The 20 Most-Read Village Voice Stories of 2009
Barring a massive surge of readership between now and Thursday night (and with Michael Musto half-naked on this week's cover, anything is possible), we can safely say that the following stories generated the most interest from our readers this year. (And watch out for #3 -- it's definitely Not Safe For Work!)
Going in reverse order:
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Once again, Sharyn Jackson provided Idol coverage this year at our music blog, Sound of the City, and interest peaked for the March 18 results show. The night before, Adam Lambert had bombed on Country Night, and it looked like he wasn't even going to make the final 11! As we all know, the mascaraed one ultimately placed second in the contest and then went on to greater glory pulling a guy's face into his crotch at the American Music Awards in November. (We still can't help wondering if that raunchy display was a direct response to Michael Musto's taunting of Lambert for trying to tamp-down his gayness on a cover shoot for Out magazine.)
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Roy Edroso hit a nerve with half a dozen stunning passages from Sarah Palin's bestseller that he somehow obtained before the book hit store shelves. There was this gem about election night, for example: I never heard so many bleepity-bleeps and blankety-blanks as I heard while I was waiting to go out on that stage in Phoenix. It was like I was at a dad-gum fancy-house in Fairbanks instead of a Republican Party event, and I tried to ask ol' John about it, but he was shaking his wife by the shoulders and talking in Vietnamese again, so I couldn't get any relief from him, and his minders were all poking at my family with sticks like they were bears and telling them things like, "Get back in your trailer, you stupid snowbillies."
"The most eagerly anticipated (as well as the most beleaguered) movie of the year (if not the century), Watchmen is neither desecratory disaster nor total triumph," announced our chief film critic J. Hoberman back in March. "In filming David Hayter and Alex Tse's adaptation of the most ambitious superhero comic book ever written, director Zack Snyder has managed to address the cult while pandering to the masses." Ouch. Well, for a list of what 2009 films Hoberman did like, check out his yearly top ten list (which this year went to 11!).
Over the last few weeks, genius music writers Maura Johnston and Christopher Weingarten counted down the 50 worst songs of the 00's. Naturally, the entry that drew the most attention was the absolute bottom of that stinky barrel, the very worst song of the entire ten-year span. And Johnston and Weingarten left no doubt how they felt about it: When "Big Yellow Taxi" appeared, it wasn't because Counting Crows didn't have any ideas. (Though it wouldn't be too surprising if Adam Duritz's pea-sized brain was 85% dreadlocks, 10% water, and 5% actress phone numbers.) "Big Yellow Taxi" exists because the same nation that re-elected President Bush and demanded a sequel to Beverly Hills Chihuahua practically pisses their sweatpants at the idea of a modicum of change. "Big Yellow Taxi" is a song that didn't need to be remade the first seven times, but Counting Crows figured it was easier to record it than rob a bank. It's Alvin & The Chimpmunks without CGI and shit-eating--except in the case of "Big Yellow Taxi," the CGI is the glossy purr of Vanessa Carlton, and the shit-eating happens whenever we have to hear this song at the dentist or at Walgreens or inside a dingy Guantanamo Bay cell.
In November, former Scientologist Marc Headley gave us one of the strangest looks yet inside L. Ron Hubbard's wacky sci-fi cabal when he described what it was like to be "audited" by none other than actor Tom Cruise. In his remarkable book, Blown for Good, Headley describes spending years at the church's secretive headquarters in the California desert. At one point, because he was so inexperienced, Headley was chosen as a guinea pig for Cruise to experiment on as he learned how to audit. (Cruise was coming off yet another hit movie in Days of Thunder.) In the book, however, Headley doesn't really describe that process, so we asked him to tell us what those sessions -- which lasted many hours over several days -- were like: "You do a lot of things with a book and a bottle," Headley says. "It's known as the book-and-bottle routine." Cruise, he says, would instruct Headley to speak to a book, telling it to stand up, or to sit down, or otherwise to move somewhere. "You do the same with the bottle. You talk to it. You do it with an ashtray too," he says. "You tell the ashtray, 'Sit in that chair.' Then you actually go over and put the ashtray on the chair. Then you tell the ashtray, 'Thank you.' Then you do the same thing with the bottle, and the book. And you do this for hours and hours." How culty!
MJ stopped breathing on a Thursday, which gave us just enough time to rip up our plans for the next issue and dedicate it to the gloved one. Without hesitation, we knew who to turn to for the centerpiece: longtime Voice writer Greg Tate. As we expected, Tate gave us a piece unlike anything else produced in the wake of Jackson's death, a gut-wrenching, soul-searching exploration into what MJ had represented and what he had meant to black America: From Compton to Harlem, we've witnessed grown men broke-down crying in the 'hood over Michael; some of my most hard-bitten, 24/7 militant Black friends, male and female alike, copped to bawling their eyes out for days after they got the news. It's not hard to understand why: For just about anybody born in Black America after 1958--and this includes kids I'm hearing about who are as young as nine years old right now--Michael came to own a good chunk of our best childhood and adolescent memories.
June's Queer Issue featured Winnie McCroy's polemic that Rachel Maddow represented an emerging, sexy butch chic. The TV host herself played down her influence in an accompanying Q&A: Since I first started doing TV, no matter what I said, the only thing anyone would talk about was what I was wearing and what I looked like. It's a visual medium, so that's part of it. But I don't think it's me more than others necessarily...I still feel like the most important decision that any individual gay person has to make in this country is to be out. And if you decide to be out, then your achievements end up redounding to your community. That's a real privilege and a humbling experience, and something that I hope is useful to other people.
Wow, did J. Hoberman like this film: Energetic, inventive, swaggering fun, Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is a consummate Hollywood entertainment--rich in fantasy and blithely amoral. And he liked it just as much when he put together his year-end top ten list (it came in at #9): I'll take Tarantino's essentially generous "Jewish porn" (as one participant crassly put it) any day over the mean-spirited "Nazi porn" (yes) of A Serious Man.
Plenty of news stories had been written about a group of Bushwick students who were arrested while on their way to the funeral of an 18-year-old in 2007. Almost immediately, the arrest was controversial: police described the youngsters as gang members out for revenge, but plenty of evidence suggested it was a peaceful procession, nearly all charges were dropped, and eventually some of the students even forced a settlement out of the city. Writer Elizabeth Dwoskin provided the surprising backstory: the NYPD had picked the wrong group of kids to hassle. At Bushwick Community High School, an inspiring teacher had spent years instructing students how to handle themselves during stop-and-frisks, and how to fight back at police harassment. And Dwoskin's story had its own strange twist: that same teacher soon found himself having to take his own advice.
The entire nation seemed transfixed by the Minnesota wedding party that choreographed their walk down the aisle to Chris Brown's Forever and posted the result to YouTube. But our Roy Edroso had the entertaining downside to that fairytale. It seems that groom Kevin Heinz and bride Jillian Peterson weren't ready for the media feeding frenzy in the big city. ABC flew the couple out for an appearance on Good Morning America,, but the newlyweds also offered to dance for NBC, not understanding the notion of exclusivity. Miffed, ABC rescinded the couple's airfare and hotel room: NBC, sensing a PR coup, stepped in to cover the couple's costs, but the poor country mice have apparently been soured on our town forever. "New York is cutthroat, that's what we've learned," says Heinz. And Peterson's mother says the bride is "done talking to the media." The media -- is there anything we aren't guilty of?
Our man in Texas, Robert Wilonsky, casts off his professional movie critic pose and goes for the gush in his review of J.J. Abrams's Star Trek reboot: Retooling Gene Roddenberry's hoary, winded pop-cultural warhorse, Abrams has scrubbed, polished, and turned the volume up to 11 with admiration and affection for the original series, but little of the die-hard's encased-in-amber reverence. And it turns out our readers were fascinated with the new Kirk as well, making this our most-read movie review of the year.
Music editor Rob Harvilla began his February Q&A with the elusive "Carles," proprietor of the blog Hipster Runoff, with a simple question: Who are you? What followed was a twisted and diverting dialogue, heavy on the meta, which contained responses like this, in response to Harvilla's query, "Are you the death of music criticism?": I think that the "music criticism economy" has changed somewhat in "the Internet age," though I don't even really remember life before the Internet. There are always going to be people who appreciate high-level analysis, but I don't think the generations after Gen-Y will have the intellectual capacity or even just the "ability to pay attention to something for more than 30 seconds." The perception of music criticism seems to have shifted to a "product review by someone who cares too much." It's pretty interesting to think about everything as a product listed on Amazon.com, and what information you need to evaluate that product to become an "educated consumer." I think that while our search for authentic, relevant music has never been more intense, we can't really help but view artists, albums, and concerts like they are a product on Amazon. I think I am just kind of like a link between "high-level ideas" and "people who only have a high school education."
Why did Roy Edroso label these misguided costumes the worst so far? Does that mean that he followed these up with even worse examples? (He did!) And wasn't he being overly harsh by calling these harmless costumes the worst available? (No, he wasn't!) Well, at least he wasn't able to come up with an even worse set of costumes later on. (Oh yes he did!)
Writer Elizabeth Dwoskin was stunned when she found Chinese laborers living in 64-square-foot cubicles for about $150 a month. With no ceilings, no kitchen, and only one bathroom on the floor, the living conditions at 81 Bowery seemed like something out of another era in New York's history. But the tale took an unexpected turn when Dwoskin spent time with 81 Bowery's owner, Donald Lee, who had his own tale of struggle and strife. Built originally as temporary housing for recent arrivals, the cubicles weren't intended for long-term living. But some residents have lived at 81 Bowery for more than 20 years, packing in additional bunks and cramming up to four residents in each tiny room -- so the original renter actually makes a profit. Who was scamming who, Lee asked?
Cartoonist Ward Sutton may have retired his regular strip, Sutton Impact, but his one-shots peppered the pages of the Voice all year long. There was his alternate history of Kurt Cobain, a review of Philip Roth's novel Indignation, his Shatnerrific review of the new Star Trek movie, and Let it Wii, Sutton's plea for more games like The Beatles: Rock Band. But nothing generated as much excitement as Sutton's graphic review of Sarah Palin's pallid autobio.
When we mentioned in October that actor and former Scientologist Jason Beghe was in Pittsburgh working on a new film directed by Paul Haggis, an eagle-eyed commenter pointed out that it was "weird" for a declared "suppressive person" like Beghe to be working with Haggis, a known, if low-key Scientologist. (Hubbard's minions are supposed to shun "SP's" like Beghe.) Sure enough, a few weeks later, we learned the rest of that story: Haggis dramatically quit the church after 30 years with a defiant letter to Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis. The letter was posted to the blog of another church defector, Marty Rathbun. "I am only ashamed that I waited this many months to act. I hereby resign my membership in the Church of Scientology," Haggis announced in what turned out to be one of the biggest blows in a rotten year of news for Hubbard's wacky sci-fi cohort.
Each Thursday, Alan Scherstuhl brings us another treasure from the many garage sales and thrift stores he picks through somewhere in an undisclosed location in the Midwest. (OK, it's Kansas City.) He calls his column Studies in Crap, and nothing fit that name better than this March entry, an audiobook which featured Bill O'Reilly reading his own 1998 campy thriller, Those Who Trespass. You won't believe your ears as you hear blowhard Bill-O intoning sweet nothings like "Say baby, put down that pipe and get my pipe up," or "Cup your hands under your breasts and hold them for ten seconds." And nothing compares to hearing Bill admit, "I wish I were a lesbian."
Michael Musto's amply-illustrated celebration of swimwear for the beachgoer-at-attention had remarkable, um, staying power. For weeks, it brought in the curious, who no doubt barely noticed that Musto had actually written something to go with the pictures (yes, he did, and we have proof: "If you're the type that gets turned on by being around various pools and beaches (and lifeguards), then these are just the accommodating bathing suits for you and your manhood. You never need to be embarrassed by sporting wood in public again!"). Thanks, Michael.
As 2009 began, the mainstream press was repeatedly telling us the same story about the worst financial collapse in our lifetimes: that we were all at fault, every one of us, for not paying our mortgages and otherwise spending beyond our means. (Some even wanted to blame the planet-wide crisis on black and hispanic Americans who had become homeowners for the first time.) No wonder readers responded strongly when author James Lieber called bullshit on that narrative in his January cover story, "Up in Smoke." Defaulted mortgages are a significant problem, but they make up only a tiny fraction of the threat facing the world's economy, Lieber explained. What had really brought the planet to its knees were complex transactions called credit derivatives -- in essence, huge global players had played craps with the world's finances, betting heavily that the housing bubble would burst. When our economies collapsed, these shadowy players cashed in -- and were now calling in their bets, counting on the anonymity granted in the government's massive bailouts. For weeks after its January publication, Leiber's indictment remained the most popular story on the Voice website, and the public discourse started to shift. Last month, Lieber delivered the knockout punch: now that there's widespread agreement that the economic collapse involved not just random chance but criminal behavior, where is the Obama administration's desire to prosecute?
Olson, still not reading your script
A History of Violence screenwriter Josh Olson is an old friend, and we've run his writing before -- in 2007, our sister paper LA Weekly published Olson's remarkable Internet love-story-gone-bad, "The Life and Death of Jesse James." This summer, Olson told us he'd written a rant about the screenwriting life that a specialist magazine had turned down. Would we like to read it? Fortunately, our response was not "I will not read your fucking article." In fact, we loved it, and asked if we could post it on our news blog, Runnin' Scared, mostly as a lark. What the hell, Olson said. Months after the piece went viral, Olson says he's now as well known in Hollywood for writing "I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script" as he is for penning an Academy Award-nominated script for David Cronenberg. Of the many responses to the piece, two stood out: Sci-fi author David Jerrold (who wrote the "Trouble with Tribbles" episode of the Star Trek original series, as well as many books, including Martian Child), came to Olson's defense, saying that if anything Olson was being too polite. And a reader in North Carolina provided a Seussian, verse version of Olson's rant, which Harlan Ellison then provided with a dramatic reading.
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