Houdini the Calypsonian on War Songs (1939)

“That night, in a tent, I had a war with some old Calypsonians. A tent is a bamboo shack with a palm roof. The Calypsonians sing in them during carnival and charge admission. A war is where three Calypsonians stand up on the platform in a tent and improvise in verse. One man begins in verse, telling about the ugly faces and impure morals of the other two. Then the next man picks up the song and proceeds with it. On and on it goes. If you falter when it comes your turn, you don’t dare call yourself a Calypsonian. Most war songs are made up of insults. You give out your insults, and then the next man insults you. The man who gives out the biggest insults is the winner.”

(Excerpted from Up in The Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell.)

IFB’s Quotations Page, General Index

Moving On: The Tadpole & The Scorpion

CFzrdQSWEAAwE26“I’m pregnant,” Laurie told me.

We were standing along the east wall of the Fairview. It was a Thursday after 2 AM. There were people brushing past on either side.

“I was going to have it aborted, but it’s already got limbs and ears, and so I guess I probably – ”

“You’re sure?” I interjected.

Yes,” Laurie insisted.

“You’re sure it’s mine?” I kept right at it. An insult. A cliché. And yet it beckoned me to wonder. Laurie and I shared a history leading back to the previous April. The first time we’d had sex, it had started on a beach, then found its way into a bathtub. The second time, Laurie had requested that I tie her up with nylon binds. Laurie had a clit ring. She’d gone to bed with several locals. Over the course of 13 months I’d come to view her as a stalwart – irretrievably disposed to getting off at any price.

“How are we gonna handle this?” Laurie asked me. I could feel her blonde split
ends beneath my eye.

“Well, the first thing we’re gonna do is put this beer down,” I said. I took the Miller Lite from Laurie’s hand. “The second thing we’re gonna do is figure out what makes good sense.”

My mind was racing, cataloging through a series of events that had taken place within three months. There was that episode over Memorial Day, a gruesome lay that failed to account for any growth of limbs or ears. There was that episode toward the end of April, a drunken tryst throughout which I had failed to maintain any significant erection. And then there was that bender over Easter – a 48-hour period during which all the appropriate pieces seemed to gather. “It’s OK; I can’t
get pregnant,” a rum-soaked Laurie’d told me. And like a fool, I listened, digging in with
corpusced thighs.

Laurie and I spoke at length, after which I left the bar alone. My legs had gone to jelly and the pulse of speakers filled my ears. I could not focus, and yet it occurred to me that Laurie’s story could’ve been for shit. Laurie had sound reason to feel spiteful. I had behaved like a chauvinist; enjoyed the spoils like a pig. And yet her level of complicity was such it begged the question of
dual fault.

All of these angles just kept orbiting, exploding in my consciousness at once: Would I be forced to stay in Wildwood? To secure year-round employment? Would I require benefits? A stroller? What would the costs be? Would there be any litigation? Would I love the child? Neglect it? Would I become a victim of postpartum? Would I wind up in a bar, passing around a picture, telling strangers, ‘She’s the greatest thing that ever happened to me’? How could I have been so fucking reckless? And Jesus-Lord, how could I make it stop?

I wandered back to the apartment, drank at the table until morning. It was the weekend now, which meant 14-hour shifts. I persevered, securing naps during my breaks. I’d told Laurie I would call her. Yet as the afternoons wore on, I put off looking for her number, completely cognizant of the notion once I phoned there’d be no turning back. I had only contacted Laurie once; had scrawled her number on the reverse side of a coaster. I employed that coaster as my alibi, maintaining I had little thought of where it might be found. In reality, I was 99% certain that it resided in a box stacked in my closet – Pandora’s chest among the ruins, the dirty secret in my room.

As passing days bled into weeks, there were only three people in whom I had confided. The first two were Lori and Joanna, and the third was a trusted coworker. I had told Lori and Joanna because they found me in the kitchen several hours after I had abandoned them at The Fairview that first night. I had told the coworker because I wanted credit for my ability to keep my head amidst the rush.

Toward the end of June my state of mind began to sour. I went from home to work to home again, and almost nowhere in between. I avoided the bars for the same reason I avoided my closet. Lori and Joanna had spotted Laurie in the nightclubs several times. According to them Laurie was drinking, going out of her way to smoke cigarettes on the sly. I hated Laurie. I hated her for what she had come to represent. I would envision her with an exaggerated overbite; I’d replace her nostrils with a snout. I would demonize Laurie’s stonewash jeans and that stupid ruffled shirt she wore. I would demonize the nasal quality of her voice, the way her cheeks ran deep with blush whenever she felt called upon to comment. I hated Laurie for allowing me to defile her; for failing to complain after I had passed out cold one night, then pissed on her during our sleep. I hated Laurie for liking me, for not accepting that I had nothing suitable to offer. The very idea of her made me nauseous; convinced I could not do the least bit better than myself.

Throughout high school and early college I was decidedly pro-life, denouncing abortion as a mainstream failure of accountability. My position reflected a lack of empathy, a lack of experience, a lack of respect for what it meant to carry any entity full-term. My position reflected the fact that – up until the age of 18 – I was a virgin, lacking any relatable compassion for what it meant to be a woman. Confronted with a child I was in no way prepared to adore, I had adjusted my perspective, maturing into yet another asshole for whom there was no right or wrong … only the sanctifiable promotion of self-interests.

Working on the boardwalk, I would often see them – disgruntled parents who had transformed their summer dalliance into a choice. Most of these parents were single, overweight, poorly dressed or oddly formed. Their children appeared distant, apprehending the world via snarl and glare. Looking at them reinforced the notion paternity was not a role for which I would be suited. Paternity remained the purview of my father. My father? The news would come as a surprise to him, but not a shock. My mother would cry. My sisters would fret. In the meantime, I kept refusing to answer the phone, fearful of who – or what – might force me into any obligatory disclosures. I started sleeping on the sofa, wind-drifting off into a world full of ambient sound.

***

“Bob … Bobby.” The voice belonged to Joanna, but it could’ve just as easily belonged to
my mother.

I sat up, disoriented. I could feel the mist of dawn through sapphire blinds.

“I have to tell you something,” Joanna insisted. She was sitting along the edge of the couch. “I saw Laurie at The Fairview tonight. She was drinking a Miller Lite.”

“Oh, who cares?” I bristled. “I think we both know what Laurie’s been up to this entire time.”

“I said something to her,” Joanna interrupted.

“You said something to her about what?”

“I said something to her about this,” Joanna responded. She was circling the sofa with her arm. “I suppose that I thought it needed to be done. Anyway, I went up and I asked Laurie what the fuck her fucking problem was, and she looked at me as if I was insane. Only I kept at it, explaining you were sick to death over everything that was happening, and that it didn’t help that she was out enjoying her good time.”

“Why would you do that?” I stretched one hand across my temples. “Now she’s gonna show up at our door, assuming that I need her by my side.”

“No, she’s not,” Joanna lit a cigarette. “In the middle of our spat, Laurie started to cry.”

“To cry?”

“To bawl.”

“About what?”

“She claims she had a miscarriage.” Joanna told me. “She claims that it happened a couple of weeks ago; that she was afraid to tell you for fear of how you might respond.”

“And then what?” I muttered.

“And then she left,” Joanna told me. “Ran out before I could ask her anything more.”

I leaned my head against the armrest. “You think she’s full of shit?” I said.

“No,” Joanna paused. “Up until tonight I would’ve said the entire pregnancy was just a hoax. But if that display that Laurie put on over at The Fairview was any indication … well, I just figured that you’d want to know.”

“Yeah … no … I do. I appreciate it. Thank you,” I said.

Joanna disappeared into her room.

Later that evening, Joanna and Lori surprised me with a “Bitch-Ain’t-Pregnant” party – a mid-July gathering that neglected to account for, or even acknowledge, any truth regarding my cowardice. There were loose-leaf banners strewn across the walls. “No Baby for Bobby,” one read; “You’re Free to Go Fuck,” another one offered. My secret was out, assuming that it had ever been an actual secret at all. And who could complain, what with all the pressure of it resolved? Tomorrow I would go to work, and I would have no way of knowing whether to mourn or curse or celebrate. Or at least that’s what I’d tell people. In my mind it remained fairly certain that I would’ve abandoned Laurie. The sudden news of any miscarriage only meant there’d be no dealing with that chore.

Day 1,292

(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB.)

©Copyright Bob Hill

Pablo Picasso on Painting (1949)

“Painting is freedom. If you jump, you might fall on the wrong side of the rope. But if you’re not willing to take the risk of breaking your neck, what good is it? You don’t jump at all.You have to wake people up; to revolutionize their way of identifying things. You’ve got to create images they won’t accept; force them to understand that they’re living in a pretty queer world, a world that’s not reassuring, a world that’s not what they think it is.”

(Excerpted from The Rise of Cubism by Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler.)

IFB’s Quotations Page, General Index

The Curious Case of Jacob B. Gyllenhaal

4c1921f864b8416e4fef35e306e79f03For me when I read the script there was a lot about Los Angeles, particularly the topography of Los Angeles was fascinating, even in the screenplay. And the idea that at night these creatures come out, specifically, the creatures of the animal kingdom in Los Angeles are coyotes and other animals, but really, specifically, coyotes. And if you live in Los Angeles – and I happen to have grown up there – they’re all over the place, looking like they’re starving; looking like they’re hungry, and looking like they’re literally going to eat you when they stare you down. They’re fearless. They’re fearless creatures. There was something about the nature of this character that was very much like that, and somehow brought together this natural animal world, and then this metropolis of Los Angeles, in a way that I had never read before, and I don’t think had been done before. And it wasn’t like you were cutting away to footage of coyotes. You were literally watching the personification of a coyote. And that was fascinating to me. And that meant an exploration of myself physically and mentally that I had never really done before.”

So said Jake Gyllenhaal during a Q Interview promoting 2014’s ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Nightcrawler. Gyllenhaal’s statement, which became a running meme throughout that circuit, maintains a tendency toward the earnest. The rub here stems not so much from the rabid stench of pretension as the fact that 30 lbs. of weight loss might not have been the way to go. Ultimately, Gyllenhaal’s approach served as a distraction, implying he views low-lying members of the media to be pariahs, metaphorically sucking the blood out of each city. Gyllenhaal’s character – Louis Bloom – aspired toward some mix of Rupert Pupkin and Travis Bickle. Only his execution fell far short; a sparse attempt that
missed the mark.

As a professional, Gyllenhaal’s goal is to evolve. But in doing so he risks losing the ongoing advocacy of an early base that admired him not only because he was pretty (he was), or because he reminded them of a boy scout (he did), but primarily because he could nail all of the nuances of a performance. Listening to a 33-year-old Jake Gyllenhaal prattle on about his “exploration” of a character begins to sound more like a regression. For Gyllenhaal is gambling upon the elasticity of persona. The further – and more frequently – he stretches, the more worn out that suit of fabric will become.

To wit: If one were to plot Gyllenhaal’s most recent career choices as chronological points on a graph – with the X axis representing his personal level of distortion and the Y axis representing an audience’s approximation of belief – the downward trend would make itself known. Almost every major film role (with the exception of Dastan from Prince of Persia) would score high – despite descending – on the Y axis, while sloping out along the X. That slope would indicate a correlation between Gyllenhaal’s “exploration” of each character and the dwindling appreciation of his niche. End of Watch, Prisoners, Enemy, Nightcrawler, Southpaw … these represent engaging concepts, despite Gyllenhaal’s inclusion continuing to feel increasingly bereft.

In the interest of parallel, consider Christian Bale. Bale, much like Gyllenhaal, started out as a child actor. Bale, much like Gyllenhaal, had always been a method guy. Bale, much like Gyllenhaal, was being courted for the role of Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan’s reboot of Batman. Bale – at 29 – had already pulled off Patrick Bateman; Gyllenhaal – at 22 – had already pulled off Donnie Darko. Bale was the initial choice of Christopher Nolan; Gyllenhaal was the initial choice of David Goyer. Bale would eventually win out, and this would prove to be a critical point.

There were – and are – tiny cracks when it comes to Gyllenhaal. In 2005, the actor hinted at his dissatisfaction over Brokeback Mountain Director Ang Lee’s tendency to disassociate once principal filming began. Fourteen months later, Gyllenhaal was quoted in the New York Times as saying he was disgruntled with Zodiac Director David Fincher’s endless takes. This would seem to indicate a measure of pseudo-intellectualism that brilliant fillmmakers might seek to avoid. And yet for Gyllenhaal, that level of narcissism might prove inborn.

Gyllenhaal grew up a progeny of Hollywood. His mother was a screenwriter, his father, a director. Gyllenhaal’s godfather was – and is – a cinematographer. His godmother is Jamie Lee Curtis. Given the circumstances, it is reasonable to assume Gyllenhaal’s never had to scratch and claw to make his way or survive. And yet, he’s overcompensated by choosing roles that disavow not only his nepotism, but good looks. The fact that Gyllenhaal has eschewed a lot of Christian-Grey-type offers should mean something. And it does. But it doesn’t change the fact that Gyllenhaal’s most memorable forays (e.g., Holden Worther in The Good Girl, Robert Graysmith in Zodiac, etc.), retain some air of that blue-eyed nerd from October Sky. One way or another, Jacob Gyllenhaal will always have to battle for legitimacy. It is the price somebody pays for jumping ahead at the front door.

(Jake Gyllenhaal stars in Southpaw, arriving in theaters nationwide on July 24th.)

Upon the 10th Anniversary of ‘Batman Begins’

Batman-Begins-05-1152x864I went to see Batman Begins alone in an empty theater that had a max cap of fewer than 300 seats. I knew nothing about movies and even less about directors. I made no connection between Christopher Nolan and the auteur vision that had accompanied Memento. I only knew that this was Batman, and that Batman – as a concept – had always riveted me.

The pre-publicity for Batman Begins seemed underwhelming, particularly given the big-budget push that had preceded every previous Batman effort. I could remember the 30-second teaser for Tim’s Burton’s original – that chest plate, it was everything, for the simple fact that it revealed nothing at all. As a teenager I had gone to see the original Batman during its opening weekend, at a midnight screening that ran elbow-to-elbow across every row. Cineplexes continued churning Burton’s film at 90-minute intervals throughout the end of June. Short of Titanic, it went on to become the box-office meteor of that era. Christopher Nolan’s reboot, by way of comparison, came bearing all the mingy earmarks of an undernourished dog.

Of course, no one was using the term “reboot” back in those days, which made it odder still that Warner Brothers might see fit to give some wunderkind control. This was 2005, a point when Spider Man was riding high and Superman had lost control. Revenge of the Sith was a runaway blockbuster. George Bush had just been re-elected, 18 months after declaring “Mission accomplished!” from the front deck of a boat.

Meanwhile, Christopher Nolan seemed to be approaching everything from a non-conformist style. His film was rumored to feature neither the Joker nor the Penguin. Bruce Wayne was being played by an actor who cut the tension with his jaw. Could this outsider – Christian Bale – actually take on the auspices of Batman? No one knew for sure. But his role in American Psycho guaranteed he had the billion-dollar-ethos thing down pat.

And so I bought my ticket. And what a decision that turned out to be. Batman Begins presented characters that were cerebral; a comic-book mythology, surreal. Christopher Nolan introduced a loaded rifle in Act One, then disappeared down such a hole one never thought to wonder when or if that loaded rifle might return. The movie’s twists and turns were jarring, like some well-oiled wooden coaster clattering down the tracks. And when at last the blinds were open, that rifle raised the ante by an even 10%.

Consider, by way of example, Batman Begins’ climactic sequence. On the surface, the caped crusader is confronting his mentor, Ra’s al Ghul, on the train car of a monorail. And yet, David Goyer’s screenplay has accomplished so much that the audience is already keenly aware: A) that Ra’s al Ghul represents one of three surrogate father figures to Bruce Wayne, B) that monorail was originally constructed by Thomas Wayne, C) that monorail is currently headed on a collision course toward Gotham’s water hub, D) Gotham’s water hub is located inside the center of Wayne Tower, and E) Wayne Industries manufactured the microwave emitter both men are grappling over. So on one level, the audience gets to enjoy a brilliantly-choreographed fight scene. On another, Bruce Wayne is struggling in defense of a blood oath he has sworn to uphold.

And yet, it goes much deeper than that, really. The audience is presented with an integral relationship between a teacher and his student. One uses fear as a deterrent, the other as an instrument of war. Both men are similar in style and discipline, yet separated by their mystique. Visually, these two men complement each other, Bruce Wayne appearing – at one point – in an open-mouth cowl just as Ra’s al Ghul goes strapping on a mask that covers the lower-center of his face. Bruce Wayne is the heir to a throne that has grown malignant in his absence. His family’s legacy is under attack; threatened by a company-built mechanism sent hurtling toward Gotham’s aorta like a spike meant for the heart. Meanwhile, that mechanism raises a question of ethical boundaries: Should any company secure its fortunes to a necessity for death?

Ten minutes after Nolan’s movie ended, it occurred to me Tim Burton’s original would never be the same. Nolan’s caped crusader felt vicious and forthright; the majority of his decisions felt pathologically impaired. Nolan’s sequencing moved quickly, any extraneous elements were spared. More importantly, there was no Batman during the initial 60 minutes (in the same way there was no Man of Steel during the initial 47 minutes of Superman). The story – by way of its characters – meant something. And Nolan’s ideas were executed with such precision that both Bruce Waynes explored a separate fallacy of man.

By the end of 2007, nobody gave a shit about Spider-Man anymore. Superman was on life support, and a legion of lesser-known origin stories were suddenly clamoring to be heard. The cinematic universe had shifted. And a Dark-Knight sequel featuring a $250-million budget was about to redefine the way super-hero sagas should be told.

We know now how that sequel ended. We know that Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker transformed Jack Nicholson’s iconic romp into a blurb. We know that all three films in the Dark Knight canon would include recurring metaphors and plot points; that Nolan and DC would continue to feed off of each other’s world. We know that Heath Ledger would go on to win the only Oscar ever awarded for any major role in a super-hero movie. We know that The Dark Knight would be nominated for eight Academy Awards (and that Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard would be nominated for a BAFTA Award for their score). We know that Ledger’s Joker would continue to receive all of the glory, despite Tom Hardy’s Bane eventually proving to be a much more quotable turn. We know that one decade removed, the rising swell of super-hero mania is all-but-bound to wash asunder, just as we know that Nolan’s trilogy is one of the few bodies of work that will endure.

We know that Christian Bale has gone on to A-List mega-stardom. We know that Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon revitalized an under-appreciated career. We know that – after abandoning the Dark Knight franchise – Katie Holmes has stumbled along like a wounded deer. We know that Skyfall, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Star Trek: Into Darkness, The Fast & The Furious 7, The Amazing Spider Man, Iron Man 3, Man of Steel and Daredevil (among others) have all stolen from The Dark Knight to an embarrassing degree. We know that certain aspects of The Dark Knight pop up in everything from video games to TV. We know that Batman Begins set the wheels in motion for a pair of billion-dollar juggernauts. But most of all, we know that Batman Begins currently represents the second-greatest super-hero movie ever created, just as we know that The Dark Knight franchise represents the second-greatest trilogy ever made.

(Batman Begins was originally released on June 15th, 2005.)

Galleria: ‘Sinatra: An American Icon’ @ The New York Public Library for The Performing Arts

e5bd2275264607f95fe81aa861d71a8bHow hot is Frank Sinatra? White hot, assuming America’s zeitgeist is to be believed. In addition to rumors that Martin Scorsese will direct a feature-length biopic about Sinatra, Alex Gibney recently assembled a two-part, four-hour HBO documentary about the singer. Two months prior, Bob Dylan released an entire album worth of Sinatra covers, having recorded enough material to release two. Given most trends are cyclical in nature, recurring every 20 years or so, Frank Sinatra’s legacy is now, gearing toward a climax during the Summer of 2018 (the two-decade anniversary of his passing).

In conjunction with the build, New York’s Public Library for The Performing Arts (located in Lincoln Center) offers up this free, career-spanning exhibition. Here one might find memorabilia from Sinatra’s 1939 residency at the Rustic Cabin (located in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey); there, an original mugshot of the idol being booked on criminal charges of Seduction. Here one might find Sinatra’s concept albums; there, an original poster for Dirty Dingus Magee.

Here one might find an ample remembrance of the swagger, the voice; of a man so suave and lean apparent mob ties piqued his aura. For Sinatra was a crossover, an early champion of civil rights. To say he did it his way represents an obfuscation of thinking. The more impressive feat – on blatant display throughout this installation – is that Frank Sinatra did it. And in so doing, he left behind an inconceivable measure of work. The library’s walk-through, which celebrates the centennial of Frank Sinatra’s birth, does a commendable job of showcasing an entire century worth of talent.

(Sinatra: An American Icon continues at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts through September 4th, Free, 40 Lincoln Center Plaza.)

Five More For The Offing:

Francis Ford Coppola’s Advice to Young Filmmakers (2008)

“I think my best advice is really contained in the story of what happened to me when I wrote the screenplay of the film, Patton. One of the reasons they explained that they didn’t like it was the opening. I had this unusual opening where the character Patton comes right up on front of a big flag and makes a speech. And he’s a four-star general and he has medals and awards and pistols, and he’s making the speech. And they said to me, ‘It’s very confusing, this speech. First of all, to start a movie not only with a speech like that, but then in the scene right after it, he only has two stars and he doesn’t have the medals. It’ll be very confusing and we don’t like the beginning.’ Well, eventually, they did find an actor who liked it, George C. Scott, and a director who that opening appealed to, and who shot it wonderfully. And that is considered one of the most effective openings in the movie canon, which means – young people – that the things you get fired for when you’re young are the same things you win awards for when you’re old. So you have to be very courageous about your ideas because it’s not their fault. It’s just that when you come up with something really good, it means it’s different, and it’s different from what they expect. They’re likely to fire you or discredit you, but years later, if you survive, they’ll bring it out as one of the great things you did.”

(Excerpted from Hollywood’s Best Film Directors)

IFB’s Quotations Page, General Index

A Fair & Balanced Assessment of Taylor Swift’s Celebrity Persona

Taylor Times UKOctober 27, 2014 – Taylor Swift celebrates the release of her new album, 1989, with an iHeart Radio Secret Session performed from high atop a sprawling rooftop in Lower Manhattan. After opening with an aptly-titled “Welcome to New York,” the 24-year old addresses an adoring audience as follows:

 “We are on a rooftop in my neighborhood in New York City. Essentially the Empire State Building is behind us and it was lighting up to the beat of that song. I have no ability to be calm right now because my album, 1989, just came out today. I have, like, no chill; no ability to relax. And I am up here with a few hundred people who I have hand-picked. The thing is – if you don’t know what a secret session is – it’s kind of a tradition that I started when I was almost finished with my new album, 1989. I knew I was so proud of it that I wanted to play it for fans as early as possible. And I wanted to do it in these secret little gatherings. And so I held these parties in my houses, in my living rooms, and I invited 89 fans to each one. I did L.A., Nashville, New York, Rhode Island, London. And I played the entire album early for people. And they kept the secrets about what these songs were about – the titles, the lyrics. And now the album is out. And the difference between this secret session and those is that I will be playing those songs for you guys for the first time on this rooftop. Now, uh, one thing I’ve really been trying to do lately … I want to meet as many of you as possible. You have been so good to me. And I realize the people on the rooftop here are people I found on the internet, or on Instagram, or on Tumblr and Twitter. But I realize I can’t cyberstalk everyone. So that’s why for the first week of 1989 being for sale, if you buy the album you get a code. If you enter that code on my website you have an opportunity to win one of a thousand tickets to the tour or 500 meet-n-greets. So that’s if you buy the album in the first week. I want to meet as many of you as possible.”

So far as platinum branding goes, Taylor’s speech is nothing short of pristine. And yet, the semantics reveal a great deal about who and what Taylor Swift is, what motivates her, and how the broad-reaching relationship she’s achieved with her audience appears betrayed by a false sense of code. Every push derives from ego – Swift referring to Tribeca as “her neighborhood”; referring to a secret session as a tradition she started. These are the claims of a person who has been propped up – justifiably or otherwise – for so long she’s mistaken billboard marketing for prose. Swift’s M.O. is based on exclusivity, the idea that if you’re a Taylor-affiliated insider (AKA a “Swiftie”), you’re also a member of some sororitorical society – a support group for upper-middle-class females that makes its bank collecting tolls. Swift has been gaming this system since 2011, parlaying celebrity into an unimaginable return. Allow us to review by way of three incidents, all of which have occurred during the past six months alone:

  • In mid-December of 2014, Taylor Swift sent holiday packages to a hand-chosen selection of fans. Swift wrapped the majority of these packages herself. We believe this because the pop star personally recorded a video that calls attention to her doing so. Swift is featured wearing various outfits, creating the impression she was engaged in an all-encompassing affair. “It’s Christmas; I’m Santa Claus,” a pajama-clad Taylor Swift reminds everybody. There are boxes laid out across several rooms; a pair of cats keeps getting caught up in the mix. The uploaded video has been professionally edited, allowing for the final four minutes to depart into a montage – die-hard fans opening various packages at home. The coup de grace occurs when Swift herself arrives outside of a Connecticut fan’s front door. The result: a little under 17 million YouTube hits (and counting), along with an avalanche of media stories dedicated to the cause.
  • In the middle of January, 2015, Swift made headlines again, this time for sending a personalized care package to a social-media-obsessed fan. Among several trinkets included in this package: a dim-lit Polaroid (of Swift), a personal check for $1,989 (allocated for repayment of student loans), a hand-made painting which featured the number “1989” rather prominently, and a pouch which read, “NEW YORK IS MY BOYFRIEND” (all tips and nods to Swift’s current multimedia marketing campaign). The fan uploaded a seven-minute video of herself opening every item … with Swift’s personal emissary on-hand. The result: an endless cacophony of social-media shares, along with an immoderate blitz of blog posts and articles, all of which combined to render Swift a trending topic throughout that period.
  • On April 9, 2015, Taylor Swift announced that her mother was suffering from cancer – a tragic development, not to be minimized, by any means. Swift made the announcement via her Tumblr account. The second and third of five short paragraphs read as follows: “For Christmas this year, I asked my mom that one of her gifts to me be her going to the doctor to get screened for any health issues, just to ease some worries of mine. She agreed, and went in to get checked. There were no red flags and she felt perfectly fine, but she did it just to get me and my brother off her case about it … The results came in, and I’m saddened to tell you that my mom has been diagnosed with cancer. I’d like to keep the details of her condition and treatment plans private, but she wanted you to know.” The statement proceeds from there, explaining that regular testing and early diagnosis are the most prevalent keys to a recovery. Yet consider, if you will, the manner in which Taylor Swift has chosen to divulge this information. She leads with a vignette about herself; about a selfless act that would ensure – subconsciously or otherwise – that the hook of this story should turn its eye upon compassion; upon how one daughter’s altruistic behavior precipitated an early diagnosis, along with the increased possibility for recovery. The story went viral within hours, resulting in a predictable, and wholly warranted, outpouring of emotion. Yet in every mainstream-media retelling, the synopsis included two very necessary bullets: 1) Taylor Swift’s mother, Andrea, had been diagnosed with cancer, and 2) Taylor Swift was responsible for the screening that led to her mother being in treatment. The fact that the younger Swift remained so deliberately scant raises the question of why she would include – nay, even open with – a statement taking personal credit for any of the positives.

But allow us to put Andrea Swift’s diagnosis aside, with sincere wishes for a commendable recovery.

The idea – transparent as it might seem – is for Taylor Swift’s team to create low-cost social media campaigns that bait and switch Swift’s generosity for viral views (i.e., “This is for you, but the point of charity is me.”). Given Swift’s image, very few have seen fit to zero in upon the level of graft. What’s the harm?, one might wonder. The answer supplants its roots in authenticity; what’s conveyed by way of acting based on false, or even Pecksniffian, motives.

At the age of 25, Taylor Swift has built herself into an industry. Swift is beautiful and talented; wholly dedicated to her craft. Everything surrounding her – from platinum records to world tours – has been engineered to appeal to the masses. We are speaking here of a CEO, a corporate entity, the bright-eyed face of Taylor, Inc. – a company whose bread and butter begins, yet no longer ends, with teenage solipsism. We are speaking here of a star who’s worked extremely hard, yet never struggled; whose lyrics represent a one-dimensional – if not entirely virginal – worldview. We are speaking here of a blue-eyed doe who’s spent 10 years attempting to convince the mainstream media that she grew up assuming the role of ugly duckling. Young girls in big houses gravitate toward Taylor Swift because she validates their theory of being. This is Cherry Valance, insisting things ain’t all that easy on the South Side. This is Julia Roberts, attempting to pass herself off as, “just a girl standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.” This is every girl you knew in high school who unselfconsciously declared she’d had it just a little bit more difficult as a result of her good looks.

Objectively speaking, Taylor Swift’s only legitimate claim to being an outsider arises from her sense of ambition as a child. Pursuing the arts is a tawdry path, particularly for any girl attending elementary school in a Pennsylvania suburb. And yet it is during Swift’s formative years that she begins to rise above the pack. Throughout adolescence, there is no period of boredom, disenchantment, or dissatisfaction with the fact that everything seems to be moving along just fine. There is no drug period, no alcohol abuse, nor outward need based on sexual longing. As Swift matures (in Nashville), a gut-hungry media is left with little more than table scraps; meager food for a tabloid world.

It is for this reason – among others – that Taylor Swift represents an appropriate role model, at least as it pertains to the core audience she enthralls. Swift is safe and pedestrian, completely at home with comparing herself to Cinderella or Juliet, as opposed to, say, Nefertiti or the nymphs of lore. Radical ideas serve little need to the cotillion queen. More importantly, radicalism opens the door toward a life of self-examination, the bane of any teen who aspires to dating the quarterback while singing into her hairbrush, night after night.

During interviews, Swift maintains impeccable posture. She’s done her homework. She undrstands how to get over. Swift compensates for a lack of spontaneity by referring to anything she advocates as being “amazing” (during a 2014 Late Show appearance, Swift fell back upon this term 6X; Letterman fell back upon it once). While Swift loses points for irresponsibly touting the idea that she’s a victim – of the media, of past relationships, of unflattering perspectives – she deserves taut praise for rarely citing female gender as an issue. In an age of progressive values, Swift represents empowerment; she is millennially removed from what Camille Paglia has often referred to as the Gloria Steinem wing of feminism.

Of course, there is the occasional interview via which Swift suggests her ballads have been unfairly scrutinized as a result of her being a woman. This narrative fails to account for the fact that Taylor Swift – an unparalleled crossover phenomenon – has not only written an inordinate number of love songs, she has subsequently promoted those songs into becoming number-one hits. Each of these songs is a reflection of Swift’s image, an image that will determine the trajectory of her career throughout the next 15 years.

This past February, a Pennsylvania man who claims to have taught Taylor Swift how to play guitar received a cease-and-desist letter from TAS, LLC. This letter demanded said teacher (Ronnie Cremer) take down his not-for-profit website, ITaughtTaylorSwift.com, because it “incorporates the famous Taylor Swift trademark in its entirety and suggests TAS’s sponsorship or endorsement.” TAS’s letter went on to claim, Use of the domain name is highly likely to dilute, and to tarnish, the famous Taylor Swift trademark.”

There could have been any number of reasons why Swift’s team made the eventual decision to get firm. Ronnie Cremer could have been a sketchy motherfucker; his website could’ve given credence to unverifiable sources. But the sticking point was that Cremer’s story emerged less than two weeks after Swift’s team had taken decisive action to legally trademark the following phrases: “This sick beat,” “Party like it’s 1989,” “[I] could show you incredible things,” “Cause we never go out of style,” and “Nice to meet you, where you been?”.  Not only is Taylor Swift far from the original person to have uttered any of these expressions, she blatantly ripped off “Party like it’s 1989,” from Prince. The point being, it’s a slippery slope, allowing the rich to wield commercial control over everyday phrases they didn’t invent. As a matter of precedence, consider Donald Trump, who attempted and failed to trademark his television catchphrase “You’re fired!” back in 2004.

For the first time in her career Taylor Swift is dipping her toes into some lurid waters. Long after she’s washed clean of being a teen idol, long after she’s done dancing in the front row of every awards ceremony, long after the veneer has faded, people of substance will remember how she chose to make her mark. Given how Swift has successfully negotiated the hairpin turn from Country into Pop, it’s reasonable to assume she’s got one eye set on the future. Then again, when one is standing high atop the cosmic firmament of New York City, it’s inconceivable to grasp the depths of just how far a dazzling star can fall.

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