Tag Archives: Game of Thrones

Selling out circa summer 2012

Like many things in music, The Who did it best.

What is the most annoying trend in popular music?  With YouTube and Auto-Tune making celebrities out of individuals who should never have come anywhere near a microphone, and genuinely talented singers continuing to struggle for any semblance of a break that doesn’t require an uncle in a senior management position with a record company, how could we possibly distil popular music’s faults down to the most egregious offender?  It’s ultimately a matter of opinion, but if I had to pick a single irritant that most damages my appreciation for today’s sound, it’s musicians recording multiple versions of their songs for different markets.  Nothing is more insulting to listeners than this shameless pandering to commercial interests.  Every time you hear one of these bowdlerized abominations oozing through your speakers, you can feel the greasy fingerprints of the Armani-suited marketing committee as they scrape at your eardrums.  Worse though are singers and bands bringing material to the studio they know they’ll have to re-record to ensure maximum market penetration (an apt metaphor if there ever was one).  It speaks of greed, cynicism, contempt for the fans and a fundamental lack of anything resembling artistic integrity.  And the worst part is, it’s totally unnecessary.

One of the big hits of the summer is Maroon 5’s “Payphone.”  Maroon 5 was every mother’s favourite band for their teenage daughters:  catchy and inoffensive with an easy-on-the-eyes lead singer.  They faded away somewhat after their initial explosion onto the scene but are experiencing a resurgent popularity with Adam Levine’s judging NBC’s The Voice and their infectious smash “Moves Like Jagger.”  But “Payphone” is an embarrassment.  It’s whiny emo nonsense that rings completely false – the complaints of a fifteen-year-old upset that his crush doesn’t love him anymore, with no more depth than a chewing gum wrapper.  Most irritating about the song, though, are the final two lines of the chorus:  “All those fairytales are full of shit, one more fucking love song I’ll be sick.”  What’s that, you say?  I must be making this up, you haven’t heard that?  Of course not – the radio version, the one you’ve heard, goes “All those fairytales are full of it, one more stupid love song I’ll be sick.”  And it isn’t Godzilla-esque bad dubbing either – Maroon 5 deliberately recorded two different versions of this line.  The reason?  They knew the line as originally written wouldn’t be played on adult contemporary radio, and that’s a huge audience to forfeit for the sake of some naughty words.  But that’s the thing – why did those words need to be in there in the first place?  The song isn’t great, but at least the message gets across without the potty mouth.  And don’t tell me it’s to express the depth of the singer’s anger; Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” is a much more honest scream of contempt at the woman who’s left him and contains absolutely no profanity (depending on your opinion of the weight of the word “screwed.”)  “Payphone” is juvenile, a kid giggling at the dirty picture he drew on his school desk, and Adam Levine et al. should know better.  And I say this as someone who admired Levine for telling off Fox News on Twitter after they used a Maroon 5 song in one of their promos.  However, swearing in their songs is just making the case for the likes of L. Brent Bozell and whatever suspiciously well-funded “Parents” group wants to fundraise for the evangelical right on the backs of those evil Hollywood liberals corrupting your children again, and the willingness to record and release a sanitized version for mainstream radio play is evidence of the emptiness of their commitment to branding themselves as rebels, badasses or whatever the point of dropping the F-bomb in the original version was.

“Payphone” contains another example of what pop songs do to try and broaden their customer base:  include a guest rapper in the middle eight.  A few of the singles from Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream contain rap:  “California Gurls” features Snoop Dogg and “E.T.” features Kanye West.  Not that you’d know it if you’ve only heard these on the radio – they play the version where, like with profanity, the rap section has been neatly sutured out for popular consumption, in the studio long before your local DJ gets his hands on it.  I have nothing against rap or the blending of genres (Aerosmith and Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way” collaboration continues to be awesome twenty-five years on), but these aren’t it.  These are stitch jobs.  In all likelihood the rapper and the main performer aren’t even in the studio at the same time – the result is a Frankenstein’s monster of a track where disjointed parts are cobbled together for commercial appeal rather than coherent performance.  The fact that usually the rap can be lifted out without any significant effect (or even notice – it was months after I first heard “E.T.” that I discovered Kanye was on the original version) speaks to the argument that forcing it in to bubblegum pop is misguided, cynical marketing at its most insidious – a way to ensure that even though we’ve got the white kids, let’s make sure there’s something for the black kids too.  More to the point – if the artists know they’re going to have to cut the rap for full radio exposure, why include it in the first place?  The other reason you know this whole phenomenon is marketing B.S. is that it’s never done the other way; sorry for those of you eager for that Jay-Z featuring One Direction number.  Here’s a radical thought – why not just write a better song that can appeal across color lines without pandering to them?

Since there is so much cross-pollination and cross-promotion of entertainment products these days, why not take pop music philosophy and apply it to novels?  (Oh wait, they’re already doing that – witness Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.)  But how ridiculous would it be if, for example, George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones came in both regular and sanitized versions, the latter where anything potentially offensive to Aunt Ethel was eliminated, so that Cersei and Jaime Lannister are just good friends, Bran fell out the window on his own and Eddard Stark died offstage due to a nasty throat infection?  Or if somewhere about two thirds of the way in we had a guest chapter authored by Stephenie Meyer where Sansa mopes over the sparkly Tyrion, because we have to make sure to get the youth vampire audience in as well.  Better yet, let’s do this in movies.  Let’s have the second act of The Dark Knight Rises directed by Brett Ratner featuring Chris Tucker as a wise-cracking Gotham City police officer and Jackie Chan as his kung fu master partner taking on Bane (“When you touch my goddamn radio, y’all have my permission to die!”)  Does that sound like anything we’d want to read or see?  Then why do we let musicians get away with it?  Chopped up, bastardized and sewn together alternate versions of songs ultimately please no one and only embarrass the artist.

In the end, quality is quality, and it begins from the ground and proceeds organically – piling stuff on top after the fact, or half-assing out a different version, is a sign of a last-minute lack of confidence fueled by focus groups and marketing gurus who need to look up from their spreadsheets.  Like books and movies, there should be one song, and one song only.  Putting out multiple versions for different demographic markets only reinforces the concept of music as product – the last thing I suspect anyone who fancies themselves an artist wants to admit.

A price above rubies

Elisabeth Moss (Peggy) and Christina Hendricks (Joan).

What price does a woman put on her soul?  How blurred is the line between integrity and compromise?

As Puritanical attitudes towards what is acceptable to a television viewing audience have softened, the portrayal of women has evolved as well, with the smiling apron-wearing June Cleaver giving way to ever more complex characters, where what it means to be a woman, in all its wonderful, contradictory glory, is examined on a psychological level – much more deeply than hacky debates on the best make of shoes or how sexually inadequate their partners may be.  Last Sunday’s episode of Mad Men, “The Other Woman,” after four and a half seasons of examining the ways in which men compromise themselves in pursuit of wealth, sex and power, took its two strongest female characters and forced them to ask themselves what their own price might be.  Joan agreed to an indecent proposal in exchange for a partnership in the company, while the lately taken-for-granted Peggy decided her worth couldn’t be expressed in numbers and chose to walk when that was all she was offered to stay.

The buxom redhead Joan has been described by the show’s creators as man-like in her full command of her sexuality, a beautiful woman who is well aware of the effect she has on those obsessed by mammaries.  To their (and Christina Hendricks’) credit, she has never been portrayed as the kind of vampy temptress such a description usually fits; she isn’t working from the Erica Kane playbook, but rather striving, consistently, to prove herself as the best at her job.  As to her relationships with the men and the women of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, one will forgive what sounds like a puerile argument when the symbolism of Joan as mother figure is expanded upon.  Even those who have expressed sexual desire for her, whether fulfilled like Roger Sterling or unrequited like Lane Pryce, have found themselves in the position of whimpering babes at her ample breast.  Others, like cardboard husband Greg, have been unable to cope.  (Greg escaped, ironically, to the boys-only army.)  Her relationship with serial womanizer Don is perhaps the most complex of all – ironic that the two best-looking people on the show have never taken it much beyond a brother-sister level.  Don is man enough, in the end, to recognize that Joan agreeing to sleep with a lecherous car dealer in exchange for securing the Jaguar account isn’t the path she should take.  The episode played expectations by staging Don’s last-ditch attempt to change Joan’s mind without revealing until later that it took place well after the deed was done.  Was Joan truly as compromised as most reviewers of this episode tend to believe, or was it a logical progression in her evolution – a conclusion on her part, regardless of what we may think of its validity, that to get where she wants to be, she has to use every talent at her disposal, regardless of the collateral damage to her spirit?  Coincidentally, this week’s Game of Thrones featured a scene where the ruthlessly ambitious Cersei Lannister drunkenly observed to the virginal Sansa Stark that a woman’s greatest weapon lay between her legs.  Has Joan crossed that line now?  Has she decided that being good at what she does is only going to take her so far?  One thing is for certain, in the jubilation that accompanied the announcement of SCDP’s winning the Jaguar account, newly-minted partner Joan was as out of place as a prostitute at a church picnic.  Perhaps inside, that was how she felt.

Peggy, on the other hand, while she has had her share of romances (and one ill-advised fling with Pete Campbell, whose abject disinterest in her since that early episode indicates that she was strictly a novelty to him) is the little chickadee to Joan’s mother hen.  Unlike Joan, she’s never really had the option to full-out Mata Hari lecherous men into helping advance her station in life, and so her drive to prove herself comes more from a place of not having much of a choice otherwise.  She and Joan both find themselves brushing against the glass ceiling, and for Peggy, going down the road suggested by Cersei Lannister is not only unpalatable, but unnecessary.  Peggy’s worth is not tied to her future at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce – it is, after all, only one of many companies out there where her talents can be of use, as is quickly proven by her meeting and ultimate decision to go work with Ted Chaough.  When she admits this to her mentor, Don – while incredibly empathetic in his encounter with Joan – cannot reconcile the idea that Peggy’s problem cannot be solved with just more money.  But Peggy is in as much a crisis of spirit as the one faced by Joan.  Oddly enough, Joan’s loyalty to SCDP and its people – her mother’s instinct again – was probably what led her to make the choice she did, the dangling carrot of a partnership aside.  Peggy, by contrast, realizes that to grow as a person she must, in a Buddhist sense, divest herself of her attachment to Don Draper and the old gang.  The little chickadee has to leave the nest.  It is a much healthier decision, and explains the smile on her face as she steps onto the elevator for the last time, with the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” playing in the background in a final brushstroke of symbolism.

Proverbs 31:10 says that the worth of a virtuous woman is far above rubies.  Joan let herself be bought, some would say for far less than rubies.  Peggy didn’t.  What is most important, however, is that in the end, the choice was theirs.  They may indeed have a price, but they are going to be the ones to decide what that price is.  These women defined themselves instead of letting men do it for them – a greater achievement in the sexist era in which Mad Men takes place.  They were willing to accept the consequences of that definition, whatever they may be.  And taking absolute charge of one’s destiny is, to risk a cliche, true empowerment.

Game of Thrones and the many faces of the goddess

Carice van Houten as Melisandre, warning of darkness and horror and the return of the smoke monster from Lost.

Maiden, mother, crone; child, witch, whore; the meek and the bold, the submissive and the dominant, the loving and the cruel.  The infinite and mesmerizing complexity of the feminine was embodied by the incredible women of Game of Thrones in this week’s episode, “Garden of Bones.”  While the show can come off as a man’s world in which kings, knights, lords, gentlemen and brutes alike vie for power, “Garden of Bones” reminded the audience that even as they strut in their armor and proclaim their mastery of all they survey, the men are but pieces in this grand game, and that the women are holding the board up – with a flick of their elegant wrists this precarious world will collapse.  That they have not yet done so speaks to the quiet bemusement with which they allow the boys to go about their manly and yet hollow pursuits.

That the men of Westeros are ultimately servants to the other half of the sky is evident in several scenes in the episode where men attempt to assert their dominance only to see their egos undercut by feminine power.  The arrogant Littlefinger, his very moniker a comment on his masculine limitations, waltzes into Renly Baratheon’s camp, first confronting Margaery Tyrell about Renly’s love that dare not speak its name, then presenting his unrequited crush Catelyn with Ned’s remains and dangling a chance to reunite her with her captive daughters.  In both instances the women will have none of it.

Margaery knows well that her marriage is a sham designed to secure a political alliance and is content to act her role, and Catelyn is not so naïve that a shameless appeal to her maternal instincts will excuse Littlefinger’s betrayal of her late husband.  Robb Stark is struck speechless by the simple healer Talisa when his proud military victory is utterly diminished by her simple comments to him in the battle’s aftermath, as she accuses him of massacring a bunch of innocents and having no greater plan for the future of the Seven Kingdoms.

Where Littlefinger and Robb respond to their encounters with powerful women with silence, a more sinister path is taken by another profoundly insecure man attempting to assert his dominance over the female – in the skin-crawling scene where petulant King Joffrey commands one prostitute to beat another bloody.  He cannot master them with his questionable masculinity, so he uses the coward’s fallback of fear and brutal violence instead.  Joffrey’s understanding that he can never equal Robb Stark as a military commander, the more traditional masculine role, leads him to mistreat Sansa instead.  Interestingly, while the delicate, virginal Sansa appears to be displaying battered woman syndrome in her continual proclamations of love for Joffrey despite his abuse, she is doing so not out of misplaced devotion but self-preservation – biding her time until she is freed of this monster.  Her sister, Arya, utterly defeminised by circumstance (even commenting to Lord Tywin that being a boy made it easier) is likewise still a reserve of indomitable strength, going to sleep each night muttering, like a mantra, the name of each man she means to see dead.

Indeed, the only male character who seems not intimidated by the power of women (at least in this episode) is the one whose masculinity has always been dismissed by his fellow men:  Tyrion Lannister.  In fact, it is his knowledge of his cousin’s weakness for Queen Cersei’s feminine wiles and his ability to manipulate that awareness that allows him to gain a spy against his scheming sister.

The two sides of motherhood, giving nurturer and ferocious protector, are also on display with the “Mother of Dragons” Daenerys when she is petitioning for entrance to the desert city of Qarth, first pleading that a refusal to admit her people would condemn them to death, then threatening to use her dragons to burn the city to the ground when she is rebuffed.  She is the mother of her clan of ragtag Dothraki as much as Catelyn finds herself mother and counselor not only to the Starks but to the men who would be King (treating the battling brothers Baratheon as if they were her own misbehaving children).  Where her gilded sibling Viserys was an entitled prat cut from the same unearned royal cloth as Joffrey, Dany’s leadership qualities are being forged through fire.

And speaking of fire, there is Melisandre, the enchantress, trying to tempt grizzled old Davos Seaworth with the secrets beneath her robe.  When he finally beholds her stunning (and very pregnant) naked self, the Onion Knight comes face to face with a depiction of the primal fear of all men, what they cannot understand and have never been able to control since the Garden of Eden:  the magical temple of life and sexuality that is the woman’s reproductive system, from which emerges in a Freudian ecstasy of smoke and shadow the darkness and horror that Melisandre had cautioned Renly about earlier.  To see this sheer force step forth and take shape as the sorceress smiles, at once incomprehensible and weirdly compelling, is the final affirmation in an episode already packed with revelations that the women have written the rules of the Game of Thrones, and they are its referees.  For all the talk of the old gods, even Melisandre’s repeated comments about the “Lord of Light,” it is the Goddess, in all her magnificence, elegance, vulnerability, bravery, mystery and cruelty, all her many forms, young and old, beautiful and ugly, wise and foolish, who is running the show.

Tanned, rested and ready

Feels awful. And it works.

As my better half has pointed out to me on many occasions, men are the ultimate wusses when it comes to getting sick.  Even a mild cold – as it was my oh-so-grave misfortune to suffer over the past few days – is the tribulations of the damned.  What’s more ironic is that it has been ages since I’ve been struck down with a truly dreadful case of sniffles.  I’ve always had a pretty strong immunity; never have I been one to spend a week confined to bed, my head oozing snot from every orifice.  The occasional illness, every six months or so, is overcome within a matter of one or two days, if not hours.  The problem is that when one is accustomed to more or less perfect health, one loses the capacity to endure discomfort of any sort.  Hence the infrequent stuffy nose turning into a harbinger of the apocalypse.  In any case, I think I’ve hit upon a pretty reliable recipe for licking that pesky rhinovirus (at least, it works for me; this should IN NO WAY be misconstrued as any form of medical advice, as I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on television):  copious amounts of Vitamin C, orange juice and oregano tablets (bring on the spaghetti burps), washing the nasal cavity frequently with a neti pot and the kicker, the “cook it out” method:  basically, wrap yourself in as many sweaters and blankets as you can endure, dope yourself with NyQuil and go to bed, and let yourself sweat.  If you can stand it, the heat basically fries the virus out of your body and dramatically shortens your recuperation time.  The bad news is you have to go back to work that much sooner.  Anyway, I’m back and I’m ready to kick April’s cruel arse into May.

Nirvana at last.

As one of my many forays into the digital world, I’m on Foursquare, the social media platform where you earn points and virtual badges by “checking in” at different locations throughout the world (an expensive hobby if you travel frequently and don’t have a good roaming plan on your mobile).  One of my Foursquare contacts lives in San Francisco, another in Washington, and speaking of illnesses, I’m always struck with “square envy” when the cool places they’re visiting pop up on my notification board.  When friends are crisscrossing the continent checking in at places like embassies, monuments and concert halls, your long-held mayorship of the local grocery store doesn’t feel that impressive.  Call it a social media variant on the old “grass is always greener” saw; one of the drawbacks of this new phenomenon of ambient awareness, where everything everyone is posting as their status update seems a lot more profound than what’s going on in your ordinary life.  Then again, it’s all relative – something that seems unique to the first world is our ability to be dissatisfied with abundance, to see existential emptiness within the horn of plenty and to always crave more, or at the least, to crave the idea of not appearing boring to the others around us.  The Buddha was probably on to something with the whole concept of suffering being related to unfulfilled desire.  (Now how is that for a train of thought – from Foursquare to Buddhism in less than 200 words.  If that doesn’t qualify me for the “Downward Facing Dog” badge, I don’t know what does.)

One final random note for today – finally saw the Season 2 premiere of Game of Thrones and had forgotten that all the Men of the North and the Night’s Watch sound like they should be playing bass in 60’s Merseybeat bands.  I gather that since Sean Bean was cast first as patriarch Ned Stark, they needed to find actors with a similar Sheffield patois in their speech to reflect the idea that they are all from the same family.  Yet it’s interesting how the British accent (and its many regional and even neighborhood variations) seems ideally suited to the fantasy genre (the Lord of the Rings series being another prime example), and how actors speaking about kingdoms and dragons in American midwestern dialects yanks you out of the story faster than you can say “You betcha!”  Indeed, there is a conceit that any period piece, no matter where it is set, seems more genuine when the actors sound like they just graduated from RADA.  It was such an unusual choice of director Milos Forman, when making Amadeus, to allow the actors to speak in American accents, when the safer, more traditional bet would have been to go with the Queen’s.  The movie is set in Austria so British accents would be no more logical for the setting than say, Spanish ones, but still, something still feels a bit off in how people are speaking (then again, you couldn’t exactly have the genuine Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger playing Mozart).  Of course, the champion of mishmashed dialects still has to be one of my personal favorite movies, The Hunt for Red October, where you have a crew of Soviet submariners captained by a Scot (whose character is actually supposed to be Lithuanian) and made up of Englishmen, New Zealanders, Germans, Swedes, Italians and Frenchmen, with one token Russian-born actor providing a lonely hint of verisimilitude – not that he has any lines in Russian, of course.  I guess what matters most is internal consistency, so if the entire cast of Game of Thrones was Icelandic it would make just as much sense as having them all hail from working-class Northern England.  Wonder if one of the Starks will have to warn the others that “one on’t crossbeams gone owt askew on treadle”?

The human factor: Game Change

Ed Harris as John McCain and Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin in Game Change.

When Aaron Sorkin was first developing The West Wing, he was advised repeatedly that shows about politics don’t work.  It’s one of the more interesting ironies that even though pundits are fond of dismissing political machinations as “inside the beltway” minutiae that make no difference to the lives of ordinary people, political stories, whether they are Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, All the President’s Men or JFK, are among the most compelling dramas out there.  Why, might one ask?  There is something Shakespearean in narratives set amidst the pursuit of, or the exercise of high office – they are our latter-day tales of the courts of kings and queens.  In fact, Game of Thrones, HBO’s award-winning fantasy series, wins praise not for its dragons and magic and special effects but for the plights of its very human characters caught up in the drive for political power.  Indeed, “HBO” and “Game” would seem to be a winning combination, as exemplified by the premiere this past weekend of Game Change, the Jay Roach-directed story of the McCain-Palin presidential campaign of 2008.  In today’s climate it’s difficult to put politics aside when looking at a movie like this, but the script (by former Buffy the Vampire Slayer actor-turned-writer Danny Strong, who also wrote Recount) jettisons ideology to a large extent.  You don’t really get the sense from the movie of what McCain and Palin were running on or how they differed from the successful Democratic ticket.  The story focuses instead on what made The West Wing and the best political movies work – the human element.

You don’t have to agree, even slightly, with the positions of John McCain or Sarah Palin to enjoy this movie – you can be the staunchest, conservative-loathing left-winger and still relate to the weary McCain’s fading hopes to be President, the suddenly infamous Palin’s desire to prove herself on a national stage and seasoned advisor Steve Schmidt’s drive to win.  There is an honour to these people when viewed in their private moments (fictionalized as they may be here) and a humanity that we come to realize is stripped away under the lens of 24-hour news coverage, rendering them less people than caricatures defined at the whims of others.  The sublimely talented Julianne Moore is an eerie dead ringer for the infamous Alaskan governor, nailing her look, her movement and her oft-imitated voice, and showing us what made average people gravitate to her in the first place.  It was easy to snicker at Tina Fey’s “I can see Russia from my house” line back in the day; much less so to see the film’s Palin experiencing being pilloried night after night to raucous laughter.  The always watchable Woody Harrelson is excellent as Schmidt, who is instrumental in getting Palin on the ticket over McCain’s initial preference of Joe Lieberman, and who watches like Doctor Frankenstein as his “creation” spirals out of control, only to try and salvage what he can of the party as the campaign begins to go off the rails.  In one of the final scenes, as he angrily tells Palin she will not be allowed to give her own concession speech on election night, he has come full circle, a believer in and defender of the traditions of American democracy, after living the consequences of trying to win through cynical political calculations alone.

Asked by Anderson Cooper at the end whether he would have put Palin on the ticket had he the chance to make a different choice, Schmidt only comments with resignation that in life, you do not get do-overs.  As the real-life Sarah Palin maintains her public presence and muses to the press about jumping into the 2012 Republican race should Mitt Romney not achieve a solid lock on their nomination, the ultimate lesson of Game Change rings loudly – the reason why, contrary to popular (or at least entertainment executive) belief, political stories work.  John McCain, Steve Schmidt and the Republicans looked at Barack Obama’s effect on his supporters and concluded that rock star charisma was enough to win.  What they and the world came to realize in 2008 was that it is not – gravitas matters more.  At its heart Game Change isn’t about wonkery and punditry and polls; what it does is put the lie to the old saw that anyone can be President – or, perhaps more accurately, that anyone should be President.  Some people just aren’t up to the job, and that’s nothing against them.  Sarah Palin certainly wasn’t, and there is a hint of classical Greek tragedy in the tale of a woman given such an enormous opportunity only to see it drift away because of her own failings.  I’m a proud liberal – I cannot condone Palin’s politics, how she conducts her life or how she would choose to impose her worldview on others, but I can empathize with the loss of a dream I didn’t realize I even wanted.  We all can.  That’s why Game Change works, and why it can take its place among the best political stories – because of the human factor.