Posts from July 2012

July 21st, 2012

Prepping for the Worst in the Penny Press!

I thought I went into the new issue of Rolling Stone fully prepared for the worst it could throw at me. How could anybody not shift into aggressive-defensive mode when spotting that cover, when seeing a magazine that used to define ‘cool’ in mainstream music appreciation giving its storied cover-slot to a musical nonentity like Justin Bieber? True, the piece is written by Josh Eells, who’s about as reliable a producer of smooth, good copy as you’re likely to find east of the Pecos (despite being, I sense, younger than the socks I’m wearing), but I worried regardless, because the long ‘profile’-type pieces being scared up out of the shrubbery like jackrabbits by the success of Bieber’s latest album (and the star’s much-ballyhooed quest to be considered a full-grown man instead of an eight-year-old YouTube hit) have all tended to read like studio-generated publicity jobs rather than articles written by real people for real people. Rolling Stone recently anointed Bieber’s album with critical praise, after all, and the magazine’s producers have got to know what having ‘the Bieb’ on the cover in a white tank top will do for their salesĀ  – surely, I thought, those things are reason enough to wonder if even a first-rate writer like Eells might not have felt some editorial pressure to go easy on the kid.

Eells goes easy on the kid. Infuriatingly easy. At one point he echoes the same impression every other profile-piece writer has had when actually following Bieber into the recording studio:

Every once in a while, in keeping with his duties as a professional music star, Justin Bieber participates in the making of music. It doesn’t appear to take long – he works in chunks of 45 minutes or so – but it’s the part of the process he loves the most.

They all write this, these super-smart profile-writers, and they all write it in just this way, so perfectly arch and positioning – and then they one after the next refuse to land the punch. One writer (was it GQ? Esquire?) actually includes the detail that Bieber was eating while he was doing one of these recordings; it’s a Krusty the Clown/SNL happening right in front of their eyes, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why not one of them has decided to write it. Surely not every commissioning editor in the country is craven? Surely not every such profile is so stringently vetted as to leave only this pureed puffery behind? Eells is no fool: he knows as well as I do that people tend to do the ‘part of the process they love the most’ – not rather conspicuously do anything but – and yet the word ‘fraud’ never occurs in his article, nor the word ‘stupid’ even though all the direct quotes Eells uses support no other conclusion, nor the word ‘alcohol’ or ‘tobacco’ even when Eells himself steers the talk in that direction:

He’s been through all the manly rites of passage: He graduated from high school and got his first credit card, and also had his first paternity case (it was later withdrawn; there’s a song about it, a la “Billy Jean,” on Believe).

Even that last little parting gesture is something a flak rather than a journalist would make; ten minutes of digging around would have given Eells a pretty clear picture of why that case was withdrawn (hint: there’s just the slightest chance that money changed hands – i.e. that it wasn’t withdrawn because it was false), but there he is piping up with the standard-issue ‘part of the process he loves the most’ defense of a kid who’s as close to being surgically brainless as anything this side of The Walking Dead.

Likewise, I thought I went into Jonatham Lethem’s little one-page squib on Batman, “the only human superhero,” fully prepared for how ridiculous it could be. Lethem, the author of a watery novel called The Fortress of Solitude, is, to paraphrase Paul Krugman (who was paraphrasing Gawd knows who), a dumb person’s idea of what a ‘comic book expert’ is like, so I suppose it was only natural for Rolling Stone to get him on the phone rather than, say, the razor-sharp and delightful Gregg Hurwitz. But even so, I ended up being no more fully prepared for Lethem’s inanity than I was for Eells’ servility. Right off the (you’ll pardon the expression) bat, we get this:

Perhaps Batman endures because he has a good name and a good mask, a nonclown costume, and no superpowers. The least infected by the absurdity of his category, he gives that hopeless category some small possibilities. Superman wears choo-choo-train pajamas; Batman wears an athletic version of a suit and overcoat. He’s our first and most essential superhero.

This sort of tripe is a part of life for Superman fans such as myself. I’m accustomed to the usual jabs about Superman being unrealistic, being aloof, being a big Boy Scout, and I expect such jabs to continue for years, especially since director Christopher Nolan’s cinematic take on Batman has garnered such critical applause (and it doesn’t help that the new teaser trailer for next year’s Superman movie is rather dull). Nevermind that Lethem and his fellow hipsters (needless to say, he starts the piece in mandatory hipster fashion, by telling us an anecdote about his young son in tones that are meant to be both ‘I’m an adoring father’ and ‘my kid is so much better than yours’) have things precisely reversed: Superman is an adopted son of a hard-working, decent Kansas farming couple, and he’s raised in the ethos of unassuming duty to others – which is a hell of a lot more ‘human’ than an eccentric, narcissistic billionaire running around at night scaring the crap out of people in dark alleys. Superman’s Kryptonian parents fought for his survival with their last breaths; his human parents raised him to be humble, dutiful, and kind – we don’t know anything at all about Bruce Wayne’s parents, aside from the fact that they were wealthy; for all we know, they’d have raised their son to be a Wall Street junk bond corporate raider – as it is, he was raised by his butler. As all the character’s best writers have shown, Batman is in many ways the least human superhero.

And then there’s that business about their costumes. Who knows what Lethem’s getting at here, with that choo-choo train/suit-and-overcoat nonsense. Disallowing any recent ret-cons (which would be sauce for the goose in any case, since they’d apply equally to both), this is Batman’s costume:

And this is Superman’s:

As anybody except, apparently, Jonathan Lethem can see, these are pretty much exactly the same costume. Et choo-choo, Brute?

Like I say, I was prepared for all this going into Lethem’s article. Then I got to this bit:

If Batman is a barometer of collective feelings about authority and state power, then Adam West was a yippie’s image of Batman, the equivalent of nominating a piglet for president. In any era, we get the Batman we deserve. The Chris Nolan version takes Frank Miller’s brilliantly reactionary nihilist Batman of the Eighties and leaches out all the tragedy – leaving a state-sponsored psychopath Batman for our era of triumphalist remote-control revenge. He’s the manned drone of 21st-century urban warfare.

… as soon as I read that incomprehensible part about nominating a piglet for president, I realized that whatever else Lethem might be doing in this piece, he’s also engaging in that most popular indoor sport among the Brooklyn hipster set: he’s writing out his ass. So I turned the page.

But no amount of preparation would have been enough for the brutal, unrelenting first paragraph of the great Bill McKibben’s essay “The Reckoning,” in which he takes his career-long alarm about the speed and consequence of global climate change and sharpens it to lethal acuity:

If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven’t convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this summer, here are some hard numbers about climate change: June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10 to the negative 99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe. Meteorologists reported that this spring was the warmest ever recorded for our nation – in fact, it crushed the old record by so much that it represented the “largest temperature departure from average of any season on record.” The same week, Saudi authorities reported that it had rained in Mecca despite a temperature of 109 degrees, the hottest downpour in the planet’s history.

The whole piece is like that – a duty of every intelligent person to read, yes, but a mighty damn tough duty. The sheer power of it makes up for everything else in the issue, ready or not.

January 14th, 2011

Inauguration Storms in the Penny Press!

It’s naturally a bit daunting to open the legendary Open Letters PO box and find the waxy, inhuman features of talentless android/congenital idiot Justin Bieber emptily smirking back at me.

But Vanity Fair, which sports a cover photo of this most noxious Canadian import of them all, is too good a magazine to fling away in horror, so I braved not only the photo but the accompanying article (lack of talent? Confirmed. Android status? Confirmed. Congenital Idiocy? Screams from the rooftops) – pitying the poor slob of an interviewer who had to try to make something out of this soap bubble for 2000 words (she tries her level best to make things interesting to anybody but a hyperventilating 12-year-old girl, but although I pride myself on being hyperventilating 12-year-old girl, my interest flagged). It was worth it, I told myself, to get to the good stuff.

The issue had a great deal of good stuff, as it always does, but how could I not give top honors to Todd Purdum’s luminously happy account of the “tidal wave of glamour, promise, and high spirits that descended on the capital for the 1961 inauguration of the youngest president ever elected, John F. Kennedy”? I’d most likely have enjoyed this piece more than anything in the issue even if it had been poorly done – but that’s thankfully not the case here: Purdum keeps a very nice narrative flow going, and he has a great eye for anecdotes.

There are anecdotes in endless supply, about those heady two days in Washington (wags among you will ask if I was there, despite my oft-repeated assertion that I am, in fact, a 28-year-old stone-cold super-hottie, but in point of fact I wasn’t present for the occasion), about everything from the cavalcade of stars who showed up to ham in the spotlight (Harry Belafonte, Jimmy Durante, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Milton Berle, Gene Kelly, Ella Fitzgerald, Ethel Merman, the mighty Mahalia Jackson, and many more) to the unexpected and almost-crippling snowstorm that hit the capital at the exact same time.

Washington very famously paralyzes in inclement weather, and this storm ended up stranding entertainers, dignitaries, and well-wishers in all kinds of awkward combinations. Comedian Bill Dana remembered being stuck in a station wagon with a royally ticked off Ethel Merman: “I learned a lot of swearwords I didn’t know existed from the lovely mouth of Ethel Merman.” And the new White House social secretary, Letitia Baldridge, was stuck for two hours in a car with a Secret Service agent and a reporter, until they finally convinced a shop owner to open up and sell them some scotch. “We had our own little gala,” she remembered, “We got out of the car at one point and danced in the snow.”

It couldn’t help but strike a chord in me, of course, especially since Purdum interviews Russell Baker, who was covering the event for the New York Times and shared an anecdote about Times columnist Arthur Krock, who was also caught in the storm that night. Krock started off his career 52 years earlier, covering the Taft administration, and that set the bells ringing right there – since of course President Kennedy wasn’t the first 20th century president to have Mother Nature attend his inauguration.

The same thing happened to President Taft on March 4th, 1909, when a stinging, sleety, bitterly cold snowstorm struck Washington just in time to make a mess of all the preparations for the big day – most of which had featured outdoor events. Suddenly, seats under hastily-improvised canopies were selling for the moon, and spectators who’d counted on hearing a bit of that rolling, adenoidal Taft oratory were stuck with hearing about it from the relatively small crowd who could fit into the Senate chamber. The new president’s wife accompanied him from the ceremony in an open-topped horse-drawn buggy, and that was just one more thing that made Taft’s security detail nervous. His detail was larger than any previous president, not only because of President McKinley’s recent assassination but also because candidate Taft had received some nasty letters from lunatics who, believe it or not, disliked the fact that he was a Unitarian (the president-elect was never shown the worst of these letters – a sound procedure that remains in effect today).

Even in the black-and-white photos of the day, you can see the tension in those men, walking at even intervals alongside the presidential carriage, many of them with coats draped over their arms despite the cold – in order to conceal the pistols they had at the ready. The poor sap who insisted on being closest to the new President (you can partially make out his less-than-fashionable beaten-up brown derby at Taft’s right elbow if you try, and there are probably closer-up photos out there somewhere – and he was one sufferer among many that day in any case) got his shoes full of ice-cold slush for his troubles, but the day went off without a nefarious turn of any kind.

Ditto JFK’s – all motorized, thank God – and Purdum does a wonderful job of capturing the excitement and fun of the time. Here’s hoping he’s working on a book about it all, before many more of the eyewitnesses die off.