Useful Noise #2
Phoebe Bridgers did what to a WHAT now?
Just kidding. I promise there’s not a single reference to a g****r being s*****d in this week’s newsletter.
In this issue:
Reliving the childhood I never had with Disney+
Plus GO SLOW NO, 7 Things, and The Uselist
My Month+ With Disney+
Because I’m a cheapskate and/or prudent consumer, my “thing” is to subscribe to a different streaming service each month, gobble down the essentials, then cancel. In December I finally got around to sampling Disney+, which meant belatedly catching up with a bunch of (mostly) animated classics I’d inexplicably never seen.
Well, it’s not entirely inexplicable. I am a child of the Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo and The Cat from Outer Space years, when Disney treated children with the contempt we deserved. The only way you could catch an oldie then was during a theatrical re-release—Disney largely kept its cartoon canon off TV—and by the dawn of VHS I’d moved on to adult fare like Yor: Hunter From the Future.
That means despite my childhood immersion in Disney, via toys, picture books, and trips to the Magic Kingdom, I’d somehow seen only The Jungle Book (re-released in 1978—there’s a story about that here) and Dumbo (one of the rare films they allowed on TV). So please accompany me as I catch up with some of what I missed as kid: the laughs, the drama, the moralism, the ingenuity, and the occasional racism of the 21st century’s greediest intellectual property collectors.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Sorry, I simply do not like the way this person barges into the dwarfs’ home and judgmentally scrubs everything. (Full disclosure: My cousin Kathy straightened up my room when I was six and I couldn’t find anything for a week and though I’m not still mad at her about it, I clearly haven’t forgotten.) S. White is kind of a drip generally, to be quite honest. I also have questions about the queen’s strategy—why disguise yourself as a terrifying witch to insinuate yourself into someone’s good graces? Seems counterintuitive! The dwarfs though? The dwarfs are flawless, 7 for 7, would absolutely dwarf again. It is unfortunate, however, that five of them suffer from debilitating temperamental or medical conditions. I am certain that Sneezy longs for the sweet relief of death.
More like PiYEScchio. Disney justifiably gets a lot of shit for ideologically streamlining the stories it fences off from the common domain, particularly for excising grislier bits from the folk tales. (In Carlo Collodi’s terrifically sardonic book, for instance, Pinocchio is a jerk who immediately throws a mallet and murders the talking cricket for lecturing him. Relatable.) But some of these movies are fucking terrifying. From the donkeyfication of the wayward boys to the climactic whale sequence, what makes Pinocchio’s dangers so primally horrific is that they’re convincingly rendered as final, overwhelming, and insurmountable. (Until, whew, they’re not.)
As I mentioned, this one I did see as a kid, and I vividly remember the drunken clown who insists “Elephants ain’t got no feelings. They’re made of rubber.” I revisited because I wanted to see if this movie is as unrelentingly cruel as it seemed then. And oh my. Dumbo is ridiculed from birth, his mom is imprisoned for trying to protect him, then his suddenly exploitable freakishness makes him a star. I know, the moral is supposed to be that what you think is your flaw turns out to be your gift. But I say fly away and fuck ‘em all, Dumbo.
If you prefer your groundbreaking animation encased in middlebrow paternalism, well have I got the film for you. So much here is wonderful (Mickey and his unstoppable proliferating brooms) and just plain weird (the proposition that Beethoven’s “Eroica” is actually about horny centaurs). And as a gentleman of broad tastes, I got no problem believing that Bach’s as a good a toon soundtrack as “Turkey in the Straw” played on a cow’s teeth. But the insufferable Deems Taylor lectures between segments make me want to shoot spitballs as he pontificates, essentially, “Now we’d like to use your imagination. And we’d like you to use it in precisely this way.”
OK, this is just charming as fuck. With his impossibly loose-limbed dancing and midwesterner’s butchery of Cockney, the wonderful real-life Dick Van Dyke is more animated than most Hanna-Barbera cartoons, and Julie Andrews is both loverly and commanding. I do not even want to think about how seeing a movie about a stern but pretty British nanny as a child would have affected me, ern, developmentally. (Also I did not realize Mrs. Banks was such a fox when she was younger.) (Hm, this review is taking a turn. I’ve been home alone too long.)
The Lion King
Wait, so “the circle of life” is that lions eat antelopes, but then lions die and their buried corpses help grow the grass that antelopes eat? That is one wild-ass rationalization, Mufasa, though I expect no less of the ruling class. Tim Rice and Elton John don’t nail down the classic musical-theater aspect of a Disney tune the way Howard Ashman and Harold Menken did. But few Brits understand what Americans expect of them as thoroughly as Jeremy Irons, who both honors and extends the villainous legacy of George Sanders’ Shere Khan.
Bonus cut: The Muppet Movie
No idea how a nine-year-old first-gen Sesame Street addict missed this in theaters, but the 1970s were a mysterious age. The very sight of Dom DeLuise in the first scene lets you know what kind of movie you’re in for—one where large expanses of America must be crossed in multiple vehicles, and anyone from Elliott Gould to Edgar Bergen can pop up along the trip. Essentially the last and youngest vaudevillian, Jim Henson was perfect for the what-happens-now? of ’70s pop culture because his love of show biz was untainted by post-hippie cynicism. And though it’s commonly said the Muppets are for kids and adults alike, really they’re neither quite for either. Like Gonzo, they just are whatever they are, and you ride along with that.
GO SLOW NO
Go Slow No is a weekly survey of new, new-to-me, and overlooked album releases. The rating system is pretty simple: GO means listen to this now, SLOW means check it out when you get a chance, and NO means run screaming from the room if you hear so much as a note of it.
From wedding perennial “I Love You Truly” through Coldplay’s “Yellow,” the beloved, enthusiastic, and prolific 82-year-old folkie performs a song for each year from a century that seems older and weirder every day, sometimes accompanying himself on a single stringed instrument, sometimes with arrangements bolstered and sweetened by a cadre of Louisiana musicians. His picks are as familiar as “School Days” and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” (though both include verses you might not know), as obscure as “The Years,” which represents 1964 while Lennon-McCartney appear only via the Mary Hopkin charmer “Goodbye.” He slides a Coasters joke into “Along Comes Mary,” recognizes the greatness of Ass Ponys’ “Earth to Grandma,” and sets the Spice Girls and Irving Berlin on an equal footing. One hundred songs can, for the uninitiated, be a lot of Stampfel—imagine Walt Whitman predicting the Muppets when he coined the term “barbaric yawp”—and this 18-year project also charts a struggle with the dysphonia that nearly silenced him and required him to develop the valiant croak that predominates as the project soldiers into the ’80s and ’90s. But by the time he and his compatriots get up again and again on “Tubthumping” this project feels both heroic and truly democratic. Stampfel approaches each song here with neither respect nor condescension, just affection, as though all great pop music is novelty music, because it feels new every time you sing it.
Probably the highest praise I can bestow on Kieran Hebden, dba Four Tet, who helms this some-assembly-required collection of backlogged tracks from the credited beat-splicing Oxnard maestro, is that it never tries to cohere—just like a regular Madlib album. Instead, breakbeats and folk drumming and jazz cymbal work, both sampled and reconstructed live, are jolted from their grooves by hard cuts to the next track, with the voices that echo from the bottom of the crates deepening the mysterious ambience until we reach “Duumbiyay,” a brilliant coda where what sounds like an African children’s chant plays off a bop piano trio. The overall mood is one of nostalgia for a past whose events may or may not ever have happened, but certainly didn’t occur in this order.
The Wassalou region of southern Mali has produced some of the most remarkable female singers in the world, and if you’ve never experienced the irrepressible keen common to the style, or only in in softened (but no less worthy) variants from Fatoumata Diawara or Rokia Traoré, Doumbia’s artistry will be a revelation. While she’s flirted with electronic modifications and modernizations over the past 30-some years, here Doumbia settles in with the circular patterns of Mali’s traditional acoustic music that suit her best.
Whether peddling hipster coke ‘n’ kink, courting fame as the Zalman King of modern rhythm & pop, standing next to Daft Punk to seem human, or remembering an ’80s he didn’t have to live through, Abel Tesfaye has never held my attention long enough for me to scrutinize my indifference. But this collection of his 18 (18?) biggest tracks, released to coincide with this week(e)nd’s Halftime Show, feels like a put-up-or-shut-up moment. And, so, ahem: Not without its textural pleasures, his synthetic MJ-on-half-a-xan vocal sheen projects a bleak sensuality the unwary can mistake for mystique or a reflection of their own haunted interiority. He’s the ideal star for a cynical age that expects nothing more from pop than prickles of sheer sensation to temporarily numb its pain. And like most drugs, he’s enjoyable recreationally in limited doses if you don’t get hooked on his altered reality. So just say—
Keeping a rock band on top for a quarter-century without embarrassing yourself is a notable feat, and Dave Grohl seems about as decent a Last Arena-Rocker Standing as anyone could ask. Still, without a commercial trend to adapt to, buck against, or otherwise acknowledge—the situation he’s been in essentially since he survived nu-metal—Grohl is a craftsman in search of a form. I’ve heard album #10 described as a “party” album, even a “pop” record, but what I hear mostly is Aerosmith without the smut, a project that Grohl’s earnest, likable voice isn’t quite supple or tasteless enough for—even the ballads here are so sensible that the lactose-intolerant won’t retch. Guess there’s a reason most great rock stars eventually embarrass themselves.
Named for a song from back when Miley Cyrus was good, 7 Things is a grab bag where I dump uncategorizable thoughts too long for a tweet and too short for an essay. (Though unlike Miley I don’t hate ’em. Well, not all of them.)
SOPHIE drum covers
If (like me) you had no idea “drum covers” were even a thing, a quick survey of YouTube’ll learn ya that indeed they are, very much so. Thanks to Craig Jenkins for tweeting about one guy’s SOPHIE covers—the nuanced but bludgeoning way drummer Karl Fagerstrom bashes along to “Faceshopping,” tracing and working within the track’s rhythms, allows you to rehear it as a drummer might. We all mourn in our own ways.
Yeah, this is on me. I should absolutely know by now what I’m in for. Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen are both game, talented actors who look fantastic in their period outfits, and the production design is inventively referential, but that’s not enough to keep me enduring rehashed (fine, meta-rehashed) sitcom plots when the big reveal is that we’re trapped in an overextended Twilight Zone scenario caked in all sorts of MCU schmutz.
That sound Shakira makes on “Girl Like Me”
There are many things not good about this song, beginning with the song part of it. The entire female population of certain countries might consider a class action suit against Will.He.Was for the way he chants “la-la-latinas.” Then Shakira pierces through the ethnofetishist drool with a shriek that expresses neither pleasure nor pain but just momentarily exists for its own idiosyncratic sake.
Great Expectations & Little Dorrit
Well, it took nearly a year into quar, but I am now someone who has strong opinions about Dickens adaptations. After a Great Expectations re-read I revisited David Lean’s smartly pruned 1946 film version. Beautifully, moodily shot, it can’t quite figure out what to make dramatically of Pip and Estella, the passive pawns at its center. The dead hand of their elders doesn’t weigh as heavily on them throughout as it should, so the grafted-on happy ending where they break free feels doubly false. But wot larx the cast has, especially an uncharacteristically sprightly Alec Guinness as Herbert Pocket.
I was in the mood for something baggier after that, so I dipped into the BBC’s Little Dorrit. And while its non-stylized (and so not-quite-Dickensian) London is initially a little jarring, it’s a showcase of dynamic pacing and great casting. You get Claire Foy adding a fire to the novel’s idealized long-suffering heroine, Tom Courtenay rendering William Dorrit sympathetic even as he weaponizes his wounded pride against his daughter, and great supporting turns from the likes of Eddie Marsan as Panks and James Fleet as Frederick. Oh, and yes, three people have already told me to dive into Bleak House next, if that’s what you were going to say.
Super Bowl ads: Hell no Dolly, Bruce Springstjeepn
Here’s why you wait till someone’s dead before you canonize them—or why adults need to regulate their relationships to even the most admirable celebrities. Dolly’s recent over-the-top beatification made her rep due for a tumble, though celebrating the exploitative side hustle by turning “9 to 5” into “5 to 9” for a Squarespace commercial really feels like an unforced error. Springsteen’s Jeep commercial is even sadder, because he’s squandered a career’s worth of principled good will on what? A poorly written car ad espousing toothless centrism, casting himself as the cluelessly pontificating white Boomer non-fans have often mistaken him for.
Angela Davis, Women, Race and Class
I’m not expert enough to tell you if subsequent scholarship challenges the conclusions of this 1981 essay collection, but the ease with which Davis follows the interplay of the three categories in her title as she moves through major issues in American history, from abolition through abortion, makes this a model of intersectional analysis. And yes, I should’ve read it years ago.
The M Word
Well, I thought I wouldn’t have to write anything else about Morgan Wallen for quite a while after last week, and then suddenly there was more to say about this dope than ever. So here’s my reaction to his racist dipshittery and “label suspension” over at GQ. OK, this time I know I won’t have to while anything else about Morgan Wallen for a while. Right?
“Nutted on my butt” aside, our best celebrity has been more quotably filthy, not to mention more deliberately hooky. But the beat stays the hell out her way and I love how she unloads a plosive string of bad b’s in the pre-bhorus. Wish she’d chatted with her pal Bernie before doing that Uber Eats ad though.
The ’90s didn’t sound like this, not exactly. But they could have, and Dylan Baldi’s gift is to perpetually recreate the process of an alt-rock band honing its sound for the major label without sacrificing its edge. If writing songs this good is so easy, why aren’t more of his influences still doing it?
That’s “Kim” as in “Possible,” and also as in “Bitch I’m.” The latest sharp single in a string of them from the slightly undervalued Afro-Australian rapper, which features stellar up-and-comer Tate and and a beat from Maidza’s regular producer Dan Farber, is reportedly part of an upcoming album that’s called Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 3, because that title is perpetually true.
The title of the R&B singer’s first single since her solid 2020 album Jaguar stands for “friend you can keep,” and it’s all about negotiating a comfortable level of commitment without talking about forever.
A folksy idyll about setting aside “months of cops and blacktops” for the moment and trading one set of memories for another, with the phrase “How long till this is the past we’re looking back on?” particularly resonant.