“do what u want [remix feat. christina aguilera]” – lady gaga (2014)

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The Oscars aired last night and, continuing my streak for a while now, I did not watch. For me, watching the Oscars has always just been entertainment, not something to take seriously.  And while the Academy deserves to be checked for not being inclusive enough when it comes to films coming from people of color or from smaller, independent filmmakers, how seriously people take this celebrity spectacle frankly just bores me.

After the broadcast, I did check online to see the winners.  Most were standard and assumed, and a few were surprises.  And, as expected, people ended the evening upset. It always happens. No matter what, the toxic culture of social media amplifies the manufactured outrage and they rally about injustices that really do not matter. This usually lasts a few days, sometimes a week, and whatever did upset them goes into the dustbin of history to be remembered years later in some snarky op-ed about some future Oscars ceremony or in a pub trivia question.  Rinse, wash, repeat.

Of all the categories, the only one I felt was an absolute 100% guarantee was “Shallow” for “Best Original Song” from Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star Is Born.  Joined by his co-star, Lady Gaga and Cooper performed the song together at the ceremony with all the confidence of people who knew their Oscar was just moments away. And while “Shallow” was the best song in the category, this win, unlike the others during the night, troubled me a bit.  Specifically, its loose connection to the other big pop culture story of the last week.

Kelly was arrested last week after two decades of committing sexual assault against minors, many of whom he had groomed from an early age and kept trapped in the cult of personality carefully crafted and cultivated by the disgraced singer. Kelly’s arrest came right off the heels of the documentary series Surviving R. Kelly that aired in January.

While I applaud that Kelly has been arrested and will, hopefully, pay for his crimes, I am deeply disturbed by how long it has taken. Kelly’s sexualizing of underage girls and women can be traced back to the early 1990s through his lyrics and comments he has made, both public and in private. In the mid-1990s, Kelly married his 15-year-old protege, Aaliyah Haughton. In 1996, Tiffany Hawkins sued Kelly for emotional and physical abuse stemming from a sexual relationship with him.

In 2000, Jim DeRogatis and Abdon M. Pallasch, two reporters for the Chicago Sun-Times published the first report of Kelly’s relationships with underage girls. Since then, DeRogatis became entrusted by these girls and young women to expose Kelly for the abuser that he was. DeRogatis was sent video evidence of Kelly having sex with an underage, immediately sending it to the authorities.

One would think that video DeRogatis received would have ended Kelly’s career and landed him in prison.  However, it did not. Kelly was sued and taken to court by multiple women in 2002, but all the cases were settled out of court and Kelly was able to continue living as a free man. Being a teenager at this time, this part of Kelly’s history will always be remembered through Dave Chappelle’s portrayal on Comedy Central’s Chappelle’s Show, a satirical take on Kelly with Chappelle performing the song “I Wanna Piss on You.” This was a takedown from a comedic master who was truly ahead of his time, even though the rest of his industry was not. Kelly was allowed not only to continue his career but thrived within it every time he faced controversy over the years.

Now, let’s jump to 2013.  It has been roughly two decades since the earliest documented evidence of Kelly’s comments about underage girls, over a decade since his first court appearances and Chappelle’s super popular portrayal, and Lady Gaga is preparing to release her third studio album Artpop. In just a few short years, following the release of The Fame, The Fame Monster, and Born This Way, Lady Gaga was dominating the music industry with her pop hits. Designed to be an introspective look into pop stardom with a Warholian slant, Artpop was meant by Gaga to show that she was more than just the latest pop star in a long line of pop stars.

When the second single from Artpop, “Do What U Want” dropped, it was blowing me away.  Filled to the brim with raw, dripping sexuality and the freedom within, this 80s-style synthesizer-heavy track was a serious jam.  I loved it.  Or, more correctly, I wanted to love it. As hard as the music slapped and as well as Gaga performed on the track, one thing kept me from truly enjoying it as much as I could; R. Kelly was a guest vocalist on the track.

I listened to “Do What U Want” a lot when it came out.  However, with each listen, I liked it less and less.  Not because I was getting tired of it, but because Kelly’s involvement with the song really made me feel uneasy.  I was questioning why Gaga, who had survived sexual abuse herself, would give Kelly space on her album. It felt like a slap in the face to people who had experienced violence and had seen Gaga’s music as a place of refuge where they felt valid for who they were.  Gaga, in response to the criticism to working with Kelly, said

“I’ve been living in Chicago and spending a lot of time there, and that’s where R. Kelly hails from. I was working on Artpop and I wrote [‘Do What U Want’] on tour. It was about my obsession with the way people view me. I have always been an R. Kelly fan and actually it is like an epic pastime in the Haus of Gaga that we just get fucked up and play R. Kelly. This is a real R&B song and I [said ‘I] have to call the king of R&B and I need his blessing.’ It was a mutual love.”

Gaga also said

“R. Kelly and I have sometimes very untrue things written about us, so in a way this was a bond between us. That we were able to say, the public, they can have our bodies, but they cannot have our mind or our heart. It was a really natural collaboration.”

It wasn’t long before I stopped listening to the song and just kind of gave up on Gaga.

Within the last few years, the #MeToo movement swept through the film industry and took down some of the more serious abusers. While a lot of past behavior by many people within the industry went unchecked as the media focused on the bigger Hollywood names facing scrutiny on social media and in the courts, the music industry largely went unscathed.  And despite the massive cultural shift tat #MeToo and #TimesUp were bringing, Kelly continued to thrive.

Even DeRogatis, who had been championing justice for the young women abused by Kelly, was becoming frustrated with how Kelly managed to continue having a career.  I remember reading Jessica Hopper’s First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic in 2015, and she discussed the time DeRogatis called her out for supporting Kelly headlining the Pitchfork Music Festival in 2013. DeRogatis had questioned Hopper how, as a woman, she could support someone who had a long history of abusing women.  Like Gaga, Hopper’s excuse was that she grew up with his music.

As #MeToo continued to dominate social media and the entertainment industry, some commentaries questioned when it would get Kelly. In 2019, it took a new documentary series, largely retelling the story DeRogatis had been reporting to disinterested audiences for almost two decades, and a new tape sent to lawyer Michael Avenatti, to finally bring Kelly into custody. On one side, it is great that it looks like Kelly will finally pay for his crimes. On the other, when I consider how long it took to bring Kelly to justice, and the voices of people like DeRogatis being largely ignored because the music industry is a large fraternity organization only looking out for their own, I am also disappointed by the complicities of the music industry and the players involved.  Players like Lady Gaga who, because she grew up with his music, felt compelled to introduce Kelly to a whole new generation of potential fans.

Gaga has since recognized the error of her ways.  The track “Do What U Want” has been pulled from all streaming services, and Gaga has gone on record saying she stands by survivors.  She rationalizes the collaboration with Kelly saying, “as a victim of sexual assault myself, I made both the song and video at a dark time in my life, my intention was to create something extremely defiant and provocative because I was angry and still hadn’t processed the trauma that had occurred in my own life.”

I am unsure if I can accept that given that Kelly’s history of abuse had spanned two decades by the time the collaboration was released. I don’t question that Gaga was going through a rough patch in her life, but I do have to question her judgment when there was so much evidence against Kelly. In 2016, prior to denouncing the collaboration with Kelly, Gaga performed the song “Til It Happens to You” at the Oscars, a song written for The Hunting Ground, a documentary about universities covering up rape and sexual assault cases. In the performance, Gaga shared the stage with the victims of campus rape. It surely adds some complexity to Gaga’s history when it comes to working with Kelly. So, with her being celebrated at the Oscars for her performance this year and ultimately winning the award, I’m not impressed. While #MeToo did some great things, there are still many problems within the entertainment industry.  Not only did they award Gaga who was previously complicit when it came to Kelly, but they gave an Oscar to a man who would frequently show his penis to people on set.  It reinforces to me how the Oscars are a farce and not something to take seriously as a measure of quality.

After not listening to “Do What U Want” for several years, it wasn’t until recently that I learned the song was remixed to exclude Kelly’s vocals and replaced with Christina Aguilera’s. Debuting on New Year’s Day inn 2014, this “Do What U Want” remix with Aguilera was still released during a time when Gaga was complicit when it came to Kelly and his crimes.  However, I loved the that I could now listen to this jam again guilt free because Kelly was nowhere on it.  Recorded in a session in Carly Simon’s living room, this new version elevates the song and gives it a power that was absent when Kelly’s vocal was originally included.

As people everywhere are groaning over the wrong film winning the top prize at the Oscars for being too white, let’s not forget that the industry is still problematic when it comes to sexual abuse. And Gaga’s win last night reaffirms that.  While people grow and learn from their mistakes, the media cycle moves so quickly that we forget sins of yesterday for the outrages of today. I am not saying that Gaga cannot be forgiven for her work with Kelly. I am sure she is sincere when she denounces it now. We all learn and grow and better ourselves.  However, this was not that long ago, and people are largely quick to forget when they are distracted by things that do not really matter.

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“travelin’ thru'” – dolly parton (2005)

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The 90th annual Academy Awards were held this past weekend.  Organized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) to celebrate “excellence in cinematic achievements,” the Academy Awards (affectionately and commonly referred to as the Oscars) is a star-studded spectacle.  It is where you can see Hollywood’s hottest stars shine bright, see montages and tributes that remind us why we love the movies, and be thoroughly entertained by the host and the character they bring to the ceremony.

This year’s Oscars ceremony had a message for the world.  2017 went down as a year where toxic men in Hollywood were exposed and town down from power after decades of abusing a system that preyed upon young actresses.  Brave women came forward and shared their personal stories of harassment and sexual assault.  Almost daily, it seemed that a recognized male figure faced allegations.  While men like Aziz Ansari were put on blast and added nuance to the dialogue on sexual assault (in this case, consent must be enthusiastic), the real victories were won against monstrous and vile men like Harvey Weinstein whose career rightfully ended and is currently facing possible arrest for his decades of abuse and crimes.

Women rising up and taking their rightful place in the seats of power also extended by Hollywood.  The #metoo movement spread like wildfire all over our social media feeds.  Everyday people, unaware of or blind to systemic sexual and gender issues, were finally seeing that the victims of sexual assault extend beyond those walking the red carpet.  These victims are also our mothers, sisters, neighbors, daughters, and friends.

Movies are a cultural institution that provide us a window into the lives of people we may not know.  We look to them for answers or understanding as they are often a lens into a life beyond our own.  They can elevate the voices of marginalized people.  There is power to movies.  Hollywood knows this and this theme was inherent in this year’s Oscars ceremony.  However, there was a good chance you were disappointed.

The Oscars have become increasingly contentious over the years.  And it depends on how you watch them.  For some, the Oscars, like other Hollywood awards shows, are just meant for pure entertainment.  These kinds of people understand that countless timeless classics and key cinematic figures were never awarded an Oscar and that the whole industry of award shows is superficial at best.  They know that the Academy tends to lean conservative and, with few exceptions, can be fairly predictable.

For others, winning an Oscar is a form of validation and that being awarded the iconic golden statuette is important in that it raises awareness and visibility for the winner.  And it makes it even more important that the Academy recognizes marginalized groups.  In recent years, the Oscars have been accused of ignoring cinematic contributions from people of color with #OscarsSoWhite trending across all the social media platforms. Since the rise of #OscarsSoWhite campaigns, the Academy, as well as other award governing bodies, have made comments that they will strive to be more inclusive.

While #OscarsSoWhite has driven the dialogue over the last few years, this year it was the #metoo movement that was the focus of the ceremony.  Regarding the presenters, the Oscars included more women and those women spoke passionately about the struggle of women in the movie industry and women all over the world.  Notably, Jodie Foster and Jennifer Lawrence presented the award for “Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role” after Casey Affleck dropped out following allegations of sexual misconduct (note that it is tradition for previous year’s winner from the opposite gender category to present).  Salma Hayek Pinault, Ashley Judd, and Annabella Sciorra presented a short presentation highlighting the #metoo and Time’s Up movement while celebrating the need for diversity in film.  Even Hollywood legends Helen Mirren and Jane Fonda, who both have witness many changes and controversies over the decades-long careers, stood up against toxic men in Hollywood during their presentations.  The message was clear and we were all behind them.

Like every previous Oscars ceremony, social media blows up with criticisms about the ceremony and how they failed to recognize enough women or people of color.  And expectations were for the Academy to deliver.  When Emma Stone presented the award for “Best Director,” she introduced the nominees as “these four men and Great Gerwig.”  Quite a powerful statement and aligned with the overall theme of the night.  However, I remember thinking, If Gerwig doesn’t win then Stone’s comment will really be awkward (Spoiler: Gerwig didn’t win).  It was moments like that that fueled the disappointment and criticisms many people had.  And rightfully so, but the Oscars have historically been disappointing on the front.

However, the Oscars weren’t completely dominated by white men.  This year, despite the lack of women and people of color winning overall, was a fairly diverse year compared to previous Oscar ceremonies.  Jordan Peele became the first African-American to win the award for “Best Original Screenplay,” Guillermo del Toro became the third Mexican to win “Best Director” (while nabbing his first Oscar), Daniela Vega became the first transgender actor to present that Oscars (her film A Fantastic Woman won for “Best Foreign Language Film”  which was also Chile’s first win and the film was incredibly fantastic), and Robert Lopez became the first person to earn an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) twice.

While the Oscars this year were predictable as they always have been, those are significant achievements.  Sure, it doesn’t completely fix the lack of diversity inherent in the Academy overall.  While diversity and inclusion are absolutely important things, I don’t think it should come to any surprise that the Oscars failed to deliver on people’s expectations in a year where women and people of color were declaring that “Time’s Up.”

For this blog, I went through all winners of “Best Original Song” from previous Oscar years.  There are a lot of great songs that have over the years.  Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from ‘Shaft’” comes to mind.  And how can you forget “Over the Rainbow” by Judy Garland?  So many great songs rightfully awarded for their merit.  However, there are a lot of deserving songs that should’ve won but were overlooked.

When I was going through nominees that didn’t win, I saw a lot of great tunes.  However, I specifically wanted to find one that not only I enjoyed thoroughly and thought deserved to win, but something that was timely.  I couldn’t find a song that better fit that criteria than “Travelin’ Thru” by Dolly Parton.

“Travelin’ Thru” was recorded by Parton for the 2005 film Transamerica starring Felicity Huffman and Kevin Zegers.  Directed by Duncan Tucker (his only feature-length film to date), Transamerica is the story of a preoperative transgender woman (Huffman) who learns that she fathered a son (Zegers) who is a teenage runaway living on the streets of New York City.  The film earned Huffman a nomination for “Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role” and Parton a nomination for “Best Original Song.”

Transamerica¸ while a decent but not movie, was certainly ahead of its time.  While Oscar was buzzing about homosexuality in film that year (Brokeback Mountain and Capote being big contenders that year), Transamerica was an overlooked film.  While 2005 doesn’t seem like a long time ago, it was still a time where having men kiss on film was controversial.  So, it is no wonder why a film about a transgender person wouldn’t garner more attention.  In 2018, a film like Transamerica would get the support it deserves for the purpose of increasing visibility of transgender issues and elevating them in Hollywood.  When viewed through the lens of 2018, Transamerica isn’t a perfect example of mainstream transgender cinema though.  Huffman herself isn’t transgender.  However, in 2005, that movie was bold on its own merit in that time.  And despite that, it is a footnote of aughts cinema.

Though the movie itself has been relatively forgotten, Parton’s soundtrack contribution is legendary.  Not only did “Travelin’ Thru” deserve the Oscar that year and stands out as one of the best songs to be nominated but not win, but it is one of the best songs in Oscar history.  Even Parton’s performance for the ceremony is legendary.

“Travelin’ Thru” is a song about embracing the journey despite not knowing where it will take you.  In the song, Parton sings about being a puzzle and figuring out how all the pieces fit.  She isn’t sure of where she’s going or where’s she been, but she knows she has a purpose in life and she’ll do anything to answer the questions burning inside of her.  It is a remarkably powerful song with an optimistic message.

I fully support the advocates behind the #metoo and Time’s Up movements.  The Oscars have 90 years of history and tradition that has solidified into an institution that can, for the most part, lack inclusivity and ignore social issues around us.  The Academy’s mission is to recognize excellence in cinematic achievements.  The issue is that marginalized people need the opportunity to create excellence in the first place.  And piece by piece, they’ll get there and completely change the face of the Oscars.  Their work is not in vain and they’ll get there as they are stumblin’, tumblin’, wonderin’, as they’re travelin’ thru.

“everybody’s talkin'” – harry nilsson (1969)

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It always amazes me when I talk to people my age who didn’t have restrictions on their media consumption growing up.  Also, I’m a little weirded out by people who had everything banned from them.  For me, I existed somewhere in the middle of that.  There were televisions shows that I could watch that some other kids couldn’t (The Simpsons for example), but I wasn’t allowed to watch R-rated movies (with very few exceptions) or buy albums with that pesky warning label until I was 17.  The reason for 17 was because that was the age people could engage with restricted media without a parent or guardian.  This was incredibly annoying for a teenager with filmmaking ambitions.  I had to see the classics and figure out how I wanted to not only film, but also score my films.  And, sometimes, movies and music have naughty words.

On my 17th birthday, I got a homemade cake.  Naturally, it said “Happy Birthday” on it but the “R” was super big and accentuated.  The family knew what I was excited about.  One of my gifts that year was a one-year paid subscription to Netflix.  At the time, I didn’t know what Netflix was.  I was living in a small rural farming community.  We had a dinky little rental store.  However, if I wanted to see a movie, just had to buy it the next time I was at Wal-Mart, or when I’m feeling fancy, cough up a few extra bucks at Suncoast.

Back in 2004, Netflix was only a mail-in service where DVDs were shipped to you two at a time.  You got two DVDs in an envelope.  You could hold onto them as long as possible and mail them back in the prepaid envelope when you were done.  Once a movie got returned, the next available film in your queue was sent to you.  This was the greatest thing ever.  I had no car, no adequate rental store near me, and no premium cable subscription services to indulge in all the R-rated goodness that was available.  What a time to be alive!

I had to make up for a lot of lost viewing time.  We did have internet at the house, so I did research on what were universally considered that greatest films of all time.  Also, during the early to mid-2000s, the American Film Institute produced annual countdown shows profiling the greatest movies.  These aired on cable television and were a much sought out event for my hungry film intellect.  They started with their salute to the 100 greatest movies of all time.  After that, they did ancillary countdowns profiling the 100 greatest heroes and villains (50 on each side), the 100 most thrilling movies, the 100 best lines from movies, and eventually the 100 greatest songs from movies.  These were the tastemakers.  They curators of cinema knew what was the best in the craft.  This is where I started.

It was when I turned 17 that I discovered the 1969 classic Midnight Cowboy.  I had known that it was, at the time, categorized as X-rated and notably one the Academy Award for Best Picture despite that commercial and critical suicide rating.  Still, it frequently appeared on all of these lists and I had to check it out.

Even at 17, and still very much a nerdy virgin, I knew this film would be the sexually explosive film it sounded like.  In the film, Jon Voight plays a naïve Texan dishwasher who aspires for more in life.  He’s also a bit of a joke with his cowboy hat, loud shirts, and broad-shouldered jacket.  He’s just a guy who likes to play the part and look good doing it.  He gets it in his mind that he can be a successful gigolo in New York City because “the women are paying for it.  Begging for it too.  And the men are mostly tooty-fruities.”  Being the big handsome stud that he is, he’s sure to strike it rich by bedding rich ladies.

Of course, as well know, that is a ridiculous notion.  Joe Buck’s journey becomes the generation-defining fish out of water story of it’s time.  He isn’t taken seriously the cold, hard streets of New York take advantage of him any which way they can.  He partners up with a seedy, gimp-legged con man named Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo played by Dustin Hoffman.  With no money, they reside in a condemned building with no utilities and very little food.  Joe Buck has to compromise and find unseemly ways to make money while Rizzo dreams about moving to Florida despite getting sicker.

Just as things are starting to look for Joe after the city has beat him down for so long, Rizzo is on the verge of dying.  Being eachother’s only friend, Joe does something completely horrific to get the money for them to get on a bus and get to Florida where they hope to have better lives.  Joe sheds his cowboy identity and accepts that fact he needs a real job.  And even seems to enjoy the prospects of living a normal life.  As they get to Florida, Rizzo dies on the bus and Joe is on his own now.

It is not a very happy story.  However, it left an incredible impression on me when I was 17.  It became my favorite movie.  At the time, what I think I got from it was a great example of a film that blended traditional Hollywood cinema with avant-garde elements.  Joe has flashbacks and nightmares that feature distorted memories, black and white footage, surreal scenario, and quickly paced editing.  At that age, I was learning all about classic Hollywood while only dipping my toes in foreign and cult cinema.  Those would come later, so a movie like Midnight Cowboy with it’s qualities seemed so radical to me.

This past weekend, I watched the film for the first time in nearly six years.  And the movie means differently to me now.  IT is still a beautiful film that evokes certain emotions from me.  However, I am drawn to different elements and have a deeper appreciation for the story and the characters in it.  I have engaged in sexual intercourse since the first time I saw the movie so sex on film no longer seems so otherworldly or sacred to me, but that’s not my real takeaway from the film.  Joe had dreams of making it in a big city, found out how challenging an unforgiving that process was, and reassessed his life as result.  Rewatching the film reminded me of my move to Chicago in early 2011.  I didn’t know anyone in the city, didn’t have a job lined up, and had never been to Chicago before.  I didn’t know what to expect and had no certainty that I would succeed.  I was like Joe Buck in a way.  Though he assumed he would make it big, he eventually started considering falling back into a dishwasher’s life.  For me, I was unsure of what would happen, but I succeeded in getting settled.  I appreciated just how much out of water Joe the Fish was and connected with his plight and the story on a more intimate level.

While the film only has two stars, the music in it practically acts as a third.  Harry Nilsson’s cover of Fred Neil’s song “Everybody’s Talkin’” is prominently featured throughout the film at length.  Initially released in 1968 on his album Aerial Ballet, the song was rereleased in 1969 to be included on the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack after Bob Dylan was late in submitting his song “Lay, Lady, Lay.”  During the opening credits, the song play in it’s entirety while also making prominent appearances throughout.  The song captures the spirit and story of Midnight Cowboy with it’s simple singer-songwriter style.  In the song, Nilsson is talking about going where the sun is shining and where the weather suits the clothes on his back.  He’s a travelling man on a journey to find a place where he can take his shoes off and call home.  However, the listener gets the idea that such a place might not exist.  The singer is lost in himself.  People are talking to him, but he doesn’t hear or understand what they are saying.  Instead, he only hears the echoes of his mind which suggest that the place full of sunshine he is looking for needs to come from within and that no physical manifestation will do unless he overcomes certain mental obstacles.  He must be happy with himself before he is happy where he is.

I had never forgotten either the song or the movie, but I had forgotten how beautiful both are and how much I love them.  Though an incredibly sad movie, it really helps put things in perspective.  You realize your limitations, learn to accept them, and then live your life to the fullest with what you have.  It shows that you can still get back up after reaching rock bottom.  You just need to want that and to listen to what is going on around you as opposed to what is going on inside your head because the voices inside you may not be the right ones.