Recently, my partner got season nine of The Simpsons on DVD. Perhaps suggesting our age, this was the last season either of us watched in its entirety upon original broadcast. We’ve caught episodes from season ten on in syndication, and I marvel at how the show has maximized high definition’s potential. We also saw The Simpsons Movie, which was more remarkable for the assuredly bombed woman who sang loudly to herself, yelled at Maggie for being a “cunt,” and called us “asshats” for telling her to be quiet before being escorted out of the theater. But for both of us, the ongoing series peaked 13 seasons earlier. The show may be sporadically hilarious and subversive, but like many successful television shows that go on for too long, it has also exhausted premises, developed a frantic tone, got further away from the family’s class struggles and feelings of mediocrity that made the show especially poignant in the early seasons, and dispensed with much carefully-crafted character development.
This last point seems especially true of Marge and Lisa Simpson to me. The show was never especially savvy with what to do with the tower-coiffed matriarch, who has dumbed down considerably in my estimation. The show’s predominantly male, Ivy League alum writing staff admit as such in several episode commentaries, noting that they rarely provided her with friends, struggled with ideas for a character so doggedly sensible, and sometimes relied upon female personnel to give her character development and narrative action (ex: season seven’s “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield” was written by Jennifer Crittenden).
But the family’s spiky-haired middle child prodigy was always the show’s center for me growing up. What’s more, Lisa episodes were penned by male writers and rank among the best of the series for me, though they tend to focus more on her relationship with Homer than with Marge. Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein’s “Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy” is my absolute favorite, but it’s in rich company with Jon Vitti’s “Lisa’s Substitute,” Dan Greaney’s “Summer of 4 Ft. 2,” Mike Scully’s “Lisa’s Rival,” Greg Daniels’s Emmy-winning “Lisa’s Wedding,” and David S. Cohen’s “Lisa the Vegetarian” (note: Oakley and Weinstein were show runners from seasons 7 and 8 and were replaced by Scully for 9-12 to develop the animated series Mission Hill; Greg Daniels went on to co-create King of the Hill and adapted the American version of The Office). So you’ll excuse me if I get snotty and say that Lisa has no business lip-syncing Ke$ha’s butt-stupid “Tik Tok.”
Much of why these episodes work so brilliantly, apart from the writing, is to do with the animators and animation directors working in accord with voice actress Yeardley Smith, whose distinct performance captures so much nuance around the heartache, loneliness, and ironic detachment that often comes from being the kid sister of a popular kid and is too smart for her surroundings. As creator Matt Groening often points out, Lisa is the only character he envisioned leaving Springfield. He and many other show personnel counter this by claiming her as the show’s tragic character whose ideas and actions are often thwarted or go unnoticed. Several smart girls can relate.
However, while I have noticed a slight lapse in Lisa’s all-too-precious perspicacity as the series has gone on, I recognize that she’s still a smart girl committed to change. To echo Jonathan Gray’s claims in Watching The Simpsons, Lisa remains the longest-running feminist character on television.
One thing I especially like about Lisa is her interest in music. Assuredly, she’s motivated in many other areas, including environmentalism, writing, and film-making, among others. But I always delighted in seeing Lisa strut out of Mr. Largo’s band practice while belting out a saxophone riff, as the director clearly doesn’t know what to do with free-thinking talent who have exceeded his teaching abilities. She has also used her musical aptitude toward political change, rallying her father Homer and his co-workers with her acoustic guitar and an impassioned protest anthem when they staged a strike at the power plant for better health benefits.
Having recently watched season nine’s “Lisa’s Sax” (written by past and current show runner Al Jean), I was touched while relearning the origins of how Lisa came to the jazzy woodwind instrument. Unable to afford admission into a ritzy private day care for their accelerated toddler, Marge wracks her brain for a way to encourage her daughter. Homer ends up forking over money he was saving for a new air conditioner when a chance visit to a music store presents Lisa with her artistic calling. I think it was a wise investment.
Check out my penultimate “Tuning In” entry, where I look at how Lady Gaga and Kiss inform Glee‘s “Theatricality.”
I’m in Eugene and will be here for a few days. Thus, I’ll be infrequent. In the mean time, check out today’s Tuning In entry on Glee‘s “The Power of Madonna” episode. Feel free to “express yourself” in the comments section.
I’ve always had a special place in my heart for King of the Hill. It kind of lost its footing after being on the air for so long, but I stand by season twelve’s “Lady and Gentrification” (aka “the hipster episode” aka “what happened to Austin’s East 7th Street”). I also stand by a touching finale, which left us with the image of propane salesman Hank Hill grilling with his son Bobby. Other reasons are as follows.
1. I’m a Texan. And while, like Friday Night Lights‘ fictitious Dillon, the location of Arlen is flexible — while the name of the town comes from Garland, sometimes it seems like Temple, other times Nacogdoches, other times Elgin, and other times Waco — both shows do a great job capturing the culture, values, and pace of life in small town Texas. By the way, I grew up in Alvin, which sounds a lot like Arlen and was filled with dudes just like Hank Hill. Some of them were my friends’ dads.
2. Bobby Hill might be the queerest ostensibly heterosexual pubescent boy American prime-time network television has ever offered us. That he was voiced by Pamela Adlon definitely adds a layer of queerness that, say, Nancy Cartwright can’t offer Bart Simpson. Also, Bobby cracked me up.
3. In the wake of Brittany Murphy’s tragic death, hearing her voice come out of Luanne Platter is strangely poignant. And while she eventually became woefully underwritten in the service of creating more screen time for her husband Lucky Kleinschmidt (and Tom Petty, who played him), I always liked Ms. Platter. Especially whenever she was fixing cars or skating in the derby.
4. Señora Paddlin’ Peggy Hill. While her skills as a substitute junior high Spanish teacher were questionable, her hubris got her into trouble, and she never owned the term “feminist,” I always admired her. For one, she was voiced by avowed feminist Kathy Najimy. Peggy herself had formidable Boggle skills, was a professional muser, and had a mean pitching arm. She jumped out of a plane with a faulty parachute and lived. And she never took any guff from her misogynistic father-in-law Cotton, but made friends with just about anybody, including prostitutes and drag queens. For a list of other awesome things Peggy did during the show’s thirteen-season run, I highly recommend checking out the Consumed issue of Bitch.
Best of all, Peggy was always trying to gain professional skills and broaden her personal experiences. This led her to become a successful realtor later in the series. But she was always trying to better herself. For example, in season two’s “Peggy’s Turtle Song” she picks up the acoustic guitar and takes lessons from a feminist instructor played by Ani DiFranco.
Now, I think this episode takes an unfortunate turn. As was often the case with King of the Hill, Hank tended to know best. So what was originally an episode about Peggy trying to find her own voice and growing critical of her marriage becomes a retreat from feminist dogma and back into her husband’s arms.
But I don’t think we should discredit Mrs. Hill’s angst, as she never lost it. Throughout the series, she proved herself to be a peer to her husband and never let herself settle. She stayed restless and opinionated. And I’m pretty sure she kept that guitar.
After last night’s assessment of Nine, I’ve still got screen musical adaptations on the brain tonight. So I thought I’d draw our attention to one more, and add music video that references screen musical stars from the genre’s golden era, and another that recreates an 80s blockbuster many believe to be a screen musical of sorts (and whose protagonist shares a version of my namesake).
If you want to note that all three of the artists are women of color and international pop sensations praised for their dancing and maligned for their limited vocal ranges, gold stars for you. If you want to weep over the slurred, siliconed mess Paula has become and hope that Glee does an all-Janet episode, shake your fists at FOX. If you want to posit what it means that these movies seem to have influenced the performers and may tap into their dance training and on-screen personae, let’s chat in the comments section.
First up is an oldie but a goodie from my youth. While I hadn’t seen Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz when Paula Abdul’s “Cold Hearted” started its rotation on MTV, it’s pretty clear that its takes its from the movie’s “Take Off With Us” section. As if the direct mention wasn’t enough in the clip’s introduction, let’s compare the two. Warning: contents hot, and sexy.
Forever Your Girl
Directed by David Fincher
And here’s the source material, created by a director and choreographer who seems to have gotten women like Abdul, Madonna, and The Pussycat Dolls dancing (the last act going so far as to take cues from Sweet Charity‘s “Hey Big Spender“ for “Buttons“). Also, something tells me warm nuts are served on this plane. (Rimshot) Acid probably is too.
The next one is also from my youth, released at around the same time from a woman whose early video work Abdul choreographed. Janet Jackson’s “Alright” is an homage to the film musicals of Cyd Charisse, the Nicholas Brothers, and Cab Calloway. I especially love Janet in a zoot suit. Click on Ms. Jackson’s name and enjoy.
Rhythm Nation 1814
Directed by Julien Temple
And here are the pop star’s and music videos’ influences. The first one comes from Singin’ in the Rain, while the second one is from Stormy Weather.
Finally, we have a clip from former In Living Color fly girl and Jackson back-up dancer who makes an appearance in “That’s The Way Love Goes.” Jennifer Lopez’s “I’m Glad,” a song about her big feelings for then-boyfriend Ben Affleck, retells the entire story of Flashdance, focusing on four dance sequences from the movie, especially the climactic audition scene. Unlike the source material, which utilized two trained dancers (one male) as actress Jennifer Beals’s doubles, I believe all J.Lo does all the dancing.
This Is Me . . . Then
Directed by David LaChappelle
And here are some of the dance sequences in question.
Dammit, Glee. Quit hogging the posts!
I don’t intend to catalogue all of the events of “Vitamin D” (which ended with a double doozy — I know I’m gonna love Sue, the blythely devious cheerleading coach played with aplomb by Jane Lynch, mixing it up with the glee club; I don’t feel similarly about Emma’s impending nuptuals). I will say, though, that I liked Kurt’s alliance with the girls and Rachel’s alliance with pregnant cheerleader Quinn (who is dating Finn, Rachel’s crush). I also happen to think kids who abuse pep pills are funny. Ask Lisa Simpson. Or Jessie Spano.
What I will highlight briefly is that I thought the show’s use of mash-ups were interesting and fun. I highly doubt that kids these days are stringing together Usher with Bon Jovi for strongly-regulated school competitions (my killjoy hunch is that Ohio, much like Texas, has a regulatory body that rules what songs are acceptable or legal to perform). However, that this increasingly ubiquitous format has become so mainstream that no one really seems to care if Danger Mouse pairs Jay-Z with The Beatles or Girl Talk combines Notorious B.I.G. with Elton John speaks to how drastically the way we hear music has changed over this decade.
Or does it? Because the other interesting thing tonight’s made-for-TV mash-ups made clear to me is how similar this is to a time-honored musical tradition: the medley. That the songs just happen to be from different artists opens up the suggestion that popular music is in constant dialogue with itself, contending generic conventions and its attendant identity baggage along the way.
As tonight’s episode was a battle of the sexes, I will keep in character and side with the girls. While I usually do this anyway, I think their mash-up was way better than the boys strained Danny-Zucco-by-way-of-The Strokes routine to Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life” and Usher’s “Confessions,” which just played too faux macho and triumphant. Also, I think I heard a bit of AutoTune doctoring with Finn’s solo, which is an automatic dq. You better bring it next week, fellas. 😉
I think the girls totally brought it. Mercedes’s selection is Beyoncé’s “Halo,” perhaps an essentializing choice for the show’s lone African American character, but a lovely ballad nonetheless. It is paired with female-led band Katrina and The Waves’s “Walking on Sunshine,” a zippy new wave ode to urgent, addictive sexual ecstacy. I even like the mismatched yellow dresses fine. Initially, they brought bridesmaids to mind instead of girl groups. But I reconsidered after thinking about how the wardrobes may reflect each girl’s personality. Also, I wonder if the sunny color, which alludes to both songs, is a conscious choice to provide contrast to the myriad of dreary social and economic issues that Rachel hilariously rattles off to the judges prior to the girls’ performance. I wouldn’t put it past these girls, and don’t it feel good?
You know what? If Kristen Chenoweth, Lea Michele, and Liza Minnelli were in the periphery of yesterday’s Scarjo post, let’s make today’s post be all about them and their awesome pipes.
So, if you’re watching Glee, you might have been so excited to see a TV show that closed with a rousing rendition of Queen’s “Somebody To Love,” getting at least one person closer to her goal of seeing it performed by an entire dramatic ensemble like the “Wise Up” scene in Magnolia.
More importantly, you might have been won over by Chenoweth and Michele’s duet on “Maybe This Time.” (BTW, thanks Neesha for making me think to spotlight this scene.) Followers know the cruel irony of this song’s inclusion in a series as deceptively sad and desperate as this one. Chenoweth’s April Rhodes is a washed-up former glee clubber with a surprising amount of Jerri Blank’s warped charm. Michele’s Rachel Berry is a talented, go-gettin’ ingenue who is just barely hiding how profoundly lonely she is.
You may also recognize the show’s not-so-secret gift of making the sheer cathartic power and physical release of a pop song or musical number to make both the singer and the spectator transcend to a higher plane (for a more abstract example of how the corporeality of singing can reinvigorate both parties, I’ll point you toward the Patrick Daughters-directed music video for Grizzly Bear’s “Two Weeks,” wherein the four-piece are so overjoyed by the power of singing, their heads catch on fire as I get goosepimply).
If we dig a little deeper, the Minnelli reference comes in. “Maybe This Time” was originally written for Bob Fosse’s film adaptation of Kander and Ebb’s stage musical, Cabaret, which Rachel is starring in (and a real high school would almost certainly never stage, even though I begged our choir director for us to do it). The musical, adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin, involves the doomed romance between Cliff, an American journalist, and Sally Bowles, a blindly determined British showgirl who makes the decision to stay in 1930s Berlin just as Hitler is starting to get a chokehold on Germany while her partner flees back to the states. In the movie version, Bowles is American, and played with put-upon worldliness and brittle vulnerability by Liza Minnelli, who won the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance.
Admittedly, if the song Glee had chosen was “Cabaret,” which was in both the stage and film versions, Liza’s version of it would add another layer of readability, as it’s impossible for me to hear this version of the song, which is performed right at the moment when Bowles’s personal life is going to hell, and not think of Mama Judy Garland.
But I think these twin versions of “Maybe This Time” speak to a few key issues particularly poignant to women and girls’ relationship to musical theater and to the outside world: the gendered masquerade of happiness for the sake of upholding spectacle, the ability to stop time and transmorph because of the aural spectacle of your own voice, and the strength your voice has to keep you persevering. Because the push you’re looking for to get through the next set of insurmountable odds might be found by landing that high note.