Ah, to be a student again. Clever editing, a giant snake and a Harry Potter tribute? I’m not entirely sure what’s happening in this video, but I like it.
Yesterday wasn’t just any drizzly winter Wednesday. Here at Penn, it was the day John Legend C’99 came to Irvine Auditorium and delivered the 12th Annual Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture in Social Justice.
The evening started with a violin performance of “Ordinary People” by English Ph.D. student Melanie Hill. Here’s a snippet:
Following an introduction by President Amy Gutmann, Legend — a singer, songwriter, Grammy winner, philanthropist, activist and Counterparts alumnus — sat down with Camille Charles, director of Penn’s Center for Africana Studies, for a wide-ranging discussion of his work and life.
Growing up in Ohio, Legend was mainly home-schooled and skipped three grades, eventually entering Penn as a 16-year-old freshman. He said he discovered a host of musical influences while living in Philadelphia — including the Roots and Common — and noted that, “no one says, ‘Go to Penn so you can break into the music business’…but it actually was very helpful to me in becoming a recording artist.”
After reflecting on his early days in the industry, Legend discussed his lifelong interest in social justice. It began at home, he said. His family always stressed the importance of giving back, taking in foster children and, at one point, an entire family. “If you’re living a life that means anything,” he added, “you’re fighting for social justice.”
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation — and Kanye West’s now-infamous statement that President George W. Bush “doesn’t care about black people” — Legend got to thinking about the neglect communities around the world have suffered. He launched the Show Me Campaign a few years later, using his 2007 song of the same title as a model:
More specifically, the Show Me Campaign aims to “break the cycle of poverty using solutions that have been proven to improve people’s lives and to give them the opportunities to survive, thrive and succeed,” according to its website.
The conversation in Irvine Auditorium then turned to Legend’s connection with the 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman. Here’s what he said about that:
And here’s the song he wrote for the film:
The evening ended with a question-and-answer session, during which Legend predicted that we will soon see more socially focused music.
You may remember our “best of” (i.e. most-viewed) blog post countdown from last year. We’re back with another for 2012, only this time with a twist: We decided that only posts written this year would be included.
It seems the answer is “all over the place.” This past year, we had visitors from Zimbabwe, Argentina, Australia, Thailand and 90 other countries. (Long-distance readers: please say hello sometime in the comments!)
Now, without further ado, here are our five most popular posts from 2012:
…and finally, our most-viewed post this year:
Wishing you all a happy start to 2013!
The holiday season is upon us, and sometimes the greatest gift is time to relax, unwind and not think about the holiday season being upon us. For those who are looking forward to some days off in the coming weeks — or will at least have a free hour or two — here are a few Penn-arts-related offerings for a long read, a quick watch and a new listen:
READ this interview with Erik Larson C’76 from Creative Nonfiction. (He even mentions his time at Penn: “I studied history at the University of Pennsylvania, but that’s because the history professors were some of the best. I got lured into Russian history, in particular, by a fantastic professor. I got so drawn into Russian history by this guy that it changed my whole college plan. Suddenly I was Russian history, Russian language, Russian literature.”) For more on Larson, you can see his summer reading suggestions from this blog post or read the Gazette’s most recent review of his work.
LISTEN to music from aspiring rapper/hip-hop artist — and Wharton sophomore — Taylor McLendon, a.k.a. “Ivy Sole.” More than 30 tracks are available on her SoundCloud stream. McLendon spoke to the Daily Pennsylvanian last month about her work, describing her main goal as an artist: “If I can make a song that 50 years from now can send you back to that time but still be relevant, I think that would be the greatest thing ever.”
WATCH The Simpsons writer and executive producer — and former Gazette student columnist — Matt Selman C’93 discuss some of his favorite moments from working on the show, video below. (You can also read about how Selman helped the Button make an appearance on The Simpsons in this 2008 Gazette story and see an excerpt from one of his student columns here.)
Last week, over on “What’s Alan Watching?,” Alan Sepinwall C’96 reviewed the latest episodes of 30 Rock, The Office, Parks and Recreation, Last Resort, Suburgatory, The Mindy Project, New Girl, Parenthood, How I Met Your Mother, Treme, Homeland, The Walking Dead and Boardwalk Empire.
He says it was “something of a slow week.”
During peak TV season, he’ll write up to twice as many reviews in a given week. Somehow, amid all that writing, Sepinwall also found time to pen a new book, which was released last month. We caught up with him to learn more about it and hear his take on the current crop of TV shows.
How did you come to write The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever?
I wrote a book years ago called Stop Being a Hater and Learn to Love The O.C., which was a quickie cash-in book of the kind that are made about any instant pop-culture phenomenon. It was a fun book, but I always wanted to write something more serious, and more permanent, about all the great television shows I had gotten to cover in my career. A literary agent reached out to me about the idea of doing a book and got me thinking again, and then I was at a party at the San Diego Comic-Con standing next to Ted Griffin, who had created a show I loved called Terriers — which was quickly canceled in part because it was called Terriers — and mentioned the idea, and he not only prodded me to do it, but gave me the title I ultimately used. And when the man who comes up with the name Terriers gives you a title, you use it.
Your book looks at the TV dramas that “ushered in a new golden age of television that made people take the medium more seriously than ever before.” Which show would you consider the most important to that transformation?
I would say the three most important shows were Oz, The Sopranos and The Shield. Oz was the first drama HBO made, in a very relaxed atmosphere where there were almost no rules of any kind, and it was very good and enough of a success that HBO decided to continue in that direction. The Sopranos was great, and also a surprising crossover hit, which led other people to start experimenting. And The Shield was the show that proved you could make an HBO-style show away from HBO, which only made the golden age more wide-reaching and long-lasting.
What’s your all-time favorite show?
Going into the writing of the book, I would have said The Wire without question. After re-watching large chunks of the shows to refresh my memory on certain things, I found myself falling for The Sopranos in a big way again, to where those two shows would be 1 and 1A — The Wire more consistent, Sopranos maybe more daring — and where I’m not sure which is ahead on any given day. So I’ll wimp out and say The Simpsons.
What do you consider the best show on TV right now?
The two AMC shows in the book, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, are both pretty incredible, and Mad Men had the ever-so-slightly better recent season, so I’ll pick that.
How about the best show that no one’s watching — or at least not enough people?
Parks and Recreation on NBC. It’s from a bunch of the people responsible for The Office, and it’s better in almost every way than The Office was at its best: smart and warm and just wickedly funny, at times almost feeling like a live-action version of The Simpsons.
What’s the worst show that ever made it to air?
Oh, God. With any luck, it’s something I never even watched. In recent years, I’ve largely stopped watching unscripted TV, so I’m sure I’d be horrified by Toddlers & Tiaras and the like. But my favorite bad title (attached to a bad show) of all time is probably UPN’s Homeboys in Outer Space. This was a real show.
Can you share a few of your favorite reviews?
I get asked most frequently about my Mad Men reviews, and here’s one of my favorites from this past season:
And a vintage one from a few seasons back:
The University put out a simple request last week: “Show us a day in your life at Penn.” They asked students, faculty and staff to “help us illustrate a single day on campus and at Penn around the world” by snapping and submitting photographs on Nov. 14, 2012. More than 800 photos were posted to the University-wide project, Day in the Life of Penn. You can see the full album on Flickr, but here are a few images that caught our eye, presented in (roughly) chronological order:
Also, in case you missed it, here’s the Flickr album from the first “Day in the Life of Penn” event this past April.
Caroline Rothstein C’06, the same Caroline Rothstein for whom an annual poetry program at the Kelly Writers House is named, created a video that recently caught Lady Gaga’s attention — and, by extension, the attention of Gaga’s 53 million Facebook fans and 30 million Twitter followers.
Rothstein is a writer and performer who specializes in spoken-word poetry. (Recent grads may have seen her on stage with The Excelano Project, which she directed her junior and senior years at Penn.) She has performed her oral poetry at colleges, schools and other venues around the country, and is also a longtime eating-disorder recovery activist who hosts a Body Empowerment series on YouTube.
Her spoken-word and eating-disorder activism often overlap, as they did with the video Gaga discovered and shared with fans. “Fat”’s powerful message begins immediately, surging from its first three lines: “I am not fat. It took me 22 years to purge words onto a page the same way I purged my body into stomach ulcers, popped eye blood vessels and missing tooth enamel. Twenty-two years to tell the tale of my bulimic, anorexic, and disordered-eating hell.”
Rothstein spoke with us about writing “Fat” as a senior at Penn and about the video’s recent spread. She also discussed some of her other work, including an award-winning one-woman play based on her own experience with and recovery from an eating disorder.
Lady Gaga revealed her own eating-disorder struggles shortly before sharing your video. Do you have any idea how she found “Fat”?
[Last month,] a friend posted an article on my Facebook wall about how Lady Gaga had come out saying she has a history of an eating disorder and then announced, ‘Let’s start a Body Revolution; everyone share your story.’ I went to [Gaga's website] littlemonsters.com, which I had never heard of before that evening, to see what was going on. By the minute, thousands of people were posting their stories and saying things like, ‘I had anorexia.’ ‘I had bulimia.’ ‘I cut myself.’ ‘This is a picture of my stomach.’ It was so powerful and amazing and I thought, You know what? I’m going to join in. So I posted a link to the video of my poem “Fat” and in the caption I wrote, ‘I’m eight years recovered from a decade-long eating disorder and really grateful to Lady Gaga for being so brave and spearheading this movement.’
I went to sleep. I figured maybe a few fans would see it. Then the next day, I saw all these tweets from Lady Gaga fans saying, ‘We love you. The whole world knows who you are.’ I went and checked [Gaga’s] Twitter page and sure enough, she had tweeted the link. The part I know is that I posted it; the speculation is how, amidst the thousands and thousands of posts, she or whomever came across mine. That’s the part I don’t know.
What sort of response did you experience from people discovering your video?
It’s been amazing. I have all these new fans and followers and supporters, and on [littlemonsters.com] I received hundreds and hundreds of incredible comments. I am so moved and grateful…. I feel awkward just listing all the accolades I was getting, [but] more importantly, a lot of people shared their stories, too, and that’s why I do what I do. That’s why my art is personal and political and that’s why I believe the personal is political. My hope is that we all eliminate the shame surrounding whatever our stories are so that in our honesty we heal ourselves and we heal each other.
“Fat” is such a compelling piece. Can you tell me about the process and experience of writing it?
I wrote it at Penn when I was a second-semester senior. I was 22 years old at the time. While I had been a writer and performer my whole life and I had been publicly speaking about my experience for years, it was so hard to articulate it succinctly. At that point, I was about a year and a half into recovery and I was finally able to concisely articulate my experience in a way that felt manageable, authentic and honest to the severity of the illness and also to the reality of recovery being possible.
[The piece] went through a lot of edits. I vacillated between words and lines for weeks, I remember. I can picture myself actually sitting in Qdoba at the counter window looking out onto Superblock and editing word by word. I wanted it to be accessible, and that’s what this whole Lady Gaga thing has proven to me — that it is the accessible piece I hoped it would be.
At what point did you realize how powerful spoken-word poetry could be for you?
I didn’t know spoken-word existed until I was at Penn. Carlos Andres Gomez had just started The Excelano Project and I saw him perform. I was a freshman and I thought, ‘Now there’s an art form that exists where I can be a writer, performer and activist all at once instead of separately.’ My whole life I’d been a theater kid and a poet and now I had a way to do it all at once. I tried out for Excelano, made it and I was in the group for the rest of Penn.
Spoken-word is so personal and expository. How do you prepare yourself to go on stage and share such intimate thoughts and moments with an audience?
That’s actually always the easiest part for me. Even before spoken word I was publicly speaking about my eating disorder and writing very confessional poetry about depression and bulimia and sexual abuse. To me it feels inherent in who I am as an artist. I don’t know any other way to do it. That’s not a roadblock for me. The roadblock is, Do I have this memorized? That’s always the biggest challenge for me.
And how do you memorize everything?
Everyone has their own thing. I use a lot of old acting techniques. One is lying on my back and breathing each word so I get it in my body. Another is reading it over and over so I have it visually memorized.
Are there things that work well with spoken-word poetry that wouldn’t work as well in written-on-the-page poetry, and vice versa?
Absolutely. I think that’s why there are a lot of poets who struggle on the page who are incredible on-stage and vice versa. Performing gives you an opportunity to let go of grammar and structure, but I personally like to make sure my stuff works on the page before I bring it to the stage. If you read every spoken-word poet’s stuff it all looks different. Some people are like me and take care of how it looks, some just throw it in a paragraph and somehow get the cadence.
I’m in a really big repetition phase right now. I’m working a lot with repeating words and lines and motifs and performance lends itself better to that than the page does.
Tell me about your one-woman play, faith.
I developed it with the support of a director and production company. It debuted in the Culture Project’s Women Center Stage Festival in April here in New York. I did a two-night run and then I did a one-night benefit performance in another social-justice theater festival in New York in June. From there it won Outstanding Production of a Solo Show, so now it’s officially award-winning, which is really exciting for all of us. My producer and director and I are looking into some really incredible opportunities for moving forward with it, so this is really the beginning of its life, I hope.
What else are you working on now?
I tour and perform spoken word at colleges and universities and schools. I also facilitate workshops in writing, performance and empowerment in different schools. I have a Body Empowerment series on YouTube, which I’ve been doing for four years. Any day I’m wearing 50 different hats and multitasking and juggling to crazy degrees. Right now, I’m just working on loads of different projects and also traveling and performing all the time in New York and around the country.
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in spoken word since you discovered the art form 10 years ago?
When I started spoken word it was a very adult art form. Very few youths had access to it and it was just starting to pick up in the college world. Now it’s starting in elementary school. That’s the biggest difference — you can grow up wanting to be a spoken-word poet.