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Cultural Highlights of the Year

Fresh Air critic at-large John Powers will talk about the events that defined American culture this year. Highlights include the Borat movie, Stephen Colbert's speech at the White House correspondent's dinner, George Allen's use of a racial slur during the 2006 U.S. Senate race in Virginia, and the rise of as a mechanism for rapid dissemination of information. John Powers is also a critic for Vogue magazine.



Related Topics

Other segments from the episode on December 20, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 20, 2006: Interview with John Powers; Review of top 10 music albums of the year; Review of classic and more recent television shows.


DATE December 20, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Vogue's film critic John Powers talks about his choices
for the defining cultural moments of the year 2006

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

At the end of each year, our critics put together their 10 best lists. In
fact, our rock critic Ken Tucker will be here with his list later in the show.
This year we've added a new list. We asked our critic at large John Powers to
come up with the cultural defining moments of the year. John is film critic
for Vogue and used to write a media column for LA Weekly.

Hi, John. Happy holidays. You know, before we start talking about your
choices for the defining cultural moments of the year, let's kind of spell out
what the rules of the game are. How did you choose these moments? What are
your criteria?

Mr. JOHN POWERS: Well, in looking for these moments, I was looking for
moments that either clearly changed the culture, sometimes actually affecting
elections, or to just the kind of things that people spend a lot of time
talking about this year which entered the culture and sort of had people

GROSS: Why is the "Borat" movie on your list?

Mr. POWERS: Well, at one level, probably "Borat" is the great zeitgeist
movie of the year. And, in fact, it's a great challenge to people because you
never quite know what to do with it. On the one hand, it's extremely funny,
and almost everybody who sees it thinks it's really funny. On the other hand,
a lot of people think it's kind of mean and nasty, and it makes fun of the
people in the movie. And, in fact, what's great about "Borat" is that it's a
movie that calls into question all sorts of things. On the one hand, it has a
satirical thrust about racism and anti-Semitism. On another hand, it actually
just shows this hilarious, charming, ignorant guy pretending to be--who is a
Kazakhstani supposedly but is actually just a creation bursting into people's
homes and treating them, in some cases, badly. And we don't quite know how to
react to that. I mean, for a long time, I've complained that our comedy
hasn't really been very edgy, that people are doing things that are safe.

But what's great about "Borat" is that you can laugh at it and maybe not even
like yourself for laughing at it because, in fact, it's one of those things
that pushes comedy in a direction, you know, farther than what we normally

GROSS: Well, let's hear it, let's hear a scene from the movie and hear, you
know, Borat, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, is talking to a couple of feminists.

(Soundbite from movie "Borat")

Mr. SACHA BARON COHEN: (As Borat) So, what that means, this feminism?

Unidentified Actress #1: It's a theory that women should be equal to men in
matters economic, social...

Unidentified Actress #2: Now, you are laughing?

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) Yeah.

Actress #2: That is the problem.

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) Do you think a woman should be educated?

Actress #1: Definitely.

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) But is it not a problem that the woman have a smaller
brain than a man?

Actress #1: That is wrong.

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) But the government scientist Dr. Yama can prove it is
size of squirrel.

Actress #1: No. He's wrong.

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) Give me a smile, baby! Why angry face?

Actress #1: Well, what you're saying is very demeaning. Do you know the word

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) No.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: You know, personally, I think Sacha Baron Cohen is really like a
genius when it comes to persona.

And Stephen Colbert has created an incredible persona, too, as a conservative
pundit on his show, "The Colbert Report." And Stephen Colbert, at the White
House press corps dinner, has made it to your list of defining cultural
moments of the year. Why did this speech make it on the list?

Mr. POWERS: Well, it became a kind of a national talking point because here
is a comedian talking at a White House thing to the president and to the media
and saying things so radically out of tune with the kind of jokes that are
normally made at such an event that within hours of him talking, a blogosphere
was lit up. And, in fact, people put the entire thing on the Net so almost
everybody saw, you now, Stephen Colbert doing this thing where he both makes
fun of the president and the media. Here he is talking about reporters.

(Soundbite of Stephen Colbert at the White House)

Mr. STEPHEN COLBERT: But listen. Let's review the rules. Here's how it
works. The president makes decisions. He's the decider. The press secretary
announces those decisions and you people of the press type those decisions
down. Make, announce, type. Just put them through a spell check and go home.
Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel
you've got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid
Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You
know, fiction.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Well, why did you choose that clip to play for us?

Mr. POWERS: Well, I chose that clip for a couple of reasons. One, because
it actually is a comedy kind of like "Borat" which actually pushes things,
because it was considered by many people to be a very rude thing to give such
a speech, insulting both the president and the people in the audience.

But what I particularly thought was interesting about it was that the way the
media now works is that the elite people of the media, and that's largely who
would be sitting in the audience for that, are very much part of the same sort
of social cultural world in Washington as the people they're covering. And
one thing I know from living there and actually having dealt with a lot of
media people over the years and political people is that they take pride in
being invited to those events. So, Colbert is touching on one of their sorest
points, which is that they, in fact, don't really cover politics as honestly
and as toughly as they could because, in fact, they really are part of the
social scene and the elite scene in Washington. And he's actually sort of
jabbing them with that. And I can tell you that a lot of reporters didn't
like it. It was amazing how many reporters claimed that his talk wasn't
funny. Yet, if you go on the Internet and watch it, it's a very funny talk.

GROSS: Well, another defining cultural moment on your list is the Muhammad
cartoons, the cartoons that satirized the prophet Muhammad and sparked riots
in various parts of the world. And what questions do those cartoons and the
response raise for you that bring them to your list of defining cultural
moments of the year?

Mr. POWERS: Well, like "Borat" and Colbert, they once again raised the
question of what's going too far. Are you allowed to say anything? Are you
allowed to joke about anything? And, clearly, in Islam you're not supposed to
show the prophet. And, in fact, you're particularly not supposed to do
cartoons making fun of the prophet. You know, as a person who, you know,
cherishes our Constitution, I think that everyone should absolutely be allowed
to make such jokes even if other people find them offensive. I think one has
to accept the fact that in a free society, people can make these jokes. You
know, did those cartoons strike me as funny? No. Did they strike me as being
ill-advised? Yes. I mean, there are lots of jokes that one could make, that
one wouldn't make for all sorts of reasons. Nevertheless, the principle would
stand that you should be allowed to make the jokes, at least in my opinion.
And what you see is that, as people get stronger and stronger in their
feelings about what can and can't be said, I think we may be pushing toward an
era where you're going to have greater and greater and maybe even more violent
debates of what is the limit of permissible speech.

GROSS: Mel Gibson and Michael Richards both really crossed a line this year,
and that made news. And they're both on your list of defining cultural
moments of the year. Mel Gibson for his anti-Semitic comment and Michael
Richards for using the N word when talking to hecklers during his comedy act.
Give us your take on these, John.

Mr. POWERS: You know--well, I mean, the first thing about is that it's
amazing how much play you can get if you're a celebrity saying something
really vile and stupid. You know, I remember watching TV during the heat, the
full flowering of the Mel Gibson hoopla. And I was struck that this was
during the war in Lebanon where Hezbollah, an actively anti-Semitic group, was
fighting against Israel, and that war was getting less coverage than the
anti-Semitic slurs of one movie star in Malibu.

So, there's something strange in that. But, in fact, I think what it touches
on is two things. One, people sense that maybe a lot of this feeling exists
below the surface in ways that we're not quite used to. So that, in fact,
it's still more there than you think, which I think is one reason why it gets
so much play.

I think the other thing is that, whereas people like "Borat" and Stephen
Colbert are fictional creations, the Mel Gibson we see or the Michael Richards
we see somehow we want to believe in probably their good publicity rather than
their bad publicity. So, suddenly if Michael Richards is this way, does it
affect how we feel about Kramer? If Mel Gibson actually is spewing
anti-Semitism, does that affect how we perceive "The Passion of the Christ,"
which is, you'll recall when it came out, inspired some controversy about
whether or not the film itself was anti-Semitic. It certainly seems to change
our sense of that film a little bit, to know that when drunk, Mel Gibson will
start saying the Jews are starting all the world's wars.

GROSS: Now, Senator George Allen used the word "macaca" and that helped kill
his Senate re-election campaign. So, before we talk about why that's on your
list of defining moments, let's hear the clip of what he said.

(Soundbite of Senator George Allen's statement)

Senator GEORGE ALLEN: Friends, we're going to run this campaign on positive,
constructive ideas. And it's important that we motivate and inspire people
for something. This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, Macaca, or
whatever his name is, he's with my opponent. He's following us around
everywhere. And it's just great! We're going to places all over Virginia,
and he's having it on film, and it's great to have you here. And you can show
it to your opponent because he's never been there and probably will never
come. So, it's a good thing...

(Soundbite of cheering crowd)

Sen. ALLEN: the real world. Other than living inside a bad area, his
opponent actually right now is with a bunch of Hollywood movie moguls. We
care about fact, not fiction. So, welcome. Let's give a welcome to Macaca
here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Well, that clip which ended up everywhere was first on YouTube. And
is that why this is on your list, John?

Mr. POWERS: Well, it's partly that. You know, I mean, partly it has a huge
implication because, you know, George Allen, you know, probably in the course
of that one minute went from being a potential presidential candidate in 2008
to being the person who lost his Senate seat, I think, largely because of the
kind of snowball effect of this. And, in fact, the snowball effect was caused
because this clip appeared on YouTube. And, in fact, in the way that it
appears when you look at it, it's as though because the guy he's talking to is
holding the camera, it's as though Allen is talking to us and slightly
ridiculing us for not being proper Americans. At the end of his speech,
actually of a snippet where he begins by saying, `Let's talk about positive,
constructive ideas' and ends up making fun of a guy for not being an American
when, in fact, the guy's an American. And so like, as a piece of film, it's
hard to imagine a more devastating one minute.

But what's interesting to me about it is that five years ago that devastating
one minute probably wouldn't have been seen by anybody. But within a day of
that one minute occurring, it was on YouTube and hundreds of thousands of
people were seeing it. And after that, the TV networks had to run it because,
in fact, it was such a famous piece of footage.

GROSS: Well, the year that YouTube really became this big phenomenon is also
a year when newspapers were sold, reporters were laid off, budgets at
newspapers were cut. How did that figure into your defining cultural moments
of the year?

Mr. POWERS: Well, I think that you can't fail to notice that even as an
explosion of the power of things like YouTube, that all the traditional media
are really struggling. On the one hand, you have the newspapers cutting back
lots and lots of jobs. They're terrified that they won't last into the, you
know, last 10 years. You know, a handful of papers might survive, but there's
a real panic. And what that means, among other things, is that not only are
they laying people off, but newspapers are trying to become more Net-friendly.
You know, they have to adjust to a world that's a lot faster. It seems
incredibly slow if you're a newspaper to have to wait until the entire next
day when, in fact, we're not even living in a world where people get their
news from the evening news. They're getting their news from what's happening
at this exact moment. And so newspapers are in a tremendous state of panic,
and you can see it financially. Even though a lot are making big profits,
they don't think their profits are going to last. And that matches up very
nicely with the explosion of things like YouTube.

GROSS: We're talking with our critic at large, John Powers. We'll hear what
else is on his list of the cultural defining moments of the year after a

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is our critic at large John Powers. He's put together a list
of the cultural defining moments of the year.

This is the year when theatrical releases of documentaries continue to be very
popular. And a documentary that has made it to your list of cultural moments
of the year is the Al Gore documentary about global warming.

Mr. POWERS: Yes. I think what you do see happening is as some of the
traditional forms of sort of non-fiction coverage tend to dwindle, like
newspapers, that the work of those is being done by lots of places. And one
of them is in the, you know, current explosion of documentaries. I mean, the
Al Gore documentary, I think, marked, not only was a huge financial success
but probably marked a transformative moment in the way people think about the
whole question of global warming. You know, lots of other stuff was going on
at the same time. You actually had, you know, best-selling books on the
subject. You actually had people, you know, in the evangelical Christian
community debating global warming in a way that they hadn't been doing in two
years. But if you had to chose something that somehow captured that zeitgeist
moment where, all of a sudden, everybody thought, you know, global warming is
pretty serious, it's the Al Gore film, "An Inconvenient Truth." As a film I
don't think it's altogether great. I mean, partly because there's a little
bit of Al Gore running for president--well, not quite running for
president--but the speech he gives or the little lecture he gives about global
warming, you know, is very much a model of its time.

GROSS: Are there other documentaries that have made it to your list?

Mr. POWERS: Well, I think the other documentary, which is actually a
television documentary, but that I do think should be mentioned is the Spike
Lee film, four hours, called "When the Levies Broke" which is about...

GROSS: But what do you think that film brings--oh, it's about Hurricane
Katrina and its aftermath.

Mr. POWERS: About Hurricane Katrina.

GROSS: Yeah. What do you think the film brings that the day-to-day coverage
as the hurricane was happening did not?

Mr. POWERS: Well, I think that what it captured was the people who were
caught in it. Somehow, in the course of day-to-day coverage, even though, you
know, the television was doing a full-court press on it, they could never
really step back enough and let people just talk about what happened to them.
Plus, even though the networks did go back, you never really got the sense of
talking to somebody for 30 or 40 minutes. Whereas a lot of the characters in
the Spike Lee documentary because it wasn't 400 people but maybe 20 or 25
people, they seemed to exist as people. And you felt the weight of what
happened to them far more profoundly. And there's an entire range of people
that he chose from the most destitute people in Ward Nine to very well-off
people to the TV actor Wendell Pierce to jazz musicians. And it gave you a
sense both of what the city meant, but how it was lived and experienced as a
calamity when the levies broke.

GROSS: It's hard for books to keep up with the news, but this year, there
were a few books about--there were actually a bunch of books about the war in
Iraq that really helped shape the conversation, shape the debate about Iraq.
Which of those books are on your list?

Mr. POWERS: Well, I think, you know, probably the most important of these
books was the Bob Woodward book, "State of Denial." I think it's probably not
the best of the books. I think Thomas Ricks' "Fiasco" was probably a better
book about what happened in Iraq. But what I think happened with "State of
Denial" was that you have this guy who routinely writes best-selling books
about what's going on in Washington. You have--Bob Woodward is sort of the
gold standard for best-selling journalistic books about Washington. And he'd
written two books that many people thought were very, very supportive of the
Bush administration. Suddenly, this summer he came out with a book, which in
fact suggested that the entire administration including the president was in a
state of denial about the calamity that Iraq had become.

Thomas Ricks' book examined more the goings on in Iraq and suggested that it
was a fiasco, as his title had it. What happened was you've got these books
together, all these books seemed to be coming out at the same time. And this
was coming out just at the point where every day you seemed to see on the news
that another 40 people had been blown up in Baghdad. So these books which
were saying things that hadn't been said by such respected people before in
quite the same way came out at just the moment where a huge part of the
population began to think maybe things really are a mess in Iraq in a way that
we hadn't fully realized. And then these books filled in the blanks and
explained how that happened. And there, you know, there are more and more of
these books. There's a new one out called "In the Green Zone" by yet another
Washington Post reporter, you know, filled with fascinating things about how
they staffed the people who were going into the Green Zone in Baghdad. And
when you put it all together, suddenly it was as though somebody who had been
slightly out of focus came into sharp focus. And the leading edge of that was
probably the Bob Woodward book.

GROSS: Barack Obama's new book made it to number one on the nonfiction
best-seller list, and that book is on your list of defining cultural moments
of the year. Why?

Mr. POWERS: I think because Obama, on the one hand, represents, to many
people's minds, something new, and yet people aren't quite sure what it means.
So he's a guy, in a way, whose stardom has run ahead of our sense of who he
actually is. And I think that's revealed by the fact that his--a nonfiction
book would make it, of that kind, about policy in many cases, would actually
make it to the top of the best-seller list. He is clearly the star of the

And if you're looking at this year's zeitgeist, the idea that Hillary Clinton
six months ago was thought to be the juggernaut in the Democratic Party, and
as soon as Obama began entering in, someone like Evan Bayh would drop out.
Because if it's possible that Obama will run, he seems to be the magical,
charismatic rock-star figure. And it shows not only something about him but
about how, I think, the culture--American culture needs to have such figures.
We're always looking for the person who's big and exciting, who's the person
of the moment. And, clearly, Barack Obama is the person of this moment.

The interesting thing will be to see whether he sustains that. He's certainly
gifted enough to do it. But will people get tired of him because, in fact,
you can easily develop Obama fatigue, I think. But, at the moment, he is the
big story. It's impossible to avoid Barack Obama if you open a newspaper or
turn on a TV set. I mean, he was there on "Monday Night Football" the other

GROSS: We'll hear the rest of John Powers' list of the cultural defining
moments of the year in the second half of the show. John is our critic at
large and film critic for Vogue.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.



I'm Terry Gross back with our critic at large John Powers. He's put together
a list of the cultural defining moments of the year. Let's see what's left on
the list.

One TV series has made it to your list of defining cultural moments of the
year, and that's HBO's "The Wire," which I've come to think of as the most
despairing TV series I've ever seen and surely one of the absolute best.

Mr. POWERS: Yeah. It's a great show. And it's been around three seasons
before. But I think this is the year where somehow it got on the air that
this was one of the all-time great TV shows. People had said it in the past,
but this is the year where Op-Ed pages we're talking about "The Wire." And
this was the year where people I know who hadn't watched it before, bought the
DVDs and watched the first three seasons. That somehow it entered the--you
know, entered at least the media imagination. I'm not clear--it's not clear
to me whether it actually has taken over the public or taken off with the
public. I think it's actually bigger with the critics and media types than it
is with the public. And I think one reason for that, Terry, is that it is
despairing, that it is so much bleaker than the average movie you see.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. POWERS: It's so much bleaker than the average art movie that you see
because a lot of art movies are filled with existential despair or some sort
of angst. Whereas what's great about "The Wire" is that it systematically
goes to many of the institutions of the city and shows what happens to the
people working within or who are supposed to be being treated or helped by
them. And in virtually every case, the result is at best, frustration, and at
worse, some sort of ghastly death.

GROSS: And also it doesn't romanticize the thug life.

Mr. POWERS: It doesn't romanticize the thug life. But, in fact, the fun
thing for me, I think it is, one of the fun of the show is that it shows you
how it works. I think one of the great aspects of the show is the procedural
aspect of it where you realize, `Oh, this is how a homicide squad works,'
where they're trying to cover up the fact that there is a body until next year
so you can actually play with statistics. Or it shows you how teachers are
forced to teach things just to help in the exams. But it also then shows you
out on the street how you have to learn to beat up little kids if they mouth
off to you in order to get respect because, otherwise, you don't get respect,
and that can be a life or death thing there. And it doesn't romanticize it in
any way. But interesting enough, it makes it seem like a business in some
ways like any other, but a particularly brutal business and one that's getting
worse and worse. You know, for those of us who have been watching since, you
know, the first season, it's weird to realize that you fell slightly nostalgic
for the unbelievably brutal drug dealers of the first series because, in fact,
they weren't sociopaths. Whereas the current drug dealer boss, Marlo, in the
fourth season, seems like he might be a sociopath because even other drug
people think he kills you for no reason. He kills you because he thinks he
might have a reason, and that's enough of a reason to kill you.

GROSS: There's some terrific acting in "The Wire," and it's especially
wonderful because there's so many great roles for African-American actors, and
I think African-American actors have been limited in the number of roles
available to them. So, this is like a real bonanza of every kind of
character. You've got the cops and the political operatives and the teachers
and the gangsters and the students and the parents. Should we hear a clip,

Mr. POWERS: Oh, sure. That would be great! I think here's one of the key
moments from the last season where a cop or an ex-cop named Bunny Colvin has
gone to prison. And what Bunny is doing is trying to convince the father in
prison to let his son be free of the family so that he can actually learn and
move on with his life rather than being drawn into the drug world.

GROSS: Because the parents have been pressuring him to sell drugs on the

Mr. POWERS: Because, in fact, it's the family business. That the father
wants him to be a man and keep on with the business and the mother wants him
to be a man and make the money by staying in the drug business.

(Soundbite from "The Wire")

Mr. ROBERT WISDOM: (As Howard Bunny Colvin): (Unintelligible) It's day,
man. You know people in the game nowadays. I mean, it's a whole different
breed. No coke, no family, damn sure no respect. I mean, you send Damon out
on the corner now, you're giving him maybe one, two years before he's down in
the morgue. And maybe if you're lucky, up here with you.

Unidentified Actor: Maybe, maybe not. That's the game.

Mr. WISDOM: (As Howard) I'm talking about naming him as your price. He's a
lot of things, a lot of good things. I mean, before you know, he might
surprise all of us, given half a chance. But he ain't made for no corners,
man. I mean, not like we were. That's why I come down here because I've got
to believe that you see it, being who you are and all you've been through.
You know your son.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That was Robert Wisdom as the former police major Howard Bunny Colvin.
Well, John, let's get to your final defining cultural moment of the year. And
that's Bob Dylan's latest records which went to number one on the Billboard

Mr. POWERS: I think, it's, you know, partly because it's a wonderful thing
to have someone like Bob Dylan actually make it to number one after almost 40
years. That is itself an extraordinary thing. And for those of us who grew
up with Dylan, it's exciting to think, `Hey, we were right all along. Even 40
years later, he can get to number one on the charts.' But what it also shows,
and this links to what we've been talking about early, the influence of new
media, is that people most likely these days to buy something as a CD are
people who tend to be older. Where the younger people will be downloading the
music and getting it some other way that wouldn't actually affect the charts.
So, even if I'm thrilled that Bob Dylan had the number one thing, I realized
that it probably doesn't mean he's the most popular. Certainly, he doesn't
mean today what he meant 40 years ago. I don't even think for people my age
that hearing Bob Dylan now I think, `Oh, wow, this man is radically altering
my consciousness.' And I remember thinking that when I was listening to him in
the 1960s. But what it does do is it shows the kind of weird, interesting
divides where the number one CD might not actually be the most popular piece
of music at the time.

GROSS: Right. Well, John, what gave you the most pleasure this year in terms
of, you know, books or movies or television, music?

Mr. POWERS: Well, I think my favorite show of the year was "The Wire," which
I very much like. And I'm also a great fan of "Dead Wood," which is in some
ways very much like "The Wire" in that it's a long overarching story about
struggles for power. One of the great surprise pleasures for me this year was
the movie "Casino Royale" because I grew up worshipping James Bond. You know,
I was just the right age.

GROSS: Because you're so like him.

Mr. POWERS: Oh, exactly. It's a curse, Terry. But, you know, I grew
up--when I was like 11 years old, I wanted to be James Bond. And then what
happened was I got older and the series got lousier. So that, you know, as I
got older, I probably wouldn't have wanted to be James Bond anyway because I
had grown up and become an adult. But you watched these series of people who
somehow seemed to be like the dressers mannequins. And this year they managed
to capture, I think, some of the pleasure I used to get from an old James Bond
movie. I mean, partly, it was because James Bond wasn't flying around in
outer space. He was just actually running along cranes, you know, above the
earth maybe a hundred feet. That was exciting to me. I thought Daniel Craig
did something I never thought I would see happening in a James Bond movie,
which is act. There was somebody actually acting in a James Bond movie which
is kind of a remarkable thing.

GROSS: Well, John, it was great to talk with you. Thanks a lot for putting
together this list of cultural moments for us. And I wish you a happy

Mr. POWERS: Yeah. Happy holidays and thanks for having me.

GROSS: John Powers is FRESH AIR's critic at large and film critic for Vogue.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Rock critic Ken Tucker talks about his top 10 music
list for this year 2006

Rock critic Ken Tucker has compiled a conventional top 10 music list this
year. In keeping with the increasingly fragmented multimedia world in which
popular music is disseminated and heard, he's come up with a quick overview of
the industry along with his picks for some of the years best music in all its
genres and formats.

(Soundbite of song by Nellie McKay)

Ms. NELLIE McKAY: (Singing) "I don't see nothing. I don't see nothing. I
don't see nothing. I don't see nothing. It isn't bad to know your
limitations that we know can come to good. But if you had to know your
situation, I see no reason you should. You don't have to know and say if
you're in the clear, it's on the down low. Don't you find it, anything you
hear, it's on the down low. Don't you mind it. Hold your head up high. That
will see you through. Dry your little eyes. Don't mess up your life by
seeking truth."

(End of soundbite)

Mr. KEN TUCKER: That was Nellie McKay, one of the more original and
idiosyncratic pop music artists to make an interesting album in 2006. In this
case, a double album called "Pretty Little Head." Like McKay who harkens back
to Tin Pan Alley and occasionally uses hip-hop metrics as the
singer/songwriter, other pop acts demonstrated what an a la carte menu pop
music has become.

Take for example one of the year's biggest sellers, Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy."
This semisuper group was formed by the Atlanta rapper Cee-Lo Green and the
Baltimore-based deejay and producer Danger Mouse. Together they made music
that blended hip-hop beats with '60s soul music vocals and '70s funk rhythms.

(Soundbite from song "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley)

Mr. GNARLS BARKLEY: (Singing) "I remember when. I remember, I remember when
I lost my mind. There was something so crazy about that day, even your
emotions had an echo in so much space. And when you're out there without a
care, yeah, I was out of touch. But it wasn't because I didn't know enough, I
just knew too much. Does that make me crazy? Does that make me crazy? Does
that make me crazy? Probably. And I hope that you're having the time of your
life, but think twice. That's my only advice. Come on now..."

(End of soundbite)

Mr. TUCKER: This was the year in which CD sales dropped 5 percent, and along
with it, the notion of the album as many performers' primary mode of
expression. Instead, many of us heard music in other ways. Single songs
downloaded onto computers and iPods. Tunes plucked from any band that put up
their profile on and uploaded a song to make you think you were
part of an elite fan club. We trolled for music videos on or,
heaven help us, we downloaded ringtones, little bits of songs to amuse
yourself and impress or annoy others when your cell phone goes off.

These were the surging revenue streams for all genres of music this year. Not
that the album, conceived as a suite of songs meant to go here as an aesthetic
and sometimes narrative hole, completely disappeared.

One of the best was my favorite combination hard rock emo album, My Chemical
Romance's grandiose but grand "The Black Parade."

(Soundbite from song "Teenagers" by My Chemical Romance)

Unidentified Singer: (Singing) "It's gonna clean up your looks, with all the
lies in the books to make a citizen out of you. Because they sleep with a gun
and keep an eye on you, son, so they could watch all the things you do.
Because the drugs never work, they're gonna give you a smirk 'cause they got
methods of keeping you clean. They gonna rip up your head, your aspirations
to shreds, another cog in the murder machine."

Unidentified Singers: (Singing in unison) "They said all teenagers scare.
The living (censored) out of me. They could care less as long as someone'll
bleed. So darken your clothes or strike a violent pose. Maybe they'll leave
you alone, but not me."

Singer: (Singing) "The boys and girls in a clique..."

(End of soundbite)

Mr. TUCKER: It was a pretty weak year for mainstream pop, what with the
unavoidable ascendence of "American Idol" both on television and on the record
charts. And another lame year for hip-hop in which the gangsters sounded ever
more nasty and desperate. Jay-Z's much-buzzed-about comeback album dropped
nearly 80 percent the second week of its release. And the rapper Nas entitled
his album, "Hip-Hop Is Dead." Thank goodness for Ghostface Killah's' "Fish
Scale," my pick for hip-hop album of the year.

On the other hand, it was a great year for country music. My favorite in the
walk was Willie Nelson's "You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker."

(Soundbite from Willie Nelson's "I Don't Care")

Mr. WILLIE NELSON: (Singing) "Now, I don't care if I'm not the first one you
kissed, just so I'll be the last. And I don't care if I'm not the first
you've caressed. Darling, I'll never ask. Yesterday's gone, just love me
from now on. Be true to me, forget about the past. For I don't care if I am
not the first love you've known, just so I'll be the last."

(End of soundbite)

Mr. TUCKER: If you were looking for country artists younger than Willie,
James Hand, Bradley Walker and the Dixie Chicks all put out first-rate
records. If you're looking for country older than Willie, I highly recommend
the two best reissues of any genre this year both on Columbia Legacy. Bob
Wills and the Texas Playboys' "Legends of Country Music," four discs of
swivel-hipped country swing. And Johnny Cash's "At San Quentin," a two-CD,
one-DVD collection of his rightfully legendary 1969 prison concert.

Ultimately, it was possible to find good albums in every genre from the funk
rocker Citizen Cope to senior citizen Bob Dylan. And even Dylan did a
commercial for iPod this year. You can also make him your own personal

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor at large for Entertainment Weekly. You'll find
his list on our Web site,

(Soundbite from Bob Dylan's "Thunder on the Mountain")

Mr. BOB DYLAN: (Singing) "Thunder on the mountain, fires on the moon.
There's a ruckus in the alley and the sun will be here soon. Today's the day,
gonna grab my trombone and blow. Well, there's hot stuff here and it's
everywhere I go. I was thinking about Alicia Keys, couldn't keep from crying.
When she was born in Hell's Kitchen, I was living down the line, I'm wondering
where in the world Alicia Keys could be. I been looking for her even clear
through Tennessee. Feel like my soul is beginning to expand. Look into my
heart and you will sort of understand. You brought me here, now you're trying
to run me away. The writing's on the wall, come read it, come see what it

(End of soundbite)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: TV critic David Bianculli talks about DVD boxed sets
of classic and recent TV series as last-minute holiday gifts

TV critic David Bianculli has some suggestions for last-minute holiday gifts:
DVD boxed sets of classic and recent TV series. He says all the
recommendations are exciting and excellent options, but he warns that some of
them are quite expensive.

Mr. DAVID BIANCULLI: If you're still scrambling for last-minute holiday
gifts, I might be able to come to the rescue, but only in some cases if you're
willing to lift a hefty box and pay an equally hefty price. The new trend
this season in boxed sets of television series on DVD is something that ought
to be called the megaset. These aren't just single-season collections of TV
shows, these are compilations of the whole enchilada, every episode from start
to finish.

In rare cases, these shows are offered on DVD for the first time. Most of the
time, though, they're just repackaged versions of things already available.
This means the repackaging, both the box it comes in and the extra material
provided as a bonus, makes all the difference to someone already in possession
of the original releases. Either way, if you're planning to give one of these
megasets to someone who is just getting into the DVD game or who would
appreciate the upgrade, there's some great packages out there this year for TV

The biggest ticket items among the TV megaboxes coming in at a paycheck
devouring $300 each are two NBC series, "The West Wing," the complete series
from Warner Brothers, and "Homicide: Life on the Street," the complete series
from A&E Home Video.

The first two seasons of Aaron Sorkin's "The West Wing" especially are as good
as TV gets. And this beautifully packaged set includes a bound script and
newly written introduction by Sorkin and lots of audio commentaries and
featurettes with all involved.

The "Homicide" set cooly packaged as a scale-model filing cabinet includes
something the individual season releases did not, the "Law & Order" crossover
episodes. It also contains the concluding "Homicide" telemovie. And again,
the acting, writing and directing here are phenomenal.

Almost as expensive at $280 from HBO Home Video is "Six Feet Under: The
Complete Series," which comes packaged as a graveyard plot. The only real
extras included here are the two soundtrack albums available elsewhere on CD.
So, this is a gift mostly for fans who love the show but don't own the
individual season releases.

Dropping to the still imposing $200 range, we have the comedy collections.
Fox Home Entertainment's "MASH, the Martinis and Medicine Collection" is a
treasure wrapped handsomely in Army green burlap. All 11 seasons of the
ground-breaking CBS sitcom are here. So is the original Robert Altman movie
and so many documentaries and extras that there's no way a fail to grasp just
what made this show so different, so good and so popular. Its final episode
still remains, and always will remain, the most-watched single episode in TV

The final megaset I'm recommending is the easiest one of all. Not only is it
one of the least expensive at a mere $200, but none of its episodes has ever
been released on DVD. So, this is a gift that can be given without fear of
duplication. It's the new Time-Life collection called "Get Smart: The
Complete Series." And it's an utter delight. This mid-60s spy spoof was
co-created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, both of whom provide new audio
commentaries. Don Adams starred as Maxwell Smart, Secret Agent 86, and
Barbara Feldon was his sultry partner, Agent 99. Every Mel Brooks fan will
want this set. And every Austin Powers fan may be shocked by how many of Mike
Myers' concepts "Get Smart" got to first. The set is packaged in a phone
booth, fans of the series will know why, and contains almost as many catch
phrases as laughs.

(Soundbite from "Get Smart")

Mr. DON ADAMS: (As Maxwell Smart) OK...(unintelligible)...stay right where
you are. Or should I say `the Blaster.'

Ms. BARBARA FELDON: (As Agent 99) Max! Ahh!

(Soundbite of thud)

Unidentified Actor: OK. Drop it.

Mr. ADAMS: (As Maxwell Smart) Sorry about that, 99.

Actor: Now, whoever you are, remove your hat. So, you're still alive,
Maxwell Smart? How interesting and temporary!

Mr. ADAMS: (As Maxwell Smart) You might as well hand over that gun, Blaster,
because this yacht happens to be surrounded by the Seventh Fleet.

Actor: I find that hard to believe.

Mr. ADAMS: (As Maxwell Smart) Would you believe the Sixth Fleet?

Actor: I don't think so.

Mr. ADAMS: (As Maxwell Smart) How about a school of angry flounder?

(End of soundbite)

Mr. BIANCULLI: "Get Smart" was filmed single camera and despite its laugh
track, falls right in line with such modern or post-modern TV comedies as
"Arrested Development" and "Scrubs." Old-timers like myself who saw the
originals on NBC will love "Get Smart." But so, I suspect, will college-age
kids who missed it by that much.

Finally, for those on a tighter budget, but still TV and DVD-inclined, I'll
point out two new first season packages that are my favorite releases of the
year. From Fox, finally, comes "St. Elsewhere, Season One," presenting the
opening year of perhaps my favorite TV drama of all time. And from Universal
Studio Home Entertainment is a real blast from the past, the complete,
unedited first season of "Saturday Night Live," packaged with original screen
tests, a fancy booklet and more catch phrases than, well, than "Get Smart."

If the person you're buying gifts for wouldn't like any of these options, my
guess is they don't own a TV anyway.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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