Better in Dolby

What if every week was a non-stop series of public spectacles? One big-time show after another. Every night a blockbuster.

Sunday brings us the Super Bowl.

Monday presents the undead Democratic Circus of the Iowa Caucuses, which slips past its time slot and far into the unforeseeable future.

Tuesday it’s the State of Union address pitting a tele-prompted demagogue in dark suit against a human paper-shredder in white.

Wednesday’s broadcast is an Impeachment Vote in the U. S. Senate, a show thought a few viewers even find exciting. (The writers are busy: Mitt Romney will not be asked back for season two.)

Thursday there’s a televised flash mob around Trump where he rants and raves about his vindication.

On Friday the Deep State Vindman Twins get the sack. (Strangely, this latest episode of The Apprentice —“You’re Fired”—was not streamed live.)

Saturday: it’s 65% degrees in Antarctica! Puts the week’s other programs in perspective, and, on the upside, adds another continent to the list of global getaway destinations. Hey, hey, hey— Spring Break in Little America!

And before you know it another Sunday has rolled around and it’s the 92nd annual Academy Awards ceremony.

Most of such a week’s “content” should come with Parents Advisory notifications and/or health warnings. “Family friendly” is now as quaint relic. Even the President is a foul-mouthed psycho.

That such a density of set-piece spectacles was packed into the first full week of February seems hard to believe. Harder still to think that most of us survived it, though the strain on the psyche was considerable, more trying even than enduring Best Actress Award winner Renée Zellweger’s victory “speech” for her biopic portrayal of Judy Garland, a tight-lipped hymn to Hollywood’s new inclusivity delivered with extreme difficulty through the straight-jacket of Zellweger’s facelifts.

Early February’s succession of marquee events gives us a super-extended preview of a future in which we’ll be under 24/7 siege by propaganda masquerading as entertainment. Or is it a preview?

Once obvious and easy, the option of simply unplugging is itself barely possible any more. In the age of emergency alerts blaring over loudspeakers, civic alarms systems, drone flyovers, the solace of silence is an expensive, ever-more elusive luxury.

Many millions are plugged into their wearables, ear- and eye-fed their feeds from dawn to dusk, and through the night while snatching shards of sleep from the ether. Music, news, podcasts, information, images. At least two generations are hooked up for life—and probably death, too.

Some are still able pull the plug. It’s vaguely comforting that the latest installment of the Oscars garnered the lowest t.v. rating in its history. Yet even as the wise and wizened—along with the otherwise-occupied young—flee its fake self-mockery and pseudo-pageantry, the show provides an instructive look ahead.

For the second consecutive year the Oscars were without a host. In 2018 the Academy staged its own episode of cancel culture when comedian Kevin Hart’s was pulled from the role of emcee when his library of homophobic tweets was unearthed and duly published. No one else could be found to jump into the mess. The job has now disappeared forever from the “workplace.”

In place of an-stage person, a female voice—not simulated but belonging to veteran, and perennially uncredited, voice-over expert Randy Thomas—provided well-modulated narration that, god-like, moved the pawns around the Kodak Theater stage, informed us of the relevant history and backstories. Especially after a couple of drinks, it becomes difficult to tell whether the voice is coming from Hollywood or inside your own head. People are increasingly used to this from various disembodied Sirens and Amazons. Rather than the human wit—if you can call it that—of a Bob Hope or Billy Crystal, there was Siri and Alexa. And so will it be, when digital maître d’s direct you to your table through the earbud or virtual profs discourse on Plato’s Republic in the massively multiplayer university lecture halls of the not-so-distant future.

Unlike Brexit, the opening production number remained. Singer-songwriter Janelle Monáe did it as a trouser role. In a nod to the hostless approach, Monáe donned tuxedo and top hat. Her gifts and professionalism provided a provisional antidote to the slack and often listless proceedings that followed. That she learned the songs and choreography in a short time and carried them off with such precision and panache gave one slender hope that human excellence still has a fighting chance against the virtual. Some might claim that the Academy fixers chose Monáe, an African-American, to launch the evening as an affirmative action. What her performance did, however, was robustly affirm that real talent matters.

A more cynical interpretation of Monáe’s appearance would argue that her charismatic critique was mere window dressing, an view perhaps confirmed by the approval of the Hollywood courtiers arrayed in the Dolby and the boosting commentaries that followed. The supposedly barbed comments Monàe lobbed into the crowd castigating that very establishment for the lack of women and people of color among the nominees actually just provided the required lip service. While these kinds of supposedly admonitory slogans are already standard fare in liberal dramatics, they’ll become even more of a pronounced political tick in the future: shout out—sing out!—to the dispossessed and disenfranchised, while the capitalist juggernaut rolls on, the driver not even touching the brakes.

Incursions were made into the bastions of male dominance in Hollywood. The Best Soundtrack went to Hildur Gudnadottir (apologies Norsemen and Norsewomen, I can’t find the Icelandic diacriticals on my keyboard) for her score for Joker. Her heart-warming speech about girls making music seemed genuine, its sentiment lingering even as she left the Dolby stage and disappeared into Hollywood’s maw. Her score for Joker is troubled by the straining of hawsers, the thrum of electric wires, and the thump of drums like a heartbeat from within your own body. The soundtrack’s Romantic surges break on the rocks of catastrophe. I hear the natural world going under. Leave it to an Icelander cast ashore on Los Angeles’s fatal shores to compose something suitably troubled for our time, even as she seeks higher ground and will certainly be getting higher pay with the statuette on her mantel.

Gudnadottir was the first woman in a quarter century to be decorated for a movie score by the Academy. Below her in the pit, Eimear Noone, was the first female conductor ever to lead the Oscar orchestra. She’s also the composer of some of the most heard (if not exactly listened to) soundscapes on the planet—World of Warcraft and other mega-titles. Noone has led the Danish National Symphony in pedal-to-the-metal game nights extravaganzas with full orchestra and chorus and lots of electronics to boot. On Sunday night she wielded her old-fashioned, non-digital baton at the Dolby for a suite of the nominated scores. In that sequence the sheer force of John Williams’s Star Wars swansong strode forth magnificently. But it was too manly, too European, too Wagnerian for these times. Noone commanded her troops with exactitude and grandeur, even while securing her own electronic battle brand, clad as she was in an embroidered golden breastplate of a mighty woman warrior.

Elton John was rewarded for a different sort of disturbed lurching than Gudnadottir’s. His Oscar-winning “Rocketman” credit-sequence song ascended inexorably by half-stop up the keyboard and into the stratosphere of his aging, but durable range. At the close of this super-charged three-minute number, I was expecting Sir Elton to hit the ejector-seat button and blast through the Dolby roof. But he had to remain on earth for his apotheosis that was soon to follow.

This was one of the few comforting truths that this evening confirms every year. Even as the stars preach, preen and perform, they can never truly escape.

In the beginning there was the word, in the end, too, though finally, when it was all over, there was just Jane Fonda, her skin also spread worryingly thin across her cheekbones, wishing all a good night. One couldn’t be sure she if she was real or not. Had Barbarella uploaded her voice and consciousness and had her body 3-D printed? It wasn’t just impossible to say, it was also irrelevant.


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at