Travel Dreams – Follow Your Path Music

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Meryl Streep makes bad look good

Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins, who lived from 1868 to 1944, was an eccentric heiress who used her considerable financial resources to stage and promote her musical career. She needed to use her own money because, despite having as a child been somewhat of a piano-playing prodigy, she was a terrible singer, probably both tone and beat deaf (possibly because of advanced syphilis). With her common law husband St. Clair Bayfield as her manager, she self-produced and self-promoted small concerts for friends and acquaintances, most of whom thought her outrageous costumes and bizarre vocals were hilarious. But it seems she wasn’t in on the joke. She had no idea how bad she was until she had a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall in 1944 and legitimate critics came and savaged her. Devastated, she had a heart attack a week later and she died a month after that.

Stephen Frears’ charming, funny and moving biopic of Jenkins, written by Jenkins’ biographer Nicholas Martin, stars Meryl Streep as Florence, Hugh Grant as St. Clair and Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg as Cosmé McMoon, Florence’s accompanist. The film takes place during the last year of Florence’s life and condenses many events into a short period, all leading up to the Carnegie Hall performance. After seeing a particularly powerful performance by a famed soprano, Florence is inspired to sing again, after many years performing only tableau vivants and patronizing arts organizations. St. Clair helps her hire Cosmé and Carlo Edwards, a well-known vocal coach, to work with her. Cosmé is astonished by Florence’s lack of talent and St. Clair and Carlo’s dishonesty, but Florence is paying so well, he keeps playing for her. After rapturous applause following a small, private concert for her friend and glowing reviews paid for by St. Clair without her knowledge, Florence gains even more confidence. She makes a record and when St. Clair is out of town with his girlfriend (Rebecca Ferguson) – as he and Florence have an “understanding,” he says – Florence sends it to a radio host. The record is a hit and this leads to Carnegie Hall.

The film, as biopics do, simplifies a great deal. Florence is depicted as utterly clueless about her talent, or lack thereof, and St. Clair is carefully managing the world around her to protect her. While St. Clair clearly adores Florence, he is also profiting from her happiness, since he was never good enough an actor to have had a career leading to the lifestyle he led. In reality, St. Clair was a successful actor who worked constantly in supporting roles and was one of the founders of Actor’s Equity. And Florence seems to have been much more involved in protecting herself from critics, having written under pseudonyms some of the implausibly good reviews that appeared in the less reputable press. I think showing Florence as a slightly more cynical self-promoter would have made for a more interesting film, if a less sympathetic lead.

I’m sure the irony of the world’s greatest living actress playing a woman described (often) as “the world’s worst singer” was not lost on the producers of Florence Foster Jenkins. Streep is at her Streepiest in her unsubtle, mannered performance, and she’s delightful, not only when she’s singing badly and sporting ludicrous costumes, but particularly in her deeply sweet moments of doubt and vulnerability. Helberg’s broad comic performance provides the eye-popping double takes needed to signal the audience that we’re supposed to laugh. But the film’s hero is Hugh Grant, giving the best performance of his career as an oddly devoted husband in an impossibly weird marriage.

Florence Foster Jenkins

Directed by Stephen Frears

Written by Nicholas Martin

Starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, and Simon Helberg

Rated PG-13

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

2016 Gold Teddy Awards for Most Excellence in Music

It’s that time of year again: late mid-February, about six week after most professionals have published their Best of [insert year] lists and I finally get around to doing my annual music awards.

I spent a lot of time alone this year, because I became single and, for the first time in my life, moved into my own apartment, sans roommate. A bunch of stuff I liked, or was drawn to, drew me in because I was feeling lonely — or giddy with independence. Or it just had a good beat and I could dance to it.

This year, I’ve made a playlist on Spotify, so you can listen along to the full list of songs I loved last year, not just the winners of the weird categories I made up.

Most Excellence in Dadaism

It’s a tie!

Drake, “Hotline Bling.”[embedyt][/embedyt]

No one can deny that Drake’s mega hit is the year’s ear worm of doom, and it’s an awesome one, only partly because the video was instantly iconic in mixing high art light sculpture with hip hop tropes and a heavy dose of WTF dancing. But the lyrics and structure sound like e. e. cummings got dissed by a phone sex operator and then smoked a really huge bowl. Hilarious, awesome.

Weezer, “Thank God for Girls.”[embedyt][/embedyt]

I fell in love with Weezer 20 years ago, and have remained an apologist after they became uncool, because of the Blue Album‘s perfect blend of polished grunge and ironic, witty, and delightfully odd lyrics. (The videos were icing.) “Thank God for Girls” is as a batshit crazy as “Pork and Beans” and as catchy as “Beverly Hills.” It’s a underheard song, and delightful in its retro, childlike heterosexuality.

Most Excellence in Spine-Chilling Nostalgic Ennui

It’s a tie!

Jeffrey Foucault, “Des Moines.”[embedyt][/embedyt]

Jeffrey Foucault (pronounced incorrectly as Foh-calt) is a hotter, deeper, bluesier Bill Morrissey, and this could be his best song, a remembrance of a gig and a friendship in Iowa. When he sings at the crescendo, “We walked in like a rock and roll band,” I fell in love with the reflexive, probably revisionist, joy.

“Painting” from Fortress of Solitude.[embedyt][/embedyt]

In order to transition several years of the 1970s in Fortress of Solitude, Abraham Ebdus (Ken Barnet) sings about all of the things that happened, major historical and emotional events, and how he ignored them while he painted. There’s subsumed anger and grief, and I wept in the theater the first time I heard it.

Most Excellence in Coincidence

Adam Lambert, “Ghost Town.”[embedyt][/embedyt]

Adam Lambert’s version came out first, and it’s gorgeous, weird, innovative, and I found it thrilling. I’m a huge Lambert fan and I feel I’m sometimes an apologist for his super poppy corporate stuff. But this is nothing anyone should apologize for. Unless you’re apologizing for not liking it.

Madonna, “Ghost Town.”[embedyt][/embedyt]

Madonna’s isn’t as great, but it’s a good catchy ballad. True, it’s got that kind of guarded metaphor-as-emotion thing that a lot of her slow stuff suffers from, unlike “HeartBreakCity,” which is raw. But I was going through a terrible time when it came out, and it got under my skin. And Rebel Heart is easily her best album since Confessions on the Dance Floor or, less easily but arguably, since Music.

Most Excellence in Emotional Wreckage.

Adele, “Hello.”[embedyt][/embedyt]

Yeah. The day it was released, I had an uncontrollable urge to revisit every one of my previous relationships. Now that it’s become so embedded in the culture and parodied relentlessly, it has less power, but that weekend was tough.

Most Excellence in Barnstorming Pop.

Demi Lovato, “Cool for the Summer.”[embedyt][/embedyt]

I love a good call for sexual adventure, even if it’s paint-by-nunbers corporate pop sung by a Disney vet. Because sometimes, it’s this damn thrilling.

Most Excellence in Singles: My Top 5 (or, rather, 6)

Kendrick Lamar, “King Kunta.”[embedyt][/embedyt]

I must admit, I didn’t quite know for some time what this song was about other than swag and ego, and since Kendrick Lamar is lyricist of subtlety and depth I doubt that swag and ego is what it’s actually about. So, I Googled. Oh, it is about swag and ego, but the reference to Kunte Kinte to express empowerment, struggle, and growth makes it a bit subtler, and perhaps ironic, than, say, Kanye West’s “Power.” Also, King Kunta is funky as hell, with a rhythm, both in Lamar’s usual flow and in the bass line, that is irresistible as hell.

Alabama Shakes, “Gimme All Your Love.”[embedyt][/embedyt]

This is an epic love song that actually sounds like being in love, that painful, hungry kind if love. It’s astonishing.

Shamir, “On the Regular” and “Make a Scene.”[embedyt][/embedyt]

Shamir’s was the best live show I saw in 2015, and not just because it was surprising that this 21-year-old super-gay rapper on a promo tour could control a room like he Springsteen. Okay, that was a lot of it. But the songs are thrilling, too, with the double whammy of these two singles. The lyrics are quite insightful for a teenager, but they’re also funny as hell. And gay. Gayyyy.

Courtney Barnett, “Elevator Operator.”[embedyt][/embedyt]

This rollicking song is a short story about a young man named Oliver Paul who decides to play hooky from his job one morning. When he takes an elevator to the roof of a tall building with a rich old lady, she thinks he’s planning to commit suicide. Oh, no:

He said “I think you’re projecting the way that you’re feeling
I’m not suicidal, just idling insignificantly
I come up here for perception and clarity
I like to imagine I’m playing SimCity
All the people look like ants from up here
And the wind’s the only traffic you can hear

Courtney Barnett is some weird Aussie rock version of Raymond Carver.

Jamie xx, “Loud Places.”[embedyt][/embedyt]

This is singer-songwriter electronica at its best. It’s just perfectly beautiful, musically complex, and epic. A true work of art.

Most Excellence in Albums: My Top 5

Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit.[embedyt][/embedyt]

I already said it: Aussie rocker Raymond Carver. She’s the heir to Liz Phair, Bruce Springsteen, and, hell, Peter Carey. I love the hell out of this revelatory album.

Chris Stapleton, Traveller.[embedyt][/embedyt]

Aside from being sex on a stick, Chris Stapleton itelegraphs authenticity, as if he’s the love child of Johnny Cash and, well, Jeffrey Foucault. Authenticity as marketing tool is sort of the definition of inauthentic (Bernie Sanders, cough) but sometimes it’s compelling. Especially when it sounds like a country-rock god singing about stuff that is not trucks, guns, hometowns, or beer.

Ryan Adams, 1989.[embedyt][/embedyt]

Taylor Swift’s 1989 is a damn fine pop album, but as reinterpreted by Ryan Adams, the songs develop a depth of emotion that her producers — Max Martin, et al. — made sure they couldn’t have, since depth of emotion doesn’t quite work on Top 40 stations, unless it’s Adele. His versions are so smart, gorgeous, and serious, I grew even more impressed by Swift’s lyrics. And then she did acoustic versions of the songs, and, well, she should do that more often.

Liane La Havas, Blood.[embedyt][/embedyt]

I loved Lianne’s first album, which is beautiful, if quiet. But Blood is not quiet at all; it’s sexy and fun and beautiful and it rocks and, hey, the President loves it, too. Every song is great. Period.

Carly Rae Jepson, Emotion.[embedyt][/embedyt]

This is my second favorite Taylor Swift album of the year, after Ryan Adams’s. Weirdly under-appreciated by radio, it’s an album of masterful pop songs that sit firmly in Swift’s genre but seem, somehow, better. Maybe it’s because Swift’s personality is so huge that she overshadows the music. Anyway, Jepson doesn’t have that celebrity profile, and the songs become more universal. It was album was the soundtrack of my summer. Fun as hell.

Punditry, celebrity, and linguistics

In looking at the last three reviews that I’ve published and forgotten to post here, I realized they were all documentaries. Since I’m only getting published every two weeks now, I’m feeling less of a need to be focusing on what’s big right now and rather on what I think you should see that you probably haven’t heard about. Or that’s the idea anyway.

The Best of Enemies

People stay in their hermetically sealed ideological camps and hear only the echoes of themselves and the people they agree with, and when they interact with others, it is as if they are encountering an invading force of abjectly evil barbarians. Compromise, mutual understanding, and respect are almost nonexistent in our political discussions (and I am hardly innocent in this). Liberals blame Fox News, and conservatives blame the so-called “liberal media,” when neither of them are not just simply calling the other side degenerate idiots. Again, it’s a complicated process, but the fantastic new documentary he Best of Enemies makes the case that demon seed of this horrible situation can be traced to the televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. during the 1968 Republican and Democratic National Conventions. [read the rest]


There were so many terrible things about Amy Winehouse’s death in 2011 at the age of 27. She was arguably the greatest singer of her generation, having produced two instantly classic albums, the jazz album Frank (2003) and the throwback soul album Back to Black (2006). Like those of entirely too many great rock stars who died at 27 – Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, and Kurt Cobain – Winehouse’s death was an artistic tragedy for popular music and its fans. More importantly, it was horrifying, if unsurprising, for the family and friends who adored the magnetic, spectacular, deeply troubled Winehouse. Less importantly, but particularly troubling for me, was how the worst people in the world used Winehouse’s death to express their misogyny, pathological lack of empathy, and judgmental derision for addicts. She was troubled before she became famous, but the celebrity media, fed by its schadenfreude-infected consumers, turned her troubles into disasters and then gleefully covered them until they killed her. In the days after her death, I unfriended a couple dozen people on Facebook, the ones who called Winehouse a skank, a loser, a whore, and deserving of her end. I want them those people, and I want George Lopez, Jay Leno, and every other comedian who mocked Winehouse’s troubles, to see Asif Kapadia’s excellent and disturbing documentary about Winehouse’s life. [read the rest]

Do I Sound Gay

When I figured out that other people were figuring out I was gay, or maybe gay, or maybe just weird, say around the age of 14, I became hyper-vigilant about how I might be perceived by, well, everyone who was close enough to perceive me. Most of it was in my clothes (carefully disheveled instead of carefully dapper), my proclaimed interests (basketball not Bronski Beat), and my physical gestures (unlimp that wrist). When I heard my voice recorded on an answering machine, I was a little bit horrified. The long, dramatic “Hellohhhhh” and the Valley Girl inflection of “Call me?” I wasn’t even trying to be funny. Yes, there was some internalized homophobia, but I was more concerned about detection, about what would happen in my high school social circle if they correctly determined that I was gay. (It happened, and some of them behaved wretchedly.)

I modulated my vowels as best I could, dropped certain references and added others, and kept a watchful eye and ear. This was, of course, exhausting. It seemed to have worked, however. In a way. Before I started my review of David Thorpe’s insightful and excellent documentary about whether there is a gay “voice” Do I Sound Gay? I asked my Facebook friends just that question. Every single straight person who answered, including several I went to high school with, said I didn’t. Several of my gay friends, however, wrote that I speak in such a way that signals to other gay people that I’m gay, but that these signals, they claimed, are rarely picked up straight people. But, it also seems, if I’m excited, I’m really obviously gay. This is not surprising, since I’ve been known to belt “Yaaaaassssss!” in such moments. [read the rest]

Music. 2014.

Yes, the Golden Teddy Awards for Most Excellence in Music is being posted in a timely fashion. I know, shocking. Anyway, here it is. These are a bunch of my favorite tunes from the last year. If you just want the playlist of videos, you can go here to my YouTube playlist “2014.” And here’s a Spotify playlist of the Golden Teddy Award winners and various runners-up and honorable mentions not mentioned in this post:

Now for the awards!

Most Excellence in 1991: Madonna, “Living for Love.”

I have a teensy bit of sympathy for Madonna, who claimed “artistic rape” when a few dozen demos from her upcoming album were leaked. She released final versions of six of the songs just before Christmas, and I’m one of the folks who thinks these songs (and the demos) signal possibly her best album in a decade. One of the six is “Living for Love,” which could have been on Erotic: it is 1991 retro sing-song house. It’s a rump shaker, as they say. I’m looking forward to the remixes.

Runner up: Clean Bandit ft. Jess Glynne, “Rather Be.”

This could have been thumping at any East Village club in 1991. It’s awesome.

Most Excellence in Having a Voice that Makes You… OMG THAT VOICE: Sam Smith

He’s, like, 14 years old and sounds like George Michael and Boy George’s perfect pitched love child. He can also write a sad song as well as anyone, except maybe Adele. Also: Gay!

Most Excellence in Being Awesome But Being More Awesome with Dancing: Future Islands, “Seasons (Waiting on You).”

This is a great song, but after you see Future Islands rock it on Letterman, the song becomes something epic. Because that dancing. Just. Wow.

Most Excellence in Focus Grouped, Lowest Common Denominator, Cheesy Pop: Taylor Swift, “Blank Space.”

This song is just perfect. I can’t help but succumb to the efforts of the evil geniuses who constructed it from sonic crack and mind control algorithms.

Most Excellence in Smelly Cheesy Pop: Coldplay, “A Sky Full of Stars.”

I refuse to hate Coldplay out of some misplaced hipster snobbery. This is a perfect pop song, mashing up de rigueur dance beats, driving rock, and infectious glee.

Most Excellence in Party Albums: Tie!

La Roux’s second album Trouble in Paradise is not the genius that their first was, but it is a perfect put-it-on-and-be-happy collection of songs. Poppy, dancey, funny, and never dull.

Jungle’s first album sounds like Earth Wind and Fire filtered through Hot Chip and TV on the Radio. Sorta. The album is delight all the way through, with a driving beat perfect for your desk cool-kid cocktail hour.

Most Excellence in Songs that Made Me Cry in the Theater

If there were recordings for “And I’m Painting” from the musical Fortress of Solitude and the last song in the show The Great Immensity, I’d put them here. They’re not recorded yet. Both are written by my friend Michael Friedman, and they’re beautiful and wrenching and made me cry in the Public Theater last year.

Most Excellence in Wrongness: Tove Lo, “Habits.”

I can’t believe this song is on the radio. What Tove Lo describes doing in order to get over her ex is, to say the least, unhealthy. But fun!

Most Excellence in Telling It Like It Is: Adore Delano, “DTF.”

Adore Delano was the runner-up for last season’s RuPaul’s Drag Race, and this was her first single, which is filthy, insane, and totally her.

Most Excellence in Singles, Top 5

Hozier, “Take Me to Church.”

No song was more indelible to my ears this year, and not because it’s on heavy rotation on every radio station in the world right now. It’s haunting, gorgeous, and gave us Hozier, who is a really big deal.

Robyn and Röyksopp, “Monument.”

The best song on their EP and arguably as great as anything she’s put out in the last 15 years.

Hercules & Love Affair and John Grant, “I Try to Talk to You.”

Hercules returned to form with The Feast of the Broken Heart and their collaboration with John Grant is the highlight of the album. It’s gorgeous and heartbreaking, like everything Grant does, and impossible not to groove to, like Hercules’s best stuff. That piano.

The War on Drugs, “Under the Pressure.”

It feels like a more robust James song, but a bit more American, rootsy, and Dylany.

Perfume Genius,”Queen.”

There’s no comparison. This song is just singular.

Most Excellence in Albums, Top 5

St. Vincent, St. Vincent.

Hearing this for the first time was like hearing The Lion and the Cobra for the first: What. The Fuck. It doesn’t sound like anything else, except for rock and pop and Liz Phair and Tori Amos and a bunch of other stuff from planets far away.

TV on the Radio, Seeds.

My favorite band dropped their best album in 10 years right before Thanksgiving. It’s distorted and weird and fun and happy and sounds, like all of their stuff does, like no one else.

Sam Smith, In the Lonely Hour.

I mentioned him above. This is the best pop album of the year. Beautiful, accessible, sad.

D’Angelo, Black Messiah.

Mostly, this album made me re/discover D’Angelo, who is a genius. It’s beautiful and political and odd and wonderful.

Coldplay, Ghost Stories.

Mentioned above. At first, I thought this album just sucked. And then, after a couple listens, I realized how beautiful and mournful and smart it was. I listened to it a zillion times. So there.