Welcome to the Earworm of the Month Club!
Wait, what exactly is the Earworm of the Month Club?
As most of you know, I used to write a column for the SF Weekly called Earworm Weekly. The Weekly and I parted ways last fall after an editorial reorganization, but I loved writing the column so much I’ve decided to continue it as a newsletter. So here we are. Hi! Welcome to the Club!
I plan on doing this roughly monthly, thus the name. If I get inspired and start doing it more often, I will change the name.
For posterity's sake, let me answer a few more pro forma questions.
Delicious, irreverent music writing from yours truly, covering a wide range of popular music from, say, the early 20th century until the present day.
I was the Contributing Music Editor at Girlfriends magazine for many years back at the turn of the century, which means I’ve been writing about music for almost two decades. Maybe longer if you can dig up some of my '90s zine clips. (P.S. I write about other stuff, too.)
I was getting paid (not much) for my column at the Weekly, and I am not getting paid to write this newsletter, so it’s probably fitting that my earworm for this first installment is “Money Makes the World Go Around.”
My kids love this song, so it’s partly their fault. They ask me to play this clip from the movie Cabaret at regular intervals. They’ve also started asking if they can watch the movie. I’ve been hesitating on granting their request, but not for the reasons you might think.
When I was a pre-teen, premium cable was a shiny new concept, and Cabaret was one of the enticing offerings channels such as HBO and Cinemax used to lure in subscribers. Big splashy graphics of Liza Minelli in gender-bending scanties were plastered all over the printed channel guide, and the text carried warnings of controversial content.
Nowadays, the content of the movie looks relatively tame. (Relatively.) But in 1972 – or even 1980 or so Michael York's bisexual character, the cabaret’s trans clientele (who never speak, but that doesn't stop the camera from lingering on their faces), and the intentionally provocative choreography of Bob Fosse – not to mention a literal song and dance about a menage a trois plus a plot point revolving around abortion – were seriously controversial. Too bad the story gets a little muddied. I might be being unfair to the movie, to be honest, because the original stage version also didn’t always know quite what to do with itself either. (Not everyone agrees with my assessment of the film version of Cabaret, by the way. It won 8 Oscars, after all – the only movie in history to manage that feat and not win Best Picture, too. Oops.) But in general, and despite winning Best Adaptation, I think the movie version of Cabaret is a little lumpy. The musical numbers are fantastic, but once outside the stage doors, things begin to falter.
I'm also not a fan of Minelli's characterization of Sally Bowles, but I don't blame her for it. (And I certainly prefer her to the chorus girls, with their trademark dead-eyed Fosse look.) Both Christopher Isherwood, who invented the character for his book Goodbye to Berlin, and Fosse, not to mention numerous directors before and since, like to make Bowles flighty and vapid, deliriously oblivious to the gathering Nazi darkness surrounding her. I prefer a Bowles who knows, somewhere deep inside, that something is very wrong, but doesn't have a clue what to do about it. So she puts on a happy face, parties harder than ever, and reconciles herself fiercely to her fate. By the end of the musical, that happy face should be irreparably smashed. Jane Horrocks captures this version of the character perfectly here with a devastating version of the musical's title song.
Nonetheless, Minelli has never been better than here, on stage, trading barbed lyrics with Grey about recovering from heartbreak on 14-carat yachts if you're rich and how the rat-a-tap of hunger at the window sends true love flying out the door if you're poor. In fact, Pfft! on being poor.
If only it were that easy.
I’ve managed to see the stage version of Cabaret three times – not bad for someone who’s not a big musical fan in the first place. The first time, I saw Cabaret in Chicago with the legendary Joel Grey performing what was essentially a farewell tour for his version of the Emcee. The second time I saw a touring production of the famed (and in my opinion much improved story-wise) 1998 Broadway revival in San Francisco. The third time I saw a production by the Shotgun Players in Berkeley in 2006. What I remember most from this version are the fabulously impractical shoes the kick line sports while lying on their backs during the number “Mein Herr,” and the fact that I was crying by intermission, when the chorus girls came into the audience and crooned anti-Semitic nothings into our ears in preparation for everything falling apart in the second act.
I might have also listened to the Broadway soundtrack with Alan Cumming and Natasha Richardson a few hundred times, because Alan Cumming as the Emcee is sexy and dangerous and tragic all at once. So while I may try to blame my children for this earworm, the truth is that it’s the song that goes through my head any time I am looking for more paying work. Like right now.
Things have been tight, freelance writing-wise, since November. On the eve of the election I took a business trip to Los Angeles on the dime of one of my favorite clients and a week later, the project I was working on was significantly reorganized and I haven’t charged an hour to it since. I’ve been beating the bushes for new opportunities, but with only middling success. Everyone seems to be tightening their budgets; freelance writers I know who work primarily with nonprofit clients are in even more dire straits than I am at the moment. Meanwhile, I have kids who need braces and things like that. There’s language on the consent form I sign at the dentist that quite explicitly states that they can call child protective services if I refuse to follow their treatment guidelines. But of course, child protective services is not going to pay for their treatment.
Speaking of dentists, here’s my favorite audiovisual mash-up of “Money Makes the World Go Around,” using Alan Cumming’s slower, darker version of the song plus visuals from the remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
I’m launching this free newsletter with a song about money in part as a gesture of defiance at the universe, or at least at the capitalist system we all can’t escape. This song is bitter, and cynical, and yet somehow in the middle of it all it finds a moment of clinking, clanking, exuberant joy. Just before the darkness falls. I presume I don’t have to explain any further why it feels so apropos.
The Earworm of the Month Club will always be free, but if you're moved to donate a mark, a yen, a buck, or a pound in exchange for my loving labor, please drop it in the cup. Thank you!