Monday, November 29, 2010

One Teen To Rule Them All

The ability to have millions upon millions of Americans eating out of the palm of your hand is not as challenging as one might think. Sure, it’s practically impossible for a regular Joe Schmo like you or me to achieve this (apologies to any non-Joe Schmo readers …although the chances are slim), but if you have reached an echelon of fame or achievement equal-to-or-greater-than one of the girls on Teen Mom, you have a shot to own the country, even if only for a few fleeting moments.

Basically, if you are somewhat talented, at least semi-attractive, and not a complete and utter moron, you can have a good chunk of society in your back pocket. And the longer you sustain these qualities, the longer you get to wear the crown. George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Halle Berry, Derek Jeter, Bruce Springsteen – every one of them is revered in this country. Yes, at varying moments their talent and appeal was undeniable. But they didn’t exactly have to maintain their peak of greatness to stay on top; they simply had to refrain from screwing anything up.

Not everyone will have the opportunity to sit among the American Pop Culture Kingdom. But the list of possibilities is a lot lengthier than you might imagine, and a candidate can sweep you off your feet without even realizing it.

Enter Taylor Swift, stage left.

Yes, the young Miss Swift is currently in the company of all-time pop culture greats like Clooney, Berry, and Springsteen. Whether you want to admit it or not, Swift has had America bowing at her feet for nearly half of a decade now. She wooed you without you even knowing it, just like Matthew McConaughey or Josh Duhamel would do in one of their crappy chick-flick movies…you know, where they start out as the sarcastic d-bag, who then turns out to have a troubled past or sensitive side, almost instantly forcing the girl to fall for them, before Matt or Josh inevitably screw something up, then apologize and talk about how the girl has completely changed their life in like a 32-hour span and that they can’t live without her, leaving the girl to give in to her romantic inhibitions while a cover of Cheap Trick plays in the background. Taylor Swift is McConaughey and Duhamel, while the rest of us are the B-list actress that almost subconsciously got swept off our feet.

And as is the case with most of those that find themselves in Swift’s position, she didn’t get their by accident. A series of smart decisions has allowed Swift to exploit her own blessings and talents in a way that makes her popularity and adoration practically a guarantee.

It started from the beginning. At a young age, I’m sure it became pretty obvious to those around her that Taylor Swift had talent. By about 14 or 15, a lot more people – more important people – began to notice the same thing. And while her talent and looks would have more than likely allowed her to shine and reach a prominent level of success in whatever path she chose, not every path was equal. In fact, the country-pop singer/songwriter path probably offered the highest ceiling, as long as Taylor was up for the job. So far, she’s nailed it.

Yes, Taylor Swift can sing, but she isn’t a top-tier melismatic singer like Alicia Keys or Mariah Carey; teen diva would not have been the best choice. And yes, Swift can play the guitar, but she isn’t an axe prodigy, which ruled out instrumental aplomb. And while she is certainly gorgeous, her look isn’t exactly that of a bombshell-pop-star look, like Brittany Spears had or Katy Perry perfected. And sure, she can write songs, but she isn’t Bob Dylan or Joan Baez, so she needed a trail where “obvious” and “cliché” would be embraced instead of abhorred. Plus, her young age (16 when she hit the scene) pretty much prevented her from going the slutty/crazy/kitschy route (see: Gaga, Lady), unless of course she wanted it to blow up in her face (see: Cyrus, Miley).

What Swift needed was a road that allowed for the perfect fusion of her young age, cute looks, promising but adolescent songwriting, and good-but-not-great singing and guitar-ing. Lo and behold, country music fit her like a glove.

Swift’s talents and appearance made country music the ideal avenue for her to pursue. Even her personality, which appears to genuinely be one of a sweet, nice, wholesome, “aw shucks” kind of girl, was exactly the type of persona that female country music stars shine with. Add all of that to the fact that her sound proved to be just “middle of the road” enough that she wasn’t too country not be mainstream (and vice versa), and her potential audience was bigger than normal. In seemingly no time at all, Taylor Swift grabbed that audience by the balls...which is of course a statement that Swift would immediately be taken aback and slightly disturbed by, before inevitably forgiving me with a kindhearted smile.

It didn’t take long for people to get hooked. Swift’s first single, entitled “Tim McGraw” (which was also genius), was an autobiographical song about a 16-year-old girl that is in love with her older boyfriend, but knows that he will soon have to move away and leave her behind – or in other words, the cocaine of teenage female country songs. When she followed that single with an album filled with songs about love, heartbreak, and feeling overmatched or misunderstood, she was a luminary. Every girl in the age range of 13-29 immediately took to Swift, feeling like her songs were written exactly for them. Every mother saw a little bit of their daughters in Swift, while at the same time reminiscing about their own lives and feelings at that age. Every father saw a potential role model that their daughters could look up to, and one that wouldn’t wind up making a sex tape or booting black tar heroin. And Taylor’s songs were just catchy and upbeat enough that every boy in the age range of 13-29 would crank up the radio and sing along while riding alone in their car or hide her songs on their iPod under a playlist titled "Gangsta Rap", and then of course never admit to it. She was a hit across the board.

Taylor Swift kept true to form even as the fame began to build. Despite millions of teenage boys drooling over her and millions of teenage girls wishing they could be her (or even just be friends with her), Swift was still able to churn out songs about being in love with guys that didn’t feel the same way, or being in a relationship that no one else could understand. And whenever there was even a hint of controversy or scandal, she was out in front of it so fast, it was nearly impossible for any backlash to get close to her.

When her (relatively) high-profile relationship with (somewhat) celebrity Joe Jonas began to crumble, she pumped out a song (“Forever & Always”) about how he had torn their relationship apart and left her heartbroken. She immediately became the victim, preventing any chance at a smear campaign in Tiger Beat or on Disney message boards. We’ve seen her repeat similar patterns with Taylor Lautner and John Mayer, always either playing the victim, getting out in front of the story, or some combination of the two. And never was she at the top of her game more so than at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards; the Kanye West incident became her masterpiece.

The story is well known: Swift wins an award for one of her music videos, Kanye crashes the stage during her acceptance speech and talks about how Beyonce should have won, and Taylor is left there on stage, the victim of Kayne’s heinous drive-by mic robbery. Swift never lashed out or said anything derogatory about West, but rather embraced the role of the wounded. People immediately leapt to the defense of Taylor, from Beyonce to the mainstream media. Did we make too big of a deal out of it? With most people, yeah, it probably would have been. But when notorious douche Kanye West embarrassed sweet and loveable Taylor Swift, America reacted like Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor again. In the months following the event, Swift went on every talk show, wrote a song about what happened, and accepted Kanye’s eventual apology. She couldn’t have played the situation any better than she did. She was golden.

This is essentially the way Taylor Swift has played out her whole career. She broke on to the scene as an adorable sweetheart; she handled fame by remaining an adorable sweetheart, avoiding any type of public scandal, and never saying anything stupid, insensitive, or offensive. It’s almost impossible for people to dislike her. Her target fan base (females of a mainly conservative middle-America) has eaten her up with a spoon, allowing her to spread that popularity to other demographics of the world. Her talents and brilliant choice of career path made her a star. Her subsequent behavior and decision making have kept things that way. She’s too sweet, too genuine, and (most importantly) too smart to screw things up. As D’Angelo Barksdale would say, “The King stay the King.”

People have become so enchanted with Taylor Swift that her fans immediately identify with her, embracing that her lyrics and songs speak the truth. It was the same thing that endeared people to Dylan, just now in a more upbeat and less sophisticated package. When Swift writes a song about a breakup or about being in love, we immediately associate that song with honesty. When she writes a song titled “Mean” about a journalist that was cruel and malicious, we side with Taylor, despite the fact that the majority of us have no clue how or why this journalist was being so mean. We have no evidence that her songs and lyrics are true or accurate or that her sweet personality is completely genuine, but we believe her anyway. She’s yet to give us a reason to assume otherwise.

It is popular in this country – in this society – to say that we hate predictability, hate playing it safe, and hate the politically correct, when in fact this is inherently false. We revere and worship those that are publically perfect and thrive on bashing and crucifying those that stumble and screw up. People like Taylor Swift, Tim Tebow, Phil Mickelson, and Will Smith are all evidence of this. There is a reason why Swift became the youngest to ever win a Grammy for Album of the Year (Fearless), and why she might be the only artist on the planet that can still sell a million albums in one week (Speak Now). Every decision she has made has been smart. Play it safe, and you get to wear the crown. Taylor Swift is living proof.

Swift will turn 21 in December of this year, only a few weeks away. Her young age makes her ascension into the Pop Culture Kingdom an amazing feat, while at the same time serving as a curse and a blessing. A curse, because she still has plenty of time to screw up, and a blessing, because she still has plenty of time to redeem herself if she does screw up. And if there is anything America loves more than a fairytale, it’s a redemption story. Either way, it certainly works in favor of Taylor Swift.

The King stay the King.

Thanks for reading

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Great Expectations

“Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There's no better rule.”

-Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

I’ve been trying for weeks to write something about the Cincinnati Bengals, but to no avail. Despite my throngs of readers and fans (umm...hi Mom) pleading with me for almost a month to give them something, anything, about what is going on in Bengaldom, I keep coming up empty. Every time I sit down to put words to my thoughts, it inevitably ends with me swigging hard liquor straight from the bottle while glaring at old pictures of Marvin Lewis, Carson Palmer, and Chad Ochocinco in a dimly lit room – and that’s no way to spend a Tuesday afternoon.

But the truth is, the 2010 Cincinnati Bengals are a bad, bad team. We may look good on paper and running around in pre-game warm-ups, but we can’t perform when it counts. This season was shot since Jump Street. The expectations were great, but the Bengals found a way to disappoint.

So what’s wrong with this team? How can we go from a 10-6 AFC North Division (sweeping) Title and playoff berth in 2009, to a pathetic 2-7 sham of a ballclub in 2010? A quick comparison of rosters from each season would only lead one to believe that the 2010 squad is more talented, more experienced, and more prepared for greatness – more prepared to fulfill those expectations. Things should be even better this year. But as Bill Parcells used to say, “You are what your record says you are.” Well our record says we suck…and it’s not wrong.

There are plenty of places to point fingers. You can point them at Carson Palmer (which I already spent 1,600+ words doing), who is an utter shell of his former self. He is still a great guy, hard worker, and physically gifted quarterback. But when the situation gets tight or a big play is needed, Palmer falters. Case in point: I was watching the Bengals and Steelers on Monday Night Football a couple weeks ago with my roommate John (not a Bengals fan). It was 3rd down with 15 to gain, when I said that I hoped the Bengals run a draw play or screen pass. John, believing I was being sarcastic because of the low probability of those plays resulting in a first down, asked if I hated when a team did something like that. I stated that I used to hate it, but that I would rather my team run the ball on 3rd and 15, as opposed to Carson throwing a pass into triple coverage that gets picked off.

Well, guess what happened. Carson airmailed a pass into triple coverage…and it was picked off. Not 15 seconds after I specifically stated what I thought (or knew) would happen, it did, just as I said it would. John was shocked. Unfortunately, I was not.

But I’ve spent enough time on Palmer, and he’s not the only one deserving of blame. Because as bad as Palmer’s play has been, it has certainly been aided by his ring leaders at wide receiver, and the circus act that is the play calling.

I was hesitant about the signing of Terrell Owens this offseason, especially when we already had the loose cannon of Chad Ochocinco. True, both players are extremely talented wideouts that will play hard to get catches and win football games. But when the passes aren’t coming their way and the points aren’t piling up on the scoreboard, the frustration of each comes out. Chad is another guy I’ve spent plenty of words on in the past, and I still think he is a great person that works hard and wants to win. But he drops waaaaayyyy too many passes, doesn’t always run crisp routes, and his frustration becomes slightly destructive when the team struggles. I understand (and even appreciate) the fact that he shows emotion, but I would much prefer that he took it out on opposing defenses instead of his own team. And while he still attracts double teams and can make spectacular plays, he’s not the player he once was, and he might be the last to realize it.

TO, on the other hand, is a little more complex than Mr. Ocho. I think TO is a great player that still has the capacity to be a great receiver. I think he plays hard, and I think he wants to win. But I think he makes up his own routes at times, and his body language when things go bad is equivalent to that of a preschooler. And the thing about TO that really hurts the team is his lack of willingness to make the tough catch. He can fly by and through defenders with ease, but if a pass isn’t within 6 inches of his chest, he’s not trying too hard to haul it in. He has chronic alligator arms, and if it is not a relatively easy catch for him to make, he doesn’t put much effort into doing so.

Even still, the characters at wide receiver and shaky QB sure aren’t getting any help from the gameplan. The offense has become so stagnant and predictable that most Bengals fans can guess the next play call before it is even made. No trick plays, no creativity, and heaven forbid we run a play action pass. The amount of talent you have on your team (or even lack thereof) is irrelevant if you can’t keep the opposing defense somewhat in the dark. And if I can sit in my living room and know what play is coming, then I’m sure a bunch of NFL coaches can too.

Unfortunately, the blame train doesn’t stop there. The Bengals feasted on their run game last season, making up for the failings of the pass game by grinding out the clock and holding possession. The defense finished 4th in the NFL in 2009, with lock-down coverage and sure tackling. This season, the run game has faltered, and the fact that we are always playing from behind doesn’t help to get it going. The defense, despite only adding talent, looks like a completely different unit, unable to pressure the quarterback, prevent big plays, or get big stops. And of course the sputtering offense leaves the defense in bad field position and always catching their breath, so it’s really just a vicious circle of hell all around. Add in injuries, stupid penalties (which this squad attracts like a magnet) and shoddy special teams play, and it’s no wonder we look a lot better on the depth chart than we do on the field.

And yet, all that I’ve said still doesn’t clarify why such a formidable and successful team last year has taken such a drastic fall this season; it explains the “what”, but doesn’t really get to the “why”. Why is this team failing in every facet in which it succeeded last season? Why are we committing dumb penalties? Why is the play calling so elementary? Why is the defense and run game crumbling? Why is our quarterback – and on a larger scale – our team, choking in big moments and continually coming up short???

Expectations, that’s why.

If you’ve watched the Bengals this season, then you know that we are arguably the best team in NFL history…when we get down by three scores. Palmer gets in a rhythm, the offense clicks, the blocking tightens, the defense gets big stops, and the team starts to look like we hoped it would. Carson is throwing bombs to our high profile receivers like it’s 2005 all over again, the line is opening huge holes for Ced Benson to plow through, the defense is hitting the quarterback, the secondary is locking down receivers, and the coaching staff starts to show some gumption.

And then you look at the scoreboard and realize that half the game has already gone by, and that a couple good possessions doesn’t put you back in the lead. It happens like clockwork. We get down by 20 or so, mount a comeback, and then come up short. We wait until the pressure is completely gone, claw our way back, and then coddle into the fetal position once things get intriguing. The 2010 Bengals are always flirting with victory, but still end up going home alone at the end of the night, a tease that can’t seal the deal when it counts.

Last year’s Bengals were coming off a four win season with no expectations of greatness. Winning tight games and shocking opponents was easy, because no one ever saw it coming. But once the target was on our backs, with people buzzing about back-to-back playoff appearances and a shot at a Super Bowl run, the Bengals buckled, crumbled, and collapsed. In the words of Public Enemy, “Don’t believe the hype.”

But somehow, it still gets to me. Regardless of everything I’ve told you, it still tears me up week after week to watch my team waver. I enter the game accepting of their faults and expecting them to struggle, and yet it still sticks in my craw all the same. It’s like watching The Perfect Storm over and over, and still being shocked and upset every time that little boat gets demolished out at sea.

Eventually, things will turn around for the Cincinnati Bengals. (Really, they will.) It’s why I hang around, and why every fan of every sport hangs around through tough times. And when the tide does finally turn in our favor, it will undoubtedly be worth it. It just won’t be this season.

The Bengals have some major decisions in the near future – coaching, personnel, and attitude decisions. Maybe things will change. Maybe next year, when the heat has died off and expectations are far from great, the team can turn it around. Maybe they can change their fortunes for the next five years. Maybe even 10. Either way, I’ll rely more on proof than hype, more on the walk than the talk. Expectations are wasted if the evidence can’t live up to them.

There’s no better rule.

Thanks for reading