square dancing lyrics aside (and even those are pretty fucking catchy), there’s nothing about it that I don’t find irresistible–all the great little samples and scratches and the skittering beat and the awkward stereo separation and everything. The video is similarly compelling, as McLaren wisely stays in the shadows for the most part and leaves the visuals to the DJs in the booth, the b-boys doing their thing in Washinton Square (the footage of which was used a few years ago for VH1’s And You Don’t Stop ads) and in the streets and clubs of the city. It’s hard to say what made a white, British 37-year-old music biz svengali like McLaren decide that he was the man to bring hip-hop to the UK, but he did at least end up getting about half a chapter in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, even if it was mostly about how he proved that hip-hop couldn’t be easil co-opted by clueless outsiders.

There’s also Blondie’s classic “Rapture,” but they weren’t British, just white, near-middle-aged and kind of weird locals.

So what are New Yorkers up to today in the streets and clubs? Hey, don’t ask me–I just work here. What we need is a new influx of tourist Brits to show us the things about the city that we’re too preoccupied with day-to-day life to actually notice for ourselves. There must be some exciting things going on–some dance or rock sub-culture bubbling under the surface just wating to burst out into the mainstream–we just have to get those fresh eyes back on the case to inform us, in convenient four-minute travelogue video form, what they are. Otherwise, we’re just stuck with Maino and The Virgins‘ admittedly biased takes on things.

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What the World Needs Now: The Tony Reali of Political Debates

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 7, 2008

Happy trails, factual inaccuracy


It’s a shallow, and likely oft-made observation, but it always bowls me over just how little difference there is between political news coverage and sports news coverage. There have been so many times since the primaries that I’ve walked from my room with ESPN on the TV to my roommate watching CNN in our living room, and barely noticed a difference. The tickers look the same, the post-game discussions sound the same, and the redundancy is similarly egregious. It’s probably not coincidental, and I’m sure both have made changes over the years to be more like the other, but it’s still fairly jarring. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing–in fact, rather than wonder what steps should be made to differentiate the two, however, I ask in what ways they need to be even more similar. And the most obvious answer to me is the need for a Tony Reali figure in political debate.

Now, fans of rush hour ESPN might assume that by this, I mean that debates need a hands-on moderator like the one Reali serves as on Around the Horn. And indeed, it is tempting to picture last week’s Biden / Palin debate with more third-party feedback than that hypnotic graph on the bottom of the screen, supposedly tracing the second-by-second approval ratings of undecided male and female voters to subjects like gay marriage and third graders staying up late. Imagine this debate with Reali there, adding and subtracting points from the candidates’ tallies in real time, making snarky remarks in response to tired or unpersuasive arguments, and finger perpetually on the mute button in case one of them goes completely off the rails. Can’t pretend like that wouldn’t make for more compelling television, can we?

But rather than be that drastic, I’d say it would suffice just to have a Reali-type figure based on his role in Pardon the Interruption, in which he plays the fact-checking Stat Boy, appearing at the end of the program to correct inaccurate assertions made by hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon. My friends and I have often joked about how we wished we had a Reali to close out our pop culutre and statistic-heavy conversations, settling debates by offering helpful tidbits like “Actually, Anna Paquin was only the THIRD youngest actor to ever be nominated for an Oscar–Haley Joel Osment was 11, and Justin Henry was all of eight when he got his first nod…and Kim Carnes’ ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ only spent nine weeks on top of the charts, a week less than the duration of Olivia Newton John’s ‘Physical’.”

So imagine what he could do for a presidential debate? During each of these, a whole slue of stat-related assertions get thrown out for which most people couldn’t possibly have a clue of the actual accuracy. Some might say that the candidates purposefully take advantage of that ignorance to throw out their own crooked numbers, but really, could you even blame them if they just couldn’t keep all the stats straight? So why not have a crack team in the CNN research room to check the veracity of all the number-related assertions–maybe tape delay the debate 15-20 minutes if they need a little time to do so–and then at the end of the debate, one of the candidates calls out “Time to find out where we messed up. Reali!

“Actually, Senator McCain only voted against alternative energy 15 times, and a couple of those were as riders on other bills…and the average schoolteacher now makes 35-40 thousand dollars a year, not the 30-35 that Senator Obama suggests…and this is actually only the fifth most important election our viewers will vote in in their lifetimes, behind 1984, 2000, 2020 and 2032…”

If the public gets statistical accountability in sports, they probably deserve it in politics too, I’d say.

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What the World Needs Now: A Vin Diesel Comeback

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 16, 2008

“The things I’m gonna do for my country…”

So that preview up there…it doesn’t look too great, does it? I mean, sure, it’s got the Requiem for a Dream music, but that’s quickly joining the ranks of Sia’s “Breathe Me” and Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” of music so emotionally manipulative that using it to sell a sub-par product is just straight up cheating. And while admittedly the plot skeletons of just about all sci-fi movies sound ridiculous when written out, observe the Wiki summary:

In the near future, Toorop (Vin Diesel) is a mercenary who takes the job of escorting a woman from Eastern Europe to New York. While he thinks this is just an ordinary mission, he gradually finds out that his guest is carrying an organism that has the potential to become the next Messiah — and everybody wants to get their hands on it.

Hachi machi. Plus, it doesn’t really seem like Vinny’s heart is in it, does it? Especially in that exchange guaranteed to be an classic ’08 preview quote along the lines of 21‘s “Don’t call me dude!”:

Chick: “Are you a killer, Mr. Toorop?”
Dees: “Yes. Now please. Get in the car.”

Scintilating!

Actually, it’s been a while since there was anything involving Vin Diesel that was really worth getting excited about, and to me, that’s really sort of a shame. He started out promisingly enough a decade ago, with his scene-stealing roles in Saving Private Ryan and Boiler Room, but truly came into his own a few years later as an action hero in The Fast and the Furious and XXX. The movies were far from critically acclaimed, but they were commercial blockbusters, and more importantly, they felt like something new in a relatively stagnant genre–high-octane, street-level action; socially rebellious (key line from XXX: “Dude, you have a bazooka. Stop thinking Prague Police and start thinking Playstation. Blow shit up!“) but not socially irresponsible (The Dees doesn’t smoke, drink or do drugs on screen). Working with director Rob Cohen on both flicks, the combo looked like they could go on to be the Schwarzeneggar and Cameron (or at least Schwarz/McTiernan) for a new generation.

But something got lost along the golden path. Despite his clear limitations as an actor outside a very narrow subset of film types, Diesel appeared bothered by the idea of typecasting, and turned down roles in franchise sequels 2 Fast 2 Furious and XXX: State of the Union. However, he did think it wise to reprise his Pitch Black role in The Chronicles of Riddick, which would go on to be one of the least successful movies  of the decade. He’d rebound commercially with kiddie comedy The Pacifier, but his cred was ruined, and by the time of his attempted Serious Breakthrough in Sidney Lumet’s Find Me Guilty, no one was particularly interested (the movie was confusingly uncompelling, anyway).

In the meantime, no one’s really stepped up to carry the torch as Action Star of the Decade. Jason Statham certainly has the resume to lay claim to being the closest thing (The Italian Job, The Bank Job, Crank, Transporters 1 &2, Cellular, even certain scenes in bizarro drama London), and is a certified film badass if ever there was one, but he doesn’t have the kind of marquee star power, that ability to sell a movie based solely on his presence, that Dees could’ve had if he had stayed on the straight and narrow. Instead, most of the great action movies of recent years have been turned over to more everyman types like Matt Damon and Colin Farrell, actors who certainly serve their roles and movies well, but just don’t have that kind of singular brute force awesomeness to them.

We need him back. Sure, he’s starting to get on in years a bit, but he’s still younger than Arnie was when he made Total Recall and T2, and the good thing about most true action heroes is that since they were never particularly good looking to begin with, they just look tougher and less forgiving as they get older. I don’t think Babylon A.D. is going to be the movie to do it, but at least Vinny seems to have finally come to the realization that being Pacino just isn’t in the cards for him. Even more encouragingly, Vin’s announced plans to appear in yet another The Fast and the Furious installment, simply called Fast and Furious, as a sequel to the first movie but a prequel to the Dees-less 2 Fast–also featuring return appearances from Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, and even the relatively useless Jordanna Brewster for good measure. The world is once again ready, and the return seems imminent.

It better be, anyway–the clock is ticking on the 00s, and if he doesn’t make it back by the time the decade runs out, I think he’s more or less doomed to permanent relic status. C’mon, Vinny, do you want to be Lil’ Wayne, or do you want to be Lil’ Romeo? The time is now.

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What the World Needs Now: More Original TV Themes

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on May 2, 2007

Those were the days

Medias just don’t tie in with each other with each other the way they used to. When was the last time there was a movie that had an actual hit soundtrack? I’m not talking about Garden State-level, I mean a real blockbuster, millions sold, top ten hits, the whole deal. Has there been one so far this millenium? Artistically it might not be a huge loss, but culturally, I think it hurts us tremendously. I mean, can you picture the 90s without the Empire Records, Batman Forever and Waiting to Exhale soundtracks? Where would Kenny Loggins be now if not for Top Gun, Caddyshack and Footloose a decade earlier? It’s not like they’re not still making shitty teen comedies, superhero flicks and weepy chick dramas anymore–where did all the hits go?

Looks like they might’ve gone to TV instead. In the 80s and 90s, the idea of of including actual songs, even hits, for scoring purposes instead of just using incidental music, might not’ve been quite as accepted a practice at it is today (though from Miami Vice forward, it certainly wasn’t a revolutionary one). But now, seems like almost every show is using pre-existing music to set the scene. And that’s not always a bad thing–it means you get some inspired theme choices like Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” in House and Dandy Warhols’ “We Used to Be Friends” in Veronica Mars (though the way they butcher it in season three is tragic), as well as some brilliant uses of older hits in shows like The Sopranos and My Name is Earl. And in the rare case of Grey’s Anatomy, songs played during the show can actually become hits as a result of their use, as when the previously unknown to U.S. audiences Snow Patrol got a top five hit out of last year’s excellent “Chasing Cars” when it was used in the season two finale.

But all this is at the sacrifice of an underappreciated art form–that of the specifically commissioned TV theme song. Offhand, the only primetime shows I can think of that I watch regularly with original music for the themes are The Office and 30 Rock–neither of which, of course, have any lyrics. Several shows (Heroes, LOST, 24) don’t even have theme music at all, taking care of credit sequences during the actual show, so as to not waste any of the show’s potential 42-44 minutes of airtime.

Some people would argue that this is a good thing, and looking back on the super-cheese that was the great majority of TV themes of the 70s and 80s (and to only a slightly lesser extent, the 90s), it’s sort of hard to argue against that. Many of these themes seem insufferable today, and when you look at a number of them at once (as I unfortunately forced myself to do in preperation for a possible TV Themes category at a certain competition I went to a few months ago), you realize that not only were most of them crap, most of them were the same exact crap. It’s almost plug and play, with barely any bearing on the actual themes or content of the series whatsoever.

Still, I can’t help but feeling like this is a crucial subset of pop culture, one which might be totally lost on future generations. Where would be today without the themes to Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley or Welcome Back, Kotter? What instrumental music of the past thirty years could possibly be as adrenalized as Jan Hammer’s, as inspiring (and ringtone-ready!) as Mike Post’s, or as spooky as Ron Grainier’s? Is there anyone in the world who doesn’t know the words to the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme? Sure, we might get an extra minute or two of TV here and there, and the shows can save a couple of bucks, but at what cost?What the hell else will Gary Portnoy have to do with his time?

Seriously, people. Think of the children. They need to learn about Joey Scarbury and Rhythm Heritage some day.

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What the World Needs Now: An *NSYNC Reunion

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on February 19, 2007

Love, sweet love like I need a hole in my head

It seems increasingly obvious to me that *NSYNC were to the turn of the millenium what The Jackson 5 were to the 70s, what New Edition were to the 80s and what New Kids on the Block were (arguably) between the 80s and 90s–the pop supremacists of the time that owned charts and hearts everywhere, and more importantly, deserved it. Revisiting their catalogue, it clearly stands far above any of their Boy Band peers–even Backstreet Boys, the group that always seemed one step ahead of them at the time but whose big hits now sound exceedingly weak by comparison–and if anything, sounds better (and more refreshing) now than it did then. The statute of limitations on *NSYNC has definitely been lifted.

And interestingly, unlike all the other groups previously mentioned, *NSYNC have never actually failed or faded away. In fact, the group stopped at near the peak of their powers–though 2001’s Celebrity might not have been quite as popular as 00’s record-shattering No Strings Attatched, it still spun off three gigantic hit singles, saw the group expanding their sound beyond typical Boy Band fare, and saw the group beginning to emerge as songwriters and producers as well. While the hits had begun to dry up for 98 Degrees and LFO, and Backstreet Boys were clearly stagnating, *NSYNC seemed like they could’ve been the one group to survive the Boy Band era.

But then a certain someone decided to strike out on a solo career, and turns out he was pretty good at it–as forward-thinking as Celebrity might have been, Justified blew it out of the water, and suddenly Justin Timberlake wasn’t just the guy from *NSYNC, he was JT, a gigantic pop star in his own right. Then JC Chasez’s album flopped, Joey Fatone and Lance Bass made one of the worst romantic comedies of the millenium and Chris Kirkpatrick went underground. No longer anywhere close to being on the same footing as his ex-boybandmates, prospects of JT returning to *NSYNC seemed dim, and Timberlake more or less confirmed as much on an All Eyes on Me MTV special, in which he said he wasn’t sure what the group would do if they got back together, since “the music they were once famous for has since decreased in popularity.”

I always thought Bass’s performance was lacking a certain sincerity

Well, I say that now is the time to bring it back. The timing might never be as good again as it is now–Lance Bass’s recent sexuality revelation still has about 45 seconds left on his 15 minutes, Chris Fitzpatrick is gonna be on the new VH1 CelebReality show Man Band (along with members of Color Me Badd, LFO and 98 Degrees–yeowch), and JT is so worshipped by both critics and pop fans of all stripes that any project of his would be embraced by all with open arms. The pieces are in place.

But most importantly, I think its simply time for people to like *NSYNC again. The kids who fawned over Joey, Chris, Lance, JT and Justin when they were tweens are now mostly in their college years, that magical time period where everything from your youth that you were supposed to hate while you were in High School suddenly becomes cool again–are you gonna tell me that these people wouldn’t scream along to “It’s Gonna Be Me” if it was played at the right party? A little over a year ago, I did a Name That Tune contest with my High School friends, and across five decades of popular music that I asked questions about, the only song that every one of them correctly identified was “Tearin’ Up My Heart.” Meanwhile, on a recent episode of Scrubs, Turk claimed he was bringing back “Bye Bye Bye” with his new ringtone, and had the entire Sacred Heart staff (including Kelso!) grooving to it within seconds. Clearly, people’s *NSYNC memories are still as vivid as they ever were.

I’m not sure what it would sound like if they released a new album–though I bet some of the high-profile friends JT has picked up along the way to becoming the biggest pop star in the world would probably be along to lend a hand– and I can’t even really guarantee that it would be any more successful than the lukewarmly received BSB career reinvention, Never Gone. But dammit, it’s been over a half-decade since we’ve had a decent boy band superpower, and that’s just too long.

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