Each day this month (assuming I don’t get busy or bored!), I’ll reflect on a tiny sliver of pop culture that I enjoyed or appreciated this year — scenes, shots, gestures, verses, sights, sounds, moments. Today: a documentary that foreshadowed the death of its subject and offered a moving tribute in the process.
Anyone who sees Barbara Kopple’s documentary Miss Sharon Jones after reading this recommendation will have a very different experience with it than I did in August. The movie’s title subject, an unflappable soul singer and cancer survivor, died last month from another bout of pancreatic cancer. Her perseverance, like everyone’s, had limits.
You might not get that sense from seeing the movie, though. Jones is energetic and ebullient throughout, even when she’s waiting on pivotal news in a doctor’s holding room or lying on the couch recovering from surgery. On stage, she’s a beast, backed by her band and proto-family of Dap-Kings. Offstage, she’s fiercely opinionated, never failing to speak her mind when she feels her bandmates are neglecting her or offer thanks when family friends help ease the pain of her illness.
Taylor Swift set us up to talk about the music video for “Bad Blood” for two full weeks before it premiered during last Sunday’s Billboard Music Awards. Despite Swift’s stacked Rolodex and the overstimulating aesthetics of the video, though, I’d much rather talk about something most people seem to have ignored: Kendrick Lamar’s guest verses.
First of all, it’s worth stepping back and realizing that ten years ago, Taylor Swift released a charming, low-key country single called “Tim McGraw,” and no one had the slightest idea who Kendrick Lamar was. (The top-selling rappers of that year were 50 Cent and some guy named Kanye West. If only we knew then what we know now.) Even at the onset of Kendrick Lamar’s rise to the top of the rap game, it was unthinkable that he would appear on the fourth single from any pop star’s new album. It was also unthinkable that Taylor Swift could be called, without irony or qualification, a “pop star,” as she is today.
(Photo by Kevin Winter/BMA2015/Getty Images for dcp)
Kanye West closed Sunday’s Billboard Music Awards with a medley of his current hit “All Day” and his two year-old album cut “Black Skinhead.” The performance elicited boos in the room and online, for different reasons. The audience objected to the introductory remarks from pop culture pariahs Kendall and Kylie Jenner and the blinding light that radiated from West’s stage setup, obscuring the performance from view.
Viewers at home objected to ABC’s decision to bleep out substantial portions of the audio from the performance. Such bleeps typically cover words the FCC has deemed profane. In this case, the bleeps covered entire verses of West’s two songs. The biggest ironies: the people let at least two swears slip amid the reckless bleeping.
It’s hard to know quite how to react to today’s news that American Idol will end its historic run on Fox next season after fifteen years on television. For at least ten of those years, the show tapped into the white hot center of the country’s pop culture conversation and dominated the ratings in every monetizable demographic.
But somewhere between the coronation of Phillip Phillips and the coronation of Candice Glover, the bloom started to wilt. Perhaps it was earlier than that, perhaps a little later. But the decay is undeniable, evident in the morning-after ratings reports, in the dwindling amount of online chatter, in the increasingly lackluster roster of superstars willing to devote time to the show.
Last night, I watched all three hours of the 2014 American Music Awards. It wasn’t always a fun experience. Head over to The Eagle for my grades of each performance.
“Welcome to New York,” the first track on Taylor Swift’s new album 1989, is not about New York. If you’ve heard the song, you already know why. It’s about a magical place filled with wonder and delight. That place does not exist. But Taylor Swift does, and the song is about her.
“It’s been waiting for you,” she chants. She’s projecting, of course. We’ve been waiting for her.
Midway through last night’s American Idol finale, Ryan Seacrest introduced a taped segment in which he explained every aspect of the show’s contestant process, from auditions to Hollywood Week, live shows and the finale. This segment served two purposes: it wasted time and insulted viewers, who would surely have preferred another musical performance instead of a generic explanation of the season of television they were about to finish.
This inept programming decision was one of many on last night’s glorified two-hour results show.