Falling Star*

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* There are spoilers in this blog post.

It took me a while to get around to seeing the latest iteration of A Star Is Born. I’d seen two of the previous three versions and figured I knew the story backwards and forwards. And I was somewhat right. The Oscar-nominated fourth version doesn’t really break new ground except to give us some beautiful new ballads in the Lady Gaga oeuvre and to make us aware that actor Bradley Cooper has some musical chops.

But as Cooper, who directed, co-wrote, and starred in the film, says in a special features extra, there is something so timeless and powerful about this story of gaining and losing stardom, of love against the odds. In each of the four versions of A Star Is Born, a movie or music star falls in love with an unknown talent, whose star begins to rise as his begins to fall.

The latest version of Star is particularly good at depicting the ruthlessness of the entertainment world, which deprives a person of privacy and is pitiless when that star fumbles. In a chilling scene towards the end of the movie, Ally’s manager tells her addict husband Jack, “We’re not friends,” and goes on to chastise him for jeopardizing Ally’s career and to assure him she’d be better off without him, indirectly impelling Jack to take his own life.

The film also shows that the business side of artistic creation can sometimes be damaging to the art. Jack becomes disgusted with the pop star package Ally has become, with dyed hair and backup dancers and inane songs about sexiness. Although his hurtful criticism is tinged with envy and fueled by alcohol, he does have a point. The Ally he fell in love with, musically and personally, seems compromised by the demands of fame.

Artists often pay a high price for their gifts. Many of our greatest painters, musicians, composers, and writers have been tormented by mental illness or substance addiction. They have often lost any semblance of a family life as they became consumed by both their artistic visions and their demons. Perhaps those demons are what compelled them to become artists in the first place.

In any event, A Star Is Born shows us the high price of stardom, the loneliness of artistic minds, and the choices we make for love. While I’m not sure we needed yet another version of this timeless story, I did enjoy the soulful journey taken by these two characters as portrayed by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper.

And I’m still haunted by the lines of the song Ally and Jack sing together:

When the sun goes down
And the band won’t play
I’ll always remember us this way

 

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The Soundtrack of Our Lives

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The other day I heard “Shallow,” a Grammy-award winning song from the movie A Star Is Born. I must confess to having been underwhelmed. Maybe that’s because I haven’t yet seen the film and thus have no context for appreciating the song.

It has often been true for me that the associations I make with a particular song affect how much I enjoy it. For example, I had always found John Lennon’s “Imagine” to be a bit of a dirge. Then I heard it played at the very end of the excellent, devastating Cambodian war film The Killing Fields. As the hero walks across a field to the safety of a Red Cross refugee camp, Lennon’s words took on new poignance for me: “Imagine there’s no country. … Nothing to kill or die for. … Imagine all the people living life in peace.”

A similar example is the 80s song “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds. Like many tunes of that time period, it sounded to me as if the lead singer were under water. But when the song closed out the popular John Hughes film The Breakfast Club, it felt more like an anthem for the youth of America.

In that era, MTV was extremely influential in the wedding of the visual with the auditory. The station began as a platform for music videos with VJs instead of DJs introducing and commenting on the current hits. Many actresses and models got their breaks after being featured in these popular videos. And once you’d seen the music video, it was impossible not to think of the images when you heard the song on the radio.

Many songs bring back memories that make them more special than they might otherwise have been to us. I will never forget cruising around aimlessly with my high school friends as “The Boys Are Back in Town” blared from the car stereo. Similarly, songs like “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Evil Woman,” and anything by Boston take me back to my freshman year in college when I was just learning to be on my own. The song “Brick House” always conjures a smile as I picture myself with my good friend Barb out on the dance floor showing off our moves. And I will always be grateful to the Eagles for picking me up with the song “Already Gone” as I was coming to terms with a romantic breakup.

Moving forward musically in time, I have found a satellite radio station called PopRocks that brings me back to the early 2000s when my kids were just starting to get into popular music. One day back then I was driving my daughter and a couple of her friends somewhere when the Eminem song “Without Me” came on the radio. To my total surprise, the girls started belting out all the words to Slim Shady’s popular rap song. I knew then that the days of Disney-themed pop were behind us.

Music will always offer a backdrop to the times of our lives, good and bad. Our associations based on movies, television, and our own life experiences form a powerful connection to particular songs and even sometimes entire albums. I’ll have to give “Shallow” another shot after I see the movie from which it originates. It just may become one of my favorites.

 

 

Baby, It’s P.C. Outside

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On a recent long drive, I heard five different versions of the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” While the 1944 Christmas classic has always been played at this time of year, I suspect the reason for its renewed popularity is that some radio stations have banned it on the grounds that it references sexual coercion.

In light of the #MeToo movement and the conviction of Bill Cosby, who drugged women and raped them, the song’s lyric, “Say, what’s in this drink?,” has taken on sinister overtones. Critics argue that the woman in the song keeps saying no and the man keeps refusing to take her “no” seriously.

But the full context of the song paints a different picture. The woman is mostly worried about appearances: “The neighbors might think,” and”There’s bound to be talk tomorrow.” It’s clear she wants to stay: “At least I’m gonna say that I tried.” And she keeps accepting “maybe just a half a drink more” and later “a cigarette more.”

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is an old song that reflects very different sexual mores. It would have been considered improper for a woman to spend the night at a man’s place. Her family would be upset, and people would gossip. There was also a double standard (which, sadly, still exists today) that men were expected to pursue women openly while women had to act demure and as if they were too virtuous to want sex.

So is the song sexist and retro? Yes! But I don’t think that is grounds for banning it from airplay. There are so many songs from the past that have sexist and downright disturbing lyrics. Take the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb.” It’s all about how the man has asserted dominance over his woman. Isn’t anyone offended by the lyrics, “the way she talks when she’s spoken to?” And how about “Run For Your Life” by the Beatles: “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man.” And don’t even get me started on the lyrics of a lot of current music.

I realize that part of the brouhaha over “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is that it’s supposed to be a feel good holiday song. I understand why people find it offensive. And certainly, no one should be forced to listen to it or any other song to which they object. But to ban it? I personally cannot watch the movie “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” due to the racist portrayal of an Asian character by Mickey Rooney. But I’m not interested in preventing others from watching it. Nor do I consider them racist for liking the film. The level of sensitivity to what offends us these days has gone overboard.

The irony of the “BICO” ban is that the song seems to have become more popular than ever. Obviously, people don’t want to be told what they should or should not listen to. So let’s lay off “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Frankly, I’m getting really sick of hearing it.

Birdland

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There are birds nesting all over my front porch. They seem to like the ledges under the porch roof for building their homes of twigs and other plant matter. And while I complain that the nests themselves are unsightly, it’s so much fun to peek out the window and see baby robins lifting their little heads up looking for mama bird.

Today my world is a bevy of bird activity. I hear bird calls of all kinds, some sweet and lilting like a song from Snow White, others like miniature drills rat-a-tatting away. And there is a group of brown birds with soft red heads flitting back and forth from the rooftop to one of the nests on the porch. It looks as though the young ones are having flying lessons.

Birds seem like nervous creatures, always jerking their heads here and there, looking out for predators, no doubt, such as the giant hawk that soared over the house earlier today. Yet they themselves are predators, hopping across lawns searching for worms and grubs to feed themselves and their hungry young.

In the quiet of the morning, it’s peaceful to hear the birdsong and think of the busy avian life going on in our trees and on our front porch. I’ve always wondered what the nightingale sounds like, trilling away in the dark while other wildlife sleeps. On the famous Beatles’ song “Blackbird,” you can hear the melodic lilt of a real blackbird  singing.

In years to come when I have more time on my hands, I plan to take up bird watching. I’ll buy binoculars and maybe even one of those jaunty hats to wear out in the forest. Perhaps I’ll join a birding club so that I can learn more about the fascinating world of birds.

All in good time. First I need to have an empty nest of my own.

Fab Four

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I was just a little girl when the Beatles came on the scene in the mid-Sixties, but I quickly caught Beatle fever. The four English lads with dark mops of hair had an infectious sound and personality that made toes tap and girls swoon. I spent many an hour clad in white vinyl go-go boots dancing in the family basement rec room to Meet the Beatles, The Beatles Second Album, and Beatles 65.

This past weekend, I was able to reminisce about the Fab Four by listening to a weekend-long show on Sirius XM Radio’s Beatles channel. Hosted by music producer Peter Asher, the “All Together Now” show featured the top 100 Beatles songs as voted on by listeners. Although I might have quibbled with some of the listeners’ choices, I enjoyed the musical tour through Beatles history, punctuated by arcana from the knowledgable Asher.

Having not only been a music producer during the Beatles’ rise to fame but also a close personal friend, Peter Asher is well qualified to discuss the intricacies of their music and to share the personal stories behind many Beatles songs. In fact, Paul McCartney lived with Asher’s family for two years and wrote many of his beautiful songs in the Asher family home.

An interesting tidbit I learned was that the hit “Hey Jude” was originally titled “Hey Jules.” This makes sense since, as I once learned, Paul wrote the song to cheer up John Lennon’s son Julian when the Lennons were in the process of getting a divorce. John, for his part, wrote one of my favorite songs about his mother, Julia. McCartney also used many of his personal experiences to form parts of songs. For instance, the lyrics of “Let It Be” came from a dream Paul had of his mother. “Martha, My Dear” referred to Paul’s pet dog, and “Penny Lane” was based upon a street in his childhood neighborhood in Liverpool.

One of the most interesting details I learned was that Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” is a song about civil rights. In Paul’s words, “This was really a song from me to a black woman, experiencing these problems in the States: ‘Let me encourage you to keep trying, to keep your faith, there is hope.'” Indeed, as the Beatles evolved, their songs became deeper and richer in many ways. They also got in trouble with conservatives for some of their comments and lyrics. I still remember my father’s outrage when John Lennon declared that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus Christ. And the John Birch Society objected to the upbeat “Back in the USSR,” which I interpret to be a tongue-in-cheek take on the Beach Boys’ “California Girls.”

To this day, I have a special fondness for the Beatles’ early music. It was so upbeat, sweet, and danceable. It’s just not possible to be in a bad mood while listening to “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “Help!,” or “Happy Just to Dance With You.” I’m not such a fan of the psychedelic phase the Beatles had, in which all the lyrics sounded as if they were written under the influence of mushrooms or LSD. But much of their later music only improves with age. Soulful ballads such as “Let It Be,” “Something,” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” reveal a maturing foursome, ironically as the band started splintering.

There will never be another band like the Beatles. As I listened to song after song in the top 100, I realized that not only had I heard almost every single one many times, I knew most of the lyrics. The Beatles were a formative part of our lives in the 1960s and 70s. Hearing so many of their masterpieces this weekend, I realized that Beatles music will never get old.

The Beatles’ gift to music and culture is immeasurable. And I hope for each of them the lines of “The End” have held true: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

Celebrities: They’re NOT Just Like Us!

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jennifer-lawrence-oscars-2018-academy-awards.jpgThe magazine US Weekly has a feature titled, “Celebrities: They’re Just Like Us.” These pages feature photographs of famous people doing ordinary things, such as walking dogs, pushing baby strollers, and picking up dry cleaning. And while the photos show a decidedly less glamorous glimpse of these celebrities, it should be obvious to all of us that celebrities are not “just like us.” Otherwise, paparazzi would not find the need to snap pictures of them strolling down the street with their giant Starbucks drinks.

Last night the glitterati of Hollywood were out in full force to attend the most prestigious – and at 90, the oldest – entertainment awards ceremony in the country: the Academy Awards. As the decked out and bejeweled A-listers sauntered down the Red Carpet, onlookers in the stands cheered wildly for their favorite actors, singers and the like. Unlike the somber black that women donned for the Golden Globes as a #MeToo statement, last night’s nominees and presenters were adorned in bright reds, pinks, golds, and other happy colors.

Female and minority empowerment were definitely the theme of the evening, and at times Jimmy Kimmel got perhaps a bit too earnest about the industry’s attempts at fairness and inclusivity. Still, there were some refreshingly wonderful moments, such as Best Actress winner Frances McDormand’s somewhat kooky acceptance speech and her insistence that all female nominees stand up with her to show the world how far women have come in Hollywood.

As always, the musical numbers were overwrought and showcased the usual mediocrity of the Best Song category. My sister was apoplectic that The Greatest Showman‘s “This Is Me” lost out to the lame “Remember Me” from the Disney animated movie Coco.

I liked the fact that there were no sweeps by one movie this year, and I was fairly amused by the return of Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty to have a do-over of the calamitous Best Picture announcement from last year. I guess even celebrities are human, as are the suits at Price Waterhouse Coopers.

Human, yes. But I can attest to the fact that they are somehow a little different from us. For years I lived in Los Angeles and saw many famous people in those nine years, including Michael Jackson, Tom Hanks, Brooke Shields, Martin Sheen, Jack Lemmon, and on and on. In L.A., it’s not cool to go crazy over a celebrity sighting or approach a famous person for his or her autograph. We act as if they are just another ordinary person, but inside we are like, “OMG, OMG, it’s George Clooney!”

Celebrities are different, not just because of their wealth or the fact that they can’t walk down the street without being recognized. They are different because their roles create larger than life personas through their music or their acting performances. That is why the big movie studios used to guard the public image of their stars with ruthless tenacity.

And that is why we turn out in huge numbers to get a glimpse of these luminaries as they walk the Red Carpet. It’s why we tune into an overlong but magical spectacle called the Oscars. And it’s why, detractors notwithstanding, the Academy Awards will endure to celebrate their 100th anniversary and beyond.

Music or Lyrics?

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tdy_klg_terms_151113.today-vid-canonical-featured-desktopMy kids thought it was hilarious one day when they heard me singing the pop song “I Can’t Feel My Face.” My son informed me, “You know that song is about taking drugs, don’t you, Mom?” Honestly, I didn’t. To me it was just an upbeat, bouncy tune that I liked. Now it’s tainted by my knowledge that it’s about cocaine-induced numbness.

So many popular songs today have dubious subject matter and language. Rap is an obvious example. But what about more light-hearted sounding tunes? Back in the Sixties, much was made of the “hidden” drug references in such songs as “Along Comes Mary,” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” “White Rabbit,” and yes, “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” Songs were routinely censored, and the Rolling Stones were forced to amend the lyrics “Let’s spend the night together” in order to perform the song on the Ed Sullivan Show.

With the advent of rap in the 1990s, Tipper Gore led the charge against profanity and violence in song lyrics and was successful in getting record producers to put warning labels on albums deemed offensive. When I hear some of today’s pop songs, my old favorite “Please Go All the Way” sounds positively tame by comparison.

The question is, which is more important, the music or the lyrics? I tend to go by the standard of the old pop music TV show American Bandstand: whether it has a good beat and I can dance to it. If so, it’s good enough for me. I’m reminded of a funny Chris Rock stand-up bit in which he describes young women gyrating happily to sexist and offensive hip hop songs. For the purposes of dancing or even getting from point A to point B in my car, the lyrics to a song are beside the point.

Yet meaningful lyrics can also bring so much depth to a song. Sometimes I take to a song with a monotonous tune because I love the meaning behind the song. A good example for me is “Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson. Another is John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which, let’s face it, is something of a dirge. But what lifts these songs for me are the words and meanings behind them. In fact, as a high school English teacher, I enjoyed using popular song lyrics as poetry in my classes.

In any event, musical taste is an individual thing, and I will continue to enjoy my bouncy pop or rowdy rock music, whether I like the lyrics or not. Just don’t tell me what “Cake By the Ocean” refers to. I don’t want to know; I just want to enjoy it.