Archive forAugust, 2003

QUEER TUNES FOR THE STRAIGHT DUDE

    Queer Eye’s Fab Five are America’s new favorite boy band. But why isn’t the show giving “Culture Queer” Jai more to do?

As bradamant reported recently, we are huge fans of Bravo’s smash makeover show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. It’s the first reality show we haven’t felt guilty about enjoying. Yeah, as a couple of snarky city dwellers, we know our biases are flattered by it (to say nothing of our Diesel-fueled fashion sense). But I think Queer Eye also rewards our intelligence, by acknowledging what we’ve long felt – that regular exposure to gay life doesn’t make you gay, it makes you savvier.

Savvy about fashion? Certainly. (I’ve often said the best straight-male fashion sense is gay fashion turned two degrees back to the right.) Savvy about decor, food and wine? Indisputably. Savvy about art, culture and music? Well, theoretically.

The show itself certainly has a pop-music sensibility. Its five “Queers” are basically the umpteenth iteration of the Monkees, Duran Duran, the New Kids, Backstreet Boys or ‘N Sync – a prefab boy band, marketed through its members’ Tiger Beat–ready personas. The show even calls them the Fab Five, fer chrissakes!

“Fashion Queer” Carson is the breakout, the Justin Timberlake, pretty and spunky; while “Grooming Queer” Kyan is the coy pinup, the Kevin Richardson or John Taylor hiding behind the frontman. (All boy bands need an outsize frontman and an even prettier number two.) “Decor Queer” Thom is the tough, hard-working guy the girls love, self-reliant like Joey Fatone or Andy Taylor, snarky like Backstreet’s A.J. “Food Queer” Ted is the beloved nerd with untapped leadership skills – his antecedents date back to Ringo, continue through Nick Rhodes right through to Lance Bass. And “Culture Queer” Jai is – well, he’s the…um…

Poor Jai. He’s never given much to do. He’s supposed to advise on art and music, but he’s often reduced to giving the straight guy pointers about posture or body language. That’s useful, but isn’t that like asking Batman to rescue kittens from trees? Often, Jai is assigned tasks that aren’t even culture-related. One week, swear to God, he was reduced to picking out gourmet coffees – it’s like foodie Ted was too busy preparing the big meal and threw Jai a side task to keep him busy. Why won’t they let Jai do what he’s obviously supposed to do: improve the straight guy’s taste in music (or movies, or books, or museums)?

I think they’re reining Jai in for the same reason the musical guest on The Tonight Show always comes last: music divides people (despite what Madonna said about it “bring[ing] the people together”). Talk show programmers have learned that they’re bound to lose a chunk of their audience when that night’s band comes on, no matter how seemingly mass-appeal that act is. Especially in our modern zillion-channel metaverse, telling people what music to like is like dictating a poliitcal party or a religion to them. Fifty years of rock n’ roll have fused music with identity – so much so that, not only do rock people want nothing to do with rap, but punk-rock people want nothing to do with rap-rock. And, by extension, straight-music people want nothing to do with queer music.

Is there such a thing as “gay music”? Dumb question. The enlightened among us would like to believe there’s no such thing as a gay culture ghetto, and surely many of us straights have met gay men who hate show tunes, lesbians who hate folk. But even a TV watcher from Paducah knows by now that club music, Broadway and opera are considered queer music. Queer Eye itself knowingly plays up this association: its theme song, “All Things,” is a hi-NRG club anthem by Widelife (”All things just keep gettin’ better”); and the show’s incidental music and sound beds resemble nothing so much as New York City club Twilo on a Saturday night.

With all these campy ditties pervading the show, Jai should be allowed to spread the faaaabulous musical gospel to the Straight Guys. But the show, so wonderfully progressive and matter-of-fact in its culture politics, still conforms to one deep-seated prejudice: dressing like a gay man may not make you gay, but listening to his music might. We’re in a Metrosexual moment, when straight men are more concerned with their appearance and grooming than ever – and unafraid that so doing will call their sexuality into question. But haven’t we all made the crack that a suspected in-the-closet man is a “friend of Barbra” or “loves his show tunes”? We’ve come far enough as a society to get straight men to tweeze and wax; but we’re not yet at a point where they can unironically love Cher.

Last night on Queer Eye – the very week I was writing this – they finally let Jai go music shopping. If you blinked, or got up off the couch to get a beer, you missed it, but for maybe 45 seconds of the show’s hour, Jai walked Greek bodybuilder George through Tower Records and foisted some new CDs on him. I guess it had finally reached the point when the Straight Guy had such abysmal taste that they needed to tell him what to listen to – George was still speaking rhapsodically about Bon Jovi, for crying out loud.

My favorite moments on Queer Eye often revolve around the moment when the mostly pliant Straight Guy fights back, reasserts his straightness by declaring a line in the sand (e.g., I’ll wear a jacket, but not in that color). We had such a moment during Jai’s and George’s tour through Tower. Jai had picked some CDs that inarguably improved George’s collection: Stevie Wonder, the latest from Beyoncé, a collection of background-y club music. He even threw George a bone by letting him linger in the Bon Jovi section and grab a couple of Jon Bon’s latest. But Jai really lit up when he came across a copy of The Very Best of Cher – and that’s when George lowered the boom. “No way, I draw the line at Cher.” “Oh, c’mon,” said Jai, in his best whiny, Mom-why-can’t-we-buy-the-cookies voice. “Sorry,” said George.

To my knowledge, it was the only time George refused anything the Fab Five proposed on the entire show. That’s not to suggest I would have bought the Cher CD, either – I love “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” and “Believe” as much as the next pop fan, but I do think gay men lionize the ex-Mrs. Bono a tad overmuch. Still, I marvel that an unabashed Bon Jovi fan felt he had the right to trash Cher (who once dated a member of Bon Jovi!), and that he thought this, at last, was one step too far into queerdom.

I laughed heartily at the Cher confrontation, but I also felt an acute disappointment. I bet it’ll be months before they let Jai go CD shopping again.

Comments (2)

LOAD UP ON GUNS, BRING YOUR FRIENDS

    Updates on some of my music-writing projects, including the long-gestating Cobain book.

Cobain book cover

This Chris-centric post may seem solipsistic, especially after that shameless bit of sappiness I posted last week. But I figured it might be efficient to answer some questions friends have been asking about my big 2003 writing projects. So let’s get all these out of the way.

So, when is that Kurt Cobain book coming out?

September – that’s the short answer.

The longer answer is that the book ships right after Labor Day and will start appearing on bookstore shelves in the weeks that follow. Hopefully, by the end of September, Barnes & Nobles nationwide will have the books.

Because this book is a project by Barnes & Noble Publishing intended solely for Barnes & Noble stores (more on that in a minute), there is no specific, announced “release date.” B&N doesn’t have to secure shelf space at competing retailers. So basically, it’ll get to your local SuperStore when it gets there.

What’s the Cobain book called?

Despite my fervent efforts to give the book a cool title, B&N decided to give it an uncontroversial one – Kurt Cobain: Voice of a Generation. The cover is pictured above.

As I explained last winter when I started this project, I really was a gun for hire. The idea for the book – or rather, the business imperative – was theirs. So even more than usual, the publisher held sway over most of the creative decisions. My editor was a peach and took note of all of my suggestions, but the editorial and marketing departments made a lot of the big decisions, including the title.

I tried to sell them on a subtle lyric reference. My favorite idea was Cracks of Light – a line from an obscure Bleach song, “Paper Cuts”. Understandably, they were wary of the lawsuit-happy Mrs. Cobain. I then proposed going with something broad but a little left-of-center, like Accidental Legend. But they really wanted something easy and straightforward, even a bit clichéd, à la their previous tome, Diana: The People’s Princess.

Anyway, I don’t love the title – didn’t Kurt spend much of his stardom years claiming not to be the voice of his generation? – but we’re certainly not the first ones to call him that. It’s a natural enough title for a coffee-table book. Anyway, my favorite part of the cover is the “By Chris Molanphy” at the bottom. [grin]

When can I buy your book online?

Thanks to those who’ve asked. The short answer is I don’t know yet. But here’s where things get interesting.

Just two weeks before the book is theoretically shipping, Barnes & Noble’s website, BN.com, still doesn’t list it. But guess who does? Amazon. Well, sort of.

As you can imagine, in the online world, Amazon is Coke to Barnes & Noble’s Pepsi. B&N, naturally, does not make its in-house books readily available to Amazon. Past books published by B&N, including Diana, are for sale on Amazon, but Diana’s availability on Amazon doesn’t guarantee the same for my Cobain. B&N’s publishing shingle was an independent company until very recently, when B&N fully absorbed it into the company; so it could be argued that mine is among the first B&N books to be total in-house productions. I went into this project expecting to never see my book on Amazon.

So imagine my surprise when I googled “molanphy cobain” earlier this month, and up popped that Amazon page! I brought it to the attention of my editor, who was as surprised as I was. She fervently claims that Amazon is in error, and that B&N has no plans to distribute my book to them. She may well be right – much of the information on the Amazon page is incomplete or wrong: they have the book listed as Kurt Cobain: A Pictorial Biography, the date listed as a vague “September” and the price unlisted. Effectively, the Amazon page is useless – you can’t even preorder the book, since there’s no price.

All that said, Amazon has long distribution tentacles, and they strive to carry every book available, even if it’s published by an archrival. Meanwhile, BN.com is dragging its heels by not posting its own book! Two to three weeks from now, when Kurt Cobain is out, we’ll see which website is selling more copies.

Have you written anything for Billboard lately?

After a long drought, I wrote two stories in quick succession for my pal/editor Brian Garrity. I’m proud to say that the most recent one – on newsstands now – is not only one I pitched to him but was based on a previous LiveJournal post.

Brian has produced superb coverage for Billboard on Apple’s iTunes Music Store since its April launch. But he doesn’t have full-time access to a Mac running OS X – hence, he hadn’t played around with iTunes much. So I pitched my May LiveJournal post as a first draft of a review of iTunes, and he bit.

Basically, my Billboard story covers the weird gaps in coverage at Apple’s music service. It’s all about the labels, the publishers and the artists – you can learn a lot about the vagaries of music rights by surfing iTunes. Or at least, you can infer a lot. The site’s missing songs raise a number of questions. Such as, why are so many albums incomplete – i.e., missing a couple of songs? Often, it’s song length: anything over five (sometimes seven) minutes commands a higher publishing rate. Why are some tracks labeled “Album Only”? Because the label wants to charge more for the full album; they withhold one track (believe it or not, it’s usually not the hit single) and price the album higher than the cost of all the 99-cent songs combined. Bottom line, the labels are experimenting, and Apple is trying to accommodate them, which makes for some weird phenomena. Happily, Apple has successfully held the line on song pricing at 99 cents.

My previous Billboard article, published in early July, was also online-music related. It was about “CD-key” technology – a new wrinkle in the labels’ efforts to get you to keep buying CDs. Basically, you buy the disc, and there’s a link to a website that lets you download a bonus EP, live tracks, music videos, etc. No CD, no key – you have to have bought the physical product to make it work. Interestingly, one of the best offerings is from Metallica, who put up literally dozens of live cuts, all in MP3 format. You have to buy their latest, St. Anger, to access the web “vault” with all the songs, but once you download them, they’re yours – no strenuous DRM protection, all songs totally burnable. A surprisingly enlightened move by those Napster-haters.

As always, Billboard posts little of its magazine content online for free. But I will try to link to the story(ies) once I have the full text.

Have you written anything for CMJ lately?

I’ve done just two record reviews for CMJ in 2003. I posted the first one, a review of the latest CD by New Wet Kojak, back in January.

The second review is in the current issue of CMJ New Music Monthly, and it’s of the debut CD by a new country-rock band called eastmountainsouth. Sadly, I wasn’t a huge fan of this record. It’s got that post-Lucinda Williams, high-lonesome twang sound so prevalent these days. And song for song, it’s lovely and pleasant. But as an album, it’s a little too studious, like all the edges were sanded off. I believe I said in my review that it “sounds like a Starbucks.” Anyway, I needn’t post that review here.

What are you writing next?

I dunno, my wedding vows? (Kidding. Very much kidding.)

Hopefully, now that all these big projects are behind me, more LiveJournal!

Best Onion article of the week: I Have An iPod – In My Mind

Comments (4)

THE SOUNDTRACK OF OUR LIVES

    The part music played in one of the most important days of my life.

Three weeks is long enough, really.

Enough time to properly assess the day of one’s engagement, that is. After notifying the wide world, accepting congratulations, retelling the story over and over, hoping you’re not going to have to start planning the wedding right away but then making lists anyway, you should have a pretty clear, unsentimental view of this most sentimental of occasions.

In case you, dear reader, hadn’t heard, fellow blogger and I were engaged on Sunday, 27 July – her birthday. The place: the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. Yes, I got down on one knee, and there was a ring.

For those who haven’t picked up on this yet, between Emily and me, I am the sap. My fiancée is not only smarter and better-read than me, she is a staunch anti-sentimentalist. That’s not to suggest that she’s not affectionate, or devoted to the people she loves. But if someone was going to make our engagement Lifetime-channel-worthy, it was going to be me. Which is convenient since, as per tradition, it’s my job to arrange the engagement, anyway.

It will surprise no one who knows me or reads this blog that music played a part in the day, albeit a supporting role. If I could have provided Emily with a soundtrack as she went traipsing across Brooklyn toward her betrothed, I would have. I did manage to offer one carefully chosen bit of balladry, by a band I love. But somehow, Morrissey and Sigue Sigue Sputnik also played a part in the day. I will explain.

The day was organized around a scavenger hunt. Emily, expecting a low-key 26th birthday (after a 25th-birthday extravaganza I threw her last year), was surprised to receive a call from me around 12:30, instructing her to check her mailbox. “But they don’t deliver mail on Sundays.” (Did I just say Emily was smarter than me?) In her mailbox, Emily found a letter announcing her birthday hunt. Step one: decode a haiku to find the first present.

I shan’t bore you with details of my poesy, but the pattern went like this: Three stores in Brooklyn had been seeded with gifts. Emily would decode a haiku, go to that shop and receive a gift, which came with another note. Each note began with a limerick, explaining the significance of the gift, and another haiku telling her where to go next.

These were small, inexpensive gifts. The first shop was a local video store, where Emily unwrapped a DVD of The Philadelphia Story. The second shop was a clothing boutique, where she got a block of rosin for her violin bow. The third shop was where things got really interesting.

Halcyon is a super-cool Brooklyn-only music shop/café. They have a DJ spinning records and a living room’s worth of vintage furniture. There, Emily opened a large box containing gifts plus other items: two CD mixes I made for her; an old Discman of mine, containing a mini-CD; a bus map, and a MetroCard.

As the accompanying note explained, Emily’s final scavenger stop would require public transportation. She quickly figured out that she was to go to the Botanic Gardens in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. I encouraged her to pick up a cold drink for the journey and to enjoy the music I’d provided.

The two full-length CDs had little significance in terms of the occasion – they were just mixes Emily had asked for, that she could play on her PC at work: a mix of peppy ’80s songs, called Hipster ’80s; and a collection of songs by the Smiths. But the note encouraged her to play the mini-CD first.

The mini-CD contained just one song: R.E.M.’s “Be Mine.” A non-hit from the band’s 1996 album New Adventures in Hi-Fi, “Be Mine” is, to me, one of the most underrated ballads of the last decade. It’s also one of the simplest: “I wanna be your Easter bunny/I wanna be your Christmas tree.” Especially appealing to me, given the occasion, were these lyrics:

    I’ll eat the lotus and peyote.
    I want to hear the caged bird sing.
    I want the secrets of the Temple.
    I want the finger with the ring –
    You and me.

I did say I was a sap. Seriously, though, here was a song I felt could sort of belong to us – not a radio burnout record, not even the most acclaimed song on that R.E.M. album. And it has a nice, fuzzy electric-guitar sound instead of the treacly orchestration common to most ballads. It sounds like a song you could have composed on the spot in your garage, messing around on your Fender after the rest of your band went home.

Emily had plenty of time to listen to “Be Mine,” and the other discs, too: Approaching the corner to catch the bus, she saw one go roaring by. The ride from Carroll Gardens to the Botanic Gardens is only about 15 minutes, but on Sundays, buses only come every half-hour. Poor Emily had to wait an agonizing 30 minutes on the corner of Union and Smith streets, pondering her final gift – which, to her credit, she had sussed out by this point. Luckily, the CD player kept her company.

I was inspired to make the Hipster ’80s compilation because Emily had enjoyed the New Order dance-pop classic “Bizarre Love Triangle” and requested a mix with similarly pulse-quickening music. Ever appreciative of a challenge, I decided the theme of the disc should be ’80s alt-rock classics that were big college radio hits but never made the U.S. top 40. This turned out to be more or less the soundtrack to my high school years – the Euroweenie, new wave and jangle-pop tunes my friends and I grooved to in the Whitney Houston/Bon Jovi era. Like “Bizarre Love Triangle,” many of these songs belatedly came to be considered classics, and it may shock people to discover they weren’t chart hits: “Love Will Tear Us Apart”; “I Melt with You”; “How Soon Is Now?”; “Boys Don’t Cry”; “Mirror in the Bathroom”; “Here Comes Your Man”; “Oh L’amour.” It wasn’t intentional, but it’s a nice plus that on this most important of days, I was giving Emily a small piece of my musical history.

Of course, this means that for all I know, instead of “Be Mine,” Emily arrived at the Gardens with “Love Missile F1-11″ or “Kiss Off” running through her head. She finally got there at about a quarter to 2.

I had sent her to the Rose Gardens, where, amazingly, we were virtually alone. There I made my proposal, spot carefully chosen, ring at the ready. I can’t honestly say what song was running through my head. The sound of Emily’s heartfelt “Yes” was all the soundtrack I needed.

Comments (8)