Friday, April 5, 2019

Crime Stories and Music, Part 1 — The Crimes of Lady Gaga: Fame, Love, Female Empowerment, and Revenge

UPDATE: I found some excellent new blogposts abour these three music videos and I think I'll rewrite this post soon. I included links to these posts under each video. Look for the links to gaggajournal and blackberriesandapples. These posts bring up things I should have caught such as Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

You can find crime stories in unusual places, places you might not have thought of particularly if you are my age. I'm kicking off my discovery of crime and noir in music series with three music videos from Lady Gaga: Paparazzi, Telephone, and Bad Romance. I owe a student in a English class where I was a teaching assistant for bringing up the association of Bad Romance with crime stories —human trafficking in this case. It lodged Lady Gaga videos and crime stories in the back of my mind. Lady Gaga is a splashy way to launch this series and one my readers might not have considered.

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Lady Gaga's lyrics and music videos inspire an amazing range of interpretations. In addition to the normal and enthusiastic fan discussions, there are people who find the occult, the Illuminate, and MKUltra in Gaga's work. This is particularly true with Bad Romance. I, however, am only concerned with Paparazzi, Telephone, and Bad Romance as they relate to crime stories and am not going to consider the lyrics. All three videos have two major themes: female empowerment and revenge.

Paparazzi and Telephone are related and can be viewed as straight-out crime stories. Bad Romance is much more complicated and surreal but does have a crime element and the female empowerment and revenge themes mentioned above.

Paparazzi (from the 2008 The Fame album)

View the video here.

The Paparazzi music video opens as if it is a movie complete with a title sequence. A celebrity,
Lady Gaga, is nearly killed by her lover who goes into a rage when she doesn't cooperate with his narcissistic need to be photographed by the paparazzi. She is left broken and deserted by the public but recovers through sheer force of will and takes her revenge. In a cynical view of our culture, her revenge propels her back into the spotlight and is once again "loved". 

The story is framed within a narrative on the corrosive effects of celebrity and the fickleness of the press and public. There are scenes of artfully posed dead models who I interpret to be other victims of the paparazzi and/or who couldn't achieve the fame they craved.

Not surprising, this is a lavishly visual production with  the extravagant costumes you expect from Lady Gaga. In the revenge sequence, her yellow jumpsuit, black corset, round glasses, and black lips are disturbing, even scary, like a deranged and surreal Minnie Mouse. Her lover is played by Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård (Tarzan, True Blood).

There is a nice homage to Hitchcock's film, Vertigo when Gaga is pushed off the balcony. Take a look at the Title sequence from Vertigo and jump to the 1:20 mark in this clip from the film. The Wikipedia article on the video points out another film reference, Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

Telephone (from the 2009 The Fame Monster album)

The Fame Monster is a reissue of The Fame album and includes the Bad Romance and Telephone
tracks in addition to Paparazzi which was on The Fame.

View the video here. Explicit version.

Telephone is also a short crime film and begins with a movie-style title sequence showing the outside of a prison. It picks up where Paparazzi ended with Gaga now in prison. Telephone is the most playful and fun of the three videos I'm featuring. It starts with grainy black and white surveillance  camera view of Gaga being escorted to her cell by two butch guards. The guards strip her and we get a funny reference to the rumour that Gaga is intersex,  This first half of the film is a delightfully exaggerated homage to the girls behind bars trope with a nicely executed fight in the commissary and leather clad lesbians in the exercise yard. And, as always with Gaga, the costuming is pretty remarkable including sunglasses made from burning cigarettes and an outfit consisting only of crime scene tape.

Gaga gets bailed out of prison (I know, it doesn't work like that) and is met on the outside by Beyoncé driving the Pussy Wagon from Tarantino's film, Kill Bill and they speed off. When Gaga explained her concept for Telephone, he told her she had to use the Pussy Wagon and loaned it to her. There is a link below for more Tarantino references. They end up at a diner where Beyoncé  poisons her thuggish boyfriend(?) and Gaga takes over the kitchen with her poison recipe and murders everyone else in the diner. They take off pursued by law enforcement and the video ends in a Thelma and Louise moment.

Bad Romance (from the 2009 The Fame Monster album)

Bad Romance is the most complex and surreal of the three videos and the one that generates the most
far out theories. I'm taking the straight crime angle where we see Gaga in the opening scene looking drugged and wearing glasses made from razor blades. She's been kidnapped and drugged by a gang of supermodels who sell her to the Russian mafia to be auctioned off. We see the bids in rubles registering on laptop screens; she is highly saught after. She overcomes her drugged kidnapped victim state and dances seductively for one of the bidders then incinerates him on the bed where he thought he was going to take his prize.

There are some real stretches for symbols in the last two links. For example, in the chorus Gaga sings Rah Rah and Ro Mah. Some think Rah actually refers to the Egyptian sun god Ra and that Ro Mah might refer to the Roman Catholic Church. Lady Gaga says both are just short for the word "romance". Of course, that's just what a member of the Illumante would say. It is nonetheless interesting to see what people take away from the video. It certainly is rich with symbolism. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Crime Stories and Music — Inroduction

This is the start of a multi part series of posts looking at crime themes in music. Now, you need to understand that I know very little about music. I missed that phase of adolescence where music is a big part of a young person's life and at this late stage of my life find myself with almost no background as to who sang what when and with which band. What I do know a little about and enjoy is crime and noir fiction and film.

My wife,, having grown up with much older siblings has a near encyclopedic knowledge of pop/rock/soul music starting in the 50s. She especially likes the music of Bruce Springsteen. Having observed her watching every Springsteen video on You Tube until the wee hours of the the pre-dawn, I started bouncing around the interwebs  myself, reading about Bruce. It didn't hurt my interest that Springsteen's guitarist, Steven Van Zandt, plays an Italian mobster on The Sopranos.

It didn't take long for Google to link to articles such as: Bruce Springsteen's American Noir, Top Ten Springsteen Crime Songs, The Crimes of Bruce Springsteen, and The Dignity and Humanity of Bruce Springsteen's Criminals. I also found out that Bruce himself has said that the film noir genre influences his music. You might be thinking "Well duh, you just figuring that out?". Well, yes, that is exactly what's happening.

Anyway, searching for stories on Bruce Springsteen and crime and noir led me to many other websites that discuss crime themes in music. My searches also led me to short story collections based on crime themes in the songs of various artists. Springsteen's songs alone have inspired three collections and there are anthologies of crime stories based on the music of Lou Reed, The Go-Gos, and, not surprisingly, the outlaw country artist, Johnny Cash. There are also three music videos by Lady Ga-Ga that have crime themes and I will explore those as well.

The theme of crime in song is more extensive than I ever thought and over the rest of the year I will review the short story collections, the Lady Ga-Ga music videos, and document everything I find about the subject. There are lists of individual songs by various artists that fall into the scope of my research.

My first hurdle is where to start. Springsteen is the most complex. Lady Ga-Ga's videos are visually stunning and complex in their own way and there are only three I'm going to discuss. Or should I start with a good old academic literature survey. Who knows, I might actually learn something about music along the way.

Stay tuned, this is looking to be a long term project.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Review: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

I'm part of the 1% who gave this book two stars on Goodreads. At the bottom I link to other Goodreads reviews which I looked at after I posted my review. I am not alone in not being wowed by this book.

Spoilers ahead, be warned

This is the story of Catherine Danielle Clark was known a Kya or The Marsh Girl by the people in the town of Barkley Cove on the coast of North Carolina. She and her family live in poverty in a shack by the water. When she is seven her mother walk out on the family and her brothers and sisters drift away as well. She is left with only her abusive alcoholic father. By age ten, her father has left and not returned leaving Kya alone. She avoids other people and spnds her time in her beloved march collecting. She is befriended by Tate, the son of a fisherman. Tate shares her love of nature and teaches her to read and brings her science books. When Tate, despite of promises, doesn't come back to her after leaving for college, she is devastated and returns to her solitary ways. Later, Chase, the son of owners of a Western Auto in town, decides to have some fun and begins grooming her. When Kya discovers that Chase is planning to marry someone else she breaks all contact with him. Kya has now been abandoned by her family and two men to whom she was attracted and she is confirmed in her desire to be left alone. With encouragement of Tate who does return but isn't able to rekindle their relationship, Kya sends her nature paintings to a publisher and is soon a published author in her early twenties. While she is on a trip to see her publisher, Chase is found dead at the base of an abandoned fire tower. The sheriff is able to get enough circumstantial evidence to build the case that Kya murdered Chase and she is arrested and brought to trial but is found not guilty and she returns to the marsh.

Crawdads has near universal acclaim and the film rights have been acquired by Reese Witherspoon so why am I an contrarian? The theme is a good one but there are just too many annoying details for me to be wowed. I think we are supposed to be swept away by the beauty of the writing to take notice of details that might jar the reader out of the story. More on that later.

The first what the hell event occurred early and made me wonder if the author had done any research on North Carolina or even looked at a map. Kya's father leaves her alone for several days to go to Ashville, NC to see about his disability pension.The story is set on the coast and Ashville is in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the far western part of the state. Later Tate tells Kya that his deceased mother and sister went to Ashville to get him a birthday present, Chase takes Kya with him when he goes to Ashville to get supplies for the store. Nope. Wouldn't happen. Ashville is not any kind of major metropolitan area where someone on the coast would go for services and supplies. To get there travelers would have to go past Greenville, Chapel Hill, Durham, the state capitol, Raleigh and Charlotte. It is such an absurd element to put in the story you have to figure that the author needed to have character go on a long trip or didn't look at a map.

The nature writing isn't consistent and goes from very nice to clunky and overwrought to field guide descriptions. The prologue is a good example of the author's nature writing.
Marsh is not a swamp. Marsh is a space of light, where grass grows in the water, and water flows into the sky. Slow-moving creeks wander, carrying the orb of the sun with them to the sea, and long-;egged birds lift with unexpected grace —as though not built to fly — against the roar of a thousand snow geese. 
Then within the marsh, here and there, true swamp crawls into low-lying bogs, hidden in clammy forests. Swamp water is still and dark, having swallowed the light in its muddy throat. Even night crawlers are diurnal in this lair.

Then you get this:
Kya leaned over gently, as if to kiss a baby. The microscope's light reflected in her dark pupils, and she drew in a breath as a Mardi Gras of costumed players pirouetted and careened into view. Unimaginable headdresses adorned astonishing bodies so eager for more life, they frolicked as though caught in a circus tent, not a single bead of water.
One Goodreads reviewer commented how Kya becomes a man magnet after living alone, never seeing a doctor or dentist and with questionable hygiene. Her hair is likely to be a tangled mess and she is going to be pretty hairy compared to town girls. She gets her water from a hand pump meaning it is a shallow well and who knows what is in the water. It is difficult to believe that nothing happened to her, living as she does, that would require a doctor. I think it more likely that she would be smiling with rotted stumps.

And what about hurricanes? Five hurricanes struck North Carolina during the period this story is set. This includes Hurricane Hazel, a category 4 storm that struck in 1954. Ignoring that hurricanes are a danger to coastal North Carolina is to ignore a significant part of living on the North Carolina Coast.

When the book turns to Kya's relationships with Tate and Chase it becomes a rather poor teen romance. Goodreads reviewer Amy Watson described it as a Mills and Boone romance novel and another called it a bodice ripper. Amy also quotes this terrible bit of dialogue which isn't an isolated example

"I love you Kya, you know that. You've known it for a long time."
"You left me like all the others''
"I will never leave you again."
''I know.' She said."
"Kya do you love me? You've never spoken those words to me."
"I've always loved you. Even as a child- in a time I don't remember- I already loved you.

The best part of Kya relationship with Tate is when they left each other specimens on a stump. Chase, on the other hand, is a predator, grooming Kya for bragging rights for getting her virginity. I don't mind a bit of rumpy-pumpy but I thought the sex scenes in the book were poorly done.

The mystery surrounding the death of Chase could easily have been left out of the book. Spoiler: she did it and got away with it. In fact, I wish the author had used the space to actually develop Kya's character. If there has to be the murder then more backstory would have been nice. We know she felt betrayed by Chase but what was going through her mind to cause this shy and reclusive young woman to murder several years after she was betrayed. Did theyt have interactions we don't know about.

All-in-all it is a good premise not well executed. Maybe the film will be better.

Some of my favorite Goodreads reviews that I want to be able to find again:

Jessica Woodbury who calls Kya Manic Pixi Dream Girl in the Marsh
Lindsay Nixon who worked pluff mud into her review
Liza Fireman
Krista who found passages for me to quote so I didn't have to re-read
Hoolia who raised the issue of hurricanes and medical issues
Walker Doermann who raised the questin of Kya as man magnet.
Amy Watson who compares the later part of the book to a Mills and Boone novel
Anne who gives a feminist perspective
Julia who gives us some perspective from someone familiar with the area

Review: In Bloom by CJ Skuse

In Bloom is probably a Marmite book; you'll love it or hate it. I have an opened jar of Marmite in the cupboard and have been eagerly awaiting this sequel to Sweetpea so you can figure where I stand. The UK's self-described psychopath and serial killer, Rhiannon (Rhee) Lewis, is back and this time she has company with a conscience.
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The setting is still the West Country of England, close to Wales and is told in first person.

 The blurb on the cover describes it as Bridget Jones meets American Psycho but I don't think that is a good comparison. Rhiannon is much closer to Jeff Lindsay's Dexter Morgan. Here's one similarity: like Dexter, Rhiannon has an undeniable compulsion to kill and also like Dexter, she is selective who she kills, she only kills bad people (well, mostly). Rhiannon is very self-aware of what she is and matter-of-factly says, For me, killing is what makes life worth living. She just in control enough to channel her urge.

In Bloom opens exactly where Sweetpea ended, with a body in the bathtub and Rhiannon fearing that it's the police pounding at her door. To her relief, it is just an elderly neighbor leaving for the shops. Rhiannon is able to get rid of the body—AJ, the father of her child—and get her noisy neighbor out of the way. She moves in with her jailed fiance's (Craig) parents who think that they will be grandparents.

 Rhiannon found herself pregnant at the end of Sweetpea and with a title like In Bloom you can figure the focus of this story. Each chapter is headed with stage of her pregnancy giving the the week and day. She goes into great detail on the changes in her body which may make some readers squeamish. The twist here is that Rhee and the foetus talk to each other. The foetus tries to talk Rhee out of killing any more out of survival. And the foetus isn't above making her feel guilty about killing the father. Is there a psychic connection or does Rhiannon actually have a conscience manifesting in these conversations? This may seem like a lame story element but it is really well done and frequently very funny.

 Rhee continues to be sarcastic, foul mouthed, hyper sexed, and very funny. Her attempts to be part of a mommy group and another ladies society are hilarious. Besides her urge to kill again — she has several candidates picked out much the the distress of the foetus — Rhee is continuing to fit up her cheating fiance (currently awaiting trial) for her murders and is gaslighting the woman with whom he was cheating. This is a really nicely done and reveals Rhiannon's deviousness. The reader (me anyway) frequently doesn't see what she is up to with her plan.

All is not smooth sailing, however, as there is a detective who isn't as convinced by Rhiannon's act as everyone else.

The book ends with a good setup for a sequel and I can hardly wait. I don't think I've read another series since Dexter where you find yourself rooting for the serial killer, even one as rude, crude, funny, and profane as Rhiannon.

Sweetpea, the first book in the series, is available from Amazon.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Review: A Ladder to the Sky (2018) by John Boyne

A Ladder to the Sky is different from my usual reading which leans toward the hardboiled and noir. But members of several book groups on Facebook mentioned Boyne often enough that I decided to give him a try. I am glad I did because I greatly enjoyed this twisted saga of a man's ambitions.

Maurice Swift wants nothing more than to be an acclaimed author. He has the drive but unfortunately lacks the talent. What he is skilled at is appropriating other people's stories as his own. Maurice is a character the reader has to despise. His actions, what he does to people makes you want to see him brought down...hard.
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The book has an interesting structure. There are three, first person narratives. These narratives are separated by two second person interludes that highlight an event in Maurice's life. I don't want to say much about the first person narratives because it might spoil the story but it isn't giving anything away to say that the first shows Maurice as a young man beginning his ascent. Just to entice you, the first interlude has Maurice spending the night in Gore Vidal's villa. With Vidal's acerbic wit, this was a fun bit. As I read the first narrative, I thought of Patricia Highsmith's Thomas Ripley. Like Ripley, Maurice is immoral and likely a psychopath.

I'm not sure how to do justice to Boyne's style but the three narratives in three voices and the two interludes flow into a compelling story that is difficult to put down. This is an excellent story about obsession, delusion, and the craft of writing. A Ladder to the Sky is likely to remain one of my top reads of 2019.
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