Stephanie Schwartz | Media & Information Gatherer & Producer | Journalist, Critic, Blogger & All-Around Media Maven
I Like to Know.
I work in communications because I like to know.

I am an information seeker. I work in communications because that is who I am — I really, truly, want to know, and I find media fascinating, how and why and what stories we tell. Human nature doesn’t change, but the details do.

I like specifics, and the central question of my life is how.

Published Writing

I have been fortunate for my writing to be published in several places.

For a year and a half, I was a pretty rare find — a full-time paid print journalist. My time at Pascack Valley Community Life, the largest weekly by page volume owned by North Jersey Media Group, was great experience and a lot of fun. I got to cover a variety of stories and really got to know a community. I could barely name a town in the Pascack Valley, despite living within twenty minutes of the area for fourteen years, when I started. Interesting people following their passions and doing good work can be found anywhere, and they can sometimes be found in your local paper.

Before that, I worked for several months at The County Seat, named for its home base, Hackensack, Bergen County’s capitol.

Pascack Valley Community Life

  • Zelcowa

    Zelcowa

    Zelcowa is a non-profit that helps students further their education in Ghana and the United States. It was founded by a Westwood, NJ resident named Barbara Tobiassen. My interview with her lasted over three hours until we were kicked out, both of us with tears in our eyes. She is a remarkable woman. When she entered the Peace Corps in the early 2000s, she was sent to Ghana to teach math — which eventually led her to help revitalize the educational prospects of the children she met there. She now splits her time between the U.S. and Ghana, helping needy schoolchildren complete their education. This story was my only double truck and one of the longest I ever wrote.

  • Halloween Snowstorm

    Halloween Snowstorm

    Community Life’s version of breaking news. Before Hurricane Sandy, this was the most recent bad storm. For large events like this, we combine all our reporting into one story; my contributions are here and here.

  • DePiero’s Mall Development

    DePiero’s Mall Development

    DePiero’s is a local farm that has been shrinking over the past couple of decades as the owners have had to find ways to make a living. The land now houses a beloved country farm store, but the owners have recently sold land that will will likely turn into North Jersey’s first Wegman’s, a high-end supermarket and specialty store that is unrivaled, along with likely more shops. This article is at the beginning of the process, which is ongoing.

  • Redeveloping Downtown

    Redeveloping Downtown

    Development issues were a major topic in both towns that I covered, as Montvale and Woodcliff Lake used to be country-like and now have little undeveloped land. This story is another one in an ongoing series of redeveloping Broadway, the main thoroughfare in Woodcliff Lake. I’ve always bristled at the planner’s mention of Asheville, N.C., a city I’ve been to that Woodcliff Lake is nothing like and will never be, but I agree that the town should start to think in that direction.

  • Broadway Corridor

    Broadway Corridor

    When I left Community Life, I was sad to leave one story unfinished — although it is likely to stay unfinished for a very long time. Broadway is the main thoroughfare in the small town of Woodcliff Lake, and its decrepitude mars an otherwise very upscale area. Local politicians have been wanting to develop it for a while, but the area is problematic as it borders private land and has considerable environmental restrictions, including a state waterway protection. Woodcliff Lake had begun to take tentative steps toward developing the land, but any plans were very controversial and meetings were very fractured. This particular story made the cover and was quite memorable because of the raucous meeting it describes.

  • Governor’s Landing Doesn’t Surprise Police

    Governor’s Landing Doesn’t Surprise Police

    This is an example of an angle I took on a story that had already broke. This was breaking news — New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took a state helicopter to watch his son play a baseball game against St. Joseph Regional High School in Montvale, a town I covered. By the time I heard about the story, it was too late, and especially for a weekly, there was no point in covering a story that had already broke everywhere else.

  • Woodcliff Lake Election Q and As

    Woodcliff Lake Election Q and As

    For election season, I got to sit down with each candidate and grill them on their plans for fixing up the town they lived in. There was so much that could not be published, unfortunately, since due to space we only published two questions (or as you’ll see from the clip, two groups of related questions) with each candidate’s response. Locally, basically everyone is really passionate, and I find incumbents run again not because they love the power but because they want to see projects they started completed.

  • Woodcliff Lake Election Candidates Capsules

    Woodcliff Lake Election Candidates Capsules

    For all elections during my time at Community Life, we published biographical capsules of the candidates.

  • Woodcliff Lake Election Debate

    Woodcliff Lake Election Debate

    This was one of my favorite stories during my time at Community Life. The 2011 election was unexpectedly exciting — hectic, certainly — but I was able to do a little political analysis and commentary with this piece, since Woodcliff Lake actually hosted a debate between candidates. One of the perks of attending every meeting was that I could call it when I saw it — and I did.

  • Lauren Barbelet

    Lauren Barbelet

    I LOVE THIS WOMAN. Lauren Barbelet’s enthusiasm and energy is so inspiring, and that’s why she’s such a natural — and so beloved — as both a principal, and now, a superintendent.

  • Bruce Meisel

    Bruce Meisel

    Bruce Meisel is a high-powered businessman in the Pascack Valley, the CEO and President of Pascack Community Bank. He essentially revitalized Westwood, the town that headquarters the bank. I always thought it was interesting he majored in creative writing in college — proof that yes, sometimes liberal arts degrees lead to big bucks.

  • Josh Thomsen

    Josh Thomsen

    I got to learn a little about the high-end restaurant business from Josh Thomsen.

  • Jodie Levinson

    Jodie Levinson

    As arts and entertainment section lead, I interviewed a lot of local artists, musicians and actors, and anyone who landed a spot on television. Jodie Levinson is a New York City-based musician who released her debut album in December 2010. I joked at the time it was my shot at writing a Rolling Stone-like profile. Well, it’s hard to get to that level of detail when you only have an hour with the person, but Jodie was sweet, generous and lovely to talk to. And of course, she’s a fantastic singer.

  • Kathleen Gerard

    Kathleen Gerard

    I interviewed a number of people who had published books, but Kathleen Gerard was the only one who made me cry.

  • Rich and Mari Small

    Rich and Mari Small

    This couple, who ran a prostate cancer support group, were among many of the wonderful people I met during my time at Community Life. One of the things I love about journalism is that it gives me the opportunities to see things and meet people I otherwise wouldn’t have. This is the only Q&A with two people I did, and I loved that they mentioned technology and the library, where we met for the interview.

The County Seat

  • Teaneck Budget Cuts

    Teaneck Budget Cuts

    Like many schools around the country, Teaneck was having major budget issues. One of the decisions the board made was to cut the popular film program — filling the school cafeteria with angry students, teachers, parents and alums. This meeting lasted past midnight and was rough to witness.

  • Maywood Kindergarten Goes Half Day

    Maywood Kindergarten Goes Half Day

    Similarly, Maywood — a much smaller town than Teaneck — was forced to turn their kindergarten program into a half-day one, which seemed completely at-odds with society today. I am always shocked to read that full-time kindergarten is not mandated in most states and many districts do not offer it. I was lucky to attend full-time public kindergarten and cannot fathom that things have not changed in the over twenty years since then.

Academic Work

Academically, I am interested in a lot of the same things I write about recreationally. Media effects, especially in regard to television and the Internet. Identity and behavior. How and why things and people change. Technology and social and cultural effects. Fan culture and entertainment messaging. I relate all of this to communication practices, and how this helps or hinders. I am very interested in prosocial movements on both a macro and micro level as well.

I attended undergrad at Ramapo College of New Jersey, on the border of New York and New Jersey. After much soul-searching that now seems ridiculous in retrospect, I double majored in American Studies and Communication Arts, with a concentration in Media Studies. A lot of people thought this was a strange combination, but I wrote a lot about technology and communication in my American Studies classes and incorporated history and cultural studies in my communications work. They complimented each other well.

Years later, I decided to go to Elon University, in north-central North Carolina, to learn many media skills that I hadn’t picked up in the previous years. Funny enough, by this time my undergrad had revamped its communications program to include a version of what my master’s degree is in — Interactive Media — and it’s likely I would have majored in that had I been ten years younger.

Graduate

  • Comparing Patch and North Jersey

    Comparing Patch and North Jersey

    I was lucky enough to not have to worry about Patch.com while I worked at Community Life, as the hyperlocal website did not cover the towns I covered. However, Patch was always in the background, even though their coverage was spotty and mediocre at best. NorthJersey.com, the website that housed my weekly and the many other papers owned by our publisher, was a constant source of frustration for us employees, as we were on it daily yet found it difficult to use. I decided to do a comparison of these two sites for my Interactive Strategies class, finally giving me the opportunity to voice my opinions with research behind them.

  • Vice Persona

    Vice Persona

    Who do you think is the optimal viewer of Vice.com? Well, I got to create my dream guy — or at least a guy who’s a regular reader of Vice. So yes, I know a couple of males who read the site (they did introduce me to it), and along with some research about the company, created Ryan.

  • The Internet as a Motivational Tool

    The Internet as a Motivational Tool

    This is a literature review on how people use the Internet as a motivational tool. I am increasingly interested in positive technologies and prosocial movements, and this paper is a continuation of my study of identity and behavior in various Internet spaces and communities.

  • Entertainment Education

    Entertainment Education

    One of the running themes in my recent work is the study of how people (and on a greater scale, society) make major changes in their lives. I married this idea with my love of media effects, especially with television, and came across entertainment education, the movement that weaves social messages into fictional television series. I focused my research on the developing world, and used the Kenyan series The Team as a case study. The research paper is available here, but we had to present an interactive component as part of the project, and I did a webpage, hosted on Tumblr, to encapsulate my main findings.

  • The Reminder — Mobile Application Design

    The Reminder — Mobile Application Design

    Inspired by one of my college roommates, who always announced when it was time to take her birth control pill (7:30 pm, to be exact), I designed a mobile application that would help women remember when they needed to take their pills, as well as any symptoms, side effects and other relevant information regarding their periods. This is the interactive portion of the project, done in Flash, which showcases the design and functionality of the application. 

     

  • The Reminder — Mobile Application Design, Wireframe

    The Reminder — Mobile Application Design, Wireframe

    This shows the vertical wireframe design and explains the parameters and functionality of the application.

  • Picking Apples Flash Game

    Picking Apples Flash Game

    I was really proud of this project — a simple game in Flash — because I designed the graphics in Photoshop and was able to actually make this thing work! Done for my Producing Interactive Media class at Elon, otherwise known as the Flash class.

  • Self-Tracking: A Brief Exploration

    I knew I wanted to do a project on Quantified Self, the movement that uses monitoring technology to make behavioral changes. My professor suggested a Sunday Morning-style video feature, and I loved the idea because I had never done a a project like this before. Although I attended the local Quantified Self  meeting, that never made the cut — but it did lead me to John Martin, one of the subjects of the video, who has documented every day of his life since 2004 on his LiveJournal. In addition to John, the piece introduces two women who also use tracking to make positive changes in their lives.

  • Pop-Up Louis CK

    In my multimedia storytelling class, we worked on a number of free, open-source tools to tell different types of stories. One of these was Mozilla’s Popcorn Maker. I have always loved Pop-Up Video, and wanted do my own version. Unfortunately, the assignment did not ask for a music clip. So I did one of my favorite Louis CK bits, known as “Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy.”

  • iWrite

    iWrite

    Yes, this is me — or was me, in the spring of 2013, when I was selected among all students attending Elon University to represent the college’s new writing program. This was a huge poster hanging in the library. The link takes you to my page on Elon’s website, with links to some of my writing — most of which isn’t reproduced here.

  • FarmCuba.org

    FarmCuba.org

    The flagship of the iMedia program is its Winter Term Fly-In, where students travel in small groups to a different country, usually in Latin America, and produce an interactive project for a non-profit or other do-good organization. I was incredibly fortunate to be chosen to go to Cuba, where I visited Organo`ponico Vivero Alamar, an organic farm outside of Havana. I enjoy food (I have finally admitted I am a foodie) and food, cooking and healthy eating are a hobby of mine, so it was a good fit. At the farm, I interviewed employees, the owners and locals, and was in charge of organizing the content and producing the written portions of the website, which is linked above.

  • Cuba article in The Pendulum

    Cuba article in The Pendulum

    I wrote an article for the school newspaper on Vivero Alamar, the farm I visited in Cuba.

  • Cuba Photography

    Cuba Photography

    Published photography in the cover story of Elon Magazine, spring 2013. My pictures are featured on the cover, and pages 22-27, which includes a brief excerpt of my experience there.

  • Clearing House

    Clearing House

    I, along with several other students, redesigned the website for a real business, Clearing House  in Charlotte, North Carolina. I reformatted the content, did the javascript for the items page, and did the map feature for the visit page, as well as work on other features.

  • Isabella Canon Center

    Isabella Canon Center

    Redesigned the homepage for the international center at Elon. This design is housed on the imedia.365 homepage, which features student work from our class. I was part of the imedia365 development team and helped coordinate and organize content.

Undergraduate

  • Sex and the City: An Unfulfilled Fantasy

    Sex and the City: An Unfulfilled Fantasy

    My infamous Sex and the City paper. Done for my Television Audience & Analysis class, I used semiotics to dissect the two-part finale, “An American Girl in Paris.” Presented at that year’s Media Collisions exhibit, a showcase of communications students’ work, the paper made waves at the time because I boldly stated my thesis in the first sentence, and I frankly didn’t care about most of the criticism directed toward the show — that it was narcissistic, materialistic and unrealistic. All of those things are true, but they don’t matter to the fans of the show; it’s the emotion, the heart of the television series, that made the show connect so well with audiences. 

  • Identity and Behavior in Social Media Spaces

    Identity and Behavior in Social Media Spaces

    In 2007, when this paper was written, academic literature on social media was scarce. I remember looking up “social media” on Wikipedia at the beginning of the semester and there was a short paragraph. Every few weeks I’d check again, and it grew longer and longer. This project capped off my communications major, and similarly to my American Idol paper, I undertook a survey of students on their practices involving the two biggest communications platforms at the time, Facebook (before the chat feature was instituted), and American Online Instant Messenger (AIM). This paper continues my exploration on identity and communications practices over the Internet, a topic I have continued to write on.

     

     

  • Evangelicals and the Rise of George W. Bush

    Evangelicals and the Rise of George W. Bush

    For my American Studies thesis, I chose to do an exploration of George Bush’s rise to the presidency. I am a very interdisciplinary thinker, and one of the things I love about the field is that you can explore many different fields through American concepts. In my American Studies classes, I tried to touch on a number of topics — literature, history, technology, class — and had yet to do a project around something involving politics. So for my thesis, I decided to meld politics with religion, another subject I hadn’t studied, and figure out why George W. Bush got elected. Bush was president throughout my high school and college years, and most people I knew did not care for him or his politics. Much of his background was completely foreign to us, adding to our mystification as to why he was elected. The red state-blue state culture war was also big at the time, and I always like to study contemporary culture.

  • American Idol: Audience Reaction and Behaviors

    American Idol: Audience Reaction and Behaviors

    Although I rarely watched American Idol, I was persuaded to write a paper on the topic. My professor offered me the opportunity to expand either this paper or my Sex and the City one to present at the Eastern Communication Association, and I chose this one because I felt there was more to say. I traced why exactly the show was so explosively popular, as at the time it was the number one show on television and had been for quite some time, and connected it to fan engagement, surveying roughly 50 American Idol fans on their voting behaviors and their involvement with the program.

     

     

     

Tutoring

I have tutored privately for writing, the reading and writing portions of the SAT, and have experience copyediting. I enjoy helping people express themselves through writing and provide lots of feedback and guidance. Please contact me for more information.

Personal Writing

I enjoy writing on many topics, often focusing on societal effects of technology and media criticism, although I dabble in feminism, food, education, entertainment and national news. The blog posts below are a sample of some of my work.

A Message Board Devotee No Longer

I used to be an avid message board user.I was never a prolific poster, though – I preferred to lurk, as was the parlance, reading others’ posts and occasionally chiming in. The problem with television shows, though, was that if you didn’t post quick enough, a lot of what you’d say was repetitive. Also, writing posts was very time-consuming, at least to me – everything had to be structured, checked over, formatted.I also found that I had a limit, in terms of how many pages I was willing to read. Being active in a forum is very time-consuming. Checking every topic of interest, reading up on the threads of note – hours, hours, hours. And so, I moved away. I am prompted to write about this now after reading Virginia Heffernan’s ode to message boards in her online column for NYTimes.com. She write about the fertility boards she visited in 2004, and how they’ve declined over the past half-decade as social networking grew more popular – places where you connected with friends, people with real names, rather than just avatars and handles. The trajectory of the boards and their users mirrors my own behavior – something I’ve noticed with many other internet behavior shifts.My family first signed up for the internet in 2000, and I spent the first few months wading through the a/s/l of AOL chat forums, a creepy place that always left me sick to my stomach. I bookmarked everything. Eventually I waded into the EW.com forums, where I got through Sept. 11 (I was worried about one of the regulars), before Time Warner closed them up and moved to a version of their current commenting section. Everyone flew to the People.com boards, but I didn’t stay long.

It was on the sites that I first heard of Mighty Big TV, which shortly after I joined it in October 2001 became Television Without Pity, a name it still retains after it was bought by Bravo Networks in 2007. There, I found a like-minded and passionate community around television. It was a big site, but it wasn’t overwhelming, and I spent many a day in school thinking about what I would post online about various episodes, and about the people behind the posts.

I spent so much time on the site, however, that I eventually began to police myself. I refused to post for an entire summer. In hindsight, that was the beginning of the end. I entered college, and I found that no longer was my loneliness placated by visiting the site. Watching television and spending hours analyzing it was no longer as fun when there were interesting people around to spend time with instead.

With television, like many other topics, time changes things. Once a show begins to show age, fans fly the coop. It becomes unbearable to spend a significant amount of time on a show if it’s no longer enjoyable, when most of the posts are merely complaints or nostalgia. While some shows have overlapping fans, eventually a show ends and fans move on, and the community disperses. What’s also significant in this world is the rise in other technologies. DVR and Netflix, to me, have killed many of these communities. Television, for most of its history, relied on the time factor – a new episode weekly, for a period of months, with fallow periods in between. But with a DVR, if you watch a show a few days later, or months later, the discussion isn’t the same. People who watch shows online, or watch a few episodes in a row – all common behaviors – also changes the nature of anticipation and speculation. Netflix enables viewers to watch whole series in a manner of weeks, so the long discussions on character behavior, motivations, and plot outlines disappear.

Topics devoted to media speculation, finding actors in small spots in movies and other shows, and well as press coverage also have changed in the last decade, now that gossip sites and most mainstream media also devote a large section of coverage to entertainment. Although IMDB has been around for a while, it’s fairly easy to find out that a favorite character actor guested in a blockbuster several years ago. It’s a different world.

I’ve waded occasionally into Television Without Pity, but the old communities are gone. Screen names I knew a decade ago no longer exist. People have moved on. There are new shows, most of which I don’t watch. I’ve found that I prefer to spend my time differently. Do I miss it? I do. I miss that side of myself – the television-loving, analyzing-everything, upfront-reading self. I assume at some point, parts of it will resurface. I have that capacity within myself.

Like Heffernan, I am part of the problem. I haven’t posted in ages, and the few times I have in the past four or five years have been one-offs. No one remembers my handle, except one friend – she was the first person I ever met who had ever heard of the site. And even now, I’m not sure if she goes on.

Like many things of early internet, I don’t think forums will ever go away. They have a purpose, but it a short-lived one. As people move throughout their lives, interests and priorities change, and that includes habits.

, , ,

Live Like We’re Goners? I Don’t Think So

Rachel Maddow has it right.

I’ve always hated the idea, personified in Kris Allen’s “Live Like We’re Dying” and Jordan Sparks’ “Tattoo”, that we must always live like every day is our last. These sentiments, these platitudes, are meant to goad us into action, to live bravely, to do risky things like go for that opportunity, to proclaim our love, those moments that we’re scared of that form the climax of the plot in any cheesy, predictable story.

We should absolutely not live every moment as if we’re dying. First, we simply can’t. There are moments in life where we have to do boring things—run errands, go to the bathroom, do homework, clean. These are not earth-shattering moments, and while they might lead us to pursue our dream, they are the necessary drudgework that is part of life. We can’t pretend these moments don’t exist, or consistently infuse them with meaning. We feel sick, we want to sleep in, we spend too much time online or on video games. Not every moment is meant for meaning; it is everything added together that becomes something more. Two, if we tried to live every moment as if it was life or death, we’d be in a constant state of anxiety and heightened emotions, and a person can’t live like that. Necessary things, like sleep and food, would get pushed out, because we don’t have time for petty things if we are dying!In that mindset, everything is short term; there are no considerations for consequences. Yeah, that opportunity might be amazing, but is it worth it after tomorrow? After next year? Is it harmful? Proclaiming your love is always viewed as this thing that, while scary, will always work out…but what if it doesn’t? What if everything goes to pot, and you were better off not doing it? But it doesn’t matter, because you have to live every second like it’s your last one!

There’s an episode of House where Wilson, after telling a patient that he only a few months to live, realizes that his disease is in remission and he will be fine. The patient is angry and wants to sue Wilson—the expectation that he was dying made his life fun for the short-term, and he was showered with parties and accolades. Now he has nothing to live for. He had lived for the present, and now that it was extended, there was nothing left. If we lived every day like we were dying, we would also feel this way. We told all our loved ones how we felt (nauseatingly), we took our risks, we said FU when it didn’t work out…and eventually we’ll be left with a shell of who we are, since we didn’t listen to anyone and didn’t prepare for the consequences.

So for the love of God, don’t tell me to live my life to the fullest, how I need to constantly run on all cylinders, to make sure that every moment counts. Because not every moment does, and not every moment can.

I’m too busy just trying to get by.

,

The Man vs The Music

Every review of Battle Studies has mentioned the dichotomy between John Mayer’s music and his personality. His music—ballads of soft wonder—seems to clash with his kooky, frenetic, self-gratifying , outspoken, cocky persona. His tales of chasing tail, accompanied by his arrogant, rambling observations on all manner of life have led him to be labeled a douchebag—indeed, this adjective is routinely so affixed to his name that it’s hard to fathom anything else he should be called. He’s even said that he wants to repurpose the word, to own it, if it’s going to describe him.

Battle Studies is his most engaging album since his 2001 debut, Room for Squares. His personality might have taken over his music the last few years, just as his ever-changing looks have come to define his erratic mindset, but the reason why he remains so popular is intact. Battle Studies offers the same wistfulness, the same longing and defiance that marked his earlier albums, but this time both his personality and art reflect each other.It’s not totally fair that Mayer is best known for breaking Jennifer Aniston’s heart, something that he acknowledges in recent interviews in RollingStone and Playboy. Both publications, in fact, boast incredibly candid and eye-opening features on the man, a guy who is not lacking in public forums to express himself. Mayer is one of Twitter’s most popular users, with over three million followers; many of his tweets have reached a wider audience thanks to being endlessly repeated for their audacity. Mayer certainly has odd things to say, but he often comments on women and relationships (and not in the Oprah vein), topics that most appreciate. He has a Tumblra blog, where he recently dismantled a TMZ “expose”, plus he’s endeared himself by guest-starring on Saturday Night Live and Chappelle’s Show, in addition to just popping up for some fun.

In fact, the more I read his thoughts and hear his opinions, the more I can’t help but love him. Seriously. Rereading both the Playboy and RollingStone pieces, every few sentences I paused to ask: How do you not love John Mayer?

It didn’t matter if he was talking about how fucking Jessica Simpson was a drug, then backtracking to apologize to Aniston’s hypothetical responses, or riffing on sex and masturbation and girls and his ideal relationship, and how he’ll fuck it up. Seriously, how do you not love him?

I realize for many this is a stupid question. But he is cocky, he is funny, he is self aware, he is just all sorts of fun, and that is very attractive. I liked most of Mayer’s music before, even appreciated it (his willingness to write “love songs for no one” in particular), but found some of his biggest hits really lame, songs like “Your Body Is a Wonderland” and “Daughters” that even he is uncomfortable with representing him.

But as his public persona has gotten bigger, it seems to many that his music just doesn’t fit. He’s taken to pronouncements of random topics, and his mind runs a mile a minute, yet his music is slow, adult contemporary at its best. But Battle Studies very much aligns with where he is in his life, his philosophy toward women, relationships, and life. “I have this bond with infinite possibility,” he says in Playboy, “I want to be with myself, still, and lie in bed only with the infinite unknown. That’s 32, man.”

There is a definite tone in Battle Studies that embodies this, even in the world-weary first single, “Who Says”, similar to “Waiting on the World to Change,” the first single off his last album, Continuum. Overall, Battle Studies is about a guy who is contemplating his life—in many of the songs, from “Who Says” to “Perfectly Lonely”, he is comfortable being alone, yet roaming the streets, taking in everything (like the video for the former.)

Mayer is also very much fighting between impulses. That’s another thing that’s consistent between his persona and his music, or at least between the album as a whole and his recent interviews. In between the sadness and contemplation, there’s acceptance, even defiance (“Edge of Desire”, “Who Says”). The closer, “Friends, Lovers or Nothing” is one of those songs that just speaks the truth: “Friends, lovers or nothing / There can only be one / Friends, lovers or nothing / There’ll never be an in-between, so give it up / Friends, lovers or nothing / We can only ever be one / Anything other than yes is no / Anything other than stay is go / Anything less than “I love you” is lying.”

Battle Studies is a lovelorn, breakup album (hence the title), with the first three songs making up a sort of arc, relationships as tug of war. You would be forgiven if thinking the female singer on “Half of My Heart” was merely a background player, as Taylor Swift is wasted on this “duet”. But the problem with records like Battle Studies is the famous significant other that underlies the music, the failed relationship(s) that form the backbone of the album. Ooh, so is he talking about Jennifer Aniston here? But thinking about the real people behind the songs is kind of icky. It’s creepy; the general public only has rumors to go on, and usually the little information known is spurious and not very helpful, and can ruin the enjoyment of the art. Sure, sometimes it can enhance the story, if it’s about gleeful revenge, but other times it’s just a block, too factual for the real messages of the story to shine through.

If you’re trying to decipher insights into Mayer’s personal life, Battle Studies will only get you partway. In the interviews, he’s incredibly candid about relationships. On first read, it’s amazing to hear him speak so much about Jennifer Aniston (and Jessica Simpson, and Jennifer Love Hewitt…) Yet this makes him endearing, extremely likable, even if your mouth is agape, and while surprising, his candor doesn’t come off as exploitative, another skill Mayer has. There are some who say he is ruining his career, but he has addressed some of his more controversial statements and his shame in going overboard, so much so he’s heading into Kanye West territory. He’s so self-aware that it doubles and triples back on him, and with all the different outlets he has (not all controlled by him), it can seem at times that he’s overexposing himself. But that is part and parcel of his personality, his life, and the way he chooses to live.

Mayer strongly supports the notion that he and Jennifer Aniston broke up because of generational differences, that they are in different points in their life. John Mayer is very much a now guy—one who tweets, blogs, is fully immersive in his life and incorporates his fans thusly. Aniston, according to him, doesn’t have the same regard for these services as he does, nor shares the same philosophy, and that drove them apart. But he is quick to assert how much he cares for her, how much he does not want to offend her.

Playboy says Mayer “is beloved (though not universally) as one of the few uncensored stars, speaking with wit and impetuousness”, and his out-and-out genuineness certainly adds to that. Despite his reservations, his backtracking, his incessant commentary on everything, his need to spout off nonsensical and ridiculous and sometimes shocking things, his wit, charm, and goofball sense of himself shine through. He is a fundamentally good guy, not one of those guys who appears to be good on the surface and then is a douchebag, although admittedly this is all a matter of perception and I find his mischievousness fun, not jerky. Sure, he takes pains to distinguish this in interviews, but it’s apparent in his music, too. Mayer has nothing to apologize for (well, except to maybe the women he’s dated for spilling their intimate relations to the press), and Battle Studies is his proof that he and his music are one and the same.

,

WaPo Fail

There was a little incident in Washington recently. An impromptu snowball fight caused a police officer to take out his gun. This turned into a big deal. It became an even bigger deal when the story was inaccurately covered by the Washington Post; their account was contradicted by other outlets and notably a YouTube video of the event.

The whole story is a fascinating example of the power of social networks, ingenuity, and journalism.

The Washington Post did write the “real” story a few days later, but by then they had been widely criticized for their erroneous coverage and for not having the balls to fess up for their wrongdoing, correcting their record properly. Their piece is pretty good, but it got lost in the shuffle between other snowstorm-related stories (especially in the print edition) and the cacophony of criticism, most notably from their main competitor, the Washington City Paper:

Yet the reason why the Post screwed this up is that they all have linkophobia. If you link to an outlet—such as, God forbid, the Washington City Paper – you’ve lost. You got scooped and all your colleagues are going to look down on you. Linking is a huge sign of weakness—you just can’t do it. Far better to, like, call a top police official, buy his version of events, and just place it in a post, regardless of the contradicting evidence that’s already posted elsewhere.

Take a close look at that 10:20 update on the maybe-gun-pulling cop: “The plainclothes D.C. police detective may have unholstered his pistol during the confrontation with participants in the huge snowball fight, based on video and photos posted on the Internet.”

Bold and italics are mine. They’re mine because this is the most cowardly, selfish, arrogant news conduct out there today. What the fuck is “video and photos posted on the Internet”? How does that help readers? It’s as if I can go to www.internet.com, and there, on the first screen, will be the video and photos of the snowball fight and the maybe-gun-wielding cop. “Posted on the Internet” would be acceptable if this were 1997.

The reporters used this hazy phrasing because they were too chicken-shit to do something that we all have learned to do over the past, say, decade or more. And that’s to link to competitors and acknowledge their contributions to stories.

The tone is harsh, but it’s a blog, much like Gawker serves to rip apart the New York Times. The truth is, Erik Wemple is right. How can you ignore the rest of the world? I assumed that it was common practice now to link to other outlets and acknowledge the competition when necessary in covering stories. The idea, as the Times has written, is that you want to be as accurate as possible, and if that means getting scooped, then so be it. You want to have all the facts, and the reporting should be stronger and as fleshed out as possible. By not acknowledging other outlets, you make yourself look stupid at best, lose credibility at worst, as seen here.

,

Embarrassing Obama?

Why is Barack Obama constantly being embarrassed by his wife?

Maria Menounos (who is moving up in the world, doing segments for Today and the Nightly News) recently did a four-part segment featuring the entire Obama family on Access Hollywood, and Barack rarely spoke, letting his daughter Malia and wife Michelle spill all his dirty secrets, like how he doesn’t like most sweets (except pie).

Most of this stuff is benign, but it was delivered with a hint of hostility, a tone I’ve detected in Michelle’s previous comments about her husband’s personal habits. Her daughter has picked up on this, too.

I don’t understand this impulse at all. I don’t find it endearing or cute. I know people razz on their friends and family members all the time, but usually there’s an undercurrent of affection in the teasing. But with Michelle Obama, I just don’t see it, even though I’m sure she means well. It’s supposed to open up the candidate, showing us who he really is, foibles and all. That’s why candidates and their families do silly puff interviews like the Access Hollywood one in the first place, although Barack has been regretting it of late. I usually don’t mind personal habits—to a degree. Nothing embarrassing, nothing I’m cringing at. It also has to be delivered in a way that makes all parties ok with it, and my problem seems to be that because Barack himself doesn’t seem to be ok with this teasing, I’m not either. He doesn’t look mildly embarrassed, a little sheepish, just coldly nodding his head, letting the facts stand there. It’s also what Michelle Obama says that irks me. Her comment that he is “snore-y and stink-ey” struck me as low, even if she’s talking about him first thing in the morning. There’s a difference in saying that a spouse is clumsy or forgetful at times; attacking him for personal hygiene habits is too TMI for my taste.

I understand that Michelle Obama is just trying to flesh out her husband and not deify him, to offset this kind of cult rock star figure image that has glommed on to him. As she stated in the Glamour article, as an explanation to her earlier comments:

I think [most] people saw the humor of that. People understood that this is how we all live in our marriages. And Barack is very much human. So let’s not deify him, because what we do is we deify, and then we’re ready to chop it down. People have notions of what a wife’s role should be in this process, and it’s been a traditional one of blind adoration. My model is a little different—I think most real marriages are.

But in the Access Hollywood interviews, his family spends a good portion of time ragging on him; he barely gets a word in. He only eats mint gum. He doesn’t like sweets. He hates to shop. He wears old clothes. Wowee. He might be a little staid, but so are a lot of guys, so are a lot of political guys. Maybe it’s their way of just saying that he fits right in, despite all the ugly rumors proving he’s too much of an outsider. But it doesn’t come off that way; from Michelle it sounds like a litany of complaints. I’m not interested.

I’m not saying first ladies or potential first ladies and campaign spouses have to hold their tongues. Especially nowadays with their own high-powered careers, there is no need for them to be completely demurring and just fawn and smile sweetly when discussing their husbands, but there’s something to be said for discretion. Cindy McCain has acknowledged that her husband was away for her three miscarriages and her addiction to painkillers—something that would kill many other marriages. Like the Obamas, they decided to spend a good portion of their time living in separate places, each working where their career took them and the women largely raising the children. But while Cindy McCain has mentioned these hard times in both her marriage and in her life, she has not denigrated her husband.

Now, because I’m not voting for either Michelle Obama or Cindy McCain, this shouldn’t matter. It should have no bearing on my feelings for either candidate.

But stuff like this seeps through. Cindy McCain says she always knew that John would put the country ahead of her—so should that make us feel confident that he would make a good president because he cares about the country’s needs more than his wife’s? Should I wonder why Obama married a woman who would insult him in public? Is this a good thing, because he knows criticism and can handle it, shrugging it off like he does now? Or is this harmful, because he is immune to criticism? How does this affect—or not—his running of the country?

Recently, Slate’s XX blog has been discussing Ellen Tien’s apparently scathing account of her husband, how she thinks about divorce every day. I didn’t even read the article (written by the woman who does the Sunday Style’s Pulse), but I was appalled. What is the point of trashing your spouse (or significant other), who you are still currently with, in a public forum (print, online, video)? The only logical conclusion would be that you want out, and you want to hurt that person very, very badly.

Which is exactly what Christie Brinkley did in her exceedingly humiliating spectacle of a divorce. She exposed Peter Cook to humiliate him (and her), to get what she wanted, children and propriety be dammed. Exposing such nasty truths only serves as revenge. Michelle Obama, who has said that she won’t let Obama run again if he loses, and Cindy McCain, who is known to dislike the whole running for president thing, aren’t as brokenhearted and humiliated as Christie Brinkley is (we hope), but I don’t think they are saying these things purely out of spite. They are just telling the truth. But the truth doesn’t have to sound like they hate their husbands.

, , , , , , ,

Women’s Websites: Finally Getting Some Attention

David Carr, another favorite Times writer of mine, discusses the larger implications of the Sex and the City aftermath, comparing it to the Superbowl. The article is really about women’s web communities, which are really basking in the attention the movie is making. I’ve written about this topic once before, critiquing Shine, and many of the sites he mentions have gotten full-course treatment from the newspaper and the same section he writes for (Monday’s Media Business).

Basically, women make up a large portion of viewers online. Shocking, I know. In the last several months there’s been several new “community” sites to cater to different groups of women, among them wowowow.com (for older women) and Journal Women (businesswomen). I’m partial to Slate’s XX blog and Jezebel, both of which I link to. I was never one for iVillage or Glam, and while I like the idea of Blogher, I don’t find it relevant to my life–and I also do not fit the criteria for their site, as I find it difficult to post at least once a week (though I’m going to be working on that this summer). Granted, the problem with many of these sites–or at least, sections of them–is that they can get very girly, focusing on shoes and fashion and whatnot. While that’s all well and good occasionally and for some girls a necessity, I prefer some social commentary or news with my girly side, hence my love of Jezebel, XX blog and yes, Sex and the City.

For many years I read avidly the postings on Television Without Pity, and a demographic analysis showed that a large majority of the site’s viewers were women. I was actually pretty shocked by the high number (Stilwell places this figure between 70-90%; see bottom of page 60). Granted, things have changed in the five years since this was published, and while I could tell that many posters were women, I didn’t think the number was anywhere close to being that high; after all, since when was television a predominately female hobby? If anything, it was the men who would sit all day and watch hour after hour of crap. What I realized was that women were willing to talk about and analyze what they watched. Men watching ball games would congregate in other areas. It was the women, regarded as the more social sex, who really made internet communities. MySpace and Facebook might have been founded by men, but Television Without Pity was formed by two women. Women think more by niche, going off their interests; parenting and other “feminine” topics sometimes seem like the only things women of a certain age are interested in, but that’s natural; after all, Urban Baby (founded by a woman) is a top site, and it has a rabid following and is a vibrant community of its own.

One of the things I found most interesting was the observation that women’s sites, as a whole, tend to be more ambitious than strictly male sites. Both types of sites feature a lot of gender-specific content and the appropriate style graphics and colors, but male sites will be about busty women and stupid videos, whereas female ones will discuss a subject, no matter how frivolous, in depth. If men want to be ambitious, it seems, they’ll go on a specific niche site (like politics) to say what they need to say. CollegeHumor, as much as I love it, is meant to tickle the funny bone of college boys, so much of their humor is gross-out or physical. That’s fine; it serves its purpose well, and girls will always be attracted to men’s worlds. But women, whether or not they are out to prove something, have a strong desire to make a difference, to be heard and seen, and being a respected member of a community is a form of legitimacy and power. Or so I’m trying to rationalize…are men, on the whole, just more likely to take an easy way out? Rest on their laurels? Get lazy as they get older? Distracted by things like money and women?

Let’s hope with the increased attention comes legitimacy, money, power, and above all, the ambition to make female-centric websites not totally about celebrities, gossip, and fashion.

, ,

American Idol: As Mainstream As It Gets

Every week my father complains about the contestants on American Idol. But aside from the usual “no one stands out like Carrie Underwood or Jordin Sparks”, he’s downright dismissive about contestants that sport unorthodox fashion choices: dreds, funky, multicolored hair, large tattoos, earrings in unrespectable places…he was even against Taylor Hicks because his gray hair labeled him a geezer. My parents don’t like contestants that are too outside the mainstream. They find them weird and off-putting, no matter how talented they are.

When I heard that Amanda Overmyer was eliminated this week, instead of the expected bland Barbie Kristy Lee Cook, I began to think they’re onto something.

Apparently I’m not alone:

I’m not saying that you have to pick a hit to win, but a hit is a hit for a reason…That was a lesson I learned from the Idol producers. I used to submit for clearance the most random songs, like ”Rockin’ the Suburbs” by Ben Folds. I had no rhyme to the reason — I just liked those tunes. …But Ken and Nigel would always give me suggestions-that-weren’t-really-”suggestions” (because that would be unfair), saying that I needed to pick something the public knows and likes and that shows off my voice — essentially, a hit song. I think I was trying to tell them, ”Hey I’m cool, look! I’m a fan of Motörhead, yippee!” But luckily they didn’t let me sing ”Ace of Spades.” …They remind me that this whole thing is more like a political primary than a music concert.

Now, granted, this is from an ex-contestant, but what he’s saying is true, and as much as many would love for them to feature more offbeat songs, it’s not going to happen. Seeing further that Carly Smithson landed in the bottom three proved that viewers want someone who fits in the mainstream mold, as she received high marks from all the judges as well as the crowd. The three most successful Idol performers are Chris Daughtry, Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson, and it’s easy to see why. To just compare the current contestants to them is unfair, but so is trying to picture them on the radio, if only because several of them can fit provided they have the right song at their disposal. After all, even long-haired Bo Bice came in second place and scored a modest single on Adult-Contemporary radio. Why? Because that song fulfilled the “rocker” niche, with just a little hard-edge/bad boy to him, yet still at the core was mainstream.

Extrapolating from this (and I know from doing my own research that people say they don’t vote based on looks, but on talent), it’s clear that people want what’s comfortable. It’s easier to judge contestants when they sing recognizable songs; if you don’t know them, you don’t care. Voters might say they choose on talent, but with the little time they have to review the candidates they need to go with what they’re given, and if they’re alienated they tend to want those candidates out of the way. Boring performers, they reason, can get better with the right improvements and songs, whereas weird ones will only get weirder. This idea isn’t new—for even casually watchers, it’s a virtual “duh”—but it’s getting recirculated as performers are willing to showcase their true selves.

I myself have criticized the show for being too mainstream, too bland, but by season seven now most people have realized and accepted that the contestants must fit within a narrow framework that is accessible to a wide audience yet still fall within a suitable genre. And hey, even I have come to understand that I don’t really care for certain “nonconformists” myself; I like innovation within a certain archetype. I’m less judgmental than my father–I don’t rule out bandannas, or bald heads on white guys–but they’re usually not my favorites. But it is American Idol after all, and I’m sure there are definite trends and types with the people who actually vote versus the viewers and at the end, as Simon pointed out just this week, the show is a popularity contest. Most music fans like both mainstream acts and cult favorites, and, as Amanda so refreshingly acknowledged, she has her niche, and it wasn’t comparable with the show. She knew she would have to change who she was, and that would never have worked.

,

Is Saturday Night Live Endorsing Hillary Clinton?

After watching the first two post-strike episodes of Saturday Night Live, the political commentary left me laughing but also wondering if SNL was endorsing Hillary Clinton.

As much as I love Tina Fey’s smackdown of misogynistic voters/Hillary Clinton haters, it’s pretty obvious that she’s for Ms. Clinton. It’s the “Texas and Ohio, it’s not too late!” that really pushes it over the edge. In fact, all the jokes—both that week and the Ellen Page episode—criticized Obama and left Amy Poehler’s Hillary fumbling to get her word out. The much-discussed sketch—referenced by Hillary Clinton in the Ohio debate (5:10 mark)–came across as very much pro-Clinton, since the audience could sympathize with her. She just wants fair treatment. Even though Tina Fey was head writer, it’s hard to tell how much of that particular episode she wrote, and that sketch was written by veteran SNL political sketch writer James Downey. Yet all of a sudden the line between what’s funny and what is actually an endorsement has blurred, in a way I don’t remember ever happening in the other two elections SNL has covered that I’ve watched: 2004 and 2000. This has become a way of measuring if the political comedy is valid, if it is underscored by some sort of favoritism by the creators.

When Hillary appeared on the March 1 episode, there was so much speculation on this topic that she referred to it: “That scene you just saw was a reenactment, sort of, of last Tuesday’s debate, and not an endorsement of one candidate over another. I can say this confidently because when I asked if I could take it as an endorsement I was told absolutely not.” The line elicited laughs and cheers. But while they do skewer her in the sketch, calling out those things that others won’t say, how she’s determined to be “so ingratiating, annoying, and bossy” that everyone will cower to her as president, an argument can be made that the sketch leaves the impression of again pitying Ms. Clinton for how unfairly she is treated compared to the white gloves Obama is given. It’s in the Weekend Update that the zingers are leveled on Hillary, but unfortunately (or fortunately) they are not repeated online; we’ll only see those in reruns this summer.

But it’s the cumulative effect that matters.

So far, over the past three episodes, I’ve found the skewering roughly equal. SNL, like the rest of their media brethren, have focused more on Hillary overall than Obama, mainly due to her visibility and because frankly there’s more to go on: her desperation, her personality, her wonkishness, her husband, her history…Obama’s critiques are even in Clintonian terms, in that they are framed around lampooning Clinton. The opening 3 am sketch—a parody on the red phone ad—was more about Hillary than Obama; it’s her dark vision of the future, but it’s also acknowledging that Obama could be president, and that even if he is, she’s still going to hold the reins, so either way America’s electing her. It’s a very clever skit.

I noticed the Hillary focus last week, too. This time there was no Tina Fey to hold responsible. Maybe it was because I was looking for it, maybe it was because so many other people have Obama blinders on—and certainly, SNL makes sure to remind the world that this is true and the mainstream media have since begun to take pains to rectify that. The show’s been a change agent before–in 2000, Al Gore famously used the lockbox sketch [thank NBC Universal for not having old sketches up online for my inability to link it] to correct what his advisers felt was his woodenness on the podium.

Whether or not Tina Fey actually endorses Hillary Clinton is irrelevant. There are some fans who take her character Liz Lemon’s line in 30 Rock (“There is an 80% chance in the next election that I will tell all my friends that I’m voting for Barack Obama but I will secretly vote for John McCain.”) as proof that she has no political allegiances and she’s just trying to be funny. None of the writers on the show have appeared or announced their endorsements and I don’t think they will. It will ruin what they’re trying to do.

SNL will never endorse a candidate and they shouldn’t. But as their political satire has gotten sharper and relevant, they have to pay attention to what they are doing. This shouldn’t make them sissies nor make them hard-nosed on anything, and despite what Tina did on her hosting night, she made one of the most memorable and funny moments on not only the show in a long time but also one of the most pointed. She knew what she was doing, and she didn’t care. If only more people would take such risks.

, , , , ,

Why Chicken Fingers Are Destroying American Cuisine

Me: So I told him that if he ordered chicken fingers and French fries I wouldn’t talk to him the rest of the night.

My dad: Chicken fingers? He hasn’t grown up yet?

Chicken fingers have ruined American cuisine. I know that the term “American cuisine” immediately connotes McDonald’s hamburgers, frozen dinners…and maybe a charitable apple pie or milkshake. It’s always unhealthy, usually fattening, and disgusting in large quantities. Fried comes a close fourth.

I am incredibly dismayed when I see anyone eating chicken fingers in a restaurant. Chicken fingers are ubiquitous–and they are nothing more than a nicer version of chicken nuggets, just all white meat. Most of the time they aren’t even that good.

As a friend asked me the other day: Why do I bitch about chicken fingers and not hamburgers?

Hamburgers can be eaten many different ways. They are even getting quite upscale (see anything about burgers in New York magazine). They can be cooked differently, and that doesn’t include mixing cheeses, sauces, vegetables, seasonings, or buns. Chicken fingers remain chicken fingers no matter where you go. Burgers can be turkey or vegetarian, soy or bean. Chicken fingers remain smushed chicken bits and fried coating; only the preference for dipping sauce changes: barbecue? honey mustard?

What a limiting meal.

The pervasiveness of chicken fingers, especially with regard to children, is stunting Americans’ palates. For all the talk of obesity in this country, would it hurt a child or a parent to order something a little more nutritious and tasty than a deep-fried piece of meat? Since chicken fingers cannot really be made at home (unlike a delicious burger, which is merely slapping a handful of ground meat on the grill) without much prep and oil, there is no incentive to keep eating them. They are, essentially, junk food for dinner.

Since chicken fingers, like their cousin the nugget, are finger foods, they are by association considered kiddie foods. This isn’t finger food as in appetizers (although if they are included as an appetizer, I immediately think they are doing this to service the kids–ugh–or the host has no taste. It’s usually the latter.), but finger foods as laziness, meant for the ones who do not have purchasing power.

Chicken fingers are incredibly depressing as a meal. They are best hot–that is their taste. They work excellently as a quick junky meal, like at college or break to Wendy’s. Ordering them in a restaurant basically labels you as a person who has no culinary taste, no desire to try anything, someone who is uncultured.

A few summers ago, I was in a nice seafood restaurant with my father in Long Beach Island where a family with several children next to us ordered chicken fingers. We were appalled. They ordered CHICKEN FINGERS in a SEAFOOD RESTAURANT. Why would anyone do such a thing?!?!? It’s gauche. It’s vulgar. It’s a slap in the face to the establishment. Hell, if I was the restaurant, I wouldn’t even bother serving such a thing.

The best children’s meal I ever had was a steak dinner at a nice, upscale restaurant on vacation many years ago. The steak–perfectly tender, a small but fulfilling size, with appropriate sides–was merely a smaller version of an adult-sized entree, but this was listed on the children’s menu. My brother and I were in heaven. We ate the whole thing. My parents loved that we could get an excellent meal at a good price without having to wrap up the rest. We never found another restaurant that had a children’s menu remotely like it, and I’m sure that that place is rarer than people who actually eat rare steak. Most children’s menus feature disgusting, low-market options like the obligatory hamburger, cheeseburger, hot dog, spaghetti, and chicken fingers. How does that distinguish the restaurant? Maybe they dress up the options, but the children’s menus often have little in common with the rest of the establishment’s food. What type of coherence is that? How can we expect to nurture another generation of healthy, smart, cultured food lovers when all they are exposed to is packaged crap?

It will come as no surprise to anyone reading this entry that as a child I dazzled adults by loving such things as bagels, cream cheese and lox, vegetables and dip, and antipasta. I still love those foods, and I’d never exchange them for something as piddly as chicken fingers.

I once asked my brother, after observing this phenomenon of everyone ordering chicken fingers as default when I went out to eat with friends if he did so. He looked at me as if I had asked him if he ever ordered deep fried sneakers as a appetizer.

At least I know we’re on the same page.

(The New York Times verified my opinion by publishing this rant back in May, and I urge everyone to read it. For one thing, it’s way better written than this entry, and offers a brief history of how chicken fingers came to be the food of choice. I reread the article after I wrote this entry, since I hadn’t read it since it was published. And please, for the love of God, do not order chicken fingers when you’re in a restaurant with me again.)

,

Contact

I love to hear from people. Don’t be scared, I will respond. Suggestions, criticism, curiosity, whatever… email me at mediasmaven@gmail.com.

Thanks for downloading!

Top