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10 Pop Culture Talking Points... from a Year that Ranged from the Dismal to the Divine

Ross Boissoneau - December 30th, 2004
Red vs. Blue
The divisions in the country are deep. Whether they ended up Red or Blue, most of the states were nearly evenly divided, and Michigan is no exception. But the President who has vowed to unite America rather than divide it has replaced most of his cabinet with insiders and close personal advisors, a move that doesn’t bode well for discussion of divergent viewpoints. If he is to truly unite the country, then inclusion of those who hold different viewpoints is essential. Time will tell.

Back to the future
Popular music took a look back with two of the year’s best. Perhaps the Clash wasn’t really The Only Band That Mattered, but in light of the desultory ‘90s and ‘00s, their return would have been welcome. But with Joe Strummer’s death, all we can do is look back. The remastered version of “London Calling” does that with great sound, and the addition of a demo disc and documentary DVD makes this new package a welcome return.
And return is what head Beach Boy Brian Wilson did, with the release of “Smile” a mere 36 years after he started it. Rather than remastering what had been in the vaults all this time, though, he and his cohorts redid, rearranged and re-recorded the follow-up to “Pet Sounds.” Some of it is ridiculously weird, but much of it is rich with imagery, harmony and musicality.

Ken Jennings
Geeky software developer Ken Jennings became the man who couldn’t lose, winning night after night on the syndicated game show “Jeopardy.” Whether it was history, the Bible, science, pop culture, even Potent Potables, the teetotaling champ couldn’t be fazed, waxing many of his challengers before the second commercial break. Finally he took a tumble, but while the King is dead, look for Jennings to return. The only reason he wasn’t on last year’s Tournament of Champions is that he was still running the field. Now, after 74 appearances and over $2 million in winnings, Jennings is eligible to return for this year’s Tournament. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Pop invades jazz
Popular music has been informing jazz since the genre was invented, of course, but 2004 saw a couple interesting trends exemplified by Praful and Karrin Allyson. Dutch saxophonist Praful’s “One Day Deep” explored deep trip-hop grooves pioneered over a decade earlier and put into play in the contemporary jazz scene by outfits like Four80 East and 3rd Force. Praful takes the concept even further out, his sax lines snaking in and around the beats and loops. Some would question whether it’s even jazz at all, but the mutating lines offer themselves up in grooves that fit today’s mold.
Allyson takes a different tack. “Wild For You” covers pop gems by the likes of James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and noted terrorist Cat Stevens. Stevens’ “Wild World” is a perfect vehicle for her jazzy, scatty and yet easy-on-the-ears style. With a plethora of enticing female jazz singers – Tierney Sutton, Nnenna Freelon, Diana Krall, Janis Siegel and Cheryl Bentyne of the Manhattan Transfer among others – Allison stands alone at the top. Her return to her musical roots begs for repeated listenings.

World Champion Boston Red Sox
Nope, that just looks like a typo. Even those who pay only peripheral attention to sports got caught up in the saga of the team that absolutely refused to die, even when their personal nemeses, the Yankees, had them in a stranglehold. Down 3-0 in the championship series, the Sox somehow fought back one game at a time to finally topple New York and make their World Series victory a foregone conclusion. Timely hitting, game pitching (Curt Schilling’s bloody ankle will forever be the image of this team’s never-say-die attitude), and an impossibly loose clubhouse atmosphere took the Red Sox where they hadn’t been for 86 years, giving all of New England something to savor. What’s next in baseball – the Cubs in 2005?
Unfortunately, no, as the next big story is . . .

The specter of performance-enhancing drugs has been hovering in the background for a number of years, but all other issues and events pale before the unfolding scandal of Balco, Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi and track stars like Marion Jones. With Bonds, Giambi, and Gary Sheffield testifying they used such drugs, it makes those who deny it, such as Jones and her boyfriend Tim Montgomery, look like liars and cheats whatever the truth. On the other hand, Balco founder and CEO Victor Conte has sure lost a lot of hair since he was playing bass for Tower of Power.

Get “Lost”
Forget “Desperate Housewives.” This is a desperate situation: You and 45 strangers improbably survive a plane crash on an unknown tropical island, with seemingly no hope of rescue. And the pilot is killed by one of the nameless monsters out there making weird noises. Then there’s the polar bears. And other mysterious people on the island plotting no good. The great hunter of the group was only able to leave his wheelchair and walk when he crashed on the island, the hero is haunted by visions of his dead father whose body he was transporting, and everyone’s got issues. Part soap opera, part adventure, part “Twilight Zone,” “Lost” is fresh and invigorating.

Polar Express in 3D
The movie event of the year. Tom Hanks is masterful as usual, and the capture technology used to similar effect with Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” is brilliantly executed. But if you haven’t gone to see this movie yet, don’t. At least not in northern Michigan. Go to Grand Rapids or Lansing or the Detroit area, wherever there’s an Imax theater, and see it in 3D. The animation is incredible, but even more so when the train IS COMING RIGHT AT YOU! The hot chocolate scene alone is worth the drive. A wild and wooly ride, eye-popping effects, and a story with a huge heart make this the one not to miss.

News Anchors Brokaw, Rather, & Moyers leave
The changing of the guard in network news has begun. Brokaw’s departure should have the least impact, as Brian Williams has stepped in seamlessly. And let’s face it, Brokaw didn’t have much personality anyway. Rather brings more of himself to the news. Despite the folderol over the “60 Minutes” report he did questioning President Bush’s time in the National Guard, the report was never disproven. It was merely not confirmed, something that’s been lost in the rush to judgment.
However, it’s the departure of Moyers, host of “Now” on PBS, that will leave the biggest hole in journalism on TV. While replacement David Brancaccio is more than dequate, “Now” will certainly not be the same without Moyers. The ordained Baptist minister brought dignity to the proceedings even when he was outraged. His definition of journalism was in the direct line of giants such as Edward R. Murrow, as he sought an objective truth. He will be sorely missed.

Reality TV is down, maybe out
Perhaps it’s not dropping from the airwaves as quickly as the game show craze – remember “You are the weakest link”? – but reality TV is assuredly losing its luster. The second “Joe Millionaire” failed badly, Trump wanna-bes Richard Branson and Mark Cuban plunged like a rock, even the second season of “The Apprentice” dropped hugely. Garbage like “Fear Factor” is still out there, and “Survivor” continues to survive and nearly thrive, but for the rest – Bachelors and Bachelorettes, Gilligans and Swans alike – the end can’t come a moment too soon. The only one still building an audience is the show about building, “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” which is also the only one with heart.

Carbo what?
From the I-told-you-so category, the biggest food trend of 2003 completely lost its steam as 2004 unfolded. The Atkins diet, South Beach diet and other similar programs questioned whether fats really made you fat and instead made carbohydrates the villain. Everywhere you looked, people were jumping on that bandwagon. Now they’re jumping off as the low-carb items gather dust on store shelves. Maybe we should all eat sensible, low-fat and relatively low-carb diets and exercise more. Hey, now there’s an idea!
Nah, never mind, just go get me another donut while I sit on the couch and rewind last week’s episode of “Lost.”
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