In defense of being called queer

The Huffington Post changed is Gay Voices page to Queer Voices, which is another step in removing the focus from gay men toward a larger, more diverse, complex, and messy group of people that don’t fit into what is deemed as accepted or normal. Obviously choosing a word like “queer” is risky because it may alienate a lot of people – including readers who cite the word as a slur, one used to denigrate, oppress, and even kill. But the word has also been a rallying cry and a word used to embrace the otherness, and the weirdness that comes from being willing to flout societal expectations in the quest for living one’s authentic self.

By embracing the term queer, we are cracking the confining shell of LGBT and allowing for so much more to spill out: when one is a member of the LGBT community, one is restricted to four choices: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender. And the “gay” in the abbreviation has often stood in place as a broader description of queer communities, and is still used as a catch-all for all non-straight identities in terms like gay pride, gay rights, or gay community. But the problem with the more-inclusive LGBT is the same problem with the reductive gay: it’s not enough anymore. There are folks who are heterosexual but gender nonconforming, there are folks who are homosexual and gender nonconforming, there are pansexual folks, assexual folks, gender-fuck, gender-queer, polyamorous – there are so many ways to mold and shape one’s identity, that it seems a bit quaint to tray and cram it all into “LGBT” or “gay.”

That’s why queer works. Because whether we like it or not, we’re not normal. And when I say “not normal” I’m not buying into the heteronormative ideals of normalcy, I’m just talking to societal expectations of gender and sexual expression. The vast majority of our society identifies as straight and traditionally gender conforming We deviate from that norm. It’s a wholly artificial norm created solely by a consensus, but there it is – it’s still a norm. So a deviation or something that’s “off,” is well, queer. We’re queer because each of us in our own way challenge the norm – we disturb it, we disrupt it. With queer, we have an umbrella term that encompasses all of those identities and because its label doesn’t favor one, two, or three identities, there is room for so much more – because as we progress, we discover more ways of identifying, more ways of self-expression – and those should not be shunted into a silent, “goes without saying” margin of a restrictive label like “LGBT.”

And I do sympathize with those who bristle at queer – the word can be a trigger for many. But a big part of self-expression is self. So if someone wants to reject the label “queer,” she should be able to do that without being accused of assimilationism or self-hate. But those folks should also look to more traditional nonstraight sources of news and culture, then, like Adovocate or Out.com, both of which align themselves with LGBT, Gay & Lesbian, or just Gay. Some hang these differences on a generational gap – Babyboomers and older see the word as a verbal truncheon (which often was paired with an actual truncheon or a weapon much like it) and want nothing to do with it. A nasty us vs. them narrative sprang out in which some older folks take on the mantle of pioneering forefathers, while the younger folks take on the role of gatekeepers – that’s nonsense. The older folks suffered unimaginable violence and discrimination, seeing friends and loved ones die of AIDS, working hard to ensure that generations after them can see things like marriage equality, the demise of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and a larger acceptance of nonstraight folks in society. But that’s just part of the story. Because activists younger than I are pointing out that these important victories and battles often left behind women, trans folks, disabled people, religious minorities, people of color, immigrants and undocumented workers, queer folks in other countries, the working poor, people of size, the homeless. We were handed a hard, oft-misunderstood, but absolutely necessary lesson in intersectionality. So no one generation can claim ownership of a movement, because it’s not something that is static or done.

And it’s because we still have so much left to do, that I think queer is such an apt title. Because it connotes a time in our history when folks were tired of a country’s willing indifference and hostility towards a community that was being decimated by AIDS. And I believe that anger and that rage is present again. The Black Lives Matter movement is a great example of how that anger is being directed toward social change – and it’s important to note that many of the leading figures in BLM are queer. Because of a larger, more omnipresent media (thanks in part to social media), the larger “we” are becoming aware of injustices that were being condoned for years. It’s time that we adopt the righteous, subversive attitude of groups like Queer Nation and ACT UP, because we are dangerously close to becoming complacent again: so much of our current mainstream gay culture, media, and politics is wrapped around neo-liberalism, capitalism, Western imperialism, consumerism, and triangulation. Part of that comes from the scrubbed image that queer folks present for straight consumption. In our quest to attain certain rights and privileges, we attempt to seem just like straight folks, with only that tiny difference – so on TV and in print ads we see suburban nuclear families with two dads or two moms. We’re normal! We see masculine athletes who happen to be gay! We’re just like you! We put out a safe and palpable image of queer life that is representational of only a part of our reality. Our trans heroines right now are Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, Carmen Carrera, or Alexandra Billings, and part of their ability to attain a certain level of media exposure and a press following is their choice to present as heteronormative ideals of female beauty. And that’s wonderful, but we need more. We need trans women and trans men who play with gender who live their lives in a messy in between. Queer is as much political as it is social because it’s a metaphorical finger to regressive and oppressive standards that worked for decades to vilify and destroy so many lives.

So queer has become so much more than just a slur, it’s a rallying call and a blanket term for anybody who isn’t “normal,” but doesn’t necessarily want to be “normal” because what is “normal” is insufficient.

p.s. for a far more succinct explanation and celebration of the word queer, please read JamesMichael Nichol’s excellent piece, “Why I Love Being Queer.”

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‘Downton Abbey’ recap: “Episode Five”

Mary and Cora bend Chamberlain’s ear

So by the time I write this, the image of Robert spitting out blood would have gone viral: memes and GIFs of his mouth exploding with blood  have littered Twitter and Facebook. It’s an arresting image and a great way to add some drama into a show that’s losing steam. The characters all seem het up, furious, and excited about things, but the stakes have been so low, and the exchanges have been so dull, that it’s been hard to must up any enthusiasm or interest in the goings on in Downton Abbey.

But back to the blood thing. It was an incredible capper to a so-so episode that benefited greatly from having something outrageous happen. This is on the level of Mary, Cora, and Anna dragging a dead body down a darkened hallway crazy. That it happened in front of Neville Chamberlain, then Minister of Health (and future PM of Great Britain) makes the scene all the more ridiculous.

Chamberlain’s at Downton at Violet’s bequest to add ammo to her side of the interminable hospital battle. I’m not really sure if anyone cares anymore who wrests control of the damn thing, but Violet is pissed. Dr. Clarkson has defected to Isobel’s side, so it looks like she is winning – and even though Violet loves Isobel, she’s not going to give up so easily. Bringing in Chamberlain is a sort of “big gun” kind of thing for Violet to do, not only to get a name behind her, but to remind Isobel and company that she’s got some serious hookups. None of this amounts to anything, and at times, I even forget what the kerfuffle is all about, but it’s nice to see Maggie Smith doing more than just fire off one-liners. It’s also nice to see Cora having something to do.

Speaking of someone who doesn’t have much to do – poor Branson. Back from Boston, now a capitalist and land owner, but without an identity. Mary’s taken control of the estate and seems to be a doing a good job of it. So instead, Branson’s role in this episode seems to be Mary’s BFF, advising him on her love life. Understandably reticent on moving forward with Henry because of his racecar driving (remember how Matthew died?), Tom’s all, “go get him, girl,” pointing out that there are no guarantees in love. And that’s the sum of Tom’s contribution.

But Mary, on the other hand, is busy. Piqued at not being consulted about putting the pigs in Mason’s hands, she pops over to his new farm, to  imply that he’s too old to take care of the pigs. And he may be right, but Andy jumps to reassure Mary that Mason’s got help. Mrs. Patmore, Andy, and Daisy have been life lines for Moseley, and he’s lucky to have them. And though it’s totally innocent and moving at a glacial pace, there’s even a hint of romance between Patmore and Mason, which angers Daisy. Despite her good intentions and decent character, she’s always been a bit of a brat, so this is nothing new: again, Julian Fellowes to have his characters pretend there’s all this change, but when you get down to it, little shifts.

And while we’re on the subject of romance, there’s Carson and Hughes, who are adjusting to married life. I never got this marriage and never shipped them, but there you go. They’re married. It seems that years of housekeeping has made Hughes’ a little rusty when it comes to cooking – and Carson’s got weird expectations that his house and kitchen will be run like Downton. The whole time he was critically picking at the raw lamp chop and swampy veg she served him, I kept thinking “Your hands aren’t broken. You can toddle on to the kitchen and whip up something.” Like Daisy, Carson’s set in his way – his feet are basically stuck in cement, and we learn the adjusting isn’t one of his strong suits. Given that Hughes is so dashing, I’m not sure how long will this bizarre marriage lasts.

The other servants are each dealing with his/her own drama: Baxter has to go to trial as a character witness (nothing comes of it), while Barrows is trying to ingratiate himself to Andy. Barrows’ repeated friendly overtures are rebuffed because Andy’s all, “no homo,” though we learn that Barrows isn’t the same conniving villain he once was. Though he may be crushing on Andy, it seems as if he’s interested in genuine friendship. Both Baxter and Anna stick up for him, and actually like him. Andy only starts to thaw when Barrows offers to teach him to read. And it looks like the start of a beautiful friendship.

While Lady Mary is lording over Downton like a queen, her sister is building up her publishing empire in London. After firing her psychotic editor, she hires a young woman, Laura Edmunds – who though her age, is far younger when it comes to dress and appearance (which is unfair, because Laura Carmichael is gorgeous). The share a great idea – Victorian girls growing up to become modern women – it’s a nifty idea and one that followed Edith’s story arcs ever since she was published for supporting women’s rights.

All of these plot lines snaked around each other, and the Granthams’ stories peaked during the evening dinner with Chamberlain. It starts off like an ordinary dinner scene in Downton, with Isobel and Violet sniping at each other, but this time in the presence of a government minister. Before the fight could get any nastier or personal, Robert gets up and starts to vomit blood over the table, some of it splattering on poor Cora. I’m not sure authentic the whole scene looked – to me the blood looked like Hawaiian punch – but it was very dramatic and frightening – a good way to end the episode. Cora, fed up with all of this nonsense hisses at Violet that the hospital matter has been resolved (thank god, I don’t want to hear about it anymore).

We’re about halfway done with the final season, and I’m trying to see some hints of story endings. It looks like Barrows is either being groomed to be a new Carson or  Bates, or he’s being shown to the door. Robert’s survived the surgery, but Tom and Mary plan on taking on all of the duties of running the estate: not sure how Robert will react to that – it feels a bit Learish. Anna’s having Bates’ baby (and hopefully that’s all that they’ll have to do ). And when it comes to romance, we’ also see possible pairings of Edith and Bertie, Mary and Henry, Baxter and Moseley, Patmore and Mason, and Andy and Daisy.

Radom thoughts:

  • Denker sassed Dr. Clarkson and got fired for her efforts, only to get rehired when she blackmailed Spratt into helping her out. I’m glad of the addition of Denker, as I missed O’Brien for a long time
  • Barrows mused that he must be getting soft in his old age after being visibly relieved at Robert’s successful surgery. Maybe he is….
  • Mary overhears Cora and Violet fuss about Marigold’s birth and becomes suspicious – given how acrimonious her relationship is with Edith, I’m hoping the secret stays secret.
  • Rupert Frazer, who plays Neville Chamberlain, looks just like him…very good bit of casting.

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How this Clinton supporter crossed over to #FeelTheBern

As the primaries chug along and Clinton and Sanders supporters snipe at each other, I thought I’d contribute to the debate by sharing my perspective as a former Clinton supporter who now supports Sanders. It wasn’t an easy conversion. Like many, I was all about Hillary 2016.  I donated to her campaign, and during Pride week, I wore my neon yellow Yaaaasss Hillary shirt.

So what happened? What changed?

Well, before I start, I have to point out that even though I am a Sanders supporter, I still think Hillary Clinton is a fantastic choice for president, and is obviously qualified for the job. Her record of service is admirable, and she’s got the smarts.

But Bernie Sanders represents something new, something different. As Robert Reich so astutely pointed out “[Hillary Clinton is] the most qualified candidate for president of the political system we now have. But Bernie Sanders is the most qualified candidate to create the political system we should have.”

In a cracked political system that favors the rich, whittles down elections to two-party contests, and requires its candidates to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign funds, Clinton is the establishment. She stands for a lot of issues that I find important – women’s rights, LGBT rights, gun control, diplomacy – but she wants to use the political system we have now in place to exact these changes. And I just don’t think that’s feasible.

Bernie Sanders is looking to shift the conversation – change the paradigm. He doesn’t believe that “working within the system” works anymore. He doesn’t believe that incremental compromises to appease heavy-pocketed donors is the way to run politics. Clinton, a proud fighter in the battle to get universal healthcare, realized once she was in the senate, that getting big bucks is key to winning elections, so she became one of the biggest recipients of campaign donations from insurance companies. Senator Clinton was a different person than First Lady Hillary Clinton – the former was a crafty, calculated politician who measured every step she took; meanwhile, the First Lady was proudly out of step, and out of place in staid Washington. Because she wasn’t running her own campaign, though, she was free from the need to appease to raise money.

I also believe that Sanders’ vision of economic and income equality is key in how we move forward. It isn’t everything, and Sanders’ ability to reduce everything to income inequality is a sore point – racial and gender bias intersect with income inequality to net a wholly different kind of discrimination and oppression, once that is unique from the kind of income inequality that falls on many Americans today. Not better, not worse, just different. Sanders recognizes these differences, but shunts them aside, in favor of mobilizing young voters – most who are yoked with student loan debt. Sanders push toward free education will undoubtedly work toward evening out some of the inequities in society, though he needs to focus on intersectionality when discussing income inequality.

Because Clinton is such a skilled politician, it’s hard to figure out her world view – it shifts according to what demographic she’s trying to woo. At times, she’s progressive, denouncing military intervention; at other times, she’s a hawk, outdoing her peers in enthusiasm for military intervention. Her evolution on LGBT rights mirrored the country’s, and she finally embraced marriage equality when it was no longer seen as a liability. Though she acknowledges income inequality, and has done some amazing work for the Children’s Defense Fund, her husband’s administration’s so-called “welfare reform” essentially bolstered the cradle-to-prison pipeline. And I’m glad that she regrets her vote to authorize the War in Iraq – unfortunately, her regret comes years later, when the War in Iraq is recognized as one of the most tragic blunders of the United States.

So I’d like to see Sanders as president. He’s not perfect – Clinton’s much stronger when it comes to foreign policy and feminism – but Sanders also surrounds himself with smart people. What he doesn’t know, he’ll surely appoint someone who does.

Clinton has served her country for over 40 years and did an incredible job. If she loses this candidacy, it will probably be the end of her political career. But she has done herself proud. And in another year, Clinton would be my first choice for president. But just like back in 2008, as qualified as she is, there is a candidate who is even more qualified.

 

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‘Downton Abbey’ recap: “Episode Four”

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Robert and Cora welcome Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes…er, Mrs. Carson..ugh, what do we call her now?

ITV - Downton Abbey - Carson and Mrs HughesIt seems like Downton Abbey has settled into a comfortable, if dull groove for its last few episodes. Despite all of the talk of changes coming, the characters and story lines seem pretty static. Though the Granthams are having to face a “new world” of social mobility, they still march around in their finery, dictating the lives of those underneath them. Unlike, say, Parks and Recreation, which went out with a huge bang, Downton Abbey feels like it’s burning off the rest of the remaining episodes – and very little of it is all that interesting.

The whole Isobel vs. Violet hospital flap feels like a lot of nothing. Though Violet’s interest in the argument proves to be a bit purer than originally thought (she does have some sincere concern for local autonomy over lands), but the stakes feel so low and petty, that it feels as if Julian Fellowes couldn’t care less about who is handed the reigns over the hospital, either. Obviously, part of this fight is Violet’s attempt to remain in control. The only good thing to come out of the disappointing Shirley MacLaine appearances is that Violet’s secretly acknowledging (at least to herself) that her time as a relevant matriarch is passing. She still manages to convince those around her with her intimidation tactics, and they work – but she’s wasting her gifts on something so seemingly pedestrian, that part of me asks, “Who cares?” whenever she marches in with a bee in her expensive bonnet.

Gwen, the former housemaid of Downton returns, in what could’ve been a fantastic return, but instead ended up feeling a little, meh…. None of this is Rose Leslie’s fault – she’s great in the episode, in the limited amount of time she’s given. Gwen is now married and working for a women’s college. It’s a neat way to cap Gwen’s character, who did her best to “better herself,” and is now returning the favor by helping other women. And when Barrows tries to embarrass her by pointing out that she’s a former maid, the thing backfires, as everyone is happy for Gwen. During dinner, Gwen is subject to some major condescension from everyone around the table – and instead of being able to just be, Gwen is put in a position in which she firstly must genuflect to the memory of Lady Sybil, and then to reassure everyone at the table that working at Downton was great, and her life now is at best, a lateral move.

Gwen’s return sort-of crosses with Daisy’s growing unrest as a cook. The problem is Daisy’s also a bit of a dumdum and a hothead. Unlike Gwen, Daisy’s life has remained in the kitchen, and she’s resentful of her lot in life, as well as the societal hierarchies that create the divides between the Granthams and the staff. All of this is justified. The problem is Fellowes doesn’t seem at all interested in having a servant who is bucking the system with grace, wit, and intelligence. Instead, like in the previous episode when Daisy shoots her mouth off, destroying any chance of Mr. Mason keeping his farm, Daisy wants to have it out with Cora (can you imagine?). It’s unclear whether Mr. Mason will get Yew Tree Farm – and Mary isn’t too keen on giving it to the old man (it would essentially be a charitable move), but she’s outvoted by everyone. Thankfully, before Daisy has a chance to wail off Cora’s head, Robert steps in with some serendipitous timing, letting her know that Mason’s got the farm.

Both Gwen and Daisy are seeming parallels, but neither is depicted in terribly progressive ways. While Daisy’s essentially stupid, Gwen is practically crooked with gratitude. Instead of praising Gwen for her ability to transcend her humble background, the scene devolved into a rumination on how wonderful Sybil really was. And Cora’s kindndess also underscores the idea that Daisy and Gwen – as well as every other housemaid in England – will be fine, as long as they’re polite, mind their manners, keep their place, and rely on the kindness of their employers. None of this is reflective of what is really at the crux of social progress – yes, there were rich folks who had sincere and genuine interest in their subordinates, but the reality is, few of these people would get ahead if they stood by waiting for the benevolence of a rich and fancy lady: these people had to make these opportunities themselves.

All of this noblesse oblige is difficult to stomach at times. Never is that more true than with Mary, who has a rare moment of introspection when confronted with the depth of Sybil’s generosity. Again, only Mary could manage to make a dinner about a former housemaid and her dead sister about her, but she’s particularly gifted at being self-centered. When Anna experiences pregnancy pains (I groaned along with her at yet another “Anna and Bates are miserable” story line), Mary arranges a quick zip to London to her star gynecologist, who saves Anna and the baby. Thankfully, we don’t spend too much time on Anna or Bates.

Finally, Carson and Hughes return from their honeymoon, and the house is all aflutter because now everyone will have to refer to Mrs. Hughes as Mrs. Carson. Which is really hard apparently. This is how fucked up these rich people are – they can’t even wrap their minds around having Mrs. Hughes be called Mrs. Carson. The whole time everyone gathers in the kitchen for the toast, Edith, Mary, Rosamond, and Robert are muttering about how difficult it’ll be. Of course, because any inconvenience, no matter how slight, is too monumental for the Granthams, it’s decided that Mrs. Hughes will still be called Mrs. Hughes. Whew. I was really worried there.

If it seems I’m harsh on the show it’s because a few seasons ago, it was one of the juiciest, intriguing dramas out there. It was a soap opera in the tradition of Dynasty, Dallas, Melrose Place, or Desperate Housewives, but it had the veneer of respectability because the characters wore corsets and hats, and spoke with English accents. But as the show went on, the social politics became strangely reductive – not conservative, exactly, but simple. And many of the characters are flattened out and rendered one-note – this is especially true of Cora, Bates, and Violet (though Maggie Smith covers up all of that with her delicious line reading).

Random thoughts:

  • So, Barrows is gonna be fired, right? Guy can’t catch a break no matter what.
  • Edith dumped her crazy sexist editor and is going to hire an editrix – nice
  • It’s nice to see Branson back in the fold, except, he’s sorta blending into the background – hopefully, Fellowes has more interesting things to do with the guy.
  • Baxter is a kind, loving person with an interesting past – I also like her steady, calming grace – she is what Anna once was.
  • Speaking of Anna, Joanne Froggatt, as usual kills it – it’s not her fault that Fellowes saddled her character with a gloomy Eeyore like Bates.
  • Though Violet is the queen of the one-liners, just like everything else in her life, she’s being threatened in that department, too. Mrs. Patmore had some real doozies: “I wonder if Karl Marx might finish the liver pate” and “Alright, Madame Defarge, calm down and finish that mash.”
  • Isobel, also a great one for one-liners asks a fretful Violet who just made a comment that she hasn’t visited the kitchen in 20 years, “Did you bring your passport?”

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‘Angie Tribeca’ is goofy, silly fun

Angie Tribeca is the kind of sitcom that finds its roots in stuff like the Police Academy movies, Family Guy, 30 Rock, Get Smart, and other million-jokes-per-minute shows that mine humor from goofy pun, sight gags, and silly visuals. Set in L.A., the show centers on the title character, played by Rashida Jones, who gets a new partner, Jay Geils (Hayes MacArthur). Her boss is the comically-blustery Lieutenant Atkins (Jere Burns), and she works with another cop, DJ Tanner (Deon Cole), whose partner is a super-smart German Shepherd (yup, a dog). Along with the police officers, Angie gets support from the efficient medical examiner, Dr. Monica Scholls (Andrée Vermeulen), and the absent-minded Dr. Edelweiss (Alfred Molina, in a casting coup).

Created by Steve Carell and Nancy Walls Carell, Angie Tribeca is the kind of comedy that throws gags at the audience, never stopping for breath. When Angie asks a doctor to look at a mole, she pulls out an actual mole. It’s that kind of humor. So Angie Tribeca is skewed for a very specific audience, one that doesn’t need much character development or intricate plots, and is satisfied with solid jokes. With those parameters, Angie Tribeca is a very enjoyable show.

What makes the show work is how committed it is to teasing out cliches, while simultaneously offering a wide range of jokes: none of it gets too highbrow, but thankfully, we don’t have too many fart jokes, either. Instead, Angie Tribeca coasts along, busy distracting the audience that there isn’t a whole lot to the show. Whether its traumatic childhoods, sexual tension, or complicated interoffice relationships, no TV trope is left alone. And none of the gags are done tongue-in-cheek: it’s all done with such abandon and such joy, that it’s impossible not to get sucked into the silliness.

Because of its pedigree, Angie Tribeca has scored some top-shelf guest stars including Jones’ Parks and Recreation pal Adam Scott, Lisa Kudrow, James Franco, Gary Cole, Cecily Strong,  David Koechner, Keegan-Michael Key, Kerri Kenney-Silver, and John Michael Higgins. The loose and ridiculous scripts allow for these comic talents just to go in, balls deep, and they all seem to have a ball. And there are some fantastic comic moments that elicit belly laughs, such as when Geils is chasing a middle-aged perp through a series of increasingly-complicated locales, the writers do away with any pretense of a stunt double, and MacArthur’s double performs death-defying feats of acrobatic wonder, all while wearing a terrible wig, in an intentionally-bad attempt to look like him (meanwhile, Gary Cole’s villain manages to stay a few steps ahead even though he’s barely jogging).

The cast is also strong, with special kudos to Vermeulen and Molina, who both do some nifty scene-stealing work. Vermeulen, especially, plays her character’s cool, icy competence well. Rashida Jones takes a few episodes to find her rhythm and place in such a stylized setting. Her work as a comedienne has been the straight man – whether it’s to Amy Poehler’s manic Leslie Knope, or to Steve Carell’s manic Michael Scott, Jones has always been the relatable, down-to-earth presence in worlds populated by mad men. In Angie Tribeca, she performs with a tight-lipped grimness for the first few episodes before she loosens up and the scripts accommodate for her silliness.

To unveil the first season, TBS premiered Angie Tribeca in a 25-hour marathon, running all of the season’s 10 episodes, back-to-back, on a loop for more than a whole day. It’s was a smart move as it reflected the new ways in which we watch TV. Given the success of Netlfix’s original programming, binge-watching seems to be a prevalent model for TV-viewership. Also, it showed just how smart the writers are in crafting a show that cares little about fussy things like character and plot development and simply wants to make people laugh: you can drop in on any episode, and still enjoy the show, as there are no long story-arcs, nor is there any real character growth. It’s all self-contained in each episode, which hits far more often than it misses.

 

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David Bowie – underrated disco queen: RIP

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David Bowie in Ruisrock Festival, Turku, Finland 199729 June 1997 Author: Author: Kymi

I came to David Bowie’s music late and via a weird path. Because my music growth was sluggish, I didn’t start listening to David Bowie’s music until I was in college, and even then, I was initiated to the Thin Duke’s music by his dance mixes. I love dance music, and found that I gravitated toward his Bowie’s dance music – which is often derided as the worst of his output. As a kid growing up in the Age of MTV, I saw “Let’s Dance” and “China Girl” playing on practically a loop. I loved “Let’s Dance” – particularly the striking strings. It was disco during a time when disco wasn’t cool.

The first David Bowie CD I bought was Earthling, a late-in-life entry in his discography. Influenced by dance, techno, electronica, and drum & bass, Earthling satisfied both my respect for Bowie, and my love of dance music. “Dead Man Walking” is a fantastic, swirling number, with fuzzy guitars and squelching beats. “Little Wonder” is a grimy, creepy song with some intense jungle beats. There’s a track on the record, “I’m Afraid of Americans” which I found so weird, twitchy and fantastic, that I plunked down some hard-earned coins for the import EP, so that I could get the remixes, as well.

Speaking of remixes, my second Bowie CD was Outside, which I bought with trepidation because I heard it was a challenging record. I got it because I was entranced with the Pet Shop Boys remix of “Hallo Spaceboy.” By that point, I was a huge PSB fan and devoured anything they did, so when I heard that they were pairing up with David Bowie, I was intrigued. Over the Pet Shop Boys’ patented chugging, plastic drum machines and rubbery synths, Bowie’s strange, disaffected, dry voice glided perfectly.

For most people, David Bowie’s a rock god, but for me, he was the ultimate in dance music. I always felt that his contribution to the clubs was woefully underrated. Most people view his poppier work with wariness – his output during the 1980s was derided as creatively bereft of the kind of innovation found in the Berlin Trilogy. I agree, Tonight and even the solid Let’s Dance doesn’t have the staying power of “Heroes” or Hunky Dory. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is regarded as a definitive rock record.

But I argue that people should look again at the 1993 release Black Tie, White Noise. The title track is an interesting contradiction of creativity, ambition, and cynical commerce. Inspired by the L.A. Riots, the song is a funky, soulful mess with some excellent sax work by Bowie – as well as good support from 90’s R&B star Al B. Sure. “Jump They Say” (produced by Nile Rogers), has a great breezy beat and more great sax work – while the pained lyrics deal with the suicide of Bowie’s brother. Black Tie, White Noise was very much a 90s superstar record, expensive with some high-end guests, but deserved much more attention than it got.

For many during the 1980s, Bowie was a huge star of their nightmares because of the Jim Henson film Labyrinth, in which the androgynous superstar played  Jareth, the Goblin King, who kidnaps Jennifer Connolly’s baby brother. Done up in some fantastic 80s fantasy drag, a silvery mop of spiky hair, and a face beat within an inch of its life, Bowie was a striking figure. Queer, arch, funny, and menacing. The soundtrack has a pair of Bowie’s most overt attempts at mainstream pop music: “Underground” and “Magic Dance.” Of course, the songs date – the thick bass and shiny synthesizers, but the songs also hark to Bowie’s 70s work that flirted with Philly Soul. “Underground” has some wonderful backup vocal work – a gospel chorus that includes Luther Vandross and Cissy Houston. Bowie coined his music “plastic soul,” and he’s right – there is a certain level of distance and artifice when he embraces black music – it’s not the work of a true soul artist like Dusty Springfield, but instead, a fantastic musical experiment.

Much was and will be made about David Bowie’s constantly-changing look and sound. It’s become a cliche to call him a cliche – in much the same way it’s become cliched to call Madonna a cliche (by the way, has there ever been an artist who owes as much to Bowie as Madonna?). What I appreciated about Bowie was that he seemed restless with what he was doing – music was something to be played with, experimented on, and enjoyed. Most artists stay in their lanes when it comes to making music, but Bowie seemed intent on changing lanes constantly – and even when he wasn’t at his best (the pair of Tin Machine records weren’t great), he was still interesting.

 

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‘Downton Abbey’ Season 6, Episode 2 – a recap

Hughes and Carson – off to a rocky start

For all the talk about change a-coming, or change a foot on Downton Abbey, I noticed just how little changes for the folks upstairs. For the Granthams, the changes they fear are merely superficial and petty – I mean, for all the noise being made about a Labour government and changes to class, let’s be real: income inequality prevails. So yeah, we don’t have an underclass of butlers and maids who are essentially born into servitude, but we still have folks born with silver spoons in their mouths – so even though the upstairs folks at Downton will have to grasp the idea of economizing, it’s nothing compared to what the working class and the servants have to deal with.

And I don’t an episode of Downton Abbey has so demonstrated the divide like the second episode of the final season. Supposedly huge changes are coming – the ground is shifting beneath their feet, so to speak, but the changes for the Granthams don’t seem all that traumatic. The biggest change in Dowton seems to be Lady Mary’s growing influence. Now that Branson’s in Boston, and Robert is increasingly ineffectual and seemingly stunned by everything around him, it’s up to Mary to march around and give orders – which she does with aplomb.

But it’s not just the farm that has Mary’s attention. Carson and Hughes’ marriage is coming up – and when Robert stupidly offered the servant’s hall for the reception (really, I mean, really???), Lady Mary steps in and offers the library. Of course it’s a generous gift, and Lady Mary loves Carson – but in a telling moment, when Cora warns everyone that Hughes has to agree with the wedding venue, Mary looks nonplussed.

And in a third and final moment of self-importance, Lady Mary takes on Anna’s gynecological problems. In this subplot, Lady Mary’s high-handedness isn’t nearly as obnoxious, because she actually is reaching out to Anna as a woman – not quite an equal, but a woman who is struggling with many of the same issues she herself had. Lady Mary insists that the two go to London to her doctor to see if anything could be done about Anna’s fertility problems. And in Mary’s one true moment of sincerity and humility, she insists that Anna has earned the help “fair and square” for all the times Anna has leaped into action whenever there was an emergency (dragging a dead body, hiding a contraceptive device). It’s a nice moment – though when Anna mused that the had some times, I thought we were going to be treated to a flashback (thankfully, we weren’t).

But Mary’s meddling in Carson and Hughes’ affair may be problematic, because the two cannot seem to understand each other. Hughes understandably chafes at the idea of having the wedding at Downton because the place defines her as a housekeeper – she’s a servant there, and on the day of her wedding, even if she had the day off, she’d still be a housekeeper. Carson, on the other hand, feels the Granthams are just as much a part of his world as his family and friends, and therefore doesn’t understand Hughes’ reticence in agreeing to marry at Downton. It’s an important distinction because we can see the two’s priorities and world views: Carson’s whole existence is seemingly wrapped up in his work, while Hughes wants a healthy life separate from her work. Though viewers didn’t get to see much in their disagreement, Carson’s obstinate attitude may doom their marriage before it starts.

And it’s not just Carson and Hughes that are having trouble with a Grantham daughter. We may remember the horribly-selfish lie that Lady Edith concocted in which she had a child out of wedlock, and decided to drop the kid off at a farmer’s house, but snatches the baby back once she gets broody mommy pangs. Well, Mrs. Drewe has never gotten over getting a baby and then having to give it back – so when she sorta kidnaps Marigold, it’s understood that the Drewes will have to leave Downton. Mr. Drew is very understanding, and in fact, too gracious about the whole affair, but at least Robert has the decency to recognize just how ass-backwards all of this really is.

In what amounts to the most profound story line of the evening, Daisy starts to get bolshy stirrings in her soul, as she realizes how little control and autonomy the servant class has. Even the nice members of the upper class, like Cora, aren’t helpful in bettering the situations of so many people. When Daisy fumes that Lady Cora is simply part of a “system” designed to keep people in their place, she finally brings a harsh and unforgiving spotlight on just how glacial and incremental these huge changes really are.

All in all, a good, solid episode – not nearly as strong as last week’s – this episode suffered from some hackneyed writing: I saw where the Drewe story line was going a mile away. And unfortunately, Julian Fellowes yet again reduces Maggie Smith to tottering around the set and trilling with disapproval at any sign of progress or change. The hospital drama between Violet and Isobel is surprisingly boring. The stakes aren’t terribly high, as Violet’s interest in the hospital is merely pomp and circumstance. Though I see Fellowes trying to inject more evidence of Violet’s waning influence, this hospital nonsense is so trivial that it doesn’t do the trick.

Random notes:

  • As I said last week, I think it’s time to retire Anna and Bates – they’ve had a semi-decent run for the first few seasons, but now they have the effect of a damp and wet blanket.
  • Thomas’ minor story of trying to find work outside of Downton is interesting – he’s leaving an environment that is set in its ways, defined and designed by hierarchy, structure, stratification, and concrete roles, only to discover that in the real world, these set notions are starting to disintegrate. If a young man like Thomas is having trouble adjusting, what hope is there for the older folks?
  • Mary, Edith, and Cora all look fabulous tonight.
  • It was nice to see Cora do something more than just simply perch on a coach and gaze lovingly at Robert. I have such affection for the character that when she stood up to Violet and Dr. Clark about the hospital controversy, I felt undue pride in her backbone.

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