Tuesday, March 31, 2009

CD REVIEW: POPTASTIC & KANYE WEST

From the new issue of Signal-to-Noise:

Poptastic
The Teen-Pop-Noise Virus
(Seeland)

Kanye West
808s and Heartbreak
(Roc-a-Fella)

Vocal distortion technology is inherently contradictory; its use can either suggest that whatever ideas or feelings the performer seeks to impart are so extraordinary that filtering effects are indispensibly essential to get the point across or that the performer is making sport of those who subscribe to the first notion. Of course, Autotune and its bastard(izing) kin can also serve as masks for talentlessness, laziness, or creative bankrupcy. But for the purposes of this review, let's play Devil's Advocate and give Poptastic and Kanye West the benefit of the doubt: let's posit that they opted to shred, puree, and otherwise distress their voices for legitamite artistic reasons.

The Teen-Pop-Noise Virus is what its title and the grayscale paintings of young adults and tacky, lovelorn grayscale portaits in the liners suggest that it is: a cut-out rack Pop R&B album. The twist? Its co-ed coterie of makers and performers - experimental producers Chris Fitzpatrick and Thomas Dimuzio among them - aren't teenagers, and their would-be hit singles are sonically shocked and waterboarded within an inch of their precious bitrates. It's an interesting idea in theory, isn't it: flipping the vapidity of adolescent-emotion-as-imagined-by-studio-execs into noise art, funnelling fluffy tripe like "I can't escape the memory of yesterday when I held you in my arms" and "Somehow, someday I will bring you my love/It was sent from above for you, and for me" through an aural meat grinder for 50 minutes, the cavalcade of overtreated voices wrapped around the saccherine hooks, dripping with acidic digital static. Poptastic tip their hand too far in terms of harshness, turning Virus into a brutal slog: the album's too catchy to work as noise yet too ugly to work as actual pop. But even that would be forgivable if the record didn't suffer from a nasty case of vertigo that makes it impossible to get a solid handle on either aesthetic, let alone sit through it all without reaching for a Britney Spears or Merzbow disc for some much needed palette-cleansing. As a concept Poptastic is worth expanding upon - the liners alone are more worth the price of admission - but only if the wizards behind this particular curtain don't pursist in urging the listener to puke up her lunch.

West's engrossing 808s and Heartbreak is equally tough to stomach, for different reasons. Somehow, over the course of 4 or 5 years, rap's Great Polo-shirted Hope has gone from hotshot hip-hop producer to ballin' with a backpack to self-obsessed and vexing to a whiny diva-dude willing to devote an entire record - where he sings, for Christ's sake - to castigating an ex for a breakup he himself was largely responsible for. There's no denying that the guy's an out-and-out asshole, and his plaints about throttling a lover and about claiming that female adultery is worse than male adultery aren't going to endear him further to Oprah viewers. But - and this is a big "but" - if you make it past that roadblock, there's a lot to savor here. Vocal filters blur his unstudied croon into a tragic narrative sneer where cocksucker bravado disguises an undercurrent of self-disgust, the blearly, titular synths melt together into a regal, downcast rue: "Robocop" cracking wise about living in the shadow of female suspicion over mechanized whirs, "Amazing" attempting to steamroller sorrow with outsized self-aggrandizement, doleful pianos, and Young Jeezy, and on, deeper into a den of Austin Powers references and abject misery. One suspects that for West, this Heartbreak is less about a defunct relationship than about the death of his mother; some emotional experiences are impossible to process, let alone, convey in song, and it's very possible that his ex acts here as a surrogate punching bag for outrage at one of the few things he can't control: mortality.

CD REVIEW: KHATE THREE-FER

From the new issue of Signal-to-Noise:

Khate
13
(No Label)

Khate
Phi EP
(No Label)

A sense of willful mystery lies at the heart of Khate Gausmann's recorded ouvere. How she acquires sound sources isn't quite a known; it more like a known unknown, if you'll allow me to was slightly Rumsfeldian for a moment. What's known is that this Virginia-based circuit-bender extracts sonics by tinkering with sound-making or -altering devices like guitar pedals, keyboards, and children's toys. Then she tests and experiments with the results like a scientist in a laboratory, eventually shaping them into finished tracks threaded with unrecognizable pop music samples, field recordings, Conet Project tapes, and what have you into a sort of subterranian phantom ooze. What's unknown is exactly what combination of bastardized elements is at work in any given song. That's probably frustrating for the engineers and biologists in Khate's audience, for it's a blessing for those of us who prefer to experience her strain of electronic music through the viewfinders of our own individual illusions.

13 follows the gently coursing path set by predecessor Field Reports - see the waxing, waning limbo of "Grey," the soft downy bubble'and'scrape of "Kitty Hospital", or how "DX" weaves wind-chime tinkle into tearing rotation rupture - but comes through with a few pleasantly abrasive moments. Namely: "Boxing Day," where an ever-increasing series of crackling shock treatment lay waste to a crumbling vocal sample. Phi, by contrast, is subdermal almost to the point of invisibility; its first trio of bite-size compositions fugue by on an undertow of surging, static-y foam, gray pulses throbbing weekly yet insistently - until "Trichotomic" arrives, unleashing sticky, darting stutter-steps and appropriated, anonymous bro-harmonies that resurface as soon as "Quinate [For Bela]" begins. That song quickly takes an Aphex Twin turn, with the pronounced pluckings and bups of what appear to be downtuned guitar strings trudging through ringing digital pings. Endcap "Eight Volt House" burrows a wheedling tunnel of smudged vocal, rippling wavelength tone, and flickering distortion straight down to purgatory.

Released in early January as a free download from Just Not Music Records - it's also available on archive.org - Detritivore is, perhaps ironically, the most engaging of Khate's recent creations. There's a tangible sense of daring and unrest that makes for a listening experience that's more active and involving than her last few quietly turbulent recordings. "Basic" opens with two disparate loops that sound great together - an insistent, boomeranging throb that resembles an irritable synth and robotic Conet Project intoning - then morphs into something even more complex, with effects that seem to slash into, naw at, and pummel the helicoptering mix. There's queasy "Diesel," where rapsy generator pulses simulate a benign form of seasickness; "Isabel" pits blustery, locomotive chugga-chugga against the goosebump-raising squeak of operating, unoiled gears and the clatter of raining debris.

TV LOVES YOU BACK MARCH: Brinks Security commercials are unrealistic, overly telling



By RAYMOND CUMMINGS


Welcome to leafy, tranquil suburbia. It's a beautiful day, or maybe a sultry evening.


A housewife kisses her husband goodbye; he's off to work. A teenage babysitter assures worried parents, calling from a night out on the town, that the kid's safely tucked in. A woman begins to exercise on her treadmill. So far, so good: this is real life, as real people live it.


Or maybe not. In these Brinks Home Security commercial scenarios - there are maybe four or five of 'em, total - the peace and quiet of domestic life is predictably shattered. By one or two scruffy dudes in black hoodies. Who've been lurking in the bushes, waiting for the chance to burglarize 123 Kitkat Glen by - wait for it - running up to the front door, presumably in industrial-strength jackboots, to kick the front door in.


(In one instance, the burglar smashes a window, but for the sake of this post, we'll conveniently forget about that one.)


BOOM! The door flies in, knocked off its hinges.Oh no! But then an alarm sounds, and whichever damsel in distress is the protagonista of whichever Brinks commerical starts freaking out - and justifably so. Bad guy flees upon hearing the siren, phone rings and is seized. It's your friendly neighborhood Brinks receptionist, calling to make sure everything's cool; he's sent in the calvary (i.e. law enforcement).


I don't begrudge anyone the right to protect his or her (or their) homes; for many of us, our house is our most valuable asset - lives aside, of course. But these particular commercials are simultaneously ridiculous and telling, for the following reasons. If you think they reflect the biases and PC inclinations of Brinks ad execs and whoever they're paying to film these things, guess again; a culture's commercials - especially the ones that air again and again, for years and years - can be viewed as a measure of its views and attitudes. Consider these points:


1. The on-scene victims are always women, alone; Damsels in distress, as I mentioned above. (With one exception, but still.) Which suggests that, collectively, society still sees women as "the weaker sex," in need of protection.


2. I'm no criminologist, but do dudes really kick in front doors in robberies when they know people are at home? Really? I've heard of so-called "push-in" robberies, and breaking and entering by surrepticious means is timeless. But how desperate and stupid is a crook who just up and kicks down a door? The criminal is also in danger of self-injury; what if the door is solid steel with a cheap paint fa├žade? What if he breaks his leg or foot and can't get away? I think Brinks ad makers are living in some sort of make-believe fantasyland - or maybe just shorthanding how crimes are committed in order to get a point across in a brief time window.


2a. When he's having songs from the forthcoming Relapse made into videos, Eminem should totally spoof one of these commercials, appearing as hoodied goon - maybe he could con Asher Roth into joining him as Hoodied Stooge #2. Dre would play the Brinks receptionist; Paris Hilton could be the protagonista; maybe the surviving dudes from D-12 could do some sort of mocking voiceover thing.


3. "This is class war!" Propaghandi screamed on one of their vitrolic fourth-wave punk songs, a lifetime ago. And it's interesting to note that everyone in these Brinks ads is white: crooks, damsels, Brinks employees. Thieves come in all colors, shapes, and sizes so let's assume that Brinks didn't want to fall prey to charges of stereotyping or racism. Another theory is that the makers of these spots recognized what our society was swiftly becoming even in 2006 or 2007: a culture ever more starkly defined by class distinctions, where petty crime predictably increases as companies and factories close and average people lose their jobs. Brinks wanted - wants - to forearm the upper middle class against the desperate acts of those residing closer to the bottom of that particular slice of the pie graph.


Maybe. Whether or not I'm right, these commercials are still deeply, deeply ludicrous.

Monday, March 30, 2009

TV LOVES YOU BACK MARCH: "TV 24-7-365"



By THOM HAWKINS



0400-0500: I wake up at 4am now, just to have some time to myself before I leave for work. Well, it's not totally just me--me and the TV. And one of the cats. There's a lot of paid programming on at 4am, and not much else good. Sometimes I scan through the channels to look for coincidences. This morning, for example, Animal Planet is showing Ocean of Fear: Worst Shark Attack Ever, while TNT is featuring Crimson Tide. G4 has Real Genius and TVONE has Higher Learning.



0500-0600: At 5am, the early morning news shows start, staffed by persons even bleaker than myself, in ill-tailored double breasted suits vice my pajamas. My wife thinks these shows look drearier in Baltimore than they do in Philadelphia. They do seem to be having a problem with their lighting--there are more shadows, making the set look almost sinister, as if the guy with the suit and the severe haircut and the forced cheeriness will suddenly grow horns and a forked tail, and the set will burst into flames ... which will at least provide better lighting and make these people hot.



0600-0700: More news, more religion, more paid programming, and at last we start with the syndicated sitcoms: Becker and Wings on USA and a full hour of Married... with Children on TBS. On Nickelodeon, Full House morphs into SpongeBob Squarepants, so we've identified a programmer's threshold for when insomniac (and none-too-choosy) adults tune out and little kids tune in. CNBC chimes in with Squawk Box, which seems rude for thus now awakening, and doubly so for those with a jarring hangover.



0700-0800: ABC has Good Morning America while CBS has Early Show--both seem to be making wrong assumptions about my schedule, and I don't appreciate it. As penance, they must themselves watch Squawk Box, continuing on CNBC. One of the Spanish channels has something called Despierta America, which I translate as "Desparate America." This is on three hours late. I must note that Creflo Dollar is on uperstation WGN. Creflo Dollar, people. Channel 26 has Winslow Wheeler: America's Defense Meltdown, whose host must be at least a little perturbed about this unfortunate listing.



0800-0900: Channel 4 has college lacrosse. Who watched college lacrosse at 8am on a Monday morning. Who watches lacrosse? ABC Family has Sabrina the Teenage Witch while TNT has Charmed--I scan through the listings to see if Ann Coulter is on anywhere. I also have a choice between Morning Inspiration with Brother Gerard on BET and 15 Infamous Child Star Mugshots on E!. I file this combination under "codependent listings."



0900-1000: QVC begins its first of two hours devoted to selling the Joan Rivers Classics Collection. It's followed by Flameless Candles. Hmmm. Clifford the Big Red Dog vs. the US Senate? Too easy. How Its Made on the Discovery Channel--a hidden gem. It tells you what you need to know, without repetition or teasers, and even keeps going as the credits roll. I'll get my hour's worth there.



1000-1100: Vs has The Best and Worst of Tred Barta. I don't know who or what Tred Barta is, but I'm intrigued that the best and worst of it encompasses no more than thirty minutes. Perhaps one morning I will tune in to find The Best and Worst of Thom Hawkins. Bravo, meanwhile, is showing Mulholland Falls at 10am, a ballsy listing if I've ever seen one. I can watch that or Pokemon.



1100-1200: US Senate vs. What Not to Wear? Still too easy. The Sci-Fi Channel has a big block of "To Be Announced" that will be broadcast in HDTV. TVONE has Black Men Revealed while MTV has T.I.'s Road to Redemption. Who am I kidding, though? The Price Is Right is on.



1200-1300: In case not knowing the outcome of the game is too exciting, channel 4 has Classic MLB Baseball. News, news, news. Wait--the "US House of Representatives" is starting on C-SPAN, one channel below US Senate, which started three hours ago. What's with that? Do they get to sleep in or something? I'm starting to see some synchronicty here. We have the full Congress on two channels, Spin City, and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome all playing simultaneously.



1300-1400: The Dead Zone. The soaps are on, and the only antidote is My Big Redneck Wedding followed by Trick My Truck.



1400-1500: Jerry Springer is a repeat. It's the one where random ignorant people are called out on stage for the equally audience members to insult, while they show their breasts and scream obscenities. More feces are flung than on Orangutan Island on Animal Planet. Appropriately, Just Shoot Me is on TBS.



1500-1600: I think I forgot to go to work. "Dr Phil" is on opposite General Hospital, which is fitting because I once left a hospital emergency room while birthing a kidney stone because I couldn't stand one more minute of Dr. Phil on the TVs in the waiting area. Wife Swap is on Lifetime. Does that strike anyone else as weird? Meanwhile, the Praise-a-thon continues on the Trinity Broadcast Network. Because, W.W.J.D.?



1600-1700: The Cosby Show on Superstation WGN provides a gateway to a decent run of sitcoms, leading into primetime. But if the Cos ain't your bag, there's always VH1, with 40 Most Shocking Celebrity Divorces. Right. Shocking.



1700-1800: VH1 continues with "shocking" celebrity divorces, but now it's up against the 20 Most Shocking Unsolved Crimes on E! CMT has Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Seriously, people, if I had gone to work, I'd want to be unwinding right about now. And no, not with Glenn Beck.



1800-1900: Vs. clocks in an hour late with Holy @#%*! Maybe channel 2 is so far from channel 70 that it's in a different time zone. Then again, CNBC (channel 54) has Mad Money on now. "Unique Whips" catches my eye, but it's on the Speed channel, not HBO, and it's several hours too early to be interesting. VH1 has "Rock of Love Bus with Bret Michaels" because nothing says "love" like a bus. Or Bret Michaels. At least the bus isn't still wearing a fucking bandana on its head in the 21st century.



1900-2000: What's in the Bag? might be interesting on the Game Show Network, but not on the Golf Channel. In the early afternoon, I could find nothing to watch, and now Jeopardy! is running opposite The Simpsons--is there no justice? QVC is making another two-hour run at selling the Joan Rivers Classics Collection. That's so pathetic I almost buy a set out of pity. US Senate versus Little People, Big World? Still too easy.



2000-2100: TV Guide has TV Watercooler. I feel sorry for the TV Guide channel and want to fix it up with QVC. Oh, despierta America! The Golf channel has The Golf Fix, a "weekly recap of tournaments with an eye to notable shots"--but G4 has Happy Gilmore. Fake golf is so much better than real golf. And why isn't miniature golf televised?



2100-2200: WWE Monday Night Raw (USA) versus Dancing with the Stars (ABC). The only way I would watch either of these shows would be if they were shot at the same time on the same set. Table for 12 (TLC) is sandwiched between Destroyed in Seconds (Discovery Channel) and Ax Men (History Channel)--c'mon, calamity!



2200-2300: Now Jon & Kate Plus Eight is sandwiched between Ax Men and now Rampage! on the Discovery Channel. I still have my fingers crossed--though I can't decide on whether I'm ultimately more disappointed in the Discovery Channel or The Learning Channel for their content in recent years. Spike has UFC's Ultimate Knockouts 5--the highlights format is absolutely necessary because otherwise--yawn ...--I might as well watch the Golf channel.



2300-2400: News, news, and more news. Plus, Seinfeld on two channels--which is an interesting programming decision from a competitive standpoint. The one on TBS is a classic, but the one on MyTV 24 is followed by a second episode. The TV Guide Channel is showing Film's Sexiest Men of All Time on two channels, but, alas (or not), it's the same episode.



2400-0100: I think I forgot to go to bed. But I have to get up in a few more hours, so I might as well continue watching. Jay Leno? Nope. David Letterman? Nope. George Jefferson? Yep, followed by an episode of Good Times.



0100-0200: Another dead zone. For the macho, World Extreme Cagefighting on Vs. For the intellectual, World Series of Poker on ESPN-2. Just when I'm about to tune in to the Praise-a-thon, I find CB4 on TVONE.



0200-0300: There's no question I'm going to watch How It's Made (Discovery Channel). At least this way I won't feel like my day has been wasted. I learned how peanut butter was made. That could be useful in a survival situation. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome starts again on G4, this time not opposite the US Senate. I wonder briefly if the Senators are watching Mad Max right now.



0300-0400: I tune in to Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to find out if it has become funny. It has not. "Smell ya later." I say to Nickelodeon. Besides, The Jeffersons is on three channels away. Is Nick counting on people channel checking all the way to 41 and then deciding that the Banks family is funny enough at 3am? I should turn the TV off now, but Good Times is on at 4.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

TV LOVES YOU BACK MARCH: "Sledgehammer" satirizes hyper-macho Reagan-era mores, is stupid, packs mad heat

RECORD REVIEW: SCREAM

A review of Chris Cornell's new album, Scream, which was produced by Timbaland.

Chris Cornell
Scream
(Interscope/Universal)

The good news? This oft-delayed collaboration between Chris Cornell and overpriced hip-hop producer Timbaland isn't quite the creative debacle snarkster trainspotters have prophecied. The bad news? Scream doesn't even approach Cornell's best moments fronting Soundgarden or that mental triple CD-R set of Timbaland deep-cuts you've got stuck on repeat. More laughably awkward than this marquee ex-grunge idol embracing hip-hop's mort egregious parlance is Timbaland's misbegotten belief that anyone could turn Cornell into a bankable pop star.

Had Scream been cut 6 or 7 years earlier - when Cornell still had some juice - bewilderment might come easier. But at this point, what else has the guy got to loose? His solo albums cratered, and nobody seemed to notice that he penned a pretty decent opening song for a Bond flick; why shouldn't he try his hand at an R&B career? Why shouldn't he write a song about how his woman shouldn't yell at him when they fight ("Scream," a bit too indebted to OneRepublic's "Apologize," which Timbaland also had a hand in), replete with wingman mumblings from the producer? Why shouldn't Cornell insist, while defending himself against accusations of adultery, that "that bitch ain't a part of me?" Why shouldn't there be a guitar-centered tune about femmes fatal titled "Watch Out" that uses bad driving as a central metaphor and makes reference to ska dance moves? Why shouldn't Justin Timberlake show up to guest on Bollywood oddity "Take Me Alive? It's all so weird that it actually makes a cosmic sort of sense, and I get the feeling that, in taking this project on, Timbaland just saw an opportunity to paw off some third-rate beats on Cornell for full price.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

NODIN COULD TOTALLY TACKLE THE ART FOR A "MIDNITE VULTURES" RE-ISH

TV LOVES YOU BACK MARCH: The Genius of "Tool Academy"


By K. J. HOFFMAN

Every era has its insult of choice. From moron to dimwit to the modern equivalent, the great American douchebag, the progress of society can be traced in the words it chooses for the slowest of their evolutionary brethren. And rivaling the aforementioned d-bag for supremacy in the aughts is “tool” and it’s many variations (“tool shed” and “tool box” being among the most common).

Which brings us to Tool Academy, this television season’s underground breakout hit/guilty pleasure. The premise was genius: A group of irredeemable tools were told they were vying for a contest called “Mr. Awesome.” This of course brought out the worst male characteristics of the group, including hooting, hollering, ground humping, flexing, matsuflexing, and other behavior that requires blurring by VH1 censors. Then the “Mr. Awesome” sign quite literally exploded in front of their faces to reveal the show's real premise: “Tool Academy.”

You would think this deception would alienate the men, but the promise of a $100,000 prize has a way of soothing wounded feelings. The men embrace their inner tool and struggle to escape its clutches, decrying occasional lapses into “toolish” behavior and even getting angry at fellow tools who aren’t following the academy’s path to honorable manhood.

In the end, the winner is “Tiny Tool,” a mini version of the show’s sillouetted mascot, Matsuflex, who is exposed for insincerity when he asks to be called by his real name, “Ryan,” in an act of supposed redemption, only to reassume the Matsuflex mantle mere hours later in a contest that involved dragging his girlfriend around while splashing paint on a fence.

As soon as Tiny Tool graduates (in full cap and gown), he and his girlfriend are escorted to a chapel where they get married in front of their extended families. In a sublime moment that shows a leopard can’t change its spots, Tiny Tool marvels at the massive and ornate string instrument being plucked, a device he refers to as a “harpoon.”

Friday, March 27, 2009

Stevie remains a Wonder in today's Idol Beat.

TV LOVES YOU BACK MARCH: A Very Special "Law & Order: SVU"


By LINDA HAWKINS

Can I just tell you how effing jazzed I was when my baby decided to catch some ZZZs while Law and Order: Special Victims Unit was on? Usually I peep what Ellen is up to at three o’clock, but she’s been far too cheery for my wintry-ass lately!

Anyways, SVU was amazing today, cos’ it was like watching Heathers; it even had a “Big Fun” girl, whose brother was played by A.J. Soprano in his cute era! It was all about these bitchy blondes, who go bananas on one of their co-clique members. I love love love stories about teenagers being bitches! And Mariska Hargitay and that guy from Oz were on the case. I hate it when it’s Belzer and Ice (there goes the neighborhood) T.

Awesomeness!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

CD REVIEW: THE FLOODLIGHT COLLECTIVE

From today’s Orlando Weekly:

Lotus Plaza
The Floodlight Collective
(Kranky)

Bradford Cox and Lockett Pundt aren’t just Deerhunter bandmates; they’re also professed Best Friends Forever. “He’s like my muse – my second half, my other half,” Cox gushed to Pitchfork in an interview promoting Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See but Cannot Feel, his 2008 debut as Atlas Sound – which he dedicated to Pundt. Now The Floodlight Collective, Pundt’s solo debut as Lotus Plaza, is dedicated to Cox. Isn’t it bromantic? Despite how comfortably Pundt’s tracks nestled alongside Cox’s on 2008 Deerhunter double album Microcastle/Weird Era Continued, Lotus Plaza has a different feel. Deerhunter tunes are generally concise with occasional sunspot flashes of noise, while Atlas Sound tracks ride hypnotic sonic loops into the viscera- streaked red. Pundt walks a tightrope between these two extremes: His crisp arrangements almost melt into shoegazery; vocals are triple- or quadruple-tracked into wondrous abstractions where words are superfluous. Pundt employs a few sly tactics to keep the listener in the moment – and to set himself apart from his main gig. If you’re zoning out on the comely four-note guitar motif in “Red Oak Way,” there’s a phalanx of percussive bric-a-brac to snap you into a fuller perspective: unevenly inserted drums, a metronomic click-track that runs slightly too quickly, what sounds like a repeated sample of crashing metal garbage cans that surfaces at the chorus. Surf-rock-lite drifter “Quicksand” layers on a snare-shuffle at the front of the mix; similarly, “Different Mirrors” – which churns like a circa-1995 Yo La Tengo B-side – has sleigh-bell drums, conspicuously, at the fore. Those drums are Cox’s sole credited contribution to the album, but “Sunday Night” makes apparent the intimacy of his and Pundt’s friendship. “Night” originally appeared on Blind as “Bite Marks,” a neon-sign-on-the-fritz thermal blast; here, the flickering central melody is beset by arrhythmic triggered electronics, knotted vocal samples and surgical streaks of guitar feedback. Pundt’s well on his way to building a mystery of his own – even as it occasionally references what his best friend is doing.

TV LOVES YOU BACK MARCH: Monday, Tuesday, "Happy Days"!



My last semester in college, in 1998, I grew anxious about my future. The question wasn't so much what I was going to do with my life--that implied some sort of control I didn't believe I had--but "what would life be like?"

Every night, I time-traveled. From 8:30pm until 2am, I watched Nick at Nite from when it went on the air to when it went off, looking for answers in what I considered at the time to be "reality TV." The Mary Tyler Moore Show--could I, would I work at a news station? Would I have awkward parties at my apartment with co-workers and neighbors? Green Acres--could I, would I work on a farm? (I ultimately would, but it was more Real World than Green Acres.) Was I the Oliver Wendell Douglas type, or the Mr. Haney? The Brady Bunch--could I, would I find myself behind the wheel of a large automobile? In a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife? How would I get there?

The show I identified with the most didn't answer any questions about the future, though I asked plenty. Ultimately, Happy Days seemed the most realistic of the shows--not because of its signature character, Arthur Fonzarelli, but because of its trio of awkward teens, Richie Cunningham, Potsie Weber, and Ralph Malph. In one episode, Potsie hears that the way to turn a woman on is by blowing on her ear, which he tries, rather forcefully, as if he's trying to force out some dust blocked in her ear canal, or explaining a hurricane to her brain. It was Happy Days' genius that the punchline was obvious, but Potsie's earnestness made you look forward to it anyway, for his sake, because he didn't see it coming. And even if blowing in a woman's ear seems far-fetched to me now as a married man, at that time in my life, I would have thought it was worth a try.

In another episode, the three are in the men's room at Arnold's--they've attached a bra to the radiator and are practicing removing it, but they're undone by its fiendish clasp. The punchline was given to the Fonz, who has merely to touch the clasp for it to fly open. The Fonz's trick was an anticlimax for me, who wanted to see how Richie, Potsie, and Ralph Malph would ultimately fare had they continued their quest. They could have devoted the entire episode to that one problem and I would have watched, because even at the age I was watching, almost a college graduate, a bra clasp was still mysterious. I had and still would endure the same trial, even once or twice spending several minutes fumbling around on the back of a bra, only to be told that this particular bra opened in the front. Opened in the front? They can do that? And if so, why didn't they always? (Young gentlemen working your way to second base, ask your lady friend to explain the mechanics of her bra--she'll be happy to remove it and show you its parts ... along with hers.)

I didn't have a leather jacket, or even blue jeans, but I began dressing like a Happy Days extra--or at least like I was Jailhouse Rock Elvis for Halloween--in black jeans, a black denim jacket, and white t-shirt. My friend wore roughly the same gear, but I had to loan him the pants--and shoes, too. (He must have gotten awfully cold in the winters before he started hanging around with me.) In the absence of Arnold's, we took our meals at a local diner (which anachronistically hadn't opened until 1964). We played songs from three discs on the jukebox--Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and Patsy Cline. Elvis and Sinatra were discs 8 and 9 in the jukebox, and we always left the table with the juke opened to the songlistings for those discs. My girlfriend in that era, the one with the front-opening bra, expressed delight once at sitting down with her friends and finding the juke opened the way I left it, knowing that I had warmed the seat for her (she hoped it was me, and not my pantsless friend).

Leather Tuscadero, played by Suzi Quatro, was a revelation for me in one motion. She greeted by slapping twice on her thigh and then pointing, as if with a gun. It gave her the air of a hip, confident gunslinger, who knew that she faced someone with no bullets, and was in no hurry to kill. For at least six months, and even occasionally ten years thereafter, I greeted people the same way. And this marked my entrance into the post-college world, after hours of nightly research, I greeted the dusk of the twentieth century dressed as a character from a show made in the 1970s and 80s about the 1950s and 60s. I shed these trappings gradually, falling away due to economics or the effects of age on my waistline--but the one thing that has yet to abandon me is the feeling that I am Potsie Weber, blowing into a young woman's ear.
Adam and Allison pretty much have American Idol Season 8 wrapped up in today's Idol Beat.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

TV LOVES YOU BACK MARCH: Advertising hacks need to get off The Crystal Method's circa-1997 jock, like, post-haste


COMING SOON


TV LOVES YOU BACK MARCH: "Handy Manny" wants a future that may not ever arrive


By RAYMOND CUMMINGS

Becoming a parent means learning a new and unique skill set. You learn to change diapers. You learn to navigate volatile mood swings. You master the fine art of child psychology - or you try to, anyway. And you learn to appreciate the oft-progressive subtlties of children's television programming.

Of the many cartoons Nodin likes to watch, Handy Manny might be my favorite of them all. On its face, the show is your usual melange of bright colors, friendly neighbors, and familiar improbabilities that everyone therein accepts as givens: we've got a handyman whose tools are sentient beings who can talk and hop, an incompetent candy-shop owner next door with a cat and a bad comb-over, a comely lass who runs a hardware store whose mutual crush with Manny is never explored, a mayor with a lightning-bolt streak of gray in her hair, and so on. The titular repairman - who can fix anything, it seems, and who never demands payment for services rendered from any of the zillions of Sheetrock Hills residents who call him and need his help, like, right away - is as endlessly calm and patient as most parents would like to think they are; he has to be, because his tools are responsible for most of the mishaps that create the challenges that have to be overcome on this show, thereby teaching impressionable tots everywhere that no obstacle is insurmountable.

So far, so predictable, right? But here's the twist: Sheetrock Hills is a fantasyland utopia in which a good 50 percent of the residents - including Manny - are of Hispanic heritage. Everyone's respectable, everyone speaks clear (if mildly accented) English, just about everyone peppers their speech with bits of Spanish that they then translate into English; everyone gets along. Nobody flips the fuck out about foreigners taking jobs or not being able to speak the native tongue. Nobody threatens to deport the tools - some of whom bear Hispanic first names - for screwing stuff up. Good times, but good luck to us all in forging an America where we're all living in harmony - let alone "tolerance" or "acceptance," buzzwords in the immigration/assimilation debate that fall far short, in my mind anyway - is a reality, and not the central tenent of a well-meaning kids' cartoon show whose lead used to play Fez on That 70's Show.

Monday, March 23, 2009

TV LOVES YOU BACK MARCH: "Smurfs" insinuates that men are superior to women without saying so outright, are hella collectable


"Big Willie Style"


The Beyonder: Why do this?

Galactus: The thing is, I want to do what's right – for both of us. I spent a lot of time…examining…my heart. And I felt that you deserved my honesty.

The Beyonder: Well, listening to you, um, it's relaxing. I haven't slept in a while and - and I've had this headache.


Galactus: Because yesterday I walked out of the joint wearing my entire wardrobe and you're cold-decking TeenBeat cover boys.

The Beyonder: Yeah. Me too.

Galactus: Yeah, but we're not talking. I'm talking.

The Beyonder: I'm gonna shut up now.

Galactus: Oh, I just love it.

The Beyonder: 'Cause you know I could never hate you. At the same time, I just don't think I could ever…you know…you. In the way you should be…


Galactus: You've been practicing that speech, haven't you?

The Beyonder: Yeah, it is pretty special.

Galactus: And then you take the house.

The Beyonder: So I went and I took all the money I had...

Galactus: And don't say money.

The Beyonder: Listen to me.

Galactus: Really. If you want, please keep talking.

The Beyonder: Forty karat gold-plate inlaid base.

Galactus: I haven't talked to anybody in a while.

The Beyonder: Did I rush it? It felt like I rushed it.


Sources:

The Ocean's Eleven screenplay, written by George C. Johnson and Jack Golden Russell. Dialogue performed by George Clooney and Brad Pitt.

The Bourne Identity screenplay, adapted by Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron from the Robert Ludlum novel. Dialogue performed by Matt Damon and Franka Potente.

The Happiness screenplay, written by Todd Solondz. Dialogue performed by Jane Adams and John Lovitz.

The Beyonder and Galactus are Marvel Universe characters.

So Jimmy Chamberlin has left the Smashing Pumpkins - this time, perhaps, of his own volition. I kind of don't care, in the same sense that I really don't care about the Pumpkins anymore, but I'm wondering why this happened. Anybody know?

In other news, this may mean that the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex is back in action; let's hope so, because that debut was nothing short of mind-blowing.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Spam filters can harm more than they help sometimes: here's yesterday's Idol Beat, today.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

TV LOVES YOU BACK MARCH: "Celebrity Apprentice" is all "real people are boring, let's shamelessly capitalize on America's obsession with 'stardom'"


#992 M.I.A. "Paper Planes" (XL, 2007)


There's nothing much left to be written about this song, its legion of remixes, and its handful of repurposings that the critverse/bloggerati haven't said in quadruplicate squared already, and I've bled my little own ink pool over it, too. But I'd like to add that being forced to hear the thing ad infinitum over the past 13-15 months via a multitude of media platforms has led me to really appreciate how catchy and clever "Paper Plains" ultimately is. When Kala dropped, I felt right away that I, you know, got the album - but five listens later it just felt too derivative and lightweight and beyond "Bamboo Banga" and maybe the one with the rapping child solidiers I didn't have much use for the disc. "Plains" is great, though, isn't it? And when you've gotta listen to "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes" 3-5 times a day because your two-year old is all up on it, you begin to appreciate how insiduous the "substituting provocative samples" for actual words trick can be, and the crafty juxtaposition involved in writing a song about about faking Visas and revolution that little kids can get down to.

RECORD REVIEW: WAVVVES

From today's Orlando Weekly:



Wavves
Wavvves
(Fat Possum)

The blurred cover of Wavvves appears to capture a feckless skateboarder – no knee pads – on the verge of doom. S/he’s just come off a ramp and is mere seconds away from being clotheslined by a low-hanging tree branch. San Diego musician Nathan Williams may be stuck in his early 20s, but he knows a visual metaphor when he stumbles upon one. As Wavves, Williams strikes a balance between abject idleness and a personal, purposeful mandate to create by writing pop-punk tunes that sound as though their component parts were recorded via iPhone and slapped together on a laptop with a dying battery. You’re never quite sure, at first, whether a given song will wipe out completely or pull off a Tony Hawk–worthy McTwist; the shredded-tape production makes it hard to tell.

Williams explores out-and-out boredom and those factors capable of staving it off: the blazing California sun, noise experiments, chicks, weed and life on the skids. Title-wise, “So Bored” gives the game away before scratchily tubular riffage has a chance to scrape a hole into your memory – his concerns on the verses are garbled because they count for less than the easily relatable pose that the “I’m so bored/Life’s a chore” chorus offers. “Killr Punx, Scary Demons” is a druggy bit of reverb: nightmarish keyboard ripples laced with chimes looped into vocal apparitions and back again. “Got no caaaaar/Got no money/I got lots of nothing, nada, not at all,” Williams admits on “No Hope Kids,” his nonchalant enunciation eroded by distortion. It’s Dookie-era Green Day for Twitter kids and Times New Viking/No Age obsessives, oblivion poetry slung out with high wah-wahs and chopped-chaff chords asphyxiating on their own noxious feedback fumes – and it’s almost as much fun, fun, fun as lazy Saturdays spent grinding steps and rails.

Friday, March 13, 2009

TV LOVES YOU BACK MARCH: The "Doctor Who" Cut-Away


So, there's some show on the Sci-Fi channel by way of BBC called Doctor Who, and it's liked by the same fans as the old show. But seriously: this metrosexual doctor that's the wrong kind of ironic riding the Tardis all around doesn't really feel right - really, other than the Fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker, none of the Doctors feel right or feel as right.

This is a post about the brilliance of Doctor Who, but it's really about the Tom Baker years, in which it seems like everything weird and awesome about the show totally aligned.

The show makes for some of the best TV ever when Tom Baker's on the screen, as he's ideal for the time (mid-to-late 70s) with goofball style (Willy Wonka perm, super-long scarf) and a kinda wizened, post-Vietnam sardonism about him. Certainly too smart for whatever problem he's stumbled into, Baker's Doctor Who has a kind of Byronic meta-charm about him. He never seems threatened and treats, say, an evil, deformed despot like Davros in the definitive episode(s) "Genesis of the Daleks" like he's just some asshole in a rubber suit squawking and croaking about destruction.

Baker doesn't play it straight - or he plays it especially not-straight - and the Doctor doesn't either, so it works. And because the charm of Doctor Who is in its handmade-ness - from the oddball creatures and contraptions created with like crap from your garage, to the awkward but somehow perfect-because-of-it switches from on-set video and location-shot 16mm - the "first run-through in rehearsal" attitude Baker brings to the show adds to its rarefied, perpetually 3 a.m. weirdo vibe.

Like glitch music, or 808-oriented regional rap, the charm of Doctor Who comes in the odd accidents that are the product of making the most of to-be-expected limits and restrictions and realizing the results are sometimes more wondrous. In short, whether you choose to not spend money on "perfect"-looking robots or you plain don't have the money and go for it anyways, it's an aesthetic decision. And what makes these aspects even cooler and more effective are some especially lperfect, couldn't get any cooler tone-setting decisions: namely, the bad-ass theme song and what I call "the Doctor Who cut-away." Two acts of pure intentionality on a show that reeks of budget restraints and compromise.



The way this, like, rubbery from-space bassline meets some synthy or theremin noises and extra-terrestrial whooshes plays as a poppier version of Dave's trip from 2001 flies across the screen - well, it gets you pumped. It's a classic telling theme song, the same way the Full House song gets you ready for family comedy wackiness or, like, that sad-sack joint from Cheers gets you amped to empathetically chuckle along with some losers in a bar, the Doctor Who theme prepares you for the odd, always 3 a.m. alternate reality, hung-over-but-heady pace of the show. That's the thing about Doctor Who: it's this strange, kinda boring but engrossing show, and just as you're nodding off or whatever from the flat, mostly music-less tone, that space-prog theme song kicks-off the new episode and you're just like, "Oh shit, how's Sarah--who's kinda bangin' by the way--gonna escape the Wastelands?!". It's on.

That signature, extended ping sound and bassline though, serve an even greater purpose in regards to the cut-away. See, each show always does this super-abrupt, kinda avant-garde, mid-word, mid-action jump to the credits. It doesn't fade-out or wrap-up nicely, it's this odd, a-few-seconds- before-you-expect-it cut-away just as each episode's action is about to come to an end or building up to something that won't wrap-up in the next 18 seconds. You know it's coming because the Doctor Who theme starts rising out of the soundtrack to warn you, but it's always jarring when, just as the bassline chugs through, the credits arrive. Here's a fairly typical example. Just as a new, obviously important character arrives, the cut-away:




Now that, though, is still sort of a typical use of TV (or just serialization in any kind): End theme on a shocking twist or new piece of information. It's especially cool and fucked-up, but it's still working on the need to have questions answered and all that. The best use of the Doctor Who cut-away is when it's employed at episode's end almost to like, let you have a breather or chill-out when things have gotten too crazy and the stakes too high. Because it's sci-fi, people's lives or the universe's fate is often seconds from destruction, so this happens quite a lot.

But there's just something so perfectly disturbing about letting an episode build to this moment of fear and disaster and just as it seems too much, go to credits. See below, where it's not even something like explainable that's happening, it's just that Davros is yelling "DESTROY" and it's weird and fucked-up feeling and there's nowhere to go but the end credits. I'd advise, if you can spare the entire five minutes, even if you don't know what the heck is going on in the clip, to watch the whole thing. You'll get a better sense of the palpable sense of apocalypse that the cut-away relieves you from:



An argument can be made that this adheres to the main goal of TV: to keep you coming back. It's an especially cool and effective way of doing so, and while it has the strange byproduct of making you relieved the episode's over, you'll return next week or load your next tape in because nothing's completed. But even when an entire serial's over, the cut-away remains. Notice how this serial wraps-up, the Doctor even imparts some kind words and junk and the cut-away's as awkward as ever:



I think it has something to do with the never-goes-away, onto another adventure reality of a character and series like Doctor Who. That weird dread or jarring unexpectedness never's totally gone; comfort lasts a few moments, duty and responsibility return and you'll be up against a creeper like Davros soon enough.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

TV LOVES YOU BACK MARCH: "From Nothing to Something and Back to Nothing"


By THOM HAWKINS

"Television is one of the major triumphs of applied science. Unfortunately, it is the fate of great inventions that as they become more and more an integral part of our daily life, they are taken increasingly for granted and cease to evoke the sense of wonder they really deserve."

JERRY
I told you about Laura.. The girl I met in Michigan--

GEORGE
No you didn't!

JERRY
I thought I told you about it. Yeah, she teaches Political Science; I met her the night I did the show in Lansing.

"Most electrons spend the vast majority of their existence as nuclear satellites."

GEORGE
Ha!

JERRY
[looking in the cream pitcher] There's no milk in here. What is the story, what is the--why is there no milk-- [GEORGE is talking over him]

"Television begins and ends with light. Light from a bank of lamps shines on the actors in the studio and is reflected from them. Entering the camera, it is focused and forms an image on the light-sensitive surface of the camera tube. At the receiving end light is transmitted from the viewing screen to your eye."

GEORGE
So wait, wait, wait! What is she--what is she--What is she like!

"The unique feature of television is the virtually instantaneous conversion of a complicated visual image into an electric current, and vice versa."

JERRY
Oh, she's, really great. She's got like a real warmth about her an' she's really bright an' really pretty, an', uh. An' the conversation, though, I mean, it was... You know, talking with her, it was like talking with you. But, you know, obviously, much better.

GEORGE
Oh, mm--what--what happened?

"The television camera establishes the speed and accuracy of television communications. The camera scans the whole picture 30 times a second; it scans each line in about 50 millionths of a second; it recognizes as many as 7 million changes in light intensity every second. At this tremendous pace it manages to divide each picture into some 200,000 picture dots and to do it with enough accuracy to place each dot in its proper position among tens of thousands of others and to specify the brightness within a few per cent of its original value in the studio image."

JERRY
Oh, nothing happened, you know, but it was great.

Quotes from The Physics of Television by Donald G. Fink and David M. Lutyens, 1960.

Script from Seinfeld episode "Good News, Bad News"

TV LOVES YOU BACK MARCH: "Higglytown Heroes" conceives of mammals as legless Russian dolls, argues that everyone has a key role to play in society


Idol Beat takes on the Top 13.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

TV LOVES YOU BACK MARCH: "CSI: Miami"'s Horatio Caine is mad fly, cucumber-cool, a Neitzche-ian Ubermench who looks like that dude from "NYPD Blue"

Prahba and I love making fun of Horatio. He's obsessed with cheesy-one liners and putting his sunglasses on against a sunny backdrop. And he's always in that one outfit.
-SANJEEVANI WIJENAIKE SILVA

TV LOVES YOU BACK MARCH: "No Play For Mr. Gray!"




Just about every Friday night I return home from a long week slaving away in Gristmill Cubicleland to settle in for an evening of ESPN2’s Friday Night Fights - boxing, not that MMA nonsense - and laundry, oh, and some beers: typically more than a 6-pack if you’re counting at home.

Friday Night Fights has two major sponsors: AutoZone and Just for Men. AutoZone, two guys wailing on each other in the ring. Yeah. I can see the connection, sorta. Pugilists inside the squared circle inflicting damage on each other’s faces and ribcages, hair dye for men. Huh?

But that’s not the most egregious issue I have with the Just for Men sponsorship. It’s one commercial in particular that drives me up the wailing wall, and it goes like this:

Dad is in the living room. Reading the paper. (Has grey hear, not full grey, just peppery.) Two daughters enter. One about 4, the other about 6 or 7. The youngest is holding something behind her back. In their cutest, voices they say, "Dad, we think it’s time," and the little girl pulls the item from behind her back and reveals a Just for Men box, and they both say, simultaneously, "Please." Dad smiles. Then we cut to dad on a date and taking a picture of him and his date and sending it to his daughters (nary a babysitter to be found) and the daughters both high five, and say "Yes!" Just for Men.

What the motherfucking jesus fucking holy hell batshit fucksense is this all about? Where is Mom? Did she die? My guess is yes: they are far too chipper to be a broken family. So, we have: two precocious daughters, dead mother, lonely father who has greying hair, who presumably hasn’t moved on from his dead wife, not because he still loves her and is simply devoting himself to his daughters, but because he has grey hair he is in no shape or capacity to go out into the meat market and look for mommy number two. Forget grief. Or devotion. Or simply needing time to process the loss of so much a part of his life: it’s the grey hair that’s making him impotent, and his daughters have intuited this and I presume were up on a Friday night and saw one of the other commercials during Friday Night Fights (remember, no babysitter apparently, and no mommy around) where some middle-aged guy is picking up 20-year-old college girls at the bar simply by dying his hair and these two cute-as-a-button little harpies both looked at each other and said: shit, sister, that’s what Dad needs so we can get what we need - another Mommy.

Somehow, this commercial raises an ire in me that is incomparable to any other disgust I can recall right now, and much more despair than I have ever felt from hearing about genocide or mass destruction on the news. To me, this is one of the sickfuckest 30 seconds ever produced by people who have the audacity to call themselves people. It makes me hope that Just for Men, years from now, proves to be some super cancer causing agent and it wipes out the mothereplacers out there dumb enough to think that that hair dye is the way to heal a broken father.

Speaking of impotence: weird juxtaposition of commercials the other night while watching Jimmy Kimmel’s new late night talk show (I swear I only recorded this to see Van Morrison’s performance, which was, uh, interesting—makeup did him no wonders—a rare instance indeed, and how the fuck did Kimmel score him? Oh, that’s right, Van is pitching a live CD, which is good by the way—Astral Weeks Live—and it’s on Van’s own label so he is finally collecting all, or most, of the dough from his work, so why not go out there and grovel a little bit. When have the Irish ever been too proud?)

Anyway, first commercial: you should have seen my reaction; I just had this feeling it was going to be a dick getter upper commercial and I screamed out NOOOOOOOO!!!! when it turned out to be indeed a dick getter upper commercial, Viagra this time. OK, whatever.

Next commercial: Vagisil.

So…..we have a guy with a raging hard-on, and a woman with an itchy pussy.
I’ll leave it to you to deconstruct this (surreal? paradoxical? ironic?) juxtaposition.
Are the programmers paying attention at all? And what if commercials do have the power of hidden suggestion? The weaker among us would be popping that little blue pill every time his wife started grimacing and switching in her seat and pulling away from him when he started reaching for her crotch.

Enjoy middle-life, America.

There’s a reason why I moved from the relative safety of Colorado back to Baltimore: North Korea’s nuclear warheads can reach me here, and I’m hedging my bets.

Another Friday night and I kinda got somebody, I got some money cuz I just got paid, now how I wish I had muted the TV, I’m in an awful way…

March 6, 2009. The Just for Men commercial came on again and I failed to mention another crucial, yet sickening line:

When the girls say, "It’s time," they also say: "You’d be a nice catch for someone."

What does a 7-year-old girl know about a ‘nice catch’? Is she trying to secretly seduce her father by making him appear to be younger? What kind of sick mommyabandonmentfuck wrote this shitsense?

The writer of this commercial should be castrated with a sharpened Barbie doll. (I’m at the 6 in the 6-pack mark, case you couldn’t tell.)

Friday, March 06, 2009

TV LOVES YOU BACK MARCH: "Wish Me No Whammys"


By THOM HAWKINS

People always expected me to be on Jeopardy!. I wasn't good at sports, or any other discrete activity, so people assumed I must be good for something--and that something was a brainy game show. At age three, when my mother was quizzing my six-year-old sister in math, my mother heard me in the next room, mumbling the answers. So I must be good at Jeopardy!, right? Nope. What I'm good at is first grade arithmetic. I've never had much respect for game shows--they're something you watch when you're sick. The Price Is Right stood as a milestone of my childhood sick days--its 1100-1200 time slot segued between morning news shows and afternoon soap operas. There wasn't much to it--just guessing, which anyone can do. Game shows like that were the embodiment of the American dream: a mix of anti-elitist democracy and consumer-oriented capitalism--like playing rock paper scissors for a welfare check. Sometimes the puzzles were weak--like Bumper Stumpers, where contestants deciphered vanity license plates--and sometimes the veil of gimmickry slipped altogether, and you got Shop 'til You Drop, which appealed to our basest instincts to charge through a supermarket putting the most expensive items, tomato juice, laundry detergent, and pork loin, in our carts. The shows ran the gamut from respectable to chaotic, from The $64,000 Question to Let's Make a Deal, the Jerry Springer of game shows, with costumed audience members crying out for Monty Hall's attention. Then there was the MOAG--the Mother OF All Game shows. Press Your Luck had questions, but they were a mere vehicle to drive the contestants to a roulette-like game board, where they could win big, or be mocked by a cartoon devil, the Whammy. "No Whammy!... No Whammy!... No Whammy!..." the contestants incanted before shouting "Stop!" This was real-life drama. Suddenly, we didn't care about seeing someone win big--in this pre-Donald Trump, Pre-Hell's Kitchen age, we wanted to see someone beset by Whammys, not the least because we ourselves, the sick and the jobless, had ourselves been assaulted by those same Whammys.


Jeopardy! wasn't like those shows. Jeopardy! aired after the evening news, and stank of sophistication. Contestants wore tweed jackets and suits. These people weren't the salt of the Earth--they were the saffron.


In 2006, Jeopardy! offered an online challenge. I passed the challenge and was invited to an audition in Philadelphia. "Good luck," my wife said, as I climbed into my car.


"Wish me no Whammys," I replied.


The audition was held at a hotel on Market Street. We few (we selected few, we band of brothers) gathered on the second floor, sizing each other up--seeing who had the largest elbow patches. Some were studying almanacs and dictionaries. As on the show, most of those present were men, which puzzled me--most of the smart people I know are women. The gathering was also mostly white. My mother once attended a play with an acquiantance, who, before the lights went down, craned ner neck around, scanning the audience, before loudly inquiring, to no one in particular--"why don't black people go to the theatre?" My mother shrank down in her seat. But now, I found myself with a similar question--do black people watch Jeopardy!? My co-worker and I used to have discussions about this sort of thing, him calling up clips of Cedric the Entertainer, me quoting Monty Python, then each shaking his head at the other. "I understand it. I just don't get it."


"So, is the parrot dead or what?"


We never discussed Jeopardy!.


One by one, we signed in, filed into the audition room, and took our seats. First, a videotaped message from Alex Trebek. Then, Jeopardy! Q&A , where we got to ask questions about the show. I learned that the shows are taped back-to-back, but to give the illusion of time passing, contestants must arrive in LA with three outfits--after the third show, we were assured, people would forget what we wore the first time. The show isn't nearly as seamless as it appears, either. Contestants are often helped to figure out their final Jeopardy! bids, which is why people often win or lose by a dollar--they don't necessarily think as fast as the commercials roll. You pay your own way to get to and from L.A., but if you're champion when a break hits, they fly you home and back on their dime.


We were then called to the front of the room three by three, where they asked us a question to prompt an anecdote we'd mentioned in our registration forms.


"I see here one of your hobbies is driving."


"Yes."


"Would you like to tell us about that?"


"I like to drive."


After a couple more awkward prompts, I started into a story about driving the Trans-Labrador Highway in my mother's car.


Then it was buzzer time. The three at the front played a mock game, to understand the protocol and get used to using the hand buzzer. When the question comes up, it must be read fully, then a light around the edge of the monitor comes on to let you know you can buzz in. You can hit your buzzer before the light, but it won't register and it takes a fraction of a second to reset, during which time someone else might beat you to the buzz.


Finally, we took a proctored fifty-question re-examination, in case we had assistance during the online test.


After the audition, I dropped by a friend's house. When she found out why I was in town, she recalled how impressed she was when we watched a game of Jeopardy! together in college. "You knew final Jeopardy!--FINAL JEOPARDY!"


Jeopardy! doesn't tell you how you did at the audition. If you pass, your name enters the contestant pool, which has more contestants than will be necessary. For the next year, you wait for a call that may never come--"No Whammy ... No Whammy ... No Whammy ..." At the end of the year, the pool is drained. You're purged. Back amongst the masses. Normal. I didn't get a call. I got stood up by Jeopardy!.


A few months later, while visiting New York City, I made arrangements to attend an open tryout for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, then hosted by Meredith Vieira. I'd only seen the show once or twice, enough to feel intellectually superior to many of the contestants. WWtBaM? tries out about a hundred contestants in a sitting--first a thirty question multiple choice test, then those who fare well enough move on to a personal interview (just to make sure you're TV-worthy and not totally creepy). They wouldn't tell us how many answers we had to get right on the quiz portion, but I was feeling pretty confident. We were packed in at close quarters on folding chairs at long tables.


At each spot was an envelope, a WWtBaM? pencil, and a Scantron form. The guy across from me introduced himself--he was from lower Delaware (or "slower Delaware" as it's known in-state).


"Open your envelopes."


I breezed through the test--I knew most of the answers--The U.S. Secretary of State born in Czechoslavakia is Madeleine Albright; 2T, 3T, and 4T are standard sizes of toddler wear; cerulean is considered to be blue; mules usually can't reproduce (thank you, Liberty Heights, for that factoid), and there have been three U.S. presidents named George.


I found most of the thirty questions easy, a few at least logically deducible, and there were only about five where I was forced to guess. Of those five, I guessed three wrong, giving me a 90 percent score--not high enough, apparently, to move on to the personality interview, where I was bound to impress with my fondness for driving.


But--I now know these things:


1. Barbie's middle name is Millicent. I didn't even know Barbie had a middle name. Her full name, for the record, is Barbara Millicent Roberts. She has six siblings (Skipper, Tutti, Todd, Stacie, Kelly, and Krissy). I swear I must have gone to school with at least one of these WASP-y bitches.


Barbie and Ken dated from 1961 to 2004, when they broke up. Ken has a brother named Tommy, and I'll bet he had something to do it.


Two of the other choices were Martha and Ruth. I figured Ruth was a trick, going for the sound association with Baby Ruth (it was a different trick, I later learned, because Barbie was created by Ruth Handler). I chose Martha instead. If I'd known that Barbie had a sister named fucking Tutti, I would have chosen Millicent.


2. Oprah Winfrey is one of the founders of Oxygen Media. My other choices were Quincy Jones, Martha Stewart, and Emeril Lagasse. I didn't even know what Oxygen Media was, but it sounded like it had something to do with cable TV, and I associated it with SpikeTV, another cable channel I'm too cheap to spring for.


I logically deduced (incorrectly) that if Martha or Oprah were going to start a cable channel, it would be part of their existing media conglomerate. That left me with Quincy Jones and Emeril Lagasse (the two choices I would have immediately eliminated had I ever seen the Oxygen network). I knew Quincy Jones is a musician and that Emeril is some kind of celebrity chef, and cable TV loves chefs, so that sort of made sense. Pretty flawless logic--even though it was WRONG.


3. The powder inside the Etch-a-Sketch is aluminum powder. Maybe it was the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? logo pencil I was using that chose for me, but I picked graphite powder.


When my number wasn't called, I pocketed the pencil and left. At least Jeopardy! gives you a pen.


That night I was haunted by a Barbie-wielding Whammy, dancing across the bottom of my dream screen.