the Buzz for October 2011



Television newsmagazine programs were a dime a dozen two decades ago, but they have seemingly become gauche — that old warhorse 60 Minutes obviously excepted — in this scary, Snooki-fueled age of reality television. But ratings-challenged NBC, a network desperate to get anything to stick following one of the most disastrous fall campaigns in its history, is aiming to change all that, having reached across the news galaxy to recruit a dazzlingly deep bench of journalistic talent — including, among others, Ted Koppel, Meredith Vieira, and my beloved Dr. Nancy Snyderman — to contribute to their newest creation, a weekly news series entitled
Rock Center with Brian Williams, which premieres Monday night (October 31) at 10pm EDT. Another prominent name popping out of the Rock Center mix is that of veteran newsman Harry Smith. A recent defector from CBS News, where he has spent the lion’s share of his journalism career, Smith is probably best known for his pair of extended stints as a co-host of CBS’ ever-struggling The Early Show. But as his celebrated stint as the host of A&E’s signature program Biography amply suggested, Smith has a reporter’s eye and a great knack for sussing out a good story, and he stopped by the Buzz for an exclusive chat about his exciting new gig.


BRANDON’S BUZZ: You know, we lived through a period several years ago when the networks were throwing these kinds of shows up right, left and center, and then we moved into the Survivor / Biggest Loser / Idol era, and the newsmagazine essentially became schedule fillers and stopgaps. So I guess my first question is: why this show, why now, and why was this project attractive to a journalist of your caliber and credential?


HARRY SMITH: The folks at NBC first approached me about this almost a year ago, when it was just a germ of an idea, and I said, ‘Well, if you’re really serious about doing this, I want to be a part of it.’ You know, NBC kind of looked at what they had going: they have the number one morning show (Today), they have the number one evening newscast (NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams), they have the number one public affairs show on Sunday mornings (Meet the Press), and they [decided] there was only one piece missing, and that’s a serious weekly newsmagazine. So they asked me to get involved, and I asked a lot of questions — you know, ‘Is it really going to be staffed? Are you really going to fund it? Are you going to be serious about it?’ This is a big-time venture, and it feels to me like this is the last time a network is going to do something like this, but [NBC] really wants to get into the serious storytelling business, and I am flattered that they asked me to come along for the ride.




Pet Shop Boys — “Love Etc.” (from Yes) — Love Etc. - Yes

Riding one of the strongest melodies that they’ve crafted since their glorious late-’80s heyday, the Boys return triumphantly to one of their favorite areas of discussion — the egregious excess of a high-flying lifestyle — for this harrowing and hypnotic ode to love, lust, and dirty sexy money.


“You know, a little makeup, a little paint,
make you are what you ain’t.”

— pop star Toni Braxton, explaining with magnificently melodic succinctitude how she is able to combat the physical aftereffects of her lupus medication while still leading a relatively public life which hinges on her being utterly flawless, on The Joy Behar Show


George Michael — “Praying for Time”
(from Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1) — Praying for Time - Listen Without Prejudice

King George tweeted yesterday that this classic has recently become his favorite song to sing. It has, incidentally (if not coincidentally), become my favorite to hear. I would posit that one of the marks of a truly great songwriter — from Foster to Gershwin to Dylan to Mitchell to Amos to Gray — would be his or her prescience, which is to say: their ability to see, however wittingly, what’s headed down the pike; and, in turn, their ability to take that vision and turn it into a composition that is relevant yet timeless. In the fall of 1990, of course, we used this song to help assuage our fears and unease over the notion of going to war with a tyrannical despot half a globe away, but feed these words — these words that were written more than two decades ago, mind you — into your soul anew, with fresh ears — “this is the year of the guilty man / your television takes a stand” or “I may have too much / but I’ll take my chances / ’cause God’s stopped keeping score” — and then flip on the news and catch even a second of sight of the myriad Occupy [Your-City-Here] demonstrations that are popping up across the globe, and you may well come to understand that we’re heading into an even scarier war, facing a more daunting and desperate foe. You may well come to understand that, still and as ever, George is brilliantly, beautifully right: maybe we should be praying — to any and every god — for just a few more seconds on the shot clock.


Kelly Clarkson — “I Forgive You” (from Stronger) — I Forgive You - Stronger (Deluxe Version)

I can’t tell you how crazy I am about Clarkson’s stunning, triumphantly shimmery new fifth studio album, which I’ve listened to five or six times straight through this week, and which gets, uh, stronger with each spin. As a performer (and, somewhat to a lesser extent, as a songwriter), Kelly has always carried herself with a great deal of confidence and force, but it always seemed a bit showy and put-on heretofore. But listening to her blast brilliantly through these thirteen hunks of pop perfection — seventeen, if you pick up the album’s deluxe edition (and, trust me, you should) — you feel as though everything has clicked into place for Clarkson, and that she knows exactly who she is as a person and as an artist. (Contrast this album, if you will, with the most recent recordings from Christina Aguilera and Miley Cyrus, both of whom fell flat on their exquisitely made-up faces by trying to shamelessly ape Lady GaGa instead of staying true to visions of their own making.) Clarkson herself has, to her own detriment, veered out of her lane before as well — witness My December, her disastrously mopey (and dopey) 2007 stiff — but, in building (and, in every way, improving) on the success of All I Ever Wanted, the terrific 2009 effort that instantly rebooted her career, Stronger puts Miss Kelly back on the road, and firmly back in charge.


“I’m really happy that Ke$ha exists. I think that there should be pop stars that, when you listen to their music, you’re slightly concerned that you’ll catch a venereal disease through your headphones.”

— comedian Jake Fogelnest, making a case for pop’s most titanically trashy tart, on VH1’s The Greatest Songs of the ’00s. (Later in this same segment — in which Ke$ha’s boorish breakthrough “Tik Tok” was nonsensically judged to be one of the program’s titular tunes — Fogelnest would go on to add: “It’s like a bunch of glitter had sex with a pile of dirty clothes, and Ke$ha was born somehow! It’s awesome!” Not sure awesome is the word I’d pick there, Jake, but it sure is something.)


Bonnie Tyler — “Holding Out for a Hero”
(from Footloose [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack] (1984)) — Holding Out for a Hero - Footloose (15th Anniversary Collectors' Edition)

Ella Mae Bowen — “Holding Out for a Hero”
(from Footloose [Music from the Motion Picture] (2011)) — Holding Out for a Hero - Footloose (Music from the Motion Picture) [Cut Loose Deluxe Edition]

I haven’t yet seen the new Footloose, and quite frankly, the eight-year-old boy who resides eternally in my heart still tends to question the overall necessity for a “new” Footloose when the old one is still perfectly serviceable (although, to be fair, my understanding is that, quality-wise, this remake is oodles better than 2009’s ill-fated update of Fame, an instant bellyflop that would have benefited enormously from a super-concentrated dose of Billy Hufsey and Nia Peeples, if you axe me). Still, I can comment on the films’ (old and new) soundtracks: I continue to submit that 1984 was the single greatest year in the history of modern popular music, and I insist the original Footloose companion album — with its iconic radio smashes from Kenny Loggins, Deniece Williams, Shalamar, Heart’s Ann Wilson, and my beloved Bonnie Tyler — comprises a non-trivial portion of the reason why. Full disclosure and all: I have adored Bonnie Tyler since I was eating crayons in kindergarten (and Sherry Ann will testify that I am not making that up, either!), and I’ll tell you — again, quite frankly — that I don’t see the point in anybody remaking any of her classics (as though some poor deluded fool could do Bonnie better than Bonnie!). That said, I’m rather stunned by how compulsively enjoyable — even if it is in the guilty-pleasure sort of way — I find this new stripped-down version of “Hero” to be. No longer a pulse-pounding, disco-rock foot-stomper, the song is transformed into a heart-rending ballad by this ballsy Bowen chick, and while that proposition sounds instantly iffy on paper, give her this much: Bowen commits to it completely, and whereas Tyler tears through these verses with blowsy, brilliantly overheated bravado, Ella Mae turns inward, playing up the vulnerable distress of the lyric and selling (with surprising sincerity) this story of a young damsel waiting for her streetwise Hercules to come and sweep her away. Again, I wouldn’t typically advocate this kinda thing (because, seriously, it’s 1984, and, most seriously, it’s Bonnie!), but the utter audacity of this endeavor (and Bowen’s seeming ignorance as to just how shamelessly brazen she is in actual fact being here) is exactly what makes this thing fly.


Keith Urban — “‘Til Summer Comes Around”
(from Defying Gravity) — 'Til Summer Comes Around - Defying Gravity

As brilliantly wistful as Don McLean’s classic “American Pie” is regarding the fragile innocence of youth, so does this one perfectly capture the inherently carefree romance of the hot weather months. (Although, I have to admit: after the summer we just survived here in the Centex, with something like eighty days of triple-digit temperatures, that scorched season can wait as long as it wants to come back around anew.)


Boston — “Amanda” (from Greatest Hits) — Amanda - Power Ballads Gold

My fabulous little sister turns twenty-six years young this very day. Please wish her a healthy, happy birthday, urrybody! (Much love from your big brother, Amanda!)


James Morrison — “Please Don’t Stop the Rain”
(from Songs for You, Truths for Me) — Please Don't Stop the Rain - Songs for You, Truths for Me

Sherry Ann, in a text message to me yesterday afternoon:
“Do you think James Morrison is the male Adele?”
Me, in response: “Damn straight I do, my dear!”


Nina Simone — “Angel of the Morning”
(from The Essential Nina Simone, Vol. 2) — Angel of the Morning - Essential Nina Simone, Vol. 2 (Remastered)

Of course, having been reared on Juice Newton’s smash (and smashing) cover of Merilee Rush’s lovely ’60s pop standard, I’m partial to that one. (The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde has also been known to do a pretty damn fine job with this one.) But even though Simone stubbornly refuses to follow the melody with her own vocal performance, and I would most likely find that irrefutably irritating coming from a lesser talent, I find myself rather charmed by this kooky, oddly captivating take on a classic.


Doc Severinsen — “Georgia On My Mind”
(from The Very Best of Doc Severinsen) — Georgia On My Mind - The Very Best of Doc Severinsen

I already own the first four seasons on DVD (and, for those not yet in the know, the uproarious season five — the final one featuring peerless series regulars Delta Burke and Jean Smart — is due out the first week of December, so Merry Christmas, y’all!), and therefore, I can watch them at will at a time of my choosing. So you wouldn’t reasonably expect the news that reruns of my all-time favorite television series — CBS’ riotously funny classic sitcom Designing Women — have returned to a daily network schedule would send me into ecstatic hysterics, yet that is precisely what has happened now that those unsung geniuses at TV Guide Network have refashioned their entire program lineup and slotted Women — last seen on TV Land four years ago, following a blink-and-miss-it hit-and-run engagement with Nick at Nite — at 11am (eastern time) to lead off a day of comedy which also includes reruns of those late-’90s gems Cybill, Veronica’s Closet, and Dharma and Greg. (Clearly the network is now attempting to appeal to nostalgic women of a certain age and elan — they’ve even gone so far as to term their prime-time block of comedy programming “Ladies Night” — but there exists an underserved demographic — let’s call it, just for the sake of simplicity, Gay Men Aged 25-35 Who Desperately Miss the Smart, Sassy Sitcoms They Loved in Their Pre-Teen-Slash-Post-Adolescent Years — who are reaping enormous side benefits from these savvy programming moves. Because, seriously, The Office and Modern Family are perfectly fine for what they are, but there’s nothing like the welcome sight of Christine Baranski and/or my divine Dixie Carter cutting some dense doofus down to size to convince me that all is right with this old, cold world.) A million thanks to whomever at TV Guide Network had the temerity to make these decisions; I’ve been wondering what I’m gonna do with my free days when SOAPnet closes up shop early next year, and methinks this lineup will do just fine.


“They leave, they go, the ones who believe in Jesus! I’m sure I’ve screwed this up, ’cause I really didn’t study this, but from what I’ve gathered on my travels, and occasionally sitting next to a born-again Christian on a plane telling me that I’ll be frying in hell, I’ve garnered that they leave! You know, Jesus comes and — I’m sure there’s more to the story — and he gathers everybody, they don’t go by bus, they just kinda whip!, the souls, they go whooooo! They’re gone, I don’t know where they go! And we’re here! And it’s supposed to be kinda terrible, but I can’t imagine it if they’re gone. That’s why whenever they say, you know, ‘Oh, it’s coming, it’s coming,’ I go, ‘Good, fine, let’s get there, let’s move on.’ One less commercial to have to deal with, huh?”

— comedian Lewis Black, postulating about the Rapture on
The Joy Behar Show