May 23, 2019

UNDER THE SUN: The 2019 Summer Playlist


Before everyone goes their separate ways for the long Memorial Day weekend, please direct your attention to the 40+ songs I've gathered for your listening pleasure. Your pool party, barbecue, and/or beach trip will thank you.

"But Hiko, what are your favorites?" Ah, glad you asked.

Well, Lizzo is a given. KAYTRANADA is delivering some really good W Hotel lounge vibes with "Dysfunctional," P!nk is always a mainstay (see: "Can We Pretend" featuring Cash Cash), and former Glee star Kevin McHale has an adorably breezy number called "Help Me Now."

So go ahead, help yourself to all of this:

@TheFirstEcho

May 16, 2019

Belinda Carlisle Taught Me How To Ice Skate


Saturday afternoons during the winters of 1989 through 1992 were usually reserved for visits to the Hommocks Park Ice Rink in Mamaroneck where my plump 10-year-old ass quickly grew familiar with the cold, hard surface of the frozen ground.

I assumed the main purpose for these excursions was to tear me away from the TV and work some cardio into my weekend schedule. Naturally, I didn't take to the ice well at first. Plus, the brown faux-leather rental skates pinched my extra wide feet.

"You've got pork chop feet, just like me and your father," my mother used to tell me. Great. Why couldn't I have inherited something more useful like, I don't know, maybe a million-dollar trust fund?

Anyway, these contraptions were more like laced-up torture devices designed for little boys who wished to spend their Saturdays sitting on the couch with a few reruns of The A-Team and Knight Rider and settling into the evening with new episodes of The Golden Girls and 227. I never felt such throbbing pain.

"You gotta be shitting me," I muttered as I stood up from the bench, watching other children run around with their friends and beg their parents for some greasy fries (the frozen-in-a-bag kind) and hot chocolate (basically Swiss Miss packets) from the snack bar where some sullen teenager tried to keep up with the demands of the hungry families of Westchester County.

Today it was just me and my father. It was usually just me and my father. "Don't look down at your feet," he would tell me as I inched my way into the crowd of skaters. "Just look ahead...and go."

I did just that. I kept my head up and watched everyone whoosh past me on the rink. Moms with their daughters. Hockey jocks in jerseys. Hand-holding couples (yuck). Teens in sweatshirts covered with the faces of New Kids on the Block. And that one asshole -- there's one on every rink -- who just has to speed through and show off his slick moves. My chubby little body never tensed up as much as it did when I attempted to glide across the ice and enter the stream of people. Sometimes my father rented a pair of skates and joined me, but he wasn't perfect on the ice either. And sometimes he just watched me from the bleachers, probably itching to get out of there so he could drag me to the Japanese grocery store in White Plains and stock up on dried seaweed and fermented soybeans (nattō) that always stunk up the kitchen and drove my mother mad.

But his simple, straightforward advice helped. After a few laps, one hot chocolate, and several minutes of watching the Zamboni do its thing on the ice, I got the hang of it.

What also helped me find my confidence on the ice was the mix of pop music the DJ would pump through the speakers inside the rink. One song on heavy rotation at the time was Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven Is A Place On Earth." The playful vocals of the former Go-Gos frontwoman had a hold on me. I couldn't get it out of my head. The empowering chorus got me pumped. I skated faster and faster around the rink, my eyes focused on what was ahead of me, my ears absorbing the synths and lyrics. My feet stopped throbbing. I soared across the ice, determined, inspired, invincible.

In my mind, I envisioned a chorus line of skaters moving in a lively, choreographed rhythm behind me, everyone waving their hands in the air and singing along. "Ooh, baby, do you know what that's worth? Ooh heaven is a place on earth! Ooh heaven is a place on earth! Ooh heaven is a place on earth..."

This wasn't the first time my head was filled with a fantasy musical number. Since the age of 6 (as far back as I can remember), whenever I heard a particular tune, I've always had a tendency to daydream about music videos in which I, or friends of mine, would take center stage. You know, like when Renee Zellwegger's Roxie Hart imagined herself singing "All That Jazz" in the opening scene of Chicago...or when Christina Aguilera's Ali pictured herself covered in diamonds in the first act of Burlesque. I envisioned my elementary school classmates performing in elaborate sequences to songs that included George Michael's "Careless Whisper," Tiffany's "I Think We're Alone Now," and of course, Madonna's "Like a Prayer."

Needless to say, whenever I hear Belinda Carlisle's fantastic contribution to 80s pop, I can't help but think of Hommocks Park, lacing up those skates, and soaring around that rink as if I were some overweight, half-Asian pop star ready to dominate on MTV.

It's no secret that songs have a way of taking us back to particular moments in time - weddings, first dates, high school dances, the first time you rode in your mom's new car...and I have plenty mentally filed away that come out every so often when I hear a certain melody, beat, or lyric. For instance...


"Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana - Riding the Mind Scrambler at Playland Park. The operator of this indoor attraction also acted as a DJ, which I thought was such a cool gig at the time. He must have had a thing for Kurt Cobain, because every time my friends and I got on, it felt as if we were in a psychedelic mosh pit. We would spin around while everyone screamed out the chorus and thrashed their heads. If you had asked me back then, I would've preferred something by La Bouche or The Real McCoy.

Amy Grant's "Every Heartbeat" takes me back to the summer of 1993 during which I spent two weeks at Campus Kids, an overnight summer camp based on a small college campus somewhere in Pennsylvania (hence the name). Armed with an ancient tape cassette player and a snazzier-looking Aiwa portable player, I replayed the song over and over - on the bus ride there, in my room (which I adorned with a Jurassic Park poster) and anywhere else I could. My roommates included a socially awkward 13-year-old who violently tossed and turned in his sleep and a chubby Hispanic kid who made the mistake of swallowing a cup full of mouthwash and burning his esophagus one morning.

"My Heart Will Go On" by Celine Dion - Picture it: Four 17-year-old boys. In my father's Toyota Camry. Lip syncing for their lives. Introducing...the young men of Iona Preparatory.

"All That She Wants" by Ace of Base - Eighth grade. Jeanette Tanner's birthday party. I first heard this song with the rest of my classmates at Westchester, the nightclub her family had rented out for the occasion. My obsession grew shortly thereafter. "Don't Turn Around" became a prominent track on the first mixtape I ever made later that summer.

"Self Control" by Laura Branigan - My mother's friend once owned a house with a pool next door to a cemetery. One night -- it must have been the summer of 1984, a bat had flown into the enclosed backyard, sending everyone running for cover. As a little boy, I kept picturing fangs ripping into my neck and claws scratching my eyes out. I vaguely remember scraping my knee on the concrete deck while trying to scramble out of the pool. Laura Branigan must have been playing on a nearby radio at the time, because whenever I hear this song, I'm transported back to that creepy night. Luckily, back then, I never saw the equally creepy music video, directed by The Exorcist's William Friedkin; my pre-school ass would've had nightmares for days (don't even get me started on Michael Jackson's "Thriller").

@TheFirstEcho

May 15, 2019

Pop Culture Rant of the Week: Clapbacks, Stans, and Cancel Culture Are Ruining Us


At the end of 2018, Wynter Mitchell, a digital strategist and panelist on one of my favorite podcasts, Pop Rocket, expressed her frustration with stan culture:


I can't agree more.

Simply put, that cesspool Mitchell calls the internet has infected us. It's no secret that social media has changed the way we live our lives. We know -- or we think we know -- everything about classmates we haven't seen since the 90s. Reactions are more instant. Movements are galvanized faster. As a result, the way we treat and regard each other, especially across these platforms, hasn't necessarily changed for the better. And at the risk of sounding like a "get off my lawn"-screaming retiree, this is especially applicable to a certain generation that came of age during the era of snaps, likes, follows, and subscribes.

Many things have been written about the dangers of stan culture, especially when it comes to the role of critics in pop culture. (I won't reiterate it here; you can read the great articles I just hyperlinked.)

Back in 2017, before the term even entered my vocabulary, I started to recognize just how much traction stan culture was gaining. That was the year MTV's VMA ceremonies were particularly feisty. There was enough shade thrown around to fill several episodes of The Real Housewives of Atlanta.


This was the year Fifth Harmony flung a body double of former member Camila Cabello off a platform -- clearly symbolic of the girl group's feelings about the singer's abrupt departure. Then, there was the debut of Taylor Swift's video for "Look What You Made Me Do," the lead single from her highly-anticipated Reputation. It was chock-full of reactionary references and imagery designed as a message to her haters and so-called enemies. (Apparently Taylor can't "shake it off," and if you ask me, the song should've been retitled "The Petty Anthem.") Meanwhile, unfunny host Katy Perry took a shot at Justin Bieber for forgetting the lyrics to "Despacito," Adam Levine tweeted about how "utterly horrible" the show was, and Girls Trip star and presenter Tiffany Haddish took to the mic to express to her "stupid-as-hell exes" just how much she is "out here killing the game."

The behavior inside the The Forum that night perfectly demonstrated where we were -- and still are -- in popular culture. The venue became its own cesspool, filled with celebrities on the offensive. And all of the clapbacking on display were arguably symptoms of a stan culture that has affected not only the constantly consuming public but the celebs who find themselves on the receiving end of such intense worship.

These are the pop artists who are rapidly built up by their rabid fans and regularly find themselves in the middle of Twitter feuds exacerbated by their overly expressive base. Just ask Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez, or Shawn Mendes... Well, you can't literally ask them. But you can take a gander at their feeds on any given day of the week to see what shit stirrers are flinging insults (usually misspelled, with poor grammar) at fans of other artists, daring each other to "@ me." It's an endless cycle in which everyone feeds off each other's shittiness.

If I hear one more singer reductively say how she has "the best fans in the world," I'm going to throw my brand new MacBook Air off my bedroom terrace.

And God forbid one of those celebs or anyone in the public eye makes a faux pas, because only then will a few loud people convince thousands if not millions of others to "cancel" that someone. Even after an obligatory apology tour. Yes, we're all in agreement when we say we're canceling someone as heinous as R. Kelly, but canceling, say, a YouTuber because he ignorantly wore a T-shirt brand that was made by an indigent seven-year-old in Thailand is taking it too far. Are you really going to unsubscribe from his channel and unfollow him on Twitter and Instagram? What if he really didn't know what it meant? What if he received the shirt as a gift from his great-grandma who is now in hospice and can only eat solids through a straw?

No one cares about the nuances of someone's circumstances because no one wants to take the time to learn about them. You're either awesomely untouchable, the greatest of all time...or you're a dumb, flaming trash heap who deserves the thousands of death threats you receive. And there's plenty of people who will agree with you because we're all shouting into one big digital echo chamber on a daily basis. Folks, therein lies the endangerment of empathy.

God, where the hell am I going with this?...

As someone who is a passionate fan of many things, it is somewhat difficult to indict others of taking their fandom way too far. I too have been guilty of reactionary posts (you're reading one), contributing to the vitriol, and negatively commenting on something I disagree with (see the aforementioned jab at Taylor Swift). In fact, some bloggers, journalists, and those in between have made a living doing just that. They have even come up with a term to describe such opinionated writings: the thinkpiece. It sounds nice, doesn't it? It's a great portmanteau that can be used to disguise someone's disdain or disgust as a reasonably intelligent and articulate argument.

And if you don't like anything I'm saying...well, you can just @ me.

@TheFirstEcho

#TBT: The Summer of 1999 Mixtape


It's scary to realize how clearly I can remember the summer of 1999.

I returned to New York from my freshman year at Boston University, took a job working for my uncle's collecting agency, and soon quit thereafter when I realized I was better suited to work behind the stacks of the New Rochelle Public Library (go figure). That summer also saw my first trip to Vegas (I have a souvenir photo of the Hilton's Star Trek Experience as proof) and marked the first time I traveled to L.A. to visit my cousin -- three years before I ever entertained the idea of being a full-time resident of the City of Angels.

But most importantly, the summer of 1999 represented something else: the height of the Teen Pop Boom, the heyday of boy bands and pop princesses who made frequent appearances on MTV's TRL countdown.

In other words, it was a glorious time to be alive.

@TheFirstEcho

May 01, 2019

Meals with Grandma: The Adventurous Appetites of a 9-Year-Old


As an only child, and as the baby in my entire extended family for a good chunk of a decade, I was surrounded by a lot of adults. Therefore I quickly learned how to eat like one.

The children’s menu at most restaurants usually say they’re for “kids 11 and under,” but I was ordering from the “adult menu” well before I turned twelve. I like to think that I was a prodigy when it came to dining out, that I accelerated through my food education so that I could order with the rest of the grown-ups. While other kids my age were munching on chicken fingers and fries (How juvenile!), I was enjoying seafood platters and pasta dishes named after famous Italians I couldn’t properly pronounce.

This was no more apparent than when I was with my grandmother. While being raised by two working parents in the gloriously gluttonous 1980s, a memorable amount of my New York childhood was spent with the only grandparent I knew. This involved numerous day trips and numerous tasty meals throughout much of the Tri-state area.

My grandma, Grace Riehm (nee Gibbs), was born on December 21, 1921 into an Irish Catholic family with twelve children on the outskirts of New York City. (Those East Coast immigrants sure knew how to populate the country.) She married a handsome German boy named George Riehm, and at the age of twenty-two, she gave birth to the first of seven children who would collectively give her twelve grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren throughout her lifetime. Holiday gatherings were never quiet.

Since I was the youngest (and only) kid in the family during the entire duration of the Reagan administration, I was fortunate enough receive most of Grandma’s loving attention. I spent many afterschool sessions constructing highways and shopping center parking lots with my Hot Wheels and Matchbox miniatures on the pea-soup-green carpet of her apartment while glancing up at the TV set every now and then to see what dramas were unfolding on General Hospital. Perhaps this is what had instilled in me a deep appreciation for a good, soapy plot twist.

Before my parents arrived to pick me up and take me home, she would cook me dinners that appeared to follow a consistent weekday schedule. Macaroni and cheese – the boxed kind, with that toxic-orange-colored powder – was often served on Mondays. Grandma’s personal touch: adding a can of peas to the mix. Gotta get my serving of vegetables somehow. Fried pork chops with sauerkraut and apple sauce were usually reserved for Wednesdays. Other days featured a rotation of cheeseburgers smothered in tomato sauce with instant mashed potatoes, fried filet of flounder (her specialty) with more mashed potatoes, and spaghetti with Ragu. (I never had a home-cooked Italian meal that didn’t involve sauce from a jar.) I should also mention that there was never a slice of bread or a biscuit that wasn’t slathered in butter in that first floor apartment on Centre Avenue.

I’m salivating just writing that last paragraph.


Dining out with Grandma was always a little adventure in itself. Shopping mall food courts were a given, but they were also child’s play. For instance, the White Plains Galleria offered plenty of options, but it was a restaurant inside the mall called Mr. Greenjeans that provided some memorable meals. Known for their oversized drinking glasses and very 80s décor (random road signs, blinking traffic lights, neon grid lighting), Mr. Greenjeans was where I experienced my first Caesar salad. The garlicky creaminess of the dressing made quite an impression on me, and I felt like I could eat salads for the rest of my life – so healthy, right? I got a slight thrill seeing our server’s reaction when he took my order.

“And what can I get for the young gentleman?” he asked.

“I’ll have the Caesar salad with grilled shrimp and extra dressing on the side,” I told him with the confidence of a high-powered businessman who just landed a promotion after snorting cocaine (again, the 80s).

I clearly caught the guy off guard, bypassing the kids menu for an item usually reserved for Westchester housewives taking a break from the sale racks at JCPenney.

“Oh, okay,” he replied, scribbling it down on his pad.

I could imagine him silently judging my order: This kid doesn’t know what he’s getting into. What eight-year-old orders a shrimp Caesar salad?

He glanced at Grandma for a second as if he expected her to clarify the order and tell him what I really wanted, as if this were some kind of restaurant game of pretend in which little boys order like grown-ups. Little did this guy know what my appetite was capable of.

“I’ll have the chicken club,” Grandma told him, “with a cup of the vegetable soup. And an iced tea.”

“Will that be all?” our server asked, holding out for the possibility that I might change my mind.

“I’ll have a Diet Coke with a side of lemon,” I told him. “Please.” And drop the condescending tone, I thought.

Such exchanges were common in other restaurants Grandma and I visited. If I ordered something that appeared to be on the children’s menu, I always had to clarify that I wanted the “regular, adult version.” There was no way I was going to subject myself to the pitiful portions that came with the kids’ meals at some of these places.


The Ground Round was known for serving a basket of popcorn at each table while you waited for your meal. We’d usually go through two baskets before our orders were served. Every so often Grandma would like to splurge and order a steak with a loaded baked potato. Sometimes she treated butter like the Elixir of Life and went through several little packets to accentuate her meal. Naturally I did the same and joined her in this buttery binge before my cheeseburger arrived.

The Ground Round on Central Avenue in Yonkers was also where I had a surprise party for my sixth birthday. My mother had invited my entire kindergarten class to celebrate. Chicken fingers were consumed. A girl vomited into a basket of popcorn. A clown was hired to make balloon animals. And I made out like a bandit, bringing home a shitload of gifts that made Christmas seem like a pitiful, distant memory.


Friendly’s was another regional chain of family-friendly restaurants that was a frequent stop during my many outings with Grandma. Whether it was lunch or dinner, dessert was always a must. The signature strawberry sundae was one of my childhood vices. Three scoops of creamy ice cream, topped with thick strawberry sauce, whipped cream, chopped nuts, and of course, a Maraschino cherry. As I got older I dared to try to “super-sized” sundae every so often (five scoops of deliciousness with double the toppings). There were never any leftovers. In fact, 99% of the restaurants I visited as a child never involved the taking home of food I couldn’t finish. I always left with a clean plate, something I probably inherited from my Japanese father, a man who never met a meal he didn’t inhale in one complete swoop.

One of Grandma’s neighbors, a kind and bespectacled woman I called Ms. Parker, sometimes dropped by and joined us for one of our trips to the mall or a nice seafood meal out on City Island in the Bronx. She lived on the sixth floor of Grandma’s apartment building and always waved to me from her bedroom window during my morning walks to school. She owned a cream-colored 1970 Chevy Nova that she hardly used. It sat in the same spot outside the building in the large parking lot that was used by most of the businesses of downtown New Rochelle. When I turned 16, there was a brief mention about me inheriting the car. That never happened. It was probably for the best; there was no cassette tape deck I could use to blare my many Spice Girls and Alanis Morissette mixtapes on the way to school.


One outing with Ms. Parker and Grandma involved a short drive to City Island to have dinner at Crab Shanty, an Italian-style seafood establishment that was known for its fantastic garlic bread. When I was nine, and when I knew there was a Crab Shanty dinner in my near future, I made sure my appetite was prepared to take on the Shanty’s many offerings. However, the aforementioned garlic bread was usually my downfall. Because I was so hungry I would usually eat two or more buttery slices before the salads came out, and by the time my shrimp or lobster linguini came out, my stomach was nearing its capacity of bread and blue cheese-drenched lettuce. But I soldiered on, eating my meal as if it were the last meal of my life. I savored every damn bite.

“My word! He eats like a grown-up!” Ms. Parker exclaimed upon seeing me do everything but lick the Alfredo sauce off my dish to make sure nothing was left. This was probably her polite way of saying, “Jesus, Grace! You sure feed this boy well! No wonder he’s so plump!”

I just sat there as Ms. Parker patted my head and smiled at me. I wasn’t sure if I was being congratulated for a job well done, being praised for such a grown-up accomplishment, or being condescendingly criticized for my eating habits. Either way, I could feel myself blush. I didn’t know how to react. I could have responded, “Thanks, Esther. You should see what happens when you put me in front of a chocolate chip ice cream sandwich!” Or maybe, “Mind your business, Esther. Just finish your damn clam chowder and be grateful that Grandma is paying for both of us.”

Ms. Parker was so impressed by my enormous appetite and ability to consume an amount of food that would make Jabba The Hut gag that Grandma thought it was funny to share Ms. Parker’s reaction with the rest of the family. The consensus was that I had a “healthy appetite, and thank God I wasn’t a picky eater like some of those spoiled brats you see in restaurants.”

Grandma passed away at the youthful age of 93. The last meal we shared was a Christmas dinner, cooked by my mother, in the dining room where we had shared numerous dinners and store-bought desserts throughout 28 years. (Shout out to Entenmann’s coffee cake!) Her appetite wasn’t what it used to be, but that didn’t mean she could resist a tasty buttered roll.

However, my last memory of her involves swinging by that same first-floor apartment – that pea-soup-green carpet had been replaced in the late 90s with a plush coral that would only fade and brown from foot traffic – on my way to the airport to catch my flight back to L.A., just three days after the holiday. I hugged her as she sat on the edge of her bed, half-eaten toast left on a small tray, the volume of her TV turned up and tuned in to a Christmas episode of Hot in Cleveland. It was just like any other goodbye. A delicate embrace, a kiss, and an obligatory “take care of yourself.”

But it was the final one, and I’m very grateful that I was given that chance to experience it.

I’m also very hopeful that she is enjoying that grand, all-you-can-eat buffet in the sky. Buttered rolls and all.

@TheFirstEcho

April 19, 2019

Just Because: 9 Music Videos That Take Place in Laundromats


It's one of the biggest music video tropes that's rarely explored in pop culture.

The public laundromat has become a go-to location for artists when making a music video for a single they wish to sell to the masses.

But WHAT IS IT about a space where ragtag groups of strangers gather to fluff and fold their delicates? Is it the obvious metaphor of dirty versus clean? The scintillating possibility of people stripping off their clothes for a wash?

I was feeling a little nostalgic (as usual) and took a look at some of the vids that have fallen under the spell of spin cycles over the past 30 years...

"EVERY HEARTBEAT" / AMY GRANT (1991)

Back in the early 90s, the Christian pop tart followed up her massively successful "Baby Baby" with "Every Heartbeat," a personal childhood favorite of yours truly (the Body & Soul Mix, of course). In one of the two vignettes featured in the video, a laundry-toting hottie attempts to flirt with a young woman who refuses to fall for his cheap tricks (even though he does look good in glasses...and that white tank top).


"LAUNDROMAT" / NIVEA (2001)

The R&B songstress teamed up with He Who Shall Not Be Named (it's R. Kelly, duh) to sing about a cheating scrub, here played by...Nick Cannon!?


"JULIET" / LMNT (2002)

This music video from 2002 sees each member of the short-lived, multiethnic boy band fantasize about the young women who walk into the laundromat where they all look bored as hell while singing into the camera's fish lens. (Maybe it's because they realized how silly "I think you're fine, you really blow my mind" sounds after one too many choruses.) Of course they give the Asian-looking dude some kung fu choreography for his Matrix sequence. And...holy shit, is that Jamie-Lynn Sigler from The Sopranos?


"FALLING STARS" / SUNSET STRIPPERS (2005)

This remix of Boy Meets Girl's 1988 classic "Waiting for a Star to Fall" was on heavy rotation for me in the mid-aughts. It brings back memories of Red Bull-fueled Thursday nights at Tigerheat in Hollywood. God I miss my twenties...


"ONE LESS LONELY GIRL" / JUSTIN BIEBER (2009)

I...I'm not gonna even bother with this one.


"DTF" / ADORE DELANO (2014)

A trashtastic piece that features Instagram thirst trap Max Emerson getting dickmatized by the former RuPaul's Drag Race finalist:


"MY HEAD IS A JUNGLE" (MK REMIX) / WANKELMUT & EMMA LOUISE (2014)

21st century Eurodance music turns a drab laundromat into a hoppin' discoteque!


"SOME KINDA WONDERFUL" / BETTY WHO (2017)

Betty Who even took over a local fluff-and-fold for the lead single off her second album The Valley. The alluring pink hue throughout the second half could almost make a casual viewer mistake it for a Virgin America safety video.


"JUST GOT PAID" / SIGALA (2018)

And then there's Sigala's 2018 single, "Just Got Paid," featuring Ella Eyre, French Montana and Meghan Trainor. Because one celebrates payday with several loads of laundry surrounded by strangers, right? And is that a roll of quarters in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

@TheFirstEcho

March 31, 2019

Nearing the End of My 30s


With age comes an increased indifference.

And during my birthday this year, I realized I am now old enough to have a kid college (But seriously, who wants kids these days? Why add another carbon footprint to the earth?) I am also old enough let certain things fall to the wayside.

Just how old? Allow me to illustrate...

I am fast-forward-through-the-musical-guest-on-SNL years old.

I am everyone-on-social-media-is-insufferable years old.

I am if-Pete-Buttigieg-gets-elected-there'll-be-a-POTUS-younger-than-me years old.

I am crushing-on-MSNBC-correspondents years old.

@TheFirstEcho

March 28, 2019

'Go' Turns 20: A Look Back at the Script, Soundtrack, and Timothy Olyphant's Abs


In the spring of 1999, my freshman year of college was nearing its end. My initial taste of dorm life resulted in being fifteen pounds heavier, experimenting with a goatee (I know), and getting my hands on any plaid button-down American Eagle had in stock (screw you, Abercrombie).

The spring of 1999 shall also be remembered as the time I was introduced to one of the few movies that left an impact on me as a young adult -- and no, I'm not talking about The Matrix, which opened on my birthday that year.

Go, directed by Doug Liman (Swingers) and written by John August (Big Fish), was released on April 7, 1999 during the height of drug-fueled raver films at the turn of the new millennium (Groove, Human Traffic, etc.), tapping into a nervous energy that permeated pre-Y2K America.


The movie's cast was a venerable who's-who of late-90s It Boys and It Girls: Katie Holmes (fresh off the first season of Dawson's Creek), Taye Diggs (fresh off Broadway's Rent and post-How Stella Got Her Groove Back), Scott Wolf (wrapping up five seasons on Party of Five), comedian and SNL alum Jay Mohr, Scream 2 suspect Timothy Olyphant, twink-adjacent Clueless vet Breckin Meyer, and Canadian actress Sarah Polley, who was making a splash on the indie scene. It also features a blink-or-you'll-miss-it appearance by a then-unknown Melissa McCarthy (a friend of August's at the time).

"Just so we're clear, you stole a car, shot a bouncer, and had sex with two women?" - Singh

The film is distinctly split up into three acts, each one following a character whose story is connected to the others. It opens with the young Ronna (Polley), a supermarket cashier who needs some quick cash to pay her rent during the holidays and comes up with a scheme to sell baby aspirin to Ecstasy-seeking ravers after a drug deal goes wrong. The next focuses on Ronna's British coworker, Simon (Desmond Askew), who takes a trip with his pals to Vegas where a strip club encounter also goes wrong. And then, in the last vignette, a pair of gay soap opera actors (Wolf and Mohr) go on an undercover drug bust with a cop (William Fichtner) that leads to a very awkward dinner with his wife (Jane Krakowski, taking a break from Ally McBeal at the time).

The moral of these stories: In life, things can go wrong. And they most certainly will.


To say Go hardly pinged on anyone's radar twenty years ago would be obvious. One could speculate this was because the film had the misfortune of opening in theaters a week after Keanu Reeves donned a leather trench coat and broke free from the chains of virtual reality in the blockbuster no one saw coming, The Matrix. Earning a total of $16.8 million during its domestic box office run, Go barely recouped its overall budget.

But the reviews from most critics were glowing and respectable. With its razor-sharp dialogue, crafty narrative structure, and Tarantino-lite sensibilities, the movie was considered a junior Pulp Fiction. The contained timeline -- all the action unfolds over the same 12 hours -- also gives everything an urgent tone. And on screen, three interconnected stories featuring a dozen characters get wrapped up in a tight 100 minutes. The most casual of moviegoers couldn't ask for more in a piece of high-octane entertainment.

"You know what I like best about Christmas? The surprises..." - Claire

Like Die HardGo also deserves to be considered for Christmas movie categorization. It's an alternative holiday treat with all the trimmings: beat-up jalopies covered in lights, a dance party called Mary X-Mas ("Mary, like a chick. Like her name is Mary. Not like 'you marry her,' you fucking moron."), classic holiday tunes sprinkled throughout, and a shirtless, Santa hat-wearing drug dealer who likes to quote The Breakfast Club.


The film arguably takes a page from Shane Black's Guide to Making a Christmas Crime Movie. It shows the grittier side of Los Angeles during the holidays, much like Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and The Nice Guys -- all written by Black. “Christmas represents a little stutter in the march of days," Black told Entertainment Weekly in 2016, "a hush in which we have a chance to assess and retrospect our lives. I tend to think that it just informs as a backdrop...I also think that Christmas is just a thing of beauty, especially as it applies to places like Los Angeles, where it’s not so obvious, and you have to dig for it, like little nuggets."

With Go, Liman and August manage to convey what it's like to live in L.A. during a season normally associated with family gatherings, warm fuzzies, and friendly snowmen. The city is known for becoming a chilly ghost town between the twenty-fourth of December and the first of January, leaving behind its few natives and anyone else who can't afford to travel back to wherever they came from. Having Christmas in the background adds a weird yet effective counterpoint to Go's intertwining plots and not-so-family-friendly material.

"They can't evict you. You'd be ho-ho-homeless!" - Simon

Contributing to the frenetic vibes of Go is a kickass soundtrack that includes tunes from No Doubt, Natalie Imbruglia, Fatboy Slim, and Len, who scored a hit single with "Steal My Sunshine." Meanwhile, the movie's rapid-fire opening credits is accompanied by Lionrock's "Fire Up The Shoesaw," a stuttering track that sucks in the audience right away. The electronic artist who provided the throbbing score, BT (a.k.a. Brian Transeau), also contributed the pulse-pounding "Believer," a banger heard during the climactic rave scene in Ronna's storyline. (FYI: One year later, BT would release his third studio LP, Movement in Still Life, a seminal piece of work that remains on my top 10 list of all-time favorite albums.)


"I could leave something with you. Collateral."
"I already got a fucking Swatch."

So, how does Go hold up to today's Millennial-populated, social media-driven environment? Surprisingly well.

In fact, watching the film through a 2019 lens reveals something peculiar: a slight passing of the torch from Gen X to what was then called Gen Y (a.k.a. Millennials). The movie's cross-section of ages among its young characters arguably represents a shift in demographics that was felt in pop culture at the time. After all, 1999 was an interesting year for movies. Not only were filmmakers experimenting with the rules of cinema (as seen in Fight Club, The Blair Witch Project, Being John Malkovich, American Beauty, Magnolia, and The Sixth Sense, to name a few), there was also a popcorn-friendlier crop of titles appealing to an emerging, younger group: She's All That, Varsity Blues, Cruel Intentions, and 10 Things I Hate About You. In hindsight, Go perfectly falls somewhere in between, bridging both of those sides as well as a generational gap that seems to have grown wider the deeper we move into the 21st century.

I recently sat down with the hosts of We Watch Things, Jared Ruddell and Carolyn Wright, to talk about Go just in time for its 20th anniversary. They had watched the movie for the first time before we recorded, so it was interesting to get a fresh perspective from viewers (gulp) a decade-plus younger than me.

You can check it out (and feel old like me) here:


March 20, 2019

Spring Equinox 2019: So Much Pop Culture News in One Day


A lot happened on this rainy Spring Equinox...

We found out the long-awaited third Bill & Ted movie has a release date: August 2020. Excellent indeed. Bring on the mid-life crisis punchlines. (And who knew the Hollywood Bowl was the go-to rendezvous spot to make such an announcement?)


Speaking of things that come in threes, Netflix went ahead and dropped the trailer for Stranger Things 3, which takes place during the summer of 1985. It's chock-full of colorful, Reagan-era imagery (Geometric patterned clothes! Neon-lit malls! 4th of July carnivals!) and establishes how quickly these kids are growing up.


And then Lizzo goes ahead and drops a new single featuring Missy Elliot, "Tempo," a track tailor-made for twerking:


In casting news, the Twittersphere had a collective coronary when dreamy Netflix heartthrob Noah Centineo (if you don't know the name, you are clearly over 25 and have never watched a YA romance adaptation) was announced to be "in talks" to play the new He-Man. Yes, this guy. And all I have to say right now: The same schlubs who are bitching and moaning about this development will be the same ones watching the inevitable YouTube fitness trainer videos demonstrating how they too can get a jacked Masters of the Universe bod like him.


Finally, we got a sneak peek at Quentin Tarantino's ninth film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which stars Brad Pitt as a stunt double for Leonardo DiCaprio's hotshot TV actor in the 70s. Margot Robbie is in there somewhere, and so is an actor playing Bruce Lee. I'm sure there will be a kickass score and plenty of showbiz skewering. I'm like, okay...

@TheFirstEcho

March 14, 2019

Lori Loughlin Reunites with Daughter Olivia Jade: A Dramatization


The following is purely speculative for the purposes of our general entertainment and my possible employment to write the inevitable HBO/Hulu/Netflix/Ryan Murphy limited series...



EXT. THE MOSSIMO ESTATE - DAY

A black SUV makes its way through a throng of news vans and a mob of reporters. Cameras flash. A proverbial media circus. The SUV pulls up to the gate as it slowly opens.


EXT. THE MOSSIMO COURTYARD - CONTINUOUS

The SUV makes its way up the driveway and stops. A shaken LORI steps out of the car. She's clearly had a rough night and glances up at the house, preparing herself for what's to come. Her assistant, RILEY, 27, an overly groomed twunk running on three Venti lattes, is right there with her. 

He attempts to guide her to the door, but she waves him away.


INT. THE MOSSIMO ESTATE - FOYER

Lori and Riley enter the quiet house, the outside chaos suddenly muted. No one is there to greet them.


RILEY
She should be upstairs in her room.

LORI
And Isabella?

Riley solemnly shakes his head.

Lori looks up at the top of the grand staircase. Afraid to take that first step. After a beat, she kicks off her Tory Burch flats.


INT. OLIVIA'S BEDROOM - MOMENTS LATER

OLIVIA is curled up in the corner of her Bali Wood Canopy King Bed. In one corner of her room: piles of boxes of Olivia Jade x Sephora Bronze & Illuminate palettes. Her pale face is aglow from her phone as she listlessly scrolls through.

Lori stands in the doorway and then makes her way to the foot of the bed. Her daughter doesn't give any indication that she hears her mother approach. 

LORI
Liv, baby...

Olivia doesn't move from her position.

LORI
I don't know where to begin.

More silence. Lori is near tears.

LORI
Can we please talk?

Nothing. She makes another attempt.

LORI
Looks like you had a nice time on Rick's 
yacht. I'm sorry it had to be cut short.

OLIVIA 
(glued to her phone)
Did they put you in a cell?

LORI
What?

OLIVIA
Did they put you in a prison cell for the
night? Did you have to sleep on a cot?

LORI
What? No, honey. They had me in this room--

OLIVIA
They should've put you in a cell. They 
    should've made you practice. Rotting away. 
 Considering that's what you'll be doing 
in Hell someday.

LORI
Honey, please. I know you must be hurting...

Olivia turns to face her mother. The rage begins.

OLIVIA
Hurting? Try humiliated. Try totally shunned
by all my friends. Try devastated because all
my sponsors just dropped me. Like that! Gone.
This is officially the worst spring break EVER!
I hate you! How could you do this to me? My
life is beyond over! How can I ever go back to
school? How could I ever make another video? I
have two-fucking-million subscribers who rely
on my beauty and lifestyle tips! Do you know
what they've been saying about me on YouTube? 

LORI
Honey, why don't you put the phone down--

Suddenly, Olivia throws the phone across the room. It hits one of her makeup palette boxes, and like dominoes, it hits another box; several tumble to the floor.

OLIVIA
Do you know how much I was making each 
month?

LORI
Olivia, baby--

OLIVIA
DO YOU?! I was making more than you'd
ever make in one episode of that flaming
piece of shit you call a Hallmark show.
And ironically? I was making enough to pay
for a semester at the school you and Dad
paid some old dude to get me into.

LORI
It's so much more complicated than that. 

OLIVIA
I can't stand to look at you.

Lori wipes away her tears. Regains her composure. There's a shift in her tone.


LORI
You have no idea how much we invested in 
you and your sister.

OLIVIA
Half a million apparently.

LORI
What did you think those fake crew photos
were for? You knew what we were doing.

OLIVIA
Is this where you tell me I'm an ungrateful
little brat? That I should be thankful
for everything you and Dad have given me?

Lori doesn't recognize the young woman in front of her. She's at a loss for words.

OLIVIA
Face it, Mom. You're fucked. What are you
gonna do now that everyone knows America's 
Favorite Aunt is a conniving felon?

LORI
I'm so sorry, Olivia. Please. Tell me...
Just tell me, what can I do?

OLIVIA
(daggers in her eyes)
You can get the hell out of my room.

And with that, Lori backs away. She nods, the tears coming back. She closes the door behind her.


March 02, 2019

LAUDERDALE: The 2019 Spring Playlist


Sure, there may be an arctic blast that is hitting most of the United States, but that doesn't mean we can't tap into some Spring Break feelings.

I've scoured the interwebs to find the perfect collection to get us all in a slightly warmer mood. So far, here's what I got: Lizzo is proving to be the Queen of Spring 2019 (she appears twice here). Hailee Steinfeld (track 3) has an 80s dance jam that Carly Rae Jepsen (track 10) wishes she released. Grammy darling H.E.R. covers a classic for the soundtrack to What Men Want (track 9) while Danish pop group Alphabeat makes a welcome return with "Shadows" (track 11). Speaking of comebacks, we have British boyband Westlife dropping in (track 6), and of course, Broadway crush Ben Platt shows up (track 5) with the first single off his forthcoming debut album.

As of this posting, there are 35 tracks waiting to be played, but as always, come back for updates to this playlist. (*As for the cover art, check out Yoko Honda's awesome retro designs here.)

@TheFirstEcho

March 01, 2019

My Pop Culture Saviors of 2018: A Belated List


2018 had its challenges -- but it also had some really good keepsakes. Here are some of the people (and things) who kept my year afloat.

1. Kevin Kwan - The author of Crazy Rich Asians and its two sequels became the subject of my Instagram fascination: a writer living a jet-set life, touring the globe on the merits of his writing, and seeing his creation turn into an international, Golden Globe-nominated sensation on the big-screen.

2. Cynthia Erivo - Her role (and singing chops) in the future cult classic, Bad Times at El Royale, caught my attention (along with anyone else who saw Drew Goddard's neo-noir crime thriller) and her fierce supporting role in Widows only cemented my fascination with this Broadway-trained actress.

3. MOBS - They're the Australian synth-pop group that has yet to make a splash in the States, and they hooked me in with their throwback tunes, specifically those on their EP, You Want Beauty, all written from the point of view of characters from 80s movies. But as of this posting, the group has switched record labels, which has led to a repurposed EP called Bad Love that is the only available piece of work now available on Spotify.

4. Roxane Gay - You haven't read her brilliant collection of pop culture essays in Bad Feminist yet? Or her collection of short stories in Difficult Women? Or her painfully raw memoir, Hunger? What are you doing with you life?

5. Dave Holmes - I read his so-relatable-it's-scary memoir, Party of One, two years ago and started listening to his podcast, Homophilia (co-hosted by the equally enjoyable Matt McConkey) last year. And I can't get enough of his insightful, witty, intelligent pop culture thinkpieces at Esquire. In short, I envy Dave Holmes, and I would like his career. Please.

6. Lucas Hedges - I wholeheartedly appreciate and respect a young up-and-coming actor who avoids taking a role on any given CW or Freeform show and opts instead for meaty, award-worthy indie fare.

7. Sideshow Books in L.A. - This small independent bookshop was previously located on Idaho Avenue on the Westside (around the corner from the Nuart Theatre). And when it closed in 2017, I was crushed, thinking it was another nail in the coffin of indie booksellers. But luckily, on one fateful Sunday afternoon, I drove down La Cienega and caught a nondescript sign that read BOOKS in painted letters. I pulled over, walked in, and discovered a new personal haven.

8. Queer Eye's Fab Five - The reboot of the makeover series has successfully recontextualized its format for a post-marriage equality era in America, thanks to the charisma of its lifestyle gurus, Antoni Porowski, Karamo Brown, Jonathan Van Ness, Tan France, and Bobby Berk. Taking the boys out of major metropolitan areas (i.e. NYC) and putting them in the small towns of the South certainly helped. And they helped me feel hopeful again for the future of this country.

@TheFirstEcho

February 21, 2019

The 80s Remix of Hailee Steinfeld's Single is Bringing Me "Back to Life"


Damn. How did I fall asleep on this?

It's like the best Carly Rae Jepsen single Carly Rae Jepsen never released. And it's from a Transformers spinoff? Well done, Miss Steinfeld.

Color me thoroughly, pleasantly surprised by this throwback tune:

@TheFirstEcho

January 31, 2019

'Slasher Movie Girl': The Bloody Plot


Some of you reading this may already know that I spent most of 2018 finishing my teen horror novel, Slasher Movie Girl, a passion project (for lack of a better cliché) more than two years in the making. Tapping into my obsessive knowledge of horror movies, I came up with an idea that was begging to be put to paper. And 80,000 words later, here we are.

The next hurdle was landing an agent, and I was fortunate to find one who believed in my book and appreciated the story I wanted to tell. After signing with a reputable lit agency, I spent the summer working on the unfinished chapters. Once I completed a round of edits, my agent felt the manuscript was ready to be sent out into the publishing world. And this past fall, the literary baby I had birthed was placed in the hands of faceless strangers who would determine its fate.

For the curious, below is the novel's plot summary from the pitch letter that went out to those strangers -- editors at publishing houses across the country:

18 year-old college freshman Heather Farnsworth is supposed to be a "Final Girl"--the last girl killed in a horror film. Except this isn't a horror film, it's real life. Heather, a virgin, is determined to finally get the attention of Adam Kozlowski, a bookish loner with a few secrets of his own.

After a lackluster freshman year, Heather and her friends escape to spend a weekend at a luxury cabin in the woods. The one condition of the trip: everyone must unplug and go completely off-grid, leaving their phones locked in a box in a shed in the woods.

When Heather volunteers to collect logs to start a fire one night, she finds herself on the end of a bloody machete--becoming the first victim of a masked killer who roams the forest. As a self-proclaimed horror movie fangirl with an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre, Heather should have seen this coming. Now reduced to a "human shish-kebab," Heather is beyond frustrated. She'll never know what it's like to kiss Adam or to legally buy a beer. And now she's stuck in some sort of purgatory, filled with regrets about what could have been.

Meanwhile, Matt Feeney, the hipster host of the weekend, entertains a trio of mean girls: Maya Vasquez, a Kardashian wannabe with a heart of gold, Olivia Ringwald, a former cheerleader who is smarter than she appears, and Phoebe Sutton, who worships Olivia. Olivia is also dating Max Reynolds, a meathead with too many shirtless Instagram selfies. And then there's poor Delia Brookhart, Heather's best friend, crushing on Tyler Kento...who happens to be in the closet.
Over the next 48 hours, Heather will reflect on her short, pop-culture-obsessed life while offering biting commentary on the horror movie genre and watching helplessly as her friends fall prey to the mythological masked madman. Even though she's just a ghost, can Heather somehow use her knowledge of scary movies to help her friends survive the weekend?


Slasher Movie Girl takes the bloody body count of Friday the 13th or Scream and reveals what life is like -- from the afterlife (in the vein of The Lovely Bones or If I Stay). The narrative occasionally switches perspective to present the thoughts of Heather's so-called friends. By the end of the story, stereotypes will be shattered and secrets will be revealed in a cabin in the woods that none of these characters will want to revisit.

After reading the pitch letter and proposal, interest was piqued, and a number of editors requested to read the full manuscript.

I now welcome any kind of response at this point, especially since this story has been living inside my head for the past two years, and sharing it with fresh pairs of (professional) eyes may be able to offer some new perspective on what I hope will be an good sell.

I realize this is an ongoing process; a debut author doesn't just hit it big overnight.

Here's to whatever comes next.

@TheFirstEcho

January 21, 2019

Fleur East's New Single is My New "Favourite Thing"


I've been an admirer of Fleur East ever since I fell in love with "Sax," an irresistible, energetic 2016 jam that was The Best Summer Song That Never Was. (But at least it got me a shout-out on Guy Branum's podcast, Pop Rocket, when I offered it for "official summer jam" consideration back then.)

Anyway, the former X-Factor contestant is back with a new single for 2019. It's called "Favourite Thing" (yes, she's British, hence the title's spelling). It includes an infectious fusion of Afrobeats and sensual pop. And the music video visually touches upon the singer's Ghanian roots.

In other words, I frickin' love it. You will too:

@TheFirstEcho

January 10, 2019

ASCEND: The 2019 Winter Playlist


I'm a little late getting this out, and that's because it's been slim pickings out there during these winter doldrums. But I managed to find 30+ tracks to keep you warmed up while you try to hold onto those New Year's resolutions that will mostly likely fall through by MLK weekend. (Or is that just me?)

While Ariana was too late to make it on the previous playlist, Troye Sivan arrives just in time with a new single (and video), and new-to-me artist Roosevelt is wooing me with his neo-disco magic (see track 4). Then there are a few veterans who dominated the charts back in 1999: Backstreet Boys return with a new single, album, and tour while Jennifer Lopez has her Sia-penned anthem, straight from the soundtrack to her latest movie, Second Act. (That Vanessa Hudgens plot twist -- really?)

Anyway...enjoy:

@TheFirstEcho

UNDER THE SUN: The 2019 Summer Playlist

Before everyone goes their separate ways for the long Memorial Day weekend, please direct your attention to the 40+ songs I've gather...