Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Getting on the Soapbox: MTV's VMA's, Kanye West, and the Leno Effect. Plus: Gossip Girl Returns, and a Swayze Tribute.

- First off, I want to take a second to mention the passing of PATRICK SWAYZE. Amidst all of the talk lately about controversial celebrities and out of control egos, Swayze seemed like basically a regular guy who had a love for performing. Everything you read talks about his easygoing nature and good humor, and that is refreshing. What's more, the guy fought a valiant battle with cancer, and worked through the worst of it, committing to a TV series and working hard to try to make it a success, even though he could have been sitting at home. I'm sure many could attest to Swayze's character, but for most of us, he was just one of those actors who you couldn't help but root for, who appeared in a number of memorable roles in some all-time classic movies. Sure, most will site the likes of Ghost or Dirty Dancing as his biggest mainstream hits. But ask most guys of a certain generation for their favorite Swayze movie, and the answer will be unanimous - Point Break. One of the most fun action movies ever made, Point Break was one of those badass, R-rated flicks that made the rounds at many a grade-school sleepover party when I was a kid. It was one of those gateway movies that just seemed so awesome back then, and still holds up today. A lot of that is thanks to Swayze's iconic performance as surfer/thief/all around rebel Bodhi. Swayze had a number of other memorable roles. Road House, of course, the late-night cable classic. Red Dawn, To Wong Foo, and his late-career comeback in Donnie Darko, which cast him against type as a creepy motivational speeker. And by the way, clearly the guy had a sense of humor about himself. Who can forget his classic turn as guest host of SNL, in which he and the late Chris Farley engaged in an absolutely hilarious dance-off? So, thank you Mr. Swayze - thank you for a great film career, and thank you for providing an example of how to fight illness with bravery and dignity.


- Okay, how 'bout them MTV VIDEO MUSIC AWARDS? So much has been discussed in the last day alone, it already feels like old news at this point.

But let me start at the beginning. Because, sometimes, I feel stupid for even talking about the VMA's, and I find myself getting annoyed by my friends who rushed to Facebook or wherever else to voice their opinions on the show. I did the same though, so I'd be hypocritical if I called them out on it. What can I say? MTV is terrible right now, it has been for years - it's more self-parody than anything, and it's so driven by marketing and hype (mostly aimed at the tween and teen girl crowd) that anyone with a brain can tune in to something like the VMA's and see how little substance or credibility actually finds its way onto the show. At the same time, most people my age were raised on MTV, and came of age in a time when MTV seemed like to coolest thing ever, a gateway to a dangerous world of edgy rock n' roll music. To some extent, the VMA's are the last remaining vestige of the good old days, when MTV actually was about music. And so we watch, because, for me at least, it's a once-a-year chance to tune back into the channel I once loved and try to pretend that it's still 1997 and MTV is still cool and still plays music videos and all is right with the world.

All that being said, this year's VMA's were probably the best in at least a couple of years. Of late I usually skip through half of the musical performances, but this year I fast-forwarded a lot less than usual. The opening MJ tribute was interesting, and it was cool seeing Janet Jackson back on stage, even if her time there was pretty short. Lady Gaga, I thought, put on a spectacular performance. I'm not a huge dance-pop fan or anything, but Lady Gaga has some ridiculously catchy tunes, and I admire her for being unabashadly insane. Her performance at the VMA's was wonderfully grotesque. With so many straight-laced, vanilla pop stars currently topping the charts, it was fun to see someone who still likes to push the artistic boundaries a bit. After having just seen Green Day live and in concert, it was no surprise to me that Billie Joe and co brought the house down. It was nice to see MTV prominently feature the world's biggest rock n' roll band and treat them as such, sort of. MTV, for whatever reason, is still so much about hip hop music and culture, to the extent that they are about music at all. But this year's VMA's, at least, seemed to turn the tide at least a little. Green Day was huge, Muse was somewhat featured (even though a. their performance was kind of weak, and b. they were mostly there for their loose connection to Twilight), and hey, the show even randomly had a short collaboration between Joe Perry of Aerosmith and Katy Perry, inexplicably playing Queen's We Will Rock You. Sure, it was kind of lame, but it was JOE FREAKIN' PERRY on TV and it was rock n' roll, so I'll give it a pass. The rest of the performances were all good to excellent - I liked Jay Z and Alicia Keys' closing number, and you had to be impressed by Pink (or is it P!nk?) simultaneously singing and performing a high-wire trapeze act.

So there was a good performance line-up this year, I'll give MTV credit. But it was the rest of the show that once again tanked. Russell Brand was sort of fun last year just because he was so different. But this year, well, let's just say that MTV should probably go in a different direction next year. Meanwhile, the awards themselves continue to be a joke. And that is epitomized by the whole Kanye West incident. I mean, others have already analyzed the whole thing to death, so I won't spend a ton of time on it here. But what I will say is: how much stupider did Kanye ultimately look when Beyonce ended up winning the biggest award of the night for Best Video? It was just a reminder that the VMA's are all about catering to the biggest stars and keeping it all within the MTV family. Did anyone NOT expect Beyonce to win that award? And yet there was Kanye West, taking something deathly seriously even though everyone else was well aware that the MTV awards are about style over substance - the actual awards are basically an afterthought. In doing so, he played right into MTV's hands - he created a buzzed-about "moment" that is exactly the kind of thing MTV lives for. In the end, his jerk move was just another ratings point to the suits at MTV. Just another news item for the women of The View to buzz about. Just another oh-so-current item for Jay Leno to feature on his debut episode the following Monday. This isn't the Oscars, Kanye. Nobody had VMA ballots or pools. Nobody remembers, days later, who actually won an award. That part is meaningless. Instead, everyone from country music lovin' teens to Jay Leno-watching grandmas knows only that some guy named Kanye West made an ass of himself. Winner: MTV. Winner: Jay Leno. Winner: Twitter and Facebook. Loser: Kanye West. Ironic that a guy trying to "keep it real" has now perfectly played his part in the corporate media machine. Asshole move. Tearful apology. Internet chatter. Prerequisite article in newspapers and magazines about how this incident refelcts racial tensions in America, is a response to Joe Wilson's "you lie!" comment, etc., etc., etc. Man, we really do live in a circus sometimes. But it's also a boringly predictable one.

In any case, MTV, enjoy your annual moment of relevancy, and congrats on putting together a show that was admittedly above par and pretty consistently entertaining. But, unless there are music videos or edgy animation or rock n' roll in the schedule, I'm out for now. See you next year.

- I'm not going to go in-depth about the new JAY LENO SHOW, but I do want to follow-up on my previous point about Kanye West. The whole thing is really amazing, in terms of timing and in terms of its cultural relevancy. Because really, the whole thing was just an example of a probably-drunk guy, with a history of acting out, staying true to his M.O. and doing something pretty obnoxious on live TV. BUT ... jesus, Kanye, could you have planned this out any better? (and who's to say how much of the whole hullaballoo was staged ... but that's a whole other topic). So of course, the girl whose acceptance speech Kanye happens to interrupt is a wholesome country music singer. It's not hard to see how people have suddenly taken this and blown it up into something bigger than it should be. I mean, only days earlier, a Southern senator interrupted our African American president. Sure, it's a tenuous parallel at best, but you can't help but draw it. But the clincher was this: Jay Leno has been fighting his own culture war of late. He represents older Americans, middle-Americans, the disenfranchised masses in the flyover states, who feel neglected by the media and don't get that confusingly ironic Ivy Leager, Conan O'Brien. So here's Jay Leno, on his first show, on which Kanye West just so happens to be a guest. And on the show, Leno interviews Kanye, and makes him cry by scolding him about his actions and invoking his recently-deceased mother to boot. Holy lord. You could practically hear middle America stand up and cheer at that moment. Here was nice old everyman Jay Leno, scolding that big mean rapper guy (who dared to interrupt that nice little country music gal) with some good old fashioned down-home guilt - "what would your (dead) mother think?!" The moment simultaneously made Leno into the voice of disapproving grannys everywhere, and in a weird way humanized Kanye, reminding people that his mother recently died, and that yes, he had had a mother! The whole thing, I have to admit, was a sort of calculated brilliance, rallying middle-aged moms and dads everywhere to the Jay Leno cause. So much for comedy at 10 pm - here was a guy crying thinking about whether his dead mother would approve of his scandalous actions! Now that's funny for ya'!

I'm not trying to sound above it all, but I wonder if people see the bigger picture here. Do they get that they are being played? That this is all part of one big cosmic joke being played by the media gods? I mean, this incident started because a drunk guy hopped on stage to protest an award at a show where the "awards" are essentially meaningless to begin with. It'd be like if Danny Boyle rushed the stage at the MTV Movie Awards to protest Slumdog Millionaire losing out for "Best Kiss." And yet, because journalistic integrity is basically a thing of the past in this digital age, every news outlet reports on this stuff like its real news. And older people take their news very seriously. And then they watch Jay Leno at 10 pm, after reading about him in Time Magazine. And by-gum, Leno tells some jokes about health care, talks to Jerry Seinfeld and Oprah, and tells off that Kanye West guy everyone's been talking about. That's a knockout punch right there at the senior center. All hail Jay Leno, your new lord and savior, or as I call him, "the man who reaffirms everything you already know." God bless America.

- Moving on to slightly lighter topics ... so, um, who saw GOSSIP GIRL last night? Not many of you, according to Nielson. But Gossip Girl is an interesting show - the on-air ratings are low, but people are watching it, somehow, someway. Online, on iTunes, on DVR. Who knows how many people ACTUALLY watch the show? But hey, I respect it. It' a teen show that has fun with the conventions of the genre, and delivers its melodrama with a wink and a nod at the audience. It's in on the joke, and the clever writing reflects that. It's both smart enough to be self-aware, and dumb enough to present us with an increasingly ridiculous series of over-the-top plotlines. You've got to love it. That said, last night's Season 3 premiere was only okay. The whole thing was a somewhat subdued affair, more a prelude to the rest of the season, in which a couple of the leads are off to college, than anything else. The whole dynamic of the show at this point is still kind of weird though. Dan, Serena, Jenny, and Eric all living under one roof with Lilly and Rufus is just plain awkward. I mean, how must Dan feel seeing his ex-girlfriend / current step-sister eating breakfast every morning in slinky sundresses? As an aside, it's always funny on a show like this when actors come back from summer break with a new look. The guy who plays Dan was crazy-buff in last night's premiere, very fitting (not) for a character who is supposed to be a geeky bookworm. Meanwhile, there was weird stuff going on with Chuck and Blair, who were doing weird role-playing stuff with an ease not quite appropriate for 18 year olds, no matter how sophisticated they might think they are. But, it was nice just seeing Chuck Bass again - still one of TV's most entertainingly sleazy characters. After enduring dreck like the new Melrose place, with its cast of dull automotons, it was fun seeing a real pro like Ed Westwick ham up every scene to goofy perfection. But I guess the problem here was that none of the new storylines really popped. Serena acting out to draw the attention of her estranged dad? Ehhh. Vanessa dating the guy who happens to be the long-lost lovechild of Rufus and Lilly? Has potential, but Vanessa is always soooo whiny. Still - it was nice to have the standard bearer for teen drama back in action, and next week should be interesting. Blair and Georgina as college roommates? Sign me up.

My Grade: B

- Alright - stay tuned for a review of the CGI-animated 9.

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