16 min read

AMA no. 2

First birthday edition
AMA no. 2

You might already know if you follow me on social media that this newsletter recently turned a whole year old (on June 11... I'm very late here). I’m so grateful to every single one of you who subscribes (anyone else can do so here if they like). Some of you have been with me since last summer or even before then, while a handful of you have shown up in the last few weeks because of work I’ve done in other places. You’re all very nice and I imagine good-looking, and of course extremely patient for riding out these last few slower months with me while I’ve moved platforms. You’ll probably hear from me more frequently in the next little while as I continue to catch up on things, and then I’ll stop talking about the move once and for all. When Mononym Mythology turned six months old last December, I celebrated with an AMA session. So I recently collected questions for another one, many of which you’ll see answered below. Like last time, some have been lightly edited, and I’ve combined ones that were similar. Here’s to another year! 🧁

What was the first music video you ever remember watching or being struck by?

I admittedly don’t remember what the first one I ever watched was, but a few immediately came to mind for struck by, all that I would’ve seen around ages six through eight. I remember thinking that Shania Twain looked so cool in “I’m Gonna Getcha Good!” (2002); she was a big deal for me in general as a kid, as was fellow Canadian Avril Lavigne. I actually very specifically remember listening to “Waiter! Bring Me Water!” from that same album, Up! (2002), and wishing that I could see what it looked like as a musical number. I thought it was so funny and of course wrongly believed that I identified with Shania in that song somehow. I remember being upset by Britney Spears’s “Everytime” (2004) because I didn’t really get it, and I didn’t like that she was sad because I was a fan. I similarly remember being super bothered by the fish hook moment in Avril’s “Complicated” (2002). And I remember being rocked to the absolute core by My Chemical Romance’s “Helena” (2004). When she gets out of her coffin and dances around at her funeral… completely mesmerizing, and I think pretty formative for me in terms of iconography that I’d later gravitate towards in art.

I guess that I would’ve watched all of these on various MuchMusic countdowns because I don’t think I had a way to watch them on demand just yet. The only exceptions were the videos that occasionally came as special features on different DVDs. So like, 13 Going on 30 (2004) came with a few that are mentioned during the film, and I remember looping Pat Benatar’s “Love Is a Battlefield” (1983) precisely because it felt like I wasn’t supposed to be watching it—another huge theme with the stuff I sought out as a kid. I’d never really thought about it before now, but that movie was probably important as far as me having some sort of exposure to, and interest in, OG MTV-era videos from the very beginning.

What are some books you think every pop music enthusiast/video scholar/generally adjacent nerd should read?

There’s so much out there for me to read still, so I wouldn’t want to sound too authoritative on this topic. If you’re interested in Beyoncé, there are tons of books out there but only a couple worth reading: Kevin Allred’s Ain’t I A Diva? (2019) and Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley’s Beyoncé in Formation (2018). Ryann Donnelly’s Justify My Love (2019) is a heavily adapted version of her PhD thesis that I’ve read twice now (something I very rarely do). Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum’s I Want My MTV (2011) is a crucial oral history if you’re interested in the network’s so-called Golden Age. I recently ordered a copy of Matthew Rettenmund’s Encyclopedia Madonnica 20 (2015), which is overwhelming and amazing if you’re someone who could use a literal Madonna encyclopedia in their home. Ann Powers's Good Booty (2017) is a phenomenal history of American pop music generally speaking. And Lauren Michele Jackson’s White Negroes (2019) is essential for making sense of how Black trends get co-opted (and dropped) by different industries, including music. I’m definitely forgetting something, but you can expect to hear me recommend others in the coming weeks.

If you could’ve been present on the set/making of any music video, which one would it be?

I wouldn’t want to cause David Fincher’s publicist any further stress, but I’d obviously love to have been a fly on the wall on any of those four sets with Madonna. If I had to pick one, I’d probably go for “Bad Girl” (1993), just because those two collaborating several years after their relationship had ended is so baffling to me on principle; it's the uncrackable nut for me in that story. And then otherwise, it kills me how little behind-the-scenes material we’ve seen from Beyoncé’s Lemonade (2016), since she obviously withheld that on purpose/to slight me specifically. (There was only that coffee table book that I didn’t get a copy of.) I tweet about this all the time but it’s actually the only Beyoncé project ever (excepting Everything Is Love [2018] with Jay-Z) where she hasn’t also released some kind of making-of documentary alongside it. I’ve always been intrigued by how many different directors and therefore personalities worked on the film together, and also by the fact that she and Kahlil Joseph actually completed a version of it before she went back and added all the pop directors’ contributions.

If you were asked by any major publisher, or even Madonna herself, would you consider writing a biography on her? If so, which areas of her life and career would you focus the most on that others haven’t?

I’ll say first that I definitely have a Madonna book in me; there are two that I’m constantly thinking about and/or chaptering in my head. I’m not sure whether either would be classifiable as a biography in the traditional sense, but they’d definitely lean heavily on biographical information the way a lot of my work does. And then separately, I have quite a few one-off chapters that I'll have to figure out what to do with.

In my opinion, there are many gaps to fill as far as books about Madonna go: there are several biographies of her out there already, but the majority were published before 2008, aka the year she turned 50. That means that they don’t cover, among other things: four very different and very interesting albums, four associated tours (including the Sticky & Sweet Tour, the highest-grossing tour by a female artist), her divorce from Guy Ritchie and subsequent attempts to date while something like the Daily Mail exists, her foray into directing feature films, and three of her six kids. Right now would definitely be far too early to write a biography covering the ‘second half’ of her life, but at some point someone will be able to write a damn interesting one. There’s lots to say about the work itself, but also about ageism in the industry and the press, the fact that she’s operating largely without precedent, and so on. A whole other book could be written about her impact on the work of, and relationships with, younger artists. Another could delve into her super interesting engagement with film history and culture, or her references more generally. And then there are particular eras of hers that I think are worth revisiting on their own.

Do you listen to music while working at any stage of the process? Research, writing, editing?

While researching, constantly, and that’s generally music related to whatever I’m researching. While writing, only rarely, and if I do I’ll switch to something instrumental—usually something totally unrelated to what I’m writing, like a film score or basically any music in a language I don’t speak. (My brain can’t do both things otherwise.) (I’m currently writing this to something that’s technically in English, but where the singer in question doesn’t enunciate well enough for my brain to have caught on.) But I’ve definitely written things where I just listened to the instrumental version of something related to what I was writing on a loop until I was finished because I needed to wrap it up/was torturing myself. I did that with this instrumental while writing my piece on Beyoncé’s “Rocket” video. For the most part, I write and edit in complete silence. I’m someone who talks to myself constantly while I work, and for the self-editing phase especially I have to do my dozen sermon-like reads out loud of whatever I’ve written.

Me writing in total silence

Alt queer icons with powerful music video legacies—Björk, Kate Bush, Tori Amos. Discuss.

I sadly know practically nothing about Tori but have wanted to remedy that for a while now because of Abdi Nazemian’s Instagram Stories. As for Björk and Kate, I’ve for a long time listened to both of their music (more so Kate’s) and have seen many of their respective video highlights—in a couple cases, an obscene amount of times; big "Cloudbusting" (1985) fan over here—but I haven’t yet gone any deeper than that. (The one exception is Madonna’s “Bedtime Story” [1995], which Björk co-wrote.) I’ll do so with both at some point, most likely starting with Kate. Fingers crossed that I have a better answer to this question a year from now.

Recently, you’ve posted open calls for music recommendations on Twitter that are often accompanied by a moodboard to help your followers gain a more specific sense of what you have in mind. What are some of your favourite recommendations thus far? Have you been surprised by your fondness (or lack thereof) for any?

I’ve done this two or three times now with albums specifically and I can’t recommend it enough. I’ve been keeping a list of all the new-to-me ones I’ve listened to this year (161 as of this writing) and then bolding the ones I’d like to listen to again (70 as of this writing), and then I'm not yet sure what'll happen once I've listened to them again. A few of the things I’ve bolded: Willie Nelson’s Stardust (1977), Sevdaliza’s Shabrang (2020), Judas Priest’s Screaming for Vengeance (1982), Goldie Boutilier’s Very Best (2018), and Bedouine’s Bedouine (2017). And I picked those particular examples out because I didn’t necessarily expect to like them and/or wouldn’t have sought them out myself.

Every album that’s suggested to me on Twitter goes into my Tidal (I know, I know) queue regardless of whether I think I’ll be interested, which for me is the whole point, but the moodboards (or sometimes just specific written prompts) are useful to narrow things down a bit. I don’t like on principle how streaming platforms constantly force you deeper and deeper into your own algorithm, making you a lot less likely to stumble across something by accident that you might end up loving a lot. Something I’ve learned about myself is that I’ll happily listen to just about any pop once, but I ultimately like my pop big and I guess weird, so there were a lot of more generic recommendations I got from this prompt that I listened to and didn’t hate or anything but nevertheless didn’t bold. Oh, and then if I love a song or two from an otherwise underwhelming album, they'll go into this playlist called “2021” that’s shaping up to be a huge shitshow. I have zero idea what I’ll end up doing with any of these lists/playlists, but I clearly love systems.

Madonna calls: “I need a film project. Name one of your favourite books. I need to either direct or star. What do you say?”

Speaking as someone who’s big-time gotten into historical romances in 2021, I’d be very cool with Madonna directing any kind of horny period piece, whether romantic or funny or melancholy or slightly twisted or some mix. She could truly pick any book along those lines and I'd be interested. As both an actor and a director, she’s often seemed drawn towards roles and stories where there’s a bit of meta-commentary happening re: her life and public persona, and there’s a lot to work with in that genre in terms of gender/sexual politics and things like gossip and scandal, etc. (I have Dangerous Liasons Madonna in my head as I write this.) While there was a lot about W.E. (2011) that didn’t work, I’m of the opinion that there was quite a bit about it that did, particularly in the period half of things. It was really the Oscar Isaac-as-security guard half that made the film a mess, even if I’m about to type those exact words into Google Images.

Do you listen to film scores with any regularity? If so, what are some of your favourites?

To say I do regularly would be a massive understatement, and I listen to lots for films and shows that I didn’t even like all that much, or sometimes haven’t even seen. I’m not going to be able to answer this in a way that satisfies me, but let me just commit to throwing out a bunch of words. Weird things happen to my brain when I listen to anything by Ennio Morricone or Danny Elfman; I’m particularly fond of Elfman's Tim Burton stuff, but there are exceptions like this. The ones I come back to the most tend to be childhood faves: Zbigniew Preisner’s score from The Secret Garden (1993), Mark Knopfler’s from The Princess Bride (1987), and Irwin Kostal’s from Pete’s Dragon (1977) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).

Other names that pop up more than once in my playlists, and I realize that they’re not exactly nobodies: Dario Marianelli (especially the Joe Wright stuff), Carter Burwell, Philip Glass, Gabriel Yared, Hans Zimmer (who put on one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen a few years back), John Williams, Howard Shore, James Horner, Nino Rota, Mica Levi, Alexandre Desplat, Abel Korzeniowski, Thomas Newman, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Clint Mansell, and Craig Armstrong. I also listen to a lot of series ones: everything Trevor Morris did for The Tudors… Bear McCreary’s Outlander stuff… recently I’ve been all over Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli’s soundtrack for The Witcher. But there are so many more… Wojciech Kilar’s for Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)… if it’s been repurposed for a Tarantino movie, it’s in a playlist of mine somewhere… Olivier Bernet’s Persepolis (2007) score… a recent new addition to my faves is Giorgio Moroder’s for American Gigolo (1980)… Hagood Hardy’s Anne of Green Gables (1985) stuff… I’ll cut myself off, but you can always recommend me scores.

I have so many… Beyoncé-wise, I think everyone should see Homecoming (2019) at least once, but all of her concert films are in my regular rotation. And for all the criticism it’s received (a lot of it totally fair), Life Is But a Dream (2013) is one of the most fascinating pop star docs ever for how she attempts to rewrite those years of her life. One lesser-known Beyoncé rec is I Am… Yours (2009). And there’s obviously the On the Run Tour film, an especially impressive project given that it was quite literally put together in five days. Madonna fans might find this weird, but I’d rather re-watch I’m Going to Tell You a Secret (2005) than Truth or Dare (1991). But the Madonna film I’ve watched the most is the Confessions Tour. Stop Making Sense (1984) is another fave, as is Shut Up & Sing (2006), about the fallout from the Chicks’ infamous anti-Bush comment.

Some recent ones worth watching are Tina (2021), Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry (2021), and Taylor Swift’s folklore: the long pond studio sessions (2020). I obviously love Gaga: Five Foot Two (2017) and the Monster Ball Tour film. I also have a real soft spot for Rammstein: Paris (2016) and Paul McCartney: Live Kisses (2012) because of my thesis research. I've seen all of these multiple times with the exception of Tina, which is a bit harder to watch. I also very much recommend Matangi/Maya/M.I.A (2018). And if these count, I'm a huge fan of the 25th anniversary filmed versions of Les Misérables (2010) and The Phantom of the Opera (2011).

From Beyoncé and Jay-Z's On the Run Tour (2014) book

It’s not really an AMA question, but I’ve always wanted to know your thoughts on Rihanna.

I love Rihanna, and can’t wait to probably cover her documentary whenever it drops this year. There’s no real reason that I haven’t written anything about her otherwise except that I’ve been meaning to go through her stuff from beginning to end before I do. (I can’t remember now why I didn’t do it, but last year I was supposed to write a newsletter instalment about “Bitch Better Have My Money” [2015] turning five.) It’s so worth it adding a new artist to the research fold—and I think my followers and readers would appreciate some more variation sometimes—but it takes a lot longer than I think people assume, especially with other things going on in my life. (I’ve been working on David Bowie on the side all year, after which the plan is to do Prince.) Part of the reason I haven’t yet is that Rihanna is one of those artists whose careers I’ve been experiencing in real-time from the beginning, but I guess that’s also true of Gaga and Marina and Lorde and Lana Del Rey, and I’ve still gone back through their stuff… so maybe the problem is me. To be fair, though, Rihanna has only appeared in like three music videos in the last half-decade, so there’s arguably been less pressure. Either way, I've definitely registered her as being of interest to my readers; I just wouldn't want to fuck up some very simple fact and get yelled at for it online.

Obviously so much of your writing is coloured by current artists and their impact on the landscape of music videos, though your enduring love of Madonna has flourished regardless. With that in mind, what are some of your favourite videos of the MTV era?

I’ll put Madonna aside completely to answer this, but here’s a very incomplete list from the first decade or so of MTV: “Girls On Film” (1981), “Wicked Game” (1991), “White Wedding” (1982), “Freedom! ’90” (1990), “Thriller” (1983), “Rhythm Nation” (1989), “I Want Your Sex” (1987), “When Doves Cry” (1984), “She Bop” (1984), “Dancing in the Street” (1985), “Nothing Compares 2 U” (1990), “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (1987), and “Let’s Dance” (1983).

Since pop divas and fashion are so intertwined, do you keep up with fashion writing? Which divas do you think have had the biggest influences on style, and whose fashion senses are your favourites?

I definitely keep up with it—in general and from all over the place, but a couple writers that I read with regularity are Rachel Syme and Abbey Bender. I’m a big clothes person in general, and during Blogspot’s heyday I actually ran a quote unquote fashion blog that was largely me weighing in on magazine editorials, TV spots, and red carpet photos. But I was always trying to write about movies, so it was usually these kinds of editorials and these kinds of TV spots. I seem to have moved away from fashion writing since then but not all that intentionally, and I’d love to get back into it somehow.

In terms of the artists who’ve influenced style the most and whose fashion senses are my favourites, those are both such huge questions and ones that I think I can only offer a few loose thoughts on… Madonna and Beyoncé are more or less why everyone wears leotards on stage these days… all the curiously-boobed costumes of the last couple of decades in pop music come back to Madonna’s cone bras… David Bowie and Prince are responsible for so much of how today’s artists dress, both on and off stage and regardless of gender… few artists, if any, speak through their clothes as well as Lady Gaga does; this week she basically just confirmed the beginning of a new era by stepping outside of her hotel a few times… I often miss that period when Beyoncé still primarily lived in New York City, since there was a great streetstyle run there in the first half of the 2010s… I think that Madonna permanently infused pop music with a lot of its more gothic/Victorian sartorial sensibilities… and I’ve been wowed by how Rihanna dresses for years, with practically no exceptions. There's so much that I could add here, but this is another topic you can expect to read more about in this newsletter soon.

What is for you the ideal music video? Like, above else, what should a music video accomplish for you to love it? Is there a gap between what you enjoy in a music video and what you enjoy writing about, form-wise?

I honestly don’t think that there’s an ideal one. I’m always happy to be surprised, and I suppose what matters most to me is that an artist actually tried. (Quite a few seem to underestimate how obvious it is when they’ve made something out of obligation.) As with films or basically any artistic medium, there are lots of music videos that I wouldn’t necessarily submit for awards consideration but that I’ll still come back to all the time for various reasons. As long as a video is doing something of note—in terms of editing, or costumes, or colour, etc.—I can write something about it. But in general, I’m most compelled by the ones where an artist seems to have something specific that they want to say, or something that they want you to still be thinking about once it's over. While I cover both things and the two obviously go hand in hand, I'm on the whole more interested in what things mean than in how they've been made on a technical level. And my writing portfolio is therefore a pretty imperfect sketch of my actual tastes.

To commemorate your newsletter’s first anniversary, what would you say is your career’s crowning achievement thus far?

This question stopped me dead in my tracks because the last couple of years have been the biggest of my life, personally and professionally, but where I haven’t been great about digesting a given thing before moving on to the next one. I suppose that it’s probably finishing my grad program last year, particularly the thesis that concluded it, but the pandemic made the last six months of that whole chapter extremely weird and anti-climactic.

“Crowning” is throwing me off a little, but if I had a Thanos glove of achievements—Google is telling me that I’m supposed to call it the Infinity Gauntlet but I simply shan’t—then my Thanos glove would include completing my MA coursework and writing my thesis as two separate stones, and then another two would be launching the website I used to run (hard) and later shutting down the same website (a lot harder). Are there really six Infinity Stones? Blah... for now, the last two can host my greatest hits as a writer and my coolest bylines so far, respectively, since those are largely two different circles. But when I write a book one day, which I hope to do, I’ll have an easier answer to this question. ●

Mononym Mythology is a newsletter about mostly pop divas and their (visual) antics. It’s totally free, but if you got something out of this instalment, consider buying me a coffee. The best way to support my work otherwise is by sharing it. You can subscribe here, and you can find me on Twitter and Instagram.