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Film Music

Ranking the Austin Powers Songs Purely on Vibes

When it comes to the Austin Powers trilogy, there is perhaps nothing more iconic than the songs in the film or performed in each film. From soulful, instant classics, to groovy dance numbers, to whatever the early 00s were, every Austin Powers song is instantly recognizable. I’m here today to rank them because I took a music theory class and music history in college. Did I do well in either? Who knows!

A couple of points before I get started: these rankings are definitive and cannot be disputed by anyone. You really should read Ethan’s well conceived article about a more well known spy who lacks the mojo that Austin Powers posses. I care about my friend Ethan deeply but I assume that his commute to work every day looks similar to the first video on this list. Anyway, let’s get to it YEAH baby YEAH.

1. Soul Bossa Nova by Quincy Jones

While the song was originally released in 1962, nothing B.A.P. (Before Austin Powers) matters really. This song set the stage for the Austin Powers films. It is the perfect score. Austin Powers could definitely beat James Bond in a fight.

2. Just the Two of Us as performed by Dr. Evil and Mini Me

This is a very sensitive subject. Dr. Evil sings about his insecurities when it comes to legacy which is a running theme through the trilogy. Dr. Evil struggles with the idea that his son Scott doesn’t like him. But Dr. Evil is most well known as the arch nemesis of Austin Powers who definitely could beat up James Bond in a fight. Even if Bond probably has better gadgets and such, Austin has a bigger heart.

3. Daddy Wasn’t There by Ming Tea

In the third film, Goldmember, Austin struggles with the issues revolving his own father played by Sir Michael Caine most well known for his role in Jaws: The Revenge. In this song, Austin reveals that his father missed his circumcision. Even with the tumultuous relationship that Austin has with his father, he could still beat up James Bond. He would probably give him a judo chop while Bond was being creepy to someone.

4. Hard Knock Life as performed by Dr. Evil

In the third film, Austin defeats his long time foe in the start of the film. To rally the other prisoners, Dr. Evil performs his own version of Tony award winning broadway show Annie‘s “Hard Knock Life” similar in spirit and vibes to that of Jay-Z’s version of the song. If Austin Powers and James Bond were both locked away together, I am sure Austin Powers would beat up James Bond in the yard to prove he is the top dog.

I am sure there were more songs in film histories biggest trilogy that is Austin Powers but I don’t remember them. I do remember that James Bond would get a swirly if he ever met Austin Powers who survived being frozen. Not even Walt Disney did that.

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Film Music

Ranking the James Bond Songs Purely on Vibes

When it comes to the James Bond franchise, there is perhaps nothing more iconic to it than the title themes made for the opening credits of each film. From soulful, instant classics, to 80s pop-rock, to whatever the late 90s were, every Bond song is instantly recognizable. I’m here today to rank them, but not in a boring, how-good-are-they kind of way. I don’t know anything about music theory to do something like that. No, I’m ranking them based purely on how I vibe with them in spur-of-the-moment decisions.

A couple of points before I get started: First, these rankings are not indicative of the quality of the artist performing their respective tracks. And second, as Dr. No does not have its own song, there is no listing for it, but to have the rankings be a clean 25 entries I have included a song that was made for one of these films but was rejected. Which one? Well, you’ll have to read on… 

25. “Writing’s on the Wall” – Sam Smith

Film: Spectre

A song that wishes it could be “Skyfall” but fails at being memorable in any way other than how bad it is. The worst kind of vibes.

24. “The Man with the Golden Gun” – Lulu

Film: The Man with the Golden Gun

This song is not good. At all.

23. “The World Is Not Enough” – Garbage

Film: The World Is Not Enough

This was sung by a band called Garbage and that’s indicative of its quality. The world does not have enough vibes to make this enjoyable.

22. “Die Another Day” – Madonna

Film: Die Another Day

Instead of a Bond song by Madonna, we got a Madonna song being used for a Bond film. That’s a big difference and it leads to the vibes just not being there in this one.

21. “Live and Let Die” – Paul McCartney & Wings

Film: Live and Let Die

The second worst Beatle performs one of the worst Bond songs whose only memorable feature is its opening. Let the vibes die.

20. “Tomorrow Never Dies” – Sheryl Crow

Film: Tomorrow Never Dies

The late 90s, early 2000s were not kind to Bond songs, and unfortunately, Sheryl Crow is not the right kind of singer to make this one work for what it needs to be.

19. “All Time High” – Rita Coolidge

Film: Octopussy

They were cowards for not having this song be named after the film it’s featured on. Defeatist vibes.

18. “You Only Live Twice” – Nancy Sinatra

Film: You Only Live Twice

The most average of Bond songs. That’s all I’ve got. Perfectly average vibes.

17. “Another Way to Die” – Jack White and Alicia Keys

Film: Quantum of Solace

The opening guitar riff helps give this some pretty enjoyable vibes.

16. “Diamonds Are Forever” – Shirley Bassey

Film: Diamonds Are Forever

There’s a personal bias I have to all of Shirley Bassey’s Bond songs thanks to our shared Welsh heritage, but this is her weakest contribution to the series. The vibes were, unlike the diamonds, not forever.

15. “License to Kill” – Gladys Knight

Film: License to Kill

The legend that is Gladys Knight helps the song not come across as a Shirley Bassey clone, giving it a license to vibe all of its own.

14. “GoldenEye” – Tina Turner

Film: GoldenEye

It takes nearly a whole minute for Tina Turner to start singing, which means it barely makes its way into the top 15.

13. “Moonraker” – Shirley Bassey

Film: Moonraker

While the song itself is great, this is from a film that sees Bond go to space at the tail end of the 70s. It should have been a disco track, even if disco was in its last days then.

12. “The Living Daylights” – a-ha

Film: The Living Daylights

I unequivocally love a-ha, so of course, I massively vibe with this one.

11. “Spectre” – Radiohead

Film: Spectre (Unreleased)

Here we have the bonus song I mentioned up top. Radiohead submitted this for use in, you guessed it, Spectre, but for whatever reason, the producers went with Sam Smith’s terrible track instead. The most hauntingly beautiful Bond song that never was.

10. “A View to a Kill” – Duran Duran

Film: A View to a Kill

It’s Duran Duran, and at one point they sing the lyrics “dance into the fire”. Shit fucking rules y’all. They should have called it “A View to a Vibe” amirite?

9. “For Your Eyes Only” – Sheena Easton

Film: For Your Eyes Only

Perhaps the hottest a Bond song has ever been. There are some very spicy vibes contained within. Bonus points for Sheena Easton actually appearing in the title sequence.

8. “Thunderball” – Tom Jones

Film: Thunderball

Another Welsh artist means there’s a lot of bias towards this one, but once you learn that Tom Jones actually passed out while holding the astonishing final note, you can’t help but vibe with it.

7. “Goldfinger” – Shirley Bassey

Film: Goldfinger

For that brass section alone this gets the biggest possible chef’s kiss I can give. Some truly unbeatable vibes right here, which only reinforces how incredible the remainder of this list is.

6. “Skyfall” – Adele

Film: Skyfall

Despite how frequently this was played on the radio when it was released, to the point of over-saturation, it’s hard to deny just how iconic “Skyfall” is. The vibes, as the kids would say, are lit.

5. “From Russia with Love” – Matt Monro

Film: From Russia with Love

Matt Monro’s voice makes me want to hop in a 1960s convertible Ferrari and drive down the Italian coast. Impeccable vibes.

4. “No Time to Die” – Billie Eilish

Film: No Time to Die

I don’t believe in recency bias, but if there ever was such a thing, then this is the deserving benefactor of it. I vibe so much with “No Time to Die.” Billie Eilish nails every single thing you need to make a Bond song iconic. I can’t wait to see it used in the film itself.

3. “We Have All the Time in the World” – Louis Armstrong

Film: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

One of the most romantic songs ever made. And I mean, how can you go wrong with Louis fuckin’ Armstrong? Great vibes, and based on a couple sneak peeks at Hans Zimmer’s No Time to Die score, seems to be featured quite heavily in the new release.

2. “Nobody Does it Better” – Carly Simon

Film: The Spy Who Loved Me

When they say nobody does it better, they mean it. Carly Simon understands the assignment like few others have. Not just excellent vibes, but one of the greatest Bond songs. The best kind of vibes.

1. “You Know My Name” – Chris Cornell

Film: Casino Royale

And here we come to the top entry, the title theme I vibe the most with. From the collaboration between Chris Cornell and composer David Arnold to its integration in the film itself as a proto-Bond theme, it’s hard to explain just how incredible “You Know My Name” is. 15 years on, this remains unsurpassed.


And lastly, I just want to end by giving a shout-out to Joe Cornish’s excellent parody song made for the release of Quantum of Solace. It never fails to make me laugh.

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Music

“THATS WHAT I WANT” by Lil Nas X – Video Review

The music video for Lil Nas X’s “THATS WHAT I WANT,” directed by Stillz, premiered on Friday, September 17 alongside the audio tracks for Lil Nas X’s new album MONTERO. The album (you can find my review on the album here) talks about Lil Nas X’s experiences as a gay man, and the struggle, inner conflict, and ultimate acceptance that come along with it. Each track is so good and the album as a whole, textually and musically, is incredible.

But, the music video for “THAT’S WHAT I WANT” struck me with such ferocity that I knew I had to write about it on its own.

First, this video is hot. It is incredibly and explicitly sexually charged. Lil Nas X, himself, is incredibly attractive, and the scenes he and his creative team crafted are not only steamy, but also so gay. This continues a trend of queer, sexually suggestive videos that we saw in the video premieres of “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” and “INDUSTRY BABY” earlier this year.

The video starts out with Lil Nas X having been injured playing football. After being brought to the locker room, a fellow teammate comes in, and they begin a sexual encounter in a passionate scene. An important shot here is Lil Nas X opening a condom, a blatant endorsement of safer sex practices for queer men. This is an important message to send to his often-younger queer fans.

(via @LilNasX / Twitter)

In the next verse, we are now transported to a new world, reminiscent of one of the first mainstream queer movies, Brokeback Mountain. After another steamy encounter in a tent out in nature, Lil Nas X next goes to the house of this lover with flowers, only to discover that he is married and has a child. He then leaves to go drink away his sorrows in his home, surrounded by his football accolades.

However, this is not the end to his story, as we enter the next scene with the last chorus, a bit slowed down now. We see Lil Nas X walking down the aisle in a wedding dress, meeting Emmy-winning actor Billy Porter at the altar, who hands him a guitar. The music then picks up as Lil Nas X begins performing the guitar part and finishing out the chorus. This high energy performance appears to be a moment of self-acceptance, that he can find happiness in his art. But then at the end, during the last lines of the song, we get a close-up of Lil Nas X’s face. We see his makeup has run down his face from crying and an expression of emotional pain. The video then ends in silence after the music ends.

 (via @LilNasX / Twitter)

Compared to the videos for “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” and “INDUSTRY BABY,” the video for “THATS WHAT I WANT” feels incredibly personal. While using references to other queer media, Lil Nas X is telling a personal narrative about his need for love. The wedding scene in particular strikes me with an emotional message I won’t be shaking any time soon. Lil Nas X wants love in his life, and his accomplishments aren’t enough to sustain him. Compared to the scene in the locker room and the tent, where he is clearly content from a sexual standpoint, the wedding shows us that more is needed to keep us going. Mutual love and affection are just as important as any physical needs we might have.

There are a lot of important moments in this video. As a gay man, Lil Nas X is telling us he deserves love, just like any straight person. But reaching this moment of love is a complicated journey for queer folk. But we still “want someone to love me” and “need someone who needs me.” Lil Nas X has given us an important piece of music whose accompanying video helps lay out the struggles of queer love. This message is important to share; so many queer people never see their lives on a screen like this. By witnessing someone they know sharing the same relatable problems that they have, they will see that it can be overcome. The music video for “THATS WHAT I WANT” is an ode to queerness in a way that hasn’t been seen very often, and I hope it inspires many more in the future.

The groundbreaking queerness of both MONTERO as a whole, and the “THATS WHAT I WANT” video in particular, is an incredible moment. While it is a shame that it took until 2021 for such a gay musical moment to occur in the mainstream, especially considering the extensive influence queer culture has had on music as an art form, I am happy that this video exists. Straight musicians have long been showing us straight, sexually-charge scenes in their music. It is so refreshing to see a musician stand up and put out something so blatantly gay. To see a version of a romantic journey not too dissimilar from my own, it makes my gay heart so excited.

You can watch the music video for “THATS WHAT I WANT” on Youtube and Vevo. MONTERO is available to stream on all major music streaming platforms and as a digital download.

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Music

Gay? You might be entitled to financial compensation: Review of MONTERO by Lil Nas X

As a young gay man, I remember the first time I discovered Logo TV. I was home alone after school one day, and I was avoiding homework. As I was scrolling through the TV guide, I came across what could have been a revelation in my queerness: programming created for a queer audience. I turned it on and a music program was just beginning. But this was not your regular MTV or VH1 fare, but actually, blatantly queer music videos. There were guys kissing each other and holding hands and showing their love for one another. I remember sitting there, discovering these music videos and thinking about how upsetting it was that I was seeing a reflection of myself in music, for the first time, hidden away on a single channel up in the 200s. But the worst part is that I have no idea what the names of the songs I listened to that afternoon, nor the artists who poured their hearts into them.

Back in 2010, queerness was just beginning to enter the mainstream in the United States. But openly queer love was not readily accessible in media, and these songs about queer love that played in the mid-afternoon on Logo had so little reach into the cultural consciousness that I never listened to them again. So when Lil Nas X released the music video for “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” in March of this year, and everyone was talking about it? It felt unreal. A song by an openly-queer artist about being queer was dominating social media, news organizations, the industry charts, and the minds of music fans everywhere.

Lil Nas X has been here before. “Old Town Road (Remix)” (feat. Billy Ray Cyrus) was pretty objectively the Song of the Summer back in 2019, where it spent a record-breaking 18 weeks at number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. A runaway hit, everyone was talking about it, playing it at their parties, and adding it to their playlists. But it was not until “Old Town Road (Remix)” was already the Number 1 Song in America when Lil Nas X came out as gay.

This is one of my most anticipated albums ever. It was hard not to be excited for this album. Lil Nas X and his team’s marketing in the lead-up to this release was nothing short of inspired. He posted several videos and photos of himself “pregnant” with baby MONTERO, even posting a hilarious video of himself giving birth to the album on the night of the album’s release. He posted videos of him sending himself to jail in the lead up to the release of the “INDUSTRY BABY” video and as a talk show host in the 80s. The one that killed me the most, though, were a set of billboards that he set up, including one that said “Gay? You might be entitled to financial compensation!” Lil Nas X, if you’re reading this, I want my gay money!

@LilNasX / Twitter

MONTERO, which is Lil Nas X’s debut album following previous EPs and Mixtapes, is the first major music release from Lil Nas X after he came out as gay. “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)”, therefore, was one of the first explicitly queer piece of music that Lil Nas X released (following his allusion to queerness on 7 track “C7osure” and more explicit references in the single “HOLIDAY”), and it began an honest-to-God debate on acceptable behavior of queer people in the mainstream by many outside of the LGBTQ community.

It is with all of this in mind that we dive into MONTERO, in what is one of the most personal musical introspective of queerness that I, personally, have had the pleasure of listening to.

MONTERO hits the ground running with its eponymous track, of much notoriety. This song has been running in my mind basically nonstop since it was first released in March. The music video, where Lil Nas X literally leaves the Garden of Eden and descends into Hell to twerk on Satan, naturally made all the wrong waves in all the worst places. But as a gay man myself, this song touches such an important chord with me; it is an open expression of Lil Nas X’s queerness, something that he suppressed for so long due to the heteronormative society that we live in. Upon release of the song, Lil Nas X tweeted: “i wrote a song with our name in it. it’s about a guy i met last summer…i know we promised to die with the secret, but this will open doors for many other queer people to simply exist.” MONTERO, which bears Lil Nas X’s real name as the title, brings us through this personal journey of conflict and ultimate acceptance as a queer man.

“DEAD RIGHT NOW”, the second track, deals with Lil Nas X’s struggle with his parents and others as he was working his way up into stardom. He is still the confident, brazen performer that we see in “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)”, but we also see the cracks that give us peeks into his personal struggle.

“INDUSTRY BABY” (feat. Jack Harlow) is one of the best tracks on the album. One of the pre-album singles, the horns and beats keep this track pumping all the way through, with great harmonies and fun lyrics. It immediately gets lodged in your brain, and you find yourself humming along well after you’ve listened. The only fault of this record (and the album in general) is the rather strong “no homo” vibes from Jack Harlow’s verse, which, while well-performed, is a bit out of place on an album with such a queer message.

In “THATS WHAT I WANT”, whose video was released same day as the album, we begin to really start hearing Lil Nas X’s personal journey in queerness. This is the beginning of the exploration into the man, Montero, behind the persona we see on Twitter every day. What’s so beautiful about this song is that it is unabashedly about queer love, wrapped up in a radio-ready country-twinged pop bop. He talks about how he “need a boy”. Not a generic someone special, not an unidentified lover. A boy. Finding love as a gay man can be a minefield, never knowing who might be open to queer relationships or who might beat you up for coming on to them. But while safety is always on our mind, it does not mean that we still don’t long for love, affection, and physical touch. As Lil Nas X says, “I want someone to love me/I need someone who needs me/’Cause it don’t feel right when it’s late at night/And it’s just me in my dreams/So I want someone to love/That’s what I fuckin’ want”. Oh boy… got me right in my pop-loving heart.

“THE ART OF REALIZATION”—Look, I’m a huge slut for audio clips in the middle of an album.

“SCOOP” (feat. Doja Cat) is the start of what feels like a new section of the album, which is broken into two by “THE ART OF REALIZATION”. “SCOOP” is about physical beauty (“I been workin’ on my body”). In the context of the rest of the album, it is hard to separate this song from the other themes about the pressure he has to conform to expectations that society puts on him, in this case an exemplary physique. Doja’s verse is a nice switch-up that keeps this track moving nicely into “ONE OF ME”.

“ONE OF ME” (feat. Elton John) is an incredibly moving moment for me. Elton John, who is undoubtedly queer royalty, is listed as a feature on this track, but never sings. Instead, he played piano for this track, contributing a beautiful backing for Lil Nas X’s lyrics. This feels like a symbolic backing from our elders to the new guard; Lil Nas X’s message is literally being backed by Elton. Lil Nas X’s lyrics concern his artistry and those that felt he should stay with what he is good at. But Elton’s moving piano lines behind Lil Nas X’s rhythmic vocals lead to a genre-bending masterpiece that proves to his haters that Lil Nas X’s talent is bigger than any box you could put him in.

“LOST IN THE CITADEL” continues the under-the-radar sound that began with “ONE OF ME”. This track, similar to “THATS WHAT I WANT”, has a sound that is palatable to the mainstream, but with multilayered lyrics about having to be the one to pick yourself up. A great transition from the last track into the next.

“DOLLA SIGN SLIME” (feat. Megan Thee Stallion) was the track I was most excited for going into this album drop. I felt that any track that had both Lil Nas X and Megan Thee Stallion on it would be an instant homerun, and I was right. A rap song, Megan Thee Stallion’s feature is one of the best on the album. But what’s most intriguing about this track is that on its own, it’s a fun track about being a successful musician, yet, with its placement in the album, it’s changed. You realize that Lil Nas X is not trying to show off to his haters but is maybe just trying to tell himself that he’s made it.

Then “TALES OF DOMINICA” starts. While it could be argued that “DOLLA SIGN SLIME” is a personification of the Lil Nas X public persona, “TALES OF DOMINICA” is the track that first struck me as most honestly Montero. We’ve seen in the earlier tracks who Lil Nas X is (he’s hot, he’s funny, he’s controversial), but that outer layer has broken apart, revealing Montero underneath: “Oh sometimes you’re angry/Sometimes you’re hurting/Sometimes you’re all alone/Sometimes I’m anxious/Sometimes it makes me/Feel like there’s only now”.

“SUN GOES DOWN” continues this journey into showing us Montero. The video, set back in high school, shows us the journey to acceptance that Lil Nas X went through to get to this point. It’s a struggle that I personally went through myself, which he so succinctly puts in the lines, “These gay thoughts would always haunt me/I prayed God would take it from me/It’s hard for you when you’re fightin’/And nobody knows it when you’re silent”. I prayed to God too, begging him to take these thoughts from me, to fix me, to help me in my fight. This is a painful struggle that so many queer people have to fight through every day. And it’s so hard to get to acceptance when you are working alone. Lil Nas X’s lyrics and vocal performance and acoustic backing help communicate these inner demons to those who haven’t had to fight them themselves.

An important note on “SUN GOES DOWN”: Lil Nas X makes a reference to his past life running Nicki Minaj stan accounts. Nicki Minaj is a bit of a wild subject right now, which I do not have the space nor energy to address here, but what is important is the growth and honesty Lil Nas X is showing us here. These stan accounts featured a lot of controversial tweets, which he later apologized for. In this track he includes the line “I’ma make my fans so proud of me”. I think it’s safe to say he has.

“VOID”… oh boy, I thought “TALES OF DOMINICA” was personal??? This track absolutely wrecked me. A beautiful track featuring Lil Nas X’s striking falsetto with beautiful lyrics that I think speak best for themselves:

“See, I’m getting tired for the way I’ve been living
I’d rather die than to live with these feelings
Stuck in the world where there’s so much to prove
Every win gives you more room to lose
It’s too many ups and downs on the ride
I spent inordinate ‘mounts of time
Trapped in a lonely, loner life
Looking for love where I’m denied”

“DONT WANT IT” moves us back to a bit more upbeat mood. The lyrics here show Lil Nas X’s struggle with his own acceptance despite his success, and his ultimate path there. This then transitions into and meshes well with the lyrics of the next track:

“LIFE AFTER SALEM” is an alt rock track featuring driving, grungy power chords that push this song through measured, particular steps of Lil Nas X’s journey, arriving firmly at his acceptance of himself and his art. He has accepted that not everyone will find his work and personality to be their thing. But he will continue driving himself forward as whoever he wants to be.

“AM I DREAMING” (feat. Miley Cyrus) begins: “Every song, every dream filled with hell from beyond/As I’m sinking, I relive the story/Every try, every breakthrough and every cry/As I’m sinking, I relive the story”. These haunting lyrics, sung in Lil Nas X’s unique voice help show the journey we’ve been on with Montero in getting to a point of acceptance. Miley Cyrus’s verse features one of my favorite vocal performances from her yet, as her voice fits so well into the emotion and intention of this track. When we get to the final chorus we are met with the lyrics “Oh, never forget me/And everything I’ve done/Oh, never forget me/Like I’m your favorite song/I’m fading, replaying/These thoughts I thought while sinking down/Oh, never forget me/And everything I’ve done”, followed by a clap of thunder that fades into silence…

This album is a masterpiece. Even on its own, outside of the context into which this album was birthed, there would be no denying that this album has a lot of strengths. However, this album does not exist detached from the world, and, in fact, it is the world that makes this album so beautiful. As a gay man, being able to listen to a mainstream musical journey through queerness where I can see so much of myself in the lyrics is an incredible experience that I never imagined would be possible even five years ago. The marketing and roll-out of this album have been spectacular, but even more incredible is how Lil Nas X has taken these viral moments and directed the energy into a “Baby Registry” for his album: a list of charities, one for each track, that support a number of important works, including support for the trans community, Black queer men, and infertility issues.

Montero pregnant with baby MONTERO (via @LilNasX / Twitter)

Musically, there are many brilliant moments. Highlights for me include Elton John’s piano in “ONE OF ME”, the radio-ready (and personal favorite on the album) “THATS WHAT I WANT”, and the emotional performance in “VOID”. The continued genre bending shows that Lil Nas X is not afraid to challenge the rules of his art, while the form the album takes is reminiscent of Lemonade.

Of course, there are parts of this musical odyssey that I cannot relate to as a White man. Lil Nas X talks about how others will treat him for his complexion and features, and his commentary on queerness exist within the framework of being a Black man. I am not someone who can comment on this aspect of his music.

Another point of note is how important Lil Nas X’s rise to fame is as a talented artist in the genre of hip-hop/rap. As Kid Cudi put it his recent profile of Lil Nas X for Time 100: “To have a gay man in hip-hop doing his thing, crushing records—that is huge for us and for Black excellence. The way he’s unafraid to make people uncomfortable is so rock ‘n’ roll. He’s a true rock star.”

I think a lot about Lil Nas X’s tweet to himself when he released “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)”. I wish I could go back to my past self and tell myself just how much better it gets. That people like Lil Nas X will be there, helping shepherd the next generation of queer folk to a life of happiness and acceptance. Montero, you’re helping so many queer people exist, by being who you are best.

MONTERO is available to stream on all major music streaming platforms and as a digital download. You can find the MONTERO Baby Registry on https://welcometomontero.com.

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Music

Screen Violence: Anger, Fear, and Despair in Turbulent Times

I think we all have a band or an artist that sticks with us through the good times and (specially) the bad times. For me it’s Chvrches. I still remember the day my friend’s brother recommended it to me. I will never forget the first time I listened to them. For me Chvrches is the ultimate form of catharsis. I listen to it in some of my worst depressive episodes, in a rough break up, and when it just feels like the world is against me. Chvrches is the way I let my worst emotions get a hold on me so I can let them go. 

So let me get something clear, this is not a review, or at least not a normal one. I’m not a professional music critic, I don’t know anything about music theory. For me a good song is the one that connects to me and makes me feel all sorts of emotions. Read this more like a journey through my emotions as I listen to Screen Violence, more than a judgment of the quality of the album. 

The name of this album, some of the titles of the songs, the fact they partnered with John Carpenter for a remix of Good Girls, and the marketing for the whole project left perfectly clear that this album was inspired by horror, especially horror movies. So it’s no surprise that some of the feelings present throughout the album are fear, despair, escapism, and anger… a lot of anger. Lyrics like “And these violent delights/ keep bleeding into the light/ And I’ll never be right” and “Can I forgive if I forget/ All my mistakes and my regrets” really make you feel the state of guit that can push people to the edge. 

Screen Violence is a reference to one of the names the band thought about during their beginning, but it also makes reference that part of the album were made through screens (because the band was in different parts of the world), and the need of escapism (which, in a way can also be seen in the art of the album cover). After the shit show that was 2020 it’s hard not to feel the need to escape, and like I said I feel Chvrches is the perfect music to have some sweet sweet catharsis. But this album is as much violence as screen, meaning that no matter how much you try running away reality will catch up to you, and sometimes reality ain’t pretty.

I think the part I relate the most to this album is the way we deal with violence, both external and internal. Aggression is something we all deal with in one way or another, always standing on the edge of the line between existence and non existence. Songs like Violent Delights, How Not to Drown, and Nightmares hit extremely close to home, dealing with things like self hate, violence against yourself, and feeling possessed by anger and despair. It feels like Chvrches have created songs that really capture the feeling of being so angry that you simply disconnect from reality and all you can see is red. 

In contrast, songs like He Said She Said, Final Girl and Good Girls really bring the feeling of aggressive oppression. Lauren Mayberry has said in an interview that an important theme of this album is violence against women and this is clearly perceived one you listen to the album. I live in one of the countries with the most violence against women so this feels extremely real and necessary. I don’t dare to talk like I know what women experience in my country, but I believe what I can say is that we have created a narrative that helps exponentiate this violence, and Chvrches bring this into the light in a really strong way.

There are songs like Asking For a Friend, California, Lullabies and Better if You Don’t that invite you to the darkest corner of your mind to truly feel afraid. I recently saw a tweet that said we are so desensitized to actual horror (blood, monsters and killers) that the new kind of horror is emotional horror, because honestly, who isn’t afraid of their own emotions. I don’t know if this is true, but these songs capture that sentiment so well. The feeling of the isolation, the terrifying effects of sadness, the horrible despair of the impotence anger brings, the torture you make yourself go through in your mind.

This album feels a lot like past Chvrches’ albums, but this time it felt like they didn’t hold anything back, for me it was like raw emotions contained in a bottle of red viscous liquid. I tried to search for flaws in this album, I really did, but at the end of the day this album came at just the right time. I really needed an album like this, I needed to feel anger, fear and despair. I needed songs that made me just let go and blasted through the roof. Maybe Screen Violence won’t be for everybody, or maybe this is going to be celebrated as one of the best albums of the year… Honestly, I don’t give a shit, I’m just happy I got an album that pulled me into its deepest reaches and for 43 minutes transformed me into one of those monsters you see in movies.

So to finish this “review” and for you to experience this journey yourself, let me leave you with one of my favorite lyrics of the album:

“Swallowing the seeds of sin we sewed into the ground/ Keeping secrets until everything becomes to loud/ I could wash it down/ I could drown it down/ By filling up the silence with an organ sound/ And by writing sentences I used to think were kind profound”

Final Girl, Chvrches 

Categories
Music

GC Unplugged: Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night

When I was younger, I took my step-mother Megan’s copy of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in NYC. I remember those summer days of just sitting, listening, and trying to understand just what it all meant. Every word, every chorus, and every piece of it was something I wanted to grasp. I wanted to understand what it all meant. I wanted this music to be a part of me. 

I had a small group of middle school friends who I could talk about Nirvana with. Some I fell out with long ago and others are no longer with us. They didn’t want to discuss it how I wanted to discuss it. They wanted to talk about how cool Kurt was or what happened to him. What I wanted was to understand what it all meant, what they were trying to say with “All Apologies” amongst other tracks. We just wanted different things from our art. 

Since then I have always just wanted to have a listening party where we could have those discussions about music. Sharing our thoughts, feelings, and insights about music and lyrics.

That’s what this is. This isn’t a review. This is going to be a series where the GateCrashers sit around in metaphorical bean bags as we sink into them and let it take us.

We are starting the series with Bleachers latest album Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night. Jack Antonoff is a goddamn master of the craft. I don’t want to be coy about this and tell you outright that this entire album is beautiful. I have seen a few reviews comparing it to Bruce Springsteen and I think that is unfair. TTSOOSN is an album drenched in themes that you find so often in music from New Jersey. Of artists wanting to escape, artists dreaming of more, and of facing the darkness that comes from existence. But it’s all built around one central theme: Hope.

Written by Jack Antonoff & Zadie Smith
Produced by Jack Antonoff, Annie Clark, and Patrik Berger

Ashley: Opening this album with “91” sets an incredible tone. The line “My mother dances around like there ain’t no rip in the seams” absolutely gutted me. We’re living in an insane moment in time. Compartmentalizing has been a way to survive and no line in “91” affected more than that one did. Would also like to say that the violins in this are so sad and beautiful. 

Dan: Fully agree with Ashley, that Mother line was painful. It’s been on my mind so much, the whole track. Being physically in a place but having your mind be elsewhere is something I think so many people deal with. You could be reminiscing on what was, on something that could happen, or the possible worst paths or pasts all circulating at once. The song works in 4 stages of dealing with all those emotions but ends with this feeling of being in this place. Being in a place where you have hope and that existing is so worth it. 

Amanda: “I’m here, but I’ve been gone just a little too long now… Yeah, I know what I’m not / But looking at you, I can’t leave” EXCUSE ME? Right out the gate? THANKS, I GUESS.

Reagan: Opening with “91” immediately sets the tone of the album; Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night is introspective and despite the upbeat tone of many of the songs, is pretty sad. It’s dealing with some heavy themes like guilt and grief (a recurring theme in a few of Bleacher’s songs).

The song is focusing on similar events happening at different stages over the course of someone’s life and how their perception and understanding of those events shifts overtime. The first lines of the first two verses, lt’s ‘91, a war is on” and “Storefronts change a new war on” particularly struck me because that’s the way it’s been my entire life. I was born in 2000 and because of that, as far back as I can remember war has just been something that’s been happening my entire life, there’s always one going on somewhere. It’s strange to be able to mark the passage of time with which war is going on but it’s just how it is.

Written by: Jack Antonoff & Evan Smith
Produced by: Antonoff and Berger

Amanda: Honestly, I think if I play this song in my car one more time my mom might actually disown me. She may love Bruce Springsteen, but there’s only so many times I can scream “I’ll take you out of the city / Honey, right into shadow / ‘Cause I wanna find tomorrow / YEAH, I WANNA FIND TOMORROW WITH YOU, BABY” before she wants to jam a screwdriver into her own eardrum.

Ashley: I’m a born and bred NJ girl. Did Jack just give me Bruce Springsteen and a song about missing NJ? I think he did, and it’s absolutely everything. When you live in NJ (or really most places), you dream of leaving one day. But there’s a beauty and a magic to remembering the state that you came from, and realizing the things you wanted to get away from were actually the things that made you who you are. I love this song and the mascara-dripping romance that is woven through it.

Dan: “My home, New Jersey – it’s a death trap. It’s a suicide rap. Listen to the lyrics, alright. I had to get out, I gotta hit the highway…I currently live ten minutes from my hometown.” This is a statement from Bruce’s Broadway show that has stuck with me. NJ gets the worst reputation but where is your Jack Antanoff or Bruce Springsteen, Delaware? This combination of artists with the feeling of finding a brighter future with the person you love screams New Jersey. Jack said that this song “is going from New York…into New Jersey”. It gives you that feeling of taking a chance, of leaving your comfort, and looking for something new. If I listen to this song one more time, Scarlett may kill me though. 

Reagan: This song is so hopeful and optimistic, it’s about seeking a bright future with someone you love, about leaving behind what you’ve known together and seeking something new and it’s beautiful. “I wanna find tomorrow with you,” it’s very specifically about finding someone and realizing that you want to spend your life with them, that you want to find what comes next with that person. Like I said, it’s beautiful. 

Written by: Antonoff & Berger
Produced by: Antonoff & Berger

Reagan Anick: Before I get to the more personal aspect of this, something I noticed: this is the second time that Bleachers has mentioned a preacher in a song, the first time being on 2014’s “I Wanna Get Better” off of Strange Desire. Also interesting is the fact that the bridge of “How Dare You Want More” sounds super similar to the chorus of “Everybody Lost Somebody” off of 2017’s Gone Now. Especially since all three songs are more introspective upbeat songs about heavier subjects; depression, grief, and guilt.

I have a good life. I’m lucky to have had the life I’ve had and yet still I find myself wanting more. There’s a guilt that comes with that. There’s also a guilt that comes with being depressed despite the fact that I’ve had a good life, that I’m lucky and privileged to be where I am in life. There’s this voice in my head that goes “how dare you want more” and this song feels like a recognition of that voice and a defiance of it. “Lonely wants to tear us down now/But tonight, we’re gonna drown the sound out.” 

Amanda: This song feels like the inside of my brain. Listening to it while driving is dangerous because I try to keep the beat of the saxophones on my steering wheel.

Ashley: This song made me stand up and DANCE. The saxophone solo that starts around the 2 minute mark just evolves into a joyous riot that demands you get up and participate. This song is the happiest sounding jam that simultaneously reminds me (like my therapist does) to remember my boundaries. 

Dan: I struggled and still struggle with my identity. I often find myself asking the mirror if this imposter syndrome is earned. This track is questioning why we feel such a discomfort in wanting more. More of ourselves, more of who others are, and more of feeling like the things you want matter. I have come to a place where I refuse to feel bad for asking for more. Of shooting for every star, for every person in my life and for myself. That’s how this song makes me feel. That I just want to just dance away the bad. The sax and guitar bouncing back and forth is VERY reminiscent of Clarence Clemmons and the E Street band.

Written by: Antonoff
Produced by: Antonoff & Berger

Ashley: “Big Life” & “Secret Life” are companion songs. “Big Life” is the search for notoriety and the blissful surrender that you’ll give it all up to achieve that. “Secret Life” is the after effects; the time you’ll spend wishing for the quiet life you left behind.

Amanda: Maybe if I sing “I got a car and a bike and I’m free as a wheel” over and over it’ll make me feel something again. “I wanna know what happens when we’re bored in love” BITCH, ME TOO, JACK. ME TOO.

Dan: Big Life is a song about going for it, for going for the biggest version of your life that you can. As I listened, I couldn’t help but think of a track where your partner isn’t on that same path. When their answer to the question “Is it you?” that is posed in the lyrics is no. Did I come here expecting to write about Lil Dicky’s Molly feat. Brendan Urie? No, I didn’t but it feels like one of two paths that come from this theme. Antonoff follows Big Life up with Secret Life where he gets everything he wants but wants to return to normalcy and intimacy. Burd’s Molly explores the pain you feel when you go for that dream but you go at it alone. Exploring the feeling that there is still a chance that if the fame is given up, that you can return to that intimacy.

Reagan: “Big Life” is a very open and vulnerable song about wanting to know the person you’re in love with deeply. “I wanna know the part of you that light doesn’t touch” is saying that you want to know the parts of your partner that no one else sees. That’s so personal and intimate. 

Written by: Antonoff & Berger
Produced by: Antonoff & Berger

Amanda: “I’M SICK OF LOOKING AFTER ALL MY GHOSTS / BEEN TRYINA TELL YOU I LOVE YOU THE MOST”

Ashley: “Secret Life” is what you long for after you’ve found a “Big Life”. Though this song is told through the narrative of a relationship beleaguered by the fame that’s been found. I absolutely love the juxtaposition of these two songs, as I’m always someone who wants something different than I have, even when I get the things I want. It’s a battle to find contentment, and I feel like Antonoff struggles in much the same ways. 

Dan: I share a lot of myself. I constantly want to connect with people with things we love because I never want anyone to feel alone. This whole track for me is keeping something to yourself. Having something only you share with those closest to you. Just something small, intimate, and personal. Lana Del Rey sounds like a dream in the song which was intentional.

Reagan: “Secret Life” is another vulnerable song about the desire to know your partner, only this time it feels a little more personal than “Big Life”. It feels like it’s talking directly to the partner as opposed to being a declaration to the world. 

It isn’t exactly what the song is about but the line, “I talk so much because I’m scared to begin” is a line that it’s so damn hard because I’ve been in scenarios where I’m so scared of making that leap and being vulnerable by admitting my feelings that I just talk to the person I like as much as I can to feel close to them without risking the pain of being rejected. I’m perpetually terrified of rejection and despite the fact that this fear always leads to the rejection that I’m afraid of in the first place, I never seem to learn and I stick to talking as much as I can. 

Written by: Antonoff & Berger
Produced by: Antonoff & Berger

Amanda: Much like “I Wanna Get Better” and “Don’t Take the Money”, this is the song I scream while speeding down the interstate with my windows rolled all the way down in the middle of the summer. 

Ashley: I second Amanda’s take. This song is definitely living in the same vein as “I Wanna Get Better,” but it is a balm on my post 2020 wounded soul. There’s something very cathartic about listening to lyrics that capture how you’re feeling, and “Stop Making This Hurt” is now officially added to the playlist of songs that allow me to scream my feelings back into the void. 

Dan: “We got a dream and a care, we’re like free as the night. So how come every time I take a drive I just see it written on street signs?” This song is angry in the most constructive way. Things aren’t great. The things passed down to us aren’t great. What we are passing down isn’t great either. But you have to remember we are in this together and have to put our hearts into making that change.

Reagan: I don’t have much to add except that the chorus of this song makes me think of a long, painful, drawn out breakup. “Stop making this hurt/Just say goodbye like you mean it.” It sounds like begging for the relationship to just end so that the hurt can be over and everyone can eventually move on with their lives.

Written by: Jack Antonoff & Lana Del Rey
Produced by: Antonoff & Berger

Ashley: “And you’re waitin’ to be saved, but ain’t nobody comin’ / If you’re holdin’ on to me, you’re holdin’ on to nothing” might be some of my favorite lyrics on this album. “Don’t Go Dark” is a banger that I will definitely have on repeat.

Amanda: This song is a personal attack on my character. Sorry to anyone who has ever tried to love me and had me go dark instead, I’m just built different.

Dan: Aha ha fuck. Holding onto pain, harboring the dark, and not getting it out is something I have been REAL good at in my life. Sometimes you have to learn to let go. To leave that person and feeling behind. “You’ve just been waiting your whole life to find someone who will stand in your storm” 

Reagan: I’ve had a history of shutting people out in relationships. It’s something that I’ve been working on and something that I would like to think I’ve gotten better at. I think “Don’t God Dark” is coming from someone in a relationship like that who is taking a stand, asking their partner not to shut them out and saying that if they do, that’s it. That they won’t stick around for someone who Isn’t there. 

Written by: Antonoff
Produced by: Antonoff & Berger

Reagan: Finally, a spiritual successor to Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway”, even if only for the fact that it gives off the vibes of a song that would play as I wistfully gaze at my childhood home as I leave it behind. Like a lot of Bleachers’ music, it feels like it was made to be on the soundtrack to a movie and I love that about it. 

Beyond that, it’s about the early aftermath of a relationship. “Now you’re just the stranger that I love best.” It’s about still loving someone who you’ve broken up with, still being on their side despite the baggage between you. 

Ashley: The guitars that open “45” immediately let you know that this one is going to hit differently, and hit it does. There’s beautiful lyricism built into this song, with my favorite being “Old 45s / Spinning out of time / But honey I’m still on your side.” Antonoff makes jabs at the music industry, where critics have taken some shots at his musical aesthetic. But Jack affirms he wants to pray at the altar of the East Coast Sound, and frankly I want to be right there with him.

Amanda: The first time I heard this one I didn’t really like it, but I think that was because it came out at the same time as “Chinatown” which had the unfair advantage of featuring my good pal Bruce Springsteen, so I ended up playing that one to death instead. But listening to it again in the context of the whole album, Jack Antonoff had the NERVE to make “But if I can learn to love your shadow / When your shadow hits the light / And there ain’t no trace of what we’ve been through / Then I’ll shout it ’til the day that I die” the closing verse and? RIP me. “Hang the words of a perfect stranger / In the hallways of my heart” I’ll just be screaming this into the night off the roof of my house.

Dan: Something about the opening to this song just gave me that same feeling that Thunder Road does. I couldn’t listen to this track and not put on 45 by another Jersey band, Gaslight Anthem. Both songs deal with the parts that make us and the fact that we change but those pieces remain.  “I can move on and I can’t stay the same” is a lyric from Gaslight Anthem’s 45 that I think returns me to Antanoff’s 45’s lyric “Sold my bedroom from my home” to reexamine it through the East Coast music lens I have been given with both tracks. You keep moving forward because things don’t ever stop. You never stop changing and moving forward. But those pieces or versions of you, that’s still something that others see. But who’s to say that they can’t learn to love all the pieces?

Written by: Antonoff
Produced by: Antonoff

Ashley: Now stay with me for this one, but “Strange Behavior,” to me, sounds like Simon & Garfunkel had a tryst with some of the experimental ramblings of Fun.’s Aim and Ignite album. It’s a beautiful song, where the entire album’s examination of shadows are further explored here. There’s also a killer saxophone solo to close it out. 

Amanda: I wish I loved these kinds of songs more than I do, but here and “What’d I Do With All This Faith?” are where the album loses me if I’m honest. I’ve come around to most of Bleachers’ other ballads though, so this will probably just take me a couple more listens to feel like it fits. I just much prefer Bleachers’ bigger, louder songs.

Dan: The shadow and the self are themes constantly toyed with in this album to me. The repetition of “In two” is that examination of the two selves, the shadow and the true. The shadow who was chasing this idea, putting their faith that someone else would make them whole with their self. Then the other, the self who exists and knows that the only thing that can make you whole is you but cannot face that fact so instead lets the shadow lead.

Reagan: “Look at you/you’ve been chasing shadows,” who amongst us hasn’t chased shadows because they thought they would make them whole. “Can’t believe what I thought would save me/A pretty girl,” learning that a partner isn’t something that will magically make me whole and unbroken was both one of the hardest lessons I’ve ever had to learn and one of the most important.

Written by: Antonoff & Berger
Produced by: Antonoff & Berger

Ashley: The acoustic guitars in the latter half of the album really hit you where it hurts. “What’d I Do With All This Faith” is a sad, wistful closer that leaves us right where the opening began. It’s a circle that, frankly, has me wanting to restart the album all over again. Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night is a killer album with achingly beautiful lyrics that speak to this exact moment in time while simultaneously invoking the nostalgia of the past. 

Amanda: Like “Strange Behavior”, I can take or leave this one. My first impression of a song is primarily the beat and less the lyrics (unless something really just punches me in the face with Emotion), so anything that feels overwhelmingly sad flies right under my radar. I’ll give it some more listens, though; I love the lyrics a lot, I just don’t know what to do with them when I don’t really vibe with the music.

Dan: With an album that is filled with hope, love, and so many other emotions, it ends with the question of where to put all of it? Where do you guide your faith when you don’t subscribe to a belief in a supernatural higher power? Do you put that faith in Art, in songs and paintings that give you hope that things get better? Do you put that in your fellow human, that they’re going to do whats right to make the world exist tomorrow? Or do you put that faith in yourself, your true self that is going to live to the fullest and support those around you? It’s a heavy question. It’s not even one that is answered. The doors open. 

Reagan: “What’d I Do With All This Faith” is a song that poses a big question. One that looks at all of the hope and faith that permeates the rest of the album and says “ok, but what do we do with this now? Where do we put it?” There isn’t an easy answer, there isn’t even one single answer because for everyone it’s going to be different. Do you put your faith in a higher power? Institutions? Others? Or do you put it in yourself? 

As I was writing this, the album looped back to “91” and I cried. Because “91” is looking at the issues that continue to exist despite the fact that so much has changed and “What’d I Do With All This Faith” is, despite the big question it poses, a declaration that people still have faith that things will get better even if they haven’t in decades. I often question how I’m still an optimist, how I’m still able to believe that things will get better. But I am. And I always have been.

Categories
Music

Music Review: “Greatest Hits” by Waterparks

Don’t let the title fool you. “Greatest Hits” is not a compilation of the band’s previously most popular songs. Instead, it is an insanely creative album of new material. Waterparks is a pop-punk/electro-pop/alternative rock band and this is by far the most innovative album to come out of the scene in years. Previous releases such as Airplane Conversations, Double Dare, and Fandom have a distinct pop-punk and alternative rock sound. Greatest Hits is a genre-bending experiment gone right. The ever-so-present electro-pop instrumentals juxtaposed with typical pop-punk lyrics are still a part of the band’s sound, but it’s clear that quarantine has given them time to further stylize and refine their sound. “Snow Globe,” one of the album’s singles, is a prime example of this. It’s a refreshingly different sound from the band. Overall, the track has an R&B-type feel. Lead singer Awsten Knight’s vocals glide across the track like butter as they croon over an infectious beat, solid bass, and amazing harmonies. “The Secret Life Of Me” is another track that display’s the band’s versatility. It has an almost hyper-pop chorus that is reminiscent of 2010s chiptune and nightcore music with lots of synth, hi-hats, and dreamy instrumentals. Even songs like “Just Kidding” and “Violet!” are experimental perfection. “Just Kidding” is one of the most depressing songs you will ever hear and yet the music that coincides with the lyrics is so catchy, you almost forget that you should probably be concerned about the mental health struggles Knight seems to be singing about. The band even managed to make a song about being stalked sound like a bubblegum pop dream with “Violet!”. The bold, artistic choices that were made with this album are extremely impressive but if the change isn’t for you (although it should be) fret not. Songs such as “You’d Be Paranoid Too (If Everyone Was Out To Get You)” and “Fuzzy” expand on sounds familiar to fans of the band’s previous releases. “You’d Be Paranoid Too (If Everyone Was Out To Get You)” is one of the band’s strongest pop-punk songs. I wouldn’t be surprised if this track charted. “Fuzzy” is the perfect blend of the band’s new and old sounds.

Waterparks are the alternative music scene’s latest it-band. Some would even argue that they are God’s Favorite Boy Band. Hailing from Houston Texas, Waterparks are a dynamic trio. The band formed in 2011. Having opened for various artists from the likes of Aaron Carter to All Time Low, the band went from playing to small crowds at local venues in their hometown to sold-out shows. The magic really began for the band in late 2015 when their smaller shows quickly began to grow in size, catching the attention of Benji & Joel Madden of iconic rock band Good Charlotte, who ended up signing the band to Equal Vision Records and becoming their management that same year. Waterparks’ debut full-length studio album, “Double Dare,” was released the following year, followed by “Fandom” in 2019. Waterparks announced a label change to Hopeless Records leading up to the release of “Fandom.” The band made one more label switch in 2020, landing at 300 Entertainment, home to the likes of artists such as Megan Thee Stallion, where they have released their latest album, “Greatest Hits.”

Pop-punk/alternative groups have a tendency to stick to a certain sound and often sound homogenous as a result. Some of the best music out there is from artists who aren’t afraid to experiment. It’s wonderful to see that Waterparks was brave enough to do that, especially in a genre where it is rarely heard of. The genre-bending experimentation and boldness in which the band approaches every track on this album is not only impressive, it’s refreshing. So what’s the verdict? Bravo, Waterparks. I give “Greatest Hits” a solid 4 out of 5 stars.

Greatest Hits is available now on all streaming platforms.

Categories
Film Music

In the Heights (Review)

I saw the Tony award-winning musical, In the Heights, twelve years ago. It was 2009 and I was 16 years old. It was the first piece of media my parents and I could remember seeing that featured people who looked and sounded like us since West Side Story (1957, 1961).

My grandparents were born in Puerto Rico and moved to New York when they were barely twenty, so Lin-Manuel Miranda has become something of a hero to my family in the years since In the Heights opened among the likes of Grammy award-winner Marc Anthony and retired New York Mets outfielder Carlos Beltrán.

In the Heights is a story that knows exactly what it is, and it tells you so in the first ten minutes: “We’re takin’ a flight / To a couple of days / ​in the life of what it’s like / En Washington Heights.” To get to Washington Heights from Brooklyn, where I was born, you take the A train an hour uptown, get off at 181st, and take the escalator.

In the Heights follows Usnavi, a Dominican bodega owner working to survive as he puts his pennies away to hopefully make it back to his island one day. Everything changes for him, however, when he finds out his bodega sold the winning lottery ticket for a jackpot of $96,000 just before a multi-day blackout sweeps the streets of Washington Heights.

Along with Usnavi, there’s Abuela Claudia, the matriarch of the block they live on, who immigrated from Cuba in the 1940s; Nina Rosario, the first to go to college, who’s recently come home from her first year at Stanford with a big secret; Benny, who works at the car service dispatch Nina’s father owns and dreams of attending business school and making it big; and Vanessa, who works at the local beauty salon and is trying to move downtown, with little luck.

As with anything adapted from a popular source material, there have been some changes. Storylines have either been tweaked, condensed, or completely rewritten; familiar songs and some secondary characters have been changed or cut; and the actors’ interpretations of beloved characters (with their own stylized vocals) are much different from what the privileged few who have seen a stage production may remember.

Luckily, Lin-Manuel Miranda (producer), who wrote the music and lyrics for the stage production, and Quiara Alegría Hudes (screenwriter), who wrote the original book, joined forces with director Jon M. Chu to breathe new life into a story that—while timeless in its themes of family, community, and home—needed some updating.

Beyond a few lyrical changes that thankfully stepped away from cheap shots at other marginalized groups for the sake of a laugh (like the Tokyo joke in “96,000”, which was swapped for an Obi-Wan Kenobi pun), Hudes beautifully captures what it means to be Latinx in 2021, a stark contrast to what it meant back in 2008. Along with imbuing characters like Nina and Vanessa with some much-needed agency, Hudes introduces an issue left relatively unexplored in the stage production, but that still plagues Latinx communities to this day: being an undocumented immigrant in our fraught political landscape.

While I won’t spoil who this affects and how they work the storyline into the overall narrative, I will say that it’s an incredible and insightful addition to the journey of a character who, at the best of times, was simply considered comic relief.

Chu—who’s been tapped to direct the screen adaptation of Tony award-winning musical Wicked and who’s success with Crazy Rich Asians skyrocketed him into the public eye—brings his flair for the visually dramatic to Washington Heights, an already colorful neighborhood that they were lucky enough to film on location! But it’s Chu’s experience with the Step-Up franchise that serves him best here.

From its flashy, heavily-choreographed numbers like the titular “In the Heights”, “96,000”, and “Carnaval del Barrio”, to its more intimate and nuanced songs like “Paciencia y Fe” and “When the Sun Goes Down”, Chu doesn’t miss an opportunity to get up close and personal with his actors. All the while, he never forgets that this is a movie-musical adaptation, bringing with it its own set of expectations from newcomers and musical theater buffs alike.

What struck me the most about Chu’s interpretation, however, is his use of magical realism, a staple of Latinx storytelling. While the conceit of a movie-musical is magic in itself, there’s a special brand of magical realism inherent in all Latinx media (particularly its literature–shout out to Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez!) and Chu pulls out all the stops to make sure it’s represented on the big screen. Whorls of fabric unfurl over the rooftops of Washington Heights in Vanessa’s “It Won’t Be Long Now”; hip-hop and Graffiti Pete’s murals come to startling life in “96,000”; and Benny and Nina dance up the walls of their apartment block in “When the Sun Goes Down”, just to name a few breathtaking instances of movie magic.

And while every single cast member poured their heart and soul into this movie, Anthony Ramos—who takes up the mantle of Usnavi from Miranda himself—and Leslie Grace—who plays Nina Rosario—steal the show. Miranda himself has been quoted saying that Ramos is, and has always been, a movie star, and it’s a hard claim to deny. Ramos’ performance as Usnavi is explosive, magnetic, undeniably sexy—a trait the character of Usnavi has never been known for but that works exceptionally well here. A triple-threat if there ever was one, Ramos will have you on your feet.

Grace, in comparison, is a quiet, raw, and dynamic powerhouse as Nina, a character that seems to belong to many first- and second-generation immigrants bearing the weight of their families’ hopes and dreams on their shoulders. Her performance in “Breathe” will leave you speechless and the believability of her romance with Benny in the movie is, dare I say it… better than the musical.

I’d be remiss not to mention the absolutely stunning portrayals of Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), Benny (Corey Hawkins), Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), and Abuela Claudia, played by Olga Merediz, who originated the role on Broadway.

Miranda, who conceived of In the Heights when he was still in college and worked on it through his twenties, has proven himself as a creative force to be reckoned with. From his conception of Heights, to his blockbuster of a musical Hamilton, to his directorial debut adapting Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick… Boom! (2021) for Netflix, Miranda continues to propel himself—and Latinx culture—onto the main stage.

I saw the movie, In the Heights, on opening night. It’s 2021 and I’m 28 years old. Very few of my family members still live in Puerto Rico, having evacuated here, to Nueva York, after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island back in 2017. I am a New Yorker. I am Latina. This show meant so much to me as a teenager and the movie is no exception.

I implore you to go see In the Heights, streaming now on HBO Max and in theaters. You will not regret it. Regardless of whether you’re coming to it as a fan of the stage production or are just looking for a good time, this movie is a grand spectacle that will leave you breathless—I know it left me cheering so loud and raucous, they could hear me across the bridge in East Secaucus.

96,000/10

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Music

Olivia Rodrigo’s SOUR is a Raw, Real Portrait of Teenage Heartbreak

Olivia Rodrigo’s SOUR is an incredibly strong debut that knows exactly what it’s here to do. Every piece that makes it up is something either beloved or experienced by Rodrigo, all fitting together to create a portrait of what it’s like to be both seventeen and heartbroken. Through it all, Rodrigo’s songs are consistently raw and real, brimming with a sense of catharsis, this feeling that it is entirely necessary for her to get these words out in the world. A feeling that I and many others like me are intimately familiar with.

Running the gamut from pop-punk to acoustic ballads, SOUR captures all of the messy (sour) emotions that come with being a teenage girl, both sonically and lyrically. The opening track “brutal” is a perfect example of this, expressing all of the discomforts that come with being a teenage girl when it feels like the entire world including yourself hates you, made even worse in Rodrigo’s case by all the eyes on her thanks to her work as an actress in shows like High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. In “brutal”, Rodrigo is speaking out against a system that she’s been part of since she was twelve years old as she rages against the constraints of her position as an actress and the toll that position and all of the attention that comes with it has taken on both her mental health and her self-perception.

Olivia Rodrigo in the music video for ”good 4 u” Source: Geffen/Interscope

As previously mentioned, SOUR’s sound ranges from pop-punk to ballads. The pop-punk influence is perhaps best put on display in “good 4 u” as Rodrigo addresses her ex in a way that screams catharsis, it feels reminiscent of songs like Paramore’s “Misery Business” both in terms of composition and, in terms of the overall feel of the lyrics. “good 4 u” however, turns the ire towards Rodrigo’s ex rather than directing anger towards the girl that her ex moved on to after breaking up with Rodrigo by sarcastically expressing support for her ex as they move on from their past relationship. At the same time as it feels reminiscent of Paramore, the music video for the track is filled to the brim with references to The Princess Diaries, Jennifer’s Body, and even Takashi Miike’s 1999 horror movie Audition.

In terms of the ballad end of the spectrum, songs like “drivers license”  and “traitor” express both the sorrow and anger that Rodrigo feels when she sees how quickly her ex has moved on while she’s still picking up the pieces, expressing those big emotions using bigger sounds than on the softer tracks like “enough for you”, a song that itself is concerned with the more personal insecurities felt in the wake of being left by someone who you have given so much of yourself to at a time when you’re still so unsure of who you are. Especially when that someone moves on so much quicker than you do.

Talia Ryder and Olivia Rodrigo in the music video for “deja vu” Source: Geffen/Interscope

One of the most important things that SOUR does is it never belittles Rodrigo’s feelings, she is consistently allowed to feel every emotion she expresses, never being told that she’s being over-dramatic or that these feelings will pass. As a young person who has gone through multiple messy, heart-breaking break-ups this is so refreshing. All of these emotions that are being expressed are so real and raw and relatable. SOUR is the kind of album that would have changed my life if it had existed when I broke up with my first boyfriend. SOUR is a very specific, but very necessary album and I am so happy for all of the people who will get to grow up with it out in the world. 

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Music

Breaking Down “Willow”: A Video Out of my Quaran-Dreams

The clock struck midnight. Instead of worrying that my carriage was about to turn back into a pumpkin, I was planted firmly in front of my computer in the dark of night, a pair of Beats headphones around my ears, as my excitement reached a crescendo. The lead single to Taylor Swift’s surprise 9th studio album, Evermore, was about to premiere.

Willow picks up right where Folklore‘s Cardigan video left us. With Taylor, a water-logged lyrical goddess divine, staring straight into the camera with all the vulnerability of Bambi. The golden dust of the previous video is now a shimmering gold string – a la Folklore‘s Invisible String where Swift sang “One single thread of gold tied me to you“. The string beckons her, and us, back into the world of the magical piano and deposits us through the crack in a willow tree on the banks of an inky lake.

“I’m like the water when your ship rolled in that night.
Rough on the surface, but you cut through like a knife.”

Swift slices us lyrically in the opening lines of Willow; setting the stage for her specialty: transportive tales of love, magic, and hopeful optimism in the face of obstacles, real or other-worldly. As the pitch-black lake draws our focus, Swift peers over its edge as a man stares back at her through the watery depths of her memories. As she begs for us to take her hand, she dives in, chasing the golden string, and her man, through time and place.

Prior to the video’s midnight release, Swift participated in a YouTube Q&A, mentioning that Willow‘s video would evoke scenes harkening back to four songs from Folklore: Seven, Mirrorball, Exile, and Mad Woman.

We’re transported presumably to the past, as two children who represent our video’s love interests share some fun in a makeshift tent of blankets with the string of fate that ties them together. This scene most directly reflects the imagery of Folklore‘s Seven, where two children escape their reality with whimsical fantasies and a pure love that stretches “to the Moon and to Saturn“. All too quickly, the boy has disappeared from Taylor’s life. Her younger-self leaves the naïvety of childhood behind, exiting the tent and following the string once more.

She enters an enclosed stage at a fairground in the dead of night. She sings from her pedestal, entertaining the folks of the fair as they pass her by. Swift watches them kiss and laugh, talk and live; paying her little mind. This scene elicits the feeling of Folklore‘s Mirrorball and Swift’s opinion on her own fame. This shouldn’t come as a shock to the fans who expertly spotted her diving into a fishbowl during Lover‘s music video from 2019. As Swift eyes the dusty fairground crowds, they part. Her mystery man has appeared, grown once more, and slowly walks the path toward her. His eyes are locked on her, ignoring all the sights and sounds around him. In Mirrorball, Swift expresses her feelings on being an entertainer, and the appreciation she has for the one person in her life that sees past the performance to the beating heart underneath.

“You are not like the regulars, the masquerade revelers,
Drunk as they watch my shattered edges glisten.”

When Swift tries to join him on the ground, she realizes she’s stuck in the glass case of fame. Our lovers are separated once more. Her only out is a trapdoor through the bottom of her gilded cage, with a familiar gold string leading the way. A physical reference perhaps to a line in Folklore‘s Exile, where Taylor sings, “I think I’ve seen this film before, so I’m leaving out the side door“. She takes the exit with a coy wink to the camera, reminding us never to count her out; she’ll “come back stronger than a 90’s trend“.

The glittering rabbit hole drops us on the edge of a snowy clearing at night, where a caped Swift leads a pack of masked followers. They begin to dance in a ritualistic way as she weaves through them while crackling gold strands descend into the night sky and out into the world. I’m suspecting this is her nod to Mad Woman, where she sings: “Women like hunting witches too“. This group, very clearly, are witches working spells. Swift joins them, dancing around the mystical golden fire as she croons, “The more that you say, the less I know. Wherever you stray, I follow“.

Once again, the string beckons, and she follows for the final time. Leaving the glow of the group behind her, she treks off into the snowy night to seek her fate. When the camera pans up, Swift is gone, but the man she pursues was there the whole time, masked and dancing right along with her. She exits through the magic piano in the cabin, seemingly back where it all began, though now she’s dressed as a pioneer woman. Her cardigan is long gone and the golden strands of fate finally come to an end, leading her to a place and time where her love was meant to thrive. Her lover is there, and the smiles on their faces tell us they finally have all the time in the world to just be. They walk out of the cabin into the light of day, hand in hand.

As the screen faded to black, my first thoughts were of the track Daylight on Taylor’s seventh studio album, Lover. In it she says, “I once believed love would be burning red, but it’s golden, like daylight”. The gold string was able to lead her through the long dark night into the morning of peace and contentment in her relationship. Willow‘s music video is a beautiful companion to the raging seas of Cardigan‘s video imagery. They each feel like bookends to the lyrical tales packed within. While Taylor Swift has made a career of being a chameleon, morphing into the the physical representations of her next album era, Evermore, and it’s first single Willow, are a testament to the magic that can happen when she takes off her coat and stays a while. This mad woman never ceases to amaze me.