Monday, June 29, 2009

The highly anticipated and long delayed Dead Celeb post


All right, we were just as stunned by the rapid-fire falling of pop-cult Icons in the last week and a half as anyone else. Ed McMahon, the top rated "best sidekick ever" for his decades with Johnny Carson, was an expected loss because the man had been sick for a while. And Farrah Fawcett, since she had decided to film her last days for a TV documentary, was an expected loss too. Because each one was killed by the malevolent and sadistic plague called cancer, we were sad for both of them; instant, quiet, easy death is always preferable for people as likable as Farrah and Ed.

But then instant death came for Michael Jackson, which was totally unexpected, and then quiet death came for Billy Mays, of all people. Smiling, lovable BILLY MAYS THE SHOUTING PITCHMAN with the magnificent beard. And both of these guys were only 50. Members of the WB staff are 50. We were freaking out a little bit — okay, a lot — and being very careful about pretty much anything we were doing. And we hoped that, when we go, our families won't instantly break out the Twitter phones like Billy Mays's did to announce his demise to the world. Some things just shouldn't be tweeted.

Questions began coming our way after the Double Death Day that claimed Michael and Farrah: Where is the WB tribute post? Where is the Michael Jackson retrospective? Where's the post about Charlie's Sweetest Angel? And the short answer is, the post couldn't be written yet, because we were too busy being fascinated by the ultrahype machine that was kicking into supersonic speed.

Michael Jackson died around 5:00 pm New York time. Just four hours later, NBC had a two-hour tribute ready to air, one hour for Michael and the other for Farrah. The host of the schlockfest, the Today show's Anne Curry, put her anchorwoman voice through all kinds of Full Emo contortions while whispering and sighing some words, moaning and even sing-songing others.

See, we're sliding into anti-hype eye-rolling already. So before we fall completely into that mode: It is somehow wonderful and fitting that Farrah Fawcett, the best-selling pinup model of all time with over 12 million posters sold, died on the same day as Michael Jackson, the best-selling music performer of all time with over 100 million copies of his Thriller album sold. And both were trailblazers: Farrah brought erect nipples into the mainstream, and Michael brought videos of African American musicians into rotation on MTV.

Before Farrah, suggestions of female nipples were tolerated (men's, of course, could be displayed full frontal on church bulletins), but because the former beauty queen and star of TV commercials was blessed with such a... er, prominent set of them, and because anyone accused of admiring her for that particular body feature could always claim to adore her perfectly straight and brilliantly white teeth instead, there they suddenly were. Her show, Charlie's Angels, helped to usher in the era of "jiggle shows" where smart female characters were screenwritten into fewer and fewer clothes with less and less fabric, and dumb ones were put into towels.

Michael Jackson was the Jackie Robinson of MTV. Music Television, which really did start out playing music videos, was enforcing a pop-music apartheid where songs/videos by black performers just didn't get played. Then Thriller exploded, and MTV wanted to cash in on the phenomenon, and Michael said fine, but you racist bastards are gonna play my 14-minute video for the title song in its entirety. MTV caved, the video went into the heaviest of heavy rotations, and the rest is history: six years after Michael kicked down the door, MTV coughed up Yo! MTV Raps! and today we have Li'l Wayne, Li'l Jon, and Li'l Kim.

Okay. But now, let's think about these "accomplishments" — perky pokies and a long-form dance video to herald the arrival of hip hop's unbroken 20-year domination of the music industry. And then let's define "artist" status for each of the Double Death Day Deceased. Michael went on to officially insist that MTV refer to him as the "King of Pop" whenever it mentioned his name. He took little boys to music awards ceremonies, and then to bed. He had his face sawn apart nearly 40 times, to the point where his ear was being cannibalized to rebuild his nose. His relevance and importance decreased with each new album release, his money bled out steadily, and he lost his playground house. He had become, at the time he died, a circus freak show. A novelty act; a curiosity; a Trivial Pursuit answer. And of course, he had also become a white woman.

"Poor man-boy," the eulogizers eulogized, "his father Joe was a prick son of a bitch who called young sensitive Michael 'Big Nose' and scarred him for life. All of his surgeries and nose rebuilds were because of Joe."

But as a WB associate suggested over the weekend: "There are other ways to deal with your dad calling you Big Nose. For starters, you can call him an asshole."

While Michael Jackson was riding the fame roller coaster up over the 8-minute mark, Farrah Fawcett was doing the exact opposite. Michael went from respected, formidable performer to joke bubblebrain, and Farrah went from joke bubblebrain to respected, formidable performer. Tossed all kinds of fluff movie scripts, she learned to be patient and wait for the good ones; then she learned to insist on them. Extremities, The Burning Bed, Small Sacrifices, and The Apostle resulted.

But what about the dying-in-a-TV-documentary decision, that the eulogizers have called brave and selfless and noble? It's hard to suggest that another possibility might be a fading celebrity who didn't want the world to forget her. Michael Jackson hated the publicity he received; Farrah created hers. But, putting her accomplishments on the scale of importance and service to others, the end-stage documentary definitely wins over the early-stage pinup poster. If we were her, we'd have gone the documentary route, too.

With these two giants grabbing most of the Dead Celebrity news attention, the sad end for Ed "Hiyo!" McMahon, bankrupt and terminally ill, and the shocking end for Billy Mays, healthy and apparently done in by a tragic accidental bump to the head a la Natasha Richardson earlier this year, are bookends to a bizarre period of pop culture history. The past several days have made us question the ways we lionize celebrities and their accomplishments, and the methods we use to determine whose death gets 24-hour news coverage (Michael Jackson) and whose (Ed McMahon) gets a brief scrawl at the bottom of the TV screen once per hour. That's why we held off on the eulogies and starry-eyed funeral orations. Sometimes, mountains just implode rather than fall, and it takes a little time to figure out the difference.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Fred and Kate: please evaporate.

While we gather energy (and information) to post about important stuff, let us chime in on the Bob (Jack? Joe? Bill?) and Kate Plus Eight melodrama: We don't care. We've said plenty of times here at WB that babies are not toys, babies are not collector's items (Madonna, Angelina, we're talking about you), and babies are not fashion accessories. They're people — and in the case of Frank and Kate's brood of eight, they're gonna be screwed-up people in therapy because their parents threw them in front of TV cameras and then went off to play with other people not their spouses, and then announced an impending divorce.

Okay, so we do care — about the kids. They didn't ask to have publicity whores for parents. And six of them would have gladly let the first two be the end of things, but there's a sad and demented idea in some women's heads that if one baby is good, ten are better.

We do care. But once TV and fame came along to replace their kids on the priority list, Ted and Kate stopped caring. That sucks, and so do they. But think of the melodrama potential for the evolving show: Tony and Kate Plus the Two New "Special Friends" the Kids All Hate.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Short break...

While our semester winds down. Back in 24-48!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Still alive and well (in a way)

Johnny Winter
The Ark, Ann Arbor

June 17, 2009

Way back in the early 1970s, Johnny Winter put out an album titled Still Alive and Well as an answer to all of the fans and critics who'd speculated that his heroin addiction had ruined him. Back then he was still Handsome Johnny, an imposing and spectacular stage presence with flowing albino white hair and long, elegant fingers that appeared to be extensions of the electric blues-rock guitar riffs and solos that blew his audiences away. A cover of Dylan's "Highway 61" became his signature song, much more so than "Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo," and it (like all of his songs) was delivered in a deep growl, a voice wrapped just as fiercely around lyrics as those fingers were around the guitar neck.

That was then.

Today, Johnny Winter is 65 years old, still alive but no longer well, his health gone beyond "failing" to "failed." The Woodstock-era legend can barely walk, he is almost completely blind, and he performs sitting down. But damn, can that boy play guitar!

If you close your eyes and just listen, Johnny Winter live in concert treats you to a 70-minute extended guitar solo — a feat that would set the fingertips of younger musicians bleeding. And the notes you hear are precise, intentional, organic; there's no Yngwie Malmsteen speed just for the sake of a chromatic onslaught at the expense of musicality. Johnny has played these songs ten thousand times, and he never looks down at the fretboard; each of his fingers finds each of its notes effortlessly and naturally, supported by the steady and capable backing of Vito Liuzzi on drums, Paul Nelson on second guitar, and Scott Spray on bass.

Johnny Winter in the 1970s

Which, basically, is the problem. Without any kind of stage presence now, the frail white-haired man with the faded tattoos (that look disturbingly like bruises now) is only a long-fingered hand on a fretboard. His voice can no longer growl, and every song is sung in a high, thin, airy style that's the exact opposite of what fans of the old hits like "Red House" and "Bony Maronie" remember hearing. And so what happens is, the show actually starts to become sort of... boring. It feels disloyal and mean — this is a rock and blues legend on the stage! — but there's no other word to describe it. The only member of the band with any actual stage presence is bassist Spray, using the long neck of his instrument as a symphony conductor's baton and gesturing with real admiration toward the seated musician after each song, encouraging the audience to show its appreciation.

Who knows, maybe the growing, unwelcome, and uncomfortable sense of boredom is why, almost exactly at the 60-minute mark, Johnny suddenly stands up, shuffles off to the side of the stage, and stands for a minute while the audience realizes that... the show has just ended, and it's time to demand an encore. Johnny is right there, still clearly on stage, but at the edge, and you realize something else: he's there because it would be just too physically taxing for him to walk all the way back to the dressing room and wait for the audience to build up a genuine desire for an encore. So, this strange and sad charade will have to do, and less than a minute later the man is back on his chair, where a new guitar is delivered to him and the guitarist slips a silver metal tube over his little finger.

The audience knows what this means. The place erupts with wild applause even before the feeble voice says "Time for a little 'Highway 61.'" The performance is blazing — reedy vocals don't matter, this one's all about the guitar — and it ends with a building crescendo of high notes and thundering bass, Scott Spray lifting his instrument toward the ceiling, playing the electric as an upright, and Johnny's slide moving up the guitar neck higher and higher until there's nowhere else to go.

Any sense of boredom is forgotten; the encore has kicked the audience's ass and made its ears bleed a little, in a really good and satisfying way. And with that, an elderly albino bluesman who was once a strapping and fit young guitar hero leans forward to the mic, says "Thank you, goodnight," and exits the stage for real.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A comment about "comments"

We've got quite a few readers here at WB, but very few of them leave comments. And you know, it's probably better that way.

The state of civil discourse is officially in tatters, thanks to the Internet and the "democratization" of online information. Not only has Google News killed journalism by scraping/gutting the professional journalism outlets for free content, but those outlets having invited any anonymous lunatic and loser to "comment" about the journalism has led to a free-for-all of the worst kind of moronic tripe ever to be wrapped in tortured language alphabet letters.

Consider: An article in the Science section of the New York Times describes an awesome mini-golf course in Queens called Rocket Park. It's called that because the holes and hazards on the golf course are made of... actual rockets. Like, ten stories high, the kind that have gone to space. And along with mini-golfing, which admittedly became sort of lame a long time ago, kids learn about gravity, about black holes, about the overall science of astrophysics. It's the kind of education that many parents would mortgage their souls for if it meant their kids could have such an awesome hands-on learning experience.

In short, it's a topic that really warrants and invites intelligent, thoughtful conversation about the state of education, about motivating kids to become intellectually curious, about this golf park being a first step in American students' steady climb out of the pit of scientific ignorance. Who knows, such a conversation might accidentally lead to another idea as cool as the Rocket Park.

Dream on.

Here's how the actual "conversation" of online "comments" begins after the Times piece appears as an NYT share on Facebook (names have been changed to protect the imbecilic):

Allison S: coolz

Adam W: No one 1st?

Tom A: Adam stink

Randy B: so cool

Frank R: ....

Neil T: Yea

Jonas C: 2nd?

Andy L: oh snap lol

James H: wow that's cool

(sic) ROCKSSSSS!!!!

60 or 70 more of these mindless inanities follow, and then this scintillating "conversation" turns to... religion. Yes, someone uses the public forum to drop in a handy Bible verse (because this is a very effective way to appeal to the unchurched) that's totally unrelated to the topic — as if the "conversation" above it had anything to do with anything — and the anti-religious trash the religious and the religious trash other religions, and someone finally interjects the lyrics to a Spanish salsa tune.

This is the state of civil discourse in not just America, but the world. This is why nothing will ever get done about any problems of substance — because if we can't even talk intelligently about mini-golf as an aid to children wanting to learn science, then there's no hope for actual conversation about gigantic issues like corruption or poverty or climate disaster.

Coolz, yea, oh snap.

We are so screwed.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Microsoft finally gets an ad right

Let's face it, Microsoft's ads have never been great. Remember the series of print ads for Office where businesspeople had dinosaur heads? And let's not even mention the abominable ad for the unintentionally hilarious software known as Songsmith.

But now, as the monster from Redmond marches into the Tokyo of search apps to do battle with Godzilla Google, its advertisements for the new Bing search engines are... brilliant. Seriously.

If you haven't already seen this TV commercial, then think about how search works. You enter a term, and then you scan the 15-word "abstracts" in the results. And after the first three or four results, a lot of those abstracts can contain information you don't need and didn't want. (To be fair to Google, if you enter good search terms, you can get hundreds of great results before the questionable connections start to appear. Other search engines have also improved a lot over the years. But junk still shows up.)

Fans of trivia don't mind this at all, but for hardcore searchers who want things fast and streamlined to "maximize workflow," clutter is crap — which brings us to Microsoft's great ad for Bing:


Friday, June 12, 2009

Verse, bridge, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus, chorus, chorus, chorus, chorus....

This isn't one of those grumpy-old-blog complaints about how much better things used to be. This is a plea for our sanity, sent out to basically every recording artist writing music today:


Yes, we here at WB Music Labs have studied the issue for a long time, mostly while listening to cookie-cutter FM stations (and satellite radio too; it's far from an improvement over FM) while doing other work, and we've arrived at a conclusion: nearly every band out right now has taken to writing one or two verses, a bridge, and a chorus, and then mindlessly copy/pasting the pieces over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over.

Exhibit A: Shinedown's "Second Chance," with two extremely thin verses, two bridge repetitions, and three pastes of the chorus, including two back to back.

Exhibit B: Metric's "Help I'm Alive," which doesn't appear to have any verses but an array of three different choruses used interchangeably, randomly — and, of course, repetitiously.

Exhibit C: Chris Cornell's "Part Of Me," with three verses and 24 repetitions of a single-line chorus. And Cornell — former Soundgarden frontman, Audioslave vocalist, and masterful re-interpreter of Michael Jackson's "Billy Jean" — really ought to know better.

We know that for many listeners, lyrics are just sounds and vocal tracks are only another instrument in the mix. Some people's brains work like that, and that's fine (although a little sad). But the other half of us actually hear the words, and lyrics like the ones here are the equivalent of Chinese water torture, a steady tapping of the forehead until we become quietly, and then desperately, insane.

It doesn't help that both FM and satellite radio prefer to play their computer-generated playlists in the same order every day, with "heavy rotation" songs (think Green Day's "Know Your Enemy," which we are already sick of only two weeks after its release) playing at least once each hour. But if we boycott radio and just stick with our iPods, we'll miss hearing new music that the iPods need on them. On the other hand, by the time we hear the new music, we'll have heard it so often, and its lyrics will be so brain-numbingly simple and formulaic, that it won't matter.

It's an ugly situation. Songwriters, we're begging you: Write songs. Get off the computer, leave those Copy and Paste commands alone, and think about what else you could put there, what other words might enhance the message. Otherwise, you'll just give millions of people headaches that are beating like a hammer, beating like a hammer, beating like a hammer, beating like a hammer.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

She dreamed a dream that became a nightmare

After suffering an emotional collapse and being admitted to a psychiatric hospital following her second-place finish on Britain's Got Talent, Susan Boyle, or "SuBo" as hardcore fans like to call her, is ready to make a comeback. According to NBC's Today show, the "somewhat quirky" 48-year-old has hired U2's manager (!!!) and a physician to travel with her on the concert trail.

We don't know how Xanax will affect her vocal range, but if Susan starts wearing rose-tinted shades and campaigning on behalf of bankrupt third-world countries, we're outta there.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Whatever happened to Joel Whatshisname?

Joel McHale from E's The Soup is branching into movies, TV sitcoms, and stand-up comedy. We have two words for him: Craig Kilborn.

Years after David Caruso left a hugely successful role on NYPD Blue to pursue a career in movies — a career with a trajectory that maps out just like a trap door over an alligator pit — Kilborn left a somewhat successful gig as host of the Late Late Show to do exactly the same thing: start a career in movies. He got tiny and forgettable parts in three or four mainstream Hollywood vehicles, and now he stars in that mundane saga on the Trivial Pursuit Network, known as Whatever Happened to Whatshisname?

Caruso is back, finally, as Horatio Caine on CSI Miami, best known for his bizarre line readings, humongous ego, and two body movements: shades on/shades off, and hands on hips/hands off hips. He's so awful, he's mesmerizing. McHale is doing great stuff on The Soup, but we get the sense that, unlike Caruso, if he tanks in the film/sitcom/standup expansion, the only comeback role he'll be able to get will be starring in the Craig Kilborn Story. Careful, Joel. Don't buy the house in Malibu just yet; rent it and see what happens.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

"Time for you to leave"

David Carradine is dead at 72, apparently from suicide by hanging kinky masturbation in a Thailand hotel room.

Aging is difficult, but we're sad that the inner calm and wisdom of Caine in Kung-Fu couldn't translate into real life for the often troubled actor who played him.

The pebble has been snatched from the hand. Time to leave.

We originally posted a nice, gentle tribute to Mr. Carradine, who we thought had been troubled by the same despondency over aging that caused Hunter S. Thompson to kill himself.

But then the facts came out, and we really had to update this post. Our new commentary:

Ewwwwww, gross!


Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Something we hate about the number 8

.If you haven't heard about Jon and Kate getting ready to divorce and strand their eight kids in the swamp of split custody and suitcase weekends, then you're most likely not reading this post either. Ditto for news that Octomom was being courted with proposals for a reality show of her own, where her cute eight-ettes will grow up like an army of Trumans on the flat screen.

WB just wants to say that there is nothing special or significant about having eight kids, much less about shoving them in front of TV cameras. Both moves are just pathetic grabs for attention — although the more pathetic part is the networks clamoring to make kids into ratings and ratings into ad revenue, made possible by the most pathetic element of all: viewers who get sucked into the cheap melodrama.

Jon and Kate, your lives changed after you had all of those kids, and then changed again after your home became a TV studio? You lost focus on each other, and your affections drifted? Octomom, you never wanted all of the media scrutiny that you and your bonehead doctor generated by your explosion of tiny humans? You actually share a gene with Greta Garbo?

Well then, we just want to know: what the hell is wrong with you people?

They're not fashion accessories; they're people. And maybe you haven't heard, but the planet is already crippled by a massive and unsustainable overload of those. Get off the TV, and get into therapy. You're a plague on all our houses.


Monday, June 1, 2009

This year's winner -- and that blond thing grafted to his hip....

Although American Idol alum Adam Lambert has yet to reveal his sexual orientation, he believes speculation about him preferring the same sex may have cost him the win. But according to Simon Cowell, and more importantly, millions of women across the globe, heterosexual marriage isn't that great either.

This year's winner, Kris Allen, got hitched just a few months before auditioning for the show. He immediately showed off his new wife to the cameras and gushed over how much he loved her. He fell under a little criticism when Cowell told him in March that he should have kept his "cute wife under wraps for a few more weeks." Not heeding the advice, AI producers continued showing her in the audience during every performance and giving viewers ridiculously corny home videos to watch.

At first, we thought it was pretty cute that Kris loves his wife enough to show her off (and wear matching aprons on television). So, lost in a world where idols not only sing, but are romantic too, we managed to forget she sounded a little uncaring when she said "I think" before telling an interviewer what month they were married. And we ignored the fact that she had to be with her husband while he tried to do an interview with Ryan Seacrest, and that she talked about as much as Kris did. We even pretended not to notice how Kris couldn't even enjoy the hometown hero spotlight alone since his wife was sitting next to him in a convertible with his name on it during his welcome home parade, waving at his fans.

AI fever has now worn off and we can finally see (okay, maybe we saw it before) that having a wife isn't exactly appealing when the majority of the votes that led to the victory were based on looks, charisma, and a guitar. All we're left with now is an idol whose wife seems to be everywhere and a bunch of women too lost in fantasy to realize they pretty much have no shot with him, but truly believing he'll know how they voted and fall in love with them anyway.

If Kris hadn't already showed (and showed and showed) us his wife, it'd probably be safe to say we'd go back to the time when managers preferred to keep the marriages of celebrities secret so they could appear single to the female fan base. The Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein, made John Lennon keep his marriage to Cynthia Powell a secret in 1962, and it was rumored that many artists from Elvis to Donny Osmond were ordered to keep their marriages quiet as well. Recently, magician Criss Angel's ex-wife, Joanna Sarantakos, claimed he "forced her to keep their marriage a secret as to not turn off his female fans." The Jonas Brothers have gone even further, wearing "purity rings" so they can always pretend to be waiting for the right girl.

We think it's great that Kris Allen was bold (or ignorant) enough to admit to having a wife, and we're glad it didn't keep him from winning. However, while it probably won't hurt record sales, we have a feeling it may keep him from being the newest hunk on the block and most likely prevent him from being a poster on every teenager girl's bedroom wall.

So, Kris, although your marriage has already been revealed and your poster status diminished, we'd like to offer some words of advice to help you stay married, and more importantly for your career, secure your female fans from here on. Always continue to love your wife without telling the entire world, and make sure photos like this don't surface very often, since women will think they might be able to get you if you're willing to flirt with other girls. Keep her away when you're meeting screaming 'tweens, always hug your fans, kiss them on the cheek if need be, and stay grateful for the ones who wish you'd get a divorce, as those will be the ones buying everything your face is plastered on. Don't let her talk at your interviews, verify that she knows when you got married, and politely inform her that the screaming girls are waving at you, not her. And while you're doing all that, tell her not to take it too personally if the fans surrounding your car only wave at her with one finger.