Saturday, June 27, 2009

Michael Jackson and Musical Convergence

Obviously, the death of Michael Jackson has been a huge deal culturally speaking, with much of the focus on the idea that we’ll never all be united in adoration of a performer in the way that people unanimously loved him back in the 80s. I was born after the release of Thriller, so I missed Michael’s biggest years, catching him in some early 90s performances, like his Super Bowl performance and I do vaguely remember watching the debut of the “Black or White” video when I was younger. So, I’m probably not the best authority to say whether someone could reach the heights that he had.

But, I do think that the notion of a unified, racially transcendent pop superstar doesn’t necessarily die with Michael. People point to Nirvana’s “Nevermind” replacing Jackson’s “Dangerous” as a sign that the times had left him behind, an era of “authentic” artists replacing the pop spectacle that Jackson represented. But, nearly twenty years later, who has the more enduring artistic legacy, whose sound has been more influential? Sure, there were a legion of Nirvana knockoffs in the 90s, but listen to the music that’s out there today, both mainstream radio popular stuff and the hottest indie bands and you’ll hear a lot more Jackson than Nirvana.

In a lot of ways, I think we’re in a post authenticity age. While I have a lot of issues with hipster culture and values, I think one of the good things it did was pave the way for a broadening of taste, by making it acceptable to like popular songs, at first through the pretense of irony, then through straight up embrace. Songs like Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and Justin Timberlake’s “Rock My Body” were just flat out great pop songs, so good that they forced people to embrace them.

Timberlake is frequently cited as one of the heirs to Jackson’s title as King of Pop, and his career followed a similar trajectory. Starting out in a heavily packaged pop band, he branched out into solo work and took artistic control of his music, creating dance floor hits so solid they basically forced people to enjoy them. Pitchfork, the arbiter of hipster taste, ranked his “My Love” as the number one song of 2006, a choice with no irony behind it.

Artists like Timberlake and Kanye West draw on Jackson’s legacy of music that’s simultaneously personal and danceable, rewriting the notion that only in an acoustic or rock setting can real feeling be expressed. And, I think their songs are so transcendent and popular, they fill that cultural need for music to unite us. I enjoy loving a band no one else knows as much as anyone, but there’s a certain joy in connecting with people over a popular song that everyone knows, and I think that’s why even in a fractured audience MP3 world, we’re still going to have blockbuster songs that everyone knows and loves. You need those songs that a DJ play and everyone will know, and even as radio loses its influence, those songs will still find a way to become known to people.

Over on the rock side of things, the major thing that’s changed in 00s popular “alternative” or indie music is the infusion of dance rhythms and instrumentation into rock music. Sure, there’s still non-dance bands, but the sound of the 00s is definitely the 80s style, synth driven electroclash, like MGMT, Phoenix, etc. That’s a sound draws on the pop aesthetic of Michael Jackson, not the dour heavy atmosphere of bands like Nirvana. To some extent, I think there’s been a re-embrace of fun and style in music. MGMT is a very image driven band, a stark contrast to the “anti-image” approach of 90s bands, like Nirvana or Radiohead. And, songs like MGMT’s “Kids” are breaking out in a huge way, uniting people across genre lines in a way that Jackson’s stuff did in the day.

Personally, I love the embrace of fun and pop structures in contemporary music. I think the 90s was a nadir for music, as pop and rock radically diverted, leading to lame work on both sides. Now, we’ve got pop stars like Kanye West creating really ambitious, challenging albums, and rockers making danceable fun stuff.

Sure, Jackson lost his own footing in mainstream culture, but I think he was one Timbaland or Neptunes produced album away from a return to mainstream prominence. I’d have loved to see him do something along the lines of Jay-Z’s Black Album and bring in a host of huge producers, all with the goal of doing the best possible Michael Jackson song. But, I guess we’ll never get that.

I also think much of the furor surrounding Jackson’s death is due to the totally bizarre life he led. I saw him called the first post-human celebrity, and if you see video of the guy, it’s hard to believe he is of the same species as us. He seems more like an alien playing a person. I don’t think we’ll ever see a celebrity as bizarre as Michael Jackson again, but I do think the potential is out there for someone to drop another Thriller, and the time is more conducive for it now than it’s been since the 80s. Barriers between music are breaking down, in an MP3 age, there’s not that strict allegiance to one subculture or genre. Songs can break out and becomes sensations on their own terms, and the distinctions between what’s popular in the rock world and the rap world are lessening everyday.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Lost: 3x01-3x06

Coming off the amazing season two finale, I was really excited about the direction of Lost. A lot of different plot avenues were opened up, in one episode Desmond became a more fully realized and interesting character than most of the island dwellers, and it seemed like the cliffhangers ensured that the next season would pretty much write itself. But, the first six episodes of the season regress to a lot of what didn’t work about season one, and never quite finding any sort of forward momentum to keep viewer interest.

Season two was perfect, but what I liked most about it was that it started to clarify the stakes and mythological background of the island. In season one, there were a lot of random elements introduced, the polar bears, the heroin plane, the smoke monster, the hatch, the others, but there was no underlying structure. Stuff just happened, and we were promised answers in the future. Everything changed with the Dharma Initiative Orientation video in “Orientation,” which laid out some of the background and stakes of the island. This was a psychological experiment that went awry, and knowing that put the Others and some of the other random elements in context. The question of what connected the Others we knew to the Dharma Initiative lingered, and was interesting to speculate about.

The problem I’ve got with the bulk of season three to date is that it basically abandons the hatch mythology to replace the interesting black science of season two with a more generic evil mastermind who thinks he’s the good guy. I don’t think the show needs to answer all its questions immediately, but in this case, the lack of context for who the Others are makes it impossible to move the narrative forward. The first scene of the season raises myriad interesting questions, but since then it’s just the same beats over and over again. Ben wants to make Jack want to help him, but in that case why has he imprisoned everyone? Without knowing his motivation, a guy who was the most fascinating character in season two has become increasingly boring to watch. Every single scene with him is the same, and the same is true for Juliet.

I should track back a bit and say that I loved the audacity of the season premiere. Trapping all our characters in this weird psychological prison produced some really interesting scenes, and tied into the reality manipulation of the Dharma Initiative in the Hatch. I wanted to learn more about the Hydra Station, and I also really liked the pulp absurdity of the setting. Even the second episode worked pretty well, continuing our tour of pulp archetypes by putting Sawyer and Kate on a chain gang. I think the general concept was interesting, and the first two episodes worked pretty well.

The problems arose after it’s six episodes in, and we’re still hitting the same exact emotional beats as in the first two episodes. The Others lie to people, they mess with their minds, we knew that, so why do we need to see them pretend to install a pacemaker in Sawyer, then say they didn’t actually do it. The story worked fine on its own terms, but just seemed redundant to what came before. I really like the Juliet/Ben dynamic, but I want to see it grow and change. I want to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, and what the ultimate endgame is. If they really are the good guys, why are they torturing everyone? These questions are obviously key to the nature of these Others, and when they’re an offscreen presence, it’s fine to withhold the answers. But, when they occupy so much screentime, it makes the stories pretty inexplicable when you don’t know the motivation of the characters involved. There’s some pretty clear logic gaps in the Others’ behavior, and the longer we have no idea why they behave so inexplicably, the harder it is to emotionally engage with what’s going on.

Again, this isn’t strictly about ‘answers.’ We get hints of their background, like Ben saying he’s been on this island his whole life, but nothing that explains their actions. So, we wind up with our characters sitting in the same exact space for six episodes, with no idea why they’re there and no idea how to escape. There’s also some egregious logic gaps, like Kate and Sawyer choosing not to escape despite Sawyer’s cage being open. Even if you can’t get off the island, at least you can try to do something instead of sitting there waiting to die. I did enjoy the dirty desperation of Sawyer and Kate finally having sex, and Jack’s startled reaction when he saw them on the monitor, but that doesn’t excuse the logic gap of their refusal to leave. Why not just have them get dumped in the same cell by their captors, or have them together all along, as a way of getting them together, to ensure that Jack has nothing left tying him to the island.

I’m sure there’s some people who say it’s a mistake to see the Others at all, that doing so ruins their mystery and the show. But, at this point, the Others are much more interesting. I can’t see any interesting future storyline for the vast majority of the original characters, but the new people are fascinating and I’d love to see more from them, and find out how they built the strange world they live in now.

One of the strange things about this show as compared to other serial narratives is that typically, the newer a character is, the more interesting they are. That’s largely due to the show’s continued ties to its flashback structure, which at this point is doing more than just eating up screentime, it’s actively denigrating a lot of the characters. I didn’t have that many issues with the flashbacks in late season two, they generally worked on their own terms, or had something to contribute to the narrative. Here though, every single one is a disaster. At this point, the Kate, Locke and Jack stories are almost a joke, hitting the same exact story beats every single time. Sawyer in prison was just a bad short story that again tried to soften the character in a way that didn’t really work.

The biggest offender was the flashback that reveals that Sun did have an affair. That negates one of the best season two moments, Jin’s happiness at finding out that the island cured his infertility. It’s just a messy complication that does nothing for the present story, and retreads the exact story beats as previous flashbacks. And, the flashbacks aren’t well integrated with the present narrative, they’re just ten minutes of story dropped into an otherwise independent narrative.

I think one of the major miscalculations of the season was the decision to not intercut the action with the Others and the action on the beach. Intercutting, as with the tailie and hatch storylines in early season two, creates momentum because it ensures that even if one story drags, you’ve always got something else going on. It also lets you more easily skip in time, jumping past boring events to get to the meat of the story.

But, even if there was more intercutting, nothing’s really happening on the beach side of things. Locke’s “Further Instructions” retreads a lot of season one stuff, and tells us nothing new about Locke, while also skipping over the material I’m actually interested in, namely how did Locke get out of the Hatch that’s now nothing but a hole in the ground. I’m also curious to see how Eko got out, but with his death, I’m assuming we’ll never find out.

The worst episode of the season is definitely Eko’s farewell. It’s the same exact stuff we saw in season two, both in the present and the flashback, with an inexplicable death tacked on at the end. Why have Eko survive at all if he’s just going to die here? Why not have him go out in a blaze of glory as the Hatch explodes rather than bring him back here just to creep over to die. It’s a total debacle.

More interesting is Hurley’s observation about Desmond’s ability to see the future. Desmond’s a really fascinating character, but gets very little to do during the first bunch of episodes. The distribution of screentime is really problematic, Sun and Jin are great during their boat adventure, but we never get any emotional followup on what she did. I’m assuming the producers keep the flashbacks in place to prolong the series at this point, but I’d much rather see interesting arcs developed. Not every aspect of a person’s personality is due to things that happened in their past, being stuck on an island for seventy days is going to change you a lot more than finding out the guy you brought to your marijuana farm is a narc.

When the show works, I accept its more bizarre choices, and lack of relation to actual human behavior, but this season’s frustrating lack of connection to real human nature makes the problems inherent in the first season resurface. Particularly when we barely see the vast majority of the characters, there’s no need to spend time on these boring, redundant flashbacks.

The show’s structure reminds me of The X-Files in the sense that it’s always an all or nothing thing. In The X-Files, there were standalone episodes, where nothing of lasting consequence happened, or there were mythology episodes where not only was the overall alien plot forwarded, but all personal traumas, like family deaths occurred too. Spreading some of the narrative build across the standalone episodes would have given the show a better balance, and allowed more shading on the supporting cast. In the case of Lost, it’s an all or nothing character thing. Sun and Jin, or most of the other supporting cast, only appear in major capacities in their flashback episodes and do nothing otherwise. I like when we get small subplots with other characters next to the main story. It helps build the arcs and takes some of the pressure off the A story. But, the show’s structure this season precludes that spreading of the story and keeps the focus really narrow, on a story that has no room to go anywhere.

This run of episodes introduces characters so hated I knew them by reputation without watching the show, Nikki and Paolo. Maybe it’s just knowing they’re so hated and not expecting much, but I think the characters make a lot of sense and are some welcome comic relief, intentional or not. I’d like to see more of what these background islanders feel about their leaders, most of them probably don’t have the same love/devotion to the island that Locke does, and have got to be thinking about getting rescued. Wouldn’t they be furious about the fact that the boat got captured by the Others? Why not do a storyline where some of these background people mutiny against the island leadership and try to take over. That could fill time more interestingly than another bunch of flashbacks, and give the people on the beach something to do. Or, why not have one of the background people try to make a deal with the Others to get off the island?

In general, the writers seem to have a big problem with people actually doing anything. This season has consisted of our main characters either sitting in prison cells, sitting in a sweat lodge, burying someone, going into a hatch we’ve already been into, and building a lightning rod out of golf clubs. I just don’t get this feeling that there aren’t stories on the island, there’s hundreds of untold stories out there, it’s just the writers are so trapped in their mythology, they lose sight of the human element of being on an island.

In season two, I found it easy to accept that this isn’t a show about people trapped on an island, it’s about this weird Dharma experiment, and science vs. faith and all that. But, with the return to the smoke monster and polar bears and stuff, that science/psychological element is gone, replaced by generic mysticism and poorly executed dream sequences.

Anyway, back to Nikki and Paolo, I enjoy them because the writers seem to be having a bit of fun with the characters. I like that he enjoys this trip to the Hatch because it’s a chance to go to the bathroom, and I like the idea that he and Nikki have debated a lot about Jack’s leadership, and are now deciding to step up to the main crew for whatever reason. I don’t think they’re deep characters, but I think it’s a funny, and necessary, meta comment on the show as a whole. Every one of those random people on the beach has a story, these are just two of them.

But, I’m guessing that the major issue with the characters isn’t anything inherent to them, it’s the fact that they’re taking screentime away from more interesting characters. I’m thankful I’m watching this season on DVD, since a three month break after this episode seems like the kind of thing that could easily have made me drop the show again, watched on a weekly basis, the creeping must have been unbearable. Sure, Nikki and Paolo may drop goofy exposition, but I see it more as a joke on them trying to get caught up on events than a way to appeal to new viewers.

Another major issue with these episodes is the total evisceration of the Kate from the first two seasons. Once a strong independent character, she now spends all her time either crying or at gunpoint. Why can’t she and Sawyer kick ass together, I always thought part of the reason she liked Sawyer was because he let her be an equal, while Jack always tried to protect her. But it’s like once they put that dress on her, she lost all agency and became a damsel in distress, a plot point for the writers to move around.

So, these episodes are very problematic. I love the initial setup, and the audacity of the season premiere. But, it just hasn’t gone anywhere since, and the beach stuff isn’t working at all. Ultimately, I don’t care about answers for their own sake, finding out Ben has been on the island his whole life, or that there’s actually two islands doesn’t do anything for the story. Answers are only interesting for the story points they open up, and at this point, the narrative is stalled. Hopefully things will get rolling again in the next set of episodes. Season two had similar slow patches, but recovered nicely. The pieces are all there, it’s just a matter of letting the characters actually do something.