Answers, Authenticity, Lost and Lana Del Rey

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By Jake Pitre

Our culture has a problem with answers. Or rather, with its incessant need for them. We need our stories wrapped up as succinctly and cleanly as possible (Breaking Bad, Fargo), and we need to know What It All Means. I don’t know if I could possibly pinpoint when this cultural demand started, but the ending of Lost could only have deeply intensified it. The outrage following that show’s finale was quick, vibrant and pure. “That’s it?”, many collectively wondered. Where’s my answers? What did it all mean? What did I just spend six years of my life on? I’m owed answers!

It’s this entitlement that irks me the most. One doesn’t have to agree with me about Lost or its (widely misunderstood imo) finale, but to dislike the show because you felt like it owed you answers to all your questions is truly misguided and obnoxious. Entitlement in general is perhaps the most unattractive trait one can have, and to apply it to a piece of art is childish. Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof did not owe you anything in terms of telling that story.

Beyond that, why do we feel the need for all the answers in the first place? My assumption has always been that it is some psychological requirement of complete closure, so that a door can be closed and life can comfortably go on. Ambiguity is scary because we have to decide what kind of person we want to be by confronting how we fill in the remaining gaps – did Tony Soprano get away or go down? Will Dale Cooper ever get out of the Black Lodge, or will he rot in there eternally? When a story doesn’t really end when it ends, the gaps left in its wake are nagging black holes that drive us wild.

Relatedly, there are those that criticize Lana Del Rey because she is inauthentic, whether in terms of plastic surgery, parental career assistance or lifestyle. True to her initial status as an Internet-borne star, her past was scoured by people online. It quickly emerged that her real name was Elizabeth Grant, that she was sent to boarding school when she was 15 due to her alcoholism, that she was in a cult for a short amount of time, that she had been in a seven-year relationship with the head of a record label, that her actual debut album was uploaded to iTunes for a brief time before being taken down, and on and on. Each new piece of information uncovered a new piece of the supposed “puzzle”.

To be fair, Del Rey’s mysteriousness and unknown quality practically begged the Internet to go looking for the truth, though that mysteriousness seems integral to her image and persona. Even today, after all of these “revelations”, she is an unknowable entity, occasionally giving us eccentric tidbits like rejecting feminism or her interest in SpaceX. This specific cultivation of a pop persona is completely unique in 2014, and no rumour about fake lips will ultimately detract from what she’s doing.

This foregrounds the uneasy relationship between Del Rey and our culture. When a pop star withholds personal information and perhaps obsessively calculates how to present themselves, it makes us suspicious, but that is only part of the Lana Del Rey phenomenon. What exists with her more than with any other contemporary artist is the mass frustration over how much of this persona she revels in is real and how much is theatre. With pop artists like Katy Perry and even Lady Gaga, it is far easier to tell what is artificial. With Del Rey, it’s more difficult to determine. She talks of her lyrics being autobiographical, but sometimes the tone is so tongue-in-cheek (“Brooklyn Baby”) that one believes she must be making fun of this lifestyle she presents, at least a little bit.

When she tells an interviewer that she wishes she was dead (which should not have come as a surprise to people if they’d listened to any of her lyrics, wherein she frequently says as much), the Internet doesn’t know if it should take it seriously. The thinkpiece writers come out in droves (*waves*). Does she really want to die? Is she just trying to further position herself within the sad girl aesthetic that she so often glamourizes? Or is she doing that and simultaneously making fun of it? If so, is it okay to make light of and lie about depression, especially as a public figure?

To be honest, I don’t care, and I don’t think anyone else should, either. There are those that love Lana Del Rey because they identify with her sad girl aesthetic, there are those that like her ironically for the same or similar reasons, and there are those that fall somewhere in the middle (*waves again*). The beauty of Lana Del Rey is this: we have no idea how disingenuous this all is, if at all. And it doesn’t matter, which she clearly understands fundamentally. To dismiss or dislike an artist because you believe they are faking it to some degree is puzzling to me. This is why I brought up Lost at the start – where does this cultural emphasis on (satisfying and complete) answers come from? Why is it understood to some that unless one knows how real their art is, or have all the answers, it must be revolted against?

This brings up the parallel issue of poptimism versus rockism, which I will not drag myself into, but it partly boils down to the idea that some music is more artificial than other music. The truth is, in music and across all mediums, artists are always posturing and are intrinsically “putting on a show”. I won’t necessarily come at it from a gendered perspective because Lana would disapprove, but does anyone criticize Bob Dylan or David Bowie for being disingenuous in their art and in their images? Is there a demand to know how much of it is real, and how much is performance? When one puts this emphasis on how real our artists are and how authentic their art is, it is disrespectful to the craft of creating art and emblematic of a deep misunderstanding of where art’s value comes from.

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Locke | Review

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By: Duncan Chalmers

There’s an odd little sub-genre of films where the protagonist is isolated in a confined space, forced to contact the outside world via a telephone. The primary examples, Phone Booth and Buried,developed tension with an ever present threat of death. Although on the surface Locke seems to fit comfortably into this group, further consideration distinguishes itself. Here the suspense derives from human emotion; our conflicted relationship with the character’s situation.

As soon as Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) steps into his vehicle, the entire film is confined there as he makes a two-hour drive to London. The film’s narrative unfolds through a never ending string of  conversations he has over his cellphone. The writing has an intelligent restraint, subtly revealing details to bring us out of our initial ignorance.

We come to understand that Locke is a construction supervisor, and that the next morning he is responsible for overseeing the largest ever concrete pour in Europe. Despite this, he is driving in the opposite direction towards an undisclosed location, eventually revealed to be the birth of a child he fathered in a one-off affair.

These two events provide the fundamental structure of the film’s plot. Locke’s choice to attend the birth threatens the outlook of his life, both in his career and family. All of the conversations deal with this in some way, from Locke attempting to explain his decision to furious employers, to struggling to support his emotionally devastated wife.

What makes this film really flourish is the unorthodox character at its centre. Locke seems to be driven by an unyielding sense of pride and honour. Even after being fired from his job he feels an overwhelming commitment to the success of the construction project.The underlying motivation behind his obligation to the unborn child is also revealed through some bizarre yet intensely powerful conversations.

None of this would have been possible if not for the riveting performance at the centre by Tom Hardy. He breaks free from the physicality that has defined his previous roles, achieving what is likely the greatest performance of his career thus far. Through a combination of striking subtext and body language we are able to fully feel the pain, anxiety and frustration that his character is experiencing.

What makes Locke so successful compared to similar films is the way that everything has purpose. Ivan Locke is not trapped in a situation that manipulates the audience for suspense, that suspense comes from his decision to be in that situation. You clearly understand the actions and responses of the characters, even when they often conflict with each other.

Director Steven Knight embraces the limitations he applies to himself, and through his intricately crafted shooting and editing, proves that you can create a truly cinematic film without many of the stalwarts that have come to define the medium.The result is an incredibly fascinating viewing experience; the best film of the year so far.

 

How The Sopranos should have served as a model for Rape of Thrones

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By Duncan Chalmers

(Spoilers for both Game of Thrones and The Sopranos present)

Despite a number of characters being killed off, with one occurrence seemingly celebrated by almost every viewer, none of the deaths so far in this season of Game of Thrones have been able to achieve the same level of reaction as last year’s “Red Wedding.” Although it certainly was not intentional, there has been one scene that sent the internet into a comparable frenzy a number of Sundays ago. The episode it appeared in, “Breaker of Chains,” did little in terms of narrative progression, but the media has reacted intensely to a fairly short sequence in which Jaime Lannister rapes his sister, Cersei.

Despite comments from the director that suggest otherwise, rape is unquestionably what we witnessed in that sequence. The majority of the outcry seemed not to be focused at what actually occurred on screen, rather the scene’s inconsistencies with the novel, and the implications brought forth with those changes. I respect people’s desire for faithfulness to the source material, but any problems with that scene are not related to the adaptation process.

I am comfortable with David Benioff and W.B. Weiss making any changes that make the series work better on television. Therefore I want to consider this event on the basis of a narrative decision. If handled in the right way, art should be able to represent almost everything that occurs in reality, including sexual assault. As a form of social discourse it can allow us to consider and contemplate the most difficult elements of society. At its best, art can present powerful messages about subjects we are normally uncomfortable dwelling on.

Although the scene was handled so crudely, with a clear division of villain and victim, I do not think it’s fair to say that the series was problematic from that episode alone. Isolated from the comments of the people involved, the scene didn’t present the actions in anything but a demonizing tone. I believe that the context of such a scene is far more important than the content itself.

As much as I was frustrated with the decision when discussing the scene in the days following, I begrudgingly agreed that I would wait to see what the fallout would be as the season continued. To justify such a bold narrative choice, I thought the writers clearly intended to redirect the course of the series for these characters. But in the four episodes following, there has been little evidence of any impact.

I remember a while ago, when I was working my way through The Sopranos, having a debate with my father about a particular plot point from that series. After listening to me rave about the third season (which I personally consider one of the greatest ever,) he expressed his discontent with a scene from the episode “University.” In it Ralph Cifaretto violently beats a stripper named Tracee, who is pregnant with his unborn child, ultimately resulting in her death.

The scene is incredibly gruesome and intense; I remember nearly crying at its brutality. My father thought that the writers had crossed the line by displaying such violence, particularly against a woman. And he wasn’t alone, when the episode was released it received similar criticism to what Game of Thrones is experiencing now.

At the time, I passionately defended David Chase’s decision to include this scene, and I feel the same now. As awful and painful as it is, the sequence has a great significance to the entirety of the series. Not really in terms of plot, but more of the general tone of the show.

One of the things The Sopranos had to contend with is the moral representation of its characters. When creating an anti-hero driven story you have to establish a balance between keeping the characters engaging without absolving them of their sins. There is no denying that the mobsters represented in the series are likeable; they are funny, at times sympathetic, and truly fascinating. Captivating characters are important for maintaining an entertaining show, but the fear is that the writers will justify their actions in the pursuit of making them interesting.

With Tracee’s death, The Sopranos made a clear statement about the world it was portraying. These men, despite their charm and humour, are immoral people. That’s not to say there is no ambiguity or conflict to the morality the show represents; that was always something that it flourished in. But from that point forward it was impossible to ignore the true nature of the characters. Much of the criticism was directed at the detail of the violence. It is no doubt disturbing, but that’s what makes it so powerful. Sanitizing the event would only act as a disservice to the reality being portrayed.

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That’s why I didn’t really have an issue with the rape scene itself. If the writers want to make a statement about sexual assault that will have a significant impact on the characters and themes of the series, then all the power to them. But as the season continues, that is slowly being revealed to not be the case. Neither of the characters involved show any sign impact from what occurred, and the way the show deals with them seems to ignore it altogether.

As Tyrion’s trial is playing out, Cersei has been forced back into a villainous role, and Jaime is still well on track with his redemption arc from last season. I’m not saying that this plot point has to entirely alter the representation of them, but its strikingly false to simply ignore it. If we were expected to pretend as if it didn’t happen, then why even do it at all, especially since it was not even in the book. Anytime Jaime is on screen now, I feel alienated and uncomfortable.

There is still a possibility that the series could do something to salvage what has occurred. In The Sopranos the event altered Tony and Ralph’s relationship in a way that would not fully culminate until well into the fourth season. The fallout that occurred was not entirely explicit, but that subtleness proved to be both genuine and intensely poignant.

I’ve had a number of conversations with people about this scene, and the reason behind its inclusion. You can read in whatever sort of meaning you like, but I have not found any to be very convincing. And to me that’s a problem. Not simply as a disappointing flaw in the plot, but because when an artist uses something so impactful as sexual assault in their work, they better do so with proper intent.

As a viewer, I expect creators to say something important when they take such a bold risk. When Game of Thrones had one of its characters rape their own grieving sister, they didn’t say anything at all. And that silence speaks volumes.

 

Why Does Everyone Hate Coldplay? (And Why They Should Reconsider)

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By Jake Pitre

David: You know how I know you’re gay?
Cal: How? How do you know I’m gay?
David: Because you macramed yourself a pair of jean shorts.
Cal: You know how I know you’re gay? You just told me you’re not sleeping with women any more.
David: You know how I know you’re gay?
Cal: How? Cause you’re gay? And you can tell who other gay people are?
David: You know how I know you’re gay?
Cal: How?
David: You like Coldplay.

With this exchange between Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd’s characters in The 40-Year-Old Virgin in 2004, the tone was set for the cultural understanding and reaction to Coldplay. As the punchline to this joke, Coldplay is established through implication as effeminate, emotional and generally soft, ready to be mocked and dismissed. This has remained the status quo ever since.

It may seem like a fool’s errand, or at least pretty pointless, to come to the defence of one of the most popular and successful bands of our time, with millions of fans and the record sales, YouTube hits and “conscious uncouplings” to match. Do these rich straight white men really need me to parse the cultural specificity surrounding their unique position and push others to reconsider their music? Probably not, but I find this band fascinating, even if it is more often because of their singular evolution and standing in our culture than the music itself, which ventures regularly between blandly safe and sneakily brilliant. So here we are.

When your band becomes shorthand for soft and “gay” (which, give me a break), what do you do? Coldplay chose to embrace it, laying the bombast on thick and not shying away from deeply emotional lyrics and soaring synth lines. In the process, they chose to not challenge their mass perception and in some ways came out stronger for it. That said, their first album to come out after The 40-Year-Old Virgin was X&Y, likely their worst album to date. The recording of that album was reportedly difficult, with many songs getting scrapped and producers leaving in the middle of production. The result is a more electronic, grandiose sound than on their previous albums, which surprised some fans and mostly fell flat as the band appears to have briefly lost their way. It was all a little desperate, and the band had to do something big for their next act if they wanted to live up to the hype of being “the next U2”.

In 2008, they released Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends. Here, the bombast and grandiosity played to their strengths – powerful ballads, vague pretentiousness, deceptively simple songwriting and lyrics. That last point is perhaps most crucial in understanding the mass appeal (and concurrent dismissal) of Coldplay. Chris Martin et al.’s lyrics happen to work in the same way that Ben Gibbard’s do for Death Cab for Cutie, or Lana Del Rey’s, or Tegan and Sara’s. They are highly emotional, a little melodramatic, and they sound very personal but are in fact devoid of anything actually intimate to themselves. The result of this is that anyone can relate to these artists, because the things they sing about are universally identifiable. At the same time, there is a distance between artist and listener that allows the listener to disassociate themselves if they wish to – these are Chris Martin’s confessional words, not mine. Brilliantly, both reactions work in Coldplay’s favour.

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Viva La Vida is unquestionably the band’s best album, their highest achievement in terms of songwriting, sonics, message. It is the perfect combination of their requisite softness and their ambitions of grandiosity and importance, an impeccable marriage between emotion and pomposity. When you consider this album in the band’s discography, it reveals itself to be the purest expression of what Coldplay is, or at least intends to be. This is where they realized how to engage with their strengths, what sets them apart, and to take their cultural perception and blow it up, quite literally. The embracement of their style, or rather the massively understood concept of “Coldplay”, gave them huge sway and left no power in their haters.

That may sound like bullshit, but hear me out. It may be surprising to learn how pervasive this dismissive attitude towards Coldplay has become, even as their success has only grown over time. Coldplay has been the butt of jokes and insults since “Yellow” became a hit. The New York Times called them the “most insufferable band of the decade” in 2005. On Family Guy, Peter gets kicked out of the band: “Guys, guys, I got an idea: how about we do a song that’s not whiny bullcrap?” Chris Martin himself addressed the ubiquity of this attitude towards his band in 2008 by saying, “Like millions of people in the world, I can’t listen to Coldplay.” Yeesh.

I think it is telling, then, that the same year, his band put out Viva La Vida, the most “Coldplay” Coldplay album there is. The lyrics remain as relatable yet obstructively impersonal, but the ambition is much higher and the sound is much grander. It is hard to overstate how important it is for a band to fully embody and seize who they are. It is the same difficulty most people have in accepting themselves as they truly are, instead of coming up with excuses or hiding under illusions. As great as Lady Gaga is, she seems to be perpetually unclear about who she is (although in her case, this makes her an even more captivating figure as we watch her work through this very publicly). When an artist is able to grasp that, which is rare, a more genuine expression can begin to be articulated. Wes Anderson, for example, doubled down this year on his own trademark style, accelerating it like never before and effectively turning out a phenomenal film with The Grand Budapest Hotel. Anderson, like Coldplay, embraced who he is and what he does so that a more authentically felt product could materialize.

Inevitably, Coldplay has struggled to maintain such a unique perspective and position. Their next album, 2011’s Mylo Xyloto, was a mess wherein they dropped the emotion and softness inherent to themselves while focusing on the bombast and grandeur. Without some of their key components, the band backtracked and lost their clear-sightedness. This month, they released Ghost Stories, their sixth album and a return to the stripped-down version of themselves from Parachutes (albeit with far more synthesizers). They considered it to be a “reset”, a “recalibration”. Drummer Will Champion said, “There’s only so far you can go without becoming pompous and a bit overblown, so we’ll tread that line very carefully.” I would argue that although Ghost Stories is far more successful at following who they are than Mylo Xyloto, Coldplay must keep in mind that they don’t need to reset themselves in order to reach previous heights. As Viva La Vida strongly attests, Coldplay works best when they accept themselves just as they are.

Ka-Ka-Ka-Kawaii: Pop Stars and Their Racial Struggle

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By Jake Pitre

The great feminist and race culture writer bell hooks has written often about how the issues of feminism and racism are inextricably linked. In other words, how could someone push for the cause of feminism and stand as a representation of that movement without also engaging with the issue of ethnicity and racism? This intersectional perspective has defined her career and has acted as a powerful strategy to critically consider both cultural issues.

“The struggle to end sexist oppression that focuses on destroying the cultural basis for such domination strengthens other liberation struggles,” she wrote in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre. “Individuals who fight for the eradication of sexism without struggles to end racism or classism undermine their own efforts. Individuals who fight for the eradication of racism or classism while supporting sexist oppression are helping to maintain the cultural basis of all forms of group oppression.”

Our current roster of pop stars apparently need to brush up on their racial studies. One would be hard pressed to find a star that has not been involved with some form of accusations of racism – Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Gwen Stefani, Selena Gomez, Avril Lavigne, Kesha, Lorde, Lily Allen, Sky Ferreira, and so on (Beyonce is absent, but has her own problematic dealings with feminism). Many of these women are feminists, some loudly so, but seem to be blind when it comes to race.

There are a few aspects of this worth critically exploring. First, and most simply, how does it keep happening – especially with repeat offenders? For example, Katy Perry was heavily criticized online for her Japanese geisha performance of “Unconditionally” in November at the American Music Awards. You would think that this would make her, or at the very least her team, aware of future potential offenses and stop them before they occur. Perry’s music video for “Dark Horse” hit in February and sparked outrage from Muslims because Perry plays a Cleopatra-like Egyptian who zaps an Allah-encrusted necklace. Then in her latest video, for “Birthday”, she dresses up as a variety of characters, including a very stereotypical Jewish bar mitzvah entertainer named Yosef Shulem. How has she not learned to stop dressing up in such a way?

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But perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps these stars (and probably more importantly, their teams) are believing too fully in that old adage: “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”. This is a cynical theory – these stars keep going back to this well (Stefani’s harajuku phase, Avril’s kawaii-dubstep trainwreck, Miley and Sky’s blacks-as-ornaments, Gaga’s burqa takedown, etc.) because it gets them publicity every time, they receive little punishment beyond internet outrage and thinkpieces, and their cultural domination continues. They revel and engage in racist acts and cultural appropriation in order to heighten their publicity and their image suffers little, comparably.

I think that the fact that it is almost always women is not a coincidence. In what bell hooks would call our white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, men typically do not have to engage in controversial acts (particularly racially controversial) in order to raise their publicity or exoticize their images. Put a man like Justin Timberlake or Robin Thicke in a nice suit surrounded by nameless attractive women and call it a day. For female pop stars, the cultural situation and the constant, nagging worry about remaining in the spotlight creates a vacuum that men in the industry do not usually experience, at least to the same degree.

Relatedly, that bit about exoticizing their image. Whether the intention is to make them appear dangerous or to simply exoticize through appropriation (Selena’s Indian-indebted “Come & Get It”, Avril & Gwen, etc.), these attempts to tie in these stars’ images with other cultures and ethnicities is a fetishizing of the exotic, something that show business has always done. The difference is that we should really know better by now. We shouldn’t have to force our female pop stars to resort to this in order to capture our attention. These things become spectacles, the same as the Duck Dynasty guy or Donald Sterling. It squanders their actual talent (and most of these performers are truly talented people), and leaves a bad taste in your mouth when you still like their music or their personalities. We are complicit, and we shouldn’t be, but these performers should not be so complicit either. It’s a sad situation when the best I can do is defend Gaga’s burqa takedown as some sort of well-intentioned attempt to fight for female freedom. Too bad she, along with the others, have forgotten to fight against racism and racial oppression, too.

When I’m lying awake at night: Millennials, ‘Transatlanticism’ and Universal Intimacy

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By Jake Pitre

I truly felt as if I loved her more than anything, and that she was the one I was going to end up with for the rest of my life. It always seems silly in retrospect, as much of our teenage selves look to us later on, but at the time it was very real. The only thing. This was the kind of relationship, the kind all of us have had, where a day would go by without seeing her and I would miss her, intensely. It was that powerful, and anything more than a day felt like a legitimate crisis. Of course, that faded, but for a long time it was the most intoxicating thing you could imagine. I always wanted to be close to her, and when I wasn’t, the yearning was vehemently passionate. 

Usually when writers at magazines or websites discuss millennials, they have no idea what they are talking about and have consulted with only an intern or two in order to discover the secrets of this generation. We have struggled as a culture to properly define our ascending generation, resulting in endless explanations and contradictions. Typically concerning people born after 1980 up until the early 2000s, are the millennials “the me me me generation”, as Joel Stein argued in TIME? Are they the open-minded and all-inclusive generation, as several polls and studies have suggested? Are they rude and ignorant brats, or wise and ambitious young adults? 

I think I can define the millennial generation in six words: “I need you so much closer”.

Whether through evolving parenting methods, a greater cultural emphasis on gender equality and fluidity, or some other combination of factors, the millennial generation has been especially encouraged to feel their emotions more deeply and honestly (Generation Z, those born after the early 2000s, even more so). 

At the same time, this generation is the first to grow up with the Internet. We are still in the process of figuring out how this is affecting us in the long-term, but it seems clear that there is a new and distinct distancing between us taking place. Although we can connect with anyone around the world, the Internet also allows us to retreat from, for lack of a better phrase, real life. There appears to be a collective ennui that has developed, but it is a willful one as many millennials often isolate themselves in their technological realms of mild but sufficient stimulation.

From here, long-distance relationships form in ways they never have before. Oftentimes, these are between people that have never met in person, and many other times it is the continuation of a relationship after physically parting ways. This is the ultimate absence of intimacy, in a way that can even verge on masochistic. It is also the primary concept behind Death Cab for Cutie’s seminal and landmark 2003 album, Transatlanticism

“You know, I dated a girl named Sarah in college,” Ben Gibbard said in an interview with The Nerve in May 2003. “I sort of got really excited that there might be a chance that ‘Sarah Smile’ [by Hall & Oates, a favourite of his] could be our song.” 

“But then, of course,” he continued, “she dumped me.” This is, more or less, all you need to know about Ben Gibbard, Death Cab for Cutie’s frontman.

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If the millennial generation could be defined in one way, it would be their lack of, but yearning for, intimacy. With digital culture taking over our lives, the already tricky phenomenons of sexuality and love become even more complicated and nuanced. Navigating these things feels practically impossible, so it is easier to revert into technology and even find a different kind of intimacy there, something more manageable. The 2013 Spike Jonze film, Her, was a perfect encapsulation of technology both representing and generating our fear of intimacy. Distance is now meaningless, theoretically, but in practice this is not true, and sad teenagers know it. Transatlanticism speaks to these young people unlike anything else, instigating feelings of loneliness they can identify with while simultaneously making them feel less alone.  

It is their album, theirs alone. That’s how it feels, anyway. When you are young, everything is felt so strongly and you focus on that emotion, bad or good, until that is the only thing that matters. She or he isn’t here, therefore I can’t eat, sleep, or concentrate on anything else. Transatlanticism feels everything just as strongly, including all the selfishness one inevitably goes through, and the focused intimacy blindsides these young people with how true to life it is. The album came at an opportune time, juggling themes revolving around sexuality, love and long-distance relationships, when many clumsy millennials were first experiencing all of these things. They had their own relationships, held together by technology, their own awkward sexual encounters from a fear of real intimacy. This album helped them to define themselves. 

A lyrical maneuver commonly deployed masterfully by Ben Gibbard, to its best and most direct effect on this album, is to blame for this unparalleled universality. His lyrics are often specific and personal, pointing at vivid details. “I spent two weeks in Silverlake / The California sun cascading down my face / There was a girl with light brown streaks”, he sings on “Tiny Vessels”. This puts us in this environment, we feel the sun on our cheeks. Then the kicker: “And she was beautiful, but she didn’t mean a thing to me.” A highly relatable line, from either side of the equation, one that reaches so effectively to any listener. Gibbard sets up a detail, an initially specific moment, then spits out an inimitably perfect line that hits everyone in equal measure. He does this again and again, avoiding anything truly personal but writing detail-oriented lyrics that sound personal.

Elsewhere, he’s even more clever. On “Title and Registration”, he sings about how the glove compartment is inaccurately named, and at first this seems like a rather silly line. Don’t underestimate Gibbard, though, because soon he packs another gut punch. “Cause behind its door there’s nothing to keep my fingers warm / And all I find are souvenirs from better times”, he sings, and suddenly you recall past loves and the souvenirs you surely still have. So much is built into this one line, and your emotional reaction and recollection because of it is involuntary. Then, back to the pseudo-specific: “Before the gleam of your taillights fading east / To find yourself a better life”. She’s gone, not turning back. I feel you, Gibbard, I feel you.

“I need you so much closer” is always one of the most sung-along portions of any Death Cab concert, which speaks for itself in terms of its inherent and simple power. Few albums dare to be this universal. It is a delicate line to balance, because it opens yourself up to so much criticism. But Death Cab braved it, and the result is an album so formative for so many young people. Transatlanticism is a formative experience, most significantly in the emotional sense, but also musically. You see yourself in what Gibbard sings, something that was absolutely deliberate in the writing process, and in a sense, it gives you a tangible excuse to feel what you’ve been feeling. It’s a validating experience, and validation is sought after just as much as intimacy at this point in your life. They are two sides of the same coin. As a storyteller, Gibbard has always been strong at imagery and atmosphere, but it was on Transatlanticism that he found a way to make it ubiquitous. With the album’s tenth anniversary in 2013 came an outpouring from (mostly millennial) writers, both professional and otherwise, of stories about how Transatlanticism was formative for them. Where they were in 2003, or when they discovered it in the years since, and how this album was a remarkably important part of their growth as both a person and a listener of music. All the stories were specific to their experience, full of personal and emotional details, and yet they all said the same thing. Transatlanticism validated each and every one.

Photo credit: Greg Saulmon.

Photo credit: Greg Saulmon.

The influence of Transatlanticism is unfathomable and impossible to fully document, at least in any numerical sense. It is easier to track in musical and cultural terms, as it became a huge commercial success and propelled Death Cab for Cutie into indie superstars. It was positively received by listeners, industry executives and critics alike. Their popularity was at an all-time high, aided slightly by Gibbard’s popular electronic side-project, The Postal Service, whose to-date one album had come out earlier that year. Their songs were on The O.C. and Grey’s Anatomy and elsewhere, confidently commercializing their mass appeal. Emo moved further away from its punk roots into more sensitive, heartfelt and emotional material, at least partly (and I would argue significantly) because of Transatlanticism. As Andy Greenwald wrote in his review of the album, Gibbard had suddenly become “the poet laureate of the young and hopeful”. The dorks were cool, and millennials found themselves a way to be on the inside while still being on the outside. 

It’s easy to oversell, though, how many millennials actually listened to this album and how many it had an impact on. This is actually less important. What is of concern is how Transatlanticism is the quintessential millennial album, exhibiting their characteristics and defining them. It captures them and their sensibility perhaps better than any other album before or since, and feels like a snapshot of their lives. It creates a strange case where it defines millennials even if many of them haven’t heard it, and it would be far too presumptuous to say that they would surely connect with it if they did hear it. I will suggest, though, that it’d be likely. I say this because when an album so intricately embodies and speaks for a generation at that time, it carries weight in a way Hannah Horvath of Girls could only dream of. 

With this generic universal appeal, every sad teenager feels (or could feel) as if these songs are about them – again, either as the narrator or the one being narrated on. Part of Gibbard’s writing muscle comes in this ability to sing about a selfish character (and Gibbard is undoubtedly playing a character) and yet still affect listeners on both sides of what he’s singing about. At a time when these young people are figuring out love, sexuality, intimacy, relationships, apathy, angst, technology and so many other emotions, phenomena and situations, this album comes to them, in one way or another, and becomes so easily and naturally attachable. This is the only person for me, this is the only thing that matters, this is the only love I can give. This is the only album.

‘I want to control my fate’: The Good Wife is network TV’s best drama

Josh Charles and Julianna Margulies in 'The Good Wife'. CBS Broadcasting, In.c

Josh Charles and Julianna Margulies in ‘The Good Wife’. CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

By Jake Pitre

Elevators. It has always been elevators with Will and Alicia. Missed connections, conversations had and conversations abruptly silenced, and of course, passions ignited. Opening and closing doors are a pretty perfect metaphor for their relationship, since their timing was never quite right. It wasn’t ever going to work. Was it?

With the possible exception of NBC’s Hannibal, The Good Wife is the best drama series currently on network television. I give the edge to TGW, though, because it is in its fifth season and how many shows are not only still strong this far into their lifespans, but are also in the midst of their best season yet? The show has always been rather fantastic, but this season has propelled it to new heights and it has been thrilling to watch. And then, The Thing happened on Sunday night. Spoilers follow, obviously, up to and including this Sunday’s episode. Go watch all of TGW, first. I’ll wait.

Done? Great. I have been awestruck in the last couple of days at the amount of digital ink spent on The Good Wife. Maybe I just follow too many TV critics on Twitter, but the amount of conversation this legal procedural in its fifth season has generated is impressive to say the least. This is a show that has been quietly brilliant for years, and is now blowing up as more people begin to realize what an enigma it is. It is often, perhaps understandably, dismissed because on the surface it does look like just another law procedural, dealing with a case per week and never really taking any risks. The difference, quite simply, is that The Good Wife takes plenty of risks.

Margulies and Matt Czuchry. Photo: David M. Russell. CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

Margulies and Matt Czuchry. CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

Actually, that’s only one difference. There are many things that make this show stand out. Some background, then. Its showrunners, Robert and Michelle King, are not only extremely talented writers, but they also care deeply about their show and their characters. Its actors, from Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick, our good wife, to Alan Cumming as Eli Gold or Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart, are all superb and at the top of their game. The massive roster of rotating guest stars is staggering and particularly rich, including Michael J. Fox as a rival attorney, Carrie Preston as oddball lawyer Elsbeth Tascioni and plenty of unique and charismatic judges, such as Jeffrey Tambor. The topical, ripped-from-the-headlines cases are always handled with nuance and insight (especially when it comes to technology – this is your first reminder that this show is on CBS). The pace is crazily quick, and the dialogue is witty and often sassy. The typical 22-episode network season is excruciating and creatively draining for any show, but almost every episode of The Good Wife manages to be wildly entertaining and fulfilling, which is something that cannot be said about any other 22-episodes per season series.

That is all very impressive, no doubt. Then, in the fourth season finale, an unbelievably exciting thing happened: Alicia and Cary Agos (played by Matt Czuchry) decided to leave their somewhat struggling law firm, Lockhart/Gardner, and start their own. The show’s central premise was effectively upended (in a move rather ingeniously deployed this season by Archer, as well), and the fifth season began with excitement far higher than what came with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce or The Michael Scott Paper Company. The shit hit the fan, as it were, in the season’s fifth episode, “Hitting The Fan”, which aired in October. Will Gardner (played gracefully with smarminess and charm in equal measure by Josh Charles) bursts into Alicia’s office once he discovers that his former lover had betrayed him and is leaving (not to mention stealing clients), sweeping her desk clean with aggressive power in a scene filmed with kinetic energy unusual for the show. It was a horrifying and impossibly satisfying moment, because this was the peak of more than four seasons of building tension.

The Good Wife is the unparalleled master of the slow burn. For four seasons, we had watched Alicia struggle with her relationships with her disgraced politician husband, Peter (Chris Noth), and her boss, Will. We had also watched Alicia (and Cary) rise in power, and her ambition followed suit. This development was the tipping point for everyone involved. The rest of the season, until this past Sunday, has been about the fallout (the next three episodes were called “The Next Day”, “Week” and “Month”, respectively). The catharsis of that episode (as heart-wrenching as it was), made all the more powerful because of all we’ve come to know about these people in the past few years, kicked the show into a gear unlike anything it had been in previously. In short, this procedural legal drama on CBS took a gigantic risk and it has paid off with a truly phenomenal run of episodes.

Alan Cumming and Margulies. CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

Alan Cumming and Margulies. CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

The Kings weren’t done, though. On Sunday, in a move that rocked viewers, they killed off Will Gardner, Alicia’s will-they, won’t-they love interest and the primary male star of the series. What seems to have angered many viewers is the way it was handled: a completely sudden, unforeseen random act of violence. Will is killed by his client in a courtroom by a stray bullet. Everything slows down. We’re at the hospital. One shoe is missing. Someone needs to call Alicia.

On a purely formal level, the scene is directed with great skill by Brooke Kennedy, who has been with the show since the second season. It is a scene more suited to an action-centred crime procedural, and it is directed in a way that builds a massive amount of suspense in a short period of time by choosing its angles carefully and using sound design and clever camerawork to its advantage. Many initial reviews of the episode failed to notice or mention this, which is just the latest example of the show being dismissed as little more than a procedural (the comparisons made to latter-day Grey’s Anatomy for this episode feel especially offensive).

The Kings and Josh Charles were immediately upfront online about how this shocking twist came to be: Charles informed them that he wanted to leave the show, Margulies suggested he stick around for half a season to be written out in a strong way, and Charles and the Kings obliged. Contractual obligations can drag a show down or come off as overtly obvious or trite (the Kings, in a letter addressed to Good Wife fans about the episode, made reference to George Clooney’s character on ER being sent “off to Seattle”). For this reason, I understand why some viewers were uncomfortable with the sudden act of senseless violence being their resolution to Will’s story on the show. In many ways, it feels like the obvious way to do it in this age of television where this kind of thing happens so often. I’m not so sure.

This is far different than if a lesser character on the show had asked to leave. This is Will Gardner. For many, the Alicia/Will romance was the foundation of the show (I disagree – more on that in a moment). The Kings had every reason to appease their audience and give Will his own kind of off-into-the-sunset/Seattle farewell. This would allow for potential future guest spots, and would keep the will-they, won’t-they on the back of viewers’ minds in Alicia’s decisions. The possibility (even, say, in the series finale) of a rekindled relationship would be ever-present. The Kings decided to answer once and for all: they won’t. Will is gone. Will is dead. Will is not coming back. There were other choices, and they boldly shut those doors.

Margulies and Charles. CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

Margulies and Charles. CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

That said, there is a little of having their cake and eating it going on here. The Kings have this strong justification, while also giving the audience something shocking and the network something to heavily promote. Only, beyond telling us something BIG was going to go down, this was held under wraps. No foreshadowing. No promos promising a “SHOCKING DEATH”. This was one of the most legitimately shocking episodes of TV I have ever seen (this was on CBS, by the way), even though I saw some comments on Twitter beforehand warning of something crazy happening. Plus, it was absolutely sudden. It is settled very quickly that, yes, he’s dead. No deathbed final words. It’s over. Alicia’s phone rings.

Setting aside the fact that such a major plot twist was kept secret in this day and age, without even a hint of a major death, I also welcome this for its clear-eyedness. For me, the Will/Alicia romance long ago lost its inherent power, and I think the same happened for the Kings. They split them up, then made great entertainment from their rivalry between law firms. And finally, in choosing to definitively kill him off when they could’ve sent him into the sunset, it reminds us what this show has always been about: Alicia. Or, as the Kings wrote in their letter, “the Education of Alicia Florrick”. How will Alicia (and the other characters – this death affects them all, not least of which Peter with his election-stealing investigation that Will was key to) react? What are the consequences? The Kings could still screw that all up, and this gut-punch could be the beginning of the end, but I am intensely interested in finding out – and I have faith in them.

Mark Harris, a writer for Entertainment Weekly and Grantland, summed it up nicely on Twitter: “Thrilled that a year-5 twist on a network drama has sparked real debate over what the whole series has been about.” I think its clear that the show has always been about Alicia, and Will’s death only cements that. For a long time, this choice – between Will and Peter – has been crucial to Alicia’s character. She has never wanted to come firmly down on one side or the other, preferring to keep both options relatively open, but this choice has partly defined the show (and, to some, completely defined it). What this episode seems to be saying, in a way that rings true, is that sometimes in life, you don’t get to make that choice. We will not know what Alicia’s choice would have eventually been, because Will is gone, and now the show is faced with what to do without that choice. Luckily, there’s much more to The Good Wife and to Alicia than just Will. If you were watching and thought their relationship was the most important thing about it and that the show will be nothing without it, I think you may have been watching it wrong. I don’t like to tell someone that they are watching something wrong, but if you don’t think that The Good Wife is about much more than Will and Alicia, you should rethink. Which isn’t to say that Will is not wholly significant. Now we will see how Will changed her, how his death will change her, and how she undoubtedly battles through. She wants to control her fate, after all.

However you feel about Will’s death, whether that it happened or how it happened, it was an admirable risk, and one that is only in keeping with the show’s long history of ballsy risks (albeit a little more showy). This season of The Good Wife has been more entertaining than most other things on television, and it’s time for it to stop being ignored by non-TV-critic folk (and old people who fall asleep with the TV on after The Amazing Race). This recent rush of discussion has been invigorating to watch and read through and participate in, and I hope it continues. So often, we waste endless thinkpieces and essays on TV shows that simply don’t deserve it, and the stuff we should be paying attention to passes us by. The Good Wife is doing something different, and succeeds partly by subverting those expectations laid on it. It did something, just this week, totally unlike itself and caused a firestorm of debate and conversation. This is only one part of a fifth season that has been on fire since the beginning, and will hopefully continue to be. Alicia now needs to figure out how to define herself without that relationship. How much does she let the loss, and the man, define her? How does it change those around her? How much will she be able to control her fate, when the world tells her you can’t? I don’t know, but I’ll be watching.