Comedians love to talk about themselves. So much so, in fact, that one imagines them going out of their way to have noteworthy experiences in life just for the sake of writing new material. This real-time autobiography is an essential part of the craft, as the rules of modern stand-up dictate that comics have to reveal an embarrassing experience in every set, or at least throw a few self-deprecating pokes at their own neuroses. Whether he intended to birth an undying format or not, Jerry Seinfeld transplanted these autobiographical elements of comedy culture into his TV show, resulting in one of the most popular sitcoms of all time. For apparent lack of inspiration, every comedian in the game seems determined to do the exact same thing.
All your favorite artists are problematic. It’s an obvious statement, but one that resurfaces on social media in the wake of most every celebrity scandal, from Kanye’s vocal support of Donald Trump to Azaelia Banks’ apparent Twitter crusade against any and all forms of human decency. Of course, with other artists the crimes prove more unforgivable, inviting armchair critics everywhere to try and reconcile good art’s occasional tendency to come from bad people. Skillful deflections and self-justifications on this topic range from “Only a troubled mind could have made this!” to the more nihilistic “Everything is terrible; we might as well enjoy the music”. It’s an exhausting debate, and one that seems to affirm the sad truth that people will always do what they can to avoid feeling guilty in their indulgences.
“In reality, I actually wanted to participate in honoring Prince on the show, but then I figured my best tribute to that man’s legacy would be to continue to be myself out here and to be successful.” That’s Frank Ocean, speaking out in an epic, all-caps Tumblr post against Ken Ehrlich, the Grammys’ producer who condescendingly dismissed the singer’s decision to skip this year’s awards ceremony. He goes on, “Winning a TV award doesn’t christen me successful… I am young, black, gifted and independent. That’s my tribute.” The tirade had the world of music blogs questioning whether Frank had legitimately cursed this year’s Grammys, a thesis easily supported by the content of the show itself. If nothing else, 2016 proved to be a revitalizing year for pop music, generating more great albums than the Sun’s Arts staff could possibly hope to cover. One might have wistfully dreamt, then, that an ounce of that ingenuity would find itself reflected in the bloated, corporate pageantry of the music industry’s “big night.” Instead, we got James Corden falling down a flight of stairs, James Corden pretending to rap (I blame Hamilton for that one), James Corden sheepishly promoting Carpool Karaoke and Beyoncé mercifully upstaging all of those things.
A few years ago, the runaway success of Run the Jewels might have seemed unlikely, especially to its own members. Conventional wisdom defines hip-hop as a young person’s domain, making the odds unlikely that two 41 year-olds would finally hit their stride after a decade toiling in that hallowed obscurity of underground rap. Anyone with a pulse, though, will have noticed that these are not ordinary times, either for the music industry or for the world at large. Call it the effects of mass media, the Internet or suppressed bigotry, but the era of “fake news” and mainstreamed conspiracy theories is upon us. Fittingly, a recent spike in sales has returned George Orwell’s 1984 to Amazon’s bestseller list, nearly 70 years after its initial release.
There’s an old adage that says that images matter much more than facts. It’s one that the 24-hour news cycle has exploited to no end, conflating entire political movements with visuals of a burning car or convincing the American public that Ohio Governor John Kasich — at any given time of day — is stuffing his face with a cheeseburger. The Internet, too, possesses this nefarious power. In one fell swoop, an iconic figure like Michael Jordan may find himself reduced to a teary-eyed meme, just as a tragically slain gorilla may become an overnight martyr. It’s a high-stakes game that mocks the entire field of Public Relations, effectively tying a figure’s reputation to a few unfortunate stills.
Nostalgia — that seemingly endless pool of artistic inspiration — motivates at least half (by my less-than-scientific calculation) of this year’s major pop culture moments, from Netflix’s Stranger Things all the way to Frank Ocean’s Blond(e). As source material, it’s a tricky beast, at its best capable of drawing on shared memories to remind us what made something great in the first place. At its worst, though, nostalgia invites a kitschy reimagining of the past that too often morphs into revisionist history. Perhaps nowhere is this division more hotly debated than in the realm of hip-hop, a former subculture whose influence now runs far beyond its original parameters, sparking important questions as to how it should continue to evolve while remaining true to its roots. “No one alive can name me one rapper that was bigger than the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC or Spice Girls was in the 90s and mean it,” asserted rapper Vince Staples in a recent interview with Noisey.
This past June, I took a weekend road trip to visit a friend who had stayed at Dartmouth for summer session — a popular option there given New Hampshire is one of the few places with worse winters than Ithaca. At some point in the weekend, we found ourselves at a “Christmas in June”-themed party, which is the only thing more gloriously tacky than actual Christmas parties. Ugly sweaters, Santa costumes and hot chocolate were out in full force, but the real holiday cheer came from the soundtrack. The usual suspects were all present and accounted for, as Mariah Carey’s legacy-defining “All I Want For Christmas Is You” tore the house down on multiple occasions. After a certain point, though, even holiday music lovers such as myself began to grow tired of monotonous commercial cheer — anyone who has listened to the radio in December knows that there’s only so much you can handle.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a column in this lovely section discussing how Justin Bieber staged the comeback of 2015 with the help of a few great pop songs and a disgustingly disingenuous P.R. campaign. From crying at the VMAs to “opening up” on Ellen about his manufactured relationship with Selena Gomez, Bieber’s public appearances over the last few months have represented everything artificial and controlled about pop culture. While his new album intends to reposition Bieber as a mature pop singer who avoided the pitfalls that sideline most child stars, its promotional campaign has turned the guy’s life into more of a reality TV show than ever. Recent efforts have involved a “candid” and “spontaneous” date night with off-again girlfriend Selena Gomez at a classy Los Angeles restaurant — an outing clearly not intended to coincide with the release of Purpose. In a series of viral Instagram videos, Bieber snatches the lounge singer’s microphone to serenade his love — perched atop the grand piano — with the Temptations’ “My Girl” and an acoustic rendition of his own hit, “Sorry.” It was a scripted attempt at appearing sensitive, made more difficult to dismiss by Bieber’s undeniable charisma and dynamic vocal performance.
In the most recent season of Louis C.K.’s hilariously depressing series Louie, the titular character takes his 16-year-old daughter to a matinee of a “celebrated 1960s play” that stars the dream lineup of Michael Cera, John Lithgow and Matthew Broderick (sadly, this play does not exist and was created for the purpose of the show). During an especially dramatic moment in the performance, Louie looks over at his daughter, Lilly, and notices her messing with her phone. Immediately after the curtain falls, he commences a familiar tirade about her (our) entire generation sacrificing their engagement with the real world in favor of a screen-based lifestyle. In a moment uncharacteristic of the show, Lilly snaps back, explaining that she had been reading up on the play’s production history in order to better understand what was happening onstage. Louie’s reaction is priceless — equal parts pleased by his daughter’s appreciation of the play and shocked by his own false assumptions about her.