Friday, March 27, 2009

Good, but not TOOO Good.

Simon Cowell has just about the toughest job in the world. I mean that. I know what you're thinking...

"Muchacho! How can you say that? He's rich and he gets to be mean and people expect nothing else from him!"

And well yeah... that's true. But here's the thing... well...a couple of things..

1) I actually don't think he IS mean. You can sort of tell when you watch that he does actually like people, and he's never afraid to compliment someone if they actually deserve it. It's not his fault (well... probably it is because he's the boss) that he's the only judge really allowed or able to give actual, realistic opinions. I mean c'mon... Randy is a doof, Paula is Paula, and Kara just... I had high hopes that she'd be the legit female Simon and whatnot. A current songwriter with actual recent success, and she often sounds less coherant than Paula Abdul. So no... Simon's only mean in comparison to the cotton candy unicorns that the rest of them perpetrate on us every fucking week.

2) Simon's soul IS black and cold, true, but not why you'd think. And here's where I begin to explain my thesis... I think it's the worst thing in the world to know better and to understand nuance and levels, and yet feel compelled to ignore them based on forces that are not only outside of your personal control, but also soul-crushing. I think that's the situation Simon finds himself in... I think it's completely plausible that there are people they've had on that show who Simon actually might respect artistically, or really personally enjoy as an entertainer, but who he's destroyed them in critiques. Why? Because he knows that his comments do actually have an affect on voting, and his biggest nightmare is if someone wins who isn't readily marketable. It's not personal. It's not about his personal preferences. He wants to make money and Taylor Hicks ultimately makes him no money.

NOTE: Taylor Hicks is the perfect example here. He sort of captivated the idiot masses for a short time (due to the schtick), but in the long run went super, super stale very quickly. He's the only American Idol winner who was really more the winner of a reality show, and less a winner of a competition for entertainers. It's not that he was bad at what he does, because he's not, but he's a niche guy. More on that later. But I digress...

Simon's soul is black because it has to kill him to toss people under the bus who he probably finds more interesting in favor of pimping the safer bets. By "safer", I mean more generally marketable. I think Simon subscribes (as all people who want to make money over art should) to the Michael Eisner model (well.. early Eisner). Hit singles and doubles and take the sure things. If you play for the homerun, you strike out a lot more. It's probably less interesting on a creative level, but it's a way surer thing when it comes to making money.

3) He's got the finest line to walk when it comes the advice and criticisms he doles out. Everything he says is calculated to drive the person he WANTS to win toward winning. He knows that his target audience is middle America. The Average Joes who would rather listen comfortably to Nickleback than to be challenged by Radiohead. There's a reason why Radiohead wins Grammy's while Nickleback is the best selling group in the world right now. Simon knows this. His challenge every week is to subliminally lead America toward NOT voting out the people who combine being interesting/current/polished/skilled/versatile while also not being tooooo interesting/current/polished/skilled/versatile. There's a reason Michael Sarver will be on the tour. America eats that shit up. A current pair that stands out to me is Kris Allen (who I can barely ever remember) and Adam Lambert (who I can hardly stop listening to).

Two weeks ago, Adam Lambert did this crazy-ass rendition of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire". I personally loved it. Simon "hated" it. He called it "Horrific" and "self-indulgent". I'm gonna go out on a limb and say "Bullshit". I don't know if he liked it or not, and that's really irrelevant. I think that what Adam did was not by any measure "horrific". Possibly self-indulgent, but it wasn't his arrangement so whatever. Anyway... what I think happened was this: Adam did this wacky thing and it was during country week, which happens to be an important demographic, and Simon REALLY wants this dude to stick around so he dinged him a little. Like... "Get back a little closer to the middle and you'll win this thing." Adam wasn't in any real danger of going home THAT week because there were too many people less popular so it was the perfect time to "knock him down a peg" and get him to understand that it's okay to be different (David Cook's "Billie Jean") but not okay to be TOO different (Sanjaya...anything). It's great to be good (Jordin Sparks), but it's a little touchier to be GREAT (can't think of anyone right now, which is sort of the point... Maybe Jennifer Hudson or Melinda Dolittle (but then that's another thing altogether)).

Then you have silly Kris Allen who this week, during the Motown theme, sang some song or other... (I literally can't remember, because he's so fucking boring). Now Kris is the exact opposite of Adam Lambert in almost every way, but he's getting the same sort of push from the other direction. Kris is more than serviceable. He's talented. He's got the looks that girls plaster their rooms with and he can sing and play guitar, which pretty much makes him a walking dollar sign. The thing is... he's also kinda forgettable. He's so nice and simple and wholesome. He's like the Osmonds... Got the skills and the looks and whatnot, but you're still hungry for more when they're done assaulting you with their Book of Mormon or their songs or whatever. So what does Simon do? Simon knows that Kris is safe...the teen girls will save him for a while longer for sure... so he says the exact opposite thing he tells Adam "be more interesting. Have more swagger. Do something self indulgent."

It's a fine, fine line. Adam Lambert is great. He's not everyone's cup of tea, but there is absolutely no room for debate that he's a singular talent. He's totally unpredictable, even down to the modulations within his songs. This scares Simon, because it excites him at the possibilities, but it also doesn't always translate into sales. On the other hand Kris Allen is as predictable as a McDonalds McNugget. The same every time. He's got talent, but people also want to remember your concert five minutes after it's over. One of them Simon tries to rein in. One he tries to set loose a little. It's a fascinating balancing act to watch as he coaxes two front runners. Can't be too negative too often or the voters will start picking up on it and will follow suit (the only one this didn't work with was Taylor, and turns out Simon was right.) Can't be too positive or there'll be a "bandwagon backlash".

I was thinking about this a lot, and I am trying really really hard to think of a music icon who would have been a safe bet from the start. I can't think of one. This leads me to hypothesize that you can't predict the all-timers. You can predict the solid stars and the giant failures (usually), but it's nearly impossible to predict the ones that are the absolute grand-slam home runs, and so chasing them isn't a good business model (again with the Eisner singles and doubles.)

Elvis? Some people say he's the most influential entertainer of the 20th Century (I say Walt Disney, but whatever). That said, how do you predict a white boy from Mississippi who sings gospel and rock-a-billy becoming the biggest celebrity in the world based on this wacky new music?

Madonna? She's essentially a dancer with a serviceable voice (at best). If a music producer told me that they'd signed a dancer with a serviceable voice to a record deal and said that some day she'd be the richest, most successful female singer of all time, I'd tell them that I'm not a leprechaun and that I don't grant wishes. She basically become a star through sheer force of will and charisma. Not something quantifiable.

Michael Jackson? Now...he's a special case, because he was a star as a kid before he had any control over her personna and whatever, but let's say a completely unknown Michael Jackson showed up at Motown Records in 1983 or whatever and he was all "Salutations friends. I'm gonna be the most famous person on Earth in 2 years! Send me your chimps and small children!" I'm pretty sure that record executive calls the cops.

Anyway... It's a tough job Simon has is all I'm saying. You can't predict the legends. In fact, it's more a matter of not fucking up the sure things and hoping for the best.

Alan and I were discussing whether or not the mediocre ones know they're mediocre and merely playing to the middle... and I honestly don't know. Part of me wants to think that Nickelback knows that what they're doing is fluff and that they're okay with it, because they do their side projects to satiate their artistic insides and then they go tour and they bang really really hot dumb girls and roll around on their mattresses stuffed with cash. They are not without talent. I don't honestly believe you can be a success without having at least some talent.

The difference between them and a John Lennon is that the dudes in Nickelback are at peace with (at the least) or even embrace (more likely) their middle of the road confomity and they suckle at that teet until it runs dry. I do think there's probably some delusion in there too... like they probably occasionally write a song where they're all "This is it! This is the one where the artistic and the mainstream finally collide and we take it to that iconic level" and it's just another one of the 50 songs that sound exactly the same as all the others. On the other hand, I have no problem seeing John Lennon thinking that every song he ever wrote was total shit, and he pops out Imagine or Yesterday. Or even one of the 50 other legendary songs.

I guess my extremely long-winded point is that Simon Cowell's goal isn't to find the next John Lennon or Elvis. His goal is to find the next Nickelback. That may kill him every day, and it may just make him seem awfully mean to guys like Kris Allen who have the talent but no personality, so they just need a little nudge to be truly commercially viable. And it may kill him worse to kinda ding Adam Lambert who artistically is an unknown on this type of show and possibly has the ability to do amazing things, but might just be a little too scary for general American consumption in his current form.

Does anyone have any thoughts on this? Is it possible to predict greatness? Discuss...

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Why I'm Not Writing

Hey Folks-

I've noticed that my "per month" blog post numbers have dropped significantly over the past 3 months, and I feel like I need to explain myself. (Mostly to myself, as I have approximately 3 readers or something.)

My reasons:

1) While I definitely don't make a habit out of blogging from work, my extra time to do anything has dropped down to nothing.

2) I'm rehearsing for 2 shows right now, so any of my free time in the evenings...well... doesn't exist. I have no free time in the evenings. In fact, I'm kinda hating life right now, which makes my lack of time to blog even worse, because when I'm angsty I'm more entertaining (I'm told).

3) What little writing time I do have, I've been using to plan and prepare to collaborate with a friend on a play.

4) PS3. It's the most insidious, evil, time robbing son-of-a-bitch ever. And I love every single second of it.

5) I'm so, sooo tired. (See above)

All that said, I hope to have my Day 4 of Disney blog up some time later today.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Day 3: What's New, Buckaroo?

Hey Folks-

Sorry it's taken so long to get this update out. My interwebs have been acting up, as has my laptop. Basically, I know that's a lot of excuses, but they're all totally valid and true and real. In fact, my laptop upon which I am currently writing this blog is so besieged by viruses that it's almost audibly weeping at me.

In any case, here I am, about to discuss Day 3 of my Disney adventure, which was now almost a full month ago. In fact, I arrived in Disney exactly 4 weeks ago today. That's too long to write 3 blogs.

On Day 3, I decided to spend the day at Epcot (with my mystery guest). Now...when I say that I spent the whole day there, I mean... I spent the WHOLE day there. I was there for 12 hours, which is really about as long as one can be at any given park. It was awesome as always. In any case, as with every day at Disney, there was a theme for this day.

The theme for Day 3, my day at Epcot, was "What's New?". I've counted Epcot as my favorite park for a while now, and I've experienced almost all of it. Oddly, though I managed to experience several new things at Epcot this time around... or at least new to me.

I shall talk about those "New" things....
The Living Seas with Nemo and Friends
For some reason, I rarely visit The Living Seas exhibit. I don't know why, exactly, as I've always been fascinated by the sea and it's creatures and whatnot. I think that once Soarin' opened at The Land, making my way over to Future World East has been all about that and Journey into Imagination. I also usually skip Honey I Shrunk the Audience... In any case, I think that The Living Seas has been awesomely improved by adding the Finding Nemo characters. The "Shell" cars are very similar to the Haunted Mansion ride vehicles, and they gradually take you downward into the aquarium "proper". As they take you past characters being projected very realistically onto the actual aquarium glass, they play music from the Nemo stage show from Animal Kingdom. I'm going to give it a 7 out of 10. Up from a 5.5 out of 10. (please keep in mind that this is all on a Disney-only scale. It's unfair to compare Disney attractions to non-Disney attractions. )

Spaceship Earth's Refurb
I visited Disney in late 2005 and in anticipation I did blogs listing my top 35 favorite things at Disney World. I am nearly certain Spaceship Earth was in my top 10. In any case, I love this ride. There's that moment toward the top where the ride vehicle rotates and the Earth is revealed and the music swells... it literally made me emotional every time. Now... in February of 07, they closed Spaceship Earth down for months to redo the interior and add some new features. And guess what? No more big crescendo moment. I was very disappointed in that. That said, there were some cool new additions. They do this thing where they ask you where you're from and you enter it right into the ride vehicle. At the end of the ride, they show you WITH YOUR PICTURE zooming into the location you say you're from. It's pretty cool. I also liked some of the new animatronics. (Though they did remove the repeating chariot horse). All in all, I liked the changes, except I miss the old music and old ending. I'll give it an 8 out of 10, down from a 9.5 out of 10.

Mission Space
Now... I'd been to Disney 4 times since Mission Space had opened, and I'd never been on it. Either out of fear (the first 2 times) or the fear of my companions (the last 2 times). In any case, I was determined to ride it this time, and while I did the "Mild" option, I still totally dug it. It was a lot of fun, and pretty intense. I loved Gary Sinise's part as the mission commander. I loved the effects. It's hard to explain, in a way, because it sort of gives you this feeling of you being in control of the simulator in a very clever way. Also, I can't imagine what they do for the Intense version of the ride, because that shit was already pretty rough. In any case I'd recommend the mild version for pretty much anyone. I didn't even feel dizzy when I got off, which I had prepared myself for. 9 out of 10.

Gran Fiesta Tour (fka El Rio del Tiempo )
So I totally loved what I dubbed The Mexico Boat, and that hasn't changed at all. In fact, I think of all of the refurbs, this one was the best. Mostly because the spirit of the ride itself didn't change at all, and all of the additions only served to enhance the parts that had sort of fallen into datedness. I loved the addition of the characters and the Donald Duck plot they added to it as well. Funny, and appropriate to the Mexico theme. 9 out of 10. Formerly a generous 7 of out 10.

In addition to the new rides, I also dined at 2 restaurants in World Showcase that I'd never tried before.

Germany (Biergarten)
This was a buffet/Smorgasbord that I really enjoyed. The diners eat at large communal tables that I think are really cool to associate with the other diners. It's neat to chat up some strangers while great polka music is played live by a pretty awesome band. I'd give it a 7 out of 10 in the World Showcase Restaurant Survey. (I'm gonna do a while one soon.)

Morocco (Marrakesh)
The food here is awesome.... as long as you like Middle Eastern food, which I do. The atmosphere is really hectic, because it was totally packed, and the servers move like lightning. Also...belly dancers. This was the meal where I most wished I still had a full stomach. I rate it an 8.5 out of 10.

All in all, it was a great day. We had a great time, and perhaps best of all, I got a new Beefy Muchacho picture. It's not a trip to Disney without one.