Ariana Grande stumbles on near-pop perfection

Dangerous Woman [Explicit]If a group of scientists got together in a laboratory to create the perfect pop star, Ariana Grande would be the result of such a project: she’s ridiculously telegenic, beautiful, and talented, and possessed the sort of cross-over appeal that makes her music marketable to tweens and teens as well as their moms (and their gay uncles). And like virtually every young female pop star, Ariana Grande hasn’t enjoyed the affection of “serious” rock critics. And that’s too bad. On her third studio effort, Dangerous Woman, Ariana Grande (along with a crowd of producers and songwriters) releases a nearly-perfect pop record.

Despite its title, there’s little that’s dangerous about Dangerous Woman. And though the cover with Granda donning a fetish-like mask, little of the songs hint at anything deeper or darker than unrequited love. Dangerous Woman is an aggressively mainstream record, one that is supposed to appeal to a wide format of pop radio: there are soulful pop ballads and dance songs – these tunes would sound comfortably being piped through the sound system of a department store or being played at a local gay club. There’s little innovation with Dangerous Woman and it’s a largely safe and unambitious record, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: in this current landscape in pop music, albums often serve as little more than skeletal homes for hit singles. To its credit, Dangerous Woman is solid and consistent.

The album’s opener is a pretty ballad that takes its cues from swinging doo-wop and will remind listeners yet again of how much Ariana Grande owes to Mariah Carey (the song sounds like a 2010’s take on “Vision of Love”). “Let Me Love You”  is another song that has Grande sound earily like Carey (aping the diva’s slightly-nasal delivery when performing mid-tempo, sultry urban-pop ballads). When Grande’s debut album came out, reviewers noted the similarities between she and Carey, and it sounds as if she’s taking the comparisons to heart.

Other ballads litter the record, making good use of Grande’s impressive pipes: the title track is a slow-burning number with some dramatic wall of sound synths that makes the song sound like Grande’s audition to sing the next Bond theme; “Thinking Bout You” is a stately slow song which boasts a strong vocal performance  and an epic production that makes Ariana Grande’s case for Celine Dion’s successor; “I Don’t Care” is a solid effort to showcase Grande’s sensual side; “Knew Better/Forever Boy” is a good ballad with some interesting vocal effects that has Grande stepping ever so slightly outside radio-friendly pop.

And though Grande’s voice is well-suited for ballads, the more uptempo songs are highlights, too, including the album’s best moment, “Be Alright,” a fantastic house song that is at once an affectionate nod towards the singer’s sizable queer fan base and a wonderful wink back at 90s disco. Grande moves even further back into the 1980s with “Greedy” a shiny, spike dance ditty with some nifty horns. Both songs while mining the past don’t feel fusty or stale – instead, she successfully updates some of the tropes of 80s and 90s dance music. And “Into You” sounds state-of-the-art with its beeps and bloops, but doesn’t sound dated or silly.

Like every decent superstar release worth its salt, Grande has some famous friends stop by: Nick Minaj enlivens “Side to Side,” a decent reggae-lite tune, with her overs-sized personality, and manages to give the silly novelty number some oomph and credibility. Future pops in for the slow, churning “Everyday,” and a somewhat surprising cameo by Macy Gray on “Leave Me Lonely” shows off the “I Try Singer” at her best, doing a great Nina Simone impression (while Grande takes a solid stab at 70s soul balladeering).

As with any album boasting this many tracks, there will be some filler – “Sometimes” is an affecting, if innocuous ballad that is so light it threatens to float away and uber-producer Max Martin dollops a lot of his sonic gloss over his tracks, rendering them indistinguishable from the other radio hits he helms. But even if his songs feel a bit bland and cookie-cutter, they’re still okay examples of solid craftsmanship.

Unfortunately because Ariana Grande’s main audience consists of teen girls and gay men, Dangerous Woman won’t get the critical acclaim of her peers. It’s a shame because while she doesn’t try to change the music world like Beyonce does with the excellent Lemonade, nor does she possess the artistry of Adele, she’s still a contender. Dangerous Woman doesn’t show significant growth from Grande’s other two studio efforts, but that’s okay. She’s young and has time to grow as an artist. In the mean time, as a product of escapist fun, Dangerous Woman more than fits the bill.

 

 

 

 

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Carol Burnett’s ‘An Evening of Laughter and Reflection’ is an evening of fun and laughs

Carol Burnett is a national treasure and a comedy hero, and strode on the stage at The Chicago Theatre with the presence and confidence of a prize fighter. After a montage which showed clips of Burnett answering questions from her audiences from The Carol Burnett Show, the icon was met with rapturous applause from an appreciative audience. What followed was an hour and a half of anecdotes and more flip clips as well as a massive Q&A session, in which hard-working ushers sprinted up and down the aisles thrusting mics into the raised hands of excited fans. The stories Burnett chose to share came up mostly as well-prepared “tangents” inspired by the questions she was fielding – in one instance, early in the show, a fan asked about costar Vicki Lawrence and Burnett, not wanting to give away the store, cheerfully promised to bring up Lawrence later in the program.

In presenting the show with film clips, Burnett was given a chance to do two things: 1) rest, when needed – after all, even though she doesn’t look it, she’s 83-years old and 2) illustrate some of the anecdotes she was sharing. One particularly funny story deal with Tim Conway and the late Harvey Korman (to whom An Evening of Laughter and Reflection was dedicated) in which the former played an inept dentist while the latter was his hapless patient. The point of the sketch was just how masterful Conway was in getting Korman to break. A major hallmark of The Carol Burnett Show was the times the cast members corpsed throughout the show. Burnett explained that even though they tried their best to keep it together, Conway was often able to mess them up, sending his cast mates into paroxysms of laughter.

Burnett also used the film clips to remind viewers of some of the most iconic moments of The Carol Burnett Show including the famed Gone with the Wind parody, that had Burnett – as Scarlett O’Hara – descend down a grand staircase with the curtain rod dress. The audience on TV laughed uproariously, as did the audience in the theater. Slightly less-known, but equally funny is Burnett’s take on Sunset Boulevard, with her boozy, tragic Norma Desmond (in a cute aside, the comedienne boasted about Gloria Swanson once guesting on the show). Other clips reeled off all of the great guest stars that stood next to Burnett on her stage – Cher, Liza Minnelli, Ray Charles, Ethel Merman, Lucille Ball – but the biggest reactions came when Karen Carpenter appeared sadly warbling a Bacharach tune (we all awwwwed sadly) and when a still-beautiful Rita Hayworth popped up in full 70s glamor. When asked by an audience member if any superstar was a hard get, Burnett said no, and assured her fans that every superstar that was asked appeared.

The subject of women in comedy came up, as well. First in a story about Lucille Ball, who, freshly divorced from Desi Arnaz, found herself president of Desilu Productions, and in charge of shooting down bad ideas. In the story the legendary comedienne found her inner strength and started issuing orders and edicts, and proudly admitted to Burnett that it was then that they added an “s” to her last name. Though, not an explicitly feminist comic, Burnett still holds a giant place in female comedy, and she acknowledged it, not by embracing feminist politics, but by name-checking Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, and Melissa McCarthy throughout the evening.

The (great) problem with having an historic show like The Carol Burnett Show, is that it tends to overshadow everything else. After the show’s ending in 1978, Burnett continued a long and accomplished career in television, stage, and film, though nothing came close to the success of that show (she tried her hand at variety TV again in the early 90s with a pair of anthology series that didn’t last very long). As a result, the lion’s share of the evening was spent on The Carol Burnett Show at the expense of the comedienne’s other projects. She did squeeze in a cute story about Annie, and how because the shooting of the film was so long and protracted, she found herself in a pickle when she had to come back for a reshoot after having had minor plastic surgery. Someone in the rafters of the theaters shouted a question about Law & Order, and Burnett took the time to joyfully admit that though comedy was her love, she did enjoy playing villains, too.

But even though she liked playing villains, Burnett’s stock-in-trade is her likability. She comes across as a genuinely nice person. Throughout the evening, peppered among the good questions, were goofy requests for hugs – which Burnett tactfully postponed for after the show; a couple kids got into the act, too, garbling adorably incoherent questions which the star handled like a pro. Her star power coupled with her genial manner made for a lovely and hilarious evening that more than lived up to its title.

Click here to buy tickets and to see the schedule for Carol Burnett: An Evening of Laughter and Reflection.

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Fred Armisen brings some pals to close a spotty season of ‘SNL’

Fred Armisen and Courtney Barnett Bumper PhotosFred Armisen is the sixth former SNL cast member to return to Studio 8H as a host and he did not disappoint. Armisen’s style of comedy is super old school – and owes a lot to Martin Short (who is starring in an upcoming variety show with fellow SNL alumni Maya Rudolph), and no where is Short’s influence more apparent than in Armisen’s excellent monologue that had the comedian share a bit of his fake one-man show with the audience. Armisen expertly pivoted from hackey voices to smarmy schmaltz, all while peddling a cliched tale of leaving Long Island for Manhattan, and becoming a star. It’s exactly the kind of thing Martin Short excelled at, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that Armisen’s so fantastic at: smarmy showbizzyness that has a simmering layer of devastating irony – five minutes of Armisen is more potent at Hollywood-deflating than an hour of Ricky Gervais’ increasingly-toxic material. The straighter Armisen played the scene, imbuing it with calculated/crass pathos, the funnier it became. To drive the point home, Armisen has to micromanage everything, from an audience member’s reaction to the dimming of the lights at the close of his monologue. A terrific start to a mostly-terrific show.

The cold open was as usual, a political sketch, with Larry David returning as Bernie Sanders, and Kate McKinnon back as Hillary Clinton. David and McKinnon are pros are great – it’s interesting to see how McKinnon has had to develop her character, as Clinton’s road to the nomination seems harder and harder to get. No longer is she gliding towards the White House with entitled confidence, but she’s dragging a bloated and lumbering campaign, while Sanders keeps adding more weight to it. It’s also nice to see the writers ding Clinton – pointing out that despite her lead in the delegate count, she’s losing states to Sanders. Sanders’ position as a populist also gets tweaked and there’s something so endearingly silly about the Vermont Senator’s dream of having a tuna fish sandwich…on a croissant, like the fancy people do. SNL will never be known as a devastating source of trenchant political comedy – the Sarah Palin stuff notwithstanding, most of what passes for political humor on the show is decent impressions, catch phrases, and mining tabloids for supposedly topical material. That in this season David and McKinnon are called upon to create real characters is impressive.

Anyways, on with the rest of the show.

It felt like a good episode from Armisen’s tenure. The best sketches used Armisen to the best of his abilities, and despite his singular talent, he’s also a great team player, rarely ever showboating or showing up his teammates.

The sketch that’s getting the most attention is the pretaped Dead Poets Society spoof, “Farewell Mr. Bunting” that has Armisen playing a beloved teacher who is leaving his classroom – but instead of the “Oh Captain, my Captain” recital that took place in the Robin Williams weepie, we get an orgy of decapitations, as Pete Davidson’s student climbs on his chair to join in on the goodbye Mr. Chips moment, he stands too close to a ceiling fan slicing his head off, which leads to a gruesome game of hot potato as the head is tossed from one screaming student to another. While I’m not as enamored with it as everyone else in America, it’s a funny sketch.

Another pretaped sketch that scored was the return of Andy Samberg and Lonely Island. It’s obviously a plug for Samberg’s new movie Popstar, but the short – “Finest Girl” – is just the sort of thing that Lonely Island is great at: a Justin Timberlake/Justin Bieber amalgam of top 40 pop with some seriously f’d up lyrics, this time about a young lady who has a “killing Osama bin Laden fetish.” Samberg’s pop star alter ego (again a weird mashup of Timberlake and Bieber and every other whimpering wannabe soul man) is great fun and even he – as self-involved and deluded as he is – takes pause at his paramours obsession with Bin Laden.

Popping in for a well-received cameo was Jason Sudeikis in a Regine sketch. I never found drag terribly  funny, but I do like the perennially-put upon Regine who is reduced to a pile of quivering flesh whenever Sudeikis shows her any physical affection. Sudeikis is totally committed to his character, plowing through, despite Armisen’s Regine writhing and turning all over the place.

Another recurring sketch, the Student Theater Showcase, scored points. Some find this sketch one note, but I like it. The kids are always doing their best to be politically correct and they strenuously try to expand the minds of their audiences. As funny as the kids are, it’s the parents – particularly Vanessa Bayer – who are the best, reacting to their kids’ nonsense with annoyance and shame.

The Weekend Update was okay – but notable for the fantastic return of Maya Rudolph as recently-impeached Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. Brazilian readers can school me if Rudolph’s accent was credible (I suspect not), but yet again, she brings the funny by portraying the embattled politico as someone who couldn’t give any fucks about losing her job, and sees her impeachment as an excuse to party. Just as Samberg was appearing to promote Popstar, I suspect that Rudolph’s appearance was killing two birds with one stone: honoring her friend Fred Armisen’s return as well as reminding folks of her upcoming show with Martin Short. Either way, we don’t need an excuse to see Maya Rudolph, and she needs to come back to host.

There was an escape pod sketch that worked solely because of Arimsen’s needling comic persona – and for its attention to strange details (i.e. Armisen’s  character picks City Slickers 2 as his movie of choice when escaping a doomed space ship). The writing wasn’t anything special, but the scribes must’ve realized that having Armisen play one of his nudniks would be enough.

The only bad sketch – and it was pretty bad, with a noxious premise – was the Lewis & Clark sketch. Kyle Mooney and Cecily Strong join Armisen as an acting troupe that is hired by Aidy Bryant’s middle school teacher to perform the Lewis & Clark story. The performance devolves into some ugliness about Mooney’s character being raped by Armisen – I don’t know how many times comics will blunder to try and make rape funny. It was a dark and unnecessary moment in an otherwise bright show.

So, the 41st season of SNL was so-so. I’m thinking that it will be the final season for Sasheer Zamata, which is a shame because she is a bright and funny comic, but was woefully underused. New guy Jon Rudnitsky should also look around for a new job as his inaugural season seemed rather in auspicious. Leslie Jones, Pete Davidson, and Michael Che should all be bumped up to the main cast – each proved to be invaluable. I’m also thinking that Kate McKinnon’s star is on the rise, and it won’t be long before she follows Kirsten Wiig’s trajectory.

 

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Artist in Spotlight: Janet Jackson

Design of a Decade
Janet Jackson is one of the last few artists left today who was born out of the MTV Revolution. Back in the 1980s, the channel created a new musical archetype: the video diva. The video diva is a telegenic performer who visuals are as important (if not more) than her sound. Janet Jackson, the youngest of the famed Jacksons, benefited greatly from MTV. She ruled the music channel for a long time before the relationship soured after her unfortunate wardrobe malfunction during the Super Bowl XXXVIII half-time show. Before that ugly snaffoo, though, Jackson was a mighty titan. Her videos were expensive, elaborate productions that rivaled the kinds of work Bugsby Berekely produced in his hey day.

As a musician, Janet Jackson is harder to pin down. She’s a product of her collaborators, though she exerts a large amount of control and influence over her image or sound. Since 1986’s Control album, she’s had a hand in writing and/or producing her work, largely with former Time players Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. As a singer, she’s benefited from Jam & Lewis’ then-cutting edge productions, melding icy synths with funky beats, to create state-of-the-art urban dance-pop. Her lyrics contributed to her image as first a feisty and assertive young lady, then a socially-conscious disco diva, and finally to a sexy pop diva.

Her discography includes 11 studio albums, three compilations, two remix albums, and over 50 singles, 10 of which went number one. While she released meticulously-produced albums, she was primarily a singles artist, and her string of hits represented some of the best pop music of the 1980s and 1990s. Her longevity was also impressive, considering that she was competing with pop titans like Prince, Madonna, and her older brother Michael Jackson. Like the aforementioned icons, Jackson emerged from the 1980s, but seemed to have an easier time of adjusting to the 1990s. She retained her commercial dominance throughout the 1990s, slipping considerably since the 2000s, when the music industry as a whole began to go through changes. As a result of these shifts, big-budgeted superstars like Jackson were becoming increasingly irrelevant.

This past year, Jackson released her 11th studio album, Unbreakable, to critical acclaim. It also became her  seventh number one album. The album was warmly received by critics and fans after a string of releases that disappointed.

Alongside her career as a pop singer, Jackson also maintained a solid career as an actress. Though she’s far more famous for her music, Jackson’s entry into show business was as a child actress, first appearing with her famous family in 1976 in a variety show, The Jacksons. Though Michael Jackson was clearly the breakout, many took notice of Janet – particularly with her impressions (audiences liked her decent Mae West impression). Norman Lear saw The Jacksons and brought Jackson in to costar in the final two seasons of Good Times, as Penny, a child suffering from child abuse. After Good Times ended did a quick stint on A New Kind of Family (which featured a young Rob Lowe), before scoring a recurring role on the Gary Coleman sitcom Diff’rent Strokes. After Strokes, Jackson joined the sprawling cast of the TV-version of Fame, and stayed on for a season before embarking on a music career.

Poetic Justice 27x40 Movie Poster (1993)

Her film career started with John Singleton’s 1993 project, Poetic Justice, his follow-up to Boyz in the Hood. Though Jackson and the film received mixed reviews, she scored an Oscar nomination for the film’s theme, “Again.” She didn’t appear in another project until 2000’s Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, in which she starred opposite Eddie Murphy. She was able to add another number one hit with the film’s theme. Afterwards she became Tyler Perry’s muse, starring in three of his works: Why Did I Get Married?Why Did Get Married Too?, and For Colored Girls. Again, her notices, while respectful, were mixed for the most part. As an actress, Jackson has yet to prove herself as something more than a competent dilettante.

Studio Albums:

Product DetailsJanet Jackson (1982) – produced by Rene Moore & Angela Winbush, Jackson’s debut showed little promise of what was to come later. Janet Jackson was essentially another entry in the growing litter of Jackson sibling solo albums, and though Jackson’s voice – thin and a bit unripe – was charming, the production was essentially a holdover of late 1970s disco. The album has a couple bright moments, most notably “Say You Do” a blatant rip-off of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” but a strong one with some fantastic bristling strings.

Product DetailsDream Street (1984)- released during her time with Fame (the title song was used on the show), Dream Street was a so-so collection of substandard dance-pop. There are hints of what direction she was destined for, particularly with the smeary “Pretty Boy” and the sexy “Fast Girls” two of the record’s strongest songs, produced by Prince guitarist Jesse Johnson. The success of those two songs show that Jackson was really meant to be a Prince protegee a la Vanity or Sheila E., instead of a safe, middling teen pop star.

Product DetailsControl (1986) – easily Jackson’s best album and a mid-80s masterpiece, though it’s as much a triumph for its producers, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. The album featured the duo’s patented metallic-funk – a fantastic amalgamation of funk, pop, dance, soul, and rock. Aside from the excellent production, what sets Control apart from Jackson’s first two albums is that she has a hand in writing and producing the record, allowing for her personality to shine through. The album boasts six top twenty singles, one of which went number one (as did the album). The singles were instant classics: the funky “Nasty” became an updated feminist anthem, as Jackson demanded respect from her suitor with the classic line: “No my first name ain’t baby, it’s Janet. Miss Jackson if you’re nasty!” The similar “What Have You Done for Me Lately” – a muscular, thumbing number has Jackson castigate her layabout lover for not satisfying her. Gone were the pop thrushes who worked overtime to please their man. Jackson stepped in with a handful of pop singles that pushed forward a palpable pop feminism that was at once mainstream and commercial, but at the same time important and subversive.

The dance-heavy album finishes with two ballads – the abstinence-celebrating “Let’s Wait Awhile” and its immediate opposite “Funny How Time Flies” (which ends with Jackson’s orgasmic moans and mutterings in French). The record’s boffo success – it sold over 5 million copies – stunned the music industry, which was only too happy to write off the performer as merely riding the coattails of her famous siblings. She topped off her banner year with an incredible performance at the 1987 Grammys that was received with an enthusiastic standing ovation.

Product DetailsJanet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989)-Jackson ran into the same problem her brother did. After Thriller, Michael Jackson wrestled with coming up with a strong follow-up, and few felt that Bad lived up to the expectations. In the wake of Control‘s success, the pop charts were flooded by Jackson clones (including her former choreographer Paula Abdul), and her label was pushing for a Control sequel. Jackson was reportedly inspired by the news of school shootings and stories of the War on Drugs and worked with Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis on putting together Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814. Crammed with good intentions, the album feels like a let down after the roar of Control, but still contains some of Jackson’s best single moments. The album reeled off a record-setting seven top 5 pop hits, and spun off hit singles for three years. It also won Jackson her first Grammy for Best Long Form Music Video, and its tour became the most successful debut tour by a pop artist.

The album is seen as Jackson’s landmark album, and for most, the first album one needs to buy. I disagree. I think it’s a solid effort, but the socially-conscious lyrics let the music down. Some went as far as comparing the record to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, which is ridiculous. Jackson’s lyrics while well-intentioned, sound naive and unformed. On the title track – which uses a fantastic sample of Sly & The Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” – is a near-perfect collage of industrial beats, clattering samples but Jackson’s chirping of a monochromatic utopia makes little sense – even worse, the video features Jackson and an army of dancers, all done up in pseudo-military gear. While an arresting image, it nonetheless doesn’t jive with the “peace and love” agenda in the lyrics. “State of the World” is a little better because Jackson isn’t singing in general platitudes but is directed her ire at specific ills, namely homelessness. “The Knowledge” is probably the best of the political songs – a breakneck-paced dance song adorned by vocal and radio samples that is convincing in its message for education.

After a clatch of socially-conscious songs, Jackson lets loose her dance diva and it’s clear she’s far more comfortable leading folks on the dance floor than to the voting booths. “Miss You Much” is the greatest song that Prince should’ve recorded. The bright, clipped dance beats and tight percussion make this a classic for the clubs. The quick and breezy “Alright” is also good, as is “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” a midtempo number that has Jackson singing in a lower register (the song was reportedly planned as a duet with Prince). “Escapade” is one of the album’s dated moments, a thick sludge of synthesizers, keyboards, and drum machines that thunder through the speakers.

Product Detailsjanet. (1993)-by 1993 Janet Jackson was a bonafide superstar. She was no longer being compared with her brother, and drew far more comparisons with Madonna. Also by this time, Jackson’s place in the pop world was secure and untouchable, resulting in a record-breaking $32 million contract with Virgin Records (which Michael Jackson would dwarf soon after with a $65 million contract, which Janet Jackson would later best with a $80 million contract – these numbers look stupid today with albums barely selling 500,000 copies).

Despite her definite break from her family’s shadow, she still named her 1993 Virgin debut janet., leaving off her last name. It was an unnecessary move, but one that proved to be prescient when Michael Jackson’s career was struck by child molestation allegations. On janet., Jackson not only moved away from the looming shadow of Michael Jackson, but she shifted away from her image and sound. During most of Control and Rhythm Nation, Jackson was clad, nearly head-to-toe in black. She shocked fans and critics with the video for “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” by appearing in a pair of tight jeans and a cropped-top, cavorting with half-naked male models (the clip, directed by photographer Herb Ritts, was a clear rip-off of Madonna’s “Cherish” video, also directed by Ritts). janet. continued in Jackson’s interest in sexuality and music by introducing sexual lyrics and imagery. The album’s cover was a cropped version of her famous Rolling Stone cover that featured the singer topless with an anonymous pair of hands cupping her breasts. All of this could be dismissed as cheap publicity, but janet. is one of the singer’s most compelling albums, and is one of the best dance albums of the 1990s.

The first single “That’s the Way Love Goes” (which earned Jackson a Grammy), showed the music industry the kind of album and sound janet. had. Instead of featuring tight dance beats, the song was a gentle slow-jam. It has a slinky, swinging beat and owes far more to funk and jazz than dance. Jackson’s voice – never a distinct or powerful instrument – works its way like a slithery laser, purring the heady lyrics.

But fans of disco Janet needn’t have worried, because much of the album was highly-produced dance music. janet. also flirted with other genres including rock, rap, jazz, house, even opera. “If” was a fantastic dance number with guitar shredding throughout the song while “Throb” paid homage to gay house and disco.

Because Jackson wasn’t Whitney Houston, her ballads often suffered because they betrayed her massive vocal limitations, but on janet., she and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis managed to create sensual ballads that showed off Jackson at her best. “Any Time, Any Place” is a darkly erotic song that Jackson sells with a dreamy, sinewy performance, while “Again” is a tear-stained piano ballad that benefits greatly from Jackson’s tremulous performance.

Like her the preceding two albums, janet. unfurled a string of top ten hits and ultimately sold over 20 million copies, becoming Jackson’s best-selling work. It was released during the seeming peak of the recording industry. It is a large, expensive record that encapsulates 1993 in pop music. Just as the grunge era was going to emerge, largely thumbing its nose at these kinds of pop colossi, janet. has become an artifact of a time in the music industry when artists whose names weren’t Adele were selling 20 million records.

Product DetailsThe Velvet Rope (1997)-After the smashing success of janet., Jackson’s imperceptible decline started to take place in 1997 with The Velvet Rope. Though it debuted in the top position on the pop charts, it sold a fraction of what janet. sold. The six singles spun off from the album weren’t the immediate hits, and “only” two were top five smashes. Still, after janet., Jackson seemed to have little to prove. The Velvet Rope is an underrated near-masterpiece that has some of the singer’s most interesting and strangest music. Battling depression, Jackson took pen to paper to illustrate her pain and anguish, and in the interim, she made some beautiful music.

Like janet., The Velvet Rope is a sprawling work that reaches to different genres. Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis try out different textures and sounds – electronic bleeps, guitar screeches, feedback scratches, looping synths, funky bass or guitar licks. The lyrics explore Jackson’s personal demons as well as thoughtful musings of society around her. She writes of homophobia, AIDS, and domestic violence and is far more convincing here than in Rhythm Nation.

The album’s first single was the gorgeous “Got ’til It’s Gone,” which featured Q-Tip and Joni Mitchell and a sampling of Mitchell’s classic “Big Yellow Taxi.” The song is a minimalist funky song with nods toward alternative urban pop. Jackson’s vocals are minimal and ghost-like, and she offers a laid back performance, one that doesn’t rely on her stardom or charisma. It’s a strange and eccentric song and a bold move on Jackson’s part – instead of intrusively demanding space on her own record, she just sort of lets the beats work their magic as she croons delicately.

The title track is a loud harsh mess that examines privilege. Violinist Vanessa-Mae shreds some serious electro-violin, before a multi-tracked Jackson appears to start singing about exclusion. “What About” has a similar aesthetic as Jackson rages over crashing guitars at an abusive partner – it’s interesting to compare the pissed-off Jackson of “What About” to the offended Jackson of “What Have You Done for Me Lately.”

“Free Xone,” “Together Again,” and “Tonight’s the Night” is a trilogy that lends itself to Jackson’s identity as a queer icon and queer ally. “Free Xone” – a funy, rushed number that samples James Brown has Jackson singing about the equality of queer love, while “Tonight’s the Night” has the diva covering Rod Stewart, but choosing to make the ballad a lesbian love song. And “Together Again” has Jackson returning to the dance floor with a sterling tribute to her friends who’ve died of AIDS. Though “Throb” was a pretty queer song, these three songs upped Jackson’s alliance with the queer community. And in 1997, it wasn’t as common for pop singers to embrace their queer fans – this was years before It Gets Better, marriage equality, Caitlyn Jenner. In fact, only a year earlier, DOMA was signed. This wasn’t a great time to be queer.

With janet., Janet Jackson became an international superstar. With The Velvet Rope, Jackson became a well-respected artist.

Product DetailsAll for You (2001) – After the dark angst of The Velvet Rope, Janet Jackson returned to bright, sunny pop music with All for You. Unlike janet. or The Velvet RopeAll for You would not be an ambitious effort, nor would Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis try to be innovative or cutting-edge. Instead, the trio put out a competent, enjoyable album with a great batch of singles, some good b-sides, and some filler. All for You has also the ignominious distinction of featuring Jackson’s last US top 10 hit (to date).

The album’s first single, the title track, was a monster hit for Jackson. It stayed at number one for seven weeks, winning the singer another Grammy. It’s a fantastic song. A frothy, gurgling dance-pop confection that harks back, affectionately to Jackson’s 80s years. Jackson’s voice is multiplied and multi-layered so it sounds like there are a hundred Janet Jacksons chirping merrily the inane and flirty lyrics.

Though Jackson was coming off a rancorous divorce, little of the album reflects that. It’s mostly bright, sunny pop. While engaging, it feels like a bit of a let down, given just how far Jackson pushed herself with janet. or The Velvet RopeAll for You features some solid work, but little of it would rank as her best work. “Someone to Call My Lover” (her last top 10 hit) is upbeat, though a bit anodyne (though it makes great use of the folksy guitar hook of America’s “Ventura Highway.” Better is “Come On Get Up” – a thumpy house number with some fun tribal drums.

The nadir of the album is a bizarre reworking of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” entitled “Son of a Gun (I Betcha Think This Song Is About You)” which like “Got ’til It’s Gone” samples heavily from a legendary singer-songwriter’s iconic hit. But Joni Mitchell’s contribution to “Got ’til It’s Gone” was tasteful and interesting – Carly Simon’s awkward guesting amounts to one of the most ridiculous white-lady raps I’ve ever heard (she made Madonna sound like Tupac). Jackson’s vindictive lyrics and heated murmurs toward a cheating lover are okay, but Carly Simon shouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near this song.

Product DetailsDamita Jo (2004)- Damita Jo is a strange entry in Jackson’s catalog. It was overshadowed by Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, and hobbled by a radio and MTV ban which doomed its sales and media presence. It was her first album since Dream Street not to reach the number one (though its first week sales were strong), and it was her first album since Dream Street not to have a top 10 hit single. A shame, really because while not a classic, Damita Jo is a good album – more interesting than All for You, though it tries to attain the light, upbeat mood of All for You. It’s still a bit of a mystery why Damita Jo didn’t live up to its potential, but it came and went without much noise, and was the first slip that would turn into a steep decline in Jackson’s commercial fortunes.

Too bad. Damita Jo has some good moments. “All Nite (Don’t Stop)” is a great club banger – one of Jackson’s best, really (it uses a fantastic sample of Herbie Hancock’s “Hang Up Your Hang Ups”). And “R&B Junkie” is a great dance song that pays tribute to urban dance crazes. “Sexhibition” despite its awful title, is also a solid slice of stylish dance music. Two of the album’s singles, the waltz-like Kanye West song “I Want You” and the guitar-pop of “Just a Little While” are strong songs that would comfortably rank alongside some of Jackson’s more classic moments.

Product Details20 Y.O. (2006)- After the failure of Damita Jo, Jackson tried to regroup, releasing 20 Y.O., a misleading release that supposedly paid tribute to her career, and marked the 20th anniversary of the release of Control (1986). That promotional gimmick was a mistake because 20 Y.O. pales in comparison with Control. Little of the album is worth mentioning, and it’s the first of Jackson’s post-Control albums that doesn’t have a memorable tune. “Call on Me” was the album’s most successful single, a rap duet with Nelly, that manages to stand out as does “So Excited” which has Jackson turn to Herbie Hancock again, this time sampling “Rock It.”

Like Damita Jo20 Y.O. was met with relative indifference, and failed to hit the number one position. None of its singles met with much success, either. This is probably the least essential of Jackson’s post-Control albums. It isn’t that the album’s terrible – it’s just boring, bland and nondescript.

Product DetailsDiscipline (2008) – After 20 Y.O.‘s release, Jackson’s contract with Virgin Records ended and Jackson signed with Island. Along with a new label, Jackson also decided to work without the steadying hands of her longtime collaborators, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. Jackson’s partner at the time, Jermaine Dupri took on executive producing duties, and Jackson hooked up with some top shelf dance and urban-pop producers including Rodney Jerkins, Ne-Yo, StarGate, and Tricky Stewart. The resulting album was marginally better than 20 Y.O., and it signaled a hopeful direction in Jackson’s sound, as she experimented with electropop. She also muscled out a top 20 hit (her first in years) with the album’s lead single “Feedback.” At this point in her career, Jackson ossified into a self-parody and caricature of a once-vital and impressive recording artist. Once she was sexy and sensual, but now, the lasciviousness on her records were sounding boring and rote. Though Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis were missed, Jackson’s willingness to work with some out-of-left field artists like Daft Punk and Missy Elliott meant that Discipline wasn’t the ho-hum effort that 20 Y.O. was.

The leading single “Feedback” was reminiscent of “Rhythm Nation” in production. Clattering kettle drums and loopy scratches and samples and spacey techno flourishes made Jackson sound current and with it. The lyrics are stupid and again, unnecessarily smutty – but really, lyrics matter little when listening to a Janet Jackson club banger. Even better is the neo-disco of “Rock with U” which was actually a really good song. Criminally underrated, this thumbing house number was fantastic, and a welcomed tribute to her queer fans. It is exactly the kind of dance music that Jackson should have been doing: modern, interesting, and creative. “So Much Betta” was another crazy creative song. Heavily sampling Daft Punk’s “Daftendirekt” the song distorts, mutilates and reshapes Jackson’s vocals over a rubbery, stomping beat.

Despite these hopeful peaks, Discipline easily became Jackson’s worst-selling album of her post-Control years. After the failure of Discipline, she was released from Island, and Jackson was without a major label for the first time in her recording career. A world tour was shuttered due to illness, and her relationship with Jermaine Dupri ended. Jackson would put her music career on a hiatus that would last seven years (with the exception of a couple one-off singles). In the mean time, she resurrected her acting, married a billionaire and, most tragically, suffer the loss of her Brother Michael Jackson in 2009.

Product DetailsUnbreakable (2015) – Jackson’s latest album is a welcome return to form. Reunited with Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, the singer seems to have assessed what she did wrong in the past few years and made a concerted effort to avoid those missteps. One of which was toss up her lyrical content. She wasn’t preoccupied with outsexing her competition. Instead, she took the time she had away from the music industry, and used that experience to inform her music. The album is tight and far more economical, without the slushy interludes that bogged down her other efforts. There is a far higher ratio of hit-to-filler, and it feels as if Jackson was rejuvenated by her time off.

The title track, an anthematic R&B – joyfully retro number,  pays tribute to Jackson’s longtime fans.  “Burnitup!” is a fantastic dance song that reunited the singer with Missy Elliott, another music legend that has been gone for too long. The song is sounds like classic Janet Jackson, and Elliott shows that her hiatus hasn’t slowed down her rhyming skills. “Dammn Baby” is a wonderful slice of Minneapolis funk that recalls Jackson’s Control days. “The Great Forever” is a swinging number with a chugging beat and catchy hook. The album’s brightest spot is one of the most uncharacteristic numbers, “Gon’ B Alright,” a swirling, rollicking number that would do Sly & The Family Stone or James Brown proud. It’s a tight-fisted, rocking funk n roll number with Jackson belting in an appealing lower register.

As with janet., Jackson announced her return not with a flashy dance single, but with a drowsy ballad, “No Sleeep,” which wasn’t the best choice, as not only is the song bland but it’s a bad representation of Unbreakable, which has some of her most exciting music in years. And like “Dammn Baby” reminding listeners of Control, Jackson makes a reference to Rhythm Nation with the socially conscious EDM number “Shoulda Known Better,” in which she ruefully regrets her naivete.

Unbreakable debuted at number one on the pop charts, bringing her total of number one albums to seven. Sales have been sleepy, but it doesn’t seem like record sales matter anymore. No longer beholden to a ridiculous contract and a bloated label, Jackson’s much leaner now and more efficient. Though a superstar, she’s operating like an indie artist (well, as close to an indie artist as a superstar of her magnitude can be).

Compilations

Product DetailsDesign of a Decade: 1986-1996 (1995)-Jackson’s first greatest-hits album credited Jackson with designing a decade, but because of label issues, only Control and Rhythm Nation are featured heavily, while janet. is represented by one song, the classic “That’s the Way Love Goes.” And no singles from Janet Jackson or Dream Street are featured. It’s an odd collection, but one that shows just how on-the-mark Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis were at their peak.

For new fans, Design has two new songs: “Runaway” and “Twenty Foreplay.” The former is a frothy pop song that mishmashes world music cliches and tropes, while Jackson trills about all of the places she’s seen. It’s a silly song with little-to-no substance, but is light and inoffensive. The latter is a long, languid ballad that starts of listless before ramping up into a funky midtempo soul song, featuring some of Jackson’s most forceful and soulful singing. The two new songs are well-produced and solid tracks – both done at a time when Jackson, Jam & Lewis were at their creative heights, so it’s a tribute to their prowess that neither feels like a throwaway track, and each feels like a legitimate hit.

Product DetailsNumber Ones (2009)-Number Ones is a far better, more comprehensive hits package that not only contains all of her singles from Control to Discipline, but it also has some duets that have not appeared on a Janet Jackson album. And it also boasts a killer new track “Make Me” a wonderful disco song that pays lovely homage and tribute to the late Michael Jackson. As with Design of a Decade, Jackson is still pretending that Janet Jackson and Dream Street never happened.

But so what? Number Ones is worth getting for the rarer duets like her breezy uptempo pop hit “The Best Things in Life Are Free” from the Mo’ Money soundtrack. She shares singing duties with soul great Luther Vandross on the New Jack Swing tune (which also features Bell Bid DeVoe and Ralph Tresvant). It’s interesting hearing Vandross smushed into a genre for which he’s not a natural (still he sounds glorious), and the song is cheery and breezy.

Another, more interesting, entry is “Diamonds” recording during Jackson’s Control time, when fellow A&M artist (and label founder) Herb Alpert turned to urban-pop for chart success. “Diamonds” written and produced by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis sounds like an outtake from Control. Alpert’s famed saxophone is trumpet, but it acts more like a Janet Jackson record than anything. Though the song was a huge hit at the time, peaking in the top 5, it’s somewhat of curio in Jackson’s discography and unavailable on any Janet Jackson album (though folks should pick up Alpert’s credible bid for crossover success Keep Your Eye on Me, which also features “Making Love in the Rain” a slow-jam that features Jackson on vocals).

“Scream” Janet Jackson’s much-anticipated duet with brother Michael is also included. I have always had mixed feelings about this song. It’s clearly Michael’s song and he dominates it (though it is produced by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, and not one of Michael’s collaborators); his vocals are prominent while Janet’s feel mixed low and obscured by production. The song itself is clashing and loud dance-rock with some elements of pop and soul. By the mid 1990s, Michael Jackson’s work had devolved into creepy, paranoid screeds against the media. He felt persecuted and the feelings of self-pity bled into his music, so that a lot of what he did post-Bad was unlistenable. There is some of that with “Scream” but it’s lightened up considerably by the influence of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, as well as Janet, all of whom manage to ameliorate some of Michael’s woe-is-I ways. It’s not Janet Jackson’s finest or definitive moment, and it feels like a bit of let down, considering the talent involved, but it’s an important song nonetheless.

The brightest song in the package is “Make Me,” a tremendous disco song. Harking back to classic Janet Jackson the song features fine, tight percussion and a clipped speed that recalls some of her greatest dance music of the 1980s and 1990s. It also feels like a sweet tribute to her late brother (she recalls his hit “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” throughout the song). Like with the high points of Discipline, “Make Me” is the kind of music that Jackson should be concentrated on.

 

 

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Gwen Stefani responds to her divorce with a shiny pop record – ‘This Is What the Truth Feels Like’ – a review

This Is What The Truth Feels LikeGwen Stefani’s status as pop star has taken a back seat to her current high profile gig as one of the hosts of The Voice as well as tabloid fodder given her recent divorce from Bush singer/guitarist Gavin Rossdale as well as her even more-recent coupling with Voice co-host Blake Shelton. But Ms. Stefani is trying to right that with the release of This Is What the Truth Feels Like, her third solo outing and first in 10 years. She hasn’t exactly been silent in that decade: there was the mild success of a No Doubt reunion record, Push and Shove, in 2012, and there were a couple singles that didn’t do anything on the charts. But judging from the sounds and collaborators on This Is What the Truth Feels Like, Stefani was carefully keeping an eye on an industry she ruled so easily 10 years ago.

It’d be tempting to call this her “breakup” record – and she does include songs that may allude to the end of her marriage. But that’d be too simple. Stefani is far too savvy a pop star, and instead has crafted a big-budgeted monstrosity that will appeal to all kinds of markets – she crams synthpop, dance, rap, dancehall, AC, pop, and disco in one album, and to her credit (well, to the credit of the small army of songwriters and producers tasked to make this thing), the album sounds cohesive and neat.

One of the smartest things Stefani did was allow her sound to grow, but not depart too much from her signature music. In the past, she has found success in trashy, ridiculous bits of pop like “Hollaback Girl” and “Wind It Up.” Her lyrics were often schoolyard/jump rope chants shouted over processed beats. With This Is What the Truth Feels Like, Stefani hews closer to the “Don’t Speak” chanteuse, wearing her broken heart on her sleeve. In the process, she’s come out with a surprisingly compelling record.

The album’s opener “Misery” is a a standout and a great way to open the record. Stefani’s vocals are rueful and sad, and the music itself is a great harkback to 80s synthpop, complete with dramatic choruses, echoes, and crashing drums. The song is also moody and sounds like something The Cure or Depeche Mode would’ve turned down as too mainstream or too pop. Like “Misery,” “Truth” is another soul-baring song that glides on shiny, pop-perfect production. “Used to Love You” is also another tear-stained synthy pop number that has Stefani’s gulping vocals recall heartbreak and heartache.

But it’s not all sadness and gloom. First and foremost, Stefani is a pop star. The album’s lead single “Make Me Like You” is an excellent disco number that will remind folks of the MTV-era Stefani. It’s a roller rink number that moves briskly with some nifty guitar licks swirling synthesizers. It recalls 70s-era dance music in the best way, without sounding derivative or musty.

Not all of the record works – “Naughty” is a loud mess with off-putting vocals and Stefani’s ill-advised penchant for spitting rhymes and “Red Flag” has the same issue (though the crawling, buzzy synthesizer is pretty cool). And Stefani’s voice is an acquired taste: it can be fun and pleasant, but it can also sound honking and shrill (this is especially true in the more novelty-like numbers). When she’s practicing restraint, she can sound lovely, but too often, she adopts a yucky brashness that can be very off putting.

In the end, though This Is What the Truth Feels Like does what it sets out to do: provide a nice, comfy home for some catchy singles that should extend Stefani’s chart reign. Gwen Stefani was never a particularly innovative artist, nor was she really all that transgressive. Her music has always been fun dance music, so it’s nice to see her noodle a bit with her successful formula to do something a bit more substantial.

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Cyndi Lauper’s new country album ‘Detour’ is just that – a detour

For the past few years, Cyndi Lauper has used her studio albums to play around with different genres, moving away from the New Wave-influenced pop that made her a star in the 1980s. Since 2003, the singer-songwriter has released a string of albums that had her experiment with styles of different styles of music: At Last had Lauper dip her toe into the American songbook; Bring Ya to the Brink recast Lauper as a disco diva; and Memphis Blues gave the singer an opportunity to demonstrate her blues chops.

With Detour, Cyndi Lauper yet again tries on a different musical persona: this time it’s country diva. For some the Queens-reared Lauper with her infectious Queens squawk may seem an ill fit for country music. But one thing we know by now is that Lauper is a serious talent – the woman can sing anything.

And for her country music debut, Lauper assembled a collection of country-western standards, instead of opting for the more-predictable choice of getting a batch of new songs written for her. The breadth of the music here is impressive: she takes on Wanda Jackson, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Skeeter Davis, and Dolly Parton, among others.

“Funnel of Love” is a perfect opener. The original by Wanda Jackson is a rock-a-billy classic with a raspy, sassy vocal performance. Lauper has always flirted with rock-a-billy (her band Blue Angel was heavily-influenced by rock-a-billy), and so the choice is fantastic. Mimicking some of the original song’s strangeness, Lauper also injects some of her eccentric persona into the song (she punctuates some of the verses with her patented vocal hiccups). The band behind her create a sympathetic and credible background for her to vamp.

Joining country icon Emmylou Harris, Lauper takes the swinging “Detour” and makes it her own. Harris may seem like a strange companion for Lauper, as her singing style – crystalline, ethereal, wounded – clashes with Lauper’s idiosyncratic style, but it somehow manages to work. They don’t attempt anything close to harmony, but Harris does some of her most forceful singing, and though the song feels like a novelty, it works in spite of itself. When paired with another legend, Willie Nelson, Lauper unintentionally steamrolls over his more laid back, conversational vocals with her showy belt and the song feels awkward and rushed.

“Misty Blue” is a lovely waltz that allows for Lauper to tug at her listeners heartstrings, something she does beautifully. “The End of the World” is a highlight – not surprisignly, since the original owed more to pop than country. And few can convey yearning the way Lauper can, especially when she stretches a note and her voice shifts and creaks into a heartbreaking crack. “Begging to You” with its gorgeous steel guitar, gives Lauper the opportunity to play the role of the heartbroken chanteuse, which she does superbly. Listeners will marvel as she does an incredible job of mimicking Patsy Cline on “I Fall to Pieces” – at times it’s eerie how close the sounds to the country legend. And when she joins Alison Krauss on Dolly Parton’s “Hard Candy Christmas” she indulges in some heart-stopping vocal riffs – it’s a sad song, one of Parton’s saddest, and Krauss’ angelic twill matches well with Lauper’s more forceful voice. Given that Lauper’s forte is singing about bruised hearts and sad times, “Hard Candy Christmas” fits her like a glove, and it’s only a wonder why she took so long to cover it.

As good as Detour is, there are moments when the album’s good intentions collapse under the weight of Lauper’s kooky persona. “Walkin’ After Midnight” is a misfire, Lauper’s campy persona clashing with the song, that benefited from Cline’s husky phrasing. “Heartaches by the Number” is another exercise in what feels like a joke – a preternaturally-talented singer who planted herself on stage at some honky tonk and is condescending the audience with some C&W drag. And “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” feels like silly filler.

It’s when she takes on an intentionally-funny song like “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly” that Lauper’s outsider persona works best, because the song itself is a bit of a weirdo. The song – a country version of The Lockhorns – is a duel between a married couple who rag on each, but love each other, in spite of their mutual hideousness. The original was sung by Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, and included a great spoken verse that had the two snipe at each with Lynn sniffing that she looked like a movie star, to which Twitty retorted, “Ruth Buzzi” (a cruel joke, given that Buzzi was pretty). In Detour, Lauper spars with Vince Gill and do a bang up job – and thankfully, the spoken verse on their version doesn’t go after a contemporary female celebrity, and instead, the two riff, aping something more akin to Al and Peg Bundy from Married….with Children.

So while her country record doesn’t signal a new direction for her, it does show a solid skill for interpreting any kind of material. Her fine renditions won’t make listeners forget about the originals, but they may introduce curious Lauper fans to classic country music.

 

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Brie Larson disappears in a solid episode of ‘SNL’ (and Sasheer Zamata steals the show)

Brie Larson and Alicia Keys Bumper PhotosBrie Larson is an Oscar-winning actress, so it’s no surprise that she was tapped to host Saturday Night Live. What is surprising is how indifferent the writers seemed to be to the lady, whose presence was barely felt in her inaugural hosting gig. Unlike the last new episode’s host, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who came to play, Brie Larson more or less, sort of slinked in, coasting on her charms, and dutifully blended into the background. The good news is that the Mother’s Day episode of Saturday Night Live, normally a heavily female-centric episode, was solid and had more hits than misses. The hits weren’t legendary, but over all, it was quite enjoyable, highlighting the fact that the balance is tipped heavily in favor of the show’s female cast.

The cold open was another little surprise because we have the return of the Church Lady. Dana Carvey’s holier-than-thou character made a return to judge and condemn Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. The choice of resurrecting a character from yesteryear is a bit of a headscratcher, but Dana Carvey has a new show coming out, so it makes sense that the SNL alumnus is out there growing his profile. Carvey’s tenure on SNL is considered the show’s second golden age, so the Church Lady is remembered fondly, even though it’s essentially a one-joke premise: a prim, repressed biddy wags her finger sanctimoniously at her guests and then spouts off her catch phrase, “Well, isn’t that special?” I have to say, I hate catch phrases, and I’m glad that SNL moved away from that kind of comedy. Because of that growth, the Church Lady doesn’t fit well into the current tone of the show, and the cold open wasn’t the glorious return that the writers were hoping for. Instead it was a tepid, toothless attack on Cruz (Taran Killam) and Trump (an always-welcome Darrel Hammond). That Cruz actually becomes Satan is a cute bit, and even cuter is the idea that Trump is too mean, even for Satan. But none of that needed Carvey’s Church Lady, who felt superfluous.

Brie Larson’s monologue highlighted just how uncomfortable the actress is doing live television. As per usual for a Mother’s Day episode, some of the show’s cast members brought out their moms, and Larson’s mom also made an appearance – and by the way, the lady looked about the same age as her daughter. Pete Davidson’s mom is adorable (that’s where he gets it from!) and Kate McKinnon’s mom was funny. It was all fun, if a bit safe.

Best Sketches:

The first sketch of the evening was pre-taped and it was a fake ad – two of the show’s strongest suits. Not surprisingly, it was also arguably, the strongest sketch of the evening. In the fake President Barbie ad, Cecily Strong narrates this great new Barbie that is president to the disaffected boredom of the little girls who much prefer Lego. The joke is that these little girls will live in a world where women can be presidents, so the idea isn’t as inspirational or aspirational. This joke hits at the generational divide among feminists who are facing the choice of voting for Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton. Older feminists like Gloria Steinem and Madeline Albright have questioned the feminism of younger female Sanders supporters, and the younger female Sanders supporters don’t get why women like Steinem and Albright are so invested in a potentially-off putting candidate like Clinton. At one point Strong’s narrator talks about a time when the idea of a woman president was unbelievable, to which one of the little girls chirp, “I wasn’t alive, then,” to which Strong sarcastically retorts, “good for you.” The joke works because it takes on identity politics and examines it in a funny (unlike the unfunny How’s He Doing sketch that simply implies black people vote blindly for a black candidate, regardless of his performance).

Another strong, female-centric sketch had the women of the cast play suburban moms who are welcoming Larson, the newcomer, to their klatch. What begins as an innocuous baby shower, quickly becomes something darker, as the group slowly reveals itself to be a Stepford Wives-like coven. What marks these ladies is their sassy mom haircut: “a soft waterfall in the front, knives in the back.” The details in the sketch are hilarious as each character enthuses about mundane “mom stuff” like flip-flop shaped soap, Marshalls Home Goods, and funny kitchen magnets. Larson, as the outsider, doesn’t understand why or when this de-sexing, de-womaning of these women happen, but even she isn’t immune, and ends up with the ‘do herself, and wanting to fix a plate for a teenager who’s more than capable of doing it himself (and saying things like “fixing a plate”). This sketch is the only one that allows Larson to really shine, and she’s matched by the scarily-intense performances by the other cast members.

Politics are never the show’s strong point but fake game shows are, so the Quiz Whiz 2018 sketch was also a contender for best spot of the evening. The sketch had Killam and Larson play contestants in 2018 who cannot remember Ted Cruz at all – a bit strange as right now, he’s a major figure in the elections, not so much for his performance, but for his incompetence. What’s great is that it allows for the show to lambast Cruz (which he totally deserves), but gives us the necessary space that a couple years would provide, to give the audience the necessary perspective on the guy’s campaign. It’s totally believable that his run will be reduced to a nothing. The sketch takes shots at Cruz’s ridiculous campaign, including his desperate grasp at attention by picking Carly Fiorina as his running mate in April, before winning the election (and after losing some key states). The great twist at the end is that Larson’s contestant is the much-beleagured Heidi Cruz.

Worst Sketches:

It’s interesting because none of the sketches were terrible – some were funnier than others, but none of the worst sketches of the evening were that bad. We had a return of Kate McKinnon as Ms. Rafferty, the out-of-luck sadsack who appeared in the Ryan Gosling episode as one of three people who were abducted by aliens. The joke was that while the other two people had lovely, transcendent experiences, poor Ms. Rafferty had a terribly disappointing one. It’s no different here. Cecily Strong returns, and Larson joins, as well. This time we’re talking about near-death experiences, and of course, Strong and Larson report wonderful experiences of peace and love, while Ms. Rafferty gives us an account of a particularly inept angel named Kevin who bungled his assignment, inevitable depantsing Ms. Rafferty and leaving her “straight Donald Duckin’ it.” It’s a funny premise, and as always, McKinnon plays the hell out of the weary Ms. Rafferty – and Strong is a lovely straight man in the sketch, personifying New Agey silliness – but the sketch was far funnier last time (goosed by Gosling’s inability to tamp down on his giggles).

Another so-so sketch was a take on Game of Thrones, specifically the show’s love of slow, dragging scenes and plotlines. I don’t watch GOT, but I get the gist, having watch similar fare like Lord of the Rings, and wonder why everything is so plodding and slow. Larson and Strong are hecklers of sorts, who try to move things along at a quicker pace, while Killam and Strong are thoroughly invested in the more lugubrious speed. Kenan Thompson, as always, manages to quickly inject some hilarity, as a character who pops up and his appalled at how slow things are happening. It’s a one-joke idea that is stretched too long. Not terrible, but not hilarious, either.

There’s also the final sketch, an ad for a CD of dead singers performing current pop hits. This seems like an excuse to see the cast members do okay impressions, while highlighting the incongruity of legends like Roy Orbison, Eartha Kitt, or Lesley Gore singing current hits on the radio. It’s okay, again, these celebrity impression marathons are never as funny as the writers think they are.

Weekend Update

I’ll never be Team Jost/Che, but the two have established a decent reparte, though it’s clear the Che far outclasses Jost (who acts as if he has been binge-watching Seth Meyers’ tenure). The jokes landed for the most part, but Weekend Update has become a vehicle for its correspondents, and this episode did not disappoint. Vanessa Bayer was back as child star, Laura Parsons, whose inappropriately chippy Disney-fied delivery of the news belies some of the darker stories she’s reporting. Bayer can play these show-boating kids in her sleep, and does a great job with Laura Parsons, and she shares a great, tense chemistry with Che, who is shocked and appalled at Laura’s joyful Broadway-style belting of horrible news like the KKK’s desire for everyone to be dead except whites.

The other two correspondents were cast members just being themselves. Davidson shows up and does his excellent stand-up about how great his mom his, and how protective she is when he faces haters and trolls on his Twitter account. It’s all very funny and Mrs. Davidson pops up, like the ultimate proud mama, filming this on her phone. Davidson and Jost have a great back and forth with each other, as the former regals the audience with stories of his mom’s devotion in his laid back, yet loving style. It made for a very funny entry.

The third correspondent is the most controversial, not only because of her subject matter, but because of the audience reaction. It’s no secret that Sasheer Zamata is turning out to be the Julia Louis-Dreyfus of the show: a fantastically talented performer that is continuously undervalued and underused. It’s a depressing theme among most black performers on the show, especially black female performers. She in an ignoble line of talented ladies like Danitra Vance and Ellen Cleghorne (isn’t it depressing that the line is so short?). Maya Rudolph, besides being a virtuoso, was also light-skinned enough to act as a chameleon, and therefore was able to play a stable of ethnicities, thereby freeing her from being relegated to simply “black characters.”

So, I was thrilled to see Zamata roll up next to Jost, and was even more thrilled that her topic was the n-word and racism. In response to Larry Wilmore’s use of the n-word at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and the ensuing fracas, Zamata talks about the inherent hypocrisy of certain news outlets like Fox complaining about the use of the word, when in reality the same people “definitely say it off camera.” She also points out that what Wilmore differs little from the coded racist language that the media gleefully trots out, highlight words like “thug” and “athletic” (the latter got a rousing applause from a nervous audience). In order to avoid the Wilmore-like controversy, Zamata then substitutes the n-word with “McGriddle” and recounts a story when she was a victim of the racial slur – the perp was a joyfully racist creature who drove a pickup that was covered in every imaginable racist marker. She then points out that ignoring the ugly parts of our culture is “ignoring history” – a salient and profound observation. Jost asks if he’s allowed to say “McGridda” – a great tweak on the “Nigga” controversy, and Zamata says he should do what he feels is right, and then playfully calls him the n-word. All of this was obviously a bit too harsh for the audience who tittered in places, laughed in others, but stayed uncomfortably silent. Zamata, seemingly indifferent to her audience’s discomfort, commanded the stage, and was in a word: brilliant. I wish SNL did this kind of thing more: uncomfortable, but important humor that examines privilege. The president Barbie did some of that, but Zamata’s spot on Weekend Update was far more powerful. In fact, despite the excellent work of Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong, and Vanessa Bayer, this one spot by Zamata makes her my MVP for the episode.

Though it’s clear that if things continue as they do, Zamata’s time at SNL is nearing the end, this spot proves that she’s a fearless and brilliant performer who can reach fantastic heights if given the opportunities.

Music

I normally don’t comment on music, but Alicia Keys did a great job – the songs were wonderful, and she’s an engaging presence.

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