“I was born like this, don’t even gotta try” – Loving myself loving Lizzo

13 Jun

When I was in grade school, visiting the downtown Richmond Public Library was a treat. They had books I couldn’t get at my local branch, and every time we went I made a beeline to one in particular: The Fattest Bear in the First Grade, by Barbara Robinson.

The story centers around Roberta, a pudgy koala who breaks swings by sitting on them. When she whimpers, “Bears are supposed to be fat,” as a carnival guy extracts her from a go-cart after getting stuck, he replies, “Yes, but some bears are fatter than other bears.” Even worse, she splits the seams of the pink party dress with ribbons she covets at the dress shop. So, she swears off sweets in favor of raisins and apples, and voila! A few weeks later, the pink party dress fits. The End.

I was 100 pounds at eight years old, so this was the ultimate fairy tale: pudgy turning into pretty. While I didn’t adopt any of Roberta’s healthier habits, I did digest the subtext of this otherwise unassuming little picture book: Fat is shameful, and only thin bears deserve pink party dresses.

Some 45 years after my trips to the Richmond Public Library, that book continues to exert its power. I know full well weight is not the only measure of good health, and standards of beauty evolve constantly — and really, self-worth shouldn’t boil down to what other people think. Yet any time my pants feel tight, I’m Roberta sitting alone in the classroom during recess, berating myself.

Thank God for Lizzo.

Although she’s made the rounds for a while, 2019 has been a monumental year for the Detroit-born, Houston- and Minneapolis-bred Melissa Jefferson. She’s a one of a kind: a rapper who only discovered her monumental singing voice at 19, a self-professed band nerd who plays jazz flute then twerks. She performed at Coachella; she’s one of the headliners at MoPop in Detroit in July. After performing on Ellen, being written up every five pages in Rolling Stone and getting rave reviews on NPR for her first major label record, Cuz I Love You, even white suburbanites are singing along to “Juice” during their morning commutes – at least this one certainly is.

If I’m shinin’, everybody gonna shine (yeah, I’m goals)
I was born like this, don’t even gotta try (now you know)
I’m like chardonnay, get better over time (so you know)
Heard you say I’m not the baddest — bitch, you lied

It’s no secret that Lizzo is a thick girl. That is often the lede with interviewers because, frankly, it surprises them that she loves herself as she is, and her size is not what she considers to be her defining characteristic. (It is just one more item on the list of all things Lizzo, along with being a dancer, Prince collaborator and funny as hell.) As Trevor Noah rightly told her, “You’ve really dismissed it and said, ‘I’m not doing this for your brave label. I’m just me.’”

“Before the term ‘body positive’ was just, kind of like, a mainstream thing, I was just making music about my body that was positive,” she said. “My mere existence is a form of activism, and I wear that hat really well—or not wear the hat at all,” she told Trevor Noah, laughing as she held up the Cuz I Love You album cover showing her in all her naked glory.

The notion that women could live in their own skin without a second thought is so alien to most of us. It challenges all we were taught as girls about what is and isn’t worthy, much less beautiful or healthy. Lizzo’s gift to the Robertas of the world is her absolute joy in being herself, every unique bit of it.

Ya-ya-yee!

See you on the flip side …

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So … about Fat Thor

29 May

It was a spectacular sight gag, I’ll give them that.

After Avengers: Endgame’s nearly hopeless first act, the action moved to New Asgard on the Nordic coast. Hulk and Rocket arrive to find Valkyrie had survived the snap, and Korg and Miek were happily playing Fortnite and eating their weight in terrestrial pizza. Then, he appeared, striding across the floor strewn with beer bottles and pizza boxes, hauling around a gut and back rolls: the God of Thunder.

(Insert your joke here. Everyone else has.)

Truth be told I think I figured mine out too. | THAT MOMENT WHEN EVERY CHUBBY KID ON THE BLOCK FIGURED OUT THEIR NEXT HALLOWEEN COSTUME | image tagged in fat thor,memes,halloween,costume | made w/ Imgflip meme maker

On first viewing, the scene was welcome comic relief in keeping with Thor: Ragnarok, the film that finally gave Chris Hemsworth’s character some character. In retrospect, as a number of people have pointed out, his situation in Endgame wasn’t all that funny. After five years of PTSD, depression, alcoholism and a half-universe of guilt weighing on him for not killing Thanos when he first had the chance, his emotional pain was literally writ large on his physical form. In that context, the fat jokes were particularly cheap shots.

The writers and directors of Endgame have talked a lot about how they and Hemsworth wanted to take the character in a radically new direction that not only addressed his mental state but also the nature of superheroes. They admit Thor was not much more than a pretty-boy brat in previous Avengers films, implying that losing his six pack after too many six packs helped him become the god he was supposed to be all along. Besides, they say, superheroes come in all shapes and sizes. Screenwriter Christopher Markus said, “We leave him in that state at the end of the movie, even though he’s emotionally resolved. We fix his problem, and it’s not his weight.”

Good for them. Easy for them, too, because Thor is a male character played by a notoriously athletic actor wearing a fat suit that he certainly didn’t wear to do press for the film. That wouldn’t have been possible for the women.

Valkyrie is in similar straits when we first meet her in Thor: Ragnarok. An emotional wreck after seeing all her comrades die in battle, she staggers from bottle to bottle to drown her sorrow and pain. Arguably, she’s been drinking longer and harder than Thor ever did — yet she’s still in fighting trim.

Can’t there be a thicc Valkyrie – without it being a symptom of a serious mental illness, by the way? Why shouldn’t Captain Marvel be bulked up to better blast all those photons? How wonderful could it be if Pepper Potts wins Tony Stark’s heart and runs his multi-billion dollar corporation while shaped more like a pepper pot? We can only wonder.

There are so few female main characters in the saga in the first place, even fewer who are women of color – and the very fact there are any women at all riles up the trolls in spectacularly brutal fashion. I can only hope Marvel will one day take the truly radical direction and create a character who is fantastic, female and fat.

No joke.

See you on the flip side …

“Part of the journey is the end.”

13 May

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Download at wallup.net

I saw Avengers: Endgame twice in its first two weeks in theaters, and I’m still aflutter. The first viewing was like a roller coaster: you brace for whatever the Russo brothers are going to throw at you, then you give over to the speed and twists and lack of brakes and end the three-hour ride exhilarated and exhausted.

This second time through, I let my mind wander a little more:

  • For all her fighting with, then against, Thanos, Nebula still has time to get her nails done. She also has eyelashes a Kardashian would envy.
  • Speaking of eyelashes, Chris Evans’ look like they’re made of chinchilla.
  • Natasha wore the most gorgeous lip color on her one-way trip to Vormir. Perhaps MAC will market it as “Soul Stone Sacrifice.”
  • So why didn’t Ben & Jerry’s come out with Hulk-a-Hulk-a-Burning Love – in gallon containers?
  • Speaking of Chris Evans, he is the most symmetrical human being I’ve ever seen.
  • Why would Scott Lang – a San Francisco native – eat hard shell tacos?
  • How much did William Hurt get paid to stand silently in the back of row of Tony Stark’s funeral tableau as his only appearance in the whole movie?
  • How much more did Samuel L. Jackson get paid for the same job?
  • How many Academy Award winners were in that movie? I counted seven people and eight Oscars: Michael Douglas (2), William Hurt, Brie Larson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Robert Redford, Tilda Swinton and Marissa Tomei.
  • Speaking of Chris Evans’ symmetry, baby got back.

Over the past weeks, I’ve been obsessed. I’ve gone down every YouTube rat hole – including one hailing the mouse as the actual savior of the universe. I’ve located every Easter egg, read thought pieces in the New York Times and unsuccessfully searched for a Kevin Feige bobblehead. It’s not healthy – but that’s how I roll.

I have been a superfan many times in my life. I saw the original Star Wars 18 times in the theaters and still have four original action figures (minus the rifles, dammit). I was a stone cold X-Files freak until about halfway through Season Six, when I threw in the towel because Scully had been pregnant for fourteen months and Mulder was noticeably AWOL. The show Lost? I LOVED the final episode – don’t @ me.

Now I’ve been sucked into the MCU and never want to leave. I can only wonder why, as a grown woman who could be investing my time into more refined pursuits (writing, knitting, going down a Tom Petty YouTube rat hole like I’m supposed to), Endgame has hit me so hard.

This may be because, as much as it exists to be cool and blow stuff up, the final story of the 22-film saga centered on family bonds. Who do you choose as your family when you have none of your own due to being frozen for 66 years, or having been an assassin since childhood, or being a talking raccoon? If you could have one last conversation with a parent before they die, what would you talk about? And when death takes those you love, how can you possibly move on?

iron man marvel GIF

It’s also because of Iron Man, or more correctly, Tony Stark – or even more truthfully, Robert Downey Jr. His talent is breathtaking, funny, mercurial and heartfelt. His unique take on this role rescued his career after years of addiction and bad casting. It also set the whole MCU on the path of greatness, with subsequent films attracting amazing actors who embraced being sorcerers and African kings in vibranium cat suits and gamma-irradiated big green men without hesitation or apology.

Downey Jr. is six months older than me, and there won’t be any other central Marvel character who is my age in this universe again. At best, today’s greats might be featured in secondary roles, as everyone from Glenn Close to Annette Bening has been. I’m glad these timeless actors are getting work in such high-profile properties … but they aren’t the heroes anymore.

What does that say to me, at this point in my non-heroic life? I’m still working on that.

One of Tony Stark’s best lines from Endgame in his hologram goodbye to his four year old daughter: “Part of the journey is the end.” That’s really heavy news for me, much less a little girl mourning her dad. It bumps up against what I’ve wrestled with since I turned 50 more than three years ago, followed by the loss of my most beloved musical heroes and my novel imploding after more than a decade of work. With those parts of my life wrapped up, what now?

I am trying to frame my Endgame obsession as inspiration for my next great move forward: writing a totally different novel, balancing my personal and professional responsibilities, maybe even falling for a new favorite band. After all, in the MCU, there’s always another saga to be told.

See you on the flip side …

A change has gotta come

4 Jul

It’s been hard to post lately. My get up and go … got up and went.

I kind of ran out of gas when confronted by mounting evidence that rock and roll is becoming a dead language. Sure, I can listen to Greta Van Fleet and marvel at how much those kids from Frankenmuth, Michigan sound just like Led Zeppelin, but that isn’t moving the genre forward. My idols were back in the news for the wrong reasons. Prince and Tom Petty had more in common than that glorious version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony: both were felled by fentanyl taken to ease the pain of their screwed-up hips after decades on the road. Plus, my iPod – the power source for my astoundingly superior musical taste – is spinning its last. Its obsolescence is a gloomy metaphor for the state of the art form.

Jonathan Van Ness kitty pic

The real Kleenex moment this episode: Jonathan petting baby kitties! SQUEE!

I’ve tried to assuage my ennui by binge-watching Queer Eye and slowly paging through The Sun and the Moon and the Rolling Stones, by Rich Cohen … both well worth the time, both modern takes on nostalgic favorites.

Fact is, I’ve had to turn my attentions elsewhere. In case you haven’t noticed, America’s public institutions are being threatened, vandalized and outright incinerated right now. It’s so dire, I have been driven to do something I never thought I’d do: become politically active.

While I have long had a strong interest in current events, and I turn out to vote in every election (you’re welcome), I have never put my money where my mouth is until this year. It’s not simply that I am a Democrat in a Republican era. This administration’s brute ignorance, blithe corruption and sinister disregard for the humanity of others leaves me no choice but call, and write, and argue, and donate and march, chanting, “This is what democracy looks like!”

My first political rally was the Women’s March in Lansing last January. Clever, biting protest signs are the price of admission to these events, and I didn’tWomen's March 2018 want to disappoint. I wanted it to convey who I am and what I stand for. I wanted to promote positivity rather than spew insults. I wanted it to be so awesome that perfect strangers would take photos of my sign to share with their broad-based social media platforms.

As you can see from the far more awesome signs created by my daughters, for any of that to happen, my pop culture references need to crawl into the 21st century. (There was a moment when I got a tap on the shoulder from a gal with her phone ready to take a photo. As I was prepping for my closeup, she said tersely, “Could you move your sign out of the way? I want to take a picture of the Beyoncé poster.”)

Concerned Citizen 3

I. Mean. Business.

Since then, I’ve attended candidate forums and signed petitions. I’ve written postcards encouraging people to register and vote in the primaries. I was even featured asking a question at a televised town hall focused on reducing gun violence in schools. I’ve coached my younger daughter as she led the walkout at her school after Parkland, and I’ve ensured my older one registered in her new Brooklyn precinct.

Families Belong Together MarchAnd yet, it often feels like it doesn’t add up to much. Each day brings more to be angry about; each news item piles on disgust and despair. I never had to worry about the safety of my nearly 30-year relationship with my female partner before now. I never imagined tearing children away from their asylum-seeking families and incarcerating them would be considered okay by anyone, much less Americans. I am astonished by how fear and greed have overwhelmed common sense and compassion. And I feel helpless.

I hate feeling helpless.

So I continue to call, and write, and argue, and donate and march, believing that by showing up again and again, I and millions of others will break through the bullshit and make the world a better place – for I do not intend to let democracy die on my watch.

See you on the flip side … and at the polls!

Guaranteed to sell with dead faces on the front: Rolling Stone celebrates 50 years

6 Nov

Rolling Stone magazine is turning 50 this year, and CBS Sunday Morning kicked off its show this week with an interview with Jann Wenner, who began the counterculture mainstay when he was just 21. Over the years it’s gone from newsprint to glossy, oversized magazine to what is now a slim, stapled publication that is more an advertisement for its online material as anything substantive. In the CBS interview, Wenner talked about why he has put the publication up for sale last September, explaining it needs to “live on its own.” That’s code for, “It’s breathing its last, and I don’t want to be here to watch my baby die.”

At least, that’s how I hear it.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame RS installation

The news itself is now the story: Rolling Stone’s 50 Years anniversary retrospective at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

I’ve been a subscriber since sophomore year of college. (I still remember the string of scolding dunning notices I got from the publisher in 1982 saying, “Bruce Springsteen pays his bills; so should you.” I replied in my final, successful letter, “Here’s another copy of my canceled check from three months ago. Signed, Bruce S.”) I did my thesis on Hunter S. Thompson (and named one of my kids in his honor). I became enough of a fan of Annie Leibovitz, David Fricke, Mikal Gilmore and many other journalists to buy their books and tune into their podcasts. For decades, the magazine has been tactile proof of the permanence and importance of what I hold dear: rock music, self-satisfied leftie politics, innovative celebrity photography and Dave Grohl gushing about his mom.

RS’s sale is yet another sobering sign that all of that may be coming to an end. Chuck Klosterman just published X, a terrific collection of essays on his two abiding loves: sports and earsplitting, ridiculous heavy metal. (Gotta hand it to a guy who invests 10,000 words into justifying his devotion to KISS yet retains his self-respect.) In the final piece,”Something Else,” he observed something both obvious and shocking enough to stop my breath: “Dying used to be an occupational risk to living like a rock star, but it’s now the primary thing rock stars do.” By extension, that’s now the publication’s reason for being:

 I have a friend who works at Rolling Stone magazine, and we sometimes play a party game where we speculate on whose death would (or would not) warrant the magazine’s cover…. It’s almost become a business decision: The only issues of Rolling Stone guaranteed to sell exceptionally well are the ones with dead faces on the front.

TP Rolling Stone coverSadly, Tom Petty was on the cover of the most recent issue for that very reason.

Perhaps it’s best that the publication passes the baton. Their reputation for investigative reporting took a near-lethal hit and lawsuits continue from the magazine’s debunked story about campus rapes at UVA, and they are not alone in railing against Trump and his cockamamie cronies. While they may feature Kendrick Lamar on the cover (between obituaries), it’s less because young rap enthusiasts read RS and more because older RS readers want to say they know something about rap. And it’s all about the video clips on the website now, accompanied by photos scaled to be viewed on iPhones. Times have changed.

Sob!

***

Thankfully, before I posted this and crawled off to drown my sorrows in a reasonably priced pinot noir, my younger daughter intervened. She assured me that rock music will continue to thrive as long as people like me continue to care. So, everyone out there, c’mon: clap your hands and say with me,

I do believe in rock and roll!
I do believe in rock and roll!
I do believe in rock and roll!
(fade out)

See you on the flip side …

Heartbroken: Tom Petty, RIP

4 Oct

Tom Petty in a vanWith all the literal disasters that have happened in the last month – three hurricanes, an earthquake, the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas – it seems almost silly to be bereft over the loss of a rock musician.

And yet … Tom Petty seeped into all corners of my life. Sure, everyone has to go sometime, but his death came so abruptly without warning, it’s like the air has been sucked out of me. Jeez, I just saw his 40th anniversary concert in July. Even as he’d intimated this could be his and the Heartbreakers’ last large-scale tour, he also admitted he didn’t like to stay still and probably would renege on that vow. He had promised to release another album of songs from Wildflowers – his best era, in my opinion – and maybe do concerts in which he’d play the entire thing. He had so much more ahead of him. He was having such a good time.

TPATH photo - 1979

Petty became my reference point for all other music: you can connect him to practically any other major act in two steps. He recorded with two Beatles; he backed Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash; he shared the stage with everyone from Bo Diddley to Eric Clapton to Prince. His SiriusXM Buried Treasure show championed artists I now love: Lucinda Williams, Big Joe Turner, Ann Peebles, Louis Jordan, the Shangri-Las. He had incredible taste, which was a remarkable contrast to the bloated acts that clogged the 1970s when he came up in the business. And he kept up his songwriting chops throughout his career. Someone I read years ago pointed out that every one of his albums rated at least 7 out of 10; that was as true of Hypnotic Eye as his eponymous debut.

He also had a sense of humor. Witness his appearance on The Larry Sanders Show trying to clock Greg Kinnear and Clint Black:

 

And a flair for animation V/O:

 

There are any number of respectful obituaries that list Petty’s hits and talk about his talent for championing the underdog in his songs and his fights with his labels. Thing is, he was rarely included in critics’ lists of the “best” American rock musicians: that is an honor bestowed on Elvis, Dylan, Springsteen, and possibly Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry or other pioneers. That is probably because he was less an innovator than a craftsman. He and that insanely talented band of his, the Heartbreakers, could play just about anything, original songs or covers, from muscular chord-based rock to devastating ballads:

After that night in Vegas/ And the hell that we went through
We went down swingin’

Throughout the last 24 hours, I’ve received a lot of genuine condolences from friends and coworkers. My daughters have been checking on me often, offering support and shoulders to sigh on. My elder daughter pointed out what a privilege it is to connect deeply to an artist’s work during his lifetime, especially since he inspired me to create my own. (This blog and Love and Other B-Sides would not be here without me falling head first into his catalog.) I’ve also gotten some solace from listening to SiriusXM’s “wake” on his channel, with famous fans (Cameron Crowe, John Fogerty) and regular folks calling in to share what Tom Petty meant to them.

Means to them.

Means to us.

Means to me.

This is going to take a long time to get over, folks. Thank God we have each other.

See you on the flip side …

Reeling in the years: RIP Walter Becker

4 Sep

hugh-jackman-oklahoma

Perhaps I wouldn’t have cried if Hugh Jackman was singing it …

I know that some songs move people to tears. I’m one of the few I know who cry because of a chord change.

When I was little, I had a music box that played the chorus of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” from Oklahoma. Seven notes in, when the tune hits that minor note on mor-, I’d get upset. Of course, music box tunes are inherently melancholy because they are always playing against time. From the first chime, the music is constantly slowing down until the works stop spinning and the tune cuts off mid-note, cuing deathlike silence. But this song hit me viscerally. Even though the melodic line quickly resolved with nin’ in the major, and the lyrics are nothing but optimistic, it made me feel sad.

This has continued throughout my life. The power of certain notes and musical phrases shakes me up: the three-deep harmony of the chorus of “The World Where You Live” by Crowded House; Arthur Rubin’s thrilling final “beautiful” notes of “Beautiful Girls” in Follies in Concert; the stirring chords underneath the solo line “and it move us all” in any rendition of “Circle of Life,” including my younger daughter’s middle school production. When I was pregnant with my older daughter, any time the then-popular tune “I Know” by Dionne Farris came on the radio, I’d get morning sickness. (I had previously liked that song enough to buy it on cassingle.)

photo by Marco Raaphorst

The worst of this overwrought sensitivity was inspired by Steely Dan. I grew up in the 1970s, when they were inescapable, and I literally couldn’t stand them. The sinuous, smoke-laden “Josie” made my stomach tighten. Even a brighter song like “Peg” gave me the shivers. Given how sheltered I was at the time, I have to imagine that this wasn’t just some low-grade synethesia, though: it was an allergic reaction to frank, complex “adult” rock after a steady diet of AM radio pap. It wasn’t until college that I could listen to Steely Dan and not only tolerate but enjoy their music. My aural palate had matured, just as I was willing to order broccoli in a restaurant and drink red wine for the taste. It also helped that I discovered they had a sense of humor; “My Old School,” with its passing reference to William & Mary, made me snicker.

With Walter Becker’s death on Sept. 3, there have been a lot of tributes from fans who credit him and his partner Donald Fagen for introducing them to the edgy pleasure of jazz. It’s hard to tease out Becker’s specific contributions to their music, since so much was done in collaboration with Fagen and their A-list of studio musicians. I saw Steely Dan twice: in the early 1990s as they toured on the Two Against Nature album, and last year in a double-header with Elvis Costello. Even in his youth, Becker was never attractive (not that Fagen was, either – he reminds me of one of my college professors whose sartorial choice in the 1980s was a pair of brown leather trousers that I could imagine Fagen wearing in some sort of academic cosplay situation). In 2016, when he’d take the mic to talk between songs, Becker rambled on in a confluence of anti-Republican politics and affirmations that he smoked weed. But his musical depth, craft and dexterity were strong throughout his career.

Steely Dan helped me appreciate the beauty of unresolved chords and unexpected melody lines. After all, not all mornings are beautiful, and there’s magic in the melancholy.

See you on the flip side …

 

 

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