Monday, May 31, 2010

*Sex and the City 2*

I really wanted to like it. Even after reading the dismal reviews, I still wanted to like it. Unfortunately, Sex and the City 2 is embarrassing throughout.

The first film was largely successful as a coda to the series. It was fun to see the stories of these much-beloved characters reach a satisfying resolution. The conflicts writer/director Michael Patrick King concocts in the sequel maybe could have sustained two episodes in the series. But as a (two-and-a-half hour!) movie, it's a complete mess. That King thought transporting these characters to an exotic locale (Abu Dhabi) would breathe new life into this franchise shows he's run out of ideas. SATC 2 makes clear there's nothing left to be said about Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha.

The real shame is that SATC 2 tarnishes the legacy of a great show. I wish were forgettable. That would be an improvement.

Song of the Summer, 2010 (Nominee #1)

I submit the buoyant "Rill Rill" by Sleigh Bells. Their debut album Treats is insanely loud and, at times, abrasive, but the sweetness of Alexis Krauss' vocal is the selling point. "Rill Rill", on the other hand, is sweet all around. A lovely indie-pop confection.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

America's Insane Immigration Policy

My mother, who has lived in this country for 27 years, just got her green card a few weeks ago. She is now, finally, a legal resident because I, a recently-naturalized citizen (two years now), was able to sponsor her. All of this was the result of my father's decision to marry an American, just so he could sponsor me. (At the time he knew he would ultimately succumb to cancer.) It was the best gift anyone has given me.

So, as an immigrant and an American-by-choice, this story in the NYT makes me incensed:
It was an unusual sign, even for a restaurant here along the Maine coast, where seasonal home-grown businesses are a way of life.

“Closed. Gone to try and get a new visa,” read the hand-scrawled message taped inside the window of Laura’s Kitchen, a cozy eatery that specialized in corned beef hash and omelets and where the tiny tables were still set with brightly colored napkins. “Hope to see you in the spring. Dean & Laura.”

The sign turned out to be overly optimistic. Dean and Laura Franks, a British couple who opened the restaurant in 2000, found that after nine years of running their business, they could not renew their visa, forcing them to shutter the restaurant and leave the country.

The Franks are among thousands of people who enter the United States each year on E-2 visas, which allow citizens from countries with which the United States has certain trade treaties to invest in businesses and work here. The visas generally are renewed every two years, but there is no limit on how many times they can be renewed. Still, they are not intended as a path to permanent residency or citizenship.

But now, immigration advocates say they are hearing more and more accounts of renewal applications being turned down. It has been an enigmatic process for the Franks, uprooting their lives even though they have paid all their taxes, own the restaurant and its adjacent rental house, and have no debts except a mortgage on their home in Arundel, about 35 miles away.

“This is the forgotten story of immigration,” said Angelo Paparelli, a prominent immigration lawyer in California. “The headlines deal with Arizona and border crossings, but these are real people too. This is what happens when you play by the rules.”

America's immigration policy is a disgrace. It treats productive individuals like criminals, who constantly fear deportation by a faceless bureaucracy, more concerned with following inane rules than the human beings whose lives they have the power to destroy. What's worse, if the USCIS suddenly sought 100% compliance it would result in the decimation of American economy, starting with the low-wage service sector, which is overwhelmingly employed by illegal immigrants. But that's not their goal. They pick and choose. They (rightfully) turn a blind eye to the kitchens of America's restaurants, the hotel staff who clean the sheets of American businessmen, the workmen who build our great structures. Yet the entrepreneurs who open businesses, who create wealth in the country, are singled out -- because they play by the rules.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Legislation Can't Stop Discrimination

Liberals have declared open season on libertarianism ever since Rand Paul (not the namesake of Ayn Rand) said he disagreed with the parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that made illegal private discrimination based on race.

Bryan Caplan clarifies the standard libertarian position as such:
1. Government discrimination should be illegal.
2. Private discrimination should be legal.
3. Private discrimination is immoral.
I agree with all three points, but I want to make an additional point: you can't legislate away odious behavior; you only make odious individuals more crafty with their discrimination.

I used to work at a gay club that refused entry to anyone wearing high-heeled shoes. Ostensibly, the rule was for the safety of said patrons. The club has a couple of steep staircases, the managers claimed. People could get hurt. In reality, the rule was intended to keep out women, something many gay establishments quietly encourage. (The staff's general animosity toward the fairer sex always made me bristle.) Tellingly, even though the club actively enforced the rule, it was overlooked with regard to drag queens, who tend to wear the equivalent of skyscrapers on their feet. The club kept out women without having to post a sign saying "women not allowed." (It has since dropped that rule. Not coincidentally, more women can be seen on a Friday or Saturday night.)

Dress codes are used to discriminate against race, as well. I live in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of D.C., which contains a handful of popular bars. A few have "strictly enforced" dress codes posted in front that state anyone wearing the following will be denied entry:
  • Timberland boots
  • Hats
  • Baggy clothing
  • Long white t-shirts
  • Logos
  • Labels
  • Hoods
  • Jerseys
  • Athletic wear
  • Tank tops
  • Camouflage
  • Ripped clothing
In other words, the attire typically associated with rap culture, i.e., black male youth (ripped clothing being the only exception). The establishments don't say they won't allow young black men to enter, but their dress codes effectively do so.

Of course, there's more going on here than just outright hatred for women and black men. If asked, I'm sure the proprietors of the Adams Morgan bars with these dress codes would claim most people, black or white, who wear the above listed items tend to be more rowdy. I can attest to the fact that some of the young women who happened to wear high heels at the gay club tended to get loud and boisterous. (We saw a number of bachelorette parties come through on a regular basis.) Still, most women were barred entry by the high-heels rule, not just the minority of rowdy ones.

My point isn't whether these dress codes are right or wrong. The point is, they keep a specific subset of the population out, legally. Still, most establishments don't have these rules, since it's not good business to prevent customers from patronizing them. Besides, the most ubiquitous dress code,"no shirts, no shoes, no service," seems to skew white.

Racism, sexism, all the pernicious isms, can't be wiped away by legislation, like the swipe of some Utopian magic wand. The onus is on patrons, to support or withhold their business. My previous employer decided to remove the high-heels restriction, and business improved. Further, anyone is free to boycott or protest any business that has discriminatory policies. Private individuals have the right to be (or merely appear to be) horrible people, but they don't have the right to be protected from the economic consequences of their actions.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Review: Janelle Monae *The ArchAndroid*

I was seventeen when I first heard Radiohead’s OK Computer. It was on display at the local Borders, a few days after its release. Having seen (and liked) the video for “Paranoid Android” earlier that day, I was intrigued enough to purchase the album, not knowing what I was getting myself into. When I got home I listened to the CD via headphones on my Sony Discman, my preferred method for listening to new music. The experience was jarring. As each song played, I realized I was hearing something new and great, but I didn’t know what to make of it. By the time “The Tourist” concluded the album, I was as perplexed and I was thrilled. I had never heard anything like it. So I did what came naturally: I hit play, and listened to it again, and again, and again. Within hours, it became my obsession, a new favorite.

I haven’t felt the same way about an album until three days ago, when I first listened to Janelle Monaé’s The ArchAndroid.

Landmark debuts are not uncommon in music, but Janelle Monaé does one better: she has released a debut record that sounds like a monumental release by seasoned artist, a magnificent third album. What to praise first about The ArchAndroid? Monaé’s incredible vocal instrument, which is as protean and virtuosic as her songs? The embarrassment of Monaé’s ambition, cinematic in its sprawl, which spans 70 minutes and covers genres never before heard, as well as the more familiar like English Folk, Disco, Top 40, R&B, Prog Rock, Soul, Psychedelia, Big Band, and even Easy Listening? The album's unabashed ebullience that hearkens back to Off The Wall-era Michael Jackson, early Prince, and the Innervisions of Stevie Wonder? The handful of songs that instantly feel classic (“Tightrope”, “Cold War”, “Wondaland”, “57821”), or the majority of others that are merely incredible (take your pick)? How to choose one criterion, when The ArchAndroid is equally defined by all?

Officially, The ArchAndroid is a concept album, parts two and three of a four-suite piece titled Metropolis, an homage to Fritz Lang’s classic film. (The first suite, which was released as an EP in 2007, is very good, but not in the same league as the full-length album.) Monaé has gone to great lengths to flesh out the concept of the work, which stars her alter ego Cindi Mayweather, a messianic android created to emancipate the androids of the 28th century from…blah, blah, blah. As outré as this all sounds, the great warmth and energy Monaé brings to the material allows the high concept of her vision to (happily) recede into the background. It’s there to parse if you want. The rest of us can simply enjoy the brilliance of the music.

It’s fitting that Janelle Monaé fancies herself an android; mere mortals couldn't pull off what she and her co-producers have achieved. In my review of LCD Soundsystem’s album This Is Happening, a couple of weeks ago, I said “though this year is already brimming with incredible releases, I doubt we'll hear anything better than [it].” I was laughably off the mark, as This Is Happening and The ArchAndroid were both released on the same day (last Tuesday). This Is Happening is fantastic, classic even. But The ArchAndroid is a masterpiece, a work of art – and the first of the new decade, direct from the 28th century.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Janelle Monae's "Billie Jean" Moment

In music, all great artists require a breakout performance, an act of showmanship that is commensurate with their talent as recording artists. Michael Jackson heralded the arrival of his kingship with an extraordinary rendition of "Billie Jean" on the Motown 25th Anniversary Special. Twenty-seven years later, Janelle Monáe announced hers on the Late Show with David Letterman. It's a marvelous performance, which owes as much a debt to Jackson as it does James Brown. No, it's not on par with MJ's legendary moonwalking moment, but it shows that Monáe is the real deal.

To all the divas out there: you are now officially on notice.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Love = Janelle Monae

It's a rare moment when you find your head spinning after listening to an album for the first time. Janelle Monáe's masterwork, The ArchAndroid, has left me in that happy and dumbstruck state. Heaping superlatives on it after three spins would only do the album a disservice. I want to write about it now, but all I can do is listen to it over and over again.

So for the moment, as I compose my thoughts, here's the video for the album's first single. One thing I can say: Monáe is the dictionary definition of a breakout talent, the kind that makes you excited about music and all its possibilities. I've spent the last few hours reading everything I can find about her. And the more I read, the more I realize -- I'm totally, utterly in love.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

An Endorsement

I first heard Jon Black's excellent "Gravity (Don't Let Me Go)" on a video game podcast I regularly listen to (of all places). Though it's not the most auspicious venue for a song this great, it's a great song nonetheless. And now I share with you.

<a href="">Gravity (Don't Let Me Go) by Jon Black</a>

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Island Music

Music critic Alex Ross has great profile of composer Michael Giacchino in this week's New Yorker (gated, unfortunately). Giacchino is best known for his integral work for the television series Lost, but he is also responsible for some incredible film scores, most notably the Oscar-winning score for Up.

Below are a couple of examples of Giacchino's talent. The first is the "Married Life" movement from Up, which is both charming and heartbreaking. The second is a video from Ross' New Yorker blog, which shows how Giacchino's music heightens the mystery and suspense of Lost.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Glass Closet: Supreme Court Nominee Edition

The opacity of Elena Kagan's sexuality is becoming a hotter topic than the inscrutability of her legal point of view. I admit, when I first saw a picture of her, I thought it: obviously a lesbian. Since my gaydar, however impressive, is hardly scientific, we only have Kagan's word to go by. Which means we know nothing.

Does it matter if she is? As a credential for the job, obviously no. Only her ideas matter in that regard. But Andrew Sullivan (someone whom I rarely agree with) makes a good point:
[Kagan's sexuality] is no more of an empirical question than whether she is Jewish. We know she is Jewish, and it is a fact simply and rightly put in the public square. If she were to hide her Jewishness, it would seem rightly odd, bizarre, anachronistic, even arguably self-critical or self-loathing. And yet we have been told by many that she is gay ... and no one will ask directly if this is true and no one in the administration will tell us definitively.
Kagan's sexuality, whatever it may be, is hers to reveal. She's is under no obligation to out herself. Likewise, the press has every right to investigate the matter, however unseemly that investigation will surely be. This apparent contradiction reveals the untenability of hiding who you are. It's nobody's business, but why keep it a secret? It's easy to invoke privacy -- why should it matter?! -- but the invocation itself implies shame.

And that is the real shame.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

A Sure Betty

It was a joy to watch Betty White, and the great female cast members of the last 15 years, host SNL last night, even though the material wasn't always as good as the guest stars. The two best bits -- the "Delicious Dish" reunion and Seth Meyers' "Weekend Update" -- are embedded below.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Review: LCD Soundsystem *This Is Happening*

After one listen to LCD Soundsystem’s new album, I imagine a professional music critic will find herself:
  1. relieved, as the review will essentially write itself
  2. vexed, as it will be difficult to remain professional and not sound like a gushing fangirl
Thankfully, I am not a professional writer. I can go ahead and say it: This Is Happening is fucking awesome.

By god he’s done it. James Murphy, the creative force behind LCD Soundsystem, has managed to best himself. Sound of Silver was one of the great records of the last decade, but This Is Happening is even better. It doesn’t stray far from its predecessor’s format of sprawling tracks, laden with incessant hooks and beats, shrouded in yearning, leavened with wit, and unified into a whole that defies the pick-and-choose of the playlist. It's an album that demands a beginning to end listen. The lack of a departure might disappoint a few; This Is Happening is a sequel if there ever was one. Still, it’s beyond churlish to complain about music this marvelous.

This Is Happening begins with the startling “Dance Yrself Clean,” a track that starts spare: Murphy’s vocal, some drumstick patter, a bass pulse on the first beat of every measure, a hand clap on beats two and four. This hushed intro continues for three minutes before exploding into a yowling electronic romp, like a kick to a dance club's door. As far as first tracks go, you can’t ask for a more thrilling start, and it establishes the mode taken throughout the album.

Every song sounds like Murphy has consolidated his trademarks. “Pow Pow” mixes the spoken lyric of “Losing My Edge” with the playful pugnacity of “North American Scum.” (“Oh eat it, Michael Musto” is the gayest insult I’ve heard on a record. That’s a compliment.) “Drunk Girls” is “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House” with an IQ of 75, a rave up with exuberance to spare. Notably, it’s the only track that clocks in at fewer than five minutes (which probably explains why it was chosen as a single).

Like Sound of Silver, whose “Someone Great” and “All My Friends” formed the heart of the record, This Is Happening has two incredible tracks at its center: “All I Want,” with its triumphant guitar hook (lovingly stolen from Bowie's "Heroes") and soaring climax that belies its lyric (“All I want is your pity”), and “I Can Change,” a song New Order would’ve gladly included on a greatest hits record.

Stepping back and looking at an artist’s career trajectory can produce the same sense of admiration as listening to his output. James Murphy has transformed himself from a precocious wunderkind to an out-and-out auteur. Yet he remains just as self-effacing, shlubby, approachable, and lovable as ever. Murphy claims This Is Happening will be the final LCD Soundsystem release. Part of me hopes he keeps his promise. No matter what Murphy’s next project is – acid polka anyone? – LCD Soundsystem remains the best example of singer-songwriter dance music.

On This Is Happening, James Murphy aims for greatness, from the album’s instantly iconic cover, to the anthemic catharsis of its melodies, to the poignancy and charm of its lyrics. He overshoots his goal and delivers a stone-cold classic. Though this year is already brimming with incredible releases, I doubt we'll hear anything much better than This.

[This Is Happening will be released on May 18. It's currently streaming for free on LCD Soundsytem's website here. The hilarious Spike Jonze directed video for "Drunk Girls" is below.]