Bieber's Mentors, Taylor Swift's Exes: The Week's Best Pop-Culture Writing

The most intriguing articles about entertainment we've come across in the past seven days

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AP / Evan Agostini

Platinum Underdog: Why Taylor Swift Is the Biggest Pop Star in the World
Jody Rosen

The tradition of musical score-settling stretches all the way back to medieval troubadours and lyre-plucking ancients; it’s been a mainstay of American song at least since the first bluesman aimed an acidic twelve-bars at the woman who’d done him wrong. Bob Dylan is an incorrigible, at times malicious, kisser-and-teller; for decades, rock critics have been quoting with admiration Elvis Costello’s famous dictum: “The only motivation points for me writing all these songs are revenge and guilt.” Drake’s new album Nothing Was the Same is, as usual, a vérité catalogue of his “bitches” and booty calls, in which he goes so far as to name one of his civilian exes, “Courtney from ­Hooters on Peachtree”—a creepier move by far than Swift’s sly swipes at her famous former beaux. It’s hard not to detect a sexist double standard in the policing of Swift’s confessions, especially when you consider the routine misogyny in the songs of rockers, rappers, and woebegone beardy indie balladeers. Taylor Swift is a young woman who dates guys, falls in love, falls out of love, and writes some songs about it. Must we begrudge Swift her muse?

YouTube / AECOM

The Guardian
Qatar's Accidental Vagina Stadium Is Most Gratifying
Holly Baxter

As those who have tried to keep alive the tale of the Chicago Vagina Building know, there is something quite pleasing about a building shaped like a fanny. Look out on to the London skyline and penises are everywhere: the Gherkin, for instance, might even be visible from your office window right now, thrusting itself into the grey autumn sky among wisps of cloud, a proud red light shining at its very tip. And that's without even going into the phallic implications of Big Ben. The world even has an ode to the wonky boner, that lopsided erection that is the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Penile structures were just as abundant in the ancient world, of course – and while the humble yoni once had its heyday in certain parts of Asia, it still usually took a backseat wherever ornamental penises were involved.

The Qatari stadium's resemblance to a woman's private parts may be unintentional, but I for one applaud it. Perhaps the bigwigs who will be running the stadium should embrace this so-called faux pas and rebrand it as a deliberate nod towards the increasingly liberal Qatari policies concerning women in sport. In a world where sport and vaginas very rarely come together with such prominence (see every UK female footballer's salary versus every UK male footballer's salary), this can only be a good thing.

Universal Pictures

The Best Man Holiday and the Language of Expectations
Linda Holmes

The real story out of this film, and Think Like A Man (which also "overperformed"), and The Butler, and so forth, could just as easily be framed as, "Analysts once again underestimate the box-office appeal of a movie about black people." Maybe it's a coincidence and maybe it isn't, but framing the film's performance as the outlier doesn't get at whether there's something about tracking and prediction and audience analysis that's missing something.

If there is, that isn't just a matter of industry storyline management gone awry, because how much money people think things will make is presumably reflected in whether they decide to make them, and it contributes to the narrative about how things normally, regularly, ordinarily work. Sure, Rocco's statement that the performance of Holiday is something she could not have imagined is hyperbole, but when things like that are repeated often enough, and treated like actual conventional wisdom, they feed the idea that normally, this doesn't happen. This is an exception to the rule.


Blood Orange: Hitting the Right Notes
Alex Frank

In 2011, Domino Records released Blood Orange’s debut album, Coastal Grooves. It was his first record about New York, specifically the gay ballroom and vogue scene of the 1980s, which he related to from his days of being bullied. “Here were these queer black men figuring out how to express themselves,” Hynes says. “They were free.” With its pounding drum beats and angelic ad-libs, Coastal Grooves was a hopeful coming-of-age album, and its irresistable poppiness mixed with a sweet, sometimes sad vulnerability became the first public blueprint of a now-signature Blood Orange sound. It felt like the record of someone who could one day be cared about deeply by a big audience, someone who could be a star: the impossibly cool guy in vintage clothes who, underneath the surface, will talk to you about his feelings almost too openly at a bar.

But it wasn’t until November of 2012, when Solange released the songs that they’d made together, that things really began to take off for Hynes. True’s first single was “Losing You,” a song he had written about an ex-girlfriend. Solange is the star of True, but it’s impossible not to notice Hynes’ careful production and influence on the record. R&B as wistful as it is slinky, True is the elated sound of two people in creative harmony, and both he and Solange soaked up the attention and played off the mutual admiration. They spent the year Instagramming pictures of each other on tour in cool outfits, talking about how great the other one was in interviews, and playing Jimmy Fallon and David Letterman side by side, smiling like a modern day, Brooklyn-based Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.


The AV Club
Fox Is Changing the Landscape for Black Men on TV
Sonia Saraiya

Fox has managed to quietly introduce some of the most well-rounded roles for black men in the last decade—and this year’s slate of new shows goes even further. Outside of Shonda Rhimes’ deliberately diverse casting on ABC, Fox is the least whitewashed broadcast network of the four heavyweight media giants, and it hasn’t stopped there. The network has been doing some socially revolutionary casting work, creating some of the strongest and most nuanced roles for black men on television. And in the process, Fox is producing critically acclaimed shows that are garnering viewers and accolades for their focus on authenticity and character—an openly acknowledged business decision, as NPR TV Critic Eric Deggans reports, to hire more diverse casts.

This is not, strictly speaking, news. Fox managed to create a few compelling roles for black men even when its most popular shows focused on families that were white, shows like The O.C. or Malcolm In The Middle. Malcolm had a black best friend, Stevie, who was a recurring character—not a regular one, but who was still granted some complexity. Omar Epps was a founding cast member of the popular medical series House, which ran for eight seasons. The David E. Kelley shows Ally McBeal and Boston Public were markedly diverse—Boston Public’s main character, Steven Harper, is a black man, played by first-billed Chi McBride. Fox’s animated hour included The Cleveland Show until this past season. And Dennis Haysbert began portraying a black president on 24 in 2002, a full six years before the election of Barack Obama.

AP / Matt Rourke

The NFL's Modern Man
Robert Mays

The presentation of his persona, inside and outside the locker room, has changed over the course of Barwin's career. As his role within the Texans' defense grew, his willingness to expose teammates to his outside interests did too. Jesse Nading was a Texans linebacker for five seasons, and he says that although Barwin's standing within the team was important, ultimately, his ability to broaden his teammates' views comes from his willingness to broaden his own. "A lot of it stems from it being reciprocated," says Nading. "If you have something that's of interest to you and means a lot to you, and you invite Connor, it's very unlikely that he's going to turn down a unique experience where he can push himself. Guys respond to that."

In Houston, that meant a half-dozen Texans at an M83 show. This season, it's a handful of millionaires buying bicycles. "You have to expose people to different things," Barwin says. "Those guys have never even been on the subway. Once you get them on the subway, they're like, 'Wow, this is really easy.' All those guys are normal human beings. It's not going that far to make a connection." Barwin points to the complexity of an NFL locker room. "In football, you have Todd Herremans and DeSean Jackson on the same team," he says. "Physically, there are so many differences. And then you have where everyone comes from, what point they're at in life. There are so many differences that make it so interesting."

Wikimedia Commons

The Wall Street Journal
OK, You're a Runner. Tell Me More.
Jason Gay

If you are bothered by a 26.2 sticker on the back of a car, it probably says more about you than it does the occupant of the car. Drivers have been crowing about their honor students, their vacation destinations, their favorite members of the Grateful Dead (LET PHIL SING) as long as bumpers have existed. My colleague (and athlete) Kevin Helliker had a fascinating column the other day in which he theorized that fitness is the new rich, that runners and other athletes are regarded (and even targeted) as smug elitists. I fear he is right, and this is scary: The idea that fitness is elitist is not so far from the idea that higher education is elitist, a bizarro worldview that has actually arrived in modern politics without voters bursting out laughing.

It's true that fitness has a way of transforming a life in such a way that the newly fit have a habit of becoming shameless and talkative, but this shamelessness is essentially benign, and I haven't even gotten to the part where we talk about the obesity rate in this country and how we should be encouraging anybody who breaks a sweat more than twice a month. Want to toot your own horn about it? I say knock yourself out. To share is human, and reasonable sharing has its place. We're talking about exercising! We're not asking you to watch a three-hour slide show of a trip to the Galápagos Islands.

AP / Frank Micelotta / Invision

The Hollywood Reporter
Justin Bieber Reveals Will Smith Counsels Him Weekly in Rare, Raw Interview
Shirley Halperin

Drake always is first to react to a TMZ Bieber headline. "He'll text me, like, 'What the hell is going with this? I'm pissed. I'm calling him right now. I'm about to go in on him,' " reveals Braun. "Drake is like a big brother to Justin. And Justin really looks up to Drake. They have an extremely special relationship."

But the most present mentor is Will Smith. Braun tells of a particularly tough time for Bieber around the time he returned from his world tour in May that prompted the movie star to drive to Bieber's house and pull him out of bed for a three-hour talk. Bieber's reaction, according to Braun: "He said, 'Man, that makes me feel so loved. I woke up, and there's Will Smith, one of, if not the, biggest movie stars on the planet. He took time out of his day for me.' "


Did Lady Gaga's Artpop Actually Flop?
Chris Molanphy

So that’s it, right? A weak debut by a pretentious, high-art-fetishizing album, combined with underperforming singles: surely Lady Gaga is over?

Maybe not. When I think of ARTPOP, I don’t think of career-burying Waterloos like Jackson’s final studio album Invincible. To me—as long as the whole world is going to compare Lady Gaga to Madonna anyway—ARTPOP is her Erotica.

Remember that overlong 1992 Madonna album? Released to coincide with Sex, Madge’s art book/photography happening, Erotica the album was a 75-minute smorgasbord of musings on carnal desire, acclaimed by some at the time but now generally regarded as three-star Madonna at best. It does contain—and is redeemed by—two of her best ’90s singles, “Deeper and Deeper” and “Rain,” both Top 20 hits (the album’s biggest single, the No. 3–peaking title track, is forgettable). Most important, Erotica was only a modest commercial performer, peaking at No. 2 for a single week and thus snapping a streak of No. 1 studio albums (Like a Virgin, True Blue, Like a Prayer). It ended up double-platinum—a fine showing, but the lowest-selling studio album of Madge’s first decade.


The Huffington Post
Agents of SHIELD: Fall's Biggest Disappointment
Maureen Ryan

Sadly, "S.H.I.E.L.D." isn't the only drama infected by the no-fun virus that's going around. "Hostages," "Almost Human," the upcoming "Intelligence" and "The Blacklist" are so glumly competent and unrelentingly serious that I half expect James Spader to sputter "This town needs an enema!" before the year is out. At least "The Blacklist" serves up some prime ham and cheese between its bland slices of competence, but so few other new shows have the loopy spark of a "Scandal" or "Sleepy Hollow." What sets those two shows apart, aside from charismatic characters and an energetic desire to stuff a whole lot of story into every episode, is the simple fact that they appear to be having fun.

Remember that? Fun? A careening sense of adventure and the exhilarating feeling that you don't know what's coming next? If it is the express intent of the broadcast networks to kill those qualities wherever they are found, for the most part, they're doing a bang-up job this fall. It's a sign of the sour state of network television that "Almost Human," a cop-buddy drama about a human and a robot has no sense of humor about the fact that it's a cop-buddy drama about a human and a robot.

Deadline Hollywood

Los Angeles Magazine
Pulp Friction
Patrick Goldstein

Have you ever seen a New York Times Pentagon correspondent publish a scathing indictment of the military reporter for, say, The Washington Post? No, you haven’t, but not just because it would be rude or unseemly. Journalists who compete on matters of importance don’t tend to call one another out in print because, ahem, it isn’t news. But these days in Hollywood, a quartet of trades—two in print and all four online—are fighting daily over advertising dollars and who got which story first.

There is name-calling and trash-talking. There are threats and ultimatums. Increasingly the journalists have become the story, and none more so than Nikki Finke, the founder of—the Web site that, for better or worse, upended the status quo.