The latest episode of Chris Molanphy’s Hit Parade is dedicated to Latin music. An appropriate amount of time is spent on Ricky Martin’s breakthrough performance at the 1999 Grammy Awards,* which made me think of what – to me – will always be the quintessential Ricky Martin moment. The moment is unsurprisingly tied up to my lifelong obsession with awards shows. Let me bring you back to the second ever Los Premios MTV Latinoamérica, honoring the music of the year of our Lord 2003.
The VMALAs, as they were known in ’03, came a little too late to fully catch the Latin Rock boom of the nineties, but right on time to capitalize on the tween years of one Conrado Falco III. The ’03 ceremony opened with a medley featuring my personal arch-nemesis Juanes on guitar and a number of all-star singers doing vocals for each other’s songs. Things go off to a pretty bad start, with a bunch of so-called rockers pacing aimlessly around the stage. The worst offender is the singer of Chilean band Los Prisioneros, who totally ruins “Bolero Falaz.” Thankfully, Andrea Echeverri** comes right after him and single-handedly turns things around by going full lefty-power-child on Molotov’s “Gimme Tha Power.” Next comes legend Vicentico doing “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” which is the audience’s first clue that Ricky might be on deck.
“¡Te están buscando, Matador!” shouts Vicentico, and a tunnel of light immediately forms on stage. A silhouette steps forward. The crowd immediately recognizes it and goes wild. Before he begins his cover of “Matador,” the silhouetted man lifts his arms, sticks out his hip and strikes a pose. The music stops, the crowd roars, he holds the pose… and then starts singing. This is the level of star power needed to succeed in the record industry at its most competitive time. The whole awards show is on Youtube, but you don’t have to watch pass the opening number to see Ricky motherfucking Martin “soloing” on a big drum.
* He performed “La Copa de la vida,” a seminal song for anyone who – like me – was under 10 years old during the 1998 World Cup. You can watch the performance here, and I recommend you do because you won’t believe the pants he’s wearing.
** Andrea Echeverri is, of course, half of Aterciopelados, the band that originally wrote and performed the butchered “Bolero Falaz.” It is one of my favorite songs of the nineties. If you don’t know it, here is a beautiful live version.
“Is it time to start memorizing Simpsons episodes?” or something to that effect. I can’t find the Tweet now, but it made me laugh and despair in equal measure. It is referencing Ann Washburn’s Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, which begins with a group of people gathered around a campfire trying to remember an episode of The Simpsons. Soon enough, we realize these people are survivors of a cataclysmic event that has destroyed life as we know it.
My wife and I have been watching The Simpsons during this quarantine. A couple nights ago we reached the episode that the characters in Mr. Burns are trying to remember. It’s called ‘Cape Feare*.’ You might remember it as the one where Sideshow Bob escapes prison and tries to murder Bart. If you need more specifics, it’s the one in which Sideshow Bob keeps stepping on the rakes. It’s also the one where the Simpsons are put on the witness protection program, where the government agent can’t get Homer to respond to the name “Mr. Thompson.” It’s a very funny episode. It relies heavily on repetition and elongation of gags for its comedy. It might be the closest The Simpsons ever came to a Tex Avery cartoon.
In the second act of Mr. Burns, remembering and re-staging Simpsons episodes has become the post-apocalyptic world’s entertainment economy. Rival theatre companies compete by remembering new and forgotten episodes. In the third act, we see what this world’s staging of ‘Cape Feare’ looks like. It doesn’t really look like the episode, but it captures something essential to the society’s reality. It’s a great play. I think every play I’ve written so far has been inspired by it one way or another.
* As the title suggests, the episode is a parody of the Martin Scorsese film ‘Cape Fear,’ which itself was a remake of the J. Lee Thompson film ‘Cape Fear.’
When Rachel – my co-host over at The Criterion Project – picked A Hard Day’s Nightas the subject of our latest episode (listen here!), I was suddenly taken by the thought that I should end my decade-old feud with The Beatles. Inspired in equal parts by social distancing and Colin Marshall,* I decided to listen, for the first time in my life, to every Beatles album. And when I say listen, I mean really listen. Pay attention. Try to understand what all the fuss was about.
Despite fond memories of singing “She Loves You” in the back of my mom’s car as a kid, at some point a teenage me decided that the Fab Four were simply overrated. This was around the time that the movie Across the Universeand the soundtrack of the Cirque Du Soleil show Lovecame out. The saturation that came with those bloated, obnoxious tributes to the band played a big role in my decision. I became a contrarian, I got yelled at by my high school girlfriend, and many years later I conceded that while the Beatles wrote many great songs, they were simply not for me. The first part of my listening experiment supported that theory – the early albums feature amazing songs among lots of filler. And then along came Help!
“I’ll Follow the Sun,” from the previous album, already presaged a move from the band’s original rock n’ roll to a sound that was more poppy, relaxed, and melancholy. “It’s Only Love” and “I’ve Just Seen a Face” may not be the biggest songs in the catalogue, but they are songs for me. I suspect my newfound appreciation for the band will fade as I enter the more conceptual and psychedelic era of their output, but for now, I find myself in the unexpected position of emotionally connecting to the Beatles for the first time.
* Colin Marshall is also listening to the Beatles for the first time in his life and posting about it on Twitter. Even if you’re not interested in a long Twitter thread about the Beatles, you should follow him. Most of the best articles I’ve read in the last six months or so I’ve found because Colin recommended them.
I’ve been puzzling over the question I asked at the end of the last post: how did the Impressionist painters get anyone to show up to their exhibition? For an artist, creating the art is easy; getting anyone to care is the hard part. Well, after some initial digging, it seems the clearest answer to my question is “Gustave Caillebotte.”
Caillebotte was an Impressionist painter, but most importantly, the heir of a textile fortune who painted as a hobby. Being rich, he was able to support his buddies, often buying the paintings they were unable to sell. When he died he owned a substantial collection and, in his will, left the paintings to the French government, asking that they be hung at a national museum. How dare someone demand the government to officially exhibit such garbage? The executors of the will fought hard, and a few years later, the first national exhibition of Impressionist paintings opened in Paris.
I found this story in Hit Makers by Derek Thompson, where he argues we might not remember the Impressionists if it weren’t for Caillebotte’s collection. The most famous paintings by the most famous painters – Monet, Renoir, Degas – were all present at that first exhibit. With his will, Caillebotte took advantage of the controversy around these painters and packaged them the way you would package a boy band, which leads us to a new question: do you think Monet was the Harry or the Zayn of his group?
Imagine that you’re trying to make it as an artist. The odds are overwhelmingly against you. If you are an actor, you go on countless auditions. If you are a writer, you send your manuscripts anywhere that will accept them. Rejection is a constant and incessant part of your life. In fact, rejection is all you know. You get depressed. There must be another way.
Then you remember the Impressionist painters of 19th century France, whose revolutionary style was derided by the selection committee of the Salon. To be a successful painter back then, you simply had to exhibit at the Salon. But Impressionist paintings, if selected (a big if), were hung in dimly lit backrooms – just as bad as not having been selected at all. At some point, the frustrated artists decided to defy the status quo and mount their own exhibition. They got mixed reviews, but any press is good press.* They revolutionized painting. They became Monet, Renoir, Cézanne.
You get inspired. You decide you are going to refuse rejection, and build an alternative path for yourself. You come up with an amazing project you can self-finance. You get great collaborators to work with you. You’re doing it. You’re following in the footsteps of great artists before you… But there’s one question that keeps you up at night: how did these broke, revolutionary, Impressionist painters get anybody to show up to their exhibition in the first place?
*this is a recount of the Impressionist Exhibition as framed in Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘David and Goliath.’ Different art historians might disagree with the details.
The climax of Police Story. Jackie Chan realizes there’s only one way to stop the bad guy, so he jumps off a balcony and slides down a pole to the ground floor of a shopping mall. My wife cheers in amazement. The movie replays the moment two more times, anticipating there is only one way a lowly human could react to that death-defying stunt.
Chan performs the stunt himself. It leaves his hands shredded by broken bulbs. He is used to pain. A hyperactive kid, he was sent to the China Drama Academy, and trained for Beijing Opera from 5am to 11pm every single day. Such cruel discipline created one of the great action stars. Movies today can hardly compare. Digital effects have created a bigger chasm between life and screen than ever before. The sight of Jackie’s real stunts – magnified by the outtakes of failed attempts in the credits – has a particular effect. The beauty of ballet and the exhilaration of a perfect dismount all at once.
Except for maniacs like Tom Cruise, you can’t make ’em like this anymore (labor laws, for one.) Police Story is the product of intense, inhuman physical work and a film industry scrappy enough to indulge a man who saw the world as a giant jungle gym. A time capsule. If this isn’t Cultural World Heritage, then what is?