Sunday read: Behind the scenes with Milli Vanilli

The Best New Artist Grammy winners before it all came crashing down.

I recently found a tongue-in-cheek 1990 column from a long-defunct music magazine, Request, about “Why Milli Vanilli Is the Best Band Ever.”

Among the reasons: Neither the Beatles nor Bob Dylan ever placed a song in MTV’s “Top 20 Music Video Countdown”; unlike Dylan, “who has done entire albums with just acoustic guitar and harmonica,” Milli Vanilli’s use of sequencers and synthesizers put them at the cutting edge of music technology; and Milli Vanilli doesn’t “subject its fans to the uncertainty of bad sound systems or sore throats,” instead using pre-recorded vocals to ensure seamless performances.

The column was titled, “World, You Know It’s True.”

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Sunday read: Swingin’ on the flippity-flop with Nirvana and Pearl Jam

Image from Classic Album Sundays.

(h/t to Will Leitch for the tip)

Sometime in the early ’90s, I remember going into my local Atlanta Macy’s and seeing a large display of overpriced flannel shirts.

Grunge had gone mainstream.

Hell, grunge had gone past mainstream. “Mainstream” is usually acceptable and ignored. This was a shameless attempt by some middle-aged clothing buyer to impress suburban Georgia kids by nodding in their direction — and failing miserably.

The New York Times had been there. In late 1992, the Paper of Record did a piece for its featherweight Styles section on grunge culture. Accompanying the article was a “grunge dictionary,” featuring such commonplace Puget Sound vernacular as “harsh realm” (bummer), “Tom-Tom Club” (uncool outsiders), and my favorite, “swingin’ on the flippity-flop” (hanging out).

Sounds like the bee’s knees, right? I mean, whaddya want, wicker?

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But it’s good television!

I didn’t watch the debate last night. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stomach even 15 uninterrupted minutes of the person a friend calls The Only President We Have.

(“Uninterrupted.” Ironic word choice there, Leopold.)

Based on the ratings — the only yardstick The Only President approves of — it appears I wasn’t alone. The audience was big — about 65 million across eight channels — but that’s still substantially fewer people than the 76 million who watched the first debate between him and Hillary Clinton four years ago.

Still, the numbers may go up when other channels and the Internet are added in, and they’re still the highest for a television program in 2020 than anything outside the Super Bowl. And there’s a reason, beyond the fact that the future of what’s left of the free world depends on the outcome of this election, that debates featuring Mr. “Sir” President do so well: He’s outrageous. He’s his Twitter feed come to life.

He’s good television.

Maybe I should put that phrase in quotes, because “good television” seldom means good television. It means car-wreck television. It means that the so-called cool medium has become hot, and you can’t look away.

At its best — a rare occurrence — good television is immediate and meaningful, a live (or live-on-tape) event that crackles with the energy of live theater.

But usually, “good television” is the equivalent of bad pulp fiction, momentarily enjoyable but soul-suckingly, time-wastingly meaningless. Think your if-it-bleeds-it-leads local newscast. Think pro wrestling. Think reality shows.

Think of a person that term defines. He’s Lonesome Rhodes. He’s Diana Christensen. He’s television incarnate.

There’s nothing left in you that I can live with. You’re one of Howard’s humanoids. If I stay with you, I’ll be destroyed. Like Howard Beale was destroyed. Like Laureen Hobbs was destroyed. Like everything you and the institution of television touch is destroyed. You’re television incarnate, Diana: Indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer. And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds and instant replays. You’re madness, Diana. Virulent madness. And everything you touch dies with you. 

(Is it any coincidence that former GOP strategist Rick Wilson likes to say, “Everything Trump touches dies“?)

I hope the networks — particularly the cable news folks — are happy about the guy who’s given them spectacular profits. Sure, the profits may be Pyrrhic in the long run, what with the state of the country, the world and all.

But, hey, it’s “good television.” In the meantime, we’ll just keep amusing ourselves to death.

Review: ‘Bad Blood’ by John Carreyrou

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


If there’s a lesson to be drawn from “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup,” it’s this: Don’t mess with companies that employ high-priced law firms.

Because as shocking as I found the story of Theranos, the Silicon Valley startup that intended (or so it claimed) to upend the healthcare industry with portable, high-tech blood test machines, what I found just as sobering was what happened when people tried to leave, or author John Carreyrou, the Wall Street Journal reporter who won a fistful of awards for his investigation, tried to dig into Theranos’ story. The company employed Boies, Schiller & Flexner, the law firm of superstar attorney David Boies, to challenge them at every turn.

Now, maybe that’s what your legal counsel is supposed to do, especially when you have allegedly revolutionary technology and your startup is fighting against the vipers of Silicon Valley. But the non-disclosure agreements handed out like Times Square flyers; the intimidating meetings where Boies, Schiller representatives threatened to litigate until people cried uncle; the apparent spying they did on certain Theranos ex-employees and possibly Carreyrou … it struck me that, if this is how business is done, maybe it would have been better for the IT and blood science experts at Theranos to go into, say, public health.

After the initial glow of their entry at Theranos wore off, they probably thought so, too.

By now, pretty much anyone who’s read the business press (or, of late, People magazine) knows that Theranos was the brainchild of Elizabeth Holmes, who dropped out of Stanford at 19 to pursue her dream of a technology company that would make old-fashioned blood draws obsolete – and, by doing so, improve the health of millions. No need to go to a doctor’s office! You could stick your finger with a tiny needle in a drugstore, supermarket, or even at home. Results would be almost instantaneous. You could be alerted to health risks early, and the world would be changed!

Holmes managed to bring along some pretty big names in her pursuit to become the next Steve Jobs (an image she encouraged by wearing black turtlenecks). Her board included former secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, military veteran and soon-to-be secretary of Defense James Mattis, and eventually Boies himself. She was photographed by Martin Schoeller; filmmaker Errol Morris shot promotional videos. Rupert Murdoch invested millions. She made the cover of Fortune magazine.

And why not? Besides the promise of groundbreaking technology, Holmes was media catnip: young, pretty, female, charismatic. She spoke in a surprisingly deep voice (it turned out to be part of the act) and claimed to spend all her time working.

It was, largely, a sham.

Holmes actually had a boyfriend, a bullying executive named Sunny Balwani, who was also her number two. Together, they ran Theranos like their own private kingdom. The miniaturized technology looked amazing but, for the most part, didn’t work – certainly not well enough to change healthcare. Employees came starry-eyed and left defeated within a few years – or a few months. One of them committed suicide. Holmes lied about Theranos tests, claiming success where little or none existed; Balwani was known for his vicious temper. Both were secretive to the point of paranoia.

And yet, for too many years, people – smart people – bought it. Nobody wanted to be left out. Millions were to be made and their only competition was other super-wealthy people.

Carreyrou tells this story in workmanlike fashion. He obviously had terrific sources, and the accumulation of detail is like the turning of a vise. One of his best contacts is Tyler Shultz, a Theranos employee and George’s grandson, who smells something fishy and eventually risks his career to tell Carreyrou. Not even his grandfather, who treated Holmes like a daughter, believed him.

But the book only develops true momentum when Carreyrou himself enters the picture. Before that it’s just a series of chapters about disillusioned employees and failed equipment. With Carreyrou, suddenly it becomes a cat-and-mouse story, with Holmes asking Murdoch to quash the story at the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal and Carreyrou and his editor facing Boies, Schiller attorneys from opposite ends of a conference table. One of them sent regular emails threatening to sue; they all reminded me of a certain president and his henchmen.

One incident, in which Carreyrou met with Tyler Shultz on the Stanford campus, was particularly troubling. Nobody knew they were going to talk – not even Shultz, since the meeting was impromptu – and yet Theranos’ lawyers contacted Shultz’s soon after and said they knew about the meeting. Carreyrou surmises they were followed. Nice work, attorneys. Hope you can live with yourselves.

In the end, Carreyrou’s investigation helped bring about Theranos’ demise. The lawsuits are now aimed at Holmes and Balwani. The company is currently the subject of an HBO documentary and an ABC Radio podcast (neither of which I’ve sampled), and Adam McKay is making a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence. All that is satisfying in a “bad guys lose” kind of way.

And yet I was mildly disappointed by “Bad Blood,” because its main characters – Holmes and Balwani – are ciphers. I hate to encourage cocktail psychology, but Carreyrou never tries to figure out what drove Holmes to mount such a huge fraud. Was she blinded by her do-gooderism? Kept under a spell cast by Balwani? Somehow damaged by being raised by a merely upper-middle class family while mixing with the truly wealthy? Simply a sociopath? She’s little more than a strange, smart pretty face, and Balwani is a well-off bully with a somewhat shady past. Neither, of course, gave Carreyrou interviews, and he’s not the kind of guy to speculate. For the most part, I appreciate that, but it still leaves the question: What made these people tick?

Maybe I’ll just have to watch the movie.



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A few words in defense of #CNN

cnn.mousepad

I worked for CNN for 16 years, and I don’t think a month went by when I didn’t bitch about the place.

Some of my complaints were simply attempts to blow off steam. Why is the CMS down again? Why do I have to change that headline? Do we have to do that bullshit story simply because it’s trending?

And then there were my deeper concerns, ones that have provoked debate in newsrooms since there have been newsrooms — questions about ratings/traffic vs. news value, questions about ethics, questions about quality.

But for all of my bitching, I was proud to work there. It was, and still is, full of intelligent, thoughtful people.

I could be cynical — most journalists are — but, as George Carlin was fond of saying, scratch a cynic and you’ll find a disappointed idealist. You don’t deal with so much human weakness without a little bit of hope that things will get better, and that you can make a difference.

Compared to many of my colleagues, I was in no way a capital-J Journalist — someone who, in my estimation, lived and breathed for scoops in pursuit of The Story (I would rather delete my overabundance of email and get a good night’s sleep) — but I cared deeply about the news, about covering it right, about fairness and accuracy and truth.

And if there’s one truth I know for certain, it’s that my colleagues cared just as deeply. And they still do.

So it makes me angry to see my old employer attacked as being “fake news,” and to see many of my old colleagues’ faces in an anti-Semitic meme. (By the way, despite my departure 15 months ago, you’ll find me in the bottom row.)

I know a lot of people hate journalists. Reporters, in their minds, are pesky busybodies who won’t leave well enough alone. They don’t pay attention to certain stories, and pay too much attention to others. (And you won’t get an argument from many reporters, who would just as soon be chasing something more meaningful than whatever the shiny object of the day is — and these days, when analytics can tell us exactly what people are looking at and for how long, there are a lot of shiny objects.)

Journalists keep asking why — and when, and where, and who and what.

But consider the recent stories that have prompted much of this backlash against the news media: the tangled relationships and communications of a certain high-ranking businessman/politician. Simply the fact that he’s important (the most important, in fact, the biggest, an incredibly important person) makes the stories newsworthy, and if you’re CNN — or any news organization, frankly — you have a responsibility to see where they lead.

As we saw from the story the network pulled a couple weeks ago, CNN is not infallible. You’re only as good as your sources, and in a volatile world where everybody has an agenda, it can be incredibly hard to nail things down. It’s happened to the best.

But CNN, like most other outlets in the so-called “MSM,” owns up to its mistakes when they happen. I have my issues with the network — I think the TV arm (like pretty much all profit-chasing TV news) has come to feel like an all-day edition of “Crossfire” with too much heat, too little light, a sad reflection of the old local news philosophy that sensation sells. But the organization is full of outstanding and humane people trying to make sense of real life that affects real people, and you can see its work on the website, CNN International and even on the main domestic network when Jeffrey Lord isn’t arguing with Van Jones.

Real life isn’t a wrestling match. And I know I’d prefer a sense of “presidential” that is less like Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (who, to give him credit, was possessed of some modesty).

On this Independence Day, the anniversary of when this representative democracy was founded, we should continue working towards “the more perfect union” the Constitution writes about. CNN and the news media, for all their faults, are central to that effort.

Odds and ends: Baseball, awards, ‘Face’

tim-raines
Image from BaseballHotCorner.com.
A few things that have crossed my brain …

  • Three cheers for Jeff Bagwell, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez and Tim “Rock” Raines for making the Baseball Hall of Fame yesterday. All three are deserved Hall of Famers, and I was particularly pleased to see Raines — much overlooked, even in his heyday, because of the truly amazing Rickey Henderson — finally get the necessary 75% of ballots. The guy could always steal a base, but unlike folks like Vince Coleman, he could also hit, hit for (some) power and play solid defense. The big problem for Raines was that he mainly played for the Montreal Expos, where he was never going to get any notice. Hell, I’d forgotten that he had some late-career years with the Yankees and actually picked up a World Series ring.

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Sunday read: French toast on the toilet

toilet
Image from Onegreenplanet.org.
The Snow Scare of 2017 made me think of the classic evergreen article my friend Lisa Respers France wrote a couple years back.

In it, she answers the burning question: Why, when bad winter weather approaches, do people buy four staples: bread, milk, eggs and toilet paper?

Well, toilet paper is obvious. You don’t want to be relying on the 1966 Sears catalog when the power’s out and the cabinet is bare.

But bread? Milk? Eggs? Why not jugs of water (a favorite of hurricane preparation)? A case of beer? A box of Ding Dongs? Those amazing Japanese cans of food that cook themselves?

Lisa, putting her investigative chops to work, found the answers. The result is my Sunday read. It’s a short one, but so much fun — because it’s Lisa, and because it’s about French toast.

So the next time you feel a blizzard coming on, read this. You can even read it in the bathroom. Please eat your French toast in the kitchen, though.

Snow in Atlanta, panic on TV

moni-trader-joes
Photo by Moni Basu.

I just flew in from Philadelphia, and boy, are my eyes tired.

They’re tired because I should gotten back last night and spent the night in my own bed, getting a good night’s sleep. Instead I spent the night in Philadelphia and had to get up early this morning to catch a flight to Chicago and then another flight to Atlanta.

The reason? Fear of snow.

American Airlines canceled my 6:30 p.m. flight Friday because Atlanta was supposed to get socked with about four inches of the white stuff. (American must have had problems with crews; Atlanta-based Delta’s Friday night flights went through as usual.) Meanwhile, though Philly already had a couple inches on the ground, everything was hunky-dory.

In one respect, I can’t blame American. If they were watching TV news, they would have thought Armageddon was coming.

Atlanta does not handle snow well. This makes some sense; the city sees maybe one snowfall a year, and between unfamiliarity with frozen precipitation, a plethora of hilly, two-lane roads and the risk of fallen trees, the city can be easily brought to a standstill.

But the news doesn’t help.

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Sympathy for Brad Pitt

brad-angie-cover-2000

Overheard in a supermarket checkout line the other day:

“I knew that was going to bust up,” says one woman, looking at a gossip magazine with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie on the cover.

“Oh yeah,” replies another woman.

“He never should have left her,” the first woman says, referring to Pitt’s first wife, Jennifer Aniston.

They express some sympathy for Aniston and move on to other subjects.

I don’t know why this conversation bothered me. I don’t know Brad Pitt. I don’t know Angelina Jolie, for that matter. I don’t know their kids, or their friends, or the people Pitt worked with in New Orleans.

Perhaps their marriage was doomed. To look at the gossip magazines — who make their living off crap like this — you’d certainly think so, going all the way back in 2004-05 when they met.

And I also know that schadenfreude over stars’ misery is as common as air kisses at a Hollywood party, and Lord knows I’ve partaken of it. I understand the fascination with celebrities, who appear to be living the lives of attention and wealth that many of us desire, and thus I understand the secret glee when they fall off their pedestals and are revealed as being “just like us,” as the Us magazine feature says.

But I can’t find any joy in divorce, even among really famous people I don’t know. Maybe they’re shrugging it off as long overdue; maybe they’re in anguish. Either way, I’m not going to wag a finger and say, “I told you so.”

OK, I got that off my chest. Now, has something happened to the Kardashians?

 

 

 

Last night’s debate: Lukewarm take

It’s been more than 12 hours since the debate, so all the hot takes have been taken. Consider this, then, a lukewarm take:

  • Hillary Clinton was her usual self — usually focused, occasionally dodging, definitely prepared. Of all of her answers, I was most impressed with her response to abortion and women’s rights. You could hear this was an issue she not only knew inside and out but also felt in her soul. This was not the cautious and technocratic Clinton. Slate is right: This is why we need more women in politics.

This is about women, about us. It’s one of the major differences between this presidential election cycle and every other one. When men discuss abortion among themselves, as they do in far too many policy discussions, it takes on a detached air of philosophical principles. When Clinton’s on the stage, it becomes about flesh and blood: women’s bodies and their most private, sacred rights to determine the courses of their own lives.

  • Donald Trump started strongly — you could tell he’d actually prepared for this debate — but the man is incapable of letting a slight go. As with previous debates, when Clinton inserted the needle, Trump reacted. He even responded when Clinton pointed out that he was upset that he hadn’t won an Emmy for “The Apprentice.” Does he have a sense of humor about anything?

Though not the one in “A Sound of Thunder.” Please.