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The McConnaissance: An Alternate Reading

IN EPISODE TWO of HBO’s stunning new series True Detective, the laconic Rust Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey, spends a significant amount of car time with his partner, Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson), trading quips and offering the audience veiled truths about themselves. It’s a trope of the procedural: cops, even female ones, are aspiring always towards a masculine ideal of laconicism. The only time it’s safe to talk about feelings, therefore, is within the bounds of the car, heads faced forward, and even then, those feelings are hidden beneath a heavy layer of insult.



But in True Detective, the trope gets revised: you have one traditional cop who doesn’t like asking or answering personal questions and another who not only speaks freely about himself, but the area, the universe, our fates as mankind, etc. etc. He’s like a one-man Cormac McCarthy novel, dropping poetic, sparse observations the way most of us talk about the traffic or the weather. It’s a hypnotic performance, and anything Rust Cohle lacks in realism he makes up for in gravitas.

During one of these drives, Cohle meanders about some of his history, eventually arriving at the quiet declaration that “I know who I am. And after all these years, there’s victory in that.” That self-knowledge, and lack of shame concerning it, is part of what makes Cohle so compelling. But it’s a statement that we could easily be applied to McConaughey himself, who is currently taking what can only be described as a magnificent victory lap around Hollywood.

As Chris Ryan termed it in a recent Grantland podcast, we’re living through a veritable McConnaissance: nearly twenty years after McConaughey first made his indelible mark in Dazed and Confused, he’s being trumpeted as a serious and important actor — maybe even one of the best of his generation.

For those who haven’t followed McConaughey’s career, this isn’t just a case of a decent actor proving his chops, or a teen heartthrob taking a Method role. McConaughey went through the late 20th/early 21st century version of the studio system and emerged a vanilla shell of his original charismatic self, and his actorly “rebirth” is not just a reflection of a maturing star, but the broken state of the star system and, by extension, the film industry at large. Without a system that misjudged, exploited, and ultimately rejected him, there would be no McConnaissance….

Read the rest here

Pre-Christmas Media Endorsements

My quarterly media endorsements, now up at Virginia Quarterly Review!

Previously: Summer 2013, Spring 2013, Winter 2012.

The Christmas Movie: A Need/Hate Relationship


Here’s the thing no one wants to admit about televised Christmas movies: they’re all horrible. Don’t get me wrong, there are beautiful moments in every Christmas movie: when Kevin rigs the entire house to look like a party dancing to “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree,” for example, in Christmas classic Home Alone, or every time White Christmas gives up the facade of being an actual movie instead of a Bing Crosby showcase.

But Christmas, at least in its modern, capitalist, de-Jesusified form, is an ideological construct that’s supposed to connote “family” and “love” and “celebration.” Many times, those feelings do arise — for me, it happens in the moment when my brother and I decorate Christmas cookies precisely in the style of our five and eight year old selves, which is to say like an expressionist hyper-sugared art project — but they’re almost accidental, or incidental, to the larger, awkward, passive aggressive interactions that attend family Christmas. It’s not our fault so much as the realities of modern society: most of us don’t live near our families, so when we all get together once (or twice) a year, it’s obviously going to be replete with frisson, which generates both positive and negative heat. The static, bland, overly positive rhetoric of Christmas thus helps paper over the dynamic, piquant experience of it.

And if Christmas is an ideological construct, then Christmas movies are its handmaidens. In each Christmas movie, “Christmas,” as a nourishing, essential event, is threatened in the first act, nearly lost in the second, and regained, in newly valuable, even more cherished form, in the third.

And once the Christmas movie migrates to television, repeating every year, often days on end, its purpose only amplifies. The Christmas movie, which itself underlines the importance of Christmas rituals, becomes part of the Christmas ritual! We can’t deal with our own complications of the Christmas ideology, so we retreat to watch others grapple with — and crucially, successfully address — those same problems. We feel better not because our Christmas woes have been solved, but the movie suggests that they are, ultimately, solvable…..

You can read the rest of the piece here

How to Make a Music Video About Nothing: Ke$ha, Pitbull, & “Timber”

We watch music videos for three overarching and often related reasons: hotness, dancing, and story.

You might not like to admit to the first one, but the amount of hotness in videos can only suggest that we like it. Whether the video is for Drake or Tim McGraw, Miley Cyrus or Celine Dion, one of its goals is to reaffirm the singer’s overarching attractiveness. The camera fetishizes different body parts depending on the singer and the type of music he or she sings: Rihanna’s videos focus on her thighs and stomach, One Direction’s focus on their smiles, Adele’s focus on her highly emotive face. Even the video for, say, Nirvana’s “Teen Spirit,” with its slo-mo headbanging and anguished close-ups, is invested in fetishizing their particular brand of alternative hotness.

Screen Shot 2013-12-02 at 7.30.22 AM

Not all videos have dancing, but those that do are addictive. Think of the best videos of the last 30 years: dance figures prominently in 72% of them, with noted exceptions for a “story” entries described below. All of Michael Jackson’s videos, Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?,” Britney’s “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” N*Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye,” Mariah Carey’s “Dreamlover,” Janet Jackson’s “If,” Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up,” MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,”  Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s “Shoop,” Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend,” Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” — we watch them again and again, because the dance, in singular or group form, is hypnotic.

But the hotness and the dancing are (very rarely) narrative: they’re the descendants of what film scholar Tom Gunning calls the “cinema of attractions.” Gunning used the term to describe the style of very early film shorts (think “The Sprinkler Sprinkled” and “What Happened on 23rd Street”) that didn’t adhere to established forms of narrative established by the theater. These films were operated like a game of “now you see it, now you don’t,” manipulatively addressing and arousing the spectator’s curiosity. Whereas “normal” narrative pretends like it’s a world unto itself, the cinema of attractions always knows it’s being watched. It presents a scenario, builds the tension, and then lets it explode. The muscles of Sandow the Strongman were an attraction; same for Annabelle and her Butterfly Dance. They’re on the stage; they even sometimes stare into the camera. They’re performing for the camera gaze rather than maintaining the subterfuge that the camera doesn’t exist. It’s vaudeville instead of theater, the variety show instead of the soap opera.

As camera technology became more sophisticated, the cinema began to adopt the three-act structure we now associate with narrative film, but the cinema of attractions never completely disappeared. Instead, moments of self-conscious spectacle integrated themselves into several genres: you see it especially in the musical number, the five minute fight scene, the never-ending gross-out joke. Even the slo-mo male gaze on a female body is a cinema of attraction, willfully violating codes of realism.

The narrative tries to paper over just how weird and implausible it is for, say, an entire school to know the choreographed danced moves to a song (hey Step Up), sometimes more successfully than others. But those moments of spectacle become the moments that matter: they’re the meat of the film trailer and the stuff you’ll find clipped on YouTube. They make SO LITTLE NARRATIVE SENSE, but we love them.

Finish the article here.

A Brief Note on Paul Walker and Genre Acting



The first time I saw Paul Walker, he was being incredibly hot in Varsity Blues.  He had a bit of a vicious streak — something I recognized from certain football players at my own high school — but he was far more attractive than mopey-eyed James Van Der Beek.  Then there he was in She’s All That, and his image was solidified: hot, cocky asshole.

Walker worked ceaselessly to undo that image: see, for example, Eight Below.  But even in the Fast and Furious franchise, he’s just a hot, cocky asshole who drives cars instead of quarterbacking.  He’s no great actor, but he never had to be: he had the swagger that comes with ridiculous handsomeness down.  If his teen movies and the Fast and the Furious franchise were all “genre films” — films that hew perfectly to what we expect of them, are relatively cheap to make, and because of the way they do what we want them to do, always have dependable grosses — then Paul Walker was a genre star.  You saw his face, and you knew exactly what kind of film you were stepping into.  The parameters might change, and adversaries and sidekicks and love interests could as well.  But his presence was much of guiding narrative force as any car or football game.

At first, I thought the similarities between Walker’s death and that of James Dean were just too uncanny: both were a particular brand of handsome, characterized by high cheekbones, piercing eyes, and something almost too beautiful about them.  Both made their name in car racing films; both died in accidents — in Porsches — outside of the Los Angeles area.  Both, of course, died young.  But Dean died while speeding between 75 and a 100 MPH on the way to a drag race, and Walker died on after attending a car show to benefit the Philippines disaster effort.  Dean was 24 and railing against the world, and Walker was 40 — a grown man — and even if his onscreen persona still raced cars, his image, onscreen and off, had matured past the petulance of his Varsity Blues persona.

Dean’s image represented anger and regret and unhinged emotionality, and his death simultaneously reified and amplified those characteristics — one of the many reasons he became a cult figure.  On its surface, the means of Walker’s death fits his image: it could be the conclusion to the next film.  But that’s a fundamental misreading of the genre and Walker’s place within it.  The great thing about genre film, and the genre actors like Walker who populate it, is that it replays the same scenario over and over again, often time rifting on fundamental ideological problems to do with class, race, gender, politics, etc., but each and every time, we’re given some modicum of closure.  The rift exists; the movie shows it and then closes it.  Each and every time, Walker steps out of the car in one piece.  What’s unsettling, then, and is his inability to do so here.  And so his final genre performance shifts, uncontrollably, to one of tragedy.


The Definitive List of Classic Hollywood Stars Who Should Host SNL

I’ve been sorting through this question on Twitter all morning: which classic Hollywood stars would dominate Saturday Night Live?  It was prompted by my recent piece for Dear Television, entitled “Good, Giving, and Game: Towards a Theory of SNL Hosting,” in which I work through who’s a good host (Timberlake, Hamm, etc.) who’s a bad host (Taylor Lautner), and why.  Short answer: you have to be versatile as shit.

Here’s what I said about Josh Hutcherson’s hosting turn from last Saturday, and what lead me to the idea of classic stars:

 Here’s a guy who, on paper, should be a horrible host. He’s the (relatively) boring straight man from a franchise (albeit a better franchise than most) and his acting, at least in the first one, isn’t noteworthy. If there’s one thing people know about him, it’s that he’s not whothey would’ve cast as the hot, strong-armed baker-turned-Katniss love interest.

From the beginning of the episode, Hutcherson was all about redeeming himself. In the first sketch, he roundly ridicules the passivity of his Hunger Games character, and in the digital short “Matchbox 3,” about a crew of subway performers who do their acts in very, very confined spaces, he not only makes fun of his height, but gives himself over fully to the role.

And then there’s the most bonkers skit on the show, in which Hutcherson brings home his “new girlfriend” for Thanksgiving, only to surprise his family with the fact that she’s….a turkey.

It’s a classic example of weird, end-of-the-night SNL. It’s not funny, exactly, nor is it entirely satire, but Hutcherson’s ability to straight-facedly make out with a turkey should make us consider him as something more than sad-faced Peeta.

Because Hutcherson is, indeed, more than just a franchise star: he was convincing and embarrassed in The Kids Are Alright, and he’s been slogging through bit roles and kid parts since 2003. Like Hamm, Timberlake, and other recent SNL charmers Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Miley Cyrus, Hutcherson is a workhorse — in classic Hollywood, they called actors like them “troupers” because they’d paid their dues, often since they were young children, in vaudeville troupes, where they’d laugh, cry, sing, dance, do stunts, and then do it all over again 24 hours later in the next town. They were GGG because their very livelihood depended on it. Cary Grant was a trouper, so was Judy Garland — and both would’ve made superlative SNL hosts. Because when it comes down to it, SNL is the vaudeville show for the 21st century, with the ability to bring out the best and worst in its hosts.

For my purposes here, I’m not going to include classic Hollywood comedians — just like my piece didn’t talk about comedian hosts.  Those people are good because they’re raised in the tradition.  I’m more interested in which stars have the chops to do something as versatile as hosting SNL, and thinking about just how superlative that experience would be.  All of the stars below have proven versatility — some of them were raised as vaudevillians, like Garland and Grant, and some are just equally at home in comedy and drama, like Katharine Hepburn.  They’re all “good” actors, they all have charisma, and none of them are too serious about themselves or their images: as I say in the piece, they’re “good, giving, and game.”   And so, in no particular order, with tremendous assistance from Twitter…..

Classic Hollywood Stars Who Would Be Amazing at Hosting SNL

1.) Cary Grant

William Powell

2.) William Powell

3.) Carole Lombard (this one I just can’t get over)

4.) Marlene Dietrich (host AND musical act)

5.) Gene Kelly (although he’d be very self-congratulatory/Justin Timberlake about it)

6.) Jimmy Stewart (watch A Philadelphia Story and you’ll understand)

7.) Katharine Hepburn (see above)

8.) Frank Sinatra (w/the rat pack on assist)


9.) Mae West

10.) Talullah Bankhead

11.) Edward G. Robinson

Peter Lorre What's My Line

12.) Peter Lorre

13.) Montgomery Clift

14.) Marilyn Monroe


15.) Barbara Stanwyck

16.) Sammy Davis Jr.


17.) Judy Garland

18.) Fred McMurray


Classic Hollywood Stars Who Could Either Be Amazing or Truly Horrible, Depending

1.) Ingrid Bergman

2.) Marlon Brando

3.) Elizabeth Taylor

4.) Rita Hayworth

5.) Ava Gardner

6.) James Dean

7.) Vivien Leigh

8.) Debbie Reynolds


Classic Hollywood Stars Who Would’ve Been Stiff, Boring, or Horrible

1.) Audrey Hepburn

2.) Greta Garbo

3.) Joan Crawford

4.) Humphrey Bogart

5.) Lauren Bacall

6.) John Wayne

7.) Clark Gable

8.) Gary Cooper

9.) Laurence Olivier

10.) Jean Harlow

11.) Doris Day

12.) Rock Hudson

13.) Clara Bow

14.) Harry Belafonte

15.) Deanna Durbin


And a few I can’t decide: Grace Kelly, Joan Crawford, Lana Turner, Burt Lancester, and James Cagney.  I’d love your help — and other suggestions — in the comments.









You Must See 12 Years a Slave, and You Must See It in The Theater

But not for the reasons you think.

In today’s movie economy, we tell people “they must see something in the theater” when something indelible, something crucial to the film itself, would be lost without seeing it in the theater.  This season’s unanimous theater must-see is Gravity, with its gorgeous, revelatory use of 3D.  But the maxim also applies, albeit less regularly, to a certain type of comedy film — rewatch Borat or even The Hangover without a theater full of infectious laughter, and you have a profoundly different experience of the movie.

You must watch 12 Years a Slave in the theater, but not for aesthetics, and not for some sort of communal energy.  You must watch it in the theater for a very simple reason: once it’s on DVD, or streaming, or AppleTV, it’ll be all the harder to decide to see it.  It is a sad, devastating, incisive, and fiercely important movie and, to my mind, the very best of the year.  And those are the hardest movies to get yourself to watch on a Friday night on the couch.


We all want to watch these movies on a Friday night at home.  These are the movies that stick around in Netflix queues for years or, once delivered to your home, get so dusty that Netflix eventually emails to ask if you’ve lost the DVD.  You want to be the sort of person who watches A Separation, or 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, or The Hurt Locker, something that everyone’s told you you should see, but when it comes down to it, you just keep choosing that week’s DVRed episode of Scandal or the latest relatively innocuous hipster rom-com (see: Drinking Buddies). 

Don’t get me wrong: my use of “you” here not somehow excluded myself from this practice.  You do it, I do it, many, many people do it.  And it’s not because you’re morally weak so much as fortified by choice: when there’s so much out there to choose instead, and you’re already in your pajama pants and have a glass of wine in your hand and want to be asleep by 11 pm, the laws of inertia are simply against you.  9 times out of 10, you will choose the thing that will not challenge and fundamentally alter your world view.  Again, it’s not because you’re lazy, it’s because submitting yourself to art that alters you is hard.

Someone once told me that the way to judge whether a piece of art is “good” or not is whether or not you’re a different person when it’s over.  You don’t have to be a profoundly different person, but a person who sees him/herself and the surrounding world in a different way, however slight.  And 12 Years a Slave isn’t simply good art — it’s the very, very best sort of art, it’s frankly criminal not to watch it, and since I’m still recovering from seeing it earlier today (and weeping, uncontrollably, for the last thirty minutes of the film), I can only tell you to read Wesley Morris’s superlative review on Grantland.

But please, just for a moment, be honest with yourself: when you decide to go to a movie, it’s intractable.  You could get to the parking lot or the ticket window and suddenly change your mind, but the inertia, in this case, is against you: you will go to the movie you decide to see.  All you need to do is tell someone else that you’d like to go, and then you’re accountable, just like telling someone that you’d like to go running at 6 a.m.

And when you’re in the movie theater, you can’t check your phone, you can’t turn it off, you can’t retreat, and a  film of this caliber deserves that.  12 Years a Slave isn’t just aesthetically beautiful; it’s morally and politically necessary.  Set yourself up to the path of least resistance to seeing it: even if you only see one movie a year in the theater, let it be this one.  Sometimes it’s hard to choose to consume the things that matter most, in no small part because it’s difficult to submit ourselves to media that indicts and questions the status quo, whether that relates to the present, the past, or the cathartic, hope-inducing narratives that depict it. Make this one small thing easier for yourself: see it in the theater, and do it now.

The Making of Lorde

Ella Yelich-O’Connor is a 16-year-old girl who sings. Lorde is a pop star. The difference between the two? A whole bunch of well-crafted publicity.

What’s different with Lorde, then, is that her publicity is marketed as anti-publicity: here’s a girl who hates manipulation, who exercises meticulous control over her image, and has no qualms about speaking her mind.


And I have no doubt that Yelich-O’Connor does all of those things.  But the celebrity apparatus takes those very things — that commitment to non-manipulation — and turns it into overarching theme of Lorde’s image.  And that image is so persuasive, especially to a certain cadre of consumers, because it effaces itself: non-image as image.

Many Hollywood stars have accomplished similar feats. Most recently, Jennifer Lawrence’s seemingly unmediated “cool girl” antics have been held up as an example of what natural stardom can look like.  (When I asked my Twitter feed for examples of unmediated stardom, I received 20 suggestions of Lawrence).  Anne Hathaway was polished and over-prepared; J-Law was natural and off-the-cuff and, as such, much easier to like.  (I write more about them here).

Lorde has really only been on the (American) scene for a few months: her hit song “Royals” slowly took over the late summer, but it wasn’t until the release of her first full length album,  Pure Heroine, on September 30th that she really drew the attention of the American press.  (If you’re unfamiliar with her style, see “Royals,” “Team,” and my personal favorite, “Tennis Court.”)

From the beginning, Lorde was differentiated from her peers.  The lyrics of “Royals” did much of the  heavy lifting: here’s a girl who, instead of buying into the dreams of consumption proffered by most hip-hop, finds herself alienated.  Lorde was 16 (she turned 17 last week), but she was no Disney product: she’s from New Zealand (!) and actively resisted the sort of bubble-gum packaging that typifies her contemporaries.  She writes her own songs; she calls the shots.  In early interviews, reproduced across the internet, she criticized the holy three of teen pop: Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, and Taylor Swift.  But these weren’t offhand comments — they were rooted in overarching criticisms of the industry:

On Bieber: ”I feel like the influences that are there in the industry for people my age, like Justin Bieber or whatever, are just maybe not a very real depiction of what it’s like to be a young person.”

On Gomez (and her song “Come and Get It”): “I’m a feminist, and the theme of her song is, ‘When you’re ready come and get it from me.’ I’m sick of women being portrayed this way.”

On Swift: “[she's] too flawless and unattainable.”

Every celebrity has image has two major components: their product and the discourse about them and their product, also known as publicity.  Even reality stars have the “product” of their program and the way they “appear” (read: perform) on it.  Usually the product is more important in dictating the tenor of the celebrity image, but sometimes the publicity overwhelms the product.  Hollywood stars rely on publicity to keep them in the public eye between projects; reality stars generate stories and photo-ops, usually through relationships and pregnancies, to keep them relevant between new reality opportunities.

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Until recently, Lorde had blockbuster product but little by means of publicity.  A collection of quips, sure, but those had started to overdetermined her meaning.  Until, that is, last week, when the Australian music site Faster, Louder (think Pitchfork) published a longform, all-access profile, entitled “Lorde: Pop’s New Ruler,” the result of months of reporting.  This reporter had gotten in at the ground floor — before “Royals” became anything big — and stuck around to the very recent past.  He spent a lot of time with “Ella,” as he refers to her, and talked with all of her managers, had dinner with her family, and traced the trajectory of her rise to fame.

Now, I’m not suggesting that this profile is going to be as widely read as, say, a Vanity Fair cover story.  I do, however, think it will function as a sort of ur text of her celebrity — the first large scale piece from which other profiles, however brief or lengthy, will draw.  Like all skillful celebrity profiles, it establishes a few new themes in her image and reifies existing ones.  It’s fun to read — like getting to know your best friend — and never descends into fluff.  It is, in other words, an excellent example of the genre and, as such, an amazing piece of image management.

So let’s take this apart.

Over the course of the profile, several overarching themes emerge: Lorde is a natural, Lorde is extraordinary, and Lorde is authentic.


You know how you prove that someone has natural talent?  You tell a story about them as a child.  But Lorde wasn’t just singing to the video camera. She was a genius:

LATE one night, years ago, her mother Sonja was woken by a light going on in the room Ella shared with her sister Jerry. She shook her husband awake. “Oh my God, Vic! Someone’s just gone into the kids’ room!”

“He opens up the door and there’s this 18-month-old, at two or three in the morning, with a pile of books. Just sitting there, reading them……”

[Description of  counselors encouraging Lorde's parents to take her to aptitude testing when she was six or seven] 

….The resulting report is couched in restrained academic language, but remains arresting reading.

“[Her] artwork demonstrates not only a high skill level but a mature perception of the world and a highly original perspective… Clearly a busy and highly creative mind at work… demonstrates leadership skills… sets high standards for herself and does not tolerate mistakes… Extremely advanced reading and writing, verbal, reasoning, listening and processing skills.”

By some measures, she had the mental age of a 21-year-old. 

The profile goes on to emphasize the 1000 (yes, 1000) books Lorde had read as a child, which accounted, according to a friend, for her mastery of words and “natural” songwriting ability.

The profile also emphasizes her perfectionism, but it’s not a perfectionism born of parenting style or industry pressures.  Lorde just has the perfectionism innate to many gifted kids, complete with an intolerance for shoddy work or incompetent collaborators.  She has what it takes to succeed as a pop star, but it’s not from effort — it’s just always been there. 


Before you get 500 words into the profile, you learn that “Ella is no ordinary 16-year-old, and ‘Royals’ no ordinary hit single.”  To back up the claim, the author, Duncan Grieve, goes into the past.  Lorde’s parents had unique New Zealand upbringings (her mother is Croation; her father is Irish) with little room for creativity, and when they met, they were determined that their children would have the artistic freedoms and voices they were denied.  It wasn’t a coddling, per se, just a celebration of imagination and creativity.  Lorde’s mother is a celebrated poet; her father is an engineer — which, we can extrapolate, is how Lorde came to be so artistic and precise.

We’re also to understand that Lorde is no ordinary teen.  She acts like an adult, and converses naturally with adults:

“She was exceptional in every way,” says [family friend] Allen. “Not an extrovert by any means, but she couldn’t be thrown.” From drama she learned to interact with adults, and to retain poise on stage, attributes which would prove handy in years to come.

And then there’s the way she interacts with the interviewer himself.  During one of many days in the studio, he dared to make a small production suggestion:

When I forgot myself and issued an opinion on a production effect at the studio, she turned and said “So you’re Rick Rubin now?” quick as a cat. It’s pretty disconcerting being reprimanded by a teenager when you’re in your 30s.

She’s not afraid of adults! She has quips, really great quips! Can you imagine yourself at age 16 with that sort of poise?  I was still way, way too concerned with my acne.


Part of Lorde’s extraordinariness comes from her authenticity — unlike other pop stars, she’s rooted in her “true” identity.  When we talk about celebrities and authenticity, we’re talking about a sense of unmediated realness.  What we see is who they are, the “real thing.”  The problem with this understanding is pretty clear: that sense of authenticity is, itself, mediated.  Meeting the star in person is often thought of as the only means to access the “real” real — first hand celebrity accounts are used as a means to buttress a certain understanding of a star — but even those are mediated through the lens of the celebrity’s self-awareness.  Put differently, the celebrity knows she has an image to uphold; he/she’s not going to suddenly “be real” because you’re standing in the elevator with her.  The desire for the real is why we love scandal: it sheds light onto the part of the celebrity that was truly never meant to go public.  The more hidden, the more real.

Lorde’s authenticity — or, more precisely, her image’s authenticity — stems from her vocal and unapologetic rejection of the music industry and its publicity apparatus.  The profile is riddled with soundbitey comments:

“I don’t care about hair and makeup.”

[A manager] pulls Ella aside to inform her that EDM star David Guetta wants her on his next album. “No,” she says sharply. “Fuck no. He’s so gross.”

When Maclachlan first watched that Belmont Idol performance, he thought he’d find her a song and have her sing it – “that classic A&R equation”. Failing that, she could knock out a set of ’60s-styled covers. He met Ella and Sonja at a cafe and later gave them a CD to serve as a reference. It ended up in a dumpster. “I was just so not interested,” says Ella. This 12-year-old wasn’t content to sing covers. She wanted to write songs.

Jason Flom is head of Universal Music subsidiary Lava Records. In the ’90s he had a hot streak like no other: Tori Amos, Counting Crows and Matchbox 20. He was sent a link to the recording early on. “Immediately obsessed”, he became determined to sign Lorde to Lava. “I can’t wait to make you a star,” he wrote in an email not long after the songs went live. “I was like, ‘Bleurgh’,” says Ella.

The irony of an anti-materialistic single doing that is not lost on them, although money is not Ella’s motivation. “If I didn’t tell her the state of her bank account, she’d never know,” says Vic, the trustee of her company.

If she’s that frank, it must be her real self.  (If Kanye West is that bombastic, it must be his real self…..If Jennifer Lawrence is that clumsy, it must be her real self.)  Etc., et. al.  Even if we do acknowledge that these authentic celebrities are mediated, we read them, in the words of my brilliant friend Phil Maciak, as “authors of their own mediation.”  Which at least in part explains her popularity with teens: she lacks the artifice, the bullshit, the adult-control that teenagers come to despise.  And in this way, control, or the appearance of it, becomes conflated with authenticity.

And Lorde seems to control everything:

Ella is deeply interested – some might say obsessed – with all the line-by-line stuff.

Ella, self-confessed perfectionist, can’t stand to let someone else make decisions for her. It’s not without tetchy moments. Maclachlan mentions a “cover reboot” for the deluxe edition of the album. “That’s very ‘record company’,” says Ella acidly. “I don’t know if we have grounds to completely rehash everything.”

On Merchandise: “Yes! I’m excited about that. Sweatshirts and short-sleeved T-shirts. Black and grey marl. That’s it.”

Cain says that in 20 years in the industry he’s never come across an artist so engaged with the minutiae of their presentation. He points up at a giant poster of Lana Del Rey. “With her, we could do whatever we liked,” he says.

 Ella is frequently compared to Del Rey, though it infuriates her. Both are white women making pop music soaked in the rhythm and attitude of hip-hop. But Del Rey has a much more conventional narrative — she had an image makeover prior to her breakout Born To Die album, and co-writes her songs with some of the biggest producers and writers in the industry. Ella’s songs, meanwhile, are very much her vision, and hers alone.


 The piece doesn’t address criticism that she has a co-writer/producing partner — but it also doesn’t shy from it.  So long as the songs are “her vision and hers alone,” she’s the authentic author.  You see this exacting control, whether on her part, as the profile suggests, or on the part of her manager, manifest the visual publicity for Pure Heroine.  She performs in t-shirts and long skirts; publicity photos are different variations of one stare-straight-ahead pose.


As you can see below, her video for “Tennis Court” is just her staring at the camera in black lipstick, an anti-video to the high production values of her peers’ short-films-posturing-as-music-videos.

While Lorde embodies each of these categories (natural, extraordinary, authentic) in specialized ways, the categories themselves are nothing new — they’ve been the hallmarks of star publicity since the beginning of Hollywood and serve to substantiate our fandom.  We thought she was special, in other words, but this proves it.  They’re also the building blocks of charisma: that ineffable something that separates attempted stars from bonafide ones.  But charisma also serves a political function: to very broadly summarize the social theorist Emile Durkheim, it’s what makes us okay with other people having much more money and privilege than we do.  Charisma validates their dominance — it makes it seem like they deserve to have what they have, and we shouldn’t rise up and steal it from them.  Lack of charisma can be fatal, then, because it breeds antipathy.  Most reality stars don’t have charisma.  Justin Bieber is rapidly losing his charisma.  George Clooney has a neverending supply of it.  And Lorde, at least in this moment, has a ton of it.

But all of these themes are pretty straightforward celebrity profile fodder, as is the interlude at the raucous family dinner table, which economically underlines the “just like us” ordinariness to go with Lorde’s extraordinary talents.


I’m most interested, then, in the way that the profile accentuates Lorde’s cultural capital — and the way that accentuation has endeared her to a certain swath of adult fans.

It’s clear that Lorde is precocious.  She’s smart, she’s uber-literate.  But she’s not just reading the classics, and she’s not checked out of popular culture. Take a look:

At the same time, Ella’s own taste was evolving fast; she moved from Grizzly Bear to Animal Collective to James Blake. All the while, though, she remained fascinated by mainstream pop like Justin Timberlake. “It’s magical,” she says. She’d pick apart songs, latching on to production elements and vocal melodies. “Why is it shameful to like this music,” she thought, “or write this music?”

 Thanks to all that reading she came to the current golden age of television late, but fell hard. She adores The Sopranos, and one of the best lines in the statement of intent ‘Bravado’ — “I was raised up/To be admired, to be noticed” — is paraphrased from Mad Men’s Joan Holloway. Most of her cultural references she tosses out are similarly adult — author Michael Chabon, essayist Laura Mulvey.

Early on she implores I read a profile of the porn star James Deen written by Wells Tower, a favourite short story writer of hers. It’s magnificent, but also deeply, savagely sexual. I don’t know how to talk to a kid about something like that, so I leave it. With Ella, you’ll always blink first.

She’s a hipster! A learned, culturally literate, upper middle-class hipster.  Many of her teen fans may not know who Laura Mulvey is, but whooo boy does a certain swath of her adult fans.  By underlining her cultural capital and  broad intelligence, it becomes all the easier for adult fans to embrace their fandom of a teenage artist.  This is no guilty pleasure; this isn’t secretly listening to the new One Direction song on your headphones at the gym.  Lorde is cool, and you’re cool for liking her.

And then there’s Lorde’s feminism:

One thing Ella doesn’t often sing about directly is love or lust – the subject matter of the vast majority of hit singles. She quotes Del Rey’s ‘Blue Jeans’ with disgust: “I will love you till the end of time/I will wait a million years”, and recently decried the sentiment of Selena Gomez’s ‘Come and Get It’. Suffice to say, she’s a feminist.

“Absolutely. Wholeheartedly,” she says. “I think women who say, ‘No, I’m not a feminist — I love men,’ I think that is just… You don’t know what it means. You think it means that, ‘I don’t shave under my arms, I burn my bras. Fuck men!’ How could you be so uneducated, and so unwilling to learn about something which is so important to you?”

For me, this is the kicker: I knew I liked her songs, I liked her even more when she said that she culled lyrics from Mad Men, and then she goes demonstrates unapologetic feminism: sold.  She endears herself not only to the entire Tavi Gevinson/Rookie/teen feminism audience, but to an entire swath of feminist adults frustrated with various celebrity’s reticence to embrace the label of feminism (talking to you, Beyonce).

Lorde’s music is deeply infectious and cultivates its own natural audience, but it’s the publicity that makes her more than the sum of her musical parts — that makes her a celebrity, and someone who will endure and matter in the cultural landscape.  The purpose of this post is neither to decry nor celebrate, although I certainly haven’t attempted to mask that I’m a fan.  Rather, it’s to highlight the potent ideological and industrial work of a single profile, and how even the anti-image is, always, an image in and of itself.  Don’t mistake me: I’m not saying that Lorde is fake.  I’m saying that she, like any other public artist, is a mediated product.

Whenever you’re interpellated by a product, you feel like it’s more authentic.  Put differently, when the product seems to speak directly to you and your concerns, you’re more prepared to believe what it’s selling.  That’s why I “buy” the images of Barack Obama, Jennifer Lawrence, Brangelina, Matt Damon, Kanye, Lorde — that’s why I’m so ready to believe.  Maybe Lorde’s speaking to you, maybe she’s not.  But if she is, it’s smart to think about how and why it’s so easy to buy what she’s selling.

Back during my Freshman year “Great Books” class, my professor started his lecture on the Bible this way: close reading and interrogation isn’t blasphemy.  It’s respect: if the text, and your faith in it, can’t stand up to that, then what is it worth?  In the end, that’s how I feel about celebrities — and why I don’t think analysis is tantamount to the destruction of pleasure.  If there’s something substantial there, if there’s more than a shiny surface, the thing that speaks to you will remain.  And thus far with Lorde, I can still hear her singing.

Don Jon and the Digital Porn Dystopia

I can’t get away from the postfeminist dystopia.  I’ve written about it here, here, and here; I just gave a presentation on its application to Girls; I just submitted a conference panel proposal in which three other very smart scholars and I apply it to GirlsUs Weekly, the star image of Katherine Heigl, and Spring Breakers.  It’s all over; it makes more and more sense.  But I also think it’s not operating in a vacuum: it affects men, too, even if not as directly as women.  But men have their own dystopia with which to grapple: borne of the ubiquity of digital, streaming porn.


With the rise of New Media, porn has become ubiquitous, free, and amazingly accessible — and that ubiquity has come to structure both sexual and gender relations.  In this era of ubiquitous porn, men deal with an equally contradictory ideologies of masculinity that call for them to be sexually aggressive, dominating, and muscular….while also abandoning physical labor (because it’s not longer a feasible lifelong income) and not being misogynist assholes.  You shouldn’t beat your wife, but rape jokes, those are chill.  You should be romantic with the lights on, but when they go off, you should behave like a porn star, because that, at least as far as you’ve seen, is what women want.  Objectifying women is Bad, but seemingly every media text, including those directed at women, openly invites you to do so.   

The overarching contradiction: how do you live life as a feminist — espousing the straightforward ethical belief that women are equal to men — when the world that surrounds you pummels you with encouragement, both implicit and explicit, to act and think otherwise?

Which is why I love Don Jon.  I get the critiques: it’s somewhat hamfisted in its use of repetition to emphasize points; I agree with those who say that the “guido-face” of the performances compromise its power.  But it’s the first text I’ve seen that both honestly and extensively interrogates the realities of both living in the post-digital porn world….and trying to forge relationships with women living within the postfeminist dystopia.

Let’s look at the life of our main character, Jon:

As he says in the trailer (and the beginning of the movie), “there’s on a few things I care about in life: my body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, and my porn.”  

My Body: American culture — and not just ‘guido’ culture — dictates that the dominant understanding of “hot” = “jacked.” Now, “jacked” is an exaggerated physicality that’s actually a fetishization of the working class body: a body that looks like it labors.  But since most of those jobs of disappeared, most men, working class or otherwise, go to the gym and lift heavy things in order to approximate the bodies that their jobs would’ve created for them.  Jon is a working class guy, but he works, in his words, in “service” — he bartends.  But in order to obtain a desirable body, he has to spend his off hours doing pull-ups.


My Pad/My Ride: Consumption isn’t somehow a new part of masculinity.  It’s a holdover compunction — what you own, and how it’s kept, says something about what kind of man you are.  But you have to consume in a very particular way: consume too much, look like you care too much, and you’re feminized.  There’s a brilliant scene between Jon and Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) at a Pier-1 type store, shopping for curtain rods.  After helping Barbara in her own consumer fantasy, Jon excuses himself — not to go sit in the car because he’s bored, but to go get some Swiffer pads.  He maintains his apartment diligently — how else is he going to make his one-bedroom pre-fab apartment look good? — but Barbara is absolutely aghast that he do something as unmasculine as clean his own floor.  The real sin, in fact, is buying the Swiffer pads in the first place, committing the ultimate sin of emasculating yourself in public.  But it’s a double-bind: consume, but look like you don’t.


My Family: Jon’s mother lives in a fairytale.  Some people have complained about the facile characterization of the parents, but I think it serves a pretty compelling purpose: clear distillations of the first wave of postfeminism. It’s doubtful that Jon’s mother ever “gave up” on feminism (we only see her cooking dinner; we have no indication that she works outside the home) but her life seems to rotate entirely around her son’s ability to fulfill a fairytale.  To come home, in her words, and tell her “I’ve found her.”  A beautiful girl, a beautiful wedding, beautiful babies.  She’s already had her supposed fairytale — which resulted in a home where her husband yells incessantly and watches football instead of engaging with others — so she remaps the scenario on her son.  He brings home the “perfect girl” (read: the type of girl her father finds attractive and her mother finds appropriately feminine), but the problem is that that girl is nothing but a set of attributes that add up to “perfection.”  As Jon’s sister points out in her one line in the film, “she doesn’t actually know a thing about you.”  She’s too busy being a princess, and cultivating the “perfect relationship,” to pay attention to anyone else, even her counterpart.  But more on that later.

Last crucial point: Jon has clearly adopted his fetishizing tendencies from his father, who mirrors him in both looks, wardrobe, and temper.  As we learn from the story of Jon’s parents’ “meet cute,” his dad saw his mom and said “that’s mine.”  His attitude towards women is thus one of fetishization and possession, of dominance and control.  He may not be watching as much internet porn as Jon, or any at all (he doesn’t know what a TiVo is), but the porn attitude is a natural extension of his gender politics.  But he’s also not happy — and neither is Jon.


My Church: The film is not unsubtle with this point: Jon is a hypocrite.  Every week, he drives to church screaming obscenities, punching in windows with rage.  We never hear the sermon because Jon never really hears the sermon — church is all ritual and symbolism.  We see the stained-glass windows; we seem him making the sign of the cross and kneeling.  He goes to confession, but treats it as a game to be won or lost, visibly pumping his fist when he receives five fewer Hail Marys and Our Fathers than the week before. Church tells him he is a good person simply for attending, not for actually acting out the principles of Christianity.  Appearance, not acts.

My Boys: Don actually seems to have pretty healthy male friendships, all things considered.  Sure, all they talk about are women, and spend most of their time rating those women based entirely on their physical attributes.  But you don’t see much of the traditional tension in films like these (and life): how to still be a “guy’s guy” when you’re devoting your life to your girlfriend.  Jon’s friends build up his masculinity — he’s better at “smashing girls” than both of them; he’s taller and better looking — but they also ratify his life choices.  When Barbara breaks up with him for watching porn, his friend supports him in his belief that that’s ridiculous.  Chances are, if these movies would’ve shifted focus, these men are dealing with the same impossible contradictions that affect Jon.


My Girls: These are postfeminist girls.  We only really get to know Barbara, but she’s the part that stands in for the whole: reared on rom-coms that suggest that consumption and self-objectification, with the ultimate end goal of a fairytale wedding, is the path to happiness and fulfillment.  She’s a virgin and a whore, a ball-buster and a princess; she gets what she wants….only what she wants is not only self-serving, but hollow.  Granted, we don’t see figuring out that that life is hollow.  But our only grown woman is Jon’s mom — a woman who clearly sees Barbara as a kindred spirit — and who, as emphasized above, now fulfills herself with the fantasies of the next generation.  When Jon points out that Barbara spends just as many hours engrossed in her own implausible, destructive fantasies (read: the rom-com), he’s not wrong.

My Porn:  Jon has never known a world without porn.  When Esther (Julianne Moore) asks him if he’s ever masturbated without porn, he honestly cannot think of a time.  His sexuality was entirely shaped by porn and the dynamics it celebrates.  But he can’t find pleasure with actual women — probably because he’s acting out the scenarios he’s seen in his videos, scenarios that look fulfilling but, in practice, are just the opposite.

But it’s not entirely Jon’s fault.  Postfeminist women have been equally affected by the ubiquity of porn: teens are now reporting that they’re expected to engage in “porny” behaviors (I’ll let you fill in the blanks yourself) very early on, in large part because their partners have been immersed in media that depicts and normalizes those behaviors (or at least makes them standard).  A woman thinks that men want a porn star, so a woman behaves like a porn star.  Her pleasure is faked; his pleasure is never what he wants it to be.  Lose, lose.

Jon tries to quit porn, but soon discovers that porn surrounds him: the objectified, fetishized female body has become so normalized that even women’s magazines, exercise videos, and fast-food restaurants use it to sell products.  Again, this isn’t anything new, but it’s amplified with each passing year.  How can Jon give up porn and the sexual dynamics it promotes when seemingly every piece of media invites him to continue the practice?  The anti-porn feminists used to say that “porn is the theory; rape is the practice.”  That’s powerful rhetoric, and I’m not sure I entirely agree.  But I do think that the idea of “porn as theory” is incredibly compelling, especially given its current ubiquity.  It becomes the de facto guide for how you should treat a woman in the bedroom,which consciously and unconsciously dictates how you’ll treat women outside of the bedroom.

I realize I’m treating porn as a monolithic being.  There’s a fair amount of porn that’s not aggressively masculine, focused on male pleasure, or reifying the dynamics described above.  But most porn — the dominant form of porn — is just that.

But that’s not even the real problem.  The real problem is that porn, and the mainstream “children” of porn, tell you to behave one way — and another strand of media tells you to behave another.  It’s like the virgin/whore complex, only for men: let’s call it the prince/dick dichotomy.  A guy must both be what women want him to be (kind, respectful, willing to be a stay-at-home Dad, generous in the bedroom, takes up half of the household chores, a feminist) and what dominant, porn-influenced says he should be (aggressive, disarticulated from the domestic, selfish in the bedroom).

To be clear, women contribute to this dichotomy.  Think of Marnie in Girls, speaking about her ostensibly perfect boyfriend: “It’s like he’s too busy respecting me that he looks right past me and everything that I need from him.”  What she “needs” from him, at least at this point, is for him to act like a dick.  When an dickish guy comes on to her (“The first time I fuck you, I might scare you a little, because I’m a man, and I know how to do things) she’s so turned on that she flees to the bathroom to masturbate.  But the dick turns out to be much to much of a dick — he doesn’t satisfy her in bed, as much as she really wants that scenario to bare out, and he ignores her outside of it.

The digital porn guy wants a fantasy that doesn’t exist, but the postfeminist girl wants one as well.  Usually, movies don’t deal with this impossibility, but that’s precisely where Don Jon excels: it shows just how unfeasible the ideology has become.  The montage of Don Jon undergoing a furious, seemingly weeks-long masturbation marathon isn’t hot; it’s dystopic.

In my recent presentation on the postfeminist dystopia, I divided my analysis between texts that know they’re dystopic and those that do not.  Girls knows it’s highlighting the contradictions; Revenge does not.  Jersey Shore doesn’t know it’s highlighting the contradictions of digital porn masculinity, but  that Don Jon clearly does.   That’s why it so clearly interrogates porn, which usually goes unnamed in depictions of contradictory contemporary masculinity.  Instead of shying from it because it’s dirty or unacceptable, it faces it head on.  In that way, it’s a spectacularly honest film, which is part of the reason I can forgive it its various faults.

But Don Jon also offers a sort of solution.  It isn’t giving up porn, exactly, so much as embracing an understanding of sex and love outside of the ideologies of porn masculinity.  Society is the way that it is; there is no outside of ideology.  But you can choice to negotiate your own way within those existing ideologies, and the more texts like this highlight the dystopia, the more these dominant understandings of “proper” behavior, sexual and otherwise, are compromised.   Don Jon doesn’t advocate for a life without porn, per se.  But it does suggest that a life immersed within it is no fantasy — for men and women alike.


Entertainment Tonight: The First in Entertainment News

As a full-time academic, my work is split in three: I teach, I write for academics, and I write for the internet (where academics also hang out).  Sometimes, however, I’m able to bring all three of those interests together — which is precisely what happened with my contribution to How to Watch Television, edited by Jason Mittell and Ethan Thompson.  With the encouragement of the press and the editors, you’ll find my piece (on Entertainment Tonight and how it altered the landscape of television — no seriously) below, but to contextualize the project and its purpose, I’m excerpting Mittell’s introduction (including the table of contents), which he posted to his excellent blog Just TV earlier this week.  Read on, get the book, be awesome.


I am quite excited to announce the publication of my latest book, How to Watch Television. Of course, in this instance, “my” should really be “our,” as the book was edited by me and my friend Ethan Thompson, and features 40 essays by an all-star line-up of media scholars young and old, familiar faces and new names. I’ve been itching to share my own chapter, about Phineas & Ferb, so you’ll find that essay previewed below the fold. But first, here’s some background on what we were trying to accomplish with the book, and why you might want to read it.


The idea (and title) was Ethan’s, and he approached me as a potential contributor to a volume that would be designed for the undergraduate classroom, with short essays each focused on a specific television program to model a critical approach within television studies. Too often, students lack models for how to write smart, accessible, engaging works of academic television criticism—most journalistic examples lack historical context and scholarly argumentation, and most academic examples are too long, too dense, and more often focused on larger theoretical arguments than close analysis of television texts and contexts. I was so taken with the idea, and excited about how it might dovetail effectively with my introductory textbook Television and American Culture, that I signed on as co-editor. Ethan & I spent months in 2011 soliciting essays that span a wide range of genres, historical eras, authorial perspectives, and authors in different stages in their careers. We ended up with a remarkable table of contents featuring 40 (!) original essays by great writers on an array of topics, arranged by broad categories of television analysis. The line-up really needs to be seen to be believed:

I. TV Form: Aesthetics and Style

1. Homicide: Realism – Bambi L. Haggins

2. House: Narrative Complexity – Amanda D. Lotz

3. Life on Mars: Transnational Adaptation – Christine Becker

4. Mad Men: Visual Style – Jeremy G. Butler

5. Nip/Tuck: Popular Music – Ben Aslinger

6. Phineas & Ferb: Children’s Television – Jason Mittell

7. The Sopranos: Episodic Storytelling – Sean O’Sullivan

8. Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show, Great Job!: Metacomedy – Jeffrey Sconce

II. TV Representations: Social Identity and Cultural Politics

9. 24: Challenging Stereotypes – Evelyn Alsultany

10. The Amazing Race: Global Othering – Jonathan Gray

11. The Cosby Show: Representing Race – Christine Acham

12. The Dick Van Dyke Show: Queer Meanings – Quinn Miller

13. Eva Luna: Latino/a Audiences – Hector Amaya

14. Glee/House Hunters International: Gay Narratives – Ron Becker

15. Grey’s Anatomy: Feminism – Elana Levine

16. Jersey Shore: Ironic Viewing – Susan J. Douglas

III. TV Politics: Democracy, Nation, and the Public Interest

17. 30 Days: Social Engagement – Geoffrey Baym and Colby Gottert

18. America’s Next Top Model: Neoliberal Labor – Laurie Ouellette

19. Family Guy: Undermining Satire – Nick Marx

20. Fox & Friends: Political Talk – Jeffrey P. Jones

21. M*A*S*H: Socially Relevant Comedy – Noel Murray

22. Parks and Recreation: The Cultural Forum – Heather Hendershot

23. Star Trek: Serialized Ideology – Roberta Pearson

24. The Wonder Years: Televised Nostalgia – Daniel Marcus

IV. TV Industry: Industrial Practices and Structures

25. Entertainment Tonight: Tabloid News – Anne Helen Petersen

26. I Love Lucy: The Writer-Producer – Miranda J. Banks

27. Modern Family: Product Placement – Kevin Sandler

28. Monday Night Football: Brand Identity – Victoria E. Johnson

29. NYPD Blue: Content Regulation – Jennifer Holt

30. Onion News Network: Flow – Ethan Thompson

31. The Prisoner: Cult TV Remakes – Matt Hills

32. The Twilight Zone: Landmark Television – Derek Kompare

V. TV Practices: Medium, Technology, and Everyday Life

33. Auto-Tune the News: Remix Video – David Gurney

34. Battlestar Galactica: Fans and Ancillary Content – Suzanne Scott

35. Everyday Italian: Cultivating Taste – Michael Z. Newman

36. Gossip Girl: Transmedia Technologies – Louisa Stein

37. It’s Fun to Eat: Forgotten Television – Dana Polan

38. One Life to Live: Soap Opera Storytelling – Abigail De Kosnik

39. Samurai Champloo: Transnational Viewing – Jiwon Ahn

40. The Walking Dead: Adapting Comics – Henry Jenkins

It’s a remarkable line-up, and everyone managed to produce essays that run counter to many trends of academic writing: tightly focused, clearly written for general readers, jargon-free, not too long, and submitted on time! After a editorial and publication process, we’re thrilled to announce that New York University Press is now shipping the book at an incredibly reasonable price of $29 (for a well-designed 400 page book of original content!). You can order it at the NYU Press website, along with previewing the introduction or requesting a review copy for faculty thinking about adopting it in a class. You can also order it on Amazon, where the already low price is even more discounted or the Kindle version is even cheaper (note that Amazon says it will be released on Monday, but I think they might already be shipping it). Or please request it at an independent bookstore near you, if you’ve got one.

Even though it was designed for classroom use and I’m quite excited to teach it in the spring, we’re happy that the essays do not read as academic homework—our secondary goal was to create public-facing intellectual criticism, demonstrating what some of our smartest colleagues and friends have to teach anyone about television. If you’re a television scholar, this is the book you show your mother to explain what it is that you do! And if you’re not a television scholar, I hope this book gives you a sense of what the field has to share with a general readership.

For a taste of that type of criticism, a few of us contributors who are regular bloggers will be sharing our chapters online (I’ll link to them in the Table of Contents above once they go live). Mine is below, offering an account of one of my favorite children’s programs, Phineas & Ferb. If you like the essay, remember that the book has 39 more chapters of similar work. (And if you don’t like it, I guarantee you that many of the other 39 are better…) I hope you read the book and enjoy!



Entertainment Tonight

Until the early 1980s, “first-run” syndicated programming—that is, programming created for initial airing in syndication, not reruns—was limited to a “ghetto of game shows, talk shows and cartoons.”1 Entertainment Tonight (syndicated, 1981–present) gentrified that ghetto, changing the way that both television producers and stations conceived of first-run syndication and its potential profitability. Indeed, if you flipped through the channels between the evening news and the beginning of primetime during the 1980s, you would almost certainly happen upon a now-familiar sight: the wholesome face of Mary Hart, reporting on the latest happenings in Hollywood. As the host of Entertainment Tonight, Hart helped popularize a new mode of celebrity gossip in which stories on the private lives of stars and celebrities comingled with reportage of box office receipts and on-set exclusives.

            Since its debut, ET has become one of the longest running, most consistently profitable programs on the air. In the 1980s, it readied the way for a profusion of entertainment news programs and venues that now form a major node in the media landscape, from E! to Entertainment Weekly. Yet Entertainment Tonight’s success must be situated amidst a constellation of technological and regulatory changes, from the spread of cable and satellite technology to the gradual repeal of the Financial and Syndication Rules and other anti-monopoly regulations. This essay positions ET within the greater industrial climate of the 1980s, underlining the ways in which the program’s unmitigated success fundamentally altered the landscape of first-run syndication.

            Beginning in the days of early radio, the Federal Communications Committee (FCC) blocked Hollywood studios from entering into broadcasting, fearing the consolidation of entertainment media into the hands of few. This practice continued when broadcasting expanded from radio to television, as the FCC blocked film studio attempts at entering into television, station ownership, cultivating “Pay-TV” options, or starting their own networks. At the same time, the FCC was wary of the existing networks, their growing power, and their apparent negligence of the mandate to use the airwaves for the public good. By the end of the 1950s, ABC, CBS, and NBC relied on programming which they owned or had invested in—a practice that may have streamlined profits, but also resulted in a schedule replete with derivative game shows and Westerns.2

The resultant crop of programming, famously deemed a “vast wasteland” by FCC chairman Newton Minow in 1961, encouraged FCC passage of the Financial Interest and Syndication Rules, otherwise known as Fin-Syn, in 1971. Fin-Syn prohibited the networks from securing financial interest in independently produced programming and syndicating off-network programming. Coupled with the Prime Time Access Rule (PTAR), Fin-Syn also limited the amount of programming that each network could produce for itself (such as news) and freed a portion of primetime from network control. The resultant time slots, dubbed “prime access,” would allow affiliates to program independently, hopefully with shows serving the local interest.

In short, the FCC blocked the networks’ attempt to vertically integrate, barring them from producing the content they distributed. With the passage of Fin-Syn and PTAR, the FCC also hoped to free broadcast hours from network-induced repeats, opening the airwaves to local interests and concerns. In several crucial ways, these regulations served that purpose, but failed to encourage local programming. When tasked with filling the hours vacated by PTAR, local stations usually opted for syndicated offerings from studios or independent production companies, which not only cost less, but brought in higher ad revenue.3 Without Fin-Syn and PTAR, Entertainment Tonight—a show produced by a major studio (Paramount) and broadcast during prime access—would not have been possible.

Entertainment Tonight was conceived by Alfred M. Masini, a former advertising executive and the creative force behind the hit music program Solid Gold. Masini came up with the idea for ET by studying what was not on the air—no one was providing “entertainment news” in the form of information on box office receipts, upcoming projects, Nielsen ratings, gossip, and personality profiles.4 But the particular brand of “news” that ET was prepared to offer was a commodity that consumers had no idea they were supposed to desire. Indeed, before 1981, “almost no one, outside of pencil pushers in the business, had heard of television’s upfront ad-selling season” let alone attendance figures, production deals, and industry machinations.5

But if ET provided that news, Masini hypothesized, audiences would watch. As longtime ET host Mary Hart recalled, “Do people really want to learn all these details—the weekly TV show ratings, the top-grossing movies? If we present it concisely and regularly, the answer is yes, people do want to learn.”6 Hart’s rhetoric reproduced the implicit message of the program, which suggested that entertainment news, when offered concisely on a daily basis, accrues gravity and importance. In other words, ET supplied entertainment news and figures with such regularity that such information no longer appeared superfluous but necessary to make sense of the entertainment world.7

While Entertainment Tonight was introducing a new genre of programming, it was also proposing a novel model of distribution. ET, like Maisani’s other hits, was syndicated. For the previous thirty years, syndicated programs had been “bicycled” from station to station, airing in one market, then sent, via the mail, to another. As a result, the lag-time between production and airing could be weeks—unacceptable for a program promising up-to-date Hollywood news. Paramount offered a solution in the form of satellite technology. In exchange for control of the show, Paramount offered to install and lease dishes to any station willing to air the show.8 The offer resulted in a collection of 100 local stations equipped to receive the ET feed and a reach unthinkable without Paramount’s infusion of capital.9

Satellite distribution also allowed Entertainment Tonight “day and date” transmission, meaning the show could be aired the same day it was filmed. This promise of immediacy would prove quintessential to ET’s image. In the early 1980s, the weekend’s box office figures came in at noon on Monday. ET would tape its segment at 1:30 p.m., and the finished product would be seen across the nation within hours.10 As a result, ET even beat the long-established Hollywood trade papers Variety and Hollywood Reporter in announcing figures crucial to the industry. In truth, such immediacy mattered little to ET’s audience, the vast majority of whom had no fiscal investment in the media industry. But the distinction of ET as the “first in entertainment news” bestowed its viewers with the status of insiders and experts and, by extension, encouraged dedicated viewership.

ET’s cost and market penetration were unprecedented. Three months before it aired, ET had already been cleared in 100+ markets, reaching 77 percent of U.S. homes with all advertising spots sold for the year.11 In its first week on the air, ET made good on its promises to affiliates, earning a 12.6 national rating—enough to make it the highest-rated national newscast.12 But early reviews were not kind. The hosts were “dreadful”; the news was “so soft it squishes”; it was “People Magazine without that fine publication’s depth.”13 One critic deemed it a “press agent’s dream,” calling out a recent on-set visit to Paramount-produced Grease II as pure promotional propaganda.14 In decrying ET’s intimacy with the industry, critics were in fact criticizing the designed cooperation between the production cultures at ET and the studios. In other words, ET was intended to be a press agent’s dream and serve as a promotional vehicle for Paramount, not an independent journalistic outsider. These functions were not intended to be visible to the average viewer, only the savviest of whom would even realize that the show was produced by the same corporation as Grease II.

Over the next decade, critics would continue to criticize ET’s relationship with Hollywood. According to one Time reviewer, “ET is a part of the phenomenon it covers, another wheel in the publicity machine it seeks to explain.”15 ET has built a “cozy, symbiotic relationship” with celebrities, and “[t]he show has dropped almost all pretense of being anything but an arm of the Hollywood publicity machine,” filled with “fluff indistinguishable from advertising.”16 Such assessments were not inaccurate, but perhaps missed the point, as ET had never aspired to function as a source for hard news or investigative journalism. From the start, ET’s tone has mirrored that of a traditional fan magazine, offering fawning, flattering portraits of the stars and Hollywood delivered by Hart and her various co-anchors in a bright, cheery fashion. While ET would not shy away from reporting on an existing celebrity controversy or scandal, the tone was never derogatory or denigrating. Most importantly, ET did not break such stories itself, lest it risk alienating a celebrity or publicist. The addition of entertainment news and figures helped ET gain credibility and attract a broader demographic, but it did not change the character of the relationship between the program and its subjects.

That relationship, however, was one of ET’s biggest assets. As Variety observed, the program is “a big wet kiss in terms of promotion of projects.” A single appearance on ET could reach double, even triple the audience of a network morning show or late-night talk show.17 Such reach gave ET tremendous leverage, especially over publicists eager to place celebrity clients on the show. ET producers exploited this leverage to exact a host of demands, including exclusive footage, access to stars, and the right to air a film trailer before any other outlet.18 But ET needed celebrities and their publicists as much as they needed ET. “The reality is that we’re all in bed with each other,” said one top talent manager. “So nobody can tell anyone off. I need them. They need me.”19

ET attempted to make up for lack of hard content with snappy editing, musical accompaniment, and fast-paced storytelling. Producers livened up its otherwise soft approach with flashy graphics, sound effects, and quick cuts that add “portent” and attract audience members who are “video fluent,” thus manifesting a graphic mode that John T. Caldwell has termed “exhibitionism,” in which stylization and activity take precedence.20 In 1983, a typical program began with seven to eight minutes of industry news, delivered in the style of a nightly news program, followed by a “Spotlight” on celebrity and an on-set exclusive (a “Never-Before-Seen glimpse behind Johnny Carson’s desk!”). The show generally closed with an “in-depth” report on style, an industry trend, or “a look backward at entertainment of the past.”21

From time to time, a longer, more investigative piece or multi-part series would replace the final section. Because ET was shot on video, producers could easily and cheaply manipulate graphics and other visual framing devices (bumpers heading to and from commercials, “Next On” previews, logos). The cluttered aesthetic compensated for the otherwise “low” production values and, more importantly, guided viewer response and discouraged viewers from changing channels. The carefully orchestrated mix of content, oscillating between headlines and statistics, eye-catching imagery, and slightly longer interviews and features likewise prevented viewer fatigue with a particular segment.

Over the course of the 1980s, ET continued to grow. By September 1983, it trailed only Solid Gold (1980–1988) and Family Feud (1977–1985; 1988­–1995; 1999–present) among syndicated programming with an 8.9 weekly rating, while its weekend show, Entertainment this Week, earned a 14.4.22 By the end of the decade, ET had established itself, in the words of one Hollywood observer, as “such an important component in the way the industry is covered by press and television that it would be difficult to imagine its absence.”23 According to Ron Miller, a journalist for the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain, ET’s concept had revolutionized the TV syndication business and proved that expensive, original non-network programming can be profitable to everyone.”24 ET prided itself on its success, collecting both of the above quotes for a full-page Variety advertisement that trumpeted the program’s success. With its placement in the leading Hollywood trade, ET was effectively advising other Hollywood entities that the program had taken on a crucial promotional role within the industry and could not be ignored.

With the potential and profitability of the genre firmly established, imitators followed. Between 1981 and 1990, more than a dozen shows and pilots attempted to emulate the ET formula, including Metromedia’s All About US (1984); Paramount’s America (1985); King World’s Photoplay (1986); Tribune Entertainment’s Public People, Private Lives (1988–1989); TPE’s Preview (1990); Twentieth’s Entertainment Daily Journal (1990–1992); and Viacom’s TV Star (1980), Entertainment Coast to Coast (1986), Exclusive (1988), and America’s Hit List (1990). Some shows, such as the pilot for All About US, were clear attempts to create cross-media promotion for print publications, while others, such as Twentieth’s Entertainment Daily Journal, attempted to provide promotion for parent companies, in this case Fox/News Corporation.

Imitators also struggled for a reason that had little to do with Entertainment Tonight. ET was innovative and addictive, but its initial clearances and subsequent growth took place during a period of high demand for syndicated programming. As the number of independent stations was growing (from 106 to 215 between 1980 to 1985), the number of shows being sold into “off-network” syndication (commonly known as reruns) was decreasing.25 The networks had become increasingly quick to cancel high-budget shows with mediocre ratings, and without at least a season or two already produced, a program could not be profitably sold into syndication. The lack of rerun material thus bolstered the first-run syndication market, which included shows like ET, Solid Gold, and a raft of game shows such as Family Feud and Wheel of Fortune 1983–present).26 ET and the game shows were joined in the late-1980s by televised tabloids— A Current Affair (1986–2005), Hard Copy (1989–1999), and Inside Edition (1988–present)—that distinguished themselves through interest in the weird, the tawdry, and other sensational subjects otherwise at home in tabloid journalism.27

Each station’s schedule had a finite amount of “prime access” space between the evening news and primetime. Depending on the time zone and the length of the local news, a station had room for two, three, or maybe four half-hour “strips” at most. By the end of the 1980s, ET, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy! (1984–present), A Current Affair and Inside Edition had claims on all of the quality access time periods.28 A program might settle for a moderate number of access clearances, slowly building its audience. Yet any program attempting to emulate the ET formula needed to expend a similar amount of capital, which, by 1988, was $21 million per year, or $400,000 a week. In order to turn a profit, a new program required prime access clearance in a similar number of markets, generally upwards of 100. With so few access spots available, competitors faced nearly insurmountable odds. Entertainment Tonight’s success throughout the 1980s was thus a result of its novelty, innovations, and the ruling logic of the conglomerate media industry.

In 2011, Mary Hart stepped down from Entertainment Tonight after twenty-nine years as co-host. While the show goes on, Hart’s exit signaled, however unofficially, the end of an era. The mode and speed with which ET disseminated “entertainment news” for the majority of Hart’s tenure was a thing of the past, replaced by online video, breaking news sent to mobile phones, and celebrity Twitter updates. The transformation was gradual: over the course of the 1990s, a raft of similarly-themed programming (Extra, Access Hollywood, the entire E! channel), all with backing from major media conglomerates, cut into ET’s market share. In the mid-2000s, the rise of gossip blogs further compromised ET’s hold. These early blogs—Perez Hilton, Gawker, Just Jared, The Superficial, and dozens of others—offered immediacy, a markedly snarky attitude, and a distinctly new media style of breaking and proliferating content that attracted millions of visitors.29 In contrast, despite a content-sharing partnership with Yahoo, ET’s web presence was negligible, attracting a mere 609,000 visitors in July 2007.30 Of course, ET has historically catered to a different (older, less technologically savvy) demographic, and most viewers were content with a self-contained, twenty-two-minute television program.31

But in 2007, TMZ on TV expanded the parameters of the market. As the televised extension of TMZ.com, then garnering over 10 million unique visitors a month, TMZ on TV enjoyed a massive built-in audience, backing from Time Warner–owned Telepictures and AOL, and a clearance deal with FOX stations across the country.32 After one year on the air, it was available in 90 percent of American households, garnering an average Nielsen rating of 2.3. TMZ still trailed ET, but it brought in viewers who were both younger and male, and thus more valuable to advertisers.33 Most importantly, TMZ modeled a form of convergence in which content transitioned seamlessly from the web to the airwaves, edited to fit the specifics of each medium and its audience.

ET had to change its attitude towards breaking news and digital content lest it be left in TMZ’s dust. Between 2007 and 2010, it began broadcasting in HD, expanded to partner with MSN.com, and significantly updated its website to include many of the features found on TMZ, including streaming video, breaking news, photo galleries, Twitter updates, and the ability for users to share stories through social media.

While ET no longer enjoys the uncontested dominance that characterized its rein in the 1980s, perhaps we can gauge its importance somewhat differently. In 2011, ET maintained an average of 5.9 million viewers (more than the CBS Nightly News) and ET-style reporting on celebrity couples, movie grosses, and industry deals now infuses everything from The Huffington Post to CNN.34 With Hart’s departure and the continued surge of web-based content, including “intimate” access to celebrities via social media, ET may decline. Or it may endure, catering to those who like their celebrity coverage cheery and fawning, working to adapt to the increasingly convergent media culture. Regardless of its eventual fate, it is clear that Entertainment Tonight fundamentally altered the landscape of first-run syndication, paving the path not only for Extra, Access Hollywood, and TMZ, but the infusion of “entertainment news” in all its various manifestations across the contemporary mediascape.




1. Aljean Harmetz, “TV Producers Discover New Path to Prime Time,” New York Times, July 5, 1988, C16.

2. See Michele Hilmes, ed., NBC: America’s Network (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007); Janet Wasko, “Hollywood and Television in the 1950s: The Roots of Diversification,” in The Fifties: Transforming the Screen, 1950–1959, Peter Lev, ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 135–46.

3. Marilyn J. Matelski, “Jerry Springer and the Wages of Fin-Syn: The Rise of Deregulation and the Decline of TV Talk,” Journal of Popular Culture 33 (2000), 64–65.

4. Peter Funt, “One Man’s Formula for Sure-Fire Hits,” New York Times, April 6, 1986, 14.

5. Kevin Downey, “ET: It Changed Show Biz and Changed the Syndie Biz as Well,” Broadcasting and Cable, November 17, 2003, 22.

6. Michael E. Hill, “Entertainment Tonight: On the Air Fan Magazine,” Washington Post, May 27, 1984, 5.

7. See Michael Joseph Gross, “Famous for Tracking the Famous,” New York Times, June 23, 2002, A1.

8. The show’s ownership was a “patchwork” of production companies and cable providers: Paramount owned 40 percent, Cox Broadcasting-owned Telerep held 40 percent and Taft Broadcasting had the remaining 20 percent. Paramount was viewed as “the principal production entity,” in part due to its role in funding the installation of the satellite network.

9. Funt, “One Man’s Formula,” 14.

10. Rick Kissell, “ET Innovations Now Taken For Granted,” Variety, September 8, 2000, A6.

11. Entertainment Tonight Ad, Variety, June 24 1981, 57; Morrie Gelman, “Par TV’s Entertainment Tonight Marks a Major Step in Networking,” Daily Variety, June 23, 1981, 10.

12. “Entertainment Tonight Wins Big-Par TV,” Daily Variety, October 6, 1981, 12.

13. James Brown, “All the Fluff That’s Fit to Air,” Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1981.

14. Howard Rosenberg, “Relentless Pursuit of Fluff,” Los Angeles Times, March 10, 1982, G1.

15. Richard Stengel, “Turning Show Biz into News,” Time, July 4, 1983, 72.

16. Gross, “Famous for Tracking the Famous,” A1; Richard Zoglin and Tara Weingarten, “That’s Entertainment?” Time, October 3, 1994, 85.

17. John Brodie, “ET’s New Competitor Sets Flack a-Flutter,” Variety, July 25, 1994, 1.

18. Ibid.

19. Susanne Ault, “ET: The Business Behind the Buzz,” Broadcasting & Cable, July 2, 2001, 14.

20. Gross, “Famous for Tracking the Famous,” A1; Peter W. Kaplan, “TV News Magazines Aim at Diverse Viewers,” New York Times, August 1, 1985, C18. John Thornton Caldwell, “Excessive Style: The Crisis of Network Television,” in Television: The Critical View, 6th ed., Horace Newcomb, ed. (New York: Oxford, 2000), 652.

21. Stengel, “Turning Show Biz into News,” 72.

22. “First Run Syndication Leader,” Variety, September 21, 1983, 82.

23. Ibid.; David Gritten, quote attributed to Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. See Entertainment Tonight Advertisement, Variety, February 1, 1984, 67.

24. See Entertainment Tonight Advertisement, Variety, February 1, 1984, 67.

25. Michael Schrage, “TV Producers Woo the Networks,” Washington Post, January 15, 1985, E5.

26. Ibid.

27. See Kevin Glynn, Tabloid Culture: Trash Taste, Popular Power, and the Transformation of American Television (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000).

28. “Entertainment Tonight turns 3,000,” Broadcasting & Cable, March 8, 1993, 30.

29. See Anne Helen Petersen, “Celebrity Juice, Not From Concentrate: Perez Hilton, Gossip Blogging, and the New Star Production,” Jump Cut, 2007, http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc49.2007/PerezHilton/index.html.

30. Paige Albiniak, “New, Improved Access,Broadcasting & Cable, September 10, 2007, 9.

31. While numbers for all television viewing had steadily declined with the expansion of cable and new media, ET still earned a 5.4 Nielsen rating in January 2006. Ben Grossman, “Entertainment Mags Rock,” Broadcasting & Cable, January 23, 2006, 17.

32. For more on TMZ, see Petersen, “Smut Goes Corporate.”

33. Paige Albiniak, “TMZ Stays in the News,” Broadcasting & Cable, November 26, 2007, 12.

34. Brooks Barnes, “After Hart, a Deluge of Meaner Celebrity TV?” New York Times, May 19, 2011, C1.

Further Reading

Caldwell, John Thornton. Televisuality: Style, Crisis and Authority in American Television. New

Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Glynn, Kevin. Tabloid Culture: Trash Taste, Popular Power, and the Transformation of American Television. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

Petersen, Anne Helen. “Smut Goes Corporate: TMZ and the Conglomerate, Convergent Face of

Celebrity Gossip.” Television & New Media 11, 1 (2009): 62–81.