Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: Top 10 Songs

There’s little in this world that gets me higher than singing and dancing. Sometimes I do these things, badly, when I’m alone. Otherwise, I get my fix of singing and dancing from watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the fantastic musical comedy that currently airs on the CW and stars Rachel Bloom (who is also co-creator, executive producer and writer of episodes and songs).

The show’s a lot more nuanced than the title suggests – indeed, one of its raisons d'être is to deconstruct the "crazy ex-girlfriend" stereotype – and the original songs pack a wide range of emotion and comedy into every genre imaginable, as well as pastiches of pop music and musical numbers.

Rachel Bloom as Rebecca Bunch in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

In the interest of showing Crazy Ex-Girlfriend some love, I’ve assembled a list of my favourite songs – some hilarious, some heart wrenching, some both. In the interest of brevity, I’ve limited my list to a top 10, even though I could have easily done 10 more. Here it is (click each song title to watch the video):

10. JAP Battle

In "JAP Battle," two archenemy Jewish lawyers go toe to toe in a rap battle that’s stuffed with Yiddish words and legal jargon. Rachel Grate and Rachel Bloom excel at showing contempt for each other’s characters, and all the hyper-specific terminology is hilarious (even if I did have to look some of it up). One line in particular involving the phrase “sheket bevakashah” – Hebrew for “quiet, please” – is devilishly clever. In the end, Grate gets the last word in "JAP Battle" in the song’s best lines: “You want to get salty like the Dead Sea? Word / But call off the suit or you’re dead, c-word.”

9. Put Yourself First

A send-up of pop culture that tries to offer female empowerment while still appealing to men, “Put Yourself First” tells women to put themselves first… but in a sexy way. The song makes the simple yet crucial point that the beauty industry is rooted in the male gaze and objectifies women. It’s great to see this valuable idea expressed so clearly and in such an amusing fashion in the lyrics and video. The song also happens to be catchier than the song it takes inspiration from (Fifth Harmony's "Worth It").

8. Settle for Me / Don’t Settle for Me

If Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top” achieves flattery at the singer’s expense, then Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s similar “Settle for Me” skips the flattery and jumps right to self-deprecation in a sad attempt at seduction. Settling in love is such a relatable concept, and the song works from the point of view of both the settler (Rebecca, who loves another man) and the settled-upon (Greg, who knows he’s choice number two). Add Santino Fontana’s tap dancing, which ably matches the nimble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire, and you’ve got a classic.

The song’s status is further cemented by its reprise “Don’t Settle for Me,” a cool counter to the original that says simply, “I’m way too badass to be someone you settle for.” Vella Lowell injects so much personality into the 40-second vocal, and her voice deserves way more airtime than it’s received so far on the show.

7. Gettin’ Bi

When Darryl Whitefeather comes out as bisexual, it’s a big deal. To him, anyway, and he calls a staff meeting so his employees can hear all about it.

His song is kind of a big deal, too. “Gettin’ Bi” is an exuberant ode to owning and accepting who you are – and it’s made all the more special by its specificity. Bisexuality is rarely depicted this accurately on TV (as Darryl explains: “It’s not a phase, I’m not confused”) or with so little angst. For me, listening to the song is like taking a huge hit of joy. I mean a metaphorical hit of literal joy, that's not slang for a drug.

6. What’ll it Be?

This was the show's first song in which protagonist Rebecca is nowhere to be seen, as Greg sits down at a piano that has spontaneously manifested and pounds out a song about his feelings. Aside from a brief nod to the situation’s unrealism (“I’ve never played piano before,” which is both funny and matches the idea that he has untapped potential), "What'll it Be?" is a straightforward expression of Greg's inner state: bitter and cynical, but also earnestly yearning for a life that’s more than serving drinks in West Covina. It's a perfect character song.

5. Where’s the Bathroom

After we’ve seen a few glimpses of Rebecca’s mother living in New York and in flashbacks to Rebecca’s childhood, she finally storms onto the show in full force as Tovah Feldshuh delivers a breathless string of nags that builds and builds and builds. Just when you think it’s over, it’s hilariously not – and when the nagging does run out of steam, don’t worry, Rebecca’s mom has a lot to say about the Jewish temple’s boycott of cheddar cheese, too. I’m a big fan of characters and jokes that insist upon themselves, and “Where’s the Bathroom” gets the intro of Rebecca's insistent mother just right.

4. We Tapped That Ass

In this number, Rebecca is haunted by “ghosts” of her ex-boyfriends (played by Santino Fontana and Vincent Rodriguez III), who gleefully bro out over their mutual pastime of banging, nailing and screwing Rebecca on every surface in her apartment.

The song’s core feeling rings true – you can’t escape memories of your past partners – and it’s packaged in wordplay, visual wit, narrowly avoided vulgarity and a cheeky touch of the absurd. In short, "We Tapped That Ass" is peak Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. If you’ve never seen the show and you watch only one song on this list, make it this one.

3. Love Kernels

Too many of us have been there: you love someone more than they love you, so you end up clinging to any scrap, crumb or kernel of validation they will toss you. I’ve never seen this idea expressed better in song than in “Love Kernels,” which sees Rebecca trying to convince herself that a metaphorical bowl of popcorn (or even just a handful – she’ll take what she can get) is all the love she needs.

Rachel Bloom’s line deliveries and facial expressions are perfect at selling this idea as the height of epic romance. If you’ve been there before but no longer settle for crumbs of love, the song is a dark delight; if you’re there right now, maybe it’s a wake up call. Either way, you’re not the only one who's been there, and “Love Kernels” proves it.

2. I Love My Daughter (But Not in a Creepy Way)

No song on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend makes me laugh more than the country music parody "I Love My Daughter." Pete Gardner portrays a sweet, affectionate father who’s trying really hard to express how much he loves his daughter. But all the creepy clichés of patriarchal father-daughter love keep biting him in the ass, and he becomes increasingly defensive as the video piles on sugary stock footage of girls riding horses, playing in fields and dancing with their dads at weddings. Finally, he just drops the whole thing, conceding that having a daughter is weird. (However, it is NOT weird when she helps daddy trim his beard. Let’s just get that straight.)

1. West Covina / West Covina (Second Reprise)

When non-ingénue Rebecca arrives in unglamorous West Covina, California, the first season’s central premise is established: she moved to be with her old summer camp boyfriend, Josh, in an attempt to find happiness… but she won’t admit it to anyone. When I first started watching this show, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But when “West Covina” finished with a crowd of dancers backing Rachel Bloom while she’s hoisted into the air on a giant pretzel, I was completely sold.

However, what really makes “West Covina” my number one Crazy Ex-Girlfriend song is its second reprise, which occurs after Rebecca halfway tells the truth and admits she moved to West Covina to find happiness. Of course, she doesn’t admit that she equates happiness with dating Josh – but in a way, her admission cuts closer to the truth of things. She’s just another complicated, messed up person looking for happiness in her own way.

There is so much happy-sad packed into the amazing second reprise of “West Covina.” Happy because Josh is warm and accepting of the truth; sad because Rebecca hasn’t told the whole truth. Happy because Rebecca has started on the road to happiness; sad because Josh is more likely a roadblock than the destination. Happy because Josh and Rebecca could be good for each other in a healthy friendship; sad because they use each other for selfish romantic validation instead.

Rachel Bloom has said the reprise demonstrates that Rebecca and Josh are both “children who just want to live in the past together.” It's got a sort of Disney sweetness, with sunlight magically flooding into the scene when they sing. But I think the reprise is made far more complex by all the things Josh and Rebecca won’t admit to each other or to themselves. And when you add the contrast between Josh’s bright, clean vocal tone and Rebecca’s beautifully deep vocal tone, and the fact the characters are singing the same words in harmony (“It's not just a coincidence, it isn't just by chance / It's logical, it's obvious, it all makes perfect sense”) while meaning different things with their words… It kills me. Like the show, the reprise is crazy nuanced.

The Perfect Pop Song

If I had to choose one word to describe my personal brand, it would be "timeliness." For example, you thrilled when I wrote about Skyfall's controversial bisexual Bond two years after the film came out. You delighted when I shared a crazy fan theory about The World's End a full year after its release. And you reacted positively when I speculated on the nature of Dan Harmon and Mitch Hurwitz's collaborative project ten months after it was first reported.

So what compels me to write a new post for Remarkage after abandoning the blog for so long? Simple. Today, I return to blogging with perhaps my most timely post ever. Today, I'm going to explain why Elton John's 1972 single "Tiny Dancer" is a perfect pop song.

"Tiny Dancer" was released exactly 43 years, 9 months, and 3 days ago today!

Let's get to it. For me, two questions determine whether a pop song is satisfying. First: does it offer enough musical repetition to create a comforting predictability? As Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis notes in a fascinating article (the first result when you Google "why do we like repetition in music"):
"Repetitiveness actually gives rise to the kind of listening that we think of as musical. It carves out a familiar, rewarding path in our minds, allowing us at once to anticipate and participate in each phrase as we listen."
So repetition is pleasurable. It makes you feel clever for knowing what's next and then tapping & humming along when it comes (I have a distinct memory of being thrilled I could predict music when I was a young child). But pure repetition is boring. Which leads me to my second question: does said pop song also introduce enough variation to "hook" your attention right till the end?

Elton John, sitting at a piano and staring down an empty music sheet, responds to these two questions with "Tiny Dancer" — a virtuoso pop production that perfectly balances ear-pleasing repetition and ear-pricking variation.

First up, repetition. Of course, there's a constant return to the same basic musical ideas, like any pop song. But there's more. The best pop songs are so rewarding they beg to be repeated right when they finish. With "Tiny Dancer," Elton rather cheekily assumes you'll want to hear the entirety of the song's ideas (verse, pre-chorus, and chorus) again, then gives you no choice in the matter. A complete, whole, 3-minute song is essentially played twice, so the entire recording clocks over 6 minutes. No need to reset the record, or put the MP3 on repeat. It's the ultimate in comforting repetition.

Elton lays down the song's two-for-one structure, playing solo on piano. It's then up to producer Gus Dudgeon (who oversaw Elton's prolific 1970-'76 output of an album or two every year, as well as almost twenty top 40 singles) to transform a great song into a great pop recording. Dudgeon describes his contribution to Elton's music:
"Once Elton had done what he had to do, which was play piano and sing, he left. [...] Whatever you hear on the records that's over and above the essential construction of the song is down to myself and whoever else was working in the studio."
So what exactly did Dudgeon add to the recordings? You guessed it: variation. Recording engineer David Hentschel describes the producer's approach:
"Gus wanted a mix to be so that when someone is listening to it for the first time there is always something new to catch the ear. Probably you’d leave the first verse alone, because people are getting used to it — and getting in the mood. And then the chorus. Then when you get to the second verse, you don’t want the same thing again as the first verse, so you start introducing other sounds in between lines. [...] And by the end you have everything going together and everything’s grown in intensity and volume (and in some cases complexity of playing as well) and that’s what gives you the dynamic build of the song. Keeping the listener’s interest, basically, is what it’s all about."
"Tiny Dancer" typifies this approach:
  1. The first verse features vocals and piano, then steel guitar is added.
  2. Drums and bass walk in after the verse.
  3. Verse two sees guitar licks between the vocal lines, then a backing choir joins.
  4. A dramatic, breathless pre-chorus melts into a sugary chorus, where a transcendent string arrangement is finally introduced.
When Elton plays the song's core a second time, all these elements sing together. Drama builds as the strings play call-and-response with the vocal line, until the final pre-chorus becomes an accelerating heartbeat of dark string pulses and drum fills. (I've edited the first and second pre-choruses together so they can be compared here.) The track ends with the first verse and chorus repeated again, sounding both familiar and new. (The first verse's appearances are compared here.)

I was spoiled by hearing Elton's 1970s pop recordings when I was young. Since then, nothing but the Beach Boys have been so pleasing and interesting to my ear.

Elton and his producer have ruined pop music for me

So congrats to Elton John and Gus Dudgeon on showing us how it's done. I'm not sure how to conclude this post. If you've ever wondered if my proclivity for overanalysis extended to music, well, you've got your answer. Till next time!

Community Development

When I heard back in March 2014 that Dan Harmon (Community) and Mitch Hurwitz (Arrested Development) were planning a project together, I immediately knew what I wanted it to be. Read the title of this post. It should be obvious what I’m getting at.

Community will soon be entering its sixth season, with a movie likely to happen, and Hurwitz has stated his plans for an Arrested Development movie. Why shouldn’t these two movies be one movie? And why shouldn't that movie be Community Development?

Synopsis: When the Greendale campus is demolished, Dean Pelton packs up and starts a new community college in the failed California housing development Sudden Valley, owned by the Bluth family. Greendale’s study group, displaced and disillusioned, relocates to join the Dean in his efforts. It’s a brave new world for the study group... and also a Bluth new world.

Okay, so I struggled to incorporate the Bluth family into that synopsis. I don’t really remember what the hell happened in the last season of Arrested Development, except that it ended with the cliffhanger of Lucille Austero’s murder. I suppose that would be incorporated into the movie’s plot somehow.

As for Community’s characters, the last season ended with Greendale being bought out by Subway after the study group spent the whole year trying to save the school. My guess is that season six will see the study group reclaim the campus, but that would be awfully boring and redundant. I’d rather see the characters finally move on – preferably to Sudden Valley.

Both shows have become a bit worn-out in later seasons. What better shot in the arm for Harmon and Hurwitz than to unashamedly jump the shark with a feature film crossover? 

Of course, there is the small matter of Arrested Development stars Tony Hale and David Cross having already played characters on Community. But that can easily be explained away by, um... hmm... the fact I put less effort into thinking this concept through than I did into making that fake logo.

Community Development. Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo. Fall 2016. You heard it here first. Probably heard it here last, too.

Birdman or (The Critic-Proof Film)

I recently saw Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), and I was surprised I didn’t like it (my review is here). The film currently has a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and its appeal is obvious. It deflates superheroes at a time when our pop culture is oversaturated with them. And it does so in a tightly-wound meta package that juices star Michael Keaton for all he’s worth: his status as the original movie Batman now turned washed-up actor clawing back his relevance parallels his character’s status as the original movie Birdman now turned washed-up actor clawing back his relevance.

Birdman also insulates itself from criticism by exploiting our sympathy for Keaton, flattering the audience intellectually, and purporting to offer universal truths.

Micheal Keaton in Birdman

The film badly wants us to understand that its protagonist, Riggan Thomson, is Michael Keaton, albeit an unhinged, desperate version of the actor. An early scene sees Keaton – uh, I mean Thomson – doing press for the prestigious new Broadway production he’s directing and starring in. The interviewers alternately quote Roland Barthes, interrogate Thomson about facelifts, and become excited at the mention of Batman – uh, I mean Birdman. The scene is a caricature of how Keaton might be treated in interviews. One interviewer asks the ugly question, “Are you at all afraid that people will say you’re doing this play to battle the impression that you’re a washed-up comic strip character?”

The effect of all this Keaton = Thomson business is that the audience's pre-existing sympathy for Keaton is immediately drawn upon to create sympathy for Thomson. It doesn’t even matter that Thomson is a maniac or that his production – which is extensively showcased, for whatever reason – looks stiff and sophomoric. People want Keaton’s comeback to succeed. For that to happen, the audience also has to find some value in Thomson’s comeback, the substance of Birdman. Which is pretty easy to do. After all, Thomson is basically Keaton, and we all went into this movie rooting for Keaton, right?

The worst exploitation of the audience's sympathy comes when a cartoonishly sinister theatre critic promises to skewer Thomson’s play sight unseen because she resents the whole notion of a movie star on Broadway. This character's inclusion is a preemptive strike against anyone who would dare criticize the underdog Keaton or his ambitious new film. According to Birdman, artists are brave champions of truth and critics are acid-spitting villains. And you’re not a villain, are you?

The problem is that Thomson’s Broadway production – rightly shot down throughout the film as a pretentious vanity project – is successful due only to its surprise gimmick of Thomson shooting himself in the head, onstage, with a live gun. The film's equation of itself with this production is not really flattering. Birdman also gets by on gimmicks, particularly the faux-single-take (not revealed in trailers and mostly kept under wraps until the film's debut in Venice). Strip away the movie’s ouroboros-like construction and its technical prowess and you’re left with a standard melodrama full of subplots that go nowhere.

Even if Birdman is purposely terrible, as might be suggested, it’s easy for viewers to claim that was the point, it’s a meta black comedy! Yeah, sure – a black comedy that repeatedly draws on two jokes: a) a person throws a tantrum or gets in a fight and then someone walks in on them, and b) the word “balls.” No matter. If you go into Birdman wanting it to succeed, you can find a way to argue that it has. It’s a critic-proof film.

Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman

One detail doesn’t fit into the grand meta scheme: Thomson directs the Broadway production, but Keaton certainly didn’t direct Birdman. So who did? The film's scheme quietly but firmly denies the existence of director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Among all the meta messiness and the unedited, seemingly authentic performances, there is no room for the film to admit its own subjectivity. Instead, Birdman is desperate to be seen as a piece of living, breathing art that risks body and soul to expose universal truths – just like the way Thomson views his own Broadway production.

And it’s obnoxious as hell.

Iñárritu begs you to be on his side as he demolishes ad nauseam the evil strawmen of Hollywood, critics, and social media, all while pretending his viewpoints are the unspoken stuff we all know to be true. It's easy to agree with the basic arguments – but it's a little too easy, and the arguments are never more than basic. I just don’t harbour the same endless angst over those supposed evils that Birdman does. I’m also not so invested in Keaton’s comeback that I’m blind to the film’s myriad tricks, which include constantly patting the audience on the back for having the taste to choose Birdman over Batman.

The audience and critics end up adoring Thomson’s play because of its live gun gimmick, and they are undoubtedly fools. I wonder what that makes us for hoisting Birdman onto the Oscar-contender pedestal. Suckers for a good (or in Thomson's case, bad) comeback story? Suckers for intellectual flattery? Or participants in a piece of purposely terrible performance art? I’m not sure, but the film’s bitter, manipulative spirit doesn’t inspire any love in me.

Robin Williams in Los Copa

After Robin Williams died, I read an article that tried to combat the idea that suicide is selfish. Check out the headline and accompanying photo:

Williams looks seriously weary in this well-chosen photo. He looks like he might be arguing, postmortem, with angry loved ones who would accuse him of selfishness. But outside this calculated repurposing of a head shot, Williams has given voice to the other side of the argument.

When I think on the actor's death, I recall a monologue he did in The Birdcage. In the film, Armand (Williams) has gravely offended his long-term partner Albert (Nathan Lane), to the point where Albert leaves for Los Copawhich has nothing but a cemetery. Although Albert isn't suicidal, he is threatening to permanently exit Armand's life. Armand catches up with his despondent partner and speaks his mind, equal parts anger and affection.
Albert (Lane) and Armand (Williams)
Armand: “My cemetery’s in Key Biscayne. It’s one of the prettiest in the world. Lovely trees, sky is blue, the birds... The one in Los Copa’s really shit. What a pain in the ass you are. It’s true – you’re not young, and you’re not new, and you do make people laugh. And me? I’m still with you because you make me laugh. So you know what I gotta do? I gotta sell my plot in Key Biscayne so I can get one next to you in that shithole Los Copa, so I never miss a laugh."
You can watch the scene here.

For me, all this talk of cemeteries suggests deatheither from an early end (the ugly Los Copa, Albert’s purported destination) or natural causes (the beautiful Key Biscayne, Armand’s chosen resting place). For me, the monologue articulates the bitterness that can arise when a loved one lands in the shallow ditch of suicide rather than the deep grave of a life fully lived.

Robin Williams was a really funny man and an impassioned actor. Mrs. Doubtfire helped me understand my parents’ separation when I was little (the ending is practically a PSA on the topic), I delighted at being introduced to Mork & Mindy, and I still count The Birdcage among my favourite films. I’ve got nothing for him but thanks.