Kesha’s Rainbow

First Ke$ha was an Animal, then a Cannibal, then a Warrior, and now – in her fourth album – a Rainbow. The titles of her albums are thematic and appropriate to her development as an artist and an icon: it’s difficult to imagine a rainbow eating a person or killing a White Walker, and Ke$ha has now dropped from her stage name the central dollar sign, the most materialistic key on your keyboard. When Ke$ha arrived in 2010, she flaunted hedonism at once refreshing and ridiculous, an auto-tuned diva who took the stage as though her hair was still unwashed from her club cavorting the night before. It looked like it would take a silkwood shower to remove all the glitter from her skin. Other than maybe Tic Tac Dough host and crooner Wink Martindale, she’s probably the only person to lyricize “pissing in the Dom Perrignon.”

Unlike the other heavily marketed emerging starlets of the late “ots” – Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga – there was a menace and defiance about her, something vampiric and decadent that offered an uninhibited contrast to Swift’s comfortable t-shirts, Perry’s #woke buoyancy, and Gaga’s gender-bending kabuki. In the delightfully stupid “Tik Tok,” Ke$ha bragged about brushing her teeth with Jack Daniels. She collected teeth (“like, over a thousand”) from her fans and made them into a bra. An early interview with Rolling Stone includes the sentence, “She burps, swears, talks about blow jobs, and, when she needs to take a leak, ducks behind a tree.” In the video from “Blow,” she killed unicorns and 90s teen heartthrob James Van Der Beek. “Blow” begins with a Ke$ha cackle that might be, for me, the best thing to happen in recent popular music. In that second and a half, there’s a ridiculous, even dangerous vitality that is rare for radio-friendly music, coupled with a glorious lack of self-consciousness, traditional glamour, and sophistication. This place is gonna blow.

And then something happened. Ke$ha not only starting giving a fuck, she had to. She went through rehab for an eating disorder. She claimed wide varieties of abuse against her producer, hit-making impresario and creepy lecher Dr. Luke. She went to court to plead breaking her contract with Sony so she shouldn’t have to work with her abuser, which were continually rejected. The Wikipedia page for Kesha v. Dr. Luke has sixty-one footnotes, with titles like “High Court Won’t Let Singer Kesha Out of Contract with Man She Says Raped Her.” Kesha kept losing appeals, and Dr. Luke went to Twitter to remind us that the Duke Lacrosse team didn’t rape anybody even though everybody thought they did. From 2013 on, after the release of her second album Warrior, Kesha’s life became a publicly documented hell.

As judges told her that sure, she was sexually assaulted, just not sexually assaulted often enough to make her own music, her social media accounts documented her depression with a startling clarity and probing honesty that were the kind of core values that Kesha’s earlier raucous music mostly made fun of. For most of us, she went from an icon who embraced a sense of shamelessness and excess to a deeply sympathetic figure who was incapable of doing anything other than expressing her hurt. That sympathy was tough to square for this forty-year old man who listens to “Sleazy” on a elliptical machine and came to lurve her for the way she celebrated her gothic stupidity while ignoring everything else that exists. In a move equivalent to the son of Jor-El deciding he only wants to be Clark Kent in Superman II, she retired the dollar sign. Female pop stars have always gotten a lot of creative energy out of secret identities (Sasha Fierce / Roman Zolanski / Art Nouveau / even Hannah freaking Montana), and the fun thing about Kesha was a luminous lack of ambition to be that thoughtful about really anything. So what would Rainbow be?

On the opening track of Rainbow, when she sings, “don’t let the bastards get you down,” we get the sense that the bastards have done just that. For starters, the song is mostly acoustic, and for the heavily produced Kesha an acoustic song is like the Pope making a public appearance in khakis. With that “you,” she’s addressing the “we” in her earlier anthem, “We R Who We R,” those who were once “running this town just like a club,” but have – let’s face it – been through a lot since 2010. The phrase that Kesha repeats has its origin in Latin – Illegitimi non carbundum – where “illegitimi” actual translates as outlaws, and “carbundum” refers to silicon carbide, an abrasive compound that must be ground down. Traditionally, this cliche has been invoked by hawkish military types, Barry Goldwater, and submarines, where it’s used to represent (respectively) peaceniks, civil rights activists, and other submarines. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred finds the phrase carved into her bedroom closet and has to ask the commander – a bastard – what it means. But Kesha reclaims it, since her earlier songs often are about and accompany acts of grinding. So instead of grind, the “bastards” will attempt to “get” “wear,” “take,” and “screw.” So it’s an intriguing move that she’s not using bastards to define her and her outcast “We R” army, but is reframing the illegitimate as those who have power, are abusing it, and are getting away with it. And this tone-setter, melancholy and soft rather than defiant, positions Kesha as being one of the people who might keep them grinding.

The rest of the album defies easy categorization, even as it aims to be what she later calls “a hymn for the hymnless.” She duets with fellow Nashville native Dolly Parton, chants songs called “Praying” and “Hymn,” and warbles a playful but melancholy song (written by her Mom) about taking Godzilla to the mall that wouldn’t be out of place in Raffi’s catalog if it weren’t that the women singing it had a similarly monstrous reputation. In their usual project of damning with faint praise, Pitchfork claims that “virtually every pop star of the early ‘10s has written off the gonzo sound just as Kesha had,” which suggests they thought the spoken-word part about “being born from a rock spinning in the aether” was her attempt to be taken seriously as an artiste and not the kind of thing even Gonzo the Muppet would find weird. But nonetheless, the point in more or less every review is this: Kesha has abandoned the other coaxing voices and is listening to her own, what’s emerging is now “authentic,” because it’s also “adult” and “serious” (to wit: she just turned 30). That’s fair, but it’s too easy: I don’t think she had a reason to make something rich and meaningful or before. Case in point: her 2013 album Warrior.

Warrior was anticipated as the raucous follow-up to Cannibal and Animal, where she would double-down on bad taste and parasitically devour the zeitgeist that she would capture. But it didn’t. With his typical sympathy, Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone noted that her “crudest, cheapest, cheesiest ideas are her best,” and that Warrior had replaced that fuck-all attitude with a tendency for sensitive balladeering. As the titular opening song proclaims:

We were born to break the doors down
Fightin’ till the end
It’s something that’s inside of us
It’s how we’ve always been

Accompanied by the similarly anthemic yet slightly anemic lead single “Die Young,” Warrior strained for substance. It felt like a bit of a concession that no one was demanding and, even if they did, it didn’t seem like she would make. It’s about empowerment and independence, which had previous been implicit and unrhetorical. Even her duet with Iggy Pop mixed trashiness with higher aspirations, where she pushed back against the stupid world instead of reveling in its stupid excesses. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not like she was talking to Charlie Rose about fracking or anything. She was still going on Jimmy Kimmel to talk about exorcising a ghost from her vagina; her reality show My Crazy Beautiful Life prominently features her mom dressed as a penis. But Warrior was supposed to be her Like a Virgin, and it ended up being her …But the Little Girls Understand, the follow-up to “Get the Knack” that you forgot existed.

So it wasn’t surprisingly in the wake of the recent court battles that Kesha revealed the production was “strained.” Re: “Die Young,” which was unfortunately released nearly immediately after the 2012 Newtown massacre – “I did NOT want to sing those lyrics and I was FORCED to.” Fans put out a petition trying to emancipate her Dr. Luke, claiming that he was “controlling Ke$ha like a puppet.” The album’s relative failure could be easily connected to Luke’s limiting influence, as Kesha wanted to rock a bit more, and realized – like the Beach Boys realized about surfing but Bobby “Boris” Pickett never apprehended about Dracula – that you could only sing so many songs about being in a club. If Ke$ha’s energy was still evident, it was in spite of the oppressive strain of mediocrity that Luke trapped her in at the height of his (literally) hands-on machinations.

On the piano-based “Praying” (co-written, surprisingly, with goof-rapper Macklemore) she emits a broken, strained high note far out of a range that Autotune usually corrects. But that screech represents a new voice emerging from a woman who might previously have seemed incapable of this kind of emotional anger and deep sentiment. And to be clear, she’s not praying; she’s telling Dr. Luke he ought to. In “Die Young,” she didn’t seem to care if she lived beyond a particularly riotous night of dancing and clubbing. On the title track of Rainbow, she now sings “I’m falling right back in love with being alive.” The pathos is sometimes wrenching, and it goes the other way in an empowerment ballad called “Woman,” that is less “I Am Woman” and more “Hear me ROAARRR.” She’s kept the energy, the humor, and even the perverse intelligence behind her earlier earworms, while connecting to a new side that was immense promise: a naked honesty that reflects the album’s cover, where a bare-assed Kesha steps into the water to become somehow baptized.

The typical posture of female pop stars since Madonna has been, essentially, “You think you understand me but you don’t.” It’s the theme behind Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” and Lady Gaga’s Artpop and even Beyonce’s transcendent Lemonade (“Y’all haters corny with that illuminati mess”). See simply the title of Swift’s Reputation, or the way Perry’s Witness serves as a verb and not a noun. In the face of spectacle and grandeur, we’re told that the best way to enjoy it is through either passive, uncritical, even inert or rapt adoration. It’s what cultural scholar Joseph Roach succinctly describes as “it,” or “a certain quality, easy to perceive but hard to define, possessed by abnormally interesting people.” Such performers contain “inducing asymmetries” that “register in the mind of the spectator as a miracle of unstable but inevitable harmonies.”

This is a posture that works well in live performances and music videos, particular for the kind of impresario and curator of her identity that Swift seems to have become since the release of 1989. One of the more striking and silly ramifications of this came in 2011 in the wake of Rebecca Black’s viral fiasco “Friday.” Black’s song brought to prominence to the dudes at Ark Music Factory, who for about ten grand will try to turn your kid into a vaguely convincing simulacrum of an existing popular musician. Also on their roster at the time was eight-year old “CJ Fam,” a Curly Sue type who Ark decided should sing a song called “Ordinary-Average Pop Star.” In the video that accompanies the song (public-access-TV-quality videos being, apparently, the reason your stepdad pays for the Ark experience), CJ defiantly announces that she has rejected the trappings of fame (mostly limos and cameras) she has never experienced in her eight years as a person we have never heard of, to embrace the “average” life that she has never experienced anything but and has hired Ark to create. “I wanna have a regular life again,” she says, imagining famous young women who have irregular lives. While almost certainly conceived by Ark studio boss, affable Nigerian Patrice Wilson, the song nonetheless crystallizes the dream that gets so constantly refracted through female pop stars and their encounters with the media. “I wanna be who I am,” she sings, “and who I am is CJ Fam.”

And because of what Roach describes as this tendency for female pop stars to present these assymetries as unified – haters, for instance – in their resistance, they are essential to the construction of artistic identities. The “you” in Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” could be either the fans angry at her evolution, some highly publicized paramour, perpetual irritant Kanye West, or the media. Whatever. “You made” her do it. But in combining them, these opponents become bewilderingly abstract, even as they speak powerfully to the pressures women face when they have the status of an icon pushed upon them. As Rebecca Lush has written in a compelling scholarly article, Lady Gaga constructs “performance identity . . . in a way that deliberately obscures her core personal identity.” In “Aura,” it’s just that: a curtain she hides behind that only certain people get invited into, even though everyone wants to. In that song, “Do you wanna touch me, cosmic lover,” represents the tease at the heart of performance and spectacle by, Lush writes, “relying on extreme opposites: covered body versus exposed body, good versus bad, famous versus unknown.” Of course, Gaga has been such an affirming advocate of the LGBT community that it was considered activism just for her to perform in the same proximity of Mike Pence at the Superbowl. And this only further works to mystify the contradiction – she is an artificiality that can constantly change, that you cannot know, and yet to whom you should attach yourself yourself as one of her “little monsters” in an attempt to diversify the world.

My own work focuses on seventeenth- and eighteen-century poets, one of the most colorful of whom is Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle. After the Restoration in England, the monarchy of the swarthy Charles II released the dammed-up sexual energy of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan autocracy. Yet even against this colorful backdrop, Cavendish was extraordinarily weird. She wrote a five-hundred page book about science that included a proto-feminist Utopia filled with hermaphroditic animal people. She received a rare invitation to a Royal Society laboratory demonstration and showed up with a “very pretty black boy” who treated this most solemn of scientific spaces like a playground, as she wore a “dress so antick” that Samuel Pepys, whose diaries serve as a tour guide for Restoration culture, said he did “not like her at all, nor did hear anything that was worth hearing.” Looking back before a recent critical recovery of Cavendish’s legacy by feminist scholars, Virginia Woolf (not a fan) classified Cavendish as “crack-brained and bird-witted,” with the “freakishness of an elf.”

On the frontispiece of several of Cavendish’s works of plays, poetry, letters, or fiction was an image of herself as a statue, with an poetic inscription that began with the lines, “Here on this Figure Cast a Glance./ But so as if it were by Chance, /Your eyes not fixt, they must not Stay /Since this like Shadowes to the Day / It only represent’s . . .” If what Roach describes as the “It” figure is an ultimately false vision of “inevitable harmonies,” Cavendish turns to the spectator and their inability to correctly see “abnormally interesting people,” who are “Shadowes.” That’s not too far removed from Gaga’s aura, but it’s different: the desire to interpret these shadows, to see behind the curtain, says more about our desire than the phantasm she creates.

In that sinister laugh from “Blow,” Kesha announced supreme defiance. But it wasn’t a sense that you couldn’t know her, just that she would trigger the dynamite if you if you got too close, destroying you and her. There has never been, and still isn’t, anything particularly complicated about her. “Godzilla” is an example of a metaphor that works in the same way that Aesop’s do: you’re supposed to get it [paragraph unfinished] . .

Even if Kesha has always adopted a sneer of defiance, embodied in that laugh from “Blow,” but now it’s linked to an off-putting openness about her tendency toward self-destruction and extreme sensitivity. In a typically spellbindingly weird interview with NPR, Kesha stated that she’s “a little bit of an empath and a fragile heart for this world.” It’s all there on Rainbow, a sense that we might do better if we tried to understand her and each other.



March for Kentucky

Greetings Kentucky Colleagues!

You may have heard about the student-led protest in Frankfort this Thursday. It will meet at 10 A.M. at Kentucky State University. They have opened up the parking lot at the football stadium for protestors. The march will begin there and will end at the Capitol building. As the article I link below states, “A group of Murray State Students are organizing a march in Frankfort later this month in opposition to Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposed 9 percent cut to higher education funding.” These students are working on extended information to other institutions, and I’m trying to help them out.

We are expecting a great crowd, and have already attracted a fair amount of media attention. We are excited about being heard and the community of students and faculty who can join us. I’m including a list of links below that have more information about the event. Please do not hesitate to contact me ( if you have any further questions.

The Facebook page for the event with updated information (you do not have to have a Facebook Account to see this information)

An article from our NPR affiliate about Murray State students involved in the protest:

A letter from Kentucky State President Raymond M. Burse

An editorial by MSU faculty member Jeff Osborne in the Paducah Sun

Gofundme page for supporting transportation for involved students

A recent article in the New York Times


Andy Black

Assistant Professor, English and Philosophy

Murray State University


Best Movies of 2013


It’s April, so of course I’m finally posting my top ten movies of the year. 2013 was my favorite year for movies in a long time, probably since 2007. So here we go

Didn’t Like as Much as Everyone Else: Spring Breakers (hated), Gravity, Nebraska, Room 237

Haven’t seen: Before Midnight, Blue is the Warmest Color, Stories We Tell, The Act of Killing, The Spectacular Now, Mud,

Honorable Mention:  The Great Gatsby,Enough Said, Star Trek Into Darkness, Dallas Buyers Club, Short Term 12

  • No. 10: To the Wonder

Terrence Malick’s least ambitious movie is still a pensive and often beautiful look at domesticity. I’d be happy if he made one of these a year. Though the suburban spaces try to suppress the lyricism and poetry typical to Malick’s film, they still find a way to exist. If the houses and communities these characters inhabit are built for economy rather than beauty, the movie is not. As Roger Ebert said in the last review he ever wrote, “Snatches of dialogue, laughter, shared thoughts, drift past us. Nothing is punched up for dramatic effect . . . There will be many who find “To the Wonder” elusive and too effervescent. They’ll be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply. I understand that, and I think Terrence Malick does, too. But here he has attempted to reach more deeply than that: to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need.” I agree.

  • No. 9: American Hustle

A joy to watch. David O. Russell smartly turns this complicated con-artist story into a movie more interested in who these strivers, dreamers, and schemers are. It’s as though Russell knew there were two movies that could be made, and choose the better one. So what if you don’t know how ABSCAM worked, when you get Louis CK and Bradley Cooper yelling at each other? Russell returns to a group of actors he’s handled before (other than Jeremy Renner), and they’re all typically great. They have amazing scenes together and apart. Each of them attempts to win the movie, and that scene-stealing is appropriate for a movie that’s essentially about stealing. Also, any movie that begins with a freshly fat Christian Bale putting on a hair-piece, followed by a slow-motion walking sequence set to Steely Dan’s Dirty Work is going to earn my favor.

  • No. 8: Drinking Buddies

The breakout mumble-core movie of 2013 works because of aimless, articulate, but likable characters – the genre’s best contribution. It’s the most accurate title of the year: Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde are drinking buddies and would-be lovers, and everyone around them either tries to elevate them or is disappointed by them. They’re kind of happy but not really. The characters make bad decisions because they don’t know what they want. Joe Swanberg has always made the most sexually explicit mumble-core movies (Hannah Takes the Stairs, Nights and Weekends), but here there’s rarely a moment of intimacy and a lot of awkward encounters. The Dissolve called it “aggressively inconsequential,” but I don’t find anything aggressive about this at all. The characters lives are inconsequential, but they’re finely drawn and examined without strong judgment but with compassion. My fear has always been that mumble-core will escape its gritty trappings and get lost in ambition and money, but Drinking Buddies gives me hope for these grander possibilities.

  • No. 7: The Counselor

The hatred for The Counselor might be understandable, since its trailers made it look like a John Grisham movie instead of a typically elliptical and dark text written by Cormac McCarthy. This one offers none of the economy and clarity of No Country For Old Men, even though its plot trapping seem more familiar (lawyer and the mob, etc.). As a movie about ambition, it’s almost Shakespearean, right down to the revealing and literary monologues. It’s a tragedy populated by people we don’t really even like or know that well. I was entranced. My only complaint is with Cameron Diaz’s performance (though not the character as written): other than the one scene where she has, er, fun with a car, the film only further elucidates her weaknesses as a dramatic actress. But Ridley Scott brings the right amount of gloss and competence to a movie that resists easy interpretation.

  • No. 6: Frances Ha

If there were any fairness in the Academy Award nominations, Meryl Streep would not have gotten nominated for existing and being in a movie and Greta Gerwig would have been a serious contender (Cate Blanchett probably should have won anyway, but still). For some, this was their introduction to Gerwig as a serious talent; for the rest of us, this is further validation of her presence as the brightest young actress working. As the aimless and irresponsible Frances, Gerwig dances, fake-fights, gets bored, works as a secretary, rooms with two dudes, and runs around with her arms flailing. She never stops showing the loneliness of this character, even when she’s crazy energetic. And even though the movie is about a woman wandering and often failing, it’s a really happy move, largely because of that spirit. Gerwig co-wrote with her director and new boyfriend and normally sad-sackian Noah Baumbach, and it has the same style and energy as its protagonist.

  • No. 5: The Wolf of Wall Street

Many loathed the way Martin Scorsese made us sympathize with robber baron Jordan Belfort. But I find it key to his deployment of one of the most classic elements of American mythos – the Horatio Alger story – and the familiar narrative constructions of Goodfellas and Casino, to which this film ends (although hopefully not) a trilogy. With the same rise and fall structure, the same stylistic excess, Scorsese equates the junk bond-hawkers with the mafia. If we like Jordan, it’s because we like this kind of story, and Scorsese invites us to identify with him only to question and be challenged by the way this narrative works when it involves such reprehensible dealings. The best argument against the movie comes from my friend Porter, who claims that the FBI’s plot against Jordan is a fantasy of good ol’ Federal containment at its best – here comes the cavalry! – and he has a point. But we have to be reminded that this is Jordan’s story: unlike Goodfellas and Casino, the narrative never shifts. He’s telling us how he got away with it and how he can be caught, and the awkwardly rhetorical and confessional nature of his story gets carried away with all his bragging and posturing. Remember that the title “The Wolf of Wall Street” comes from a Forbes article about him. This is Belfort’s attempt to control the story, which he often fails to do. It’s also one of the funniest movies of the year: at times, the visual language recalls and DiCaprio’s physical performance recalls the screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s.

  • No. 4: Her

Wistful, sweet, and visually inventive, Her is the movie for our technological moment (just as Computer Chess is the movie for our technological past). Spike Jonze takes the concept seriously, rather than constantly reminding us of the cleverness. In addition to Theodore Twombly and “Samantha,” the film meditates on all kinds of relationships, not merely with technology. After all, Theodore writes letters not only out of obligation, but also because it allows him a virtual window into a meaningful connection. The characters are not vehicles for philosophy or the high concept, but are finely drawn and often interesting crack the narrative and visual framework. Her presents a largely clean and aseptic utopia in which we’ve all accepted that computers can solve our problems, then turns that on its head by giving computers emerging problems of their own. In that way, the movie it should be compared to (and never is) to The Terminator: in both, we see the clash between controlling and being controlled by non-human forms of consciousness. Its sweetness comes from the great Arcade Fire score, Joaquin Phoenix’ toning down his manic force into shy neediness, and Amy Adams’ warmth.

  •  No. 3: 12 Years a Slave

Attacked by some as Oscar-bait; they couldn’t be more wrong, even if it dominated those awards discussions. This is an intense, provocative look at a subject that isn’t usually filmed. As a film subject, slavery often gets unfairly lumped with civil rights era movies, of which there are many. But the last significant movie to address slavery seriously (other than Django Unchained, which is an action movie) was Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of Beloved. The film doesn’t pull punches on the brutality, and captures the powerlessness of slaves. In fact, a consistent criticism of the film is that (spoiler) a white man ensures Solomon’s slavery. But that’s part of the point: Solomon’s escape doesn’t come so much through his own courage or agency as endurance and even participation in these senseless and indefensible conditions. His only chance at freedom is through someone who isn’t defined as “property” – this comes straight out of Northup’s book. The movie avoids speechifying or overly virtuous representations. Chiwetel Ejiofor brings the right mix of stoic resolve and suppressed anger to Solomon. As the movie ends, we’re told more grim facts about his life and failed attempts to bring about justice to those who sold him into slavery. Part of me wishes McQueen had filmed this too. This is a dark, necessary movie.

  • No. 2: Computer Chess

Mumblecore godfather Andrew Bujalski took a risk with this loopy, often absurd, frequently hilarious look at a bunch of nerds in the early 80s playing chess through their computers. I’m reminded of that bit in the Simpsons bit with the “Grand Nationals of Sand Castle Building Preview” where an announcer, says, “You know, this year, everyone’s abuzz about one thing: the absence of Mark Rodkin . . . oh wait, there he is.” In a way, Computer Chess is like turning that line into a movie. The result is that Computer Chess has the dramatic urgency of a sports movie, which is made all the more compelling once we accept the sense of seriousness and inevitable celebrities that can only exist within this weird culture. But the like Her, it’s a meditation on mediation and identity and the way all that changes when we explore and attempt to think about technology on a deeper level. The film’s DIY style meshes perfectly with subject; this is no art movie, it’s the one of the most entertaining movies of recent memory.

  • No. 1: Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen Brothers’ best work in years (which is saying a lot) once again captures a milieu with a mix of artificial regionalism and naturalistic realism. Its bleakness is offset by the hopefulness of the music, and the Coens show the way it became a part of business and commercial interests and could not be contained by it. Played by Oscar Isaac in what I think is the year’s best performance (he sings!), Llewyn is kind of a jerk, but he’s also floundering and lost and trying to make a life through the integrity he refuses to give up. Even though the Coens make him suffer, they still like him. All the performances are great, and the film is a funny and loving pastiche of beat and folk cultures. This scene might be my favorite and the funniest of any movie this year:

The aesthetic riffs on the cover of Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, but the glorious style extends to road-side diners and academic’s apartments. The mix of hope and misery made it seem schizophrenic to some, but I was compelled every step of the way.



Alternate Oscars – 1976

I’m going to start picking what should have won the Oscar in a given year. At first, I thought I should provide a lengthy description of why I’m doing this, but that seems pointless: I’m doing it because I think it’s kind of fun to think about. The Academy Awards are pointless and infuriating, but their existence prompts conversations about movies, which is basically what this is. These are argument starters. Here are some criteria:

  • I choose the year using this random number generator. I’m starting with 1970, just because, and it’s unlikely I’ll go any further back.
  • I’m limiting myself to the big three categories: Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Actress, though I might mention an oversight here or there.
  • I’ll be referring to (and in some cases will be inspired by) Danny Peary’s wonderful but sadly out of print book Alternate Oscars, in which he does what I’m doing only in detail and better. All of Peary’s choices are listed here.
  •  I’ll be sticking to five nominees in each category, no matter how it actually played out. I still insist this is the best way to do it, and Mark Harris offers a more persuasive argument than I can.
  • My choices will be neither entirely objective or subjective. I might pick something because it captured the zeitgeist, or I might pick something because it’s an unquestioned classic. Or not. The academy has whims and so do I. But time has shown us that Out of Africa and Gandhi are boring but “important” movies that no one talks about anymore while Dazed and Confused and Memento are awesome and increasingly relevant, so I’m in a better position to judge that than they were.
  • In other words, I have hindsight – as I do below, I might be political in giving the award to someone who gives a knockout performance over someone who will be frequently nominated.
  • Just to narrow things a bit, I’m going to stick to American or English releases, and keep “foreign film” in its own category. The Academy is weird about this, as you’ll see below, in which two actresses from foreign films were nominated, and one of those foreign films (Face to Face) clearly could have been a favorite for best picture. I don’t really have a rationale for doing this, it just seems like it makes things less complicated. If a film has American or British actress or an American or British production company/distribution (like The Artist or Life is Beautiful), I might reconsider.

With that said, here’s my first year: 1976

Best Actress

  • Their pick: Faye Dunaway, Network
  • Nominees: Marie-Christine Barrault (Cousine, Cousin), Talia Shire, (Rocky), Sissy Spacek (Carrie), Liv Ullman (Face to Face)
  • My pick: Sissy Spacek, Carrie
  • Nominees: Geraldine Chaplin (Welcome to L.A.), Faye Dunaway (Network), Audrey Hepburn (Robin and Marian), Talia Shire (Rocky)


Dunaway’s power-tripping and amoral programming genious Diana Christiansen takes her sly sexiness as Bonnie Parker and turns it up to eleven. She’s at once intensely masculine, hopeless neurotic, and dangerously feminine. Yet while it’s a career-defining role, its as much a product of the meaty dialogue she gets to deliver and the world she inhabits as Dunaway’s performance itself.  Dunaway was best at roles that required to be loud and theatrical, and she would never have a role like this again; Mommie Dearest would present her most magnificent piece of over-acting. In this case, she’s a close second. I choose Spacek because it’s so much the opposite: she invests the wilting flower protagonist of Carrie with equal parts silent strength and immature confusion. Spacek seems so out of place in the “scream queen” world of contemporary horror movies that Carrie can be viewed as a coming-of-age story and a domestic drama. In the years since, with several attempts to remake Carrie, all have existed in Spacek’s shadow.

Especially in contrast to the bold, socially adept teenagers around her, Spacek seems out of time and place. Without Spacek’s grounding performance, the movie completely gives itself over to Brian De Palma’s trademark stylistic excesses and leering voyeurism. So many of Spacek’s scenes are silent, which means she creates her character through scared glances and scary reactions, particularly in the bloody finale. As the film is careening and split-screening wildly around her, her sensitive take seems at odds with the movie she’s in, yet still stands out.

Best Actor

  • Their Pick: Peter Finch, Network
  • Nominees: Robert De Niro (Taxi Driver), Giancarlo Giannini (Seven Beauties), William Holden (Network), Sylvester Stallone (Rocky)
  • My Pick: Sylvester Stallone, Rocky
  • Nominees: David Carradine, Bound for Glory; Robert De Niro, (Taxi Driver),William Holden, (Network), Walter Matthau (The Bad News Bears)


Whenever Peter Finch’s Howard Beale appears in Network, he eats the movie – everything changes because of his prophetic, raving pronouncements. Yet Finch’s performance is clearly a supporting one (William Holden gets much more screen time); the Academy clearly elevated it because Finch had just died and they wanted to reward what was an iconic role. In my alternate universe, Finch wins Best Supporting Actor (sorry Jason Robards, who was great), and we get one of the closest races in the history of the awards – Sly Stallone vs. Robert De Niro. Both actors have roles of a lifetime as outcast losers who figure out a way in, though to drastically different effects. Both were New York actors in gritty, urban dramas. It could go either way, and I’m tempted to give it a tie. But while De Niro is obviously the better actor, I’m going to do a little politicking for Stallone. Also, in retrospect, De Niro would have several more opportunities to win this, and had won a supporting Oscar before in both a real and alternate universe for The Godfather Part II.

At this point, critics were comparing Stallone to Brando and Tango and Cash was years away – part of that was because of the way Sly was so understated and sweet. He lacks the lazy, slurring bombast that he would bring to “Cobra.” We like Rocky because he’s nice to caged dogs, sings along with street singers, and is a terrible loan shark. His scenes with Talia Shire are terrific; he would never have this kind of chemistry again with anyone, male or female. The final fight scene is so rewarding simply because it’s impossible to think of a character we’d rather root for. Part of this has to do with the fact that Stallone wrote the movie and refused to let anyone else play the role. Even in the later Rocky movies, Stallone would never again be this good; most of those performances are something of an increasingly ridiculous parody of this one. But what remains one of the most satisfying sports movies ever made is almost completely due to the success of its writer and star.

Best Picture

  • Their Pick: Rocky
  • Nominees: All The President’s Men, Bound for Glory, Network, Taxi Driver
  • My Pick: Taxi Driver
  • Nominees: All The President’s Men, The Bad News Bears, Network, Rocky


As I’ve argued, Rocky was the product of its writer and star, and I realize this downplays the achievement of director John G. Avildsen, who would only re-approach this success when he remade the movie as  The Karate Kid. But Rocky recycles urban tropes in an adequate way more than does much interesting with them: the film succeeds because of winning performances, a great soundtrack, and a great final fight. The nomination should have been the award. Of my five nominated films, The Bad News Bears is superior as a sports movie.

Therefore, I’m going with Taxi Driver. As great as De Niro is, it’s Martin Scorsese’s vision that captures a city, a moment, and a character. Whether with obvious visual language, such as when Travis hopelessly woos a girl on the phone and the camera veers to an empty hallway, or in the subtle moments where Travis is watching television and thinking God-knows-what, Scorsese films the ugly underside as no one ever has. Filtered through Travis’ madness, it’s a dark place that needs saving. We’re never sure how to deal with him – hope for his salvation, or turn him into the cops. Taxi Driver exemplifies the “new cinema” of the 70s in its darkness. The key to Travis’ madness is not that he looks in the mirror and asks, “You talkin’ to me?” It’s the next line – “I’m the only one here.” Taxi Driver captures that here, the scary milieu that either stimulates Travis’ madness or is a product of it; it’s to Scorsese’s credit that we’re never quite sure.

Other awards

  • B.S Actor – Them: Jason Robards, All the Presidents Men Me: Peter Finch, Network
  • B.S. Actress – Them: Beatrice Straight, Network; Jodie Foster, Taxi Driver
  • Stallone’s rival, Arnold Schwarzenegger, could have been nominated for B.S. Actor for his warm performance in the underrated Stay Hungry. So could Richard Pryor, in his best comedic performance in a movie for Silver Streak. But this was a strong year for supporting performances (Jason Robards, Ned Beatty, Laurence Olivier, Burt Young, and Burgess Meredith – Beatty is the only one I’d boot, just because he’s only in the movie for five minutes.)
  • While Haskell Wexler deservedly won Best Cinematography for Bound for Glory (a sadly forgotten movie), it’s ridiculous that Gordon Willis wasn’t even nominated for All The President’s Men.
  • As good as Jerry Goldsmith’s score for The Omen was, it should not have beaten Bernard Herrmann’s for Taxi Driver.
  • It’s just plain silly that Martin Scorsese wasn’t even nominated for Best Director, which is why don’t even consider it as at a category.

They said

  • Danny Peary: The Front, De Niro, Spacek
  • Golden Globes, Drama: Rocky, Finch, Dunaway
  • National Society of Film Critics: All the Presidents Men, De Niro, Spacek

This Song is Actually About Video Games

Full disclosure: for the last few months, I’ve been obsessed with Lana Del Rey’s song “Video Games.” I probably haven’t disclosed this because it’s a weird thing for a thirty-six year old man to listen to while jogging. And while “Video Games” fits my jogging playlist standards for inclusion (matches my breathing rhythms, rises to a crescendo after moments of repetition), I think my weird preoccupation with the song is based on a misinterpretation.

Because I’ve been meaning to write about the way song is the most damning critique of pre-and-post millennial hipster masculinity that I’ve heard at least since people started using the word “hipster” to describe people who know the names of all the members of Animal Collective. I based this reading primarily on the first verse:

I’m in his favorite sun dress
Watchin’ me get undressed
Take that body downtown
I say youre the bestest
Lean in for a big kiss
Put his favorite perfume on
Go play your video game

Now, perhaps it’s because I’d never actually looked at the lyrics before, and because I was usually jogging across a busy street when listening to it, but I assumed the lyrics were describing something different than those lyrics suggest: Lana is dressed for romance, while her dude just wants to play video games – a conflict that the rest of the song (I thought) plays out. Combined with Lana’s persona – a torch singer who would have been iconoclastic in the 1970s (her entire image construction seems impossible without the pre-existence of Joan from Mad Men), I assumed the song was laying into all the dudes drinking PBR and sitting on a bean bag chair and playing A Boy and his Blob as Lana Del Rey is wearing their favorite sundress. Lana is so hopelessly in love that she’ll reinvent herself again (I heard that you like the bad girls, honey / Is that true?), while some Dmitri Martin look-alike wanders around virtually to find out if there’s a way to get out of the dungeon without using the wizard key. Women continue to be awesome, while men have been increasingly ineffectual and detached. I thought that sentiment, savage yet exact, made the song damningly relevant.

But that doesn’t seem to be what’s going on here. It seems like Lana actually wants to play video games with her amour.  That’s her idea of a romantic evening, and it’s why she puts on a sundress. Or it’s a euphemism for sex, which is stupid. The consistent refrain doesn’t make sense in any other context, unless it’s ironic, and there’s nothing about the way Lana sings the song to suggest that. For instance:

He holds me in his big arms
Drunk and I am seein’ stars
This is all I think of
Watchin’ all our friends fall
In and out of Old Paul’s[?]
This is my idea of fun
Playin’ video games

In other words, Lana and her hunk snuggle up together and play ICE CLIMBER. That’s the romantic bliss the song is describing.

This blogger seems to affirm my reading, even though it has a different, empowering interpretation. She thinks it’s about a woman participating in a gendered setting, while I now assume it’s just a way of making the torch song culturally relevant. She says, “Despite all her lyrics about sundresses, perfume, and big kisses, ‘Video Games’ is mostly about playing video games” when I thought it was about sundresses, perfume, and big kisses and  heavily flannelled hippie-johnnies who would rather play video games.

When Lana Del Rey was widely mocked for her performance on Saturday Night Live, I assumed it was because this degree of anti-charisma combined with celebrity ambition was never going to work in this cultural moment. She wasn’t the kind of icon anyone was asking for, and that therefore she (and whoever else talked Lorne Michaels into putting her on) had made a huge miscalculation. But now I’m just baffled. Lana continues to be reasonably popular while remaining mostly out of the Top 10 List on Youtube. There’s room for her, in other words, but not at the top. But perhaps confusion – about what she’s trying to be and what her songs mean – is the most appropriate way to approach her. And I guess that’s why she remains on my jogging playlist.

(The video, by the way, explains nothing. Except that, like Lana Del Rey, it exists uncomfortably in the present and the past).