Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Deep Throat

As thrilling as it is to now know that Deep Throat was assistant FBI director W. Mark Felt, the details of the revelation are a little disappointing, and, if you want to be cynical about it, sickening.
He's 91. He was coaxed out of secrecy by a lawyer employed by his daughter Joan, who's been quoted by the Post and Vanity Fair as saying that she hoped the revelation would generate enough money for her to "pay of some bills" like her children's college loans.
Woodward, who had kept and romanticized the secret, didn't want any part of the revelation, because he didn't believe that Felt was mentally competent to change his mind about the anonymity pledge they had all taken.
To look at it most cynically: Joan Felt, perhaps financially desparate, saw a way to cash in on her father's heroism, realized it would be more profitable if he were still alive, and convinced/tricked the mentally enfeebled old man to spill it. The legend has died. At least now my Republican friends will quit claiming it was (now Senator) Bob Bennett.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Nice Nice Bo Bice: A few thoughts on American Idol

Well I was going to blog throughout the show tonight, but my daughter kept ripping my phone chord out (that's right, I have a dial-up). It's now 8:45 CDT, and we're about to find out who the idol is. The lead-up was actually quite impressive: it was a medley of five songs featuring all twelve finalists with "their idols." It began with Carrie Underwood singing "God Bless the Broken Road" with Rascal Flatts, featured George Benson with Scott Savol and Nikko Smith on "On Broadway" and ended with Bo Bice fronting Lynnard Skynnard on (what else) "Sweet Home Alabama." I voted for Bo (actually I could only get through the busy signals once), but the judges seem to be hinting that its Carrie (their praise of her was much more generous today than yesterday, as was their criticism of Bo. They all claimed to know it was her from the beginning, but last night they were non-commital with a strong tilt toward Bo. They're not supposed to know, but they're such insecure whores, I'm sure they insisted on knowing just so they could sound smart.)

Well, it's Carrie. Now I know the judges were warned. She will not have the career that Kelly Clarkson has had. I think 19 Entertainment will exercise its option and sign Bo as well, and I think Clive Davis will produce his album (Clive was visibly impressed last week). I think Carrie's limited appeal will actually work to her benefit: 19 won't work her to death like they're doing with Kelly Clarkson, nor will they try to change her like they tried to do with Clay Aiken (Aiken of course, was able to weasel out of his contract, I would guess, because it was found to be unconscionable. 19 is both manager and record label, which presents a conflict of interest).

Poor Kelly's voice is almost gone, just as she's getting really good songs to sing. "Since You've Been Gone" is one of the best on top 40 radio. The New Yorker reported that she insisted on the punky, Pretender's-esque production, which the magazine cited as an example of her asserting her independence. I wish I could believe that. I think she's going to be sharing a bunk with Mary Kate Olsen if she doesn't somehow convince 19 to let her slow down. (She got four days off between world tours.) She could get out of her contract claiming unconscionability (there's a strong public policy reason not to let 19 destroy her voice) but she probably wants to hold onto the dream.

Well I want to say something profound about why we still love American Idol, but my throat hurts and I should get to bed. I will just say this: although it started in England, American Idol is a perfect microcosm of the American capitalist ideal: everybody acts out of self-interest, everybody wins, and nobody takes their own feelings too seriously (it's just business after all).

The contestants get to sing on TV. If they're really bad, like William Hung or the girl that opened tonight's show with the national anthem, they become a national object of ridicule and can make a career out of being good sports. They're better off than they would have been without it.
If they're good enough to make the final 12, they may have to endure a few harsh comments and ultimately get voted off, but they still end up in a much better position than if they had to build a career the old fashioned way. That's why there are no hard feelings after they leave, and they willingly come on subsequent episodes and a national tour and sing their hearts out.

The judges, too, get to be in the limelight. Paula Abdul would be relegated to VH1 "where are they now" without the show. Randy would stay in the liner notes of hundreds of CDs and would have had no incentive to get his tummy tuck. Don't even get me started on what the show has done for Simon Cowell.

The songwriters and artists who created the songs sung by the contestents get ASCAP/BMI royalties and more exposure than they could have ever dreamed. Rascal Flatts can thank the show for making him (them?) a crossover artist. George Benson played his butt off tonight for probably his widest television audience ever in his redition of "On Broadway."

Of course the biggest winner is Simon Fuller's company 19 Entertainment. It gets: the number 1 show with the accompanying multi-million dollar contract, a management contract with an automatic star, a recording contract with an automatic gold record and a bargaining position that allows it to get way more than its share. It's only a matter of time before the contract gets declared null and void and we lose Idol. (Actually, Bo might be the most likely to challenge it in court). Oh well. Let's enjoy it while we can.


Monday, May 16, 2005

Who is Craig Berman?

He is the guy who recaps Amercan Idol for MSNBC's ubiquitous website on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and from his articles, we can divine the following things:
1- He is a freelancer.
His tagline "Craig Berman is a writer based in Washington D.C." tells us he is not on staff. (For nine months, I was "a San Diego-based arts writer" for the Union Tribune)The fact that MSNBC would use a freelancer on its front page, which is the default log on page for most Windows browsers, shows that all of their staff writers probably thought recapping American Idol was beneath them.

2-Entertainment is not his area of expertise.
His forced, unconvincing emulation of "American Breeziness" (the standard voice of all entertainment writers at "serious" news outlets) is a clue, but the sheer stupidity of his opinions is the dead giveaway. Coming immediately to mind: his characterization of ousted contenstant Scott Savol's personality as "without charsima" and "unmarketable" shows he has never seen a TRL interview with a "tough" hip-hop artist. Savol's tough guy act is as marketable (and as carefully crafted) as Keri Underwood's sweet country girl charm. Thankfully, each of Berman's articles only include one such editorial comment; the rest of his "opinions" are merely a softening of Simon's comments.

3-He never watched the show before this season, but feels the need to pretend that he did.
Most glaring error: he mistakenly recalled John Paul Stevens (the Mormon kid from Idaho with goofy, Elvis-like moves who lasted a little too long last year) as a "Frank Sinatra-style crooner." He did this more than once, and, tellingly, the New York times repeated his error in a passing comment in an American Idol article. (Who would think fact checking would need to go beyond your internet start-up page?). There may have been a Frank Sinatra wannabe last year, but I don't think he made it to the top 12. It certainly wasn't old JPS.

4- He has less understanding of pop music than an average lay person.
Most glaring example: when Simon correctly predicted that Bo's mugging rendition of "Freebird" would land him in the bottom three (Simon called it a "desecration of what many feel is a sacred song") Berman reported that Simon simply didn't like the song. Then, in his only break from Simon to date, Berman opined that it was strange for a music executive not to know "Freebird." This is the work of someone who, while possibly familiar with Freebird, had no context in which to place it or Simon's comments. If Simon's comments go over your head, you need to find a new gig.

The following narrative emerges: Craig Berman came to Washington D.C. because he thought he could get a job in or covering government. (Maybe his wife or significant got a job there, and he hoped to freelance). MSNBC is under a lot of pressure from its duel owners to be hip and trendy, and, like Dennis Quaid in his most recent movie, the editorial staff resents this intrusion by young, Topher Gracian corporate climbers. Mirroring the contempt their corporate overlords show for their talents, the editors assign a random freelancer from their resume file to watch and report on American Idol every week.

This is a petty thing to get my panties in a not over, except that it is indicative of a larger cultral phenomenon: pandering with contempt. Another example coming immediately to mind is the horrid "jazz" CD "Blue Note Plays the Beatles." With the exception of the tracks "Day in the Life" and "And I Love Her" all of the tracks are insipid, thoughtless run throughs of Beatles songs by jazz musicians who honestly believe that any rock n' roll, including the greatest of all time, is unworthy of a second thought. They forget that many of the jazz standards are 1940s pop tunes with simpler chord structures than the better Beatles' songs. Drummers and horn players are the most vulnerable to this myopic view, because their instrument gives them no sense of the big picture of music or songs. On the CD, Blue Note lists each "arrangement" of a Beatles song as belonging to the most famous musician on the track, so drummer Tony Williams is listed as the one responsible for the insulting, mindless and utterly meaningless horns arrangement of "Blackbird."
"Blackbird" is every bit the equal of "My Funny Valentine" in terms of aesthetic and musical sophistication. By not granting it its due, Williams (or whomever was in charge) showed he has none of the vision or understanding of Miles Davis or Coleman Hawkins.
(I'm angry at Blue Note, because I was duped into buying the above CD at B&N, which lets you listen only to snippets of the first 6 tracks. I couldn't hear Blackbird before I bought (it was track 9) but I decided to take the venerable label's word for it. Never again!)

Getting back to MSNBC: if they were serious about covering American Idol, they could hire one of the many rabid fans who post to the sites website.

Getting back to Berman: He's now best known for American Idol, and probably will be passed over for a serious news job. He's also done such a crappy job that he's precluded himself from an entertainment writing gig. Too bad, because I imagine he's a pretty good writer when he's covering something in his sphere of knowledge: the articles are tightly structured, and his sentences flow well.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Inaugural Post

Welcome to my blog! Wow! That was so easy to set up. I can't believe I put that off until after finals. My name is Rick Mortensen and this is my blog. I stole the name from a weekly column I wrote for the Daily Utah Chronicle during my senior year of college, and I chose it because 1) it's easy to remember and 2) it reminds me of a time when journalism was fun. You see after I accidentally graduated from the University of Utah (really! they mailed me a diploma!) I got married and moved to San Diego, where I freelanced for the Union-Trib and a mind-bogglingly ill-conceived website (not conceived by me of course) called levelred. That went on for 9 months until I got a full-time gig with the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario California. The Bulletin was the third-Easternmost paper of the 6 or 8 paper group known as the Los Angeles Newspaper group. The whole group had been bought and packaged together by magnate Dean Singleton shortly before I got there, and during the three years I stayed, I got to watch its descent from a reasonably good local paper into a soulless, mindless cog in a wholly mediocre journalistic machine. One good part of my stay there was that I maneuvered myself into covering Los Angeles Opera for all the papers in the group (for over a half-million readers). I loved the Opera, but hated the other music critics I met at premieres and press conferences, and realized that, if I perservered for a few more years, I could, if I were lucky, have one of their jobs and be just as useless and miserable. It was time to get out, and, after some false starts, I'm now in law school in Des Moine Iowa, slated for a December graduation.

It wasn't just the Bulletin and the other critics I hated. It was the whole process of writing about art and entertainment that was starting to wear on me. I enjoy interviewing people and going to events, but it was hard to shake the sense that I wasn't doing much good in the world, and that the subjects that I covered often just saw me as a necessary evil. I had a constant sense that I was being patronized -- even when I wasn't, and thus, felt a strong urge to show my subjects how smart I really was. Entertainment journalists can respond in one of two ways to the little voice in their head that tells them they're worthless: they can deny it and start to believe that they really are brilliant and important and deserve all the occupational fawning and perks, or they can pay heed to the voice and start to hate the people they write about for being such ass-kissers. The second type often get out.

So here I am in Des Moines, slogging through law school and writing an opera based on a historical sports figure and the contradictions in his life. (I don't want to reveal more, for fear someone will steal the idea. That's how paranoid I get at 2 o'clock in the morning after my last final). Did I mention I was a piano almost-prodigy and my undergrad is in music? Well it hardly matters. What does matter is I have an adorable one-year-old daughter named Julie who needs a father who will support her financially and while setting a good example of how to follow your bliss. Wish me luck