Media Jones

Music, book, and film reviews—like Jesus would do

Top five licensing ventures; Stephin Merritt's loves; music, book, and film reviews

Diverse License
It's not mere ubiquity that makes a brilliant licensing venture -- it's also venue. A "Simpsons" T-shirt? Sure. But a "Simpsons" asthma inhaler? Now that's marketing! But you don't need to go overboard to be a merchandising success. You just have to make history. -- Ana Marie Cox
WWJD The acronym for "What Would Jesus Do?" first showed up on bracelets and pins worn by spiritual Midwestern teens two years ago, and soon blossomed into a full-fledged secular fad, with entrepreneurs slapping the letters on everything from lunch bags to screen savers. Many schoolyard adherents soon developed decidedly less devout interpretations of the letters, such as "We Want Jack Daniels." Early last year, the youth minister who claims to have coined the acronym applied for a trademark, setting the stage for a legal battle over the multimillion-dollar market created in His name.

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Star Wars In 1977, when George Lucas set out to make a Joseph Campbell-inspired movie about space knights, few thought of merchandising. Action figure rights were licensed to a small outfit called Kenner, which initially balked at making any violence-related merchandise, figuring Vietnam was still fresh in everyone's mind. To date, Star Wars merchandise has cha-chinged almost $4 billion. With the hype for this summer's prequel now in full gear, Lucasfilm has trademarked the name of the lead character, Anakin Skywalker, for use on such space-age items as "plastic coasters, cocktail picks, comb cases, commemorative plates, cookie cutters, cosmetic brushes, corkscrews, soap dishes, and dispensers for liquid soap."

Spice Girls The Spice Girls' musical and consumer juggernaut led the New York Times to dub the band forerunners of "buy-me feminism." The U.S. alone has consumed millions worth of figurines, lollipops, temporary tattoos, beanbags, and official Polaroid SpiceCams. But is variety truly the life of Spice? As one vendor told Amusement Business, "I think the Spice Girls may have hurt themselves by giving the kids too [much] to choose from. Some would stand there and think about which one they wanted, and then give up."

Harvard About 6,400 students a year graduate from Harvard, but the Harvard Co-op alone sells enough T-shirts and sweatshirts to keep them -- and a few thousand of their friends -- clothed. And while most college merchandising must leverage sports prowess, Harvard's academic cachet makes other items equally viable: Harvard dress shoes anyone? Worldwide, the university makes about $700,000 a year from its licensed products.

Keith Haring During his lifetime, Haring used his art to raise awareness about AIDS -- not to mention Absolut vodka, Duran Duran, and Swatch watches. While art critics bemoaned his ubiquity, Haring countered that his commercial ventures "enabled me to reach millions of people whom I would not have reached by remaining an unknown artist." Haring died in 1990, but his Pop Shop in New York, an online store, and numerous retail outlets still sell about $1.5 million in Haring merchandise and artwork annually.

 

books

Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin By Alice Echols. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1999. 392 pages. $26. Stepping off the stage after a trial run with her first band in 1966, Janis Joplin announced, "I think I'll stay, boys." Like Joplin, the 1960s have never really left the stage of the American imagination. Echols, a historian, pushes past nostalgia and easy caricature to illuminate the shadowy backstage of Joplin's Day-Glo world, revealing Joplin's paradoxical mix of outward rebelliousness and a deep-seated desire for conventional acceptance: In 1970, armed with a chart-topping album, a hopeful Joplin returned to her conservative Texas hometown for a high school reunion, only to be treated as a cheap second act to classmates with young children. With incisive analysis, Echols paints Joplin's picket-fence dreams and bluesy drug haze as extremes of a self-defeating aesthetic, all the more poignant in contrast to her popular success. -- K.I.

Revolution of Forms: Cuba's Forgotten Art Schools By John A. Loomis. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999. 220 pages. $27.50. "Communist architecture" tends to conjure images of dehumanizing concrete structures and harsh utilitarian forms. Yet out of the expansive optimism that fueled the early days of the Cuban Revolution -- post-Bay of Pigs, prior to full Soviet sway -- came a truly revolutionary architecture. Loomis traces the history of Cuba's now-dilapidated National Art Schools with the enthusiasm of an archaeologist uncovering a lost city. Castro himself commissioned three renowned Marxist architects to transform a country club into an arts campus befitting the education of the New Man. They designed a ripe, exuberant, irrational architecture that is, in lead architect Ricardo Porro's words, más surrealista que socialista. It's also the architecture of a moment that history quickly left behind; by 1965, out of step with Soviet values of standardized efficiency, the unfinished schools were declared completed, and both the architecture and the architects were soon repudiated by the state. Loomis' history, though academic in register, is engaging, while the photographs rival the richness of the buildings themselves. -- T.D.

The Freddie Stories By Lynda Barry. Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1999. 128 pages. $12.95. When Lynda Barry introduced Freddie and his sisters Marlys and Maybonne, she figured they'd just age naturally. But 20 years and eight books later, they are as young as ever. The Freddie Stories, Barry's first book in five years, continues the saga of her weekly comic strip, "Ernie Pook's Comeek." Preadolescence remains rough for Freddie: His classmates call him a fag, his mother screams at him, and at one point everyone around him has a flaming skull instead of a head. But Freddie's charm is the sense he makes of the bleak, adult-infested world -- finding comfort in fried bologna sandwiches or seeking counsel from Eogyrinus, the lonely, ancient amphibian in a library book. -- J.K.

 

music

Summerteeth Wilco. Reprise Records, 1999. Wilco fans will not know what to do with this record. Summerteeth, like Wilco's 1996 country-rock manifesto, Being There, is a work of naked ambition bearing all the marks of front man Jeff Tweedy's prodigious musical intelligence. But whereas Being There cemented Wilco's "insurgent country" niche, this album is a passionate, daring attempt to escape it. Wilco has always worn its record collection on its sleeve, and Summerteeth makes use of an entirely new musical vocabulary gleaned from the likes of Brian Wilson, John Lennon, and David Bowie. The result is Pet Sounds in a flannel shirt—56 minutes of pure, dark, electronically enhanced pop, replete with sighing four-part harmonies, orchestral keyboard, found noises, and only the occasional banjo or pedal steel to remind the listener that this is not the record he expected. It's better. -- J.C.

Shades of Bey Andy Bey. Evidence, 1998. Heartbreak has been the subject of more than a few masterful jazz vocals, and singer Andy Bey brings more than the ordinary travails of romance to his music. After releasing one album in the early '70s, Bey was spurned by record companies until his triumphant return in 1996 with the solo album Ballads, Blues, and Bey. Flush with the cachet of a hit, and assisted by topflight accompanists Gary Bartz and Geri Allen, Bey has followed up the conventional repertoire of his comeback album with far more adventurous material, ranging from a Sergio Mendes torch song to an angsty ballad by the late British folk-rocker Nick Drake. The unquestioned star on Shades of Bey, however, is still Bey's rich, distinctive baritone, which he relentlessly stretches into the upper registers for effects that are alternately eerie, blue, sweet, or mournful, but always carefully controlled. Shades of Bey is a fine tonic for hangovers, gray afternoons, and romance gone bad. -- A.R.

Keep It Like a Secret Built to Spill. Warner Bros., 1999. The epic melodies of Built to Spill's sixth album may signify the final coming of prog rock -- a harder-rocking, millennial variation on the one '70s genre not yet mined for a feature film. Smart pop-song structure helps the band avoid flute-ridden musical self-indulgence: The thumping rhythms and chiming guitar solos of Doug Martsch aren't "noodling" and they aren't "sprawling." Songs like the tightly controlled but delicate "Temporarily Blind" and the more ambitious "Carry the Zero" can bear the weight of their lusciousness only because of the intricate architecture supporting them. -- A.M.C.

 

video

Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street Steven Okazaki. 75 minutes. HBO, airs April 1999. From Kurt Cobain to fashion ads to Trainspotting, heroin's rise has received a complicated public airing. Recent TV spots by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America -- starring a pouty could-be junkie who dramatizes heroin's evils by trashing a kitchen with a frying pan -- have done little to curb the drug's danger chic. Oscar-winning documentarian Steven Okazaki offers a sober yet riveting examination of life on heroin. The film doesn't use anti-drug polemics (or a frying pan) to beat the viewer over the head; it simply follows five young adults on the streets of San Francisco, chronicling their descent into the drug world and their subsequent struggles -- and often failures -- to regain their lives. -- K.L.

Pi Darren Aronofsky. 85 minutes. Artisan Entertainment, 1999. Try to make a movie about what goes on inside someone's head and you usually end up with a talk-fest like My Dinner with André -- unless that head belongs to Bruce Willis, in which case you end up with Hudson Hawk. Pi is neither a weighty piece of verbiage nor a weightless action-adventure movie: It's a financial thriller in which a hermetic mathematician's numeric obsessions lead him into a conspiracy involving the stock market, Jewish mystics, and the golden ratio. Gorgeously shot in grainy black and white and scored with haunting electronica, Pi depicts the mind of a tortured genius: a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there. -- A.M.C.

Reviews by John Cook, Ana Marie Cox, Tim Dickinson, Katie Isenberg, Jennifer King, Kerry Lauerman, and Andrew Rosenblum.

Media Picks

 

Stephin Merritt: Pop Magnetism

Stephin Merritt's songs sound like the work of a sadness machine. Merritt, a New York City-based singer, songwriter, and pop technician, has made a name for himself both with his rigorously constructed, electronically enhanced, precision-tuned songs of acute melancholy and hopeless romance, and his deeply held belief that the music of ABBA represents the formal aesthetic standard to which all pop songwriters should aspire. Through his primary band, the Magnetic Fields, and his other projects (the Gothic Archies, the 6ths, the Future Bible Heroes), Merritt has developed a body of work full of such musical and lyrical wit that critics have compared him to Burt Bacharach. His next project, the Magnetic Fields' ambitious 69 Love Songs -- which is exactly what it sounds like -- will be released by Merge Records as a special three-CD set in June. -- John Cook

What music have you been listening to lately?

I haven't been doing anything unrelated to 69 Love Songs, so my favorite record recently is The Rose Grew Round the Briar: Early American Rural Love Songs, a two-CD set of recordings from the 1920s and '30s. There's a great version of "You Are My Sunshine" -- an extremely depressing song -- and my favorite right now is "I Truly Understand That You Love Another Man," by Shortbuckle Roark & Family.

Your songs have been compared to those of Cole Porter. Are there any musicians from Porter's era who have inspired you?

I'm much more enthusiastic about Irving Berlin. Cole Porter songs are pretty easy and formulaic, especially the list songs like "You're the Top." Berlin parodied Porter, and probably vice versa. But nobody but Irving Berlin could write "Puttin' on the Ritz." I want to hear the original censored, racist version, but I can't find it yet.

Your songs can be very cinematic. Is there anything to be said about the relationship between visual art and songwriting?

Occasionally I write songs with visual aids, usually photographs. It's like pornography. But we [songwriters] are all terrible artists -- Joni Mitchell, Captain Beefheart, Brian Eno, David Sylvian. Tony Bennett can paint, but then he's not a songwriter.

If you could score a film for any director, who would it be?

Steven Spielberg -- and not just for the money. The impersonality of blockbuster movies is almost all the fault of John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, and recent Quincy Jones. But now that I'm thinking about it: Tim Burton. I don't remember one song from The Nightmare Before Christmas, and I've seen it four times. I may not be popular, but no one ever complained that my songs weren't catchy enough. Danny Elfman can write marvelous soundtracks, and I love Mars Attacks!, but he's not the kind of songwriter who can carry a good musical. Note the lack of an Oingo Boingo revival.

The wit and conceits of your lyrics seem to have a lot in common with country music. Do you like country?

Country, back when it was awkward and funny and smart and odd, was simply Southern pop. Now that it's marketed to death (again) as "down home" -- read "stupid" -- it's stupid a priori. In Nashville they eat their young and then expect them to reproduce. They drove Nanci Griffith and k.d. lang out, and they're doing it to Lyle Lovett. Creative people won't live there anymore.

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