Undead TV by Elana Levine, Lisa Parks

Andy Fogle

Intellectual, scholarly, and academic to a fault, the language here is often impenetrably fluffed (a truly frustrating paradox), and the ideas generally unfocused.

Undead TV

Publisher: Duke University Press
Subtitle: Essays on Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Author: Lisa Parks
Price: $21.95
Display Artist: Elana Levine, Lisa Parks
Length: 232
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 0822340437
US publication date: 2007-11

I might as well say it now: this should be a compelling book, but it's not. Intellectual, scholarly, and academic to a fault, the language is often impenetrably fluffed (a truly frustrating paradox), and the ideas generally unfocused. A welcome addition to the rising number of anthologies devoted to pop-culture texts? Welcome, yes. But you'll have to hunt patiently for any gleam.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003, WB and UPN) follows Buffy Summers, the Chosen One, on her six-year tenure defending the world (at least that of Sunnydale, California) from all manner of vampires, demons, and otherwise oozy-mean-bad creatures. The once-L.A.-high-school cheerleader moves to Sunnydale with her single mom after Buffy burns down her high school gym during a fight with vamps.

She is now tagged both a troublemaker and a loser, as her only friends are Xander and Willow, two awkward, unpopular teens, and the high school librarian Giles, Buffy's new Watcher. The show is at once a TV comic book, a horror soap opera, an extended metaphor for adolescence, a classic adventure story, and a piece of post-modern meta-literature. In short, it really, really rules (and I have my wife to thank for introducing it to me).

This new anthology seeks to explore the show's legacy, influence, and how and why it matters, while pondering the task of "how to be critical of television without denying its pleasures, how to take the medium seriously without betraying its entertainment value". That nicely fits my lowbrow definition of great popular art -- it’s still cool and fun no matter how much or hard you think about it -- but the collection as a whole falls short.

The first four essays address the show's production and reception. Mary Celeste Kearney's "The Changing Face of Teen Television, or Why We All Love Buffy" exposes how the WB did not target solely a young audience, but a multi-aged one "under the identity category of 'youthfulness,' an identity that transcends age and instead calls upon a 'teen' sensibility."

This is at once a cool and encouraging notion, as well as a slick, profit-seeking, double-speaking tactic. We're told of networks' attracting and grooming tweens (kids aged 9-15), appealing to kids' desires to grow up, an "aspirational form of consumerism…known as 'reading up'" in which younger children look up to teens. The thinking goes that if you can get the 19-year-old, you can get the 14-year-old, and if you can get the 14-year-old, you can get the 10-year-old. Creepy? Yes, indeed.

Then there's "reading down". Through an astute lining-up of social factors, Kearney describes how a growing portion of adults over 18 (who either postpone or reject the conventional emblems of adulthood: cars, homes, spouses, children) are "being encouraged to identify with teens and adopt a youthful sensibility" and later expands her scope: "In fact, all adults in contemporary American society are encouraged to adopt a youthful attitude, particularly with regard to consumerism." It's a way of selling, and also a partial denial of inevitable decline, as if the US is going through a culture-wide age-crisis.

All in all, it's a slightly sinister portrait of the Media Lords, a very top-heavy framing of a show, all instituted by higher-ups. However independent the production of the series may have been, executives’ spin is unavoidable, and it is this chill (the network's "cultivation" of viewers) which resonates most, not Kearney’s admirable points about BTVS being "a program more about growing than growing up", its theme of "multiple, fluid identities", or the fact that it no longer takes "families to create a mass audience." What resonates is the invisible network gods' staging.

Susan Murray's "I Know What You Did Last Summer: Sarah Michelle Gellar and Crossover Teen Stardom" examines how marketing strategies relate to individual stars. Consider a late '90s promo campaign in which WB stars act like friends hanging out in a WB warehouse: "The content of these individual programs is not addressed by these spots; rather, it is the stars themselves who are the representatives of the overarching industrial narrative of the WB. The spots remind viewers (and advertisers) that they tune into the network to see this stable of high-profile teen stars." This pose seems to reflect a me, me, me youth culture that can only attend to individuals without any sense of the give-and-take of their relationships, their stories. One can't help wondering how fair that is.

We are told of blogs on which girls express no preference in seeing Gellar on TV versus film, and rarely discuss the work itself, instead considering "the star as a text unto itself; a text that moves across media, acquiring deeper and often contradictory facets as it extends itself through numerous characterizations." The language sounds as if Murray considers this a shallow form of reading, but then she proposes, after situating BTVS among other texts "peppered with self-referential play, knowing asides, and deconstructions of its own form", that a large part of Buffy's success might be due to such references and the fact that such texts "demand that viewers engage their knowledge of other texts in order to enjoy fully reading and re-reading it."

I only wish her opinion were more direct; after discussing so many compelling elements, raising so many important issues. And that's a big problem for me here: rarely do these writers come out and take a stand and say "This is good and cool; that is bad or lame, and here's why", apparently preferring to lay out fascinating, dynamic evidence with at best the most tepid conclusion.

I must be thinking like an arrogant American again, but I really don't see the beef Annette Hill and Ian Calcutt have in "Vampire Hunters: The Scheduling and Reception of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel in the United Kingdom." This amounts to a very well-researched complaint about the UK's censorship, scheduling, and editing of episodes, how a show that is available in the US can be hard to find abroad, and therefore being a fan in the US versus the UK is not the same experience. There is an opportunity for some direct cultural critique, an exploration of the effects of the apparent censoring on viewers' perceptions, but that opportunity is never taken, and without that push, it's the same complaint I have about how hard it is to find Hob Nobs in the US.

Amelie Hastie's "The Epistemological Stakes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Television Criticism and Marketing Demands" attempts to analyze the academic, scholarly culture through its response to BTVS. Minus a couple of great flashes -- key parallels between academics and cult-show-fans, the rise in anthologies devoted to TV series, and television's eternal novelty -- this one's for the riveting mob of scholars of scholarship to read. The rest of us should watch more TV.

Thankfully, the second four essays shift to the politics of gender, sexuality, and race and ethnicity. I won't profess the ever-superiority of textual close readings over social analyses, but I will pronounce these infinitely more engaging, simply because they deal with the story and characters, not the network and audience.

Cynthia Fuchs' "'Did Anyone Ever Explain to You What Secret Identity Means?': Race and Displacement in Buffy and Dark Angel" asserts both youth and race are "metaphorically related identities." She elaborates a horde of neat contrasts of race, family, and motivation between Buffy and Max from Dark Angel without ever growing tiresome -- a clear and smart mix of textual analysis and social commentary.

Plenty has been made about how the show represents young women and girls, but in "At Stake: Angel's Body, Fantasy Masculinity, and Queer Desire in Teen Television", Allison McCracken cites the vampire Angel's new kind of masculinity as one of the show's real innovations. He's "at once the show's most powerful male and its most deviant"; his "primary function in the series [is] as an object for teen girls' erotic and sadistic fantasies."

McCracken gets really good when she takes the sexual objectification issue further, beyond the show's offering of provocative alternatives, and confronts something difficult and real: "if Buffy remained merely on the level of utopian sexuality, it would lack resonance with viewers...much of the show's emotional power comes from its frequent acknowledgment of the fleeting and fragile nature of illicit desires." I'm grateful for McCracken's style in this one: her swift elucidation of points with curt but clear examples from the series is a much-appreciated briskness after the rest of this anthology's dominant fluff.

Jason Middleton's "Buffy as Femme Fatale: The Cult Heroine and the Male Spectator" has two bland ideas -- different fans can interpret the same text differently, and BTVS is like many other shows in that it has a female protagonist -- pose as groundbreakers. In between these yawners, Middleton does an excellent job discussing how camera work subverts a potentially invasive male gaze in a scene with Xander.

Then there's the section on fanzines and which ones are perverted, and which aren't. As Middleton analyzes the placement of images, headlines, and the content of articles, it becomes apparent that a number of fanzines (not necessarily devoted to BTVS) are using erotic, perhaps pornographic, images.

The fact that some fans might "take pleasure" from Buffy comics seems worrisome to Middleton (again, I'm not sure; so few writers in this book take any clear stand). One might wonder what business that is of ours how they privately perceive imagery. I'm not one to promote leering, harassment, or the like, but is it really news that some guys do more than just read magazines?

Co-editor Elana Levine's "Buffy and the 'New Girl Order': Defining Feminism and Femininity" is all-in-all one of the better pieces in book, exploring "the ways in which Buffy enters into debates over what it means to be a feminist and what it means to be feminine [which] are different from earlier incarnations of the New Woman." Between feminism, post-feminism, and third-wave feminism, the category-nuancing is just shy of agonizing, but it does ultimately serve to show how the series helps obliterate the overly simple notion that there is one way to be a feminist, which gets especially good in her discussion of the final season.

This is one of those books I really had to squint through, just to get the language and ideas sorted out; I felt like I was in a class of people way smarter than me, and unbelievably different in their view of how to express what is important. Virtually every essay is well-informed, has at least flashes of insight, but suffers from a hyper-highfalutin-ness of language, and few critics here take any sort of clear stand, so that more than once, I'm left wondering, "What was that about? What was the point?" Perhaps this is armchair-editing on my part, but what also strikes me is a shortcoming of vision in most of the essays: what is obvious is highlighted, what is impenetrable is extended, while what is new and daring is relegated to a tangential or paragraph.

We have an insular collection here, where the voice is bogged down in academic quicksand, and competing angles within some essays distort the effect of the whole. It's a shame when a great television series and several smart people with interesting ideas can't cohere into an articulate, accessible book.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

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Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

Next Page: Potent and Ferocious

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