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It’s generally agreed upon that if you don’t have any new flavor to add to the original, you shouldn’t bother doing a cover.  But what exactly are the ingredients for a great cover?

There’s no secret recipe.  Some of the songs below are great because they completely deconstruct the original, stripping it down to its most basic components of chords and lyrics, and build it back up again in a completely different style.  For others, the genius of the original song was always present but the presentation was lacking, and when the talents of a different performer are added, the song gains a gravity that it didn’t have in its original form.  And some of them, whether by generational ignorance or through the general obscurity of the original artist, simply didn’t receive the exposure they needed for their greatness to be recognized until they were delivered by a more familiar voice.  But the finest of these, the ones we love the best, are simply great songs by great artists where the addition of a new twist and a new voice creates something that is greater than the sum of its parts.  You can hear and recognize the glory of the original version in every note of the cover, but the listening experience is taken to another level through the talents of the covering artist.

The process for generating our list was fairly simple.  We created a huge list (800+ songs) of nominees, and each of the authors that participated selected their own top 100.  Those top 100 lists were weighted on a curve and used to generate the list that you see below.  Next week, we’ll publish a separate “honorable mention” post featuring some of the songs that didn’t earn enough votes to make the list, but were important enough to individual authors that we wanted to make sure they received some attention as well.  If you’ve got a Spotify account, you can listen to most of the originals here, and the cover versions here.  If you don’t have an account yet, you can request an invitation (they issue them pretty promptly now).  Enjoy! — Zack Dennis

For the final installment of the Popdose Guide to Madonna, Robin Monica Alexander and Kelly Stitzel discuss a potpourri of “other” works in Madonna’s catalogue, including soundtrack work, remix albums and greatest hits collections. Robin Monica and Kelly also recap their seven favorite Madonna videos for your enjoyment.

Who’s That Girl? (1987)

After making her mark on the pop music world, Madonna set her sights on becoming a movie star. Her performance in Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) had garnered her some positive critical response and helped to spark a further interest in acting. However, her next film, Shanghai Surprise (1986), in which she co-starred with then-husband Sean Penn, was a critical and commercial failure. But that didn’t stop Madge from trying again and in 1987, she starred in the romantic comedy Who’s That Girl? with Griffin Dunne.

Originally titled Slammer, Who’s That Girl? is about a woman named Nikki Finn (Madonna) who, after being released from prison for murdering her boyfriend, a crime she insists she did not commit, decides she must clear her name before returning to her hometown of Philadelphia. Lawyer Loudon Trott (Dunne) is assigned the task of ensuring that Nikki gets to the bus station on time as part of a community outreach project his wealthy, soon-to-be father-in-law runs. However, Nikki’s determination to prove that she did not commit murder takes over and the two soon find themselves traipsing all over New York City encountering a host of undesirable characters and getting into a variety of sticky situations.

After the failure of Shanghai Surprise, it took some convincing for Warner Bros. to take another chance on Madonna as an actress. They eventually green lighted the project, but Who’s That Girl? wound up being another flop, though many reviews applauded Dunne’s performance and Madonna’s comic timing. The film’s soundtrack, however — as well as the tour sharing its name that Madonna embarked upon to promote it — were huge successes.

Of the nine songs on the Who’s That Girl? soundtrack, only four are by Madonna; despite this, the album is considered to be one of her releases. Of those four songs, three were released as singles: “Who’s That Girl,” “Causing a Commotion” and “The Look of Love,” the latter of which was Europe-only release. “Who’s That Girl,” a mid-tempo track that draws upon Spanish influences, much like “La Isla Bonita,” went on to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming her sixth single to do so during that decade. “Causing a Commotion,” a classic Madonna dance track inspired by her rocky relationship with Penn, peaked at number two, though it is arguably the better song. “The Look of Love,” a haunting ballad very reminiscent of “Live to Tell,” did well on the European charts, reaching the top ten in the UK. The fourth Madonna song, “Can’t Stop,” is an upbeat, ‘60s girl group-inspired number.

The non-Madonna tracks are contributed by artists who, at the time, were on the same label as Madonna, including Club Nouveau, Scritti Politti, Coati Mundi (who also co-stars in the film as a gangster) and Duncan Faure. Michael Davidson’s “Turn It Up” was released as a promotional single and made it to number 15 on the dance charts. Most of the songs are fun dance-pop tracks, but nothing to write home about.

You Can Dance (1987)

Madonna’s first compilation album, You Can Dance is curious in that it eschews her biggest hits (up to that point) and puts the focus on songs that missed the Top 10 and, in some cases, weren’t even released as singles. It strings together one original track, “Spotlight,” and six remixes for what is essentially a non-stop party album. At the time, remixes were not yet de rigueur in the music industry, but Madonna’s material was a natural fit for this novel trend, and provided golden opportunities for that new cultural hybrid, the DJ-cum-producer, represented on You Can Dance by John “Jellybean” Benitez, retooling his own work on “Holiday,” and Shep Pettibone, who transforms “Into the Groove” from a fun dance tune into a minor pop masterpiece. Once again, Madonna was not looking for the next big thing in the music world; she was creating it.

I’m Breathless (1990)

This bizarre album is comprised of songs “from and inspired by the film Dick Tracy,” in which Madonna co-starred as gangster’s moll Breathless Mahoney. Half a soundtrack and half a concept record, its sound is “1930’s big band” meets “way too many keyboards.” However, we’ll always be thankful for its existence, as it includes (almost as an afterthought) the game-changing single “Vogue.” For more on our analysis of the record, check out what we wrote about it in last year’s “Popdose Flashback” series.

The Queen of Reinvention, Madonna’s output in the late-90s and first decade of the 21st century proved to be the most diverse of her career. In the span of five albums, she explores electronica, country, rock, disco and hip-hop. She even learned how to play the guitar. Join Robin Monica Alexander and Kelly Stitzel as they take a look at Her Madgesty’s most eclectic works in part two of the Popdose Guide to Madonna.

Ray of Light (1998)

In the two years after the release of Bedtime Stories, Madonna entered a new phase of her life. She started dating her personal trainer, Carlos Leon, and began work on the feature film adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Evita, in which she portrayed Argentinian First Lady Eva Perón. In the midst of filming, she found out she was pregnant and in October 1996, she gave birth to her and Leon’s first child, daughter Lourdes.

Madonna took some time off after Lourdes’s birth and during that time became interested in Eastern mysticism, yoga and Kabbalah. Her newfound spirituality and centeredness, along with first-time motherhood, greatly affected the direction she took on her seventh studio album, Ray of Light. Regarded by many critics and fans as one of the best — if not the best — album she’d ever released, Ray of Light revealed a mature, thoughtful Madonna. Leaving behind the image of the Material Girl, she was now a Mystical Mama, even down to the hippy-chic new look she’d adopted.

After writing songs with Babyface and Patrick Leonard, both of whom she’d worked with previously, and Rick Nowels, who had written songs with Celine Dion and Stevie Nicks, Madonna decided that the direction her collaborations were taking with each of them wasn’t what she wanted for her new album. So, she asked electronic musician William Orbit, whose work she greatly admired, to produce the new album. Orbit’s production gave the songs an ambient, electronic sound that Madonna had only dabbled in previously — most notably on “Bedtime Story,” the track from her last album that had been co-written by Björk. Because Orbit preferred to work largely with samples and synths and other technology-based instrumentation, the album was recorded largely without live instruments, which was also new for Madonna.

In addition to experimenting musically, lyrically she also ventured into new territory, writing some of the most personal, self-reflective songs of her career, exploring the topics of motherhood, spirituality and fame, which she’d never really addressed in a serious way previously. She even crafted a song around text adapted from the Yoga Taravali. And vocally, she was stronger than ever, owing to the extensive voice lessons she took in preparation for Evita.

A huge critical and commercial success, Ray of Light debuted at number two on the Billboard 200 albums chart and produced two top-five singles in the U.S. (“Frozen,” and “Ray of Light”). Three additional singles were also released: “The Power of Goodbye,” “Nothing Really Matters” and “Drowned World/Substitute for Love,” the latter of which was only released in the UK, where it was a top-10 hit. Ray of Light received six Grammy nominations, winning four. “The Drowned World Tour” to support the album was planned, and was scheduled to kick off in 1999, but was postponed until 2001.

Music (2000)

Not that the fans were disappointed by Ray of Light, but it was, relatively speaking, a pretty heavy experience. Sure, we got it — Madonna had borne a child, broken up with the baby daddy, and turned 40. But what a pleasure it was to hear her sounding so cool and relaxed on Music. (Robin Monica remembers exactly where she was when she heard the title track for the first time: in a gay bar. The rump shaking started immediately.)

No longer satisfied with being just a performer, songwriter, and producer, Madonna added “guitarist” to her list of credits on Music, which took some of the material in an unexpected direction: country. The departure in style worked like gangbusters, taking “Don’t Tell Me,” the album’s second single, to #4 both in the US and in the UK, where Madonna had recently taken up residence. Of course, this was country as re-imagined by the new gods of European electronica, a.k.a. William Orbit (still hanging around after Ray of Light) and Mirwais, Madonna’s principal collaborator on Music; it fit right in with the album’s primary sound, which was slick, futuristic, and ever so danceable. Unlike some of Madonna’s earlier albums, where it’s quite clear which songs are the singles and which are the catchy but undistinguished filler, Music has enough single-worthy tracks that it’s sort of astonishing how few were officially released. (Reportedly, Madonna felt “Amazing” was too similar to her Austin Powers 2 love theme, “Beautiful Stranger,” and thus kept it off the radio. Madonna, you were wrong on that one.)

One of the songs that did achieve single status was “What It Feels Like for a Girl,” a remarkably simple and straightforward ballad about the everyday struggles and humiliations faced by half the world’s population. It failed to live up to the chart performance standard set by “Music” and “Don’t Tell Me,” but sometimes, even for Madonna, hit-making isn’t the point. An international megastar/mogul/cowgirl can still have a vulnerable side. Obviously, that openness means a lot to some of the fans: last year, the Madonna tribute episode of Glee included an all-male cover of “What It Feels Like.”

In the summer of 1958, three of the biggest stars pop music would ever see were born — Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson. All three are, for what it’s worth, enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And in the past two years, the Popdose Guide has covered the output of two of those artists. So, in honor of her 53rd birthday (which she’s spending in the Hamptons with her two youngest kids and her 24-year-old boyfriend), Madonna acolytes Robin Monica Alexander and Kelly Stitzel decided it was high time Her Madgesty got her own entry. And so we bring you the Popdose Guide to Madonna.

Madonna (1983)

A lot of brain-dead stuff has been written about Madonna over the years. Might good old-fashioned sexism be part of the problem? Madonna is particularly susceptible to sexist criticism because, like fellow superstar and gay icon Barbra Streisand, she exerts an unusual amount of control over her work for someone who was only supposed to be a “girl singer.” For example, on Madonna, her 1983 debut album, she wrote five of the eight tracks, including its biggest hit, “Lucky Star.” However, in later years she remarked that it wasn’t the album she hoped it would be, due to, you know, her total inexperience in the record business. It’s cool, Madonna…you did okay.

Madonna is the love child of the New York dance club scene and pure American girly pop. The vocals — endlessly criticized as weak, squeaky, or immature — are exactly what the material needs: it sounds like the girl next door is singing to you about her guy problems. The girl next door has a little bit of an identity crisis, in that one moment she wants nothing more than to party the night away under a disco ball (“Everybody”), or, uh, get laid (“Physical Attraction,” a track that sounds like a leftover from 1978 — in a good way), and the next she’s sweetly imploring her macho boyfriend to trust in her love (“Borderline”), but that’s the dichotomy that made Madonna distinctive. For every song (and video) that cast her as sexually loose or aggressive, there was another that portrayed her as just a charming girl from the neighborhood. “Lucky Star” manages to do both at once: its suggestive beat and Madonna’s vocal bring the sex while the lyrics — “Star light, star bright/First star I see tonight” — evoke a fairy-tale innocence (that is, until that chorus: “Shine your heavenly body tonight”).

Madonna was not an instant hit, but its popularity built gradually between the summer of 1983 and the spring of the following year, aided by videos which allowed Madonna to show off the East Village ragamuffin chic that had made her a well-known character around NYC. (They also revealed that she was white, which took some early fans by surprise.)  Its singles were more successful — where else? — on the Club chart and the dance floor. Madonna did most of her live performance dates to support the album in clubs. It wasn’t until 1985 when she launched a full-scale concert tour, in support of…

Lennon and McCartney. Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth. Frank Black (or Black Francis) and Kim Deal. Over and over in the world of rock n’ roll, bands fall apart, and great teams go their separate ways. Each member of these teams may go on to do good, even amazing things, but their fans tend to feel that something’s missing from the new stuff…especially when the band that fell apart is an A-level, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame act, like, say, the Clash.

After being kicked out of the band, reportedly for chronic tardiness, Clash guitarist and vocalist Mick Jones did not remain idle. (Nor, thankfully, did he join Foreigner.) He was involved in the earliest phase of General Public and today is part of Gorillaz’s touring band. But his most significant post-punk role is as the founder and core member of Big Audio Dynamite (B.A.D.). The group’s name and lineup fluctuated wildly over the course of thirteen years and “nine” albums (two of them are 75% identical, so call it 8 ½) and took Jones to a place that some of his fans would probably rather he hadn’t gone—dance music. Granted, this dance music incorporated audio samples from the films of Nicolas Roeg and Powell and Pressburger, as well as borrowing keyboard and organ parts from the Who and Deep Purple, but folks who had actually taken the “punk vs. disco” wars of the 1970s seriously must have felt somewhat disillusioned.

I am not going to say anything about the Smiths that hasn’t been said before. So I’m not going to try. I’d simply like to remind everyone that 25 years ago this week, their penultimate (and, most fans would argue, best album), The Queen Is Dead, was released in the U.K. It came out a week later in the U.S. And I, for one, was paying absolutely no attention.

Back then, I was a bit too young to appreciate–or even be aware of–Morrissey and Marr’s special brand of whimsy and gloom, and was still listening to Top 40 radio. I’m sure the biggest musical event of the year for me was the release of True Blue. And let’s be honest, America as a whole never really “got” the Smiths. The Queen Is Dead went to #2 on the U.K. albums chart, but stalled at #70 on the Billboard 200. When I joined the newly-burgeoning Alternative Nation and became a regular viewer of 120 Minutes (and its late, lamented sibling, Postmodern MTV), I still had issues with Moz and his pitch-black sense of humor: I remember seeing the video for “Girlfriend in a Coma” (from Strangeways Here We Come, the band’s final album) and not enjoying it at all. It wasn’t until after college, when I had spent several years marinating in the music of the Cure, Depeche Mode, and the Pixies, gotten serious about David Bowie, and fallen in love with the Brits of the Moment, Oasis and Pulp, when I finally “heard” the Smiths for the first time: it was as if “How Soon Is Now?” was a brand new song. Shortly thereafter, I went to Europe (on the “backpack and youth hostel” plan), and found myself walking the streets of Manchester with Meat Is Murder playing on my walkman. And I understood why Ian Curtis had killed himself.

Sorry, this column went on an unannounced hiatus: the author was too busy eating to get any writing done.

As alert readers will have noticed, I really like food, especially the artery-clogging variety. Sure, I enjoy a lovely arugula salad from time to time, and I don’t feel deprived when I pick up a treat from Tasti D-Lite (screw Pinkberry!) or Jamba Juice rather than Ben & Jerry’s. But Mama always comes back to the comfort cuisine.

I tend to be a creature of habit as well as a bit of a cynic, which means that I’m usually a few years behind the curve when it comes to the Next Big Food Thing. (I’m also frequently caught wearing styles that were hot a decade ago.) So when I first saw all the yuppie scum waiting in line in Madison Square Park at lunchtime, I thought, “What kind of morons stand around waiting for thirty minutes for a burger?” Seriously, just because it’s run by restaurateur Danny Meyer, who probably spent a little more coin on logo design than did the owners at your average greasy spoon, doesn’t mean that the Shake Shack is the second coming of ground red meat.

Here’s the thing, though: it is. What would Jesus do? He would eat lunch at Shake Shack.

Critical triumph and commercial success have collided in a new Broadway musical called The Book of Mormon. The dudes of South Park and the composer of Tony-winner Avenue Q teamed up to produce a broadly comic, exceedingly impolite, ultimately affectionate portrait of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, which was founded by self-proclaimed prophet Joseph Smith in 1830. The musical’s plot concerns two young missionaries dispatched to a godless village in Uganda, which, like much of Africa, has been devastated by AIDS.

Prophets, Mormons, and AIDS…why does that sound so familiar? Oh, that’s right: wild as it may seem, another Broadway show explored similar territory almost two decades ago. Granted, it wasn’t a musical, and it was set not in Africa, but in New York City. But if The Book of Mormon is even half as moving, groundbreaking, and enduring as playwright Tony Kushner’s masterwork, Angels in America, its makers can be more than satisfied with themselves. Set in the 1980s and first produced in 1990, Angels is a theatrical epic on a scale rarely seen on stage anymore. It is presented in two parts, each over three hours long; despite this, it achieved a kind of popular success that eludes most non-musical plays, even those that make it to the Great White Way. The first half, Millennium Approaches, won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama; both parts (the second is called Perestroika) won the Tony Award for Best Play. In 2003, an HBO film adaptation starring Al Pacino and Meryl Streep won 11 Emmys.

Welcome back to Random Play’s really, really detailed look back at Guiding Light, the great-great grandma of daytime drama. GL went off the air in 2009, but for Kelly Stitzel and Robin Monica Alexander, the show’s glory days, chock-a-block with secret love children, prison breaks, and many cases of amnesia, seem like yesterday. In our first installment, we reminisced about some of the core families of fictional “Springfield,” where GL was set. We remembered the humble yet fallible Bauers, the blue collar Reardons, and the upper-crust Spauldings, whose members came together in love, friendship, rivalry, and enmity. But those clans weren’t the full story–not by a long shot. It wouldn’t be a soap if it didn’t have far too many characters doing way too many things every day. You think keeping track of baseball stats requires focus? Don’t make me laugh. Try following an average week in daytime.

Springfield, provincial as it may have been, somehow had room for more than one household of millionaires. Providing a counterpoint to the cold, calculating Spauldings was the Lewis family, a hot-headed bunch who came up north from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where they had made their fortune in the oil business. Of course, you can’t talk about the Lewises without talking about the Shaynes. Hawk Shayne and his wife Sarah worked as servants in the Lewis household, and the children of both families grew up together, leading to jealousies and entanglements of Biblical proportions:


Roger Thorpe, a.k.a. Adam Malek, a.k.a. Professor Schneider. Alexandra Spaulding, a.k.a. Baroness von Halkein. Reva Shayne Lewis Lewis Spaulding Lewis Winslow Cooper Lewis Lewis O’Neill. These colorful characters, among countless others, contributed to the success of the longest running drama in the history of television, Guiding Light.

When the lighthouse that was its symbol went dark, GL had seen nearly 16,000 episodes come and go—and that’s not counting its fifteen years on radio prior to its transfer to TV. Sadly, younger, sexier “soap operas” like The Young and the Restless (which has been #1 in daytime every week for the last twenty-two years) and the proliferation of shock-a-licious talk shows ultimately proved too much for the old girl, and she was put out to pasture in September 2009. But before it collapsed under its own weight, having succumbed to the kind of “jumping the shark” plot developments that lost them longtime viewers (clones, anyone?), it was appointment viewing for a young Robin Monica Alexander and an even younger Kelly Stitzel, who were introduced to the secrets of fictional “Springfield” by their respective grandmas. When Jeff Giles interviewed One Life to Live actress Kassie DePaiva for Popdose last month, both of us were thrown headlong into nostalgia—you see, before Ms. DePaiva was OLTL‘s Blair, she was GL‘s Chelsea Reardon, who was lucky enough to have affairs with a fine selection of Springfield’s hottest hunks. (Oh, Johnny Bauer…)

The Guiding Light was created in 1937 by actress Irna Phillips, whose goal was to spread Christian inspiration through good, clean soap. Phillips built a career providing entertainment to homemakers; she would go on to create and produce several more serial dramas, including As the World Turns, Another World, and Days of Our Lives (the last is the only one still in production). The Guiding Light began as a fifteen-minute program, was lengthened to a half-hour in the 1960s, and expanded again to an hour in 1977; for four years in the ’50s, it was being broadcast on both radio and TV concurrently. In 1975 the “The” of the title was dropped. More than a few of its hundreds of cast members went on to less sudsy careers, including James Earl Jones, Christopher Walken, Allison Janney, Hayden Panettiere, and…Kevin Bacon (proving that he really is the center of the show business universe).

Before TV, GL revolved around the Reverend John Rutledge, who as his community’s pastor found himself privy to everyone’s dirty little secrets, including a few in his own home. By the time the show moved to the boob tube, the Bauer family was the central focus. Despite their middle-class status and solid German-American values, those Bauers managed to attract a lot of A-level conflict:

Kelly: One of the first storylines I remember as a young GL viewer is that of the friendship between teenagers Rick Bauer, Phillip Spaulding, Beth Raines and Mindy Lewisa.k.a. the Four Musketeersduring the early ’80s. The core friendship of that group was that of Phillip and Rick, who, despite their different upbringingsPhillip was raised by the rich and morally questionable Spaulding family and Rick belonged to the salt-of-the-Earth Bauerswere practically inseparable after meeting in high school. Their friendship would endure a lot during their teens and twenties, including quite a bit of romance-swapping (they would each date the other two Musketeers, Beth and Mindy), but it was truly testedand for a short period, endedwhen Rick discovered that his wife, Meredith, had slept with Phillip and become pregnant with his child. Worse even, Rick found out that Phillip was the baby’s father after its death, since he’d chosen to save Meredith’s life over the child’s when complications arose during the delivery. Even though I was a pre-teen when this storyline aired, I remember being in awe of the brilliant performances given by Grant Aleksander (Phillip), Michael O’Leary (Rick) and Nicolette Goulet (Meredith)O’Leary’s especially. I hated that the friendship between two of my favorite charactersa friendship that was a main reason why I had become interested in the show as a little girlmight end for good. They took what could’ve been a standard, trashy soap storyline and elevated it to something heartbreaking and more meaningful. Of course, Phillip and Rick eventually reconciled and went on to be involved in many more shenanigans that would test their BFF-dom.

It’s so fitting that Black History Month and Women’s History Month are right next to each other on the calendar. After all, the seeds of America’s feminist movement were planted during the battle against slavery; after the Civil War, many abolitionists, including Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Frederick Douglass, turned their attention to issues like suffrage and property rights for women. As we say goodbye to February and hello to March, I want to pay tribute to the powerful historical and social bond that exists between these two tracks of our civil rights struggle…and I think the words of Tampa-based rap group Yo Majesty convey the significance of that bond:

“Fuck that shit! Fuck that shit! Fuck that shit, say ‘Fuck that shit!'”

Okay, maybe Susan B. would have been slightly taken aback at the bluntness of those lyrics, but undoubtedly she and the rest of her activist sisters and brothers are directly responsible for their existence. Without the exertions of true believers like them, black lesbian Christian hip-hop would still be an unattainable dream.

Merry Christmas, everyone! As I write this, NORAD reports that Santa is traversing South America, next stop Brazil, and I just finished listening to my new favorite holiday album, A John Waters Christmas. I’m also starting to feel the effects of “Yuletide freakout,” the phenomenon wherein members of one’s family start getting tense or crabby for no apparent reason, aside from the social pressure to make the day some kind of soul-cleansing transformative experience. Me, I’ll be at work tomorrow afternoon, and really all that matters to me is that I receive the Godiva chocolate I requested, and that the garlic mashed potatoes I’m making for dinner turn out okay. But others are making it difficult for me to maintain my holiday equilibrium, so I’m enlisting the aid of the good people at Stolichnaya–specifically, a cocktail made with their newest flavored vodka, Stoli Wild Cherri.

I know it would be more traditional to get my Christmas buzz on with eggnog or a good old-fashioned Dickensian punch, but vodka is my go-to liquor, and has been since I began drinking. I got on the alcohol train quite late, having abstained throughout high school and college. In my teens, I never needed liquid courage to get out on the dance floor (or remove my shirt at a party), and having tasted beer and champagne as a kid, I saw no reason to force myself to drink something that nasty for the purpose of getting up the nerve to do things I already did. But then came adulthood, and romantic drama, and graduate school, and plain old spunk and stubbornness wasn’t enough anymore. I had helped to plan a party with a fellow grad student, and had taken great care to craft mixtapes that I thought would get people rump-shakin’ with abandon. Alas, my expectations were too high: let’s just say MFA candidates in film aren’t the folks most likely to get down. I took my classmates’ failure to boogie personally, and decided then and there that it was time for a new coping mechanism. I marched into the kitchen and demanded that the class alcoholic (not coincidentally, he was also the class virgin) fix me up a drink that would be palatable to an experienced imbiber like myself. He came up with a simple but functional vodka and Sprite. A door opened in my psyche that night that I had never suspected was there. Not everything behind that door has been nice, but I wouldn’t close it again for the world.

Last week, there was a local news story here in New York about a subway train driver who was caught on video sending text messages while operating the train. People on the street who were interviewed about the driver’s actions were uniformly appalled, and agreed that what he had done was unprofessional and dangerous. However, a majority of those same people expressed dismay at the notion that the driver would lose his job over it. Despite the fact that this person had broken a clearly articulated workplace rule that is designed to keep five million daily riders from being injured or killed (as riders have been in similar events elsewhere), New Yorkers felt sorry for him. They felt he deserved another chance. They wanted to believe the best of him. It’s this ability to recognize a moral or ethical failing and yet simultaneously excuse or minimize it that I find myself pondering as the new Broadway production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, starring Al Pacino, opens to rave reviews and packed houses.

First things first: I freely admit that I have not seen the current production, either in its original incarnation in Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre or in its new home at the Broadhurst on 44th Street. I am perfectly willing to concede that Pacino’s portrayal of Shylock is “devastating” and that he and Lily Rabe, as Portia, give “the performances of the season.” Both roles are among the juiciest in Shakespeare’s canon, and the text contains some of the most quotable and profound dialogue he ever wrote, including “The quality of mercy is not strain’d” and “The villainy you teach me, I shall execute.” However, there’s one big problem: the play’s comedic, dramatic, and romantic payoffs all hinge on our acceptance of anti-semitism. Actors, directors, and audiences tie themselves in knots trying to deny or justify this. This is possibly a by-product of what George Bernard Shaw called “Bardolatry,” the belief that Shakespeare is not only a great dramatist, but the great dramatist—a regard for the Bard that goes beyond respect and admiration into reverence. Shaw’s skepticism may have been exacerbated by professional jealousy, but a little skepticism never hurt anyone, and if ever a play deserved to be regarded skeptically, Merchant would be it.

It’s an exciting time of year. Leaves are falling and soon it will be time to put on the scarves and mittens. “Christmas creep” means that door-buster sales on toys, clothes and space-age TV sets will be offered the minute that the Halloween decorations are put away. Time to start planning the Thanksgiving menu, booking your holiday travel, and stuffing your face with delicious ground pork, onions, pickles and barbecue sauce … because the McRib is back, baby! Despite several “Farewell Tours,” it abides. Since being pulled from the regular menu back in the ’80s, it has been spotted in certain anointed areas of the country on and off over the years. But this time, it’s being offered nationwide for the first time in nearly two decades!

The official return date was announced as November 2—Election Day. How fitting: you can exercise your rights as a citizen, and then celebrate the miracle of democracy by eating the sandwich that, despite its failure to rally the same kind of support enjoyed by hamburgers and chicken patties, is periodically brought back into the public sphere thanks to the devotion of a small but passionate constituency. My day was set: go to work, go to the polls, go to town on a McRib value meal as a reward for holding up my end of the American bargain. But the Mickey D’s near my place of work decided to go rogue and start serving McRibs a week early. I am happy to report that it was every bit as awesome as I remembered it being. No letdown here. And hey, there’s no reason I can’t eat another one on Election Day as I originally planned. After all, I gotta get my jollies while I can: the sandwich is only being offered until mid-December. Pulling it right before Christmas? Bah, humbug!

Random, indeed. Thanks for turning my normally irreverent and humorous column into an obituary, Greg.

In my very early years, I had trouble with the concept of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” You’re supposed to answer that question with the name of a profession, like “Veterinarian!” or “Singer!” or “Firefighter!” As a wee child, I tended to identify not with jobs, but with personalities. So I would respond to the question of “what” I wanted to be with a vague, “A teacher, or an actress, I guess,” but what I really wanted was to be Lucille Ball. I’m not sure I grasped fully that Lucy Ricardo and Ball were not the same person (largely because she worked hard to prevent me from grasping it), but the reason I wanted to be her, to do what she did, was not because she was glamorous or beautiful. I wanted to be Lucy because Lucy was funny. Lucy made people laugh, and that’s why they loved her.

Many years of reality checks and social humiliations later, I still want to make people laugh, but have only rarely attempted to do so on stage. My appreciation for the art of comedy, however, has only grown. True to my early attraction to personality over content, I have found myself passionately drawn to stand-up comics. Now, a qualification: I am not a stand-up groupie. I’m not that woman that haunts comedy clubs and open mics–first of all, because live shows are criminally expensive and/or inconveniently scheduled, and second, because a good number of comics are just plain crap. Like musical theater, when comedy’s good, it’s very good, but when it’s bad it’s horrid. So I consider myself not a comedy fanatic, but a comedy connoisseur.

This summer Madonna turned 52. To celebrate (“Holidaaay!”), Robin Monica Alexander and Kelly Stitzel are paying homage to one of Madge’s weirdest records, which also just celebrated a birthday: the big two-oh.

Released on May 22, 1990, I’m Breathless is, at least theoretically, a soundtrack to Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, in which Madonna costars as singing gun moll Breathless Mahoney (see what she did with the album’s title there?).

We use the word “soundtrack” very loosely. See, only four of the songs on the album appear in Dick Tracy, and one, “Now I’m Following You,” isn’t even performed by Madonna-as-Breathless in the movie. The rest are just Madonna songs “inspired by” — and, we’re guessing, performed by — her character. (If you want a Dick Tracy soundtrack album with no Madonna songs at all, you have your choice between one featuring Jerry Lee Lewis and Ice-T, among others, and Danny Elfman’s score.)

I’m Breathless actually did quite well on the charts, reaching #2 on the Billboard 200 and spawning two hit singles, the world-altering “Vogue” and the lesser “Hanky Panky.” It also contains the 1990 Oscar winner for Best Song: “Sooner or Later,” written by Stephen Sondheim.

Harry Connick Jr. has spent his entire career doing much more than what people expect of him – except once. When the 22-year-old jazz-pop wunderkind (he made his first record at age ten) from the Big Easy was tapped to perform songs for the soundtrack of When Harry Met Sally, he delivered pretty much exactly what the film required: a fresh and competent take on romantic standards, the perfect counterpoint to a story about an all-too modern love affair. People wanted to know: who was the man behind the smooth, Sinatra-esque vocals? When they saw him, they – at least, the women and the gay men – wanted to see a lot more of him. Connick, a born overachiever, was happy to oblige, in his half suave, half southern-fried way.

Over the past 20 years, Connick has recorded 21 albums; in addition, he’s appeared in over 20 films, co-starred on Will & Grace for four seasons, and worked on Broadway as both a performer and a composer. He pops up everywhere, from TV specials to PSAs on the importance of obeying gun laws. The record that guaranteed he would not become a just a footnote in show business history, coming hard on the heels of his success (and Grammy award) for Harry/Sally, was We Are in Love, which showcased Connick as a songwriter and bandleader as well as singer and pianist. Those who think Michael Bublé originated the role of  “post-rock pop-standard hottie” have obviously forgotten the tizzy Harry caused with his deliciously square lyrics (check out “Recipe for Love” or “Heavenly” for examples) and his old-fashioned earnestness about music and love: he publicly gushed over his underwear-model girlfriend (to whom he has been married since 1994) and declared he would never take an acting role which required him to kiss a co-star, as that would constitute cheating. Obviously, Harry reconciled his ambitions as an actor with his moral code over time, sucking face with quite a few Hollywood leading ladies, but he has remained true to his musical roots – classic vocals, jazz piano, New Orleans flavor, big band sound.

Okay, if you’re so smart: how many spin-offs did Garry Marshall’s Happy Days produce? Just one? Wrong. Oh, that’s right, two. Most folks who remember the late 1970s will quickly think of Laverne & Shirley, the branch most similar to the tree: both shows are set in Milwaukee in the late 1950s. The know-it-alls among you will also recall that Robin Williams’ alien from Ork first appeared on a Happy Days episode before ending up in Boulder in 1978 in Mork & Mindy.

So two’s the answer? Nope. It’s five. Blansky’s Beauties was a midseason replacement focused on a character who, like Mork, had been introduced on one episode of Happy Days; it ran for thirteen episodes. Out of the Blue‘s “crossover” character, a guardian angel named “Random” (I’ll say!), actually appeared on Happy Days after the first of its ten episodes had already aired. I’ll be honest: without the miracle of the Internet, I’d never have known these two shows existed; I certainly didn’t remember them. But the fifth of the Happy Days spin-offs, Joanie Loves Chachi, looms large in my recollections of 1982. Hey, I was a kid – there was a lot of room in my brain back then.

The Fonz had jumped the shark five years earlier, but Happy Days just kept on returning to prime time, season after season. (Ah, that simpler time before digital cable and reality TV.) However, the suits at ABC must have known that their luck couldn’t hold out forever. Fonzie was getting old. Both Laverne & Shirley (which shortly thereafter lost Shirley) and Mork & Mindy were limping toward their graves. How to keep some vestige of the Happy Days magic alive? Give Scott Baio, the cutie-turned-hottie who played Charles “Chachi” Arcola (and had been a refugee from Blansky’s Beauties) his own show. And sure, let Erin Moran come along for the ride. For the record, Garry Marshall, who had never previously met a spin-off he didn’t like, had nothing to do with this one. The premise sent the titular couple to Chicago to try to make it in show business. The result was two parts sitcom, one part rock n’ roll — well, rock n’ roll as played by TV actors in the early ’80s pretending to be musicians in the early ’60s. Granted, Baio had cut his teeth in Hollywood on the Alan Parker all-kids musical Bugsy Malone; of course, neither he nor any of the other cast members had actually sung in it.

A woman I know recently appeared on a TV game show. She was asked a question about the 39th and 40th states to enter the Union, which happen to be North and South Dakota. She answered the question correctly. How did she do it? There were a few factors in play. First, she figured that the two states had to be closely associated; second, she knew that Benjamin Harrison – the president whose administration admitted the states, according to the clue – was in the White House in the late 19th century. But ultimately, the key to her getting the question right, and winning the game, was everything she learned from the dearly departed HBO series Deadwood, which makes the history of the Dakota territory look like The Odyssey, Faust, and GoodFellas blended together and served with a shot of whiskey.

Deadwood was lauded by virtually every critic on earth, and has a respectable and devoted fan base, but was canceled at the end of its third season with no resolution to its storyline – not exactly a bust, like John from Cincinnati, but far short of the epic successes of The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. It’s not hard to see why HBO put the show out to pasture: the period setting, replete with armies of extras and endless quantities of mud and horse shit, reportedly made Deadwood extremely expensive to produce. And even though America has occasionally given its seal of approval to Western-themed entertainments in the last generation – Young Guns, Dances with Wolves, and Unforgiven come immediately to mind – a massive prejudice against the genre counterbalances any resurgence in its popularity. Why? Because the story of the West is the story of ruthless greed, unbridled machismo, and genocide. Let’s face it – America is built on double-dealing and the mass murders of brown people. This makes movies about cowboys, prospectors and homesteaders seem, at best, phony, and, at worst, evil to folks not raised on Gunsmoke and Bonanza.

In college, I took a sociology course called “Media and Society.” The professor who taught it made a point of differentiating between the concept of fame and that of celebrity: the former, he argued, had existed from ancient times and resulted from the performance of admirable or heroic deeds, while the latter was a purely modern condition that anyone with a talent for getting attention could attain, whether their accomplishments were truly significant or purely superficial. To his assessment, I would add that while fame may weigh heavily on the shoulders of those it has chosen, celebrity eats its victims alive. The second half of the 20th century is, culturally speaking, largely defined by a timeline of celebrity deaths, most of which were a result of drug use or other self-destructive behavior: James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Hendrix, Janis, Jim Morrison, Sid Vicious, John Belushi, Kurt Cobain. The 21st shows no signs of reversing this trend, if the demises of Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger, and Anna Nicole Smith are any indication.

In recent weeks, the Faded Celebrity Death March has kicked into high gear, giving further credence to my former prof’s theory: even people we no longer care about in life can revive their “careers,” as it were, by dying tragically. First there was the suicide of Andrew Koenig, a second-generation celeb (his father played Chekov on Star Trek) who was best known for playing a character called “Boner” (that would never make it past Standards and Practices today) on Growing Pains. Then came news of the untimely but all-too-predictable death of Corey Haim, half of the once-powerful “Corey and Corey” movie duo. Considering how public Haim’s struggles with drugs have been, and how obscure Koenig became following his departure from the Seaver universe, the amount of press coverage both events received is somewhat surprising.

If a novel gets me interested in science, it’s got to be something really special. I have been a freak for literature, theater, and history almost since birth, but anything involving biology has been a rocky road. In fact, I managed to flunk Intro Bio in my freshman year of college, when in order to pass I would only have had to score an average of 50 on each of four tests. You get the point – I can’t be bothered to learn how the universe works. So what kind of thing breaks through my aversion to scientific facts? Certain songs recorded by They Might Be Giants (see “Mammal” and “The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas”) and certain bestselling books written by Jean M. Auel. Her “Earth’s Children” series may single-handedly have convinced millions of poorly educated Americans that the theory of evolution is not some kind of sick joke, but actually makes more sense than anything else that’s been suggested.

I wouldn’t recommend using Auel’s novels as your main source for information about the descent of man – stick with Darwin for that – but she sure does make prehistory seem awesome. The books, beginning with 1980’s The Clan of the Cave Bear, take place between the Ice Ages, focusing on a Cro-Magnon orphan who is adopted by Neanderthals – no, I don’t mean Tucker Max and friends, I mean the early humans with the low foreheads and chimp-like posture. In an irony reminiscent of The Twilight Zone’s “Eye of the Beholder” episode, the girl, called Ayla, is mocked and pitied by many in her adoptive tribe for being freakishly tall and fair-haired – in other words, for looking like Daryl Hannah, who played the role in the (boring) movie version. She is also at a disadvantage in the Neanderthal world for having actual intelligence – the ability to learn through observation and practice – as opposed to inborn “memories” that tell her what to do. For women, these memories are supposed to include knowledge about childrearing, preparing food, and having doggy-style sex with whichever man indicates his interest (foreplay and the missionary position have, apparently, not yet been discovered). Ayla doesn’t get it, but has to get with the program or be ostracized.

Why is the world in love again?
Why are we marching hand in hand?
Why are the ocean levels rising up?
It’s a brand new record for 1990
They Might Be Giants’ brand new album…

It was certainly meant as a joke, but this song, the opening number of They Might Be Giants’ third album, reflected quite accurately how my peers and I felt. We were in the very, very small portion of the population who even knew that the band existed before Flood was released. Afterward, that very, very small group expanded to become a still very small group. But to me and my precocious, high-strung, New York City friends, no one was awesomer than John Flansburgh and John Linnell, two hardcore nerds, childhood friends who lived in Brooklyn (before it was hip) and wrote songs about…well, it was sometimes hard to tell. Their melodies were playful and unpredictable, mostly keyboard based with frequent appearances of the accordion. Their vocals were adenoidal in the extreme, and their lyrics were full of non sequiturs and wordplay, dissecting pop culture, romantic clichés, and paranoia. Their “Dial-A-Song” service offered a new musical recording every day for the price of a local (area code 718) call. For overeducated urban teens born at the end of the Vietnam era and growing up in the Big ’80s, they seemed like the funniest, smartest guys on earth.

There have been a lot of boys, and men, whose pictures I have torn out of magazines for my personal use. The first may have been Michael Jackson, of whom I was so publicly enamored that one Christmas, two different people gave me an MJ calendar – the same one. (This was in the Thriller period, when his skin was still brown and his nose still apparently functional.) The most recent was Robert Downey Jr., whose rehabbed visage is this very moment hanging on my bedroom wall. Possibly combining the best attributes of both of these examples – artistic brilliance, overwhelming charisma, unflappable self-confidence – is the artist formerly known as Sting. Well, I suppose he’s still known as Sting, but it seems strange to me that that bearded, New Agey staple of Adult Contemporary radio is the same guy whose 1988 concert at Madison Square Garden imbued me with such a feeling of well-being that I referred to it as “the Sting high.”

What exactly is a “guilty pleasure”? I know it’s supposed to be a movie, TV show, or band that one really enjoys in spite of its dubious value. For whatever reason, even if the thing itself is lame, poorly conceived, or utterly wretched, there’s something about it that pleases or satisfies us, even as it’s eating away at our souls. I have a few such pleasures — the Meg Ryan alcoholism weepie When a Man Loves a Woman (1994), for example, which has been shown approximately 10,000 times on basic cable — but for the most part, I don’t feel guilty about the movies I love, even when no one else seems to appreciate them or even remember that they exist. Case in point: the 1984 Hollywood divorce classic Irreconcilable Differences. Yes, I called it a classic, and here’s why:

idlobby1. Drew Barrymore. Just a year and a half after becoming the breakout star of E.T. (um, Henry Thomas, anyone?), nine-year-old Drew was in demand. In her other film that came out in ’84, Firestarter, she plays a creepy Carrie White Jr. who’s on the run from evil government agents. Irreconcilable Differences finds her playing a role that was, no doubt, all too familiar to her: a child whose life is ruined by her self-absorbed showbiz parents. A scene in which her character, left unattended at a New Year’s Eve party, chugs a glass of champagne and enjoys it just a tad too much is uncomfortably — and deliciously — prescient. Indeed, this movie may have actually saved Barrymore’s life: it taught her the definition of “emancipated minor,” which she herself became at age 15.

I barely knew him. Yet here I was, on a cold Tuesday night, at his apartment. We had had a drink or two at the bar/lounge/restaurant down the street from his place. As one would expect of a screenwriter, he had framed classic film posters on the walls, and a big bookshelf full of DVDs dominated the living room. I confess I remember only one, the one that made my breath catch and my heart skip a beat.

“Oh, yeah,” he said as I gently took it down and turned it over in my hands. “I wrote the first draft of the screenplay for that project.”

My face began to get hot. It was a sign. Despite his ponytail and potentially cheesy facial hair, I really was supposed to be here.

“To be honest,” he continued, “I don’t really like the source material much.”

Gentle reader, I wish I could say I walked out upon hearing this. But I didn’t. He did have excellent taste in literature, and despite the hair choices, he was definitely my type. Still, I should have taken a stand…in the name of the SDF-1.

All in the family

When does a girl become a woman? Is it a biological or a psychological phenomenon? Likely a combination. Important signposts along the road: First bra. Actually needing one’s first bra. Menstruation. First love. Starting to shave one’s legs and…other things. First sex. First orgasm. (Note that those last two don’t necessarily go together.) Personally, I feel that I reached such a milestone on my thirteenth birthday, but not because of my age – because of a book.

I remember opening my presents that spring morning. There may have been some now-forgotten items of clothing among them, but the other stuff is still vivid in my mind. First, Whitney Houston’s debut album (on vinyl). Then I unwrapped a paperback, thick, with a spooky cover: a girl’s face, looking like she was holding a flashlight under her chin in a dark room. Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews. Thanks, Mom and Dad. They wouldn’t let me go to R-rated movies but I could read anything I wanted. I knew I would start reading on the bus on the way to school. Soon, I would be sucked into a literary obsession, lost in a world of Southern gothic psychodrama from which I would never completely return.

In a nutshell (a sick, sick nutshell), Flowers in the Attic is a late-’70s bestseller about a newly pubescent girl who, along with her three siblings, is hidden in the attic of her grandparents’ mansion so her mother can collect an inheritance. For three years, these extremely blond children are tortured by their bat-shit crazy grandma, who whips them, starves them and poisons them while telling them they are the spawn of Satan. Deprived of sunshine and fresh air, the youngest two fail to thrive, leaving them with little kid bodies and big kid heads. Meanwhile, the oldest girl and boy get super horny and…well, you can imagine where that goes. After tearing through the entire 400 pages in about three days, it was off to the bookstore to buy the next one in the series.

Oh yeah, it’s a series.