Looking Back at 2015 in Music

  • Favorite 2015 albums (in no order):

    • Ryan Adams – 1989. I’m not a Taylor Swift fan, at all, but this alternative country cover album of her entire 1989 smash hit record is a double-edged triumph: (1) showcasing the strength and versatility of Miss Swift’s songwriting, and (2) the musical finesse of Ryan Adams for adapting electronic pop music into thoughtful, heartfelt alternative rock. Highlights: “Welcome to New York,” “Style,” “Out of the Woods,” “All You Had to Do was Stay,” & “This Love.”
    • Miley Cyrus – Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz. Genuinely artistic experimental psychedelic album by pop’s most button & boundary-pushing young startlet. It also features some of her best and most mature music. Highlights: “The Floyd Song (Sunrise),” “Space Boots,” “BB Talk,” “I Get So Scared,” “Lighter,” & “The Twinkle Song.”
    • Delta Rae – After It All. This genre-bending swirl of country, Americana, and stadium anthems by a North Carolina sextet is an exhilarating work rich with complex instrumentation and soul-piercing melodies. Highlights: “Anthem,” “Outlaws,” “You’re the One For Me,” & “After It All.”
    • Michael Giacchino – Inside Out (Original Soundtrack). It’s almost laughable to think how this score took a couple listens to grow on me. This sweeping, ethereal soundtrack is what gives this tremendous movie its soul. Certainly one of the best wholly instrumental musical scores in recent years (and endlessly listenable), the highlight tracks “Bundle of Joy,” “Nomanisone Island / National Movers,” & “Tears of Joy” will reignite all the feels you probably had watching the film.
    • Madonna – Rebel Heart. The Queen of Pop’s longest album to date, and her most personal work in years. Highlights: “Unapologetic Bitch,” “Joan of Arc,” “Wash All Over Me,” “Rebel Heart,” & “Graffiti Heart.”
    • The Tallest Man on Earth – Dark Bird is Home. Very fortunate to have stumbled upon this one. Early this year, I was way into iTunes’s featured free songs, and one week “Timothy” from this album was featured. I had never heard of the artist The Tallest Man on Earth, but the song struck a cord and I couldn’t stop listening. Once Apple Music became a Thing, I started exploring more into the albums featuring individual songs I loved, and was stoked to find an entire album of rich, folky goodness. Highlights: “Darkness of the Dream,” “Sagres,” “Timothy,” & “Dark Bird is Home.”
  • Noteworthy albums new to me in 2015 (but not from this year – in no order):

    • Erasure – The Innocents  (1988). Erasure wasn’t even on my radar pre-Looking (which featured the excellent “A Little Respect” in an early episode), and thanks to Apple Music I finally dove deeper into this album to find a treasure trove of 80s pop glory. Pulsating keyboards and stellar, emotional chord progressions make this the kind of record you’ll revisit again… and again… and again. Highlights: “A Little Respect,” “Phantom Bride,” “Yahoo!,” “Imagination,” “Weight of the World,” & “When I Needed You Most (Melancholic Mix).”
    • Girls – Album (2009).  Another Looking influence (remember the Girls songs in Season 2?), Girls’s Album is the ultimate California indie rock piece – muffled production, catchy tunes, and unique instrumentation all contribute to a consistently entertaining, San Francisco surf-ready musical experience. Highlights: “Lust for Life,” “Hellhole Ratrace,” “Summertime,” & “Curls.”
    • Amy Grant – Heart in Motion (1991). This is the stuff that synthpop dreams are made of. Solid songwriting and terrific production leave little question why this Christian/pop crossover exploded onto the scene back in 1991.  Highlights: “Baby Baby,” “Every Heartbeat,” “Ask Me,” “Galileo,” & “I Will Remember You.”

“Weekend” and “Looking”: Tragic Love Affairs

Now that the superb first season of Looking has concluded, we can now approach it as a singular, (sort of) complete work. It is so similar in tone and subject matter to Weekend, and of course they are both the brain-children of the brilliant Andrew Haigh, so it’s impossible not to compare the two.

In case you haven’t picked up on it, there’s a great wealth of material to draw on from both these works, so this will likely be the start of a series comparing the two. In order to tether down this can of worms, I’d like to focus first on the love stories these works present.

Weekend is a romantic tragedy due to circumstances beyond the characters’ control. The timing of Russell and Glen’s meeting is simply inopportune, as Glen has already made arrangements to leave the UK for Portland, Oregon to attend art school. Two days wouldn’t be enough time for Russell to drop everything and run away with Glen, nor would it be enough for Glen to justify giving up on his presumed dream.

In contrast, the romantic tragedy between Patrick and Richie of Looking is directly caused by the parties involved. Patrick is at once pushy and uninvolved, and Richie can only take so much of Patrick’s uneasiness. There are no circumstantial, destiny-driven forces at play; this one’s all on them.

It’s important to point out this distinction after the excellent episode “Looking for the Future,” which has been very favorably compared to Weekend; when taken just on their own, Patrick and Richie can make a very convincing couple with real potential. Throw Patrick into the temptations of his everyday life, though, like caving to his friends’ pressure or battling his irresponsible crush on his boss Kevin, and he can’t fight for what he tries to tell himself he wants.

In Weekend, as much as we want the two to find a way to make it work, the looming timeline keeps the clock ticking in the back of our head and we know all along they’ll have to part ways. With Looking, though, without a real time clock (beyond an eight-episode season) and no immediate obstacles in the way, we can’t help but root for Patrick and Richie to make it.

Side by side, this distinct set of circumstances almost makes the failed Looking romance even more heartbreaking. In Weekend, the two men are in love with one another, but it rationally cannot be; in Looking, the two men can be together, and one simply caves out of it.

The romantic tragedies of these works are both moving and thought-provoking in unique ways, simultaneously shaped by their narratives and strengthened when examining them at once.

“Looking” at Richie

So I’ve been saving the best for last… Richie is not only my favorite character on Looking but is probably one of my favorite television characters, period. He is the sole source of wisdom and true compassion in the Looking universe of chaos and often cruelty, and serves as a distinctive foil to the ruthless Patrick.

From their first meeting, Richie is portrayed as good-hearted though naive – relative to the cynics around him, at least. He takes Patrick’s false identity as an oncologist (remember the business card?) as true, a subtle touch of dramatic irony. Sure, he falls for it – but why shouldn’t he take others’ word for it? In a way, his good-natured ways come across as foolish, because those around him are so phony. He falls for the act.

His optimistic outlook does start to crumble, though, that fateful picnic in Dolores Park for Dom’s birthday – his first real meeting with Patrick’s friends Dom and Agustin. This is also one of his first times seeing Patrick interacting with others, whether seeing how Patrick represents himself through the humiliating “gay voice” display, or how Patrick misrepresents Richie to his friends.

This experience, though, toughens up Richie in a really strong and positive way. When Patrick tries to make up for the picnic fiasco by inviting Richie to be his plus-one at his sister’s wedding, the typically kind and easygoing Richie snaps back with an annoyed “I don’t think so,” and getting out of Patrick’s car on the way to the wedding just days later.

Richie’s thicker skin culminates in the season’s strongest, most painful moment. He meets Patrick outside his apartment building, clearly with something on his mind, and lays out everything he’s been going through since the wedding. A character who is in many ways a mystery, who we know solely through Patrick’s association with him, is brilliantly defined through his assertion: “I am this close to falling in love with you, but I’m not gonna do that to myself if you’re not ready. And I don’t think you’re ready.”

Watching this excellent conclusion to season 1, I can’t help but think back to Patrick and Richie’s first date and them dancing in the club. The song playing, Erasure’s “A Little Respect,” chants the chorus “Oh baby please, give a little respect to me,” an interesting framework to view their relationship by. When they meet in the first episode, Patrick does not respect Richie – he isn’t honest about himself, and throughout the season, continues to disrespect and humiliate Richie both to his face and behind his back. In these eight episodes, Richie comes full circle and does what he needs to in order to regain his self-respect.

“Looking” at Agustin

I’ve said in an earlier post that I find Agustin a frustrating, whiny character. His coldness toward his friends and even his boyfriend Frank are off-putting and make him a difficult figure to engage with as a viewer.

As the series has progressed, however, he grows more and more interesting. His approach to life is an almost-perfect foil to Patrick’s. Unlike Patrick, who labels individuals and actions into phony categorizes, Agustin takes the opposite approach.

After he and Frank engage in a three-way with another young artist, Frank asks if he and Agustin are now one of “those couples,” to which Agustin replies that they can be whatever they want to be. He evades labels, and instead acts according to his desire rather than binding himself to a type.

This philosophy is an interesting one to see play out. As someone who repels labels himself, he is drawn to those who do plainly describe themselves, like with his friend C.J. the sex worker. Agustin extrapolates C.J.’s line of business into C.J.’s entire identity, and views everything C.J. does as somehow representative of the sex worker personae.

To further this complexity, and reveal Agustin’s own hypocrisy, as he, Frank, and C.J. experiment in intimacy, Agustin is perfectly comfortable allowing C.J. to videotape he and Frank together – yet when he later records Frank and C.J. kissing, his seething jealousy is palpable. By not defining the terms of his relationship with Frank, he created an openness he may not have even been prepared for – and he regrets that.

While it is still a fresh storyline, his immediate repulsion to the Patrick-Richie relationship is very intriguing. He is quick to call out the romance as Patrick “slumming,” an accusation which at first comes across as harsh, but at the same time, nobody knows Patrick better than Agustin. Even we have only been with these characters a handful of weeks; Agustin has known him since college.

Agustin’s confrontation of Patrick also carries an interesting subtext; he lashes out at Patrick, but when Richie comes up, Agustin tries to backpedal and brush it aside. On one hand, he may have simply realized he’d gotten caught and was trying to get out of it. On the other, though, Agustin may have some long-standing resentment and frustration with Patrick, and was in a way trying to save Richie from the pain he feels Patrick would inevitably cause him. If Agustin can spot Patrick’s slumming so easily, Patrick has probably done this before – enough that Agustin recognizes the signs.

While he is in some ways unpleasant and even painful to watch, Agustin plays an intricate role in Looking through both his relationship with others, and his own struggles of identity.

“Looking” at Patrick as an Antihero

I decided to do some more digging into my earlier claim that Patrick from the new HBO series Looking is an asshole, and found some compelling evidence to support my theory. Whether he plays it off as humor or slides it casually into conversation, his words and actions demonstrate his snippy demeanor, aggressive attitude, and constant typification of himself and those around him.

He seems to be most outwardly vicious to his close friends, where he can say what he wants and get away with it. First thing in the morning, after Agustin and Frank hook up and Agustin emerges in the kitchen, Patrick shoots Agustin a Look and lets him know he could hear them this morning.

Soon after, as Patrick and Dom are helping Agustin pack up a car to move to Oakland, Patrick is smugly speculating the status of his burgeoning relationship with Richie. Whether casual or the “real thing,” Patrick asserts that he’s “gonna get [him]self a Mexican fuck buddy whether you like it or not.” Sure, it’s played for laughs, but it also says something about how Patrick views other people, as commodities for a story to tell his friends, rather than a genuine connection.

With others, however, Patrick says less of what he wants and more of what he wants to embody; ironically, showing his true colors by becoming a facade, a quality I’ve come to now associate with Patrick. He regularly typifies and qualifies those around him, and himself, to categorize individuals into clear definitions – but managing to avoid viewing himself in the same terms that he views others.

Patrick makes up his mind and forms a concrete idea that is hard to crack when disproven later. Whether being surprised Richie isn’t wearing a hat on their second meeting or shock that Richie’s necklace is “religious-y” (without even noticing the necklace earlier), to searching Google Images for uncircumcised penises to prepare himself, his mind is quick to freeze but hard to thaw.

His shallow, immediate setting of expectations also translates to how he likes to perceive himself, ultimately leading to the deception of others. When he first meets Richie, Richie mistakes Patrick for an oncologist, which results in a flirtation match, but Patrick never corrects him – he just rolls into the fake identity that was created moments earlier.

His sense of typifying also crosses over to his friends, like at Folsom Street Fair. Patrick has, on several occasions, expressed confusion yet fascination with Agustin’s sexual preferences, both not understanding it but loving to hear about it. At Folsom, though, Patrick first evades wearing leather, associating it with the lifestyle of people like Agustin, by asserting that he’s not the “kind of person” that’s into leather.

Patrick is such a fascinating character because he speaks in such defined terms that he invariably contradicts himself time and time again. We, the audience, have the benefit of all his faces, but it will be interesting to see how long it takes those around him to catch up to the “kind of person” Patrick really is.

“Looking” Ahead

So just three episodes in (two episodes for those of you without HBO Go) is too early to truly review the new series Looking. To be fair, I had impossibly high hopes for this series, from the same creator as one of my favorite movies Weekend (so good it’s warranted not one but TWO blog posts on here), about young gay men living in San Francisco’s Castro. Despite a couple problems, I think this show is heading in a very good direction.

Like any brand-new TV show, even one from glorious HBO, there have been some bumps along the way. I can frankly say I don’t even like two of the three main characters yet, whose overall glum and mopeyness are hard to sit through.

Dom is a hopeless loser who is too old to not have his act together, and even his exposition doesn’t make sense; at the latest, he and his wife would have gotten married in 1990, a time when homosexuality was WAY more acceptable than say 1980. And Agustin the artist (who somehow affords a pretty nice apartment) is so grumpy and stubborn it’s hard to root for him. I just look forward to his scenes ending so we can get to my favorite character.

The main protagonist (or is he?) Patrick, played with casual ease by Jonathan Groff, is what keeps me fascinated with this show. In this one, seemingly straight-man type character who on the one hand seems naive and sheltered, but on the other just as morally empty as those around him, we get a lot of the complexity and, honestly, hypocrisy embodied by so many young gay men.

Even in the first scene, he goes cruising in a public park as a “joke,” and just scenes later, on a first date, he insists he is the boyfriend “type” who doesn’t do the casual thing. One episode later, he teases his romantic interest Richie for a, let’s say, physical attribute that isn’t what Patrick expected.

I’m really interested to see how Looking is going to develop this main character who’s kind of an asshole; he’s not the gay best friend that you know so much of the audience is hoping to find in this series, and he’s definitely not boyfriend material. He makes a quiet revelation in the third episode: “I don’t think either of us are good at being who we think we are.”

And Richie, a character who’s barely been in the show at all, has already captivated me as one of the knockout figures in the series. Just like Patrick, he isn’t quite what you expect at first, and his decisions are surprising not just for him, but frankly for young gay men in general. Even a couple episodes in, we feel the surprise Patrick does by being eased into this world.

I truly resent Looking being referred to as a gay Girls or Sex & the City a) because I think those are terrible shows, and b) it reduces Looking and even those shows to just being a tight group of friends and their adventures in an urban setting. I’m not an avid viewer of those latter two shows, but I’m sure they have unique messages and themes all their own, just as Looking does.

The criticism around this show is pretty ill-informed, too – the most common complaint you’ll hear is how “boring” the series is (it’s not), or how being gay is not enough of a plot point. It’s disappointing to think that mainstream critics can’t handle a series about gay characters, without gayness being a storyline in and of itself; would most late-20somethings and early-30somethings really be going through “coming out” stories? Or facing discrimination, living in a neighborhood like the Castro? Gimme a break.

Despite some iffy characters and storylines, Looking has already demonstrated some fascinating insight and shows undeniable promise as to how far this show can go to illuminate the complexity of life as a gay man in the modern world.