Monday, September 29, 2014

Music Review: All About That Bass vs. Anaconda

"All About That Bass"
  • Artist: Meghan Trainor
  • Album: Title
  • Genre: Pop
  • Label: Epic (Sony)
  • Release: 2 June 2014
  • Writers: Kevin Kadish, Meghan Trainor
  • Producer: Kevin Kadish
  • Artist: Nicki Minaj
  • Album: The Pinkprint
  • Genre: Hip-Hop/Rap
  • Label: Cash Money (Universal)
  • Release: 4 August 2014
  • Writers: Nicki Minaj, Jamal Jones, James Strife, Jonathan Solone-Myvett, Ernest Clark, Marcos Palacios, Anthony "Sir Mix-A-Lot" Ray
  • Producers: Polow da Don (Jamal Jones), The Internz (Ernest Clark, Marcos Palacios)

[Video not safe for work - click to view]

The year was 1992, and our collective culture was nothing short of up-ended by the first rapper from Seattle to get a number-one hit.  That rapper was Sir Mix-A-Lot, and that hit was "Baby Got Back".  And with the success of said song, the very definition of beauty changed.  For the first time in recent history, it was considered cool to have a wider waist measurement.  Then again, that paradigm shift was intertwined with an element of female objectification.  Its greater message can best be summed up as, "Ladies, don't feel bad just because you don't fit the traditional, size-0 definition of female beauty.  You, too, can get laid!  Specifically by me."  So perhaps "Baby Got Back" was a little bit janusian (a word I just invented to describe something posessing two or more conflicting qualities, and a word which I expect to use a lot more often on this blog, so take notes) in its approach.  But I like to think it got hit with some bolt of mental lightning, or some other paranormal affair took place, because the spirit of that song has split up into a good and a bad side, and each side has inhabited the souls of two songs released in close proximity over this past summer.

In this corner, we have "All About That Bass", the debut single from the young singer-songwriter Meghan Trainor.  And in this corner, we have "Anaconda", the latest hit from a more established leading lady, rapper Nicki Minaj.  As both songs seem to posess the influence of "Baby Got Back" in some form or another, I saw fit to pit them up against one another.  One of the questions I will be asking is, how do these songs utilise the power bestowed upon them by "Baby Got Back"?  I'll start with "All About That Bass", and I'm happy to state up front that Meghan Trainor chose to take the message of that song, trim out the more sexualised parts, and re-package it for a younger crowd who may have insecurity about their body image.  And just as Sir Mix-A-Lot opened his song with a solid declaration we all know and respect, "All About That Bass" hits close to that mark as well:

I think it's pretty clear
I ain't no size 2
But I can shake it, shake it
Like I'm supposed to do
Meghan Trainor's body is not totally trim.  And yet she is happy, if not for it, then at least despite it.  So tell me, what other points do you wish to bring up?
I've seen those magazines
Them pictures Photoshopped
We know that [noun] ain't real
Come on now, make it stop
Why yes, Sir Mix-A-Lot also made reference to the tendency of popular media to present the skinny body type as what we ought to look like.  And kudos to miss Trainor for updating this accusation, by pointing out that said images are out-and-out faked.  But then again, she also has a tendency to get catty about the other faction:
I'm bringing booty back
Come on and tell them skinny [noun]s that
I wasn't aware that booty left in the first place.  The world has changed since 1992; it's true that the messages that spurred Sir Mix-A-Lot to write his plea for big-booty rights haven't left, but in the intervening time we've been exposed to so many booty jams that we've accepted the alternative just as well.  I suppose that when it comes to starting a revolution, one can't make a proverbial omelet without breaking a few eggs.  Even Sir Mix-A-Lot expressed displeasure with those whom he called "knock-kneed bimbos walking like hoes".  But by striking a blow for one demographic, you end up alienating another.  What about those girls who are underweight and on the verge of anorexia?  How do you think they'd react?
And no, I ain't no stick-figure silicone Barbie doll
So if that's what you're into, then go ahead and move along
But at least this time, she's accounting for taste!  Fellas, if your taste in women precludes her body type, then you have obviously been corrupted by the system -- sorry, I meant to say, at least she recognises your demographic and is willing to give you an out.  Oh, silly me, I haven't discussed the chorus yet.  It's just one repeating line, which goes thusly:
I'm all about that bass
'Bout that bass, no treble
And get this -- during the chorus, the treble track does, indeed, drop out, leaving us with the bass!  Huh, get it?  Meh.  I approve of this song in principle, don't get me wrong, but for some reason it just didn't click with me to the point that I'd want to buy a copy.  Maybe miss Trainor's not dynamic enough of a singer, or her producer not interesting enough of a beat-maker.  Maybe I'm concerned at how she burns as many bridges as she builds.  Maybe it's because of the obesity crisis these days that I wonder how far a song like this might be interpreted by those who could seriously do to lose a few pounds purely for their health's sake.  Or maybe I'm just feeling a little jaded at the moment.  Regardless of whatever my misgivings are, I will support Meghan Trainor in the face of whatever controversies she may -- nay, will encounter as a result of "All About That Bass".  Because you know what the media is like these days.

Meanwhile, in terms of "Anaconda", I can guess the thoughts that crossed the mind of Nicki Minaj (or in actuality, the males controlling her life and image): "You know what's easier than making some positive, revolutionary statement about female sexuality?  Exploiting it!"  Now, "Anaconda" does indeed evoke "Baby Got Back", but in a more direct manner.  Namely, it samples the song's melody for much of the song, albeit with a smattering of random indistinct noise layered atop to ruin the track, as seems to be de rigeur with pop production these days.  And the chorus is just a sample of Sir Mix-A-Lot saying, "My anaconda don't want none if you ain't got buns, hon'".  So if I were to compare the hooks of these two songs, "All About That Bass" would take that category by default, solely by virtue of Meghan Trainor singing it for herself.  (To be fair, there's a second part to the chorus where Nicki speaks a different line from "Baby Got Back".)

So, is there any originality whatsoever withing "Anaconda"?  Of a kind, actually.  Each of the two verses are short stories about different men Nicki, or her character, has had sex with, so at least it's an idea beyond the typical bragadoccio.  For example:
Boy toy named Troy
Used to live in Detroit
Big dope dealer money
He was getting some coin
Oh boy, placing drug dealers upon a high pedestal.  The more things change in the rap game, the more they stay the same, I see.
This dude named Michael
Used to ride motorcycles
[noun] bigger than a tower
I ain't talking 'bout Eiffel
Hey, wait a minute!  If you're not comparing mister Michael's meat-and-two-veg to something as awe-inspiringly big as the Eiffel Tower, than what, pray tell, are you comparing it to?  Then again, exaggerated metaphors and similies are part and parcel of the rap game, so for all I know, you might want us to have some even bigger tower in mind.  Which there are, mind you.  And besides, having a "disco stick" the exact size and shape as the Eiffel Tower would cause more problems than you'd be led on to believe.

Sorry for digressing, I was supposed to be talking about Nicki's sexual exploits.  With her being the song's protagonist, one would hope to learn a reason for her doing so.  Typically, the act of sex is depicted as being desired by the male more than the female, but with the focus being from the female's point of view, we finally get to learn what she wants out of it.  And that "it" is... getting the male to buy her fancy clothes and/or shoes.
Bought me Alexander McQueen
He was keeping me stylish
And when we done, I make him buy me Balmain
I'm on some dumb [noun]
You can say that again.  *sigh*  You had a chance to revolutionise this aspect of sexual relations, and you chose to blow it on shallow materialism.  Nicki, I am disappoint.  As am I equally disappointed in how she performs much of the song in her singsongy airheaded "rapping" (Let me put it this way: she plays the part of the mallrat who says, "Oh my God, Becky, look at her butt!" all too well.), as opposed to straight-up singing or her more intense rapping style, which does show up in this song, but too little and too late.  And I am just as equally disappointed, perhaps even more so, in the lack of lyrical content present.  At the end of the second verse -- 1:44 into this 4:28 long song -- there are no more new parts to be found.  Just more repetitions of the bridges and chorus, and an unsettlingly long ad-lib section where Nicki throws about random shout-outs involving her [noun]s, their fat [noun]es, and/or the mother[verb]ing club in which they may be found.

You may think that Nicki Minaj is more qualified to stand up for big butts than Meghan Trainor, as evidenced by the single artwork which I decided to censor.  But she doesn't do anything with her role; instead she seems content to wallow about the female version of the common rap subjects.  Instead, this song may cause more harm than good, because even though a female is calling the shots when it comes to her sex life, in the end it's all about straight-up materialism.  And the music video is even worse in that regard, as virtually every dance move employed by Nicki and her entourage is distressingly dorsum-centric.  Attention everyone involved in the next rap music video: would it kill you to put some focus on a different body part for a change?  Listen, I'm not trying to be some "stop having fun" guy.  Not all songs need to change the course of history, "Anaconda" certainly has a right to exist in this world.  But for a scene in desperate need of an image change, this is just not the kind of song I was hoping for.

"All About That Bass":
Lyrics: 4 out of 5
Music: 4 out of 5
Performance: 4 out of 5
The Call: 4 out of 5 (B)
Lyrics: 1 out of 5
Music: 3 out of 5
Performance: 2 out of 5
The Call: 2 out of 5 (F)

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Film Review: Meet the Spartans

Meet the Spartans
  • Publisher: 20th Century Fox
  • Studio: Regency / 3 in the Box
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Release: 25 January 2008
  • Directors: Jason Friedberg, Aaron Seltzer
  • Producers: Jason Friedberg, Aaron Seltzer, Peter Safran
  • Writers: Jason Friedberg, Aaron Seltzer
Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Disaster Movie, an entry in the oeuvre of filmmakers Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg, inasmuch as I can call them filmmakers, that is. Their previous film, released earlier in 2008, was Meet the Spartans, and it attempted to mix up their formula by focusing on the plot of one particular movie as opposed to a few loosely connected ones, namely 300, the ancient-Greek-set, Frank-Miller-comic-based blockbuster from the year before. And unsurprisingly, it sucked. In fact, I've got so much bile to direct at this film, I cut down on the time I spent summarising its events in favour of analysing the specific parts that tick me off.

Our story stars a mister Leonidas (Sean McGuire), who trains from a young age to become a soldier, marries a miss Margo (Carmen Electra), and becomes the king of Sparta. And he certainly didn't get that crown for his acting acumen, that's for sure. Mr. McGuire puts on a Scottish accent in attempt to emulate Gerard Butler, who played the same character in the real 300, but it's so unevenly thick that it ends up feeling nothing like the real thing. And don't get me started on Carmen Electra, who doubtless was casted based on sex appeal first and everything else second. Which implies some unfortunate things about what producers think of their audiences, but that's a rant for another day.

With its open-quote protagonists close-quote established, Meet the Spartans takes on one of the more famous scenes from 300: the Pit of Death. You know the drill: "This is madness", "This is Sparta", kick 'im in. Apart from some gratuitous spittle added to the final line, it starts out relatively faithful to the original. But then Leonidas gets carried away and kicks in some of the more punchable public figures of 2007, such as Britney Spears (Nicole Parker), American Idol contestant Sanjaya Malakar (Tony Yalda), and the judges from said show. From first kick to last, this scene lasts for 160 seconds and 10 casualties, which makes me wonder: have these guys never heard of the "Rule of Three"? As currently defined by TVTropes, the Rule of Three is "a pattern used in stories and jokes, where part of the story is told three times, with minor variations." Let a pun or a gag run for more than three instances, and it runs the risk of getting old or unfunny in some other regard.

Also, I am hesitant to call this a parody of the original Pit of Death scene. Sure, he may have kicked some unusual characters down there, but when you get right down to it, it's generally the same routine over and over. Why not experiment with different types of strikes, or have someone fall down there accidentally? Listen, I don't want bad things to go away; I want them to learn from their mistakes and come back better. ...After having gone away to do so. But one thing I would rather go away for good would be an earlier scene where Leonidas is "training" his son (Hunter Clary), and by open-quote training close-quote, I mean beating him up with a sequence of increasingly brutal moves. Not only does he break the Rule of Three here as well, but this gag wasn't funny the first time around! I mean, the poor little guy's half Leo's size! Dude? Not cool. Just. Not. Cool. Now, I've seen (and am thinking of reviewing) Ken'ichi: The Mightiest Disciple so I know the value of building up your abilities through training, but this? This is just traumatic! Not just for him, but traumatic to watch, too! But most important of all, it's Just. Not. Funny.

Jumping back forward a bit, Leonidas assembles his army to sock it to the Persians, but only manages 13 soldiers, as opposed to the 300 that the source material would have you believe. Among them are a captain named... Captain (Kevin Sorbo), his son named... Sonio (Travis van Winkle), and a fat kid named Dilio (Jareb Dauplaise). Not to mention, one of the Spartan councilmen is named Traitoro (Diedrich Bader), and if you guessed that he's going to double-cross the protagonists in some capacity, then you don't get any brownie points because it was just too obvious. I can has originality plz? ...Hey, wait a minute, what's the deal-io with Dilio? (Apologies for that unfortunate bout of forced rhyming.) In the opening scene, we see that Spartan babies who don't meet certain physical standards (for example, Shrek) get thrown to the wolves, literally. Wouldn't Dilio have been preemptively weeded out as a baby? Whatever, he's here to be everyone's punching bag and this movie's source of attempted fat jokes. As in, "fat people love to eat a lot because... funny". Ugh. Did you ever stop to think that maybe, just maybe, real life contains fat people who are trying to rectify their situation instead? I am reminded of a quote from the Simpsons episode "King Size Homer":
Homer Simpson: This may surprise you, but you can't buy me off with food. I'm sick of all your stereotypes and cheap jokes! The overweight individuals in this country are just as smart and talented and hard working as everybody else. And they're going to make their voices heard! All they need is a leader.
You go, Ho'. And while I'm on the subject, in my review of Disaster Movie, I threw in a brief editorial about how I thought the Hollywood movie industry was still a bit racist and "gay-cist". Whilst that is obiously not true of all American screenwriters and directors, I certainly get that impression with messrs. Seltzerberg, and Meet the Spartans is perhaps their worst movie of all in that regard. What I mean by that is, because the Spartan characters in 300 all had ripped physiques and fought in a certain degree of undress, apparently messrs. Seltzerberg thought the logical extention of that should be to make them questionably homosexual. Leo's married to Carmen Electra, so those accusations can only go so far -- but these guys travel long distances by skipping gaily, arms locked in rows of two, singing Gloria Gaynor's hit "I Will Survive". Back on the home front, the men greet each other with deep tongue-kisses where they'd give high-fives to the ladies. And one of their (many) advert riffs, based on the Budweiser "Real Men of Genius" series, is all about them being closeted homosexuals. I could maybe appreciate this sort of thing solely as a reversal of Hollywood's traditional pandering to the male gaze -- and there's no shortage of that, given the presence of Carmen Electra -- but that argument doesn't hold up because the men's ambiguously gay status is thrust upon them (no pun intended) solely for us to laugh at. Well, the joke's on you bub -- even without the offensive context, it's just. Not. Funny.

Whatever. The Spartans'... um, tactical maneouvering takes them to place called the Hot Gates, where they meet Paris Hilton (also Nicole Parker). Here she is a hunchback, because... the character playing her role in the original 300 was himself a hunchback. Huh, I don't usually answer those "because..." lines fully. But if you haven't yet seen or read 300, you may be asking yourself why Paris Hilton is a hunchback. And that would be a very good question. Maybe it's because we're supposed to like seeing these famous wastes of space get taken down a peg. That's a pretty dangerous assumption to make, I tell ya. So then a Persian squad shows up and challenges the Spartans to a breakdance competition and a "Yo Mamma" battle, both of which the Spartans win. Also, Dilio gets his eyes scratched out at some point. As in, we see the background behind him where his eyes should be. Umm... aren't we supposed to be seeing the insides of his eye sockets instead? I mean, I'm kinda squeamish myself, but this is creepy in the wrong way. Like, the wrong side of the uncanny valley creepy. See it for yourself, if you dare.
Spooked? I warned you this effect was just wrong.
Given the... quirky, pseudo-artsy style of Zack Snyder's film and Frank Miller's comic, you'd think that would provide fodder for some true parody moments, and believe it or not, Meet The Spartans does take up that offer every once in a while. For example, there's what looks a sex scene between Leonidas and Queen Margo, until it is revealed that he was merely bench-pressing her. During the climactic fight, Leonidas takes down a sequence of enemies in a sequence abruptly alternating between slow- and fast-motion, which parodies Zach Snyder's (the director of 300) egregious use of the same. And you know how the real 300 used a lot of fake CGI sets? Well, the Persian army in Meet the Spartans is buffed up by CG-cloned soldiers projected on blue-screens behind the real ones. And call me Shirley, but this is actually somewhat funny! At least it would have been funny if the characters didn't devolve into an awkward conversation explaining the joke. And besides, messrs. Seltzerberg, you lost the right to make fun of production values (or a lack thereof) when you decided that taping some green eyelids over the guy and throwing in a cheap chroma-key effect would suitably create the effect of him losing his eyes!

Whoo... I'm starting to get angry there. For my final observation, I'd like to hurry it along... just like the film itself. See, its total running time is given as 82 minutes*, but the opening credits start at the 64 minute mark, so by all accounts, that's when the film really ends. And it shows -- the ending feels rushed. For the capstone of the climactic skirmish, the Persian king Xerxes (Ken Davitian) merges with a car to become a Transformer robot. And of course, they don't have the capability to actually show it transforming. Oh, but he's got a video-screen in his chest that plays the "Leave Britney Alone" video! Because... funny. And how do our heroes vanquish their now-gargantuan foe? They don't -- mister Xerxestron (his name, not mine) pulls his own power cord out of some socket and shuts down, crushing the Spartans in the process. And there was much rejoicing. So after one more ending scene involving a blind commander Dilio and not-Lindsey Lohan, the credits begin in the form of the cast members taking turns singing "I Will Survive". And it is with great pain that I admit this was the most fun I had watching this movie. It's like the ending to a Broadway musical, which is probably what this movie should've been. I mean, it's got the same budget, so no big leap, right? A whole bunch of deleted scenes fill up the remaining time in between bouts of non-singing credits, after which you are now free to turn off your TV. Sorry for making you wait.

*Refers to the theatrically-released version. The unrated edition, which I did not account for in this review, runs for 86 minutes.

Among the entries of the Seltzerberg eouvre, Disaster Movie may suffer more blatant disregard for it source material (remember miss "Enchanted Princess"?), I think watching Meet the Spartans makes me feel worse. So much of the commentary on celebrities and the LGBT community, whether stated outright or inferred by me, is just hateful. And even if all that were not considered offensive, it takes the dubious crown for the most unfunny film classified as a comedy which I've ever witnessed (take that overly narrow description for what you will). And the horribly fake acting and cheap production values serve as the nails in this coffin. Or is it casket... Regardless, make no mistake: watching this movie is like dining in Hell.

+ By retelling the story of one movie, it's a bit more focused than some of Seltzerburg's other efforts.
+ It's short.

- Relies on unfunny, even offensive, jokes repeated way too often.
- Totally fake acting.
- Lousy special effects.
- A fifth of its runtime is spent on the credits.

Acting: 1 Sparta-kicks out of 5
Writing: 0 Sparta-kicks out of 5
Special Effects: 1 Sparta-kicks out of 5
Visual Design: 1 Sparta-kicks out of 5
The Call: 15% (F)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Dance Dance Retrospective: DDR 2013

So it's come to this, huh. Not content with recycling the title "Dance Dance Revolution" for the 2010 PS3/X360/Wii release, or the 2001 PSone release based on 3rdMIX, or the first American/Asian arcade release based on 2ndMIX, Konami released a new arcade entry in their long-running dance simulation series, only to saddle it with the un-embellished title yet again. It is what will heretofore be referred to as DDR 2013 (JP: 14 March 2013, AS: 28 March 2013), and yet again it is, sadly, exclusive to Asia. Although I can say, for once, that I've played this game in person the last time I visited Japan, and I can tell you from my own experience that the game was... ...meh. What complaints I do have regarding about DDR 2013 are the same complaints might levy at such franchises as Call of Duty or Madden NFL. There's nothing mechanically wrong with DDR 2013, and if the new content doesn't entice you, there's still all that old material to fall back on. But whatever concerns I've had with this series have not been addressed, and all in all, it does practically nothing to excite me as a consumer. Oh well, maybe I'll go over the usual description routine and something will jump out at me.
Here's an idea of what the new cabinet design looks like.
Only five years and three games after their last cabinet redesign, Konami rolled out yet another machine design for DDR 2013. This new machine is painted predominantly in white, which combined with the game's light pink/blue colour scheme, gives off a sort of pastel aesthetic. Keeping in Konami's tradition of cutting costs, the USB ports for loading custom step charts AND STILL NOT USER PROFILES have been removed, although I doubt anyone was using them anyway, and the panels on the bottom no longer light up, which if nothing else useful to tell if something was wrong with the pads. Although they did add storage bins at the bottom of the cabinet for you to stash your bags and stuff, and as a veteran arcade connoisseur, trust me, that is a good thing to have. But all in all, what was the point of going through all that trouble? Is there some ground-breaking new feature in DDR 2013 that signifies a new era of this venerable yet long-in-the-tooth franchise?

The 2ndMIX Mode from the last game has been removed, although all the songs from it are available in the main game mode from the get-go. So has the Happy Mode from X2, but that was just some artificial limitation on the songs and difficulties available to the player, so no big loss on that one, I guess. And so have all the course modes. Okay, now that's a bad thing. And they made it so the game won't even run unless the machine is connected to the Internet and set up for eAmusement. Apparently it's all part of some scheme for properly sharing income between Konami and the arcade itself, but whatever it entails, it even further precludes the release of this game outside of Asia. Even worse, when you get right down to it it's a form of copy-protection. But there's an upside to this approach after all. Because of the game's always-online nature, a new handful of songs gets uploaded to DDR 2013 machines every month or so. One of these upgrades also changed the menu interface a bit, giving birth to the unofficially-titled "Dance Dance Revolution 2014".
Each player gets their own Groove Radar. That's... something, I guess.
I'm officially going to break with tradition and not include a notable songs section. For one, this game is new enough that I don't yet have a handle on what songs have stuck in the minds of the fandom. And besides, to be honest, none of the new songs stood out to me. There are no English-language pop licences, for example. Perhaps because Konami knew they weren't going to sell DDR 2013, and X3 before it, outside of Asia, they felt they could get away with just licencing J-pop and such. I could understand that argument, but even though this product was not intended for my personal consumption as an American, it's just disheartening to be left in the cold, so to speak, eh? And besides, in this Internet age, the Japanese gamers this game was marketed to might also be a little more worldly in their musical tastes, so what's the point of such exclusion? (Then again, this series didn't even have Japanese-language songs until 5thMIX, not including side games, so there goes that theory.)  Oh, I almost forgot: DDR 2013 does also feature "Caramelldansen (Speedycake Remix)", that Swedish song which spawned an Internet meme... back in 2007. I suppose in five years we can expect "Gangnam Style" to show up in a new DDR game. (Although given the current state of Japan-South Korea relations, that might not even happen.) Seriously though, that fact serves as a fitting metaphor for how relevant Dance Dance Revolution is with the gaming scene at large. In short: not much so anymore.

It's been over four years, but with this article, I've finally finished detailing the "core series" Dance Dance Revolution games. There's just one more article to go, where I break down the mobile games. Perhaps this is where is where DDR might finally manage some relevance in this evolving games industry? Find out on the final installment of Dance Dance Retrospective!