Underrated TV: NBC’s Mercy

August 3, 2010 at 7:57 pm (Review) (, , )

It’s a bold statement, but I’ll make it: NBC’s hospital drama Mercy was one of the best shows on television last season.

This isn’t, apparently, a very popular opinion. The show, which chronicled the lives of three friends working as nurses in a Jersey City hospital, had consistently low ratings and failed to be renewed for a second season — an especially disappointing state of affairs, since season one ended on a major cliffhanger. But the DVD boxset of the first season comes out this week, and I’d like to provide a handful of compelling reasons for picking it up, if you’ve got cash to spare.

1.) The cast. I decided to watch Mercy before I knew anything about the premise, simply because of the cast. Michelle Trachtenberg, best known as Dawn on Buffy, plays Chloe, the newest nurse in the hospital, and I’ve always been fond of her. Those who were annoyed by Dawn would be smart to give Trachtenberg a second chance, especially here, in her first truly mature role. (Where “mature” means “playing a responsible adult with a job,” not the few sex comedy roles she took to prove she wasn’t a little girl anymore.) Jamie Lee Kirchner, meanwhile, is an actress I was extremely impressed by when I saw her in Broadway’s RENT (as Mimi), and she’s fabulous here as Sonia, the protagonist’s best friend. I hadn’t previously heard of Taylor Schilling, the actress who plays the show’s main protagonist, Iraq veteran Veronica, but she turned out to be fantastic, and her mom is played by the always-amazing Kate Mulgrew. The ensemble is great, too — Guillermo Diaz as another nurse/friend of the protagonists, Diego Klattenhoff as Veronica’s husband, James Tupper as Veronica’s wartime fling, and James LeGros as an arrogant doctor. If you can stand James Van Der Beek’s role as an antagonist in the later episodes of the series, the cast is pretty much perfect.

2.) The feminism. What impressed me most about Mercy, from day one, was the way it was structured around three women who were actually believable friends, rather than catty, backstabbing rivals. The show always passed the Bechdel Test as the women talked to each other about work, about their families, about their hobbies, and, yes, about the men in their lives. And while romantic plots existed (and were hit-or-miss), they were never the focus of the show. Unlike the characters on Grey’s Anatomy, these characters never seemed to be spending time talking about their sex lives when they could have been treating patients — they saved that for the bar after work. Mercy is a show about nurses doing their jobs, and while I can’t comment on the accuracy of the medicine, I always appreciated that the show never implied that nurses were in any way “lesser” than doctors. In fact, the show reminds us, they’re the ones who really do the hard work.

3.) The protagonist. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a protagonist like Veronica Callahan. First and foremost, she’s a female war veteran with very obvious, and acknowledged, post-traumatic stress disorder. She may have been primarily on the medical side of the war, but the show acknowledges that even those in the “safer” jobs in the military are under enormous amounts of stress and danger in such unpredictable battlefields. Veronica is a mess — she has flashbacks and fears, she has a temper that gets her in trouble, and she’s an alcoholic on top of everything else — but she’s also strong-willed, stubborn, and determined to do her job. Her love triangle plot, while handled better than it would be on most shows, is almost a disappointment, simply because it’s the least interesting part of her character. The much more interesting narrative is that of a young woman trying to make a place for herself in the world after trauma, and luckily that’s the narrative the show focuses on.

4.) The sense of place. Mercy is set in Jersey City, a major city in my own home state, so I feel qualified to say that the way in which the show uses its location is more akin to shows like Homicide: Life on the Street or New York cop shows than to medical dramas like last season’s abysmal Pittsburgh-set Three Rivers or House (which exists in a Princeton, New Jersey I don’t recognize at all, as a 4-year resident of the town). The Jersey City of Mercy feels absolutely real and absolutely integral to the plot, from the race and class tensions to Veronica’s Irish-American cultural identity to the bars they hang out at after work. While others might not have the same feeling of identification with the setting, anyone can appreciate the show’s strong sense of place, which only serves to make the universe richer and more believable.

5.) The stories. While Mercy does have a tendency to dip into melodrama, its stories are, on the whole, tight and compelling. While Veronica is clearly the protagonist, Chloe and Sonia both get clear arcs over the course of the season and important stories to themselves, and the ensemble is always well-used. (And diverse — Guillermo Diaz has great scenes as a gay, Hispanic male nurse, and Malaysian actress K.K. Moggie does an excellent job as an initially unsympathetic doctor whose layers emerge as she interacts with the other characters.) The medical plots are, I’m sure, as inaccurate as any TV medicine, but the emotional moments with the patients always feel earned, rather than hokey or a little too conveniently related to the characters’ personal dramas. Because the focus is placed so much on the fact that the characters are nurses, those stories serve as character moments in and of themselves, instead of as manipulative parallels.

If anything I’ve talked about piques your interest, I highly suggest checking out the first season on DVD. You can find it here on Amazon or in any local retailer. I doubt DVD sales will rescusitate the show, but if just a few more people got to experience the joy that is season one, I’ll consider my advertisement a success.

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The Problem with American Idiot

July 18, 2010 at 7:01 pm (Review) (, , , )

Broadway’s American Idiot, based on the Green Day album of the same name, is the best Green Day cover band concert you could ever imagine. The performers belt the record’s songs with theatrical ease, backed by an expert on-stage band. They transform solo tunes into duets and group numbers, adding new layers to the familiar music. Behind the performers, a magnificent set rises into the rafters, full of staircases and ladders and swings and wires constructed for the elaborate dance sequences that accompany the songs. Dozens of television sets mounted on the walls add an extra touch, displaying appropriate (or purposely discordant) images and mingling with the stage lights to dazzle the audience. It is, by all rights, an audio-visual spectacular of epic proportions.

Unfortunately, American Idiot purports to be more than a concert, and its successes on the musical front are met by equally great failures in the arenas of plot and character.

I’ve never been a fan of so-called “jukebox musicals,” musicals that construct a story around non-theatrical music from a particular popular artist or artists. Mamma Mia is perhaps the most famous example, mixing as it does a wholly original story with pop hits by ABBA. The story is actually lovely, but the music is so ill-fitting, and so antithetical to the needs of musical theater, that the play falls apart. The lyrics don’t move the plot along, and the musical sequences feel like jarring interruptions of the story rather than natural outcroppings from it. When music is not written for the theater, it rarely works in the context of a play.

Given this history, I was wary of American Idiot at first. But a number of factors differentiate it from the garden-variety jukebox musical. For one thing, it’s based on a concept album that always had some amount of narrative structure to it. For another, the play was conceived, and co-written, by Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong. This isn’t the case of a nebulous outsider trying to squeeze an artist’s oeuvre into a play; instead, it’s more like The Who’s Tommy, a rock musical created by those who wrote the music to begin with. With these factors in mind – and with an explosive Tony Awards performance in my recent memory – I decided to give the show a shot.

(Spoilers for the play abound from this point on.)

But some of my initial reservations proved accurate. While American Idiot, as an album, does have a narrative structure, the songs are not inherently theatrical. The lyrics are both too repetitive and too complicated – and too abstract, in many cases – to really move a story along, because only viewers who have memorized the songs before attending the show can follow every word. I knew several of the songs in the production going into the play, but not well enough to figure out all the metaphoric intricacies of the lyrics in the moment. Musical lyrics can certainly be complex – just ask Stephen Sondheim – but Green Day’s songs lack a directness and strong narrative quality that songs written for plays need.

This problem was compounded by the fact that, unlike Mamma Mia, there are very few moments in American Idiot that are not musical. Characters say a few words between songs – largely in letters written to each other – but for the most part the play is the music, and that makes it very hard to truly grasp the narrative of the story. I’m sure that fans who have seen the play many times were able to get more out of the story than I did, but repeated viewings shouldn’t be necessary to understand a piece of entertainment that costs $40 or more each time.

And then there was the story itself, and the characters. While American Idiot, as an album, serves as a fascinating, complex indictment of the Bush administration and the problems of life in early 21st century America, the play is basically a story about how very hard it is to be a white, straight, middle class, able-bodied 20-something guy living in the suburbs. And while I’m not opposed to stories about people with that amount of privilege (if I were, I would have to discount about 80% of all Western media), the story told here only serves to highlight how ludicrously selfish and stupid its characters are.

The three protagonists – Johnny (John Gallagher Jr.), Will (Michael Esper), and Tunny (Stark Sands) – are long-time friends still living at home, spending all their time drinking and smoking pot and playing video games. Suddenly seized by the need to leave their “empty” suburban lives, the friends decide to move to the big city and see the “real world.” Unfortunately, Will’s girlfriend, Heather (Mary Faber) reveals she’s pregnant, and he decides to stay home to take care of the baby. Johnny and Tunny still follow through with their plan, but Tunny, depressed and aimless, winds up joining the army and going to Iraq, leaving Johnny alone to sink into a life of drug abuse. After the death of Johnny’s (possibly metaphorical) drug dealer, the loss of Tunny’s leg in the war, and the separation of Will from his wife, the three friends reunite in their hometown to close out the play.

The fact that I was able to describe the entire plot in that tiny paragraph says something about how thin the story is. It’s also impossible for me to give a fuller description of the characters’ personalities, because, since they’re only expressed through non-theatrical, poorly-functioning songs, they essentially have none, no matter how hard the (very competent) actors tried. The only character I felt anything for was Tunny, since his wartime trials and tribulations are much more serious and sympathetic than the completely self-inflicted, selfish misery his friends go through. But he still lacked any real personality, and I realized partway through the play that I only felt anything for him because I was mentally inserting details of Stark Sands’ military character from HBO’s Generation Kill.

Then there’s the play’s women problem. While the leads are all white, Johnny’s love interest, Whatsername (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and Tunny’s war nurse/love interest, The Extraordinary Girl (Christina Sajous) are women of color. Neither has any more personality than the leads, which I wouldn’t have expected, but unlike the leads, they don’t get the opportunity to express anything from their own point of view – they don’t even have actual names — and thus become little more than fetish objects for the men. This is especially problematic in one scene, in which Tunny hallucinates his nurse dressed in a burqa, which she sexily strips off to reveal a stereotypical midriff-baring harem costume. Not only is she a fetish object, but she’s a fetish object representing a stereotypical image of the very real women of the Middle East.

I’m a huge fan of RENT, and American Idiot, with its rock score, disaffected young characters, and drug-filled urban setting, has been called RENT’s spiritual descendent. But whatever RENT’s flaws – and I’m not blind enough to claim it has none – its cast features characters across the spectrums of gender, sexuality, race, and socio-economic background, and they all possess agency and express themselves through their own point of view. American Idiot has none of that, and the abundant privilege of its protagonists makes it extraordinarily difficult to relate to them, or believe their protests. The American government and culture they’re lambasting is harming them least of all the people that populate the country, and they’re completely unaware of the irony. They sing, “maybe I’m the faggot America,” symbolic of their inability to fit in, but it only highlights the fact that they do fit in – unlike the gay (or non-white, lower class, etc. etc.) Americans who are completely absent from the play. What works in Green Day’s album – which is, understandably, from the perspective of only one singer – comes off as blind and borderline offensive on the stage.

I hesitate to completely lambast the show, since, as I noted, the staging and technical elements, performances, and music are all spectacular. But without a strong story or characters to hang those elements on, American Idiot is little more than a sparkling, charismatic failure.

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Learning to Appreciate Dancing with the Stars

May 26, 2010 at 11:38 am (Analysis, Review) (, )

For the past five years, I’ve mocked my parents relentlessly for their love of Dancing with the Stars. I’ve rolled my eyes fondly when my mom has called me at 9:00 on a Monday night with an exhortation to dial a certain toll-free number and give more votes to her favorite contestant. I’ve laughed derisively at the antics of the judges and hosts as I’ve passed through my living room on the way to my own preferred entertainment options. You could say, quite fairly, that I didn’t see the appeal of a cheesy dancing competition filled with D-list celebrities — for myself, or for the millions of viewers who apparently watched it every season.

Then, this winter, a few things happened in quick succession: I watched the Winter Olympics, I got sucked into the world of figure skating fandom, and gold medalist figure skater Evan Lysacek was announced as a contestant on season 10 of Dancing with the Stars. And suddenly I had a dilemma — would I watch this thing I’d always mocked, just for a celebrity I enjoyed?

The answer, as it turned out, was a resounding yes. Oh, sure, I tried to justify it at first, to mitigate the shame. “Oh, me? I’m just watching this to mock it. “For the lulz,” as they say on the internets. I’m watching it ironically. I just want to see how goofy Evan is, with his long, awkward limbs. And Buzz Aldrin! How can you not watch an octogenarian former moon-walker attempt to dance? Besides, it’s nice to have a reason to sit down with my parents twice a week. I’m doing it for the sake of family bonding!” I started voting for Evan — first with my phone, then with increasingly numerous e-mail addresses — and claimed I was only doing so because I worried his ultra-competitive personality would lead him to have a nervous breakdown if he got kicked off too early. As a final defense, I swore I’d only watch until Evan left — which, since he just earned second place on the finale last night, turned out to be a moot declaration. But about halfway through the season, I began to realize that I probably wouldn’t stop watching even if Evan was kicked off — because I’d begun to truly enjoy the show.

It’s pretty common for geeky people to react like I initially did to something like Dancing with the Stars. In a world where our geeky hobbies (comics, sci-fi, video games, etc.) are regularly derided as the childish trash entertainment of socially-stunted individuals, we frequently become defensive to the point of elitism, declaring our hobbies to be worthwhile and the entertainment of the masses to be worthless drivel. When you combine this geeky tendency with the tendency of high-minded academics (with whom I was surrounded for four years) to dismiss low and popular culture entirely, you can see how, despite all my best efforts, I found myself falling into the trap of dismissing entertainment with mainstream appeal without ever giving it a second thought. American Idol? Bleh. Two and a Half Men? Oy. And Dancing with the Stars? Oh, whatever.

I’m not going to claim that ten weeks spent with Dancing with the Stars completely cured me of this tendency toward elitism. I’m also not going to pretend it’s suddenly become my favorite show. But it did make me appreciate the value of entertainment that isn’t necessarily thoughtful or competitively rigorous. Is the game fixed from the start? Of course it is. Is it unfair to put people with absolutely no dance or athletic experience, like actress Niecy Nash, up against people who are, essentially, professional dancers, like Pussycat Doll and winner Nicole Scherzinger? Of course it is. But that’s not the point. The point is to enjoy the goofy, low-budget, good-natured fun of it. Since they’re all celebrities who are getting paid to be there and act as caricatures of themselves, it’s hard to really feel bad for any of the contestants, and the show does an amazing job of framing them to be likeable. I came into the show for Evan, but through the dances and pre-taped “packages” I found myself loving Niecy and Buzz and Pamela Anderson and football player Chad Ochocinco and sportscaster Erin Andrews and even Bachelor Jake Pavelka. (Reality star Kate Gosselin still managed to come off as consistently unlikable, but DWTS’s editors can’t exactly perform miracles.)

The show has its flaws, of course. The singers who perform covers of hit songs for the celebrities to dance to are frequently terrible, and not in a fun way like the bad celebrity dancers — I found myself covering my ears on the high notes of their shrieking cover of Adam Lambert’s “For Your Entertainment.” The results shows are padded far past endurable levels with commercial breaks and fluff, and in the two-week college dance team competition held toward the end of the season, the show made the unforgivable decision to pit the ballroom dance majors of Utah Valley University against the Rutgers University dance team that had formed on a whim four months ago. Mismatched celebrities competing against each other is one thing, but it’s quite another to embarrass normal, earnest college kids like the Rutgers students, and I found myself feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

But when some of the most-lauded dramatic television is full of unlikeable characters doing awful things (The Sopranos, Mad Men, half the characters on Glee), sometimes it’s nice to just watch a bunch of people who don’t take themselves too seriously acting silly and learning to dance — or, in the case of the judges and hosts, reacting to those dances. And while the dancing from the celebrities is rarely good, the show does make a conscious effort to showcase the art of dance, with the professional dances performed during the weekly results shows. (They also make an effort to showcase professional singers during those shows — Melissa Etheridge’s appearance was a highlight of the season.) Dance competitions, as a recent Entertainment Weekly article pointed out, are as old as the medium of television itself, and they tap into a cultural well that runs deep. There’s something about watching pretty people in glitzy, glittery costumes moving across a dance floor to music that charms even my jaded, geeky soul. And that’s not even taking into account the social aspect of the show — discussing the dances and contestants with friends and family, yelling at the judges and/or voters for making “bad” calls, and voting your heart out for the contestant you hope will take home the tacky, over-the-top Mirrorball Trophy.

I’m not sure if I’ll watch DWTS next season. It’ll depend, I’m sure, on the cast, and if there’s someone I can root for as enthusiastically as I rooted for Evan this season. But I’ve finally come to understand and appreciate the show’s popularity, and I hope to carry that lesson with me the next time I encounter a piece of entertainment it seems so easy to dismiss.

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Thoughts on Avatar from a Future Media Studies Scholar

February 1, 2010 at 3:57 pm (Review) (, , , )

As those of you who read my twitter already know, last week I got a phone call accepting me to the media and cultural studies PhD program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This is, well, pretty damn exciting, and I’ve been a little bouncy about it ever since. I haven’t heard from my other potential schools yet, so I haven’t made any final decisions, but the program at Madison looks nothing short of amazing and perfectly in line with my interests – that is, academically analyzing comics, children’s media, and the representation of race, gender, and sexuality in film and TV.

So this weekend, with those future plans in mind, I decided to finally bite the bullet and go to see James Cameron’s Avatar. Epic sci-fi doesn’t tend to be my thing at the best of times, and I’d heard enough about the racial implications of the story, and the general poor quality of the script, that I didn’t think Avatar was something I particularly needed to see. But, I figured, if I’m going to be a media studies scholar, it would be silly not to see the newly-minted highest-grossing film of all time. And so I went.

I’ll say this up front: the movie exceeded my expectations. Granted, my expectations were exceptionally low. But I was impressed with a lot of features of the movie: the realism of the CGI, the effectiveness of the 3D, the beauty of the set pieces. The artistic design was simply gorgeous, and though my knowledge of the technical processes of filmmaking is close to nonexistent, I can see why some are heralding this film as a giant step forward in technological innovation. I hope the technology developed and perfected for Avatar will be used effectively in many future (and, hopefully, better) films.

The length didn’t bother me, either; I didn’t find myself looking at my watch. The movie was well-paced and visually engaging even when the script left me cold. And I was generally impressed, with some caveats, with the representation of women in the film, one of Cameron’s acknowledged strengths. But the racial problems were, ultimately, too massive to ignore.

I’ll cut here, for the sake of the 2.5 people in the world who plan to see this movie but have yet to do so.

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Baby’s First Audiobook Experience

January 22, 2010 at 10:00 am (Review) ()

Last weekend, I visited my very good friend Caroline, a car trip that took 5 1/2 hours each way to complete. In preparation (and because my iPod car adapter had died and I don’t have many unscratched CDs) I decided to try out my very first audiobooks.

In general, I’m not a terribly good aural learner. Part of this is just a lack of exposure to aural information; my parents never listened to talk radio, so I grew up believing that audio devices were for music only. I’m probably the only nerd in America who had never heard of NPR before college. But part of it is just my natural inclinations; I took enough education classes to know that different people learn in different ways, and I’ve always gotten more out of the written word than the spoken one. I have a short attention span, and my mind tends to drift — something that isn’t a problem in a choose-your-own-speed medium like reading, but can be a big problem during a lecture or radio show where I can easily miss important words and sentences.

Within the last few years, though, I’ve begun to listen to a few podcasts, primarily in the comic book field — iFanboy, Word Balloon, War Rocket Ajax — and listening to those podcasts has helped me to refine my listening skills while allowing me to compensate for the times my mind still drifts (the rewind function on an iPod is a wonderful thing). So, knowing how much I’ve come to enjoy podcasts, and how much I enjoy books, I decided it was about time I picked up an audiobook.

My choices were limited to my library’s tiny collection, so I was unable to pick up some of the audiobooks friends had recommended, like David Sedaris’ and Sarah Vowell’s self-read collections. Ultimately, I settled on a fully-dramatized audio of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, a play Caroline has been enjoying of late, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, the newest short story collection from one of my favorite authors. You probably couldn’t find two more disparate books, but I thought that was appropriate, because they allowed me to experience different ends of the audiobook spectrum.

Henry IV was my first listen, and it had both its pros and cons. On the one hand, much like stage and screen productions of Shakespeare, the audiobook helped me to follow the story without stumbling over the language. My experience with the text of Shakespeare’s plays is often a slow and plodding one, as I feel compelled to understand every line, using all available footnotes and glossaries. With the audiobook, the actors’ expressive voices clarified unfamiliar turns of phrase, and if I didn’t understand a section of dialogue I was able to move on without tarrying over it, knowing I’d be able to gather all the necessary information from context clues. I only rewound a few sections of the play, and these were all due to driving distractions, since not veering off the road generally took precedence over listening to Falstaff’s boasts.

Unfortunately, without visually-differentiable actors or helpfully-labeled lines of dialogue, it was sometimes difficult to figure out who was talking at any given time. Most of the voices were distinct, and context helped with others, but there were quite a few scenes — an early exchange between Hal and Poins, for instance, or even the climactic fight-to-the-death between Hal and Hostpur — during which I honestly couldn’t tell whose lines were whose. I’m glad I was able to listen to the play, and follow the basic plot, but I know I’ll have to read it or see a stage production before I truly feel that I’ve grasped its intricacies. I’ll likely listen to more Shakespeare on audio in the future, but I may choose to stick to those plays I’ve already read or seen, to avoid the pitfalls I found here.

Unaccustomed Earth was a different matter entirely. Jhumpa Lahiri’s clean, descriptive prose worked wonderfully in audio, engaging me enough that my mind rarely wandered — though in this case, I usually preferred to rewind after a distraction than plod on through, since her language is so great that it would be a shame to miss a single word. Perhaps the greatest advantage of the audio over the written word was the presence of the readers. Jhumpa Lahiri is Indian-American, and her stories chronicle the experiences of Indian and Indian-American characters with depth and authenticity — which means that Indian names, words, and phrases are all present in her work. Though I can usually muddle through reading these words with my own invented pronunciations, I very much enjoyed hearing them spoken properly by the readers, Ajay Naidu and Sarita Choudhury, a man and a woman of Indian descent who read for male and female points of view, respectively. These readers also used accents when reading the dialogue spoken by first-generation immigrants, allowing me to hear their voices authentically, without American accents that would ring false or fake, stereotypical Indian ones provided by white actors. All of this combined to create an experience much truer to the prose than my own reading could ever have produced, and while I only managed to listen to half of the stories in the collection during my trip, I plan to listen to the rest as well before I buy the paper book.

The one small disadvantage of the audiobook — if you can call it a disadvantage — was the way in which it carried me along with the story in the proper order without allowing me to take a peek at the end. I don’t always spoil myself for novels and stories, but there are times, during tense moments, when I like to check to make sure things work out satisfactorily before I continue. There’s one such moment in the fourth story in the collection, “Only Goodness,” and I found myself itching to read a few pages ahead, just to make sure something awful wasn’t going to happen (it didn’t, thankfully). In that sense, the audiobook is much more like a movie than a paper book is, forcing me along its dictated path and pacing unless I choose to go through the hassle of blind and imprecise fastforwarding and rewinding.

Overall, I can’t imagine myself turning to audiobooks in great numbers — they’re great for driving, but without something to do with my hands and eyes I’m sure I’d be much more easily distracted. I can’t imagine sitting in my room with an audiobook playing when there are perfectly good written words filling my bookshelves. Still, I’m glad I gave audiobooks a chance, and I look forward to using them to pass the time during future journeys.

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Whip It Good

October 21, 2009 at 9:30 am (Review) (, )

Whip It

I saw Whip It yesterday. I didn’t know if I was going to get to see it in theaters; my personal life has been a bit of a mess lately, with family emergencies piling on top of each other, and a lot of my friends had already seen it by the time I was available to be social again. But a few of us managed to go last night, and I am so, so glad I did.

Was it a perfect movie? No. The plot was on the side of predictable, and subplots involving the protagonist’s opponents in a beauty pageant and enemies at school were never developed quite enough. But the cast was universally excellent, and the way the film handled family, love, and especially female friendship was absolutely fantastic. And in at least one way, the movie was, despite its predictability, wonderfully subversive.

Spoilers for Whip It follow.

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Building a House with Bruce Springsteen

May 28, 2009 at 8:30 am (Review) (, )

On the evening of May 23rd, halfway through a performance of “Working on a Dream,” the title track off of his latest album with the E Street Band, Bruce Springsteen addressed the audience at New Jersey‘s IZOD Center. In the hazy afterglow of the concert, I can‘t remember his exact words, but I remember the gist well enough to paraphrase. “We’re here to build a house,” he said. “To build a house of joy out of sadness. To build a house of love out of hate.” His house-building litany continued for quite some time, rising in fervor like a sermon. This wasn’t a house he could build himself, he explained. It was the combined energy of the thousands of people in that room who were building that house, that house of love and joy and hope and peace and inspiration and creation. And as the speech crescendoed, and Springsteen launched into the song’s optimistic chorus, those thousands of people cheered, and sang along, and believed it.

I’ve never been a music person. It isn’t that I don’t like music — I do, quite a bit. But I don’t understand it, and I’m not capable of producing it. I can’t sing, I can’t read notes on a page, and I’m so tone deaf that I honestly couldn’t tell if someone was singing horrendously off-key. I can’t identify different musicians in recordings — most of the time, I can’t even identify different instruments. And even my lyrical analysis skills are somewhat weak — poetry was never my forte in my literary studies.

But what I can do, with music, is feel it. Experience it. Let it lift me up and envelop me and change my mood and inspire me in a million mysterious ways that I am powerless to understand. And that is what my first Bruce Springsteen concert was: an awe-inspiring experience whose power I don’t possess the ability to explain.

I’ve only been a Springsteen fan for less than two years, when some friends introduced me to his music. But once they did, it immediately clicked with me. This was, in part, due to the New Jersey connection. Bruce Springsteen sings about a world that I know, a central New Jersey universe of highways and boardwalks and working class dreams. But I also found, in his music, reflections of even my non-Jersey-specific experiences. Friendship and adolescence. Struggle and confusion. Dreams of escape. The desire to create. During my senior year of college, the song “Badlands” helped me through the struggle of my senior thesis — “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive,” Bruce reminded me — and when my grandfather died near the end of that school year, it was “Mary’s Place,” a song about hope and happiness and survival even in the face of a loved one’s death, that helped me get through it. Springsteen came to mean a lot to me in a very short period of time, and when I finally got the chance to go to a concert last Saturday, it felt like something I’d been building toward all along.

The concert opened with “Badlands.” Nothing could have pleased me more. I was on my feet, dancing and singing my heart out, screaming that line that had helped me through my thesis at the top of my lungs. Next up was “Spirit in the Night,” a personal favorite. After that, the concert got more mellow — “Outlaw Pete“ and “Something in the Night.” I took the opportunity to sit down, and rest, and take everything in. But I and everyone else around me was up and dancing again during “Out in the Street,” and then there was that magical rendition of “Working on a Dream.”

The concert mellowed out again after that. “Seeds” was next, and it was the only song I didn’t know — I had to ask my friend, who’d come with me to the concert, to identify it for me. This was followed by a rollicking version of “Johnny 99,” and the spooky “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” And then there were the signs, when Springsteen collected requests from the audience members who had brought along posters with their pleas.

Before launching into the sign requests, the band played a cover of “Good Lovin’,” which made me smile. The last time I’d been to a concert in this particular arena was in 1998, the summer before 7th grade, and it was to see Hanson. I can say with authority that Hanson and Bruce Springsteen have absolutely nothing in common besides being adored by me. But during that concert 11 years ago, Hanson played a cover of “Good Lovin’.” As the E Street Band played the opening chords, I looked over at the section of the arena I remembered sitting in over a decade before, and it was a nice moment of circular nostalgia.

The first two sign requests were “E Street Shuffle” and “Cover Me,” both good songs but not ones that particularly excited me. But the third, and the one that created the biggest cheer of the night, was “Thunder Road.”

Earlier that day, I’d watched the VH1 “Storytellers” episode that Springsteen had been on, and in that episode he talked about how “Thunder Road” is an invitation — an invitation to the listeners to take a ride, to take a leap of faith, to do what they’ve always wanted to do. At that moment, all I wanted to do was create — to run home and write a novel and apply for my dream jobs and maybe even save the world. That is the power of his music.

After that, the rest of the concert was almost a blur. “Waiting on a Sunny Day” was only notable for the part where Bruce let an 8-year-old girl in the pit sing the chorus into his microphone. “The Promised Land” was excellent. “Incident on 57th Street“ was a rare treat. “Kingdom of Days” was lovely. Then there was the one-two punch of “Lonesome Day” and “The Rising,” and all the hope and inspiration the crowd had felt during “Working on a Dream” came back in spades. “The Rising” is an inspirational song to begin with; in a crowd of thousands of people singing along, it’s transcendent.

And the final songs continued to ride that wave. “Born to Run,” my “driving New Jersey highways” favorite (I live right off of “Highway 9,” after all). A cover of an old folk song called “Hard Times.” The instrumental craziness of “Kitty’s Back.” “Land of Hope and Dreams,” the song I listened to on repeat on election day, crying from hope and worry. The dancing optimism of “American Land.” “Glory Days,” the old standard. And then, finally, a jubilant cover of “Mony Mony.”

I’ve been focusing largely on Bruce himself in this write-up, but it’s worth noting that the E Street Band was as excellent as I’d always been told. They had so much energy it was almost unbelievable — during a pause in “Johnny 99,” Bruce, Max, and Little Steven had a gag where they just stared at the audience, turning their heads from side to side and looking confused, and I can honestly say that that was the only moment during the concert where I thought, “Oh my God, they’re tired old men.” In the next moment, they were back, bouncing and grinning and transformed 20 years younger. The various instrumental solos during “Kitty’s Back” were absolutely amazing, especially for so late in the 3-hour show, and I was really happy to see Max on drums, since I know he wasn‘t there for parts of the toru. It disappointed me slightly that Patti Scialfa wasn’t present, but I’m glad she was able to be with her daughter in her own travels, the explanation Bruce gave before “Kingdom of Days.”

And the band was fun, too. I know I’ve spoken a lot about how inspirational and magical the concert was, but there were silly moments, too — dancing and mugging for the camera and the moment during “Thunder Road” when Bruce let the audience sing “You ain’t a beauty, but hey, you’re all right” to him.

Finally, there was the crowd, which I can’t possibly forget to mention. Because Bruce was right — he couldn’t have built that house by himself. It took the combined energy of every single person in that arena to build the experience that that concert was. At various points during the night, I just looked around me — looked at the thousands of people of literally all ages, from 8-year-olds singing along to every word with their parents to young adults around my age to people Springsteen’s age and beyond — and I saw them all singing and dancing and waving their arms and having the time of their lives. There was no pushing, no anger, no mockery — everyone I encountered was happy and polite. We were all there, having the same experience, feeling that same glorious energy, and at that moment everything was ok in the world.

There’s a moment — my favorite moment of any concert — when an artist inserts an unexpected pause in a song, and the audience, so used to the studio recording, continues to sing the words before the artist gets a chance to. This happened for the first time during “Spirit in the Night,” and there is nothing quite as awesome as thousands of people simultaneously singing the words “gypsy angel row.” Everyone knew the words, and everyone, for that single moment, was thinking the exact same thing, and inspired to say the exact same thing, even without the band‘s prompting. The power of that collective consciousness was almost overwhelming.

I’d be lying if I said the Springsteen show changed my life. The wave of inspiration and fervent urge to create and go after my dreams dissipated somewhere on the south side of New Jersey Turnpike as I struggled to stay awake for the ride home. But the feeling still surfaces, periodically, whenever a song comes up on my iPod or I remember a particularly excellent moment from that night, and I have a feeling that the house that Bruce and I built will shelter me for quite some time.

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