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When 10 Won't Do: David Edelstein's Top 13 Films
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to take a look back on the year
in pop culture with three of our critics. Later, rock critic Ken Tucker will be
here with his 10-best list, and critic-at-large John Powers will talk about the
big media stories of the year.
First, the best movies of the year with our film critic David Edelstein, who is
also film critic for New York Magazine.
Hi, David. Well, we've asked you to bring your 10-best list with you. So I'll
start by asking you to run through it for us.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: OK. Well, as usual, you know, I'm not going to limit myself to
10. I think in honor of the Cohen brothers' "A Serious Man" and "The Bar
Mitzvah," I'm going to go with the lucky 13. So here they are.
"Summer Hours," the Olivier Assayas film, is my number one film of the year,
followed by "Brothers," directed by Jim Sheridan. "Everlasting Moments," Jan
Troell's entrancingly beautiful Swedish film. Then a tie. "The Fantastic Mr.
Fox" and "Coraline," because why choose among such stop-motion riches?
Then we're following that with "A Serious Man," Joel and Ethan Coen's Jewish
joke with a sting, James Toback's documentary "Tyson," and another doc, "Food,
Inc.," followed by another doc - actually, really, a tone poem by Terence
Davies called "Of Time in the City."
Then the great political satire "In The Loop," followed by Spike Jonze's
magical "Where the Wild Things Are," Kathryn Bigelow's great adrenaline war
movie "The Hurt Locker," and finally, "Avatar."
GROSS: All right, thank you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: We're so lenient in allowing you more than 10.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Now, I bet a lot of our listeners have not seen your number one movie,
"Summer Hours." So just tell us briefly why you chose it.
EDELSTEIN: Well, "Summer Hours" is a film that I think encapsulates a lot of
things that have happened over the last decade. It uses the device of the
selling-off of a dead woman's estate and a lot of precious artworks. And it
captures, as no other film I've seen, the passing of the old world, with its
indigenous forms of culture, the rise of globalization, the weakening of
traditional family ties.
I mean, it's very French. It has, you know, a predictable whiff of xenophobia.
But at the same time, I think it really does capture this sense of loss that we
all have as we come together as a global community.
GROSS: Did you have any favorite performances this year?
EDELSTEIN: Oh, I had many. I think there is nothing to compare this year with
Colin Firth in "A Single Man." I found the movie a little over-designed - no
surprise from Tom Ford, who is a great fashion designer. But Colin Firth is
shockingly vivid as a gay man who, in 1962, can't begin to reconcile his
private self with his public self and who suffers in ways that I think are
Meryl Streep, of course, as Julia Child, one of the most soulful impersonations
in the history of movies. God, she's funny. Jeff Bridges is amazing in a rather
small film as an alcoholic country-Western singer in "Crazy Heart." What I
found stunning about this performance is how he totters around backstage blind
drunk, but then when he gets in front of the mic, he kind of leans back from
his guitar and uses the weight of it to center him and keep him upright in
front of the microphone, which is the perfect metaphor for what music means to
I should also mention Christian McKay as Orson Welles in the film "Me and Orson
Welles," if of no other reason that it seems as if Welles has been reincarnated
in front of your eyes. It's absolutely stunning. You can go back and look at
"Citizen Kane" and go: That's the guy.
GROSS: If you don't mind, I'd like to just interject one of my favorite
performances of the year.
(Soundbite of laughter)
EDELSTEIN: Please, please.
GROSS: I don't even remember the actor's name. He's a German actor, and I
probably wouldn't pronounce it right even if I could remember it, but he's the
star of Quentin Tarantino's film.
EDELSTEIN: Christoph Waltz.
EDELSTEIN: A wonderful, insinuating, sadistic - I mean, he takes all of the
sadism Tarantino puts into that role of this Jew hunter and adds this sort of
kick of humor and this sort of mordent irony to it. And, I mean, you'd never
dream the man is married to a Jewish woman in real life. It's an absolutely
stunning performance. And I think it gives a film that I like very much but is
a kind of pastiche, a very at times cartoony pastiche, it gives it an edge of
psychological realism that I think is one of the things that puts it over. He
might well win an Academy Award for that performance.
GROSS: Yeah, well, he was great, and the film is "Inglourious Basterds," and
we're going to be re-running our interview with Quentin Tarantino in the week
between Christmas and New Year's.
Well, David, in addition to this being the end of the year, it's the end of the
decade. So I'm wondering if you had any thoughts about how movies have changed
during this decade, which I still don't know what to call, the zeros, the
EDELSTEIN: The aughts.
GROSS: The aughts?
EDELSTEIN: The naughty aughts.
EDELSTEIN: Yes. Well, it's funny. I was thinking of my - what was my favorite
movie of the decade? It was "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," written by
Charlie Kaufman and directed by Michel Gondry. And I was trying to think what
that film thematically says about the naughty aughts, and I think that the idea
of the tension between reality and fantasy has gotten more pronounced in the
last decade, and the ways in which â the movie is sort of like a Philip K. Dick
paranoid fever-dream wedded to a screwball romance. And there's no way it could
happened, the technology wouldn't have allowed it, and the sensibility wouldn't
have allowed it in any other decade.
And it also made me think that at the end of the last decade came "The Matrix,"
and "The Matrix" sort of played on this sense that we all have that maybe
reality isn't real, that maybe we're living in a vast simulacrum, and so much
of the movies of the '90s, say, were about managing to break through into real
life, break through from this illusory life into what is real and tactile.
And now we come to the end of this decade, and there's this wonderful movie out
called "Avatar" in which it's only by going into this make-believe word a man
can truly fulfill his potential, can rewrite history. It's sort of a Native-
American parable in which we actually go back and save the Native Americans
from the imperialist, capitalist forces that would wipe them out.
And I just thought it was really striking that we've come about-face, and now
we sort of hunger for our virtual selves, our avatars to take on, you know, the
final frontier, which is maybe in our own minds.
GROSS: When you look back on the decade, do you think there's a big change in
what's considered bankable? I mean, we started the decade in a state of more
prosperity than we're in now. Like, what has happened to the movie studios with
the financial crisis?
EDELSTEIN: Well, it's horribly depressing. The most depressing thing is that
this is a boffo year for Hollywood. They have actually made a ton of money, but
they've made all their money with what they call event films, which are giant
movies like "Avatar," 3-D, IMAX, movies, "The Dark Knight," movies that
everybody has to see and they line up for. They go at midnight the day before
opening, and they get their tickets online way in advance, the "Twilight"
Meanwhile, specialty divisions are closing left and right, the ones that
distribute indie films and foreign films. People aren't spending as much money
to go to those kind of movies. They're not breaking through. Most people are
seeing them on DVD.
At the same time, two of the movies on my list this year, "Summer Hours" and
"Everlasting Moments," one of the reasons I reviewed them on FRESH AIR was that
they were available to rent for a price the same day they opened in New York
and Los Angeles, all over the country.
Now, of course, I'd rather people see them on a big screen, but I'm realistic
to know that all but a handful of indie or foreign films these days make it
beyond the bigger cities.
So I guess that's the silver lining, that you can see these films for the first
time. And I suppose it's great that the prices of these gigantic, ginormous,
big, wide, HD screens is coming down and that everybody can see them. But
something is lost.
GROSS: So you mentioned that big event movies are where Hollywood is making the
profits, and a lot of the smaller movies, in most cities, you only get to see
them on DVD. How do you think this is going to play out in the next decade in
terms of what films even get made?
EDELSTEIN: Well, don't forget, I mean, the cost of making a movie has gone
down. I mean, I can pick up a movie camera and make a feature by tomorrow. God
knows nobody would want to watch it, but - and you see a film like "Paranormal
Activity," which thanks to a very shrewd marketing campaign and the fact that
it was actually really scary, used a single point of view, essentially
somebody's home video camera that the character sets up in order to monitor
So that's a movie that cost â I forget the exact number, but it was in the tens
of thousands, and yet it made $70, $80, $90 million. It became, technically,
the most profitable film ever made.
So we can all go out and make movies on high definition video. The question is:
Is anyone going to pick them up for distribution? Is anyone going to put them
Well, a lot of them maybe not, but everybody can have their own Web site, and
everyone can offer them for download. And I have a feeling that a lot of
smaller movies increasingly will be niche-marketed to people who find them -
horror movies or documentaries. And we'll be able to go online, and we'll be
able to download them, some of them for free, some of them for a price.
GROSS: We're going through such a kind of difficult, for many people,
transition period now because popular culture as we know it in books, movies,
music, has been so transformed by digital technology, and so many things we
love seem to be dying or struggling, and you know, you can trust that new
things will take their place and are taking their place. But in the meantime,
it's kind of difficult.
EDELSTEIN: We don't know how this is all going to shake out in terms of how we
absorb culture. I know my wife is a book editor, and everybody's worried about
the fact that many books are going to be downloaded into little tablets.
On one hand, you're spared the cost of actually printing them. On the other
hand, the margin of profit is going to go way, way down. It's just going to
change the culture in a way that - we don't know what the rippling effects of
this are going to be.
Now, there's no question that in the last decade, maybe too many movies were
put in theaters and not all of them very good, but I would hate to see us
limited to the Internet in order to access the most interesting things. Even if
they do go viral, as some of them will, inevitably there will be a lot of them
that will be lost.
GROSS: David, is there any film you'd like to recommend for the holidays?
EDELSTEIN: Well, other than "Avatar," which I suggest everybody line up for,
and "Brothers," which I've already reviewed, I am drawing an absolute and total
blank on that because I can't really recommend "The Lovely Bones." I like what
"Invictus" is doing, what the Clint Eastwood Mandela biopic "Invictus" is
doing. I love that it makes a sterling example of Mandela's non-violent
approach to reconciling his benighted country when it could theoretically have
broken out into a civil war. But there's really nothing coming out this
Christmas that has captured my imagination, certainly not "Nine," the musical,
the star-studded musical that everybody's waiting for. I, along with you, I
think, loved Rob Marshall's "Chicago."
EDELSTEIN: But here, that kind of â his choppy editing doesn't fit the music at
all. It's just a hash, and there's a lot of butt-wiggling and a lot of sort of
women posing sultrily in lingerie, but there's very little in the way of dance,
which is one of the things I like in a musical. And even though the singing is
very good, the downside of that is that you actually hear the lyrics, which is,
in this case, not so good.
GROSS: Well, David, thank you so much for sharing your 10-best list with us, or
your 13-best list, and some of your thoughts about the year and the decade.
Always good to talk with you, and I wish you a happy holidays and a very good
EDELSTEIN: Well, thank you, Terry, and happy holidays, and have a good time at
the movies to all our listeners.
GROSS: David Edelstein is FRESH AIR's film critic and film critic for New York
Magazine. And I want to remind our listeners that David's 10-best list, 13-best
list will be on our Web site at freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, our critic-at-large John Powers talks about the big media stories of
the year. This is FRESH AIR.
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In Case You Missed It: Events And Trends Of 2009
TERRY GROSS, host:
We're looking back on the year in pop culture. Here to talk about the big media
stories of the year is our critic-at-large, John Powers, who is also film
critic for Vogue and writes the blog Absolute Powers at vogue.com. He used to
write a column about the intersection of politics and culture for L.A. Weekly.
Hi, John. Now, we asked you to talk about a couple of the biggest media stories
of the year that you wanted to comment on. So let's start with the fact that
last year, the big media story was the election, and this year it was President
Obama. And last year, he was a media phenomenon. This year, he was discussed in
a different way on the media.
So as we end 2009, I'd like you to talk about the impact of President Obama on
the media landscape.
JOHN POWERS: Well, I think the most striking thing is that a man who was
elected with everyone - whether they liked him or not - thinking he's kind of a
cool and calming influence, proved over the course of 2009 not to have a
presidency that turned out to be cool and calming at all.
And this is really clear in the media, where we find that things are now as
ratcheted up, I think, as they were during an election year, which I think is,
in a way, startling and perhaps unprecedented.
I mean, one of the strange features of the run-up to last year's election was
that President Bush had had what most people would consider one of the longest
lame-duck presidencies in American history. And as part of that, that allowed
the media coverage to flow into what seemed like the longest election campaign
in all of human history.
And I thought that people would be tired of that, yet what oddly happened out
of this was that the media got into a kind of permanent campaign mode so that
now we're living in a world where everything seems to be as ratcheted as high
as it was during an election campaign, even though, really, President Obama has
been in office 11 months. He has 37 months to go before he's up for reelection,
yet we somehow live in this media world where everything he does is subjected
to immediate response, immediate polls and things like that.
GROSS: Do you think that's, in a way, a sign of the fact that the culture wars
did not subside with the election of President Obama?
POWER: They didn't subside at all. I mean, what's interesting in media terms is
the way that everything flipped so that for eight years, a network like Fox
News, which is a conservative network, was clearly on the side of the
administration, whereas people at MSNBC, for instance, the most famously
liberal of the cable networks, were very anti the current administration.
All of a sudden, you switch, where a Democrat is president, and suddenly the
liberals are playing defense, in a sense, and Fox has, I think, gotten a kind
of new lease on life because they actually get to do the thing that I think
most journalists prefer to do, which is to go on the attack.
That's where the fun is. It's not fun as a journalist - and I can tell you this
as a person who is a journalist and who knows them. It's not fun to be the
person saying OK, maybe the health care plan isn't exactly what all of you
hoped for, but it's still a good plan. It's much more fun to say it's going to
take down the economy. The money doesn't work out. In fact, there might be
death panels. That's the fun side. The un-fun side is defending the current
GROSS: Though I have to say, on MSNBC, people like Rachel Maddow and Keith
Olbermann don't necessarily defend the administration. They're often very
POWER: They are. Well, I think that's one of the interesting cultural,
stylistic differences between conservatives and liberals, and in particular,
Republicans and Democrats. You know, you see that in the actual Congress, where
there is a solid vote in the House, for instance, where no one will vote for
various proposals of Obama, whereas Obama will lose 40 or 50 Blue Dog Democrats
on lots of votes in the House.
And that's the cultural style. Liberals take pride in being so honest that they
will, if necessary, they will rip apart their own standard-bearers in the
interest of that honesty. And conservatives take pride in being disciplined and
actually falling in line. And so you actually have the case where on certain
nights, Rachel Maddow or Keith Olbermann are as critical, if not more critical,
of Obama than you find on Fox.
GROSS: This was the year that Glenn Beck emerged as a star of the right. What
do you think explains his success?
POWER: Well, I think there are two things about Glenn Beck. The first is that
he embodies a particularly strident form of conservatism that was almost a
natural consequence of the election of a Democrat who's thought to be liberal,
an African-American, and this after eight years of a Republican administration.
So there's that first side of just the ideological side. The second side is
that he is, in his way, an astonishing performer. The person he reminds me most
of - and this dates me a little bit, although I didn't watch the show much when
I was, because I was growing up â is Jack Paar, who was this hugely volatile,
late-night talk-show host, you know, of "The Tonight Show," who would weep on
the air and say outrageous things and then come back the next night and have to
apologize and make outlandish claims and champion his favorites.
And what Glenn Beck does is he weds the ideological side of himself with the
entertainment, volatility side of himself because nobody becomes a big success,
whether it's Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olbermann, if it's pure ideology. To
succeed in the current climate doing ideological radio, you have to be a good
entertainer, and Glenn Beck is this person. Even if you don't like him, it's
sometimes hard not to watch him because you don't know what he'll do.
GROSS: I think Jack Paar's going to come back from his grave and demand equal
time to defend himself against the comparison with Glenn Beck.
POWER: Well, the thing is, I don't think Jack Paar is like Glenn Beck, but in
this particular respect, personality-wise, what they have in common is there's
an immediacy and volatility to what they do. That's really what I think, and I
can't think of anyone in the media landscape in the years since Jack Paar who
was that way.
When I was a kid, I remember how my parents, who were great Jack Paar
worshippers, always hated Johnny Carson because they thought he was the slick,
packaged version of something.
Clearly, I mean, Paar was a liberal, not a conservative. You know, Paar brought
on Castro onto his show. I don't think Glenn Beck will bring Castro onto his.
GROSS: John Powers will be back in the second half of the show as we continue
our look back on the year in pop culture. John is our critic-at-large and film
critic for Vogue. He writes the blog Absolute Powers at vogue.com. I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross.
Weâre looking back at 2009 in popular culture with three of our critics. Letâs
get back to our interview with our critic-at-large John Powers. He is also film
critic for Vogue and he used to write a column on the intersection of culture
and politics for L.A. Weekly. Johnâs talking about the year in media.
Now, one of the media stories that got the most coverage this year, which I
know you want to talk about as one of your big media stories of the year, was
Michael Jacksonâs death. And I wonder, what do you think it says that there was
so much continuous coverage on the news channels and daily coverage in a lot of
newspapers about his death and the subsequent funeral and family stories and so
POWERS: Well, I think whenever a story is this big thereâs at least one side to
it. And in this case, I think there were two huge sides to it. The first is one
about the media in general, which is that weâre living through a moment when
almost all the traditional media feel that theyâre living in a fragmenting
landscape where everything is crumbling around them. And theyâre terrified that
theyâre losing their audience. So, they spend all their time looking for the
one big story that everybody can talk about and will understand.
And Michael Jackson offered this because he was for a time probably the most
famous person in the world. So, if youâre a media person and someone like
Michael Jackson dies, you then realize, oh, this is somebody who everybody
knows. And, in fact, we will do this constantly because, in fact, this is the
thing that might seem to bind together in audience. And so everyone rushes to
that one big story.
You know, in shorter term versions they did the same thing with balloon boy. In
political terms thatâs happening with Sarah Palin right now. You know, if I can
just take this side step with Sarah Palin, itâs interesting that she is the
first person to run for vice president who lost, who a year after is still
bigger headlines sometimes than the president. And this is because everybody
knows she is a hot button figure, everyone knows who she is and she can be part
of one big story of the day when she says something.
The second side of the Michael Jackson thing is that he was an amazing figure.
You know, itâs not pure trashiness in our culture that made people interested
in Michael Jackson. A lot of people in America knew him as a cute little kid
who could sing. He then went on to make some of the most popular and
influential pop music of all time, had a weird personal life that brought in
things like his sense of his own racial identity, the weird family dynamics he
had, all the stuff with wanting to grow â not wanting to grow up. You know, he
had Neverland Ranch. So, the idea of the eternal boy thing, you know, he
contained that, too.
So, you put all of that there and then you add in the fact that probably he
might have been maybe the most influential crossover artist and breakthrough
racial figure in American life. When I look at the great crossover figures and
the ones that seem to quote âtranscend race,â although thatâs a silly term, you
realize that Oprah is one of them, Michael Jordon was one of them. And, you
know, Obama was perceived to be one of them, you know, but clearly the person
who got there first was Michael Jackson. At the time he died I kept telling
people that I think itâs quite possible you wouldnât have an Obama presidency
if Michael Jackson hadnât been the most influential entertainer in the â80s and
GROSS: Weâve been talking about the media - any thoughts about how the Internet
has changed in 2009, as we end this decade?
POWERS: Well, I think that whatâs peculiar about how the Internet has changed
is that what I thought was the fastest and most immediacy-obsessed thing in the
world has grown faster and more immediacy-obsessed in the course of this year.
I mean, I think the whole - and to me, rather tiresome Twitter phenomenon means
that what has happened is that weâve gone from thinking that we could get
something every hour or every half hour to the realization that people can send
you out things that will reach you every single second of the day. And that
people have begun filing their thoughts from the least likely of places.
I mean, to me, I find it astonishing that professional basketball players, for
instance, sitting on the bench will actually be sending out more or less
personal newscasts from the bench in the course of a game. So, I think that the
most striking feature of it is that. And then probably the parallel one, which
is slightly different, which is a deeper phenomenon, is the incredible
explosion of social networking, so that I think probably more people over the
age of 30 joined Facebook than the people behind Facebook would ever have
imagined possible if they lived forever. That â the idea that all of a sudden
then you can be sending out your tendrils everywhere is a radically
I mean, I know that I have heard from ex-girlfriends, high school people I
hadnât talked to, people who hear me on the show and hate me, I mean, the whole
thing - in a way they never could before because of the social networking
thing. And Iâm not a big time social networker. Weâve reached the point,
interestingly enough, where traditional old media people will go into editorial
meetings â the most famous papers and magazines in the country and their
editors will say, make sure you tweet your articles.
You know, itâs like, really, like, the New York Times people have to tweet
their articles? They write for the New York Times. And yet this is the way that
itâs gone. They will tell the people at, you know, Time Magazine, make sure you
put your article on Facebook. And once again you think, but this is Time
Magazine. They donât have to put their article on Facebook. And yet, thatâs
GROSS: So, what you do with your articles?
POWERS: I put my articles on Facebook. I have yet to enter the Twitter-sphere
but I have found that I get much more response from what I do if I put it on
social networking sites, that people do see them there and in fact it does push
readership up. And if nothing else, my friends can always see what Iâm saying
in a way they hadnât seen before. And, you know, then they can, you know, write
sniping little notes about the mistakes I made, which is what friends are for,
And so I do it but I find it strange to be in the realm of self-promotion. You
know, I think most writers have huge-enough egos and all sorts of weird
vanities but I think one of the ways that itâs changed is that I think that
none of us thought that in addition to writing a piece maybe your job is to be
out there selling the piece in the public. But in a landscape where no one
feels that anything will necessarily get noticed, then itâs very complicated.
GROSS: Now, when you say you get more of a response now that youâre on
Facebook, do you mean that more people respond because itâs a responsive type
of media or do you think that the audience is actually bigger on Facebook, the
readership is bigger on Facebook than in the actual magazine? And is there any
way of really telling for sure?
POWERS: Well, I think in the case of Vogue the actual magazine still gets a
much bigger readership than what I would do online. Partly because I work for a
magazine thatâs only recently began putting a lot of resources into going
online. But what I found is that, you know, for example, letâs take a piece I
write about film. I have been friended by almost everyone from studios and
publicists and everyone involved in film, you know, in one way or another,
theyâre on my friends list.
If I post something, the people who are immediately interested in it read it
and then they pass it on to other people because they will post it on their
site. So, what happens is that it ripples out in that particular way, one
person at a time. But if youâre talking to someone whoâs a publicist with a
friends list of 4,000 people and they post the fact that Iâve posted my thing
and they say itâs good, suddenly youâre more likely to have those 4,000 people
reading it. And itâs a very different kind of thing. Itâs - where itâs almost
like person by person that youâre doing it rather than just assuming that what
youâre doing is so important that, in fact, anybody will automatically pick it
GROSS: And, of course, just because somebody is putting it on Facebook or
tweeting it doesnât mean that anyone is reading it...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: ...necessarily. I just...
GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.
POWERS: No, no, I think that more than at any point in history thereâs this
weird difference between different kinds of media, where if you write for
certain places you think - you feel as if youâre putting a message in a bottle
and throwing it out there and youâre not sure whether anybody is reading it.
And at the same time you have people with small little blogs with their
dedicated group of 50 or 60 readers who are always replying. So, they, in fact,
have instant feedback and community and those will be people who basically
donât really have many readers.
And then people who have lots and lots of readers will often get almost no
comments because theyâre part of a big media organization and people donât
really feel the same intimacy. And so, therefore, they donât reply to it. So
that youâre - you can be, you know, you could be probably be writing for The
New York Times and not hear much from anybody and have a tiny little blog and
seem to be hearing from everybody. And yet, if you write for the New York
Times, youâll have like, you know, a thousand times bigger readership, a ten-
thousand-times bigger readership.
GROSS: Well, John, thank you very much...
GROSS: ...for talking about the media this year. And I want to wish you happy
holidays and a happy New Year.
POWERS: Well, thank you very much and happy holidays to all the listeners.
GROSS: John Powers is FRESH AIRâs critic-at-large and film critic for Vogue. He
writes the blog âAbsolute Powersâ on vogue.com.
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Ken Tuckerâs Top 10 Recordings Of 2009
TERRY GROSS, host:
Weâre looking back on the year in pop culture with FRESH AIRâs critics. Our
rock critic Ken Tucker, who is also editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly,
has brought his 10 best list with him.
Hi, Ken. Well, we asked you to choose two of your favorite tracks of the year
from your 10 best list and to play those tracks for us. So, why donât you
introduce the first for us and tell us why you chose it.
KEN TUCKER: The first track is by Taylor Swift, who is a 19-year-old
country/pop singer-songwriter. The song I have really like of hers is called
âYou Belong With Me.â The album, which is called âFearless.â It was her
intention to write songs that were basically diary entries sent to music, which
could have been very, very coy and insufferable but she did it such conviction
and lack of irony that I thought it was wonderful. And I think that âYou Belong
With Meâ is one of the best songs on the album.
GROSS: Okay, letâs hear it. This is Taylor Swift.
(Soundbite of song, âYou Belong With Meâ)
Ms. TAYLOR SWIFT (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) Youâre on the phone with your
girlfriend, sheâs upset. Sheâs going off about something that you said. She
doesnât get your humor like I do. Iâm in the room, itâs a typical Tuesday
night. Iâm listening to the kind of music she doesnât like and sheâll never
know your story like I do. But she wears short skirts, I wear t-shirts, sheâs
cheer captain and Iâm on the bleachers dreaming about the day when you wake up
and find that what youâre looking for has been here the whole time. If you
could see that Iâm the one who understands you, been here all along so why
canât you see you belong with me, you belong with me.
GROSS: Thatâs Taylor Swift and her album âFearlessâ is on our rock critic Ken
Tuckerâs 10 best list. I have to say, Ken, I remember when you review this on
the show and I think that it was late in 2008, actually, when it first came
GROSS: And I was thinking, this is kind of interesting but I wonder why he
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: ...to review on the show. And were you expecting her to become the
sensation that she did?
TUCKER: No, I mean, certainly this was her year in the sense of pop prominence
all over the place. I mean she did that cross over from country to pop music,
accomplished that very swiftly, so to speak. And I think she did it because she
presented something fresh. She is not jaded as so many mainstream pop acts are.
And she got embroiled in a controversy midway through the year. In September,
the MTV Video Awards, now, notoriously she was accepting an award for Best
Video and Kanye West took the stage and said that Beyonce should have won this
award. And it was, you know, the YouTube moment seen âround the world. And
there was poor little fragile Taylor Swift caught in the middle of it, yet
benefiting from this enormous controversy.
GROSS: And now I want you to play the other track that youâve brought with you,
which an interesting contrast to Taylor Swift.
TUCKER: Yeah, I mean, I think itâs kind of not funny but indicative of the year
that two of my favorite pieces of music - one is by someone who hasnât yet
turned 20 and the other is by a 60-plus year old man. Itâs Loudon Wainwright
III and his kind of project more than just a mere album. Itâs called âHigh,
Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project,â itâs his salute to Charlie Poole,
a banjo player who died in 1931. And itâs a combination of original songs and
covers of Charlie Pooleâs music. And the song Iâd like to play is the title
song, which Loudon wrote called âHigh, Wide & Handsome.â
(Soundbite of song, âHigh, Wide & Handsomeâ)
Mr. LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III (Singer, songwriter): (Singing) High, wide and
handsome, thatâs how I like living. High, wide and handsome, that how life
should be. Low, skinny and ugly â that's for other people. High wide and
handsome suits me to a tee. Song, wine, and women â they're my three favorites.
Beer, gin, and whisky â that's five, six, and four. Saturday night I like
eating and dancing. And I sleep all day Sunday so as I'm ready for more. High
wide and handsomeâ¦
GROSS: That's Loudon Wainwright - the title track of his album, "High Wide and
Handsome," which is a salute to Charlie Poole. And Ken, I share your enthusiasm
for this double CD by Loudon Wainwright. And since Loudon Wainwright and Taylor
Swift both have connections to country music - Charlie Poole was an all-time
country musician - what do you think the state of country music is right now?
TUCKER: I think it's absolutely thriving. I think it's one of the most vital
elements of pop music right now because it can contain people as disparate as
Taylor Swift and Loudon Wainwright and then there are much more mainstream
country performers such as Billy Currington and Miranda Lambert, both of whom
are on my top 10 list, who are making country music that's very much in that
kind of classic, hardcore 1950s, 1960s George Jones, Merle Haggard tradition.
And so, once you can have those kinds of songs all become hits, I think it
speaks to the health of country music. I think the Loudon Wainwright â I
listened to the interview that you did this him, Terry. And I thought it was
really interesting the way so often we've thought of Loudon Wainwright over the
decades as merely a satirist and someone who writes confessional songs and for
him to go outside himself, and to immerse himself in another person's songs, in
this case a pioneer country artist, I thought it was really interesting and re-
focused attention on something that doesn't get much attention which is Loudon
Wainwright's voice. He is a very, very good singer. By contrast, Taylor Swift's
voice is actually very fragile and even I fell into a trap. I wrote a review
for my magazine, Entertainment Weekly, which I described her at an awards
ceremony as singing with a voice because it's wobbly as a new-born colt. And I
realized afterwards that was ridiculous. I should not have said that because
Taylor Swift's fragile wobbly voice is exactly the instrument that's needed for
conveying these very emotionally fragile songs. It's the perfect conveyance for
the emotions that she wants to express.
GROSS: My guest is our rock critic Ken Tucker. He'll run through his 2009 ten-
best list after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: We've been talking about the year in pop culture with FRESH AIR's
critics. Let's get back to our rock critic Ken Tucker who has been talking
about the year in music and has brought his ten-best list. I'm amazed at the
role that TV has now in making hit records. And I think it's in part because
radio itself is playing such a small roleâ¦
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: â¦in making hit records. And young people in particular, I don't think
they're growing up listening to music radio very much.
TUCKER: No, and people are consuming music in different ways. I mean we've
talked in recent years about how people really listen to their music not so
much by the album format as by downloading singles at this point. And I think
that in a lot of ways it's not the radio, it's not listening with your ears.
It's listening with your eyes and ears to videos on YouTube. That certainly the
way another phenomenon of this year, Susan Boyle, became such a huge success.
She was on "Britain's Got Talent," a show that wasn't even broadcast here.
But she has so wowed the judges with her performance that she became a star
overnight. And her viewings on YouTube are in the hundreds of millions, so she
is really somebody who benefited from this new kind of way of consuming music.
GROSS: It's kind of interesting that the two big breakout singers who came out
of TV competitions are so opposite. You know, Adam Lambert who is so kind of
big and theatrical and like, you know, I'm out of the closet now boy am I
transgressive. And then there's Susan Boyle who looks like, you know, she was a
shut-in for years and suddenly on TV and then became a big star and seemed kind
of traumatized by the whole deal for a while. And they have really different
styles of performance, different kinds of material. And they're just like
TUCKER: Totally and it was fascinating to me. It was the first time I really
got involved in "American Idol." I intensely wanted Adam Lambert to win because
once I saw that what he was doing was completely confounding the judges every
week by changing up his styles, his make up, his costume, everything in
addition to his voice was as important to his performance every single week.
And he just radiated this kind of confidence, and this kind of sly humor - that
he wasn't intimidated by the judges. And I just thought Lambert was just a
terrific figurehead finally for what could so often be a bland competition in
And so that kind of, you know, Lambert coming out of the closet, him performing
in an awards ceremony recently that was broadcast live and his dancers
simulated oral sex and it caused a big ruckus and there were threats of FCC,
you know, investigations all this kind of thing. It's just another case of, you
know, someone harkening back to rock 'n' roll's old power to shock, and yet
also working very, very much in a real mainstream pop tradition. I mean you
could put - you could book Adam Lambert tomorrow in Las Vegas for six months
and he would seem like the most natural performer there in the world.
GROSS: Well, Ken, I should ask you to read your ten-best list for us.
TUCKER: Sure, number is Loudon Wainwright III "High Wide & Handsome: The
Charlie Poole Project." Number two is the Taylor Swift single, "You Belong with
Me." Number three is Fiery Furnaces, who seem to release one album a year, and
I love every one of them. This one was called "I'm Going Away." Number four is
the album "Revolution," by Miranda Lambert, a country singer. Number five is
"Murdering Oscar and Other Love Songs," an album by Patterson Hood who is the
son of David Hood who was bassist for the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.
Number six is a country single called "People Are Crazy," by Billy Currington,
which David Letterman called the most perfect song of the year, that's a TV
influence there. Number seven is Deer Tick, a band from Rhode Island, and their
album "Born On Flag Day." Number eight is a guy named Bob Dylan, who put out an
album called "Together Through Life," which I thought was wonderful. Number
nine is a single called "Say Hey I Love You" by Michael Franti and Spearhead.
And number ten is an album by a two person group called La Roux from Britain
and their album was called "La Roux."
GROSS: And if you missed any of that list, it's, of course, on our Web site
npr.freshair.org. Ken, you've been a music critic as well as a TV critic for
many years. You've been writing about music since the '70s, and as we look back
on the end of the year and the end of a decade, can you just reflect a moment
on how you think the role of the music critic has changed in the lives of
TUCKER: I think the role of the music critic has become largely as a consumer
guide. I think Robert Christgau, who started a consumer guide, you know, 40
years ago now was on to something with one paragraph reviews, because that's
what an awful lot of magazines and Web sites want now is to get to the point
tell me if I should buy something or not. On the other hand, I think the
Internet has been my and other music critics' savior in the sense that we can
write as long and as detailed as we want about things. So, I feel totally
reenergized both, as a music and in my other life as a TV critic, writing for
the Internet because I think it's where criticism is going to thrive in the
GROSS: And do you feel like people read you on the Internet?
TUCKER: Boy do I feel like people read me on the Internet. I - you get such
instant response and such overwhelming positive response - that kind of, thank
goodness somebody else likes Loudon Wainwright, thank goodness you said that.
You said that "American Idol" is bad or, you know, you're an incredible jerk
you don't know what you're talking about - that kind of thing. And then it's
both very informed and very vulgar reactions to you, but at the same time it's
an audience. I can really feel so much more than I did a few years ago that I'm
really writing for very, very active committed vital audience.
GROSS: Well, Ken, I want to wish you happy holidays - a happy new year. Thank
you for being with us today and talking about the year in music and sharing
your ten-best list.
TUCKER: Thank so much Terry, same to you.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is FRESH AIR rock critic and critic at large at Entertainment
Weekly. I'm Terry Gross. All of us at FRESH AIR wish you a merry Christmas. And
if you don't celebrate Christmas, we wish you a happy holiday. We'll close
today's show with my favorite Christmas song, "Have Yourself A Merry Little
Christmas." And as I've done every Christmas for past few years, I want to
thank Hugh Martin for writing it. He's 95 now and I know he sometimes listens
to our show. I hope he's listening now so that I can wish him a merry Christmas
and a happy and healthy new year.
Hugh Martin wrote this song for Judy Garland to sing in the wonderful 1944 film
"Meet Me in St. Louis." I love the way she sings it. But I think I love even
more the recording Hugh Martin made in 2005. Here he is singing and
accompanying himself at the piano.
(Soundbite of song, "Happy Yourself A Merry Little Christmas")
Mr. HUGH MARTIN (Singer): (Singing) Here we are as in olden days, happy golden
days of yore. Faithful friends who are dear to us, gather near to us once more.
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
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