Tuesday, July 29, 2008

VI: Misses and Kisses

If sincerity is the new irony, Jason Anderson may be the new Nerf Herder. His songwriting takes the high points of Bruce Springsteen, Against Me!, and the Weakerthans and occasionally swirls it together with an unabashed appreciation for the howling choruses, soaring guitar solos, and ostentatious piano that make people love the 1980s despite its myriad failures as a decade.

Drama can hook an audience with any of a thousand lures, but the most irresistable are those that speak to our common experiences. On the surface, the most alluring are the ones that titillate and excite, but these can rarely sustain. Celebrity gossip rags kept a steady business, but it took Us Weekly's concept of photoessays and stories that concoct a shared reality of Hollywood starlets and the shoppers in Aisle 5 to make American celebrity culture inescapable.

The OC plays on the same tropes: drawing the viewer in with the aspirational visuals and trying to trick its audience into establishing a sympathy with the all-too-similar problems of its characters. Alcoholism, outsiders, marital issues, and, of course, love in the time of home rooms and hormones. However much the show concerns itself with teen romance, it never wholly succeeds in the telling the romances in which it seems so invested.

At the opposite end of the success spectrum, is Judd Apatow's Freaks and Geeks. Where The OC thrives on the melodrama of the extraordinary, Freaks basks in the stunning awkwardness of the everyday. Though each show has its archetypal nerd, their lives could be no more different. Seth is smart, tall, funny, unconventionally cute, and has zero friends or acquaintances despite having lived in the same place for a decade. Sam is short, awkward, and always accompanied by his only two friends on the planet. Seth Cohen might be confronted with preposterously imaginary choice between a bombshell in a Wonder Woman costume and an impossibly cute girl who drew him a personal comic book, but Sam Weir pines after the cheerleader and wins her heart by a season's worth of luck. Fine, Apatow may require the fairy dust of television for his character's chances, but that's as much use as he makes of it. Even though Sam gets the girl, he realizes that the girl he dreamed of dating isn't actually the girl that he wants to be dating, leading him to the far more interesting questions of where one goes after attaining all one's adolescent dreams, and as an adolescent no less, and shortly thereafter realizing that they're hollow.

The reason why Freaks and Geeks is such an infinitely more affecting show, and the reason why it still sits on Blockbuster's shelves while The OC has been consigned to the scrap heap, is that even though it strains credulity to believe that Cindy Sanders would deign to date Sam Weir, we can understand why she makes that decision. When the supposedly slutty Summer is revealed as a virgin, it's a shock, but not altogether mind boggling because we know so little about her. She chats with Marissa occasionally, but turned down Luke once, but that's about all we know. Cindy Sanders, by contrast, has gone through an epic romance with Todd Schellinger

Apatow's retellings of the trials and tribulations of high school romance are hardly flawless, but they're closer to most realities than The OC ever is, not that any portrayal could capture the reality of those moments - where Summer grabs Seth for the kiss at the close of Episode 6, or Sam and Cindy sit on the bed at the make out party at the close of "Smooching and Mooching" - but the closest might be the previously mentioned Jason Anderson.

With a photographic gift for imagery, Jason Anderson is one of the most refreshing songwriters around - someone who doesn't need to hind behind the irony or dismissiveness that has become de rigeur among most songwriters who seem afraid to let on that they care. Not only does he clearly, but he makes you feel like you should, too, regardless of what he's singing about. At his best, he paints pictures that, for all their exquisite detail, are expansive and universal in their emotion. "Watch Your Step," from 2008's The Hopeful and the Unafraid is one of those songs. In it, he manages to capture everything that inspires wonder and terror in first kisses, with a melody that's inescapable and a production that seems ripped from 1986. And all this before hitting the first chorus.

When Seth kissed Summer, we cheered. But it was a strange victory because it was so clearly insignificant - she quickly excused herself to talk to a banker, after all. When Sam Weir asks to kiss Cindy Sanders, we're rooting for him and grimacing at the same time, as we enjoy one of the most awkward television moments this side of Curb Your Enthusiasm. But more than that, we feel for Sam - his satisfaction when he finally does kiss her, and the nervous fear as she pounces on him to make with the necking. With Sam, we feel it because we were there, especially if we were more than a little bit Sam Weir at one point or another in our lives. But with Jason Anderson, we feel it because it's all of our lives.

Jason Anderson - Watch Your Step
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