If I were writing a review blurb for The Handmaid’s Tale (the show, streaming on Hulu), it would look something like:

“…terrifyingly relevant! Five stars!”

I don’t remember how old I was when I first read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. It remains one of those books for me that changed me, left a mark. I reread it from time to time, mostly to remind myself of what I’m fighting for when I talk about feminism, and the right to choose, and women’s autonomy.

If you are unfamiliar, The Handmaid’s Tale imagines a dystopian future society called Gilead, which is a theocracy ruled socially and politically by white Christian men — Matt Walsh’s wet dream, basically. Women have zero rights; they aren’t even allowed to read. Because of environmental factors, the birthrate is very low. Women who have proven themselves fertile are conscripted to be handmaids to the ruling class. They lift this idea (and most of the laws of the society) out of the Christian Bible. Each time the commanders have sex with (read: rape) their handmaids, they read a passage from Genesis, the story of Jacob and his wives, sister Leah and Rachel:

“And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.” (King James Bible)

The story is told by Offred, the handmaid of The Commander (in the show, Commander Waterford).


If anything, the show is more terrifying than the book. The camerawork is almost uncomfortably intimate. Joseph Fiennes as The Commander is creepy af. What happens after her “transgressions” to Ofglen/Emily is horrifying. In short, LGBTQ people in Gilead are viewed as ‘gender traitors’, and punished, usually by hanging. But because Ofglen is a fertile handmaid, her life is spared; other parts of her, not so much. It’s truly shocking.

In one of the bitterest of twists, the show reveals that Serena Joy/Mrs. Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) came up with a lot of ideas for Gilead’s rule of law. The show gives her a depth of character that the book decidedly does not. She’s *almost* sympathetic. The casting in the show is younger than in the book, or at least that’s my impression. As a result, Mrs. Waterford seems to be in much more direct competition with Offred for the commander’s affection.

The show also gives us some back story for Nick (Max Minghella). It reveals Luke’s fate after the escape attempt. The show also gives us a very diverse cast, which I liked. When I read the book, I pretty much pictured everyone as white (duh), but the show is cast much differently.

Some of the most chilling moments from the show:

After The Commander’s first handmaid kills herself, which is shown in a flashback, as they are taking the body out, Mrs. Waterford looks at her husband and says, “I told you.”

In another scene, after an illegal game of Scrabble with the Commander, he tells Offred that they created the system of handmaids “for your own good…. You’re free now, to fulfill your biological destiny.” Offred says, “What about love?” and he dismisses her as if she’s a child.

This is the part of the show that scares me the most, probably. Because it’s not fiction that plenty of men (and not a few women) do believe that a system that takes choices away from women is actually freeing them for what they should be doing. Women don’t need to work; they don’t need access to reproductive health care; they don’t need to read. They should just submit to sex, conceive babies, and be happy.


The casting of Handmaid’s Tale is extraordinary. There is not a weak character. (Look for a cameo by Atwood in Episode 1.) Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia is amazing. She captures the zeal of the Aunts — women who have been chosen to “train” the handmaids in their new roles. Aunt Lydia is a true believer in Gilead. The comparisons comedienne Michelle Wolf made between Aunt Lydia and Sarah Huckabee Sanders weren’t about SHS’s looks. They were about SHS’s willingness to be a mouthpiece to the powers that be. I don’t know that SHS is as much of a zealot as Aunt Lydia — who is also quite the sadist — but both women are willing participants in the culture of lies and oppression, one fictional, and one very much not.

But all the credit goes to Elizabeth Moss who plays Offred/June. She manages to capture the surrealism of her situation while also recognizing the horror of it. Her facial expressions, and her voice as she speaks in the voiceovers, starts as incredulous — “How is this life?” But as the story goes on, she finds her core and her power. “They shouldn’t have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army,” she says in one of the last episodes of Season 1.

The show ends exactly where the book does (sans epilogue), so I am curious to see where Season 2 takes us.

If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it, but I will warn you: It’s not easy. It wasn’t easy to read twenty-plus years ago when I first discovered it, and it sure isn’t going to be easy now. The show is also quite difficult because it pulls very few punches. The characters in the show are not as one dimensional as in the book — which is scary. These could be real people in power; arguably they are. Don’t tell me VP Pence and his wife wouldn’t be perfectly content in Gilead.

Have you read The Handmaid’s Tale, or watched the show? What do you think?

Copyright for featured image: prasongtakham / 123RF Stock Photo

An Unsolicited Review of Thor: Ragnarok

In truth this isn’t a review of the movie. I enjoyed it immensely; it was an an unabashed romp through the Marvel world of Asgard. It’s fun when Chris Hemsworth gets to be funny! Tessa Thompson as a alcohol-swilling, over-the-shoulder winking, badass Valkyrie was a treat! And while Cate Blanchett will always be the elf queen Galadriel, it was delightful to watch her chew up the scenery as Hela.

Just one scene in the movie gave me pause, actually took me out of it for a moment. It is toward the end (so, spoiler alert). In it, Karl Urban, who plays Skurge, a glorified janitor in Asgard, leaps into action wielding two weapons from Earth. I don’t know enough about guns to be sure, but I guess they are meant to be semi-automatic rifles. As he explains earlier in the movie to two Asgardian ladies, he got them from Mid-World, from a territory called “Tex-ass.”

“I named them Des and Troy,” Skurge explains. “Because when you put them together, you get ‘Destroy’.”

While throughout the movie, Skurge plays reluctant henchman to Hela, in this final scene, he is attempting to smuggle himself aboard a spaceship to get away from Hela and the destruction of Asgard, which is known as Ragnarok, in case your Norse mythology is rusty. Same concept as the Christian Armageddon. As the people try to escape, Hela’s army of undead warriors is attempting to climb into the ship and lay waste.

Skurge looks around him and sees families with children huddling in fear. He whips off his disguise to reveal his guns, strides toward the warriors, and starts firing.

And just like that, I was no longer entertained. I sat there wondering if the guns were supposed to be semi-automatic or automatic. If Skurge had picked up modified weapons. Las Vegas was barely a month old; the night we went to the theater, a gunman in Texas had mowed down people IN A CHURCH. And I was sitting next to my 6-year-old son, who is old enough to think guns are cool, but has no idea about how destructive they truly are.

Now, it’s hardly Marvel’s fault that I wasn’t crazy about that part of the movie, that I found it troubling and almost inappropriate. Nevertheless, here we are. Urban was unwittingly cast as the “good guy with a gun” — two of them! — that the NRA drools about all the time.

The scene didn’t work for me. It’s still bugging me three days later. The whole narrative about guns in this country is endlessly troubling to me.

Gun owners such as the guy in Las Vegas just like guns, and for some reason he decided to use his to kill a bunch of people. I bet he didn’t have a motive beyond that. The man in Texas saw his guns as a way to solve a problem, presumably; he was in a spat with his mother-in-law. Never mind that his in-laws weren’t even at service.

Guns are instruments of war, especially the types of guns being used these days in mass shootings. Something for Americans to think about: On American soil, who are we fighting?

Copyright for featured image: chutimakuanamon / 123RF Stock Photo

A Completely Unsolicited Review of The Dark Tower Movie

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

It is one of the best opening lines in a novel, in my opinion.

Stephen King screen adaptations vary from wildly terrible, nearly unwatchable dreck, to classic very watchable horror (think Carrie and The Shining) to inspirational (think The Green Mile and Shawshank Redemption, one of the best movies in the history of film, full stop). Vulture did a fun list ranking every one, which is a pretty entertaining read. I disagree with their number one choice, but not by much.

I also did not realize there were thirty-eight King adaptations out there.

Despite the “controversy”, I wanted to see The Dark Tower, mostly because I was curious of the “how” of it. How were they going to tell the story? Was it going to unbearably long? Was it going to be the first in a series of movies based on the novels? How were they going to deal with the one aspect of the story that didn’t work with a black actor playing Roland?

Short version: The Dark Tower actually pretty good, so don’t believe the naysayers. If you want to go see it, go see it. It’s entertaining, the story is solid, the acting is great, and Idris Elba.

Longer version:

I was skeptical about a movie adaptation of The Dark Tower Series. I mean, sure, they did it with Harry Potter, but – with apologies to my favorite author – The Dark Tower is not Harry Potter.

The Dark Tower movie, fortunately, is not an adaptation of The Dark Tower books, except in the absolute broadest sense. See that opening line. There was a gunslinger, Roland Deschain, the last gunslinger; there was a man in black (played to great effect by Matthew McConaughey); there was the boy Jake.

The Dark Tower movie pulls from many elements of the books, to be sure, again, the broadest plot points and themes. A tower stands at the center of all the universes; the man in black is trying to destroy it, and let in the darkness beyond all the universes. The man in black is aided in his task by low men (and women) who go out into the worlds, capture special children, and use their psychic powers – their “shine” in the parlance of the King multiverses – to break the Beam.

I will admit that the movie probably makes much more sense if you have read all the books. The screen adaptation more or less takes place after the last book in the series, which is one of the reasons that they could cast Idris Elba. Since Roland’s life resets after Book 7, he could literally be any race. This is a new timeline, and who knows if Eddie and Susannah are going to make an appearance in this version of Roland’s life. Who knows if they will even make another film? (I’m in if they do.)

Elba is fantastic as Roland. Dispassionate, bent on one thing (and it ain’t saving the Tower), indifferent to his well-being, and pretty much willing to kill everyone and anyone who gets in his way. McConaughey must take great delight in playing the man in black, Walter. He swaggers with a palpable air of evil through every scene. Jake Chambers is played by Tom Taylor, who captures the character’s vulnerability and grit to a tee.

The movie makes several nods to its source material, but because it is not trying to be everything in the books, it works. The story stands on its own. Elba and Taylor have good on-screen chemistry. If I have any criticism, it’s that the end is a little too neat, a little too easy. But it gave the film closure and it enables it to stand on its own.

I would recommend The Dark Tower to King fans who liked the books. I think it does a good job of adapting the material available while not trying to be all things to all people.

If there are other movies, I hope Elba gets a shirtless scene. I’m just saying.

What’s your favorite King movie? What’s your favorite King book?

Copyright for featured image: supergranto / 123RF Stock Photo

The Silliest Update I’ve Ever Done

I did something recently that is probably de rigueur for a lot of people (at least for people in the glasses-wearing population).

I purchased prescription sunglasses. And I love them.

I started wearing glasses in second grade.

I started wearing contact lenses in eighth grade. Not just any contact lenses: gas-permeable rigid contact lenses. (Corrected my vision better, lasted longer than soft lenses, blah, blah, blah, felt like shards of glass in my eyes until my eyelids formed callouses.)

I wore gas permeable contact lenses until my final trimester of pregnancy with Michael — coincidentally my final trimester of pregnancy ever, for the rest of my life. Between pregnancy and age, I was no longer able to wear them. It was kind of nightmarish. Switching over to glasses full time took a lot of getting used to.

I eventually switched over to soft contacts, a daily-wear lens. However, soft contacts don’t correct my vision enough for all-day use sitting in front of a computer. So I tend to only use them for outdoor activities, such as swimming, hiking, and camping, for short amounts of time. If it’s sunny, I would just wear regular sunglasses.

Due to a comedy of errors that is vision health benefits, eye exams, and ordering contact lenses, I am in the midst of summer 2017 without appropriate contact lenses. I tried to order some, but my prescription wasn’t current enough, and I can’t get another eye exam until December.

So I went to Zenni Optical* to order prescription sunglasses.

My most recent pair of glasses were also ordered from Zenni, and I wasn’t 100 percent sold on the experience. They didn’t fit right, still don’t — went from too tight to too loose. The lenses get smudged too easily, and I find myself cleaning them several times a day. The whole “online experience” just didn’t work out for me.

However, it’s a different story with the sunglasses. They fit. I think they look pretty good. And it is so great to just be able to put on sunglasses and see. I’ve noticed a big difference between wearing clear lenses and sunglasses. Much less glare when I drive; I can wear them in the pool; I can even read a book out of doors without strain now.

The challenge, of course, is to make sure I don’t lose them. I can’t just run out to Target for a new pair.

*I am not being compensated in anyway for endorsing Zenni. To be honest, I’m only batting about .500 with them as a provider of glasses in any case.

I Blame Netflix

One of the reasons that I am not reading much is, in part, because of Netflix, as I mentioned. TV on demand is hard for me to resist. (Also, I am lacking in time to go to the library. I have to fix that.) (Also: Netflix is making some damn fine television.)

I couldn’t tell you what exactly made me watch anyone of these shows. Maybe friends of mine were talking about them, or they were trending on Twitter, or a combination of the two. Dan and I usually pick shows to watch together, but I confess to watching Stranger Things and Jane the Virgin on my own. He watches The Walking Dead. To be fair, he did ask me to watch TWD with him, but I can’t do zombies.

Here are the shows that I am letting keep me away from books. (Spoilers are possible.)

1. Stranger Things

If you haven’t heard of this show yet, I question if you even Netflix. The night I decided to start it, Dan was out with a friend. Within the first five minutes, I was curled in a ball on my couch with a blanket clutched to my mouth. Hooked from the get-go, pretty much. To sum up, it takes place in 1983 in a small town. Stranger Things involves a group of four boys, one of whom goes missing, the boys’ families, a mysterious government building, a weird girl, and a terrifying monster.

Or, to put in another way: Stephen Spielberg directs Stephen King, with a little John Carpenter thrown in.

The story-telling is non-stop. You barely get time to breathe throughout each episode (or was that just me? I felt like I was holding my breath the whole time). Even as the episode careens from plot point to credits, character development builds. The 1980s references, look, and feel are spot on.

But what made this show an absolute stand out for me was the trio of Winona Ryder, Millie Bobby Brown, and Natalia Dyer, as Joyce Byers, Eleven, and Nancy Wheeler, respectively. Yes, the four boys were great actors, with Finn Wolfhound simply heartbreaking in his boundless loyalty and optimism. David Harbour made Jim Hopper incredibly layered and complex.

But, damn, the ladies. Joyce Byers could have been a one-note character: bereaved mother loses her mind. Instead, Ryder gives us a nuanced portrait of a hard-luck mom who loves her boys, and even as she confronts the impossible and horrifying, is going to do her damnedest to protect them. I almost dismissed Wheeler from the get-go — I even wondered “aloud” on Twitter if the teenage romance storyline had any purpose.

It does. Hoo boy does it. #RIPBarb

But as far as I am concerned, Brown stole the whole entire show. At turns fierce and vulnerable, she brings such a touching humanity to a specially gifted, and fairly terrifying, girl. Every flicker of emotion across her face was breathtaking. She knows her life has not been normal, and while her character reaches for normalcy, she also strives to protect her new friends from some bad truths.

2. Jane the Virgin

When I first heard the premise of this show, I thought, “No way they make that plausible.” But of all the things in this modern day telenovella, Jane’s unexpected pregnancy is the most plausible. This is a delightful show, again lead by an amazing female cast, with real touches about what it means to be a daughter, a mother, and a woman, all at the same time.

3. Daredevil / Jessica Jones

I enjoyed the heck out of the first season of Daredevil.
I felt obligated to watch Jessica Jones at first, and in the middle of the season I was frustrated, wondering if the plot was going anywhere. And then it switched into high gear, and was completely mind-blowing. Solid characters, all amazingly flawed yet human (except for Kilgrave, of course, that guy was a whackjob). Hoping season 2 (there is a season 2, right??) is just as good.
Season 2 of Daredevil is disappointing. Too violent, too graphic, too profane. I am totally over Karen Page, Murdock/Daredevil’s martyr act, and the relationship angst – and I mean *all* the relationships: Murdock and Nelson, Matt and Karen, Daredevil and Electra, Electra and Stick. My current favorite character is Marci. I’m not even sure I care what’s in that sarcophagus. Dan and I have two more episodes to go. I doubt the series is going to redeem itself in my eyes.

4. Person of Interest

Formulaic, ridiculously violent (but not graphically bloody), the characters take themselves a wee bit too seriously, but still a pretty good romp for a network show. We’re currently waiting for Season 5 to get to Netflix. A satisfying watch.

5. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Dan and I have to rewatch the last two episodes of Season 2, so we can get on with Season 3 (we’ve forgotten everything). I’ve really enjoyed this Marvel Universe creation on the small screen. Clark Gregg has too much fun as Agent Coulson, and I would watch it just for him. But I do enjoy the implausibility the various super powers and of secret organizations both sanctioned and evil, the interplay between Fitz and Simmons, and checking out Mack’s physique. (I ain’t gonna lie.)

What are you watching?

Image credit: Copyright: enki / 123RF Stock Photo

Year in Review: Top Ten Albums of 2015

I will say, it was another fantastic year for music. Unlike last year, though, I don’t have a stand-out artist.

Here are the albums I listened to the most this year, ranked alphabetically. Links go to the albums on Spotify, which if you don’t have it yet, why not?

The Arcs, Yours, Dreamily
I might pretty much love anything Dan Auerbach does. Maybe. I don’t know why. He just goes digging around in his box of musical tools, and throws it out there.

Chvrches, Every Open Eye
This Scottish electro-pop band makes the list on the strength of Lauren Mayberry’s voice: sweet singing, bitter words.

Florence + The Machine, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
I’m a big fan of Florence Welch’s big voice on this album, especially on “Ship to Wreck” and “What Kind of Man.” She infuses her offering this go-round with more emotion than ever before.

Foals, What Went Down
These guys were new to me, and I primarily gave them a listen because a music journalist I admire (Ed Masley, formerly of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and now of AZCentral, Arizona) compared frontman Yannis Philippakis to Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs. Which, while I’m not feeling that 100 percent, I did find “Mountain at My Gates” compelling enough to put on the Spotify playlist I call “Can’t Stop Listening 2015”. The Foals are dark and brooding, your emo teenage boyfriend all grown up. And hot. Very, very hot.

Mark Ronson, Uptown Special
It’s true I gave this album a spin (if you will) on the inescapable hook of “Uptown Funk,” but after hearing a few interviews with Mr. Ronson, I was sold. It is, without question, a night in Vegas, from the mellow contentment of a cigar-smoking fat cat, to the fast-paced action of the casino floor, to a down-on-his-luck guy trying to get off the Strip. Along with Bruno Mars, Stevie Wonder and Andrew Wyatt fill out the talent here, and Ronson introduces Kevin Parker and Keyone Starr to the world.

The Weeknd, Beauty Behind the Madness
Pop Radio done lost its mind putting this guy front and center in 2015. Aside from the undeniable earworm, “Can’t Feel My Face” — which is all about drugs — this is the dirtiest, raunchiest pop album EVER. It doesn’t *sound* raunchy; it sounds like mellow R & B. The Weeknd has a nice voice, reminiscent of Michael Jackson. But, I mean, if you haven’t listened to the entire explicit album, just put on the non-radio edit of “Often” or “The Hills”. This crazy, horny, drug-addled dude makes Taylor Swift look like the choir girl she probably is.

Worriers, Imaginary Life
At turns rollicking and vulnerable, The Worriers are powering through the daily grind on Imaginary Life.

File Under: Call it a Comeback
A number of artists came out with albums this year after a long hiatus. Here are my top three of those:

New Order, Music Complete
I just love how, after all their disappearances and reformations, New Order hit 2015 with an unchanged sound and are cocky enough to call their release Music Complete. If you have questions, direct them to Bernard Sumner.

Veruca Salt, Ghost Notes
This album from Veruca Salt is the best they have done since American Thighs. Vital and longing, this is what it sounds like when girl-lead punk rock grows up.

Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love
Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss released their first album in ten years. It is a rocker, and my top pick of 2015. I understand that they are an acquired taste — Tucker’s voice and the absence of a bass make them an odd-sounding trio — but they have their fingers on the pulse of feminist, anti-consumerist commentary. Sleater-Kinney pick up where they left off, and as a punk chick from the 1990s, I am so, SO glad.

My favorite singles:

  • Beck, “Dreams”
  • Santigold, “Radio”
  • Missy Elliot, “WTF (Where They From)” (Another comeback track, and my nominee for Video of the Year)
  • Courtney Barrnett, “Pedestrian at Best”
  • J. D. McPherson, “Head Over Heels”

What music rose to the top for you in 2015?

An Unsolicited Review of Magic Mike XXL

I had the great joy to travel to the South Side to see Magic Mike XXL with my friend Dana (@toastismyjam on Twitter), and two friends of hers — who were utter delights. Before I get to my unsolicited review, I just want to tell you how lovely these women were.

First, they taught me a packing trip that may have changed my entire life. When packing for children, put an entire outfit in a ziploc bag for each day you are away OR roll up an entire outfit — pants, shirts, socks, underwear — and secure it with a rubber band. Harkening back to our Chicago trip, this would’ve made such a difference to daily organization.

Second, they thought I was much younger than I am, closer to their age (if my math is right, they are 11 years younger than I), and I could’ve kissed them both when I told them when I graduated from high school, and they were genuinely surprised. That is always a delight.

Okay, onto the show.


Magic Mike XXL was unadulterated joy. Unlike the first Magic Mike, XXL had no pretensions to art film. It was a buddy/road trip film full of buff bodies and tons of laughter. Although we get a Channing Tatum dance in the first 10 minutes, a very self-deprecating dance I might add, we don’t get nudity too quickly. Of course, the first ass we see is Joe Manganiello’s, so I can’t complain.


The story, such as it is, is told through little vignettes of the boys dancing their way at various locations up the coast on their way from Florida to Charleston, South Carolina. Dallas has absconded to China with The Kid; Brooke has decamped for other pastures; and while Mike has fulfilled his dream of starting his own business, he is struggling with the burdens of being his own boss. When Tarzan calls him out of the blue, Magic Mike XXL kicks into all its simplistic glory.

The male entertainers that are the former Kings of Tampa embark on a trip to a stripper convention, which if such a thing exists, I would like to attend someday. Minor drama ensues along the way — Ken and Mike need to work some things out (Matt Bomer is a revelation as an over-the-top spiritual dude); the boys talk about their futures after stripping; Tarzan waxes unexpectedly poignant in the living room of a Southern belle — Andie MacDowell in probably the only role I’ve liked her in since… ever. Aside: Andie MacDowell is kind of the Natalie Portman of her generation, IMO; the characters she plays don’t require much from her aside from looking pretty and pensive. She’s got surprisingly sharp bite in her little role here.

What Magic Mike XXL does best is show off the male physique to the hungry female gaze. It’s pretty fun. Tatum moves, as Dana says, “like water.” His fluid grace is matched in this film by Stephen Boss, who plays Malik. Magic Mike XXL shows every shade of skin and every female body type without comment. The “cameos” in the film are all great fun as well; Donald Glover is adorable, and Elizabeth Banks, as always, is a delight.

But, in my opinion, the movie belongs to Joe Manganiello as Big Dick Richie. His, er, great attribute is also his great burden. (I am saddened to report that we don’t even get a glimpse of Richie’s sidekick, unlike in Magic Mike.) Manganiello plays Richie like a big dummy with a surprisingly sweet and vulnerable side. The expression on his mobile face throughout XXL is baffled concentration to figure out what’s going on around him. His future is the most uncertain because he is, to his impressive core, a male entertainer. Tatum may move like water, but Manganiello muscles his way through his routines. Quite literally. His Christian Gray turn in his closing routine, set to Nine Inch Nails’ “Animal” is… wow.

*whew* I gotta take a minute.

Manganiello also has THE BEST scene in the movie, in the convenience store. I’m not sure how it plays out of context — context is important to this scene, actually — but it had me literally cheering for Richie. By the end of the movie, I wanted to start throwing dollar bills at the screen.

Magic Mike XXL is not the nuanced look at female desire that the original film was. It is much more straightforward, a full on romp.

Magic Mike XXL poster

And I may never look at cookies the same way again.

Image Source

Have you seen it? What did you think?

The Pop Diva Landscape

For my purposes, a pop diva is a female singer who is played on one of the pop music stations in my area. She may or may not have also appeared recently on the Grammys.

I’m sure album sales and/or downloads figure into both of those things — radio play and Grammy appearances. But as I am not an industry analyst, I’m not sweating those details.

I have always been intrigued by pop music, especially female pop artists, and have been probably since the advent of Madonna. I primarily try to keep up now because I know it’s the type of music that my children are most likely to overhear in the public space.

Also, I’m simply not willing to dismiss all forms of popular entertainment as dreck, and/or people who decide what is popular as sheep. Even if privately I don’t get it or like it.

Let’s take the pop queen to top all pop queens, current reigning diva Taylor Swift. Her popularity utterly escapes me, and I know for me her ubiquity is a real turn off. She is EVERYWHERE. I will not deny that her songs are damn catchy; those things are ear worms extraordinaire.

But given the choice, I’m changing the station.

What amusing me is that my daughters can definitely tell that I don’t like certain pop artists and pop songs. They play it cool in the car. “Oh, sure, it’s okay. You can leave it on, if you want, mom.” Or, “Well, let’s just let the radio play, okay, mom?”

Sure, kiddos.

Here are the three pop stars that I do not prefer at this time, and a little bit on why I, personally, don’t like them:

Katie Perry — I find her music trite. To say she’s not groundbreaking is an understatement. I like the sentiment behind “Roar”: don’t be a push over, stand up and speak for yourself, girls! But the song is one lyrical cliche after another.

Taylor Swift — As I said before, this young woman is ubiquitous. The music industry loves her. All well and good. But I’m just not interested.

Arianna Grande — This little wisp of a singer needs to learn how to enunciate, for goodness sake.

Here’s a short list of the pop singers who are current that I DO like:
Ellie Goulding
Nicki Minaj (Is she pop? I’m not even 100% sure she goes in this category.)
Charlie XCX

I don’t know why I like Lorde but not Katie Perry, or Ellie Goulding but not Ms. Swift. I think the pop singers I like have something — a little sass, a little darkness, a little rebel — in them. They aren’t quite EVERYWHERE — although Lorde is coming close. And I probably won’t even hold it against her. Something about her smoky voice hooks me.

I’m unsure where Megan Trainor goes. I haven’t listened to her closely. My overall impression is that she’s sassy, yes, but she’s released two songs that sound nearly identical to me.

I’m sure I’m missing whole swatches of the pop diva landscape. Got someone on pop radio that you love (or love to hate)?


Aside: It’s too loud and all sounds the same anyway. It’s SCIENCE!


If you like a good female chanteuse outside of the pop mainstream, make it a point to check out Charlotte OC.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z09ou-1XnPM&w=560&h=315]

Year in Review: Album of the Year/Artist of the Year, 2014


photo credit for banner image: Brad Searles

Early in 2014, I was patiently awaiting the new Black Keys album; their single “Fever” clearly pointed a band in a new direction, and I was looking forward to Turn Blue.

In the meantime, I needed something new to listen to. I poked around on Spotify, but didn’t find anything interesting to me. I headed over the First Listen on NPR Music.

“After a 16-year-hiatus,” I read, “the Afghan Whigs are back with Do to the Beast.”

Oh, yeah, I’d heard of them. I had never really listened to them, though. Wonder if they are going to be any good after a 16-year-hiatus.*

*click play*

The opening track kicked down the door to my aural pleasure center, and I was utterly, completely hooked.

Do to the Beast (D2TB) got more listens from me this year than any album on my top 10 list. It’s not an album of singles, for one thing. Almost any other album today, I can pick or choose a song or two, and then move onto another artist. But with Do to the Beast, I have to start at the top and listen all the way through.

The music is driving and virile, haunting, full of dark imagery, vengeful wishes, and regret. Front man Greg Dulli is a charismatic motherfucker. He is not a pretty boy; he doesn’t have a huge vocal range. But he unmistakably knows how to get a listener’s attention. “If time can incinerate what I was to you,” he wails on “Parked Outside”, “Allow me to illustrate how the hand becomes the fuse.”

Greg Dulli, leader of Afghan Whigs
Greg Dulli, image by Janet Gray

Like its predecessor Gentlemen — released this year as Gentlemen at 21 — Do to the Beast seems to be about the dissolution of a significant relationship. Unlike Gentlemen, which Dulli fully acknowledges is about an explosive breakup, Do to the Beast is the fuller, more mature reflection on the way things fall apart. There is a third player in this dynamic — “It kills to watch you love another,” Dulli sings on “It Kills.” On “Lost in the Woods”, my favorite on D2TB, he sneers, “Surprise, surprise, I’ll have you know I’ve come to see you die.” Later on the same track, he laments, “Baby, sitting outside in the cold, I can see that you’re not alone. That’s vanity swallowing you.”

The other outstanding track, for me, on D2TB is the no-holds-barred “Matamoros.” Clocking in at a lean 2:43, in the midst of a chugging bass line and swooping guitars, Dulli blows up the scene, hurt and lashing out at a betrayal. “I’m so excited you decided to come over and beg,” he sings, and one can picture him leaning back and lighting up a cigar, enjoying the groveling. “I’m over you.”

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8C5et72znyw&w=560&h=315]

The great thing about discovering a band that’s relaunched itself is that there’s a whole backlog of great music to plunge into. Dulli, having disbanded the Whigs in 2001, continued to make music with the Twilight Singers, and with Mark Lanegan of Screaming Trees fame, as the Gutter Twins. (Hence my earlier * — this guy never stopped making music.) This iteration of the Afghan Whigs features Dulli and bassist John Curley, the only two original members. Yet the music explores the themes of earlier Afghan Whigs albums, fusing bombastic rock sensibility with swaggering R&B sensuality to talk about love, lust, betrayal, longing, and revenge.

John Curley of the Afghan Whigs
John Curley, image by Janet Gray

The other great thing about discovering the Afghan Whigs now is getting to see them hit the tour circuit again. I saw them in September, and got to meet the band members after the show (along with about 100 of their biggest fans). This band is known for their stage show, their loyal and obsessed fan base (among which I can now count myself), and for sticking around afterward for meet and greets. And hugs.

The author and Greg Dulli
Me and Greg Dulli after the Pittsburgh show. I can’t stop grinning.

Who topped your list musically or artistically in 2014?

Year in Review: Top Albums of 2014

2014 was a fantastic year for music. Whether you are a fan of pop, country, rock, punk, or alternative, lots of new music hit the airwaves this year.

And it was good.

Here’s a short list of albums that did not make it onto my top 10:

The Both, The Both
Pixies, Indie Cindy
Jack White, Lazarreto
Little Daylight, Hello Memory
KONGOS, Lunatic
Future Islands, Singles
St. Vincent, St. Vincent

Plus Sleater-Kinney released a single, “Bury Our Friends”, which bodes very well for their upcoming 2015 album, No Cities to Love.

I cannot wait.

Here are my top 10 albums for 2014.

10. Hunger Games, Mockingjay: Part I Soundtrack. 

Although I feel they made a faux pas by not including Jennifer Lawrence’s version of “The Hanging Tree” on this release, it makes it onto my list on the strength of the Lorde’s contributions, including “Yellow Flicker Beat.”

9. Weezer, Everything is Going to Be Alright in the End

This album captures the idea “return to form” for this long-lasting and prolific band. In my opinion, Weezer’s album’s have been uneven at best. This makes me recall the heydays of The Blue Album and The Green Album, and I believe Rivers Cuomo may be right: Everything is going to be okay.

8. Protomartyr, Under Color of Unofficial Light

This band brings forth a dark and brooding sound that gets into my bloodstream and won’t leave. The lead singer sounds like someone, but I haven’t been able to place my finger on whom. Part ’90s-influenced, and part utterly unique, I can’t stop listening to what Protomartyr is creating.

7. TV on the Radio, Seeds

This was a late entry, and I had to rewrite my list because of it. Seeds is a continuation of TV on the Radio’s exploration of music and sound. They can bring the poppy, like the do on “Could You”, and they can bring the noise experimentation like they do on the opening track, “Quartz”. Seeds needs a lot of listening, and it deserves it.

6. Azealia Banks, Broke with Expensive Taste

Pretenders to the throne, step aside. I’m looking at you, Iggy and Ariana. Azealia Banks puts you all to shame. Sassy, dirty, and not afraid of her quirks, Azealia is going to school all y’all.

5. The Both, The Both

This came out early in 2014, and stood the test of time. Aimee Mann and Ted Leo team up to make the most of both of their talents. Pretty and poignant, funny and bittersharp, these features two veteran artists at the top of their game.

4. Jenny Lewis, The Voyager

Another veteran of the singer-songerwriter/pop life, sweet-voiced chanteuse Jenny Lewis comes back to the scene with wry observations on being the oldest, singlest woman in the room.

3. FKA Twigs, LP1

This is the weirdest, sexiest album of the century so far. Deceptively cute-looking, FKA Twigs (Tahliah Debrett Barnett) lets her darkest, most seductive fantasies flow. Her voice is high and breathy, yet powerful, and she captures a lot of desire, insecurity, and longing over the course of these 10 tracks.

2. The Black Keys, Turn Blue

I am surprised that this came in second place on this list. I truly feel it was one of the best albums this year. I have enjoyed hearing the evolution of The Black Keys from a two-piece garage band into their current iteration. Given access to the toys in the production room, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney turned the story of a bad year into a classic rock album. From the seven-minute opus of “The Weight of Love”, I knew they were doing something different. I know long-time fans are not in love with this one, but I Turn Blue leave no question, to me, that The Black Keys have more to show us.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=trk7P-9QDyc&w=560&h=315]

My number 1 pick and Artist of the Year coming before Jan. 1, I promise. In the meantime, what was your favorite album of 2014?