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In comedy, as in life, words (sometimes) have consequences.


Sometimes, in the din of contemporary media, with blogs and Twitter and online comments on newspaper articles and a million other methods of communication, you hear somebody pop his or her head up and talk about the "coarsening of discourse." I have no idea who the first person to use this particular phrase was, but I'm fairly certain that when he was quoted in the newspaper, there were 75 comments calling him a socialist on the newspaper's website.

And you know what? I get it. There is something really cathartic about shouting someone down online. There really is. But lately, it seems the conversation seems to not so much revolve around issues, but also where we say things, and how we say them. We've seen a bit of this on the local level, such as when Telegram columnist Dianne Williamson recently wrote about Police Chief Gary Gemme's ... colorful ... use of Twitter, or when Worcester Magazine reporter Jeremy Shulkin wrote an article about the nasty online feud between the InCity Times and the Worcester Wonderland blog, which ostensibly outed the latter's anonymous author.

In both cases, the manner of speaking was as important, or maybe even more important, than any substantive issue. Is it appropriate for the chief of police to be flip and take swipes at reporters or politicians in his Twitter account? What's the difference between a column and a news article? How far is too far in a blog? Does an anonymous blogger have a right to privacy (at least, until a libel suit or some such is filed, then it's a matter of public record).

Do we even know how to talk to one another anymore?

In one of the various other careers I have outside the Telegram, I'm the editor of an online literary journal called Radius: Poetry From the Center to the Edge, and recently, I found myself in the perilous position of having to somewhat mediate a situation like this. Ultimately, I allowed a nasty comment to remain, because as mean-spirited and flat-out wrong as it was, the comment was made squarely in reference to a particular poem, while I deleted another comment made in response, which used a derogatory term for a person who faces mental challenges. At the time, I wrote: "At Radius, we prefer our discourse to be at least somewhat civil, although we know that's a hope that will be periodically dashed. It's the striving that's important. But we do have qualms about personal attacks, and I'm afraid derogatory language - particularly language meant to denigrate people because of their race, gender, religion, sexuality or physical or mental challenges - is an absolute no-go for us. We understand that sometimes those terms have a place in art, and remain open to them in that context, on a case-by-case basis, but feel that they have no place in civilized discourse. And we desperately try to be civil in these things."

And that's that. But if I feel I've made the line clear for commenting on that particular website, I feel I've inadvertently opened an even bigger can of worms: The difference between the languages of discourse, news, art and satire. Thankfully, I'm hardly alone in that discussion. On "The Daily Show" recently, comedian Jon Stewart gave an overview of the line between political pundit and comedian (a line he's well-acquainted with), and how it applies in the recent Rush Limbaugh controversies.

"Words have consequences," said Stewart, making it clear that that's true even for comedians, pointing to consequences Michael Richards, Tracy Morgan and even he himself have faced in reaction to their jokes. Stewart didn't try to make a defense of the language of satire, but he does make it clear that there is a distinction. Indeed, in a later bit, "Daily Show" contributor Kristen Schaal posits that the Republican Party should reframe their policies on women's health as comedy in order to avoid backlash, to hilarious result.

Obviously, there is a difference between language used for one purpose and language used for the other, and the hotter and more contentious the topic, the higher degree of skill needed to make it funny. Racially based humor is nearly impossible to make funny, and it takes a master of the art - Richard Pryor, Dave Chapelle, Stephen Colbert - to pull it off effectively. Was Rush's derogatory comments meant as satire? Sure, why not? But he doesn't seem to have the level of wit and skill of a comedian to tackle that sort of hurdle and transform it into anything more than a mean-spirited rant. At least, not to my ear. Perhaps he should take some lessons from Schaal, or from actress and writer Amber Tamblyn, who recently created some satirical "awareness raps" parodying both the recent conservative pushback on women-related issues and the aggressiveness of hip-hop music. The raps - written as a practical joke during a case of mistaken identity, wherein musician Tyrese Gibson emailed her thinking she was model-singer Amber Rose, are over-the-top in all the best ways.

I can't really embed the tracks on this newspaper's website, as I often do, because the Telegram insists I not post things that have swear words in them, for fear of offending our readers. Which ... I actually also get. We're playing a delicate balancing game with language, at any given moment, and the wider and more diverse your audience, the more responsibility you have to use appropriate language. Note, I said appropriate, not clean. Sometimes, in art, as in satire, language that is inappropriate in most settings is completely appropriate. Even if it means it won't get posted on

Tamblyn's raps are hilarious, though, and you can listen to samples of them (which have been re-mastered with music by Dan The Automator of Gorillaz and Handsome Boy Modeling School) on her website. The downloads are "pay what you want," and according to Tamblyn, all of the profits will go to "The Respect Project, a brand new fund of the 501c3 nonprofit Write Now Poetry Society which will disburse grants to organizations who run creative writing workshops for women and girls and those working to end violence against women, such as The Safe Zone Foundation."

And that seems an appropriate response ... one that gives something good a chance to grow from ugliness. (Victor D. Infante)

Madonna just being herself

It's really hard for me to claim objectivity about Madonna. Oh, not that I've ever had huge feelings toward her, positive or negative, although I can honestly say I've come to appreciate some of her work. No, the problem is, I'm very accustomed to Madonna. Songs such as "Borderline" and "Lucky Star" came out when I was a kid, and were omnipresent at a time when I was first becoming hyper-aware of music. I've never owned her self-titled debut album, but I'm pretty sure I can sing it all. And I have consciously acquired several of her albums over the following 30 years, most notably "Like A Virgin" and "Like A Prayer," aspects of which I, well, liked.

So now she's back, and she has a new album coming out Monday, "MDNA." And judging from the first two singles, "Give Me All Your Luvin" (featuring Nicki Minaj and M.I.A.), and "Girl Gone Wild," she's ... pretty much still Madonna. In fact, so far, she seems to be a bit too much Madonna.

Take, for instance, the Grand Lady of Pop's newest video, for "Girl Gone Wild," the full-length, "uncensored" version which as I type has been online for about six hours. I say "uncensored," but really, not only is it nothing we haven't seen from Madonna, I don't even think she'd have particular trouble getting it aired on MTV or VH1 or wherever it is that plays music videos on television. Yes, there are highly eroticized scantily clad men dancing, some of it escalating into disturbingly fetishized imagery. Yes, there is also a great deal of homoerotic imagery, including the suggestion of male nudity - nothing explicit, but she walks right up to the line. And yes, Madonna is undulating like ... well ... like Madonna. Which is almost cliche, as nearly every pop star who's come afterward has also undulated like Madonna, only with them it was a simile.

If this is what's passing for controversial these days, then my tolerance for controversy is even greater than imagined. I can imagine others might have a lower bar.

Once upon a time, Madonna could shock me. The creepy suggestiveness of her 1986 video for "Open Your Heart," which is far less overtly sexual than "Girls Gone Wild" (which isn't really saying anything), still teetered between being titillating in ways that seemed more than a little bit dirty. And seeing as that was my first year of high school, let's just say I was in a position to appreciate the dichotomy.

But you know what? I still adore the ending of that video, where she escapes from the sleaze and decadence and, through a transformation of wardrobe and makeup, dances joyously and innocently away from it all. It was in that brief moment where you got a glimpse of what Madonna was all about: not the tawdriness or the controversy - although she's always been quite comfortable with either - but the sheer, unbridled joy.

There's a great deal of joy in "Girl Gone Wild," although she's really returning to old themes: the intertwined joy and spiritual corruption of sex, the joyous abandon of dance (a metaphor for, of course, sex), a half-hearted sense of apology: "I know I shouldn't act this way/I know, I know, I know/good girls don't misbehave/but I'm a bad girl anyway," followed by a whispered, "Forgive me."

Oh, Madge. We'll probably forgive you just about anything. Even this. But that doesn't mean we can let it just pass, because there's really a sense here that the only reason this album is out is to remind the outre pop starlets of the day that you got there first, and maybe that explains why you're sleepwalking through this. And it's frustrating, because Madonna sleepwalking is still better than about 70 percent of the pop music out there. Maybe that was the point all along.

Certainly, Madonna still looks and moves as well as ever - not easy at 53. She doesn't even need to revisit the stylized, hyper-erotic imagery of her '90s career (although, personally, the video for "Vogue" wins for Madonna combining sleek, sexy imagery with dance music.)

And listening to "Vogue" again makes the vocals on "Girl Gone Wild" seem even stranger: Girlish, Autotuned to death. Usually, her voice is much fuller, her persona much more adult. There's something disturbing about the regression - it's hard to imagine a reason why Madonna needs to ape the pop stars following in her wake. Is there really anything to be gained by it?

It's hard to say. Certainly, a number of musicians have matured and been ... boring. But boring doesn't come easily to Madonna ... at least not when she seems like she's being herself. But Madonna trying to be some disposable pop star? It's hard to imagine anything more dull. (VDI)

When Reality TV attacks

Sunday night, a campy reality TV competition managed to do something nearly impossible: Be actually surprising.

The show in question? The season premiere of "Dancing With the Stars," which longtime Pop Culture Notebook readers will remember this writer has sworn off many, many times, only to constantly backslide. And really, the premiere is usually the one to skip: Hardly any of the celebrity guests are usually up-to-speed yet, and most of the dances are kind of embarrassing. But Sunday's premiere was kind of jaw-dropping. A few dances were underwhelming, and you could see the stars who aren't long for the competition - "Little House on the Prairie" actress Melissa Gilbert, singers Gavin DeGraw and Gladys Knight, tennis star Martina Navratilova - but honestly, in most seasons they'd be closer to the middle of the pack. There was no embarrassing plodding, no catastrophes that make the viewer want to run and hide until it's over, no Adam Carolla. Let me repeat: NO ADAM CAROLLA!!!!

And then there were the expected stars with some natural dancing ability. Green Bay Packers wide receiver Donald Driver has some smooth moves and a lot of enthusiasm and (obviously) athletic skill. Disney TV star Roshon Fegan has a background as a freestyle hip-hop dancer, and although anyone who's ever watched "So You Think You Can Dance" knows that it's difficult to translate that to ballroom dancing, his sense of movement and musicality is amazing. And as for Cuban-American actor William Levy, he and his professional partner, Cheryl Burke, have so much sizzle that they could ride most of the competition on that alone, never mind the fact that he's actually pretty good.

And then there were the two surprises: Welsh classical singer Katherine Jenkins, whose foxtrot was nearly flawless and breathtakingly beautiful, and actor Jaleel White, also dancing a nearly perfect foxtrot, which was smooth and captivating. They were two of the best first dances in the history of the show. And one of them was done by the guy who played Urkel on "Family Matters" ... quite possibly the most annoying character in the history of television. Watching him dance - and dance beautifully - was a little surreal, as though years of hatred of the character he used to play were lifting off of my shoulders. I didn't even know I was holding on to all of that.

In any case, this is suddenly the most interesting season of "Dancing With the Stars" in memory, and there is no way to predict how it's going to land. (VDI)


CUTLINE: (1) Madonna (2) Stewart (3) Tamblyn (4) Jenkins

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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Mar 23, 2012
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