Experiment #7: ‘Pitch Perfect’

Most of the stuff I’ve looked at for this Experiment has been familiar from my carefree, pre-Ladyist days, but one of the purposes of this project was to drive myself to check out things I might have otherwise missed. It’s in this spirit that I gave Pitch Perfect a go.

Those of you who follow my everyday Twitter account will already know how I felt about it.

And I really did want to like it! There were so many promising things about it, not least of which is the incredible Anna Kendrick. She dominated Scott Pilgrim vs The World any time she was on screen, and showed off serious dramatic chops in Jason Reitman’s Up In The Air. If you still need other reasons to love her (YOU HEATHEN), check out her being an Excellent Human Being on Twitter:

Still aren’t convinced? Come back to me in 2 minutes and 43 seconds with a different answer.

For all my high hopes, I wasn’t let down: Anna is the only reason this movie holds together, in spite of a script that reduces her character, Beca (not a misspelling on my part), to “eyeliner enthusiast and headphone model”. She brings a sense of humour and resilient attitude to the role, and can almost make you forgive the mess of unnecessary plots. Beside her, Rebel Wilson gets the only halfway-defined character in the whole movie, and delivers just the right balance of slapstick and sincerity to Fat Amy that keeps her from being reduced to Wacky Chubby Girl.

Apart from St. Anna, there are a bunch of other strong (or at least well-intentioned) parts that save Pitch Perfect from being a total disaster. If nothing else, it’s nice to see a movie that doesn’t reinforce the idea that women are naturally in competition with each other. Given that the story follows the Bring It On model, it’s encouraging to see that the antagonists are a male a cappella group, the Treble Makers, and that the conflicts within their own group are more to do with tradition vs. innovation.

Most of the film’s flaws have to do with the shoddy script, trying as it does to pull Beca into a completely unearned love triangle with the college DJ and one of the Treble Makers (not to mention the forced relationship between her father, which the script seems to forget about). The Romeo and Juliet setup with Chip, or Bort, or Starscream, or whatever her love interest’s name is, feels like studio tampering rather than coming out of any real need in the story, so it leaves the film groping for a climax it doesn’t have when they kiss at the end (OH NO SPOILER wait this won’t really ruin the movie if you’ve seen any movie before ever).

Then there’s the issue with the film’s central idea: a cappella singing is not a natural fit on screen, and director Jason Moore doesn’t know how to shoot them to make it work. The arrangements are fine (if a little flat), and the choreography is fluid and energetic enough to fit the context, but their final, allegedly show-stopping performance doesn’t have the punch to finish the movie. John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks provide most of the movie’s real laughs in their roles as a cappella contest commentators, but the complete isolation from the rest of the movie points to them being added as punch-up, smoothing over the long and often tedious singing segments with more entertaining dialogue.

Given how harsh I’ve been so far, you might be surprised that I’m positive on the idea of a sequel. Pitch Perfect 2 is in pre-production now, and there’s the possibility that it will learn from the mistakes of its predecessor. For instance, Elizabeth Banks is apparently stepping up from her producer role and taking over as the film’s director. That’s encouraging: she’s got a sharp eye for film choices as a producer (ever heard of The Hunger Games?), and she’s got a terrific sense for comic timing. If she can bring a more interesting vision for the a cappella routines, Pitch Perfect 2 could be even bigger than the original.

It’s worth nothing that Pitch Perfect was like a proto-Frozen in a lot of ways. While it didn’t quite hit the same heights as Disney’s ice-musical, it made a significant impact for a soundtrack, having sold over a million copies since its 2012 release, and becoming the best-selling soundtrack of the digital era (until Elsa and Anna came along, of course). Certainly there was a Glee-ish element that helped it along, but, in contrast to the TV series’ rapidly declining sales, Pitch Perfect kept ticking over well after release. As has been the case with a few of the things I’ve looked at here, it seems safe to suggest that there’s demand for young women to see themselves represented on screen, and maybe be part of a group of girls who aren’t constantly in-fighting.

Let’s just hope the sequel is a little less slut-shamey. I have faith in you, Ms Banks!

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Experiment #6: Neko Case — ‘The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight…’

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Neko Case’s The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You is more than just the single best title for a record ever. It’s an album that’s stayed with me for months, partly because there’s no album like it that I know. It’s restless and inventive at every turn, refusing to settle into any obvious genre. Yes, there’s a basic underpinning of rock in the structure of some songs, and an indelible hint of alt-country in the way she sings, but descriptors like that can’t begin to contain Neko any more than the Opera House could contain that tempest of a voice. On top of all that, The Harder I Fight… is the peak of her gift as a lyricist to date. Sometimes opaque, sometimes painfully bare, her stories are as devastating as the voice that delivers them. It’s an album that grows with every listen, and listening again today was no exception.

It seems to be something of a pattern in this Experiment, that I find myself listening to familiar things and hearing them with new ears (please adjust this metaphor to whatever other medium you choose). The Harder I Fight… is no different, struck as I was by the one-two punch of ‘Man’ and ‘I’m From Nowhere’. I hadn’t missed the clenched-teeth defiance of ‘Man’ and its furious bridge (“a woman’s heart is the watermark/by which I measure everything”, which would make a terrific motto for the Ladyist Experiment, I think); what had slipped me by was the more subtle resistance of ‘I’m From Nowhere’.

(Listen to the whole song, so I don’t have to include every single piece of brilliant lyric)

Softer and more reflective than ‘Man’, it’s no less a definitive statement on gender roles and the obstacles women face in performing businesses like the music industry. The simplicity of a line like, “you say I’m lucky to be here/but I’ve been driving for 21 days” buries the venom at its heart; once she sings, “if you only knew/what my candied fists could do”, though, that challenge is clear. She’s earned her place, and she’ll be damned if she’ll some patronising fuckers get in her way.

I wish I could sing along. That’s a big wish, since Neko’s voice is a force of nature, but it’s also a side-effect of this Experiment that I hadn’t considered earlier. My own baritone voice, perfect for singing along with the likes of Johnny Cash or Matt Berninger, falls apart in the registers more common in my current music collection. It seems obvious, but I’m a little surprised at how much that has thrown me. I’m no professional, but singing along is a huge part of connecting with music for me, as I’m sure it is for lots of people. To be relegated to singing backup or lower harmonies has forced me to reflect on how lucky I am to have my voice so often represented. Since grand, melismatic vocal styles are so prized in female singers, I imagine more accessible, imitable singers would mean a huge amount to those who felt unrepresented by the Mariah Careys of the world. That said, let’s not discount the allure of a great voice: Idina Menzel has become a name familiar to millions after the unique success of the Frozen soundtrack and ‘Let It Go’ in particular, so clearly there’s some resonance there, too.

Or maybe I’m making too much of it. Does being able to sing along matter to you? Am I being an essentially rockist twit for assuming as much? (Probably). What do you sing along to, technical ability notwithstanding?

Experiment #6: Neko Case — ‘The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight…’

Experiment #5: ‘Stuff Mom Never Told You’ [Podcast]

The term “ladyist” comes from stand-up comedian Maria Bamford’s 2001 Comedy Central special. I’d link to it here, but the only place I could find it online is geo-blocked, so trust me when I say that it’s a great set. If you aren’t familiar with Maria’s comedy, she’s a brilliant and inventive comic, whose unpredictable voices and manic grin soften you up for incisive observations about the social attitudes to women, mental illness and depression (and it’s way more fun than I’ve made it sound here). Go check out her latest album, “Ask Me About My New God!“, which showcases some of her funniest and most vulnerable material to date.

I obsessed over that special in the early ’00s, when I was hooked on stand-up. Even then, I recognised something totally different in Maria — not simply because she’s a woman, but because of that complex relationship between her sweet-natured delivery and its more incisive message. The phrase, “I support the ladies; I’m a ladyist” has stuck with me, and seemed a perfect fit for this experiment. The biggest appeal is the silliness of the word itself: it’s meaning is clear, but the construction is so foreign that it undercuts any self-seriousness. Even so, it struck a nice balance between identifying the female focus of this project without infantilising women (‘girl’; ‘girly’) or reducing me to stiff, biological terms. One working title for this experiment was ‘The Double XX Axis’, complete with a cutesy plan for a graph-based rating system, but I couldn’t get past the fact that it’s a pretty boring title. That, and it focuses too much on gender as genetically determined, which I was also anxious to avoid. On top of all that, I was, and still am, very cautious about using the term ‘feminist’ or ‘feminism’ in the context of this project, even though the principle is, I feel, feminist in nature. I never want to be seen to be preaching about the ways in which feminism must be enacted or defined; at its heart, this whole affair is about a boy being more thoughtful about the pop-culture he consumes, nothing more.

After all that, I panicked a little when I started listening to Stuff Mom Never Told You, an excellent podcast that’s mainly concerned with women, and in particular the complex expectations placed upon women. Again, I’m making it sound like a terribly dry affair, but it’s anything but: hosts Cristen and Caroline are naturally charming, and their curiosity and wit make this podcast fascinating and fun. In the last few weeks, it’s rapidly become one of my favourites: like Radiolab, the conversations are so wide-ranging and well-informed that you leave each episode feeling smarter.

The first episode I listened to happened to be very relevant to this Experiment: “Hey Ladies!” saw Cristen and Caroline dig into the etymological roots of the word ‘lady’, and its very complicated history. This is where I panicked. Mere days before, I’d committed to the Ladyist Experiment as a name, but in all my over-thinking, I never considered the loaded meanings of ‘lady’. Was I wrong in my choice of name? (Maybe). Do people find the word unpleasant? (Sure). Cristen and Caroline’s discussion let me off the hook for the most part, thankfully, but it was a reminder to me that I’m on foreign soil here. In a way, this is one of the goals of this Experiment: to root out the lazy thinking, the unchallenged assumptions in the way I think about women, and replace them with more respectful, considerate and nuanced modes of thought.

Thanks for the wake-up call, SMNTY. I hope it won’t be the last.

Experiment #5: ‘Stuff Mom Never Told You’ [Podcast]

How ‘Wham Bam Pow with Cameron Esposito’ was everything I was looking for.

Part of the drive behind this project was the need to hear fresh voices. It seemed like my podcast feed in particular was crowded with indistinguishable voices, the same opinions on the same things in an infinite loop. Probably no coincidence, then, that so many of the podcasts I listened to were dominated by men. It’s not like I listen to footy shows and download car commercials; this is in the less traditionally male domain of a pop-culture nerd, but even so, the women’s voices were surprisingly few. It was stifling, and one of the starker changes when I began this Experiment.

One of the shows that survived was Wham Bam Pow with Cameron Esposito. I’d listened to the beginning of their 39th episode before my April 1st cutoff, and wasn’t immediately hooked. I left it sitting in my feed, Downcast silently judging me for having only “partially listened”, for weeks. Looking back on it now, having finished the episode tonight, I was probably a little premature in my judgement; not only had I barely listened to 20 minutes, it’s also an ensemble podcast, and they tend to grow on you. One of my all-time favourites, NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, was not an immediate love, but as you listen and learn about the people (as well as their tastes, their biases, and so on), you build a connection with them.

So it was that I found myself converted to Wham Bam Pow. It seems odd now to look back, and realise that this podcast, which fit so neatly into what I’d wanted, was sitting on my phone this whole time, but it took a famine for me to see its value. When I picked it up this evening, Cameron (along with panelists Rhea Butcher and Ricky Carmona) was talking about Spike Jonze’s film, Her. I’m unabashed in my love of Her, even though I can see plenty of issues with the gender dynamics. And mostly, I  found my opinion repeated back at me on other podcasts and reviews, with greater or lesser degrees of emphasis on said gender issues. It was even more stark, then, when Cameron and Rhea gave a number of well-articulated and considered opinions on the film’s flaws. Most of their criticisms were valid observations about the film’s portrayal of women: you can argue about the dynamic between Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlet Johansson, but they were rightly unimpressed by the treatment of Rooney Mara’s character, and the Joaquin-centric nature of Amy Adams’ role. Ricky’s opinion of the film was closer to my own, but the moment I found most interesting came when Cameron (or Rhea — I’m still new, and can’t always differentiate their voices) pointed out the different ways in which men and women seemed to experience this movie. That was what sold me. This is exactly the kind of voice I wanted to hear more of: one that is different to my own. And it was right under my nose all this time.

I still like the movie, Her. Cameron and Rhea’s criticisms are totally valid, and will factor into my experience of the movie when I watch it again (some time in 2015, probably), but aren’t enough to spoil the film entirely. What I will relish, though, is the contrasting voice. If it does nothing more than challenge my opinion, and help me to sharpen my argument, then it can only be a good thing.

You can check out the episode I listened to, along with heaps of others, on iTunes or here.

Give it a listen, and let me know what you think. If you have any other podcasts made by and starring smart, opinionated women, please tell me! I’ll run out of episodes of Stuff Your Mom Didn’t Tell You too soon if I keep devouring them at this rate, but that’s a subject for another day!

How ‘Wham Bam Pow with Cameron Esposito’ was everything I was looking for.

An itch to scratch

I may be mere days in, but this experiment has a weird knack for revealing challenges I’d never considered. Now, that might just say something about a lack of foresight on my part, but, like hide and seek, it doesn’t matter if I’m ready or not.

The latest obstacle came about after a shitty work day on Saturday. Once I got away (45 mins late, mind you), I realised that all the music I’d reach for when I’m low is now out of bounds to me. I tend to be homeopathic in my music choices, so a mood like this usually calls for stuff like Bill Callahan or the National: sombre, miserablist stuff, for sure, but also very masculine. Deep voices, spare lyrics and country-ish inflections aren’t a sole preserve of the menfolk, but they’re far more common in male performers. So where do I go to scratch that itch without ruining this project in the space of days?

Start with Gillian Welch. Similar in timbre and tempo to Mr Callahan, her reflective, melancholy brand of Americana carries a kind of gravitas that leaves you breathless, even if the ‘country’ section makes you break out in hives. Her borderline-perfect 2001 album, Time (The Revelator), is an excellent introduction, and its closing track, ‘I Dream A Highway’ is a 14 min epic that seems to drift by in moments. Just don’t forget that you’re on a bus; I’ve missed my stop more than once because of this track.

 

Sometimes Gillian just isn’t enough to soothe what ails you, and that’s ok. On those days, flick your way down to Waxahatchee‘s album, Cerulean Salt. My love affair with this record was instant and deep: something about Katie Crutchfield‘s direct, bare-bones recording style speaks to my lo-fi heart. There are a handful of fuzzed-out power-pop numbers to get your heart rate going, but the slow numbers are what kept me coming back. I listened to this album endlessly in 2013, and went through phases in which each track on the album was my favourite, so choosing one to show you is difficult. Give ‘Hollow Bedroom’ a spin, and tell me you aren’t in love before she hits the chorus.

 

Other suggestions worth trying out:

Kimya Dawson – ‘Loose Lips’. I’ll never not tear up at this song. I genuinely believe Kimya when she says, “remember that I love you”.

 

Sleater-Kinney – ‘Entertain’. Sometimes, quiet and reassuring just won’t cut it. On those occasions, crank this and kick arse.

 

What Ladyist-friendly stuff do you turn to? Suggestions are not only welcome, they’re positively encouraged.

An itch to scratch

How much have I bitten off?

Well, it didn’t take long for the reality of this project to set in. Have you tried watching TV and not seeing men? You’ll wear out your remote, I tell you. I’d turned over to Mythbusters when I got home for light, brainless viewing without thinking, but it took me a beat to realise what I’d done. Flicking around, I ended up turning the TV off entirely rather than contend with the mass of Y chromosomes on display (figuratively, of course). There are worse fates, certainly, but it was an early insight into how hard this experiment might be.

The next clue was my music collection. Previously, I’d thought myself quite inclusive — plenty of women, for sure! But now the list was staring back at me, and it suddenly seemed so small. It was too early in the morning to be told by your iPhone that you’ve been lying to yourself. The glass-half-full perspective is that it forced me to give a few more listens to the second Best Coast album (better than I remembered, but still a bit aimless compared to the first one), and pull out the Lemuria album that I’d acquired at some stage in the past few years (sweet, crunchy power pop of the exact kind I worried I’d miss without access to Surfer Blood or the Lemonheads). The other positive is, of course, the new-found liberty to buy more music, which I duly exercised this evening.

I grabbed Sky Ferreira‘s debut, Night Time, My Time, and Laura Mvula‘s album from last year, Sing to the Moon. I’d heard a little of Laura’s record at work, but hadn’t had much chance to dig into it. The Janelle Monae-style soul flourishes had stayed with me, but slipped my mind, so I was thrilled to have my friend Lamar remind me of it and give me a second turn. Check out the first track and its neat little papercraft/flipbook video, ‘Like the Morning Dew‘.

Another friend, Catriona, had been lovely enough to make me a Spotify playlist to help me on my Ladyist journey (you can have a listen here). It’s a nifty mix of the familiar, the foreign, and a few foreign artists with whom I should have been familiar by now: case in point, Joni Mitchell. As a direct result of Catriona’s playlist, I had ‘Both Sides Now’ in my head all day, so I capitulated to both years of pressure and my internal radio, and bought a best of. I’m not usually a Best Of type of listener, but Joni’s collection is so big that I thought an overview would be a good starting place. I also grabbed Chelsea Wolfe‘s album, Unknown Rooms: A Collection of Acoustic Songs mainly because I like the cover (my reasoning can’t always be deep and meaningful).

On a brighter note, I very nearly missed my bus stop coming home this evening, so lost was I in Patti Smith‘s autobiography, Just Kids. Have you read it? If you haven’t, grab a copy now, regardless of your feelings about her. I’ve always admired Patti’s music more than I’ve enjoyed it, but I find myself enraptured with her writing. Even if you knew nothing else of her, you can hear the poet in the way she writes, though her prose is nothing so flowery or pretentious as that might suggest. I’ve been in a bit of a rut with reading lately; it saddened me to reflect on how much I used to read compared to my more scattered reading habits nowadays. Just Kids has me wanting to cram in time for it at every opportunity, though: waiting at the bus stop; getting coffee; on my break while I eat. It’s captivating, and a pleasure, and I can’t wait to finish it. (Can make a slightly old-fashioned suggestion, grab a physical copy if possible. The paper stock is soft and lovely, ready to soften at the edges and brown under your fingertips, showing all the signs of a well-loved book.)

How much have I bitten off?