This year was a fantastic one for entertainment and pop culture, and discussion about that entertainment reached a fever pitch with weekly recaps for Breaking Bad, X-Box launching a new device that requires an Internet connection, forcing gamers to interact with one another, and every single album leaking weeks early (… except one).
But what was missing this year was some good old fashioned earnestness. Well, not too old fashioned. The world has plenty of Doris Day musicals. But a nice, balanced amount of earnestness. Unfortunately, artists are all too quick to flip the dial to ironic detachment, afraid of putting themselves out there when every moment of unironic joy looks absurd and endlessly GIF-able. Behold, 2013's pop culture judged on a metric of earnestness:
Community: What made Community popular was the audacity with which it attempted to take down titans of pop culture on the budget of a network sitcom. But, after seeing that lackluster Season 4, which all but tipped over into terribleness, what made the show special was its heart. At its best, the show used parodies to express what the characters were feeling. This past season, we saw the shrill attempt at parody, but with absolutely no soul. Occasional glimpses of light peeked out from a skilled writer or an actor, but even promising trailers for the newly Dan Harmonized Season 5 had a lot to overcome.
Man of Steel: Superman is a superhuman being created to live up to the ideal values of humanity. He's kind, he's courageous, and instantly self-sacrificing. That's why to see him in a feature-length Ford commercial that featured 10 times the usual destruction of a superhero film and literally none of the heroism was sickening. Superman alternately seems blandly invested in saving random individuals and yet simultaneously caring not at all about the multitudes in the skyscrapers he ripped down.
Kanye: Kanye West's 2013 album, Yeezus, was a collection of aggressive, experimental tracks that did some interesting things musically but was nowhere near the level of genius Kanye himself proclaimed again and again all summer, fall, and now winter long. But if Yeezy had even left it at bragging, he might have escaped a negative distinction. But instead, he meta-commented on all of his meta-comments about black men in the public eye by refusing to take a single joke at his expense. No matter how fair the jabs were, he insisted each and every time that they were an insult to his, again, supposed genius. In the end, his anger only justified the critics who believe him to be nothing more than an immature thug with delusions of grandeur.
Frances Ha: Frances is a mess. But one of the many reasons she's floundering is because she's too guileless to survive among her hispter Brooklyn friends and the larger surroundings. She doesn't know when to start a play fight and when to be quietly thankful. She doesn't know how to be cutthroat. And she's summed up perfectly when accused by a see-through-the-B.S. friend that calling herself "poor" is insulting to the actual poor. Frances acknowledges he's right, but then counters with, "If you were me, you'd say you were poor too." She's not always right, but she doesn't obscure how she feels with posturing.
Mad Men: Mad Men's sixth season disappointed many in how it dealt with 1968 and how that very dark, depressing year, full of revelations and assassinations, impacted (or didn't impact) its characters' lives. But this year marked Don Draper's revelation of his past. Finally, after covering it up time and time again, Don Draper finally revealed himself as Dick Whitman and his worst nightmare — he was outcast immediately. Mad Men has always been a very mannered and restrained show, but this season showed the humanity underneath the restrictions of the period. Peggy is a conservative social climber. Pete is angry and cruel, but also cannot stop himself from feeling empathy. Joan is quickly reaching the glass ceiling of not just business, but her own skills. And Don finally admitted who he is.
BEYONCE: Beyonce's secret album dropped just in time for Christmas wish lists and best of 2013 lists. And it's a great pop album, perhaps tinged too heavily by the sheen of newness, but still ambitious, impressive, and as confident in its message as Yeezus was confused. Beyonce is a proud woman and directly stated her feminism isn't lessened because she's also a wife and mother. Her straightforward declarations made up for the past year of hemming and hawing from basically every other female pop star afraid to brand herself a feminist.
The World's End: The end of Edgar Wright's fantastic genre pastiche, The World's End should be on my unreserved "Love" list — after all, it's one of my favorite films of the year. But while Wright and Simon Pegg created a satisfying conclusion to their Cornetto Trilogy, they also suffered from some of the emotional disconnect systemic of lesser efforts, often using pop culture references as a shorthand to express intellectual ideas that didn't necessarily land as much as an emotional resolutions for the characters played so brilliantly by Pegg and Nick Frost.
Bangerz: Miley Cyrus had her coming out party this year, and she's about as far from Hannah Montana as possible. But her album was featherweight, not quite a summer jam or a more substantial release. It sold well, but broke no records, and the months-long rolling out process spent most of the hype before there even was an album. And for all the twerking and grinding, there wasn't much sexual agency represented in her performances and videos. Instead, Miley objectified herself, which is her choice to make, but does make it harder to endorse her particular brand of modern sexuality.
American Horror Story: Coven: The concept and the surface details of the third installment of Ryan Murphy's anthology series were thrilling. And though the episodes of Coven will continue in the new year, juxtaposing footage of the Civil Rights activists being hit with fire hoses and attacked by dogs while a white male witch hunter stalks and kills all but one of the black characters on the show doesn't inspire much confidence. Even if it's being done with the best and most genuine of intentions (which is generous of me to assume), the high camp style of the show makes it impossible to use the real world as a backdrop in that way.
And the Most Earnest Item of Pop Culture in 2013: Bob's Burgers
Simply, Bob's is my pick for the best thing in pop culture this year because it manages to be completly earest and yet has no shortage of humor. It's warm, it's funny, it's acerbic and frequently heartbreaking. But perhaps a lucky benefit because of its place on a major network, it's also somewhat gentle to its characters, giving them 30 minutes' worth of a break from their stressful lives working at their failing business or being middle school students. It's also one of the most ingeniously weird shows on television, and yet grounds a rain of shrimp, a talking toilet, and a musical tribute to a murdered elephant in character motivations and real stakes. Watching it take off this year and become a hit was satisfying proof that audiences will watch things that aren't cloaked in a protective layer of ironic detatchment.
Luther star Warren Brown is set to play the steamship captain who became the first person to successfully swim the English Channel. The Greatest Englishman will chronicle Captain Matthew Webb's 1875 swim from Dover, England to the shores of France.
Brown says, "Being a part of this project has been a fantastic experience. Captain Webb was a brave and courageous man who made the impossible happen through sheer determination and courage and it has been an honor to bring his story to life."
Justin Hardy is directing the film and Mercury Prize nominees British Sea Power have signed on to compose the soundtrack.
The movie will be released next year (14).
Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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"Got mobbed at the mall! Someone stole my favorite light brown sweater (chalaco)! Please bring it to the hotel & give it to security." Justin Bieber's mother Pattie Mallette pleads with fans to return an item of clothing after she was swarmed in a shopping mall.
Dionne Warwick and Keith Sweat are set to be honoured at the upcoming Soul Train Awards in Las Vegas. R&B veteran Sweat has been named the recipient of a 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award and Warwick will receive the night's Legend Award.
The accolade will mark a full circle moment for Warwick, who helped late TV mogul Don Cornelius perfect the 1970s music show that was to become Soul Train, and inspire the awards. Gladys Knight, Ronald Isley and Eric Benet will be among the stars who will pay tribute to the singer at the event.
Meanwhile Sweat will perform a medley of his hits and join Faith Evans for a special performance.
Comedian and actor Anthony Anderson will host the awards on Friday night (08Nov13). Janelle Monae is hoping to bounce back from a throat infection to perform alongside Toni Braxton and Kenny 'Babyface' Edmonds at the awards, which will also feature a Cirque Du Soliel tribute to Michael Jackson.
Hip-hop sensation Kendrick Lamar leads this year's nominations with six, including Best New Artist, Album of the Year and Song of the Year. Tied with five nominations each are Miguel, Justin Timberlake, Robin Thicke, Chris Brown, Tamar Braxton and Janelle Monae.
Comedian and actor Anthony Anderson will host the awards on Friday night (08Nov13).
Country stars Luke Bryan and Zac Brown ended their feud with an embrace at the 47th annual CMA Awards in Nashville, Tennessee on Wednesday night (06Nov13). As event co-hosts Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood urged warring country stars to get along by singing War's Why Can't We Be Friends, Bryan and Brown met in the audience at the Bridgestone Arena for a hug.
The two stars fell out when Brown went public with his dislike for Bryan's hit My Kinda Night, which he opened the show with.
The Zac Brown Band frontman called the single the "worst song" he's ever heard, adding it makes him want to "throw up" every time he hears it.
Justin Moore and Jason Aldean both jumped to Bryan's defence, but the singer himself opted not to fight back.
Paisley and Underwood, who are co-hosting the ceremony for the sixth time, also poked fun at feuds between Kanye West and comedian Jimmy Kimmel and the Jonas Brothers as part of their impromptu acoustic performance at the top of the show, and then called on singer Kellie Pickler to hand out "feuding assignments" to stars like newlywed Kelly Clarkson, who was urged to start a fight with her real-life mother-in-law Reba McEntire, with Paisley joking, "That was bound to happen eventually!" - and Kenny Rogers, who was picked to feud with the Celebrity singer onstage.
Paisley stopped singing and hurled joke insults at the Coward of the County singer, stating, "Kenny Rogers is pure evil!"
Pop superstar Justin Bieber has found a new hobby - he showed off his graffiti skills by tagging a wall in Bogota, Colombia on Wednesday night (30Oct13). The Baby hitmaker paid tribute to his dead hamster by spraying 'R.I.P. Pac' above an image of a frog, and then appeared to show his support to embattled Chris Brown by writing 'Free Breezy' in another spot. The R&B singer, who is nicknamed Breezy by his fans, is currently seeking treatment for anger management after he was arrested for assault in Washington, D.C. on Sunday (27Oct13)
The man who wrote Luke Bryan's maligned new song That's My Kind Of Night has hit back at Zac Brown over his radio remarks about the tune. Brown sparked a new war of words in country music when he called Bryan's single the "worst song" he's ever heard, adding it makes him want to "throw up" every time he hears it.
Justin Moore and Jason Aldean have both jumped to Bryan's defence, and now Dallas Davidson, one of the three songwriters behind the tune has broken his silence about the furore.
Davidson, who also co-wrote Blake Shelton's Boys 'Round Here and Lady Antebellum's Just a Kiss, among other hits, reveals Bryan actually called him to let him know what Brown had said during a radio chat.
He tells Roughstock.com, "The first thing I did was sit there and soak it in. A comment like that will hurt your feelings because when you write a song, it's kind of like one of your babies. To hear a successful artist say it was the worst song he's heard and it makes him want to throw up, that's just not cool."
Davidson adds, "We write about what we know about. What I know about is sitting on a tailgate drinking a beer. Hell, I live on the river. When Luke called me to tell me about what happened, I was literally smoking Boston butts on my homemade cooker at my 800 square foot river house with about four of my buddies with their trucks backed up, sitting on a tailgate."
The songwriter insists he won't be getting involved in a rap-style diss with Brown, adding, "My mom always told me if you don't have nothing nice to say, then don't say it at all. That's true.
"I think social media... has really changed this whole generation where it's OK to be mean, and it's OK to talk bad about people. When I grew up, you didn't do that."
But he jokes, "If that song makes him want to throw up, I hope I write one today that gives him the flu because that means I'm doing my job right."
Fun. star Nate Ruess is set to become the latest singer to front Queen when he joins the band at the iHeartRadio Music Festival in Las Vegas this weekend, according to reports. Sources tell Billboard.com the pop star will reportedly sing Somebody to Love and Fat Bottomed Girls during the group's performance at the event, which will be held at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
He'll share the mic with Adam Lambert, who became Queen's regular stand-in singer last year (12).
Ruess will also hit the stage with fun. on Friday night (20Sep13), when Katy Perry, Elton John, Keith Urban, Muse, Tiesto and Chris Brown will also perform.
Paul McCartney, Justin Timberlake, Drake, Miley Cyrus and Bruno Mars will be among the stars headlining the event on Saturday (21Sep13).
Rapper Kendrick Lamar will lead the way at the 2013 Soul Train Awards after scoring six top nominations. The hip-hop star's good kid, m.A.A.d city release will compete for Album of the Year, going up against Jay Z's Magna Carta... Holy Grail, Justin Timberlake's The 20/20 Experience and Rihanna's Unapologetic, while his track Poetic Justice, featuring Drake, is up for both song and Video of the Year.
Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke, Chris Brown's Fine China and Tamar Braxton's Love and War have also been shortlisted for the two categories, while Poetic Justic will be in the running for Best Hip-Hop Song of the Year too.
In addition, Lamar has earned mentions for Best New Artist and Best Collaboration for his verse on Miguel's How Many Drinks.
Meanwhile, Brown, Thicke, John Legend, Bruno Mars, Miguel and Charlie Wilson will do battle for Best R&B/Soul Male Artist, and Alicia Keys, Braxton, Kelly Rowland, Janelle Monae, Fantasia and Chrisette Michelle will compete for the female equivalent.
The Best Dance Performance rundown features Thicke (Blurred Lines), Timberlake (Suit & Tie with Jay Z), Brown (Fine China) and Ciara (Body Party), while the Centric Certified Award will be a fight between the likes of Talib Kweli, Joss Stone and Solange.
The 2013 Soul Train Awards will take place in Las Vegas on 8 November (13) and will be presented by actor Anthony Anderson.