8 min read

Touching Base

A Q1 catch-up
Touching Base

Given my silence in 2023 so far, you’d be forgiven for assuming that I gave up on this newsletter. I’ve actually spent these last several months pretty deep in research projects that’ll eventually make their way here somehow, and otherwise sorting my life out so that I can self-publish things more regularly. So, you’ll hear from me again next week with a very fun interview, after which we should be smooth sailing over at Mononym Mythology. And I think I mean it this time!

For now, here’s what else I’ve been up to:

🎙: Thanks to Rad Simonpillai—and also my knack for Madonna-posting, I imagine—I got to make my radio debut back in January, and on CBC! On Rad’s ask, I essentially rambled at him for half an hour about Madonna ageism in the context of her Celebration Tour announcement, and he turned that ramble into a couple significantly more graceful sound bites. In general, I find the topic of Madonna’s face to be maybe the least interesting one in the world—ask me about literally anything else!—so I was grateful that Rad wasn’t particularly interested in it. Instead, our chat was mostly about Madonna having been forged by a number of losses, how she’s seemingly lived at full-throttle all the time on behalf of the people she’s lost, and how so much Madonna hate comes back to her performing her 60s “wrong”—the same way she performed her 50s and 40s and 30s “wrong.”

The books section: Because of the research projects I mentioned, I’m essentially reading a couple dozen non-fiction books at once—I don’t recommend this!—and, as usual, lots of historical romance so as to not lose my mind. Maybe a third of those non-fiction books are music video and/or film history-related (more to come), the next third are Ken Russell-related (more to come), and the last third have been deemed relevant to a book proposal that I may or may not have started working on (more to come, I guess). Otherwise, my friend Charles Bramesco has a great (not to mention beautiful to look at) new book out called Colors of Film: The Story of Cinema in 50 Palettes, which plots film history using key developments in colour technology and/or innovative uses of colour. As the introduction more or less warned would happen, it’s changing the way I watch things, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to more formally work it into a future instalment. In the meantime, there are quite a few entries that might make it of interest to readers of this newsletter—on Fantasia (1940), Dick Tracy (1990), Belly (1998), The Virgin Suicides (1999), and more.


📝: In March, ahead of the Junos (Canada’s equivalent of the Grammys), I had a lot of fun writing this explainer for CBC Arts on the directors and work that were up for Music Video of the Year. Videos are eligible as long as their directors are Canadian—last time, Xavier Dolan won for Adele’s “Easy On Me” (2021)—and this round ultimately went to Floria Sigismondi for Sam Smith and Kim Petras’s “Unholy” (2022), one of those videos that maybe (maybe!) forces you to give the song another shot. That was Sigismondi’s eighth (!) nomination in the category and her second win, the first having been for Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter” (2003). I jumped at the chance to write the piece in part because I’d already started working my way through Sigismondi’s career earlier in the year—her work has always intrigued me, and intersects in interesting ways with Christina’s and David Bowie’s (two of my open case files)—and, naturally, I ended up getting super invested in all five nominated directors and their work. (If you read it, or even if you don’t, definitely click through to my recs for further watching under each blurb.)

The film section: Most of my movie-watching in 2023 has been of ‘60s and ‘70s rock cinema, and while I don’t want to say too much about that yet, I’ve been completely and inconveniently bowled over by Ken Russell’s Tommy (1975), which I could actually feel rewiring my brain minute by minute. (I swear that I didn’t even realize until weeks after watching that Madonna had a Tommy-themed backdrop on her Confessions Tour, but she did!) Aside from that, three films I’ve watched entirely for kicks and enjoyed are Miley Cyrus’s Endless Summer Vacation (Backyard Sessions) on Disney+, which makes the wise choice to clock in around 45 minutes rather than forcing itself to be a feature; Kendrick Lamar’s The Big Steppers Tour: Live from Paris on Prime Video, which I think is probably the best concert film of the last couple of years (seriously); and the new-ish documentary The Sound of 007 (also on Prime Video), which curiously omits “Die Another Day” from its otherwise comprehensive look at 60 years of Bond music, but is still a lot of fun. I feel like I’ve also watched a lot of bad pop star docs lately? Not that that’s necessarily new, but I think I’ll similarly save those thoughts for later.

📝: Also in March and also for CBC Arts, I had the pleasure of profiling Sean Menard and his new documentary about Canada’s MuchMusic, 299 Queen Street West, which premiered at SXSW this year. While it only comes through a tiny bit in the finished profile, one of the more meaningful parts of our conversation (at least for me) was about the double-edged sword of being boxed into a niche—great for quote unquote ~personal branding~, bad for whenever you’d like to try something else, please. Not that I’d know anything about that! I also had apparently totally wiped the MMVAs from my memory… good times.

The music section: As I think I mentioned around New Year’s, I needed the first bit of 2023 to wrap up my 2022 re-listening (see below). Since then, I’ve been trying to just be normal—still tracking any new things I listen to, but mostly listening to whatever the hell I want (a lot of classical, a lot of research-related stuff, a lot of Otis Redding, a lot of old faves, etc.), with no real pressure to listen to new-to-me stuff on any particular timeline. (Lest you think I’m cured or anything, music videos are the new thing I’m being weird about; see a couple sections down.)

📝: For 2003 Week over at Billboard, I spent March and the first bit of April working on this look back at Madonna’s “American Life” video scandal, from the early days of the album’s conception to how the fallout forced Madonna to change gears with the rest of its rollout and (as I argue) beyond. It was nice to do a video-specific deep dive for the first time in a long time, and the big challenge here—as it often is—was making sense of the timeline, George W. Bush’s as much as Madonna’s. One of my big takeaways is that you’ll often hear people say “the original video” in reference to “American Life,” but said original video was actually something like the dozenth cut that Madonna and Jonas Åkerlund had made (which would make it especially tricky to finally release in 2023, as lots of people have been hoping Madonna will). I got to Zoom with Åkerlund, who’s obviously been more than generous with me these last few years—I mention it in the piece, but he actually showed me the grenade lighter from the original video—and grabbed additional comment from Encyclopedia Madonnica author Matthew Rettenmund, whose brain I’d wanted to pick forever!

The video section: Something I really wanted to do in 2023 was keep better tabs on new music videos, just in general. I was already watching a lot of videos, but for the most part couched in some research project or another, and typically sticking to names that were already familiar. At the end of every year, that’s often meant that I haven’t seen, like… the majority of people’s year-end lists, despite me having spent the year “covering” “music” “videos,” which was starting to not make a lot of sense in my head. And, as 2022 came to a close, I realized that I’d also amassed a Tidal queue of something like a thousand videos. Every New Music Friday for at least a couple years, I’ve reliably added any songs, albums, and videos of interest, but while I’ve obviously been very good at listening to the music thereafter, the videos… not so much. Initially, my aim was to try and nix one a day from my queue; in practice, I’ve ended up spending half an hour or so every day eating into it, MTV-style—sometimes while I wait for some caffeine to kick in in the morning, sometimes as a break in the middle of the day, sometimes while folding laundry on weekends. Rather than keeping a master list of what I watch, I’ve instead just been noting down and colour-coding the a) instant faves, b) instant enemies, and c) the videos that I think are doing something interesting even if they aren’t instant faves, or at the very least feel worth another watch sometime later. I always grab the director(s) and release year, and add a little note if I feel so inclined: “cool video but also just ‘Me, Myself and I,’” “this is unfortunately very much my jam,” “nothing technically wrong with this but for some reason it’s pissing me off today,” “he’s just spending money,” and so on. Not sure what I’ll do with this list later in the year, if anything, but the result so far is that I can actually tell you what the industry is up to in terms of visuals, and beyond my usual suspects!

Invite me somewhere that I can wear these

👩‍💻: After a super rewarding year and a half, I’ve officially stepped away from my editing role(s) at Bright Wall/Dark Room for the foreseeable future, and got to close out March’s “On the Road” issue with Christine Prevas’s wonderful piece on Sean Baker’s Tangerine (2015) (featuring original art by the uber-talented Dani Manning). And yes, that does make me particularly open to new freelance opportunities, whether writing or editing!  

The life section: Turned 27... am still married... remembered how to ski... forgot how to tweet... spending significantly more time with my loved ones... cooking a lot... running again... going through some sort of pickle phase... using retinol now. I think that’s it. ●  

Mononym Mythology is a music video culture newsletter by me, Sydney Urbanek, where I write about mostly pop stars and their visual antics.

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