Grampy’s Grammys

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Music is a touchstone. But many young screenwriters I teach have confessed to me they have previously been instructed NEVER to put a song reference in a script because they will limit or confuse a reader who may or may not know the song or the group they’re talking about or will be taken out of the moment by a tune that will probably never wind up in the movie anyway.

The above advice is, of course, ridiculous. Music has always been a great connecter and the perfect evocation of a mood or moment in time that all the talk or visual images in the world can’t muster. It is true that if someone doesn’t know a song a reference to it will not put them in the mood or mindset you intend. But if you go with your gut and choose wisely that song most certainly will do the job when they get to HEAR it – which is the point of writing musical references to begin with. And besides, any artistic moment in time needs all the help it can get.

Which brings us to #GrammyAwards2015.

Hosted by LL Cool J - for the 2,000th time

Hosted by LL Cool J – for the 89th time

As a resident of the west coast who is not in the music industry and therefore not present at the actual live ceremonies, I was three hours late to the party thanks to the greed and hubris of CBS. As the official broadcaster of said ceremony, the network has decided that unlike the Oscars, Emmys and Golden Globes they have no public obligation to share the music simultaneously across the world – or at the very least, the country.

Knowing full well that the primary reason people watch a music awards show is for the performances and not the actual awards, CBS instead chose to delay their west coast broadcast in order to sell more prime time ads and create a greater revenue stream for itself. This is, of course, the network’s prerogative – but only for the time being.

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There is a power shift going on in how and where and when we get our entertainment. And that shift is going back to the consumer, which means that before long every event of any importance will be available simultaneously in most time zones. It might be five, ten or 20 years away but the corporate world – which these days includes entertainment and even politics – knows deep down that the party is essentially over and that changeover is causing major and minor freak outs as well as corporate and personal misbehaviors everywhere. These manifest themselves in little bouts of broadcast hubris as well as false and outrageous public statements from people, politicians (Note: No, they’re not the same thing) and various organizations about everything from vaccines to international terrorism, before segueing into mass media hysteria over the possible gender change of an Olympic gold medalist or the newsiness of just what the historical accuracy is of any number of Oscar nominated feature films this year whose only real sin is failing to announce loudly enough its claim that it is merely “based” on a true story.

On the flip side, which of us hasn’t found it a little bit more than fun to live in an age when political gaffes and cultural injustices aren’t events so easily handled?   Truth be told, there is some infinite joy in knowing that eventually Twitter, YouTube and Instagram will provide the real images, observations and videos of said events or thoughts rather than the pre-packaged or approved ones we’ve mostly been previously granted by the gatekeepers.

Enter: Olivia Pope. #ItsHandled

Enter: Olivia Pope. #ItsHandled

I guess I’m gloating but it can be quite entertaining to watch more than a few members of the status quo squirm as their grip on power unwittingly gets pried out from behind our necks. Still, the new scandal du jour of something like NBC anchor Brian Williams exaggerating being shot down in Iraq during the previous decade or fictionalizing a case of dysentery in order to make his Hurricane Katrina reporting more dramatic during the Bush, Jr. presidency is almost quaint at this point. I mean, the one thing we all know these days is that EVERYONE exaggerates a bit – it’s just a lot easier to get caught.   Yes, it’s true – the public already does know that even if the bosses in power don’t.   This is not to excuse the lie or the liar or even to condone that mode of behavior.   Only to acknowledge that we mostly understand that we – most of us – are, in at least some occasional cases, a bit hypocritical, indelicate with our opinions and guilty of bending reality ever so slightly and more – whether national, international or not – whenever the mood hits us.

The new normal today is the degree of the lie. Which is why awards shows are so terribly fun to watch – even when a power broker like CBS doesn’t allow you to view them live along with everyone else.

The craftsmanship of a successful artist’s image is often painstakingly and precisely planned, executed, buffed and shined before you and I get to experience it. But how the famed act in public when they have to be themselves onstage at a live event cannot be any of the above by its very nature. Oh, a person can sort of present a terribly rehearsed version of themselves but on a live show the rehearsal is often fodder for the real show on social media. Sure, he or she or even they can do a bit better fooling us when entertaining live – if indeed that is their profession and they’re good at it. But on the other hand, those who have been auto tuned, or have had their public images sculpted up a bit too brightly become as transparent as an overexposed X-ray held up to the light. Which is more than apt since the people we’re talking about have often been far too overexposed anyway.

Or a little underexposed if you're Sia.

Or a little underexposed if you’re Sia.

Watching this year’s Grammy awards I couldn’t help but feel like I’d be a bit like the star of Gramps Goes to the Movies – catching up with what the young-ins are doin’ and listenin’ to or watchin’ it three hours after the fact or perhaps even a year after my own figurative children’s children had first gotten wise to it.

But then I look up at my TV and the 1970s hard rock band AC/DC – a group I managed to avoid during most of my natural adolescence – are doing a five minute opening number.

What year is this? Am I a teenager again? And what time is it? Don’t I still have math homework to get through? Or perhaps it’s CBS again – playing a cruel trick on the left coast and switching programming back 40 years in order to appeal to its key heartland demographic where presumably they all still do listen to that group.

Performing at next year's Grammys

Performing at next year’s Grammys

As it turned out it was none of those. Only that the actual Grammy broadcast was clearly not hip or even unhip. It actually simultaneously managed to be a hybrid of both and neither. There was something for those of us in or moving into AARP range, others who are indeed still teenagers and the rest of you who fall somewhere in between. In its own odd way, its musical acts, award choices and onscreen behaviors amounted to nothing consistent or at times even decipherable.

This is not say to it wasn’t infinitely entertaining at points or that it failed to reach some quite high moments in others. It is only to note that try as they might to manage it all into something slick and pre-packaged it was actually all kind of a big, engaging mush of truth, fiction, fabulousness and confusion. Sort of like sifting through Twitter or Facebook for too long – but then realizing you’ve both enjoyed and wasted three and a half hours of your life in what seemed like 33 and a third minutes. Not to date myself.

That Zuckerberg

That Zuckerberg

Those of you who didn’t watch along with Grampy Chair or Great Uncles AC/DC can certainly revisit the highlights on the social media platform of your choice. Though I can save you the time with a few thoughts and links to some bottom line highlights.

  • You’ll want to marvel at who thought about having Tom Jones and Jessie J duet You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling as a tribute to famed Brill Building songwriters Cynthia Weill & Barry Mann. No, I didn’t say it wasn’t good. I’m just sayin’…
  • You’ll want to slap your head when you realize CBS is actually choosing to bleep out some song lyrics and words from country superstar Miranda Lambert’s live performance. SHE’S too racy for your core audience? Really? Or do you just think the left coast can’t take a bit of sexual innuendo?
Seasonal allergies be damned!

Seasonal allergies be damned!

  • I want to applaud Katy Perry’s Cover Girl commercial where she frolics amid pink flowers while managing to sell me makeup. Though you might want to boo. But as Taylor Swift, all sleek and tall in Grammy blue once both wrote AND sang: Haters gonna hate.
  • Critics might love groaning when Madonna does her new single about the power of love but I thought it was fun and, more importantly, SHE was once again having fun. You can choose to not think so but you’d be wrong. And no matter what you say anyway, here’s my answer to you in the form of a tweet from GregvsMatt: Roses are red, violets are blue #Madonna is 56 and looks better than you.
Werk it, Material Gurl

Werk it, Material Gurl

  • CBS proves it is once again infinitely unclever by having Fox/American Idol’s Ryan Seacrest introduce NBC/The Voice’s Adam Levine and Gwen Stefani performing their single, but all the network proves is it doesn’t have a tentpole TV reality singing show nor can it even make a lame joke about the others.
  • Matthew McConaughey’s confounding Buick commercials, particularly the one with the bull, will short circuit your brain before you even realize that the revenue it produces is what this three-hour delay is really about. (Editor’s note: It’s Lincoln, not Buick, Chairy. #powerofadvertising)
Annie kills it.

Annie kills it.

  • Sixty-year old Annie Lennox stops the show cold with the best performance of the night both by igniting Hozier’s tired performance of his own Take Me to Church and then electrifying us all with her own rendition of an almost 60 year old song – I Put A Spell On You. If nothing else, the reaction confuses those who live and die by the age demographics of corporate market research. #HelloCBS.
  • I manage to consider that Kanye West’s two onstage collaborations with Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett’s jazz turn with Lady Gaga center stage might disprove every bitchy phrase myself and every other baby boomer has ever uttered about what people, or even corporate networks, will promote those days.
Prince digs into Maude's closet

Prince digs into Maude’s closet

  • I then reconsider the above stance when Kanye steps onstage to try and Taylor Swift Beck’s unexpected win for best album (Note: Presented by Prince in the orange chiffon number your Aunt Esther was gonna wear to your bar-mitzvah but didn’t) and instead pulls back at the last minute even though Beck asks him not to. Then I have to admit to myself that just because one loves a Beatle doesn’t mean one necessarily has or evokes any taste at all.   Though at the same time, I have to also admit Prince looks far better in that getup than my Aunt Esther ever could have, not to mention she’d never be smart enough to publicly state: Like books and Black lives, albums matter.
  • You, if you were indeed watching, probably listened in awe as Sam Smith dueted with Mary J. Blige on Stay With Me – a simple love song/video about a gay guy who isn’t good at one night stands. And you would be right to marvel at both that and the fact that he went on to win four Grammy Awards. #WhoWouldHaveThoughtWayBackWhen. Though it would have really been something if he had dueted with say, Rufus Wainwright. #JustDreamin2025.
Hot damn we love those soulful Brits!

Hot damn we love those soulful Brits!

  • No, it was all of us who kept rewinding Sia’s performance of Chandelier facing away from us while funny woman Kristen Wiig mimed and dance with Sia’s diminutive ballerina all through the song and didn’t so much get a laugh but prove that she is actually also a real live performance artist.
  • You will thank me for advising you to consciously uncouple from Chris Martin and Beck in the fourth hour, almost finale when they duet on one of the songs from what was just voted album of the year. What year, I’m not sure.
I mean.... we get it.

I mean…. we get it.

  • And, though I am in the minority and hesitate to say this – I continue to wonder how Beyonce – clearly an extremely talented and driven woman – can somehow manage to make the finale of the evening – the spiritual Take My Hand, Precious Lord, from the soundtrack of the movie Selma, so beyond grand and indulgent while Common and John Legend sung the hell out of their original song for Selma – Glory – and closed out the show with sincerity. I’ll take a guess. It probably had to do with the fact that they didn’t have a wind machine, flowing white chiffon or enough lighting effects to buff their imagines into a perfect shine.

But hey – that’s just me. And this year’s Grammys. Three hours late. On the west coast feed.

Eating Oreos in a Mallomar World

Your pick

This all started when I went to see “The Avengers” a few days ago (yes, I was late to the party).  Staring back at me in the climactic Third Act moment when the Hulk is wrecking N.Y. (and no, at this point it’s not a spoiler) were these words on what was supposed to be a big city storefront but looked about as phony as Donald Trump’s hair:

“We Are Insurance. We Are Farmers” 

Now at first I chalked it up to “well, that’s the way it is in our commercial world” and that there could perhaps be that insurance store, or even ad slogan on another building right there as the Hulk was wreaking havoc in Manhattan.  But when the phrase got it’s big lingering close-up a second time I realized I was now in the world of specific payment positioning and suddenly it wasn’t about the Hulk at all but the mammoth strength and power of a corporate interest whose product its producers hoped I might at one point have actually bought.  I use the past tense here because though it’s been 25 years plus with Farmers for me, the company’s blatant obnoxiousness in interrupting a movie I wasn’t particularly loving, created the opposite effect.  It caused me to begin to consider if I even wanted to continue with them.  Perhaps I could instead switch to that adorable Gecko called Geico.  Or maybe phone or text Flo, the cool Progressive Insurance Lady.  Not only are they both snide and funny like me, but I’ll bet they’d also have enough taste to not insert themselves in the middle of the third act of a mindless action film I didn’t want to see in the first place but somehow found myself pressured into vaguely enjoying.  That’s a strategy I’d like to at least reward with, well – something.

I feel ya, Hulk.

Of course, it didn’t stop there.   The next morning I’m pumping gas, still considering cancelling with Farmers, and happen to see Ted is coming. (That’s a movie billboard, not a vagrant named Ted).  Then I look down on the ground next to the gas pump and see a very large, very red “Seattle’s Best Coffee Inside” poster right under my feet — like it’s reading my mind, knowing I’m thinking about advertising.  And yes, since I knew you wouldn’t believe me – I took this picture.

You sure do.

That afternoon I subsequently talk with a student and see a Disney character is on her T-Shirt.  I turn on the radio in my car on the way home and it’s selling me an all-natural bug repellant.  And once home, on my beloved cable TV channel, they’re assuming I have erectile dysfunction or bladder leakage and need either powerful herbal supplements or a sleek, comfortable adult diaper that is called something else but let’s face it, they are diapers.  Plus, to make matters worse, I can’t even figure out if I’d rather be impotent or incontinent.  Pick your poison (or mine).  My gambling Dad actually would put these odds at “pick ‘em’ – which means the outcome could go either way, though in this case both choices are equally heinous.

Certainly ads have been around a long time.  Advertising Age lists the first newspaper ad in 1704, though it is eminently possible the Coliseum in Rome had one or two emperors seeking lion sponsors.  But if Mitt Romney is right and “corporations are people, my friend” then in today’s world we all have many, many more friends than even the ones on our Facebook page, and many of them even more faux than in our virtual existence.

a peculiar delight

Speaking of friends and advertising, did you know you can see, in syndication reruns, many of the NBC “Friends” eating Oreos they never ate at the time their episode originally aired simply because Nabisco or some other parent company inserted the box and/or cookies into their filmic hands in 2012?  And that this is not limited to “Friends” and NBC but includes pretty much all of your fave characters in any episode of any other show you choose to watch?  I mean, what if they’re more a part of the Mallomars/Ding Dong kind of crowd?  Or at the very least, people who crave Lorna Doones?  The possibilities are endless for any advertiser who has the time and money to buy them the snack of their choice.

Elvis v. L-VIS

This was news to me but has been going on since 1999 when a new technology called L–V.I.S. (pronounced Elvis – as in, well, you know who) was launched.   Yes, a computer program named for the King of Rock and Roll that does all this and more, begging the question: did they have to get approval from the REAL Elvis, or the Elvis Presley estate, to name themselves this?  Whatever the answer is, you at least have to give this company credit for being so out there with who it is that it’s very name comes from a show business legend many years after he even existed, especially without his full endorsement of them in the first place.

Unless… can you endorse from the grave?

But this technology does allow David Schwimmer (Ross Geller) to eat Oreos at a table on a random syndicated episode of “Friends” when he never specifically did so in the original scene, nor, for all we know, did his creators ever intend him do so (certainly not at that moment). It can also magically display a new ad for a 2011 movie, like say “Bad Teacher,” in a “How I Met Your Mother” episode originally shot 5 years earlier in 2006 for the show’s second season.  (And no, the HIMYM plot in that episode didn’t have a time travel theme).

Bad move?

To be clear, a widely used computer program literally drops the ad of a corporation’s choice into any rerun TV episode or feature film past and present whether its creators want it to or not.  And speaking for writers and producers and directors and actors who take their storytelling personally, let’s put it another way – you’re the parent of a six-year old (as many artists consider their offspring) and the school or day care center you’ve entrusted their care to is allowed to force feed them Oreos or Snickers or perhaps even have them use a series of really bad diapers or insect repellents not only without your consent but even without your knowledge.

As sports fans know, this is not only limited to film.  There is a practice where a computer program can continually and magically create stadium billboards of its choice at any number of live baseball games you watch on TV that friends (the real ones) who might actually be at the game don’t see because those billboard ads don’t actually exist in their real live world.  No — those ads are only reserved for those of us who choose not to or can’t afford to or attend the game live but instead find ourselves watching it on the TV or tablet of our choice.  So rather than paying for a real stadium billboard ad that goes to just thousands, a company can computer generate a virtual ad that will, in turn, reach many millions – even when all the time the millions watching are assuming they’re viewing exactly what they’d be seeing if they were live at the game.

Amazing

For some of us, none of this is real news. Studios now have whole departments for this purpose with names like “product integration” as opposed to what it used to be called when I worked in movie marketing – product placement.  Consider the clever corporate wordsmith—ness of the new term, which, if nothing else, proves we all have no chance to survive unscathed.  Placement, you see, implies a sort of fake insertion meant to look real yet is still inauthentic and usually implies undesirable.  Whereas the word integration harkens back to “equality” – a time in the sixties when we as a society decided to come down on the side of “fairness” and make civil rights for all the priority.  Well – what’s more preferable to you – choiceless fake insertion or being in/on the right side of history in fairness and equality?  As a corporate American company trying to tempt you into buying my product, I’ll always fly the patriotic flag of freedom and choose product integration so at least I can appear to be fair.  Especially where involuntary insertion (nee placement) is the other option, right?  Because as far as insertion goes, it is commonly accepted that a human being should always at least be asked.

These ad/marketing tricks.  No wonder “Mad Men” is so popular.  Matt Weiner must spend months every season creating a subliminal popularity formula within every 12 (or is it 13?) episodes.

Even Peggy can’t get excited for Heinz beans

Now don’t get me wrong — overall there’s nothing wrong with using real life products creatively.  Ask any screenwriter in particular and he or she will tell you that most of us do that.  Humphrey Bogart had to watch as not just any gin but a specific bottle of Gordon’s Dry Gin was thrown off the boat in 1951’s “The African Queen,” while Joan Crawford got to take some belts from a real bottle of Jack Daniels (at least that’s the label on the outside, though one can surmise otherwise) when she appeared in “Mildred Pierce” six years prior.  Not to mention the Reese’s Pieces famously consumed in “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial” because M & M’s, the original candy of choice, famously turned down Steven Spielberg’s original offer of insertion. (Uh, Epic fail, as the kids say, Mars, Inc,).  And even the then-hipper-than-hip AOL (uh, yes they were in the pre-Internet age) theme became the chief corporate tie-in of the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan comedy “You’ve Got Mail.”

The former bane of my existence

Yes – we indeed do live in a label-ridden world and to not include characters eating, drinking, watching or listening to something recognizable is to deny them real world existence.  Even I knew this in the late eighties when, as a young writer, I was foolish enough to use the Rolling Stones song “Street Fighting Man” in a script to thematically evoke both character and time period, never realizing that one of the cardinal rules for spec script writing is to NEVER use a Beatles or Stones song (which are preemptively expensive to license) and expect it to be used if your movie actually gets made.

Actually, I did sort of know the rule but used it anyway because, well, it sounded perfect and was absolutely right and what were the chances we’d ever face the licensing hurdle in real life?  I mean, who would ever dream I’d actually win the writing lottery that one time and the damned thing would really and truly get bought and filmed in my lifetime?

It was back then that I quickly learned, as Hollywood corporations now know, that there are indeed thousands of choices for actual products, songs and contemporary references that can be inserted (ahem, integrated), changed or used to make the same exact point.  Sometimes even better than the ones you intended.

Well, at least that’s what my producers told me.  Though when I think about it – I still believe only that one particular Stones song would have perfect.  In fact, to this day I wonder if that was the reason why my movie was not the award-winning coming of age drama I intended, I’m sure of it.

Okay, not really.  But maybe a little.  Partly.

When I’m not dwelling in the past, though, here’s what I really and truly think.  On a recent trip to The Hulk’s Manhattan, walking down Times Square and its billboards and licensed rights, I can see myself as I look around.  And soon, very soon, I find myself longing for the 1970’s porn palaces of my youth that I now find far, far less offensive than anything in New York bearing the word Trump (or some other reasonable facsimile).  Feeling this way, then I wonder – have we made progress or should progress be called by some other name?  Then I wonder even further – what would Elvis, not L–V.I.S., have to say?

And then I finally ask myself one last question — Am I the only one who even cares?