Maura Magazine

Thirst

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The process of opening a Snapple bottle—the half-hearted shake to loosen the tea leaves from the bottom, the peeling of the plastic, the twisting of the cap until its satisfying, pregnant pop—is a sense memory that’s forever linked to middle school for me, when I’d walk down Fourth Street to Strathmore Bagels and get some sustenance for drama club, or mathletes, or whatever after-school activity I’d signed up for. A few weeks ago, after spotting the company’s peach iced tea on the menu of a sushi place, I got back into the habit. Innovations in sweetening technology and other food-related sciences have caused a lot of taste memories from the pre-organic era to be completely bygone (miss u, Cinnamon Crispas), but the peach iced tea, from the pop to the last sip, had pretty much the same round sweetness that I remembered, even though the tea leaves had somehow managed to become more water-soluble over the intervening years. That first sip was a gateway drug just like it was in the late ’80s, and I’ve been sneaking bottles here and there ever since. (Although in the context of sushi orders, I tend to save them for dessert.)

In addition to the quest for the familiar, this issue features the return of Kevin Fanning to the world of beverage reviewing, which I am thrilled about because Knowledge For Thirst, the drink-consumption chronicle he produced with Josh Allen, is, straight-up, one of my favorite sites on the internet ever.

Precipice

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Back in the dialup era, February was notorious among the denizens of a bulletin board I frequented; without fail, it would be the month when so many long-simmering disagreements would boil over and catch fire, causing multi-post back-and-forths, resigning of conferences, snipey private-conference messages, and, sometimes, real-life dissolutions of friendships. The story went that even though it was the shortest month on the calendar, it was the most brutal, what with the cold (the BBS was based in New York City) and the resultant cooped-upness and the bad feelings surrounding Valentine’s Day for the coupled and uncoupled and the accelerated cycles of various bills and other factors. And then March would come in all lion-like, no doubt in part because of all the fomenting angst that February had caused, and most of the bad feelings would blow away with the flowering of spring and all its attendant new beginnings.

Today is the final day of March 2013’s third week, and I daresay that as far as Internet Conditions go, this month is not all that better than its nasty, brutish, and short predecessor—and it has the added detriment of being three days longer. Outrage cycles have moved along at a constant pace, with actions and reactions bumping in to one another—the Steubenville verdict and certain media outlets’ victim-blaming reaction to the Steubenville verdict, Michelle Shocked’s live-tweeted monologue about her feelings on homosexuality and her long, painful campaign railing against the reaction to it, the announcement of Google Reader’s death and the panicked reaction from people who still read words on the internet. Plus your usual debates over free culture, institutionalized sexism, institutionalized sexism in the tech world, free culture and the tech world, and the tech world itself. Heck, I had to remind myself that Enlightened got canceled only 48 hours before this issue went to press. Even though the news elicited a tweet from me in which I said “fuuuuuuuck you” to a corporate entity’s Twitter account. (Very mature, that.)

Appropriately, then, this issue is all about people on the verge. Not of snapping, mind you (could you imagine a whole issue about that?), but rather on the edge of discovering important things about themselves and their places in the world.

Nomenclature

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When I was a cheeky, take-no-prisoners music blogger, one of my favorite tags was “lol words,” which I used to spotlight the silly, stupid, and downright horrifying ways that words would be twisted in service of some band or record or what-have-you. I got a lot of mileage out of it, and am a bit sad that my blogging career ended before social media really took off.

Of course, that was during the late 2000s, when words were still the primary method of communication in blogland; they haven’t quite been overtaken by the animated GIF, but the two forms of communication are probably on par with one another at this point. Nevertheless, I soldier on, favoring words over endlessly looped images borrowed from pop culture’s dustier nooks and crannies for the time being, if not for the rest of my career. (That said, I do enjoy taking Vines of my dogs.) This issue, in keeping with my stubbornness, looks at how the following four words and phrases function in contemporary culture: “DIY,” “lean in,” “the,” and “reality.” After you think about the last time you used each of them in a sentence and fired up this issue’s Spotify playlist, feel free to dive in.

We Used To Be Friends

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Those corners of the social-media world that weep openly for low-rated television shows and the too-smart-for-Two And A Half Men characters who populate them lit up on Wednesday, when TV producer Rob Thomas and spunky actress Kristen Bell announced that the high school noir they worked on years ago, Veronica Mars, would be coming back as a movie. The catch: In order for this to happen, fans of the show would have to take a break from making GIFs out of their worn-through DVDs and pony up some cash, $2 million in total, via the crowdfunding website Kickstarter.

Veronica Mars aired on UPN (later merged with The WB and rebranded as The CW) in the mid-2000s and it was a thoroughly enjoyable show that I would make an effort to watch every week. The dialogue snapped; the rapport between the actors, particularly the way Kristen Bell’s titular teen private eye pinged off Jason Dohring’s tortured rich boy Logan Echolls, leapt off the screen; the music was just ahead of the curve enough for “music of Veronica Mars” posts to be traffic gold at the music blog I edited back then. (Among the bands I heard on VM first: Phoenix.) It went off the air in 2007 with a bit of a whimper; the network and Thomas had mouthed promises about the show coming back for a fourth season where Mars would potentially work for the FBI, but they never came to fruition.

Still, the cult for the show has grown alongside the instant-nostalgia machine, and the stars involved have encouraged it somewhat; in 2012 Bell told Self, “We’re not going to stop, even if I’m 80 and I’m Veronica Mars in an old folks home, I still think we’ll do [a movie], and I’m game.” Thomas created another cult classic, the cater-waiter comedy Party Down, and cast a smattering of former Mars stars (Ken Marino, who played bumbling PI Vinnie Van Lowe; Ryan Hansen, who played dickish rich boy Dick Casablancas) as regulars; Bell appeared in a recurring role, and Enrico Colantoni, who played Veronica’s detective dad Keith, made an appearance. And the part of the internet that endlessly regurgitates recent pop-cultural history, whether through “remember when” GIFs or mash-ups with other effluvia, has taken to Mars‘s combination of rapidfire wit and eye candy, keeping the show so close to the forefront of the cultural memory that it’s hard to believe six years have elapsed since its finale.

“Warner Bros. still owns Veronica Mars,” Thomas wrote on the project’s Kickstarter page, “and we would need their blessing and cooperation to pull this off. Kristen and I met with the Warner Bros. brass, and they agreed to allow us to take this shot. They were extremely cool about it, as a matter of fact. Their reaction was, if you can show there’s enough fan interest to warrant a movie, we’re on board.” Thomas estimated that 30,000 people would need to donate the average Kickstarter pledge of $71 to make that happen; approximately 80,000 who donated 25 would also do.

“Surely, 80,000 of our three million viewers would find that price-point viable!” Thomas wrote. This sentence shows how this campaign, despite being in service of a quality show that got knocked off the air way too soon, is essentially a “proof of concept” that savvily exploits the divide between notions of “success”: Doing well on the balance sheet of an entertainment conglomerate is a much taller order than seeming like a success on the internet. The reason Veronica Mars got pulled in the end? Ratings: In its three seasons, its best performance was when it was the 11th-least-watched show on television. Part of this can be chalked up to its airing on two networks with dismal numbers, of course, but that only strengthens the show’s cult status. As of this writing, the project has raised $3.1 million and counting; that’s a little more than a dollar per person who actually watched the show when it was on.

The divide between internet success and breaking even on a network has been a pain point for the broadcast networks, which have steadily watched their slice of the pie dwindle over the years. But even those shows that are seen as failures on cable networks would be windfalls in the world of the real-time web measurement site ChartBeat; Enlightened, for example, brought in 300,000 viewers for its season finale last month, and it’s in danger of being canceled, even though having 300,000 simultaneous viewers on a web site would be seen as an unequivocal success. When I interviewed Community writer Maggie Bandur a few weeks back, we got to talking about Twitter, which she eschews in part because social media just isn’t her thing. But she also feels like the platform she reaches on her show (which in its most recent season has had numbers eclipsed by Mars‘s ratings) is, well, enough: “TV audiences are a lot smaller than they used to be—but they’re still millions of people. I work with a lot of people who do a lot of tweeting, and they can’t believe that I’m not into it. I can definitely see the appeal, and it may happen one day, but you know, the funny things I say are heard by three million people!”

Bandur’s comment and the success of the Veronica Mars campaign (and, to a lesser extent, that of major-label-bred, publicity-firm handled, endlesly self-aggrandizing online sensation Amanda Palmer) brings up what I find to be a troubling aspect of the new economy, at least as far as culture is concerned. True, sites like Kickstarter aren’t as cuddly and benevolent as their creators want to make them seem; all those bubble fonts don’t hide the fact that there’s a business with big money lurking underneath. But when it comes to cultural product on a scale like the one offered by Kickstarter, where individual donors and not foundations or corporations can help bring a work to market, personal, evocative relationships between patron, creator, and artwork come into play—and when raising money is paramount, those creators who have already had marketing under their belt will have a natural competitive advantage, and those who have had the muscle of a network (or a pre-Napster-collapse major label) will have one that’s even stronger. (The Mars campaign also has the advantage of being first to market. If delays plague the project, or if people don’t get their t-shirts and Blu-Ray discs, watch out Terriers movie.)

In the wake of people reacting to the Mars campaign with gently skeptical statements about funding art in 2013, Palmer took to Twitter, protesting in all caps that “ANYBODY CAN ASK FOR FUCKING HELP WITH THEIR FUCKING ART. ANYBODY BIG ANYBODY SMALL ANYBODY KNOWN ANYBODY UNKNOWN ANYBODY.” Which is the message of her noxious TED Talk (in which she tells a bunch of highbrows who can drop $7,500 on a conference the heartwarming story of how her music made relegating hosts to their couches OK). And, well, yes, anyone can ask for help. But who actually receives that help? Money is not an infinite resource, and neither is time. What newer culture is being ignored or withering on the underfunded vine as a result of “DIY” projects by known quantities? How different is the up-from-below “new model” from the top-down old one? Times like this make me think that the only true alteration to the already-existing setup is a mirror, and maybe some smoke provided by an all-too-gullible press.

Ten

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I wouldn’t say Devyn Rose’s “Who Am I” is my favorite song of 2013—that honor would probably go to “Northern Lights,” a bratty, stompy piece of electropop from the mysterious Swedish outfit Kate Boy, or “Make Room!!!,” a snarling track from arena-emo stalwarts My Chemical Romance—but it’s certainly the track that I’m most infatuated with at the moment. It’s seemingly crafted from a bunch of items that are defined by their utter malleability (watercolors, Silly Putty, post-shower mirror fog), staying stable for only the briefest of moments before swooning, then repeating the cycle anew. I heard about this track, as one does, on the internet, specifically on a thread obsessing over recent R&B releases on the I Love Music message board. A colleague posted it, saying that he wasn’t quite sure how it had appeared in his iTunes library. Which seems appropriate, given that it sounds born out of a dream—specifically, one of those dreams that leaves a smile playing across your lips as you wake up. It’s a hard listen at first, its swirling elements coming together in that odd way that defines songs by the likes of Animal Collective, but its charms eventually took me over.

This issue is Maura Magazine’s 10th, and it looks at Big Things: American pop idolatry, country radio in New York City, the idea of the “perfect” song, and movies that fall in on themselves because of way too much self-referentiality. You can check out a playlist of songs that are name-checked in this issue (including the Devyn Rose track!) over at Spotify.