An Open Letter to All Star Wars Cynics

Dear Star Wars Cynics,

On the slim chance that you are willingly reading a Star Wars-centric piece of writing on the internet and are open minded, I would like to address some of the questions that you have posed concerning the new film.  If not, let this be yet another independent blogger super Star Wars fan’s post about his emotions lost to the vast nothingness of internet.

Disney bought Lucasfilm because they wanted to tap the vast pool of money that was just sitting there.  George Lucas is worth over 4 billion dollars just because of Indiana Jones and Star Wars alone and I would argue he should have signed off for more than that.  I am not going to sit here and pretend that the cogs are not turning because of a bunch of rich people just wanted to get richer.  This is absolutely the case.  Lucas–a rich pretentious filmmaker–sold his only creative genius to other pretentious filmmakers, just to be more rich.

What I seek to hint at is that is was worth it.  Emotionally, culturally and progressively.  Regardless of my opinion and yours, Star Wars is the most influential pop culture franchise of all time, and that in of itself is powerful.


When I was eight years of age, The Phantom Menace hit the big screen.  Other than The Lion King, it was the most important movie event in my life.  The original trilogy stoked the fires of my imagination and creativity:  I designed the blueprints for new spaceships, I wrote my own fan fiction, I learned the importance of duality in life.

Concerning the development of my personality, I cannot stress the importance of Episode One.  In hindsight and with formal cinematic scholarly tutorship, I understand the film is not good.  But in the moment, in that sold out theater, my jaw hit the floor and I grew as a human being.

Star Wars is successful not just because it expands our horizons, but because it is so universal.  C-3PO and R2-D2 are genderless and anyone can identify with them.  Leia, even in her limited role, was given more action leeway than most women in cinema.  She is directly involved in the action and is even force sensitive.  Lando–an African-American–pilots the Millennium Falcon in the final action sequence.  Arguably the most infamous villain in cinematic history (Darth Vader) is voiced by a Black man.

But James Earl-Jones and Billy Dee Williams (Lando) are given a faceless and minor role respectively.  The two main characters in the upcoming movie are played by an African-British actor and a woman.  This is really important.  I can say with the utmost confidence that Star Wars: The Force Awakens will become the highest grossing film in world history with a Black and female lead. This is of critical importance.  The diverse cast ensures that Star Wars will retain its mass appeal and once again be inspirational.


Another critique I have heard is that by reviving the Star Wars story line it risks becoming bland.  And why can’t writers come up with something new?  Well, I would argue that they are.  Star Wars chronology is fresh since they Disney did away with expanded universe canon, and every new story is an original screenplay.  It is not adapted.

As for those working on the project, they care about the story and they want it to affect others as the original trilogy affected them.  I do not think that money is the primary motivator.  After pointing out a Star Wars graphic novel in a comic book store my girlfriend told me that graphic novelists don’t make much but are passionate about the story.  A coworker of mine–who is in his 40s and cannot stop collecting mint edition action figures and lego sets–told me that he was also eight when he went to see the first movie.  I am currently 24 years of age and continue to be immensely affected by the franchise.  Most of those working on The Force Awakens are between 20 and 50 years of age and truly want to create something that makes today’s generation cares for as much as they.


On November 20, 2008, I was eating dinner at a local Chipotle and looking out the window at a huge crowd.  The vast majority of them were teenage girls, and even though some were engaged in heated “Team Edward–NO! Team Jacob!” debates, they were all united in their love for the Twilight series.  I read the first book and found the writing horrifically poor but I could not contain my pleasure in seeing the long lines for the midnight showing.  To paraphrase my coworker–who has lined up for dozens of album signings for her favorite rapper–seeing people genuinely excited for something is magical and fulfilling.

I do not think it is a valid argument to say “A story should not be told if it makes people rich,” or “that story sucks and does not deserve to be adapted to another medium.” Telling stories is one of the most vital cultural experiences humanity has, and I believe that this alone should outweigh the gluttonous toy sale numbers and gross consumerism that comes with them.  The film industry is far from pure, but in the end, there are children who are going to watch Star Wars VII and learn something amazing and beautiful.  Not to mention that I shall be sitting in rapture starting at 4am on the 17th watching all seven films in a row on the big screen.  The romanticism of Star Wars’ tale of good versus evil brings people joy and whether you like it or not, millions of others identify with the story and its characters.  Griping against the inevitable is futile.

Best,

Deej, the Ewok Wind Spirit who gave her life to give her fellow Ewoks the gift of music. 

The Bipolar Genius of Titus Andronicus Lyricist Patrick Stickles, Part Two

This is part two in a series of posts exploring the motivations behind American punk rock lyricist and lead singer Patrick Stickles. Part one delved into the history of his band Titus Andronicus and gave a brief introduction into their first three albums. This part will focus on their newest release, The Most Lamentable Tragedy. Read part one here.

Titus Andronicus (+@) is no stranger to music that at first glance seems bombastic and overzealous. Their claim to fame was, after all, a concept album about how the U.S. Civil War is like living in New Jersey suburbia in the wake of a breakup.  As silly and incompatible as that sounds, The Monitor’s success ended up proving that there were many who identified with +@’ brand of cathartic self loathing, productive flaw exploring and ostentatious yet resigned commitment.  A band that is named after Shakespeare’s most infamous play, however, is still a tough sell (to put it mildly) and their most recent album relies heavily on their base.  It is not a work of art that attempts to pamper to wider audience, but appeals greatly as a reverent punk rock deity for genre die hards.

Probably with that in mind, +@ announced very early that their plan was to write a 30 song behemoth about a protagonist suffering from bipolar disorder. The concept album has origins in classical music (i.e. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition) and bands such as The Who, Styx, Green Day, Genesis, and most famously Pink Floyd all showed that the medium could be well received, despite their intimidatingly ambitious nature. By throwing down the gauntlet and stating that he essentially aimed to match or better such darlings as The Who’s Tommy, Quadrophenia, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall he challenged himself into expressing his most powerful emotions as a musician, artist and human being. He invited all the scrutiny and skepticism that came with that ambition in the hopes that it brought out the best in his songwriting.

It worked. Just like The Monitor five years ago, Stickles and +@ have proved that no one is their rock opera peer and that they are the pinnacle of punk rock story telling. The Most Lamentable Tragedy (TMLT) is exploratory as well as a familiar home. It includes new tricks such as covers, choral arrangements and a chord organ recording on a cassette tape. And of course there are the conflicting fault exposing lyrics embedded in triumphant anthems delivered in Stickles’ trademark raging yet vindicating vocals.

Designed in five acts, TMLT is congested and risks being forgotten among tiresome clichés.  But +@ was never meant for the lazy music listener, and with the help of copious footnoted lyrics (provided by Stickles himself) the original story of a man with bipolar disorder is told.

**********NOTE: SPOILERS AHEAD**********


TMLT begins with a multi-layered unison note which gets drowned out in a mother chord.  This peaceful then sonically harsh transition represents the hero awakening from a blissful sleep and realizing with immense dread that a new day is upon him.  After the brief opening instrumental, +@ erupts in a majestic guitar riff and Stickles begins the opera by announcing his resigned mood, “Some days start with an earthquake / the bed shakes until it breaks / and I hate to be awake.”  With this opening statement, he immediately announces his psychological illness without alienating his wider audience: the dread in which we wake up to face the routine stresses of the day is a universal emotion.

The following song “Stranded (On My Own)” describes Stickles’ addiction to Ritalin.  In order to even get out of bed to fulfill his responsibilities and overcome his anxieties, Stickles takes all sorts of drugs. In his own words:

“I was obligated to participate in Titus Andronicus’ National Business Tour, promoting our then-current release ‘Local Business,’ which had been recorded when the Major Depressive Episode was just a baby. This tour proved to be a blessing – I think that if I had stayed in exile out in New Jersey any longer, I might have stayed there forever, on one side of the ground or another.  Unable to know that at the time, I slogged through the whole trip, clinging to my Bupropion and Abillify and my Clonazepam, thinking that if I could just keep some kind of equilibrium and ‘just not lose it,’ I could make it through this terrifying endeavor.”

And that’s only track number three.  The next track “Lonely Boy” is weirdly catchy for a +@ song has the most sing-along potential out of anything on the album.  Expressing his desire to be alone, Stickles sings about how other people are selfish and arrogant pricks.  “Hearing people hearing themselves talk / I tell you those are fingernails where there should’ve been chalk / I heard this one guy tell this other one to suck his cock / And he was the richest, smartest guy on the block.”  Against societies misgivings, +@ unfurls a white flag and declares the crippling weight of materialism and patriarchal power structures too much to handle.

I just want to be alone
I don’t wanna drown amongst the droves of drones
I don’t wanna hear that I’m what I own, oh no
I don’t wanna feel my Y-chromosome

Tracks seven through twelve make up the second act, in which the protagonist emerges from his depression.  They are easily the album’s best, and as much as I want to, I will not delve into the details.  Experiencing them for the first time is a gift.

The last three acts make up the second half of the album, and that is where the protagonist struggles to come to terms with his “normalcy,” encounters romance, and again slides into a deep depression.

And when he finally ventures into the world, it is imperfect, even repulsive.  After briefly referencing his eating disorder as the instigator in his going out in “(S)HE SAID, (S)HE SAID,” he meets a girl who he is attracted to.  He rather vulgarly and pervertedly asks her if she’d like to sleep with him over the course of two verses (she agrees), but the sad and revealing bit comes later.  “You didn’t understand a single thing (s)he said” Stickles repeats over and over again.  What the story’s hero needs is love and human connection, but he doesn’t know how to ask for it.

The subtleties of reading in between the dense lines of Stickles writing is one of the reasons why +@ and other pretentious rock groups are not mainstream today.  “(S)HE SAID, (S)HE SAID” is a great song, but its nine minute length combined with the sly lyrical connections to earlier songs (“My Eating Disorder,” from Local Business) make it tedious for most, especially first time listeners.  And with its odd pacing and darker chord structures, the latter half of TMLT test the will of even the most diligent Titus Heads.

In his review for The Guardian, music critic Alexis Petridis stated that TMLT is an honorable effort in the age of the playlist.  It contains “good songs ripe for cherry-picking and tearing out of context,” but overall is a fractured and poorly paced drama who’s sheer length is wearying and “widely over-inflated.”  What is particularly striking about this critique is how insensitive and uninformed it is.  TMLT is a rock opera about living life with bipolar disorder.  Life by experience is a series of up and downs.  For those who live with mental illness, their emotional flights are followed by sometimes intensely harsh groundings.  And they have no control over it.  If +@’ new album were as cohesive and fluid as Petridis wants, then he may as well just put on a boring Arctic Monkeys record and call it a day.

The Most Lamentable Tragedy ends with the same unison note with which it started.  For those who think that such a clichéd move is corny and lame, just know that it is Stickles’ experience.  He lives an uncontrollable cycle of mania and depression, and when one ends, the other begins.  As tiresome as that may be, that is the way life is.

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Comeback Artist of the Year Enya Brings Back the Calm

We live in a pop culture of weird, and for whatever reason the only thing that is talked about is shock value.  Lady Gaga’s videos were the new Madonna’s–but oh wait, Madonna is still trying to be relevant and be risqué.

When it comes to music video culture, weird rules out.  And when the weird piques our curiosity, sales go up simply because the American public cannot resist looking.  As proof, look no further than Lady Gaga’s latest involvement, American Horror Story: Hotel.  The show’s negative reviews after the first episode appeared to prove that story and substance still play an important role in the consumption of art, but nonetheless the second episode earned the second best rating ever for a telecast on the Fx network.

Meanwhile, Madonna is trying too hard to remain relevant with the same weird formula that she has relied on in the past, and, alas, it is working.  Her new video has close to 134 million views.  What really is depressing about her new effort is the desperation.  The fact that she felt the need to include dozens of celebrities lip singing “bitch I’m Madonna” is just a really sad effort to create popularity.  Enya, on the other hand, has not released an album in seven years and has the same number of albums sold as Beyoncé.

Granted, Enya has been around for much longer than Queen B, but in today’s day and age of trying to get rich as quickly as possible, her music feels like a cleanse, a baptism for all our sins.

“How long your love had sheltered me,” she sings, perhaps thinking upon how her loyal fans had given her enough wealth to lay low awhile.  This might be reading too much into the lyric, but Enya has never been one to forget her fans.  “Let me give this dream to you, each night and evermore,” she continues.

While Madonna and Beyoncé are praised for their studio productions and collaborations, Enya’s recording process takes an average of three years.  This separates her from all of her peers.  Taylor Swift is on her 1989 tour and is writing all of her new material while tired and on the road.  She’ll release her next album as quickly as possible, as she has for all of her works.  If other prominent pop artists took as much time as Enya to write, produce, and refine their music, the radio would be filled with lasting, meaningful songs instead of fads.

Enya has only released two songs from her forthcoming album, but it already feels like she is making a point: music is not meant to be fast food.  The last time I consumed her music so readily was during a particularly stressful finals period in college.

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 3.09.50 AMAnd it is no accident that the last time I heard Enya’s soothing voice was during a family Settlers of Catan game.  This is why she is the comeback artist of the year in November.  We are going to stress out over the holidays and over life in general, but we should all take a moment and relax.  Everything will work itself out and it will be fine.