Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog

Jan. 23 2017 12:09 PM

New Star Wars: Episode VIII Title Raises the Galaxy’s Largest “Singular or Plural?” Question

Disney announced the official title of Star Wars: Episode VIII this morning, and it seems unlikely to provoke as many snickers as The Force Awakens:

Instead, the title seems likely to mark the return of one of the Star Wars universe’s oldest debates: What is the plural of jedi? Many dictionaries accept both jedi and jedis for the plural, and there are plenty of instances of characters in the films using jedi as a plural noun. (See, e.g., Yoda, who—though his approach to grammar is undoubtedly unconventional—calls arrogance “a flaw more and more common among jedi.”)

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The question, then, is are we talking about one last jedi, or more? If it’s just one, The Last Jedi could refer to Luke, for example, or it could refer to Rey, implying that Luke is going to die. If The Last Jedi is plural, on the other hand, it could refer to Luke and Rey, or it could refer to a whole bunch of “last jedi”: Leia? Finn? A redeemed Kylo Ren? BB-8?!

There is some precedent for this kind of ambiguity. In the titles of Return of the Jedi and Revenge of the Sith, jedi and sith could be taken as either singular or plural, leading to different interpretations. (And I should also note that while there is a Star Wars novel called The Last Jedi, it seems unlikely to have any relation to the upcoming movie, given that the book is not about Rey or Luke or Leia or any of the other Skywalkers.)

In sum, while no one should base their expectations for a movie on its title (even The Phantom Menace, it should be said, isn’t bad), this one both raises intriguing questions and sets itself up for what could be a satisfying payoff. As William Shakespeare once said, “Good title.”

Jan. 23 2017 8:00 AM

I Went to Woody Harrelson’s Curious Livestreamed Movie, Lost in London

This article originally appeared in Vulture.

On Thursday night, when I made my way to a Times Square theater to see Woody Harrelson’s livestreamed movie Lost in London, I felt myself hoping that something would go wrong. Maybe Woody would flub a few lines somewhere in the nearly two-hour set piece, which was being filmed live in a single take. Maybe a camera operator would trip, compromising the single camera that was transmitting Harrelson’s misadventures to theaters across America. Maybe one of the cars, used in the film’s smattering of chase scenes, would make a wrong turn and the project would grind to a halt, actually lost in London. Shouldn’t you want every live event to fail in at least one small, but obvious, way? It certainly makes for a better story.

Jan. 23 2017 5:45 AM

Why the New Song From Ed Sheeran, the Ned Flanders of Pop, Is the Biggest in the Country

A digital marimba intro that’s so close to Sia’s “Cheap Thrills,” she should probably demand credit. Lyrics about hitting the bar to find a date that would sound more natural coming from Pitbull. Syncopated rhythms that could have come from producer and previous collaborator Pharrell. Multitracked falsetto harmony vocals straight from Justin Timberlake’s bag of tricks. And … mercy, that chorus: a lascivious ode to a woman’s body you’d sooner expect to hear from Usher or even Justin Bieber.

Will the real Ed Sheeran please stand up?

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These are the components of “Shape of You”: the latest No. 1 song on Billboard’s Hot 100, Sheeran’s first-ever chart-topper as an artist, and an amalgam of about a half-dozen pop modes. (There’s even some ersatz flamenco clapping in there.) I am reminded of a classic Simpsons episode in which pious, milquetoast neighbor Ned Flanders, thinking God has forsaken him, implores, “I’ve even kept Kosher just to be on the safe side! I’ve done everything the Bible says—even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff!” So it goes with Ed Sheeran, the Ned Flanders of 2010s pop—the acoustic-strumming Brit has done everything in his power to appease the gods of pop stardom. In Sheeran’s improbable five-year rise to become one of the decade’s biggest trans-Atlantic solo-male stars, there’s no base he won’t cover, no pop megachurch to which he won’t pledge fealty.

The question is: Would you want Ned Flanders singing about what he’d like to do with your body? (Maybe don’t answer that.) And yet here’s randy Ed, who overshares, “Now my bedsheets smell like you.” The song’s title alone may inspire revulsion. In a piece I wrote last year about “Love Yourself,” the Justin Bieber smash that gave Sheeran his first No. 1 as a songwriter but not (yet) as an artist, I called the Yorkshire lad and the Canadian cad “this decade’s two biggest solo-male crush objects.” The very idea of the cuddly 25-year-old ginger as sex symbol is somewhat laughable, even to Sheeran. But as I noted when he scored the Bieber hit last winter, Ed—who broke with his acoustic balladry but eventually reached the Top 10 with a hit whose refrain went, “Don’t fuck with my love”—has been evolving away from his nice-guy persona for several years now, even as critics continue to peg him as sappy and doubt his resilience.

The joke’s on us doubters, because “Shape of You” isn’t just sitting atop the charts—it exploded there, debuting at No. 1. This is remarkable considering Sheeran’s never had a Hot 100 leader before. A couple dozen acts in the Hot 100’s six-decade history have debuted at No. 1. But only 10 acts have started on top with a first-ever chart-topper. Remove the fluky, forgotten hits by American Idol finalists of the early–mid ’00s, and only six established acts have debuted on top with their inaugural No. 1: rockers-turned-balladeers Aerosmith, rapper-turned-chanteuse Lauryn Hill, DJ and meme-starter Baauer, teen idol–turned–electric-dance music frontman Justin Bieber, former boy-bander Zayn, and now, folkie-turned-loverman Sheeran. What virtually all these acts (save Baauer, whose hit was itself a fluke) had in common was an ability to gradually change the public’s perceptions of them, such that when they finally dropped their Top 40–radio catnip, the culture at large was receptive and eager.

Sheeran’s chart-topper also contradicts something I said here just a week ago, after “Bad and Boujee” by Migos topped the Hot 100: that most No. 1 hits from here on out will be driven by streaming, which tends to favor rap songs, not sales or radio, which favor pure pop. To be fair, “Shape of You” did very well in its first week in all three metrics that make up the Hot 100: streaming, sales, and radio. Billboard reports it’s already top 20 in airplay and top five in streaming. But its arrival on top was driven largely by digital sales: “Shape” shifted 240,000 downloads in its first week, exceptionally high for the January doldrums. In fact, that’s the highest weekly sales total for any track since Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” debuted at No. 1 last May with 379,000 downloads. It’s an apt analogy: While more than a decade in age separates them, winsome popsters Timberlake and Sheeran are basically competing from the same playbook, with purchases by rabid fans already presold on their personae. Timberlake’s gargantuan, front-loaded sales inflated the arrival of his hit, a would-be Song of Summer that spent a solitary week on top before quickly succumbing to Drake’s “One Dance.” With weaker competition in the winter, Sheeran’s “Shape” might have an easier time clinging to the top, but that’s far from guaranteed.

Whatever the merits of “Shape of You,” the answer to the question “Why is this song No. 1?” is simple—and it’s akin to when Ron Howard won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind or Kevin Hart topped the box office with Ride Along: It was Ed Sheeran’s turn. Within reason, virtually any tune he issued in early 2017 would have topped the charts. As with Howard or Hart, much of the huge arrival of “Shape” can be chalked up to affection for Sheeran himself, above and beyond the material. To be sure, Ed’s paid his dues: He came close to the Hot 100 penthouse in 2015 with the lugubrious “Thinking Out Loud,” an eight-week No. 2 hit and eventual Grammy winner for Song of the Year, and again, he wrote Bieber’s No. 1 “Love Yourself,” which Billboard declared the biggest song of 2016. (Last year, I was concern-trolling Sheeran that by scoring a chart-topper as a songwriter but not an artist, he could wind up like Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, and Bruce Springsteen, rock bards who wrote No. 1s for others but whose own recordings never got past No. 2. With “Shape,” Sheeran can forget about that fate.)

Co-written with journeymen U.K. songwriter–producers Steve Mac and Johnny McDaid (the latter of Snow Patrol and dating Courteney Cox fame), the peppy and ingratiating “Shape of You” sounds like its own radio-ready insurance policy.* By Sheeran’s own admission, the song was not originally meant for him—upon writing it, he thought it better suited for Rihanna. (There’s yet another thing it shares with Sia’s “Cheap Thrills,” a No. 1 hit expressly written and actually rejected by Rih.) Categorically, “Shape” is a club-pop song, but because Sheeran is congenitally self-effacing, the lyric tries to have it both ways, clubgoer and wallflower, from the very first line: “The club isn't the best place to find a lover/ So the bar is where I go.” Like his friend Taylor Swift, who prizes her own awkwardness and carefully parcels out morsels of her gawky-girl persona, Sheeran knows where his appeal lies and orchestrates his ungainly relatability. As for the melody and arrangement, with its percolating, pasodoblelike clap beat and wall of chirpy harmonies, “Shape of You” will make a popular Pentatonix cover someday, maybe even before 2017 is over.

Speaking of insurance policies, Sheeran didn’t issue just one new single this month. He actually dropped two songs on the same day: “Shape” and “Castle on the Hill.” This is fairly unusual on the charts of the mid-2010s but was more common at various points throughout chart history—especially the mid-to-late ’60s, when the Beatles issued numerous “double-A-sided” singles (e.g., “We Can Work It Out”/”Day Tripper,” “Come Together”/“Something”), and the late ’00s, when iTunes incentivized superstars like Lil Wayne, Beyoncé, and T.I. to flood the zone with competing digital singles. The tactic worked brilliantly for Sheeran, who sees the pair of songs debut high, in chart firsts, on both sides of the Atlantic. In his homeland, “Shape” and “Castle” debut at Nos. 1 and 2 on the U.K. chart, a record; and over here, “Castle” arrives on the Hot 100 at No. 6 the same week “Shape” comes in at No. 1, the first time any artist has scored a pair of simultaneous U.S. top 10 debuts.

It must be said that “Castle on the Hill” is much closer to Sheeran’s perceived idiom: a soaring, wistful pop-rock song reminiscent of U2, Coldplay, and recent hitmakers Bastille. It’s also a sturdier composition, if a somewhat duller recording, than “Shape,” which is more sonically eclectic but goofier. “Castle” is quite literally a hedged bet by Sheeran—Billboard reports that his team is promoting the song mainly to alternative and adult-hits radio formats, while “Shape” is being pushed to pop radio. (The two tracks lead off Sheeran’s forthcoming third album ÷, to be pronounced Divide—the follow-up to his prior discs +, aka Plus, and x, aka Multiply; one imagines Ed is postponing the day he must finally give an album the critic-baiting title Minus.) By dropping the two tracks together, Sheeran is flaunting his range and inviting comparison between his pop modes. But he’s also cleverly generating his own Sliding Doors alternate-universe vision of what his career might have looked like if he’d gone for the path we might expect from someone who looked the way he does—trying to compete with pleasant, middlebrow troubadours like David Gray rather than the likes of the Weeknd or the Justins.

But it’s “Shape of You,” the crasser, catchier of the two tracks, that wound up atop the hit parade. It will go down in history as Sheeran’s first No. 1 hit but probably not his legacy recording—much the way Bob Seger is remembered for many better songs before his only No. 1 “Shakedown” or Aerosmith famed for many classic jams besides the chart-topping “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” Then again, “Thinking Out Loud,” which will likely be Sheeran’s publishing perennial, is a lot less energetic than “Shape of You,” and on the latter, Ed sounds like he’s not only … um, having a lot of sex, but having fun singing about it. I write a lot in this series about pop acts’ Imperial moments—the dominant period during which a hitmaker can get away with anything—and say what you will, Sheeran is making the most of his.

*Correction, Jan. 23, 2016: This post originally misspelled Courteney Cox's first name.

Jan. 22 2017 10:15 PM

Oh, Saturday Night Live, Honey, No

Oh jeez, Saturday Night Live. You didn’t have to do this. Really, you didn’t. You got away with the Hillary Clinton–singing-“Hallelujah” thing, but that was a uniquely terrible week (and long before it was apparent that Hillary Clinton had, in fact, given up). But once was enough—too much even. This is just, and I’m saying this because I care about you, kind of embarrassing for everyone.

And “To Sir, With Love,” from a movie in which Sidney Poitier teaches respectability politics to unruly students? Was that supposed to be a meta-joke that nobody got or was it, oh no. It was sincere, wasn’t it? This is an elaborate homemade valentine to a popular boy who doesn’t know your name. Let’s just pretend, you and me, that we never saw it, ok? You can take it off the internet. It’ll be like that Shazaam movie that doesn’t exist. We’ll all claim we never heard of such a thing, that it would never fly in the United States, where we have presidents, not kings.

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Presidents leave after eight years. Sometimes they do good things, sometimes they do bad things, but what’s good or bad are the things. They’re employees, they’re not friends, and they’re definitely not brooding high school teachers. Just because our new president is dedicated to enthusiastically doing bad things—and George W. Bush was no picnic either—is no excuse for building a cult of personality around our last president. I’m gonna go now, but when I come back, could you do a fake lawyer ad or something? We don’t have to talk about this again, I promise. I was never here. This never happened.

Jan. 22 2017 6:22 PM

Here Is a Song About the Video of White Nationalist Richard Spencer Getting Punched in the Face

By now, you’ve seen the video of white nationalist and ethnic-cleansing advocate Richard Spencer getting punched in the face. Maybe you think it’s hilarious that a guy who Sieg-Heiled his way through a Trump victory celebration got punched in the face. Maybe you think Nazis are the price we pay for our precious civility.  (Maybe you should donate to the North Carolina Republican Party about it!) But wherever you stand on the very difficult decision of whether it’s American to punch Nazis, Tim Heidecker has a message for you: God says it’s OK.

Heidecker, half of Adult Swim’s absurdist duo Tim & Eric, was last seen at the Women’s March with Bob Odenkirk. Somehow he also found the time to write and record a piano ballad about Richard Spencer getting punched. It’s called “Richard Spencer,” it contains the moving, emotional lyric, “If you see Richard Spencer, why don’t you punch him in the head?” and here it is:

Jan. 22 2017 4:57 PM

President Trump Must Book These Five Acts For His Second Inauguration

The Trump presidency is already fiascos wherever you look, from Trump sending his press secretary to tell absurd lies to the press on his second day to Trump sending Kellyanne Conway to offer an even more absurd defense of his press secretary’s absurd lies on his third day. But no failure has been more embarrassing to our embarrassing new president than his absolute inability to book A-listers, or even C-listers, to perform at his inaugural balls. That’s why it’s absolutely crucial that President Trump devote his full energy between now and 2020 to booking a killer lineup for his 2020 inauguration. (If this took up so much of his time that he didn’t really do anything else as president, we’d be okay with that.) So here are the five must-have acts President Trump absolutely has to book, as soon as possible, for 2020. Our nation’s dignity depends on it.

Jan. 22 2017 2:46 PM

Beck Bennett and Cecily Strong Have Had It With Your Lack of Enthusiasm for La La Land

Sometimes it seems like there’s a conspiracy to enforce middlebrow tastes in America, especially as award season ramps up. (Full disclosure: Slate is not always part of the solution!) This week Saturday Night Live showed us the gritty underside of the culture industry, a police interrogation room where Beck Bennett and Cecily Strong grill Aziz Ansari for not liking La La Land enough.

The conversation will be familiar to anyone who’s good friends with a big fan of La La Land, or really any movie, but the specific details make this maybe the sharpest writing all season. Take Strong yelling “Ryan Gosling didn’t learn piano from scratch so some little prick can come and nitpick!” In one sentence you get a joke, a sort-of-true fact offered up in support of the movie and a sideswipe at the tendency for audiences to confuse a difficult performance with a good performance. Bennett and Strong aren’t exactly wrong about La La Land; Bennett’s defense of the Griffith Observatory sequence with, “It’s just lovely, and that’s OK!” is spot on. It’s the relentlessness of their belief that everyone should be as enthusiastic about it as they are that rings truest.

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But the moment that really sends this over the top is when Ansari brings up Moonlight. Instantly Bennett and Strong put on their earnest faces and praise Barry Jenkins’ masterpiece as “so good” and “so important.” But, as they reluctantly admit, neither one has seen it, because, according to Strong, “I know it’s gonna be a whole thing.” This is how garden-variety intellectual laziness becomes a consensus around overpraising unchallenging art. Now let’s all agree that this short comedy sketch from Saturday Night Live offers deep insights into our culture, our minds, and indeed, our very souls, and share it widely on every social network. What else are you going to do, go see Moonlight?

Jan. 22 2017 4:29 AM

Saturday Night Live Lets You See What’s Going On in Kellyanne Conway’s Head (It’s a Musical)

Saturday Night Live has consistently done its best work on Trump and his circle when the writers dive into surrealism and dream logic, and this week was no exception. A sketch that opened like typical SNL fare—Kellyanne Conway is interviewed by Jake Tapper, in a sketch where Kate McKinnon’s imitation of Conway is the main attraction—turned into something more interesting. Asked what she got out of working for Trump, Conway suddenly transitioned the interview to a musical number.

And not just any musical number: She’s singing a Conway-ified version of “Roxie” from Chicago. McKinnon and whoever directed this segment did a pretty good job duplicating the film—not quite Jimmy Fallon–level but good. And once again, coming at a Trump acolyte from the most bizarre angle anyone in the writer’s room could dream up—let’s meticulously restage a Rob Marshall movie that everyone’s politely forgotten about!—turned out to be the secret to really getting into Conway’s head. A tinhorn con artist dreaming of being a different tinhorn con artist, with choreography by Rob Marshall—that’s about right.

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If for some reason you haven’t seen Chicago since it won six Oscars back in 2003 (Really! Including Best Picture!), here’s the original version of the song:

Jan. 22 2017 3:24 AM

Aziz Ansari Used His Saturday Night Live Monologue to Ask Trump to Denounce “Casual White Supremacy”

The day after the inauguration of a bozo of world-historical proportions and the same day as nationwide protests against that same bozo is probably not the ideal night to host Saturday Night Live. You just want to get the crowd pumped up for the “Loud Family Who Talks Loudly” skit you’ve been working on, but everyone else expects you to use your monologue to respond to history. Aziz Ansari did about as well as anyone could under the circumstances, denouncing the casual racists of the alt-right and encouraging President Trump to join him.

After making a deliberately unconvincing case against demonizing all Trump voters (he compared them to Chris Brown fans), Ansari zeroed in on the ones he’s fine with demonizing: “the people that as soon as Trump won, they’re like, ‘We don’t have to pretend we’re not racist anymore! We don’t have to pretend anymore!’ ” Calling them a “lowercase KKK movement” founded on “casual white supremacy,” Ansari then moved from comedy to some sort of centrist fantasia where our new president wasn’t part of the problem:

Jan. 20 2017 4:54 PM

Al Gore Prepares to Fight Climate Change Under President Trump With An Inconvenient Sequel

Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power is finally hitting theaters after years of speculation. The follow-up to the landmark documentary focuses on Gore’s continued efforts to combat climate change with “human ingenuity and passion,” vying to help influence global environmental policy and helping to educate potential leaders of the movement. It appears to have been made very much in the spirit of the original, which is credited as a major catalyst for the environmental movement’s revitalization and won two Academy Awards, including Best Documentary.

Whether Truth to Power can capture the country—and the world—as An Inconvenient Truth did, however, remains to be seen. At the very least, Gore striking a combined note of paranoia and optimism should resonate strongly for those concerned about climate change and environmental protection under a President Trump. (It’s worth noting that Gore unveiled “Flooded,” the first footage of Truth to Power released so far, on the day of Trump’s inauguration.) The movie was reportedly met with a “rapturous response” at its Sundance Film Festival opening night premiere, with a post-screening Q&A quickly delving into our turbulent political climate. “We will win,” Gore told the Sundance crowd. “No one person can stop this movement. We want this movie to recruit others.”

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An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power hits U.S. theaters on July 28.

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