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Music And Animation Combine In Disney's 'Fantasia'

Walt Disney's Fantasia, the first feature-length film to offer visual images of classical music, has just been re-released in a new box set. Music critic Lloyd Schwartz says the film is a delightful introduction to classical music -- but doesn't always convey it convincingly on screen.

06:52

Other segments from the episode on December 23, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 23, 2010: Interview with David Edelstein; Review of the Blu-Ray releases of the films "Fantasia" and "Fantasia 2000"; Interview with Ken Tucker.

Transcript

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Flicks, Picked: Best And Worst Films Of 2010

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In this, our next-to-the-last show of 2010, we're going to look back on
the year in film and pop. Our rock critic, Ken Tucker, will be here with
his 10 best list later in the show. Up first, our film critic, David
Edelstein.

David, good to have you back on the show. So let's get right to it. I'm
going to ask you to read your 10 best list. Do you want to start with
number 10 and work your way to the top film of the year?

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Sure, except as usual, Terry, I don't have 10, I have
12. The reason I have 12 is because I just kept adding things and didn't
- as I saw them - and didn't want to take other things out. I thought
why punish things that I love just because I saw something that I also
loved.

GROSS: The answer would be because 10 means 10. But go ahead. We'll let
you take that liberty.

EDELSTEIN: Well, let me start then working backwards. I'll start with
"Blue Valentine," which of course is this psychodrama with Ryan Gosling
and Michelle Williams. Then I have "Despicable Me," that wonderful
Scrooge-like super-villain animated movie. Then a documentary a lot of
people don't know called "Marwencol."

Then Banksy's documentary, the nefarious, infamous graffiti artist's
documentary, "Exit Through the Gift Shop," which may or may not be a
prank but is great in any case.

Then an Italian movie I think is a masterpiece called "Vincere." It
means win in Italian, and it's about Mussolini and his bride, his first
wife. Then the film "Mother and Child," Rodrigo Garcia's film with
Annette Bening and Naomi Watts.

Mike Leigh's film "Another Year" comes in the next place, and that opens
very late this month. "Toy Story 3," of course. I think that's a movie
that many of us agree on.

"Please Give," Nicole Holofcener's great comedy, starring Catherine
Keener. I have a tie between two documentaries that touch on the global
financial crisis in very different ways - "Client 9: The Rise and Fall
of Eliot Spitzer" and "Inside Job."

Finally, my best film of the year is "Winter's Bone," Deborah Granik's
harshly beautiful adaptation of Daniel Woodrell's Ozark noir novel.

GROSS: So how did a little independent film like "Winter's Bone" end up
topping your list?

EDELSTEIN: Well, it's funny. I've been reading Daniel Woodrell's books
for several years. He wrote the book "Woe to Live On," which became the
Ang Lee film "Ride with the Devil," and it was about William Quantrill
and the massacres done by Confederate soldiers in 1863 in the South.

And ever since then I thought: Wow, you know, this guy sort of does what
Cormac McCarthy does, you know, without a lot of the fuss and the
pseudo-Biblical language.

And "Winter's Bone" is really his greatest novel, and when I went to see
the movie, I thought: Deborah Granik, you know, not just got it right,
but she deepened it.

This is a film that could so easily be this dreary, depressing,
regional-realistic kind of movie, and instead she pushes it to the point
where it achieves kind of a mythical intensity. I think it's a gorgeous,
beautiful movie. And I don't understand why - there are a lot of people
who say, oh, it's so depressing. I thought it was an absolutely
exhilarating movie, managing to be so hopeful in the midst of such
horror.

GROSS: So you are out of step with your own New York Film Critics
Circle, which selected "The Social Network" as the top film of the year,
as did the L.A. film critics. So I'm not saying it does belong on the 10
best list, but tell us why it's not on yours.

EDELSTEIN: Yeah, I was sitting in this New York Film Critics Circle
meeting, and it was on ballot after ballot after ballot, and I was
getting this sinking feeling, because I really wanted "Winter's Bone" to
win.

And it's going to win all the big critics' prizes, and it might win the
Oscar. You know, it's going head to head with "The King's Speech," I
think.

And I don't dislike "The Social Network." I actually do like it. But I
also think it's an enormously glib and cynical film about the impulses
underlying our new way of life, while at the same time I think it also
appeals to this pervasive, 21st-century fantasy of wanting to be a
billionaire.

It's a good business saga, but I'm mystified by how many people seem to
think it's this groundbreaking movie about a turning point in American
culture.

GROSS: You know, it's funny. The only two real commercial films in your
top 10 or 12 are "Despicable Me" and "Toy Story 3," both animated films.
Most of the films are either documentaries or independent films on your
list.

EDELSTEIN: Yeah, and it's funny too, and I - by the way, I like being
entertained as much as the next person. I just can't get worked up over
any mainstream film this year with the exception of "Toy Story 3" and
Despicable Me," though I think "Winter's Bone" had every potential to
cross over.

The thing I want to say about "Toy Story 3," though, is people were in
tears, we know. I don't know about you, I was crying. You know, people
around me were crying. Although it is, you know, a great comedy,
underneath it, it really is a story about death, about getting old,
about losing your usefulness.

And it has this weird, almost - I don't want to sound too pretentious, I
already do, but this almost Buddhist quality about investing these toys
with spiritual properties, and you know, our deepest childhood feelings,
and then what it means to cast them away or forget about them.

"Toy Story" is very into sort of resurrecting those feelings that we
had, you know, when our world was just kind of coming together and that
we've either repressed or we've suppressed. So it's not just shallow
escapism. You can talk about "Toy Story 3" probably more than you can
talk about a lot of the art films on my list.

GROSS: Were there any performers or directors who you feel came into
their own this year, either first-time directors or actors or people
who'd been around before, it wasn't until this year that you really saw
what they could do?

Jim Carrey plays a gay con man in a film that's out now called "I Love
You, Philip Morris," and it's interesting to me because if you watch,
follow Jim Carrey over the years, he's always struck me as the kind of
least psychologically filled-in of modern clowns.

There's something very desperate about him, as if he stopped doing his
shtick on camera, that he would dissolve in front of your eyes. And
playing a gay character, playing a closeted gay character, that
desperation takes on astonishing emotional resonance.

When he's forced to live in a homophobic culture and to kind of parody
normality, there's all this subterfuge and compartmentalization. They
become second nature. And it turns out to be a perfect vehicle for his
peculiar persona. I don't think the movie is quite a success, but the
performance cuts very, very deep. I think it's probably the best male
performance of the year.

And I know he's, you know, doesn't have a chance at winning an Academy
Award or a critics' award this year, because Colin Firth is winning
everything, and we know that Colin Firth gave the best performance of
last year in "A Single Man," for which he was pushed aside for Jeff
Bridges, and now he's going to win everything for "King's Speech," in
which he's wonderful, but I think it's a little bit more gimmicky a
performance than his extraordinary turn in "A Single Man."

The other performances, well, Annette Bening just continues to shock me
with this kind of thing that she does that nobody else does. She plays
people playing people. She plays people who in life are performing, who
are putting on this mask and playing these roles and then kind of
specializes in showing you how the mask is constantly dissolving and
then being put back on and then dissolving.

And she's amazing in "Mother and Child," Rodrigo Garcia's movie that is
on my 10 best list, that was an utter flop. She's going to win all the
awards for "The Kids are Alright," in which she's wonderful too. So
that's an amazing performance.

Patricia Clarkson in "Cairo Time." Patricia Clarkson is a great clown.
Who knew she could give a performance as a woman having a kind of quiet
epiphany on a trip to Egypt in which she's mostly alone?

Amy Adams in "The Fighter" is wonderful. Kirsten Dunst is completely
surprising in "All Good Things." She gives a really mature and scarily
good performance.

GROSS: So David, we've talked about some of your favorite films of the
year. What are some of your least favorites, some of the films that you
think are the worst of the year?

EDELSTEIN: Well, there have been some extraordinarily bad films this
year. On our screens right now you can subject yourself, or preferably
someone you loathe, to "Tron: Legacy," which looks like disco night at
the jai-alai fronton, and I'm convinced has given me a brain tumor.

"The Nutcracker in 3D" – oh. It's "The Nutcracker" stripped of dance and
turned into this allegory of fascism. And some of the music, the
Tchaikovsky music, is given lyrics. Like "Waltz of the Sugar Plum
Fairies" has two songs with that tune, and I'm telling you, there are
few things less suited to having lyrics than...

(Singing) It is not a tune that you can sing very well, in a way that
works with any sort of word duh-duh-duh...

(Speaking) That's about how good Nathan Lane sounds in the movie
singing. Even if it were well-done, which it isn't, it would still be a
terrible movie.

GROSS: Do you have any good suggestions for movies to see over the
holidays?

EDELSTEIN: Everybody is asking me: Why would Joel and Ethan Coen remake
"True Grit"? Wasn't it good enough the first time? How can anybody top
John Wayne?

And it's true that John Wayne was a terrific Rooster Cogburn, but
evidently the Coens had some connection with the book by Charles Portis
that the Henry Hathaway film didn't quite touch.

It's written in this sort of quasi-Biblical dialect that is very
perverse, and because it's full of all this ghoulish imagery and killing
and cynicism and nihilism, and obviously that's the Coens' bread and
butter, and they've made an extraordinarily beautiful-looking film, very
austere, but with these gonzo, over-the-top performances.

It's like Jeff Bridges is no rival to John Wayne, but he's hilarious,
even though you can barely understand what he's saying because he's
often so drunk that he can barely get the words out.

And I've seen the movie twice. I was very disappointed the first time.
The second time I was actually very charmed by it. So I think if you
lower your expectations, you'll have a great time.

GROSS: As usual, there is a couple of films on your best of list that
haven't opened nationally yet. So most of our listeners won't have had a
chance to see these films. So you should tell us a little bit about
"Blue Valentine."

EDELSTEIN: Well, "Blue Valentine" is an extraordinarily intimate
psychodrama. It stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. And it's in
two parts. It flashes back and forth between their kind of nutty
courtship and their tortured dissolution.

It's all handheld camera, in very close to the actors, and you might
come out hating it, or you might be just utterly enthralled at how
intimate its portrait of a, you know, gradually dissolving relationship.

It's already well-known because it was slapped with NC-17 rating by the
MPAA, which Harvey Weinstein of the Weinstein Company appealed and
appealed and appealed, and he finally got an R.

And when you see the movie, it's nothing. It's a sex act, but it's not
even completed, and compared to the things that the MPAA gives PG-13 to,
these splattery movies in which people are incinerated in front of your
eyes, you just can't believe that a little bit of sex is going to make
them say, oh no, no, no, kids can't possibly see it.

The other film is "Another Year," and anybody who knows Mike Leigh knows
the way he works, giving actors their parts and sending them out into
the world and having them collect all kinds of data.

And this is about a particular couple, played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth
Sheen, who are these kind of Earth mother and Earth father to a group of
very, very lonely people who converge and complain.

And it's another one of these movies that at times makes you want to
jump off a bridge but, you know, most of the time want to rescue
somebody who's about to jump off a bridge and give them a big hug. So I
couldn't recommend it more.

GROSS: Well, David, I hope you get to see some great movies in 2011.

EDELSTEIN: I know I will, because there are about 600 movies that open
every year, and the odds are one of them's going to be good.

GROSS: And you'll keep going till you find it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

EDELSTEIN: I'm tireless.

GROSS: All right. Well, I wish you happy holidays.

EDELSTEIN: Thank you so much, Terry. It's always a pleasure.

GROSS: Always a pleasure, and thanks so much for talking with us.

David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. You can see his
complete best of the year list, along with links to his reviews of those
films on the list, on our website, freshair.npr.org.
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Music And Animation Combine In Disney's 'Fantasia'

TERRY GROSS, host:

Just in time for the holidays, the classic animated Disney film
"Fantasia" has been released in a new DVD Blu-ray edition. Classical
music critic Lloyd Schwartz has a review.

(Soundbite of music)

LLOYD SCHWARTZ: The visualization of music on film is an old impulse.
During the 1930s, besides cartoons with classical music soundtracks, a
number of short films, like one called "Optical Poem," had
kaleidoscopic, completely abstract images of musical pieces.

But the most famous attempt to provide visual images for classical music
was Walt Disney's "Fantasia." Released in 1940, after "Snow White" and
"Pinocchio," it's really an anthology of short segments with very mixed
results.

Composer and music critic Deems Taylor, who helped select the music,
introduces each section, and the conductor is Leopold Stokowski. The
best-known sequence, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," is quite faithful to
the story by Goethe that's depicted in Dukas' music, only now it's
Mickey Mouse who loses control of the magical broomsticks who flood the
sorcerer's laboratory. So what you see on screen literally Mickey Mouses
the music.

(Soundbite of music)

SCHWARTZ: Some of the musical choices are quite ambitious. Beethoven's
"Pastoral Symphony" turns Beethoven's peaceful countryside images into a
mythological Arcadia, with flying horses and their families and centaurs
dating centaurettes, who look like 1930s starlets, only with four legs,
and some of them decorously topless. It's definitely a kiddie version,
but at least it keeps to the spirit of the music.

So does the even more surprising sequence based on Stravinsky's "Rite of
Spring," which changes Stravinsky's image of primitive Russia into an
even more primitive depiction of prehistory, with erupting volcanoes,
grazing brontosauri, a terrifying Tyrannosaurus Rex, and flying raptors,
clearly an inspiration for "Avatar." Stravinsky actually liked the
animation, though he rightly hated the abbreviation and restructuring of
his great ballet score.

My favorite sequence is Ponchielli's familiar "Dance of the Hours." Here
it's a parody of classical ballet, with ostriches and elephants as the
corps de ballet. The male lead is a salacious alligator and the prima
ballerina a demure hippo in a flimsy tutu. It's hilarious and suits the
music perfectly.

(Soundbite of music)

SCHWARTZ: Music composed for dancing was obviously intended to be seen
and works especially well in "Fantasia," such as the passages from
Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite." It's amusing to hear Deems Taylor, in
1940, say that while the suite is famous, nobody performs the ballet.
Times have changed.

This new set also includes a feature-length sequel called "Fantasia
2000." It's mostly awful: butterflies in the Beethoven Fifth and whales
in Respighi's "Pines of Rome."

Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" has some amusing moments inspired by
theatrical cartoonist Al Hirschfield. The best thing is a repeat of the
original "Sorcerer's Apprentice."

The new Blu-ray also includes "Destino," a bizarre six-minute
realization of an abandoned collaboration between Disney and Salvador
Dali - a surrealist nightmare, in more ways than one, about a weird love
affair. The music is a 1940s Mexican pop song, and the images include
the hero's baseball bat slamming the heroine's severed head into space.

Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Dukas, even Stravinsky, intended some of their
music to be visualized, either in the imagination or in an actual
theater. I love Disney's project, and for kids it's a delightful
introduction to classical music.

But both "Fantasia" and its sequel reveal how difficult it is to arrive
at convincing images. Visual artists have to be deeply sensitive to
music, not to oversimplify or betray what's so deeply in it.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of The Boston Phoenix
and teaches English at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He
reviewed the new Blu-ray DVD edition of Walt Disney's "Fantasia." I'm
Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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Ken Tucker's Top 10 Albums Of 2010

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. And now for our final 10 best list
of 2010. Our rock critic Ken Tucker has his list of the best recorded
music he's heard this year.

Ken, I'm looking forward to hearing your top 10 list. But before we hear
it, was this an easy year or a difficult year to find 10 albums you
loved that were worthy of a 10 best list?

KEN TUCKER: It was a really vigorous, energetic year for lots of glossy
pop music and lots of very sort of personal autobiographical sort of
almost a throwback to '70s singer-songwriter kind of music.

GROSS: So let's hear your list.

TUCKER: Yeah, my list is - number one is Tracey Thorn. The album is
called "Love and Its Opposite"; Arcade Fire and their album "The
Suburbs"; Hot Chip, a British band, and their album is "One Life Stand";
Peter Wolf's "Midnight Serenades"; Joanna Newsom's "Have One on Me";
Elizabeth Cook with a terrific country album called "Welder"; the Drive-
By Truckers with an album called "The Big To-Do"; Kanye West's "My
Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy"; Marty Stuart's "Ghost Train"; and
Robyn's "Body Talk."

GROSS: So, Ken, is there a song from one of the albums in your top 10
that illustrates what you were saying before about some of these albums
having very autobiographical songs that reminded you of '70s singer-
songwriters?

TUCKER: Yes, the - my number, the Tracey Thorn album, "Love and Its
Opposite," there are a lot of songs about, not necessarily strictly
autobiographical - she's happily married - but kind of character
sketches of people that she knows or imagines who live in very unhappy
marriages. And one of the best songs on the album I think to play is
"Oh, The Divorces."

GROSS: Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of song, "Oh, The Divorces")

Ms. TRACEY THORN (Musician): (Singing) Who's next? Who's next? Always
the ones that you least expect. They seem so strong. It turned out she
wanted more all along. And each time I hear who's to part, I examine my
heart, see how it stands. Wonder if it's still in safe hands.

Who's fled? Who's fled?

GROSS: That's Tracey Thorn with a song that's on the number one album on
Ken Tucker's 10 best of the year list.

So Ken, there was one album on the top 10 that you did not review for
FRESH AIR, and that's the album by Robyn, who I'll confess I was not
familiar with.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So tell us about her and the album and why you chose it for the
10 best, even though you didn't review it?

TUCKER: Yes. Robyn is a Swedish singer. She's a huge hit over in Europe
and a kind of dance club favorite over here. And it's kind of funny
because she actually released three albums called "Body Talk." And early
in the year she put out the first one and I thought, boy, that's
terrific, I want to review that. And then I heard that she was going to
put out a second album and I thought, well, I'll wait till the middle of
the year. And then she, middle of the summer she put up the second "Body
Talk” and she announced that she was going to complete the trilogy by
the end of the year. And so this final disc of "Body Talk" collects five
songs from the first album, five songs from the second album and five
new songs. And I just think it's really a terrific example of up-to-the-
minute dance music.

GROSS: So what would you - would you like to play something from it?

TUCKER: Yes. There's a really good song called "Indestructible."

GROSS: Okay. Let's hear it. This is Robyn.

(Soundbite of song, "Indestructible")

ROBYN (Swedish vocalist): (Singing) I'm going backwards through time at
the speed of light. I'm yours, you're mine, two satellites. Not alone.
No, we're not alone. A freeze-frame of your eye in the strobe light.
Sweat dripping down from your brow. Hold tight. Don't let go. Don't you
let me go. And I never was smart with love. I let the bad ones in and
the good ones go. But I'm going to love you like I've never been hurt
before. I'm going to love you like I'm indestructible. Your love is
ultra-magnetic and it's taking over. This is hardcore and I'm
indestructible.

GROSS: That's Robyn from an album that's on our rock critic Ken Tucker's
10 best list.

Ken, what music really mattered this year? Mattered because it was
musically innovative or mattered because it made a mark on culture.

TUCKER: I think a couple of albums that are in my top 10 fit that bill.
Certainly the Kanye West album is really interesting in the sense that
it's beautifully produced. It's very, very knotty and complex, both in
the rhymes that Kanye West raps, and the production is just gorgeous.
It's a very, very ambitious album. It's almost, you know, we might have
called it a pop opera. It's a kind of a long sinuous journey through the
subconscious of Kanye West made very self-conscious. I think he's a
really fascinating artist for a guy who gets involved in a lot of
controversy. I think he's a very sensitive soul and I think both sides
of that egotism versus the sensitive artist plays out in that album.

And at the other extreme, the Canadian band Arcade Fire. And their
album, "The Suburbs," that is a big booming rock album. It's just an
old-fashioned album that's meant to be listened to as an album. The
people who in the band say they thought of it as not a collection of
singles or individual songs, but "The Suburbs," which is the name of the
album, is meant to be a kind of tour through the suburbs, what it's like
to live in the suburbs, what it's like to be an adolescent, to be a
parent. It's a kind of panoramic view in music.

GROSS: Is there a track from either of those two albums you'd like to
play?

TUCKER: Yes. I think an excellent song by Arcade Fire to play would be
"Month of May."

GROSS: Okay. Here it is.

(Soundbite of song, "Month of May")

ARCADE FIRE (Rock Band): One, two, three four. (Singing) Going to make a
record in the month of May, in the month of May, in the month of May.
Going to make a record in the month of May when the violent wind blows
the wires away.

Month of May, it's a violent thing. In the city their hearts start to
sing. Well, some people singing sounds like screaming. Used to doubt it
but now I believe it.

Month of May, everybody sing love. In the city, watch it from above. And
just when I knew what I wanted to say, the violent wind blew the wires
away. We were shocked in the suburbs. Now the kids are all standing with
their arms folded tight.

GROSS: That's Arcade Fire, one of the recordings on our rock critic Ken
Tucker's top 10 list.

We'll talk more about the year in music after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is our rock critic Ken Tucker. We're looking back on the
year in music.

Three of the artists that were dominant this year commercially - Katy
Perry, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift - you gave good reviews to their
recordings, although they are not on your 10 best list. But those
reviews got some complaints from our listeners. What were they
complaining about?

TUCKER: There still seems to be this very strong feeling that glossy
commercial pop music isn't quite authentic enough, that the bright pop
sound of someone like Katy Perry or the sort of set-to-music diary
entries of Taylor Swift, or Lady Gaga, who delights in presenting
herself as a kind of human art project, is somehow not worthy of
consideration because it's not considered serious enough.

I think this whole idea of authenticity is still very much at play in
the minds of pop music listeners, and people get offended if they don't
think you're addressing the most serious music of the day. I think a lot
of people sort of listen to FRESH AIR and expect to hear music that's
not in the top 10, that they can't hear anywhere else. But I think it's
important to talk about music that's very, very popular.

And quite aside from that, I just think that Katy Perry is a
tremendously interesting, funny, witty artist who's very knowing. She
kind of plays with the pinup girl image and makes very bright nice pop
music.

Taylor Swift, similarly, a very, very commercial country artist, not at
all a hardcore country artist, but a really interesting songwriter,
especially for one who is so young. And Lady Gaga kind of occupies that
position that a few years ago someone like Tori Amos used to be. It
might seem like an odd comparison, but Lady Gaga sits at that piano and
pours out her angst in a meat dress - perhaps she's - or some
iridescent, light bulb popping headdress that she has on. And it's the
visual spectacle, as in the case of Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, that
matters as much as the music. It's all part of the artistic statement.

GROSS: Is there a track from Katy Perry or Lady Gaga that you'd like to
play that you think really shows them off musically? I'd suggest Taylor
Swift, except she's played all over the place.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Like you can't not hear Taylor Swift. So, yeah...

TUCKER: Well, I think that Katy Perry's single "California Gurls" is a
really terrific piece of pop music.

GROSS: Okay. Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of song, "California Gurls")

Ms. KATY PERRY (Singer-Songwriter): (Singing) I know a place where the
grass is really greener. Warm, wet and wild. There must be something in
the water. Sippin' gin and juice, laying underneath the palm trees. The
boys break their necks tryin' to creep a little sneak peek.

You could travel the world but nothing comes close to the Golden Coast.
Once you party with us you'll be falling in love. Oh, oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-
oh.

California gurls, we're unforgettable. Daisy dukes, bikinis on top. Sun-
kissed skin, so hot, we'll melt your popsicle. Oh-oh, oh-oh, oh. Oh, oh-
oh, oh-oh, oh-oh. California gurls, we're undeniable...

GROSS: That's Katy Perry. Her hit song from this year, "California
Gurls." And my guest is our rock critic Ken Tucker, who's talking about
the year in pop music.

Last year, and actually over several years, we've talked about the
impact television is having on pop music, both through the use of
already existing recordings within TV shows, and also through TV shows
that are all about music, like "American Idol" and "Glee." And I'm
wondering how much you think television has had an impact this year on
pop music, and in particular "Glee" and "American Idol."

TUCKER: I think television is hugely important. It's one of the primary
ways in which people experience music for the first time in a lot of
cases, and it's also the way images get presented of new pop artists.
That's certainly the case of Lady Gaga that we just mentioned. Her
appearing on awards shows helped cement her kind of phenomena.

And then for a specific show such as "Glee" - on the surface "Glee"
seemed to me like the next logical step after "American Idol." It was
young people covering pop songs. But the creator, Ryan Murphy, kind of
added layers of jokes and irony and reintroduced to a new generation
Broadway musical conventions - cardboard one-note characters, but they
are characters that are easy to identify with and are nonetheless, you
know, very funny and they burst into song at any given moment. And I
think the show makes the case for bombastic rock and pop from the '80s
and the 90s as a kind of new American songbook. Now, I think that's
wrong. I don’t think that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Why do you think that's wrong?

TUCKER: Because I think stuff like music by Journey and Rush will never
stand the test of time as great American songbook classics. But I like
the idea that Ryan Murphy has that thesis - that he wants to promote
that idea, and he does it in the context of this very well-made show.
All that said, I found this season of "Glee" to be almost unwatchable at
times because it had become so self-conscious and so self-aware of the
first season's success that it became almost kind of frozen in a self-
conscious amber of irony. And so I wasn't crazy about "Glee" but I could
step back and really admire the phenomenon that essentially was the
vision of one creator, Ryan Murphy, and the way he put together that
cast and the extraordinary success. There were more singles on the
Billboard charts from "Glee" cast members than any other pop or rock
band in the country this year. So, I mean that's a remarkable commercial
achievement and shows again the power of television.

GROSS: Yet "American Idol," I don't even remember the name of the person
who won.

TUCKER: Exactly. The past couple of times, the winner especially is, you
know, forgotten after he or she makes the first record. I mean it's only
Adam Lambert who stands out in my mind as a kind of interesting pop
figure, and even he's had a very rocky road of it. I mean it remains to
be seen now with the departure of Simon Cowell how the future of
"American Idol" will unfold. This could very well be the season coming
up where "American Idol" kind of collapses under the weight of its own
cultural import, if I may refer to it in such heavy terms.

GROSS: Well, talking about the impact of television on pop music, I
think we have to talk about commercials because a lot of songs are kind
of broken or popularized through commercials now and the love of old
songs make their comeback through commercials. So, what commercials
caught your ear this year?

TUCKER: Well, one that really popped out at me was that I was watching a
Volkswagen Jetta commercial and it was a commercial that's set in a very
urban setting, about a guy who is trying to make some money to earn, buy
a car and he's taking these menial jobs in the big city. And the - but
the music behind it was Wynn Stewart's honky-tonk hit "Another Day,
Another Dollar."

This was a song that went to only number 27 on the country charts in
1962, and here it was being played underneath a - to try and sell you a
new car, which I thought was completely fascinating. I loved the sheer
chance of that - that some music director said, hey, here's a song
that's kind of interesting. Let's play this beneath this song. It makes
for a nice contrast. And the song is terrific in itself. Wynn Stewart in
himself is a fascinating story. He's a guy who was one of the architects
of the Bakersfield sound, along with Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, yet
he's the forgotten man of the Bakersfield sound. He only had one number
hit, a song called "It's Such A Pretty World Today," which I could sing
to you right now, but...

GROSS: Go ahead. I'm going to...

(Soundbite of laughter)

TUCKER: (Singing) It's such a pretty world today. Look at the sunshine.

(Singing) It's a really great song. And yet he's a guy who never quite
got the right breaks. Just as he had that number one hit, he decided to
open up a nightclub in Las Vegas. He left the recording industry. So for
him to be rediscovered in 2010 for a 1962 song playing under a car
commercial just seems to me one of the marvelous wonders of pop music.

GROSS: Okay. Well, you brought it with you. You want to play it for us?

TUCKER: Yes. I'd love to.

GROSS: Okay. Here's Wynn Stewart.

(Soundbite of song, "Another Day, Another Dollar")

Mr. WYNN STEWART (Country Singer): (Singing) Another day, another
dollar. Daylight comes, I'm on my way. Another day, another dollar,
working my whole life away. The boss told me I'd get paid weakly and
that's exactly how I'm paid. Another day, another dollar, working my
whole life away. Another day, another dollar...

GROSS: So that's Wynn Stewart and you will likely hear that song on a
Volkswagen Jetta commercial, which is still, as far as I know, being
played.

So I didn't realize what an interesting, what an interesting and
uncelebrated life he had.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So thanks for telling us about him, Ken.

TUCKER: Yeah. He's really a forgotten man of country music.

GROSS: My guest is our rock critic Ken Tucker.

We'll talk more about the year in music after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is our rock critic Ken Tucker. We're looking back on the
year in music.

Now, you asked if we could conclude your year-end wrap-up with a
recording by a singer-songwriter who died this year, Kate McGarrigle. I
think that's a great idea. Tell us about who she was and why you love
her music.

TUCKER: Well, Kate McGarrigle was half of the sister act Kate and Anna
McGarrigle. They were French Canadian, born in Montreal. She died of
cancer in January of this year. And I just think that Kate McGarrigle
wrote some of the most beautiful songs, some of them with her sister,
some alone, and the music is just so spare and beautiful and tough-
minded, yet very gentle and romantic at its heart, but having that kind
of hardheaded common sense, a kind of realism, the kind of realism that
you have to have if you are a woman who is married to Loudon Wainwright
III and are the mother of Rufus Wainwright, among other children.

She was just a wonderful woman. I had - did have the opportunity - I
don't do many interviews, but I did interview Kate and Anna McGarrigle a
couple of times, and Kate always had this really wonderful kind of quiet
sarcasm and a real - what I notice most about so-called sensitive
singer-songwriter types is that when you actually meet them, they are
very tough characters. And I think all of those winters up in Quebec
helped harden those women, and Kate McGarrigle in particular. So I
really mourn her death.

GROSS: What song would you like to play by her?

TUCKER: I'd like to play a song that Kate wrote herself and performs on
piano, called "I Eat Dinner."

GROSS: I love this song. I'm glad you chose it. It's a beautiful melody
and a really heartbreaking lyric.

TUCKER: Yeah.

GROSS: Thank you, Ken. I hope you have Happy Holidays and a Happy New
Year.

TUCKER: Same to you. Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is FRESH AIR's rock critic and editor-at-large at
Entertainment Weekly. After we recorded our conversation, we thought it
would be nice to hear the version of "I Eat Dinner" that Kate McGarrigle
recorded with her sister Anna in our studio back in 1993.

KATE AND ANNA MCGARRIGLE (Singer-songwriters): (Singing) Never thought
that I'd end up this way, I who loved the sparks. Never thought my
hair'd be turning to gray. It used to be so dark. So dark. I eat dinner
at the kitchen table. By the light that switches on. I eat leftovers
with mashed potatoes. No more candlelight. No more romance. No more
small talk. When the hunger's gone. When the hunger's gone. I eat dinner
at the kitchen table. And I wash it down with pop. I eat leftovers with
mashed potatoes. No more candlelight. No more romance. No more small
talk. When the hunger stops. When the hunger stops. Never thought that
I'd end up like this, I who loved the night.

Never thought I'd be without a kiss. No one to turn off the light. Turn
off the light. I eat dinner at the kitchen table with my daughter, who
is now 17. We eat leftovers with mashed potatoes. No more candlelight.
No more romance. No more small talk. When the plate is clean. No more
candlelight. No more romance. No more small talk. When the hunger's
gone. When the hungers gone. When the hungers gone. When the hunger's
gone. When the hunger's gone.

GROSS: That's the late Kate McGarrigle performing with her sister Anna
in the FRESH AIR studio in 1993. Kate died in January at the age of 63.

You can find our rock critic Ken Tucker's best of the year list on our
website, freshair.npr.org.
..COST:
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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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