CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1988 Pazz & Jop: Dancing on a Logjam

When last we sat down for a serious chat, it was the end of the world as we knew it, and I felt fine. The Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, conceived as a goof and evolved willy-nilly into a barometer, was plainly in a jam — a “logjam.” On the album chart, which dated back to posthippie 1971 or 1974, a plethora of well-crafted yet ultimately inconsequential records by postpunk post-Amerindies confounded electorate and dean alike; on the singles chart, instituted in 1979 after the twin ’70s movements of punk and disco jolted rock and roll back toward its original format and function, late-released songs from charting albums crowded out the striking yet ultimately arbitrary moments of passion that emerged on individual ballots. A crisis of consensus had moved the Poobahs to dispense with the EP chart and was also evident in sparse video voting. There were lots of great reissues, most of which nobody had heard.

Yet I really did feel fine, if only because I had just written something moderately cogent and entertaining about this mess, and obsessed the way I usually am in February, I made grand plans to bring Pazz & Jop into the present, or future — plans cut to fit the moderately cogent and very entertaining objective correlative of my good cheer. By which I mean the inevitable internationalization of a world-pop hegemony that’s been American since the end of World War I — new vistas, fresh blood. Baboon Dooley notwithstanding, I didn’t expect the impending flood of U.S.-released “world-beat” to show up on the voters’ 1988 chart: when I say internationalization is inevitable, I’m talking decades or generations rather than years, and I’m also talking a pluralism resistant to electoral quantification — more different kinds of good music than any sensibility can make sense of, created for the most part in blissful disregard of crippling late-capitalist doctrines of artistic decorum (though embracing, I’ll bet, crippling late-capitalist chimeras of superstar glory). Solution: a plethora of minipolls, panels of specialists reporting on African music, Hispanic music, Caribbean music, Amerindies, Europop, jazz, disco, whatever — even videos! Sounded pretty snazzy, assuming the cash cow you hold in your hands would allot personnel to the project — since I maim my marriage every winter with computation, analysis, and shitwork, I wasn’t about to devote the fall to beseeching specialists.

So instead I spent it pondering my future in journalism, just like my [colleagues at said cash cow, which on January] 4 came under its eighth editor since 1974, too late to budget any grand plans. And quite a decent chap he seems to be, cough cough, but there was less than no way to know that then, and — more to the point — no way to budget any grand plans. Hence I was doomed to pore over the same old graph paper and dot-matrix screeds in a year that would make the 1987 logjam look like Beatlemania. I couldn’t even figure a winner until a college student I know transformed Tracy Chapman into an instant favorite by dropping her name. I didn’t look forward to enumerating the shortcomings of this young black female lefty, the first alumna of the Michigan Women’s Music Festival ever to go double platinum. But at least she was all those worthy things, and something new to boot, and thus better copy than Talking Heads, R.E.M., or U2, whose well-crafted but ultimately inconsequential albums would presumably vie for place and show with the sonic youths of yesteryear, 1987’s 14th- and 12th-ranked Public Enemy and Sonic Youth. As for the other front-runners, maybe some legends — plenty of them out there shaking their bones. But all the contenders felt like 11-to-20 material to me.

As it turned out, my confusion was a premonition; statistically, the 15th (or 16th) annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll was the strangest ever. The album chart was completely dominated by three candidates: Tracy Chapman, Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, and the overwhelming victor, Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back. Not that victory was overwhelming in absolute terms — though Public Enemy did break 1000, only the Clash in 1981 and Talking Heads in 1985 won with fewer prorated points, and several second- and third-place finishers have bested 1988’s number one, not to mention 1988’s numbers two and three. What’s more, Sandinista! and Little Creatures were winners by default, perched uneasily atop a neatly graded heap of less-equal works of art. This year, Public Enemy is an actively controversial positive choice: its 295-point margin is just 13 shy of the total accorded fourth-ranked Midnight Oil.

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Which brings us to the nut, because Midnight Oil would have been 12th or 13th in a normal year. In other words, the collective judgment is that 1988 produced only three major albums — the lesser contenders felt like 11-to-20 material because that’s exactly what they were. The 212 voters divided albums four through 29 by a mere 128 points, from 308 down to 180, a differential negligible enough to be bollixed utterly by a couple of partisans; indeed, perennial ballot stuffer Greil Marcus upped Randy Newman two places and Keith Richards three with his strategic 30s, and if the next two days’ submissions had made our deadline, Brian Wilson would have finished not 12th but sixth. Strangest of all is that U2’s underrated if grandiose Rattle and Hum squeezed in at 21st, with two fewer points than the sophomoric October got in 1981; Talking Heads accrued 193 points for Naked, an honest if unsustaining internationalist gesture hailed as a leap forward from 1986’s quasi-roots-rock True Stories, which got 187; and R.E.M., top 10 with all five previous albums, tied for 35th with their Warner Bros. debut, Green. Executive Poobah Doug Simmons, whose heart has never bled for the Georgia obscurantists, was appalled by this rank injustice. “But they’ve done nothing wrong,” he cried.

Except maybe living too long, but let’s put that on hold, because the evolution of one album logjam into another is only half our strange story. The bigger half takes place on the singles chart, which a year ago seemed at an impasse. The old Pazz & Jop plaint that singles matter more than albums seldom shows up in the results; just as there’s too much “world-beat” to absorb much less agree on, singles fans have so many options that rarely do they unite to overcome the casual nod vouchsafed the album cuts respondents remember from their hours with the car radio — their autumn hours, usually. I should note that in a classic Pazz & Jop fuckup, our original invitation requested five rather than 10 singles, which may have skewed our results a little. We rushed out a correction, but one in 10 ballots didn’t comply, a dozen of them from out-of-town, where the car-radio vote is strongest. An unfuckedup invite might have helped U2’s “Desire,” Talking Heads’ “(Nothing but) Flowers,” Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality,” Prince’s “I Wish U Heaven,” and either of two Pet Shop Boys singles (though they’re hardly an out-of-town-type band), all of which received 10 votes along with Stetsasonic’s “Talkin’ All That Jazz,” Johnny Kemp’s “Just Got Paid,” Steve Winwood’s “Roll With It,” and the Godfathers’ “Birth, School, Work, Death.” But album samples weren’t the trend. For the first time in years, even critics who don’t have much use for dance/rap chose real singles instead, so that “Roll With It” (one album mention) and “Birth, School, Work, Death” (three) and Joan Jett’s “I Hate Myself for Loving You” (two) and Pursuit of Happiness’s “I’m an Adult Now” (three) and Edie Brickell’s “What I Am” (well, nine) all beat out, for example, Brian Wilson’s “Love and Mercy” and Randy Newman’s “It’s Money That Matters.”

Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” an unrelenting, unbombastic escape-to-nowhere so pithy and sisterly that several respondents claimed the long-player rides its coattails, got its landslide, one of just 10 top-25 singles from top-40 albums. That compares to 15 in 1987, 11 (all in the top 14) in 1986, and 13 in 1985, while in contrast last year’s singles chart made room for just two rap and two dance records, with only “Pump Up the Volume” from a non-album-chart group (and Eric B. begging to differ). This year, as AOR thrashed about and top 40 sunk deeper into a pap cycle, Teddy Riley’s versions of Keith Sweat and Bobby Brown and Spike Lee’s version of E.U. all placed, as did Ofra Haza’s sabra-cum-Yemenite stomp “Im Nin’alu”/”Galbi,” the sole “world-beat” finisher anywhere, which as it happens could also be heard in bits and pieces on Eric B. & Rakim’s “Paid in Full” remix. And get this — “Paid in Full” was one of nine raps selected.

That’s nine — nine! — when the previous high, reached once, was four. Rob Base & D.J. E-Z Rock’s nagging, whooping James Brown rip-out “It Takes Two” was beyond question the rap single of the year; anywhere reachable by boombox, it was in the world’s face louder than “Don’t Believe the Hype” from March to October, and it ended up an easy second. The other eight finishers leaned toward crossover while showing off the genre’s range. “Parents Just Don’t Understand” is a shameless bid to suburban wannabees, “Colors” a shameless bid to inner-city moralists, and “Wild Thing” just shameless. But both Salt-n-Pepa entries feminize an intrinsically male-chauvinist genre with spunk, soul, and imagination, “Follow the Leader” sums up a virtuosic, underrated album, “Paid in Full” is the big payback, and “Don’t Believe the Hype” is the slogan of the year.

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Anyone who knows much about the business of music may suspect a con here — how can the single be an augury when as a consumer item it’s staggering to its grave faster than vinyl? But don’t, don’t, don’t you-know-the-rest. The death-of-the-single line is self-fulfilling paranoia in a biz that’s forever scoping stillborn trends and a visceral response to the rack-space crisis created by its frantic promotion of two new formats. Which in their CD-single and cassingle minivariants are getting to second base with the convenience seekers who’ve made cassettes America’s musical long-form and CDs its measure of aural luxury. The 45 may be a promotional fiction and the gold 45 a relic, but in 1988 the single maintained the dollar volume bizzers live by, with a little help from the above-mentioned miniformats and a lot from the 12-inch, a high-profit item that happens to be the basis of the entire contemporary dance scene and its attendant promotional alternatives. D.J. CD and even cassette manipulation will no doubt come into their own (though they’ll be hell on scratching), but for the nonce an industry greedy for avenues of exposure isn’t gonna kill off disco.

So in effect the single, like vinyl itself, is turning into a specialist medium. It took the crash of 1929 to finish the cylinder, which had been a dodo for decades, and though vinyl will get harder to find, it won’t disappear for a long while even if it dips well below its current 20 per cent market share; maybe soon almost no one will sell little records with big holes in them, but 12-inch singles will persist for as long as the D.J. is a cultural hero, and like vinyl-only oldie and indie LPs, they’ll be sought by seekers, critics’ meat for sure. Fact is, as many locals as out-of-towners listed only five singles, and for the same reason — they didn’t give a shit. New York is a 12-inch stronghold, but the New Yorkers who failed to amend their ballots favored promotional fliers like “Slow Turning” and “It’s Money That Matters” and obviously didn’t figure good citizenship required them to rerack their brains for another five. In fact, more than one old new waver suggested changing to a song-of-the-year category to avoid vexing questions of commercial availability, but I like the way things came out.

This may also look like a con, especially to the dance-sucks brigade. “Very aesthetic, a little short on black music,” I wrote of the first or second poll back in 1974, and ever since I’ve been climbing on my soapbox preaching punk-disco fusion, funkentelechy, world-beat, etc. But if I sometimes seem a little repetitive, that’s because history doesn’t change direction annually no matter what the trendmongers want. Sure it was a Year of the Woman/Year of the Protest Song, sorta; we’ll get to that. But the numbers put something else first. To oversimplify for clarity’s sake, they divide 1988’s popular music into a meaning function, reflected in all its weary (and compromised) ambiguity by the album chart, and a pleasure function, reflected in all its subliminal (and cooptable) subversion by the singles chart. If the split were absolute, of course, the end would be at hand — the whole idea of rock criticism is that if pleasure and meaning aren’t made one then meaning will fail, not just as persuasion but as meaning. So say this dichotomy is close enough for rock and roll. Although Chapman’s single does pick up speed, it’s one of the most meaning-laden in poll history, while her album, if far from party-girl whoop-de-doo, proffers more simple enjoyment than Anthony Davis, Dick Hebdige, Jean Baudrillard, Kathy Acker, Andrei Tarkovsky, Z magazine, or 7 Days. Several of our rap singles make social statements, and several of our rock albums turn hanging loose into a middle-aged manifesto. Yet in general, the singles are about the future of fun, and the albums aren’t.

So even though only rap/dance inspired widespread optimism among our respondents, the meaning-laden winner was the sole rap album in the top 40 (last year there were three). What’s more, Womack & Womack are the only black finishers who could be said to play to a black audience, much less the black dancers who put new beats in action: we’re talking women’s music, fusion-with-brains, metal-with-brains, crossover blues, and, well, Prince, his official album a major dink after last year’s poll-sweeping Sign “O” the Times, his “black album” (clandestine copies of which finished eight points, five mentions, and three places behind 17th-ranked Lovesexy) withheld from public scrutiny out of fear it was well-named. And while over the past few polls not many black pop albums have deserved much better than the nothing they got, this time I’m not so sure.

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With hip-hop preoccupying a growing minority of young critics, rap albums did flourish twixt 41 and 100: meaning-laden Big Daddy Kane and Boogie Down Productions 45th and 47th, party-smarty formalists Eric B. and EPMD 54th and 68th, and girl-group-and-proud Salt-n-Pepa 73rd. But significantly, only Kane and EPMD were supported by even one of our 19 black voters, who preferred the street-sweet new jack swing of Teddy Riley (“same old crossover-cowardice in [a] brand-new suit,” saith white Schoolly D fan Chuck Eddy), giving 75th-place Keith Sweat four out of five mentions, 91st-place Al B. Sure! five out of seven, and Riley’s own 83rd-place Guy three out of six. For those closest to the heat, the producer’s cool, rapwise elaboration of Jam-Lewis signified, and what it signified was something like “B-Boys Can’t B Boys Forever.” In the grand tradition of unreconstructed adolescence, rock critics consider this defeatist. My bet goes with the wisdom of the ages.

Opting for Women and/or Protest, meanwhile, was an altogether different subset of critics, with not a single one of the 31 who backed fifth-place Michelle Shocked, for instance, naming any of the rap also-rans (and vice versa). Leaving out pornotopian egalitarians Sonic Youth (who this year as last did much worse with women voters than with men) and including Björk’s Sugarcubes and Linda’s Womack & Womack, eight women finished top-40, as many as in 1986 and 1987 combined, but what I find especially significant is that five of them — Chapman, Shocked, self-determined white blueswoman Lucinda Williams, neotrad outsider K. D. Lang, and pristine depressive Margo Timmins — can be described without stretching as folkies, five more than in 1986 and 1987 combined; all-singing all-songwriting Sam “Talk About Born Again, My Christian Name Used To Be Leslie” Phillips (69th) also fits the category. Respondent Roger Moore is right: they’re not all alike in the dark. From rock and roll to new-age world-music (and from good to bad, which isn’t the same thing), Etta James (62nd) and Voice of the Beehive (96th) and Toni Childs (44th) and Edie Brickell (60th) and the Primitives (72nd) and the Bangles (87th) and Sade (71st) and even the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir (50th) aren’t folkies. (Maybe the Miriam Makeba of 87th-place Sangoma is, or the Ofra Haza of 88th-place Seven Gates of Wisdom, but not to Americans — and not in the American sense.) Nevertheless, folk music, in all its respects for truths that we hold self-evident, was what Year-of-the-Woman coverage was really about.

None of our five folkie finishers projects a Baez/Collins-style purity, or comes on like one’s sainted mother — often punky or dykey, always autonomous, sometimes even funny, they’re very post-Joni (two mentions), and not just because they write their own. But men liked them a lot. The only female finishers afforded disproportionate support by our 39 female voters were rock and roll heroine Patti Smith and new wave pretenders the Sugarcubes; Michelle Shocked and Lucinda Williams did significantly worse with their own gender, and neither Womack & Womack (I blame Cecil) nor the Cowboy Junkies (I blame Margo) was named by a single woman. To an extent this may reflect new wave origins and loyalties — punk opened the music to some-not-enough female critics as well as some-not-enough female musicians. But beyond liberal guilt and headline lust, male journalists were happy to make 1988 the Year of the Woman because the folkie madonna, wise and soulful whether calm or passionate, once again seems a comforting idea to the kind of white former boy disquieted by rap and disco.

One reason for all the Protest play is that an equally reassuring aura surrounds folk music’s straightforward literary-political aesthetic, epitomized by 42nd-place Folkways: A Vision Shared, in which stars and legends underwrote the Smithsonian’s (i.e., the federal government’s) Folkways purchase by interpreting predominantly political titles from the label’s most trenchant fellow travelers, Huddie Ledbetter and Woody Guthrie. Although politics are heaviest among the leaders — of our top five, only Sonic Youth, whose anarchism laughs at ideology, aren’t staunch lefties in art and life — this was a year in which Richard Thompson and Patti Smith and R.E.M. essayed more or less conventional protest songs, in which Living Colour and Metallica aimed to focus metal’s antisocial tendencies, in which all but maybe half a dozen charting album artists imagined an audience that resented or despised the suicidal inequities of late capitalism.

This is nothing new in Pazz & Jop, but it keeps intensifying, and from Midnight Oil nurturing their muse in the outback to U2 preaching roots they hardly knew they had (not to mention Van Morrison taking up with Irish folk ambassadors), folkie notions of tradition and solidarity have come to constitute a collective vision of sorts. To an extent I share it myself — unlike, say, Greil Marcus, an enemy of capital who hears sanctimony dripping from almost every artist I’ve named and says a pox on them all. But straightforwardness has serious limits, and even Michelle Shocked, easily the most wordwise of the latest crew of singer-songwriters, gets tired pretty quick by me. There’s not enough fun or adventure in them — not enough pleasure function, not enough music.

Rap/dance singles weren’t the only quality product to address this familiar problem in 1988. Glance again at the top of the album chart and note an accidental but entertaining trio of groupings. The top five is fresh meat, young or at least new (if Peter Garrett isn’t pushing 35 he either suffers too much or does drugs on the sly). Then we have Pere Ubu and Was (Not Was), first- and second-generation new wavers who avoided the sweepstakes so long it looked like forever. And after that there’s the most incredible procession of old farts in Pazz & Jop history: seven artists who predate punk by at least nine or 10 years, their mean age 46, the youngest 39-year-old Richard Thompson. They got it up, too — except for poor simple Brian Wilson, every one deserved to beat U2, R.E.M., and Talking Heads. Ornette is as ageless as any jazz or pop musician in history, and this year like never before he was both. Richard Thompson finally recovered from walking out on Linda, and while I’m Your Man was only a half-step up from 1985’s unnoticed Various Positions, Leonard Cohen never got old because he was never young and thus remained ripe for rediscovery by the eight under-30s who selected him Dutch uncle. Randy Newman supposedly got more personal and certainly got more pissed, moving the old-sourpuss faction to shower him with points. And Keith Richards and the Traveling Wilburys boogied.

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Both Talk Is Cheap and Volume One smelled bad out of the box, and bigots will claim they stink forever. But if you think you’re gonna hate them too, you may be in for a surprise. Though I don’t know what place Talk Is Cheap deserves in my life, I’m happy to attest that somehow Richards has created generic classics — the kind of stuff you always forget until you hear it again and figure for collectorama covers until you check the copyright notice. As for the Wilburys, what could be more obscene than five overrated “superstars” getting together for some “fun” and then trying to foist it off on the suckers who made them rich and famous in the first place? Yet what we have here is not only Bob Dylan’s best record since Blood on the Tracks but a group that does as much for George Harrison as the Beatles, and even without Roy Orbison (who despite the gush is pretty much a fifth wheel) I sometimes find myself wishing they’d make a career of it — keep them out of harm’s way. Keith and the Wilburys address the future of fun. They make flesh Mick Jagger’s insulting contention that if Howlin’ Wolf could do it till he dropped, so could the Stones. They assume that great grooves need not surrender all pleasure function just because their novelty no longer tickles your fancy, and prove it with a spirit that renews one’s faith in humankind, for if it becomes possible to share a laugh with Jeff Lynne, then fellow feeling can know no bounds.

Professionals so entrenched they’re beyond careerism, our exemplary boogie-men stuck to their guns with nothing up their sleeves, while former untouchables R.E.M. and Talking Heads were worn and torn by the biz. R.E.M. experimented with verbal and rhythmic specificity, a gutty move for a band whose sizable cult was built on murmur and airy flow, but the holes in their songwriting showed, and it cost them; David Byrne concealed the ricketiness of his current compositional practice by riding in on soukous’s jetstream, but the trick didn’t stick, and a record that looked sure top-10 in March finished 24th. Both bands were rejected by new wave stalwarts fighting midlife crisis. I refuse to write off proven artists of any era, but the thirties are a scary age in rock and roll, and I sense a changing of the guard. The dyed-in-the-wool rockers who cheered Richards and the Wilburys will plump for the same beat in perpetuity, but punks manqué are trapped in the tradition of the new — hard for bohemians who defined their own mission in contradistinction to hippie conservatism to sit tight in a logjam, settling for the same old well-crafted, revitalized shit. Such are the long-term perils of new wave commerce. Interesting, isn’t it, that rather than getting rusty during their long layoffs on the biz’s fringe, Was (Not Was) and Pere Ubu jes grew?

And with a few omissions, that’s how rock’s meaning function breaks down in 1988 — the old kicked ass, the new got old. Of course, as the ambiguously entitled “Hit List” attests, some would call the omissions the story — ironic pop hedonists the Pet Shop Boys, unironic pop hedonist George Michael, lying sons of bitches Guns N’ Roses. No consensus doesn’t mean no passion — to recall a church-library title that revealed the errors of Unitarians, Swedenborgians, Roman Catholics, and other misguided souls to a 10-year-old Poobah-in-the-making, it’s a “chaos of cults” out there, and some claim to want nothing better. At a tiny London symposium celebrating the literary event of the rock year, Simon Frith’s Music for Pleasure, the delegate from Rough Trade, this year’s only album-charting indie except Capitol-distributed Enigma, indignantly denied that music had anything to do with movements — The Disparate Cognoscenti, her label’s new compilation is called, and though I’d rather buy a bridge myself, embattled individualism is what holds the latest generation of diehard bohemians together and tears it apart. Punk-cum-Amerindie Gerard Cosloy, who signaled his disdain for consensus by joining a record 41 late voters and dubbed his own label comp, harrumph, Human Music, comes clean in “Future (No Future)”: to hell with “the music’s potential impact on the rest of popular culture.”

Out of respect for Amerindieland’s subcultural ideals, we brought back EP voting, and though boho hero Bruce Springsteen won with the worst record he’s ever made, deserving young indies did get free publicity — New York’s Caroline, Boston’s Taang!, and Seattle’s Sub Pop joined the eternal SST with two finishers apiece. Embattled individual artists Mudhoney and Bullet LaVolta turn out to be better-than-average garage bands who may go somewhere and may fall off the edge of the earth, Poi Dog Pondering’s word-of-mouth is better than its distribution, Pussy Galore and Live Skull are easy to spell, and let’s do this again soon. After all, even with seven votes good for fourth place, EP results were more meaningful than in reissues, which more than ever rewarded size: three of the top four were multi-CDs whose exhaustiveness could not but bowl over young crits filling out their collections and middle-aged audiophiles-come-lately seeking permanence in a troubled world. Far be it from me to put down Chuck Berry — given the chance I would have named a son after him. But let it be noted that MCA has both the most generous review-copy policy of any label doing serious catalogue exploitation and four of our 10 winners. I admire The Chess Box, but I miss the briefly available Great Twenty-Eight and 1964’s St. Louis to Liverpool, my (second) copy of which is badly worn. When the dubious Chess original-reissue program gets around to the latter, which like most original Chess LPs runs well under 30 minutes, I hope I get one free.

For most voters, internationalization will arrive late if at all, but unless this is just an abnormal year, which is possible (will they still yawn after the Replacements go pop and Lou goes political?), a pluralism resistant to electoral quantification may already be upon us. The Poobahs’ uncouth requests for demographic detail met with somewhat wittier resistance this year (see both “The Personals” and “I Gotta Be Me”), most of which I blame on the refusal of would-be autonomous subjects to recognize the determinations we’re all subject to (plus perhaps fear of math) (and, oh yeah, ressentiment). Ira Robbins has always been obtuse if not defensive on this issue, and — racist? moi? — Armond White isn’t much better, but note the japes of my cranky pal Greil, who complains that he could have listed many additional categories that impinge on his musical proclivities.

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No doubt. But unlike blacks and women, doowop fans aren’t systematically oppressed in this society, nor excluded from journalistic discourse, and though I’m sure some diddy-bopping anarchist out there thinks market-researched reissues exemplify consumer-capitalist exploitation, I trust he or she doesn’t find math so scary that distinctions of degree lose all meaning. Of the additional categories White sarcastically proposes, only “Greeks” wouldn’t produce interesting results, although I must note that until I can get critics to admit they’re bigots that one isn’t practicable. In fact, the main reason we don’t do a separate poll of gays is that homosexuals’ right to privacy comes first. Acknowledging oppression — and in the case of blacks, a fundamental artistic debt — is obviously the main idea.

So though we skipped the whippersnapper-graybeard breakdowns this year, our much-maligned all-black and all-female polls appear once again under the wiseass headings “No Whites Allowed” and “Boys Keep Out.” Wonder whether Robbins will think it’s, er, superficial for black voters to get behind 15 black acts (though three did give it up to Iceland’s musical ambassadors, for five points each, and many other white artists got one or two mentions). I mean, come on — do I have to keep restating the obvious? Speaking generally, demographically, quantitatively, African-American’s musical culture fosters shared “personal values,” values that whites, acculturated to believe their shared values are “objective,” are forever adapting after a decade or so has safely passed. That’s reason enough to find out what records our statistically unreliable sample of black critics has fastened on. Womens’ musical culture is far more indistinct no matter what the Michigan Women’s Music Festival thinks, and female cognoscenti are even more disparate than black, but with two of rock and roll’s most sexist subgenres in critical ascendancy, it’s worth knowing that our 39 women voters put the rap group behind the feminist and awarded double points to the unmacho metal band cited by one as a male chauvinist scam. Panels of experts or at least fans will be necessary if pluralism continues to reproduce itself, but it’ll take a lot to convince me that minority minipolls aren’t a better one.

As for your faithful Dean and Poobah, well — I, too, gotta be me. Once upon a time my ballot was a bellwether, but in 1988 I was a weirdo, an isolated internationalist — only four other voters put as many as four non-AmerBrit albums in their top 10s, never mind black African. About a quarter of my 60 or so gooduns were African, so many I can break them down by region — eight southern (Graceland fallout), five central (give me the chance and I’ll make it a dozen), two west (can’t fathom the groove); several are quite obscure, and one — my favorite, which I never heard of till last January — came out three or four years ago. I also named records from Brazil, Argentina, the French Caribbean, good old English-speaking Jamaica, and an English-born Indian who sings in Urdu, and if Amerindies are irrelevant, I am too — in addition to the above exotica I went for 10 rock albums, three rap albums, two jazz-rock albums, and a blues album from independent entrepreneurs, while maybe a dozen of my recommendeds qualify as straight major-label product and maybe half of those were hits. Yet for all my weirdness I’m down with the Pazz & Jop consensus in all its contradictions.

What sustained and exhilarated me in 1988 was the slick, deep, joyously cosmopolitan body music of the Paris-Kinshasa connection — except maybe for Lucinda Williams’s joyously uncountrypolitan blues, no domestic alternative approached the sheer playability of Omona Wapi and Zaire Choc. But there was nothing like the Pazz & Jop top two for pondering Michael Dukakis or one’s future in journalism — they stiffened the backbone, toned the blood, unlocked the pelvis, exercised the gall bladder, and gave the mind something to shout about. If Farrakhan’s a prophet my dick’s bigger than Don Howland’s, but that doesn’t make Nation of Millions anything less than the bravest and most righteous experimental pop of the decade — no matter how the music looks written down (ha ha), Hank Shocklee and Terminator X have translated Blood Ulmer’s harmolodic visions into a street fact that’s no less edutaining (if different) in the dwellings of monkey spawn and brothers alike (and different). Nor was Sonic Youth’s nation holding them back. For one thing, it ain’t big enough. Even though their commitment to chaos has outgrown the imitative fallacy, they show no signs of relinquishing their antistar status in commercial fact, and given the contradictions of consensus these days, there’s something reassuring in that. No way their marginality seems slight. I eagerly await their transmutations of George Ade, George Clinton, and Marxism-Leninism.

Had I located a physical copy of the thing, my single of the year would have been more esoterica — “N’Sel Fik,” a funkadelic love pledge by Chaba Fadela and Cheb Sahraoui said to have been the biggest record in the Arab world in 1985. Never having taken my Africanism across the Sahara, I’ve been known to dismiss rai as a Gallic fad, but when Rai Rebels arrived, the internationalist professional in me put it on and had a mystical experience exemplary in its intensity and serendipity. People complain when I call their singles arbitrary, and I certainly don’t mean they pick them out of a hat. But tastes are so undetermined, especially tastes that last two to eight repetitive pop minutes, that on a collective level they are arbitrary. No matter how acutely an autonomous subject rationalizes some special passion, it’s unlikely that even half of his or her readers — parties to the aesthetic consensus that distinguishes the most mutually contemptuous rock critics from Allan Bloom or Michael Dukakis — will be induced to share it, and there’s always the chance that nobody will know what he or she is talking about. So if on the one hand street and radio and dance floor make singles seem very communal and all, if “Fast Car” is a social fact and “It Takes Two” and “Don’t Believe the Hype” are inescapable in the land of the boombox, on the other hand singles typify our, harrumph, existential solitude, and hence all the contradictions inherent in, harrumph, our social, subcultural, and political alliances.

So if despite my isolation I’m down with the Pazz & Jop consensus in all its contradictions, that’s fine with me. The eight rap records in my top 10 constituted a personal high, and though four made the big list, others were off the wall — wrong Bobby Brown (could be), wrong EPMD (baloney), otherwise unmentioned 12-inch by the ordinarily ordinary Chubb Rock. I regret that I don’t hear more of them, especially on the dance floor — “father of three-year-old” and “wife needs sleep” are near the top of my list of impingements. But that would only make my list weirder, just like everybody else’s. In a crisis of consensus, everything is up for grabs. Chuck Eddy said that. The party’s not over yet. Guy said that.

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Top 10 Albums of 1988

1. Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back (Def Jam)

2. Sonic Youth: Daydream Nation (Blast First/Enigma)

3. Tracy Chapman: Tracy Chapman (Elektra)

4. Midnight Oil: Diesel and Dust (Columbia)

5. Michelle Shocked: Short Sharp Shocked (Mercury)

6. Was (Not Was): What Up, Dog? (Chrysalis)

7. Pere Ubu: The Tenement Year (Enigma)

8. Keith Richards: Talk Is Cheap (Virgin)

9. Traveling Wilburys: Volume One (Wilbury)

10. Randy Newman: Land of Dreams (Warner Bros.)

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Top 10 Singles of 1988

1. Tracy Chapman: “Fast Car” (Elektra)

2. Rob Base & D.J. E-Z Rock: “It Takes Two” (Profile)

3. Guns N’ Roses: “Sweet Child o’ Mine” (Geffen)

4. Prince: “Alphabet St.” (Paisley Park)

5. Midnight Oil: “Beds Are Burning”/”The Dead Heart” (Columbia)

6. (Tie) Public Enemy: “Don’t Believe the Hype”/”Prophets of Rage” (Def Jam)
Traveling Wilburys: “Handle With Care” (Wilbury)

8. Bobby Brown: “My Prerogative” (MCA)

9. (Tie) Eric B. & Rakim: “Follow the Leader” (Uni)
D.J. Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince: “Parents Just Don’t Understand” (Jive)
The Primitives: “Crash” (RCA)

—From the February 28, 1989, issue


Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.



Wide Awake: Song of Summer

I was born the summer Nixon resigned. I know this because in my family it was always spoken of as if the two events were somehow related. My ex-hippie mother used to say, “Thatbastard Nixon” (he was always Thatbastard in our house, never Richard)… “Thatbastard Nixon got what was coming to him. And we got you.”

I always took a kind of pride in this. Not so much because I thought he resigned because of me, but because we were both the results of one long, hot summer when everything changed.

For Nixon, the summer of 1974 was an ending. For me, a beginning.

It was a heady time for music, a summer when new genres were just taking form and competing for national attention. In the cities, disco was rearing its head for the first time, at the same moment the Ramones were making their CBGB debut. Outside the cities, “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Annie’s Song” by John Denver dominated jukeboxes and car radios.

Classic rock, folk, disco, and punk were all facing endings and beginnings that summer.

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Ironically, the song that dominated the pop charts that year was the treacly Barbra Streisand ballad “The Way We Were.” No matter your opinions on Streisand, the song was huge and the movie of the same name — a love story about a Marxist Jew (Streisand) and her WASP-y writer boyfriend-then-husband (Robert Redford) attempting to find love in the face of idealism, betrayal, and McCarthyism — inspired one perfect line that applies as much to the summer of 2018 as to the summer of 1974, as we once again find ourselves caught in the brouhaha of presidential scandal:

Streisand: Wouldn’t it be lovely if we were old? We’d have survived all this. Everything would be easy and uncomplicated, the way it was when we were young.

Redford: Katie, it was never uncomplicated.

I like to imagine those words reverberating quietly behind the public longing for simpler times, an echo of past sins mocking the idea that a once-slave-owning country longs to be “Great Again.” It’s just the kind of willful ignorance at which America excels.

The song that was everywhere in the summer of 1989 had no such rheumy-eyed notions of the past. “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy was as angry, sweaty, and claustrophobic as the Spike Lee movie (Do the Right Thing) that made it famous.

I had just finished ninth grade at Westchester High School in Los Angeles, where I would hide out in my Morrissey T-shirts and twelve-hole Docs in hallways dominated by Bobby Brown (“My Prerogative”), De La Soul (“Me Myself and I”), and the few white kids belting out “Love Shack” by the B-52’s.

“Fight the Power” was a revelation, a glimpse into something forceful. With one righteously pissed-off line after another, the song inspired phrases that survive to this day in the modern lexicon of resistance. To wit: “Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps.”

The heroes in question — Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver — found themselves brought by the song into the American mainstream 25 years after their heyday. Tragically, that same summer, Huey Newton was gunned down in cold blood, a victim of a drug crime as much as the white racism he spent a lifetime fighting. 

This was also the summer of the Bensonhurst riots in which Yusef Hawkins, a sixteen-year-old African-American boy was killed by a white mob because the mob (mistakenly) believed he was dating a local white girl. (The Public Enemy song “Welcome to the Terrordome” includes a dedication to Hawkins.) The race riot came just two months after the release of Do the Right Thing, which itself featured a race riot in Brooklyn in response to the killing of an innocent black man. 

So here’s Chuck D and Flava Flav broadcast into the bedrooms of the American suburb (in a video directed by Spike Lee), angrily pointing out the history of “nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check,” as the white kids raised their skinny white fists, timidly placing a toe into the raging waters of American racial anger while quoting Spike Lee’s powerful lines: “Hey, Sal, how come you got no brothers up on the wall here?”

It was a long, hot summer when everything changed. It was never uncomplicated.

In fact, had social media existed in the summer of 1989, there no doubt would have been a series of righteous hashtags (#myheroesdontappearonnostamps) followed by an inevitable backlash (#Elviswasntracist) followed by the backlash to the backlash (#FuckJohnWayne), in which we would organize ourselves into the neat camps of allies and adversaries that are the trademark of modern political discourse. 

When I posed this question to my Twitter feed, with just these ideas in mind: “What is the all-time best Song of the Summer?” I was surprised to find an inclination toward, well, sunnier songs.

People tended to view the question in one of three ways: Any song that has the word “summer” in the title; a song that dominated the charts and airplay for a summer; or a song that simply evokes the feeling of summer.

“Summertime” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince was the most popular answer, and it was probably because it checked all three boxes. As one commenter put it, the song puts the listener mentally and emotionally into “a perfect summer day.”

Other songs that fulfilled all three requirements: “Hot Fun in the Summertime” by Sly and the Family Stone and “Summer in the City” by the Lovin’ Spoonful. These songs share the idea of summertime as holiday — both literal and figurative — from the existential grind of the fall and winter.

“Cruel Summer,” the 1984 hit from the all-woman pop band Bananarama, was a popular choice, an angsty take on heartache amid the heat of summer. (For my money, the summer of 1984 belongs to “When Doves Cry” by Prince, when His Purpleness blessed us with the best bathtub vocal performance until “Stay” by Rihanna).

“Smooth” by Santana/Rob Thomas and “Summertime” by Janis Joplin seem to share a spiritual connection to “Fight the Power,” a kind of slinky, sweaty feeling about summer that eschews the explosiveness of explicit politics but embraces the anxiety of heat in close quarters.

It’s hard to talk about these songs outside the events, both personal and political, which surrounded them. There’s a necessary nostalgia to such things. Where were you when you first heard “Brown-Eyed Girl”? And who was the brown-eyed girl that loved you for loving it? Were you dancing at your cousin’s wedding to “Crazy in Love?” in the summer of 2003? Do you remember your date? The smell of the spilled champagne on your tux, the mud you noticed on the heel of your shoe from dancing in the grass because your brown-eyed girl was too shy to go to the dance floor?

Were you belting out “Free Fallin’” in the front seat of your best friend’s tattered old Plymouth as you made your way to another lazy summer day at the beach, the park, the river, the lake, the shore, the parking lot of the Dairy Queen one shoeless summer before Everything Changed?

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I like to think of the talk I would have with my past self if I could. I like to imagine just what I’d tell me about the future. “It’s totally different than you think it’s going to be. You turn out all right, man. But you don’t get jetpacks, and there are no flying cars.”

Instead we get this. We get social media and computer screens. We get a worldwide metaphor in which we pose these questions to each other, the ones we, as humans, really care about: Who am I and Who are you and What do I like and What do you like and Do you like me and Do I like you and Are we on the same team? Like the beak of a hummingbird, our adaptation to the world is this networked computer metaphor in which we’ve all agreed to participate, an extension of our freakish brains that we use to pose and solve the social questions we really care about.

So instead of flying cars, we got social media. Instead of jetpacks, streaming pornography. How disappointing.

But maybe there is hope in this because at least, perhaps finally, we see ourselves clearly for the cloying, needy, angry, imperfect things we are. Nixon resigned. He resigned because he broke the law and got caught and still people forgot, choosing instead to wrap themselves in American flags, to long for an American innocence that never existed. And despite the utter morass of immorality, the racist, thieving, lying shitshow that is the long, hot summer of 2018 — the disappointment with American promise, with American discourse, with American tribalism, with America — the effect of all this daily conflict is that we no longer have to carry the burden of a past innocence betrayed.

Perhaps this is why the song that best defines this particular fucked-up summer — the one we’ll remember forty years from now — is likely the viral phenomenon “This Is America” by Childish Gambino, which is as violent, tragic, contradictory, and angry as the country at which it takes aim.

Maybe it’s the summer we finally realize it was never uncomplicated. We were just young.


“Wide Awake” is a new column from Mikel Jollett, who you should be following on Twitter.


“Free Is Real, and Real Is a Motherfucker”: Michael Mann on Ali, 15 Years Later

Last June, after the death of Muhammad Ali, Michael Mann’s Will Smith–starring 2001 film Ali was briefly re-released in theaters. This allowed many of us to see it with fresh eyes. What felt like an ambitious but underwhelming biopic 15 years ago now seems more and more like a masterpiece — an immersive meditation on what it meant to be Muhammad Ali (who would have turned 75 today), and a portrait of a man attempting to forge his own identity in the crucible of the 1960s. Now, Mann’s film has just come out on Blu-ray, in a brand-new cut that makes its themes clearer and even adds some contemporary relevance. This new version of Ali feels both more political and more personal. I talked to Michael Mann about what prompted him to revisit the movie, along with his memories of making it.

This is, I think, the third cut of Ali that you’ve released. What made you want to go back in there and do a new edit?

What made me want to go back into it was time. It’s a different time. The original dealt with a number of evolving dynamics in Ali’s life. It was all kind of woven together: the political conflicts, his tumultuous romantic life, his identity quest. Who exactly was he going to be? He was a representational figure — and he was constructing that figure as he went through life. And in 2016 what I really wanted to see was somewhat different, which is that the biggest adversary Ali had was political. I wanted to strengthen that as the central conflict in the whole story. To my way of thinking, it makes everything more relevant — including the more intimate scenes, like his split with Belinda. It’s a process of expanding and compressing. I couldn’t even tell you if this film is longer or shorter than the theatrical release.

I noticed more political and historical context in there. For example, we see the execution of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in the Congo.

Yeah. I wanted to make that tangible. In the earlier visit to Africa, when Ali bumps into Malcolm, there was a lot of work done there to really connect the dots and make associations play in a much clearer way. And to show the death of Lumumba — even though it’s a historical shift, because Lumumba got killed I think in ‘61. I wonder if people get it that the general who, after Lumumba is killed, walks into that room full of other military guys and says, “It’s done. C’est fait. It’s done.” I wonder if they get that that’s Mobutu.

Probably not, but I’m still glad you included it. Structurally, it also helps set up the scene later, with Idi Amin and Mobutu watching the Foreman fight.

And you couldn’t make that up. The fight was only televised in one house in Zaire, and that was the palace, and Mobutu’s dinner guest was Idi Amin!

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The killing of Lumumba also resonates with the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King that we see later in the film.

The operations of FBI, COINTELPRO, and the CIA — their true connected assault on Ali is because of his race politics and his position against the war and because of how dangerous he was. It’s like Cosell says, “All they are is political. You’re the heavyweight champion of the world.” So, all that just focused the drama for me in a much better way. Suddenly things clicked. I put back in an extra press conference in Africa; I dropped out the Cleveland Williams fight.

I think you cut out the Ernie Terrell fight, too.

Yeah. I was trying to enhance the transformational moment — which for me happens when Ali is in Kinshasa and is running in the favelas and comes upon the murals, in which he realizes what he’s come to represent to everybody rising up from below. He represents every form of aspiration. He can cure sleeping sickness, he can fight off repressive militaries, he can knock out George Foreman. He represents possibility. And that was coming from eleven-year-old kids — eleven-year-old kids did that mural, by the way. That is really the quintessence of the mantle that he wears willingly. It’s not something that’s imposed upon him. “I get to be who I want to be, not who you want me to be.” And he’s essentially saying, “I know that I am representational, and so I have an obligation, because I’m walking into that ring, and people’s hopes and aspirations are with me.”

It’s also what fuels him in the fight, particularly in the Foreman fight. Also, his argument with Belinda before he runs into the murals — I flipped the order of those scenes. That became an obvious improvement. She doubts him, when they’re talking in their compound in N’Sele, on the banks of the Congo River. That doubt undermines him and we understand the split. But it’s not really about the breakup of his second marriage; it’s about fighting Foreman and that quest for living out his identity.

Here’s a question for you: Did you feel at the end of this that it had a more coherent embrace of a near-religious identification of Ali as a representational figure — this idea that he’s a figure of the masses, and that there’s a connection that he’s feeling at the end of the Foreman fight — compared to the theatrical version?

I think that’s always come through. It may be a little clearer here because, for example, I noticed on his way to the Foreman fight, you added some footage of people on the street at night cheering him on. Whereas before, we just saw him alone in the car. I think Mailer talks about this in The Fight, this lonely car ride Ali took to the fight. But now, seeing these people there by the side of the road gives you the sense, especially after the earlier scene of him running with all those people following him, that these people haven’t left, they’re still there cheering him on.

I’m still struck by how much this film, more than a “biopic,” feels like an essay about Ali and about his own struggle to find a way to be free from all these other things. I noticed something else in here that wasn’t in the theatrical cut, though it was in the longer cut you later released on DVD: The shots of him watching his dad sign the contract allowing him to be owned as a boxer by the Louisville syndicate. It’s there in that opening montage right after we see Dad painting the white Jesus. I thought that was an inspired juxtaposition.

It wasn’t in the theatrical, but it had to be there; it should have been there. That’s why I restored it. The film is a very ambitious undertaking. Some people will say it wasn’t that successful, but it’s still a very ambitious undertaking: I wanted to put you in the shoes, looking through the eyes, in the skin of Muhammad Ali in 1964, of Cassius Clay in ’63, ‘64. Obviously, there’s no point in doing this expositionally. I wanted to do it experientially, to get people to feel what it is to be a colonized people in their own country, living under the yoke of a white value system.

The dislocation, as it appears to nine-year-old Cassius Clay, of seeing his father painting a white, blond, blue-eyed Jesus in a black Baptist church. Or the confusing de facto apartheid of the Border South of Louisville. Being black in Alabama and Mississippi is a rougher experience, but maybe not as confusing. But Louisville’s confusing. Right across the river, you’re in the North. So there are these “colored-only” drinking fountains, but people are polite. But the value system is the same: He had an uncle who was a very, very bright guy, college educated, could only get a job as a window washer, and eventually committed suicide.

Ali came from an accomplished, bright family, and in looking for explanations for the contradictions that he’s living in, he starts reading Muhammad Speaks, probably in 1959, 1960, 1961. So he knew who Patrice Lumumba was, because in the inside section of Muhammad Speaks there was a lot of news about the third world, about Nkrumah in Ghana, and about events in the Congo.

So the whole Sam Cooke medley is an attempt to bring you into that place, and the genius of the counterassault against the culture of imperialism — “black is beautiful.” It’s like a counterpunch, which is maybe an unfortunate analogy. But that’s what Ali embraces. To bring you into a movie about his quest for the ultimate manifestation of who he is, that’s where it begins. And then the transformational moment, for me, is the murals in Kinshasa, and then the full occupation of his identity is that moment in triumph at the very end of the film.

The scene where he’s running in Kinshasa and sees those murals — it’s one of the most powerful scenes you’ve ever directed.

I talked to Ali about it a little bit, but I also think I read it in Norman Mailer’s The Fight, where Ali talks about how he would run in the morning with all kinds of security around him and then he’d just split off and go into these other areas. So that’s where that idea came from. Also, instead of signage, there’s a lot of pictograms in Africa. Like, there’ll be a picture of somebody dressing somebody’s hair painted on a wall instead of the word “hairdresser.” So it’s common, you know.

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What was Ali’s response to the film?

I think it’s probably complicated. I don’t know that there is one answer. You know, he was around the whole time. He wasn’t in Africa because he couldn’t fly, but pre-production he was there all the time, through shooting, at 5th St. Gym in Miami. And then he was there in editing quite a bit. He and [photographer] Howard Bingham, who sadly died a couple weeks ago, would come by the editing room all the time. At the premiere I was sitting right behind Ali and his family, and he was catching all kinds of looks from his daughters. [Laughs]

But he could walk into a location in Miami, and the 5th St. Gym is re-created. We’ve made it live again: It’s a functioning gym, not just a set. So, he’s being transported back into his life with a high degree of authenticity, and that brings back a lot of things. So I don’t think there’s a simple answer to it. Early on, he told me that he wanted the film to not sugarcoat anything. He didn’t want hagiography. He was opposed to any kind of idolatry and felt it diminished him as a man. Mistakes and all, he wanted everything in. I asked him at one point, “What’s the biggest mistake you think you made?” and he said it was not repairing the relationship with Malcolm X, who he truly loved.

Toward the end of the shooting, when we were in Miami, I had Attallah Shabazz, who was working with us on the film, and it was kind of freaky when she walked into a room because she looked like the female Malcolm X. You know, light-complected, red hair, she looked just like her father. I asked Ali, “Attallah Shabazz is working with us, did you want to meet her?” He did, and they actually arranged a meeting, and he was very emotional. He told her how much he loved her father, and regretted not mending that relationship. Because shortly after Ali rejected him, Malcolm was assassinated.

Was there a particular quality in Will Smith at the time that made you think that he could be the one to do this?

Well, he had the project before I was involved. I had to come up with a kind of program for him to be Ali, because his main question was, “How do I make myself into Muhammad Ali?” Now, what’s motivating Will and what’s motivating me are different, but it was a ferocious ambition. Will was 33 then, and if he was ever going to play this gigantic figure, it was going to have to be right about that time. For me, I’m one year younger than Ali, and the rage that Ali felt at the Birmingham bombings, and at footage on CBS from the war on Vietnam in ’67, on the six o’clock news on a Tuesday night, was the rage that I felt.

The politics of that period were very different from the politics of the ‘90s. I mean, Fred Hampton gets murdered because he’s dangerous. Why is he dangerous? Because he’s forming alliances with the anti-war movement, with La Raza Unida, and with poor whites, particularly Appalachians living on Wilson and Broadway in Chicago. And that makes him dangerous. When Malcolm is talking to Martin Luther King, that makes him dangerous. The politics of the ‘60s … it was a war.

But the spirit, the ambition, and the commitment that Will had, and the artistry … I knew he could do it. And we didn’t kid ourselves about the degree of difficulty involved in it, and not just the boxing. The boxing was just one part, eight months of training, including some ridiculous stuff — some very esoteric work with the guy who was the chief of [the] Division of Sports Medicine at UCLA, who was a physician for the U.S. Olympic team. And reflex training, because you could not get down the head and shoulder things that Ali did. Ali moved like a welterweight, but he hit like a heavyweight.

And [Ali’s trainer] Angelo Dundee was around during pre-production quite a bit in the boxing training, along with Darrell Foster, Michael Olajide, and Michael Bentt, who played Sonny Liston. Angelo would say something to him, “Will, Will, Will, you’re zigging; you gotta be zagging!” I don’t know what that meant, but after he said it, you know, something improved. Along with that was, you know, meetings with Islamic scholars from UCLA, the difference between the Nation of Islam and traditional Islam. Spending time with Geronimo Pratt, who was a Black Panther who was wrongly convicted of a murder, spent 25 years in San Quentin, was finally exonerated. Leon Gast gave me some really terrific outtakes to look at from When We Were Kings. He was amazingly helpful.

And the dialect! Ali was a master. When we would analyze how he spoke with some of these rhyming couplets — this kind of rap that he did — we really started to realize he’s taking three different parts and he’s dropping into three different regional accents within the same set of lyrics. At one point he’s doing kind of Southern folklore, and then he’s suddenly being an omniscient narrator, and then he’s back again. So, there was so much to do, and Will was there with complete dedication. You can’t have a better partner in life than Will Smith. I can’t say enough good things about him.

You also went on to make several films with Jamie Foxx, and since then obviously we’ve all come to appreciate what a great actor he is. But at the time most of us knew him as a comic performer, and he was a revelation in this film. What was it about him that struck you as right for Bundini Brown?

I think comedy is genius. Jamie Foxx on In Living Color is just … to me, it’s like Einstein. He’s brilliant in ways that Jonathan Winters could be brilliant. I just had a feeling that he could be Bundini like nobody else could. We did a couple of auditions. At one, in my office, he did the most important Bundini scene in the whole movie, which is in the flophouse, where he says, “Free ain’t easy. Free is real, and real’s a motherfucker.”

And Ali’s guttural reaction against a man sinking that deep into self-loathing was totally understandable: Within Ali’s cultural politics and real politics and race politics, it’s anathema that you allow yourself to sink that deep. Anyway, we did that scene in my office, and Jamie just, in that one moment, he just killed it and that was it. And we wound up doing that film, and then Collateral and Miami Vice. Jamie’s brilliant. He’s a complex, brilliant man.

That moment, “Free is real, and real is a motherfucker,” that to me is kind of the key to the movie in so many ways.

It is. And that’s also a key line because it got us an R rating. That word. “Motherfucker.” That’s an R rating. They literally said, “If you change it, you can call him a ‘fucker,’ but if you insist on ‘motherfucker’ it has to be an R rating.” You know, it was crazy. And I got people like Cornel West to write letters saying, “Wait a minute, this standard is racist. ‘Fucker’ is okay, but ‘motherfucker’ is not okay?” That’s a word that is in black culture, in a parlance, and that’s a word he would use and that’s authentic. And it moved Jack Valenti — who I otherwise liked and got along with — not at all.


Now Is the Time to Discover Michael Mann’s ‘Ali’

Here’s a chance to reassess a movie that disappointed many during its initial release. The death of Muhammad Ali has understandably led to a revival of many of the films made about the legendary boxer — among them Michael Mann’s Will Smith–starring 2001 biopic, Ali, currently back in theaters across the country and on HBO Go through July. I didn’t care for it much back in 2001, finding it a slow, incoherent slog enlivened by a couple of lovely scenes and some energetic performances — Smith’s, certainly, but also Jamie Foxx’s touching turn as cornerman Drew “Bundini” Brown and Jon Voight’s dead-on impression of sportscaster Howard Cosell. As a fan of Mann’s work, I’ve returned to it over the years, but it wasn’t until I saw Ali again on a big screen last week that it all finally clicked. This time, I was overwhelmed by Mann’s film. It may be one of the most unique historical dramas of the past several decades — more a filmed essay than an attempt at re-creation.

That’s not to say that it doesn’t have plenty of verisimilitude. Mann’s attention to detail and Smith’s dedication to his role immerse us in the mood of the 1960s and early ’70s, in the sights, sounds, and cadences of the era; not a hairstyle or shirt or piece of wallpaper seems out of place. Mann, Smith, and their team also get the fight choreography right — from Ali’s lightning-quick footwork to the burst of sweat that explodes off an exhausted George Foreman’s head when Ali finally lands some real punches near the end of their title bout in Zaire.

But it’s clear from the opening moments that the movie is after something more. As the young singer Sam Cooke (David Elliott) takes a nightclub stage in 1964, we get a fleet-footed medley of glimpses from Ali’s life and a divided America, hopping back and forth in time. We see Ali jogging at night, briefly accosted by two cops on patrol. We see him as a child, walking to the back of a segregated public bus and catching a newspaper headline about the gruesome murder of Emmett Till; this is poignantly juxtaposed with an image of Cooke playfully flirting with one of the women in his audience. Ali watches Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) speak out against “turning the other cheek,” hears Sonny Liston promise him he’ll “beat your ass like I was your daddy,” and observes his own father (Giancarlo Esposito) painting white Jesus figures in churches — and signing away his son’s professional career to a collective of Louisville businessmen. All this happens in the opening fifteen or so minutes. And all along, Cooke sings, dances, chats up the ladies in the crowd — the remarkable dexterity with which his band changes tempo and tone echoed by the film’s flow of images and incidents. This foreshadows the jazzy energy of what would become Ali’s own personal style. But the Greatest isn’t there yet; for now, Mann cuts repeatedly to Ali punching a speed-bag, the boxer’s face a mask of quiet determination. For all of Smith’s physical transformation and passion, his performance is at its most beautiful when he’s simply observing and absorbing everything around him.

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When I discussed these scenes with Mann earlier this year, he said he wanted “to try and drop you into what it is to be Ali…to experience the contradiction of growing up black in white America, and the cultural imperialism imposed as white values.” And so we see how the violence, anger, and hurt all around Ali fueled his aggressive playfulness and performative style: As soon as the montage ends, he bursts into his weigh-in with Liston, Bundini at his side. Finally, the fighter’s demeanor changes, from solemn and reflective to light, funny, extroverted. The music comes to a stop, drowned out by Ali’s boisterous poetry: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee! Rumble, young man, rumble!” Everything has been building to this.

The contained back-and-forth of these early passages plays itself out on a broader scale throughout the film, as incidents and impressions from Ali’s life collide with and inform one another. Ali tells Malcolm X about the day he learned of Till’s death, and Malcolm speaks of the impotence he felt in the wake of the Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls. Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, had banned him from speaking out, so Malcolm had to quell his fury: “My muscles seized…my leg gave out. All I wanted to do was find something and break it.” If Malcolm’s body seizes up from his inability to speak out, Ali’s body becomes an expressive instrument. This is part of the aesthetic strategy of the film. Extended passages of melancholy, silence, and subdued anger give rise to bursts of poetry and physicality.

At the same time, Mann is subtle but clear in the way he shows Ali’s growing ability to manipulate the media, to play dumb while demonstrating an almost supernatural self-awareness. You sense it in his rejection of the draft. (“Yeah, I know where Vietnam is. It’s on TV. Southeast Asia? It’s there, too?”) You sense it also in his interactions with Cosell, as when he playfully threatens to pull the sportscaster’s toupee off on live TV. Ali is a man playing a part who knows he’s playing a part…but also wants to lay bare the artifice and make it clear that everyone else around him is also playing a part.

That almost postmodern quality extends to Mann’s visual palette. The director has spoken of how he discovered the possibilities of digital video during production, impressed by the “truth-telling style” of the technology. Most of Ali is shot in 35mm, but the digital shots interspersed throughout clearly jump out: They’re darker, pixelated, but also more immediate. When Mann and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki use video, it’s often in over-the-shoulder shots, or other ways that replicate what the protagonist is seeing and experiencing in that instant, as when he looks out at the sky over Chicago and sees fires burning in the distance, or as he jogs alone at night, or in the heat of a fight. But along with this immediacy comes a kind of abstraction. Such shots may put us in the moment, but they also pull us out of our cinematic reverie, almost breaking the fourth wall — a stylistic corollary to what Ali was doing with his very persona.

Even those unimpressed with Mann’s film generally admit that it has two brilliant sections — that opening Sam Cooke medley and a later lengthy scene of Ali jogging before his fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, as he’s slowly encircled by throngs of people who chant, “Ali bumaye!” (“Ali, kill him!”). These sequences are two sides of the same coin: If that opening montage shows how Ali processed the anger of the world around him into something poetic and bitterly playful, the later one shows the complicated swirl of emotions emerging from the love and affection of the masses who idolized him. The jogging scenes are not jubilant, despite the cheering Africans surrounding the boxer. When Ali comes upon a rough wall-drawing depicting him as a larger-than-life figure — shown taking down everything from Foreman to military jets — there’s a clear disconnect between the man and the myth. That image is an ideal to which he knows he will never live up, but he’s clearly moved and awed by it. There’s a profound loneliness to Ali at this point, and it’s carried through to the final fight with Foreman.

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One of Mann’s sources for Ali was Mike Marqusee’s Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties, an excellent book that, like the film, contemplates Ali’s complex relationship with the public and the politics of his era. Marqusee writes: “Ali liked to say he found ‘strength’ in ‘the love of the people.’ That was more than poetic license. By some complex psychological process, he brought this love into the ring with him, and converted it into strength. He turned the burden of representation into an inexhaustible reserve of patience and determination.” The author, who also wrote a book about Bob Dylan and the Sixties (Chimes of Freedom), compares and contrasts Ali with Dylan, describing how the songwriter, troubled by that “burden of representation,” eventually sought to shed his status as counterculture icon. Ali was also troubled by the weight of everything he came to stand for. But he took a different path, finding independence in the way he crafted his own unique persona.

So there’s another element to Ali — a ghost in the machine that courses throughout the film. Ali the man desires to be free. But the meaning of that word slowly changes. (“Free ain’t easy,” Bundini says. “Free is real. And real’s a motherfucker.”) Ali seeks freedom not just from the reality of America, but also from everything else with dominion over him. He finds this freedom in the construction of his ever-changing, ever-moving identity. (“Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.”) In essence, he liberates himself by becoming larger than anything that ever tried to control him — larger than the Nation of Islam, larger than the media, or boxing, or even, ultimately, America itself.



After Auteur: How M. Night Shyamalan Became Just Another Director

Wait, you didn’t know that After Earth, the Will Smith–Jaden Smith sci-fi adventure hitting theaters this weekend, is the latest from Shyamalan, he of The Sixth Sense fame and Lady in the Water infamy? Columbia Pictures has done everything in its power, in both trailers and print and TV advertisements, to hide that information.

It’s a stunning—and, naysayers would say, deserved—reversal of fortune for the director, a former wunderkind who made his name a brand with early, pull-the-rug-out-from-under-audiences hits but who has now sunk so low that his participation in a tent-pole release is actively concealed.

In the history of cinema, it’s difficult to think of a single filmmaker with a lucrative career built on signature auteurist elements who’s been relegated to anonymous work-for-hiredom as blatantly as Shyamalan has been here. His involvement masked from view, and his fingerprints largely wiped clean from the project, it raises the question of why Shyamalan was hired for the project if he wasn’t really wanted in the first place.

It’s an ignominious fall for a director who was once compared—amazingly, and by straight-faced critics—to Hitchcock. Those proclamations were always over-the-top, far too in thrall to his patient (if portentous) framing and his gimmicky narratives, which devolved into self-parody just a couple movies in.

Defenders be damned, Shyamalan was always a one-trick pony, offering up ostensibly ordinary characters in literal and spiritual crisis whose circumstances were ultimately revealed to be far different than they initially appeared. That device grew tiresome the more times it was employed, until the director went over the edge with 2006’s Lady in the Water, a mushy fairy tale in which he cast himself as a writer with world-changing power.

That arrogant conception of himself also came through in his public persona, as when, before the release of Lady in the Water, he told Time magazine, “If you’re not betting on me, then nobody should get money. I’ve made profit a mathematical certainty. I’m the safest bet you got.”

Hubris like that is destined for a correction, and after the flops of Lady in the Water and 2008’s ridiculous The Happening—which aims to generate suspense from a confused-looking Mark Wahlberg and vacant Zooey Deschanel trying to flee the wind—it seemed Shyamalan’s career had finally hit a wall. His response: a CG-heavy adaptation of The Last Airbender, a children’s anime property. While the director capably handled the elaborate, action-oriented special effects the film entailed, its horrific 3D conversion and tough-to-follow-storytelling buried it at the box office in 2010. With that mainstream bid a failure, and with no one interested in enduring any more of his third-act-revelation thrillers, Shyamalan’s once-formidable career seemed as dead as Bruce Willis’s Sixth Sense protagonist. (Spoiler!)

Turning to more conventional material seems logical, and After Earth certainly fits that mold. Set 1,000-plus years in the future, it concerns the efforts of super-soldier Cypher (Will Smith) and his wannabe-badass son, Kitai (played by Smith’s own son, Jaden), to survive and come of age, respectively, after crash-landing on Earth, which was long ago deserted by humanity and is now overrun by dangerous animals.

Its milieu defined by the Avatar playbook, and predicated on a mentor-mentee father-son relationship that’s as old as the hills, the alterna-Earth premise feels blandly safe—hardly a surprise given that the project was begat not by Shyamalan (who does get a co-screenwriting credit) but by the elder Smith, who conceived of the idea and spearheaded the production. Narrative shocks be damned, the film’s guiding voice is its star’s, with the director relegated to that of an anonymous craftsman whose very hallmarks—languorous pacing, bleak color palettes, and the atmospheric dread that comes from those choices—have mostly been discarded.

That such an approach wouldn’t fit an adventure-oriented film like After Earth is undeniable. Yet there’s something more at work here—a belief, by Columbia and (by extension) all of Hollywood, that Shyamalan’s defining narrative and aesthetic styles are a liability. The fact that he’s still considered a viable directorial steward for a summer spectacle may speak to his enduring craftsmanship, or perhaps the number of friendships he has—and the wealth of favors he’s still owed—in the industry. Regardless, his absence from the marquee of After Earth remains, in a career predicated on surprises, the greatest twist so far.


After Earth: Smith Family Robinson

The surprise twist in the new M. Night Shyamalan film is that the film is directed by M. Night Shyamalan, a fact that the movie—like the posters and commercials—won’t admit until after you’ve already sat through it. While at heart a Pinkett-Smith family bonding project, the kind of sci-fi play therapy Big Willie and son would get up to if they had a holodeck, the dreary After Earth still bears the stamp of its once-beloved director’s authorship.

There’s the handsome scenecraft, those smartly constructed revelations and jump scares, often sprung on you in a shot that seems to be about something else entirely. (Recall the kitchen drawers and cabinets that suddenly all open in The Sixth Sense—and recall that young writer-director’s promise.) There’s that glum high seriousness, those characters whose urgent feelings go unexpressed out of some constipating self-involvement that they—or Shyamalan—mistake for stoicism. There’s that endearing insistence upon lit-class symbolism, no matter how vague or risible. One meaningful sequence here, about the universal desire of parents to nest their young, is a straight-up story-wrecker, a bit of bedtime story fancy so at odds with the film’s post-apocalyptic horror that it’s like if the kid in The Road escaped the flesh-eaters by hitching a ride on a Snuffleupagus.

And, most tellingly, there’s Shyamalan’s principled refusal to subordinate his ideas to mere narrative logic. Just minutes after being told that the planet he’s crashed-landed on undergoes a fatal hard-freeze every single night, the hero leaps into a river. The water does not seem uncomfortable.

That freezing is just one of many story elements we just have to take the movie’s word for, like the human-bred monster who can’t see but can smell fear, or the idea that far-future space warriors would fight said monster with an unlit, totally analog, double-bladed Darth Maul-style lightsaber stick. Will Smith and his son, Jaden, play two such space warriors, crashed on a mysterious, hostile planet. (Just guess which.) Papa is laid up, so the kid is dispatched to have the adventures this time, with Smith the elder literally handing Smith the younger a baton.

The kid has to dash through some 100 kilometers of verdant, animal-teeming Mystery Planet That Oh, Yeah, Freezes Every Night. He has to do this for the same reason that Laura Dern must head to Jurassic Park’s maintenance shed, or that Super Mario must hop through 8.3 worlds: just because. From their downed spaceship, dad follows his son’s progress on a screen and guides him toward geothermal “hot spots” where the kid can sleep, safe from those temperatures that would kill him even as they don’t faze the flora.

Shyamalan filmed this adventure in the California Redwoods and at a black-sloped Costa Rican volcano, meaning we get Endor and Mordor and the cover of Dianetics all in the same movie. The look is marvelous, especially in the location shooting, and especially when young Smith has no CGI critters to contend with. Scenes of a panicky Jaden picking his way through foreboding woods are legitimately suspenseful but fleeting—there’s always some cartoon chase or impossible waterfall or—again and again—some contrivance to knock the kid out cold. The Mystery Planet might just be Oz’s poppy field. Meanwhile dad—stern, joyless, the Fresh Prince now a dour warrior king—grumbles ridiculous homilies at him, junk cribbed from acting classes, Scientology, and Tom Cruise’s scenes in Magnolia: “Root yourself in this moment now. Stop, smell. What do you feel?” And, bafflingly, as if they’re taking improv together, “Recognize your power: This will be your creation.”

Jaden is fine at running, jumping, fearful trembling, and affecting steely resolution. He doesn’t yet have his father’s charisma; perhaps to help him out, dad opted not to bring that charisma to the set. I fear Jaden might face online wrath for his performance here, especially thanks to the numb-tongued Kiwi accent he’s forced to adopt. He’s not bad, especially, but he is a kid asked to do the extraordinary: compel us as he pretends to do ridiculous bullshit. As Will Smith coldly instructs him to feel, to root in this moment now, to master his own creation, I felt the purest horror I ever have at a Shyamalan film: What if this is what Jaden Smith’s life is actually like?

FINAL SPOILER THOUGHT FOR TERM-PAPER WRITERS: The eagle represents that universal drive of parents to nest their young and then just lie there and die like dopes.



Last night: Meek Mill Previews Dreams & Nightmares

Better Than: Waiting until October 30.
“Everybody’s here Meek ’cause there’s a lot of heat on you,” veteran Hot 97 radio personality Angie Martinez said at the start of Meek Mill’s album preview at Electric Lady Studios last night.

See Also:
Live: Meek Mill at 40/40 Club
Live: Rick Ross And His Crew Pack The Backyard At Alife


Meek is this year’s most ubiquitous rap rookie and his affiliation with Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group and, more recently, Jay-Z’s Roc Nation has propelled the Philly native from regional nods to trading verses with everyone from Waka Flocka Flame and Mariah Carey and scoring plum billing on Drake’s Club Paradise tour this summer. Lauded for infusing street credibility to Ross’ menagerie, Meek has kept the streets buzzing without alienating his ever-growing mainstream audience. Now, the buzz is palpable and nearly boiling over and Meek must prove himself a solo force on his debut Dreams & Nightmares (Oct. 30 release) to maintain relevancy.

Although the session started some two-and-a-half hours late–Meek was assumed stuck in traffic–glimpses of Jay-Z and the more rare celebrity sighting of Will Smith kept normally impatient journalists and industry types (many visibly breaking in their brand new Brooklyn Nets garb) at bay. A heavily chained Meek finally arrived with a gaggle of burly goons and photographers in tow to preview the 14-track album, while intermittently breaking to provide commentary, puff weed or take swigs from presumably a large Saratoga Spring glass bottle.

Dreams & Nightmares
is the perfect balance of street rap and commercialism. The raw hunger that made Meek’s Dreamchasers and Flamers mixtapes so compelling is thankfully intact, polished just enough so as to give the album a more cohesive, finished feel. The minimalist title track is a stellar show of the two worlds existing symbiotically, beginning innocuously as Meek recounts his current life or “Dreams” and then erupting in the latter “Nightmares” portion. “Traumatized” is another standout; over a sublime Boi1da-helmed beat that incorporates an interpolation of “Ain’t No Sunshine,” Meek graphically recounts dramatic events that have taken place in his life including the murder of his father. For those that know Meek only from his upbeat fare (Translation: Just the first line from “House Party”), “Traumatized” is an autobiographical crash course that begs for a second listen. Along the same lines is “Who You’re Around” featuring Mary J. Blige in which Meek raps about success severing many of his relationships. It’s touching and real without being sappy and Mary J. Blige’s vocals are pristine as ever.

“Young & Gettin’ It” featuring Kirko Bangz and “Amen” with Drake have had already enjoyed heavy rotation this year and provide the album with some needed lighter moments. The only track supposedly “for the ladies” that falls flat is the bonus cut “Freak Show,” a painfully cliché strip club song cajoling women to “Suck a nigga dick ho” among other gentlemanly come-ons. Who says chivalry is dead? Not even your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper 2 Chainz can save this one.
As expected, Dreams & Nightmares is heavily interspersed with Maybach Music Group’s sonic imprint but not to the point of overshadowing its main focus. Rick Ross lends his vocals to three songs–“Believe It” (which features both “Justin Bieber” and “Miley Cyrus” name-checks), “Lay Up” and the regrettably titled “Maybach Curtains”–and the beat on “Young Kings” sounds like a surplus from Ross’ more lush “Maybach Music 3.” Interestingly, Jay-Z contributed a verse to “Lay Up,” but was somehow unsatisfied with the outcome and nixed it. Meek assured us that he has that version but it’s unfortunately relegated for his iPod only.

The master and his pupil; Rick Ross held court alongside Meek and showed his outward support. “I’m proud of my homie,” the always-opulent Ross said. “Everything he has accomplished, he earned himself.” And with that, the torch was passed.

Critical Bias: I received a pair of blue Beats by Dre headphones in the gift bag upon leaving.
Overheard: “It needs to be better than [Rick Ross’] God Forgives, I Don’t–that is my barometer–and it is!” – Fellow scribe reviewing the album.
Random Notebook Dump: Rick Ross’ olfactory game is on point; when he walked by, he smelled amazing.

Dreams and Nightmares
In God We Trust
Young & Gettin’ It (feat. Kirko Bangz)
Believe It (feat. Rick Ross)
Maybach Curtains (feat. Nas, John Legend and Rick Ross)
Amen (feat. Drake)
Young Kings
Lay Up (feat. Wale, Rick Ross & Trey Songz)
Tony Story Pt. 2
Who You’re Around (feat. Mary J. Blige)
Polo & Shell Tops
Rich & Famous (feat. Louie V)
Real Niggas Come First
Freak Show (feat. Sam Sneed and 2 Chainz) [Bonus Track]



On “1980,” a young British rapper named Estelle reminisced, detail by detail, about what it was like to grow up in the decade of Fresh Prince, LA Gears, and wishing you were one of the Cosby kids. These days, that rapper is better known as the singer who courted Kanye West on 2008’s “American Boy,” but even as she has come to rely more on her vocal chords, her music remains warmly reverent to the old days. The lead singles for her new record, All of Me, grab ’70s record crackle (“Thank You”) and early ’90s DJ scratches (“Back to Love”) and seamlessly incorporate them into a sound so 2012 that even Rick Ross is rapping over it (“Break My Heart”).

Tue., Feb. 28, 7 p.m., 2012


‘Summerstage Family Day: the Verve Pipe’

Remember the days when TRL was bigger than the nightly news, Snake was the only entertainment option on your Nokia cell phone, and frosted tips were the bomb… diggity? Sugar Ray, Smash Mouth, and the Fresh Prince ruled the airwaves, along with “The Freshmen,” the Verve Pipe’s heart-on-sleeve emo anthem of youthful indiscretion. In the 15 years following their one big hit, the band has since grown up–they’ve released three studio albums, a Christmas EP, and lead singer Brian Vander Ark became a grandfather. Here, the ’90s elders branch into children’s music. With the Zany Umbrella Circus, Oko Sokolo, and more.

Sun., July 10, 3 p.m., 2011


Barack Obama is Golden, Rush Limbaugh is Screwed — Predictions for the Year of the Tiger!

By Fatimah Surjani Ortega

Yes, Tiger, this could be your year
Yes, Tiger, this could be your year

Sunday ushers in the Year of Metal Tiger, which sounds like a golf club. That’s actually appropriate, because things look auspicious for Tiger Woods — as long as he can keep his dick in his pants.

Just in time for Chinese New Year, the Voice offers up this celebrity-centered translation of what’s in store for all you furry animals. We’re basing it on the teachings of none other than the Feng Shui Grand Master himself, Singapore-born Tan Khoon Yong.

Let’s start at the beginning, with those of you born in the Year of the Rat (1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008): Your advice for 2010? Pray hard, and pray often.

Governor, you're screwed
Governor, you’re screwed

You have a rough road ahead. Being a rodent, you tend to run and hide from big things. That’s not the game plan for this year. You need to find some courage and bluff your way through this year’s maze. Only through sheer self-confidence, and, well, assholery are you going to find your way to the cheese. Be brave, be a jerk, stay supremely self-assured, and you won’t end up some pussycat’s lunch. If people bitch and moan about you, put on earphones and turn up the volume.
In for a bumpy ride: Ben Affleck, Cameron Diaz, David Duchovny, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford

Year of the Ox (1925, 1937, 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009)

The future is bright, Barry
The future is bright, Barry

Barack Obama, an Ox, won the presidency in the Year of the Rat, which was a very lucky year for him. He took office in his own year, 2009’s Year of the Ox, which sounds just perfect, doesn’t it? Actually, it predicted disaster: when you meet your own year, Tan Khoon Yong tells us, you challenge the Grand Duke Jupiter God, and although we aren’t really sure what that means, it sure doesn’t sound good, does it? Well, that’s all over with now, and the GOP can really start sweating. Tiger and Ox get along just fine, and Obama should have a monster year. For all you Oxen out there, just keep this in mind: Don’t mix work with pleasure. You tend to work too hard, you lose focus, and your health suffers. Find time to chill. And men, treat your wives well and keep your eyes off the cute cows at the office.
Ready for a bull market: Susan Boyle, George Clooney, Mos Def, Heidi Klum, Barack Obama, Meg Ryan

Year of the Tiger (1926, 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998)

It's not Rush's year
It’s not Rush’s year

Sorry, Tigers, but you’re fucked. The Feng Shui masters say you’ll be offering up a challenge to Tai Sui, the Grand Duke Jupiter, or God of the Year, and with every freaking thing you do, you’ll have to watch your back. This is not a year to take chances, and if things aren’t going your way you’re going to feel like crap. All the time. But don’t lose hope entirely. This is a year to count on yourself, because you won’t find help from others. Create your own opportunities through careful, logical planning, and count on your imagination for ideas. Be cautious and wise, and you can give Grand Duke Jupiter — and everyone else — the finger.
Who’s in deep shit: Tom Cruise, Jenna Jameson, Jay Leno, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Sanchez

Year of the Rabbit (1927, 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999)

Get tanned and rested, and then make them pay, Conan!
Get tanned and rested, and then make them pay, Conan!

The lovable hare. Your charm makes you popular, and you feel good, but you might be looking for trouble. The new year should start with a plan to fix some lingering problems. Why? Hare men tend to cheat. And when you’re both rabbits — we’re looking at you, Brangelina — well, the tabloids may be in for a banner year. It won’t surprise anyone to learn that Tiger Woods is a randy rabbit, but if he’s really determined to change his ways, this year is on his side. Rabbits, stop trying to charm the rest of the world and use your powers instead to improve things at home and at work. And get some sun. Vitamin D can be the difference between a gloomy or glorious year.
Who needs some beach time: Angelina Jolie, Michelle Obama, Conan O’Brien, Sarah Palin, Brad Pitt, Alex Rodriguez, Tiger Woods

Year of the Dragon (1928, 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000)

Keep the change, Fiddy
Keep the change, Fiddy

You self-obsessed lizard, you thought everyone was having a shitty 2009. Well, there has been a recession on, but things were tougher on you than others. And you aren’t getting a break any time soon. Yes, it’s another tough year for the dragons, and watch out for unpleasant surprises, all related to your usual shortcomings (you know what they are). But fuck it, don’t listen to this prediction. You did survive the worst recession in a generation, and if you did that, you’ll be fine. Cheer up, Smaug.
Keep your wings tucked and your head down: 50 Cent, Courtney Cox, Bret Easton Ellis, Courtney Love, Liam Neeson, Reese Witherspoon

Year of the Snake (1929, 1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001)

John, you ignorant slut
John, you ignorant slut

Things look good for snakes, but don’t get pleased with yourself just yet. Serpents tend to celebrate success with sexual adventure, and some of you will be determined to turn this into the Year of the Slut. Down, boy! Try to redirect that energy into your career or something, because giving in to your impulses is not a good idea this year.
Who’s champing to whore around: Mike Bloomberg, Tina Brown, John Edwards, Maggie Gyllenhaal, John Mayer, Sarah Jessica Parker, Taylor Swift, Oprah Winfrey

Year of the Horse (1930, 1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002)

Stay warm-blooded, Kristen!
Stay warm-blooded, Kristen!

Healthy as a horse? Tell that to Barbaro. Yes, it’s going to be that kind of year, Seabiscuit, and you better watch it. Trouble is looking for you, and it’s your health that’s likely to suffer. Avoid disputes, particularly anything involving documents that have your name on them, and gallop away from a deal that isn’t guaranteed. That said, a modest investment in real estate might be wise, and whatever you do, donate some charity or at least some blood while your health still holds.
Constitutionally challenged: Halle Berry, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Cynthia Nixon, Gov. David Paterson, Kristen Stewart

Year of the Goat (1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003)

Everyone loves you, Steve
Everyone loves you, Steve

So long, bad luck, here comes good fortune. If Steve Jobs knew what was good for him, he’d have delayed introducing the iPad until after Chinese New Year (and given it a better name!). At least he’ll have a good chance to gain some weight this year. Goats are in luck: other people will favor them this year, and they’ll find assistance from places they didn’t expect it. But Billy, don’t be a show off. Play things right, and you’ll gain back more than you lost last year.
Not scapegoats this year: Anderson Cooper, Benicio Del Toro, Steve Jobs, Rupert Murdoch, Michael Musto, Liev Schreiber

Year of the Monkey (1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004)

Jen knows from bad luck
Jen knows from bad luck

Monkey, your cycle of good luck has run out. Like the Tigers, you’re also offending the grand god of the year, and 2010 looks like twelve months of suckage. But monkeys often find ways to outsmart their misfortunes — except that they’re also accident prone. So figure things out with that nimble and creative mind, but don’t take risks or you’re likely to slip on a banana peel.
In the jungle this year: Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Aniston, Daniel Craig, Salma Hayek, Jason Schwartzman, Will Smith

Year of the Cock (1933, 1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005)

Time to make the big move, Jay-Z!
Time to make the big move, Jay-Z!

We know, we know, it’s always the year of the cock, at least in the Village. But this year, seriously, you roosters have much to crow about. The stars have all aligned, and you need to make your big moves RIGHT NOW. Andrew Cuomo? Nothing can stop you, certainly not the likes of David Paterson and Rick Lazio. The feng shui masters say that this is the year for cocks to lay the foundation for a brighter future (and yes, they really do talk like that, so stop giggling). Don’t mess up this opportunity. Be smart, but be bold.
Who wins: Beyonce, Gerard Butler, Andrew Cuomo, Jay-Z, Spike Lee, Taylor Momsen, Gwen Stefani, Tila Tequila

Year of the Dog (1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006)

These dogs won't hunt
These dogs won’t hunt

Sorry, puppies, you’re in the doghouse this year. Not only is your luck poor, other people are going to shit on you all year long (and not pick up after themselves!). But look, there’s only one way to deal with it: Don’t complain, don’t whimper, take your losses in stride, and stay out of other people’s business. Don’t drive yourself insane waiting for your luck to turn. There’s an end to this, and it’s just twelve months away. Until then, just take it like a mindless, happy puppy.
Bad dog, no biscuit: George W. Bush, Kelly Clarkson, Bill Clinton, Joseph Fiennes, Queen Latifah, Anna Paquin

Year of the Boar (1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007)

No one needs to tell Dave this is his moment
No one needs to tell Dave this is his moment

Boars have had it tough. Hard work didn’t pay off for political pigs Eliot Spitzer and Hillary Clinton in 2008. Last year, 2009, was also supposed to be a lousy one for porkers, but somehow David Letterman watched it happen to the other guys. For the rest of you pigs, 2010 might just be your year. Shrug off the uncertainty and make this a year you take a chance. Sure, others think you’ve been beaten — but now is the time to surprise them with your resilience. Spitzer wants to run again? Do it, man, and not just in your socks.
Who gets a break: Lance Armstrong, Hillary Clinton, Nicky Hilton, Mila Kunis, David Letterman, Ewan McGregor, Eliot Spitzer