I don't watch much television. Except for the occasional sports event, newscasts are about it for me. A breaking story always gets my attention, but TV is often the destination of last resort, if I can't find what I need online.
Lately, though, despite my sporadic viewing, I've become too familiar with the trailer advertising "How to Get Away with Murder." In the weeks running up to its debut last night, I thought of the series as yet another branded exercise in race: a woman of color in an academic context purveying intrigue and danger. Since I haven't seen The Help, I didn't recognize Viola Davis. I knew that she was compellingly attractive, but not that she had played a role that some people, including me, might have found stereotypical.
Whatever my take on this new development, a character who seemed credible as a law professor, despite the entertainment value, I was unprepared for the grossly mishandled effort to tweet real-time PR for the show. Evidently, the person assigned this task was unable to see past Davis qua Mammy. The offensive parody went viral, along with speculation about the tweeter's sobriety. "Drunk intern" became a popular assumption, the idea being that no full-time employee could be so....stupid.
The fallout was also real-time, the tweet and ostensibly the tweeter disappearing soon after.
Unfortunately, this was not the first controversial media event concerning the show. A week earlier, the New York Times published a piece about Shonda Rhimes, the show's producer, whose previous characters (strong women of color) on the shows "Grey's Anatomy" and the wildly successful "Scandal" prompted this disingenuous lede: "When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called 'How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.'”
The author of this piece, Alessandra Stanley, went on to loft such gems as "Ms. Rhimes has embraced the trite but persistent caricature of the Angry Black Woman, recast it in her own image and made it enviable."
To the hustings strode Dean Baquet, the Times' new executive editor, who happens to be African American. His statement, that Ms. Stanley "was trying to make a profound point," sounded as weak as Stanley's subsequent palliative: "I didn’t think Times readers would take the opening sentence literally because I so often write arch, provocative ledes that are then undercut or mitigated by the paragraphs that follow."
Brendan Behan once said, "There is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary." The show, in my opinion, was destined to be a hit, despite these predictable disasters. But the publishers need to understand that every such disaster portends their own, as readers and viewers turn away from brands that disseminate and defend the same old stereotypes.
Last night, Tammy Faye Starlite channeled Nico, the legendary Velvet Underground singer. At the opening of Nico: Underground, her must-see show running through September 28 at Theater for the New City, Tammy Faye not only continued her startlingly accurate portrayal of the Warhol chanteuse (so skillfully rendered in her Chelsea Mädchen performances over the past few years), she became Nico in a way that transcends channeling. In a masterful production directed by Michael Schiralli, Tammy Faye inhabited her character in a manner open to few skilled actresses. Simply put, she brought Nico into the room: today's Nico, mournful and mindful, vicious and demure. Nico, born Christina Päffgen in pre-war Cologne, was an anachronism from the start. As singer/writer for one of the most progressive underground bands in history, she created a dark style that still engages second- and third-generation fans of the genre. As an actress who worked with Warhol and Fellini, she curated a fragile nihilism that filled the frame and left it empty at the same time. Tammy Faye captures this nihilism perfectly. Like her subject, she is a beautiful enigma who belongs in a museum, but she plays just outside this space, which allows her to simultaneously teach and love the audience.
Backed by an all-star band that played each song with the precise, carefully rehearsed mood of a crack Broadway unit, Tammy Faye sang and spoke her way through a staged interview, conducted by Jeff Ward, who played an Australian radio host. From the beginning, when the band came out on a dark stage, waiting for Tammy Faye's bare-bones entrance, the air crackled with anticipation. Ward's straight-man antics played squarely into Tammy Faye's dark yet comedic portrayal, the staged pauses to absorb yet another well-intentioned critique, the rolling of the eyes, the despair at being misunderstood. And then there was the music, borne to a higher level by the quality of this production. Tammy Faye charts Nico's development with an expert cover of songs that tell the story in order. Lou Reed's "Femme Fatale" announces her arrival: "Here she comes/You better watch your step." In describing her early life in Brixton, when she recorded with Jimmy Page, she intones that she "grew up on opera," met Dylan and started singing his songs on the iconic teen show Ready Steady Go!.
Turning to Reed's "I'll Be Your Mirror" and "All Tomorrow's Parties," the latter played with particular skill by the band, Tammy Faye continues the elegiac sequence. A hilariously acerbic send-up of "Chelsea Girls," interrupted by a statement of hatred for producer Tom Wilson's flute arrangement that threatens physical violence, is followed by Jackson Browne's "These Days," in which she declares, "I've been out walking/I don't do too much talking, these days."
The sorrow in these lyrics hardens into the declaration contained in "Frozen Warnings," Nico's own composition that presents an autobiographical record of the emotional paralysis that accompanies stardom. Tammy Faye played a portable harmonium on this number, working the bellows while rendering a Sprechstimme vocal, as if to resuscitate the corpus of Nico's life.
This is a perfect set-up for Jim Morrison's "The End," which Tammy Faye sings in bloodcurdling fashion, a unique and original cover of a tune that instantly evoked Truman Capote's In Cold Blood - "The killer awoke before dawn." Drained by this apocalyptic piece, we hear "Heroes," by David Bowie, in which we recognize a combination of Blondie and Marlene Dietrich, two other characters known well to Tammy Faye. A surprise rendition of "My Funny Valentine" shows Tammy Faye's breadth as a performer, her ability to sustain the dark persona even through a show tune.
Finally, the ultimate personal statement, in Nico's "Afraid" - "You are beautiful/And you are alone."
You will not be alone in your appreciation of this show. It's an important piece of cultural history. Don't miss it.
In a recent interview, Jill Abramson, former editor of the New York Times, made an important statement about the future of newspapers: "You have to be careful not to conflate the decline of printed journalism with the decline of reported journalism."
With that in mind, we turn to the tag line for my bio at Mashable: "His blog, woodylewis.com, covers social media strategy for newspapers." In 2009, the year I published five pieces for Mashable, that statement was cogent, albeit quixotic. The handwriting was already on the wall, but I remained optimistic about the future of newspapers.
Since then, things have changed.
Several weeks before Abramson's statement, Clay Shirky published a piece in Medium entitled "Last Call," whose subtitle, "The end of the printed newspaper," removes all ambiguity about message. In eulogizing his hometown paper, the still-breathing Roanoke Times, Shirky continues his self-proclaimed study of "the effects of the internet on society." A card-carrying journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Harvard Business Review, and Wired, he now holds dual professorships at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program and Journalism Department. He is also a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
Shirky's unimpeachable credentials leave little room for rebuttal when he makes this pronouncement: "It’s tempting to try to find a moral dimension to newspapers’ collapse, but there isn’t one. All that’s happened is advertisers are leaving, classifieds first, inserts last. Business is business; the advertisers never had a stake in keeping the newsroom open in the first place."
So much for sugarcoating.
It's important, and difficult, for some to realize that however sacrosanct the institution was in the past, print journalism has changed for good. Keeping in mind Abramson's distinction, the practice of journalism has never been more vigorous; it's just the newspapers who are screwed (personification intended). Shirky repeats what has become an old saw: ("...black newsroom humor long ago re-labelled the Obituary column ‘Subscriber Countdown’") to make a point: those journalists who don't change with the times will succumb to them. But this is hardly news.
Which leads to my point: I no longer write about "social media strategy for newspapers." Now, I write about social publishing, a term that will itself be outdated at some point in the future. Words escape to the Web, never to be captured and hidden away. What was accurate five years ago persists as an archival label, much like those found in museums under historical exhibits. Newer words flow from different places, along with images, video and other objects still to be defined.
As for the tractable Roanoke Times (I learned that word from reading Red Smith), a visit to their Web site unearths three possibilities for digital subscription (the unwitting Manhattan resident being told that there is no home delivery of the print edition): 1) "Unlimited digital access" (tagged as BEST OFFER), $9.99 every five weeks 2) "iPad Replica app only" (don't ask), $7.99 every five weeks 3) "The Roanoke eTimes" (this differs from #1?), $7.99 every five weeks.
I'd include a link to the site, but I think you've seen enough.